Assassin’s Creed: Man Against The Machine

Posted in criticism, Uncategorized, video games with tags , , , , on November 1, 2017 by drayfish

assassins creed 3 town

I was hunting for a UFO when I finally snapped.

Scampering across the wilderness, watching the silhouette of a tree on the horizon coalesce from out of the draw distance haze, I knew, before I had even confirmed the sight, what I was going to find.  But I pushed my avatar character forward anyway, watching him hunch in his predatory sprint, heading toward an inevitable disappointment.

I was playing out the last of what had now been several ‘Frontiersman missions’ in Assassin’s Creed 3.  These were optional side quests wherein the game’s protagonist, Connor, after overhearing some piece of whispered legend, sets off into the American wilderness searching for answers.  And given that each of these local mysteries includes tales of spooky ghosts, otherworldly murders, or impossible beasts, these vignettes play out like fleeting colonial X-Files investigations, unravelling the fact from the fiction in America’s early urban mythology.

Unlike Mulder and Scully’s adventures, however, here Connor repeatedly finds each story to be a bogus exaggeration.  A ‘haunted’ lighthouse proves to be just a tattered blanket on some sticks; tales of the fearful Kraken dissolve with the discovery of a rickedy diving suit; the fearful visage of the sasquatch turns out to be some old hermit squatting in a cave.  The closest the paranormal seems to dance with these campfire tales is hunting for the Headless Horseman, where a grim figure actually is spotted riding off into the wilderness.  But given that this is almost certainly just some homicidal maniac with a carved pumpkin on his head, it’s hardly the proverbial smoking gun to prove that Jacob Marley, ALF, and Elvis are sharing a rented condo in the Bermuda Triangle.

And here I was, at the end of this run of anticlimaxes, responding to the sighting of a UFO in the area.  Running across that clearing I already knew what I was going to find.  Knew in my head and my heart exactly what it was going to be.  And yep, there it was.  Not a space ship or a flying saucer, but a single umbrella fluttering in a tree.

An umbrella in a tree.

Of course, it’s meant as a bit of light comedy.  Can you believe those crazy stories?! it seems to say.  The people of this time are apparently so ignorant that a wind-swept parasol inspires tales of life beyond the stars!  But the joke is also at your expense as the player.  Look at you, you big silly, it says.  Chasing all over the countryside after a bunch of wild fantasies!

…Which would be very droll, except: isn’t this the game where the storyline – the entire main storyline – concerns a civil war between factions of an alien forerunner race who have prophesised the end of the world?  A tale in which dead extraterrestrials masquerade as gods in order to shape the DNA and psyche of every human being that has ever lived?  The series principally concerned with two clandestine cabals of zealots locked in an endless ideological conflict – expansive armies (that have gone unnoticed by the general populace) that are directly involved in every single major moment in the history of the world?  Didn’t the whole plot of the past several games explain that every religion, philosophy, and social structure in human history is inextricably tied to some weird Dan Brown fever dream of the Freemasons/Illuminati/Skull and Bones/Mouseketeers – a secret organisation that built a machine (part alien!) that can help you re-live the memories of your ancestors through inherited-genomes-pseudo-science-expositional-techno-babble?

That game?!

…But yeah: Bigfoot?  That’s just nuts.

And at that moment, scampering up the tree to let the game laugh at my willingness to jump through its hoops, something snapped.  I realised, all at once, that I had lost any investment I had in the series – that even though I might well continue playing the Assassin’s Creed games in future (and I did), a fundamental bond between audience and text had nonetheless been ruptured, and would likely never return.

That, of course, was just my personal breaking point, but if the response to the past few installments of the game are indicative of anything, I am clearly not the only one starting to lose interest.  Perhaps it was a product of the saturating ubiquity of the franchise.  In just a few months after Assassin’s Creed: Unity launched, several other Assassin’s branded games had already been announced or released: mobile apps, 2D stealth platformers, reissues of older games.  Perhaps the company burned off a lot of good when Unity emerged as one of the most unpolished, bug-riddled, glitchy games in history – its reputation further sullied when it was revealed that a press embargo from Ubisoft had actively prevented reviewers from mentioning any of these flaws until after the game was already in stores and purchased by fans.  It’s follow up, Syndicate, by many accounts, presented a more polished game with more welcome innovation, but the response was still depressed enough to warrant taking a year off from the annual release cycle, to let the franchise rest for a spell, and to pour more attention into a soft-reboot for the series, the just-released Assassin’s Creed: Origins.

Whatever the reason, it seems true to say that even some of the series’ most ardent supporters are now more likely to express cautious optimism than shouts of ‘Take my money!’, and I suspect that it might be Assassin’s Creed 3 the carries the burden for this shift – the game in which the series finally revealed its whole teased meta-narrative to be nothing more than an umbrella fluttering in a tree.

assassins creed 3 horse

Land Of The Free ..ish

In many ways Assassin’s Creed 3 tried to be as epic, grand and sprawling as the country – colonial America – that it sought to reflect.  But it was a mess.  Part techno-babble sci-fi, part historical drama, part thumping action spectacular, part maudlin family soap opera, part power fantasy, part mash note to hopeless emo nihilism, part meta-fictional commentary on the conventions of videogames, part unabashed exploiter of every hammy videogame trope, the game was awash with fundamental contradictions.

The narrative spanned two continents and several major cities.  It jumped between two distinct time periods.  It concerned itself with three major protagonists, all competing for the player’s attention.  There were even at least three epilogues to the game.  Literally: three epilogues.  (It’s no wonder the credits of the game run for about the length of an average Peter Jackson film.)  At some moments the narrative is filled with pretentious bloat – long meandering speechifying and posturing – but at others it is inscrutably lean – whole years of narrative development are skipped, characters inexplicably disappear or send you off on quests that have little justification.

To its credit, the game sought to explore some of the real world injustices and hypocrisies that littered the overly-romanticised age of America’s founding fathers, thereby questioning the wilful mythologising of history.  Here George Washington is depicted at times as a ruthless mercenary, even willing to order the slaughter of whole tribes of Native Americans, something true to historical record.  Ben Franklin’s infamously lecherous letter to a friend extolling the benefits of choosing an older mistress is quoted directly.  But at the same time, the game indulges a cartoonishly oversimplified revisionist conspiracy history, and frequently sidelines some inconvenient truths.  There are very few African American slaves depicted in the game, with slavery itself largely hand-waved away early in the narrative by Samuel Adams; and complex social conflicts always boil down to the game’s fantastical Templar versus Assassin’s conceit.

And it is in this, the game’s central thematic exploration of the conflict between the Templars and the Assassins – between an oppressive, clandestine society devoted to social engineering human history, and an (ironically highly organised) group of murderous anarchists striving to thwart their plans for some amorphous definition of freedom – that the issues with the game become most pronounced.

