I don’t hate Mass Effect: Andromeda

Yes, I am very late to have a Hot Take on this game. I actually bought the Deluxe Edition for a meager $16 when I finally indulged in my long-awaited next-gen this spring, but was in no hurry to see why so many people had told me that ME:A would make me fall out of love with the Mass Effect series. But one blisteringly hot day this July, I rewatched The Last Jedi and got nostalgic for space drama. I started a new game and named my Ryder Rose.

This much I can agree with: ME:A suffers in comparison to the trilogy in almost every way. You have a brand new set of companions, and many of their interactions are opaque and forced. You’ve got a whole galaxy of loot but only your own gear to upgrade, by way of a needlessly detailed and customizable system. And of course it’s tough to top the big reveal of the true villain in the first Mass Effect, and the increasingly heightened stakes of the next two games.

But ME:A does one thing well that the original game didn’t really offer: discovery. Despite the number of planets and lifeforms in the ME universe, any given region was a small map at most, usually a defined path with a handful of dead ends for loot. Only in the original Mass Effect could you drive your clunker of a space car around a larger area, but the rewards were scant. Conversely, the entire premise of ME:A is exploration, opening up new or lost worlds, homesteading. The planets offer big, detailed maps that you can comb like the regions of Skyrim. You are rewarded for looking closely as you uncover resources to collect or study. You rewarded for looking into the distance by dramatic views and a glimpse of the little hamlets that could be a welcoming settlement or enemy camp. There are paths, but you don’t have to follow them. Like Skyrim, you can scout a location from a high point in the landscape and then go to that location and interact with it.

As it happens, Skyrim is another game I love deeply, and its physical beauty and sense of discovery are the main reasons why. I’ve been an Elder Scrolls fan since Morrowind, but I can’t say much complimentary about the series’ notoriously stilted dialogue, non-sequitur quests, or short-scripted courtships you can have with its unappealing denizens. In comparison with Skyrim, then, ME:A is an improvement. Characters seem a little hastily drawn? At least the members of a species don’t all use the same voice actor. Romance feels rushed? Well, at least it’s more complex than bringing a guy some smithing materials while wearing a blessed necklace. Antagonists uncompelling? I don’t care, I just spent twenty minutes trying to bring down a Remnant Architect and then I launched it into space, and it looked awesome.

So perhaps that’s the reason why I’ve spent so many hours in this galaxy already, coasting along the tops of snow-covered mountains and the banks of acidic pools on my way to solve crimes or mediate property disputes like a cheerful Space Bureaucrat. All I need to reach Peak Elder Scrolls is for all of my stabilized colonies to elect me mayor.

I came to this realization early in gameplay but thought I should keep it to myself until I finished the main quest. Goodness knows when that will happen–I plan to colonize a hostile planet and clear out a few dungeons first–so I post now in honor of the friend I lost last fall, whose birthday is today.

This friend is the only other person I know who did not hate Andromeda. Like me, he was a devotee of the original series to the point that he was considering a replay of the whole trilogy in order to make choices that would allow him to save one character’s life. He named his kitten Tali’Zorah. (I’ve always thought that if I ever got a dog, I’d adopt a shepherd breed and name her Commander.) But he liked ME:A fine and thought I might too. One night last summer when we were making dinner at his house, he suggested I start a new character on his console and see how I liked the game. I did not love it, although I now know that this is partly due to the settings on his controller, which I managed badly. He patiently offered direction while I jump-jetted into canyons and spun the camera around wildly in search of quest markers. The opening sequence is interminable and I don’t think I made it all the way through before I suggested we go back to watching War & Peace instead.

I wish I could share my Skyrim analogy with him. I would have liked to know who he romanced in the game, if anyone, and whether he bothered returning to settled planets or left them to their own devices. It feels sad to think about, but I don’t hate that either. It feels appropriate: there is a pervasive melancholy to ME:A, even when it is hopeful. Everyone in the Andromeda galaxy has left something behind. In particular, the settlers migrated from the Milky Way and traveled in cryo for 600 years; even if they could communicate with their homeworlds, everyone they once knew is dead. It’s staggering to think about, and some of the characters are troubled by the enormous space between the present and the irretrievable past.

