PAX East Day 2: or, on being a fan

PAX East is always awesome; from the demos to the panels, and everything else, it’s just awesome to be a fan of gaming surrounded by thousands of other similarly-minded individuals.  Day 2 of this year’s PAX, however, truly drove home how awesome it is to be a fan who is deeply passionate about something.

First off, today was the day of the BioWare costume contest, so Bard and I donned our matching Jowan and Lily (from the mage origin in Dragon Age Origins) cosplays:

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We wanted to head over to see PopCap as well; they’d just released the mobile Solitaire Blitz app, and it was the one year “splashy-versary” of the game, so we wanted to show off our Otis the worm plushie.

I was initially going to go to a panel about showing off your love of gaming in real life.  But… I already do that.  A lot.  So instead I headed down to the show floor to meet up with MLHawke, who was in line with our friend Amanda for Assassin’s Creed 4. I wasn’t too interested in seeing it, but the booth did have a free photo stage.  Chantry sister plus coffee plus pirate gun equals a little crazy!  Next I was going to hit a panel about geeks and crafting, but since I do a lot of that anyway, I decided I’d go to the BioWare panel about The World of Thedas.

It was a good talk, and makes me even more excited to get the book; Dragon Age has such a deep, richly detailed world that something like this was a long time coming.  I’ve done my share of scouring lore and codex entries and writing my own analytical pieces about it, so having a definitive work from the developers themselves will be an excellent resource.  And it’s only volume 1!  When the panel was over I hung out a little talking with some other fans, and got to meet and speak with Sheila of the cosplay duo Aicosu. Her tutorials on makeup and wigs were extremely helpful, particularly with Day 1’s Serana costume.  She was extremely nice, and after viewing and admiring her cosplays it was awesome to stop and say hello.  Plus, her Dishonored cosplays were incredible.

Bard and I had time to kill, so we headed back to the show floor with Otis.  The PopCap carnival booth was in full swing, but we found a marketing person who loved Otis and actually called out the Solitaire Blitz community manager!  Tara came out to see Otis and absolutely LOVED him!  We explained how we loved how cute he is in all his little outfits, and how we were hoping to have a chance to show him off.  And yes, we’d downloaded the app the previous day!  She took pictures of him to show at the office, then handed us Solitaire Blitz card decks and Energy Eel energy shots.  Later on we found out she’d told people it was the highlight of her weekend.  That made me so happy to hear, because I’d really enjoyed making Otis back in the summer, and being able to bring him by the PopCap station was a lot of fun.

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We headed back to the hotel for some light costume repair, then it was over to the BioWare base for the Dragon Age signings and costume contest! We weren’t too far back in line, but as we were waiting, Chris Priestly, a community manager, spied our DA costumes and invited us to jump the line and go in early.  I love how much BioWare understands its fanbase, and appreciates things like cosplays.  We hung out for a bit; I was able to get a signed postcard from Raphael Sbarge, who voiced Kaiden Alenko in Mass Effect.

When the DA developers came back, I got in line to get my DA2 game signed (got DA:O ultimate edition signed last year) and scored a hard copy of “Asunder”, last year’s DA novel.  They commented on my Chantry outfit, and I was able to explain how, because of DA, Bard and I met.  (Long story short, I played DA, got obsessed, joined a Facebook community, met MLHawke, who then introduced me to Bard).  It was nice to be able to share with them what the game meant, not just as a game, but as something that helped as a catalyst for the most important thing in my life.

The costume contest started a short while later.  Let me tell you, there are some VERY talented people out there!  What they are able to accomplish, and how they are able to bring the game to life, is amazing.  I was and still am impressed by how many people make the Shepard N7 armor from Mass Effect; it’s a difficult costume to pull off, requires a lot of material, and is multipart.  And that’s just the armor; never mind if you want to add on weapons, which most do for accuracy.  LOTS of amazing Shepards were there, as were quite a few Asari!  I’m also an admirer of Asari cosplayers, because not only do you have the armor issue (if you’re going that route) but then you have the headpieces and makeup.

There weren’t many Dragon Age cosplayers; maybe only four of us or so.  There was me and Bard of course, but then two Wardens in the blue armor uniform introduced in DA2.  One was my friend Gabby, whose armor is amazing!  The scale work, hand riveting on the shrug, and overall attention to details is great (even down to a leather belt case for her iPhone!) And she even had the rose from Alistair.   She looked like she could have just stepped right out of the game.

