Tag Archives: Science fiction

How Detroit: Become Human Put an End to my Gaming Slump

I was hesitant about the idea that Detroit: Become Human would be the title that broke my gaming slump. I’m also hesitant to spend full price on any AAA game these days- especially something I’m not familiar with. The rhetoric from my most trusted reviewers (“wildcard” Youtubers Yahtzee Croshaw, Jim Sterling, & Angry Joe) was that David Cage games were pretentious orgies of QTE’s, resembling laughably-bad interactive movies rather than actual games. And the opinions of reviewers I tend to regard with suspicion (IGN & Gamespot) were that Cage’s body of work represented not only his staggering genius, but an entirely unique and innovative approach to storytelling. Perhaps the truth lay somewhere in the middle, I thought. Or perhaps it all depends on the kind of gamer you are. I knew right off the bat that I’d be sympathetic to Cage’s mission statement, since I always give a greater importance to story than to gameplay.

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I kept an eye on the promotional footage of Detroit up until its release and I was very impressed by its visuals. The game came out and I waited for the reviews. I just needed to hear that the story was decent. Androids were in vogue with me at the time, and it may just have been my joyful experiences of Blade Runner 2049 and Westworld season 2 that sealed the deal. I needed a rich world to get lost in. At the time I had no real outlet for escapism in my life. And I hadn’t played a game I really enjoyed since Horizon: Zero Dawn was released over a year ago.

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It seems strange that one could have a gaming “slump”, but I honestly can’t think of any other word for it. In 2016 I was staying up all hours of the night pursuing the platinum trophy for Fallout 4. My PS4 was the material embodiment of my laziness. I spent so much time running around the Commonwealth chopping off the heads of Gunners and Super Mutants with my electrified Chinese Officer’s Sword “Brunhilde” that the irradiated wasteland felt more real to me than my actual life. But fast-forward a year to mid-2017 and I’m unable to play anything for more than 20 minutes. I was bored of gaming, if you can believe it. I tried Mass Effect: Andromeda, and it was probably the worst gaming experience of my life. I’ve never felt so let down by a game. I then tried Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, and that left me somewhat lukewarm. I wondered if I was truly falling out of love with video games or if I simply couldn’t find the right one to play.

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I took a chance on Detroit: Become Human and my overall verdict is a pretty positive one. Is it a game so close to my heart that I end up taking it more seriously than my career prospects and personal hygiene? No. Unlike The Witcher 3 and Bioshock: Infinite, I won’t take it personally if you don’t like it. But did Detroit: Become Human restore my interest in gaming? Yes.

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There are a number of things this game executes very well. The musical score is excellent; each of the three playable characters has their own soundtrack, and each piece of music has a distinctive tone reflective of that character’s narrative. As I’m writing this review I’m listening to the moody cyberpunk-noir music composed by Nima Fakhrara for Connor’s storyline.

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The visuals for this game are also excellent- and on a number of levels. The artistic design depicts a Detroit that is both grittily-familiar and slickly-futuristic, and the raw imaginative power of the concept art is rendered beautifully in the game’s state of the art graphics. Every location feels unique and interesting- and more than that- like a place that is lived in. This is achieved by little details about the way everyday things function being given special attention. For instance, the blank-faced androids crowded in at the back of the buses, the way the signal on their foreheads changes color based on their stress level, the maintenance drones vacuuming the office carpets, the monorails, the articles on android basketball, and the CyberLife emporiums that look like a cross between an Apple Store and a 19th century slave auction. Perhaps my favorite locale was the urban farm you have to chase a deviant android through during “The Nest” chapter.

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In addition to the stunning environments, the facial animations in the game are as good as any you will see today. I haven’t been this impressed by a game’s use of motion-capture acting since L.A Noire back in 2011.

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So what do we know so far? We’ve established that the game is a success on a technical and artistic level. But what of the gameplay? Most of the game consists of making dialogue choices TellTale-style and executing a sequence of Quick-Time Events. The story is entertaining, but not without its flaws. It brushes up on some complex themes- such as the nature of consciousness, whether or not a loving relationship can be established between a human and a robot, and the rising economic inequality brought about by mass unemployment- without really going deeper into those issues. The game misses the chance to say something original and profound as it seems more interested in pursuing a clumsy civil rights allegory. The story is definitely exciting, but it also has a tendency towards contrived melodrama. I enjoyed the creepy vignette where the player character has to escape a house of synthetic horrors, but found myself laughing at scenes where the humans started acting inexplicably cruel towards random androids for the sake of melodrama.

