Category Archives: video games

What The “Mass Effect” Trilogy Revealed About Paragons, Morality, And Human Nature

I genuinely believe in the inherent goodness of humanity. I know that’s not a popular opinion, these days. I’ve even tried to remind people of it a few times. You need only look at the news, history books, or headlines from Florida to undermine your faith in human nature. I don’t deny that there’s plenty of bad, but there’s also a great deal of good. Sometimes, you find it in unexpected places.

In this case, the place is the epic space opera that is “Mass Effect.” It’s not just one of my favorite video game franchises of all time, which I often go out of my way to reference. It’s a game that dares to give players a choice in how moral or immoral they want to be. There are plenty of games out there that let you play virtuous heroes and deplorable anti-heroes. This game lets the player decide which path they want to follow.

In the original trilogy, it’s called the Paragon/Renegade system. Throughout all three games, you’re given choices on what to say or what to do in various situations. Some are inherently selfless and heroic, such as saving the Rachni from extinction. Others are just pure dick moves, like punching a reporter or shooting Mordin.

The path you choose doesn’t prevent you from completing the game, but it does affect the story. It also effects the endings of certain games and the plots of others. You can basically play the same three games and forge a very different story. You can be a pillar of virtue and nobility or you can be a total dick who still gets the job done. It’s entirely up to you.

I’ve played this game so many times that I’ve done both, but I prefer the path of the paragon. It just feels more rewarding at the end, even though it doing so does come at a price throughout the game. Recently, in an article by Forbes that featured one of BioWare’s developers, I found out that I’m not the only one who shares that sentiment. In fact, that sentiment is revealing in ways that go beyond the game.

Forbes: You’ll Be Surprised What Percent Of ‘Mass Effect’ Players Chose Paragon

The information comes from BioWare’s John Ebenger, who was retweeting a meme on Twitter about how devs give players choices to be evil villains in games, yet people always pick the nice options anyway. And it turns out that’s even more true than the meme suggests, as Ebenger laments that with all the work they put into the Renegade content in Mass Effect, that something close to a whopping 92% of players chose Paragon in any given moment.

Those bold parts are my doing. Regardless of your math skills, 92% is not a slim margin. That’s an overwhelming majority of players. Given the many stereotypes of gamers, it’s somewhat refreshing. When given the choice to be a hero or be a dick, they choose to be a hero.

That’s a profound notion because this is a video game. There are no real stakes outside beating the game. Players have no real incentive to be good or evil, but they still choose good. Even when making the renegade choices comes with legitimate advantages, players still go with the way of the paragon. I think that says more about people in general than it does about those who play games like Mass Effect.”

Say what you will about the genuinely evil people in this world. They exist. They make the news. They’re the kind of people we can’t overlook, but therein lies the critical context. We’re aware of such evil because it’s so rare. When most of the people are simply making paragon choices, it’s not noteworthy. It’s considered normal.

As someone who has faith in humanity and loves all things “Mass Effect,” I find that genuinely uplifting. It proves to me that most people are inclined to be good and decent. Even if you put them in a galaxy-spanning adventure against rampaging Reapers, they’ll still do the right things for the right reasons.

In a sense, Commander Shepard gave us insight into the nature of humanity and showed us that most of us have the heart of a true paragon. That’s something worth celebrating and cherishing.

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Filed under human nature, Mass Effect, psychology, video games

Five Video Games To Help Combat Boredom During A Health Crisis

I’ve been trying to avoid the increasingly bleak news surrounding the ongoing health crisis involving the Coronovirus/COVID-19. I tried offering a more optimistic outlook a while back, but that post has since aged like spoiled milk and rotting cheese.

Make no mistake. This is a crisis. Not even Tom Hanks is immune to it. As I write this, several areas near where I live have confirmed new cases. There’s talk of schools closing and major events being cancelled. After the NBA suspended its season, anything is possible at this point.

We may soon face the possibility of being stuck at home, frantically washing our hands and trying to wait out this crisis. After the disease, the biggest threat is the boredom that inevitably comes with being cooped up inside for too long. Having endured many blizzards in my life that kept me stuck at home for days on end, I can confirm that this is a real possibility.

Thankfully, I learned from an early age that video games are a great way to alleviate boredom. There’s only so much TV I can watch and so many shows I can binge. With TV and movies, you’re not always engaged. It’s too passive. It’s easy to get anxious and tense. With video games, you have to stay engaged in order to play. It’s a good distraction, as well as a good way to pass the time.

