AN OPEN WORLD: With Bethesda’s surprise announcement of the still ephemeral Fallout 76, video game-focused documentarians, NoClip, announced that they will be doing a series covering the development of this new game. They started, however, with a comprehensive look at the history of Bethesda studios. After watching the documentary (embedded below), both D. and Andrew realized how far the studio has come, how big it has gotten, and how much of an impact this quirky company has made on gaming as a whole.
Shortcast 49 – The Sweet Beats: Where Andrew and D. Bethel talk about Fallout 4, also the RELATED EPISODES of this episode contain a comprehensive list of the other times Fallout 4 was discussed on the show.
Mass Effect: Andromeda stands as one of the most derided games of this generation. It’s to the point that Bioware said publicly that it’s no longer supporting it a mere five months after the game’s release. While I think the game is, indeed, very different from the previous Mass Effect games and, without a doubt, needed a few more drafts with the script, it was by no means a terrible game. If separated from the Mass Effect context––and when considered with all of its animation/texture/gameplay patches––it suffers from the deadliest of video game diseases: it ended up being a game that was just “fine.” Nothing stellar, nothing terrible, things that make it forgettable in the sea of games to get either quite excited about or quite angry about.
Though I may be biased because I enjoyed the game (aware of all of its flaws), I think Park’s ostensible defense of the game makes a very strong point not only about Mass Effect: Andromeda, but also about criticism in general. For those participating in the conversation around video games, both professional and amateur (though this line is blurring more than ever), a general agreement seems to be that to be “critical” means to look for what’s bad and point it out. I’ll grant some leeway because a lot of professional critics are playing these games during abbreviated periods for review purposes, so the bad stuff stands out even more. With a game like Mass Effect: Andromeda, it has the added burden of being a new entry in a highly venerated video game series, so expectations for the game were set a bit higher than other games. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have qualities worth discussing, remembering, and celebrating, and part of that, at least as Park argues, is because of gaming criticism’s relative youth:
We don’t yet have a critical structure that supports or fosters an appreciation of the misapplication of game language that causes “messiness.” And this is a major problem.
With that in mind, there is a trend away from more traditional reviews into a more personal or culturally critical look at a game. These are more critic-friendly because they don’t really need to be ready by the game’s release (although such timeliness is beneficial for SEO purposes), and such investigations allow the critic to step back from the game and take a more holistic approach to judging a game. Whether Mass Effect: Andromeda deserves or will even get that chance is up to history. At the very least, I hope future games––be they new installments in venerated franchises or new IPs––get the chance to be examined with a genuinely critical eye rather than just a score disguised as a conversation.
Instead of an article, this is an episode from the generally fantastic critical podcast, Bullet Points, where (at least) three games journalists record their thoughts of a video game they all played to write about and talk about for their website. Each episode is accompanied by articles written by the contributors and they’re always very thoughtful and insightful.
This episode, where they look back on Epic Games’ Gears of War (the first installment), is an absolute disaster in the best possible way. In the hour-and-a-quarter episode, they spend about fifteen minutes total discussing the game and, instead, slam critical views together like rams over a ewe. The conversation devolves into an argument about how to read the game, critically. One wants to look at the mechanics and render judgment based on those while another wants to look at the game’s place in a historical context. And, in this conversation, the twain never meet.
Throughout the entire fight, I found myself talking out loud as I listened while walking my dog one morning, hoping my mediation would travel through my headphones, up the RSS feed, and back through time so they could actually realize what it was they were fighting about. While it seemed like they were disagreeing about the quality of the game, the discourse on display was actually a fundamental lack of understanding when it comes to critical analysis. There is no one thing called “analysis” and that’s what everybody does. We have developed different ways to look at the same thing––be it Deconstructionism, Structuralism, Formalism, Feminism, Marxism, and so on. Look at something like Catcher in the Rye through a Structuralist lens will give you a very different argument than if you looked at it through a Feminist lens. And that’s okay. They all coexist. However, the static that can be caused by the lack of agreement on which one to use while looking at a text can lead to an actual halt to discourse and then nothing gets done, as is the case on this podcast episode.
The clashing ideologies between the two journalists was basically a fight between New Criticism vs. New Historicism, but the entire episode propels along a single question that, in itself, is quite interesting: can dumb texts be worth talking about critically? Also, can texts still be important when authorial intent is ignorant, dubious, or manufactured? I’d like to hear the podcast where they discuss that. Maybe more would get done.
D. Bethel dives into his history with the Mass Effect series and why he found a lot to enjoy in Mass Effect: Andromeda.
Imposter Syndrome is a natural psychological consequence caused by breaking free from personal norms. Trying something new can be scary. For those already beset with anxiety issues, the Imposter Syndrome converts us to flagellants, knowing simultaneously that these thoughts are bogus while also knowing they motivate us to push through the arbitrary and unconscious barriers we set for ourselves.
