Good Endings and Bad Endings

After finishing Dark Messiah of Might and Magic the other day and finding myself displeased with its ending but unable to vocalize why, I have been thinking about what makes a great end for a game, for me at least:

  • You can’t have a great ending for a bad game (which explains my misgivings with Dark Messiah, I think, despite its occasional Thief-y qualities), but you can have a bad ending in a good game, and a bad ending in a bad game.
  • Games that are designed with the ending in mind from the beginning seem to work well.
  • Difficult but good games seem to have good endings by default.
  • Explanation of the results of previous in-game actions is appropriate ending material. Refusing to show ‘what happened next’ or to even offer a hint at such is rarely effective.
  • New material introduced near the end that contradicts what has come before or switches genres is not good.
  • A single, clear goal – getting home, getting laid, finding the MacGuffin – is effective.
  • Returning the protagonist to something resembling their original state is satisfying, in a Mad Max sort of way.
  • Cliffhangers are unsatisfying unless the genre demands them.
  • Endings are important because I cared enough about the game to finish it – the longer the game, the more care should be taken with the ending.
  • A game has to overcome what I’ll call “ending fear” – my tendency to stop playing a game once I know I’ve gotten near the end, because I don’t want a good game to end – by maintaining a certain momentum that prevents me from stopping before I get all stupid and intellectual about what’s going on.
  • Essentially I play games because I like stories. If a good story is not being told, or there is no skeleton for me to hang my own story on, then there can be no good ending.

Such discussion cannot continue without examples. The best endings that come to mind, with a certain bias toward recent games, are…

  • The Thief series: On style alone, the ending cut scene of Thief: The Dark Project wins. Garrett’s bitter commentary is tone-perfect. The sequel’s ending is not as good as the first, but again, it has that same undeniable style. 3 has its ‘full circle’ moment, of course, but that game suffered from Xboxitis and a lack of the clearly defined chapters from 1 and 2.
  • Fallout 1 and 2: These classics stand out from the pack because both showed you the results of your actions throughout the plot in great detail, and the ending areas were far from trifles.
  • Chrono Trigger: I smile just thinking about this game.
  • GTA San Andreas: A memorable ending sequence, even though there is no good reason Samuel L. Jackson’s character should have lived more than 30 seconds from his first appearance.
  • FEAR: Ends well, in classic horror fashion, which resolves the anticlimax of a weak end boss.
  • Knights of the Old Republic: Immensely satisfying, whether Light or Dark.
  • Max Payne: The entire game is constructed around the ending, so it’s no shock that it works.
  • Hitman – Blood Money: Again, like Max Payne, a game designed around its ending. Contracts and Hitman 2 also use the same motif to good effect.
  • Homeworld: The storyline carries it more than the actual endpoint, as the entire game plays like the “33” episode of Battlestar Galactica – it is the resolution of the “our race is 30 seconds from extinction at any given moment” riff that works. Homeworld: Cataclysm also has that horrible sense of immediacy.
  • Chronicles of Riddick – Escape from Butcher Bay: Another standout, as the game plays with the concepts of beginnings and endings, creating numerous false climaxes and returning Riddick to his starting point in a series of Gilliamesque maneuvers.
  • Postal 2: Hey, it made me laugh.
  • Dragon’s Lair: One of the best endings ever, because of the blood, sweat, tears, and quarters involved getting there.
  • King’s Quest 3: Of all the Sierra AGI games, this one gave me the most sense of accomplishment.
  • Quest for Glory 2: Cancel that. There’s a better one. Despite the part where you have to wait around Raseir for three days for anything to happen, the ending battle versus Ad Avis is particularly memorable, and especially if you played paladin-style – serious heroics occur. The transition between the two cities is crucial for mood.
  • Conquests of Camelot: One of the first games that encouraged me to replay it to see what I’d missed.
  • Leisure Suit Larry: There’s something to be said about having simple goals in life.
  • King of Dragon Pass: Every ending of this game is rich and satisfying, particularly because it was my “story” – a story that I could dump to a giant text file if I wanted.
  • Deus Ex: I personally like the ‘destroy the internet’ option myself. The sequel is too nostalgic for the earlier game to have much identity in of itself.
  • Sword of the Samurai: Whether you died in disgrace along with your entire family, retired and became a Buddhist monk, or created a Shogunate that lasted 250 years, you know you did it in style in SOTS.
  • Trinity: Of all the old-school text adventures, you have to give Trinity the trophy for the best ending, hands-down. Another graduate of the Gilliam school.
  • Starflight 1 and 2: Both of these classic games have very minimalist endings. The ending of 1 is quite powerful, even though the game continues to be playable. That was the first time I had to make a tortured ethical choice, in true Ender’s Game fashion, in a game (and if you decide to destroy the Uhlek homeworld as well, two). The sheer difficulty of SF2 makes up for the sudden and weird ending screen that kicks immediately back to DOS.
  • Metroid: Most NES games had trouble with effective endings. This one did not.
  • Dragon Wars: That guy at the end was TOUGH. I don’t think anyone in my party had more than a few scraps of tissue left on their bones after, but that was ok, because we beat the bastard to death with our femurs.

