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Saying goodbye to Mass Effect

I feel very lost after completing Mass Effect 3 – not because of the fan controversy over the ending, but for more intentional reasons. This final game (in the trilogy proper) was always going to be about finality, whether in the form agreeable closure or murky conclusion.

So I finished the final chapter with a bruised ego. There was no shaking off this spread of feelings. We all knew this was the final, bitter outing with Shepard and her companions.

It’s my view that this labour would have happened no matter what the ending – good or bad – and as such there are no spoilers here.

Moving on from the end of the series

Like many I have watched the Mass Effect saga unfold for nearly five years. Few developers have managed to attempt the beauty and scale of another world setting with such panache.

However it’s the little details I appreciate Mass Effect for – the way I rediscover characters from previous games like old friends. Treading over old ground, sharing old memories from the past games, wondering at our accomplishments, and of course the cheer excitement of exploring the galaxy with my favourite squad members.

So this week after completing the game I find myself mourning that lack of new adventure. The Mass Effect universe is now a closed book that I have little desire to return to. (In the same way I am reluctant to return to Halo after the primary story has ended). It’s not resentment about how things have turned out. In fact I find the discussion about the ending is almost detracting from my previously experienced sense of loss after the commitment that playing a three-stage space opera had become.

Shepard and her squad

This was always a story about Shepard’s influence on the galaxy, her decisions and influence however profound or difficult. I always found the interplay between the different characters Shepard meets the core of the game.

It’s the main humanising detail in Mass Effect’s extraordinary and alien world – and the one I looked forward to the most, there is little I can seek out to replace it. In fact I find myself looking back to the very first game. The first tentative steps of my Commander Shepard who was still finding her feet – cut from the cloth of Alliance proudest and most accomplished stock, but embroiled in something far larger than she could have ever imagined.

The team that I – that she – cultivated across all three games were the making of my experience with Mass Effect. Shepard had become a beacon within the context of the game and the epitome of a masterful, empowering and intelligent female protagonist that I (and many others) have desired for decades.

My soul lifted through the course of two further games, watching my Shepard interact with characters who returned. I started to rely on the same faces with each iteration of the game. I knew the members of my squad dearly (and one intimately). I knew their strengths, motives and backgrounds. I doubt with anyone other than Shepard to frame this discussion I would have found any of this dialogue as interesting. That sense of anticipation at meeting and finding old friends has gone now, and I’ll have to move on – but I do so with some standout moments and memories.

Sidestepping the ending

I still find myself reeling from the very difficult decisions I had to make during Mass Effect 3 – some of the hardest in the series, and the hardest ones were all before the ending. These were decisions I genuinely struggled to make, my insides writhed with the responsibility of the consequences. I urge anyone reeling over the final decision in particular to remember the compelling and believable moments leading up to the endings curveball, to think of those who have yet to make those decisions and how the large community fury is tarring the experience of those who have yet to see it for themselves.

I have always played my Shepard as myself, and acted I would have reacted to each question and decision. I suspect I share this experience with many others. The beauty of it was how our choices differed, and we’ll meet few people who played precisely as each of us did in turn. I will miss this most of all. The copious discussion of who, what, where, the agonising and the heart rates. It was glorious while it lasted, and I feel immeasurably proud to have been there from the beginning, with wide, wondrous eyes.

The finality rather then the method of the finality is causing me to feel down. It’s a blip on what has been a remarkable and enthralling five years, but I couldn’t see a world where the Mass Effect narrative ends as anything other than the darker horizon for narrative games. Upon refection I doubt I’d reacting with anything other than sadness at the conclusion of such an amazing and compelling story, and one that I will treasure dearly, and for far longer than most.

To summarise with the words of T.S. Eliot:

“…This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.” – The Hollow Men (1925)

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Is gaming a good use of time?

I think video games are wonderful. For me it almost goes without saying, but every so often a game will come along to really remind you of why you still spend time playing games. A great game will inspire feelings you haven’t felt in a long time, when everything was new and new concepts were magic, it’s a nice reminder of when things were nothing but fun.