When it got to us we got to tell the judges (and a room full of people) that we’d met through a friend I’d only met because of DA, and that we were getting married in four months.  And yes, we’d turn out better than Jowan and Lily did!  We got lots of applause and commentary on our costumes (including a note on the paisley fabric I’d found for Jowan’s sleeves) and then went on our way to see the rest of the cosplay.  We scored N7 jackets from Mass Effect for our participation!  THAT was awesome.  Then came the judging.

In a room full of such excellent, well-crafted costumes made by so many talented people (and I will tell you that most all of them make these things themselves) I didn’t expect to win anything, which was fine.  Being in the contest and having the new jacket was awesome enough.  But BioWare took it a step further.  Before announcing the winners they called up the “Dragon Age couple”.  They gave us the two hardcover comics, a deck of Dragon Age cards, and a Flemeth dragon statue as “an early wedding present from BioWare”!  I was floored!  We went to show our appreciation for their games, and then they turned it around for us.  We got pictures with Chris Priestly at the photobooth, who then tweeted them immediately; when I tweeted a thank you for making our day so special he replied!  They truly know how to treat fans and make us feel appreciated; there are so many things they don’t have to do, but do anyway, so thank you BioWare again for making our day beyond special; Amanda later said that it was “transcendent”.  And to top it all off, there was a four-way tie for the contest, but Gabby’s Warden armor took the grand prize!

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Then it was back to the hotel to get changed; after two days in costume it felt good to kick back in jeans and a t-shirt, and my new jacket of course! Bard was in the Tetris Attack tournament, defending his gold medal from last year.  It was a smaller group, and missing some of the guys from last year, but Ted was there attacking away.  The first few rounds went as expected, but toward the end things got intense.  Ted wound up losing to someone, and Bard lost two matches because his opponent psyched him out.  He got back on track though, and won his match, then went up against Ted’s defeater.  It was intensive, but in the end Bard pulled off another victory and got another gold medal to clank against the one he got last year.

When all was said and done, it was almost a dreamlike day at PAX East.  If a day could be perfect, day 2 may have been it.  It was extremely validating as a crafter, cosplayer, and all around fan.  PopCap and BioWare made my weekend, and I was glad I got to share it with Bard, MLHawke, and Amanda (for whom it was a first PAX experience).  Up next, Day 3, or how everything I know about doing my job is about to change!

30 Days of Video Games: Day 30, favorite game of all time

Phew!  It took more than 30 days, but I’ve made it and answered every prompt!  I do apologize for things falling apart in the end, but finishing it up was important to me.  And now we come to the end.  I’ve done a lot of thinking about my gaming history and what makes a game enjoyable for me, and why I have the games I have and play the ones I do.  So trying to figure out my favorite game of all time should be easy, right?  Wrong.  Once again I’m torn between the fact that I like some games for story, and some for gameplay style. In some cases I like a game for its nostalgia value.

So I think I have two favorite games of all time: for gaming style, Tetris.  For story, Dragon Age.

Tetris’s premise is simple, and the gaming style is timeless.  Tetris is a game you can pick up anywhere and the controls are the same, the game is the same, the objective is the same.  It can be played on any platform, and it’s extremely portable.  I can get into a zone and get to the point where I’m dreaming in blocks, but I really enjoy playing it.

As far as story goes, it’s definitely Dragon Age.  I love the storyline and how in depth it is.  I once considered answering Metroid for this, but I have a hard time with it because the storyline is so convoluted and inconsistent now.  Dragon Age has a very long, in-depth storyline with very little deviation from the facts that it establishes early on.  Even the outside material such as the novels doesn’t do much to contradict what’s given in the games.  There are some facts that have some contradiction, but it’s nothing huge and major that makes you wonder what they were thinking—or if they were thinking.

The games are vast without being too huge (cough, Skyrim.  Love it, but…) and the stories and characters have depth.  Even the most minor character adds a lot to the story.  Characters like King Cailan in Origins and Jethann in DA2 have enough personality on their own to be more than just minor side characters.  There are major plots and sub plots, and it all works together very nicely.  Each game sets up for the next without being  a place holder.  They work together as games, and with the peripheral materials such as novels and comics.  It all creates a vast world that’s interesting and has depth of story and character.  I get the feeling that the world is very old, even though the first game was made in 2009.

