Yeah… So I Guess I’ll Just Write A Pulitzer Prize Winning Novel Then

Posted in creative writing, literature, stupidity with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2014 by drayfish

Writing writer stuff

THE PLAN

An award-eligible masterpiece by drayfish

The first sentence grabs them. The second proves it wasn’t by accident. The third sentence fleshes out the subject matter, maybe alluding to the inherent ironies and minor twists of the absurd that will litter the work. The forth is just along for the ride. The fifth sentence, while being completely practical, and serving certain fictional necessities, perhaps fleshing out the mimetic breadth of the work, maybe developing an empathetic tie that allows the reader to invest in the protagonist’s journey (whether providing further description, or entering deeper into a character’s psyche to unveil the deeper motivations of their social, surface behaviours), is entirely too long and convoluted. The final sentence should tie up a neat little metaphor begun in the opening line.

The second paragraph expands the story in a new direction. Perhaps the introduction of a new character, or a small contradiction to the previous few lines of thought. The next sentence says something subversive, or quirky, or just gosh-golly fun, dangnabit. The next one introduces a crisp new simile so as to sound rather more poetical – but like the hand-made pottery of a giant praying mantis doesn’t really make any sense.

This sentence is just boring exposition. Unfortunately, so is this one. This one is a little more lyrical; punctuated, paddling in the penumbra of a point; it fools the reader into overlooking any previous sloppy storytellinglyness…

‘Maybe you could put in some dialogue?’ you say. ‘To flesh out the characters some more?’

‘And squeeze in a little underhanded exposition while we’re at it?’ I say. ‘Well, I may be just a poor sap from the country, with a slight limp and a handful of broken dreams, but I say we go for it. Gee, I need a cigarette (which has always been my one principle vice and is perhaps symbolic of a deeper, destructive self-loathing).’

Now comes a perfect opportunity to enter the mind of a character. Using italics will make it look artsy. But it can be cheesy, so it’s kept short. And refer to sex somehow.

This sentence is a thinly veiled admission of the writer’s own prejudice. The next one contains a missstake that spell-check missed. This one is punchy. This one frantically slam-dances around with wildly elaborative, excessively worded description, and too many adjectives. The final diadem of this paragraph makes an indulgent reference only the writer and a forth year mythology major can share.

Then there comes the padding. Every story has to have padding. A bit of padding anyway. But padding can be good. Actually, no, it is good. Padding is good. Everything needs some padding. That’s how houses stay warm, after all. Y’know, in winter? With padding. But not too much.

NOW the story jumps back into motion with a tacky shock-tactic. Maybe it has some fucking swear words in it too, so it sounds all gritty and real. It might even mention a celebrity in a really negative way, so the writer can seem caustic, and uninterested in fame.

This sentence is witty, and memorable; it has that unnerving ability to silently slip behind you and glide its hands over your eyes, so that when you guess the ending you feel as though you had a part in writing it. It can also show that the writer is manipulative, and tediously self-involved.

‘This bit doesn’t make any sense at all,’ you say. ‘It seems completely unrelated.’

‘But it will later,’ I say. ‘It’s foreshadowing.’

The format of the story widens here, introducing a new character or moving the narration to another scene. Perhaps the description of a guy the writer saw once at a bus stop. He gets an additional quirk though, that makes him unique in a metaphorical way – like Ahab’s leg, or the imperfection of Tess d’Urberville’s lip. But then he does something unexpectedly, unremarkably normal, like picking his nose, or reshuffling the cards in his battered wallet; something the reader can relate to. Something to help them empathise.

That character gets screwed over. Quickly. Sadly. It proves to be a chilling portrayal of the bleak unfeeling void of existence. It shows that the writer read Camus and went through adolescence.

Then this part. This part is action. Each move is fast. Each sentence quick. No lingering description. Cause and effect. Like stylised journalism. With imbedded onomatopoeic words like thud, and crack, and waaaaahh…KRA-SHANG! With commas, and full stops… and exclamation points as far as the eye can see!!! And when it’s over, an elongated line to cool off the frantic writing, to soothe and slow the speed of the story to something resembling normal.

It’s ripped off from a television show, this sentence. But it sounded better when the angry cop snarled it to the fidgeting junkie.

This bit wins over the literary types again. It shows, but doesn’t tell. Then comes the part where the atmosphere is truly evoked. It’s a recipe for the senses. A dabble of visualisation, with a simile or two for spice; a dash of aromas, stirred in for measure; perhaps the zest of a distant sound drifting in from the ether; and if someone rubs their arm across the texture of something and murmurs a sigh: et Voila!

This one confuses the present tense by having been wrote in the past tense.

Eventually the protagonist picks up an object, or maybe notices something, a smell perhaps, and it triggers a memory. This is a lazy dissolve to their past, but helps flesh them out, gives their journey motivation, and is blatantly stolen from a passage by Virginia Woolf.

This sentence wasn’t meant to, but halfway through its meaning starts to stir, it swells, hardening, rising, and suddenly enters into a whole different kind of imagery, it pushes through the mind, waits a moment, and then begins to grind a little, testing, developing a rhythm, until increasingly a desperate, insistent thrust takes over and the sentence continues, committed, unstopping, moving on, going on, keeping on, until finally it peaks, and at its climax, in the calm, once the frenzy has gently cleared, the reader is left unsatisfied, wondering if it was all a mistake.

Perhaps a child walks in here. At the exact moment an adult is doing something ghastly, obscene, or immoral. The child symbolises innocence. It is freedom; it can still pick its nose. When the child speaks, their words are so profoundly naïve they fill the room like a diamond splitting light. This lets the writer toy with the corruption of purity, of growth and the blessing of ignorance; it makes the light points lighter, the dark points darker, and flips the morality of the story on its head. If you actually bother to think about it though, it has little more substance than a fortune cookie mantra.

The narration at this point lingers on an image that seems entirely unnecessary; completely unknowable, like the bottom of an undrained coffee cup, or the depths of the human eye. The protagonist is haunted by the vertiginous spaces and incalculable immensity of the world. In their mind they use words they would never understand out loud. When they speak, only the reader hears them.

Because here – if there can be said to be one – comes the point of the story, the moral unearthed from this play of shadow puppets:

‘It’s brief and it’s curt, and when the character speaks it, it’s uttered as though unwillingly believed.’

It will be quoted on the dust jacket.

Then this part seems oddly familiar.

‘Oh, now I understand that bit from before,’ you say.

‘The foreshadowing?’ I ask.

‘Yes, but it hardly seems worth it.’

‘I know,’ I say. ‘But it rounds it all off neatly. And everything needs to have an end.’

‘Don’t You Know Who I Am?!’: A Look Back At The Year of the ‘Selfie’

Posted in art, criticism, literature, movies, music, stupidity, television, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2014 by drayfish

[Firstly, this is a big one, and it sprawls pretty quick.  You might want to bring a snack and call your loved ones before taking it on.  It is also overflowing with spoilers.  I shall try not to spoil anything in the first few words of any paragraph, so if you can be bothered to read on, just skip past whatever texts you don't want to see mangled through the lens of my wholly subjective nitpicking.]

tearaway selfie

IMAGE: A Tearaway Selfie (Media Molecule)

Phase the First: Wherein I Try To Get All Self-Reflexive And Fail

It’s always foolish to try to sum up an entire year as being ‘about’ one thing.

People do it all the time, of course.  Articles get written.  Cheesy montages get rolled out in news broadcasts.  YouTube even compiled a ‘What Did 2013 Say’ clip (presumably alongside its weekly ‘Most viewed cats falling into sinks’ list).  Whenever an untrammelled January rolls around everybody gets lost in a wave of nostalgia that invariably leads to a lot of tortured attempts to squeeze the newly concluded year into a neatly digestible oneness.  Usually this is achieved by referencing some pithy term or title that’s seen to capture the whole.  The preceding twelve months are suddenly labelled the year of the ‘Twerk’, or the year of the ‘hashtag’, or the year of ‘the Doctor’ (I want to go on record as saying that last one is completely legitimate)*, and once this revisionist summary is offered, everyone nods, files the year away, and prepares to watch the whole cycle unfold again.

Yes, it can too often be merely cheap pabulum used to fill up slow news days as the holidays descend, or the arrogance of a commentator presumptive enough to try and force their subjective experience of the world down the throat of their audience, but it remains the product a larger imaginative exercise at the heart of our communal experience.

See, we humans like to categorise, to segment.  We make lists, we put things in conceptual boxes.  It’s why we have terms like ‘This thing is the new black…’ or ‘This thing is the best thing since sliced bread…’ (which has really never seemed that gigantic a leap in design innovation to me, but whatever).  Millennia ago we decided to start subdividing the inexorable passage of our mortal lives into incremental beats.

We invented calendars, seasons, and years, and seconds.  We called this process ‘time’, and it helped us put things into all sorts of useful explanatory categories:  socially we had the ‘Renaissance’, the ‘Dark Ages’, the ‘Roaring Twenties’; privately we had our ‘tweens’, our ‘mid-life crises’, our ‘golden years’.

(Later we would even invent a magazine that we also decided to call ‘TIME’, and even it started getting nostalgic and naming people ‘Person of the Year.’  See?  We can’t help our little selves…)

Everything had a label, everything had a place, and these classifications helped explain one period’s relationship to everything else in the continuum: Romanticism was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution; the paranoid anti-government sensibility of The X-Files gave way to the pro-security, cowboy morality of 24; the Teletubbies and that freaky glowing baby head in the sun gave way to whatever tweaked out cocktail of amphetamines conjured Yo Gabba Gabba.

But despite being a natural impulse of our communal efforts to wrangle a rational shape onto the indifferent, chaotic maelstrom of the world around us, it is still foolish to presume that any period in time can be one thing.  Indeed, it’s asinine to think that the multitudinous panoply of human experience – a miasma of social, political, and ideological concurrence, each impacting upon one another in incomprehensibly complex, intricate ways – could ever be reduced to some pithy catchphrase, wrapped up with a trite little bow.

You’d have to be an idiot, so drunk on your own arrogance that you were wilfully blind to reality, ripe for embarrassment and derision…

…And can you imagine if that clown tried to publish such a redundant retrospective in February?

Ha.  Ha Ha Haaaaaa…

Ha.

So anyway:

2013 was all about the Selfie.

Calvin-Hobbes

IMAGE: The exquisite Calvin and Hobbes ‘selfie’ by Bill Waterson

Phase the Second: Wherein I Explain Myself – While Taking Petty Pot Shots At Celebrities I Will Never Meet

I mean, I must be right, no?

After all, if I was to use the most hackneyed tactic of the lazy debater, I would just jump straight to a dictionary definition – and this was the year that the Oxford Dictionary declared ‘Selfie’ (the act of taking a photograph of oneself and uploading it to social media) as their word of the year.**  According to Oxford, given the ubiquity of the practice (visible in the popularity of websites such as Instagram and Vine) and the explosion of usage for the word itself (which they claim has risen 17,000% in the span of one year) ‘Selfie’ best encapsulates the cultural zeitgeist.

(It is also the dictionary definition of the unspeakable horror haunting the dreams of anyone subjected to yet another one of Geraldo Rivera’s bids to put his job description in perpetual inverted commas).

So, as summaries of 2013 go, I think it’s an entirely fitting choice – though not, perhaps, for the reasons that might at first spring to mind.

Sure, if one chooses to view it uncharitably, the word can appear to be a searing indictment of a culture descending into narcissistic excess.  In a year in which Miley Cyrus followed the same tired routine of nearly every pop starlet before her  and tried to ‘rebrand’ herself as a sexualised adult in the most predictably derivative way possible (Twerking!  Naked video clips!  Tongue photos!  …Can anybody even get through reading the words ‘Miley Cyrus’ and ‘controversy’ without having to stifle a yawn anymore?), in a year where Justin Bieber adamantly hoped that Anne Frank would have been a rabid fan of his, and Shia LaBeouf disappeared up his own …ego, revealed to be a egomaniacally deluded serial plagiarist, it may seem that the word ‘Selfie’ is a fitting label for a culture too concerned with celebrating the vain and self-involved; a society so obsessed with itself that simply the act of existing, possessing a face, and having the capacity to sign up to a social media account, is enough to warrant celebration.

But dig deeper than this rudimentary cynicism, and the act of taking a ‘Selfie’ offers a far more fitting metaphor for the state of contemporary culture…

After all, this is a year in which the western world has been in a constant interrogation of the nature self-hood; a year in which our news, our entertainment, our politics, all meditated upon the notions of privacy, individuality, and identity as arguably never before.  2013, it turns out, was posing for a ‘selfie’, and the result, as we uploaded it to our facebook accounts (which had just removed the option to make your account ‘Private’ in its search engine) was a spray of contradictory emoticons that are quite revealing to explore…

Insert Face Here

Phase the Third: Wherein I flatter myself to think that the NSA would give even half a damn about this blog

In the news, identity – it’s mutability, it’s sanctity, its currency – was repeatedly at the forefront of many of the stories that dominated the headlines.***

The year was littered with bizarre stories of pseudonyms and squabbles over the ‘true’ identity of some of the world’s most prominent figures.  Whereas in most years it would be difficult to know what to do with the information that the ‘real’ Richard III had just been discovered under a car park, or to make sense of why the western world should stop to observe the otherwise unremarkable birth of a healthy baby boy (a boy who, before his fontanels have even closed, had the weight of a wholly ceremonial British aristocracy placed upon his shoulders), but in 2013, it all seemed to make a deranged sense: this was a year obsessed with identity; about who you were and where you were and what (if anything) that meant.

The year began by exposing the ease with which identity can be fabricated.

