Thursday, May 17th, 2012

Fuzzy Nation
Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The story behind this book is almost as interesting as the one in it. It essentially started as a piece of personal fan fiction based on a beloved sci-fi novel which the author liked so much that he went and got permission from the various rights-holders to publish it. And for fanfic, it’s really good.

In general, I’m a fan of Scalzi’s work. I enjoyed his Old Man’s War series, I read his blog religiously, I read the film column he had for a couple years, I read the random short stories he sometimes pops up with on Tor.com, etc. I think he’s a good writer with a knack for finding a good story. His stuff is always good fun for light-reading days.

And Fuzzy Nation is no exception. It’s probably as good as the original (which I read when Scalzi announced the publication of his own Fuzzy book and linked to the original on Project Gutenberg), though I don’t like Scalzi’s twist at the end which felt way too deus-ex-machina to me.

But that one nitpick aside, Fuzzy Nation is very entertaining and easy to read. I would highly suggest it as a nice pick-me-up during the upcoming dog days of summer. You could probably read the whole thing in an afternoon on the beach and you’d feel pretty good about it.

Note: My previous “review”, lamenting the “Face Bug” is also available. Similarly, the tribute video I made for my ME1/ME2 Kate Shepard is available on YouTube.

This is a much more serious review of the game.


Spoilers Abound Below This Line


We come to it at last. The conclusion of Mass Effect.

The series began with an innovative and highly-praised RPG-with-shooter-elements that set a new benchmark for player choices, in-game dialog, and videogame world-building.

It continued into a highly-praised shooter-with-RPG-elements that set a new benchmark for game-world-changes-based-on-actions-in-a-previous-game1 and planet scanning while continuing and improving on much of the dramatic and cinematic work of its predecessor.

With millions of players heavily invested in a personalized story and a unique Commander Shepard (not to mention the first and second games having Metacritic scores of 91% and 96%, respectively), this final piece of the trilogy had some gigantic expectations to fulfill.

And in many ways, Bioware succeeded. The game is filled with touching moments from the friends Shepard (and the player) has made over the years. From incidental things like Garrus lamp-shading his constant gun calibration or Vega and Garrus trying to prove who’s a bigger bad-ass or Garrus and Joker swapping human and Turian jokes (Garrus is something of a fan favorite, especially to this fan) to plot-significant stuff like both Mordin and Legion getting fantastic death scenes, there’s a lot of closure for these characters.

And even when it doesn’t exactly provide closure (because not every story necessarily closes), the game gives you an excellent sense of where these characters are now and how far that might be from where they’ve come.

A good example of this sort of thing is Tali. When we met her five years ago, she was (presumably) a fresh-faced kid just starting out on her road to adulthood by proving her worth to her people. Now, she’s an admiral of the Quarian Fleet with a place to call home on Rannoch. We even watch her get drunk and possibly start a relationship with Garrus. It’s great.

In many parts of the game, the narrative structure is so solid and impactful that it made me stop short when I finally realized the one dreadful fact about the game: Mass Effect 3 was released unfinished.

I suppose the first instance of this is the famed “Face Bug” that was only fixed a month after the game was released. With no sense of hyperbole, I found this bug to be devastating. Over the course of the past two games, I’d developed a genuine emotional attachment to my Kate Shepard. I knew how she felt about things. I knew who she liked, disliked, and loved. I knew that she’d always do the right thing even when it wasn’t the easiest way. Kate was the sort of person who wouldn’t abandon her mission or her friends, even overcoming death to do right by the galaxy.

So when the game wouldn’t let me import her the way I knew her? Yeah. That made me angry. It felt like Bioware saw no value in the emotional engagement they’d created between me and this character. I didn’t even play the game for a couple of weeks while I waited for a patch to come out. Finally, when no patch was forthcoming, I loaded up Mass Effect 2, posed my Shepard so I could see every angle, and snapped pictures of the TV screen. My artist-spouse then spent a good hour in the M3 character creator rebuilding Kate as well as could be managed. We joked that Shepard had had some work done; but it only gave us hollow laughter.