I also met MLHawke through Dragon Age, and she’s become a wonderful, close friend.  And through her and her husband, I met a larger group of friends.  And through them, I met Bard.  Because of the depth of material DA gives me to work with, I began writing for a DA website.  I started blogging about video games.  It brought me into a whole new world.  And with DA3 on the horizon (but still hypothetical) it’s going to make the world bigger, deeper, and more interesting.  It excites me!

30 Days of Video Games: Day 28, Favorite Game Developer

Anyone who’s been following this for any amount of time will see that I am clearly a Dragon Age fangirl.  I also love Mass Effect.  What do both have in common?  They’re developed by BioWare.

I never played Jade Empire, Neverwinter Nights, or and of the Old Republic Star Wars games.  My introduction to, and experiences with, BioWare have been entirely with ME and DA.  But regardless of that, I love the work they put into their games.  There is such depth of story, character, and setting in every game.  Well-crafted writing immerses us into new and interesting worlds.  Good character development leads us to care about the protagonist (which we’ve usually created ourselves) and his or her party members.

Back in April when I attended PAX East, I had the opportunity to meet several people from BioWare.  I was privileged to meet David Gaider, lead writer for Dragon Age, as well as the artistic director, producer, community manager, and many others.  BioWare had a base in the convention center where it was all BioWare all weekend long.  They were kind to their fans, interested in our feedback and questions, and gracious about our criticisms.

I couldn’t stay for the talk about Mass Effect because I had to go check into the hotel, but everything about the Dragon Age panel was wonderful.  They let fans in costume come in early; talked with us one on one, gave us opportunities to ask questions before the general Q&A during the panel.  We got swag.  Most of all I got the feeling that BioWare was glad we were there with them.

As Dragon Age 3 becomes more of a reality and less than a hypothetical possibility, the more interested I am in BioWare and the more curious I am about what they will do with the story.  I know they’ve come under fire because of DA2’s rushed feeling, and ME’s ending, but they’ll be the first to admit where they’ve made mistakes.  They’ve seen the best of all worlds in their games, and seem to work toward doing more and more to combine the best in their games to make the next game they develop even better.

Therefore, BioWare holds the place of favorite game developer.

30 Days of Video Games: Day 21, Best Story

So if you’ve been reading throughout this month, you’ll have likely noticed my obsession with story.  I like games with good characters and settings and stories beyond graphics and gameplay, though those definitely have a major role in games.  As a medium of culture, the graphics and gameplay are sort of what separate them from movies and novels, after all.

Also if you’ve been reading the 30 Days of Video Games project or any of my blog at all, you’ll see my undying, unwavering, frightening obsession with I mean love of Dragon Age by BioWare.  So it will be no surprise that I choose Dragon Age (as a series) as having the best story.

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30 Days of Video Games: Day 13, a game you’ve played more than once

Okay, okay, you caught me.  I’m back posting.  But May 13th was a bit full, being Mother’s Day and all.  Bard and I spent the first part of the day with his mother, and the second part with mine.  So I’m doing two posts in one day so I don’t get too behind and have to do three… and then get SO behind I just don’t want to keep going.

So.  A game I’ve played more than once.

I like playing and replaying games; I like a game with a high replay value because I feel like I’m getting my money’s worth when I go through it and discover new things again and again.  I’d done several runs on Metroid Prime back in the day, to get various percentages or try sequence breaking, or increase the difficulty.  But in the last year I discovered Dragon Age, and I’m all about playing and replaying that one.

The worst part of it is I don’t want to replay the other origins and try beating it as a mage and warrior as well as a rogue.  I just want to play my Cousland rogue and romance Alistair and live sort of happily ever after.  I’ve played a Fianna-centric story through twice–once to play the game, the other to get dialogue etc. for my fanfic.  And I have a third playthrough on my PC that I’m using to get screenshots for it all.  Obsessed?  Yes.  I admit it and I’m okay with it.

But I just can’t seem to stop playing that game that way, and I love it.  I did play all the origin stories to get the achievement, but didn’t connect to any of the others.  Part of it is I attach to a character and work almost exclusively with that character (whether in a game, RP, or original story) for a very long time.  I nearly died in the D&D game I’m playing with MLHawke the other night and I had no inclination to create another character because I was just too used to my half-elf rogue.  To create someone new to play through til the end of the campaign, which should be wrapping up soon, just wasn’t something I wanted to do.  And though I’ve tried different characters in Dragon Age Origins, I just keep going back to Fianna.