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For me, the biggest drawback of the game is its implementation of motion controls. I didn’t mind them so much in Until Dawn, where you had to keep the controller as still as possible or face getting discovered by Native American demons intent on repurposing your jawbone as a coat-hook. That to me replicated quite well the tension of having to hold your breath, and therefore enhanced immersion. However the motion controls in Detroit are wholly unnecessary. They don’t add anything to the experience and their inclusion actually detracts from the sense of immersion. They suddenly pop up in the game’s action sequences and are finicky as all hell. So if the controller doesn’t register you moving it down in exactly the way it wants you to, your favorite character gets shot in the forehead. That’s what happened to me at least. A character’s death carries no emotional weight when it occurs not because of the player’s choice, but because the player wasn’t quick and accurate enough. And I became even less enthusiastic when the game rolled out another model of the android for me to play instead, because all of the character development I had taken a part in was wiped clean.

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In conclusion, I think I can only recommend this game based on what you’re looking for. The pace is slow to begin with, and the chapter in which you spend most of your time washing dishes and cleaning up vomit will definitely put off some gamers. They’re probably necessary components of the narrative’s atmosphere and pacing, but I can’t blame you if you switch off the Playstation and start watching Blade Runner 2049 instead. You’ll find a far superior story there too. But for what it’s worth, Detroit: Become Human does have some exciting moments- enough that I enjoyed the game and wanted to play it when I wasn’t doing so. If what you’re looking for is fun gameplay, then perhaps this game isn’t for you. I would recommend this game to those that simply enjoy science fiction stories, and have at least some tolerance for QTE’s. As for me, this game ultimately broke the dry spell I had endured for over a year, and ended up being interesting and immersive enough that it occupied my thoughts when I wasn’t playing it.

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Horizon: Zero Dawn’s Frozen Wilds DLC Is Beautiful

Horizon: Zero Dawn is my game of the year. There’s no other game of 2017 I’ve enjoyed anywhere near as much. I got it on March 1st and within a week I had the platinum trophy. It’s not a perfect game- and there are flaws to be found such as the lack of interesting side-quests and the somewhat empty feeling to its gorgeous cities. It falls short of the standard of The Witcher 3, but comparing any game to such a complete masterpiece feels a little unfair. Horizon: Zero Dawn stands as the best title I’ve played this year because of its excellent storytelling, voice acting and world building. Guerrilla Games’ vision of a post-apocalyptic Earth is resoundingly imaginative and the spectacular artistic design is realized with slick, cutting-edge graphics. And that’s where we reach the subject of today’s post. I recently played through the Frozen Wilds DLC and like the game proper it’s beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that I had to keep pausing the game during missions to indulge the Photo Mode. It’s quite fun actually. My idea for today’s post is not so much to review the game as to celebrate it. It’s my favorite game of the year, and I figured what better way to salute it than to share with you all a gallery of my favorite screenshots? All of these are taken by yours truly. Want a review of Frozen Wilds? Well here it is: if you liked HZD, this is basically just more of it.

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My trusty synthetic ram Hemingway, before he got his horns blown off by a rampaging Fire Bellowback (see below).

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I found that the DLC definitely ramped-up the challenge. One of my favorite aspects of the base game was the unique tactics required for each encounter. New enemies such as Scorchers and Frostclaws will throw you around like a rag doll.

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The game is set in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, north of where the base game takes place (Colorado & Utah). And I’m pretty sure what you see below is Devil’s Tower.

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This is an example of DLC done right. It’s reasonably priced and worth every penny. No Season Pass horseshit. Guerrilla Games took their time and crafted something designed wholly for the fans to enjoy.

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In preparation for this post I headed to Yellowstone’s famous geysers to take some photos only to get distracted and start harassing a peaceful herd of Tramplers…

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Thanks for reading! Let me know in the comments what games you had the most fun with this year!

Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick

In 1964 Philip K. Dick published the novel Martian Time-Slip. It’s the first of PKD’s works I’ve ever read, and I’m convinced that it’s my favorite thing I’ve read this year. I’m not sure how I avoided an author of the stature of PKD for so long- especially given how prolific he is. Most of you probably know him as the guy that wrote the novels The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?– both of which are ingrained into the public consciousness through successful adaptations to film and TV respectively. I was always aware of Philip K. Dick- you can’t really claim to be a voracious reader, particularly of science fiction, if you aren’t- but I had simply never been tempted to check him out before. This year I’ve made a return to science fiction and thoroughly enjoyed my reading of Robert A. Heinlein and Gene Wolfe. PKD is as big as it gets when it comes to science fiction, and despite passing away in 1982 his works are adored to this day by a large number of fans. He is one of those authors, like Franz Kafka or Flannery O’Connor, whose body of work is known for its distinctive style and atmosphere. His legacy is such that certain stories can be characterized Dick-esque. What an unfortunate term. But you get what I mean; the popular movie franchise The Matrix was famous for evoking the atmosphere of PKD stories. PKD was concerned with the themes of authoritarianism, the nature of reality, drugs, mental illness, transcendental experiences, and altered states of consciousness. These were the ideas he was obsessed with and continually explored throughout his vast bibliography, and all are present in The Martian Time-Slip.