Some of the worst endings I can think of:

  • Final Fantasy 7: Great game, but a terrifically obscure ending, reminiscent of Akira.
  • Knights of the Old Republic 2: Extremely disappointing, to say the least. The letdown from such high expectations was tremendous. The game never should have shipped in that state.
  • Morrowind: Dull, almost tediously so – the plot was flawed from the beginning and suffers often from who-cares disease despite the attention to detail. Oblivion’s ending is much more dramatic and fitting, even though the guild plots are more interesting than the main plot.
  • Boiling Point: An intriguing, GTA-influenced game right up to the ending, where it got completely ridiculous.
  • Half-Life 1 and 2: In the first game, the pacing is fantastic, but the aliens never did it for me, and especially the giant floating infant that failed to kick my ass in the end – all in all, a big downer. The X-Files vibe redeems it slightly. 2 is similar, a great game up to the frustrating, bizarre cliffhanger.
  • Planescape Torment: I anticipate most people that have played this game would disagree with me on this one. It’s a great game, certainly, one of the best CRPGs ever made. It’s tight. But the ending has never done it for me. Frankly, it makes me think of the ‘Dream Bobby’ ending to Dallasa forced copout. I suppose I am a believer in redemption and it annoyed me that my character decided, after a great struggle NOT to just accept the decrees of fate, to just accept his fate. Dammit. It’s been years and I’m still upset.
  • All the Total War games: I love these games, but the endings of all the campaigns are tacked on. A little more effort to show, for example, the fate of the empire you’ve just created would be fantastic, as in Sword of the Samurai.
  • The Longest Journey 1 and 2: All those puzzles got me only watered-down mythology.
  • Wasteland: Another tough entry for me. Wasteland is the forerunner of many a PC game, and I’ve played it through more than once; but the ending is tedious, as the delightful human element of say, the armed-to-the-teeth monks, is replaced by cyborg this and cyborg that, and lasers replace AK-47s.
  • Interstate ’76 and ’82 – The first is a cool game with a bizarre ending; the second is a so-so game with a bizarre ending.

I could add dozens more to either list. I tried to avoid arcade-ish games because GAME OVER, while technically an ending, is not the kind of formal A WINNER IS YOU! sequence that I had in mind.

Games form contracts with me, whether they want to or not. I play the game, and in return, the game offers a story. If the story isn’t there, or it dies stillborn, then I insert my own; if there is not enough structure to hold my story, or the original “bad” story is too deeply embedded to ignore, then the game collapses. Dark Messiah did exactly that. I concocted much more interesting plotlines and whatnot in my head as I played, as the storyline was wanting. When the plot insisted on being present, even though it was silly and ultimately unnecessary (the levels themselves, absent of plot, were neat enough) then I became annoyed. Therefore, the ending, coming after many such moments of annoyance, blew.

More books

The holidays are largely over, everyone has their presents, and I can finally relax a bit and catch up on reading and gaming.