In January, Manti Te’o, football player for Notre Dame, was revealed to have had an entirely fictional girlfriend.  Te’o had played an heroic year of football, seemingly in the shade of the death of both his grandmother and his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, on the same day.  It was believed that Kekua had ‘died’ the previous year, having suffered complications from her leukaemia – but was revealed later to have all been another ugly example of someone being ‘catfished’.  To take Te’o ‘s account of the story after the deception was revealed, he had believed that he was dating a woman in a long distance relationship, but was shocked to later discover that she was actually just the product of an extended prank being pulled by a man named Ronaiah Tuiasopo.

The revelation created all manner of embarrassment and confusion, but what this strange incident best illustrated – as people tried to pick through the contradictory details that had appeared in the public record over the past year – was the way in which real and fictional people had become inextricably blurred in the media’s account of Te’o’s rise to prominence.  Indeed, whatever Te’o knew of the deception, the way in which the media, in their hunger for myth-making pathos, helped calcify a false identity into ‘truth’ was something quite extraordinary – some biographical articles had even romantically described the details of their first flirtatious meeting, where apparently, against all conceivable logic, they locked eyes, and were drawn into the gravity of each other’s gaze.

Although under very different circumstances, ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner also found his bid for New York mayor scuttled by a personal controversy rooted in false identity.  Attempting to return to politics after being disgraced two years earlier by the revelation of his salacious online proclivities (is that the most round-about way ever to say that he was sending people photographs of his penis?), Weiner had been attempting to run for mayor under the pretence that he was a changed man, one who had made mistakes, sure, but who had learned from these failures and put them behind him.  He was returning to public service more honest and self-disciplined.  In truth, Weiner had continued to engage in multiple texting affairs, and when this conflict in his image was exposed, it was in the form of a whole other identity: the alias ‘Carlos Danger’.  Weiner did continue on in one of the most weirdly antagonistic, sometimes petulant runs for office ever – getting into verbal confrontations with voters, mocking reporters for their accents, flipping people the bird after his concession speech – but the cognitive dissonance between the identity that he wanted to present to the world, and the one that he shared with people over the internet (the one that he had seemingly named after watching a poorly dubbed Mexican telenovella) proved too great, and his chances at victory evaporated.

On a far more serious note, this year saw the return of one of the most heinous cases of ‘mistaken identity’ in recent history.  In June, the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teen, by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed ‘neighbourhood watchman’, returned to the headlines when Zimmerman was brought to trial (the incident itself had occurred the previous year).  Zimmerman was eventually acquitted of all charges brought against him, with Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws cited as a primary reason for the not guilty verdict, and the outrage in response to this apparent racial discrimination (seemingly Martin could be suspected of being a criminal, be stalked, accused, and then killed,  because he committed the ‘crime’ of wearing a hoodie while black) erupted again.  The prejudice that Martin had suffered, both at the hands of Zimmerman and in some parts of the media in the aftermath of the shooting (semi-conscious moustache-hanger Geraldo Rivera, stated that Martin’s decision to wear a hoodie was as much to blame as Zimmerman for the incident), was seen to be a grim reflection of the experience many African Americans and minorities still face in contemporary society.  The protestor’s rallying cry ‘We Are Trayvon Martin’ (and later ‘We Are Not Trayvon Martin’) therefore became both a reclamation of identity and a potent statement on the universal suffering caused by bigotry.

Trayvon Martin

IMAGE: US Protests Over Trayvon Martin Verdict (Reuters)

As the year drew to a close, squabbles over identity, and how best to categorise a person’s life continued on, often in the most asinine of ways.  The passing of Nelson Mandela was met with several critics bickering over whether he should be remembered as a beacon for hope, forgiveness and change, or as a ‘terrorist’; and not even Santa  Claus was immune, dragged into incoherent disagreements over whether or not he was white.  Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly took the time to indignantly insist to her audience that Santa was indeed Caucasian, thank you very much – no matter what a Slate article by Aisha Harris might have playfully mused.  Kelly later claimed that she was trying to inject ‘humour’ into her broadcast (something one might argue is already impossibly redundant for a show on Fox), but her declaration that ‘for all you kids watching at home: Santa just is white – Santa is what he is‘ seemed far more spiteful and territorial than it did festive and jolly.  (Although, to be fair, she makes most everything sound that way.)

Inarguably, the most glaring example of this new concern with identity surfaced at the midpoint of the year, however, with the revelation that the United State’s National Security Service was no longer only tasked with targeting potential security threats, but was methodically spying on foreign leaders (such as Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel) and routinely gathering the mass telephone, email and search data of all of its own citizens.

The scandal broke after Edward Snowden, a previous CIA employee contracted to the National Security Agency, became alarmed by what he was seeing at the NSA and decided to expose what he believed was a massive systemic overreach in their intelligence gathering operations.  He gathered together sensitive documents, and taking a leave of absence, leaked them to the press, subsequently fleeing into hiding where his passport was revoked, he was charged with espionage, and was sought by the US government for extradition and trial.

The central program with which Snowden took issue was labelled ‘PRISM’ (because all of this didn’t sound enough like a Bond film plot already…)  It was a system that gathered together into one database the user information and online content of any person who had any contact with the services of several major American companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Google.****  Emails, phone calls, Skype chats, browsing histories, documents, all were seemingly available for perusal; and given that the only requirement for accessing this private information was a ‘three-hop query’, which meant that it could monitor the information not only of a suspect, but of anyone who might have had contact with that suspect, and then anyone who might have had contact with them, and then anyone who might have had contact with them.  It was like a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, only with less eighties nostalgia and more potential for invasive governmental overreach.  (Also, it made that town from Footloose look positively anarchic by comparison.)

It was now possible for people to be implicated and scrutinised not because of who they were, or who they associated with, but because they might once have had contact with someone who knew someone who knew someone…  Singular identity risked becoming so dispersed as to be meaningless at a time in which, ironically, a system had been designed to isolate the individual from the cacophony of the crowd.

In the process of bringing PRISM’s existence to light, Snowden’s own identity became currency as he traded obscurity for international notoriety.  He effectively became a human Rorschach Blot in the process – a ‘hero’, a ‘traitor’, an ‘anarchist’, a ‘patriot’, all depending upon who was describing him.  Meanwhile his revelations prompted a fierce, worldwide debate about the appropriate balance to strike between personal liberty and communal safety, between America’s proclamations of valuing freedom of speech and thought, and a potentially overriding duty to public safety.

The world has, of course, been witness to debates such as these in the past – the fallout from the McCarthy hearings and their hunt for communists being but one such example – but never before has the scope been so wide, nor the potential for personal invasion so absolute.  Consequentially, Snowden’s revelations have sparked a philosophical quandary that continues to rage, and it is proving itself to be one that has far-reaching ramifications for the heretofore uncharted landscape of cyber identity in a borderless digital age.

Edward Snowden

IMAGE: Edward Snowden (The Guardian)

Phase the Fourth: Wherein I Talk About Authorship …Sort Of

In 2013 the world of entertainment was likewise obsessed with identity at every level of the communicative chain: characters scrutinised their selfhood as never before, authors used the truth of themselves as another narrative tool, even audiences were compelled to consider their own place in the way texts make their meaning.

Perhaps most notably, the year saw the unveiling of a new generation of videogame consoles.  One of these new platforms however was almost sabotaged by issues of identity before it had even launched.

There were many nails in the coffin of Microsoft’s original tone deaf and aggressive design policies for their new Xbox One – when the phrase ‘#dealwithit‘ is inextricably linked with your product you can probably surmise that there is a corrosive disconnect between company and consumer – so to select one blunder amongst their cavalcade of PR missteps made would be all but impossible.  Certainly one of the most publicised though was the ‘always on’ requirement of the Kinect peripheral.  Microsoft were demanding that people who wanted to buy their console had to also purchase the Kinect (it came bundled with the machine), a camera and microphone attachment that remained constantly connected to the internet, that was capable of reading intricate body behaviour and recognising speech, and which the owner was never allowed to switch off, cover, or disconnect from Microsoft’s servers.

No doubt convinced that they could weather the birthing pains of entertainment’s shift toward all-digital media (or so they thought), Microsoft were insisting upon this intrusive requirement (amongst numerous others), because they knew that identity itself is profitable.  After all, regulating the sale of a game to an individual’s nametag stood to make far more money than allowing that person to own the game without restriction (to sell or pass it on to others); being able to monitor how many people were in a room about to watch a downloaded new-release movie had a potential for further revenue; collecting data on each individual member of your audience’s entertainment habits allowed the dashboard advertising to be more effectively targeted to their specific interests.  Identity was currency – a guaranteed future earner after the initial sale; and by better understanding who their audience were (and retaining complete control over what and how they consume), they stood to be far more profitable.

But coming as it did in the immediate wake of the NSA spying scandal, amidst accusations that several prominent companies – including Microsoft – were willingly supplying the Prism program with information, to many this promise of compulsory intrusion into one’s private space seemed rather distasteful.  The expressionless, unblinking eye of the Kinect suddenly became the symbol of a rally against the company’s other proposed draconian policy changes: the licensing  rather than the ownership of games; the alienation of the indie market; the requirement to always play online; the inability to lend or re-sell games; the start button demanding that you to sacrifice three kittens to a golden altar of the Master Chief’s head, etc.

xbox one kinect lens

IMAGE: Xbox One Kinect Peripheral: ‘Look Consumers, I can see you’re really upset about this.  I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.’

Thrust into the public’s consciousness, the Kinect and the Xbox One became a referendum on the right to preserve one’s identity (their gaming and viewing habits, their personal information, and even their personal space) from corporate exploitation, and Microsoft watched as it was voted on by consumers in real time – even before the point of purchase.  Pre-order sales floundered, pre-release press turned sour, and when Microsoft’s only reply to the concerns of its audience was to have the (not surprisingly now replaced) head of their Xbox division, Don Mattrick, petulantly tell them that they had to either except these impositions or just keep buying their old last-generation machine the mood became even darker.

Eventually, when it was clear that their closest competition, Sony, was romping away with victory, simply by treating their customers as adults who could decide for themselves how to use the products they owned (ironic considering Sony’s own controversy with a similar, but less invasive issue on the PS3), Microsoft was forced to walk back every one of their policies in response to the ‘candid feedback’ of their fans.

In a different way, identity was also at the heart of several of the year’s biggest literary scandals.  In Australia, two award-winning poets, Andrew Slattery and Graham Nunn, were revealed to be serial plagiarists, rather shamelessly trying to elevate their own name by stealing from the work of others.  Only after their works had been revealed to be Frankenstein’s monsters of unattributed, verbatim quotation did either of them attempt to explain them as pieces of ‘pastiche’ – until that moment they were happy enough for people to read it as the sole product of their singular imagination and labour.  Thankfully, the exposure turned out to be the puncturing of some rather inflated egos rather than a validation of their eleventh hour claims of uncredited ‘homage’.

In the world of popular fiction, an anonymous tip off to a reporter exposed J.K. Rowling as the real author behind the nom de plume ‘Robert Galbraith’, author of The Cuckoo’s Calling.  Although anyone’s sceptical spider sense would have suspected that this leak came from the publishing company itself, who stood to make millions in the fallout – alongside the poetic symmetry of the book being titled after a ‘cuckoo’, a bird that deceptively lays its eggs in another bird’s nest – the outing was subsequently revealed as a slip up with lawyers.

cuckoos calling

IMAGE: The Cuckoo’s Calling cover (Little, Brown & Company)

The fact that Rowling had a pseudonym was ultimately nothing surprising.  Having penned the blockbuster Harry Potter series, the author faced a daunting level of expectation and scrutiny for any future projects (just as her first post-Potter book, A Casual Vacancy, had received), so shedding her identity must have been enormously freeing.  The book could live or die on its own merits – or at least be read fairly by the lowered expectations.  Unfortunately for Rowling, what happened next was not very surprising either…

‘Robert Galbraith’ had been introduced to the world as a retired military police investigator who had decided to pen his first fictional novel, and the result was a critically well received but moderately selling work of crime genre fiction.  Whatever his next book was going to be was looked forward to with a small but growing anticipation.  However, once Rowling’s name was in the mix, not-surprisingly, the work blew up.  Stock ran out, reprints flew into production.  A novel that had done little more than be commended as an admirably solid first attempt was suddenly a sensation, with readers combing through the pages looking for clues and grammatical tells.

Whether or not Rowling’s intention was to reveal Galbraith’s true identity in future (again: ‘cuckoo‘), for now it was torpedoed, and the curiously tenuous interrelationship between audience and author was vividly exposed.  Rowling’s masquerade had allowed her a restorative creative refuge that enabled her to speak to the reader in a wholly unique, more intimate way, with no preconceptions or expectations weighing down their discourse.  With that mask stripped away, the cache of her name proved enormously successful for the sales of the book and garnered her plaudits from those who had been duped, but it ultimately undermined her intent.  The story is by no means a tragedy (again, she was commended for her skill, and her publishers are hardly crying), but it was a curious reminder of how an artist can feel trapped by their own public image, and how success can be so enmeshed with personality.

On a smaller scale (by in my opinion far more tragic), one of my personal favourite podcasts, Yeah, It’s That Bad, was seemingly undone by the need to preserve their anonymity.  Yeah, It’s That Bad was a marvellously improbable product, one that consistently defied expectation in order to create something fantastically enjoyable, and, ironically for a show built around the premise of reviewing bad movies, refreshingly unique.*****  Indeed, if you were tasked with writing down a list of all of the most clichéd elements that any derivative amateur podcast always seems to contain, what you would end up with is a bare bones description of what Yeah, It’s That Bad, in essence, turned out to be: A bunch of guys (check), sitting around together talking about a bad movie (check), reviewing what they had just seen while cracking jokes (check).  And yet…

Yeah Its That Bad

What elevated Yeah… (besides its brisk editing and deceptively high production value) was the hosts’ appealing chemistry.  Joel, Martin and Kevin each had distinct personality, and had clearly known each other for years, giving them a natural rapport that was inviting rather than alienating.  Unlike the innumerable other pale imitations that littered the field of crappy-film-reviews, they weren’t simply reading off pre-written gags, no one was calling-in on a temperamental Skype connection; they were three people, sitting around a table, involved in a conversation – one that was brightened by their quick wit, penchant for exaggeration, and ability to build upon each others’ observations.  There was no pretention, no forced guffaws, and they treated both their subject matter and their audience with respect.

