Monday, November 28, 2016

General RPGs' Preferable Non-Realism List 1

Realism in our video games is a good thing, in theory. After all, the more realistic the gaming experience, the better your chance, as an audience, of being pulled into the atmosphere of the title, and audience immersion’s vital to any form of storytelling. Players laud it, developers seek it, and game publishers tout it. “Realism” is a buzzword that every AAA developer in the business seems eager, even desperate, to be able to attach to their product.

There is such a thing as going too far, though.

For all that we value realism in our games, there are certain conventions to them that defy real-world logic, yet are nonetheless far better than a more authentic alternative. When we play a First Person Shooter, we usually don’t want things so real that a single bullet puts our character down for the count, as it would in real life in most situations. When we play a platformer, we usually don’t want things so real that our character can only jump like 2 feet up, making actually platforming in our platformer pretty much impossible. And, of course, there are plenty of RPG conventions in which it is far better to suspend disbelief than shoot for absolute reality, too. And, because not everyone can achieve great things with their life, I have compiled some of these situations below. Enjoy.

Short, All-Healing Inn Rests: Let’s start off with an easy one. This is a situation that people have been poking fun at for decades now. You know the deal: you drag your bruised, battered, bloody, and bereft of life party members into a town, head to an inordinately inexpensive hotel, and after 3 seconds of a dark screen and a reassuring little sleep jingle, everyone is right as rain. From the ritziest resort hotels to a single pile of straw inside an actual mud hut, there is no ill, no injury in the universe that cannot be cured completely by spending 1/30th of a minute in an RPG bed. It’s a funny quirk of the genre we all know of, so easily lampooned that there are even some RPGs that lampshade this--Undertale, for example, allows you to use the inn at the town of Snowdin for free, because the innkeeper doesn’t feel it’s right to take your money when you’re only using the bed for a few seconds at a time.

The thing is, although almost all of us are only gently ribbing at RPGs when we bring up this silliness, I have actually seen a few people online honestly criticize the lack of reality with this trope. So I’ll just say flat-out here: you do not want a more realistic sleeping-healing arrangement in the genre. You do not want to have your less than 5 second wait time be extended to more appropriately match a full night’s sleep. Hell, it bugs me in Fallout 4 when I need to have my character sit down and wait for 8 hours so I can sell some stuff to those blasted diurnal merchants, because the waiting process takes a whole 10 seconds or so. That’s just 10 measly seconds, and yet the fact that it’s over twice as long as a standard JRPG’s 8-12 hour night-to-day period makes me impatient! Trust me, strange internet people out there who have actually made sincere complaints about this, you do not want a more realistic wait time for your party’s shut-eye breaks.

And you definitely do not want to wait a more realistic time in terms of the healing aspect of this situation. The period of recovery from having a random encounter monster unleash a blazing inferno on you and then tearing your chest open with its claws is not one which you want to wait out in real time.

Decaying Weapons: Goddamn do I hate it when RPGs force you to constantly perform weapon maintenance. YES, developers, I know that in real life, you could not slash hundreds of rats, goblins, slimes, dragons, skeletons, zombies, and so on without, at some point, taking a moment to clean, polish, sharpen, and hammer your weapon back into working order. That doesn’t mean I want a weapon health bar hanging over my head all the damn time! Micromanaging the health of not only my characters, but my tools as well, is not fun! Especially in an RPG, a genre which has you encounter and kill enemies in the literal thousands, making any weapon repair system in place a constant annoyance.

And no, Fallout 3 and New Vegas, I do not give you both a pass on this. Yes, the concept of weapons breaking down and needing to be repaired is, indeed, very appropriate for the setting and themes of the Fallout franchise. But you know what? Just this once, the needs for smooth, enjoyable gameplay trump the higher aspects of the game, because the constant frustration of knowing that every bullet you fire makes your gun less effective makes the setting and theme less enjoyable and engaging even as it better expresses it.