Tempted to make a space pun there, but I’ll leave it to your imagination.

Perhaps there will be a follow-up post when I have finished the main quest. Meanwhile, I really appreciated this Kotaku take: Andromeda as a management sim.

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Gaming roundup: Is it spring or what?

Winter is hard. That’s my explanation for my recent obsession with mobile games.

Usually, mobile games are out of the question for me–my smartphone, now almost two years old, was a freebie and barely has enough memory for the apps I use for my job. Nonetheless, for about six months I squeezed in Heroes of Dragon Age, which gave me a way to revisit some of the characters I loved from the series, and to upgrade them and collect armor for them like a good completionist. To battle and level up, you spend points that regenerate over time, so I had a habit of playing a few rounds when I woke up and when I got home from work. I deleted it abruptly in October, unhappy with the time I was investing into it. (Besides, I wanted the space back; I could have HoDA or Lyft but not both.) But then December came, and I loaded up my Kindle with the following apps.

Sims Free Play. I didn’t keep this very long; even more so than HoDA, the gameplay is most satisfying when you log in often, add more Sims, and cultivate their respective professions and hobbies. Too tempting.

Monument Valley. A beautiful, beautiful puzzle game that delighted me with tactile and unexpected interactions. Take, for example, the Jewel Box level. You are presented with decorative cube. You can open the lid to the left, and a set of doors and stairs emerges as from a pop-up book . Close the lid, and open it to the right, and a different set of doors and stairs is revealed. Close that lid, then shimmy the body of the cube up so an entire castle is revealed inside, plus your tiny princess avatar. You direct her to exit through one of the dark doors, and she disappears. Spin the cube; each spin reveals a delicately hued interior, until you find the one where your princess waits for further direction. The game has the barest hint of a plot–all it needs, really–and all too few levels. I wish there were a hundred more of them.

The Room 1, 2, and 3. Although they are very different in aesthetics, I loved The Room for many of the same reasons I loved Monument Valley. In the first The Room, you are simply given an ornate box. By exploring its edges and panels for clever little switches, puzzles, and secrets, you can open up more and more of the box. In The Room 2, the puzzle is expanded to a whole room, but the charm of solving a clever locked box puzzle more or less remains. The Room 3 expands the puzzle to a whole puzzle tower…. which is too many rooms, The Room. But all three games are delightfully tactile like Monument Valley–not just tapping, but spinning and dragging and exploring–and the puzzles are pleasantly steampunk in aesthetic. If ever a bit of technology trended a hundred years ago–zootropes, phonographs, etc.–it’s in one of these games.

I Love Hue and 2046 are both timewasters of different stripes, but I love them both. It’s very satisfying to swipe cubes together in 2048, although the highest cube I’ve accumulated is two 1024s. (They were so far apart!) I Love Hue gives you a rainbow gradient jumbled up, and you slide the cubes around to find their correct position in the gradient. I am fairly good at it, so the game keeps praising me lavishly like Leslie Knope complimenting Ann Perkins: You beautiful rainbow! You beat the world average! Ideal for keeping the real world from pressing swiftly in during your Hulu commercial breaks.

Meanwhile, on the console I reverted mainly to comfort classics. My neighbor and I triumphantly finished Mass Effect 3, yelling when we saw our beloved Dante Shepherd possibly take a breath at the end. We returned to my neighbor’s old game of Dragon Age Inquisition, mainly cleaning up remaining tombs and wiping out the dragon population of Thedas until there was nothing to do but defeat Corypheus. We continued to collaborate on my replay of Life is Strange; we made some very different choices than my first playthrough, and as a result have had some completely different and wonderful scenes open up. We were very sad to see that one end!