I want you to read this book if you haven’t, so I will offer you a short premise of the plot with which to tease you. It’s the near-future (which, when this book was written, was the early 1990s) and an overpopulated Earth has started colonizing the solar system. Our story takes place on Mars- a cold, dry and arid world where isolated homesteaders live in various, independent colonies that each represents a vested interest back on Earth. The UN keeps the peace between them, but the de facto power on Mars is the powerful Water Works Union, headed up by the tyrannical Arnie Kott. The novel follows several characters that are each affected by Arnie’s lust for power: Jack- a schizophrenic repairman, Silvia- his lonely wife, Doreen- Arnie’s mistress, and Manfred- an autistic boy who is tortured with the memories of his future self in a potential timeline. The crux of the novel is about Arnie trying to use Manfred to see into the future and thereby further his own interests and maintain his corporate monopoly, and how this affects not just them, but everyone around him. The book presents a fascinating and memorable depiction of schizophrenia, and there are several passages where the nature of reality gets twisted. We are left wondering how much of it is strictly in the mind of the characters. I would argue that a central theme of this novel is communication. Silvia is lonely, addicted to drugs, and struggles to communicate and understand her husband. Jack’s passages are perhaps the most interesting as we see how difficult it is for him to communicate with others; there’s a haunting, nightmarish quality to the book’s portrayal of schizophrenia that is at once chilling and sensual. And much of the book’s action sees the various characters attempt to communicate and understand Manfred, who is non-verbal. I have two cousins who are autistic, and I myself was suspected of having ASD when I was a child, so I found the novel’s focus on autism as being a communicative impasse to be very interesting. Obviously, the book was written in the early 60’s, so I wouldn’t come to this book with the hope of truly learning anything about autism, but it’s just interesting to see someone write about it from that time.

But why did I love this book so much? The first post I ever made on this blog was a review of The Fifth Head of Cerberus and like this one, it was a book of philosophical complexity that explored interesting ideas. However that book was not really a page-turner; I enjoyed it the same way I enjoy William Faulkner- it was fulfilling, enriching and it left me with the feeling of having completed a mental workout. What was so special about Martian Time-Slip was how much of a page-turner it was for me. Sometimes the more complex science fiction novels fall in to the trap of excising the human element of the story. The Fifth Head of Cerberus was great but it was also bleak and unsentimental. What I love about Martian Time-Slip is that not only is it highly nuanced and thought-provoking, but it’s a book with a lot of heart. I found myself deeply invested in the characters and their situation, and I read this book very quickly. It was the kind of book where you stay up another half-hour in bed and squeeze out one more chapter, because you have to know what will happen next and whether your favorite character will be ok. And that’s why, so far, this book is probably my favorite that I have read this year. I will definitely pursue more of Philip K. Dick’s work.

 

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Any other PKD fans out there? Let me know in the comments what your favorite novel of his is! If you enjoyed this post and want to see more content like this, please consider giving me a Like or Subscribe. Thanks for reading!

10 Reasons Why I Won’t Be Getting A Mass Effect: Andromeda Sequel

I feel like a little preface is needed here before I get into the juicy meat of what readers will know from the outset to be a very negative blog post. I want to say first and foremost that it saddens me that I have to write an article like this; the fanboy inside of me feels a touch of guilt at criticizing a game developer that has brought me such joy down the years. In fact, Bioware has been my go-to developer for games since I was about 12, and has served as a guarantee of excellent storytelling and engaging dialogue. Those nearest and dearest to me know that my favorite all time video game is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I have also enjoyed Jade Empire, SWTOR (even though I dislike MMO’s as a general rule) and of course, the Mass Effect trilogy. I got Mass Effect for Christmas 2007 after following its development online for about a year before it came out (so I guess I can claim to like it before it was cool?). I enjoyed all three games, and even though the ending of Mass Effect 3 was underwhelming, it didn’t ruin the experience for me. I’m also a Mako apologist. So I was shocked at how much I disliked the latest edition of the franchise. I figured it would at least be fun, if not transcendental. But the game was often painful for me to play, and I eventually found I could only tolerate the game in little increments, playing for about half an hour before retreating to my couch to read some Gabriel Garcia Marquez and remind myself what an engrossing narrative felt like. Which couldn’t be a starker contrast to my experience of the original trilogy. I remember when I got the Mass Effect 2 collector’s edition- it was a rainy day in 2010, and college was broken up for Easter break. I had overslept and missed the mailman, but once I saw his note to collect it before the post office shut at lunchtime, I grabbed this relic of the 1970s- a vintage raincoat I had bought on eBay- and ran outside without so much as a glass of water to wake myself up. I played that game all day without break. Anyway, the purpose of this far-too-long introduction is to convince you that I am not just some cynical hater. I also want to completely disassociate myself from those shit-lickers of the internet that blame the game’s failure on a feminist conspiracy to make the female characters ugly, and take it upon themselves to harass Bioware employees on Twitter with sexist abuse. Firstly- all the characters in this game are ugly, and none of them deliberately so- and secondly, as iconic as bending one’s crewmates over a Dejarik table and going at them with all the grace of a randy street dog in heat is to the series, it hardly constitutes the crux of the experience. This is really just the routine foaming-at-the-mouth of the kind of Alt-Right nerds that, if they ever left their sun-starved grottos and interacted with a real woman, would just as likely spontaneously combust as they would be able to formulate a coherent sentence. Right? Okay. Let’s get started.