In contrast to a podcast like How Did This Get Made? which begins with the presumption that the film being watched is garbage and thus a cheap punching bag, the hosts of Yeah… all clearly shared a genuine love of art and film (and the pleasures of a cheesy film done right), and were legitimately interested in debating whether the material they had viewed was unjustly maligned.  Consequentially, amongst the jocularity, there was thoughtful discussion of narrative conventions and cinematic pitfalls, the diminishing returns of anodyne sequels, the scourge of the Mary Sue, problems with pacing and characterisation – their analysis of the film Sucker Punch (a piece of cinema that I found grotesque) remains one of the most interesting and considered that I have yet encountered.

But best of all for those who decided to follow these three on their journey, Joel, Martin and Kevin understood radio as a theatre of the mind, and knew how to propel and expand upon a comedic riff without tipping over into lazy catchphrase.  By the time the show was brought to its premature end the ‘Yeah It’s That Bad Headquarters’ was said to be an orbital satellite circling Earth, Dennis Quaid, doyen of contemptuously wooden acting, was the patron saint of a swollen congregation of actors who phoned in their performances having barely wiped the craft services lunch from their mouths, the Beef-O-Meter was a meticulously calibrated gauge of an actor’s hotness (the Rock almost broke the scale), Joel’s never-ending quest to ‘follow the money’ was reaping damning results, and the Twilight films were one mumbled, dead-eyed Kristen Stewart performance away from killing them all.

It was an adaptive production, one that evolved with the needs of its audience and the benefit of the discussion (even the podcast’s name and premise weren’t locked in for the first handful of shows as they found their rhythm).  They took fan requests, they invited feedback, they grew and honed and streamlined; but the one feature that they maintained, that ultimately turned into their Achilles heel, was their anonymity.  It was never a secret that they were using fake names – indeed, it was repeatedly cited, without fanfare.  They weren’t industry insiders, or famous faces, or gossips with dirt to dish, they were just three friends producing a free program, who weren’t interested in becoming famous if it meant impacting upon their daily life.

The story was left necessarily vague (and I freely admit that the following account may be riddled with inaccuracies), but for those who followed the drama in the show’s final weeks, it was heavily implied that an online blogger had discovered who the three leads of the podcast actually were, and was going to reveal their names to the world.  Why anyone would want to know this completely irrelevant information, or what it’s exposure would even achieve, was left a complete mystery.  Those already familiar with the program had no interest in who these people ‘really’ were; those unfamiliar would care even less.  The trio therefore appealed to the blogger not reveal their identities, but apparently the idea that someone would not welcome fame was too much to comprehend, and the blogger intended to do so anyway.

But their anonymity wasn’t a bluff.  It wasn’t some playful game that they were inviting their audience to participate in uncovering.  Even in such a whimsical and mischievous format their privacy was a necessity – ironically, it allowed them to be more open with their fans, to carve out a space in which they could speak honestly and engage freely without impact upon their occupations or personal lives.  So the damage was done.  One blogger’s desire to publish a scoop that no one wanted, revealing identities that were irrelevant anyway, destroyed the very thing that they were misguidedly trying to intrude upon.  And with that, identity was shown to once again have a price – even for a free podcast.

Yeah Its That Bad Fan Art by Dan

IMAGE: Yeah It’s That Bad fan art by ‘Dan’

Phase the Fifth: Wherein I Get Pissy With Man of Steel Yet Again

The content of much of 2013′s entertainments seemed obsessed with identity too, exploring and overanalysing humanity’s sense of self.  Iconic characters were scrutinised, reintroduced, redefined.  Famous figures were repeatedly dismantled, separated into their constituent parts, and reconstructed.  It was a year of origins, and tales of stripping characters down to their core, the results of which were sometimes highly profitable, at other times incoherent trash.

Lara Croft spent the beginning of the year being re-birthed into the world in Square Enix’s Tomb Raider reboot, a bombastic origin story (which, despite a few issues, I enjoyed a great deal, actually) that had her both physically and metaphorically doing battle with the weight of her already established legend.  Alongside the shift in genre – from the straight 3D puzzle platforming of the old to the rollicking, sometimes horrifying, survival action of the new – a design that literally has the player participate in growing her skills up from rudimentary quick-time-events into the assertive, capable adventurer that we remember – the story seems to play out a meta-narrative of fighting against the weight of Lara’s past as a videogame idol.

tomb raider lara croft

IMAGE: Tomb Raider (Square Enix)

In the fiction, Lara is stranded on an island in which a tribe of homicidal worshipers are devoted to an ancient demigoddess that they are trying to revive in a new body.  As a metaphor for the foreseeable backlash of fans who wanted a straightforward remake of the old game, the imagery is particularly potent.  This crazed armada of zealots (seriously: despite this island being presented as a mixture of LOST and Gilligan’s Island it is like Spring Break for unhinged sociopaths) are trying to wholesale resurrect the idealised female figure that they adore – but as Lara exhibits, that creature no longer belongs in this fiction.  Instead, literally fighting her way out of the shadow of that history, Lara manifests the franchise’s new female protagonist: a resourceful, plucky, weathered young warrior, eager to do a bit of archaeology if people will stop trying to bury a hatchet in her face for five minutes.

When she stabs the reanimated statue of the demon that would seek to reclaim this world, it explodes in an eruption of pixels, the sun only then breaking through the cloud cover to restore life to the land.  Lara’s existential quest of self-discovery is finally at an end.  The ethereal power and beauty of the dead queen is never disputed, but the act of clinging to her memory so slavishly is shown to result only in stagnation, disappointment and decay.  Lara sloughs off the expectation of the old to resurface as something familiar, but new.  What exactly that turns out to be awaits to be seen in future instalments, but for now I am certainly looking forward to following the journey.

(I should also briefly clarify: I am in no way exaggerating when I use the word ‘re-birth‘ in describing this reintroduction of Lara Croft.  Replay that opening sequence in which Lara has to scramble and claw her way out of a cave that is convulsing and collapsing around her, only to emerge into the world wet, and crying, and blood-smeared, and the game creator’s intent to show how ‘A survivor is born‘ becomes quite (perhaps rather too) overt.)

Batman: Arkham Origins, as the name implies, likewise tried to embrace the possibilities of a prequel – although a cynic might suggest this was more an attempt to disguise a filler entry into the franchise by a B-team of coders, rather than a crucial addition to the overarching narrative.  Proving to be by no means a bad game – the foundations upon which it was built are too strong – it’s narrative does seem a little overstuffed with first meetings and introductions, attempting to cram the seedlings of an entire mythos into the span of a single evening gauntlet.

Batman Arkham Origins

IMAGE: Batman Arkham Origins (Warner Bros. Games Montreal)

This promise to dig into the core of Batman’s identity was so central to the game’s theme that even its advertising slogan was intent on calling it out.  ‘Your enemies will define you’, it declared – a potentially dangerous gambit for a narrative is so riddled (not a pun) with players from Batman’s B and C level rogues gallery.  Clearly this was actually a reference to the predictable reveal of the narrative’s actual big bad, and the establishment of their yingy yangy brand of co-dependent mental instability, but until that moment, Firefly, Copperhead and Black Mask are some pretty weak tea that don’t say much of the man behind the cowl.  …But again, perhaps that was ultimately the point.  Until Batman’s true antagonist emerged he was just going through the motions.

In cinemas, Man of Steel – one of the most divisive pieces of mass market entertainment of the year – was an attempt to likewise re-establish an icon, to explore the identity of the ‘man’ behind the legend of Superman.  …I say ‘attempt’, of course, because all it ultimately managed to offer was Zack Snyder’s biggest budget version of the same tediously adolescent nihilistic torture porn he has been reproducing ad nauseam throughout his career.  The fact that he managed to turn one of fiction’s most hopeful, inspirational figures into a mopey, selfish, irresponsible manchild, with an unchecked messiah complex, is so grotesque that (if it appeared in any way that he’d done it intentionally) it might almost be interesting; but the sycophantic way that Snyder depicts the perennially idiotic people of Earth unconditionally loving our new alien overlord, despite his wanton destruction, despite his psychotic mood swings, despite becoming an unapologetic law unto himself, makes the whole film crumble into a lazy, emotionless void of themeless, characterless carnage.

…I did not enjoy the film.  You probably couldn’t tell.

Iron Man 3 (which, going by the reaction on the internet, I alone on Earth seem to have liked), bucked the prequel/reboot trend to actually advance a plot, but even it did so by still choosing to break down the character of Tony Stark (yes, in a way a little too reminiscent of Skyfall …and The Dark Knight Rises …and The Avengers …and The Care Bear Movie, probably), and rediscover the man beneath the suit (…or the several hundred progressively inferior suits, as the case may be).  It even flashed back to the years before Tony had learned to take responsibility for his actions, fashioning a proto-antagonist, apparently of his own making, that he had to overcome in the present to reclaim his life.

Iron-Man-3

IMAGE: Iron Man 3 (Marvel/Disney)

No doubt the year’s most baffling attempt to explore this theme of selfhood came (predictably) in the form of a misguided film adaptation of a classic novel.  The Great Gatsby, a story that gnaws at the impossible fantasy of ever knowing the truth of another human being – what motivates them, what drives their every action, even in spite of themselves – was turned into a fidgety music video that mostly chewed the scenery and hyperbolically bloated every moment of subtly that gave the original work such lean, haunting grace.  Instead of a melancholy character’s reflection upon a defining, if inexplicable time in his personal history, we had Nick Carraway going insane and desperately writing the book from within an asylum.  Because that adds… well… absolutely nothing, besides being mawkish and stupid.  But hell, why not?  We’re already filming in cinema’s most pointless 3D, with dance routines that feel like acid trips, and a whole recreation of Long Island that looks like a surreal day dream slapped together by the work-experience kid at Industrial Light and Magic – so go nuts.

the great gatsby

IMAGE: The Great Gatsby (Warner Bros.)

It’s a great shame, though, because if director Baz Luhrmann had not turned the narrative into a shallow cartoon, it could have been a chillingly prescient summation of the themes of identity, presumption and self-delusion that have echoed throughout this year.  Had the film managed to capture the glistening nostalgia of Gatsby’s unattainable dream, or the suave facade that obscured his ineffable truths, it could have had much to say.  Instead all it exhibited was how hollow a film can become when its creators repeat the same mistakes its characters do: Gatsby puts on a big display to get Daisy’s attention and consequentially gets chewed up in the maelstrom of her and her husband’s vapid recklessness; Luhrmann, mistaking spectacle for substance, does much the same, overburdening his work with gaudy tricks and distractions that eventually smother its central, sober conceit.

‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

Well he was right about one thing.  The audience certainly felt beaten.

In the land of television, show runners, like filmmakers, seemed obsessed with returning to the formative years of familiar characters, reintroducing them in unfamiliar contexts under the presumption that this interrogation of their genesis would somehow reveal something new.  Hannibal invited viewers to experience the reptilian grace and gastronomical proclivities of Hannibal Lecter before he got all orange jumpsuit-y in Silence of the Lambs (and yes, I know that Red Dragon was a prequel too).  Meanwhile, anyone who ever wondered what Norman Bates got up to in the years before his mother became the world’s most judgemental rocking-corpse could watch Bates Motel and live out the excitement of seeing an awkward pubescent boy turn inexorably into a sex-crazed sociopath (arguably something most already are).

Dracula tried to recast fiction’s most flamboyant, dead-eyed bloodsucker (no, not Robert Pattison; the other one) into a newly industrialising London, deciding that the best way to capture the inconceivable menace of a character who necessarily remains in the shadows of a novel shrewd enough to reveal him only in glimpses and half-truths, was to slap him in the centre of a serialised melodrama that revolved around him, that attempted to explain his motivations, and that stripped him of his portentous obscurity.

Almost certainly the year’s biggest television event however (aside from a certain rouge wedding), was the conclusion of Breaking Bad, a show that offered one of the most compelling, absorbing depictions of a human journey descent into moral compromise and abject evil.  Vince Gilligan’s Faustian descent was so deeply invested in questioning its protagonist’s fractured identity, and the consequence of his incremental conciliations, that it ran to its conclusion with the focal character’s darkly ironic demand ‘Remember my name’ resounding through every scene.  Whether anything really was left of Walter White beneath the overwhelming monstrosity of ‘Heisenberg’ haunted the show’s final episodes.  Was White still the man he believed himself to be?  Was he the sum of his crimes?  Are we our intent or our action?  Are we what we hope to be, or the legacy others write for us?

Breaking Bad

IMAGE: Breaking Bad (AMC)

Phase the Sixth: Wherein I Explain What This Tedious ‘Phase’ Conceit Is All About

At the end of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (spoiler warning for a century-old novel), the heroine Tess has been killed – seemingly sacrificed to the whim of a hostile universe that has finished its sport with her.  Meanwhile, her lover, Angel Clare, is ironically punished by the author for his earlier abandonment of Tess with the suggestion that he will now go on to marry her younger sister, having promised Tess in her final moments that he would do so.  Initially it seems like a strange penalty.  Earlier in the book Angel had been mortified that the young, virginal beauty he had fallen in love with, having been the victim of a sexual assault, had already borne and lost a child, so in theory he has now been ‘rewarded’ with exactly what he desired: a younger virginal beauty, more divine than even her deceased sibling.  Indeed, Liza-Lu is described at this point as:

‘a tall budding creature – half girl, half woman – a spiritualised image of Tess, slighter than she, but with the same beautiful eyes.’ (p.488)

But the clear, lamentable truth that hangs over this conclusion is that of course Tess cannot be so easily replaced, cannot be substituted.  Clare gets what he once wanted, but it will forever be the most vivid reminder of the irreplaceable individual he once callously rejected.