It also helps that games have come a long way since the days of Super Mario and Donkey Kong. The games I played as a kid got me through blizzards. For an extended quarantine, the might not have sufficed. However, games these days are bigger and more complex than ever. Some are so big that they become a massive time-suck. You could lose days on end playing these games and never know the snow outside had melted.

Since this crisis will likely take longer to pass than a blizzard, I’d like to offer a list of video games that should help pass the time and combat boredom. Please note that none of these games are MMOs or games that require a constant internet connection. That’s to accommodate those who don’t live in places with good internet. Some of these games are only available on PC, but most are available on consoles in some form.

We’re in uncharted territory with this crisis, but crippling boredom is sure to make it worse. While you’re waiting out the worst of this crisis, please consider using these games to tide you over in the meantime.


1. Elder Scrolls: Skyrim

The world of the Elder Scolls franchise is a vast, magical place and Skyrim is by far the most extensive. If you’re a fan of fantasy games, or the fantasy genre in general, you will lose yourself in this game for all the right reasons. It’s not just a game about slaying dragons and fighting monsters. That is part of the story, but there’s so much more to do.

There are side-quests galore. There are unexplored lands. There are magical items to gather, refine, and improve. There are personal connections to foster and develop. You never run out of things to do in Skyrim. It’s less a game and more a customizable fantasy world that you get to explore through a character you create. Such an immerse experience ensures you’ll have hours of fun. Just be careful with mods and cheats.


2. Mass Effect Trilogy

For fans of sci-fi, the world of Mass Effect is every bit as rich as Elder Scrolls. Specifically, I’m referring to the Mass Effect Trilogy, as a whole. I’d even throw in Mass Effect Andromeda if you want to expand it even more. Just make sure you get the version that patches the glitchy graphics.

I’ve mentioned Mass Effect before when talking about artificial intelligence. I’ve even cited it as having one of the best romantic sub-plots of any game I’ve ever played. Those are all great reasons to play this game, but there’s so much more to this world. I could spend days on end just writing about it and far longer playing it.

Mass Effect isn’t as much of an open world as Skyrim, but it’s so rich in scope and lore that you rarely run out of things to do. It’s also a game that isn’t linear in its story. There are many paths you can take, many choices you can make, and many passions to pursue. It’s a game with a great deal of replay value and given how long it takes to get through it just once, you’ll rarely be bored.

Also, it has Mordin singing. That’ll make any depressing day feel better.


3. Civilization Series (For PC Gamers)

This is a game for fans of real-time strategy, history, and fictional politics. It’s also one of those games that you don’t realize is such a time suck until you see how much you’ve played it. I know this because I spent an entire summer playing Civilizations III and it felt like the quickest summer vacation of my life.

Instead of shooting and adventure, Civilizations is all about strategy. You found a civilization. You build and grow that civilization from ancient times to the modern world. In the process, you try to dominate over other competing civilizations, whether through war or diplomacy. It’s a little complex at times, but it’s easy to get into. Before you know it, several hours have passed you by.

There are many entries of this franchise, but I would suggest going with Civilizations IV and V, depending on how good your PC is. Even without online play, these games offer a rich, rewarding experience that you’ll get lost in for all the right reasons.

Just be sure to keep track of time. Trust me, you’ll forget to eat or sleep if you don’t.


4. Sim City Series

This game has some personal weight for me. The Sim City franchise has always been near and dear to my heart. Since the days of Super Nintendo, this has been one of those games that offers something different. The goal isn’t to destroy or dominate. The goal is to build a city and make it the best damn city you can. It sounds dull, but Sim City makes it both fun and rewarding.

I remember spending hours on end, testing layouts and designs for cities. There are so many ways you can build your own city. Most versions of the games also have scenarios you can take on that test your ability to manage a city through a crisis. Given the recent news, it gives you a certain appreciation for what mayors and governors must endure.

Sim City might not appeal to everyone, but it’s a different kind of gaming experience that gets you engaged in a unique way. If you can get into it, you have something that you can enjoy for days at a time.


5. Grand Theft Auto 5

I know parents, politicians, religious officials, and people who just don’t like fun will hate this. However, when you’re stuck at home and fighting off boredom, there’s no getting around it. The Grand Theft Auto games are full of violence and sex, but they’re rarely boring. Grand Theft Auto V is, by far, the most comprehensive entry into the franchise and the game that will keep you in a permanent state of road rage for days on end.

There’s a rich story, but there’s also a vast world full of things to do. Many of those things involve sex, murder, drugs, and stealing, but that’s exactly why you play a game like this. It’s a dark fantasy world built on a foundation of heavy satire. When you need to blow off steam, there’s always a worthy target in the world of Grand Theft Auto.