I finished Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Rhetoric and Bart Erhman’s Lost Christianities this week. Concerning Booth, this is the second “The Rhetoric Of…” book of his that I’ve read other than Fiction (Irony is waiting on the shelf). I found Rhetoric decidedly more cranky than the much older and solid Fiction. Booth was clearly upset by Bush’s election and I detected a sense that he felt the field that he had helped revitalize had either lost traction or had not gained much ground outside of academia. We still have three major definitions of rhetoric – classical rhetoric, academic all-encompassing-of-communication rhetoric, and bad/political rhetoric – instead of a society based on his “listening- rhetoric,” and I got the same vibe from him as I did from David Mulroy on grammar – a wistful shaking of the head.

Erhman, on the other hand, does not display wistfulness, and merely writes in his highly accessible way. Lost Christianities served as kind of a refresher to the rhetoric of the NT course I took a year ago, and it summarizes a lot of the canonization process in a efficient manner. The chapter on Secret Mark is particularly sharp, especially because he does not see fit to bother about declaring Morton a hoax openly – the evidence speaks volumes (the cliffhanger ending of the thing is enough for me, c’mon, people). I also noticed that he does not talk about Q much, which is odd, as the book concentrates on early Christianity, of which Q is supposed to represent. Perhaps he is hedging on Q? He only mentions it in one chapter. Very interesting. I’ll have to read more of his stuff.

Medieval Total War 2 has been a joy lately. I won the long campaign with England and again with the Holy Roman Empire; now I’m trying with the Moors. The Moors don’t have much in the way of heavy cavalry, alas, but so far that hasn’t been a problem. I’ve taken all of Spain, most of France, massacred the Milanese and sacked Rome in 30 turns; a new Pope keeps cropping up in the countryside, though. I kill him every turn but those stubborn infidels keep electing another one and giving him a tiny bodyguard. I wonder what will happen after I’ve taken all of Italy – will new Popes keep appearing? Strange.

Three points

After reading this alarming tidbit about Representative Virgil H. Goode Jr., Republican of Virginia, where he attacks an incoming representative for swearing their oath on the Koran, I’ll assume three things, safely:

1. When he took office, Goode swore an oath to defend the Constitution, which is required by Article 6 – “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution…”

2. Goode has actually read the Constitution, including the next clause of Article 6, “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

3. Goode swore said oath on a Bible (in an unofficial ceremony, as the official one rightly does not use one).

Conclusion: Goode should switch positions and support oaths for representatives on a Koran, because quite frankly it doesn’t look like his oath on a Bible is worth much.

I blame high school history textbooks for this. If everyone knew, for example, Thomas Jefferson was a Deist that wrote up his own version of the Gospels because he thought the various miracles and the resurrection were a load of hooey, then maybe kids would grow up appreciating the secular, philosophical miracle that the Constitution represents – that via the 1st Amendment, it guarantees a safe place for worship in any way one may see fit, to any deity or deities that one may believe in.

If Goode doesn’t believe in that, I have to question if he is really American as apple pie as he comports himself to be – or something else – something less, something narrower. And if so, he deserves the fieriest opposition available.

Xmas approaches

I am done with shopping six days from the 25th. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before. I usually throw a fit on the 23rd. I have also managed to get something for everybody in the family and H’s family, which may also be a record.

The prose rhythm paper turned out pretty well. It’s not publishable as is, but I see no reason that it can’t go out in the spring after another draft or two. That gives me no less than 3 irons in the fire; Phil’s paper went out last week, but I’m not sure I’ll get one out by New Year’s. I really wanted to do so, but I don’t want to send out stuff that’s not ready. Late Jan is doable for one and Feb-March for another.

Gorgias was moved to the den yesterday, installed in some shelving in the corner, and now it can play surround-sound video through the TV via various wiring trickery and an old SB Live! card that was collecting dust in the closet. This arrangement has added a considerable amount of real estate to my desk, as there is no need for a network switch, a KVM, or a second power strip anymore.

I’ve also figured out a new way to rearrange the closet, so my old hard drive recorder can come out and meet its even older friend, the Marshall combo, which human years is hitting puberty. But it still has its original tubes. I have an urge to play guitar some in the coming weeks. When I was getting my undergraduate degree I played a LOT of guitar, sometimes all day. I had become something of a Luddite, refusing to use a computer at home for two years running, and guitar was where my energy went. Nowadays, doctoral school and computers have regained control.