It’s an absence symbolised by the description of Liza-Lu’s unsullied perfection.  Tess, in contrast to her sister, was flawed, marked by a physical blemish that once enraptured Clare.  Earlier in the novel, when he first becomes smitten with Tess, she is described thus:

‘How very lovable her face was to him. Yet there was nothing ethereal about it; all was real vitality, real warmth, real incarnation.  And it was in her mouth that this culminated. Eyes almost as deep and speaking he had seen before, and cheeks perhaps as fair; brows as arched, a chin and throat almost as shapely; her mouth he had seen nothing to equal on the face of the earth.  To a young man with the least fire in him that little upward lift in the middle of her red top lip was distracting, infatuating, maddening.  He had never before seen a woman’s lips and teeth which forced upon his mind with such persistent iteration the old Elizabethan simile of roses filled with snow.  Perfect, he, as a lover, might have called them off-hand.  But no — they were not perfect.  And it was the touch of the imperfect upon the would-be perfect that gave the sweetness, because it was that which gave the humanity.’(pp.208-9)

Already a story fundamentally concerned with the nebulous nature of identity – Tess Durbeyfield’s life is tragically upended when it is believed that she is actually a descendant of the d’Urberville line of ancient knights – the conclusion of the novel reveals itself to be a condemnation of Angel’s earlier sanctimonious judgement.  For Angel, Tess proved to be an idea – a fantasy upon which he could project his own longing.  Upon discovering the truth beneath his pretty lie he fled, only later realising his mistake.  Consequentially, the truth of that mistake will haunt him the rest of his life.  He failed to see the woman beneath the image until it was too late.

Because we are all our ineffable faults and flaws and failures, all marked by our history.  And the way we carry our imperfections define us – just as Tess, resolute, carried her maddeningly imperfect lip.

In this, the beginning of a new millennium, our popular culture seems to be depicting us all in a burgeoning state of adolescent self-awareness, already striving to learn the lesson that Angel Clare ignorantly missed.  Whether a reaction to the fears of terrorism and global war that have hung over the 21st century, or a natural progression of our growth into a more immersive digital age, modern culture has seemingly reached a point of necessary personal reflection.  We’ve turned the lens back upon ourselves, saturating the world with an onslaught of pop-cultural ‘selfies’.  But it’s not quite the narcissistic act of self-aggrandisement that it might at first appear.  Instead it is an attempt to try and make sense of ourselves and our circumstance, to define who we are and what we believe in, through introspection and self-analysis.

Sometimes it is as all-encompassing as dissecting the invasion of a clandestine global spy program; sometimes it is wondering why Batman never used those shock gloves again in the following games.  We might be grinning inanely into a camera; protesting unjustifiable personal tragedy; playing with our audience’s expectations with a false persona; or dressing up our paranoias in superhero theatrics; in any instance, the questions remain universal: it is a meditation upon who and where we are, and what all of that means going forward.

What are those indefinable imperfections that give us our humanity, and how can we best preserve them in the daunting, unknowable age still to come?

tess of the durbervilles by D A Wehrschmidt

IMAGE: Tess of the d’Urbervilles illustration by D.A. Wehrschmidt

* On the plus side, previous, artificial attempts to name the year (such as ‘The year of Luigi’) are excoriated by the reality of lived experience (revealing instead ‘The year of people-are-still-releasing-stuff-on-the-Wii-U?’)  …Sorry.  That was a cheap shot.  I still love you, Nintendo.

** Apparently the origin of the word ‘Selfie’ is Australian, having been traced back to an Australian forum post (in which a young man took a photo of some damage he had done to his face while extremely drunk) in 2002.  As the Oxford summary states, we ‘Strayans do like to add ‘-ie’ to the ends of words – barbie, cossie, sickie, freebie, pressie, symbolic interactionismie (okay, that one’s less popular).  So let’s all take a moment to acknowledge that we have a young, drunk ‘Aussie’ to thank for this year’s expansion of the English language.  You’re welcome.  …Now please forgive us for Baz Luhmann.

*** And yes, I said ‘Headlines’, so let’s just take it as read that I am going to be shamefully skipping many of the most tragic and genuinely significant global events, such as the ongoing conflict in Syria and the massacres in Egypt – after all, that is sadly what the news media far too frequently seems to do.

**** It was also the year that Katy Perry released an album called Prism, which caused a different kind of rightful public outcry.  I’m being facetious, of course, but just so that it doesn’t seem like I’m taking a lazy pot shot at a recording artist that bores me desperately (I am), here’s a fun bit of trivia to justify the snark: Perry’s new record was literally banned here in Australia.  Not because of the content of the music (that would require there to be content – BAM!), but because she had woven living seeds into the album’s paper sleeve.  The idea, I believe, was that you plant the album and it would grow into flowers.  Unfortunately for Perry, the flowers are listed as a biohazard here in Australia (so are her lyrics – BAM BAM!), meaning that listeners can’t take her advice and bury her latest album underground (no matter how much they may want to after listening to it – And it’s a Hat Trick!)  …I want to take this opportunity to apologise to any Katy Perry fans reading.  I really don’t know what just got into me.

***** You can read a lovely elegiac summary of Yeah It’s That Bad that catalogues its hosts, its format, and its demise here.  Vale Yeah It’s That Bad.  In a world of weak weak weak men, you did good.

A Brief (Once-A-)Fan-Fiction Interlude…

Posted in creative writing, stupidity, video games with tags , , , , , on February 18, 2014 by drayfish

[For anyone not a fan of Mass Effect, the following post will no doubt be mystifying.  Indeed, it's likely that for anyone, fan or not, what follows will be completely baffling.  ...And not particularly amusing.  But inspired by our recent return to the discussion of Bioware's anticlimactic trilogy (and in no way using this as a lazy attempt to prolong my still having not produced that 2013 retrospective I promised ...yikes), I wanted to return to a sarcastic fictional jab at the whole Crucible narrative of Mass Effect 3 that I penned a year or so back.  It is very, very stupid - and you have my sincere apologies.  Regular programming will soon resume...]

Crucible constriuction

‘CRUCIBLE PROJECT’ PROGRESS REPORT #75 (2186 CE)

TO: VICE PRESIDENT of CRUCIBLE CO HUMAN RESOURCES DEPARTMENT: Hal Von Billain

CC: iamnottheshadowbroker@shadowbroker.com

FROM: FOREMAN: Terence Props (Professional Builder, Contractor, Electrical, Expert in Weird Imaginary Alien Tech What Glows and Stuff)

*

Yeah, look, this is Terry, Lead Project Builder out here on the Crucible.  Look, I don’t want to tell you Alliance fellas how to do your job, but me and the lads, we’ve got some concerns, and the regular chain of command these days seems about as useful as an Elcor ballet school.  (…Yeah, sorry about that.  Sully warned me that joke wouldn’t land.)

The things is, you hired me not just to be some company yes man.  My crew do good work (you saw the Capital building we knocked up before those big cuttlefish came and lasered it all to ash), and you know we don’t stuff about doing half-assed work.  We do things efficiently, and we do things right.  That’s why you hired us.  (And not to talk out of school, but I saw the half baked job your Alliance crew did on that Normandy ship: half the consoles weren’t installed but the fish tank in the Captain’s room was a priority?  Sometimes you have to wonder who these senior officers are sleeping with.)

I know this Crucible doohickie is a big deal.  Enough of your Alliance big-wigs come around each day to strut (seriously, does that Hackett guy not have a real job or something?), so we get the picture: it’s important.  So then why is it that every time we put in for overtime, every time we ask for more funding, every time we make a suggestion about the way things are getting done, we get ignored?  I’ve sent plenty of memos like this, and seen no reply at all.

And I’m telling you: we have some major issues up here.  This place is a mess.  And unless something’s done about it, I reckon there’s gonna be a big stink when someone actually flips this nonsense on and tries to make the idiot thing work:

First up: floor space.  Now, I don’t know who drew up your designs (sometimes I think you found them in a whole in the ground), but you should see the wasted floor space we have going on up here on the top level.  Sure, there’s the big laser water-fountain in the middle, but aside from that, and the one elevator (that no one seems to be able to get working) there’s just two big long pathways that lead to nowhere and a boring old view out into space.  It’s big, it’s gaudy, and it’s almost impossible to heat.  Seriously: the central air up here is ridiculous.

My wife, Sal, she’s an interior designer, real professional (she’s even worked with some of the Quarian fleets), and she will tell you, straight up: it’s about using the surface area intelligently.  Mirrors.  Feng shui.  You don’t need to design the thing to fit into a football field.  I get the whole lets-make-it-majestic-so-that-the-whole-span-of-creation-can-impress-itself-upon-the-viewer-compelling-them-to-consider-their-place-in-the-universe-thing, but it’s a little on the nose, don’t you think?  And couldn’t we be using that space a bit more effectively?  Maybe have a gym or something?  A day care?  Three walkways on multiple levels that all lead to fixed points?  That’s ergonomically irresponsible is what it is.

Secondly (and maybe I should of started out with this, come to think of it): Health and Safety.  Put simply: we need to get some – because this place is a bloody death trap.

I don’t know how you lot usually built your freighters and your what-nots, but my teams like to do things safely, and a lot of what I’ve been seeing going on up here would make your hair stand up.

First things: I’ve been sending requisition orders about missing parts and unfinished flooring for weeks now, and I’m just not seeing any action.  Over on the blue side of the room (don’t even get me started on the ugly colour scheme) I’ve been requesting a panel for one console for weeks now.  I hope you realise that’s fully exposed electrical wiring there.  That’s actual arcing electricity shooting about all over the place – and no one is doing anything about it.  I can’t even get someone to bring us safety cones to wall it off.  A bit of tape.  A sign.

I mean, what if someone plunges their hands into there for some reason?  What if some maniac stumbles along and grabs hold of the handles?  (And why did they want handles?  Who thought that was a good idea?)  If some nutter did that – for whatever reason – you’d have a bloody lawsuit on your hands, quick smart.  In fact, two of my lads have already gotten a little close and got singed by it.  As we hosed them down and they were still convulsing they were talking all sorts of nonsense about ascending to the status of a god, leading an unstoppable armada of galactic monsters.  And that’s not fun!  That’s no good!  Two fellas who now think they are the overlords of a horde of weaponised abominations?  All that paperwork I have to fill out?  Heck no.

And that’s before I’ve even gotten to the Red side – which is just as bad.  Did you know that’s a main gas line?  That’s superheated fuel pumping through that console.  I don’t know which genius thought that was a good idea, but there’s almost no insulation, and I’m pretty sure I smell a leak.  If one of my guys decides to take a sneaky smoke break over there one time, the second they strike a match this whole damned place will go up.  Your whole Crucible, all that eezo you keep shipping up here (still no one can tell me what that stuff is for), your whole protective armada, the lot of it: up in a puff of some very radioactive smoke.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it nuked the whole Relay system.  It seems twitchy enough.

Oh, and by the way: you can stop sending all the EMSs.  We’ve got enough damned Electro-Magnetic Seismographs to last us until the next Reaper cycle.  I’m not sure whose bright idea it was to keep heading out into the galaxy to hunt for EMSs, but we don’t need them, and it’s just wasting time.  You know what we could use?  A freaking army.  How about you go drum one of those up.

Also, there’s this weird hologram that keeps floating about trying to get our boys to hurl themselves into the big green fountain of light.  He wants them to remake the universe in one gloriously self-immolating eugenic purgation, he says.  I think it’s one of those joke A.I.s you buy on the Citadel (the Macauley Culkin one if I’m not mistaken), but the damned thing is running rampant in our filing, and it’s really starting to creep out the lads.  Gets all tetchy if you shoot it in the head too.

So if someone out there in the Alliance brass can pull their head out of their collective asses and maybe send us a little help, I would really appreciate it.  So far the only one up here who talks any sense is that Kasumi woman – although I’m pretty sure she’s nicking all of my pens.

Signed,

Terry Props

p.s. – And by the way – the Racchni may not be our enemies anymore, but can you at least have a talk to them about conduct in the workplace.  I’m not sure what ‘sexual harassment’ means to a space bug, but they’re all hands.  …Well, feelers.

crucible blueprint

‘CRUCIBLE PROJECT’ PROGRESS REPORT #76 (2186 CE)

TO: VICE PRESIDENT of CRUCIBLE CO HUMAN RESOURCES DEPARTMENT: Hal Von Billain

CC: iamnottheshadowbroker@shadowbroker.com; selfawaregeth@wearelegion.com

FROM: FOREMAN: Terence Props (Professional Builder, Contractor, Electrical, Volunteer Fireman, Basket Weaving Enthusiast)

*

See, this is just the sort of response Sully warned me I’d get from you bureaucratic Mucky Mucks out there!  With your legalese and your penny-pinching and your blame shifting!

Have I been out to see the project?  I’ll tell you what, Hal Von Billain, I’ve been out here since day dot.  I was the first one to put up the original girder!  I lost a toe when that lazy Volus crew you sent us were clowning about on the gravlifts.  I’m the one who every day has to scare off those damned Keeper things with the garden hose before we get stuck in to work.  So don’t tell me which way is up in the cold, relentless vacuum of a pitiless universe we shall all hail the oncoming storm…

Sorry.  I mean: up.  Don’t tell me which way is up.

So I dare you come out here!  I dare you and all your buddies in financing and human resources to get out from behind your desk (where you all live) and get your hands dirty.  I dare you to come out here to the site, slip on some overalls, strap on a breather …and some gravboots (you’ll need those)…and a spinal harness (we’ve still not compensated for the screwy physics) … and maybe get inoculated (no one talks about it, but the Racchni do have some nasty parasites), and then you tell me that we’re not working our darndest to get this thing up and running.

(…Also, you’ll need to replace the majority of your organs with plastic counterparts – turns out that much eezo that close together is like standing inside a microwave.  Who knew?)

