Agency and Storytelling in Video Games

The Walking Dead.

The Walking Dead

Weaving a good story is a major achievement for a video game, and it seems that lately we’ve become a little obsessed with this. While we gamers still love our side-scrolling platformers and the modern versions of them installed on our smartphones, there’s been a trend in recent years: We want stories. We want cinema. This is especially true when we’re going to throw down $60 for a game we’re going to play on our flashy new consoles with the great graphics, as displayed on our big, HD TV screens. Let’s have an experience.

That can be a very good thing, particularly for people like me who love stories in any form they come. I love reading and watching television series and going to see films because storytelling is my thing. That’s why I’m a writer, too.

Before I knew how to physically put letters on a piece of paper to make a sentence, I told stories into my mom’s tape recorder and found things around my house to create sound effects. Even as a little kid, I knew I wanted to create an experience — something exciting and filled with noise.

Years later, that’s what drew me to video games. It wasn’t so much the gameplay mechanics for me; I didn’t grow up with those side-scrolling platformers. (It’s sad, I know.) For me, video games offered an entirely new type of storytelling experience, because they were visual and auditory and immersive in a way I had never encountered before. They were interactive.

Interactive Storytelling

That’s what you see a lot nowadays: video games with interactive stories. The games themselves are always interactive, obviously — but now that personal involvement extends to how the tale plays out.

The Telltale episodic games are obvious and very popular examples: In these games, you select dialogue options and actions when prompted to progress the story in a unique way.

I’ll admit, I sometimes wonder just how unique my experience is — would things have turned out that different if I had gone to the other house first, or if I had been a jerk instead of polite in this conversation — but whether or not you have a lot of agency in these games, you are certainly set up to feel that your choices matter.

Mass Effect's dialogue wheel

Mass Effect’s dialogue wheel

BioWare is also known for giving players decisions to make. In the latest games, dialogue wheels make it clear whether each selection is heroic, polite, aggressive, or even a little bit evil. It’s exciting to craft a character who is badass enough to headbutt a big, burly alien character or punch out an intrusive reporter during an interview. Or maybe you prefer a more noble type.

Seeing the consequences of your actions down the line can be satisfying and/or surprising. Characters live or die. They love you or hate you. The world changes based on whether you helped someone or not. And that’s only for the smaller choices.

A conversation in The Witcher 2.

A conversation in The Witcher 2

The Witcher series is another known for decision-making. Unlike in BioWare games, you don’t create your own character — you’re playing as Geralt, a known anti-hero type from Andrzej Sapkowski’s books. However, even while dialogue options keep Geralt as badass as he is in the books, you can choose the direction his personality will take. More importantly, you decide who you want to help and which path feels right for you… or for him. In The Witcher 2, you choose rather early on whether to rescue an elf who once tried to kill you or aid an old friend; each option leads to an entirely unique path for most of the rest of the game.

In these instances, you, as the player, have a sense of ownership over the adventure. Although you’re obviously stuck within strict parameters — a certain type of gameplay, an already-created world, a specific premise or set-up — you are still creating your own experience, at least in some ways. And any amount of agency can make the experience of playing the game feel meaningful.

Agency Instead of Story… Or As Story

The question is, do you really need agency to create a meaningful experience? It seems that a lot of game developers are using player agency as a way to make their games more compelling. Having decisions to make can make a video game feel much more exciting to the player. Because we all love to have a say in things, right?

In a way, these video games that give us decisions are actually doing something much more: They’re giving us the power to become storytellers ourselves. That feels good.

Some games have player agency with very little real story. Or perhaps there is a story, but the freedom you are given to go your own route is what’s most important. The Elder Scrolls games are like this. Sure, they have stories — interesting ones, in my opinion — but you can choose which ones to pursue and even ignore them entirely if you prefer to just explore and see what’s out there. All the while, you’re leveling up your character and gaining accolades for your actions. Whether or not you’re following the stories provided to you — either the main questline or a side questline that allows you to become head of Winterhold College, a decorated soldier, a homeowner, etc. — you’re creating a life story for your character.

