Thursday, March 29, 2012

Spring cleaning

Just a small post to myself, really.  Things I want to focus on this year (aside from actual paying projects):

Hone my design skills - I suck at design.  I think I'm a decent critic of design, but creating my own has always been troublesome.  I'm not an artist.  Even my stick figures suck.  That said, the flexible design book from A Book Apart really opened my eyes to some things, answered some questions I had never previously received clear answers to.  So, with that, I'll redesign my home site, which was made in a rush in order to get free hosting a couple years ago (it definitely looks like it was made in 15 minutes), and my awesome secret personal projects.

Get more familiar with JavaScript, jQuery, and maybe even Node.js - I'm not a complete newbie with JS.  I mean, I own and read Resig's book.  I'm definitely not what I'd consider to be proficient, though.  In today's development world, that's like saying, "I like computers, it's just that pesky keyboard and mouse I'm not comfortable with."

Ruby on Rails - I figure an additional tool in my toolbox couldn't hurt.  It was either that or Python/Django, and I'm not a fan of the idea of whitespace actually conveying meaning.

Longer term things:

Learn a functional language - Thinking F# is the way to go.  I mean, I already have it with VS.  Might as well learn it.

Make a game - I'm probably the only programmer nerd on the planet that's never made a completely functional, simple game.  I had the skeleton of a web-based, turn-based RPG written in ASP.NET web forms (yeah, getting to that point was as painful as it sounds), but it lies languishing on my HDD.  Since I hate web forms, I doubt I'll touch it again.  So, some kind of Tetris/Breakout clone, written either in C++ or XNA.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

I'll have a plate of awesome, with a side order of shit

This post is about the Mass Effect 3 ending.  Needless to say, SPOILERS ahead.  Read at your own peril.

I beat Mass Effect 3 yesterday.  After having slept on it, I think I'm ready to talk about the ending.  First, a quick summary:

The end forces Shepard to return to earth.  Turns out the Citadel is the Catalyst, and an indoctrinated Illusive Man informed the Reapers of this fact.  The Reapers, wanting to protect themselves, take control of the Citadel, fly it to the safest area of Reaper controlled space, which is earth.  Shepard meets up with Anderson in London, and must get to the new Conduit in order to open the Citadel arms to allow the Crucible to dock.  It's a nice return to the end mission of ME1, albeit with higher stakes.

During the push to the Conduit, Harbinger lands and starts zapping people.  Shepard and his squad get caught in the blast.  Fade to white.  You take control of a broken, burned, bloodied Shepard after he regains consciousness.  He grabs a pistol, and it's up to the player to make him limp to the Conduit, shooting at Husks and other Reaper forces on the way.

When you teleport to the Citadel, Anderson is there somehow.  He and Shepard make it to a control panel, when a Huskified Illusive Man takes control of both Shepard and Anderson.  He forces Shepard to shoot Anderson (looks like it's a stomach wound... apparently this happens only if your effective fleet strength is 5000+), but later dies himself, either due to Shepard shooting him, or suicide a la Saren in ME1, depending on dialogue choices (which is another great nod to the original).

A dying duo of Shepard and Anderson sit next to each other and reminisce while watching earth and the fight.  Anderson succumbs to his wound.  Hackett calls, informing Shepard that while the Crucible is docked, nothing is happening.  Shepard crawls toward the control panel, but loses consciousness right before it.  The floor beneath Shepard turns white, and lifts him toward the heavens....

...into another part of the Citadel.  A ghostlike entity resembling the child from the opening segment of the game/Shepard's nightmares appears, and forces him to wake up.  The entity explains that he is a representation of the Catalyst, and that it/the Reapers were built to protect organic life.  According to him, organics always create synthetic life, which, in turn, attempts to destroy its creators.  The Reapers harvest the advanced civilizations, where they sort of live on in the form of another Reaper.

Since the Crucible was successfully built, and Shepard allowed it to dock, he essentially broke that cycle, and must now choose how to proceed.  The Crucible will allow him to:

1. Control the Reapers at the expense of his life
2. Destroy ALL synthetic life, including the Geth and EDI
3. Synthesis - merge the building blocks of organic and synthetic life into the next evolutionary step

In all three, the Mass Relays are destroyed, as they spread the Crucible's signal/energy through the galaxy.

Regardless of the player's choice, the next scene has the Normandy trying to escape the energy wave, only to be caught by it.  The ship crashes on an unknown planet, and Joker and a couple of crew members exit the ship to take a look at where they are.


After the credits, on what looks to be the same planet (at night), two silhouettes - an adult and child - look to the moons.  The adult (voiced by Buzz Aldrin) talks about the infinite wonders of the galaxy.  The child wants to hear more about 'The Shepard'.  The game then loads back up to the point before the assault on the Cerberus base.


Personally, I liked the ending until the Catalyst ghost entity infodumped the entire thing to me.  The very last segment bothered me for a number of reasons:

1. In my game(s), I tend to play a predominantly Paragon Shepard.  He's a peacemaker, a person looking to unite the galaxy against a real threat.  As such, I got him to broker peace between the Quarians and Geth (yay, two fleets!).  Doesn't that show that there can be peace between organics and synthetics?  Why isn't there dialogue to reflect that option?

Also, the Geth didn't rise up for the hell of it.  They acted in self-defense, then fled behind the Veil.  Their later aggression was fueled by the Reapers themselves.  Why is none of that addressed?

2. The same basic ending happens, regardless of what you do: Reapers pacified, mass relays destroyed, Normandy crashed.  The whole idea of the series is to force the player to make choices that will have consequences later on.  We never see the consequence of the last choice, which is incredibly unfulfilling.  Since the same basic progression happens regardless of the choice you make, the choice itself seems pointless.