I do have a female mage game going sort of… I’m using her as my ‘achievement whore’.  I just want to rack up achievements, so I’m using her to that end.  But in terms of doing much of anything else, or getting interested in the game or attached to the romance or into the story?  Not so much.  But with six different origins, four different romance options, and multitudes of ways the endgame can play out, Dragon Age Origins is full of replay value.

And yes, part of that replay value is shirtless Alistair.  Ahem.

Later on tonight: Day 14, Current or most recent gaming wallpaper.  At least that’s an easy one!

30 Days of Video Games: Day 7, Favorite Couple

Character relationships are an integral part of many games these days. In rare cases the protagonist goes it alone; often he or she meets many people along the way who can help them in their quest. It’s dangerous to go alone, after all.

But when I think about relationships, a huge part of me leaps outside the box. I feel like a romantic relationship is too cliche and sappy, but hey, it’s a relationship and can be very important to the game. When I did this meme a year and a half ago, I chose Cortana and Master Chief. No they’re not romantic, but they’re a fantastic couple who work so well together that they really are greater than the sum of their parts.

But since I’ve gone the platonic route, and since in the last 18 months or so I’ve played Dragon Age, I think I’ll be sappy and romantic and choose The Warden and Alistair.

I preface this by saying that Bard is well aware of my feelings on this, but he’s not threatened by a game character, because he’s awesome and lovable like that 🙂

Oh Alistair: pixelated manflesh at its finest. Alistair could possibly be a perfect man. He’s dutiful, he’s built, he gives you a rose if he likes you, and he’s saved himself for the perfect woman. He’s funny, a little insecure, and endearingly awkward.

My favorite origin in Dragon Age: Origins is the human noble. I played through once, romanced Alistair, and loved it so much I tried it again. Only this time I created a character with a stronger backstory for the world I was in, rather than just put myself in the game. I created Fianna Cousland: pain in the arse youngest daughter of one of Ferelden’s finest and oldest families. She’s a dual-wielding rogue, but I gave her a lot of unconventional personality quirks and behaviors for someone raised as high nobility.

Now, I know Cousland/Alistair, or “Coulistair” fics are a a dime a dozen on fanfiction.net. It’s a great pairing, really, especially once Alistair reveals certain things about himself and his past, and potential future. It seems everyone writes them, and while I like to do some things differently, I really loved Fianna and Alistair’s story.

I think because it’s about more than just falling in love with one another. It’s about two people forced into the worst situation by the worst circumstances, and they have to learn to work together. Through that, they help each other find themselves. Alistair’s sense of duty to the Grey Wardens helps Fianna realize that she has a duty not just as a Warden, but as Fereldan nobility, and she should probably suck it up and do that duty. But her confidence and her refusal to care what anyone thinks inspires him to accept his role in all of this. Where he’s insecure she’s confident; where she’s irresponsible, he’s duty-bound. They complement one another well in those ways.

Plus, my Warden recognizes Alistair’s abilities and talents. So often I see fics where Alistair is what my friend deagh and I have termed, a “Warden!Bitch”. Basically, Alistair fawns all over the Warden (of any origin, but mostly in the Coulistair fics) and lets himself be led on and falls madly in love while she does all the work. In the relationship I cultivated between Fianna and Alistair, she respects him for what he knows and what he’s able to do as a fighter and as a Warden–and later on as a potential king. He understands her position as a noble and how it can advance their goals, but knows she’s not a pawn. And he picks a rose for her, dammit! That counts for something!

Now, many other DA players and fans, including some who read and comment on this blog, will have different views of Alistair and the romance with the Warden. Bearonthecouch has written some very lovely pieces featuring Alistair along with a human mage Warden (that made me cry they were so beautiful), for example. And there are other great Coulistair fics out there. The beauty of Dragon Age is in all the options for character creation and interaction and eventual outcomes. But for me? I think I have to go with Alistair and Fianna as my favorite couple for the above-stated reasons… and also because I’ve put in about a year at this point of fanfic that builds and develops their relationship. But I really do have a life. No, really, I do!

Tomorrow: Day 8, Favorite Soundtrack. I quit right now. Okay, not really. But I want to. So… much… to choose… from…

30 Days of Video Games: Day 2, Favorite Character

I’m a gamer, but as I’ve said before, sometimes I wonder if I really am because my gaming collection is scant by many standards. But the games I do have usually involve good story, and by extension, good characters. I’m drawn to character-driven books and stories (in what I choose to read, and what I myself write), and have found that I have the same taste in games. I actually could not finish Dead Space because I had no connection to the character. I couldn’t get into his motivations, or care about him. So I find that when I’m into a character and enjoy them and their story I enjoy the game more.

