Gamerly Musings

Where failed pitches go to shine.

Category: Features

I Write Fiction Too: Meet Fred

Exciting things are brewing in my professional life! And though I can’t divulge the specifics yet, I can at least say that I’m adding the title “Narrative Director” to my business cards. Now, this may come across as opportunistic to those who only know me by my games criticism writing and occasional journalism, since it has all of the appearance of me using my position in games media to slide into narrative writing, practical fiction writing experience be damned. But would it surprise you to learn that was not actually the case? In fact, if anything it would be the other way around. I spent the vast majority of my college education in fiction writing courses and workshops. It was actually one such class that put me on the path to freelance journalism, as my professor happened to be the sister of at-the-time Editor-in-Chief of PCWorld Harry McCracken, and I pestered that poor professor every day until she put me in touch with him to discuss freelance writing.

In any case, back in college I earned a bit of a reputation for writing short stories about zombies, robots, giant squid, and the afterlife re-imagined as O’Hare airport in classes where genre fiction was shunned in favor of “literary fiction.” And despite my subject matter of choice, none of my professors seemed to be able to tell the difference. I guess what I’m getting at is that this opportunity to actually write for a game is really more of a homecoming to my fiction writing roots than a divergent path from the game criticism career I’ve forged over the last few years. Note that this isn’t a complete career change, games criticism can’t get rid of me that easily, just a new project I’ll be working on in addition to my regular freelancing.

But really, the point of this post isn’t so much to announce my new writing gig, that will come later when I can actually talk about it more. Right now I mostly wanted to post a sample of my fiction writing so that the new gig will make more sense when it is announced. So without further dallying, hopefully you’ll enjoy the below excerpt from a story of mine called Binary People in which I’ll introduce you to a recently unemployed robot by the name of Fred.

 

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Musings and Memories of 2013: Learning My Craft

Rather than a strict Game of the Year list, at Gamerly Musings I’ll be writing a series of  articles about the games that were most important to me, personally. The games will be roughly grouped together by themes, qualities, or learning experiences that they shared rather than offering awards based on genre or release platform, which I think works out rather nicely for highlighting some under-appreciated games that would never appear on a “best of 2013” list but deserve special recognition in their own right.

Reviewing and analyzing these three games – one good, one bad, and one somewhere in between – helped to develop my skills as a writer more than any other in 2013. Each of the games are very different, but in my effort to give them the reviews they deserved I grew as a writer. That could be growth in learning new techniques, refining old ones, or finding new perspectives through which to look at the games. Regardless of how it happened, all three of these games helped me learn my craft as a writer in 2013.

Gone Home

goty gone home

By the far the most challenging review I wrote in 2013 was the one I did for Gone Home. I already knew it was going to be something special, the 2012 IGF demo, just the demo, was my game of the year that year after all. And even just from that demo it was revelatory the way it used the environment to infer most of its story outside of Sam’s narrated journal entries. Even the “put back” mechanic, simple as it was, was a stroke of genius in depicting domestic exploration that didn’t devolve into ransacking the place. But most of all, it was Sam’s coming out story that sealed it. Sam’s story felt so true, but was told in such a distinctly game-y way, I still get chills thinking about it.

While playing Gone Home I felt like I was playing something important, a game that would become part of the essential literacy for game critics. The same feeling I got when first playing Bastion or Dark Souls, the feeling that it was a game people would continue to write about for years, dissecting it for every morsel of meaning.

And here I was supposed to review it? To be one of the first voices in that ongoing critical discussion? Yeah, I was a bit intimidated. Read the rest of this entry »

Musings and Memories of 2013: Learning Humility

Rather than a strict Game of the Year list, at Gamerly Musings I’ll be writing a series of  articles about the games that were most important to me, personally. The games will be roughly grouped together by themes, qualities, or learning experiences that they shared rather than offering awards based on genre or release platform, which I think works out rather nicely for highlighting some under-appreciated games that would never appear on a “best of 2013” list but deserve special recognition in their own right.

The theme of this first post is “learning humility,” highlighting games that caught me off-guard or subverted my expectations in thrilling, surprising, and always humbling ways.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

Gunslinger goty

It seems that every year I’m going to be asked to review a game for which I have rock bottom expectations and ends up being one of the highlights of the year. Last year it was I Am Alive, which blew me away with its brutal survival mechanics and story, and this year that pleasant surprise came in the form of Call of Juarez: Gunslinger (which, coincidentally, both I Am Alive and Gunslinger were published by Ubisoft).

I already wrote a glowing review when it came out, so I won’t retread through all the reasons it is such an amazing game here, but even now at the end of the year it sticks out in my mind as easily one of the best gaming experiences I had in 2013. Read the rest of this entry »

Beautiful Machinery – The Structure of Zelda: A Crack Between Worlds

For those who haven’t heard, I am beginning a new column called Beautiful Machinery. It will be a twice monthly series of articles examining the artistry and craft of games through their mechanics. I am doing a little experiment with it though, by trying to gain support and funding for the column through Patreon, a service that lets you, the reader, support creators directly on a per article basis instead of going through a major publication. You can pledge any amount per article, even if it’s only $1, your support will be hugely appreciated. The following article is my first piece for Beautiful Machinery and an example of what to expect from the column, looking at The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and how its item rental system impacts the game’s structure.