So what’s the harm in a little whimsy once in a while?

My muse

A primary accusation levelled at gaming is that is simply not a good use of time. Conceptually it’s still deemed by many people to be “dead time”. Moments that would be best spent doing productive things. The problem is that “good ways” to spend time are completely subjective, one person’s ideal evening can completely different to anothers and that’s never going to change.

I’ll give you one main reason why gaming is a good use of my time though. It constantly reminds me to keep the youthful part of me alive, to be silly, to have fun, to occasionally put my sense of whimsy before real-world concerns, to give time back to myself after a day spent focused on others and others goals.

Rayman Origins is a great example of this, there’s a fantastic moment in the game where you’re swimming through the gloom of a dark underwater level, you have an extremely limited source of light, and you’re navigating carefully through this dangerous trap-filled murk. Suddenly you exit the darkness and soaring over this beautiful underwater backdrop, it made my spine tingle. I was beaming, I enjoyed spinning in the water, pausing the goals of the game for a moment to simply smile, dabble and “piss about” in the water with my co-op partner.

The reason I mention this is that it’s these sorts of sensations that justify the entire video game experience to me.

Swimming among the fishes in Rayman Origins.Playing in the beautifully rendered water.

Gaming is appealing precisely because it’s usually something we do in our unproductive “downtime”. Not everything in life needs to be about doing that someone else deems worthy. Your life has to be a balance between your goals and the things you do that are still valid, but keep you content and inspired. The latter idea definitely helps the former. We just have a different muse to most people, it’s as plain as that.

Personally video games inspired a life-long love (and now a career in technology). Games continue to fascinate me because their methods and production are on evolving paths rather than static line. It is the future possibilities of gaming that excites me as much as it’s present. By buying into gaming I genuinely believe I’m supporting something worth spending my time on, precisely because it offers such a rich and inspiring backdrop to my life.

Two characters decide how to navigate an underwater trap.Jumping between pipes in a fiery level.

Positivity out of negativity

Fair play to my parents, who weren’t completely enamoured with games like I was, had the presence of mind to let me explore and experiment on them as much as I felt I needed to. I dabbled with many activities when I was younger (birdwatching, rockclimbing, orchestras, swimming, reading and horseriding were my favourites in my childhood) but gaming was the one that really resonated with me. It’s very interesting that I had a complete spectrum of creative and active hobbies for years but gaming is the primary one I chose.

I wouldn’t say I hide the fact that I play video games, I’m certainly not brash or vocal about it either, it’s simply a normal source of inspiration in my mind, and as difficult as this is to hear, keeping your interests a secret from people for fear of what they’ll think of you isn’t going to change anything. The only way there’s going to be any radical change in the way playing games are perceived by people is if more people admit to it and are more open about how games form a normal part of their well-rounded lives.

The merits of gaming are only going to be realised if it becomes part of our a normal day-to-day conversations. As we share what we did the previous weekend in a similar way to which we’d talk about books we’d read, places we’d been or TV shows we’d watched.

That’s not to say that your pastime should solely define who you are either, but changing the way you behave simply due to the negative reaction of others isn’t the way to go either. No one should stop themselves from playing or discussing games in public due to the fear of (often silent) negative perceptions from others. This sort of thing really isn’t inspiring confidence in our hobby, especially if it’s own supporters won’t behave as they’d like to in public.

There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of fun now and again. By playing games we take moments to take us out of the day to day to dabble with the sublime or the ridiculous. There’s a wide spectrum of games to choose from, but those perceptions by non-gamers are spun out of a minority of violent and repetative games that don’t totally reflect the true array of titles that inspire us. Games like Rayman Origins should be a constant reminder of why we want bigger and better things for gamings recognition in the wider world.

Our gaming time is whimsy, and by it’s own nature constructive a use of our time (and that’s a universal desire that doesn’t make gamers selfish). Above all, our gaming time is totally ours. Don’t let anyone try to take that time away from you.

A boss worm leaps out of the water.Exploring the murky, dark water.