Up until Assassin’s Creed 3 the franchise had built upon each previous iteration, continuously cramming more content, more side objectives, more mini-games, into its endlessly expanding coffers.  As the series wore on, however, it became progressively overburdened with extraneous mechanics, with AC3 arguably its most overstuffed.  (Which, if one wants to get snarky for a second, seems a little ironic considering how much of its narrative is spent chastising its imperialist characters for serving an empire that wants to arrogantly overstretch itself…)

The game boasts a multitude of weapons; a series of stat upgrades; stealth, melee and projectile combat; vehicle travel; an assassin squadron to recruit, order about, and micromanage; hunting; item crafting (with recipes); lock-picking; a selection of playable historical board games; a small homestead and trading sim; cryptic puzzles; fort liberations; horse riding; an entire naval control and combat system (because for almost no reason you’re made a ship captain too); infantry orders; canon targeting; for one entire expository sequence you become a spirit eagle flying through the air avoiding obstacles because… I guess that’s something else to do.  On and on and on…

And yet, despite this glut of options, the game repeatedly strips away this wealth of choice in order to funnel the player into passive, scripted sequences.  Learning to lead a battalion of men and offer them cover fire with a canon is used precisely once – seconds after that mechanic is explained – and never seen again.  Many of the assassinations are impossible unless approached from specific angles expressly dictated by the game designers.  Cinematic sequences force the player down narrow, non-interactive pathways.  Most peculiarly, several fight scenes with major antagonists turn into straight battles of attrition in which the player character must be manoeuvred around to some piece of interactive scenery where he is required to utilise pre-rendered contextual attacks.

This restriction is perhaps most clearly displayed in the game’s much maligned introductory chapters.  Rather than allowing the player the freedom to explore their world, the game directs them, over the course of several hours, in how they are to move and behave, drip feeding them new skills and dictating how to use them.  Indeed, you are so confined in this tutorial period that you spend a good portion of it trapped on the deck of a boat, surrounded by open ocean that offers only inglorious death.

The reason that this opening chapter is so constrained is revealed in a plot twist misdirect: the character you are playing, Haytham Kenway, is actually a devoted Templar – not the freedom-spruiking Assassin you presumed him to be.  Thus, this kind of rigid, claustrophobic play-style is entirely representative of his world-view.  When the game’s true historical protagonist is revealed, Kenway’s illegitimate Native American son Ratonhnhaké:ton, or Connor, the stage seems to be set for a direct interrogation of the irresolvable yin and yang spiral at the heart of the game series.  Having literalised the conflict between Templar and Assassin as father and son, by asking you to play as and empathise with both men, the game appears ready to weigh free will and totalitarian order against one another on a global and personal scale.

But then it goes on to repeatedly undercut this intriguing conceit.

What happens instead, over the course of a dozen more hours, is a curiously undercooked build up to a rote fight.  Connor eventually meets his father and arbitrarily agrees to start running errands for him, with any notion of free will disregarded as neither the player, nor the supposedly independent Connor himself, is permitted to do anything but follow Haytham’s morally questionable instructions.*  Soon Connor is predictably double crossed, and the father that you were compelled to play, whose goals you were at first invited to empathise with, is reduced to merely a stiff, narcissistic zealot, his motivations for diligently serving the Templar order and spreading imperial dominance across the globe through violent oppression no more nuanced than any other moustache twirling villain.

The climactic battle between Connor and his father – the supposed resolution of the conflict between these two characters and the culmination of the game’s oversimplified metaphorical exploration of their world views – becomes merely another endorsement of constraint.  For all of his innumerable fighting styles and weaponry and companions, Connor (and the player that gives him agency) can only win this scripted fight if he performs precisely as the game dictates, by participating in the game’s obsession with counters and interactive objects – effectively a series of dressed up quick-time events.

So at the climax of Connor’s narrative, although incessantly paying lip service to the notion of ‘freedom’, and supposedly using him as a symbol of defiance, Assassin’s Creed 3 instead persists in stripping any such freedoms away, forcing the player down a singular, preordained path from which they cannot stray.

assassings creed haytham

The God Is The Machine

The disregard for free will that plays out between Connor and Haytham proves to be merely a microcosm of the journey that culminates in Assassin’s Creed 3, and that has played out in the series’ meta-game over several years and in multiple instalments.

The linking narrative that drove the numbered instalments of the franchise up to that point concerned Desmond Miles in the present day, a man living out the memories of his ancestors in a device called the Animus – essentially a virtual reality suite.  When the series began Desmond was essentially a bit of immersive narrative point of view, a way to contextualise the historical game play and give the whole experience more immediacy for the player.  And this premise offered the Assassin’s Creed games one of the most exciting opportunities for exploring the relationship between creator, audience and text in the history of fiction.

In a manner that no other medium could attempt, the Assassin’s videogames invited their player to be an inextricable participant in the thematic exploration of control and freedom at the heart of the narrative.  You, as player, controlled Desmond, who in turn controls an historical figure (which could change between instalments), with each layer of the fictive onion becoming ever more loaded with irony.  The historical figure (Altair; Ezio; Connor; Edward, etc) believes that he has autonomy, but he is ultimately being shepherded by Desmond, who is himself being piloted by the player – them self ultimately subservient to the design of the game, the Animus itself into which you peer.

You’re essentially playing as the ultimate turducken of antiestablishment freedom fighters, always within the regimented, pre-rendered playpen that has been walled off for you, and that will only allow you to progress if you perform as it dictates.  Kill too many civilians?  Well you’re out of phase and have to restart.  Tried to jump out of the arbitrary boundaries of the landscape?  Well you get reloaded back in place.  Keep dying and getting thrown back to a checkpoint?  Well that’s because according to history you didn’t die there, so you get to restart and do it properly.  A civilian NPC is glitching out in the background?  Well this is a computer simulation, after all.

In Assassin’s Creed 2, this immersion culminated in a thrilling moment of expository dialogue in which Ezio meets Minerva, an ancient alien who had disguised herself as a Roman god, only to have her turn away from him and talk directly to the audience, rupturing the fourth-wall and dragging the player them self into the fiction.  In its direct sequel, Brotherhood, there was enormous horror evoked when the Desmond character was possessed by an otherworldly force and forced to kill an ally.  No matter what buttons you as player pressed to avoid this fate, the character was inexorably propelled toward the deed.**

As the series went on, Desmond’s present day journey hinted at some grand role that he was apparently going to play.  As an individual with free will he was going to be pivotal in saving the world at the end of 2012.

But whereas the Assassin’s Creed series had once been so good at incorporating these videogame conventions into their fiction, using these limitations as colour for the tale and exploring the strange frisson of pre-programmed content and potential player agency, in AC3 they were forced to make a definitive statement about just how much input the player could ever have on the story, and their answer was dishearteningly grim.