I acquired some Xbox gift cards for the holidays, and while I’m mainly saving these for my future next gen console, I did indulge in a couple of fantasy games.

Faery. This game was a dollar, and totally worth it. You’re a fairy, obviously; you have to check out some different regions to fix disruptions in magical oak trees or whatever. All the quintessential RPG functions are there in at least a vestigial form: your party fights bad guys for loot; you level up and collect magical armor; you chat with townspeople and run their errands. You fly across landscapes that are quite lovely, and the music reminded me of Fable. It’s a peaceful game.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. This game was vaunted as the collaboration between the wildly successful creators behind two bestselling games and a series of bestselling novels. I paid $5 for it, which in comparison to Faery is still a steal: there is easily ten or twenty times as much gameplay, loot, and NPC questing to do, and it is a very pretty game with some cool combat effects. Absolutely worth the investment, in terms of hours I spent thinking about my character build rather than my life. But while it’s a pretty good game, it’s not a great game, and it’s hard to pinpoint why. There is a sprawling map of ecologically varied regions, all beautifully and interestingly drawn, although lacking the sort of breathtaking views that made Skyrim special. These regions are populated with a host of NPCs with problems and plans that need your help, so there’s plenty to do, although not much to gain from doing them–becoming the leader of every single guild in the land nets you some permanent character bonuses, but no amazing loot or unique NPC interactions. The NPCs remind me a little of Fable’s citizens of Albion–cute and cookiecutter–but without the sass. Also like Fable, you can shape your skill tree to suit your gameplay rather than committing to a type at the beginning–the whole plot of the game is that your character’s destiny is wide open, and you can be or do whatever you want. But perhaps in gaming, as in writing, limitations would have inspired more engaging play. Except for an awkward phase toward the beginning, when my detection skills weren’t yet high enough to avoid traps and my HP not yet high enough to take the hit*, I was so powerful that I simply mowed my way through dungeon after dungeon. On a few occasions I even nodded off with the controller in hand.

When I beat the main quest, I tried to learn more about the game and its makers, and…. wow, is it ever a tragic story of bankruptcy and ruin. I am sorry to hear it. I would have liked to play another evolution of this game if it had a little more something.

*In one trap-laden temple, I died often enough to get concern trolled by a pop-up asking if I’d like to change the game’s difficulty to a lower level.

 

What now?

Last summer, I committed to playing the Xbox 360 games I’d acquired for free or cheap because I wanted to pay off my credit card debt before springing for a next gen console. Now I have the financial means to move on, and I’m still hesitating. We’ve spent a lot of time together; it’s hard to let go.

 

Initial report

Borderlands 2
Tales from the Borderlands, episode 1

Interim report

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 1 and 2
Dance Central 3
Elder Scrolls: Oblivion

Winter Update

Lego Star Wars: TCS
Tomb Raider (2013)
Borderlands
Sims 3
Life is Strange

 

Year of Gaming, winter report

For anyone who has been following the progress of Purple DadShep–my final playthrough of the entire Mass Effect trilogy accompanied by my friend and neighbor–we have responded to the events of Tuchanka and the Citadel by becoming staunchly Paragon (unless mercs and jerks are really getting on our nerves); those are two quests that really test your commitment to the middle road, and we came so close to losing two important characters that it felt like a natural turning point. Of course, we may have softened up after the Cerberus attack because we finally locked it down with Kaiden, and it was absolutely worth the slow burn across two and a half games. (“It does. It does feel right. After all this time.”) We’re so close to finishing ME3 and I’ll be a little sad when it’s all over. We even started playing another game to avoid that final stretch on Earth, although that wasn’t entirely ME3’s fault.

Completed

LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga. It’s mildly tempting to try to unlock all the achievements for this one. Aside from collecting all the collectibles, most of the achievements relate to having specific characters fight one another–for example, I scored one when my default Qui Gon character accidentally started a brawl in the Cantina where all your minifigs hang out between episodes, and Qui Gon killed Darth Maul instead of the other way around. But I’m extremely uncomfortable typing about minifigs murdering each other, which kind of encapsulate my issues with the game.