Archmage robes -- one of the rewards for completing a quest line in Skyrim.

Archmage robes — one of the rewards for completing a questline in Skyrim

People like Skyrim because of that agency. The freedom to explore. The seemingly limitless options in how to level your character or quests to pursue. It’s about discovery and empowerment more than any meaningful story experience. Sure, becoming the leader of the Thieves Guild is exciting, but it’s a rather shallow experience on an intellectual and emotional level. The story isn’t what it’s about — it’s about being able to pursue the quests related to that storyline, engage in the gameplay, learn some new skills, and then reap the rewards that go along with becoming the leader. You can do that over and over in The Elder Scrolls games, mastering specific skills and becoming important in a variety of different questlines. But, at least in my experience, few people play Skyrim and say, Whoa, that was a great story.

The sense of agency allows that feeling of something being epic. Maybe the story is good — maybe it’s not. But you feel it is that way because you played a role in it. You affected it in some way, and that makes you feel important as a player.

However, too much agency can feel overwhelming. Even if a game has an intriguing adventure, such as Dragon Age Inquisition, it can be easy to lose sight of what’s going on in the midst of all of the side quests and chaos. Open-world games are usually the ones to commit this crime — if you want to call it that. I care about story above all else, so losing track of where I am because of too much freedom is actually a negative thing for me. I want to be a little reigned in sometimes.

Just Tell Me a Story

So what about good storytelling? Is that an entirely different thing than agency or liberty? I’ll be honest here: Sometimes in Telltale games, I feel like I’m being babied a bit — like they’re throwing a silly choice at me that’s not going to mean anything down the road, just for the sake of keeping me involved. They want me to keep pressing buttons so I feel like I’m doing something, but really, the game is just telling its story in its own way. And that’s okay.

When I read a book, I trust the author to tell me a good story. That’s their job. When I watch a film, I feel the same. But when I play a video game, I think about a lot of other things, like gameplay and the agency I’ve been talking about.

You know what would be cool, though? If, once in a while, I was only concerned about enjoying a good story in a game.

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To the Moon

When it comes to video games made with the sole purpose of telling a fantastic, memorable story, the best example that comes to mind is To the Moon. It’s a role-playing adventure game by Freebird Games that I reviewed here a while back. It’s not cinematic, exactly. It features 16-bit graphics. But it made my cry. I heard that it would, I was doubtful, and then it did. It’s a simple adventure with simple gameplay and almost no real sense of agency. Sure, you’re picking up clues and solving puzzles to progress from one chapter to the next, but the story is obviously already created for you and has a definitive ending. You can sense that going into the game.

That’s what I liked about it. I knew from the start that I was going to be treated to a really good tale, in video game format. That’s exactly what I wanted. The result was an emotionally-affecting experience that I still remember and recommend to people years later.

Another great story I’ve experienced in a video game is the one spun in The Last of Us. Here, again, you have no real agency, and that actually plays a big role in the ending. (Spoilers to follow.) You’re stuck in Joel’s shoes, and you know his issues. His hang-ups. His past tragedies and the things he wants from life. You feel that way, anyway. And so in the end, when he lies to Ellie so she doesn’t go through with a heroic surgery, just to save her for reasons you may deem selfish, you have to go through with it. You may even understand where he’s coming from. Maybe you agree with him — I’ve heard a lot of players do, but I wonder if it’s because they had to kill those doctors to save Ellie themselves. What if the game had forced you to do something else? Would you agree with that instead, because you’re acting that out? Having to do something makes you feel connected to the action somehow, even if you didn’t get the opportunity to make the decision for yourself. I was shocked at what Joel did, but I forgive him for it because I was him. The game gives you no agency, but that just makes Joel’s actions and the entire story all the more surprising and compelling.