It also has Trevor Phillips. If you can’t find entertainment value in playing Trevor Phillips, then you’re just being difficult.


I hope this helps anyone out there who is caught up in the worst of this crisis. Being cooped up inside for reasons you can’t control can be frustrating. No matter who you are, it gets to you after a while. There are many ways to cope, but if you have a computer or a video game console, you have options that should help tide you over. These are just some of them.

Stay safe. Stay calm. Above all, wash your damn hands.

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Filed under Current Events, video games

The Golden Age Of TV Just Got More Golden: HBO’s “Last Of Us” Announcement

In this age of fake news, baseless rumors, and 4chan leaks, it’s easy to be cynical. Even when you see news or rumors that seem genuinely good, it’s hard to believe it’s real. Sometimes, you feel like you live in a world where no news or rumors could possibly be that good. Therefore, it must be wrong or fake.

Then, every once in a while, something comes along that reminds you that genuine good can still happen in this crazy world. Even if it seems rare, that doesn’t make it any less awesome. That’s how I felt when news broke yesterday that HBO, fresh off the heels of turning “Watchmen” into an incredible TV series, announced that it was making a show based on the video game, “The Last of Us.”

CNN: HBO is turning “The Last of Us” video game into a TV series

To those who haven’t played this game or aren’t familiar with the story, it’s hard to appreciate why this news is so incredible. I’ve written about this game and its two titular characters, Ellie and Joel, before. However, the impact of this game goes beyond that. This is one of those rare games that isn’t just a game. It’s a narrative experience that hits you in ways you don’t expect.

On the surface, the primary experience is that of a post-apocalyptic survival horror game that just happens to be one of the most critically acclaimed games of the past 20 years. What makes it so special is how it evokes so many emotions along the way. I knew when I bought the game that it was heavy on drama. I braced myself, thinking I could handle it, especially after seeing “Logan.” It still wasn’t enough.

I’m not the only one who had that experience either. Many others have shared their experience with this game. It really is an emotional roller coaster in all the right ways. The idea that HBO is going to take that experience and build a show around it is just too amazing for words.

At the moment, there aren’t many details, other than the fact that Craig Mazin, who produced “Chernobyl,” is working with the game’s creator, Neil Druckmann. However, given how hard HBO has been working to fill the void left by “Game of Thrones,” I’m encouraged that they have that much more incentive make this show as incredible as the game.

I’ll definitely be following news about this announcement closely, moving forward. In the meantime, for those who don’t play video games and need proof that this game will make an awesome show, I offer you this.

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Filed under television, video games

Sex Vs. Violence (And The Distressing Standards Behind Them)

What makes something obscene? I know the law has its own esoteric definition, but there’s no universal standard. What’s obscene to one person may be mundane to others. How else do you explain old cigarette commercials to millennials or the Super Bowl halftime show to baby boomers?

I ask this question because someone pointed out recently just how many of the biggest, most successful box office movies of the past 10 years rely on violence to sell tickets. I’m not knocking it. I was among those cheering during the final battle scene at the end of “Avengers Endgame.” I also freely admit I watched every season of “24” and was entertained by all the violence it included.

However, that same person who pointed out how much violence was part of these big-budget entertainment products, but was still PG-13. At the same time, if even one of those products included a single image of a female nipple or a depiction of a male penis, then it wouldn’t just be rated R. It would be deemed too obscene for children.

Think about that for a moment. A network TV show can freely depict a scene where Jack Baur tortures a prisoner and a PG-13 movie can depict Captain America beating the crap out of nameless thugs in an elevator, but the viewing public just can’t handle the sight of a female nipple. That’s just too much.

The only thing that could make it worse is the depiction of a penis. That wouldn’t just make a movie or TV show rated R. It would be classified as porn. Never mind the fact that half the population has a penis and even kids know what a penis looks like. Just a depiction of one in any form of media is enough to make it obscene. Meanwhile, you can buy a shirt that has Captain America punching the President.

Now, I know I’m bias because I write sexy stories and talk about sexy topics, but I feel it’s a relevant question to ask.

Why are we more comfortable consuming violent content than sexual content?

I get that sex makes people uncomfortable. I also get why parents don’t like talking to their kids about it. However, when it comes to violence, it’s okay to keep that in a proverbial blind spot.

I remember cartoons in the 80s and 90s. Those cartoons, in addition to being glorified toy commercials, used some form of violence to resolve a plot or tell a story. Some parents complained, but nobody thought it was obscene.