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Skyrim’s siren song

I am staring into the middle distance. I am present in the room but my mind has been stolen away. I should be focusing on many other, more important things, but there is only one thought boring its way into my mind – how much I want to go back to playing Skyrim.

For most people left outside of the Skyrim circle, that’s a bad thing.

A majestic world

Skyrim is the sort of game that garners a bad reputation outside of the gaming community. It’s a beast, and a deceptive one at that, a massive masterpiece that rewards and enchants in spades. It focuses on solo-play, needing hundreds of hours worth of free-time to fully explore.

It’s deceptive because to an outsider it’s a friendly game about magic and swordplay. From a distance it’s a beguiling tale of whimsy far from modern day warfare and violence. I suspect it’s a game that many spouses have bought as Christmas presents this year without realising what they’re bringing into their home – a technical and artistic marvel that will utterly enthral those who play it. Perhaps even on a few occasions to the detriment of everything else.

There’s no one solitary thing I love about Skyrim – or any Elder Scrolls game. It’s a game that blends together tried and tested ideas into one glorious landscape. Skyrim (and its predecessors) are games that leave you never quite sated, leaving you always eager for more. So immersion is at Skyrim’s forefront, and as I try to focus on other things, I find my mind wandering back to its illuminated caves and awe-inspiring peaks.

Skyrim’s world is so majestic, that it requires some preparation to play. I found myself completing other games or plan the appropriate time to start on such an enormous gaming project. You have to be ready to play an Elder Scrolls game (or any game that is similarly large) the sense of grandeur upon starting is palpable. As such we as gamers often start an enormous game without thinking of the impact on those left around us.

Hard to step away

There’s definitely some silent (and occasional not so silent) accusations leveled to us as gamers. As if in the experience of playing any type of game makes us collectively more neglectful and selfish. This is perpetuated by the occasional intrusions into our gaming time, as we wrestle with a moment in a game, it’s not always totally understood that cannot always pause or easily drop what we’re doing. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of the engagement of video games.

The immediacy of attention that Skyrim (or any large single player game) requires does unfortunately help to perpetuate that view. The gaming object of our desire can equally annoy another, as some games can require a considerable time investment.

This is a particular problem with Elder Scrolls games and they are as much about the suspension of disbelief as the engagement with the world. Skyrim becomes a platform to each person’s individual fantasy. We follow and complete the same “quests” collectively as a community, but resolve them in our own way and develop our own stories and motivation for doing so.

A labour of love

Skyrim is a refreshing change of pace from other games, which can often push you down linear paths with a set roster of characters. This is usually done with helpful pointers and help to coax you along the narrative path. The process of playing Skyrim is liberating and it goes some way to explain the success of the series as a whole, and crucially why it can be so addictive.

Skyrim pushes us away from the tried and tested path. It encourages you down a particular route with the merest thread, only to flash a glimpse of a beautiful view, or a ruin, or an undiscovered landmark, or a trail of wild flowers and suddenly we’re selectively amnesic, dazed by another bright idea or curiosity, we tumble past our goal and into something else, and something more.

Skyrim is a beautiful siren song, only it’s not singing us to shipwreck, but to sheer, unadulterated gaming bliss.

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Using Dark Souls to rekindle my dreams

Dark Souls is starting to infect my dreams. I often have vivid dreams when playing games, but few games manage to blend the conscious and unconsciousness states as expertly as the setting of this game.

It started off as an insidious intruder into my sleep, but has evolved into the welcome distraction into my waking hours, and this isn’t too surprising given the unsettling mood the game establishes.

A dream-like world

I have always had the ability to have lucid dreams – where I am aware that I am asleep and I am actively able to control what happens in the dream to some extent. A pleasant side-effect of my decreasing health is that the frequency of these lucid dreams have increased exponentially, they become particularly potent when I have something to really ignite my thought processes.

At the moment this is called by Dark Souls. The atmosphere of the game and the highs and lows it creates during the experience of play invokes rare a sense of empowerment. It’s a curious thrill in the case of Dark and Demon’s Souls – both of these titles allude to a masterful challenge but I’ve always been more compelled with their engaging and involving worlds.

