Video games have a story problem. They've had it pretty much since their very inception, and they'll probably never STOP having them. It's really damn hard to tell a good story while a player is mucking around in the game world. Generally speaking, they won't care, and even when they do, it's hard to draw their attention to certain things without wresting control of the narrative away from them. So, instead, most games turned to cutscenes, cutaway mini-movies that tell stories in between gameplay, and thus began games' everlasting obession with becoming movies. Here are just a few games that can help you track the evolution of cinematic storytelling in games, and help keep you on track for our theme month on the intersection of games and cinema.
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For any number of reasons, games set in space form the backbone of our medium. For the most part, they feature the kinds of narratives you'd find in a YA book with a cool space dragon on the cover, but sometimes, they strive to be a little more. Some games take that concept of space, which most people have never really interacted with, and finding the ways it intersects with a primarily interactive medium. Which is to say, sometimes games are about big, empty voids, and sometimes, they like to contemplate infinity, and maybe even mechanize it.
Like any creative medium, games fail. A lot. Creatively, critically commercially, even morally, games that don't succeed seem to outnumber the ones that do sometimes. But, behind every failure is a story. Sometimes the budget ran out, sometimes development shifted suddenly halfway through, sometimes the market wasn't right for the game, sometimes the game just sort of sucks and no one can do anything about it.
But other times, a whole host of things go wrong and stop a game from succeeding in any number of ways. This month, in our look at failure within the industry, what causes it, and what goes wrong, we want to take a look at some of gaming's more interesting failures, commercial, critical and otherwise.
When it comes to figuring out what goes into a great localization, there's a lot of time spent thinking about games that really nailed the transition from one region to another. And also games that totally dropped the ball. Sometimes games dunk that ball though. Other times someone gets hit in the face by an errant pass. Occasionally the ref calls a time out and has to analyze what just happened because the ball was floating in the air gloriously, before crashing back down to the court in a flaming wreck.
What this tortured metaphor is trying to get at is an introduction to just a few of the most impressive game localizations of all time.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
The thing about the Ace Attorney games is that all at once, they manage to be some of the best examples of how to do a Japanese-to-English localization, while also showing exactly what goes wrong when you play it fast and loose with localization. One one hand, they’re loaded to the brim with clever puns, mostly subtle references to american pop culture, and charming dialogue. On the other, it’s actually impossible to believe the series could possible take place in Los Angeles.
To be fair, the series isn't exactly batting a thousand. Between goofy nonsense that doesn’t register as a pun until you think about it and get disappointed (see: Glen Elg, the palindromic homicide victim), and the grammatical catastrophe that is Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies, there are a lot of missteps in what’s usually considered to be a shining exemplar of good localization. It says a lot that, for a time, the biggest meme to come out of Ace Attorney was making fun of the one major error in the second game. Well, that and people constantly yelling objection for no damn reason.
It takes a lot to take a game, especially one as text heavy as Ace Attorney, from one culture to another. The first game in the series did an impressive job of balancing the whole “it takes place in america” thing with the rest of the factors in the plot. To be fair, not too much about that first game was very Japan-centric. The Steel Samurai read as a Power Rangers/Super Sentai-esque kids show in both regions. Sure, it was weird that the Fey clan ran a mystical spirit channelling village somewhere in the mountains of Orange County, but it didn’t ever take me out of the suspension of disbelief required to believe that the world’s most incompetent lawyer was an undefeated defense attorney. But, the part in Ace Attorney Dual Destinies where an entire Japanese village relocated to America and took their ancient chained-up demons with them so they could use them in wrestling TV shows pretty much snapped my disbelief over its knee. It was a smart choice to set the first game in LA. It made it feel closer to home for North American players, and really let the writers play with pop culture references that wouldn’t really fly if the game was set in Japan. Unfortunately, it made the rest of the games stick out like a traditional Japanese shrine in the middle of LA. It was one smart short term choice, that ate into the suspension of disbelief more and more with each game going forward. At this point, I’m half-expecting the upcoming Meiji-era Japan game to be set in the Wild West when it comes over stateside.
Actually, samurai in cowboy hats sounds rad. Sign me up for that.
