Mass Effect: Andromeda Log 5

It was a somewhat unusual week, so it’s taken me a little time to gather my thoughts on what’s going on with Mass Effect: Andromeda since the last time I checked in.  I feel like I’ve hit a good stride with the game, and I’ve definitely reached some of the better parts of the relationships aspects.  I also learned this past week that a major complaint some folks had about the game was the travel time when you’re exploring the solar systems which hadn’t really bothered me.

Look, that’s just majestic AF.

When I first got into the exploration segment of Andromeda, I noticed that there was a significant amount of time devoted to showing the travel between solar systems and among the planets that comprise them.  The five to ten seconds you spend watching space flow by while you’re waiting to get to a new place to scan quickly struck me as something that could be annoying, but I took it in stride.  I think when I was doing my first bits of flying and scanning, I decided to adopt the opinion that space exploration is supposed to be sort of meditative and a little ethereal.  Seeing as I’ve gone on record saying that I’m relatively indifferent about the shooting bits, and I committed to a character build that allows me to pretty much never fire a gun (the whomps of biotic effects, even when they’re exploding, are so much more soothing than the typical sharp reports of the gunfire), I think I picked the right mindset.  Choose to prefer things that are soothing in the game over things that are designed to stimulate, and you too will love floating through space.  Or you could just use the skip button; I do that too when I’m actually trying to accomplish things.

One of the ongoing travails I’ve had with Andromeda is the continual effort to get away from the planet Voeld.  I’ve said before that it’s a really bleak environment, and I got tired of driving around in endless blue tones.  After I saved the Moshae from the Kett base on the planet, I figured that I was done, but I think there are a couple of random side missions that have cropped up asking me to go back there.  I’ll do it eventually, but for now I’m like “Nope!” because there are other more interesting things to be doing with my time in the Heleus Cluster.

This is definitely not how these things usually go.

The biggest thing is that I’ve finally reached a point in the game where my crew are finally giving me some leads on their friendship missions, and so far I’m enjoying the heck out of them.  The only one I’ve completed so far is Liam’s, and my opinion of him has done a one-eighty since we nearly got flushed out an airlock together and he got really grumpy at how poorly his risky rescue mission went.  The way I’m playing Sara is that she’s very analytical, but she tries to keep things relaxed in the field because things get sort of wild and unexpected.  Best not to put additional stress on a crew that already have a lot of internal tension to deal with.  All that’s to say is that while every step of Liam’s friendship mission involves him doing something increasingly stupid to try to avoid getting in big trouble with the Initiative, Sara just went with it because honestly, the Initiative administration are kind of a mess and Liam always acted with the intention of promoting positive relation between the Angara and the Milky Way species.  He and Sara have an understanding between them now.

We’ve been through some stuff together.

The whole thing was also hilarious; I couldn’t stop cackling at how poorly the whole operation goes.  It’s really endearing to see Liam have a major crisis of confidence because his inherently risky job sometimes involves making decisions that don’t pan out the way he wants them to while Sara just laughs her way through a life-and-death situation.

Following that whole misadventure, I’ve had a blast with Kadara, the planet that’s inhabited by factions of exiles from the Nexus.  It’s a really pretty world to drive around, and having some stories besides the endless Angara and Kett war was refreshing.  I also got to catch up with the guy who I exiled for attempting murder even though the court records officially say he was exiled for actual murder.  Turns out he’s doing alright on Kadara; his wife followed him, and they’re rebuilding a decent life on the planet with acid water (I’m sure it helps that I fixed the acid water problem).

See, he’s fine. Also if I have one complaint about the visuals it’s that the lighting is atrocious in darker areas; Sara ends up looking like a black void in low light because I went for the darkest skin tone available at character creation.

In other relationship stuff, I’ve been disappointed that there’s not really been anything interesting to speak of between Sara and Suvi.  They are taking things very slow apparently, which is fine.  In the meantime, Sara might have started up a friends-with-benefits arrangement with Peebee because, well, it’s Peebee.  I like to think that Sara and Suvi have established that they’re not exclusive yet as they’re still feeling things out, and that’s why it’s okay that Sara will periodically disappear into the escape pod… with Peebee… while Suvi’s on duty at the bridge only a few feet away.  It’s strictly a physical thing, to be clear; in my mind Sara and Peebee work better as friends than as romantic partners.  Anyone can see that Peebee has major commitment issues, and it’s best not to get too tangled up in that emotional mess.  Whenever Suvi and Sara do finally get to talk more about their relationship, then I’m sure Sara will be happy to go monogamous.  Maybe they’ll be able to cuddle at movie night while they eat Suvi’s specially prepared snacks that no one else is willing to try.

Mass Effect: Andromeda Log 4

One thing that I’ve always enjoyed about the Mass Effect series are the action set pieces where you have to fight an enemy that’s significantly bigger and more dangerous than the swarms of enemy soldiers that are typical cannon fodder.  In the original game you had the thresher maws that you fought in the Mako, then you got a chance to fight one on foot in the second game (which was honestly a way more interesting fight than anything done from the seat of a car).  I don’t recall Mass Effect 3 having much in the way of these sorts of sequences (of the original trilogy, that one was the most about open warfare between opposing sides with little of the literal fighting-the-giants feel of its predecessors–all that despite being the game that most directly pits the Reapers against the Milky Way), but I’m happy to report that the dramatic battle set pieces make a return in the form of fights with giant Remnant machines called Architects.