In AC3, as the textual and metatextual worlds collided with the release of the game in late 2012, the audience’s role, at all three levels of the games narrative – Connor, Desmond and Player – is finally revealed to be entirely perfunctory.  Connor’s entire life story is reduced to a means to finding a key for a locked door.  You wrestle your way through forty hours of side missions and lock picking games and upgrade trees and ship sailing, sit through a Forrest Gump-style greatest hits package in which Connor is inexplicably pivotal to every major moment of American history, all just to watch a guy throw a necklace into a hole (a necklace that looks conspicuously like a computer disc, meta-fans). Then, after waiting for that cut-scene to end, you shift back to Desmond’s time period, to passively watch yet another scene play out that entirely undermines any illusion of agency you may have still had…

Back in the ‘real world’, Desmond, digs up the magic key, opens a mystical door, and in a lengthy exposition dump with two ancient aliens, Minerva and Juno, he is told that humanity is weak, and civilisation is unsalvageable.  The aliens opine that all religions and social structures are doomed to corruption because human beings are inexorably self-destructive and need to be controlled, and in a particularly patronising dialogue Minerva dismisses humanity as ‘children’ who have ‘squabbled over [her people’s] refuse’, incapable of saving themselves or even understanding their place in the universe.

But rather than defy this categorisation of humanity as weak-willed followers, Desmond seemingly goes on to prove it true.  He is told to kill himself in order to free the despotic alien Juno – an act that has been orchestrated by Juno herself – and bizarrely, Desmond immediately agrees, once again with no choice or input from the player.

The whole series therefore reveals itself to be a build up to a willing, wilfully ignorant, suicide.  Desmond, surrendering all autonomy, is struck lifeless in a wash of light, with he, the narrative, and the player, all suddenly rendered moot, reduced, like everyone else in the series, to pawns moved at the behest of forces beyond their comprehension.

Juno is released into the world, temporarily preventing some sun-spot related world catastrophe, but free once again to enslave humanity.  She laughs, seemingly at both the dead Desmond and the player, and swaggers off stage to scheme her way through the inevitable threatened sequels.  Even the epilogue of the Connor story reveals (in a cut scene afterthought) that despite spending the game desperately striving to save his people’s land, they simply move away without Connor anyway.

In a game series that claimed to be celebrating the audacity of liberating oneself from tyranny, Assassin’s Creed chose to use the concluding game of its initial trilogy, a game set in the messy chrysalis of the American revolution, to state that ‘freedom’ is merely the illusion of choice in a state of willing constraint.  The ending of the Desmond Miles story, both in narrative and gameplay, proving to be merely a joke at the expense of the player.  Look at you, you big silly, it says.  Thinking you were an autonomous individual with an impact on anything of substance…

Assassin’s Creed 3 becomes an enormous, beautifully rendered sandbox game designed just to kick sand in your face.  In its final moments it shows that the only way in which to ‘win’ the Assassin’s series was to not play at all.  Having led its audience on a multi-episode chase – promising revelations, promising autonomy, promising UFOs, it revealed itself to be nothing more than an umbrella fluttering in a tree.

assassins creed 3 desmond

Flying Your Freak Flag

Ironically, it was admitting the ultimate futility of its serialised narrative that would go on to make Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag such an enjoyable game.  As a sarcastic, self-serving pirate, the game’s protagonist Edward Kenway was completely distinct in its now woefully convoluted mythology, a refreshing blast of impertinence in a franchise bloated with faux gravitas.  The plot he was reluctantly drawn into was largely irrelevant and wilfully nonsensical (he puts on an assassin’s uniform he just found, and so, like something out of Greatest American Hero, he gains magical assassin-vision and can immediately start leaping off cliffs and performing stealth kills), but Kenway’s cynicism toward it seemed to mirror the player’s own:

‘Sure, sure, the spyglass of the ancients that can DNA stamp whatever…  Just give me my ship so I can sail the seas and goof around.’

The game’s Caribbean open world was immense and beautifully realised; you met some fun characters; could largely explore and distract yourself as you pleased; and the story, such as it was, made little sense (none at all if played with no prior knowledge of the series) and seemingly had no impact on anything.

Even the present-day framing narrative was marked by a wearied, self-mocking tone.  Desmond, the fixed point in the overarching tale was gone – literally a dissected corpse lying on a slab somewhere that you could only really learn about if you trawled through endless multimedia Easter eggs.  Characters from the previous series appeared only in bit cameos.  Now, you were just some faceless quality tester in a cubicle, actually working for the bad guys: a videogame company overtly modelled on Ubisoft itself that was intent on global domination by milking their golden goose franchise to hell.

Black Flag succeeded as a rowdy epilogue because it embraced its pointlessness, but this snarky, self-immolating tone was clearly not one that Ubisoft wanted to foster.  The next year’s release, Unity, was therefore straight back to pumping out revenge tales and the dread machinations of global cabals intent on enslaving the blah blah blah…  Continuing to advertise itself with promises of ‘hope’ and tides of ‘revolution’.  But whether or not fans of the franchise are going to follow the series any further down a path that has already been proven fruitless remains to be seen.

Curiously, the series’ future success might well depend upon what players thought of one of the few features that Assassin’s Creed 3 offered in spite of its pessimistic thematic bait and switch.

Connor’s home base throughout the game, the Davenport homestead, was actually a little self-contained community that gradually grew and changed over the course of the game.  Connor would meet people on his journeys and invite them to live on his land.  Over several years, with his (sometimes slightly creepy) assistance, these people would build new houses and buildings, fall in love, get married, start families.

And eventually, the members of this little makeshift community decide to make their own flag – a banner that they believe will better represent them than whatever design is being cooked up by the leaders of the newly minted United States.  What they make is a collage, a symbol of community stitched together from scraps.  It’s a lovely image – emblematic of the resourcefulness and defiance of this little civil enclave amidst the largely uncaring, hypocritical governmental forces amassing beyond their borders.  It is also a symbol of the narrative: a makeshift contrivance cobbled together in defiance of the crushing weight of history’s – and the franchise’s – grim inevitability.

What you make of Assassin’s Creed 3 – arguably what you make of the entire series going forward –seems to depend on how willing you are to ignore the game’s illusion of independence and instead focus on the little things.  If, rather than hoping for a logical narrative through line, or expecting any payoff to the thematic promises of free will overcoming subjugation, if you can concentrate instead upon the character beats and vignettes of humanity that play out amidst its oppressive design, there may be something still worth playing.

A UFO that turns out to be an umbrella?  Yeah, screw that.  But a flag made of scraps that just wants to celebrate the mess that is life?

That’s worth chasing.

Assassins Creed 3 UFO

* Even in side-missions you are inexplicably forced to do Haytham’s work for him.  Connor is still running around chasing Ben Franklin’s notes long into the game – even though he wasn’t the guy originally given that task.

** This moment gets ret-conned in an entirely unsatisfying way in Assassin’s Creed 3 when Desmond claims that he could have stopped himself from killing Lucy.  Apparently she was a Templar agent and he knew that, even though you didn’t and there was no evidence of such a ‘twist’ at all prior to her death.

[Note: an earlier version of this article was first published on PopMatters.]