Head over to my Patreon page to learn more about Beautiful Machinery and support my writing to make this column a success.

Ravio2

While it seemed fairly unanimous among my colleagues that the new item structure was a cause for celebration in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, I was conflicted about the change as I began playing. There was talk of a more open overworld to explore and being able to approach the game’s dungeons in any order. It essentially boiled down to more player freedom and choice, which I am told are inherently good features in a game.

I am not convinced, though. See, to me, the gatekeeping due to item restrictions was always the highlight of a new Zelda game. I’d see some far off ledge that I couldn’t quite reach, and it would fill me with excitement to discover which item I’d eventually find to let me cross to that ledge.

However, the anticipation and delayed gratification is a key part of that formula. If I could instantly hookshot or glide on a leaf over to the ledge, it wouldn’t be as special an area. It would just be another area just like any other that I could walk to. But by delaying my ability to cross over to the ledge it fills the area with a sense of mystery and discovery. Sure there may be a treasure chest filled with a handful of rupees or a heart piece, but the treasure wasn’t the real reward. The real reward was gaining the ability to travel off the beaten path, and in order to travel off of it, there needs to be a beaten path to begin with.

My fear going into A Link Between Worlds was that every area would feel like part of the beaten path, and that no areas would truly feel special or hidden. And for the most part, unfortunately, this was the case. So long as I had bombs, the hammer, and in one place the hookshot, I could explore pretty much the entire overworld right away. And because Zelda games hand out rupees at a rate that should collapse Hyrule’s economy, it was no problem to rent those items as soon as they became available.

There were some item gates though, and these proved to be my favorite parts of exploring the game’s overworld. I needed to collect flippers before I could swim, giving me that satisfying feeling as a previously off-limits area became mundane, and likewise with areas that were sealed off by large boulders and required the titan gloves. The giant bomb that can follow you in Lorule was also a nice touch, sealing off certain areas until you performed an escort mission that served a similar gating purpose by making the areas it unlocked seem more special than simply using a regular bomb.

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Ad Age – Mass Effect 3’s Ending And Social Media

Ad Age recently sought me out for comment on the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy to provides some quotes for an article. That article was posted today, and will also be appearing in print form in the most recent issue of Ad Age.

‘Mass Effect 3’ Struggles With Social-Media Furor Over Ending is the article in question.

Of course, as is always the case in print interviews, I was asked far more questions and gave far longer winded answers than what appeared in the final copy, so I wanted to include those questions and answers here as supplemental material.

Beth Bulik – Ad Age: Do you ever recall this happening before – that players’ protest or input has changed the narrative (or outcome) of a video game? Is that what is happening in this case?

Scott Nichols: This sort of thing happens all of the time in games, but usually only with mechanics. Fighting games and online shooters are constantly tweaked due to fan feedback, and last year Uncharted 3’s aiming mechanics were changed after overwhelming fan outcry. But this is the first time I can think of that this has happened with a game’s plot or narrative.

Ad Age: What does this say about the power of social media, and in particular, gamers ability to come together and use it?

Scott: Social media is great for facilitating mob mentality. A fan on their own might be disappointed with the game’s ending, but through social media they can find a large anonymous community to fuel and escalate those views. Someone filed a complaint with the FTC over Mass Effect 3’s ending. I can’t see that happening without a large enough social media community to reinforce the idea so that an individual thinks that is an appropriate course of action.

Ad Age: Do you think Bioware Studios is doing the right thing by considering/changing the endings? Why should they stick to their guns, if you don’t agree? Or why should they listen to fans, if you do agree?

Scott: I think, given the degree of the outrcy, Bioware has made the right moves so far. It will really depend on what actions Bioware takes going forward. In general, I think game developers should have control of their creative vision, so to that end I think they should “stick to their guns” regarding the ending. The real question is whether they plan to change the ending or simply add to it. Changing the existing ending would show a lack of integrity in their own work, so I’m hoping for, if anything, additions that still retain and build on the original ending.

Ad Age: What effect will this have, if any, on other video game development, especially the very popular series with mass audiences?

Scott: On the one hand, “the customer is always right”, so it’s definitely in Bioware’s interest to appease fans. On the other hand it sets a dangerous precedent for the industry. I don’t even just mean a dangerous precedent for the democratization of content, but also for how publishers will react. Bioware is a pretty big deal for EA, but what happens if the next time is a smaller studio? Will the publisher back them up and support the post-release plot change, or will they take the fan outcry as a failing and close the studio? Or it could lead to publishers wanting to have more control over narrative-driven games, with plots only approved for production if there is a successful game with the same plot to show demand. This is something that already happens with game genres, so if fans make game narrative a big enough issue I can see the same thing happening there as well.

Ad Age: Some are saying in fact, Bioware and EA meant for the ending to be incomplete. So that they could sell DLC. Do you think that’s true?

