The end is near

Pull the Plug[Contains Mass Effect 3 spoilers.]

“I am near the end of my life. It is a good time to be generous.” – Thane, Mass Effect 3

“That’s the thing about getting old, Shepard. The platitudes get just as old.” – Garrus, Mass Effect 3

Someone spoiled Mass Effect 3 for me. Shepard dies at the end. That’s all I know.

There’s a term for this condition. It’s called “dramatic irony.” That’s a situation where a character is unaware of something the audience knows. It’s the irony arising from a situation due to the audience having a fuller knowledge of circumstances compared to a character.

So, burdened with dramatic irony, Shepard’s role has transformed in my mind. This is no longer the typical hero’s journey, because Shepard is now a doomed hero.

But let’s rewind. There is a video game development studio called BioWare. BioWare crafted a lot of highly regarded games over the past 17 years. Games that are considered classic, timeless. Things that are classic and timeless amass followers–followers both vocal and passionate about their experiences with said timeless things.

BioWare’s audience takes ownership of its experiences with BioWare games. There was Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire. Dragon Age and Mass Effect. You’ve heard of these games before, even if you’ve never played them. They’re applauded in forums. They’re given spotlight in opinion columns. And if they’re discussed in a comments thread, another commenter inevitably threatens to reinstall one of those games for a second, third, or nth playthrough.

I’ve played through some of them. I’ve liked a few. Disliked others. But I’ve never second-guessed the so-called BioWare Docs’ vision. The BioWare Docs are Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuck, founders of BioWare in 1995 after graduating medical school together. (A third founding BioWare Doc, Augustine Yip, left after their first game, Shattered Steel.) While I don’t think their vision is flawless, I also respect the flaws of artists and visionaries, and I accept “mistakes” as part of the artistic process.

So, when Commander Shepard died at the end of Mass Effect 3, a vocal minority of BioWare’s audience indeed got vocal. Wrong, they shouted. It shouldn’t end, they said. And if it ends, they conceded, it shouldn’t end like this.

That’s what happens when a player attaches to a character in a trilogy five years in the making. A player gets notably upset when things end. Yes, there are plenty opportunities for Commander Shepard to “die” in the video game sense of the word. Bullets, lasers and grenades fly to and fro from the opening titles to the closing credits. I can hear the pulsing, bloodshot death soundtrack in my ears even now. But those aren’t permanent deaths. We’re still talking about video games here. Death is never permanent. Even “perma-death” in a game is solveable through a procedure know as “start over.” Increased health, regenerating shields and healing medikits are ultimately redundant in Mass Effect 3, because the almighty Load Saved Game button washes away all errors. Life is restored. Please try again.

But Load Saved Game can’t wash away a storyline death. The pen is mightier. Shepard dies at the end of Mass Effect 3, and there’s nothing BioWare’s audience, in vocal outrage or silent protest, can do about it. The Docs pulled the plug. Fin.

I’m not there yet. Haven’t reached the end. Nowhere near it, actually. One year after the release of Mass Effect 3, I’m finally entering the single-player campaign from the beginning. The hype kept me away–my own included. The Internet’s whining about the end kept me away, too–not to mention my own reluctance to see things conclude. But instead of furiously typing away in some forum, I bit my tongue. I shut up. I shelved the game before I even played it. I didn’t whine about it, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t upset, knowing what I knew about the end.

I was there since Mass Effect’s inception. Six years ago, laying crossways on my Salvation Army couch, jogging through the sterile, Star Trek-like environs of the Citadel, holding my eyelids open with tootpicks while poring over the wordy and often dry Codex, riding elevators while chuckling at Wrex’s zingers, jouncing along low-grav planetary surfaces in a six-wheeled buggy, watching the Fox News ticker tape on the actual TV screen between times with headlines like “Sex Box?” because you could play through a scenario of digitized, blue alien sex that shows some of Liara’s hip, then drifting to sleep while strip mining planets for resources in Mass Effect 2, leaning forward and leaning back in my seat with Asari dancers on my club table, and watching the camera leer over Yvonne Strahovski’s backside.

But knowing that the end is near kept me away from Mass Effect 3. I’ve artificially extended Commander Shepard’s life by not giving him any life at all. This has been, well, “immature” may be a strong word, but what I’ve done–my inaction–isn’t any better than BioWare’s vocal minority that moaned about his death. The Internet won, however, and twisted BioWare’s arm into releasing an “extended” ending. An ending that purportedly closes more loops, dovetails more storylines, and rolls credits on forgotten scenarios.