In graduate school, I had a bad case of Imposter Syndrome––one of many manifestations of my anxiety. The anxiety caused me to eat and drink a lot; it tickled my health in various ways; I lost a lot of sleep. I often woke up at one or two or three in the morning, spinning my impending failure through all possible scenarios or, if it was a good day, trying to harvest and codify all the ideas bouncing off each other like balls in a bingo spinner.
Eventually, I trained myself to just get out of bed. Go do something. Distract yourself. In the case of distraction, I learned that video games did that best.
Most of these nights happened after Nicole and I moved into our second Sacramento townhouse, away from the social thrum of midtown, which left us with mostly quiet nights; so, what sleep I could get would be uninterrupted and pleasant. On the anxiety nights, however, I crept downstairs, headphones already on and listening to podcasts––some video game commentary, some comedy interviews, some political debate, some history––and I’d fire up my Xbox 360 for hours of distraction, getting a good chunk of game in before the world even woke up. When I look back at these nights, the games that I see most in my memories are the Mass Effect series, specifically the two sequels.
Scanning planets captured perfectly the strange, silent calm of what we understand of outer space. Unlike humans…there’s nothing fragile about the cosmos. It simply is, existing slowly toward some end that is neither frightening nor threatening.
Since I was playing with the sound off (so as to consume quality audio entertainment), I rarely worked through story missions during these insomnious sessions. Instead, I searched for the mundane in the games’ side missions: fetch quests, collection runs, delivery missions. The most calming task I could do, and what I did most often, was planet scanning.
WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew starts rewatching Star Trek: The Next Generation on Bluray while Dan finally opens up about Mass Effect: Andromeda now that he has finished the game.
THE LAST GRIPE: The video game expo, E3, always has its share of stories, reveals, and, most recently, at least, controversy. Tim Soret, founder of the studio Odd Tales, scored a coup by getting to go onstage during Microsoft’s pre-E3 press conference and talk about his game, The Last Night, and how it would be an exclusive to the company and its new powerhouse console, the XBox One X. However, Soret has a dicey history with gamers, and his pro-GamerGate and anti-feminist tweets were brought to light despite happening years ago. He has even said that The Last Light was created as a statement on feminist ideology. However, at E3, he apologized on stage for his stances. Should he be forgiven? Should he be held accountable? Should we play his game? Dan and Andrew discuss this static caused between art and artist.
Whatever your thoughts may be about BioWare’s Mass Effect: Andromeda, there is no doubt that something happened during its development that lead to such a rocky debut, a series of choices so clouded in the public’s questions and shrouded in the mystery a company like EA’s BioWare can afford, the game was otherwise assumed to be relegated to the “well, that happened” category of games and we (as the gaming public) would be forced to move on.
This frankly bizarre secrecy around AAA game development shines a light on a major deficiency in the community––companies can bury “failed” games in mystery because they can get away with it. Though not focused on a failed game, a few years ago the BBC made a docudrama about the legal troubles of rockstar game studio, Rockstar Games, against which the developer filed suit, in a bit of irony. The development of Sony’s long-delayed The Last Guardian was mostly kept behind curtains, allowing the game to speak for itself when its time finally arrived, which had the aggregated conclusion of “it’s fine.” Though these are two of many examples, most of the community has accepted the idea that we will most likely never know how the choices were made, for better or for worse, and these companies will keep their business secreted away behind blast doors.
Luckily, some people are starting to catch on to the fact that “video game history” isn’t relegated to the eighties and nineties alone; it’s happening now. Right now. Mass Effect: Andromeda got a lot of dirt piled onto it. I enjoyed it for what it was and what it’s worth, but the tidal chart of nerd judgement is rather unforgiving. If something doesn’t meet a certain standard (a standard I believe is often rather arbitrary), that game, movie, comic, or tv show is dumped upon. There is no critical middle anymore in popular culture. And such a strong negative reception can taint a studio or franchise for a long while, a stain nobody can afford to live with. So, with things like Jason Schreier’s article coming so soon after Mass Effect: Andromeda‘s release, it can shed some much needed counterpoint onto the conversation.
To be clear, Schreier’s article isn’t an apology for the game. Instead, it’s investigative; he isn’t casting judgement, but instead acknowledging that something happened and the public reacted to it and he simply wanted to find out why:
[To] those who worked on it, Mass Effect: Andromeda felt unusually difficult. This was a game with ambitious goals but limited resources, and in some ways, it’s miraculous that BioWare shipped it at all.