I continue to be wary of the fact that everything Sara’s team is doing to make the Heleus Cluster more habitable is dependent on ancient alien technology that no one fully understands; the Mass Relays and the Citadel were a trap laid by the Reapers back in the Milky Way, and while I’m relatively confident that we’re not charging headlong into more Reaper threats, the parallels in setup concern me about rehashing the original’s basic plot.

That’s a side concern right now, because Architect fights are so much fun.  I like the scale of the whole thing as you typically have to dash around Remnant ruins taking cover to avoid giant frickin’ laser beams as a colossal techno space squid towers above you.  The tactical elements are pretty limited, but it’s a fun way to spend fifteen minutes on a planet (assuming nothing goes horribly awry).  I quite enjoy blasting their legs with a barrage of biotic explosions in between fighting off all the little babby Remnants they produce when they aren’t vulnerable.

Setting the really fun bits aside, I’ve spent most of this week’s game time slowly building up the viability of the Angaran planets.  Voeld had some decent side missions, but I left it unfinished so I could go check out Havarl once I realized I could hit 100% viability without doing everything.  Ice worlds are just a special kind of bleak in Mass Effect (probably because on top of all the white and blue of the terrain, the light’s tinted blue as well, which feels especially cold given the plasticky look of things like your party’s armor).  When I later returned to Voeld to carry on with a story mission, I realized that leaving the planet unfinished meant I had to do a lot of wandering around to figure out where I should go next because the mission beacons on the map are not as intuitive as you might expect.

Despite my slight irritation at having to return to Voeld, I really did enjoy the detour to Havarl.  The design of this planet is… very purple, but beyond the decision to go with yet more cool colors, the area feels much more vibrant than either Eos or Voeld.  Havarl’s mission area is significantly smaller than the other planets’, so there’s no use of the Nomad here; instead you traipse around a purple jungle where hostile fauna and Angaran extremists constantly attack you.  There’s a lot of verticality to the area that requires jumping up and down ledges, which I found really satisfying after the long driving sections of the other two planets.  Comparatively, Havarl isn’t as dense with side missions, so I think I finished it all in about four or five hours, but it was a nice diversion.

One thing I am really looking forward to is being done with the Angaran worlds.  The Angarans are totally fine, but dealing with their problems is getting a little old.  It’s probably one of the signs of troubled development that there’s not more variety in the Heleus Cluster’s native life.  Also, weirdly, for having discovered and mostly completed three of the five planets on the Planetary Holo, I don’t feel like I’ve gotten that far into the plot.  I know something’s going on with the Kett abducting people, and there’s the ubiquitous mystery of the Scourge and the Remnant technology, but unless it all ties together (which I’m sure it will) very quickly, I wonder how much development there could be.

Mass Effect: Andromeda Log 3

It has been a week, and I have done many things.  The most important one is obviously the decision for Sara to date the science officer Suvi.  Their exchange when Sara explains that she likes Suvi is adorable, mostly because she very awkwardly admits that Suvi’s Scottish accent is a major turn on.  It’s not exactly the thing I’d lead with, but I can’t deny that it was a very entertaining beginning.  I’m looking forward to seeing more between Sara and Suvi as they discuss stuff like the interplay between faith and science (it’s easy to forget that expressions of faith are considerably less common in the Mass Effect universe; I guess the writers tend to think that meeting aliens would shatter a bunch of belief systems; I think you’d only have to worry about the fundamentalist ones having a bad shock), although I worry ever so slightly that the romance might end up being a bit underdeveloped in comparison to the ones written for squadmates.  This is obviously all baseless speculation seeing as I’m playing through for the first time, but I also remember Joker in the original trilogy, and while I loved his friendship with Shepard, I always felt like he got shortchanged on fun interactions in comparison to the rest of the crew.  Time will tell.

Naturally, committing to a relationship so early in the game means that I have foregone continued flirtation with other folks, particularly PeeBee, who is the first Asari squadmate in the series that I’ve actually found relatively compelling.  I guess I just find commitment issues appealing.  The upside is that PeeBee’s fun to bring along in the field because she uses primarily debuffs, and she has a good sense of humor.  I’ve been exploring the planet Voeld (or Hoth, as Rachael described it as “cold and full of tauntauns”), and one of the best parts of driving around the barren icy landscape is listening to PeeBee’s constant complaints about how I handle the Nomad paired with her perpetual bafflement that Jaal, the new alien squadmate, is totally fine with everything and repeatedly falls asleep while we’re traversing hazardous terrain in the car.  I don’t have much of an opinion about Jaal at the moment, although I have to respect his devotion to personal grooming (he speaks regularly about things like how there’s not much difference between mixing chemical explosives and making various scented oils and lotions to use as part of his daily toilet).  Perhaps the weirdest thing is that everyone insists that he and the rest of the Angarans are an extremely expressive race, but I really don’t see it.  Jaal’s defining characteristic in my interactions with him has been “understated.”