The atmosphere of the game is a perfect conduit to the sort of feeling needed to experience a lucid dream. The compartmentalised landscapes of Demon’s Souls have been largely replaced with an open environment of mist-filled forests, half-lit sewers settings and castles overtaken with foliage. The dark, languishing dungeons are still present, but this game feels more organic and therefore far more dream-like with its ruinous setting and labyrinth style level design. There’s a sort of slow progress to getting your bearings in Dark Souls, many fans describe it as your first wall, when the motivation changes between the slog of learning and the pleasure of beginning to get to grips with what the game teaches you.

Pinpointing where you are in the world, and where the where the boundaries of the game world ends adds to this dream-like quality. As you master Dark Souls, the game unfolds in one slow motion, each new corner harbouring a small epiphany as you realise how everything you’re exploring connects. So since I first sat down to play Dark Souls I have had some of the most vivid lucid dreams I have ever experienced.

Navigating a darkened tunnel to reach a bonfire.The hydra's many heads attempts to shoot at my character she she runs off screen.

Some misdirection

The lucid dreams themselves always seem to start in the same way. They are prompted by the particular boss or moment in the game where I am stuck or where I have left to return it to. My character – myself in the third person – floats out of the ground in a similar way to how phantoms are summoned in the game. It is at about this moment that I start to recreate the contents of the game, and I realise that I am dreaming. It’s an amazing feeling and even in my dreams I am disappointingly limited to the boundaries and physics of the game, so I mainly use the extra dreaming time to collect my thoughts on the particular moment that plagues me.

It turns into a sort of tactical thinking ground for the battle strategies that I would like to try in game. The only really odd thing with my Dark Souls dreams are the fact that I always seem to win – I never die. This is an almost stark change to my normal experience of both Dark and Demon’s Souls that I almost always realise at this point that I am dreaming if I didn’t do so before. I become too confident in the “safe version” of Dark Souls and I am no longer immersed. I usually wake up shortly after.

Exploring the surroundings of Darkroot Forest.Appearing at the bonfire at Firelink Shrine.

After effects

Playing Dark Souls feels like I am exploring the world of my dreams. It has the sort of look and feel that alludes to the veil of half reality conjured by the dreaming mind. It starts to tap into the ebb and flow of dreaming by mesmerising your waking hours, forcing your thoughts to exploring its secrets. It rests in the back of your mind prodding the unconscious desire of where you really want to be. Even as I sit here writing this I can feel the draw of the game willing me to come back to the console.

The way I describe it makes it sounds tortuous. Playing Dark Souls is a challenge, but the action of overcoming its harder moments feels as easy as breathing once you wake up and understand how to play successfully.

I can’t help but admire From Software for making a game that gets under my skin not just adequately, but even more impressively than its predecessor.

Engaging with the Capra Demon.Defending from some crystal monsters.

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Pro drums with the Rock band 3 MIDI pro adapter

It’s hard to hide my excitement about finally being able to drum in Rock Band 3 using my electronic drum kit. So bear with me for a moment while I deviate from my normal diet of game analysis to describe the pleasure of playing one of my favourite games with a real life instrument.

Tested with a Roland TD-4 electronic drum kit, using the 360 MIDI pro adapter in expert pro drums. Was the wait worth it?

  • The MIDI pro is very simple to setup. It is essentially plug and play if the kit being used uses the right MIDI notes (and has MIDI out as standard). The box itself is of reasonable build qualilty with a small light to confirm whether or not the MIDI pro is working correctly with the console. On the whole it feels very natural to setup and start drumming.
  • Playing on a real kit means the drumming experience is far more responsive. The rebound of the pads is much better and quieter than any Rock Band kit, not to mention the fact that Harmonix’s note charts make a lot more sense on an actual kit. Disco beats (long chains of notes on the yellow high hat) are easier since drummers are able to adopt natural hand posture to play. This allows drummers to lead better with their stronger hand while easily including occasional snare (red) and crash (green) cymbals hits.
  • Some initial sensitivity tweaking is needed. It does take several attempts at songs to realise which of the pads aren’t responding quite right. This is done either on the kit itself or using the MIDI pro’s built in sensitivity wheel. My bass pedal was registering double hits (and ruining all attempts to play) until I reduced the MIDI pro sensitivity down to about half.
  • A MIDI cable is required to connect the drumkit to the MIDI pro unit, but one isn’t included. A slight oversight, there will be many who don’t properly read the instructions and are subsequently disappointed. The belt buckle that is attached to the unit is annoying and prevents it from sitting properly on the drumkit, although it can be removed with some fiddling.