Weapon- and Armor-Breaking Abilities: While we’re on the subject of frustration with mortal equipment, the occasional game you come across that allows combatants to permanently break their opponent’s weapon and armor will always, sooner or later, invoke great cursing from me. Hey, I admit, it is a lot of fun in Final Fantasy Tactics to use Meliadoul or Orlandu to render your enemies harmless by destroying their weapons. But you know what far, far outweighs that fun? When an enemy does it back to you, and ends up destroying a piece of equipment that was unique and you’ll never be able to get another. Yeah, it’s realistic that fierce combat can lead to the destruction of one’s weapons and protective clothing, but the potential for frustration with this is just too high to make it worth incorporating.

I still have nightmares about enemies breaking my equipment in Lunar: Dragon Song.

Money from Monsters: Another quirk of RPGs that has been long lampooned is that random monsters are apparently carrying some seriously stacked wallets around, just waiting for you to kill them and steal their mysteriously earned cash. This is so unrealistic in so many ways. Non-sapient creatures don’t carry money, most of these monsters don’t have a place to be carrying it to begin with, sometimes the creatures carrying the money are so small that it doesn’t even seem like they could be lugging around this much change when their world’s currency is coin- or gold-based, there is no possible way that any kind of economy could be sustained when money just grows on (monster) trees, and so on.

The thing is, as silly as this is, it’s the easiest, most direct, and least annoying way to handle money-gathering in most RPGs. An RPG with a robust and easy to use barter system, like any given Fallout title, manages well enough without monster-money, but most games that try to avoid this trope and replace it with something more realistic don’t gain much from doing so. Sometimes you’ll have a system in which you’re not taking money from enemies you defeat, but rather parts of their body, like tusks and furs and such, and then selling those parts at a merchant as your primary source of income. And that works fine, I guess, but really, all that’s happening is that you’re still just going to a shop after beating enemies to access and spend your money, except with a few extra windows and button presses each time as you sell items instead of just having the money automatically. Oh, and I guess that if you have something you need to spend money on before you can reach a merchant to sell the items, then you’re shit out of luck. Fun.

Travel Speed: Is it realistic that you can take an airship, just a big hot air balloon with some propellers, across the globe and back again within the span of 60 seconds in half the Final Fantasy titles out there, along with countless other games? Not unless the average RPG planet could fit inside my tiny hometown.*

But let me tell you something. The day you play Suikoden 4 and spend over 40 minutes sailing from 1 end of the map to the other, that is the day that you stop being at all troubled by the idea of unrealistic travel speeds in your RPGs, forever.

Running Endurance: Most RPG characters are utterly tireless running machines, it seems, capable of traversing every enterable location in the entire world at a brisk jog without a moment’s rest (so long as you hold down the Run button, that is). Myself, I get winded after just about a minute of running. Actually, it’s more like I get winded after just about a minute of thinking about running. Even for those of us who are actually in shape, though, it’s not realistic to think that we could run from 1 end of an ancient abandoned city to the other without a single break in pace, save for the occasional random battle to the death.

But I’d much rather believe that Dean Karnazes is the shared ancestor of every RPG protagonist than deal with what a lot of games do to make for a more realistic simulation of running: the dreaded, annoying as fuck Fatigue Meter, a visible (or worse, sometimes unseen) limit to how long your character can run before having to go back to walking for a moment to recharge. True, not every RPG uses this concept poorly--The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword incorporates a Fatigue Meter for Link very well into its gameplay--but as a general rule, well, I want to be able to get from Point A to Point B on a dungeon map as fast as I’m allowed to. Yeah, sorry game artists, but your dungeon backgrounds will never be so majestic and beautiful that I want to slow down and take them in rather than play the damn game. And true, not every game with a running limit is unendurable to walk through--you really only end up wanting/needing to run in Fallout 4 every now and then, for example--but by and large, imposing such limits results in an unpleasant gameplay scenario where you’re just dashing as much you can through the screen, and getting annoyed every time your endurance runs out and you have to watch the character crawl forward at his/her pathetic walking pace.