But I still have my guitars. They’re always waiting. I get disillusioned with my years of songwriting attempts easily. But I was thinking the other day, and I realized that I’ve only gotten better. I never got worse. And all the instrumentals I’ve written remain intact. My calluses come and go but it’s never taken me more than a few weeks to reestablish old skill. Perhaps that time has come again.

Plagiarists

So I saw an article on plagiarism in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, linked on Dennis Jerz’s blog, that I thought was really bad. Why? Well, I was dreading looking at the byline, hoping against hope it was not an English teacher – or, even worse, a composition teacher. But it’s written by a theology professor. Hmm. I wonder what this guy’s position on plagiarism in religious texts is. Would he give Mark an F for the mixed citation in Mk 1:2-3?

The author’s attitude is quite… hrm. Well, here’s the conclusion, judge for yourself:

I believe in relentlessly exercising my students’ critical abilities, but I also believe in punishing plagiarism. A student who plagiarizes refuses to be educated. There shouldn’t be room in my classroom for that kind of student. Indeed, that person is not really a student at all.

I’ve been a TA for five semesters. The spring will be my sixth. I see plagiarism in every course. I try my best to catch it in the drafting stage, but this semester I had to report a student. I didn’t like doing it. I felt forced to. I dislike the legal rhetoric the university insists on us using to crack down on plagiarism. I hate the word itself; I much prefer citation. And I would much rather concentrate on the positive benefits of quality citation rather than stand on the top of Olympus and toss thunderbolts.

But that’s just background. More serious is that as a composition teacher, I must espouse a view of students that is the polar opposite of the one promoted in that article. No matter how blatant the plagiarism, I can not – and will not – go down the road of deciding who gets to be a student. Students who plagiarize, like any other student, are trying to get ahead – they understand at some level that education equals empowerment, usually in the sense that it is an obstacle course that they must cross.

The crux is when I have students that come into my class with the obstacle course mentality, I can hardly expect them to suddenly acquire the mindset of Platonic philosopher-kings in 15 weeks, much less learn for learning’s sake. I am part of a university system designed to churn out degrees. Therefore, being part of that system demands that I know the mindset of the plagiarist, who is only interested in their grade.

So I would disagree that a plagiarist refuses to be educated. ‘Educated’ to most is the acquisition of a degree. It does not necessarily include wisdom, knowledge, or competence. That is how our society has constructed education, for better or for worse. An education is something you pay for and receive, to throw in the financial metaphor. Plagiarism, in this strange worldview, is not unethical in the sense that it somehow perverts education; it rather fosters the acquisition of a degree, provided the student is not caught out.

Sometimes I think that the more universities cast plagiarism as a demon, the stronger it will get. I think the word itself should be brushed aside, perhaps replaced by citation, which I consider a much more positive word; and instruction should not focus on how horrible bad citation is but on all the benefits of good citation. Why? Because that approach actually fights the diploma-mill mentality. Throwing out plagiarists only reinforces the idea that a course is a hoop to be jumped through. I’d rather keep them in and work with them.

They may still fail, of course. In fact, they usually do, in my experience. But dammit, Jim, I’m a teacher, not a sorter.

Speech ethics – Richards and Gibson

In the last few decades America has fallen in love with what I will call cultural open-mindedness, furtively trying it on like a cowboy modeling a bikini, and announcing on occasion that it not only fits but looks good. This cultural open-mindedness (which, in of itself, is a good idea, as Gandhi might say) is often codified and referred to as political correctness – a lower, base, and corrupted form of thought that is not so much open to new ideas as to the enforcement of new ideas – as if new ideas are not in turn replaced by others in the endless historical cycle. Political correctness, for me, is essentially the same as being conservative; you cannot enforce open-mindedness and remain open-minded – you are, rather, an acolyte committed to a path.

One of the PC concepts that I think is the most dangerous, and has been illustrated in the cases of Mel Gibson’s drunken rant and now, more currently, Michael Richards’ poor excuse for a stand-up act, is that racism against blacks, Jews, or other groups of humans functions in a simple on/off state. People are either 100% racist or 0% racist. Frankly, it’s quite funny and sad to watch the news and see supposedly learned individuals solemnly talk about racism against blacks or Jews in black and white terms, as if we were all six-year-olds and couldn’t conceptualize that human beings are more complex than G.I. Joe vs. COBRA.