Anyway, let’s talk about Voeld.  Eos was a great desert planet with lots of vibrant life and interesting, stark geological features.  Voeld is… blue.  It’s an ice planet, so I expect things to be a little more sparse than a place with a climate more typically suited to human life, but it’s like, very blue.  I’ve spent probably six or so hours exploring and doing side missions (even got my viability rating up to one hundred percent!), and I’m really starting to miss other locations just because I want some more visual variety.  The last thing I did before I sat down to write out this log was get the Nexus outpost established, and I’m sorely tempted to quit the planet and go flying off to do more adventuring (there’s another planet I need to check out that I haven’t even visited yet).  It’s just hard to make ice deserts interesting, or maybe the mild monotony of the area is part of what folks disliked about the game; I’m not sure yet.  I’ll see if the pattern continues as I move along with the story.

Speaking of the story, I can see how there’s just not the same urgency in the narrative hook for this game as there was in the original trilogy; “a group of colonists try to get a foothold in a brand new galaxy” just doesn’t have the same oomph as something like the Reapers.  Despite that, I find myself fully on board with the plan of trying to help folks establish new homes.  The Nexus is a mess and a half, and I don’t really have much time for the administrative backbiting, but when the game keeps reminding me while I’m there that there are likely hundreds of thousands of people waiting to be pulled out of cryo because the Initiative doesn’t have enough resources to support them, I feel a fair bit of motivation to go fix some planets with poorly understood alien terraforming technology (I’m fully prepared to accept that the Remnant technology is a vague rip off of the Reaper plot line).  There’s still an uncomfortable amount of shooting, but Sara’s core mission of helping establish homes is low key heroic in a way that Shepard’s story never really could be.

On the front of uncomfortable binary decisions, this week we have the case of the Angara researcher who has hired Milky Way mercenaries to catch some space whales that hold deep cultural significance for the Angara.  The yevara (space whales) are an animal species that has survived since before the Scourge, that big galaxy-wide calamity that just happened to take place right after the Andromeda Initiative took off on its journey.  They’re also relatively intelligent, and Angara tradition holds that their songs carry memories of life from before.  Anyway, this researcher has discovered that the yevara produce an enzyme that’s effective in counteracting the effects of Kett (those are the bony enemy aliens who will probably turn out to be genetically modified Angara *cough*Collectors*cough*) weaponry.  Upon discovering this researcher and being told the situation, I was given the choice of shutting down the research or allowing her to continue because there’s a war on, don’t you know.  This is one of those situations where I really would rather not be the one making the choice; we’re talking about balancing an old and revered cultural notion against a pragmatic need to reduce the effectiveness of enemy combatants.  There’s a healthy debate to be had there, but it should be had by Angara instead of some human who’s just trying to make nice with the new neighbors.  I ended up letting the researcher keep working, and the game thankfully eased my conscience by having Sara add that she needs to let the Angaran Resistance know what she’s up to.

Despite being the only person in my party with any sort of idea of the complexities of this decision, Jaal is utterly useless as an advisor. Also, this is what everything on Voeld looks like. It’s all blue, all the time.

Mass Effect: Andromeda Log 1

Look, it was on sale for seven dollars, okay?

I’ve heard the many complaints about Mass Effect: Andromeda, but with Rachael spending the last month doing an aggressive play through of the entire Dragon Age series, I’ve been craving my own trip through a BioWare game.  Unfortunately, the original Mass Effect trilogy is only on PS3, and while I could bust that series out, I figured that it’s probably best to let things lie.  It’s been a long time since I finished Mass Effect 3, and I’ve come to terms with the story that my version of Shepard finished.  The realization that the only way to make sure Shepard survives is to enact a synthetic genocide makes it a little hard to countenance trying to do a glorious re-enactment where instead of making the heroic sacrifice he (my Shepard was a dopey looking ginger dude) inevitably had to make, he’d make it through and enjoy a peaceful retirement with Tali on the Flotilla.  So I picked up Andromeda on the cheap and have calibrated my expectations to the lowest possible setting.

My first couple hours with the game have been pretty good, all things told.  It’s always fun to play with the character creator after all.  I decided for this game my protagonist would be Sara Ryder (I decided to keep the default first name and was pleased to find that the dialogue actually uses it), and she would be a Black woman with an interesting facial scar that she got in some way that I haven’t fully figured out yet (I’m thinking it’s a burn from a training accident).  I’m pretty pleased so far with the character design, but I’m still adjusting to the voice acting.  It would have been nice if there were dialogue tracks from a couple different voice actors like in Dragon Age: Inquisition so you had some options for audio matching.  I’m sure I’ll get used to it, but the voice actor just doesn’t quite match what I imagined Sara sounding like when I designed her face.

The premise works perfectly fine for me.  Some time during the lead up to the final conflict with the Reapers, the Citadel civilizations organized a backup plan to send ark ships off to the Andromeda galaxy in order to maintain the survival of the Milky Way’s most prominent species.  Exploring a new home is a cool idea, although I do wonder how well the story’s going to handle issues of colonialism.  I finished the introductory mission on the first planet, and it involves inadvertently starting a war with hostile aliens who are also there exploring a thing.  Not the best beginning, if I do say so.  We’ll see where it goes from there.

The gameplay so far is perfectly fine.  I’m long past my days of enjoying shooters, but I can deal with the mechanics for the sake of a story.  Rachael and I along with our friends recently determined that it’s best to think of the Dragon Age series as a dating simulator with fantasy RPG elements.  I’m going to declare Mass Effect the same, but with sci-fi shooter elements.  Just here for the interpersonal drama and chill hangouts, thanks.  To help make things at least a little less tedious than point-and-shoot, I’ve decided to go with a straight biotic build on Sara.  The interface suggests that over the course of the game I’ll be free to mix and match abilities from all three of the basic character classes, but I think trying to stick to one specialty will make the game a little more interesting (and also give me an excuse to actually pull the trigger as little as possible).  It’s occurred to me that I could just set the difficulty to narrative mode, but I figure I’ll wait until I encounter a challenge I actually don’t want to deal with in order to get on with the story.