Scott: To my knowledge, all DLC that Bioware and EA had planned was for mid-game content rather than additions to the ending, so I would file that under conspiracy theory. Not that it would surprise me if it were true, but I feel that if it were true Bioware’s response would have mentioned that fans shouldn’t worry because they always intended to expand on the game’s ending. Sure that would have made them angry, but it would have shown Bioware was planning ahead, so ultimately it would have been a positive move. They didn’t do that though, so I doubt they were planning to add end-game DLC until now.

Ad Age: Any other thoughts about the controversy?

Scott: What stood out to me most was the ‘Retake Mass Effect’ group’s response to Bioware’s statement. In it they say “Retake Mass Effect is not over by any means; Dr. Myzuka’s statement was welcome, but did not directly address our concerns. You have been heard. Now it is time to make sure they get the details right.” That “make sure they get the details right” bit frightens me. It’s the difference between wanting the ending to be changed to be something consistent with the narrative, and wanting it to be changed to something specific. It changes their tone from concerned fans to a list of demands. With something that’s so hugely popular and subjective, no matter what action Bioware makes it will be impossible to please everybody. With statements like those, I wonder if the ‘Retake Mass Effect’ fans are prepared for that, or whether they will burn out their own cause.

Digital Homosexuality And Player Responsibility

This article was originally published on GamePro’s website June 22, 2011. Since GamePro shut down and its web archives are no longer available, I have decided to re-post it here so that it is still available online as a resource. The article’s published title was “Mass Effect 3 Romance: Shepard’s Choice”, which honestly I was never very fond of, so I have given it back the original title I had intended when submitting it. The content of the article is identical to what was published.

As we learned last month, Mass Effect 3 will (finally) include same-sex romance options for both male and female Shepard. To say the least, the announcement left the Internet aflame with both supporters and detractors. And while the reactions aren’t exactly surprising, they are, how should I say, curious given the circumstances. After all, the Mass Effect series is built around player authorship. How could giving players more choices be a bad thing?

Well, if you ask the detractors, it’s all for the sake of a consistent story. After all, even in a science fiction universe with sentient jellyfish, monotone elephant-creatures performing Hamlet, and ancient robo-organic hybrid monsters from deep space, the idea that even one character could turn out to be gay or bi in the third act would really push a player’s suspension of disbelief.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to make flippant remarks. Both plot and character consistency are an important part of any narrative. However, saying that an option shouldn’t even be in the game implies that Bioware is solely responsible for the game’s narrative, and that simply isn’t true. Mass Effect isn’t the type of game where you can play it once and say definitively “yes, this is what happened.”

Sure, in the end players will always fight Saren and the collectors, but leading up to those confrontations are events with various outcomes due to their choices. Really, the series is already littered with potential inconsistencies. Did you use both paragon and renegade actions throughout the course of the game? That’s a potential inconsistency. Did you rescue the last rachni, a species that almost destroyed the galaxy, while fighting to stop the similarly galaxy-destroying Sovereign? That’s another potential inconsistency. Did you choose a romance option in both games? Depending on what you think of Commander Shepard that could be a potential inconsistency too.

Note that I said they are only potentially inconsistent though. That’s where the player’s narrative responsibility comes in. With a game built around choice, it is the player’s responsibility to ensure that inconsistencies don’t occur just as much as it is the developer’s. And if they do occur, it is then solely the player’s responsibility to justify those actions.

But what of the other characters? Commander Shepard’s actions and choices are decided by the player, but Bioware executive producer Casey Hudson told PC Gamer that “we’re not introducing any new characters that are going to be love interests.” Clearly this means that Bioware will have to change existing characters to retroactively make them gay or bi and accommodate offering both male and female same-sex options, right?

Well, no, not necessarily. And I’m not just talking about the fact that Hudson corrected himself two days later on Twitter, saying that there would be new same-sex love interests after all. Having existing characters as same-sex options could still be possible without changing them, because in order to change the characters their sexuality would have to already be defined.

I know, I know, Garrus already can hook up with female Shepard and Ashley seems to fancy male Shepard. But when playing as a male Shepard, I can’t recall a single time when Garrus or Kaiden made any reference to their sexual orientation. Likewise with Ashley when playing as a female Shepard. As far as relationship options go, these characters are blank slates.

Perhaps Garrus is still trying to figure out his feelings, calibrating if you will, or was intimidated by male Shepard constantly flirting with female crewmates (or more accurately, the female crewmates constantly flirting with Shepard). Meanwhile, Ashley’s bigotry and xenophobia toward alien races could be an outward projection of her difficulty coming to terms with her own sexuality. Nothing that has already been established about the characters would need to change, it would simply be a matter of filling in the blanks.

I’m not saying that this is how same-sex romances in Mass Effect 3 will play out, but it does illustrate how they can be integrated into existing characters without inconsistencies. At that point, it becomes the player’s responsibility how Shepard interacts with each character. If you don’t want Garrus to hook up with a male Shepard, then don’t flirt with Garrus.

If a same-sex romance option ruins a character’s consistency in Mass Effect 3, you only have your own choices to blame.

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