Tomb Raider (2013). I started this years ago, but didn’t get very far for the same reason that appears in most reviews of this game: one grows weary of watching Lara die in graphic cutscenes. In the early stages, when I was still getting used to the controls, I watched her be crushed by rocks, have her throat torn out by a wolf, and get axed and throttled by the mysterious scary men who presence on the deserted island had not yet been explained.

But I’ve gotten better at playing games generally–multiple runs through ME and DA on increasingly difficulty levels had a payoff!–and as I got better at not dying, I had time to enjoy the beautifully crafted landscapes, tomb puzzles, and cinematic elements (including good voice acting). I think I spent about three evenings after work completing this game–it was like reading a suspenseful book, I didn’t want to put it down.

Incidentally, I saw the trailer for the upcoming movie, which has not gotten very positive attention so far. But I was astonished at how much of the trailer was drawn directly from the game: Lara’s opening scene leap from a sinking ship and her precarious walk across a wrecked plane are adapted visually verbatim. I’m fascinated by this media loop–gameplay is inspired by action movies, becomes an action movie based on the game–and I liked the game enough that I will go see this movie even if it’s terrible.

Borderlands (the first one). I didn’t really latch onto this game when I first played it–I seemed to be stuck in the Arid Badlands forever, I kept getting killed, and it wasn’t fun. But after I played and completed Borderlands 2, I wanted to spend some more time in that world. Which is weird, because it’s a lot more bloody and creepy and noisy than I usually prefer for my evening entertainment. But there’s something about the graphic style and gameplay that is very satisfying. I love discovering new areas and collecting cool weapons, I don’t know what to tell you. So I went back to Borderlands, and while I missed a few utilities and upgrades that were present in Borderlands 2, I really enjoyed uncovering (and occasionally being surprised by) the backstory of the characters and locations I first met in the sequel.

Sims 3. If you’re a long-time Sims aficionado like myself, the console version is probably not for you. There are many aspects of the PC game you can’t enjoy, like placing more than one family in your neighborhood, switching between families, editing town lots, and cheating. There’s very little the console version offers that’s new or different than the PC, except for the slightly annoying Karma points. And yet! I bought the game deeply on sale–violating my rule to not buy any new games this year–in a bout of retail therapy, and it was so soothing and nostalgic to go through the painstaking process of creating a person and laboriously leveling up their life. The game’s limitations slow it down, which is actually a way I always meant to play The Sims–up close, watching all the little surprising interactions between town NPCs and their tiny world–which is easily overlooked when you’re playing in God mode.

It still sucks that you can’t switch between houses; I made a family full of characters from The Good Place and gave them the worst traits (Neurotic, Inappropriate, Snob, etc.) and intended to watch them at a distance, but when you move a Sim out of a house on the console, what remains of their household just disappears.

Life is Strange. I enjoyed this so much that I almost immediately cajoled my neighbor into checking out the game so I could start a new playthrough with new choices. This is a stunning game: it’s visually very beautiful and unique, with its soft Square Enix style highlighting the gentle, otherwordly beauty of its sleepy coastal town and art college. The soundtrack is phenomenal; slightly older than its young students, the music adds layers of warmth, nostalgia, and melancholy. The protagonist, Max Caulfield, is a delight; she has all the sweetness and positivity of Dreamfall‘s Zoe Castillo, but also an appealing shyness and reflective self-awareness. I became very skeptical about halfway through, when it seemed that the plot was dipping into some very conventional and boring “pretty dead girl” stuff, but I was genuinely surprised by the twist and the game’s iron backbone in addressing those darker elements. And as I said, I wanted to return to this delicate world and try to treat it a little better, knowing what I know now.