 

 

 

 

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‘I’ll See You Again in 25 Years’: Twin Peaks, Return, and Reflection,

Posted in criticism, literature, television with tags , , , , , , , on August 23, 2017 by drayfish

twin peaks dale cooper

(Spoilers, obviously…)

When the original run of Twin Peaks was cancelled in 1991 the show’s creators Mark Frost and David Lynch chose to conclude their narrative with one of the most controversial final images in television history.  The hero of their series, Dale Cooper, had returned from a brief journey into a surreal nether-realm inhabited by demonic spirits, but it was clear he had come back a profoundly changed man.  In the last seconds of the series, Cooper, now possessed by an evil spirit known as ‘Bob’, smashed his head into a bathroom mirror and stared through at his cracked reflection, letting out a maniacal, mocking laugh.

It was a gruesome ending – a cruel ending – one that seemed designed to hurt the show’s most loyal fans, leaving them in an unresolved state of shock.  But with the continuation of the Frost and Lynch’s story in Twin Peaks: The Return (currently screening on Showtime in a limited series) this ending has been thoroughly recontextualised, remaking the shape and theme of the entire series.

In its original form Twin Peaks was a reaction to the conventions of 1980s television.  Suffused with the tropes and stylistic devices of programming institutions like Dallas and St. Elsewhere, Twin Peaks presented a familiar tableau of impossibly beautiful people embroiled in all manner of schemes and illicit affairs.  Its characters swooned in mopey romantic melodrama (see the entire relationship of Donna and James) or connived to incriminate or murder one another (plots twists that were often echoed in the satirical play-within-a-play daytime soap opera Invitation to Love, seen playing on televisions within the Twin Peaks universe).

Underneath these familiar conventions, however, a roiling surrealistic horror story gradually clawed its way out of the pretty façade.  As the townspeople of Twin Peaks investigated the death of Laura Palmer, aided by FBI investigator Dale Cooper, each episode gradually unfolded more physical and psychological trauma in the form of incest, rape, emotional abuse, multiple personality disorder, and violent psychosis.  Like his film Blue Velvet before it, Lynch explored the corruption that can lurk, unspoken, behind the fantasy of suburban Americana; although in Twin Peaks he went even further, eventually embroiling his characters in a gothic tale of murderous possessing spirits lurking in the wilderness of the Jungian communal unconscious.

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IMAGE: Twin Peaks (ABC)

Over two seasons the mystery of Laura Palmer’s death was solved, but that pursuit – as the final, shocking image of the series declared – left agent Cooper possessed and its audience adrift.  Frost and Lynch appeared to be saying that evil had triumphed; that the most virtuous of men had been corrupted, lost in his quest to comprehend the darkness that lurks beneath society’s veneer of normality.  It was an audacious, haunting statement, one that took the conceit of the entire series – the allure of exploring the subconscious unknown – and revealed it a fool’s errand.  The price of seeking to confront the darkness inside ourselves was seemingly only more death and carnage.

Even when the series briefly returned as a cinematic event one year later as Fire Walk With Me, the narrative did not continue on from that endpoint, but rather presented a prequel to the original series.  Whereas the show had concentrated upon the aftermath of the death of Laura Palmer, drawing a portrait of a young, troubled woman by tracing around the negative space of her absence with the myriad perspectives of the friends and family who knew her, the film depicted Palmer as a trapped, traumatised victim in the days immediately leading up to her murder.  Unlike the series’ more palatable blend of absurdism and horror, Fire Walk With Me plays more as a surrealist snuff film.  It was a claustrophobic experience, concentrating upon the incestuous sexual abuse and psychological torment Palmer suffers until she is literally strangled to death by evil.

Although the film alludes to possible future events in the form of dream, in narrative terms it continued to leave the viewer, like Palmer, trapped without resolution.  And for two and a half decades, that was how the story remained, until the release of Twin Peaks: The Return.

With Twin Peaks’ return to television screens, the series is no longer subverting the soap opera stylings of the late 80s, but rather responding to the prestige serialised format that it once initiated.  Having been a clear inspiration for genre defining programs as diverse as Sopranos, The X-Files, Breaking Bad, Fargo, and Lost, having been endlessly parodied and shown deference by shows like Gravity Falls, Saturday Night Live, Northern Exposure and The Simpsons, Twin Peaks was able to steer even further into its idiosyncratic Lynchian collision of surrealist dreamscapes and absurdist personality quirks without network television restrictions, but it was also now compelled to grapple with its own legacy.

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IMAGE: Twin Peaks (ABC)

Twin Peaks – as its very name has always implied – is ultimately about duality.  About the duality of good and evil in every soul; of the symbiotic nature of family man Leland Palmer and the abusive spirit ‘Bob’ that possessed him; of the disparity between the angelic image of Laura Palmer that her hometown embraced and the unhinged, emotionally damaged person that she was in her private life; of the idyllic Americana town and the seedy, violent underbelly lurking beneath its bright smiles and cherry pie.  And now the series is able to explore this yin and yang in its own structure.

With the return of Twin Peaks, the image with which the original series concluded – a cracked mirror and the twisted visage of Bob-Cooper – now presents a different thesis statement for the entire narrative.  No longer the end but instead the midpoint of the tale, this portrait of two faces confronting each other through a shattered screen becomes the pivot for a re-examination of both text and audience.

As the return series has played out it is clear that it now operates as a twisted reflection of its first iteration, with even their narratives, and the principle character Dale Cooper, playing this out.  In the original series the plot begins as a straightforward murder mystery, only gradually, over the course of several episodes, revealing its true nature as a gothic nightmare of mysticism and prophesies.  It ends in a penetration of the metaphysical as Cooper enters the Black Lodge spirit world, a space heretofore only glimpsed in dream.  In contrast, the new series begins already in that mystical space, taking several episodes to seemingly return to the world of relative normality.

Similarly, in the original Twin Peaks, Cooper begins his journey as an upright, impartial agent of the law and devout believer in Tibetan Buddhism.  Over the course of the series, however, his legal and spiritual detachment becomes steadily compromised.  He develops a brief attraction to schoolgirl Audrey Horne; becomes fixated on the manifest evil of Bob; pursues revenge against Windom Earle; is haunted by his relationship with a previous lover, and is tempted by his attraction to another.  The once stoic Cooper eventually loses himself entirely, drawn by his attachments to the world into the Black Lodge where he is overtaken by Bob.*

The new series reveals that Cooper has spent the past twenty five years trapped in a metaphysical spirit world, divorced entirely from those distractions of the flesh that once damned him.  In his return to Earth, he is deposited into the life of a doppelganger, Dougie Jones, but for the majority of the season has remained a bewildered figure, capable only of mirroring back what others say – his parrot speech mistakenly intuited by others as meaningful.

Pointedly, as he tries to reclaim himself through a fog, Dougie-Cooper becomes an audience surrogate for the experience of watching the new season – no doubt to the frustration of many members of the audience.  While Cooper shuffles awkwardly through the life of the man he now inhabits, a stranger to himself in his reborn state, he is sustained by the iconography of his previous existence.  The symbolism of a lawman drawing his gun; the shimmer of a police badge; the sound of the American national anthem; the taste of ‘damn fine’ coffee and cherry pie; the feel of a tight black suit across his shoulders; each episode tantalises both Dale-as-Dougie and the viewer with remembrances of the show that once was.