And if you have the gumption to do that, you’ll see right away that this is the most efficient, hard-working crew in the universe.  Certainly better than that clean-up squad you assigned to the Citadel after the Cerberus attack.  From what I’ve heard they’ve just been sweeping up the same broken glass for months now.  Apparently there’s even a fire in the Presidium Garden that no one’s bothered to put out.  Weeks, just blazing away.  Families sitting in the cafe just breathing in the noxious fumes…  But no: those guys get raises, bonuses, off-hour recreation time at Purgatory, functioning 401ks.

What do we get?  We get our lungs eradiated with piles of glowing biotic slag (much appreciated), and last weekend I spent four hours chasing a Pyjak out of a circuit grid.  …And I can’t be sure, but I’m pretty sure that whatever that space monkey got a hold of in there might have accidentally changed our course direction.  I’ve looked at the navi and we seem to be heading to Earth now.

At least when the timeless machine overlords return to free us from the terrible burden of life we will exalt their glorious…

Geez.  My head.

Wait, what did I just type?  …Something about machines?  Oh, yeah: Like I said before: enough already with the EMSs!  We’re up around 7000 now.  It’s ridiculous.  We do not have the storage space!  And they’re just not doing anything!  They just sit there.  I swear, it makes no impact at all.

Oh, and the hologram says hello.  We’ve been talking.  Turns out he’s actually an okay guy.  Got some funny ideas about politics – little racist maybe, but generally okay.  Just – seriously, don’t get him started on synthetics.  He looks like a kid, but he’s got some very old-fashioned ideas.

…Although he does seem to want me to put more explosives in the flooring for some reason.  I remember thinking that was a bad idea, but the more he talks to me the more it seems to make sense.  And I’m not sure why, but when I think about it too long things get a little hazy.

Phew.  My head is buzzing.

And just to let you know, I am going to install that trapdoor in the lower console section.  I know it’s not on the plans, but there’s lovely guy here with glowing eyes (gives off a bit of a President-from-The-West-Wing vibe) who thinks that would be a great idea.  And after he injected that thing into my brain (you knew about that, right?  He said he cleared it with you?) it suddenly seems like a fantastic idea.

Signed,

Terence PrEPARETOBOWBEFORETHEHARBINGERSOFOURPERFECTION!

I mean: Props.  Terence Props.

p.s. – Also, what the hell is a Tribble?  Suddenly they’re everywhere.

Crucible chamber

A Set of Lies Agreed Upon: Mass Effect 3 and Revisionist History

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 27, 2014 by drayfish

[My apologies for the length of time between posts.  I was (and still am) working on a lengthy, meandering, rhetorically suspect look back at 2013 that I hope to post in the next few days, but for reasons explained momentarily, I inflict this other sprawling, tedious piece on the upcoming two-year anniversary of Mass Effect 3 upon you instead...  Yeah, you're welcome.]

Mass Effect 3 Control Ending

IMAGE: The New Shepard-Catalyst, Mass Effect 3 (Bioware)

Mass Effect 3: A History

It’s been a long time since I stirred myself to think about Mass Effect 3.

Two years ago it was almost all I thought about.  After what felt like an eternal wait (that in reality was a rushed production schedule at publisher EA’s instruction) the game had been released to its eager fans amidst a flurry of hyperactive advertising.  Preview features were slathered across every gaming publication; cinematic trailers screened with great fanfare alongside the Walking Dead premiere; the official Mass Effect Twitter feed was busy encouraging fans to sign a petition designed to pester the UK government into release information about extraterrestrial life.  Seriously.  Copies of the game were even being shot into space.  …Because that’s something to do, I guess.

And although I probably did roll my eyes a little at this glut of media saturation, my enthusiasm and love for the franchise was too great, so I gobbled up every morsel gladly, only adding to the din by rambling away to friends and co-workers about this, the great new frontier for interactive speculative fiction…

That was until the real spectacle arose days later when people played the game, and reached its inglorious end.

The details of the audience backlash to this conclusion need not be revisited in too much detail here.  For anyone who followed the story it is old news; for anyone not familiar, my summary will no doubt sound (and certainly is) too clouded with bias.  Suffice it to say that there were petitions, there were pleas, there were cupcakes.  There were weird complaints to the Federal Trade Commission for false advertising; there were disgusting, inexcusable threats from a very small faction of lunatics calling themselves fans.  There were games publications that wound themselves into apoplectic knots trying to justify their unceasing praise of the game in the face of the wider audience’s scorn, columnists chastised fans as ‘entitled whiners’, bleating on about games as ‘Art’ (as if that immediately shut down all critical debate), and flamed with rage whenever anyone mentioned the curiously near-universal failure of any major publication to address the narrative’s end at all, let alone in any substantive manner.  Colin Moriarty (not surprisingly) particularly embarrassed himself.

For my part, although it will sound overly melodramatic to say, after the shock of the ugly, artless message at the heart of Mass Effect 3′s ending, the part of my nerd heart that used to brim with love for the franchise was left exposed, raw.  I was confused.  What I had witnessed seemed so clumsy and so offensive that I was too stunned even to be angry.  I just found myself numb.

So rather than wallow in impotent bewilderment (who am I kidding: maybe I was just looking for a more convenient way to do it), I ventured online to try and make some sense of it.  Any sense of it.  Surely it wasn’t all this ham-fistedly ‘resolved’?  A literal deus ex machina, popping up in a floaty ghost suit to rub your face in the rote emotional manipulation arbitrary massacre of a nameless child and grant you a wish?  And there’s no way that the writers of a game that has always been about navigating tricky political and social relationships would ultimately just putter out on a declaration that different races can never truly get along unless they are forced to by having one of three gruesome war crimes inflicted upon them?

‘Peace is a lie!  The universe has to be bent to your will!’

Drop the mike.

I must have misunderstood something?

Right?

In my efforts to unpack a text that seemed either wilfully stupid or ideologically repugnant, it was comforting to find a community on the Bioware fan forums who shared my state of disbelief.  For months we were like a group therapy session.  Together we dissected the narrative, we tried to comprehend its alarming shift in tone and theme, and we reminisced about the events of the preceding games in the series, swapping stories about the triumphs and the tragedies that had all led up to this weirdly nihilistic surrender (indeed, it was a direct consequence of finding this welcoming, profitable discussion about games and pop culture that led to the Themenastics blog.  And yes, I may have spoken about Mass Effect 3 since then…)

And yet still, despite the wealth of intellect and imagination that I found amongst this group, no further answers came.  Instead, I became only further discouraged to witness the too often contemptible way in which representatives from Bioware communicated with their audience.  In the wake of the PR storm they seemed to have closed ranks, communicating only in vague, often dismissive statements to the press (where ‘vocal minority’, ‘artistic integrity’, and ‘people just wanted more closure’, etc., all got a run), at no point ever actually willing to discuss the subject matter of their narrative, or the statement that it had made.  I watched as dissenting voices were literally censored and banned from their forums, heard the game’s creators, in their sole, pre-recorded interview (used as marketing for the release of the ‘Extended Cut’) patronise all negative criticism as people simply having trouble letting go, and saw countless fans being personally belittled by Bioware’s frequently condescending community manager Chris Priestly.*

After a time, the ‘Extended Cut’ of the ending was released – which promised ‘clarity’ but ultimately just doubled down on celebrating the atrocities the original version had depicted – and suddenly hoping to ever understand Bioware’s intent felt utterly futile.  The company seemed happy to spruik future projects (including the next Mass Effect game, about which nothing is yet known), but any discussion of Mass Effect 3 was met with uniform silence.

Soon the Bioware forum was peppered with a number of contributors who happily embraced the ending’s nihilistic message – people genuinely applauding the use of forced eugenics to win an ideological war, or arguing that even in the metaphorical space of a science fiction story synthetics aren’t real (no matter how sentient they are), so killing them doesn’t count.  Besides: humanity has to take care of itself, and all that ‘we can work together’ crap is nice in theory, but when it matters you look out for your own…  Page after page of lazy, intolerant moral relativism dressed up as grand heroics, all commending the Catalyst for merely ‘doing what needed to be done’.

To be clear: I do not mean to suggest that the whole forum was overrun with such voices – there were, and no doubt still are, some wonderful people contributing to the conversation – but this shift in the atmosphere both within and around the text, of Bioware being comfortable with this interpretation (or certainly not discouraging it, as they had with Indoctrination Theory), made me finally give up any lingering hope of salvaging what I had once loved about the franchise.

The wound in my nerd heart calloused over with indifference, and although I still look back fondly at my experience with Mass Effect 1 and 2 (which remain two of the finest experiences I have had in gaming), I can no longer bring myself to replay them as I once did.  The themes of hope and unity they espoused, that once so resonated with me, were soured, revealed as hollow pabulum to be discarded by the writers in service of a gormless M. Night Shyamalanian twist.  Thus, whenever I hear news of any future Mass Effect properties (or even Dragon Age properties, if I’m honest), I find that any enthusiasm I had for the franchise has withered utterly.  Bioware, and the narratives experiences that they produce, have become unreliable companions on a journey I no longer trust them to undertake.

All of which all brings me to now.  Or more specifically, to a couple of days ago, when a kind reader of this blog, Tom Painter (whose exceptional comments on Doctor Who I implore you to read – they are phenomenal, referred me to a new article published at Game Front by Phil Owen titled ‘Interpreting the Catalyst’.  It is a piece in which the whole controversy of the Mass Effect 3 endings are revisited – the difference being that this time, Owen claims to make sense of Bioware’s jarring narrative shift, and promises to reveal, with the benefit of hindsight (and Bioware’s subsequent paid DLC offerings), its heretofore unappreciated genius.

Now, given all that I’ve just described of my experience, you probably imagine that I was too weighed down with my own baggage to give this article a fair reading – and who knows, perhaps even after all this time that’s true (I certainly didn’t intend for this, my response to the article, to go on as long as it already has).  All I can say is that I was genuinely curious to read a new perspective, if one was to be offered.  I was under no illusions that Owen might salvage my love of the series, but even if he could help me better understand what went wrong, that would be more than worth it.

It wasn’t.

To his credit, Owen acknowledges that his is just one reading of the text, one individual’s interpretation, and he invites people to respond in kind.  And I do want to be clear that the following comments are not in any way a personal attack on Owen; nor am I suggesting that he does not have the right to read his version of the game in any way that he wants – despite the fact that I still find the ending of Mass Effect 3 to be the most jarringly intolerant, narcissistic, and childishly nihilistic moment in any fiction I have ever experienced, with the laziest, last minute retcon of a plot every conceived, I still legitimately envy anyone who was able to glean something of substance from it.  But less than half of the way through the first of the three parts of his article, I was already taking issue with Owen’s premise, method of argument, and the conclusions he chose to draw – not because they are radically different to anything I’ve seen before (they are in many ways strikingly similar to several arguments proffered in the Bioware forums well over a year ago), but because they yet again reveal what is so utterly distasteful about the trap set by both the Catalyst and Bioware’s writers.

Ironically, although his article was intended to expose the elegance with which the game weaves its narrative together, it instead shows just how utterly it’s writers botched their conclusion, when even a fan like Owen, who desperately wants to read it all favourably, still cannot justify its vapid, faux-philosophical pretentiousness.

And suddenly, like arthritis when there’s a storm a comin’, that two year old ache in my nerd heart was flaring up again.

Mass Effect 3 Catalyst Conversation

IMAGE: The Catalyst’s ‘Lesson’, Mass Effect 3 (Bioware)

Mass Effect 3: Re-History

What struck me most about Owen’s article is the way that it reads like wishful revisionism – both about the way that the game communicates its story, and what the substance of that story ultimately proves to be.  I’ll return to its subject matter momentarily, because I want to briefly (ha!) address the way in which Owen speaks of the subject matter of Bioware’s curious (I would say highly disingenuous) DLC releases after the game’s launch…

One of the most unique elements of the videogame form is that it offers a new, unchronological means through which narratives can be conveyed.  Downloadable content presents an opportunity for creators to go back into already completed narratives and flesh out more detail, to explore heretofore unknown territory within the larger structure of a tale that has already been told.  I’ve always found this particularly appealing when done well, because in other media it is not treated so organically.  In film, when a ‘Director’s Cut’ gets released it is usually an indication that somebody tampered with the original product (the ratings board, or a producer, etc); in fiction a redraft it is often viewed as a sign that something was flawed with the original work (F. Scott Fitzgerald re-publishing Tender is the Night, for example), or that the work is just a cheap cash grab (some saw Stephen King’s decision to segment The Green Mile into six instalments an intriguing means through which to protect his plot twists from spoilers; many others saw it as a cynical way to increase revenue).

In videogames, however, audiences are far more open to this rather extraordinary premise.  They are far more willing to allow the text’s creators the chance to revisit their worlds – perhaps even to upend preconceptions about the original text.  It has meant that players could further explore the connective tissue between the two Bioshock universes in ‘Burial At Sea’; that they could visit strange new environs in Oblivion’s ‘The Shivering Isles’ expansion; or embrace the crazed abandon of Far Cry 3′s giddy retro throwback, ‘Blood Dragon’.

But that narrative invention and audience goodwill collapses when game creators start knowingly withholding pertinent information purely so that they can shake down the their audience with it later.  When makers begin releasing unfinished games in order to guarantee extra sales from those players that they know are invested enough to be incapable of leaving their journey incomplete, they have violated a fundamental trust with their audience, and should not be so readily applauded, as Owen does here.

Indeed, it’s a kind of extortion that Bioware expressly promised they would never commit.  Casey Hudson, the game’s director and executive producer, explicitly stated in interviews immediately preceding the release of Mass Effect 3 (thus when the story was already finalised), that players would never have to purchase extra DLC to make sense of the main plot (here – see the 3:30 min mark).  The Reapers, the extermination cycle at the centre of the trilogy’s narrative, the fate of the main characters, all of that, he promised, would be explained in the main game, without need for further purchase.