The impressive thing about Pokemon’s localization isn’t really in its script. “I like shorts” isn’t exactly Dickens. No, the cool thing is all the work that went into it that most people miss. It’s the names. Pokemon names to be specific, Charmander to get really particular, actually. See, in Japan, Charmander is called Hitokage, which literally the word for salamander in Japanese. That itself is sort of a pun, because it means fire lizard, but a straight translation would still render that as either salamander or fire lizard. And then what do we make out of Lizardo and Lizardon, Charmeleon and Charizard’s Japanese equivalents? Fire Lizard Jr., Fire Lizard and Fire Lizard Sr.? Lil’ Fire Lizard to Big Fire Lizard? Nintendo’s trick was to flip the script and go with what localization always tries to do at its best, preserving the original intent without sticking to the literal script. Charmander works. It says fire and lizard and salamander all at once, perfectly preserving the Hitokage pun without just calling it “Salamander”.
Changes like that actually led to a few problems down the line. The longer english names often hit the character limit, leaving Gyarados without his former English title of Skullkraken, and forced the designers to change the status screen orientation for foreign versions of Gold and Silver. Longer names meant they wouldn’t fit in the Japanese version’s vertically oriented menus, forcing a horizontal flip. Some people say that the best localizations are the ones no one notices. A light touch. Pokemon, the first games at least, are probably the lightest touch I’ve seen in a game while still being an enormous amount of work. Charmander is clever, but 151 of those critters is crazy. By now, renaming Pokemon is a science, but in 1998? It was a new frontier. You try to come up with 150 cute puns that kids will get but not get bored of?
I’ll start: Skullkraken.
Mother 3 is another one of those “look how impressive this text-heavy game’s localization is” kind of games. It’s funny, clever, charming, the puns work, and it all manages to be poignant rather than tripping over the language barrier. Part of that has to do with the script’s pre-existing qualities. Shigesato Itoi, the creator of the Mother/Earthbound series, is a well-regarded and respected writer over in Japan. But, the rest of it comes from a superb english localization courtesy of some folks from the internet.
Mother 3 never came out in America, reportedly because it was a late-period GBA game that would have required a lot of effort, leaving it in the same Japan-only vault as the first Rhythm Heaven game from the same time. Realizing they wouldn’t be be able to play the game unless they did it themselves, Earthbound fans banded together and worked for years on their own translation of the game. Earthbound fans have a reputation for being a bit crazy in their love for the series. Considering Americans only ever got one game out of three in any official capacity, it’s not hard to see their love for the series as a little out there, but it led to possibly the best fan translation of all time, so I’d call it a win.
One of the really neat things about the localization is that they also launched some merchandise to go along with it. The team released a hardcover guidebook with a full game walkthrough, which came with a keychain. That guide was also the first major release out of Fangamer.net, another product of the Earthbound fan community, which now produces stuff like Earthbound-themed vinyl figures. Also, in a rare look into the localization process, the lead on the project has a series of articles detailing his translation choices throughout the two years of localization work. It’s a worthwhile read, and it’s still amazing that a small group of people could turn out a translation at Nintendo Treehouse quality. I'll be the thousandth person to say that Nintendo should just use their translation in a digital release, but they really should. Unless a player already knew, they'd never guess it wasn't an official job.
Final Fantasy Tactics
There’s a pig in FFT that has an attack called “nose bracelet”. The dancer class uses the skill “wiznaibus”. The boar enemy classification is listed as “wildbow”. The best part comes early on in the game, when a character is reading something out loud, so you can’t control how fast the text scrolls. In the second sentence, he says “little money”, which takes longer to scroll for each letter than the rest of the text does combined.
If the rest of these games on this primer were great examples of how good localization looks when it’s done right, then the original Playstation version of Final Fantasy Tactics is a crash course on what can go wrong. Back then, Sony was handling Squaresoft’s english translations internally, and they polished the game’s script to a dull brown mess. Nose bracelet is supposed to be oink, which is odd, because bracelet was supposed to be “breath” every other time it appeared in the game. Why else would a dragon have a fire bracelet? Dancers who fight dance “with knives” or “wizu naibusu”, not wiznaibu. The boar is a wild boar, not a particular misbehaved bow. The little money thing seems to be a programming error that cropped up during localization, because there’s nothing like it in the Japanese version.
