Beam Me Up, Shepherd

Space. The final frontier. At the moment, it’s also the final frontier of creativity in terms of science fiction, if you’re ignoring alternate dimensions. The main problem with space is that it’s a big place, full of a lot of planets, stars, black holes, gas clouds, asteroids and other bits of geological wonder, but very rarely do we consider that it might also be boring.

Mass Effect is a game that manages to bring half of the galaxy (as we’ll be exploring the other half in the 2010 sequel) into your living room on a normal level. You do indeed fly around in your own ship, the high-tech wonder Normandy, but you’re not actually doing any of the flying itself. That falls down to a team of thirty people you’ll never see sitting anywhere else, and a pilot who seemingly never sleeps, though, seemingly, neither do you.

You can visit so many different places, but they all seem to fall into one of two categories: the high-tech "merged civilisation" cities, towns and colonies, full of the same doors and the same technology, or wilderness, ruins and excitement of the Prothean ruins later in the game. The problem this creates is that you’re not really exploring new worlds: you’re landing on them, and looking for things you expect to see there anyway. I can understand that humanity has spread to thousands if not millions of worlds in Mass Effect, but in a universe with many different races, why do they all use the same front doors and elevators?

Creating a mass standard of technology is a very fine line. On the one side of it, you can make the user feel comfortable and at home with the surrounding environment through small details they’ve seen a thousand times before, or you can put them on edge by making every single room unique. I suppose the real reason behind all of this falls down to the time it takes to develop one set of walls and their corresponding textures, and the time it takes to design over four thousand.

That said if your spaceship isn’t appealing, you’re not really going to want to go anywhere in the first place, which is something of a big hurdle for developers to hurl themselves over when it comes to designing transportation. EVE Online is a fantastic example of exactly the amount of variety you need to entice someone into a universe where their spaceship (for now, anyway) is the only visual representation of themselves in the game.

In EVE’s New Eden, the player can fly around the galaxy, blasting friend and foe alike, and have any job they’d like to in this fully-functional universe. Want to mine entire moons for ore? Sure. Feel like taking a battleship and destroying a fleet of enemy cruisers? Go for it. Hell, you can even set up shop as a journalist. As a journalist myself, I avoided that particular job: playing games and writing about them for a living is seriously fun, but playing a game where I’m writing about a game that I’m playing in order to write about it… that’s just headache-inducing.

Sometimes I wonder what EVE’s developers wanted me to find, out in space. As I sat downstairs earlier, mourning the loss of my Gallente cruiser, I realised that I was really, really into mining asteroids. Ironically, I was the main miner and jewelcrafter for my raiding guild in World of Warcraft, but that wasn’t really something I had a ton of fun with most of the time, considering all the money I got went down the toilet the second we had a wipe night.

This said, maybe there are so many jobs and roles in space universe MMOs simply because the developers are looking at the title’s entertainment value more closely than they were with titles like Diablo, where dying was painful simply because not only was it completely unrealistic (I do realise I’m saying this about a fantasy RPG, don’t worry), but also because it was incredibly unfair. However, even in the dark void of space, I’ve got insurance, and an email account, though how in the hell it gets any Wi-Fi signal is beyond me, unless the world of New Eden comes equipped with cloaked Starbucks franchises.

As I sit here, I’m watching my fiancé play though her Mass Effect save a third time in her grind towards the level 60 achievement on the Xbox 360. What’s interesting is, most level grinds that involve replay are usually boring, with no possible value in a title where you can apply the phrase "been there, done that" to almost every situation and gameplay mechanic. But even though she’s not always reading the dialogue, opting to speed through it by mashing the X button, she still makes her moral alignment choices, and explores the hell out of the galaxy.

Why is this? What motivates someone to go back to Mass Effect time and time again (and believe me they do, I’ve seen people on Bioware’s community boards with 20 playthroughs simply out of enjoyment), over a title that is set on a single planet? The key attraction here is the size of the playground Bioware’s flinging their toys around in. Their downloadable content design must be a far simpler process than that of titles where the defined universe is of a limited size. Here, they can create a new planet, stick down some pre-fabricated buildings, re-skin a few people or introduce a new race and some new items, and voila, hundreds of Microsoft Points wing their way to Bioware’s bank accounts.

However, when you’re in space, and choices of where to go and what to do are limited, it suddenly becomes a very tragic and boring experience, that you’ll soon be sick of simply because you’re a human being. You’ve got this huge playground, infinitely bigger than Liberty City or Azeroth, and all of a sudden you’re not allowed in 99.9% of it? Nuts to this, you’d say, I’m off to play Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Videogame of the Movie, and I’d be right there with you, albeit I’d be laughing simply because that’s the most hilariously arrogant title for a game, ever.

Poor marketing decisions aside, even games with a small amount of content to explore soon becomes tiresomely pointless. Star Ocean IV: The Last Hope is something you can bet I’ll be playing, but what worries me is there’s a list of a mere ten planets to land on and explore. Now, I’m no developer, but ten? Seriously? For a game with "Star Ocean" in the title, that would normally suggest imagery more along the lines of millions of planets, moons, asteroids and the like, all for the taking, while levelling up my stereotypically 21-year old steam-punk Japanese kiddies to use even better seven foot-long swords and use even more hair-gel.

It’s arguable that this is a game intended to be a prologue, and that maybe we just haven’t found that many H-congruous planets as of yet. Fie on your argument, I say. The next game in the timeline revolved around events taking place on a single colonized world, and even then not much happened outside the main village that you could peg as narrative development. Where are the ships in this so-called ocean? Where’s my immersion in a colonized human-led galaxy? Is it even human-led? I wouldn’t know, as all the games are based on colonized words that never connect to any others.

By all means, I’m not a "say jump, equip trampoline" kind of person when it comes to preaching to the developer community. But for them to take a look at titles like EVE and Mass Effect would take but a few weeks, and they’d see how space should be done. People don’t want to be brave colonists on a world where the only difference is the colour of the grass and two suns in the sky. They want to be heroes, villains, battleship captains, Han god-damn Solo. I’m playing the hell out of EVE for various features and such over the coming weeks, and I feel like Han Solo. I’ve got my ship, that I love to pieces (until it was blown to pieces), and my guns, and all I’m lacking is a furry counterpart, though sometimes I’ll make do with a cat in the same room as me.

Sometimes, I wonder why all games aren’t set in a space-faring universe. Even Final Fantasy VII had a rocket. The opportunity for infinite amounts of expansions and content (EVE have, intelligently, used wormholes to open up a new area of space), not to mention space ships, logical explanations for the presence of alien life-forms, and any level of technology, from laser-guns down to spades on backwater, forgotten about worlds, is endless.

As the tenth edition of Plot Wholes comes to a close, I can’t help but feel comforted by the fact that however many worlds there are in EVE-Online, there’ll always be more video game universes to explore. Don’t worry; I’ll be here to moan about every single one of them.

P.S.: Bioware: If you kill John Shepherd, I will find you, and I will have GN’s Jason Fanelli personally delete your precious Shepherd save files.


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Author: Christos Reid View all posts by

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