To make it worse, there’s no reason this bug should even exist. I’m a software developer who works with professional QA folk every day and I know how they think. It’s inconceivable that the QAs at Bioware wouldn’t have written a test case that says “Fully import a custom character from ME1, carried through ME2”. I can only assume that some manager somewhere decided that this sort of testing would take too much time and refused to allow it in the test schedule. I’m pretty sure that’s what happened because you can see that mindset throughout the entire game and it ultimately weakens the entire thing.

If you were fortunate enough to not notice (or care about) the face bug, that mindset is then most obvious in the planet scanning mini-game.

Mass Effect featured planetary exploration via the Mako tank. Because of fan complaints about these Mako sections, Mass Effect 2 swapped it out for a mini-game where you could select each planet in a star system and manually scan it for resources, collectibles, or even small missions. But the fans complained again (and rightly so!), so Bioware needed to find a different way to express galactic exploration.

They decided to keep the basic idea of scanning planets but they greatly simplified it (aided in large part by removing the resource acquisition element of the game). Now, you have a long-range scanner that lets you scan large parts of a system to see if there’s anything of interest. Only if your long-range scanner finds something on a planet are you able to access something that looks like the old planetary scanner from ME2. Which would be all well and good. But Bioware decided that they needed to add a catch.

Every time you use your long-range scanner in a system, it starts to alert the Reapers. When their alertness meter becomes full, they start to chase you around the system and force you to abandon that system until after you’ve finished another mission. I’ve seen this aspect of the game dubbed “Reaper Pac-Man” and it’s a fitting description. The effect of Reaper Pac-Man is to make side-quests (which require you to try to find things in systems) extremely tedious and frustrating. I eventually gave up and just turned to the Internet so I could zero in on the needed planets without having to search for them.

It’s difficult to believe that anyone at Bioware would use the term “fun” to describe Reaper Pac-Man. Yet, here it is. It feels like something where they had the nugget of an idea (now that the Reapers are here, they should get in the way of galactic exploration!) but didn’t have the time to iterate on and polish that idea. But they left it in anyway because they just couldn’t be bothered to fix it.

You see this mindset again on Rannoch where you have to shoot a targeting laser into a Reaper’s maw. There’s nothing else like this segment in the entire series. It’s truly one-off. I wasn’t the only person who had a lot of trouble with getting past this part. The game never teaches you how to play this type of game and the controls don’t really work for it. And, of course, it just isn’t very fun. Again, it feels like Bioware didn’t have the time to make this segment good but they didn’t have the discipline to take it out.

Time after time, you come across this sort of thing. If it were once or twice, I could chalk it up to the costs of getting anything done in the high-paced world of blockbuster game development. But it’s so often and so in your face that I can only reach one conclusion: Bioware just didn’t care.

Most importantly, they didn’t care to put the same amount of work into the writing as they did in previous games where player decisions directly affected the story. Instead, they went with a one-size fits all approach.

If you saved the Rachni Queen in Mass Effect, she is controlled by Reapers in Mass Effect 3. If you killed the Rachni Queen in Mass Effect, the Reapers build a clone of her in Mass Effect 3 so that the story doesn’t have to change.

If you cure the genophage, the Salarians refuse to ally with you. Then they suddenly have a change of heart after the next mission so the story doesn’t have to change.

If you gave the Illusive Man the Collector Base in Mass Effect 2 he’s no more or less pissed at you in Mass Effect 3 than if you destroyed it. Otherwise, the story might have to change.

And this goes on and on. In the first two games, the decisions you made felt like they rippled out throughout the narrative universe of the game. In this final one, they adjust small changes in your “effective military strength”: a single number which was put in place to drive the ending of the game. Customizing the story for your actions is really hard. Doing math on a single number is easy. And Bioware just didn’t care enough to do the harder work.

Which finally brings me to the ending. Others have explained the faults of the ending far better than I could. So I’ll simply sign on with a “Me Too” for most of that.

For the themes of this review, though, I think the ending has flaws beyond poor narrative structure. Where your effective military strength was touted as the method for customizing the ending to all of your past decisions, it ended up being incredibly underwhelming for all of that.

Ultimately, this number decides the way Earth looks at the end (completely burned out or merely damaged), if 3 team members inexplicably walk out of the Normandy at the end, and if Shepard takes a final breath. That’s it.