The fairly complicated plot, full of political machinations, backstabbing and demonic usurpation of the church is had to follow in the much more coherent PSP remake, so it goes without saying that it makes no damn sense in a version of the game where they manage to misspell Malboro, one of the series’ classic enemies, as Morbol. It’s an impressively terrible translation, which is doubly as terrible because it’s such a great game. Comparing it to the PSP remake, War of the Lions, makes it look like the amateur job it probably was. Fortunately, we all have that version now, so there’s no need to have a death cold about it anymore.
No, I don’t know what that one was supposed to be either.
While it might seem like making people laugh would go hand in hand with having fun, games haven't really taken much of a shine to jokes and comedy over the years. But, small, brave handful of games have tried to get you to guffaw while you gun down zombones or whatever. Either by being ridiculous in concept, telling jokes throughout, or having comedy be your primary method of interaction, these are just a few of the games that might be at the fore of a comedy genre in games.
Barkley’s Shut up and Jam Gaiden:
The year is 2053. You are Charles Barkley, and you are on the run from Michael Jordan’s B-Ball Removal Department for allegedly unleashing the chaos dunk, a dunk so sweet it levelled Neo New York. Also Ghost Dad and Cyborg Vince Carter are there. Larry Byrd is a priest, and an evil clone called Shadow Barkley is involved at one point. Oh, and Space Jam is canon.
It’s hard to say that Barkleys’ Shut up and Jam Gaiden is a parody game, because it’s so dang earnest. It’s also a big game, with plenty of dungeons, attacks, items, the standard RPG bag of tricks. The thing is, all of it is so ridiculous, it becomes a pretty low-key parody of both ‘90s JRPGS and ‘90s basketball. Has your character been hit by one of the game’s many status effects, like diabetes or glaucoma? Try some tobacco, it cures whatever ails ya. One of you characters went down in battle? Try steroids. It’s goofy and ridiculous, and draws a lot of its comedy chops from early South Park, among other things, but it’s one of the earlier examples of an indie game poking fun at mainstream game genre tropes. Mostly by being ridiculous rather than actually saying anything of substance, but it worked at the time.
I imagine releasing a game with “aspergers” as a status ailment equivalent to confusion wouldn’t fly these days, but in 2008, before indie gaming broke out in a huge way, before games stopped taking themselves so damn seriously all the time, it was something of a revelation. Personally, I hadn’t played an RPG that wasn’t trying to be Final Fantasy or Elder Scrolls up to that point, and all the grimdark self-righteousness that entailed. The upcoming sequel The Magical Realms of Tír na nÓg: Escape from Necron 7 - Revenge of Cuchulainn: The Official Game of the Movie - Chapter 2 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa, or Barkley 2 looks to carry that goofy torch into a new generation of indie games, one that includes Cyberdwarf body pillows as kickstarter rewards.
No one said comedy couldn't be tsundere.
There’s a moment in Maniac Mansion that everyone knows about. It’s one of the few things that escaped the censorship of the NES version of the game, and it’s become so iconic, so emblematic of what Maniac Mansion did best, that it’s pretty much come to define the game itself. If you get your hands on Ed’s pet hamster, and you’re playing as either Syd or Razor, you can put that hamster in the microwave, then present it to Ed himself, the scene will cut away to the tombstone of the character who showed it to him.
In retrospect, it’s a pretty simple, straightforward bit. It’s a little obscure, considering you need one of two character to do it, and you need to assume the game will let you actually microwave a hamster, but that’s part of the joke. It’s ridiculous that the game would let you do that in the first place, and even crazier (at least for the time) that it would react. Sure, it’s a binary reaction, in that you either did microwave the hamster and got the joke, or you didn’t and you don’t. But, it’s a really early example of using the player’s interaction with the game world as a conduit for joke-telling. If the player is willing to set up the joke by doing something crazy, the game will respond in an equally surprising way. If the game had told you that you had to microwave a hamster and then killed you, it wouldn’t really be a joke. In fact, it would just be the game killing you for following orders. By giving you a little bit of freedom to set up a joke that was programmed in, the joke becomes way funnier. You’re an active participant in the joke-telling process, because you made the choice to microwave the hamster.
Comedy games aren’t quite a genre right now, but whenever they really get going, Maniac Mansion is definitely the origin point for whatever they become. Interactive joke-telling got its start with early LucasArts adventure games, in Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle, and moving forward into Grim Fandango and Sam and Max. They’re comedy touchstones, a part of funnygame history. Luckily, they’re a lot less offensive than actual comedy history, which is mostly just a lot of racist jokes.
Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard:
Eat Lead is not a bad idea for a video game. Will Arnett plays a Duke-Nukem-alike named Matt Hazard who starred in video games for years before running his name through the mud with a series of casual, kid-focused titles. Now, he’s trying to start a gritty reboot for himself, with an M-rated third person shooter on modern consoles. It all devolves into self-aware jokes about game design tropes and how the CEO of the fictional game’s publisher (played by Neil Patrick Harris) is running a Duck Amuck-style campaign to edit Hazard out of his own game with the help of QA, your standard video game disembodied lady voice.
The problem with Matt Hazard is the same problem with 99% of things that call themselves satire. It’s not satire if you are literally doing the thing you are making fun of. If it knows its a bog-standard third person shooter, and makes fun of itself for being so, why is it still being that thing that it is? The game makes fun of generic enemies that look like they were copy-and-pasted from other shooters, by using generic enemies they claim were copy-and-pasted from other fictional games. It doesn’t really work.
But, there’s something to be said for trying to be a post-modern, self-aware parody game. The first trailer for Eat Lead was a neat, VH1’s Behind the Music-style interview with Matt Hazard about his fall from grace and his upcoming projects. The idea that game characters have lives and exist in a weird flux when they aren’t in the game itself has been explored since (see Wreck it Ralph and Charles Yu’s Hero Absorbs Major Damage for some good examples), but the thoroughness of the parody is admirable. There are really solid joke concepts in Eat Lead, but it isn’t satire, which is what would have made them work.
Oh, and it’s also a pretty boring third person shooter, but that’s beside the point right now.
Jazzpunk is probably the first modern comedy game. It’s genre is comedy. Sure, it’s a first-person adventure spy game, but, like LucasArts’ classic adventure games, your primary gameplay mechanic is taking an item from one place and bringing it to another. The thing that made adventure games popular (and also what ended up killing them in the late ‘90s) was that they were the only place you could go for gorgeous animation and top-notch writing. Other games had to prioritize complex gameplay and physics in the limited space available to them at the time, but adventure games, with their simplistic gameplay and slow-moving action, could have far higher production values that pretty much any other game genre on the market.
Eventually, other games managed to get up to snuff in terms of the production values department, not necessarily the quality. Final Fantasy VIII had full motion, CG cutscenes. Metal Gear Solid had voice acting and an interesting, cohesive story. All LucasArts had in comparison was the ability to tell clever jokes and run on high-end computers. They did those things first, but consoles were bigger, and adventure game design could never really be as popular as say, an action game.
But Jazzpunk is a glorious return to that traditional adventure game comedy style, with a decidedly post-modern look. Really, all you’re ever trying to do is move one object from one place to another, but what’s pushing your forward through the game isn’t the gameplay, but the nonstop, torrential stream of jokes. Everyone is shaped like those signs you see on washroom doors sometimes, which is ridiculous enough, but then in the first level, people dressed like spies are poking out from the branches of trees, then disappearing once you look. Across the street there’s a frog. Talking to him starts a game of Frogger, which is amusing in its own right, but failing causes the frog to reappear, bandaged. Continuous failure ends with the frog covered in bruises and casts, begging you not to try and help him anymore. Of course, you totally, totally can.
In a way, it reminds of the Family Guy-style cutaway joke. It even sounds like something that would happen on the show. A frog starts crossing the road, and it gets run over. Ha ha, bet you never thought of that before. But, by giving the player agency in telling the joke, it goes from hackneyed concept, to brilliant execution. It’s funnier that my failure at this dumb, unfun game leads to permanent injuries to the frog. It’s funny that I can keep hurting him to get different reactions. It’s funny that I did it so many times that eventually the game forgot to go into a top-down view for the minigame, and I ended up playing a few games of behind-the-back Frogger
Jazzpunk’s primary gameplay element, that is to say, the thing that drives you along the critical path that leads to the end of the game, is wanting to hear, see, or play the next joke. In a lot of ways, it’s the heir to the LucasArts throne. Where those games died because every other game had their production values and more, this game thrives, because in the indie space, that doesn’t really matter. Jazzpunk over specializes in delivering a hilarious, interactive joke-telling experience, and no other game can promise the same.
Well, maybe Goat Simulator.