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IMAGE: Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime)

Looking at this glacial return of the Cooper character unfavourably (as of this writing, 11 episodes into the 18, he remains adrift), one might be inclined to argue that Lynch and Frost are mocking their fans, reflecting their audience’s longings back at them as a criticism.  For any fans who longed for the return of the series to be little more than a reprisal of old memes – red curtains and black coffee and a young girl wrapped in plastic – Dougie-Cooper shuffling mindlessly through the iconography of the original text appears to be representative of the creative stagnation such a constrained revival would present.  If the show were merely to operate as a wellspring of nostalgic signifiers, then raising it from the grave would be redundant.  Looked upon more favourably, however, Dougie-Cooper’s journey mirrors the tenacity of the show’s fans, who for two and a half decades, while their series lay suspended, could do little more than celebrate what they remembered of their show, while always hoping for something new.  From such a perspective, Dougie-Cooper drinks deep of the familiar, encouraged onward by glimpsed dreams of one-armed, backward talking spirits, in order to sustain his return to a thoroughly unfamiliar world.

Because return – and the implications of returning to a place that has changed in your absence – is at the heart of this new series.  It’s so integral to the theme that it is actually in the title.  This is not just Twin Peaks, or Twin Peaks part 2, it is Twin Peaks: The Return.  It is about the nature of return itself.  Of returning to a place.  Returning to memories of what was once familiar.  Returning to the person one was long ago.

Twin Peaks, as both a narrative and text, is able to offer itself up as unique example of the difficulties such a return presents, with Lynch and Frost revealing the way in which reflection necessarily returns an altered vision back at us, our perception changed in the act of looking.  We peer into the show presuming to know what it is and what it should look like, only to receive back a cracked image that continues to frustrate our expectations.

In its original series run Twin Peaks was about the search to understand the undercurrent of psychological darkness beneath the mask of civility.  Lynch and Frost created a world of nostalgic Americana so that we, the audience, could watch Cooper descend through the comforting layers of a soap opera into the horrors that stir such narratives into being.  The series return denies the audience such a distancing objectivity.  Twin Peaks is no longer the subversive surprise upending the comforts of procedural, predictable television.  It is a product of its own mythos; of its audience’s desire to continue that journey, longing for the familiar and yet hungry for the new.  The nostalgia it seeks to erode is no longer abstract: it is part of the text itself.

The act of watching has changed both audience and text.  We stare at ourselves in the mirror of our television screens.  The darkness is in us.  And the longing to reclaim what is lost – and the revelation that this might not be possible – continues to haunt.  Whether Cooper, audience and text can defy the darkness that threatens them and reclaim the light that began the series remains to be seen.  In the coming weeks a new final image will conclude this three decades long narrative; and what it will reflect about its audience and its own legacy is the real mystery that the show was always trying to solve.

TwinPeaks posters

IMAGE: Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime)

* Indeed, ‘Bob’, too is a perfect representation of the theme of reflection in the series: a palindrome with a void in the middle…

J.S. Harry is great. That is all.

Posted in creative writing, criticism, literature with tags , , , , , , on August 13, 2017 by drayfish

JS Harry

IMAGE: J.S. Harry (photo by Edwina Pickles)

J.S. Harry was an exceptional poet – one of the most unique, endlessly innovative, intelligent, and at times hilariously wry poetic voices to have ever lived.

Her poetry celebrated nature, chased dragons, drowned towns.  It meditated on the subjective nature of existence – from our grammatical slip ups to the passions and beliefs that bind us or drive us apart.  It was political, serene, snarky, self-aware, and always beautifully, inspiringly curious.

She was a writer so skilled she could collide the hopeful inquisitive soul of Peter Rabbit with the unfathomable mire of language philosophy, and the result was sublime – a journey into what it means to be human filled with all the drama and fear and silliness that question demands.

In person she was also one of the kindest, most generous writers I have ever met.  I once told her that I adored her work and she went out of her way to send me original copies of her poetry – books that have been out of print for decades and that are now almost impossible to find.

There are too few words to describe how extraordinary Harry was, both as a poet and a person.  But perhaps that’s the point.  As Harry and her eponymous Peter Henry Lepus proved, words are magnificent, malleable things, but experience often slips between them, more wild and maddening and alluring than we can wrangle onto the page.  Nonetheless, that urge to continue trying to express and understand ourselves, that capacity to adapt and change – all of which is represented by our imperfect, ever-evolving language – are what define us as human beings.

And few artists have found the means to express that conundrum as eloquently, as playfully, as Harry did.

What follows is the first poem from her very first collection of verse, the deer under the skin.  Although her work would develop in exciting new directions over the following decades, it is striking how many of the themes and the tones central to her poetry are at least signaled in this elegant, whimsically soulful verse:

the what o’clock

 

A puff-ball

on a slim green stem

is more attached

to earth than I.

 

The wind will tear

its seeds away –

perhaps they’ll root –

Words root. My words? Mine?

 

Living all in your head

is a kind of thistle-madness,

anyway, but, close, grass is,

birds are –; the people

outside

seldom sing.

 

People in pain

I brush against;

I rip. And they hold me.

But, when I roll away,

in my mind I am a puff-ball

about to leave earth;

again,

the wind isn’t far away.

 

How?

Grown from a thin green shoot

with a root in earth

to this airy death?

 

Even as a child,

I could feel        for days on end

the isolating air, cool and strange,

around my head.

Sadly, Harry is no longer with us – although I am still awaiting the final collection of her Peter Henry Lepus poems to be published.

But her words, her seeds, took root, even before she was gone.

I heartily encourage you to seek out and read anything and everything she wrote.

Beyond ‘Art’ and ‘Not-Art’: Art, Videogames, and Beyond Good and Evil

Posted in art, criticism, literature, Uncategorized, video games with tags , , , , , , , on June 14, 2017 by drayfish

In honour of the wondrous announcement of Beyond Good and Evil 2 at this years E3 Conference, I thought I should repost this article of mine, originally published on PopMatters; a celebration of what might very well be my favourite game of all time…

Beyond Good and Evil

Stuck in a box

I am standing in a black-market boutique talking to a walrus wearing a kimono.  Beside me, in a tank lit iridescent green, a koi fish turns in lazy circles, his whole world bound by panes of glass through which he can peer, but never escape.  A paper lantern hangs overhead; sandstone cobbles line the floor; my pockets are filled with pearls.  The air throbs with the hum of a didgeridoo; of castanets, and a flute, and a Chinese violin (an erhu) all swirling together in a sonorous harmony.  For those not familiar with the game, it probably sounds like I am having some kind of imagistic seizure, but I am actually revisiting Beyond Good and Evil, a work that I still find to be one of the most exquisitely beautiful and thematically resonant gaming experiences ever crafted.