So how do I decide what my favorite character is, if most of the games I’ve played are character-driven?

When I was younger my favorite character was Samus Aran. I grew up gaming on the NES, and the early games of its heyday focused on male protagonists. The Princess was relegated to other castles; Zelda waited for Link to save her from Ganon. Mario and Link had the adventures; Orpheus went to save Helene from Hades in the underrated Battle of Olympus. These were the games I enjoyed, but I felt something missing in my experience.

Imagine my surprise when I read a Nintendo Power issue that exposed the JUSTIN BAILEY code, where you could start Metroid as… a woman?! Of course I put that code into the game, and played the galaxy’s biggest badass bounty hunter as a green-haired woman in a purple unitard. And for the first time I connected to the game in a new way, because I was playing as protagonist I could understand. Metroid had atmosphere; it had rudimentary story, that sort of made sense (more sense than a plumber saving mushroom people anyway). And it had a character I related to; because of that I could get into the game, and experience the loneliness of Zebes and the fear of the space pirates and the Metroids themselves.

Samus Aran worked alone; she never spoke, and you only saw her face if you finished the game quickly enough and with enough items to get the ending where you saw her in her true form. Early on it was probably fanservice, to show her in her swimsuit-like under armor, but as the games advanced the more she became a character unto herself. Sure, many other female protagonists came up after, but for me at least, Samus was the first.

I liked Samus because she was smart and confident enough to go into those lonely scenarios, kick ass, take names, and go collect her payment at the end of the day. She was capable and didn’t wait to be rescued, instead doing the rescuing herself. She brought down pirates; she blew up planets. And she did it with finesse and without apologizing for any of it.

She’s since changed as a character; I don’t care for the direction Nintendo’s taken her. It started with Fusion when we saw a more introspective sort of character. I didn’t mind that, but I did mind the way they started to make her dependent upon the Adam AI. She’s been a different sort of character since Metroid Prime 3, when she was pitted against and put with other bounty hunter characters. And then Nintendo went and made Other M, where they expanded upon the Adam character and it changed everything about Samus’s character. I haven’t played Other M because I don’t have a Wii, but what I’ve seen of videos and trailers and listened to of cutscenes, I’m not a fan. Maybe someday I’ll try it, and maybe it’ll change my opinion.

In the last few years I’ve started playing other types of games, and among them RPGs that allow for character creation. My favorite game so far is Dragon Age: Origins. I’ve played all the origins, but like the human noble most. My personal character, Fianna, is among my favorites, though I feel like it’s a little bit cheesy to say that my favorite game character is one I’ve made. However, DA also has that character of King Cailan, whom I’ve come to really love.

The irony is Cailan’s not playable, and he dies within the first 90 minutes of game time. Maybe it’s because I created my own personal headcanon/backstory for him. Maybe it’s because I thought he was cheated by his writers. Maybe it’s because he comes across as foolish, then dies violently, and I wanted there to be more to him. He’s not even that vital a character to the game. And yet I love him and think he’s fascinating. Again, maybe it’s because I created what I thought he could be through fanfiction. I don’t know; I do know that there’s something about him that makes him a favorite.

So when all’s said and done, I really love characters and how relating to and loving a character can make the game more enjoyable. But from past to present, the characters I find as favorites are characters who seem to have more to them than the game lets on.

Tomorrow: A game that is underrated…

Rated M, for Different Reasons

Recently I’ve been giving some thought to the concept of M-rated.  Most of the games I own are M-rated.  It’s more of a coincidence than anything else.  I didn’t go out looking to get only games appropriate for those over age 17, nor did I consider that those would be the only things in my collection.  It just happens that the games I enjoy that have a good story and characters and settings also happen to be judged as appropriate for those 17 and up by the ESRB.

Most of the games explain why they’re rated M for mature audiences.  Usually it’s because of violence, other times due to nudity and/or sexual situations.  But after some conversation that’s been going on in my Dragon Age writing forum, I’ve begun to wonder if mature audiences means only those situations such as gore, violence, sex, nudity, and/or drugs. 

As a writer and literature lover I tend to approach video games from the perspective of story, character, and most of all, themes.  And it happens that the themes of such games as BioShock, Dragon Age, and Gears of War transcend the levels of violence and sexuality as far as maturity is concerned.  In those games and many others there is far more going on that I would almost call subtext that isn’t always meant for young audiences.