Initial thoughts on the package as a whole are that the game’s first few hours feel really solid and reminiscent of what I liked about the original trilogy.  The urgency to keep the story moving isn’t quite there yet, but maybe it will pick up.  If that’s not in the cards, then playing Andromeda can at least be a meditative experience.

I think Sara ended up looking pretty cool.

Some Thoughts on Dan Simmons’s Hyperion Saga

Over the last year I’ve tried to develop a habit of reading a book before bed on most nights.  It’s a good habit, and I find that it’s a great way to help settle into sleep, particularly since I’m especially prone to dozing whenever I’m supposed to be reading.  Whenever it’s not working as a sleep aid, I also have the added benefit of being able to work through the list of books my friends have recommended to me.

For the last six months or so, I’ve dedicated my regular reading time to working my way through Dan Simmons’s four book Hyperion series (well, technically through the three sequels; I read Hyperion a couple years ago after it was given to me for my birthday by some friends).  It’s been pretty satisfying, and naturally I have thoughts about the series as a whole.

The Shrike appears on the cover of every book in the series, but all except the last one fail to portray it with the right number of arms. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

For anyone not familiar with the series, here’s a brief overview of what’s going on: about eight or nine hundred years in the future (I’m fuzzy on the precise timeline), humanity has spread out among the Milky Way galaxy after the accidental destruction of Earth.  With the help of a network of sentient AIs known as the TechnoCore, they’ve developed technology that allows for instantaneous travel across vast distances through portals known as farcasters, which have been slowly built on colonized planets, developing into what’s known as the WorldWeb.  One planet on the fringes of human space, Hyperion, is on the cusp of being integrated into the Web as a major conflict between humanity and a faction of separatists known as the Ousters is about to escalate.  The TechnoCore possesses significant predictive capabilities, and all of their calculations suggest that Hyperion will play an integral role in the conflict, although no one knows in exactly what way.  Hyperion also happens to be the home of the Shrike, a mysterious figure who inexplicably kills or rewards people who sight it, and around whom an entire cult has developed.  Seven disparate people are chosen to go on a pilgrimage to Hyperion to visit the Time Tombs, a site that’s flowing backwards in time from the future and where the Shrike seems to have originated from.

There’s a bunch of other stuff that happens, but plotwise, that’s all the setup you need to decide if you’d like to read the first couple books in the series.  If you want to read the latter books, then it’s best to go in understanding that the events of those books are set nearly three centuries after the first two.

Besides the larger plot that’s swirling around the small cast of characters who anchor the story, the first book also does some interesting things with structure (being about a pilgrimage, Simmons saw fit to structure Hyperion like The Canterbury Tales, where the primary story advances in small sections that act as prologues to each of the pilgrims’ personal stories that explains their connection with the Shrike and why they were selected for the pilgrimage in the first place) that set it apart from its sequels, which all unfortunately stick to a more traditional narrative structure (I suspect that this change in structure was simply necessary to facilitate the larger story, since all of Hyperion serves more or less only as an introduction to the concepts and conflicts that play out more explicitly in its sequels; the fact that the book just ends once the pilgrims reach the Time Tombs with no further explanation of what they actually need to accomplish there drives this point home).

The series also deals with some interesting metaphysical questions regarding the nature of empathy and whether evolution on a macro scale exhibits any kind of greater direction.  There’s significant discussion of the concept of the Omega Point, which the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin described as the ultimate goal of evolution within the universe (the concept resonated with me as similar in thought to what John Haught describes as his “aesthetic principle” in his book God After Darwin; it’s been a few years since I read that one, but I’m pretty confident that Haught, who’s also Catholic, is thinking in light of Teilhard’s work), and also quite a bit of philosophizing over humanity’s relationship with artificial intelligence and the symbiosis that emerges from that relationship (or even if it can be symbiotic at all).

The ending of the second book, Fall of Hyperion, reminds me a lot of the Mass Effect series.  Without getting too spoilery, I can say that there are multiple story beats that Mass Effect seemed to be pretty clearly cribbing from Hyperion (I’m confident the series was a point of inspiration for BioWare, especially given that they have a Hyperion shout out built into the Mass Effect universe with a recurring star system across all the games that’s called the Shrike Abyssal), but in the books they were executed in a much more satisfying way.  If you found Mass Effect 3‘s ending to be a little lacking, then reading through the first two Hyperion books gives a very similar sort of payoff, but in a way that, at least for me, doesn’t leave the audience angry with the writer’s decisions.

Also, if you decide you just don’t want to commit to four books, Fall of Hyperion ends in a very satisfying place with all the character threads neatly wrapped up.  As for Endymion and Rise of Endymion, well, they’re not bad, but they conclude in a way that feels pretty hollow to me.  I’ll discuss those two in more depth next time.

I Finished Dragon Age: Inquisition!

It was good; I liked it.

