In no particular order…but I’ll get to them in a minute.
This morning I attended a group reading (imho the best kind of reading) where my chum E.C. Myers was reading from his slick YA debut, FAIR COIN. I was just fortunate to live near the library where the reading was happening, part of the NYC Teen Author Festival.
Disaster struck when the esteemed group of authors slated to read was locked out of the library. A scheduling snafu had resulted in the reading not happening at all. So there we were, five hot YA authors and me, wandering Inwood, trying to figure out what to do with ourselves.We ended up at a nearby coffee shop, talking about the business, the writer’s life, and the process of promoting a novel (a herculean task)!
This series of unfortunate events (see what I did there?) turned out to be a pretty great morning for me — I met some fantastic writers, saw my friend, and added four cool new books to my to-read list. I couldn’t help but think that my luck to have coffee with five hot YA authors could easily have been an auctioned event — people would pay a pretty penny for such an opportunity.
So here’s what you should do. Go out, buy these five books by the authors who spent their morning with me, and read them now now now.
SCRAWL by Mark Shulman — The at times painful and funny story of a bully and the teacher who tries to reform him.
Check these books out!
Some people may be wondering about the admission in my last post that I, a red-blooded hetero-male, play as the female version of Shepard in Mass Effect. Why is that, you ask?
For one, Jennifer Hale is the best voice actor in the biz. Her Naomi Hunter manages that balance of brilliant, sexy, and crazy so well, and her work on other hits like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Knights of the Old Republic is equally laudable. MaleShep is rather oak-like by comparison.
Second, I like to watch things I don’t see every day. Hollywood is never going to learn that diversity, and specifically unexpected diversity, is compelling to watch. That leaves it to the video game industry to pick up the slack. Of course, when given the opportunity, the video game industry will still force white straight male dominant crap at us (see the REVAN scandal, or less subtly, Duke Nukem Anything), but more and more total character customization is becoming the norm, and it has been nice to see game creators defend the rights of players to construct non-traditional characters, like David Gaider’s defense of gay options in Dragon Age II, or Casey Hudson’s defense of same in Mass Effect 3. I play FemShep because I’ve never seen a movie or video game ever to feature a swashbuckling female starship captain. Actually, without Janeway, I don’t think there has ever been one, and she was always more of a Captain Mom than a Captain Badass.
Despite the option for woman power awesomeness, it is clear from the marketing campaigns and ancillary media of these franchises that the male protagonist is the default, expected protagonist. Fortunately, most characters talk to the male protagonist and female protagonist the same way, proving that, at least in the worlds of these games, people truly are gender blind.
Okay, I have a confession to make. I have never played a Mass Effect game. It’s not my fault, I swear! When the first one came out, I did not have an X-Box, and then didn’t want to jump into the middle of the story when Mass Effect 2 came out for the PS3. Will all the buzz surrounding the release of the third installment, and spring break freeing up my schedule, I decided it was time to tackle this much-lauded franchise. I’m about 12 hours into the first game, playing FemShep (of course) as a compassionate no-nonsense soldier. My thoughts are below.
For those of you who have been living under a large pile of gravel for the last five years, Mass Effect is the story of John/Jane Shepard, a commander in the Alliance Navy. The story goes that after discovering a cache of ancient scifi technology on Mars, humans took to the stars, where they were met with borderline racist contempt by a consortium of alien races. Now, hundreds (or maybe thousands?) of years later, the human alliance is finally integrating into the galactic confederation, but a renegade super soldier is trying to loose a race of mythical killer monsters on the cosmos. Only Shepard and her ragtag crew of aliens in their experimental starship can stop them.
I’d describe the aesthetics as a dark Star Trek, in terms of ship and costume design, alien design, and the format of away missions, much more than I would a Star Wars knockoff. But that’s a good thing, considering how similar the gameplay is to spiritual predecessor Knights of the Old Republic. The Alliance Navy uniforms are pretty much identical to those worn by the Confederation in Wing Commander.
Gameplay is pretty clunky; it’s hard to aim, it’s hard to use cover, and it’s hard to keep your allies alive, but it’s also pretty hard to die, so combat can be frustrating, but never annoying the way some games can be. For what it’s worth, it sounds like all these problems have been corrected in future installments of the game.
It is certainly not as free-roaming as a Fallout or Elder Scrolls, but the story is WAY more interesting, and the characters are more, well, there ARE actual characters. So that’s a plus.