I don’t doubt the BioWare Docs’ vision, but that doesn’t mean I want to let the series go. I have been in something of a silent protest for a year, and it’s time to break that silence while respecting the decisions of the Docs to pull the plug on Shepard. This is how it ends. And, for me, the end is near.

I’m over starting over

art by Patrick Brown

art by Patrick Brown


I’m into fresh starts. I’m into blank pages. I’m into shaking Etch A Sketches. I savor a book’s first line more than its last. New albums over old. A new day, a new leaf, a new lease on life. I’m so into enjoying the moment that I rarely revel in the past or wonder about the future. If I starred in my own version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, I would tell the Ghost of Christmas Past to get over itself, and the Ghost of Christmas Future to relax, relax.

I’m the opposite of a completionist. An incompletionist, I suppose. I’m a reroller. I start over just so I can start over with that start-over feeling. I get a little ways into a video game, then I find an excuse to quit to main menu. Load game? Hate it. Save button? Hate it. It’s initial moments of discovery that make video games wonderful to me.

How many games of Civilization V have I started? Dozens. How many have I played to completion? One.

How many games of Grand Theft Auto have I started? All of them. How many times have I rolled credits? Haven’t.

How many games of XCOM: Enemy Unknown? A dozen already. Completed? None. Unless you count having my entire barracks wiped clean over the course of three encounters as my cash reserves dwindle to zero and the “x-rays” steep the entire planet into DEFCON 1? Then I’ve completed a few. I mean, that’s always one possible ending anytime you fire up a game of XCOM.

But I’ve changed this year. The incompletionist in me is down. The completionist is up. New rule: no new games until I finish my old games. Out with the new, in with the old.

For me, that entails saving the Milky Way from a Reaper invasion; saving the Earth from an “enemy unknown”; saving ourselves from a zombie plague; running the map from Markarth to Winterhold; witnessing the full dissolution of the American Dream through the eyes of an immigrant; and saving all my trustafarian friends from an Alice-through-the-Looking-Glass island hop.

That’s Mass Effect 3, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the Walking Dead, the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Far Cry 3, for those keeping score. In short, my 2013 will look like what my 2012 should’ve looked like, simply because these are games that I’ve started over too many times rather than played to completion. No more restarts. No more shaking the Etch-a-Sketch.

In other words, I’m starting over as somebody who finishes what he starts.

What’s in a name

UFO Clouds

The belly of the Skyranger VTOL aircraft opens, and four XCOM operatives rush out, game faces on. The fog of war peels back about 50 yards down the line, and my soldiers stand at the ready. They move quickly to cover behind open vehicle doors, tree stumps, cargo crates, bus stops; whatever’s available in short order. They go into overwatch mode, waiting for any aliens to pop out from behind cover, ready to put a flurry of rounds into anything with a big head and big eyes.

But I know these XCOMmers. By name only, but I know them. Lieutenant Chuck Husemann is my editor in chief at Gaming Nexus. I worked with Corporal Kyle Byers at Musician’s Friend before they outsourced themselves to the greater Los Angles area. Squaddie Tina Amini is on assault and is no longer the newest editor at Kotaku. Rookie Sean Nack is back from Afghanistan, but then again, maybe no one comes all the way back (etc., etc., requisite civilian generalization about ex-Army soldiers and my complete lack of understanding re: post-trauma).

XCOM, the game, does a million things right, technically and mechanically. But it’s the names of the dead I always hear about. People eulogizing the loss of their friends and coworkers on Twitter. One hundred forty-four characters worth of dead and gone, digitally speaking. You can name your XCOM soldiers, and even personalize their hair and facial features to a limited extent. Corporal Kyle Byers is a blond, boufant-haired white guy with a soul patch. Squaddie Tina Amini is olive-skinned and rocks a raven ponytail. Rookie Sean Nack crops his hair the closest and keeps the cleanest shave. I made Lieutenant Chuck Husemann a black guy with a short mohawk, which is nothing like him, but, hey, celebrate diversity.

I never name video game characters after myself or those that I know. Not interested in knocking out that fourth wall. But XCOM was different. The XCOM barracks can house a hundred soldiers in its barracks, but those other potential 96 soldiers don’t matter. Not until I name them. Then they matter. They’re no longer just pixels. Giving these digital soldiers names from real life ensures just that: they’ve crossed the line from purely digital construct into something straddling the imaginary and the literal. There’s now a connection between their digital avatars on a television screen and their carbon-based counterparts.