3. The Reapers supposedly save advanced organic races by harvesting them, turning the individual members of those societies into grey sludge, and combing them all into a techno-organic form.  What happens to the synthetic races after that?  Do the Reapers just destroy them?  Again, not addressed.

EDIT: And, really, why do the Reapers harvest organics at all?  Why not simply destroy synthetics when they inevitably revolt?

4. The Reaper reveal fell a bit flat as it came in the form of an infodump.  It would have worked better, IMO, as a slow burn.  Reveal some of it after obtaining the Mars data, and again on Thessia.  Really question if using the Crucible is a wise move.  Do more than:

"We don't know what it does."
"Well, we have no choice."

Using the Crucible itself should represent a choice, really.

5. There's a way to keep Shepard alive.  Have an effective fleet strength of 5000+ and chose the destroy option.  After everything is done, there's an extra scene of Shepard, buried beneath rubble in London(!), taking a big inhale.  And, apparently, it's a save state flag....

There are a couple things odd with that:

A. The Catalyst explicitly tells you that the destroy option will destroy ALL synthetic life.  Shepard is a cyborg.

B. What is he doing in London, seeing as how the Citadel blows up?

Rumors/theories are flying that the dreams Shepard was having is a sign of him being indoctrinated (he was rebuilt with Reaper tech...), and that after Harbinger's blast, he simply lost consciousness.  And, there will be new DLC/a patch/new game to address it.  I doubt it, but it is definitely odd.


So, there you have it.  My early morning rambling thoughts on Mass Effect 3's ending.  For the record, I loved 99% of the game.  I haven't felt these kinds of emotions since Xenogears.  It's just the ending I didn't like.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Nerd musings as I wait

Not much to talk about re: web development.  I'm waiting for one client to get back to me about an e-commerce project, and waiting for another client to pay me.  Mass Effect comes out tomorrow (hell yeah!), and, well, that's about it.

With that said, I figured I might as well blabber about one of my favorite games of all times: Xenogears.

Xenogears was released by Squaresoft (before it became Square-Enix) in 1998.  This was pretty much the Golden Age of Square, with Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy Tactics being released in this era, as well as Square's marked Christianity criticism era, as Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story, and Xenogears were all pretty scathing in their own way towards the Church (apologies if that sentence made no sense... it's 8:30 AM).

Xenogears (XG from now on, as I'm lazy) is a sci-fi epic, and it's also a gigantic, loveable mess.  It's incredibly ambitious.  It was also so over-budget that the 2nd disc is primarily the two main characters sitting in a chair talking about what happened, as the actual dungeons/events could not be finished in time.  It features robots and a giant pink...thing getting crucified.  It's filled with warts and facepalm worthy moments (I'm looking at you, Soylent System), and yet, in its own bizarre way, it works.

SPOILERS from here on.

XG's main premise is simple enough.  Sometime way in the future, the starship Eldridge was transporting a biological weapon - Deus - to some planet.  En route, Deus gained sentience, woke up, took over the ship, and started killing everyone on board.  The captain (who looked an awful lot like the captain of the SDF-1 in Robotech/Macross), left with no alternative, engaged the self-destruct.  The debris fell to an unknown planet.  See below (sorry for the crappy quality):

From there, the game skips forward several thousand years.  Humanity is the dominant species.  Old technology from the Eldridge - including mechs called Gears - are found, and are in somewhat common use.  Most are utilitarian models, but the various nation militaries have combat models.  What's more, technology has advanced to the point where new ones can be developed.

Gears are maintained by the Ethos, the world's dominant church (dun-dun-DUN).  Of course, the Ethos is actually a covert arm of Solaris, a technologically advanced, secret nation in the sky that uses surface dwellers as a renewable resource.  Yeah, the setting is batshit crazy.

So, there's the setup.  Here's why the game is awesome:

The characters.  There's a large cast, but almost all get their moment to shine.  They all have clear personalities, and are almost all memorable.  Even the NPCs are well done, and very few feel one-dimensional.  The villains are all flavorful, and have various motivations.

The plot.  There are many layers to the story, and XG is probably one of the best at balancing the incredibly epic with the deeply personal.  At its core, XG is a love story, and a very well written one at that.  JRPG fans tend to point to FF VIII or FF X as the best love stories in the genre.  They can't hold a candle to XG.  More spoilers:

The protagonist, Fei Fong Wong (whom I use as my Twitter avatar), and his love interest, Elhaym Van Houten (Elly), are trapped in an Eternal Return.  Through the ages, they're born, meet, and fall in love.  Every time, their relationship ends tragically, usually with one of them dying.  What's worse is that, as time goes on, they start gaining the memories of their past lives.  That tragedy, and the madness it causes, leads to the creation of one of the main villains.  The cycle itself is explained in pseudo-scientific terms (the best kind!), and opens up questions about fate and free will.  It's all well done, with small reveals here and there building to a crescendo.

Of course there's more to the game than that.  It pokes at the ideas of God, faith, death, sacrifice, etc.  It's a very dense story, but mostly orchestrated well.

The music.  Yasunori Mitsuda is a video game music master.  His holy trinity includes Chrono Trigger, Xenogears, and Chrono Cross.  Some examples:

Again, objectively, the game has plenty of flaws.  Despite them, I love it.  It's the shame the second disc will likely never get fleshed out, as a lot of big things (read: thousands-millions die) happen, but it's all off-screen.  That said, check it out if you have a PS3 and don't mind pixelated sprites.  It's available on the PSN.