The Last of Us

The Last of Us

Agency and storytelling so often go hand-in-hand, it can be hard to remember that you can enjoy a compelling video game with just one or the other. However, while agency can sometimes compensate for the lack of an engaging tale, it seems to me that storytelling is able to stand on its own very well. A video game’s tale doesn’t require player involvement in order to be absorbing.

A truly good story — one that you remember, that affects you, that means something — is a rare thing in a video game. And it’s something I’m always looking for, whether or not I get a say in it as a player.

— Ashley

Playing Telltale Games with Someone Else

Recently I played the first episode of Telltale Games’ Game of Thrones series with my boyfriend. It was difficult — first of all, because I had to wait an entire month until after we were both back from the holiday break and could play together. (He’d already downloaded it, so it was waiting in San Francisco. Otherwise, who knows what I would have gotten up to over the break…)

But you know what’s more difficult than waiting weeks to play a game you’ve been looking forward to for months? Playing a game — specifically a Telltale game, with moral decisions to make that require quick thinking — with someone else.

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I’ve always played Telltale’s video games solo. The only time I kind of, sort of, played with somebody else was when my sister sat next to me, knitting away, while I played the first episode of Tales from the Borderlands. I think I asked her opinion about dialogue options two or three times, but only when I felt like I wanted the help. (She was the one who chose to “blow his mind” rather than “break his heart,” for instance — I just didn’t know what I wanted to do there, because both options sounded so good!) Still, I was the one with the controller in my hands, so I felt very much in control of the whole experience. That playthrough will be my playthrough, and nobody else’s.

It must be rare to find two players who play a Telltale episode in exactly the same way. One of my favorite things to do after playing an episode is discuss all of my choices with my coworker who is also a fan. We often end up on opposite sides, with him preferring a more good-guy route than the road I usually walk. After completing a Telltale episode, you can also see your stats compared to the community at large; for instance, it will tell you something like, “You and 41% of players chose to do this-or-that,” so you know where you stand.

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With all of the available options and decisions, it’s clear that they can add up to a very unique playthrough unlike that of any other player.

In fact, I don’t like to go back and replay Telltale games. My first playthrough is canon and it’s all I need — it’s me. While it’s interesting to see how others play, I’m always secretly glad that their choices are theirs and mine are mine. Telltale Games is all about creating a personal experience. A feeling of exclusive ownership, to me, is what makes the experience feel rich.

However, when I played Game of Thrones’ first episode “Iron from Ice” with my boyfriend, we passed the controller back and forth. I played for 10 or 15 minutes, then let him play for the next segment. We didn’t time anything; we stopped at natural break points and made sure we were both getting our fair share of gameplay time.

At first, this was really fun. Playing with someone else made the game feel more dynamic somehow, and we both laughed a lot. Hearing his opinions added some depth to my own thoughts on the game as we went along as well. We had to think fast before the dialogue option timer ran out, and it was exciting to say exactly what you wanted without necessarily considering the other person’s possible response — a time limit can do that to a person.

011But early in the episode, my boyfriend chose to draw Gared Tuttle’s sword instead of going back to save his father. I like playing a badass character too, but I have to be honest: I secretly wanted to see what would happen if he had gone back to his father. That’s what I would have done, but my boyfriend had the controller at the time, and he chose the other option.

I didn’t say anything. Whatever. I didn’t care that much. This was going to be an interesting experience, seeing how my boyfriend chose to play.

iron3As we passed the controller back and forth for two hours, it became clear to me just how differently we approach decisions in the game. He tended to want to be “right,” saying the “right” thing in a conversation to please whomever he was speaking with. Because he hasn’t played any Telltale games before, I had to let him know that there is no “right” choice in these games — you just play it how you feel it, and sometimes you’ll run into surprising outcomes.

Mira-and-MargeryMeanwhile, I tended to want to choose options I found most interesting. Sometimes a clever answer actually wins admiration from others, as was the case when I was playing as handmaiden Mira speaking to Margaery Tyrell. Margaery seemed a little more impressed by Mira’s careful responses than Cersei had been when Mira just nodded agreement over everything. (That had aroused a bit of suspicion.)

