Unless you’ve been living in a cage, you know that the scribes are holding the entertainment world hostage. The Writer’s Guild of America Strike that began on November 5th continues to this date, and all we’ve felt so far are the ripple impacts that precede the vacuum. Many television shows will likely have incomplete seasons. 2009 films are being pushed back to 2010. Late night talk show hosts are revealing just how reliant they are on someone else’s words with varying degrees of improv. It’s enough to drive a viewer to drink… or, perhaps, to video games.
From the viewers’ perspective, this stalemate between the writers and the powers-that-be is only beginning to be felt. Soon, great shows like Lost will exhaust the scripts they have in the can, and will truly be “lost” without new episodes, leaving everyone dangling on a cliffhanger (okay, nothing new there). Unscripted reality shows are on the rise to fill the void, which is like putting out an entertainment fire with gasoline. Instead of reruns, we get the entertainment equivalent of Chinese water torture that is American Gladiators or Dance War. Thankfully, I found a good script in an unlikely place, that my wife and I are presently enjoying as much as television and movies. With the ever-growing black hole of the strike sucking the life out of cinema and the tube, this surrogate is filling the void nicely, with the added benefit of controlling aspects of the story ourselves.
Let’s be clear; I don’t play video games. I own Frogger and Ms. Pac Man, but save for classic 80s arcade games I am a gaming ignoramus. My two best friends work in the gaming industry testing games for their paycheck and spending it on World of Warcraft subscriptions and Guitar Hero 3. I was recently meeting with an aspiring film and theology teacher who commended my ability to “keep my finger on the pulse of culture”, but culture – like an XBox controller – just has too many buttons for me to keep my fingers on. Thanks to a friend with a GameCube, I did venture into zombie territory with my wife to play Resident Evil 4. It worked out well that we played together, passing the control back and forth; turns out she was sharp with the sniper rifle, but I was classier in close quarters. This also facilitated fun time together with my wife, instead of being a video zombie transfixed on individual play.
So, with nothing more on television than the grimace and scowl of Simon Cowell, my wife Kat and I borrowed a copy of Mass Effect… from a friend who actually worked on the production of the game itself. It’s been a rollicking adventure that plays on our similarities and differences, wrapped in a vast science fantasy story as rich and vast as anything Star Trek or Star Wars has to offer. Mix in a story impacted by your choices and the obvious gunplay and you’ve got a tantalizing experience that might make television less interesting to return to.
Mass Effect’s plot comes straight from the stuff of intergalactic cinema; in the year 2183, human society has spread beyond the borders of Earth, maintaining a fragile alliance with alien species. Amid this galactic turmoil, an alien gains control of an ancient technology which he plans on using to subjugate the galaxy. Scarred veteran Commander Shepard and the crew of the SSV Normandy must thwart the overarching plot by Saren while also juggling promotion, politics, skirmishes in other solar systems, emergency calls from remote locations, and conspiracies at the galactic citadel. Shepard experiences a nightmarish vision of impending doom, and the return of an ancient race. The narrative has a wider scope than many film trilogies, and will likely result in about 30-40 hours of play.
Let’s talk visuals; in a world that loves computer animated films like Shrek, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, this game plays in a lavish landscape that looks more like these films than its pixelated arcade ancestors. You almost forget it’s animation, or a video game. Just check out the trailer. The voice-work is compelling with some known acting talent, from Robot Chicken’s Seth Green to Aliens Lance Henrickson and beyond.
I confess, the game controls are beyond me… but this actually comes in handy. Turns out my lovely bride likes the shooting portion of the game, but not the RPG sections where there is a lot of talking and fact-finding. Me? I like the story, so we hand the controller back and forth between conversation and combat. The truly astounding thing is the malleability of the story; you can respond in multiple ways during every conversation, with friend and foe – these often range between a soft, nice-guy answer, a matter-of fact statement, or harsh and provocative words. This can impact the flow of the story (from your relationships with the authorities, the ladies, your compatriots and your enemies). You can select different members of your crew to take on away missions, which also affects the story flow. You can choose to let enemies live, or sanction them without mercy.
These accruing decisions give your character… well, character, ranging from boy scout to renegade. It’s like deciding if you’re Luke Skywalker or Han Solo, Superman or The Punisher. For instance, you can help an enterprising alien at a casino cheat the machines, or offer to “help” and then turn his device into the authorities. You even earn personality points in either direction which enable you to alternately “charm” or “intimidate” people you encounter. Do you want to be loved, or feared, or play your character in the muddled middle? Depending on what sequence you embark on certain missions, folks you rescue may be thankful, helpful allies or starved, crazed liabilities. I suppose die-hard gamers will play the game multiple times to find all the variations. I’m just pleased with the ability to inject a bit of myself into the protagonist, an extra way of relating to – even shaping – the hero, which you don’t experience in film.
Gaming is a powerhouse force in entertainment. Statistically, there are more women over the age of 18 that play video games than there are male gamers under the age of 17. There are millions of game players, from kids to mature adults. Naive christians can’t just assume all gamers are geeks with their pants down and tell people to grow up and quit playing video games; humor aside (which most gamers can appreciate) saying things like that just means we don’t know our culture. I don’t know that I’ll ever be into online games and XBox like some of my peers, but it’s an illuminating experience to see what it’s all about. Games that engender interaction like Guitar Hero, or playing games with my wife as described above, so that it is a communal experience, can make for even more relationship building than a darkened movie theater… but I digress, look for more on intentional, “entertainment community” in my next post.
Heck, if Hollywood and the writers can’t mend their relationship, I can always switch from Netflix to Gamefly.