I began to think about this when a new forum member on the younger side said she disliked Anders and dared us to change her mind.  A forum member who loves Andes (and has analyzed him extensively and writes him beautifully) took up the challenge and wrote up a very mature, eloquent post explaining her analysis of his character as it related to the situation in Kirkwall in DA2.  The crux of her argument was that what Anders does isn’t just for Anders; it’s for the freedom of mages everywhere, and the more one understand of mages the more one will understand Anders and his motives.  The response?  It was along the lines of “good point and thanks for trying, but I got a laugh out of the fact you even did try, I still hate him.” (paraphrased, of course).

The second member’s post was well-researched, well-worded, and addressed the validity of the first member’s claims, while stating her beliefs.  The response she received was… well… typical for the age range.  I remember being that age and wanting to be right all the time.  But as I’ve grown I’ve learned to listen to other arguments and consider them, and reply in kind–or more eloquently, depending on the person with whom I’m debating.  And that’s a sign of maturity.

So is understanding what’s beneath the surface of Dragon Age 2, and even Dragon Age Origins.  Yes, both games qualify for an M rating under ESRB standards.  Another friend and I laugh over the fact that in your first fight as a human noble in DA:O, you slaughter a few large rats, and come out of it covered in blood.  And of course there’s the not-so-subtle love scene, and Morrigan’s offer.  But the choices you must make along the way: to listen to various party members, to accept the assistance of mage v. templar or wolves v. elves… while your world is being torn apart by civil war even as a Blight of darkspawn threatens everything you know and love… it’s a lot to consider and think about.  While it is just a game, many of us have to make choices that will affect the well-being of others.  As a teacher I face choices of that nature every day.  While the fate of the world doesn’t hang in the balance, it’s still a great responsibility.

Dragon Age 2 is even more mature in terms of theme and subtext.  The game’s story has a much larger scope.  And while Meredith’s tyranny threatens only Kirkwall, the ripple effect affects the rest of Thedas.  Dragon Age 2 is about more than hacking and slashing, and exploring identical sewers, dungeons, and caves.  It’s about more than just deciding who to romance, and is Anders or Fenris cuter or a better love interest.  It’s about city struggling to run itself under a broken system, as its citizens begin to expose the system for what it is.  There are religious zealots who kill the Viscount’s son to make a point.  There are gangs preying on the weak and impoverished while the wealthy flourish and pretend it doesn’t exist.  There are people living in squalor and no one willing or even able to do much of anything about it.  Once Viscount Dumar is killed by the Arishok, Meredith refuses to allow anyone else to take his seat, becoming the sole power in Kirkwall.  And with that she wields martial law, has citizens hanged on suspicion of harboring apostates, and suspects all mages of blood magic.  Kirkwall is a broken town running on a system so broken it’s nearly impossible to fix without destroying it entirely and starting fresh.

This is what Anders seeks to do by blowing up the Chantry.  And Hawke and company are all caught up in the midst of this, looking for a better way.  You don’t have to be mature (mentally) to handle the combat aspect of it.  But to truly understand what’s going on and how the characters fit in requires a level of intellectual and emotional maturity.

Take for example BioShock.  BioShock is brilliant on so many levels.  The setting, gameplay, graphics, all of it makes for a truly beautiful, haunting game.  But it’s the story and themes that is really haunting, and must be approached with a level of intellect and emotional maturity to truly understand the irony.  Now, you can play BioShock as just a game, and enjoy killing Splicers; that’s fine.  But I’m looking at it from the perspective of what’s below the surface of gameplay.

One of the beauties of BioShock is the literary allusions.  The setting is Rapture, which is an ironic name given what’s happened there.  And of course the game reflects and alludes to the novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, down even to the philosophies explored through the game’s characters.  One of the final areas of Rapture you can explore is chock full of mythological references.  And then you realize that the Splicers you’ve been shooting up have become that way because of the way Rapture has fallen apart.  They’re not just enemies; they’re people who placed their trust in Rapture, and it failed them.  One of the most haunting scenes in the game is when you’re in an empty theater, and a young man is told to play the piano; when he fails to complete the task an insane director blows him up.  Yes, the violent death is worthy of the M-rating; but it’s comprehending the senselessness behind it that truly requires maturity.