First, a disclaimer about Richards. Chris Rock or Dave Chapelle or other black comedians get a deserved pass when they use the n-word in stand-up for three reasons: 1) they’re black, 2) they use it humorously and good-naturedly without anger, and 3) it’s generally aimed at hypothetical individuals. Richards failed that test on all three counts. Now if he had managed 2) and 3), I still wouldn’t know the name of the guy who played Kramer. I think it’s possible for a white guy to manage 2) and 3) – but a PC attitude makes it extremely difficult.

After watching the video, I got the sense he was not totally out of control at first but still knew, vaguely, what he was doing – aiming some kind of bizarre, wildly inappropriate metajoke. Then he realized he’d lost it and walked off. Dumb, stupid, insensitive, and worthy of generous acts of repentance, sure, but career-ending? Bleh. Show me his KKK membership card, a history of unrepentant, unapologetic racial dialogue – some evidence he’s hardcore. If not, it’s much ado about nothing.

One of the toughest concepts in the idea of free speech is that we have to allow those that we perceive to be idiots to speak. If we don’t, then we have already taken the ‘free’ part out. Frankly, blacklisting Richards or Gibson (and yes, I know what that word means) is cheap. It’s the easy, knee-jerk reaction. Smarter (and more open-minded) is to tell them they’re idiots (and make damned sure they understand they’re idiots) but work them back in the fold. They’re both talented. Why drive them into obscurity? What does that accomplish? I would argue that such an ‘exile them to the wastes’ attitude perpetuates racism – by forcing people to internalize their beliefs through fear – than a true embracing of free speech where everyone’s dirty laundry is in the open. That’s where pressure-cooker outbursts come from. Otherwise, it’s just the replacing of one speech code with another, without recognizing that codes in of themselves are problematic.

I starting thinking about this after I read that Hollywood is twisting its hands over Apocalypto. It looks good, apparently, Oscar-worthy, even, but apparently some folks think they’ll be denying the Holocaust if they so much as buy a ticket.

Now, if as an English academic I regarded people as texts (which I often do) then Gibson is a text with a heavy contradiction or two. However, my job, in a nutshell, is to interpret texts – not ban them. By drawing out the complexities of a text, simplifications, black and white portrayals, are exposed for what they are – simplifications. By labeling someone a racist, you deny them the possibility of being a complex human, just as much ‘nigger’ can strip a black person of their humanity.

Like I said before, this is an uncomfortable position to hold. Most ethical positions worth holding are such, unfortunately. It means idiotic behavior has to be tolerated. If a standup comedian out of the blue hurls racial epithets at you as part of some sick joke, you have to smile and take it. If you’re a cop and a famous actor/director stumbles out of his car shouting anti-Jewish tirades at you, that also has to borne. It doesn’t have to be approved of, but it doesn’t mean that everyone gets to discount the basic humanity of the offending dolt.

PC speech is not even remotely consistent with what usually is touted as American ethical triumphs – freedom in speech, the ideals of MLK, etc. Stupid people are too widespread for political correctness to make any kind of sense. These men are not even tiny Nazis, their acts are isolated speech, and attention on them is wasted. Real racism of the blood-curling variety is elsewhere. We must encourage such folk to increased open-mindedness – and if they grow up we must let them back in with open arms. There is nothing easier than looking away from a contradiction; humans are built for cognitive dissonance. That does not mean, however, that we have to wallow and luxuriate in holier-than-thou land. Real open-mindedness, as opposed to PC open-mindedness, is engagement. Damnation takes no effort.

Power supply

The 450w power supply of my No. 1 computer, Diogenes, gave out a few hours ago. I took the 500w one out of Gorgias (No. 2) and tried it out just to make sure it wasn’t a short on the board. Alas, it powered right up. I suppose I should consider myself lucky. It lasted three and a half years and three rebuilds.

Normally, I like fiddling around and tweaking Diogenes on weekends, ordering carefully selected parts from Newegg, etc, but I’m under the gun on papers and I needed it running NOW. I decided that I might as well take this chance to upgrade, ran out into the night and picked up a 650w with two PCI-e connectors, for the far-future day when I upgrade to a dual graphics card setup.