Upcoming possibilities

Abyss Odyssey
Bayonetta
Beyond Good and Evil HD
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Contrast
Dishonored
Lego Pirates of the Caribbean
Witcher 2

Recap

In which your narrator is attempting to play all the free games she’s downloaded on Xbox 360 before she treats herself to the next gen.

Initial report

Borderlands 2
Tales from the Borderlands, episode 1

Interim report

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 1 and 2
Dance Central 3
Elder Scrolls: Oblivion

 

“Summer” of Gaming, interim report

Well, summer’s over. I didn’t spend any money on games and I didn’t start yet another new character on Mass Effect or Dragon Age (not counting my ME playthrough with my neighbor, in which our slightly Renegade BroShep of ME2 is evolving into an extremely purple DadShep in ME3). Goal achieved! But I certainly had no lack of novelty or entertainment to while away the hours between work and dusk when it was too hot to do anything else, so while I’ve finished a few of the games I listed in my opening post, there are so many more that I’ve downloaded for free on Xbox Live–even some new ones this summer. The experiment of playing them all will continue apace until I acquire a next-gen console!

Completed

Dance Central 3. As in, I completed the main quest (such as it is) and saved the world from a time-traveling megalomaniac who wanted to regulate dancing. However, one can really play indefinitely–there are at least a dozen songs I haven’t unlocked yet, and there are already a lot of great songs.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. Pros: Beloved classic music. Beloved planets and people. The force mechanics are pretty cool–it’s much more fun to force-fling stormtroopers from precipices than it is to hack at them with lightsabers. Cons: plays like a cart ride at an amusement park: you just go along the tracks, and then you go along the same tracks again and do the exact same quest but with a different configuration of bad guys. The voice acting is painful. The romance is forced. The plot is tenuous. I thought, several times, about quitting, but I knew you could load your save into the sequel, and fortunately…

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 2 is way more dynamic and fun. Less repetition, more unexpected gameplay in beautiful environments. The romance still makes a flimsy plot driver–maybe I wouldn’t have to deal with it if played Sith instead of Jedi?–but in general I played through this game a lot faster and enjoyed it a lot more.  All the same, despite my usual completionist tendencies, I’m not tempted to replay for dark side options. As soon as I completed the second game, I deleted both games to make more room for surprise free downloads, like Bayonetta.

Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. When I last played several years ago, I was stalled out by the Bruma gates–couldn’t keep Martin alive. But I also hadn’t recruited all the city guards, mainly because closing Oblivion gates is such a chore. Reopening my old save, I downed a bunch of invisibility potions and closed the last few gates outside cities, obtained a follower and a couple of conjuration spells, and finally made it through the Bruma gate. After that, the rest of the game was a breeze. To my surprise, I discovered that at some point I’d acquired two expansions for this game–Knights of the Nine and Shivering Isles. My completionist heart yearns to finish these sometime, but I still count this game as won. And I need a break before I head to Sheogorath’s world–as the god of madness, his aesthetic seesaws wildly between delightfully whimsical and first-year writing workshop “crazy.”

In progress

Bayonetta is a ride, isn’t it? I downloaded it shortly before some friends dropped in for an afternoon of gaming, and I’m so glad I had company and wine when I started this noisy, chaotic, campy game. Bayonetta’s character design is pretty ridiculous, and the camera-swinging combat style is a little hard for me to follow, and I actually yelled NO when her friend Rodin appeared as a bartender at The Gates of Hell–yet I’m interested enough to continue. I just can’t do it at night when I’m trying to wind down or I’ll have guns and bells jangling in my head when I try to sleep.

LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga. I don’t know, y’all. I might hate this game. I feel a little like a monster–minifigs are so cute! everything’s so colorful!–but 1-player Story Mode is weirdly difficult and it seems wrong to achieve “True Jedi” status by blowing up everything and collecting as much currency as possible. I’ve been stuck in several chapters and had to look up hints, and the answer is always “blow up more things” or “jump better.” On the plus side, this game offers the perfect way to revisit the three prequels, which I have not seen since theater release. Playing those chapters essentially provided a recap with no uncanny valley and no awkward dialogue.