I won’t cry when these names I know die from an alien laser beam to the forehead. The illusion isn’t that impenetrable, even though I’m actively contributing to its illusory construction. But I notably flinched when Lieutenant Chuck Husemann, my long-suffering EIC, bit the bullet. I can spend the credits and hire more soldiers. Numbers aren’t the problem. The problem is replacing the history I have with the real-life Chuck Husemann, a ten-year history that invisibly baked itself into that video game soldier’s history. The time Chuck had my back when I was attacked by an angry public relations agents when I scored a video game review too low. The year-after-year attempts Chuck’s made to get me to Game Developers Conferences, Comic-Cons, and PAX. The thousands of dollars’ worth of review product he’s mailed to me, and the hundreds of emails I’ve sent him, apologizing for yet another blown deadline.

So I raise up a theoretical glass to the late Lieutenant Chuck Husemann, and to the soldiers I will lose in the future. We hardly knew you.

Assassin’s Credentials

I was wrong. Happens all the time, really. Thankfully, @DefunctGames, otherwise known as Cyril Lachel, called me out on the carpet.

In keeping with my defensive nature, I argued. My arguments were more of an attack against Cyril than the Assassin’s Creed series. I like to get Cyril riled up every once in a while — he’s in the stable of writers at GamingNexus, a site I also write for. Cyril’s historical and contemporary knowledge of video games is unparalleled. He’s a gamer in every sense of the word and, when it comes to coverage, he can outtype anybody I know. He’s prolific in every way that makes less-prolific writers like myself throw their QWERTY at the wall. My jealousy of his experience and prolificacy sometimes comes out in immature spats. He’s had to chin-check me before, and, because Cyril is always on duty, he’ll probably have to do it again. I’m a problem. I’m working on it.

In this particular instance, the instance of Assassin’s Creed, I was speaking tongue in cheek in my tweet. My tweet, however, made it sound like I was dismissing an entire series of video games that I hadn’t played. Which wasn’t true. I’d played the orginal Assassin’s Creed to completion. I’d rebuilt half of Rome in Assassin’s Creed 2. I’d played a hundred hours or more of Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood’s multiplayer stabby-stabby sessions. And I’d rented Assassin’s Creed Revelations for a day, stopping because the hyperactive use of grenades didn’t fit with my preconceived notion of what an Assassin’s Creed game should be about.

Despite my Whitman’s Sampler of experience post-Assassin’s Creed 1, I’d grown distant and jaded by the fact that I hadn’t played the entire series. Hadn’t made the time. The first one gripped me like few games ever have. One hook it got into my cheek was the wicked parkour, back when people couldn’t stop talking about parkour, back when there was still an invisible argument as to whether it should be called “parkour” or “free running,” back when historical recreations of real-world cities never happened outside of megastrategy games.

The second hook in my cheek was the setting. I’d recently returned from a pilgrimmage to Jerusalem in Israel. I’d sat in places where Jesus of Narareth had taught, stopped by olive gardens his apostles had napped in, and ate bread and drank wine at a spot known as “place of a skull.” So, virtually treading the Holy Land once more in Assassin’s Creed was, as far as video games were concerned, a transcendent moment for me. That first game in the series hit spiritual notes that, I’m guessing, not every single video game reviewer had.

Then the second game in the series carted itself off to Italy. The third game was still stuck in Italy. The fourth shook off the Italian shackles but couldn’t shake its Italian protagonist. I wasn’t impressed. I’d seen too many postcards of Italy, watched too many films set in Tuscany, and heard too much about the Pope in his truck’s bulletproof Tic-Tac case he stands in to take Rome seriously. Italy felt like the Hawaii of Europe: a tourist trap with nothing new to discover.

So I dismissed playing the rest of the series to completion. Dismissed it with a wave of my hand and a snarky tone in my tweet.

That was wrong. I knew it before the dozen-tweet-long argument with Cyril even broke out. His argument was solid, based on the information I’d initially given. He (rightly) called me out for punking the Assassin’s Creed series even though I “hadn’t played it.” Though I had played some, I hadn’t played nearly enough, and being glib about it accomplished nothing. Even for the sake of getting Cyril “riled up,” which is always a joy.

I was wrong. I’m now playing through the remaining Assassin’s Creed games before Assassin’s Creed 3 shows up with its mad-awesome American Revolutionary War setting. And you know what? I’ve fallen in love with the entire series.

Does not complete

What’s the opposite of a completionist? That’s the problem I have. By force or by design or by whimsy, when it comes to completing video games, I’m not someone that completes video games. If I don’t like them.