I found the ending twist rather surprising (maybe it was easier to spot for people who are really into Dragon Age‘s lore, but I didn’t see it coming), and the denouement eminently satisfying.  As I’ve written several times in the past, I found Mass Effect 3‘s ending lacking, and the fact that the only way for Shepard to survive involves being a colossal jerk to the synthetics was really off-putting (especially after I got really invested in my Shepard-Tali romance), so the fact that Inquisition ends on a high note with no possibility of the Inquisitor dying was really satisfying.  I love BioWare games, but it’s kind of a downer when every story seems to end with the hero dying simply because they’re not willing to screw someone else over (I’m looking at you, Dragon Age: Origins, with your twist that requires having someone sleep with Morrigan regardless of whether she’s been romanced in order for the Warden to survive the final battle); regardless of whether that’s supposed to feed into a larger point about the nobility of self sacrifice, it’s really off-putting when I’m enjoying a game that’s largely a good power fantasy.

The game's cover art. The text "DRAGON AGE" is at the top, with the larger text "INQUISITION" directly below. In the lower centre of the image is an armored soldier, holding a sword with one hand, and pointing to mystical creatures in the sky with the other. The "BioWare" and "EA" logos are at the bottom of the cover.

Thankfully, EA finally wised up about the marketing and designed the cover art to leave the Inquisitor’s sex ambiguous. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

Fortunately, Inquisition is pretty much all power fantasy.

Perhaps the only frustration I had with the story was regarding my Inquisitor’s romance with Sera.  Sera’s a lot of fun, and I thought her romance plot was really touching in a lot of ways, but it was also really difficult in some ways (at least for the Inquisitor; I resolved early on that I was going to make any decisions necessary to try to see this story to the end, which left the main character agonizing over some difficult decisions).  Because I played as an elf, my Inquisitor’s background was Dalish, who are the nomadic elf tribes who wander the great forests of Thedas trying to hold on to the remnants of their old culture.  The game’s end reveals that the Dalish are pretty much all wrong about their history, which was kind of a big deal for my Inquisitor.  She learned a lot about the true heritage of the elves, and then right after all those revelations got into a big fight with Sera about whether or not it’s all lies.

Sera’s background as a city elf who was orphaned at a young age and adopted by a pretty racist human woman has left her really screwed up in terms of how she views other elves (basically she hates everything about elven culture, real and imagined), and so she’s gleeful over the fact that the Dalish are all wrong about their histories.  She also thinks that everything about elven religion is equivalent to demon worship and wants nothing to do with it.  This situation led to a fight between the Inquisitor and Sera in my game where Sera gave an ultimatum about digging further into elf history.  It was pretty harsh, and there was no way to get her to compromise, so the Inquisitor had to agree to drop the subject; I imagine this was a pretty painful thing, considering how I had played the Inquisitor to take pride in her heritage, even if she wasn’t necessarily a major believer in the elven religion (I think my Inquisitor’s religious outlook ended up tending towards decidedly agnostic).  It wasn’t a difficult decision for me as the player, but in retrospect it was pretty unfair to my character.  Still, I think it’s an excellent bit of characterization, since Sera’s so stubborn and elven Inquisitors have a big disadvantage in trying to romance her.

Setting all that aside, I have to say that for the first time in probably ever, I’m looking forward to seeing what the DLC for Inquisition will be like (I usually come to AAA games so long after their initial release that all the DLC’s been released and I either skip it or end up getting it bundled in with the original game).  I’d really like some closure on Solas (especially since he was my primary mage, and with him disappearing at the end of the game I’m left without one of my key party members if expansions are set after Corypheus’s defeat; he really is like Morrigan 2.0), and I’d kind of dig getting into more of the fallout surrounding the Grey Wardens as well as the resolution of the Orlesian civil war.  Even so, all that’s probably a decent ways off, since we’re only three months out from the game’s original release.

Boxing Day

It’s the day after Christmas, and I’m preparing to enjoy the second week of my winter break, which is the best time of year aside from the summer break that’s four times as long.  In that time, I hope to do some revision on a short story I wrote during NaNoWriMo (it’s always nice to have goals that don’t involve just sitting on the couch, reading comics and playing video games) and catch up on some podcasts (I’m pretty much over the moon that I got a new MP3 player this year since my last one went kaput over two years ago).  Besides the ambitious goals, I also have all the typical vacation plans of just enjoying my Christmas gifts and then writing furiously about them, because stories are meant to be engaged, and one of my favorite parts of getting into anything new is the chance to think it over and share my thoughts on it.

Anywho, here’s a quick rundown of things that I’ll be mulling over in the near future, as a kind of road map to what I want to discuss in the coming weeks (I’m not going to say in the coming year, because I operate on the academic calendar, and as far as I’m concerned the year ends in May and starts in August).

I’ve picked up several volumes of some comic series that I’ve been excited about following, including the first story arc of the new Ms. Marvel ongoing (I picked the first issue up way back in May and was instantly taken with it), the first volume of Rat Queens (on the recommendation of a friend of Rachael’s, who I now fully trust has excellent taste in comics), and a couple volumes of Saga (I know I said I was going to write about that one at some point, but I never got around to it; maybe with three volumes of the series to read through, I’ll get back to it now).  I expect I’ll have read through all of them before the end of the weekend, so maybe I’ll have something on at least one of those series in the next week.