Borderlands 1

Beyond Good and Evil HD

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Dishonored

Under consideration

Lego Pirates of the Caribbean

Tomb Raider

 

Summer of Gaming, part 1

This will not come as a surprise to anyone who follows my monthly reading roundups: I consume novels in what could be described as a voracious manner. I do re-read a favorite book from time to time, but mostly I pick up and devour new-to-me books–on the ARC table, in a used bookstore, on sale for my Kindle–as though I were paid to do so. I suppose I consume television and movies in this way, too, although at a less greedy pace.

But for other media, specifically music and video games, I am very slow to acquire and acclimate to new releases. Once a song gets into my head, I’ll listen to it repeatedly for years. Once I’ve played a video game I love, I’ll go back and play it again and again, particularly if is the sort of video game that encourages different plot and character permutations. One of my cherished relaxing activities this spring has been replaying the Mass Effect trilogy with my neighbor, who has only seen it in Tumblr gifsets. (We are playing a vanguard Shepherd who is neither paragon nor renegade but simply sick of your shit, and he is in a slow-burn romance with Kaiden, and it is a great story.)

But I subscribe to a service that releases some of its games for free every month, so I have an enormous backlog of games I’ve not finished and some I haven’t even started. This is the summer I play them. Well, as many of them as is feasible. And then I will come back and review them as I do for my books.

Completed:

Borderlands 2. Loved this. It’s visually arresting, the music and voice acting is great, the gameplay is challenging for me but somewhat forgiving of my lack of finesse. (My strategy: run up and throw an elemental grenade, run far away and snipe from cover.) The story escalates beautifully, and I appreciated the throwbacks to the first Borderlands (which I started but did not finish). This game is also fairly violent, graphic, and noisy, so I really should not have played any of it before bed–gave me tense, busy dreams–but once I got into a groove of not getting myself killed, I didn’t want to stop looting and discovering new locations. I enjoyed being in this crazy world so much that immediately after defeating the final boss I played:

Tales from the Borderlands, episode 1. Everyone I know loves Tell Tale Games, but while I do get nostalgia for the old point-and-click adventure, I’m not wild about the fighting system. Yet before I knew it, Rhys and Fiona and I were wrapping up the first part of our story. I definitely want to see what happens next, but only the first episode was free, and the rest may have to wait until I’ve fulfilled my no-new-games-until-goals-are met bargain.

In progress:

Dance Central 3. I actually picked this one up at a used bookstore and it will no doubt be the best $8 I spend all summer. I love this stupid game. It could just be a platform that encourages you to dance in your own living room to all the songs that make you shout “THAT’S MY JAM” in a club. But they don’t stop there! There’s an evil anti-dance villain, an underground organization dedicated to saving dance, and time travel. It’s hilariously dumb.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. I thought I was going to love this, but it’s a little off-putting to be the bad guy in a story you love. Still, I’ll likely go back so that I have the background before I play the sequel.

Borderlands. This game was released for free before the other two, but I found it much slower and less engaging. I felt like I was playing for years and I was still wandering around the badlands, bored of shooting skags. Should I go back and finish? Or move onto other enterprises? I’m not sure.

Beyond Good and Evil HD. A throwback from old Xbox that was upgraded for the 360. It’s a great game–nice looking, fun and imaginative gameplay (you take photos instead of shooting everything you see)–but I’ve never finished it in either format, and I’d like to.

Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. I adore this ridiculous game, but I hate the Oblivion gates. My most recent playthrough stops just before defending Martin Septim from an open gate; my Kajiit mage is powerful enough to speed-run through the plane worlds, but doesn’t have the right skillset to keep Martin alive. I keep thinking I’ll go back and build whatever tools I need to save him, but I’m already head of three guilds, so I’d basically be level grinding at this point.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. A gorgeous, non-violent puzzle game that requires me to be a little smarter than I am when I get home at the end of a long day.