Except that this wasn’t true at all.  In fact, his assurance was immediately proved a lie when a day one DLC pack was revealed to contain a Prothean team mate – a member of a race of ancient beings that the protagonist has been striving to understand for the past three games – a character whose back story provides the only firsthand context for the entire galactic war that you are tasked to end, and who provides the pivotal character, Liara, with her only real narrative arc.

So whether or not Owen has personally made his peace with the ending of the game, I must admit I am a little shocked to see a member of the games media spending a good portion of his article not only excusing, but actually praising Bioware for a business model that requires players to buy several add-ons on top of their original purchase – all in order to simply make sense of their original game’s central plot.  And this is particularly true when the subsequent material offered comes to contradict what has already been established.

And it is in Owen’s willingness to excuse, or fill in these myriad contradictions, that forms the second issue I take with his article.  Over the course of his analysis he repeatedly makes defences for unsubstantiated leaps in logic, presumes meaning when none is present, and even explains his way around direct contradictions in lore.  Any semblance of the rationality with which he claims to approach the text is abandoned utterly.  Consequentially the article is riddled with phrases like ‘How it accomplished this is not known…’ and ‘That’s not something I can explain…’, instead simply presuming that the narrative should be given the benefit of the doubt, despite countless evidence to the contrary.  He appears to assume, and readily accept, that the writers put meticulous forethought into their overarching narrative (something confirmed to be not the case), and uses examples from DLC released months after the conclusion, and designed specifically to plug missing gaps in the lore, as proof of some pre-planned mythology.

I want to be clear: I’m certainly not advancing some tedious argument that every conceit in every fiction has to be laboriously explained and justified.  This is in no way some dreary bid for narrative absolutism.  Of course stories skip over pertinent facts when required, or leave out scenes if they have offered enough substance for the audience to infer the necessary details (for example, we don’t have to see Luke Skywalker’s entire adolescence to get the idea that he’s a restless young man longing for adventure when he stumbles across two filthy droids).  But in this article, trying as desperately as it can to justify the gaping holes in the narrative’s basic plot, the leaps required to wrangle the story into any coherent shape require such a Herculean effort that it almost appears as though Bioware were being openly insulting their audience by being so obtuse.

Here, even by Owen’s account, questions about the central conceit of the Catalyst (the principal antagonist of the series who was originally only introduced in its concluding five minutes) are raised, and yet still go mystifyingly unanswered.  A major plot point will be cited that speaks to the purpose of the antagonist’s scheme (a purpose that you, as protagonist, are eventually tasked with completing), but the lack of any evidence for what the antagonist is saying is not seen as a failing – it becomes, impossibly, proof.

‘Synthetics will inevitably destroy all biological life in the universe.’

It’s the central conceit of the Catalyst’s plan.  …Except that they don’t.  They never have.  Long before the Catalyst was created, and even after he was meddling in everyone’s business (his extended absence from the universe allowed the Geth and Quarians to learn to play nice), biological life was never entirely exterminated by robots.

It became a rather famous snarky meme in the aftermath of Mass Effect 3, but in truth, the only synthetic who went nuts and tried to exterminate all life was the Catalyst himself.  He may have given each civilisation a (by his standards) short grace period, and he might have re-labelled wholesale extermination ‘harvesting’, but even by Owen’s account, he knowingly littered the universe with technological detritus designed to speed along everyone’s advancement toward an AI singularity for which they weren’t prepared; he was therefore directly perpetuating the imaginary problem he claimed to be wanting to solve.  Again: even in Shepard’s cycle it is only because the Catalyst is delayed in his return to the universe by the events of the first game that the ‘unity’ he eventually ‘rewards’ in game three is achieved.  Had he turned up when he intended, all life in the universe would have once again been annihilated – snuffed out before it had the chance to pass his rigged ‘test’.  The all-knowing Catalyst, from whom Owen will implore Shepard to learn, is proved to be his own continuous impediment to peace.  And yet this self-perpetuating illogic is once again never addressed.

Similarly, the Leviathans apparently consider their creation to be working fine, despite the fact that although it was built to preserve them, the Catalyst tried to exterminate their entire race, turned them into enslaved zombie abominations, and has since been holding the history of the galaxy in a genocidal cycle of stagnation.  Again, none of this is seen as a contradiction.  Owen even describes the Leviathans as viewing the Catalyst with ‘begrudging respect’, waiting for him to finish his work. (It’s hard to even know where to begin unpacking such personal projection onto the text…)

Far more egregiously, however, the article completely skips over the most glaring plot point of all: Owen repeatedly talks around the ludicrous convenience of the Crucible’s very existence.  Because for something so crucial to the resolution of the trilogy (it is only through the use of the Crucible that the Reaper slaughter can be stopped; according to this author it is only by using the Crucible that we pass the Catalyst’s test of our social evolution and user in the ‘next phase’) we end up knowing precious little about what the Crucible actually is.  Meanwhile what we are told is abject nonsense.

Mass Effect 3 The Crucible

IMAGE: The Crucible, Mass Effect 3 (Bioware)

For example: there’s no explanation at all for how countless cycles of living beings – unprompted and with no knowledge of one another’s efforts – could each contribute to the construction of this single piece of completely alien technology (even building it to the exact specifications that would allow it to ‘dock’ with the Citadel and its systems), the entire time never having any idea what it was they were building or what its purpose was to be, all so that it could, at the very last second, magically solve a problem about which they had no knowledge in the first place…

I think I just got a nosebleed.

Even according to Owen (in a non-ironic reflection of how half-baked this whole premise of the Crucible is), when activated, apparently the Crucible ‘would have sufficient power to do … something’.  The fact that this premise makes as much basic sense as having several cavemen, in different time periods, in different caves, in the dark, somehow using rocks and sticks to construct a Mammoth-Killing iPod app, is never addressed.

It’s farcical.

And yet this is finally revealed to be the central and most critical conceit through which the entire plot of the trilogy is resolved.  Were any other fiction to hinge entirely on such a ridiculously implausible convenience (particularly when trying to make a majestic poetic statement about humanity’s growth, and the gravity with which we must take our place amongst the stars), it would be rightfully laughed down.  A narrative that tries to celebrate the communal quest for knowledge and advancement through a grand symbol is one thing; finding a magic remote control that your ancestors made for you down the couch cushion of the universe is entirely another.

And this is a problem that resurfaces throughout the article.  In the interest of salvaging the plot from its innumerable internal logical contradictions, Owen gestures toward a broad metaphysical potentiality that is never validated by the text itself.  Instead, he requires the audience to spackle over the gaping holes in the basic narrative with some rather tenuous supposition (as his article does).  The Levithans, once the rulers of the galaxies, are shown to be able to defeat the Reapers if they choose – so of course they must therefore want to hide out on a nowhere planet for countless millennia waiting …for something.  …Don’t you think?  The Catalyst, a creature that has routinely used deception and brainwashing in every encounter with its adversaries, twisting them to perform his will, must be only lying for the right reasons when he asks Shepard to fulfil his psychotic mission statement at the end…

 …Right?

Ultimately, what is most unfortunate of all about this article, and what I have despised about the ending of Mass Effect since it was first inflicted upon its players two years ago, is that even if – as Owen invites his readers to do – you give all of this nonsense a pass and just embrace the ‘lesson’ that the Catalyst wants to impart, the result is a text that callously endorses some of the most despicable and juvenile ethics ever rendered in fiction.  Owen argues that the three ‘solutions’ with which the Catalyst presents the player in the game’s denouement are the final test to prove that humanity, and the combined force of the universe that humanity has helped gather together, are ready to ascend (with the Catalyst’s help) to the next stage of our evolutionary development.

The universe is in crisis – the Catalyst says – synthetics will always destroy organics.  (He leaves out the detail that at this point he is literally the only synthetic left in the universe who has any interest in destroying organics – but whatever, he has a lesson to teach.)  His ‘solutions’ are therefore to genocide all synthetics, as he has done to biological life countless times before; to have Shepard take his place as the watchdog of the universe, ascending to become the new leader of the Reapers; or to blast every living being with a magic ray that will turn them all into synthetic/biological hybrids (something that the Catalyst was always unsuccessfully trying to do by turning races into mindless, zombie husks).  Countless millennia to rethink his ‘solution’ and the best he can come up with is: just keep trying to do the same thing, but bigger.

Again in Owen’s complimentary account of these endings logic takes a beating.  The extremely rosy glasses with which he views the Synthesis ending define a eugenic purgation of genetic diversity as ‘unity’, and the profound contradictions in the Destroy and Control endings are just as casually hand-waved away.  Sure the Catalyst allowing Shepard to kill him is no proof that future conflicts with synthetics won’t occur, but …he did it anyway?  And sure, Shepard agreeing to kill herself and become the Catalyst is no proof that she’ll behave any differently to her enemy, nor that she won’t just become indoctrinated herself (like literally every other person who encountered this happily deceitful leader of the Reapers has) …but it’s okay, Shepard is different to all of them, because

Well, because…

Because she just is?

Flawless, Socrates.

Ultimately the only way that these endings work as proposed by this article – and presumably by anyone inclined to believe that Bioware was remotely aware of what they were doing – reveal them to be some of the most vile, hopeless, racist messages ever put to fiction.  Because if the ending of the game is, as Owen posits, the final test that the Catalyst has put before Shepard, using cunning and deception in order to elicit the most honest response it can from the unified galaxy’s representative – then God help us all.

Literally all that it is being tested is whether Shepard – we humanity; we the player – are willing to become the Catalyst ourselves.  For the ‘preservation’ of some life, are we willing to exterminate an entire race of beings and devote ourselves to being vigilant to never letting them rise up again?  In the pursuit of ‘peace’ are we willing to become an omnipresent, omniscient synthetic God policing the universe as we personally deem fit?  For the sake of ‘equality’, are we willing to inflict our will upon everyone, to change them utterly without their permission, and to force them to become a happy master race?  After three games of fighting against the horrors of oppression, death, and racial intolerance, Bioware’s ultimate message is: ‘Hey, if you can’t beat them, join them.’

Rather than evolve to a higher state of being, as Owen suggests, the game actually just forces us to forfeit hope and embrace the same broken illogic that kept the Catalyst in a state of infinite regress.  Committing genocide in order to prove that every race has the right to live is a disgusting fallacy; fighting to free people from oppression just so that you can be the one doing the oppressing is a farce; and even putting aside how idiotic it is to believe that ‘having the same DNA’ will solve intractable racial prejudices and conflict, the act of denying people the right to organically grow toward this state of unity by altering them against their will means that the result is debased entirely anyway.  After all, just because someone hands you a gold medal, doesn’t mean you earned it.

Of course, history usually does get written by the winners.  The winners stomp the losers down, glorify themselves and demonise their enemies.  The ugly business of building an empire gets recast as the gift of enlightenment.  Caesar Augustus paints Anthony as a drunken, Cleopatra-whipped traitor.  VHS curb stomps Betamax and calls it natural selection.  But in the case of Mass Effect 3, it seems that Owen wants to propose something even more troubling.  Here we have history being written by the losers, but with the victims so broken that they actually want to praise their tormentor.

Here the Catalyst was right, apparently.  It didn’t matter what progress we made as a people, what alliances we made or futures we built, we needed to be exterminated like vermin because we just. weren’t. smart. enough.  It didn’t matter that we’d already solved the whole synthetics and organics thing by ourselves; we still needed to learn to kill, control, or mutate the universe to our will.  We still needed to be forced – at threat of annihilation – to embrace the Catalyst’s sociopathic hate speech.  Because differences really can’t be overcome through cooperation.  Enlightenment really can only arise through suffering and death.  And forsaking your morality, and your regard for the right to life of others, is the only way to ‘grow’.

Ultimately it’s a good thing that the Catalyst tested us, taught us to think like him and use the cruel calculus of war as a chrysalis for change.  After all, we had to pass his test, right?  The student had to become the master?  And now that his actions have blackened every corner of the universe with an unfathomable history of bloodshed and horror, our newfound self-indulgent moral relativity will fit right in.

No wonder Shepard killed herself.

But I say to hell with the Catalyst’s reductive, hopeless nonsense – and if that, as Owen supposes, is the message that Bioware truly intended to send to their audience, then to hell with them too.

I certainly don’t envy the task of the writers – trying to summarise a sprawling saga filled with multiple back stories, an ominous, Lovecraftian mystery that has been teased relentlessly for hundreds of hours, and any number of branching paths that have diverged with the intrusion of player choice – but that was the task that they set for themselves, all the time repeatedly promising their audience in countless interviews that they knew where the project was heading.  And in their efforts to slap a bow on the series with one ten minute conversation with a techno-ghost, they almost wilfully ignored their own fiction.  Rather than speaking to the journey that had been undertaken over the course of three games – the slow, necessary healing of old conflicts and prejudices, the acceptance of different races and cultures, the need to work together to overcome greater physical and existential threats than our own ideological squabbling – they decided to dip back into the grab bag of standard sci-fi tropes and pull out ‘HUMANS AND ROBOTS WILL ALWAYS FEAR AND DESTROY EACH OTHER’ – a notion that the narrative had already grown far beyond halfway through Mass Effect 2 with the introduction of the character Legion.

By the time the Geth/Quarian conflict was resolved, and EDI, the ship’s AI, was dating her pilot while waxing philosophical with Shepard about the nature of death, this ‘inevitable conflict’ between the races had become farcically irrelevant, a bigoted nightmare scenario that even the smallest amount of common decency had already proved untrue.  Therefore, tasking the player with ‘solving’ a problem that no longer existed was redundant; forcing them to ‘fix’ it by committing genocide on an innocent race, becoming a galactic overlord to police the universe yourself, or genetically mutating everyone to have the same genetic code (because that will totally solve racial conflict) was an embarrassment.  An horrific, infantile embarrassment.