Fewer Random Enemies Remaining = Lower Encounter Rate: I’ve only encountered this problem once before, in the game Lords of Xulima, but I really hope that’ll be the only time. Sometimes you have a game in which the enemies you can randomly encounter are limited, and thus there is a finite amount of experience you can get from the game during your playthrough, making that experience much more precious. Now, realistically-speaking, the fewer enemies remain in an area, the less frequently you should encounter them, since there are fewer invisibly lounging about for you to run into (and, frankly, you’d think they’d probably start actively hiding from you after a certain point). Yes, realistically, your rate of random encounters should lower as the number of enemies left decreases. But when Lords of Xulima tried this out, all that happened was that I got bored and frustrated from running around in circles for 5 minutes straight without encountering a single enemy. LoX is the kind of RPG where every experience point you can get matters, so to make the process of gathering that XP far longer for no reason save an unnecessary bit of realism that no one asked for was a really dumb and/or mean-spirited design choice. I’ll take the convenience of steadily encountering limited enemies over the tiresome realism of long gaps between encounters indicating the recent scarcity of monsters.

Swimming with Armor On: For a bunch of guys and gals weighed down by iron plate mail and steel weaponry, not to mention hundreds of consumable items in their packs, RPG characters sure don’t exhibit much trouble with buoyancy. Hell, they usually need to go out of their way to try to sink--despite the fact that he’s carrying a sizable metal shield and multiple steel swords, not to mention a host of other weighty doohickeys like a hookshot and a hammer outright named Megaton, Link has to actively equip the Iron Boots in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time to sink to the bottom of a body of water, for example.**

Nonetheless, I’d rather suspend my disbelief about suits of armor that double as life jackets than risk a return to the other extreme, so popular in the early days of gaming--the old Water = Death days from 80s platformers and RPGs like Startropics and The Magic of Scheherazade. Having to see any random puddle as a life-threatening obstacle is not a gaming cliche I wish to return to.

Underwater Breathing Limits: Is it really all that realistic that the party of Final Fantasy 5 can hold their breath in the Sunken Tower for a full 7 minutes even though they can potentially be spending a lot of that time performing the physical activities associated with combat? FF5 would be a much more interesting game if Guybrush Threepwood was its protagonist, but sadly, we’re stuck with Butz and his prosaic posse, so the 7 minutes of holding their breaths while performing rigorous activity is a little less than realistic. Nor is it realistic that Cloud and company have a whole 20 minutes as they somehow battle on the ocean floor to kill Emerald Weapon.

However, I owned the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game for the NES. So I will never, ever, EVER criticize any game that wants to forego realistic breath-holding times in favor of just letting its heroes inexplicably take as long as they need to in underwater temples, caves, and whatnot.

Limitations to Inventory and/or Carry Weight: 99 bottles of Potion jammed into the same backpack, 99 bottles of take one out, drink it down, 98 bottles of Potion jammed into the same backpack...along with assorted other restorative agents, a few bombs, dozens of magical rings and baubles, and a few entire sets of armor. Yeah, maybe not entirely realistic. But I prefer accepting that all protagonists order their bags from the same catalogue that Mary Poppins does, to those infuriating moments when you have to throw away a rare or unique item to make room for another because your inventory’s full, or the tedium of having to slowly crawl back to your home base in a Fallout game because you’ve found more valuable salvage than your carrying capacity wants to deal with.

The Fallout World’s Decay: I love the setting of Fallout, a sentiment which I have expressed here before more than once. But let’s face it: as great as it is for depicting its post-apocalyptic world, there is no way that the ruins you find in parts of the D.C. area, near and in Las Vegas, and throughout the Boston region should be in as good condition as they are in Fallout 3, New Vegas, and 4. We are talking about 200 damn years of time! The places that haven’t been significantly inhabited or looted in these games over that period of 200 years should not just be rusty, broken, and falling apart; they should be pretty much unrecognizable rubble!

Still, the beauty of Fallout is how much it tells us about ourselves and our culture as you find and explore the remains of our civilization. So many of the great moments of Fallout come in the form of the notes, holotapes, and computer entries of the people from before the time of the Great War. Yeah, the holotapes of the woman in Fallout 4 who sacrificed herself for science in an attempt to find a new radiation-removing drug shouldn’t still be functional after sitting for 200 years in the warzone of Boston (nor, for that matter, should the house they’re located in even still be standing), and the computer in Fallout 3 which you can read the entries of a doctor trying, in the days following the bombs dropping, to keep a group of people from dying to radiation poisoning should not still be in working order when it’s just sitting out there, exposed to the elements and the curiosity of raiders, super mutants, and heaven knows what else...but without these connections to the people of the previous age, without these structures standing and waiting to be explored and understood, Fallout would not be nearly as good.