Dishonored. A great game, but I dropped it just before the masked ball because that’s when I bought Inquisition and played it an embarrassing number of times. By the time I went back to it, I’d forgotten the controls. I’ve heard wonderful things about Dishonored 2 and would like to spend a little more time in that world before I eventually level up to the next gen console; I’m thinking I may need to start over from the beginning to get back in the groove. I’d like to kill fewer people this time anyway.

Under consideration:

LEGO Star Wars: TCS

Star Wars: The Force Unleased II.

This is just one storage device and a couple of discs worth. I have a whole other memory stick with long-abandoned games including Assassin’s Creed II, The Witcher II, Mirror’s Edge, and more. I don’t feel bad about this, exactly–as I said, they were free downloads that came with a service that I bought for other reasons. But I do feel a little echo of what I feel about reading new books: there are so many great stories out there, and I know I’m never going to get to them all, but shouldn’t I at least sample as many as I can?

Anyway, comments welcome. Loved any of these games? Found them a waste of time?

Elsewhere on the Internet: Representation in Games

I’ve been enjoying PBS Game/Show, a smart, engaging, and well-presented video series on gaming issues that was recommended to me by several clever friends. Perhaps I like the series particularly well because the presenter appears to share my politics on many issues–and he’s great at addressing or deflecting comments to keep the conversation inclusive and constructive.

So I was at first a little surprised when one of the recent videos called out games I like to play for the way they depict race in NPC characters. Specifically, the show called out BioWare for giving Dragon Age series background characters a diversity of complexions but not addressing human racial difference in a world where otherwise race (elves vs. dwarves vs. humans) matters a lot. Kill Screen (which was founded by the Game/Show host Jamin Warren) followed up with that idea in more detail, looking at the way DA: Inquisition party members deal with race (or not):

Yes, we recognize that Vivienne is human and Varric is a dwarf; we simultaneously recognize that she is black and he is white. Yet only one of those distinctions has any perceptible effect on these characters: each will readily offer up their experiences as a human or a dwarf, but Vivienne never comments on her blackness (at least not in my two playthroughs), nor will Varric offer any maunderings on his whiteness.

Both the video and the post made compelling arguments, but at first I was not inclined to agree. Having a game narrative explicitly address difference is one narrative decision, and certainly it can be rewarding one. For example, another DA:I character, Dorian, is often held up as an exemplary model of representation: Dorian is gay and can be romanced by male PCs, but his sexuality is also an important part of his backstory and his personal in-game quest. I haven’t played DA:I yet, but know some players see themselves in Dorian; others learn something new in getting to know him. That’s valuable.

But I’ve also longed to see oppression less represented in the games I play. In fact, that’s an element of many BioWare games that has long troubled me: despite a sort of lip service played to equality (by in-game lore or game reviews)  there is still evident discrimination against certain populations in the gameworld. In Dragon Age, Ferelden is supposedly a land where “men and women are generally equal,” yet a female Warden is met with incredulity at nearly every turn, and the country’s queen regnant is literally imprisoned in a castle by her father. Minor female characters mostly take on their usual roles in high fantasy–witches, washerwomen, noblewomen, prostitutes and brothel madams–and significantly fewer everyday roles like soldiers, messengers, shopkeepers, and crowd members. In Mass Effect, the asari are supposedly one of the most advanced races of the galaxy, yet they also just happen to be galaxy’s preferred sexual object; bars are almost exclusively staffed with svelte asari dancers. Most other alien races are depicted as predominantly male; some female aliens are introduced late in the series and weirdly designed, though there’s no reason that all these races have to be sexually dimorphic in the first place. This is high fantasy: we imagine magic and dragons, we imagine interstellar travel and aliens that live hundreds of years, so why can’t we imagine a world unburdened by the same oppressions that dog ours?