The thing to really talk about with Mass Effect is the storytelling. The dialogue wheel is succinct, and it’s rare to choose something to say that ends up being radically different from what you intended. It’s also rare for one of your selections to actually have an impact on what happens in a scene. I’ve already noticed several occasions where I’ve chosen each of three different options, and the reply Shepard gets is identical in each case. This phenomenon is not unique to Mass Effect, and whenever I see it, I always feel like the game writers are lying to me. I don’t know why they do it. Most of the time you can choose between saying something nice, something sarcastic, or something dick — also pretty standard for American RPGs with “branching” dialogue. Although once you define your character’s personality, it’s a bit schizophrenic to bounce back and forth between sweet hero Shepard and raging a-hole Shepard.
The supporting cast is diverse and well-drawn. Shepard conveniently has a member of each prominent alien race on her team (yay diversity)! Although it’s pretty amusing that all the males are giant monsters in battle armor and all the female aliens have the same slinky model body in a skintight body suit. There are many attempts at gender parity in the game, and a lot of stuff that Mass Effect gets right. Then there’s a lot of stuff that just makes you roll your eyes. [Note -- there's also this weird thing where all the alien species are grossly racist to one another, and the humans are not exempt from this behavior.]But Shepard — Jane Shepard, anyway — is a compelling hero, and I see why across the board my female gamer friends are die hards for the series. At the same time, I checked out some of the cutscenes with male Shepard side-by-side, and he’s kind of boring, even though the dialogue is identical. I’m not sure what this says about what we expect from female protagonists, but either way it’s pretty fun to watch FemShep hit on half her crew, punch out giant bugs, and save the galaxy.
Much of this, however, was expected. I’d heard and read a lot about this landmark series, and so there have been few surprises. What has struck me the most, is how reminiscent the game is of the 4-6-7 golden age of Final Fantasy, which was totally unexpected. Even ignoring the design of the Citadel (which looks exactly like Balamb Garden and Coccoon) and the tedium of world map tank driving missions, Mass Effect’s story progression and characters FEEL like Final Fantasy, but without dipping into “Oh, that character is Cloud, oh, that character is Barret, oh, that character is Celes.” There’s a ragtag group of heroes; each has an unresolved past, a unique character class, a different moral code, and a distinct relationship with the main hero. There is a meddlesome villain who doggedly harasses the heroes beginning to end, and is just a man, but still threatens to destroy EVERYTHING.
Another similarity to FF, and KOTOR, and my biggest criticism of the game, is the limited party selection. What exactly is the appeal of having seven playable characters in an RPG, but then forcing you to always have the same party leader, and only allowing you to choose two other characters at a time to join you in battle? This choice has always seemed stupid to me. Balance would actually be easier to manage if you knew the whole party line-up, and gameplay might be more complicated, entering ATB commands for seven characters would be tricky, but complicated is good. Combat in Mass Effect is simple to a fault (at least as the soldier class) and it’s the 21st century. We can handle it. Also, you’d have more time with each of the supporting cast members. As it is, I choose my party based on who might have interesting story moments on a given mission. My best guess isn’t always a good guess, so sometimes I’ll cop out and choose the party members that best compliment my Shepard’s character class, which gives the other four allies short shrift.
The character classes in general are pretty simplistic (although this is another aspect of the game I’ve heard improves in the sequels). There are three character attributes, Combat, Technical, and Biotic (which is basically Mass Effect’s version of magic). The six classes are then the various combinations of these three attributes. There’s a Double-Biotic, Double-Technical, and a Double-Combat (that’s my class, the soldier), and then three hybrids (A Combat-Technical, a Combat-Biotic, and a Technical-Biotic). The strongest party is always going to be one that has the three doubles, as their skills are generally twice as powerful as their hybrid allies. Also, because each of Shepard’s six allies is a different character class, it automatically makes one of your party members redundant, and it’s stupid to use him or her. In my case, it’s my party’s soldier Ashley Williams who never gets used.
So, what’s the takeaway? It’s a great game. It’s not perfect. It’s interesting. It’s worth talking about. Its sequels are probably better, the way that Dragon Age: Origins was an atrocious bore compared to Dragon Age II (Mass Effect 1 is WAY better than Dragon Age: Origins). If nothing else, it’s great to see a space opera universe that doesn’t have the fingerprints of George Lucas or James Cameron on it. I’m looking forward to finishing the game and hurrying on to the second one. stay tuned. I’ll write about it.