This is an effort to chronicle recent history rather than simply cast it in one light or another, but to try and find out the whole story so historians have all the pieces with which to assemble hindsight instead of waiting for a day when only two or three members of the team are alive to tell the tale. This has actually been a trend I’ve seen recently and it warms my heart to see members of the games press turning a historical eye to the industry instead of being the first to give readers a hot take (not that hot takes and investigative pieces are mutually exclusive). Waypoint published a fantastic oral history of Halo, a genre of historical recording of which I’m growing fonder (more on that in a future episode). Waypoint also published a fascinating look at development documents for what would have been the sequel to the 2012 Square Enix-published Sleeping Dogs. I think the industry needs to be more self-aware, or else corporate red tape could actually contribute in the hindering of keeping this medium from becoming the art form it deserves to be.
Way back in Episode 58, Andrew and I discussed our (and listeners’) “gateways to geekdom,” accepting that the road to fandom is not necessarily––perhaps rarely––a straight path. A lot of us come to our passions through strange on-ramps or off-ramps from one fandom or medium to another. Popular culture has definitely done this with superheros and their stories with the rise of superhero cinema. It certainly wasn’t the comics industry who were making amazing books that the populace grabbed onto, but filmmakers who loved the comics and finally, finally, started making good movies based on those properties. Does that make cinematic universe enthusiasts any less of a fan than comic book readers? Ultimately, no. A fan of Iron Man is a fan of Iron Man is a fan of Iron Man.
The fewtimes we spoke with friend-of-the-site, Elijah Kaine, he mentioned his initial gateway into comicsdom––of which he has become thoroughly ensconced and well-read––was not comic books but the X-Men animated series, and this was probably the “in” for many X-Men or comic book fans. How many people started reading The Walking Dead because they watched the AMC tv show first? During my teenage years, my severe interest in Japanese feudal history and martial culture could be traced back to things like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Highlander. But they were gateways for me to walk through and soak up the world on the other side of the jamb.
Mike Diver’s article hints at something a bit more nuanced. He discusses the fact that he’s learning about DC’s characters by playing the fighting game that uses them. Sure, he’s also jumping online to mine wikis, but the fact is he’s actually getting a strong sense and knowledge of these comic book characters by playing a video game set in that world (but in its own continuity). In fact, it may be fair to say he’s becoming a fan:
Here I am, playing, and learning—and with superhero fiction such a staple of modern entertainment, it’s good to get deeper into its (to me, at least) weirder corners, via the accessible “in” of an easy-to-pick-up fighting game.
This intersectional literacy is probably the most common method of knowledge creation and meaning-making, more than traditional, antiquated, or teacher-centric educational models would lead us to believe. While my previous examples were my gateway to an interest in the topic, sometimes there are non-traditional texts––like video games, comic books, movies, tv shows, etc.––that actually gives the user information that would otherwise only be learned in that actual field. I wonder how many people learned legitimate history from playing games like Age of Empires, or gained a knowledge about different aspects of our world’s cultures from playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? How many learned about the intertwined influence of economics and politics by playing Crusader Kings or Civilization? How many people developed an interest in the hard sciences because they watched Star Trek? The answer to all of these questions is likely the same: many more than you would think.
WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew plays catch-up after the Guestcast by letting us know about his time with the indie game, Turmoil, as well as discussing his experience with Alton Brown’s live show, Eat Your Science, while Dan talks about reboots and his hesitancy going into the first two issues of DC Comics’ new series, The Wild Storm.
MASS REJECTS: As Andrew reported, the new Bioware game, Mass Effect Andromeda, has met with a lot of criticism. However, said criticism is all over the map. Dan and Andrew get deep talking about expectations, Mass Effect, fandoms, and video games as cultural expressions. WARNING: the hosts get a little worked up.
This week saw the release of the long awaited “next title” in Bioware’s popular Mass Effect series: Mass Effect: Andromeda. For any number of reasons, Dan and I are far from the “cutting edge” of video game playing; I have no plans to play the game soon and Dan will start playing it this week.
That being said, the game has attracted its fair share of reviews, commentaries, and discussions. A lot of the internet is abuzz over the game, with many reviews acknowledging the games strengths but also admitting a healthy share of weaknesses. Erik Kain from Forbes even called it the “worst-reviewed game in the franchise.”
Mass Effect: Andromeda is an expansive action role-playing game with a few great moments that recapture the high points of the landmark trilogy that came before it, and energetic combat and fantastic sound effects contribute to a potent sci-fi atmosphere. Without consistently strong writing or a breakout star in its cast to carry it through the long hours and empty spaces, however, disappointments like a lack of new races, no companion customization, and major performance problems and bugs take their toll.