When it came to Ethan Forrester, my boyfriend wanted to focus on war, strength, and attitude. I had wanted to make Ethan more diplomatic and careful, but with the controller in my boyfriend’s hands for most of his chapters, we ended up with a character who acted like a champion and didn’t take shit from anybody.

To an extent, I really enjoyed it. Had I been watching the show, I would have found this Ethan intriguing. It’s always fun to watch a character in TV whose youthful bravado might get him into too-deep water. Having no control over it, you want to see how the storytellers are going to play this one out. However, as a participant in the game, I found myself cringing just a little, once in a while, over my boyfriend making Ethan super tough where I would have been more lenient.

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At the end of the episode, I could count several conflicts and conversations that I felt proud of — the ones over which I had assumed control. But I could also think of many portions of the game where I was an observer rather than a participant, and what the characters did tended to surprise me or even upset me. Those were my boyfriend’s choices.

I could let that get to me — this should be my playthrough, my choices — but my boyfriend and I agreed to play together, and that means sharing control and responsibility for each decision one of us makes.

One of the perks of playing together is the little thrill when one of us would shout out an answer exactly as the other person selected it, revealing where we already think alike. Seeing the outcomes of those moments was particularly rewarding. But there’s always that chance that when you shout out a response, the other person isn’t going to like it, or will have already selected something totally different. That happened just as often, and probably more often, than we chose the same response.

But that’s the beauty of the Telltale experience. And relationships, I guess. People play differently. As for the out-of-left-field shockers… Telltale throws lots of them your way anyway. But once I also let go of my expectations of how the episode should play out — minute by minute, choice by choice — I was able to look back on the experience of playing with someone else as something truly surprising.

— Ashley

Ramblings on Sci-Fi Cheesiness and Suspension of Disbelief…

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How believable is science fiction supposed to be?

Some sci-fi is incredibly rich and realistic. Especially when reading it, I’m able to visualize exactly how the world and all of its inhabitants — including alien races described as being completely different than anything we know on this planet — appear in this fictional universe. I get really into it.

However, when watching sci-fi and TV movies, things can get in the way of that suspension of disbelief. Things like shoddy special effects, cheesy one-liners, alien characters obviously covered in weird cosmetics and prosthetics.

This doesn’t ruin my enjoyment of science fiction. In fact, sometimes I barely notice it. However, my sister tends to comment on these things after we leave the cinema, and my mom actually makes the comments while we’re still watching the shows. (Yeah… I don’t watch sci-fi with her anymore.) It doesn’t mean my sister hates science fiction — she’s just not a fan in the same way I am. It’s almost as if she wasn’t born with the sci-fi gene. It’s all too cheesy to her.

It’s gotten me thinking: Loving sci-fi really boils down to whether or not you can believe it. Some people do, easily, no matter how otherworldly or gooey it seems. But many people — probably most — can’t get past how silly that explosion looked or the fact that those one-liners about saving the world are worse than bad pick-up lines.

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What’s weird is that I totally agree with my sister’s opinions on how cheesy things can be in sci-fi. Sometimes it’s technology needing to catch up with people’s imaginations to really bring alien races and intergalactic battles in outer space to life onscreen. But other times it’s just the genre that gets a little overly emotional at times. Heroes can be sappy. And that’s fine. I can suspend my disbelief for all of these things. I mean, Quark looks so real in Deep Space Nine, right?

In some ways, I’ve trained myself to believe in these other galaxies, no matter what. Let’s take Doctor Who as an example: The first time you watch it, if you haven’t been exposed to these types of shows before, it seems incredibly cornball. But the more you watch it, the more invested you become in the story and characters. You stop caring about the fact that the Silence look a little stereotypical — you’re really terrified of them because of what they do. You don’t overthink how the TARDIS works or how old-fashioned all of those controls look (or maybe you do), because that’s not what the TARDIS is all about. That’s not what Doctor Who is all about. You take the show for what it is, finding charm in its retroism and cheesiness while overlooking any deficiencies in areas like special effects. But I’ll be honest — it can take a little time to get there.