Indeed, it is a game so elegant in narrative and design that it has always been my first thought whenever the tedious argument of whether videogames can be considered ‘Art’ gets rehashed anew.  Others, no doubt, will turn their minds to works like Journey, or Fez, or Heavy Rain, but for me, as soon as I hear someone start bleating on about all games being merely gratuitous violence generators, or time-wasting amusements devoid of substance, I am struck by the memory of Michel Ancel’s Beyond Good and Evil – of the game’s tenacious protagonist, her devoted quest for truth, and the world that she fought to save, not through violence and aggression, but through compassion and conviction and belief.  I think of this koi fish, suspended in a world of wild contrast and dissonance, measuring out the limits of its entrapment as it swims on; an indomitable force of nature despite, blind to the habitual programming that keeps it constrained.

Beyond Good and Evil 3

‘I Don’t Know Art, But I Know What’s Not Art…’

Even if only by virtue of the grand platform his global readership offered, the figure who has come to be perceived as the most vocal detractor of videogames was the film critic Roger Ebert.  Ebert was not a fan of videogames.  As he himself proudly declared, he had never actually played one, was entirely ignorant of their workings, and went on to arbitrarily reduce their myriad forms and styles to little more than animated board games or electronic skill testers, however, Ebert nonetheless took it upon himself to definitively declare them unworthy of the label ‘Art’, denying even the suggestion that they were capable of artistic expression.*

Although one might look at such wilfully uncontextualised commentary as misguided at best, or completely hypocritical at worst (after all, film too had once been written off as merely a trivial fad incapable of artistic expression), for a burgeoning medium still struggling for critical legitimacy, Ebert’s opinions have been subsequently afforded a mystifyingly disproportionate cultural cache.  Amongst innumerable examples, he is evoked in Noah Davis’ compelling summation of the medium’s evolution in ‘Are Video Games the Next Great Art Form?’ in Pacific Standard.  He was the subject of designer Brian Moriarty’s speech delivered to the 2011 GDC; Moriarty heartily endorsed Ebert’s position, seeking to draw a more articulate (but still rather narrow) delineation between ‘kitsch’, or commercial art, and legitimate Art, which apparently must be deigned so by critics such as Ebert.  Ebert is still frequently the first figure quoted in introspective articles such as Phil Hartup’s ‘Killing Time’ in New Statesman, in industry portraits like Laura Parker’s ‘A Journey To Make Videogames Into Art’ in The New Yorker, and by consequentially – much to my chagrin – the counterargument bogeyman of this very article.

I must admit, it is a ubiquity of reference that I find profoundly peculiar.  I can think of no other instance in which the opinion of someone who gladly admitted that they have no interest in, personal experience of, or research into a subject – who offers little more than a preconceived surety that it should be dismissed on principle – has ever been treated with such deference.  Add to this that Ebert was a critic for a completely different medium, who came to argue that videogames failed to meet the criteria he expected of film, his position appears to be about as noteworthy as a book reviewer declaring music ‘not a thing’, or an audience booing Hamlet for not being ‘painting’ enough.

However, while I do not want to turn this into yet another screed about how adamantly one can disagree with Ebert’s contradictory position on this issue (I have already done so elsewhere), nor do I have any desire to continue giving legitimacy to an argument that was, and remained, wilfully ignorant of the materials it sought to denigrate, I must concede that it is nonetheless worth exploring at greater length his reasoning for why – in his opinion – videogames fail to meet his standard of Art.  Firstly, because Ebert’s comments offer a succinct summary of the most common criticisms levelled at games by those who wish to malign them as unworthy of serious consideration (a synopsis that also exhibits the wilfully prejudicial contradictions in such a position), but secondly, because they provide a suitably dogmatic set of rules about how Art apparently ‘must’ function – a set of arbitrary, restrictive requirements that, from my perspective, a game like Beyond Good and Evil not only effortlessly meets, but transcends in an unparalleled communicative engagement unique to its medium.

Perhaps the most concise expression of Ebert’s position was offered in response to a fan of his reviews who had sought to ask why he so adamantly and unreservedly considered videogames inferior to film and literature.  Years later he would go on to offer a longer (and rather more aggressive) reply to the TED talk of Kellee Santiago, founder of thatgamecompany, who had argued for the validity of her medium and her own artistic pursuit, but his initial reply to this inquisitive reader summarises much of the material upon which he would later elaborate.  He said:

‘I [do] indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature.  There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

‘I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful.  But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art.  To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.  That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept.  But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.’

Alongside his principle complaint that they do not function in the way that films or novels do (again: a specious argument at best, given that a song does not operate the way a painting does, nor a play like a book), in Ebert’s opinion videogames were a literal waste of time because they are designed not to communicate anything, but to instead gratify selfish indulgence.  ‘Play’, he argued, is in this way the natural enemy of discernment; rather than expanding ourselves through the self-evaluation offered by Art, videogames instead lead us toward a state of atrophy – civility, culture and empathy are ignored as the player seeks nothing but transitory pleasure.  Games can be pretty, he conceded, they could be diverting, but they lack the capacity to cultivate our sense of selflessness, or to invite us to engage more adroitly with the world around us.**

Similarly (and for Ebert, most damningly) player choice or input negates the authorial control deemed necessary for meaning to be conveyed.  Having spent his life beholden to the mechanics of cinema, in which viewing a film is a rigidly linear experience, its every beat governed by the omnipresent hand of an auteur, Ebert transposed this requirement onto an entirely different medium.  He therefore concluded that simply the requirements of being a ‘game’ – of sculpting an interactive experience that allows the player to be complicit in the unfolding of the narrative – necessarily wrests authorship away from the artist, and disperses it into the audience, muddying the creator’s intent irreparably, and thus weakening the text’s thematic statement.  Ebert offers no explanation at all for why this would be so, nor does he explain how exactly this must always be problematic, but we can speculate for him.***  One might ask how Bioshock Infinite can be an exploration of determinism if some players spend their time walking awkwardly into a wall, accidentally blowing themselves up, or falling off the edge of Columbia to their deaths?  How can Red Dead Redemption be a sweeping, tragic coda for the western genre if some players spend their time just hunting for wolf pelts and playing dice?  How can The Witcher 2 be the sombre tale of a stoic pariah in a nebulous moral vacuum when players – by the game’s own design – will see entirely different narratives play out dependent upon the plot decisions they themselves make?

Of course, these are all criticisms that fall apart the moment they are put to any legitimate scrutiny, measured against any nonpartisan definition of Art, or compared to similar outdated criticisms that have been applied to countless other media in the past.  I shall return momentarily to the accusations of self-indulgence and time-wasting in my discussion of Beyond Good and Evil, but one can probably already see the logical fallacy at the heart of accusing a text of ‘failing’ to communicate because it requires audience engagement.  After all, how can movies be said to be Art if some of their viewers don’t watch the whole thing, or talk over the dialogue?  Are musical, dramatic, and poetic improvisation not Art forms because they too require spectator interaction?  Are not plays, because they necessitate an engagement with their audience that defines the rhythm of their performance?  Can documentaries never be Art because they require the auteur to be beholden to reality, and the truths of their subject?  If a piece of installation Art is only displayed for a few weeks, is it not Art, and never was, once it has been removed from public exhibition?  Eventually such conjecture becomes one long aimless, nay-saying navel-gazing plod of hypotheticals.  One ends up sighing into the wind asking, ‘If an artwork exists in the forest, and no one sees it, does it have a meaning?’