 

#1 Bland Characters

I can’t remember being so disinterested in getting to know my NPC’s as in Mass Effect: Andromeda. In previous Bioware installments- be it Dragon Age Origins or SWTOR– I remember being excited at the prospect of chewing the fat with my party members at the end of each mission. Every squad member seemed original, unique and nuanced. In Mass Effect 2 and 3 I loved the loyalty missions for Miranda, who had this intriguing backstory with a well-crafted inner conflict (dealing with her nature as a person that was genetically designed to be perfect, and yet being as flawed, vulnerable and human as anyone else) and outer conflict (her crazy, megalomaniac father). And the ability to romance her was intertwined with this narrative in a very organic way, as opposed to the romancing of Cora in Andromeda, where the characters will say something sexually suggestive out of nowhere, in a sad and sinister reflection of how most RPG nerds assume courting works. The bad dialogue in this game is perhaps its own point, but is reflective of the bad characterization. Every time Drack or Peebee opened their mouths I groaned. Peebee in particular I found to be mind-numbingly irksome, and every time I passed by the escape pods and a voice would call out demanding that we talk, I kept right on walking. Maybe that invalidates my opinion on her character if I never pursued her loyalty mission, but I think it’s a point against the game if the motivation isn’t even there for me to get to know her. As for Drack, I found that everything he said just devolved to this generic grizzled old-timer cliché. He didn’t advance the Krogan species beyond the stereotype of being plainspoken and addicted to acts of unspeakable violence. The series’ inability to qualify this in any way is a waste of potential, and Drack by extension felt boring. He seems like a hollow shell compared to Grunt- the Krogan warrior from Mass Effect 2. Grunt had an interesting and poignant life story- grown in a test tube by a mad scientist, whom he feels a complex father-son relationship with, and subsequently shunned as an “abomination” by his people- and so it felt like his rage was all his own, it felt real, rather than just the typical Krogan “badass” whose rage comes included with his shotgun.

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#2 Technical Issues

This game was glitchy as hell at launch. I know they have released a patch since then that has smoothed out some of these bugs, but it is still flummoxing how a game 5 years or so in the making can be cleared for release with so many problems. Mass Effect Andromeda is by no means unique in this regard, and it is representative of a wider problem in AAA gaming of big titles being released fraught with issues. But Andromeda really does test one’s patience for these hiccups. The bugs were far too regular throughout the game; it seemed like every firefight I was in something would happen. Most common to my experience was having enemies float fifty feet in the air and remain there whilst we gunned them down. I also saw enemies glitch into walls and solid objects, leading me to be curious as to why the combat music was still going on whilst there were no enemies in sight. They would remain there protected from our attacks and presumably suffocating. The most aggravating of these issues (and I am referring here only to ones that would regularly occur; these are by no means anomalies) was the tendency of button prompts to vanish into thin air. More than once I could see the game would be directing me toward a computer terminal or an elevator switch, but there would be no means of accessing it. In order to progress through the game I had to reload my save, do the necessary gunfights again, and sure enough the means to interact with these objects would appear as if they had been there all along. Not cool.

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#3 The Fucking Scanning

Seriously, fuck this. I hated it in Mass Effect 2 and I hate it even more now. Not only have Bioware imported perhaps the worst aspect of the original trilogy, they have actually one-upped themselves by making it even more annoying with the addition of completely arbitrary space flight cinematics. This is the kind of nauseating vexation I expect from Hello Games, not the creator of role-playing nirvana (KOTOR). There is no sense of exploration and adventure to be had here, only an opportunity for players to put down their controllers during the loading screens and check up on their more worthwhile exploits, namely Tinder and Clash of Clans. That was my experience anyway- a total break in immersion. It was like the game was asking me to stop playing it.