On the video game front, I’m still working my way through Dragon Age: Inquisition, and I expect I’ll be chipping at that for a while.  If I have any further thoughts beyond, “This game’s a lot of fun, and I really don’t like Vivienne,” then I’d love to share those.  For Alex, who specifically asked me if I’m going to do any writing on Chrono Cross, the sequel to Chrono Trigger, I’d really like to blog through a replay of that game.  It’s an odd one, and it does a lot to complicate Chrono Trigger‘s pretty streamlined narrative (as much as any time-travel story can have), but I remember the game being such a big deal in my mind when it came out simply because it was a sequel to that game that I’d love to revisit it and see how it holds up fifteen years later.

On the front of non-graphical fiction, I’m nearly finished reading the third book in Dan Simmons’s Hyperion saga, and I’d love to mull over that series in depth once I’ve finished with it.  Without getting into too much detail, it’s a series that’s kindled a slight interest in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and also reminds me so much of Mass Effect (which I strongly suspect was cribbing heavily from Simmons’s series).  Also, if I can keep my promise to myself about getting back into podcasts, I might try to write more regularly about stories that I listen to.  I already said it above, but it bears repeating: stories are meant to be engaged.

So that’s what I’m thinking about; we’ll see if I actually stick to any of these plans.  Nonetheless, I hope you all had a pleasant Christmas if you celebrate it, and happy holidays throughout the rest of the season.

Some Stuff That’s Nifty (4/13/14)


1. One thing in my series on the train wreck that was my conversation with Damon, a fundamentalist evangelical Christian, that I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on explicitly was the fact that I went back to the Nicene Creed of 381 as the foundation of my system of dogma.  Most Christians today, regardless of their location within the Church’s various branches, affirm that version of Creed, and so it is a cornerstone of orthodox faith within Christianity.  It’s pretty barebones in its assertions (you don’t get a whole lot besides the establishment of the Trinity, Jesus as wholly divine and wholly human, and belief in the Crucifixion and Resurrection; the technical details of any of those points are still pretty vague and open to interpretation), but it defines what the core of Christianity is for most of the world’s Christians.  This article does a pretty nice job of articulating the frustration I ran into with Damon when his response to my bringing up the Nicene Creed was that it was “valid, but incomplete.”  I suspect this is probably an outpouring of thought from the diminished importance of Church tradition over biblical interpretation that’s common in Protestantism in general and evangelicalism in particular.

2. Following on that, here’s an article from David Hayward discussing one particularly nasty response to Rachel Held Evans’s very honest meditations on how to proceed in relation to evangelicalism after the World Vision incident from several weeks ago.

3. I recently discovered a new blog.  It’s called Scribalishess, and it’s a fantastic combination of fancy pen reviews and explanations of Hebrew scriptures.  Being a lefty, I can’t really do a whole lot with fancy pens other than admire the aesthetics of them (someone, please tell me if a fountain pen has been invented that can be comfortably used by a southpaw with the signature curled claw writing position), but the writer is a professor of the Hebrew Bible, and she’s written some fantastic explanations of the problems with how contemporary Christians tend to approach the Old Testament.  For a sampling of her work that I’ve really enjoyed so far, follow these links: “The Day My Son Was Taught ‘Bible’ in Public School”, “Leviticus Defiled: The Perversion of Two Verses”, “Reading Genesis 1 ‘Literally'”


1. I get a lot of my science news via io9.  Recently, I was really excited to see that they hired a correspondent for news in Washington, D.C. related to science policy.  I think this event is not unrelated to an updated manifesto that was published by io9‘s chief editor, Annalee Newitz, this week where she writes that, whether you like it or not, science is a political issue, and policies that affect scientific research and education need to be addressed.  Wholeheartedly agreed.

2. Following that, here’s an article about the brouhaha stirring at a technical university where a couple who are creationists have been invited to speak at a commencement ceremony.  This is an interesting case mostly because the couple in question are also engineers, and they plan on speaking only about their engineering backgrounds at the ceremony.  Nonetheless, opponents of the decision are arguing that the university shouldn’t even recognize people who take part in political efforts that directly seek to undermine science education, even if it’s an unrelated field.


1. There’s still a long way to go to get to equal representation of all demographics in fiction.  This talk given at this year’s Game Developer’s Conference by Manveer Heir, a game designer for BioWare, gives a pretty good overview of the excuses that lots of folks within the games industry are making, and points towards some goals that developers should keep in mind.

2. I’m only a little surprised I’ve not seen this before, but this is a very thorough exploration of all the problems with the user interface in the first Mass Effect game.  Anyone who’s played the series knows that the first game had some major drawbacks, especially in relation to its inventory system.  It’s also a good write up on how a player interacts with a game and what good visual design does to facilitate the experience and immersion of a title.  Also, in the follow-up that looks at Mass Effect 2‘s user interface, the writer validates everything I was thinking about the simplification of pretty much every system between the two games.


1. So Carol Danvers has been Captain Marvel (in the Marvel comics universe) for a couple years now, and all accounts say she’s been a success in her new role.  Now I’m hearing that Marvel’s launching a new Ms. Marvel, and she’s a Muslim, Pakistani-American teenager from New Jersey.  Why am I not reading this series?!


1. Last summer I watched a really good movie called Another Earth.  Now the director of that film is about to release a new movie that explores the tension between a materialist outlook and confrontation with scientifically inexplicable phenomena.  Personally, I think a lot of people make too much of the perceived conflict between science and faith (it’s one of my pet peeves about Rob Bricken’s reporting at io9 that he always seems to take this angle in writing about things that examine the relationship between science and faith), but this new film might still be worth seeing.  Here’s the trailer, if you’re curious.