Thankfully, there is an answer to such speculative vagaries; and wholly unsurprisingly it reveals itself the same way it does for any other analysis of Art (if one can be bothered to try).  Instead of redundantly attempting to argue what all videogames are not, using erroneous equivalencies to Backgammon and Monopoly and speculating on the mindset of an audience neither known nor understood, critics can try performing a close reading of these texts (even a cursory one), experiencing them firsthand to see how they seek to communicate their themes, and how successfully, or not, this meaning is made manifest in their structure and design.

Recently, examples such as The Last of Us, Journey, and Fez have floated into the wider debate as exemplars to ‘prove’ the unique expressive potential of videogames, but they are by no means the earliest texts to elevate the medium – indeed, games like Space Invaders and Super Mario Bros. were inarguably elegant marriages of mechanical and artistic expression.  And so it is with this act of criticism in good faith in mind that one can turn to Michel Ancel’s Beyond Good and Evil, a platforming, light-stealth adventure game from publisher Ubisoft, and the image of that lone fish circling in that tank…

Beyond-Good-Evil 2

The Hillys are alive

To begin with the somewhat superficial, it is doubtful even a cynic like Ebert could deny that Beyond is a delight to the senses.  Despite being released on the previous generation of consoles (I played mine on the PS2 the first time around, but it has since been released on PC, and the version I am replaying now, upgraded with a  HD polish, was released on Xbox Arcade), the game still remains one of the most enchantingly eclectic settings ever depicted.  Beyond offers a sumptuous, watercolour aesthetic, with charmingly exaggerated creature designs (Rastafarian rhinos! Kabuki cats! Shark people! Goat kids! Loveable uncle pigs!) and lush, coastal landscapes dappled with the dying embers of day as twilight intrudes.  From its verdant untrammelled fields to its factories and mines and urban sprawl, sun-bleached stone streets and meandering Venetian canals are peppered with flickering holograms and ramshackle spaceships.  Reggae music swaggers alongside magisterial symphonic swells; the techno frolics of an illegal raceway are punctuated by a stripped bare, mournful piano reprise.

But amidst this scatological beauty, the game tells a story of corruption and totalitarian oppression.  Behind the idyllic splendour of this seafront environment of Hillys, this planet is revealed to be under the shadow of a galactic police state.  A military complex has been granted unchecked power by the threat of perpetual war, and with the consent of a terrified populace, has steadily stripped away the freedoms of each world under its ‘protection’.

Just as the villainous corporation in the game uses obfuscation to further their malevolent goals, the game itself, under the innocuous guise of a colourful fairytale, reveals itself to be telling a tale of political misdirection and inculcating propaganda.  But rather than asking you to storm your way through such a scenario, gunning people down and blowing things up, the game tasks you with unravelling the reality from the lies.  To hide, to sneak, to explore and follow the evidence you yourself observe.  It is little wonder then that the protagonist of the tale, Jade, is a tenacious, burgeoning journalist, a young woman devoted to her homeland, protective of her peoples, and eager to uncover truth, wherever it may lead.

Jade, the player-character protagonist is a young woman tasked with the care of a group of orphans displaced by the ongoing war.  Herself an orphan, she has a playful, affectionate relationship with her Uncle Pey’j, who raised her in the absence of her own parents, and has developed both a healthy scepticism toward the governmental force that has occupied her homeland, and a burgeoning desire to uncover the truth.

The first image the game provides of Jade presents her sitting on the outcrop of a cliff face, meditating, looking over the ocean, soaking in the tranquillity of a glistening sunset, lost in a moment of serenity.  The calm is soon broken by the wail of an air raid siren and the cacophony of a bombing invasion – but the echoing affect of this prologue remains potent.  Jade is a figure in search of equilibrium – ideological, emotional, and physical balance – and throughout the course of the game she will attempt to attain peace, both in herself and her society, by unravelling the deception under which they all subsist.  Thus, once the dust of this latest incursion has settled, and the alien invasion of the DomZ seemingly thwarted by the Alpha Section armed forces, Jade starts to question the veracity of the armada’s omnipresence, tasking herself with uncovering the truth of their motives beneath all the patriotic spin.  She offers he services as a reporter, and soon enough is approached by a band of subversive radicals likewise intent on exposing the military’s elaborate deception.

And it is in the means through which you the player actively pursue these unsavoury truths – the manner in which this work is so uniquely a game – that Beyond Good and Evil is most striking.  Rather than passively watch this world and its narrative play out before you, as one would experience a film or fiction, this is an experience in which the act of play itself informs the very way through which this fiction conveys its meaning.  This is an environment that necessarily must be moved through, lived in, reacted to – the act of interpretation bound inextricably to this cultivation of a bond with the environment you inhabit.  As Jade, you will sneak.  You will explore.  You will gather clues.  You will learn this land’s secrets, befriend its inhabitants, uncover its seedy underbelly.  You will meet hardworking entrepreneurs, pirate looters, soldiers, shell game sneaks, black market merchants, washed up alcoholics, street racers, slavers, subversive rebels trying to overthrow the government from beneath the city’s streets.  You will intrude upon clandestine networks and peek behind the masks of the tyrants.

The game invites you to fall in love with this land of Hillys, not only through its visual and auditory splendour, but through action.  The narrative compels you to explore its urban centres and delve into its uncharted caverns, to converse with each of its residents (many of whom Jade knows personally), to taste its produce (Starkos bars and K-Bups Berries), to photograph its fauna for the preservation of science and history, to uncover the deeper, unsettling truths that lie beneath the surface of its government and media.

Through exploring Hilly’s luscious landscapes, cataloguing its creatures, befriending its inhabitants, and learning of its myriad splendour – invited to literally preserve its wonder on film, through study, through social interaction – you invest in this world, belong to it.  And in doing so, you commit yourself to protecting it.  You see the injustice visited upon the people of Hillys, you see the fear and suspicion of a populace forced to live under an endless totalitarian police state; you feel their loss as they watch their friends and family lost to this endless, Orwellian ‘conflict’.  Indeed, it is for this reason that despite the constant fear of death and loss – the most omnipresent dread depicted in the game is that of kidnapping – of a severing of the communal and familial bonds that are so necessary in the face of such chaos.