The 360 MIDI pro adapter in all its glory.My Roland TD-4 which I am using to play Rock Band 3 with, the MIDI pro rests on top of the drum brain.

Pro drumming

  • Pro drums is the natural enhancement on the drumming formula. There are options for up to three cymbals and playing on a real kit means play is more responsive, tactile and realistic. As such playing this version of Rock Band relies more on my actual drumming knowledge and technique than ever before. The fact that nearly every drum track since Rock Band 1’s release has been pro-charted already is a massive plus. The MIDI adapter also allows the drums to play standard mode in both Rock Band 2 and Beatles: Rock Band.
  • The natural sense of progression that Rock Band is well-regarded for is still here. But with even more positive enhancements. Neat visual cues are rife, like the lane lighting up when you’re on a perfect streak. Getting used to using eight pads and two pedals in-game leads to a bit of initial flailing, but after an hour or so the brain’s natural muscle memory takes over. The note charts are largely accurate given the constraints of the other Rock Band specific drum kits.
  • High hat notes are not properly charted, whlie you can learn the open high hat moments yourself, you are not scored extra for doing so. Drummers with a kit that cannot naturally distinguish between open and closed high hat notes will have to buy a third party piece of kit to be able to activate this. Full high hat support is available in freestyle mode, but is a frustrating omission given the high hats fundamentalism to drumming.
  • Purely subjective, but with pro mode considered, some songs are listed as being a little harder than they actually are. Some songs that have relatively simple grooves or fills in normal mode are noticably trickier now as the notes have been split into notes for toms (normal gems) and cymbals (circle gems).

Trying (and failing) a drum fill, as a long series of red notes.My other band members are shown, with a normal drum groove in the foreground.

General gameplay

  • This is definitely the most beautiful version of Rock Band yet. All managed while making the experience of playing the game as usable and fun as possible. Overall Rock Band 3 enhances the experience of playing Rock Band and is the definitive version. The overshell is a fantastic addition, keeping player-specific options seperate to the main menu. Useful for party situations with players that don’t always understand how to setup the game or manage their instrument.
  • The obivous refinements to gameplay (such as the rewind feature on the pause screen) are appreciated. Rock Band 3 drips with small details of improvement; such as the additional stats on the song complete screen and the way that goals are inherent no matter which mode is being played. This allows quick play to neatly integrate with career mode allowing you to develop your Rock Band 3 profile no matter what you’re doing.
  • The lack of availability of the pro instruments is a massive shame. Particularly the extremely scarce stocks of the MIDI pro adapter. It was released more than a month after the games release, and scant numbers units are only just starting to appear. The lack of information from Madcatz in the leadup to Rock Band 3’s release (and since) has compounded the situation.
  • I only have minor foibles with the game. There is no option to skip a song from the fail screen, which is a pain when playing a long playlist. You are also not able to completely delete songs, merely rate them low enough to avoid them easily in play sessions. There is some gloss missing from the online play, as the physical restraints of having so many instruments on screen means that guitars keyboards and bass instruments cannot play together online.

My drummer plays a perfect 4x multiplier.A view of a typical Rock Band 3 goal screen.

Overall impressions

The wait for the MIDI pro adapter has been excruciating. On the whole though it’s a magnificent product. The quality of the interaction with my drumkit exceeds expectations, and the fact that I can use to play all of my Rock Band games using my real kit is a massive bonus. The plastic instrument I used to play on before has been relegated to the attic. For me personally, pro mode is here to stay.