This month, we're all about open worlds, so we decided to take a look back at some games that tried to do something new and interesting with the open world concept at the time they came out. Assuming you've already played Grand Theft Auto and its ilk, you're probably pretty well acquainted with the standard concept of an open world sandbox, so how about something a little more offbeat?
So, Super Metroid isn't quite an open world game in the way we traditionally think of one. It doesn't have a wide open sandbox, the limits of the world are pretty clearly set out, and there's a very clear linear path you're meant to follow to the end of the game. But, the thing about Super Metroid is that it was one of the earliest games to successfully implement an open world structure into a traditional action game framework.
Even from the beginning, Super Metroid never tells you where you need to go. Hints are dropped frequently, and places too far along the critical path are locked until you find a specific power up that will let you through the gates, but you're never given specific directions. From the moment the game gives you free reign over the environment (pretty much when you enter Brinstar), the linearity takes a backseat to teaching you how to play with carefully constructed, subtle challenges, as well as always giving you enough rope to hang yourself with. You'll never get stuck, but you'll always know you're just tantalizingly out of range of one more secret.
Super Metroid's constantly expanding map told you where you were and where you'd been, but when you zoomed it out, you could start seeing where secret passages might be hidden, items might be tucked away, and shortcuts might be explored. You would start to find hooks, places you could explore off of the directed path that led towards Mother Brain and the end of the game, and find non-essential power ups and items there. The X-Ray beam and Spring Ball come to mind, but so do dozens of missile expansions and energy tanks.
So no, Super Metroid isn't quite an open world game, but if you want to see a masterclass in how to make a game more interesting by properly implementing open world design, it's one of the first, and still easily the best.
Dark Souls takes what Super Metroid started, and pumps it full of open world steroids. After the tutorial area, you can start poking around the Firelink Shrine and end up in the nearby graveyard, which is meant to cream any player not already a decent chunk of their way into the game. If you're quick on your feet and figure out the lay of the land though, you can run by tricky challenges and use the doors between areas to get around anything in your way.
But, unlike Super Metroid, the doors aren't gated according to what gear you've found. It's hard to get around Super Metroid's Marida until you've found the Gravity Suit, which will let you move freely in water. In Dark Souls, however, there's nothing stopping you from running right through late game areas at level one. The only real gate is Sen's Fortress, which doesn't open up until you ring the two bells, which you can of course ring in any order you like.
Dark Souls is so open to varying playstyles that you can go through the entire game with nothing but a shield. Dark Souls emphasis on atmosphere and careful, measured combat makes that sort of big open world fun rather than frustrating. It's always easy to tell when you're biting off more than you can chew, and retreating isn't terribly hard. Dying only costs you souls, your global currency, and those can be recovered from a bloodstain left when you die. The real measure of your progress, your personal experience as a player, goes nowhere. You're encouraged to fail and try again, and maybe take one of the dozens of different paths to your goal, or even just take up a new goal entirely. It's a fantastic expression of what the open world concept can do when applied to a genre that isn't "generic third person action game".
Shenmue came out in North America on November 8th, 2000, just a month before Grand Theft Auto III set the world's love for open-world sandboxes aflame. Shenmue came out for the commercially unsuccessful Dreamcast, while Grand Theft Auto III was a fairly early game for the PS2, which I don't know if you've heard of, but it was the most successful console in history. Shenmue was so expensive to make that it's often cited as one of the reasons Sega got out of the hardware game, while Grand Theft Auto III was so successful they can still afford to blow a quarter of a billion dollars on the latest entry in the series, GTA V.
What I'm saying is that no one really remembers Shenmue, which is a shame, because it is in almost every way the anti-GTA sandbox game. Instead of a huge city to explore, protagonist Ryo Hazuki explores a comparatively tiny town, with just a few locals hanging around. But, instead of Liberty City's sterile, interior-less environment, Shenmue took incredible care in detailing every single aspect of the world. You could open up cupboards and closets, gardens were fully featured, right down to that bamboo thing that fills up with water and then makes a *donk* noise when it falls down to empty out. You could even swap out the randomly generated weather effects for the historical weather records of that part of Japan in 1986, when the game is set.