I think even of Gears of War.  The game is beyond violent, and yet it’s still highly character-driven.  The interactions of Delta Squad, and their relationships, and seeing how they hold up while trying to save their planet, make this game an intensive experience.  While it’s easily an action-adventure game and far from role-playing, seeing the characters at work is interesting.  There are so many ghosts that Marcus Fenix must deal with; Cole is a Gear now, but he still relives his Thrashball glory days.  And then there is the heartbreak of Dom searching for his beloved Maria, which is just a minor character point in the first game, but become a major plot point in the second, and finally motivates his actions in the third.  Honestly that point in Gears 3 may have been the first time a video game drove me to tears with the sheer power of character and story.

It’s cool to run around with a machine gun that’s also part chainsaw.  It’s fun to blast the soulless bad guys back to where they came from.  I love doing it, don’t get me wrong.  But to understand what’s behind the characters as they do this is truly powerful and requires a level of understanding that comes with maturity.  And maybe it’s not even conscious maturity, in the vein of “I’m old enough to handle this” or “I know exactly what’s going on here.”

I’m not trying to come across as some holier-than-thou intellectual, or trying to overly analyze or intellectualize gaming.  But mostly I’m looking at the idea that while blood, violence, sex and drugs (and maybe some rock and roll?) certainly warrant an M for Mature rating, some of these games’ themes are also more mature and should be considered by parents thinking of picking up such a game for their not-quite-M-aged child.

Lessons Learned

Who says video games and sci-fi/fantasy are a waste of time?  Who says you can’t learn anything from them?  For those that do, I present 10 lessons learned from my gaming and sci-fi/fantasy career:

1. Try not.  Do, or do not.  There is no try.  – Yoda

This is one maxim that is used quite frequently, but it’s true.  There are many things in life that you can’t try to do; you simply have to just do them.  While Nike has the market on the “Just do it” slogan, Yoda one-ups it with the idea that there is no try.  Some things just must be done; trying  is weakness.  Things must be done, or remain undone.  Think of it in terms of laundry (which is what got me thinking about this).  You can’t try to do your laundry; you do it or you don’t.  When it’s done you feel accomplished, when it’s not it’s a pile of clothes threatening to eat you every time you walk by it.  Trying is tantamount to not doing.  So do, or do not.  Don’t try.

2. Keep your head down and your mouth shut and everything will be fine.  – Delvin Mallory, Skyrim

This has been on my mind a lot lately.  The problem I’m having is it’s good advice in that it keeps you out of drama and away from other peoples’ business.  But it also keeps you from getting involved in things and speaking up when you need to.  Delvin is a member of the Riften Thieves’ Guild, so his advice is pretty sound when it comes to Thieves’ Guild activity.  It’s all illegal; so keeping your head down and your mouth shut helps you avoid notice, and therefore trouble.  But what about when you’re trying to do the right thing?  Keeping your head down and your mouth shut keeps you from getting on the bad side of things, but you also have to be able to look yourself in the eye every time you look in a mirror.  It’s good advice at times, but definitely something to ponder.

3. Funny how the Blight brings people together.  – Alistair, Dragon Age: Origins

Well, not always a Blight.  But a disaster brings people together in ways that peace does not.  I remember back to September 11th 2001.  I was a senior in college, just north of Boston when everything happened.  I still remember the fear, the disbelief, the uncertainty.  But what I remember most of all is how for the next few days, everyone, everywhere, was just a bit nicer.  We all shared the experience on some level, and knew we were in it together, so we were all a bit nicer and more willing to help one another. 

On another level, it’s amazing and funny how the smallest, strangest things can bring people together as well.  Dragon Age stands as a great example.  Without Dragon Age I would not have met the most awesome group of friends, ever.  Without fanfiction I would not have met my best friend.  Bottom line?  We never know what will bring us together, so it’s important to be on the lookout for those opportunities.

4. We make our own luck. – Master Chief, Halo

Luck is described in many ways: blind, dumb, a lady… luck is fickle and changeable.  We can’t always rely on it, and must do our part to help ourselves along.  What some people would call luck, others would call the result of training, hard work, and perseverance.  In the Halo universe Master Chief is known for his luck, but if you look deeper into his backstory you’ll also see that in spite of the fact that he was considered lucky, he still worked his arse off.  He knew what he needed to do to win, and didn’t rely on his ‘luck’, preferring instead to make his own luck.  In short, his actions paid off because he was willing to work for it; when the moment of truth came he had what it took to follow through.