Bathroom Breaks: Credit to my sister for this one. As with movies, shows, comics, books, and everything else, video game characters are granted the blessing of only having to go take a dump when it is narratively convenient. Which, for most RPG characters, means that they'll go the entirety of an 80-hour game without even so much as a single uncomfortable, yearning glance at the bushes. And that's good! Because when the average RPG adventure involves trekking cross-continent over the course of days, weeks, and months, the last thing you want to have to do is start stopping every half hour or so to manage potty breaks. Take a road trip with a 5-year-old if you really must have that experience.

And I suppose that’s all for today. What’s the point of this rant? I dunno. Probably just that I like to talk about stuff. But I guess if I wanted you to take anything from this, it’s that realism in storytelling, video games included, needs to be tempered by what is legitimately best for the narrative and the purpose. We may rib, mock, and even criticize some of the odd quirks of RPGs, but we should keep in mind that there are certain conventions to the genre that, strange and silly though they may be, are better to accept and roll with than have replaced by a more realistic alternative.

* Well, I guess Democratus from Anachronox could...but I’m pretty sure that’s the only one.

** What makes even less sense of this situation is the fact that Link is also technically carrying those metal boots with him at all times after he finds them, yet they only actually drag him down when he’s specifically wearing them. What, do they suddenly stop weighing anything once he takes them off?

Friday, November 18, 2016

Guest Rant: Tactics Ogre and the "Power of Choice", by GrandLethal16

Guess what, folks? Today you get a break from hearing me carry on with my self-important blathering, and instead hear the opinions of someone a little fresher to the Thinking Inside the Box ranting scene! Today's rant comes to you courtesy of Mr. GrandLethal16, who has his own Tumblr dedicated to RPGs which you might want to check out. It's much more bright, cheery, and interesting than this dump, to be sure. You can also check him out at his Youtube channel, which he uses for Let's Plays and other RPG-related stuff. Thanks for the rant, sir!

Disclaimer: I don't own GrandLethal16's words below, and they don't necessarily reflect my own perceptions and opinions. Although they might, some day, when I play this game. Only time will tell.

Tactics Ogre and the “Power of Choice”

November 17, 2016

A month ago, I highlighted Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions and how it focused on two friends and how their paths diverged greatly as they tried to “right” the world. This week, it’s all about Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together and while it shares many similarities with FFT (some of the same team worked on both), the contributions it brings to the SRPG subgenre are distinctly different!

The story of Tactics Ogre: LUCT centers around three youths: Denam Pavel, his sister Catiua, and his best friend Vyce. The three of them grow up in poverty and experience cruelty that often befalls the poor. These experiences mold them into the idealistic, passionate young people we see at the beginning of the game, determined to level the scales towards justice!

Here’s some backstory for them: The game takes place on the continent of Valeria, where the Dynast-King Dorgalua, had died without any confirmed heirs (Sound similar to FFT?). There is a vying for power in the vacuum and when the dust settles, the Wallisters (Denam and Co.’s nation) are at the bottom of the social food chain beneath the Bakram (nobility) and the Galgastani (the ethnic majority with a prejudice against Wallisters). A foreign ally of the Bakram occupying Valeria attacks and kills Denam and Co’s parents and the Wallister leader, Juda Ronwey, is captured and awaiting execution at the hands of the Galgastani.

As the game begins, Denam and Co. gather allies, rescue their leader, and begin their campaign to restore the Wallisters to freedom. After a string of successful missions, they are dispatched to a mining town where many of their fellow countrymen have been held as slaves for years. They’re ordered to kill all of the remaining slaves, their brethren, and pin blame on the Galgastani to rally the rest of the Wallister together to end the conflict once and for all. This is where the game gives you your first big decision. Will you sacrifice a small group of your own countrymen as a catalyst to mobilize the whole nation and end the war in days, or risk a long, drawn-out war with little hope of victory?

Tactics Ogre challenges you to make the tough choices in pursuit of the greatest “good” attainable. You will weigh the needs of the many against the well-being of the few. You will have to make sacrifices where the collateral will be the lives of unseen masses and even former comrades you’ve met during your journey. There are a number of these decisions you must make throughout the game and they will test you! If you fortify one castle to fend off an invading force, the nearby defenseless villages will suffer unprotected. And depending on the decisions you make, people you see as your closest friends may betray you.