You can eat off of GTA III. There's very little detail to its world, to the point where it's almost not even a world at all. It's a playground, where you can jack cars and shoot blocky polygons with awful controls. Of course, it has the upper hand on Shenmue is about a dozen other ways, but imagine a world where Shenmue became the open world game every developer wanted to copy instead of GTA. All martial arts, no guns, driving forklifts all day through a hyper-detailed, if sort of tiny, town.
We'd live in a very different kind of open world.
Far Cry 2:
The famous story about Far Cry 2 goes that while testing the in-game fire effects, they blew up an explosive barrel, which set fire to the surrounding grass. Then the nearby hut. Then the trees. Then a propane tank, which exploded in a dozen directions, lighting up everything in its path, including an enemy guard who ran into a friend of his, lighting him on fire too. Within two minutes, the entire world was on fire. Obviously, they had to tone it down pretty quickly, but the core idea was now permanently in the game. Everything burns, and if you want to, you can set fire to the world to see what happens.
Far Cry 2 is a fascinating expression of the sandbox concept, because it never puts any restrictions on players. Want to kill your story-relevant partner characters? Go ahead, they stay dead. Want to play as a suicidal madman who doesn't take his malaria pills until the last second? It's an option. Gearbox's Anthony Burch once held a GDC lecture on how playing the game with permadeath turns into a powerful, meaningful experience on the nature and pragmatism of evil. Any way you want to play Far Cry 2, it's there, and it's probably super cool. The possibilities for emergent gameplay are endless.
I doubt we'll ever see a game as open and willing to let the player muck around as Far Cry 2 again. Even Far Cry 3 was a much more prescribed, directed experience. That sort of openness and freedom invites dozens of flaws, most of which Far Cry 2 suffers from on a regular basis. Clint Hocking, the game's designer, left Ubisoft a few years ago, and is now working on mystery projects of his own. But Far Cry 2 came at this fascinating delta when open world games were the single most popular game in existence, and first person shooters were just coming off of the high from the initial Modern Warfare. A first person open world game was both innovative enough to draw top talent looking to do something new, and could also get the kind of budget to not be a horrible disaster. We might not live in those times anymore, but Far Cry 2 is like $5 at this point, so you have no reason to give it a shot and party like it's 2008 and we still had hope for the industry.
This month’s primer is about love. Falling in love, romantic love, platonic love, sexy love, and everything in between. So, games about love, basically, in some way or another. Some fail at presenting their view on love, some succeed, but all of them make love a central focus of at least a part of the game. But hey, let’s stop talking and fall in love with some games, shall we?
Chulip is a video game about consent. It’s also a video game about kissing enough people in order to gain the strength to survive a lightning bolt to the face.
Chulip is weird.
You play as a boy, who, after being rejected by the girl of his dreams, decides he has to kiss everyone in town to “strengthen his heart.” You do this by watching the daily lives of the people in town, who operate on a real-time schedule, and helping them out with their day to day lives. Once you make them happy, you can give them a kiss. If they aren’t happy, your kiss will be creepy-weird, and cause them to hit you.
Unfortunately, Chulip suffers from frustrating trial-and-error gameplay and a lack of direction. Infamously, one mission ends with your character getting struck by lightning, instantly killing you if you don’t have enough health. But the quality of the game itself aside, Chulip is fascinating as one of the few games that’s about having a positive relationship with the game world, rather than a destructive one. Hurting anyone emotionally deters or even ends your progress. Being a creep by playing on the swings at night will get you shot by cops. Kissing people who don’t want it will quickly lead to a game over. In order to progress, you need to build a positive, even loving relationship between you and the world.
But you should probably kiss someone in real life instead of playing Chulip.
Mass Effect 2:
Mass Effect broaches the subject of love in a few ways. There’s the obvious relationship options the game presents you with, characters your Commander Shepard can romance and bed during the adventure, each with a more embarrassing sex scene than the last. But the romantic love options will be explored in a later game on this very list, because Mass Effect 2 explores platonic love about a thousand times more effectively.
Essentially, Mass Effect 2 is a 20-hour long trust exercise, where success is measured by the strength of your relationships with your party. The final mission opens up fairly early on in the game. It’s easy to skip recruiting about half of your party, and go straight to the final boss after five or six hours of playtime. But your party will be slaughtered. Not because you aren’t a high enough level, but because your teammates don’t trust you.