What else is in Diogenes? 3.2 ghz P4; 1 gig of 533 DDR2; three HDs – two 250s and a 120; a Geforce 7800 GT card, a major investment of a year ago; a SB Audigy 2 ZS; a huge Zalman cooler; a DVD-RW, card reader, and 3-1/2 drive; and now an very overpowered PSU.

More memory is on the immediate list, perhaps a new processor, but I’m waiting on those, perhaps what I’m reading about DirectX 10. Looks like the next generation of games will require a serious board/processor/graphics card upgrade. It was annoying enough to do all that last December just to be able to run a PCI-e card; a year from now I’ll have to do another serious upgrade.

Gorgias is where the spare parts go. 3.0 P4; 1 gig of 400 DDR; a 120 gig HD; my previous graphics card, a Geforce FX 5500 (I think) and a 52x CD drive. The case that it’s in is the nicest thing about it, and it might make a nice office computer in a few years, a job currently held by an old 800 mhz laptop, Socrates, that is still speedier than the more ancient P3’s that haunt Patterson.

Exhausted

The semester is almost over, but not quite yet; there are still two more working weekends before my fall labors are complete.

My presentation last night, “Faith is Shared Food, and Other Conceptual Agricultural Metaphors in the NT Gospels” went ok. The Powerpoint was too dense, of course, and it showed it was a work in progress (the first half of it, I think, flows nicely, but then it gets bogged down in the 50 hojillion citations) and some of those citations/examples need some shoring up; but there was a lively discussion afterward. I went on teacher autopilot for most of it. Somehow I’ve got to get it down to 20 minutes for April’s PCA/ACA conference; H timed it at 35-40.

I’m not sure how to get around the bulk of the cites. The centerpiece argument, that FAITH IS SHARED FOOD is a major – if not THE major – conceptual metaphor in the gospels (as seen from their time of composition, of course) and that it overshadows more figurative agricultural metaphors – frankly, it all hinges on the number of occurrences. It’s hard for me to see a way around having slides filled with cites, even if they are just cites and not excerpts.

Then again, I have a citation fetish, it’s true. My first article has 95 sources. I don’t see the next one or the next one after that having much less – probably more, actually. I feel safer citing Tom, Dick, and Harry (and Jane, Jill, and Stacy); citations are the scholar’s armor, if academics is a battlefield as it is often implied, instead of the marketplace of ideas that it should be, ideally. In that particular source domain, citations would be more like friendly acknowledgments of fellow traders, I suppose. But with plagiarism hanging over everyone’s heads like the sword of Damocles, it often feels more like a defensive than a collaborative act.

I’ve been thinking about doing something on citation for the dissertation. A history of citation for a particular period – say, the NT, early Christian works, other Greek authors – compared to citation in the Attic period or to medieval, pre-typography times – and then carry that over to the citation systems that we worship these days. I am also worried over the loose views of citation that some freshmen have when they enter the university, especially when the proof text of Western civilization contains a brand of citation that is most definitely not up to Modern Language Association standards – and can’t be.

Even if you throw out impossible things like page numbers and publishers and dates, and accept just name of work or name of author and a word-for-word quotation (as that’s the best ancient citations tend to get and can be, as every document is hand-copied and unique) there’s a ton of stuff just in the gospels that doesn’t stand up. The author of Matthew in particular is quite willing to cite the Septuagint out of context or change its wording as to suit his rhetorical purpose… and then these citations come to us with nearly two thousand years of tradition as inerrant, and I get students who want to cite the Bible as a source.

There is a problem there – and it is the same problem that faces composition teachers who hold strong religious belief and yet teach rhetoric and research, with the necessary emphasis on logic and fallacy. How does one hold faith without evidence, and then demand of their students evidence rather than naked claims? Welcome to cognitive dissonance 101. Faith does not need reason any more than reason needs faith. Modern views that a text is just a text are not compatible with ‘well, some are inerrant and off limits’.

I would really like to spend some time looking at Celsus in the dissertation – he’s a Greek philosopher that wrote the earliest anti-Christian polemic still existent. No copies exist, but we have most of the text because Origen, one of Chrisitianity’s more colorful early figures, generously cited him in a lengthy rebuttal. It’s a great case for citation – it saved a entire work that the church very likely destroyed all known copies of.