The plot and structure of Mass Effect: Andromeda can be viewed as a metaphor for the game itself, where a population eager for a fresh start makes a leap into a new frontier. The destination isn’t the paradise we hoped for. For our characters, Andromeda required a leap of faith, the belief that the universe must hold more for humanity. Nobody anticipated how much work building a new home would really take, and in a way, the entire game is about mitigating everyone’s disappointment. The truth is that Andromeda itself isn’t the promised land players hoped for either, but there is a lot that’s good in this flawed new frontier for Mass Effect.
Let’s be clear: I’m conflicted about Mass Effect: Andromeda. There’s a lot of roughness throughout the game, and the technical issues, while not game-breaking, are often incredibly distracting. But it’s my time with the cast that I’m still thinking about, and the mysteries about the world that haven’t been answered that make me feel like I’m waiting once again for a new Mass Effect game. And if I’m judging a game by where it leaves me, Andromeda succeeds, even if it stumbled getting there.
Being both a sort of prequel and sequel to the original Mass Effect trilogy, it’s understandable that there would be both excitement and trepidation regarding the changes made to the venerated series. However, in at least one case, dissatisfaction with the game has taken a rather dark turn.
Kotaku‘s Ethan Gach reports that Allie Rose-Marie Leost, a woman who worked for EA Games in the motion-capture labs and had been associated with Mass Effect: Andromeda, was the victim of a series of online harassment and threats. Some people appear to be discontent with the animations in the game, somehow identified Leost as a lead animator, and are holding her responsible. The harassment ranges from threats of sexual assault to accusations of her providing sexual services in order to get her job.
After the initial onslaught began, Bioware decided to try and take action to rectify the situation by tweeting that somebody who had been “misidentified as a lead member” of the team was not, in fact, a lead member. It also clarified that she was no longer an employee of EA Games. This has been met with mixed responses from media websites and fans.
More recently, former Mass Effect animator Jonathan Cooper took to Twitter to both oppose attacks made against members of the development team and discuss some of the methods used in animation development. Pointing out the expansiveness of a project like Andromeda and the time limitations associated with the development cycle, his comments provide context for how a few of the more prominent animation mistakes have become the signature video for the game.
First though; going after individual team members is not only despicable, but the culprits and choice of target revealed their true nature. Just as we credit a team, not an individual, for a game’s success, we should never single out one person for a team’s failures. That said, animating an RPG is a really, really big undertaking – completely different from a game like Uncharted so comparisons are unfair. Every encounter in Uncharted is unique & highly controlled because we create highly-authored ‘wide’ linear stories with bespoke animations. Conversely, RPGs offer a magnitude more volume of content and importantly, player/story choice. It’s simply a quantity vs quality tradeoff. In Mass Effect 1 we had over 8 hrs of facial performance. In Horizon Zero Dawn they had around 15. Player expectations have only grown. As such, designers (not animators) sequence pre-created animations together – like DJs with samples and tracks.
How all of this will affect the game (and, potentially, the critical response) remains to be seen. It does also, however, touch on the growing conversation around the status of high-profile, triple-A games being released in increasingly hobbled conditions (commonly decried as being “unfinished“), requiring either day one patches or, after vociferous fan and critical response, releasing one as soon as possible. Where Mass Effect: Andromeda falls in that conversation is unknown, but time (and sales) may yet tell.
WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew does his best to navigate menus and complex relationships playing Crusader Kings II while D. Bethel gets horribly disappointed while playing Samurai Shodown VI.
A TWISTED LEGEND:The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been released to universal acclaim as a launch title for Nintendo’s new console (and as a tombstone for their previous console) but how much is pure nostalgia, how much is hype, and how much is it actually a good game. Well, neither Dan nor Andrew have played it, but with the conversation surrounding the game they do ask a pertinent question, “What is as Zelda game and does this new game meet it?”
WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew finally sat down and saw Marvel’s newest addition to its cinematic universe, Doctor Strange, while Dan sits down and replays the opening of Mass Effect 2.
BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: After being pushed back in the movie schedule before getting removed completely, The Inhumans finally gets a release date…on television…kind of. While it’s premiere will be in IMAX theaters for a few weeks, Marvel announced that a The Inhumans tv show will air on ABC alongside Agents of SHIELD. Dan and Andrew talk about this newest plan and what it says about the static between Marvel’s movie house and television studios.
NEW WHO, IN COLOR: The Second Doctor’s premiere story, “The Power of the Daleks,” is getting a DVD release in fully animated form (due to the original episodes getting wiped by the BBC in the 1970s), but more interestingly the release will be getting an extra feature of the whole story in color. Andrew and Dan discuss this feature as well as the state of missing Doctor Who, based on the News Blast Andrew wrote about this announcement.
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For all intents and purposes, that was an episode recap.
-“Stayin’ in Black” by Wax Audio
-“More Human Than Human” by White Zombie
-“I Am the Doctor” by Jon Pertwee