This is true for other forms of entertainment I consume. If a novel doesn’t grab me in the first 50 pages, I’m done. If a movie hasn’t got me hooked 30 minutes in, I’m out. If an album doesn’t have me bobbing my head by track 2, sorry.

Some people pride themselves on their completionist endeavors. Sean Nack, a close family friend, is helpless to read a novel cover to cover, even if he figured out by his second sitting that he won’t enjoy going any further. He recently devoured the first book in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, A Game of Thrones. He thoroughly enjoyed it. But by book two, A Clash of Kings, he aleady fills like George R.R. Martin is spinning his literary wheels. Sean Nack doesn’t want to finish the series. And by “doesn’t want to finish the series,” Sean Nack will undoubtedly finish the series. Because he’s a completionist, and completing a task is more reward to him than moving onto something more enjoyable. The achievement points that come from polishing off the final page in a book or book series is worth more to him, personally, than knowing he’d abandoned a book series before it was done.

Sean Nack is a completionist.

I am not a completionist.

So I’ve been visiting Blockbuster with some frequency lately. I’m forking over the cash for a movie/game combo pass so that I can revisit a library’s worth of games I’ve never finished. After only a cursory glance, I’ve realized there are a lot. Unless I was assigned to review a video game and formally turn in a write-up, I probably didn’t roll credits on your favorite video game.

So, yes, to clarify, I’ve finished dozens of video games. But there are dozens and dozens more I haven’t.

I rented LA Noire yesterday. It takes place in LA. It’s noir. I’m not a film student or a movie critic, so I can’t exactly tell you what “noir” means. Unless it’s related to Drakkar Noir. In which case, yes, I can tell you that LA Noire was what my junior high years smelled like.

I’d enjoyed LA Noire when it launched just over a year ago, in May 2011. But after completing about 33 percent of the storyline, I was done. I felt like I’d gotten my money’s worth. Since I still had a day job in May 2011, I probably traded the game at a GameStop and put the money down towards the next big AAA title. Operation Flashpoint: Red River, probably. That, or Cars 2.

Now, some 15 months later, I’m enjoying LA Noire once again. I checked to make sure the black and white option was still checked. Not because I know anything about film noir, but because how many games let you play in black and white? Not many. Peter Molyneux released two games called Black & White and that wasn’t an option in either of them.

So it’s 1948. Los Angeles is monochromatic. The soundtrack is smoky. The cars are those “enormous American cars” that non-Americans like to make fun of in movies. And all the men are suited up rocking fedoras. Contrary to 1947, today’s fedoras have been opted by women celebrities and Justin Timberlake.

Detective Cole Phelps, the main character in LA Noire, is a completionist. He reads his cases cover to cover, even if he doesn’t like where they’re going. He gets all 1,000 Microsoft Achievement Points when it comes to solving a homicide. He checks off 10 out of 10 boxes on his checklist when arson is afoot. He doesn’t quit till he hits 100 percent on all his loading bars.

But that’s not me, and Detective Cole Phelps knows it. He can tell by the way I don’t restart a case if I missed some clues. He knows by my sloppy driving in the black and white LA rain that I don’t care if I lost a few grand in property damages to the city on my last case. And he can smell it on my breath when I plop down in my gaming chair, hair frazzled, wearing yesterday’s clothes, smelling like two-day-old Drakkar Noir, and rubbing the three-day-old stubble on my chin and cheeks, that he and I might not accomplish much today.

Detective Cole Phelps is a completionist. But I don’t have that problem.

A Baptist preacher haunts my Skyrim

In the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, there’s a large city called Whiterun. In a large plaza in Whiterun, there’s a large statue of a bygone hero, a man-god, named Talos. In front of that statue is a preacher with a large mouth. Though he spouts the gospel truth about the statue he stands in front of, it’s still embarassing to hear him preach at length. The breaking in his voice as he shouts at the upper register of his vocal cords. The Kanye-West-you-can’t-tell-me-nothin’ crossing of his arms. It’s too much. This assesment coming from a person that was raised by Catholics, culled into Baptist church, and now settled into the anonymous, coolheaded pews of the Non-Denominational.

I remember that Bapist preacher during my teenage years. Just like any other teenager I was more hormonal than hymnal in my church-going motivations. I was there for the girls. The small Oregon coast town of North Bend doesn’t rock a lively club scene, and libraries, a place I feel right at home in still, aren’t the greatest pick-up arenas. Not that I had clever quips for the young ladies. That was never the case. If I ever approached any girl I’d have to roll a saving throw against stun. I was a Dungeons & Dragons geek. Getting shushed for tossing twenty-sided dice on quiet-section tables was the extent of my rebellion. But that was enough to have multiple sermons aimed at me.