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#4 The One-Dimensional Enemies

Although I applaud Bioware’s attempts to change the combat from cover-based monotony to something more tactical- particularly with the addition of the vertically brought about by the jetpack- they have fallen short in providing any memorable encounters in a setup that could have offered a plethora of possibilities. I’m gonna have to refer to Horizon: Zero Dawn here for an example of how to do in-game enemy design right. Each encounter in that game gave a sense immersive, swashbuckling excitement to it. Each enemy had a different set of behavior and required a different set of tactics. The range of weapons on hand and techniques available to take down these enemies was excellent. The encounters themselves were varied- one could find herds of giant robots grazing on a dusty mesa and go about taking them down with the feeling of a trained huntress, one could infiltrate a compound of bandits and take them out with the stealth and skill of the assassins of games such as Dishonored and Assassin’s Creed, one could stalk a massive animatronic stegosaurus through a dense jungle and feel the satisfaction of taking it down, or one could ambush a convoy of armored bots passing through a narrow canyon in the night and steal their cargo. All of these were challenging and above all rewarding. I remember being excited in Mass Effect: Andromeda seeing an enormous sperm-shaped robot in the distance flying above a crystal lake, only to find that taking it down was less a test of our wits and more of our endurance. The Remnant Architects are nothing more than bullet-sponges that you have to wear down in tiny increments in between dashing behind futuristic grain elevators. The enemies felt dated and uninteresting. Encounters such as those Kett lieutenants with the circling orb things were annoying not because they were especially challenging and nuanced (See Bloodborne etc.), but because there was no sense of chandelier-swinging heroism in simply wearing down that stupid bot and hoping I had timed the reloading of my ammo so as to get enough shots in before the bastard raised his shields again. Like I said, the encounters felt dated and simplistic.

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#5 Choices

Something that I think is absolutely iconic to the identity of the Mass Effect franchise is decision making. It’s what made the original trilogy so immersive. You could really feel the weight of every decision on your conscience; I was an emotional wreck leaving Kaidan Alenko (voiced by the inimitable Raphael Sbarge aka Carth Onasi) behind to die on Virmire. It seemed like every mission- even side quests- would present us with a complex and interesting choice that would occupy our minds long after we finished playing. There are simply too many to list. However Andromeda offered none of this. The only decision I can even remember making was that bit on the Kett starship where you have to choose between saving the Krogan prisoners or the Salarian swat team. After realizing I didn’t honestly care, I chose to save the Salarians. And the payoff I got was a grateful pat on the bum from the Salarian Pathfinder and my Krogan teammate Drack getting passive aggressive and snarky with me for about 15 minutes. This obviously pales in comparison to the confrontation with Wrex in Mass Effect and the whole Genophage situation in Mass Effect 3. He just seemed mildly irritated with me, like I had gone and eaten the pasta salad he’d made for work the next day. There was no decision in this game even remotely heart-wrenching.

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#6  Game Design

This is perhaps the most famous criticism of the game, that the facial animations are, shall we say, substandard. In an age where we are gifted works of art like The Witcher 3 and Horizon: Zero Dawn, interacting with the NPC’s of the Andromeda galaxy feels like we have gone back in time 10 years. A decade has passed since the original Mass Effect came out and I’m not sure the faces have gotten even a little bit better. But these criticisms have been so well documented by now that it feels like beating off a dead horse (or however that phrase goes). Anyway, there are other aspects of the game design, both technical and aesthetic, that I take issue with. Firstly, what the hell is up with those doors? The doors in this game take way too long to open. It’s laughable. The doors in Kadara Port and on the god-awful Tempest stand out the most to me, and I have observed other players complain about them as well. Overall, I just was not awed or enchanted by the level design or the character design. This was meant to be a new, exotic galaxy. One would hope to be sufficiently wowed by what they see. I remember watching Angry Joe’s review of the game, and something he said stuck out in particular to me. It was something along the lines of “why aren’t we fighting crystal-based lifeforms and cyborgs with the lower bodies of spiders?”. I realized then that other people were having the same reaction to the Andromeda galaxy as I was having. I couldn’t help but be bored with the alien species we met- of which there are only two I may add. The sense of wonder is completely broken by the Angara, who look like Twi-leks, walk like they have rickets, and talk with these ridiculous working-class British accents. Then there are the Kett, who I personally found to be both very dull and clichéd in both their appearance and their culture. The non-sentient beasts in this game are even worse, and look like they would be better suited to a light-hearted fantasy MMORPG. I don’t know if this bothered anyone else, but I got especially exasperated at seeing the same fauna on different planets with different ecosystems. The animals themselves didn’t seem to reflect their environment, or what may make their particular planet unique. For instance, on the ice planet, which your party members will remind you how cold it is every 10 seconds, there are these colorful lizards playing in the snow- something which to me seemed completely at odds with their habitat.