Art by Lauren Dawson. (Image credit:

1. There have been a lot of live action adaptations of Superman and Batman over the years.  Also there have been a few of Wonder Woman.  That doesn’t change the fact that Wonder Woman as a character has not seen a notable live action adaptation since the 1970s.  Here’s a compilation of the looks of various adaptations of DC’s Trinity over the years with a rather wry jab at Wonder Woman’s poor representation.

2. I have not read every Shakespeare play (honestly, I’m more of a Marlowe fan), but based on what I know about the ones that I have read, these 3-panel plot summaries are pretty spot on.

3. Time travel is a lot of fun in stories, but looking at visualizations of how it actually plays out are probably even more of a blast.  Here’s a quiz where the time travel in various movies are illustrated on timelines and you get to guess if you can recognize the film based on its pathway.  Like all things from BuzzFeed, it’s kind of stupid, but still entertaining.

4. First, there was Sharknado.  Now, there’s Poseidon Rex.

5. The Muppets instantly make things better.  So here’s a collection of fan art mashing up the Muppets with various characters across the Marvel and DC universes.  My favorite might be the first one that features Dazzler singing with the Electric Mayhem.

The Saga of My Mass Effect 3 Playthrough (4 of 4)

I’ll be discussing spoilers for Mass Effect 3 in this post. (Part 3 here)

I mentioned back in part 2 of this series (it wasn’t originally supposed to be a series, but when I realized I was approaching three thousand words writing up my first post, I thought it might be better to break this up) that my Shepard ended up basically acting like Jesus, because he was always giving people second chances, making peace, and doing impossible things.

It’s not a perfect analogy, since Shepard doesn’t have the whole divinity thing, but I think it more or less holds true.  I think this was intentional on the part of the developers (not that I think Mass Effect as a series is specifically Christian, but it clearly has a lot of tropes in common with the gospel), especially after seeing the synthesis ending.  With this ending you have Shepard choosing to die in order to usher in a new kind of life intended for everyone.  His death literally enables an innate change in every being in the galaxy as his essence is disseminated among all of them (the synthesis is apparently possible because Shepard is both organic and synthetic after he was resurrected using cutting edge technology).  Setting aside the weird assertion the Catalyst makes that an integration of synthetic and organic life is the final stage in evolution (I’m not sure where that comes from, but it sounds like gibberish to me), this whole scenario has Jesus written all over it.

I wrote before that I never intended for my Shepard to take on the whole Christ role, and I really wanted him to walk away from the Reaper war with that happy ending for everyone.  Of course, that’s not what happened, and it doesn’t do a whole lot of good to look at the story and say how it should have ended.  That’s certainly a fun exercise, but it’s still wish fulfillment, and wish fulfillment doesn’t do very much at all when it comes to exploring how a story reflects the human condition.

So let’s look at the story we got.

I played Shepard as a person with principals and ideals, and he upheld those ideals to the very end, even though it took a heavy toll on him personally.  There’s a point just before the endgame of Mass Effect 3 begins where Shepard’s forced to deal with a very serious loss in terms of the war.  It’s a major blow to the galactic defense, and it serves as a wake up call that for all the amazing things Shepard’s done before, he simply can’t save everyone.  In hindsight, I suppose the point of that mission was to remind the player that things wouldn’t necessarily work out to be totally satisfying in a “you saved everyone and got out alive!” sort of way, but there are so many moments in the series overall where Shepard’s slim chances of success are emphasized that you kind of get numb to it.  Anyway, metanarrative aside, following this mission Shepard has a conversation with his ship’s pilot, Joker, where it becomes apparent that Shepard is cracking at the seams from all the stress of organizing the war.  Despite the cool demeanor that he puts forward, Shepard is really worried about what’s going to happen, and this segment serves to remind us that our hero is human, no matter what we may have deluded ourselves into thinking about them up to this point.

I was thinking about that moment after I finished the game, and it occurred to me that a lot of my dissatisfaction with the ending stemmed from the fact that Shepard had to play Jesus after the story made such a big deal about the fact that he wasn’t holding up well under the stress.  I kept thinking, “That’s not fair to dump so much responsibility on a single person, especially when it costs him his chance at happiness.”

Then I had an epiphany (ignore the fact that I finished the game on January 7).  My Shepard had ended up being a type of Christ, and he did so unwillingly, at least in my mind.  He desperately wanted the peaceful life, but he couldn’t bring himself to wipe out an entire race in order to do it (the way the game’s original ending scenario presents it, Shepard may die even if you choose to destroy the Catalyst, since the effects will be to wipe out all synthetic life in the universe, and the Catalyst makes a point of saying that Shepard is part synthetic) especially with no guarantee that he’d even survive.  He was tempted, but he chose the selfless path.

I wondered if that sort of scenario is similar to what Jesus actually had to deal with during his life.  It’s a funny thing, trying to hold in mind the paradox of Christ being simultaneously divine and human, because so much of what contemporary culture focuses on with Jesus is his divinity.  We’re told he performed miracles, and forgave relentlessly, and went to die for us without hesitation.  His birth was heralded as the coming of Immanuel, God with us.

It’s easy to forget (if you believe in Jesus’ divinity) that he inhabited a human body, and he struggled with human wants and needs.  Before he was arrested in Gethsemane, he prayed that God wouldn’t burden him with the responsibility of dying for the world.