Every party member you recruit can offer you a “loyalty mission”, in which you help them through some personal problem that might be distracting them while on the job to save the universe. You’re encouraged to build stronger bonds with your favourite party members so they don’t die in the final mission. And those deaths are permanent. Anyone who didn’t trust you enough is dead forever, including in Mass Effect 3. Additionally, you have to assign jobs to certain characters, and through getting to know them better, you’ll be able to make a more informed decision about who should be doing what. One wrong decision leads to a dead teammate, and no one wants that. Mass Effect 2 rewards forming relationships with these fictional characters. You’re supposed to get to know them, talk to them between missions, and help them with their personal issues, and for making friends and finding love, the game rewards you with a better ending.
Platonic love keeps you alive in space. As for romantic love...
Saint’s Row IV:
Saint’s Row is famous for being Grand Theft Auto’s wacky cousin. You know the one. They’re successful at what they do, but the older, more serious members of the family don’t really want to pay attention to them, lest it encourage them to act even wilder.But, unlike Grand Theft Auto, Saint’s Row doesn’t particularly want to be the grim, gritty reflection of society at its worst, it wants to have fun, and that means taking things a little less seriously.
Saint’s Row IV features a pretty extensive Mass Effect parody, down to the silver and blue spaceship that you can run around between missions. Of course, the ship is filled with your party members, and every single one can be romanced, regardless of sex, gender, orientation or humanity. It’s a goofy take on Mass Effect’s often derided romance options, which Saint’s Row reduces to a single button you press to ask the other character for some good space loving.
Where Mass Effect nails platonic relationships with a cast of characters most players end up wanting to hang out with, Saint’s Row points out that many players were just going through the romantic relationships for the ending sex scenes. But it also shines a light on a few things in its irreverence. For example, Mass Effect does essentially boil down any relationship more complicated than friendship down to a binary button prompt, rather than something more elaborate. Dating sims can afford to have a long drawn out courtship phase, Mass Effect really can’t.
Also, that Mass Effect severely limits the characters you Shepard can romance, and separates them by gender. In Mass Effect 3, A male Shepard can only romance certain female characters and one male, while a female Shepard can romance a handful of males and two female characters. In Mass Effect 2, there aren’t even any serious same-sex relationships at all. Shepard is meant to, at least partially, be an extension of yourself, and limiting your sexuality that way is pretty frustrating. Why can a female Shepard sleep with Liara but not Tali? Why can’t a male Shepard take his relationship with Garrus to the next level? Sure, certain characters may have predefined orientations, but does that mean aliens share our notions of sexuality? Can’t you at least make a move on them?
In a strange way, Saint’s Row IV is the single most progressive mainstream game when it comes to relationships. Your character can be male or female, sure, but also anything else you choose. They can be gay, straight, queer, into open relationships, pansexual, robosexual, whatever you choose. It’s a little bit sad that it took making fun of another game’s lack of progressiveness to get to the point where these this kind of inclusiveness is in a mainstream game, but at least we’re here at all.
Sort of like how Mass Effect tries to make an entire game about building multiple relationships, parts of Bioshock Infinite definitely want to make you fall in love with Elizabeth, your near-constant companion and combat partner.
Not only is Elizabeth constantly around you, she’s the focus of the story, and moonlights as an on-again, off-again damsel in distress. She can interact with the world in ways you can’t, like looking through windows and sitting on benches, making her feel more real, and her animations are significantly more detailed than anything else in the game. She revives you when you die, throws out ammo when you’re running low, by all accounts, she should be a characters players grow to like by the end of the game.
The problem is that she, like most things about Bioshock Infinite, is window dressing. She’s a spawn point for ammo and health packs, and her “deeper levels of interaction” amount to sitting on benches every once in a while. It’s a cute touch, but never once does the layer actually do anything to change their relationship without the story demanding it. Where the original Bioshock is a game about player agency, Infinite tries to show what happens when you take it away. Unfortunately for it, a game centered around any relationship that removes agency sort of nullifies the whole point of a relationship.
Infinite eventually comes around to revealing the nature of your character’s relationship with Elizabeth, but at that point it doesn’t matter. Your personal history with her as a player is entirely passive, the only choice you ever make with her is what kind of brooch should go on her necklace, which amounts to a big load of nothing. Whether or not removing player agency was part of the point of Infinite is up for debate, but your relationship with Elizabeth is meant to be the core of the game, and it’s pretty hard to fall in love when you don’t have a choice.