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#7 Fetch Quests

This is an issue I have been wrestling with for a while now- and not just in relation to Mass Effect: Andromeda. I took issue with it in Fallout 4, when every adventure boiled down to bloody Preston Garvey telling me (the supposed General) to go to the next burnt-out burger joint and horrifically murder the poor bastards squatting there so we can survive the apocalypse there instead. Andromeda echoes this trend of open world games turning into single player MMO’s. Are developers running out of ideas? Or are they just lazy- producing what we might call “game filler” to insist there will be over 200 hours of adventure ahead, and therefore plenty of justification for the 60 dollar price tag? Well, for an example on how to do rewarding side quests that give players content with some actual emotional resonance and gameplay variety- see The Witcher 3. Once I realized I was getting a paltry return for my time invested in the game’s side quests, I stopped giving a damn and ploughed through the main story. The mission log in Andromeda felt like a to-do list of inane chores. The quest that sticks out to me as the best example of this is in fact one of the first the game gives you. When you are on the Nexus, you are tasked with solving the galaxy’s first murder. However all this boils down to is talking to some guy in a holding cell, going to the nearest desert planet and scanning some evidence on the ground. It was like the game was afraid of trying to produce something really creative. This is in stark contrast to the legendary side quests of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which had faith that gamers could be entertained without shooting waves of Furbies or looting chests full of ankle bracelets. For instance, in that game, on the planet Dantooine, one is treated to a mission to solve a complex murder by interrogating several suspects and cross-examining their stories. Later in the game, there is another awesome side quest where you have to solve a well-written murder involving political intrigue and a clandestine romance on the water world of Manaan. Seriously, walking around the crime scene, interrogating the employees at the futuristic motel, and getting genuinely creeped out that forces beyond my power to see were about to stove in my head with a two-by-four made me feel like Karl Malden circa The Streets of San Francisco.

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#8 Dialogue

This kind of relates to point #5 a little bit. At first I was optimistic about Bioware’s removal of the Paragon-Renegade system. I recognized that players of the previous games would decide beforehand that they would embark on a “Renegade playthrough”, and that in essence, all the choices would be made for them right then and there during character creation, as they would spend the rest of the game being as much of a bell-end as possible in order to get the best bonuses. I was ready to welcome in a dialogue system more akin to Tell-Tale’s The Walking Dead, which would place players in the heat of the moment and give them more morally-complex decisions to make. How naïve I was! As we have already covered, there are little to no meaningful choices in the game. The dialogue system as a whole feels messy and actually kind of unnecessary. There is little variation in response or consequence depending on what you say, and there is little if any variety in interesting conversational options to choose from. It reminded me of Fallout 4 insofar as the conversations felt bland, with our protagonist unable to say anything truly malevolent or shocking. The most we were offered with Ryder was to make some painful attempt at lightening the mood. I have observed other gamers quite rightly taking issue with the contrived humor of the protagonist and his mates, who waste no time in completely detracting from any sense of a tense and thrilling atmosphere by spouting off asinine, non sequitur remarks and quips. Nothing that anyone says in the game seems to reflect what might be called believable human behavior, not in the way they romance each other or criticize each other. Also SAM. SAM needs to shut the hell up. I almost felt like the developers were trolling me as Ryder’s AI companion would narrate the rise and fall in the environment’s temperature every ten yards (no exaggeration) on that blasted ice planet.

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#9 Unoriginality

We’ve gone all the way to Andromeda…but it feels like we haven’t moved an inch. The game has the feel of being written by someone who has maybe played a Mass Effect game before and has subsequently found him or herself in the role of head writer, but would perhaps be better suited to something else, like sound editing…or possibly meatpacking. The possibilities for this game were endless. We could have been a space gangster, a scientist, a missionary for a bizarre futuristic religion, or perhaps a Drell assassin. Why can’t we be a Drell? Why are there no Drell in the game for that matter? We could have been a different species, following the suit of the character design of games like The Elder Scrolls or SWTOR. We could have been a part of a different strata of the galactic society, instead of a paramilitary super soldier again. It seems like the writers were given a template of how a Mass Effect game should be; the Asari biotic, the no-nonsense Krogan, the quirky pilot, the spunky female in her skin-tight jumpsuit. Then there’s the Ebon Hawk- I mean…Normandy- clone, the Tempest, which looks awful by the way. All this game did was remind me of what the previous games did better, the only saving grace of its utterly contrived, inorganic and poorly-edited scenes being that it prompted me to go on Youtube and revisit some of the classic moments of the original trilogy.