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I swear they’re really scary.

I guess my “training” happened many years ago, so I have no trouble jumping into any science fiction show, movie, or game. You don’t have to tell me how sappy Doctor Who is. The sentimentality is part of what I love about it, damn it!

But it’s gotten me thinking, why is it that I can overlook these things — that I’m immune to the lackluster effects and the obvious alien prosthetics — while others find them almost intolerable? Not everyone has the ability to suspend their disbelief and really invest themselves in a fictional world so different than our own. I guess it’s a skill that requires some honing. Or maybe some people aren’t born with that gene.

I hold nothing against people who can’t get into science fiction. It’s cool. To each his own. I’m just really glad I was born with the sci-fi gene.

— Ashley

Telltale’s Most Energetic Episode Ever: “Zer0 Sum” Review

It seems like Telltale Games has been releasing all kinds of games lately — so many that it’s hard to choose which one to play first. While I have big plans for their take on Game of Thrones, I couldn’t wait to play the first episode in their Tales from the Borderlands series.

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Based on Gearbox’s Borderlands video games, this Telltale Games entry has been on my most-anticipated list since I first heard about it. Maybe it’s because I already knew I loved the gritty, sci-fi worldbuilding that’s like a slightly unhinged partner to Joss Whedon’s Firefly. I was looking forward to spending more time in this rundown world of guns and psychos, and Telltale’s knack for storytelling could only make the experience even richer. (Minor spoilers to come.)

Story

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The first episode “Zer0 Sum” starts out in a dusty middle-of-nowhere, with the protagonist Rhys being tied up to tell his story of what-just-went-down — and then you’re living it. Later, a second protagonist, Fiona, is introduced to tell her side of the same story. It’s a framing device that works well for showing off just how tight Telltale’s storytelling can be. There’s also a lot of humor in understanding realizing that some of your assumptions about the story were off when you hear the second side.

Now for the first story. Rhys works for Hyperion Corporation and is due for a promotion. But instead of the meeting he expected, he’s demoted to “senior vice janitor” by his fast-talking nemesis Vasquez, voiced by Patrick Warburton. (Hearing Warburton’s hilariously recognizable voice instantly made my sister and I burst out laughing — he’s a great choice to play this jerk of a character.) This inspires Rhys to take on a new mission in life: To screw over Vasquez. To do this, he and his friend (also a Hyperion employee) steal $10 million from the company to purchase a vault key Vasquez has been after.

The second protagonist is Fiona, a con artist thief living with her sister and father-figure mentor in a seedy Pandoran town. She and her makeshift family are involved in a big con: Selling a fake vault key for $10 million. See how their stories intersect?

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The character development is some of the strongest I’ve seen in a Telltale game. As a sarcastic, uptight corporate sellout, Rhys sparks when he’s forced to work with Fiona and her free spirit sister. Personalities naturally clash, hilarious bickering ensues, and everything feels as authentic as it is entertaining.

Action

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Like all Telltale Games, the story is presented in cinematic style. As the player, you choose dialogue options, move around to investigate during certain sequences, and occasionally engage in quick time events when it’s time for action. I thought this worked well for The Wolf Among Us series — still my favorite from Telltale — because this minimalist style of gameplay was used to investigate crimes. In Tales from the Borderlands, it’s used with a much freer sense of humor. Like for controlling a poetic combat robot. And hitting bandits with a shockstick. And exploring a creepy museum of deceased humans who are stuffed taxidermy-style. Additionally, Rhys has a special ability called Echo-Eye, which utilizes his cybernetic eye to download data about objects and people (and, like, hack into Vasquez’s computer and stuff).