Jesus the human being wanted to live.

The fact that he chose not to says to me he thought the cost for backing down from the responsibility was too great.  It probably hurt a lot to make that decision, and I mean that in more than just physical terms.  We generally understand how agonizing and humiliating a death by crucifixion was, but I don’t think we consider very often the kind of emotional pain that accompanies choosing to forgo your life as it is for a greater good.  Perhaps the Resurrection signaled the synthesis of a new kind of life for people, integrating the stuff of their mundane existences with something alien and transcendent and ultimately good.

It still must have hurt to leave all those people behind.

And that’s how I feel about the ending of Mass Effect 3 that I got.

The Saga of My Mass Effect 3 Playthrough (3 of 4)

Spoilers for Mass Effect 3 are discussed in this post. (Part 2 here)

Now, the hero falling in love might be written off in other games as the token romance subplot that every story is expected to have in order to titillate viewers a little bit, but I didn’t get that from my Shepard’s story.  He had a thing with one woman, Liara, early on, but that fell through because things happen (including Shepard’s death and resurrection, but that’s a story for another time) and they were separated.  When they met again, the magic had gone, mostly because Liara had moved on and made something of her life apart from Shepard, and he had important business to deal with saving the galaxy.  Then he fell for another woman, Tali, who was an old friend from his earliest adventures.  It began as a simple crush on her part that had gone unrequited for some time, and then Shepard realized that Tali had been there for him the whole way.  They were good friends, and then they became more than that.  While Shepard was going through some of the most trying parts of his mission, she was there to support him.

They were unavoidably separated after Shepard completed his suicide mission to stop the Collectors, and they spent six months apart.  When they saw each other again, there was some uncertainty about their affections for one another, but those vanished quickly.  The fact that there was a war going on didn’t matter.  Honestly, it made them more resolute.  Everything was falling apart and uncertain, but they could at least depend on each other.  Then when they helped reclaim Tali’s home world (while simultaneously ensuring the cooperation and peace of two races that had been at war for about three hundred years), they realized they could have a life together there.

I really wanted them to have that life together.

It was at this point in Shepard’s story that I started to worry about how the ending was going to play out.  I knew that there was a possibility Tali could die in the ending if I didn’t have my galactic readiness score (a metric used in game to determine how powerful the forces Shepard gathers to combat the Reapers is) high enough, to say nothing of being able to get an ending where Shepard himself didn’t die.  It was a major conundrum, because I went back and forth over whether I would risk having Tali die so Shepard could live (since I didn’t know exactly what the parameters were for getting an optimal ending) or if I’d go for the noble sacrifice.

My inclination was to go for the noble sacrifice, simply because I figured the win-all ending where Shepard gets out alive and everyone else survives was unlikely to be available with my inability to access the online parts of the game.  Of course, this was back before I learned there isn’t a win-all ending at all.  Like I pointed out earlier, the three broad versions of the ending consist of two options that result in Shepard dying to save the galaxy, and the third option where his survival is possible, but at the cost of annihilating an entire race (and one of Shepard’s aforementioned friends).  Those were all bad choices for the way I had shaped the story, because my Shepard was definitely the noble type, but he really wanted to have that happy ending with the quiet retirement.  The fact that he’d developed a reputation for making the impossible happen left me hoping there might be a way to have his cake and eat it, but that just isn’t in the cards.

Yeah, it’s possible for Shepard to get out alive, but the cost is too high for the Shepard that I played.  How was he supposed to live with the guilt of destroying an entire race that he worked so hard to save in the first place?

So basically, I realized that my particular Shepard was doomed to a tragic ending no matter what.  He was either going to become a genocide in order to preserve his own personal happiness, or he was going to sacrifice himself for the good of everyone else.

He couldn’t be happy.

And that’s what really made me angry about the game’s ending.  I know that Mass Effect is a war story, and most of the endings were probably going to involve making a hard choice.  But I also learned from playing through the games that with enough effort, the player could manipulate events to work out where everyone wins.  This wasn’t true in every situation (no matter what, you have to let one of your squad mates die at one point in the first game), but it was a possibility so many other times that I just took for granted that the developers would include a wish fulfillment ending.  Reflecting on the experience now, I think it was the assumption of there being a wish fulfillment ending where Shepard gets his happily ever after and the galaxy is restored to peace without losing something irreplaceable that filled me with all the angst over being limited in what ending options I could get with the crippled Xbox.  The realization that there never was an ending like that felt like a betrayal of what the developers had promised me (which I know is absurd because all they ever promised to do was tell a war story; there was never any promise that it would end happily).

So, for what it’s worth, the ending I would have liked would have involved Shepard persuading the Catalyst that the Reapers aren’t necessary anymore by offering the peace between synthetics and organics that have been blooming as examples of progress during this galactic cycle (let alone the fact that organics do plenty of fighting among themselves, so this assumption that it’s a “synthetic vs. organic” conflict instead of a more general “us vs. them” is flawed and causes needless violence and destruction).  The Catalyst considers the evidence and decides to recall the Reapers, leaving all the galactic races to rebuild without the Crucible (the superweapon that was being built to combat the Reapers) being fired at all.  Shepard gets to go home and have a peaceful retirement with Tali, and everyone lives happily ever after.

That’s the ending I wanted, anyway.  I’m still working out how I feel about the ending I got.