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#10 The Sequel Tease

The original Mass Effect was a well-paced, expertly crafted story that was tight and self-contained. It left room for a sequel, but it also had its own beginning, middle and end. It worked because it pulled out all the stops and tried to tell the best story it could, without assuming it would be a hit and spawn more sequels, comics, novelizations etc. down the line. Whereas this game, based solely on its aesthetic continuity of the old series, assumes we will be invested in a sequel. The story feels incomplete, existing merely as just a sequence of events, none of them adding up to a greater arc. I won’t spoil too much, but anyone that has played the game can see that there is very clearly a sequel in mind, and that brings me to the whole point of this article- I’m not sure it deserves one. Right now, as I’m typing in the bar code of my copy of the game into MusicMagpie to try and get some cash back for it, I can’t help but think that Bioware should draw a line under it. It might be harsh to say, and those of you who bothered to read my little introductory paragraph will remember that I don’t say it lightly, but I think the game should exist as the equivalent of the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special– a failed experiment.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

Like the novel with which it will be discussing, this review-come-journal entry will be apportioned into three distinct parts. In the first, I shall discuss how Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus ended up on my reading river, in the second I’ll give a spoiler-free profile of the book and what to expect, and in the third I will be offering some analysis and interpretation of the content therein. That way, I feel like I can write something that is inclusive to both those who have read the book and those I hope to tempt to pick it up on their next bookstore and fro-yo run.

Why Wolfe?

I got my copy of the book in a little store called Fopp in Bristol, England- which is near to where I currently live. It was December of 2016 and I had just that afternoon gone to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story at the local movie theater with my kid brother. We had a few minutes before our ride home would be ready to meet us, and so we decided to hit up this small indie store that sells DVDs, CDs and such for a discounted price. There is a small section of books and I went over to check them out as we enjoyed the warmth the store offered us from the frigid outdoors. By the time our ride had come I was leaving Fopp with three books under my arm. They each cost five pounds- which is pretty damn good for a book these days. My purchases were as follows: Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Martian Time Slip by Philip K. Dick, and The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe. Back in the day I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy. I considered it my primary genre and would now and then dip into the classics of literary fiction for the purposes of gaining some knowledge of what I then considered to be the “essence” of something timeless; the craft and structural engineering of writing about the human condition. I read books like Dune by Frank Herbert and I wrote what my grandma called “space stories”. But then around the age of 18 or so, I abandoned science fiction altogether. I shed myself of it like a rotting carapace and never looked back. I focused exclusively on non-genre fiction and developed a particular worship for the works of Literary Realism. Why this sudden metamorphosis occurred I don’t really know, but perhaps no book was more influential on me- and more indicative of my new literary appetite- than Henry Miller’s outrageously debauched (and horrifically mistitled) novella Quiet Days in Clichy. It’s a fictionalized memoir of the author’s days as a struggling writer in Paris- and I won’t go too much into it here- but my days spent reading it on the bus I took to college marked the event horizon so to speak, of my abandonment of science fiction. Several years later and it is Christmastime 2017. There is a change in the winds. In recent months I have been craving some science fiction. I bought this book and Martian Time Slip in December but I didn’t start reading them right away. No, my return to reading science fiction actually came in the audio book version of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starman Jones– which I decided was a better use of my insomnia than watching endless videos of Shaqtin’ a Fool and Zero Punctuation on Youtube. I have taken a much more disciplined approach to reading recently (a subject that, perhaps, deserves its own blog post). In short, I found that being in a constant and continuous state of reading helps to keep me fulfilled and to keep the gnawing mongrels of anxiety at bay. The most effective and enjoyable way of achieving this, I discovered, was to share my reading adventures and keep myself accountable to an online blog. And that is the long version of how I ended up reading Gene Wolfe last week!

Six-limbed lobotomites, cannibalistic aborigines, & those robobrain things from Fallout. What’s not to like?

I took the time, before reading, to look over the introduction and the little bio they have for the author. What struck me straight away was that Gene Wolfe was an industrial engineer by trade. In fact, during the 1960s he developed the machine that cooks Pringles and ensures their hyperbolic paraboloid curvature. So I wondered for a minute if I might be in for one of those heavily scientific, hardboiled science fiction novels. But this was not so. I encountered much more scientific theory in Heinlein’s Starman Jones– in which every action was preceded by a paragraph of explanation. The descriptions of space travel- however dated they may seem to modern readers- I remember were very intricate. The Fifth Head of Cerberus felt like the opposite approach. Robot prison guards passed by without any exposition- and I liked it. There was something fleeting about Wolfe’s insights into the world he created, and there was no assumption on the part of the text that we wanted even the slightest clue into the more superficial details of its inner workings. Starcrossers are repeatedly referred to as being the primary mode of interplanetary transport, but since the specifics of their engines are a vestigial element to the story, Wolfe doesn’t waste our time going on about them. This brings me to what, in a nutshell, The Fifth Head of Cerberus is about. Well for starters, it’s actually three stories that coalesce thematically. When I first got it, I expected it to be a singular plot with three overlapping perspectives. I then learned, after finishing the first novella, from which the book derives its title, that it had been published a year or so earlier in Orbit 10, an anthology edited by one of SF’s legendary grandfathers- Damon Knight. After being advised to expand upon this novella, Wolfe then added the two other stories that make up the book. It is true that each story is a tight, self-contained narrative and that each stands up on its own. However, having now finished the book, it is clear that it can be read very much as a cohesive whole. While there may not be any long passages pertaining to quantum physics and futuristic mechanics, this is not by any means a casual or an easy read. It’s a book of absolutely exorbitant depth and boundless complexity. Many people who enjoy Wolfe confess to having read the book several times. Online there exist forums in which readers debate the subtext and the mysteries within. I think the best adjective to describe the book is “layered” . There’s a plethora of subtle repetitions and motifs that contribute to the creation of mysteries that will occupy the reader’s thoughts long after he or she has put the book down. And that’s what made reading this novel such a rewarding experience for me. Although it may be slow in some parts- and for sure it is not a “page turner”- the payoff at the end is very fulfilling. I could spend hours going over the little details hidden away in this book, or reading through the analyses of others in internet forums. I enjoyed this book. It was a sinister, disturbing narrative of two French-inflected human colony planets that orbit each other. It’s crazy imaginative and just plain crazy.

