Thursday, April 26, 2012

Commander Shepard and Captain Planet

Mass Effect 2
System: Xbox 360
Developer: BioWare
NA Release: January 2010

Back when neon was king and Paula Abdul was coherent, environmental matters were an issue of great media attention—by which I mean exploitation.

The global warning debate barely garners a yawn on the airwaves anymore, but the '90s bombarded us with tons of bright, whimsical shows and games that fell along the same general lines: Nature good! Big greedy dirty corporations and their machines bad! Evildoers—you could tell because they were ugly and often voiced by Tim Curry—sought to take over worlds by pillaging them of their resources and overrunning their dry, smoggy husks with metallic contraptions. These plans, of course, would be foiled in extreme '90s fashion by wildly colored characters like Captain Planet, Sonic the Hedgehog and Widget the World Watcher.

You know! Widget! The World Watcher? Ah, forget it.
Setting things in space does change things significantly. In the Mass Effect series, the metal of ships and stations becomes a primary means of life, with the natural settings of planets mere specks compared to the grand void of it all. Still, I had to muse how the influence of environmental messages has seemed to wane as I shotgunned probe after probe onto every planet I could find to satiate the game's never-ending demand for natural materials.

Mining in Mass Effect 2 is a simple matter of scanning planets from orbit and firing probes onto locations that spike the readings. Whatever needed materials are found there are automatically added to your store. Ores include Irridium, Platinum, Palladium and “Element Zero,” which is probably what powered Ma-Ti's heart ring.
Even he knows his useless ring's going to get him hurt.
On the surface, probing is a fun little mini-game, but go deeper and the propensity for environmentally based backlash rises right along with the likelihood of making dubious metaphors. For a series that enjoys delving into moral quandaries so often, I'm surprised I haven't come across any sort of tough choices in this department. Firing probes at a planet from space can not be the safest means of exploring. Many of these planets are noted as being inhabited, so it would only be a matter of time before you hit something important. It's much the same reason they banned lawn darts, only now you're playing it in someone else's backyard with stakes the size of the Eiffel Tower.

"I'll build on that Palladium deposit!" I said. "Who's ever going to need Palladium?" I said!
And how do the materials instantly transport to your ship? It doesn't look like the universe has teleporters yet or else you'd be Star Trekking all up in this place. I can only imagine a long, Dr. Seussian hose snaking out of the Normandy and onto the planet, sucking all the elements up while fluffy Neptunian dodos or what-have-you shriek and flee in terror.

Of course Mass Effect shows that the universe has a lot of gray areas, but when my '90s kid mind sees me hopping from planet to planet, depleting planets of their metals in order to fabricate weapons and war machines, I'm suddenly Dr. Shepbotnik. I just can't get around it.

Perhaps I've missed a scene where mining is brought into question or one is coming my way, but I think it would be an interesting subplot. Trust me, though; even if it's not, this definitely isn't the end of the world for me. I can only shudder to think of what Mass Effect could have been if media's extreme '90s environmental push was still alive today. We could be playing some cross between Star Fox and Awesome Possum.

Remembered so it may never happen again.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Phoenix Wright and the Fallacy of Infallibility

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
System: Nintendo DS
Developer: Capcom
NA Release: October 2005

Ace Attorney is a series I would follow to the grave. I freely admit that its logic can feel a little spacey at times its representation of the modern justice system is about as solid as Taco Bell's representation of Mexican food, but engaging mysteries, a cast of extremely likable characters and the exciting back-and-forth nature of its courtroom battles more than makes up for any shortcomings.

Ace Attorney is obviously not a “standard” game series in terms of action, but it's still easy to assume some basic tropes. Each case is primarily a “Point A to Point B” affair, with the end goal being the acquittal of your client, the defendant. You accomplish this by “defeating” your opponent, the prosecutor, in the legendary ways of defense passed down by your forebears, Perry Mason and Matlock.

Pictured: The former face of edge-of-your-seat courtroom action.
Of course, as this is a game, you always want to win, right? And since earning the freedom of an actual murderer would besmirch the essential nobility of your character, that means all of your clients have to be innocent, right?

It would have been easy enough for that to have been the case. A course of constant victory is so expected in the medium that hardly anyone would have ever batted an eye if a flawless record was in fact the goal.

But then a case comes up (I will not go into specifics as to which) that threatens to throw this concept out the window. It's a powerfully played twist that drives home the stories and connections between the characters—by far one of the series' strongest points—over simple criteria for winning. Playing Ace Attorney is not so much about reaching specific endpoints as it is about uncovering the truth in each case and the threads that tie them together and to the characters; and often the very rivals you face, by serving as the voice of opposition against your imperfect character, ultimately become partners in arriving at this greater good once they eschew their own desires to be perfect.
Which is not to say you won't still take sass from them.
Now, let me pull back and give you a number: 1,071. It probably doesn't ring a bell, but it's a big, shameful figure. This is the number of days (as of April 4, 2012) since Congress has passed a real budget for the United States instead of a steady stream of stop-gap measures. Being unable to work out something so essential to one's country for nearly 3 years is horribly embarrassing—or you would think so, at least. However, Republicans felt wise in trumpeting the 1,000-day mark without a budget in an attempt to hurt Democrats, even though they are very much responsible for this mess as well.

Ideally, the government system was set up as a means of debate and resolution with the greatest good in mind. Today we're lucky if we get a few bi-partisan bills on weak subjects, and are even luckier if they actually make it through the legislative houses. Instead, both parties seem so locked on being “the ones who are right” and scoring superficial zings on their opponents that they can't see their self-made arena is collapsing in on them.

So yeah. A video game starring a bumbling defense attorney and his burger-loving assistant understands more about tact and compromise than the most powerful government in the world and its parties' most stalwart supporters. Think about that this November--or heck, just the next time you're arguing with someone.