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I found the QTE action in Tales from the Borderlands to be much easier than in other Telltale Games. It’s almost like the aiming system has been made more forgiving, however subtly. Or maybe it’s just the way the action scenes are set up. Combat feels more electrifying and fun in this game than in past Telltale adventures, and the more traditional melee/shooter combat you find in the Gearbox games has a natural home here. There’s even combat on moving vehicles toward the end of the episode, which had my heart racing even though it was easy to act out.

Sense of Humor

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Although it’s perfectly possible to play this game with no prior knowledge of the Borderlands series of video games, you’ll appreciate it somewhat more if you’re a fan. References to Handsome Jack, being behind the scenes at Hyperion, the stylized character intros, and exploring more of Pandora give the game a special buzz if you’re already familiar with the series. Plus, Zer0 is there for a few scenes. I was most excited to hear some of the music from the main games; I listen to the Borderlands 2 soundtrack all the time and was happy to be reminded that this game was whisking me back to Pandora.

What I like most about this game is that it keeps with the spirit of the Borderlands series. I’ve always found the Telltale Games to be a little on the serious side — I mean, you never know who’s going to die and when you’re going to have to be the one to pull the trigger. However, Tales from the Borderlands is finally showing off Telltale’s comedic side. It’s the first Telltale game to make me laugh out loud from start to finish.

Some of the game’s humor also comes from its twists on traditional Telltale gameplay. If you’ve played the studio’s games before, you probably know how often they give you tough moral choices; in the first episode of The Walking Dead, for instance, two friends are in danger and you only have time to save one — who do you choose?

However, Tales from the Borderlands skips the super-serious paths in favor of satire. Some of the choices are completely sarcastic, almost as if the game is poking fun of the traditional Telltale storytelling. Additionally, some of the hints that appear in the upper left corner, which usually tell you that something you’ve just said or done will have an effect down the road, are now just another place for Telltale to tell jokes. And what’s best about all this humor is that it brings back to life the free spirit of the Borderlands games — it just totally fits.

Clocking in around 2 1/2 hours, “Zer0 Sum” is one of Telltale’s longer episodes, but there’s never a lull in the humor or action. Although I’m still more of a fan of The Wolf Among Us overall, this is one of Telltale’s most kinetic episodes ever.

— Ashley

Happy N7 Day!

I knew I was going to love Mass Effect almost from the very first moment I launched the first game for the first time.

Codex_Normandy_SR-2_(ME3)Although I remember looking forward to the series after I played Dragon Age: Origins, I don’t remember exactly when I decided to purchase the first Mass Effect game — only that I raced out of work at 5 PM that day to buy it at Gamestop. The first copy I purchased was used and didn’t work, so I had to drive back to the store just to exchange it. I couldn’t wait another day. In the car, I was already brainstorming what my hero would look like, even though I didn’t yet know her name was Shepard or anything about what she would face throughout the series. I thought of Mass Effect as a science fiction Dragon Age, and I couldn’t wait to start playing. Launching the game for the first time, seeing the title screen with the curve of our planet in the background, and then seeing it seamlessly shift to my Shepard gazing at that view out the window of a spacecraft gave me chills.

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Not that everything about the series gave me chills. Those long, boring elevator rides in Mass Effect 1, the bumpy rides in the Mako, the mind-numbing tediousness of having to scan planets in Mass Effect 2 – those were not highlights for me, but they’re things that get talked about a lot among fans of the series. It’s like somehow all of those “negatives” are blurred together into a series of endearing memories and talking points that I share with other Mass Effect players. When you love a video game series this much, you come to love its flaws, too.

Since it’s N7 Day, I figured I should write about a few of my favorite Mass Effect memories. Although each player’s experience of the game is unique based on their choices, these are moments that other fans will probably also remember as fondly as I do.