No matter what, the Reaper threat is settled. No matter what, the Normandy crashes for some reason. No matter what, galactic civilization is ended as the mass relays are destroyed.

There’s no real narrative effect from the number whose entire purpose is to drive narrative effect.

I imagine that taking in hundreds of decisions from across three games and making them all narratively coherent would be extremely difficult. But this is the task that they chose for themselves and they had millions of dollars to use to pull it off. But they didn’t even try.

They didn’t care.

That word “They” there is incredibly unfair. Clearly, some people on the team did care. You can’t bring closure to Mordin’s story as spectacularly as they did without caring. You can’t bring such emotional impact for the Quarians regaining their home without caring. You can’t write and act the joy into Wrex’s dialog about becoming a father without caring. Clearly, the team in the trenches cared. And clearly, they were overruled time and again by their overseers.

And those overseers cared less about a game that they spent millions of dollars and years working on than I cared about it after spending only $60 and dozens of hours on. This is almost incomprehensible.

As a shooter, it’s fine. I don’t like shooters and much and don’t find anything to recommend it over the original Mass Effect‘s gameplay. ME3 is at least as fun as ME2. So there’s nothing to complain about (except for when they try to throw in a completely different game like the Rannoch Reaper or the Kai Leng fights). I’d have preferred more RPG and less shooter, but I clearly lost that argument the last time around so there’s no need to let it cloud my judgement of this game.

And that judgement is both clear and unfortunate.

Overall, the Mass Effect series is great, bordering on fantastic. But this final game in the trilogy is merely okay bordering on good. Every time it tries to soar to new heights, it’s brought crashing back to earth by the sloppiness in so much of the writing and gameplay decisions. And that’s a shame, because it had more promise and raw potential than anything I’ve ever played before.

In lieu of a point or star rating, I’ll simply say this: I won’t be pre-ordering the next Bioware game (Dragon Age 3?). Instead, I’ll just buy it used when one of my friends is done with it. If Bioware isn’t going to care, why should I?


  1. There should really be a single word for this. Maybe something in German? ↩

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

The Kingdom of Gods
The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has more problems with its predecessors. Those problems are so frequently spread throughout the book (or even an inherent part of its plot) that I was already planning a 3-star review to show how it was so much more diminished than its fore-bearers.

And then I caught myself staying up way too late to keep reading it.

And then I caught myself doing it again the next night.

And whoa. How can I criticize that? Well, okay. I’m me. I can criticize most things. And this book does suffer a bit in comparison to the other two.

There’s way too much sex in this book: instead of merely hinting at the more delicious pleasures, it turns almost pornographic at points. And it’s too often. Where the other books inserted* sex naturally as part of being human (or divine), this one turns to it so often that it starts to feel more like the fanfics of an out-of-control adolescent.

It’s probably a matter of taste more than anything, and my tastes have always turned away from such things when they interrupt the plot. There’s nothing wrong with that sort of thing, but it’s just not my cup of tea to find so much of this in an otherwise-excellent fantasy novel.

The larger issue comes from the story being told from Sieh’s viewpoint. The other stories were told from the viewpoints of mortals trying to cope with the divine. This one told the story of a divine trying to come to grips with the mortal world. It was hard for me to empathize with Sieh, as he kept telling us over and over again how much greater he was than anything I’ve experienced. In that context, his character flaws become egregious since they’re all on-purpose in one way or another. He used to be god after all. He could have done better. Ultimately, I found it hard to sympathize with him or care about him and I can’t help but wonder how it would have been told from Dekarta’s point of view.

The ending was disappointing, but I think the reason of its disappointment tells how successful both the ending and the entire trilogy have been. For three books, Jemisin has made me feel the divine wonder of the Three. And while the world may not have been a better place with their presence and intervention, it was made so much richer because of it. I found their withdrawal to be utterly depressing because it means the world is going to become a drab and colorless place in contrast to what it was.

Though, perhaps the average lifespan will go up. So it’s probably an improvement for the characters who live there. But for this outsider? It’s incredibly sad.

And that sadness is why I would whole-heartedly endorse this trilogy. It’s a masterwork of fantasy without elves or wizards. The rich cosmology, depth of feeling, complex characters, and page-turning plots is unmatched in my library.

*::giggle::