The Fifth Head of Bookworm

I will assume at this point that those reading this section are Wolfe fans and those who, like me, are interested in getting the interpretations of other readers upon completing the book. It’s definitely one of those layered stories- like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury– that the instant you finish it you start mashing your thumbs into the Google search bar of your phone just to see if you “read it right”. I wanted to know what I was missing- since there is no way, as a first time reader of Wolfe, having read the book only the once, and having to power through some of the less thrilling sections, that I was going to pick up every little nuance of this absolute behemoth of creativity. And of course, there’s the fact that the mystery of the fate of the aboriginal Annese and the true identity of the John Marsch character are never explicitly revealed at the end. This is a novel in which the answers are given to you piecemeal throughout in little clues and hints. It is a novel which punishes the lazy reader. The completion of the novel requires a very active role on the part of the reader, insofar that the inferences made by the reader are a crucial element of the story. Therein lies the genius of Wolfe, and this, I think, is why I have seen his fans refer to him with such adoration as to liken him to the Michael Jordan of his field. To Wolfe fans, he is the GOAT, and I have seen no shortage of superlatives attached to his name. I’m not gonna go that far, but I will agree that you’d be hard pressed to find a science fiction novel that outmatches it in literary ambition. We marvel at the artful structure of the book and rightly so. The piece of evidence I have seen most fans draw attention to as proof of Marsch’s being an “abo” is the wound he sustains in “V.R.T” by the feral cat, which every time the narrator brings it up seems more and more like an excuse for his shabby handwriting- a trait firmly established earlier in the story being the natives’ poor grasp of hand tools. Of course there’s a mountain of other clues that reinforce this, such as the long gap in the Doctor’s journal after the boy supposedly dies. However this whole discussion is rendered somewhat obsolete by Gene Wolfe’s confirmation in an interview that a “Shadowchild” had replaced John Marsch. I think- at least based on my own reading of the text- that the version wherein the Annese are NOT extinct and where the real John Marsch died in that gorge in the outback is the only real conclusion we are encouraged to reach, as opposed to the more psychological interpretation that examines the events as a kind of hallucinatory parable. The doubt, I believe, is meant to reflect the uncertainty of the characters within the book. In my opinion (let me know if you agree!) the narrator in the closing stages of the book is not certain himself that he is either John Marsch or the beggar’s son.  I have seen other readers mention the way several passages at the end seem to mesh together, dreamlike, and it becomes hard to determine whose head we are in. Although I believe that the beggar’s boy has replaced John Marsch, I don’t think he is knowingly deceiving those around him. I think he believes that he is Marsch, and that we see him struggle with his sense of identity during the latter stages of his solitary confinement in the Citadel. The novel had likened the Annese to being kind of half-animal in the second novella, and later in “V.R.T” the narrator even describes himself as such when he pens his legal defense. Therefore, my interpretation of the boy’s shapeshifting process is that it is an instinctive, natural one, rather than some cunning scheme. Maybe I’m wrong. The real mystery that persists, I believe, is whether the beggar’s son murdered John Marsch in that gorge or whether the death was an accident. I have to admit that the boy’s earlier declaration that he would love to be an anthropologist (and the Doctor’s informing him of the many years of work it would take) does offer some hint of premeditation. What do you think?

 

Verdict

I don’t know if it is so easy to give a numerical score to something as nuanced as a novel, but just for fun I’ll go ahead and give it a rating. On a scale of one to ten, one being 50 Shades of Puke and ten being Faulknerian perfection, I’d give it an 8.7! Definitely worth your time if you like unconventional science fiction mysteries!