The Archangel Reveal

Garrus_archangelIn Mass Effect 2, there’s a mysterious mercenary commander who’s been taking down bad guys on Omega outside of the law. It turns out this vigilante is actually someone Shepard knows from the Normandy: Garrus Vakarian, a turian sniper who worked with her before. This reveal is not exactly a huge surprise, but there’s something magical about being reunited with an old friend from the series, and this is one of the first times it happens.

Mordin’s Song

Mordin-singsMordin is a salarian scientist who speaks fast in fragmented sentences — usually in the most cerebral (and socially awkward) way possible. It’s always fascinating to talk to him, but there’s one special instance when he breaks the stereotype of serious scientist. That’s when he starts talking about the arts — specifically his singing abilities. It’s one of those silly, magical, unexpected laughs from a well-loved character.

Headbutting a Krogan

I’m not sure if Paragon Shepard can do this or not, but Renegade Shepard can headbutt a krogan in Mass Effect 2  Headbutting is a krogan ritual, and the fact that Shepard understands that and is brave enough to make that gesture with a burly, badass dude she just met is pretty awesome and wins her major points with the locals.

Liara’s Time Capsule

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There are at least two or three moments in Mass Effect 3 that make me tear up, and this is one of them. After all Shepard has been through over the years, she’s a battered hero and exhausted by this one last mission to save the galaxy. Liara, an archaeologist who has been a part of Shepard’s squad and a friend for years, is creating a record of the galaxy for future explorers to uncover — and she’s making a special entry about Commander Shepard. Coming from Liara, this feels like an intimate record, and hearing her speak well of Shepard makes their bond even more apparent. It’s one of the most touching moments in the series.

Last Night with Kaidan

I’m really a Garrus girl at heart, but I romanced Kaidan in the first Mass Effect game and have seen what happens when you’re loyal to him through the series or, at the very least, romance in Mass Effect 3. It all culminates in your last evening together before the final fight, when Kaidan comes to Shepard’s room to spend the night. He has a bottle of wine and wants Shepard to relax for a little while. Maybe it’s just how supportive he is of her, or maybe it’s the fact that the way he acts with her — fumbling with his words sometimes, compassionate, nostalgic, a little horny — feels very realistic. To me, it’s one of the most romantic moments in the series and is written perfectly.

Garrus’s Goodbye

Shepard’s romantic goodbye with Garrus before the final fight in Mass Effect 3 always gets me choked up. Garrus is as funny and badass as he always is, but hearing him talk about retiring with Shepard, having kids, and the possibility that they might not make it out of the battle alive is just too much. I really believe Garrus is the best character in the series and even one of the best video game characters ever, and his goodbye suits him and his relationship with Shepard perfectly.


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There are a lot of other moments I could talk about here; I can already tell this post needs a part 2. In any case, what’s most fun about Mass Effect is how grounded the series is because of the intimate friendships and romances Commander Shepard forms with her Normandy crew. Science fiction can be a cold genre, but this series is one of the warmest, most emotional stories I’ve found.

— Ashley

 

My Favorite Combat Classes in Video Games

Whenever I start a new video game, it’s always a great surprise (or not-so-surprise) when I have the opportunity to select a character class. Some games have their own fine-crafted classes you don’t see anywhere else, while others have the more traditional warrior/rogue/wizard breakdown. Whatever the case, I just love having some options. Customizing the game to my personal preferences makes the gameplay experience feel much more personal and enjoyable. And I definitely have a few favorite classes…

Mage

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The mage is one of my go-to classes in fantasy games, because it typically allows for a detailed level of customization. If you have companions, you can hang in the back as the healer. Or you can rush in as a warlock in armor. With some careful skill balancing, you can create a resilient spellsword character in Skyrim or even try shapeshifting in Dragon Age.

My favorite wizarding style has a heavy focus on crowd control. I love being the first character in an enemy-infested environment, casting a paralysis glyph or dizzying enemies or creating a blizzard to quickly weaken foes. This lets my companions go in and deal damage more effectively — or it gives me time to switch to my melee weapon or pick a good attack spell. Manipulating the masses for the sake of winning a battle is a lot of fun.