I appreciate this story structure because it expands upon traditional SRPG choice constructs. Typically, the most choice a protagonist will have will be between attacking the north or south gate of an enemy castle (FFT), or defeating the boss versus routing the enemy (Fire Emblem). Tactics Ogre made the player define the means they’re willing to use to better the realm overall and living with results. At first glance, some of these choices are not black and white but rather shades of grey, and all are zero-sum situations. From a big-picture view, there is no explicitly morally “right” choice, and there will be consequences regardless of the choice you make. Compare this to the larger JRPG genre, where the concept of choice may give you a slightly different dialogue response in a cutscene, but not change the narrative’s direction in any way.

If FFT explored the realness of humans and their corruptible natures, Tactics Ogre explored the realness of choice and consequences. FFT showed how two people sharing the same ideals could be lead down different paths based on their fundamental beliefs. Tactics Ogre shows how every choice the main character makes serves to form who he and those closest to him become, and how they impact the larger world in many unforeseen ways. It reminds us that the choices are not made in a vacuum; they have a ripple effect on the larger world and just because you decide not to go down one path, doesn’t mean someone else won’t take up that cause. I think many genres beyond role-playing could benefit from exploring this tool to enrich their story and create more replay value for the player. Moving away from linearity, both in gameplay and story, is essential to standing out from the pack.

I think that most of us would say that we play RPGs because we enjoy exploring these kind of choices. These less-than-linear storylines elevate the plot and require more than the simple critical thinking needed to hit a flan with magic or an aerial enemy with ranged attacks. We want to experience the “out of the ordinary” and we love a good game that stays with us well after the final credits roll (i.e. Chrono Trigger). Questioning the choices we made during a game, contemplating real-life similar scenarios, and discussing them with other gamers is possibly the best influence that games like Tactics Ogre can have on gaming discourse!

I would highly recommend Tactics Ogre to anyone who enjoys SRPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem, or Disgaea. The character customization is super-extensive (second only to Disgaea in terms of detail), the gameplay mechanics are the most complete of any game in the sub-genre, and the replay value is off-the-charts with three story path routes, numerous sidequests, and a treasure trove of post-game content (no paid DLC either)! Beating the game allows you to revisit the different pivotal choices in the explore the alternate story paths and recruit route-exclusive characters. Tactics Ogre is available on the PSN for $19.99 and is playable on PS Vita/PSP, so check it out!

Here are some other examples of impactful choices in RPGS worth checking out:
--Bravely Second (3DS) features some great examples of impactful choices within their Asterisk sidequests, where it's hard to say that either outcome is exclusively “right”.
--Shin Megami Tensei IV (3DS) does this with a number of drop-in-the-buckets decisions throughout the game that determine late game alignment and ending.
--Fire Emblem Fates (3DS) does this very early on with the allegiance choice, though all subsequent events are locked by that path.

Have you ever played Tactics Ogre: LUCT? What did you think of it? What’s another game that utilized the “Power of Choice” well?

Share your thoughts in the comments section - I’d love to hear from you!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Mass Effect 3's Best Mods

Election Day, for all my USA-based readers! Time to go out, do our civic duty, and decide which of the 2 worst human beings alive we want to fuck us all in the ass for the next 4 years. Do you prefer your lying, psychotic, tyrannical, warmongering narcissist to be Bigoted, Stupidly Aggressive, Demonstrably Incompetent Asshole flavored, or Cheating, Remorseless, Empathy-Lacking Freedom-Loathing Inhuman Monster flavored? Do you want to waste countless American lives in the Middle East, or in Russia? Do you want your freedoms revoked openly, or quietly? Let the country know!

Or you could throw away your vote (which doesn't technically have a value in the presidential election anyway, given the electoral college idiocy) voting for someone who isn't the absolute scum of the Earth. I like the Green Party, myself, but that Libertarian guy also possesses both the quality of Not Trump and the quality of Not Clinton, so he seems like a fine pick, too.