5. I fight so all the fighting I’ve already done hasn’t been for nothing. – Ulfric Stormcloak, Skyrim

I started out my Skyrim game wanting to join the Imperial Legion.  But the more I played and saw of them, and the more I heard and saw of Ulfric Stormcloak, the more I lean toward the Stormcloak rebellion.  And this line is one of the reasons.  There are many reasons to fight, and to keep fighting.  Maybe it’s your convictions, maybe it’s survival, maybe it’s to move ahead.  To stop fighting, and essentially give in, is to nullify all the fighting you’ve done to get where you are.  This hit me hard when it came to last week’s disappointment with the writing contest.  I had a few moments where I was ready to give up because I didn’t know why I should bother anymore.  But then I realized that allowing that one thing to stop my writing would make a mockery of all the work I’ve done to get where I am as a writer.  To keep fighting, even when it seems hopeless, shows conviction and strength of character.  Maybe Ulfric is a jerk about some things, but he has conviction, and in this at least he gives sound advice.

6. Artists use lies to tell the truth; I created a lie and because you believed it, you discovered something true about yourself. -V, V for Vendetta

This always sticks with me, especially as a reader, writer, and lover of fantasy.  Most people criticize fantasy as being too escapist, and think people read it to get away from reality.  This is true sometimes, but what many critics don’t realize is that fantasy doesn’t nullify reality.  In his On Fairy Stories essay, Tolkien posits that fantasy actually can enhance reality and bring it to a higher level.  As such we discover truths about humanity and about life through the lens of a fictional reality.  In The Neverending Story Bastian’s first reaction to Mr. Coreander is that “it’s just a story.”  Coreander says that it’s more than that, and if we allow stories to cast the spell over us, we may be swept away but we also learn something true about ourselves.

7. I’m not locked in here with you.  You’re locked in here with me. – Rorschach, Watchmen

Life is all about perspective, and Rorschack is all about challenging our perspectives.  He never compromises; he has strong convictions and sticks with them.  Though this makes him a bit of a vigilante and definitely morally ambiguous, he certainly challenges and changes our perceptions of things.  Sometimes when the numbers seem like they’re not in our favor we have to look at the situation and decide if we’re going to accept the status quo or view it differently.  Rorschach was in prison, surrounded by inmates; most of whom were in there because of him.  Theoretically he doesn’t stand a chance; but he chooses to see things from a different perspective and as a result comes out on top.  I don’t advocate coming out on top the way he does; violence of that caliber isn’t a good thing.  But the idea of changing the way you look at things is.

8. You can’t predict how people will act… But you can control how you’ll respond. In the end, that’s what really matters. – Commander Shepard, Mass Effect

Life is full of things we can’t control or predict.  The uncertainties can make life fun, but also terrifying.  There are so many things that worrying can’t change, and the actions of others are part of that.  When we try to change people and control their actions we set ourselves up for disappointment and failure.  But we can control our own reactions and responses.  We can decide what we will do in a given situation, or say to a particular person.  That choice is ours to make, and it is definitely something we can control.  In the end we have to be able to look at ourselves and say “Yes, I can live with what I said/did.”  That’s what matters most, because that’s what you have to live with.

9. We stand upon the precipice of change. The world fears the inevitable plummet into the abyss. Watch for that moment… and when it comes, do not hesitate to leap. It is only when you fall that you learn whether you can fly.  – Flemeth, Dragon Age 2

While it’s nice to do things right and feel like you have them under control, the true test of abilities is how you react when you’re out of control.  When you’re in freefall will you feel out of control and fear crashing into the ground?  Or will you realize you have wings to spread and learn to fly?  It’s a scary thing, making that leap, especially when you don’t know what to expect.  Again, you can’t always predict things, but you can predict your reactions and choices.  So will you keep falling, giving into forces beyond your control, or will you choose to fly?  Flemeth is a great example of this because she has such a long history.  On my Dragon Age forum on ff.net we were talking about her and how in her long history she had to have gone through a lot of trial and error to become who and what she is.  It would be easy to give up, but just when she was falling, she discovered she could fly.

10. All we can decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.  – Gandalf, Lord of the Rings

Again, we can’t control time; we can’t control what befalls us.  But we can decide what to do with what time we are given.  Will we settle into a rut dreaming of if-onlies and what-ifs?  What happens isn’t for us to decide.  The decision we have, and can control, is what to do with what happens.  How will we as individuals react?  Will we do, will we fly?  Will we change our perspective, or just keep our heads down and our mouths shut and hope to avoid trouble, even if it nullifies all the fighting we’ve done up to this point?  It doesn’t matter what we decide.  What matters is that we decide.