It also seems like every gamer who enjoys playing as mages has a favorite element, such as fire. For me, it’s all about the cold. Freezing enemies in their tracks — and then, if possible, shattering them with a well-placed blow — is pretty much my favorite thing to do in a fantasy game. Giving a dragon frostbite is awesome, too.

Archer

Predator Bow from Crysis 3.

Predator Bow in Crysis 3.

My other go-to fantasy class is the archer. To be fair, this class is somewhat hit or miss. Some games have a limited skill set for archers, making the class a tad tedious and slow-paced to play. Fortunately, most games I’ve played offer some robust options for archers, and it’s often a specialized path for a more general rogue character. This lets you set up an archer with other complementary skills, such as stealth.

The first time I played Skyrim, I created a two-handed warrior who got crazy with a battleaxe. I still really love that character, but when I went back and played again with a sneaky archer, I found the game much more enjoyable. I wasn’t overwhelmed with enemies as often, because I could sneak up on people and land critical hits before they even knew I was there. It was a pretty awesome combo.

I also enjoyed creating a Bard in Dragon Age: Origins who specialized in archery and apparently singing courage into her companions. Because Origins has a very slow-paced archery set-up, I mostly played as my group’s mage character during that playthrough… but it was still a blast to have the songs giving bonuses to everyone while I jumped into other characters’ skins dealing damage across the battlefield.

I’ve also found that quite a few shooters seem to be including high-tech bows as a weapon of choice. That’s actually what got me interested in Crysis 3, a game I probably would never have otherwise thought to play.

Two-Handed Warrior

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Although I don’t usually play warriors in video games — at least not for a first playthrough — I do love melee combat. This is especially true when I can keep it simple. I like to hit once, hard. I don’t need to juggle two light weapons or switch between them throughout a battle, when with one powerful swing of a huge maul, I can crumple a bandit or get those wolves to stop chasing me. That’s why when it comes to playing a warrior, two-handed weapons are the way I usually go.

When given a choice of weapon, I tend to go for the battleaxe. Depending on the game, the swing of the battleaxe feels right to me, compared to the more cumbersome warhammer, etc. The battleaxe also has an aesthetic appeal that, for me, no other warrior weapon has. Because its wide surface gives plenty of room for decoration and variety, a battleaxe can be a very elaborate weapon. Let’s just say I’ve got a collection going in Skyrim.

Sniper

Black Widow from Mass Effect.

The Black Widow from Mass Effect.

I don’t play a lot of shooters. I’m just not very good at them, because… we won’t talk about my aiming. But that’s why my favorite shooter class tends to be the sniper. Being able to take out enemies from a distance — often before they even notice me — is a huge advantage. When the sniper class comes with special upgrades, such as being able to slow down time to take a few extra seconds lining up the perfect shot. There’s also no firearm sexier than a sniper rifle.

Sentinel

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Sure, the Sentinel is a character class unique to Mass Effect, but I feel a real kinship to it after spending so many games and so many dozens of hours playing it. In Mass Effect, you can play as a soldier who’s strong and skilled with a firearm, a biotic who is able to create mass effect fields to do what might be called “magic” (but it’s science, guys), or an engineer who specializes in technology.

As a Sentinel, you combine the latter two classes, dealing both biotic damage and tech damage and being able to act as medic. It’s a jack-of-all-trades style of gameplay, which is exactly why it never gets boring. Because you always have a party with you in Mass Effect, you don’t have to worry about not being strong enough in one area. Sentinels make a great class that I wouldn’t even call “support” — it’s more like you gel with your companions to seamlessly take down baddies. I’ll admit I love to spam Warp, and I will do that forevermore when I play Mass Effect.

Although I do try out other classes in Mass Effect, nothing quite compares to my first playthrough as a Sentinel. That class is a magic formula for me.

— Ashley