Seriously, though, do go out and vote. I don't care which self-important fucktard you prefer to be president--like I said, your vote for president technically doesn't mean anything in our system--but you can still make an actual difference today by voicing your choice of what other (actually) elected officials represent you, and what local laws and initiatives are put into effect. That stuff actually does matter, and exercising your right to decide it is important. So do vote today. Please.

Alright, that's enough of me being pissed off at politics. Let's get back to me being pissed off at RPGs!

Ah, Mass Effect 3. The conclusion to the greatest sci-fi saga since Firefly (and I would even heretically argue that ME was superior to Firefly--whoops, there go my subscribers), Mass Effect’s third installment had a daunting task. Yet despite a few flaws, Mass Effect 3 was a more than worthy finale to this grand epic...until its ending, that is. In fact, I would say that, sans ending, this is the best game in the trilogy. It has the best character depth and development, and the greatest examples of raw, powerful emotion, thrilling action and suspense, and moments to awe and inspire you. For the first 99% of the game, Mass Effect 3 is a magnificent way to finish one of the greatest RPG experiences you’ll ever have.

But that fucking ending!

If for some unfathomable reason you’ve been reading my rants since 2012 or earlier, you know that Mass Effect 3’s ending has been haunting me for over 4 years now. To have something I love so much be so thoroughly, uncaringly dirtied, cheapened, and destroyed, out of nowhere and during the moment when it should have been at its most watch Bioware take its finest work and use it to wipe its ass at the very last was rough.

But if there’s one thing fans know how to do, it’s make up for a company’s shortcomings. From Planescape: Torment’s Unfinished Business mod restoring cut/incorrectly inaccessible content to the game back in the early 2000s to a Fallout 4 mod that lets you take Dogmeat with you as an additional companion because what sadistic idiot decided that you had to choose between Dogmeat and the rest of the cast have you even played a Fallout game before Bethesda, yes, anyway, my point is, fans have been correcting creators’ shortcomings for a while now, and they’ll continue to do so for a while yet. And that’s no less true for Mass Effect 3.

And so, today we will be looking at the best mods out there for Mass Effect 3, much as I did for Fallout 3. As with that rant, these are the mods that I sincerely endorse as a way to improve your Mass Effect 3 experience, additions and changes to the game that enhance it to make it a better representation of itself and Mass Effect. These aren’t just a bit of fun, like fan-created armors or improving load times or something--these are the mods that I feel make for a truer Mass Effect game.

Restored Zaeed Conversation: This mod changes the conversation you have with Zaeed in the Citadel refugee area so that you can hear all that he has to say. This one’s a minor one, to be sure, but when you get down to it, the characters are the heart of Mass Effect, and any chance to hear all that they’re meant to say is a chance to experience the series that much more in rightful totality. And hey, this was one of Robin Sachs’s last roles before his’ll sadly get few more chances to hear that singular gruff tone again, so all the more reason why this is a good thing.

Ken and Gabby Recruitment Restoration Mod: Originally, Ken and Gabby, the lovable engineers from Mass Effect 2, were supposed to have their own recruitment scene in Mass Effect 3. For deadline-related reasons, it was cut, and they’re simply added to the Normandy by Shepard indicating he wants them on a terminal at the Citadel. This mod restores the original intention to have an actual scene in which Shepard meets up with Ken and Gabby, and recruits them by speaking with them. It uses the dialogue already recorded for the scenario, so it smoothly fits into the game exactly as it should, restoring another tiny but enjoyable bit of characterization to the game’s cast. Again, it’s not a big change, but with a cast that draws the player in as greatly as Mass Effect’s does, every tiny interaction and scene is something that a fan appreciates, even treasures.

Extended Final Anderson Conversation: Like the mods above, this alteration to Mass Effect 3 is simply a case of restoring a small bit of dialogue to the cast. Unlike the ones above, though, this is actually a really, really big deal. The final conversation with David Anderson in Mass Effect 3 is one of the greatest highlights of the entire series, a quiet, poignant, overwhelming scene in which Anderson, father figure of Mass Effect and almost as much a representation of its soul as Shepard himself, spends his last moments sitting with Shepard and reflecting. This scene made it to number 7 on my list of the greatest deaths in RPGs, and I cannot overstate what an important, monumental moment it is for the series, for the protagonist, for the story, for the player. This is the capstone of the first and most narratively important relationship Shepard forms in the series; hell, without the mod below, this is the very last good moment in the entire series! The fact that Bioware actually shortened this scene, took lines of dialogue out of it, leaves me flabbergasted.