A concerned neighbor, my best friends’ parents, actually, likely leaked that info to their pastor and then invited me to church. And it was a small church. Fifty patrons, tops. A small headcount for a room seating kids, teenagers, adults, and infirm. So when my friends’ parents slipped a “let’s pray for Randy” word into the pastor’s ear, I got an unexpected dose of fire and brimstone.

Well, I would’ve gotten a dose had it not been for the general oblivious nature of teenage boys. I was passing notes to a cutie in the pew ahead of me as the pastor’s sermon turned to Dungeons & Dragons. His gaze kept shifting to the two front-left pews, the place where all the teenagers sat together. He eyeballed me and my horrifying half-shaved-head mullet and my “Dungeons & Dragons is the devil” hobby. All the while my ignorant teenage self, at best, thought “Wonder why he’s talking about D&D. Weird. Never heard about–ooh lookie, Karen circled ‘yes’ on the note I passed to her.”

The pastors voice grew louder over the mumbled banter and pass-the-piece-of-paper antics of the teenagers’ section. The room was too small to yell in, having only five or six rows of short pews, but he was a big man. A slightly sweaty barrel-chested man. The kind that would sip iced tea during a Prussian winter or a Louisianna summer and have a glossy forehead either way.

But when I heard that plaza-preaching devout of Talos in the city of Whiterun in the land of Skyrim, my blood froze for just a moment. In a game where I’d made a habit of talking to anyone and everyone, climbing up and around their dialog trees and shaking their chat-bubble branches, I made a particular point to avoid this preacher of Talos. It wasn’t until months later that I realized a legit shrine of Talos sat at the base of the statue’s feet. That lung-capacity preacher reminded me too much of the Baptist pastor that, all those years ago, had prayed and preached against my penchant for deading dragons and delving dungeons. And here I was, 20 years later, still up to the same old antics in pixelized form.

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Zombies, jog!

I’m jogging a pedestrian path — a 30-mile stretch in the Rogue Valley called The Greenway — though I’m currently only a couple miles from home. I survived a helicopter crash. The pilot, cynical about transporting yet another top secret operative out to Abel township, didn’t make it. The zombie apocalypse is in full effect, and mankind isn’t in any rebuilding stage yet. It’s found in small enough numbers that they’re called “pockets.” Pockets of humanity. It’s all survival. Survival horror.

Abel township depends on runners. Supplies are scarce, obviously, and when supplies are identified or even hinted at, runners answer the call. Jesse Eisenberg, the stammering Michael Sera-alike, once said that rule number one when dealing with zombies is cardio. As in: run. So I’m out here in southern Oregon on a beaming, sunny Saturday morning, ready to pound five miles into the Greenway’s concrete. Preparing for a zombie apocalypse of my own, in real life? Not really. Just trying to work off that lingering baby fat from too many Happy Meals as a kid.

Dev is in my Zune. I remember her voice as the one that croons “Now I’m fly like a G6″ on that Far East Movement’s track. All party and bass, Dev is. She’s like a Kesha that doesn’t need to get punched in the face. It would make sense to have some kind of horrorcore rap music or Hans Zimmer-inspired orchestral soundtrack piping into my eardrums, but runners like me have to listen to upbeat dancehall music to keep the endorphin levels up. I’ve listened to both slow and fast albums as I’ve run before, and fast albums shave measurable units off my split times. So Dev it is. Zombies don’t care. Zombies crazy. But if I don’t step on the accelerator when the zombies draw a bead on my location, then I’m forced to throw down valuable supplies to distract the undead, like Hippomenes dropping golden apples to slow down Atalanta.

End Greek mythology lesson for the day.

Dev was too pumped, though. I couldn’t hear when the zombie chases began. I only found out after the fact that I’d lost supplies. The Windows Phone’s robo voice was too soft. But lesson learned. I need to use the tracklist music player within the Zombies, Run! app itself. Hope that fixes it. Because I’m not into the idea of letting down Abel township.

Sharing the run’s results was the only disappointment. It simply posts a “Just ran 5 m playing #zombiesrun” on Facebook and Twitter. Except it’s British so it didn’t say 5 m at first, it said 8.1 km or some such metric nonsense. Underwhelming regardless, because a graphic or some times or some distances would be appreciated. I ain’t doing this for my health. But the stories will keep this going for me. I’ll keep running around town and along The Greenway under my new moniker, Runner Five, until I see this story of rebuilding conclude.

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