I remember watching “R-Rated” movies as a kid too. I put that in quotes because, by today’s standards, these movies would barley qualify as PG-13. The first “Terminator” movie was rated R. I saw it as a kid. My parents didn’t make a big deal about the sex scene in it, but that was often cited as the scene that made that movie R-rated.

If those same kids watched a simple depiction of two naked people making love, minus the violence, then that content would still be considered mature. If that scene didn’t hide genitals, then it would be considered porn. It doesn’t matter if the scene is romantic, tasteful, and completely consensual. It’s still as pornographic as the most depraved parts of the internet.

Why is that the case?

Why is this a fair standard?

Why do depictions of violence get a pass while depictions of sex are subject to rigid standards?

I understand sex makes people uncomfortable. I also understand that people can be immature about it. They can be just as immature about violence too, but people are willing to confront and tolerate it. With sex, however, it’s always obscene. It’s always taboo. There’s no room for nuance or context.

Going back to the standards of obscenity I mentioned earlier, I think there’s room for improvement. Violence, by definition, harms people. Sex, when done right, does the exact opposite. If we’re going to have standards for obscenity, then let’s at least keep things in perspective.

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Filed under censorship, human nature, outrage culture, political correctness, psychology, sex in media, sex in society, sexuality, video games

The Ambiguity Of Anti-Heroes And How To Make Sense Of Them (According To Overly Sarcastic Productions)

Certain concepts easy to discuss, but poorly defined. You could get 100 people in a room, get them talking about art for hours on end, and at no point will anyone have a clear definition of what constitutes art. For some, it’s a beautiful painting by a long-dead artist. For others, it’s a banana taped to the wall.

The conflict occurs when discussing anti-heroes. I know because I’ve discussed them before. I’m guilty of throwing that label around and attaching it to certain characters. However, despite having a definition, the concept is still poorly defined. It’s so poor, in fact, that you can argue that almost any character with the “hero” is also an anti-hero to some extent.

Like art, it’s one of those things we think we know when we see. Given the sheer volume of superhero comics I’ve read over the years, I like to think I can point out and define an anti-hero better than most. Even with that experience, I doubt my standards are flawless. In fact, I’m fairly certain most peoples’ standards are ridiculously flawed.

I say this because I recently came across a new video by Overly Sarcastic Productions, a wonderful YouTube channel that I would highly recommend for all aspiring writers. Whether you’re writing adventure, sci-fi, or erotica romance, this channel offers invaluable advice and lessons.

My favorite part of the channel is its ongoing series, Trope Talk. It covers a wide range of writing topics, from paragons and pure evil villains to romantic sub-plots and reformed villains. Recently, it tackled the concept of anti-heroes in a comprehensive, colorful way. What made it even more compelling, in my opinion, are the characters it singled out to make the most important points.

There’s a lot I could say about it. Rather than spoil it, I strongly encourage everyone to watch the video. If you think it’s wrong on some areas or missed something, then please make your case in the comments. As both a comic fan and an aspiring writer, I’m always happy to discuss such topics.

If nothing else, I hope that video convinced you to go watch “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.” Seriously, even if you’re not a Star Wars fan and utterly despised the sequel trilogy, go check it out. It may not have Baby Yoda, but it has plenty to offer, both for anti-heroes and so many other wonderful things.

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Filed under media issues, superhero comics, superhero movies, video games, Villains Journey

How I Learned A Powerful Life Lesson From “Goldeneye” (The Video Game)

goldeneyecover

I grew up during a strange time. I know every adult could make that claim with the benefit of hindsight, but I think I have some substance to back it up. It was a time when the internet barely existed, Saturday morning cartoons were still a thing, video games were still mostly toys, and MTV was the ultimate evil in the eyes of parents, priests, and teachers.

There were a lot of transitions that were just starting to happen. As a kid, I didn’t understand them. I barely even noticed them until years later. I still feel their influence and have learned many lessons as a result. Some lessons were more critical than others. I still remember the day I got my first email address and I made the password so easy that my little brother guessed it. That was a small, but critical lesson I had to learn.

Another one took place a few years before that and it involved a video game that is still near and dear to the hearts of many. That game is “Goldeneye” on the Nintendo 64. For some, just mentioning that game should bring back fond memories of countless hours spent in the basement, yelling at anyone who dared to pick Oddjob in multiplayer. Those were good times.

During that same time, I went to school in an era where things like the self-esteem movement and DARE were still a thing. It seems so archaic now, given how well-documented the failures of both initiatives have become in recent year, but it was a serious issue when I was a kid.