So that was my first reaction: isn’t it nice to have some diverse representation in a fantasy game without replicating racial oppression?

But I was wrong, and here is why.

First, neither Dragon Age nor any of the other games mentioned here and in the linked articles is actually racially diverse. Some games read that way, due to some cognitive bias that allows us to read “a handful of nonwhite characters” as “an equal distribution of white and nonwhite characters.” But Tanya D at BoingBoing’s newly relaunched Offworld does the count, and finds Thedas (and particularly the Free Marches) to be very white worlds indeed. How did I not notice? No doubt the usual culprit, privilege blindness, but also, like most folks, I just want to enjoy the entertainment I enjoy and I’ll voluntarily or involuntarily look past a lot of problems. Case in point: at the very same time I was reading Killscreen’s take on race in Dragon Age, I saw this piece at FemHype that examines the female characters in Skyrim. Now, Skyrim is about as close as I’ve gotten to that utopic gameworld in which femaleness is not a handicap or a special sexualized class: you can play as a woman and no NPCs give you flak for winning the game while female, and you’ll come across other female NPC adventurers who want to team up with you or kill you. But Jillian at FemHype points out how few female characters hold positions of power, the weird exceptionalism of the few fleshed-out female characters that play major roles in quests, and of course the sexual divisions of enemies. Even the rare female Draugr aren’t dressed for war.

So one issue is that you can’t really have a post-racial, post-feminist, post-anything fantasy world if the world’s population defaults to white and male. If you only have a handful of characters to represent other kinds of players who might like to see themselves in the game, then those few characters end up working overtime as tokens, burdened with representing ideas or whole populations instead of existing as unique characters in their own right. Case in point: Vivienne in DA:I. Vivienne seems like a great character: she’s powerful, beautiful, and gets a lot of the good lines. She is undeniably black, and as Game/Show’s rundown demonstrates, there aren’t too many black characters in contemporary games that aren’t nameless enemies or horrifying stereotypes. Vivienne is her own person; her story is that she is a BAMF. When I was first mulling over the argument set forth by Game/Show and KillScreeen, I thought that I’d be interested in a backstory about Vivienne becoming a BAMF despite structural racism, but I wouldn’t be interested in such a story done badly or lazily. (I mean, Bioshock Infinite is free this week on Xbox Live, so I’ve had my fill of lazy writing and white savior narrative.)

Instead what happens with Vivienne, according to N.K. Jemisin, is that she has very little story at all.

Vivienne is affiliated with many groups but few of them seem to have contributed anything to who she’s become. She’s the only playable black woman seen in the entire trilogy of games so far, and she is cultureless, rootless, and quintessentially raceless.

Jemisin’s argument–and y’all, this is my favorite argument I’ve read on this topic so far, although everything I’ve linked is well done–is not that we need more racism in our fantasy worlds, but that our fantasy worlds have erased people of color so completely for so long that it does no good to simply drop one or two people of color into the game with no context or acknowledgement. “It’s nigh-impossible to get fantasy readers just to acknowledge that people of color even existed in medieval Europe,” she writes. “The reality is, and has always been, diverse. Denial of this reality is the modern — racist — addition to the pot.” Rather than simulating racial diversity without approaching equality and without context, Jemisin would prefer to see Vivienne’s lived experience as a dark-skinned woman in an overwhelmingly white world given more depth and connection, even just with party banter details that fill in the holes of her backstory.

I’d still like to see a game one day in which racial diversity and gender parity is so much a given that the plot does not reenact the micro and major aggressions we live with in the real world. But in the meantime, why don’t we create stories and worlds that depict difference with the depth, range, and detail that have been missing in fantasy for so long?

 

Note: Many of these links came to my attention via Critical Distance, always a great resource for critical issues in gaming; others I saw on MedievalPOC, a great tumblr which catalogs art from the Middle Ages that depicts people of color just hanging out and being European, despite our modern day insistence on the implacable whiteness of medieval Europe as well as medievalish fantasy realms.