So, again: I am glad for Phil Owen that he has made peace with his experience of Mass Effect.  But if his only conclusion, after ignoring plot details, waving away contradictions, and filling in gaping holes of narrative, is ultimately just that this game affords us an opportunity to embrace the wisdom of a callous sociopath who terrorised every living being in the universe because it arrogantly believed it knew best how people should live – then I’m not sure why anyone should bother.

My Shepard had no desire to become the Catalyst, no matter what ‘lesson’ it might impart; because becoming the Catalyst means literally abandoning hope in anything beyond yourself, being incapable of trusting in the inherent goodness of others, and their ability to govern their own lives.  It means elevating yourself to a state of godhood to judge the universe and redesign it as you see fit.  This was the mistake that the Catalyst made in his original programming, a mistake that continued to be played out in a redundant, genocidal loop for countless millennia, massacring unfathomable amounts of lives to satisfy an equation about the nature of biological beings that it had fundamentally misunderstood.  Having Shepard finally break that cycle by helping him finish making his original mistake doesn’t evolve anything – it simply means that the Catalyst’s nihilistic world view is confirmed, and that there really never was hope without all the carnage and enslavement and terror.

I’m not sure which version of Shepard Owen was following on that quest through the stars (I assume it wasn’t a Renegade Shepard, because mine was a real piece of crap, and even he through the Catalyst was a ridiculous monstrosity), but whoever it was, he and I have very different perspectives on the nature of sacrifice, and I sure as hell do not recognise, nor welcome, the ‘improvement’ his Catalyst was trying to offer our ‘evolved’ selves.  For Owen to go to such extraordinary efforts to bend logic and reason beyond breaking point just to land on such a viciously egotistical moral, suggests that he and I were playing very different games, and frankly, even if his argument were more rigorous, and less filled with conjecture, the thought of this kind of selfish moral relativity being applauded as a bold new vision in narrative makes me feel ill.

Ultimately, by extending Bioware’s writers (or at least those responsible for the ending) this blanket benefit of the doubt for all such contradictions, Owen’s article affords Mass Effect it’s best opportunity yet to test whether the plot they delivered actually can, in hindsight, be seen as coherent.  But by returning to the tale (despite his own admitted frustration with how awkwardly the story at first played out), by taking the time to put the DLC events into chronological order (something even Bioware didn’t think was necessary, as they left inarguably the most crucial details of their story for the ‘Leviathan’ DLC, which Owen references repeatedly, for last), and by being willing to grant them a mulligan every time their plot risks descending into nonsense, for me, all that Owen’s article reveals is that even with all of these allowances, even with a critic primed to present it in its best possible light, Mass Effect 3 still degenerates into a tangle of ugly gibberish.

But unlike players like Owen, who long to preserve the image of Bioware’s writers as infallible gods, I prefer to look at the reality of the narrative mess that was served to fans in Mass Effect 3 and give them a different benefit of the doubt.  I see the contradictions in lore, the violations of logic, the overt thematic contradictions that –almost contemptuously – befoul that asinine ending, and I see it, not as the work of an omniscient god, all glowing and dispassionate as it asks us to embrace its nihilistic hate speech, but as the mistake of fallible humans, who failed to understand their own work of art, and who were too overcome with hubris to admit they had made a mistake after the fact.

I agree with Owen that the end of Mass Effect 3 is a test, but in my opinion Shepard and the player aren’t the ones who failed.

hope-in-mass-effect

IMAGE: ‘Hope’ In Mass Effect (I’ve used this picture before, but what the hell…)

* Not to mention the blanket ban later imposed upon the discussion of ‘Indoctrination Theory’ – a reading of the narrative forwarded by a community of devoted fans who were told their interpretation was not welcome in a public forum, and who found their threads locked and accounts suspended if they even mentioned it.  It’s not a reading that I personally subscribe to (as I discussed here), but everyone has the right to their interpretation, and the idea of aggressively censoring fans (weirdly, some of the only fans who actually like the ending of the game) in what is purported to be a fan forum, is shameful.

Shift Change: ‘My’ Doctor Who

Posted in criticism, movies, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2013 by drayfish

Doctor Who the TARDIS

IMAGE: Doctor Who (BBC)

It’s been a good year to be a fan of Doctor Who.

From the introduction of a new companion in the character of Clara Oswald (okay, technically she was ‘introduced’ last year through a bit of tricksy foreshadowed storytelling, but she took her place in the TARDIS properly this year), to the command of the role that Matt Smith now effortlessly brings to his portrayal of the Doctor (by the way, early-Matt-Smith-critics: he was always this good), to the rollicking, world-record breaking fiftieth anniversary special, ‘Day of the Doctor’ (which has become the highest rating drama on BBC and BBC America this year; is the first dramatic program to have screened simultaneously in 94 countries; and was running over with fan service and love for the series), those who love Doctor Who and all its glorious, sprawling wonder and goofiness have had much to revel in.

On the other hand, for those who just don’t see the point of Doctor Who the past couple of months were probably wearyingly tedious…

After all, there has been a veritable onslaught of retrospectives and news broadcasts and spoofs devoted to anticipating this birthday event.  There was Mark Gatiss’ love note to the series and its original star, William Hartnell, in the historical drama An Adventure in Space and Time (the hypercritical part of my brain acknowledges that it was all highly romanticised and at times clogged with self-aware exposition; but the emotional part of me was charmed utterly, and even choked back a tear in that final scene when the echo of this actor’s legacy was met with a warm smile from his latest successor).  There was Peter Davison’s (the fifth Doctor’s) playful, homemade spoof The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot; there was Doctor Who: The Ultimate Guide; there were hours and hours of talking heads espousing their love and recounting the minutia of the show in specials.  Google even changed its homepage in an enchanting homage.

For anyone not a fan of Who, all of this fuss must have started to seem like a waking nightmare.  And considering that these people are already very sick indeed (their crippling medical condition, Being Terribly, Tragically Wrong (BTTW), affects innocent people the world over) my heart really goes out to them.

(Incidentally, donate now to the BTTW fund.  Your small donation can help get DVD box sets to baffled viewers who desperately need them.)

But for anyone not sick to death of hearing about all things Who (and who can stand to hear me pontificate further), this past week I published a retrospective on the Doctor over at PopMatters.  I discuss the history of the show; how its ingenious conceit allows it to regenerate itself along with the needs of its medium and its viewing audience: how week to week it can bounce between genres and plots, from science fiction to historical drama, from parody to tragedy, philosophical think-piece to screwball fun.  I gush about how vital and innovative the show has always been; ramble shamelessly about how grand every single little bit of ‘Day of the Doctor’ was; I even get in a petty dig at K-9.

…Also, I liken Colin Baker’s costume to something ‘hosed out of a unicorn enclosure.’

So there’s that.

In any case, it’s my quick (for anyone who has ever read anything I have written, you know ‘quick’ is a thoroughly misleading word) love letter to the most unique, and most brilliant television-y television show that has ever been.

Despite all of my self-indulgent waffling, however, the one element I didn’t get to discuss was my own relationship to the show…

Because that’s the great thing about Doctor Who.  It’s generational.  Enduring.  You can stumble upon it while channel surfing.  You can inherit your devotion to it like you would a football team.  You can watch it change and grow – revel in the good years, gnash your teeth at the bad – all the time knowing that your opinion, like everyone else’s, is relative.  It is a show to fall in love with and grow alongside.  Watching it as a child you can be wonderstruck by all the gizmos and daring-do; as an adult you can marvel at the boundless imagination on display, at the ideological and philosophical debate being dressed up and played out in colourful metaphor.

It’s why many fans have a ‘my’ Doctor.

‘Sure, all the other Doctors are great,’ they will say, ‘but [INSERT NAME HERE] was my Doctor.’  And at that point they will twiddle the tassels on their floor length scarf, rock in place in their Converse All Stars, or take a bite from the celery stalk on their lapel.

Frequently, this favoured Doctor is the one that the viewer grew up with – the first incarnation that swept them off on an adventure, who they first saw repel a Cyberman invasion, who they first saw stroke the TARDIS console tenderly.

That wasn’t really my experience.  To be honest, my earliest memories of watching Doctor Who were hardly love at first sight.  I remember I was about five years old, watching it at my grandparent’s place in black and white…

The television!  The television was black and white!  The show was in colour.  It was the eighties.  And… and… it was probably a rerun (it wasn’t).

How old do you think I am?!

Anyway.  It seems extraordinary to say now, but at the time neither the show nor its principle character made much of an impression upon me.  There was no ‘my’ anything.  In fact, if I recall correctly, I spent most of the time thinking that he was the Riddler (it was Colin Baker, and the question marks on the collar threw me off); I kept waiting for Batman to turn up and kick him in the neck (again: it was Colin Baker).

It was only when I returned to the show years later that I became enamoured with what I found.  Here was a sprawling, discordant text colliding against itself in reruns, shifting and mutating with every tale.  The Doctor I first watched properly was multiform.  He bounced between a youthful, puffy-haired cricketer, to a Victorian dandy in a vintage roadster; from a velvet voiced hippie to a skittery, conceited explosion of light and sound.  I leapt about in his lives the way he leapt around in time, liking aspects of some, abhorring elements of others (Hey Doctor, Y U strangle Peri?!), but appreciating them all as part of one great potpourri of splintered sci-fi selfhood.

And even when I caught up to the show itself, I still saw them all as one.  Sylvester McCoy had a lovely wellspring of cunning under his sunny exterior that I found arresting; despite the tonally disjointed mess of the Doctor Who television movie, I was charmed by Paul McGann’s romantic Doctor; I admired (even if I didn’t completely embrace) Christopher Eccleston’s haunted soldier; and I swooned (in a totally manly way) at David Tennant’s heartsore, lonely wanderer.  Each had new inflections that brought further depth to this amorphous creature, but for me, no single face could hope to encapsulate it all.

And then Matt Smith happened.  And then I got it.

Doctor Who Matt Smith

IMAGE: The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith)

Because here, suddenly, was my Doctor.  The Doctor I hadn’t realised I’d always wanted.  Goofy, awkward, all limbs and hand-gestures and muddled lexicon.  Sombre and soulful, with eons of pain in his eyes; this marriage of Peter Pan and a sad old god clicked with me from the moment Matt Smith scrunched up his face and said, ‘Must be a hell of a scary crack in your wall…’

So for three seasons I finally watched the show as if I was seeing it all for the first time.  I finally saw the Doctor – my Doctor – send the Cybermen horde on their way.  Saw him outwit the Daleks, and the Sontarans, and the Weeping Angels, and… well, pretty much everyone by the end of that first year.  I saw him grieve the loss of his companions.  Saw him reaffirm his abiding romance with the TARDIS.  I saw all of time and space, and the eternal sartorial flair of bowties.  And best of all, in ‘Day of the Doctor’, I saw him restore hope to the heart of the Doctor Who mythos: to save the Doctor from himself and undo his greatest mistake…

But there is one more Doctor Who rite of passage that all fans of the show must endure, and that I am now about to experience for the first time.  Because eventually, everyone’s Doctor dies…  Their ‘my’ must give way to the communal ‘our’.  And as has already been announced, this Christmas it will be Matt Smith’s time to surrender the role to another.*

I would never, of course, do anything so asinine as declare the show ‘cannot go on without him’, or ‘it’s best years are over’.  That is abject nonsense.  Peter Capaldi will be great, the adventure will be grand, and many exciting new wonders have yet to be explored; but I am still going to reserve my right to observe an utterly self-indulgent moment of celebratory sadness.

My Doctor – the Doctor I had waited for – is going to die.  However, as innumerable other fans before me have already experienced, in spite of the sorrow, what is about to happen becomes one of the greatest gifts that is built into the heart of the show.

Because Doctor Who will endure.  It will be different, sure, but even though it won’t have this Doctor anymore, it will take the best parts of his narrative, his portrayal, his quirks, and fold it into the whole.  The journey will be cosily familiar and exhilaratingly new all at once, and there will be a whole new universe to explore, and adventure to be discovered, through brand new eyes.

Because even though my Doctor will be gone, someone else’s is just about to be born.

It’s a good year to be a Doctor Who fan.  It turns out it’s also a good year to become one too.

the eleven doctors copy

IMAGE: The Eleven Doctors (BBC)

* And considering that this is a Christmas story, and is the culmination of the ‘Silence will fall’ arc, I’m guessing I will never be able to hear the song ‘Silent Night’ again without wistfully peering into the middle distance and sniffling.

Light in the Dark: A Dark Room

Posted in criticism, literature, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2013 by drayfish

Dark Room logo

In this, the dying hours of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 era, a number of designers, now buoyed by their familiarity with the systems, have been stretching the capacity of this console hardware to breaking point in order to create the most immersive, engaging game environments possible.  Not surprisingly, many have opted for breadth and diversity in sculpting these worlds, hoping that square mileage and variety of game play will help players suspend their disbelief and invest in these spaces more successfully.

Grand Theft Auto 5 offers an entire American state to traverse, with automobiles, scuba diving, aircrafts, multiple protagonists, a working stock market.  Far Cry 3 has a whole island to explore, peppered with vehicles, platforming, hang-gliding, stealth, a diverse ecosystem, and enough weaponry to invade a sovereign state.  Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag presents the player with the autonomous life of a pirate (in rather stark contrast to the constricted opening of Assassin’s Creed 3), delivering a wide ocean to negotiate, and all manner of fishing, thieving, fighting, treasure hunting, warfare, and contracting to undertake at their leisure.  Even Skyrim (going back a year or so) lets you loose in a world of magic and warfare and mystery to do as you will – become the all-conquering master of every faction in the land, from thieves to wizards to warriors to bards – or spend your days hunting for deer and fishing for salmon, tanning leathers and selling your wares door-to-door.

Many of these texts have been profoundly successful at evoking the feeling of a credible space, utilising their art design and drip-feed of exposition to craft an organic sense of history, and wrangling the diversity of their content into a cohesive, interrelated order*, but this kind of sprawl, and ‘more-is-more’ mentality is certainly not the only way in which game designers can create an engrossing experience through which to marry the player to their landscape.