Thankfully, this mod restores that content, and allows you to hear everything the unparalleled Keith David recorded for Anderson to say in this scene. It’s not perfect, admittedly: during the extra lines, Anderson just kind of stares straight ahead, frozen, as he speaks, which is slightly odd. But hey, the guy’s bleeding out and his mind’s starting to unfocus, so it’s not entirely immersion-breaking. And for the impact of these extra few lines during one of the greatest interactions in the entire trilogy, it’s a small price to pay.

The Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod: And here we are, friends. This is the real reason I wanted to make this rant. Not to say that the mods above don’t make a significant positive impact on Mass Effect 3, of course. They do, and I would want anyone playing the game, whether for the first time or the thousandth, to do so with those mods installed to get the full experience. But The Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod is the fandom’s real contribution to a greater, more true Mass Effect 3, and I cannot endorse it strongly enough.

The Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod is basically just what it says: it gives us a happy ending to Mass Effect 3. Now, let me clarify something very important here: while I’m not especially pleased with the fact that Shepard didn’t get a particularly happy ending in ME3’s original conclusion, that was not anywhere near the real issues that made ME3’s ending so utterly horrible and destructive. I think you can conclude from my list of the greatest RPG endings of all time that I can appreciate endings other than “happy” ones.

What MEHEM does, however, is not just give us an ending to Mass Effect 3 which is happy. It gives us an ending to ME3 that is real. MEHEM provides an ending to this excellent space opera which is true to the heart and soul of the series. It cuts out the stupid space hologram kid, whose addition at the last second to deliver high-handed exposition by the truckload was thoroughly baffling to anyone who understands even the most rudimentary basics of storytelling. And by getting rid of the kid, and thus the spontaneous and thoroughly idiotic last-second subplot about organics and synthetics being irreconcilable and merging them together and all that hogwash, MEHEM simply removes everything wrong from Mass Effect 3’s ending in a single quick cut. No more contradictions to important themes of the game. No more philosophical and moral contradictions to the game’s actual events. No more violation of the right of every self-aware being in the galaxy to autonomy over their own body. No more pretentious notions better suited to other sci-fi styles being clumsily shoved in, notions which are so laughably poor and unexamined that they can actually be summed up, summed up perfectly, by a Yo Dawg meme. The immorality, the stupidity, the betrayal, the incompetence, all gone!

Of course, this mod is a lot more than just a surgical removal of narrative cancer. After all, it wouldn’t be especially satisfying if the game just went from Anderson’s final words to the credits. I mean, it would be still be better than the vile, reeking shit that Bioware gave us, but still. Well, Mr. Fob, the fellow who created and labors upon this mod, has also added an entirely new ending to the game. It is, if I am to speak frankly, pretty standard, predictable fare, as happy endings go. There’s action, there’s emotion, there’s suspense, there’s finality. But you know what? This is what the ending to Mass Effect 3 should have been. The final moments to your work are not about surprising and introducing new directions, they are about satisfying your audience by concluding your epic in a way that suits it. An ending is about closure. And this ending closes the Mass Effect series as it should be closed: with heroism, with excitement, with tenderness, with inspirational awe, with hope. This is not solely called the Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod because it’s what we think of a happy ending--it’s called that because it makes YOU, the player, the audience, the fan happy. Because it provides an ending to the game which is true to what Mass Effect 3 has been leading to. True to what the series itself has been leading to. This is the ending that Mass Effect 3 was meant to have, what it led you to believe it would have with every hopeful word and inspirational bit of trust given to Shepard.

In terms of technical quality, MEHEM is surprisingly good. Mr. Fob pieces together a lot of footage from the original endings that by themselves are just fine, reuses certain lines of dialogue spoken by the characters at previous points in the series, adds a few fan-recorded lines for non-established characters, and even inserts several fan-created animated scenes when necessary. Is it quite as smooth as the game normally is? Well, no. But it’s close, at times so close you might not even realize that the space battle cutscene you just saw wasn’t made by Bioware, and considering how many different parts are being pulled together, it’s actually pretty remarkably high-quality. It’s cohesive, it looks good, and it satisfies.