I remember seeing all sorts of platitudes and motivational messages on TV, in movies, and at school-sponsored events. They all conveyed the same sentiment.

You’re all special.

You’re all equally good at everything.

You can achieve anything if you’re determined and work hard enough.

It all sounds so nice, but there’s just one huge problem and it’s one my awesome, wonderful parents went out of their way to teach me. It’s not entirely true.

Yes, we’re all unique, which is not the same as being special.

Yes, we all have equal worth, but we’re not equally skilled.

Yes, you can achieve a lot with hard work, but you can’t achieve anything.

These all seem like rational, reasonable lessons to teach a kid. I’m certainly glad my parents made an effort to give me that perspective because it was hard to ignore the whole “you can achieve anything!” mantra that kept playing out every day. I admit I got caught up in it at certain times. I also got upset when I felt like I didn’t achieve something that I felt I’d worked hard enough for.

At some point, I had to learn that all this idealized encouragement was flawed. My parents did their part, but it took a particularly memorable experience to really hammer that point home. This is where “Goldeneye” comes in.

There was one summer in which this game basically dominated our entire day. I would wake up, meet up with my friends, and we’d start playing the game for hours at a time, much to the chagrin of our parents. These were good times. That, I cannot overstate. However, there was one issue that often came up over the course of that summer.

One of my friends, who I’ll call Shawn, was just too damn good at the game.

By that, I don’t just mean he won more multiplayer matches than most. I mean he always beat me. It didn’t matter which character I used. It didn’t matter which maps we played in. Aside from a few lucky shots, he pretty much kicked my ass every time I played him. Some of my other friends did challenge him, but he was still the best. That much, we all knew.

I thought he was good because he played more often than me. I thought I could eventually get to his level if I practiced enough. For a good two weeks in July, I essentially trained myself with match after match in “Goldeneye.” I tried to memorize every map. I tried to get a good feel for every character and weapon. I tried to hone my aim so that I made every shot count.

While I did improve, especially compared to some of my friends, it didn’t change the outcome. Shawn still beat me almost every time. It wasn’t that he played or practiced more. Shawn just had a natural talent for gaming. His reflexes were a lot quicker than most. He had a visual acuity that most couldn’t match. He could also concentrate in a way that was downright Zen-like.

To his credit, Shawn was humble about his skill. He didn’t brag or rub it in my face, although he certainly could have. He didn’t have to in order to get the point across. In certain activities, be they sports, video games, or underwater basket weaving, there are just people who are inherently more talented. It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how much you train. You just aren’t going to reach their level.

I eventually came to accept that. It was the first time it really sank in. Hard work and dedication won’t help you achieve everything. It can help, but there are going to be people who just have more talent and you can’t always work around that. It was a hard truth that I’d tried to avoid up to that point, but after that summer, I came to accept it.

Coincidentally, this is around the same time when I stopped taking those self-esteem messages at school seriously. As I got older, my perspective became a bit more realistic. In the long run, that probably served me better than just blindly believing I could do anything if I worked hard enough. I genuinely worry how much I would’ve crushed my spirit if I had to learn that lesson the hard way later in life.

Again, I got lucky. On top of having two great parents who kept me anchored, I had a friend who was just naturally talented at kicking my ass in “Goldeneye.” While all those losses were annoying, they taught me a valuable lesson and one that still helps me to this day.

To Shawn, who I hope reads this one day, I sincerely thank you for that.

Also, I apologize for all those times I threw my controller at you.

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Filed under Jack Fisher's Insights, psychology, video games

Celebrating The Love Of Shepard And Garrus On N7 Day

Shep

Greetings and to all the fellow fans of “Mass Effect” out there, Happy N7 Day! To those who don’t follow video games or space operas, N7 Day is the annual celebration that fans of this incredible franchise and story use to celebrate this amazing world that we love.

This series will always be near and dear to my heart in many ways. It didn’t just tell an incredible story that spanned the galaxy. It crafted wonderful, compelling characters that included beautiful, endearing romances. While the game gives you many romantic options to pursue, the one that will always resonate with me is Garrus and female Shepard. Their love helps make the galaxy worth saving.

In celebration of this year’s N7 Day, I’d like to commemorate it by highlighting my favorite romance between Earth’s greatest defender and her badass Turian sharpshooter. If you need convincing that their love is special, please see check out this video complication. I hope it convinces you as much as it did for me. Enjoy!

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Filed under Mass Effect, romance, video games