Indeed, despite exploring many of these expansive  game spaces, I was surprised to find that the most effective and absorbing experience I have had of late actively eschews all such graphical and mechanical largess, opting instead for a kind of stark unfussiness that harkens back to the days of rudimentary text adventures.  Here is the game’s opening screen, which contains a few sparse, objective sentences and one button prompt:

A Dark Room first page

It is a game called A Dark Room, created by doublespeak games – and truly, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

It was suggested to me by one Delta V of the AWTR site.  Although he is a fine and learned soul he is nonetheless history’s greatest monster for introducing me to Cookie ClickerI have condemned him for this crime before.  But while it was he who inflicted this unceasing reflection of my own obsessive compulsive impulses upon me, he also steered me toward A Dark Room as another browser-based mild-’incrementer’ game experience.**  Most admirably of all, however, he did the immeasurable service of saying nothing about it – simply pointing people its way, and leaving the game itself to speak its meaning.

And so, before I go on to tarnish this untrammelled delight with my clunky prose, I want to first follow in Delta’s footsteps and heartily, wholly, unreservedly encourage you to likewise go play it now – definitely if you intend to read on.  Honestly, I am about to trundle ham-fistedly into some gigantic spoilers that will utterly destroy the marvellous experience of exploring this game’s unique space, narrative, and mechanics – and this work has a sleek, unassuming design that can be best appreciated when viewed through fresh, impartial eyes.

It’s free; will only take a couple of hours; and is well, well worth it.  So go ahead.  Truly.  I’ll wait.

Ooooookay…

Hopefully now you’re back having played the whole thing, because, again, there will be spoilering… ish… liness ahead.

So… did you answer the minotaur’s three riddles correctly?

A-Ha!

That was a trick question.  There’s no minotaur.  If you didn’t know that that was a trick question – if you’ve just decided to read on anyway: what are you doing?!  Seriously, it’s worth it to not have the whole game ruined by some mouthy jag like me.  Shame on you.  …And me, I guess.  But mostly you.  So go on.  Scat.

Right.  Now it should be just us people-who-played-its.  Or at least, us people-who-gave-it-a-fair-go-but-decided-’nah-you-know-what-this-isn’t-really-for-me’-its.

And so…  Pretty cool, right?

From three lines that situate you in a lifeless freeze in a dark, nondescript room (a point of introduction that I shall return to momentarily), one single button click – a moment of interaction with the code through which the player, like a God, literally grants the game light – transforms this space into ‘A Firelit Room’, and gives the world – now operating at the player’s behest – its form and structure.

Soon there is a doorway through which a weary stranger can stumble; when the fire wanes, there is a wood beyond the threshold where one can gather sticks; then there are houses to build; and refugees to shelter; and resources to fashion; and supplies to craft.  New strangers will shuffle through with stories to tell and supplies to trade, should you let them.  Rudimentary social dynamics are formed.  Occupations are assigned.  Thieves attack your supplies and must be dealt with.  Illnesses can ravage your community.  Soon, not only is this environment increasing, but the game itself is stretching its form, growing exponentially, expanding outward: from a one-button incrementer; to a light supply sim; to an interactive mystery narrative; to a rudimentary RPG; to an exploratory survival horror; to a bare-bones arcade flier.

And throughout it all you are the one guiding this evolution.  Indeed, I struggle to recall the last time I’ve seen a game so organically reveal itself through its mechanics, inviting the player to invest in this environment by binding the world and the player’s interaction into a seamless one.***  By the time you’ve fashioned a compass, packed your supplies, and stepped out into the wilderness, you no longer feel like a scrambling, starving survivor amongst a handful of lost souls, you become a true desert traveller, sharing this Wanderer’s trepidation and wonder, because you – like he/she – are legitimately watching this environment unfold and broaden with every compounding progression.

And yet the whole effect is achieved with @ symbols and simple progression boxes and text elegantly fading into white.  The game offers an entire enigmatic, apocalyptic crypto-scape that it peppers with mystery, inviting the player to project as much or as little as they want upon that glorious absence of graphics, to dig into the game’s grim, implied back story only so deep as they wish.

As soon becomes evident once you start scouring the peculiar scorched battlefields and surface boreholes – where laser weapons and strange technology lie dormant in the dust – this is a planet that has recently been levelled by intergalactic war.  It helps put into context why hostile soldiers still roam the land, and why distrust and hostility and illness linger in the ghostly towns that remain standing.  Even more, once you find a certain downed spacecraft and drag it home to repair it, it becomes clear that you are in fact one of those invading alien soldiers.  You are not only a wasteland Wanderer, but a galactic one also – a traveller left  behind afteryour species’ invasion attempt was thwarted.  Having rocks thrown at you and getting whipped now make complete sense given that you are one of the defeated aggressors now reduced to a despised social pariah.

It even explains (in a detail I am ashamed to admit I missed in my first run-through) why you are able to carry and use several different weapons at once.  Your capacity to multitask in battles is not a glitch, or a programming oversight: your species literally has multiple arms.  So now whenever I think of my Clint-Eastwood-style Wanderer being pelted with a rock from an angry youth, the response I now imagine is of a poncho suddenly splayed wide, the controlled chaos of a flurry of exposed limbs buzzing in simultaneous fury (SLASH; STAB; SHOOT; SWING; LASER; NIPPLECRIPPLE; OFFENSIVELY GESTICULATE).****

Even though this slow revelation is quite striking, I must admit that I was so absorbed by this game’s aesthetic and mechanical fluidity that my own interpretation of the narrative ran a bit deeper.  I share it with you now, but freely admit that it is almost certainly both wrong, and more than a little unhinged…

In my reading, I was not merely an extraterrestrial soldier on the losing side of an invasion; I was the deceased commander of this occupying alien armada.  To me it appeared that I had been killed in the battle that had devastated this world – the fleets I had commanded lay as scattered detritus across the landscape – and this entire game was a limbo state in which, out of the haze of a frozen white space, I was piecing my memories back together before moving on to whatever after-limbo state awaits…

The moment that really got me onto this track was when the player meets the old, mournful stranger in the swamp, lost in reverie – the figure that you have to ‘charm’ out of his stupor in order to recount his story.  He introduces himself as a commander who helped lead a greedy nation on a quest to pillage (colonise) other worlds…  But then the game just leaves him there – mired in a swamp.  He doesn’t return with you; he doesn’t offer any usable wisdom; he just remains the broken shadow of a time before the devastation – a pilot, a fighter, a leader of men – just as you gradually prove to be.

A Dark Room Swamp 2

And so, while you continue to gather your little workforce, to push further into new territory, gradually becoming more powerful as you clear out towns and cities filled with hostile faces, this memory of the old guy who didn’t seem that surprised by you, who – unlike nearly every other figure you meet on your journey through this hellscape – didn’t try to attack you, starts to resonate more…   Indeed, in case the equivalency was not clear enough, in another parallel with your protagonist you ultimately both find him and leave him in a dark room, his only gift to you the ‘gastronomy’ perk that allows you to heal more through eating – to live longer in this barren wasteland of your own making.

It’s why the ‘death’ within the game is both total and overarchingly inconsequential.  When you go out on a scavenge you can die – you die – but despite this, you simply return to the fireside, ready to head out again.  (And this demise is distinctly not ‘reload’, because any equipment you took with you is lost, surrendered to the wasteland along with that body.)  The game protagonist’s perspective remains constant, but multiform, dying and reviving and multiplying as it struggles to fill in the blanks of itself.

It also explains why the whole game operates like, and is reminiscent of) a computer screen prompt.  As this community’s makeshift leader you press buttons, issue orders; a map is methodically filled in like computer script; human beings are reduced to resources than can be reassigned and maximised for efficiency.  You, as player, become the steward of this computer code reclamation of self, directing skirmishes, managing fuel, deciding who lives and dies for the good of all.  The whole interface becomes like a minimalist, Star Trek control panel, gathering data, restoring files, ultimately preparing this amnesiac, disembodied psyche for the ‘lift-off’ through a scatter of now-disconnected typeface that will return him to the stars from which he came.  And so, this ascent achieved, the game fades to white, the deathly vacuum of space cyclically restoring the player to that dark room and their initial rekindling of life.

No doubt I’m wrong, and this has all been a dribbling interpretive misfire, but A Dark Room enticed me to speculate wildly (in a good way; not a six-seasons-of-LOST kind of way), and throughout the experience I really did feel like I was exploring – both in the physical and thematic sense – a complete and unified world.  For a game to do that with text prompts, silence, and the steady pulse of a fireside that yearns to be stoked back to life with a mouse press, that’s pretty astonishing.

Indeed, in many ways A Dark Room reminds me of that sensation of unfolding wonder that videogames used to evoke so effortlessly.  In many ways  it recalls the elements that I loved so much about classic games like the original Mario Bros: it creates a world, it has rules, behaviours, and consequence – but it leaves you be.  People tend to forget, but one of the greatest aspects of the first Mario Bros game was that it just started.  There was a little bit of musical fanfare and bam there you were in the game.

Figure it out.

There was no prompt saying, ‘Press A to jump’.  You just pressed ‘A’ and he jumped.  Later you head-butted a cube and – what’s this? – a mushroom came out.  You fiddled around on top of a pipe and – whoa, there’s a whole other world under here!  It made you play with the mechanics.  To explore.  To test the boundaries of the environment and your place within it.  Suddenly you were asking: What about if I jump up on the clouds?  What if I kick this turtle shell?  Am I able to angle this fireball to hit that plant?

It was all simple stuff, but it felt profound because you were doing it yourself, without the omnipresent voice of the game designer breathing down your neck:

‘Did you know that you can LOOK AROUND by using the RIGHT ANALOGUE STICK?’

Yeah.  Yeah, I probably would have guessed that.

‘But did you know that you can call up the INVENTORY by pressing the START BUTTON MENU?’

…Uh huh.  Yep.  Probably would have figured that out too.

‘And if you need to use the FLASHLIGHT –’

Okay, shut the f*%k up, because this is getting really annoying…

People wonder why games like the aforementioned Skyrim blow up in the way that they do, but I think it’s because (even though Skyrim has some hand-holding, of course) it recaptures that sense of exploration and experimentation that many games used to have.  You and the game, trying to figure each other out; doing your little game-mechanics dance and seeing where it leads.  You invest in the world it is offering because it has been artfully designed to respond to your level of investment in it.  Not holding your hand and dragging you along, but inviting you to press on, to dig deeper, to discover on your own.

For me, A Dark Room boils that sensation down beautifully.  It makes each progression a choice rather than a burden, a pursuit of synchronicity with the game in which you and the action of traversing this space align.  You can click the button and illuminate this land, get lost in its dance and evolve along with it, read as much or as little into its plot as you desire, or close down the browser bored and never think of it again.  The game allows you the freedom to do and think what you like, to wander where you will, never judging, or nagging, or teasing.  It makes you the light of your own journey through its dark spaces, trusting that the act of play itself is enough to bring life to the world.

A Dark Room 02

* For me, Assassin’s Creed 3, although technically impressive and narratively broad, had some major problems in legitimising its myriad components – a subject to which I hope to return in a future post.

** Delta introduced it alongside another now cult-favourite browser-based, play-experience called Candy Box, which has just this month released a sequel.  I can see the connections between the two, and can certainly imagine the sense of surprise that must have accompanied people’s first encounters with its gradually expanding mechanics and whimsical light-RPG tone – but I must admit, after experiencing A Dark Room’s tonal and thematic surety, I found it rather less captivating.

*** Perhaps the wonderful FTL, but that may be more to do with the shambolic, every-step-could-be-your-last panic that it ferociously beats into you.

**** Indeed, I even like the way that this detail is unceremoniously revealed through the game mechanics; in my first run through of the game I was at only venturing out into the wilderness with two weapons at any one time, naturally presuming that I only had two hands.  It was only by happy accident that I happened upon a third weapon and came to learn of my curious physiology.

Through the Cookie Glass

Posted in stupidity, video games with tags , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2013 by drayfish

Cookies 00

IMAGE: Cookie Clicker by Orteil

WARNING: Do not click the cookies. Leave the cookies be.

Dear Delta V of the AWTR site,

What the hell have you just done to me?!

What the hell is this?

What am I doing?!

You said this was a new form of game!  You said it was an ‘incrementer’!

You said it was free!  But it’s taking my life!

I thought I was the player, but I’m the one being played…

Measuring out my life in cookie clicks.

Do I have control?  Do I dare eat a peach?

I have now stared into the void …and damnable cookies stared back.

Why can’t I close this thing down?!  Why can’t I be free of that giant throbbing cookie and its ageless, seeking eye?!

I don’t want to click anymore… Why am I still clicking?!?!

It’s like the ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ short in Fantasia – they keep multiplying, keep expanding exponentially…  I click to get to that higher rung, so the higher rung just gets higher, and the cookies increase, and the multipliers expand, and the sky is the limit, but there’s more sky beyond that sky…

Wait, what’s that screaming sound?

…Oh.  That’s me.

How long have I been screaming?

For introducing me to Orteil’s Cookie Clicker, you sir, will be hearing from my lawyers.

I curse you, and will tell future generations of your misdeeds.

Just as soon as I get this macaroon upgrade…

Sincerely,

Cookie

Whoops, I mean: Cookie

drayfish.

I mean, ‘drayfish’.

Cookie 04

IMAGE: Cookie Clicker

What immortal hand or eye, / Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

EDIT:  In further, evil-related news, it appears that Cookie Clicker has now been parodied in a Breaking Bad homage, Clicking Bad.  I’m not sure that the gameplay-reward-feedback-loop-as-drug-addiction metaphor really needed to be spelled out that overtly (after all, the exponentially increasing cookies are likened to every corruptive obsession from fame to money to heroin pretty explicitly in the original game), but it has a nice pun title and references Arrested Development straight out of the gates, so what more do you want?

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