It’s also well thought-out, which is certainly more than you could ever say for Bioware’s original ending trash. MEHEM, too, introduces a new character at its final moment (Captain Fob, who orders his fleet to assist the Normandy with Shepard’s extraction), but this is an example of such a device actually done right. The mod adds an email to Shepard’s computer early in the game from Captain Fob, expressing gratitude for Shepard’s actions in ME2 and pledging that if they’re ever in battle together, Fob will do his best to assist Shepard however he can, so there’s actually a tiny bit of background set up to lead to Fob’s arrival. Fob also doesn’t steal the fucking show the way the damn hologram Catalyst kid does, instead just acting as a plot device, one which represents the uncounted masses of people that Shepard has impacted through his actions. And that’s actually very good thematically, this idea that when the chips are down, at the moment in which Shepard’s strength is finally spent and he has no more to give, it is the echoes of Shepard’s heroism that will bolster him and carry him through, the people he’s helped not just personally, but simply through his exploits, that will come to return the favor. Take note, Bioware: if you’re going to throw someone into your ending that the audience has never seen before, THIS is an actually functional way to do it.

Ha! As if Bioware would ever deign to consider a fan’s advice on storytelling. Their decision to close their forums and make non-sycophantic communication with them nearly impossible shows just how much they actually value what their fan base can offer.

Anyway. All of this by itself makes MEHEM an absolute must-have for any Mass Effect fan, but there’s actually a lot more to this mod than just its titular purpose. First of all, it actually also contains an unhappy ending to the game, too, although I suspect few will see it. If you finish the game with a low enough rating for galactic readiness, you actually will see a Bad Ending, instead. I gotta hand it to Mr. Fob--not only can he put together a true Mass Effect ending, but he can put together a hell of a Bad Ending, too. I mean, that’s actually one of the best Bad Endings I’ve seen! It’s almost too bad that most people won’t even know it exists. And this, of course, makes the galactic readiness score actually mean something, whereas before it just limited which shitty ending options you’d get, so from a certain perspective, MEHEM’s also fixing a major gameplay flaw, too.

Also, The Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod adds a lot of other tiny things that enhance the Mass Effect experience in ways unrelated to the ending. The mod adds a handful of emails to Shepard’s computer, delivered throughout the game, which do things like retcon Emily Wong’s off-screen, completely unnecessary and pointless death, give a subtle little implication that the original Bioware ending to the game was a Reaper trick, and expand on the game lore regarding anti-Reaper weaponry. They’re pretty neat, if I do say so myself (I use this phrase because I helped with editing them, a tiny contribution to MEHEM for which Mr. Fob generously rewarded me with my name in the mod’s credits, something which I am flattered by and proud of). MEHEM also adds audio lines of Harbinger from ME2 to the desperate run at the end of the game, at which point he’s blasting at everyone trying to make it to the Conduit. It’s a nice touch, and I’d certainly say it’s more immersive--Harbinger never missed a moment to condescendingly taunt Shepard in ME2, so it’s actually kind of weird that he’s totally silent at this part of the game. Once again, MEHEM tidies things up a bit.

Pretty much the only negative I can come up with about this mod is that it can add an alternate music track to be used for the new ending, and...well, it’s a fan-made song, and it’s not bad or anything, but it’s really just not all that right for the scene and the game, either. But this is only a theoretical downside, because when you install MEHEM, it gives you the option between using this fan-made score, or just using actual Mass Effect music, so, y’know, just pick the latter.

Anyway, that’s enough gushing from me. Bottom line is, if you’re going to play or replay Mass Effect 3, download and install The Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod. It’s the only truly legitimate way to conclude Mass Effect available to us, and as far as I’m concerned, this is how Mass Effect 3 ends. This is a case where the fans have understood the art better than the creators, and this long labor of love by Mr. Fob and those who have helped him showcases just what an excellent, meaningful story Mass Effect truly is: because nothing less than a masterpiece could have a following so devoted that they would go to lengths such as this to keep its luster bright and its artistic integrity intact.

Mr. Fob, I sincerely salute you and those who have assisted you in creating The Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod. Something important to me was lost 4 years ago...your effort and care has returned it.