Beyond Good and Evil reveals itself to be a parable about responsibility.  Personal responsibility, familial responsibility, social and environmental responsibility.  In this sense the game is about makeshift families built from the wreckage of a society devastated by war.  It is about the commitments such families pledge to each other, the resolve and strength that they draw from this interdependence.  Frequently (though not constantly), Jade therefore works alongside a companion in her journey through these landscapes – her adopted uncle Pey’j; a devoted soldier Double H – further heightening this sense of cooperation and reliance.  Quite literally, were it not for the support of your fellow NPC – in the encouragement and feedback they offer on the journey, and the physical boosts and battling that they offer to assist you – you would not be able to proceed.  By travelling alongside them, trusting them for support, you feel even more acutely the sense of communal bond that infuses the game’s fictional world, stirring you to save this blighted land from its omnipresent dread.

It is no accident, then, that the metaphorical space standing at the centre of this game – Jade’s home, where she, her Uncle, and their orphan charges gather in the shadow of looming corruption – is a lighthouse; a beacon of warning for the ship of state, the searching source of illumination amongst a treacherous, ignorant dark.  And there is a moment, early in the game, where the poignancy of this space is subtly, movingly acknowledged.  As Jade, at the player’s behest, explores this space, watching the children around her mingle and move about, joking, conversing, playing with the lighthouse dog, trying to distract themselves from the daily bombing raids and sirens and whispers of kidnapped citizens stolen away in the night, a piece of music penetrates the quiet to colour the experience profoundly.

Jade – you – ascend the staircase and come upon the orphan children’s makeshift bedroom. Toy’s lay scattered about.  A warm slant of sunlight cuts through the air.  And on the walls, sketched in crayon, are clumsy drawings of the lighthouse itself, of JJade and her uncle Pey’j, and the word ‘HOME’ scribbled beside them.

And at precisely that moment, looking in upon one safe-haven carved out of the detritus of a haunting, ceaseless war, you hear a lilting piano cue.  It’s soft, slow, even mournful, but so delicate, and so precious, that it sears itself in the mind.  A tune stripped utterly bare.  Just solo finger stickling across ivory.  A private melody, alone amongst the cacophony of harmony and discord swelling outside those walls.

It is a melody that recurs in various forms throughout the game – particularly in some tragic moments to come, when Jade will again feel profound personal loss – but it also resurges in some resounding moments of defiance and fight, a subconscious reminder of precisely what it is that you are fighting for.

By seeking out answers, Jade will eventually inspire her people to throw off their oppression, to react against the placation of their media, and to rise up to question the preconceptions into which they have blindly surrendered their faith.  The game unpacks conventional wisdom and manipulative jingoism in a time of war, revealing an expansive web of collusion and misinformation, inspiring a oppressed peoples to reclaim a homeland stolen from them not by force, but through the pernicious application of lies.

And so, for a game fundamentally concerned with the nature of societal indoctrination, one arguing that such willing apathy has to be examined and overthrown, the conceit of the final level is inspired.  Having led her fellow citizens to revolt, Jade confronts the High Priest of the DomZ and is forced to fight for her life.  During the conflict, however, the High Priest bombards Jade with a hypnotic pulse, pouring the sum total of the game’s thematic exploration of persuasion and ideological inculcation into one mesmerising blast.  Suddenly, after having faith in the mechanics with which the game has operated over the preceding hours, the game suddenly flips its control scheme entirely.  Up is now down; left is now right; the character suddenly behaves wholly contrary to the system that the player has trained into their muscle memory.

This metaphor for the reversal of convention that has played into every facet of the narrative, and its exploration of social and political dissent, is heightened by this final subversion of the player.  Just as Jade, who has had to undertake a journey into the heart of her homeland’s darkest recesses to cure herself of the systemic misinformation that has governed her life, so too must the player, in this concluding conflict, force themselves to unlearn what this game’s universe has gradually convinced them to invest in utterly.

In defeating this beast, symbolically tracing this skewed belief system back to its root and therapeutically dissolving the corruption that it has engendered, both Jade and the player, in a unity of purpose, excise the corrosive limitations that would choke this society, its freedom and its media, into atrophy.

beyond-good-and-evil-2

Treading Water

Back in Ming-Tsu’s shop, however, that koi fish keeps turning circles.

Programmed in an infinite reactive loop, he is forever walled in, enslaved by that emerald glass.  And in that sense he offers a fitting metaphor for the transformative nature of responsibility that this game explores.  Ancel’s masterwork invites us to see the limitations – both welcomed and imposed – that govern every aspect of our lives.  Those glass walls, in microcosm, become symbols of the conventional predispositions and rhetorical manipulations that can hold the uninquisitive in stasis.

In looking down at this poor, ensnared creature, Jade, and I playing her, are suddenly reminded that we are not that fish – not bound to some primitive reactive coding, swimming endlessly in place.  No, in this game, in this sumptuous but suffering world, Jade and I can transcend the inculcation of intransigent beliefs.  Instead, she and I can be reminded of the true intangible bonds and beliefs that define us, those that bind us in a happy enslavement to the things we hold most precious.

Through its narrative, its play, and the enchanting aesthetic of its environments and melodies, the game enables its players to invest in the world of Hillys, to feel a responsibility to its peoples and its future, and to redefine ourselves through the bond we feel to its familial, spatial and ideological constraints.  Indeed, as you are literally a character inhabiting this land, tasked with its preservation, this evokes a sense of ownership and obligation elevated far beyond the detached regard stirred by films or fiction.

Beyond Good and Evil is a game about and fuelled by empathy, about cooperation and selflessness, about testing the veracity of presumed truths.  Under the facade of its disarmingly innocuous beauty it is a game that compels its audience to question the media – even the media through which the artwork expresses itself.  By brushing up against the barriers of this world myself, empowered through my own agency within the narrative to question these restrictions – to scrutinise them – I become attuned to this environment, become one with it.  And in doing so, come to better know myself.

Ebert, and those like him, who see video games as nothing more than gratuitous, indulgent death-simulators – petty playthings that rob humanity ‘of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic’ – will doubtless never change their minds about this medium.  Ironically, they remain obstinately walled behind their own prejudices, unable to look beyond their bias to see the greater, more diverse possibility they have arbitrarily denied.

In contrast, I watch that koi fish circle and am reminded of how effortlessly this game proves such dismissive ignorance a lie: of the way that it renders an organic, breathing culture, in order to watch it fray under the threat of war; how it speaks to the nature of civilisation and the duty of personal responsibility; of the manner in which it so elegantly evokes and celebrates empathy as our greatest treasure (in videogame-speak: the greatest ‘skill’ we human beings can seek to ‘upgrade’).

Culture, civility, and empathy – all while necessitating that the player be an integral part of progressing the narrative and allowing them to be complicit in the enunciation of this altruistic theme; videogames, when crafted with the elegance and care of a work such as Beyond Good and Evil, more than prove themselves to exceed every arbitrary ‘requirement’ for Art demanded of them by those prejudicially inclined to deny them worth.  Despite being dismissed off hand, there are many such examples that transcend these limitations in their moment of experience, becoming something profoundly, intimately expressive in the act of granting the player agency within their worlds.

Does that mean that all videogames are therefore worthy of being held aloft alongside the pantheon of great composers, playwrights, and poets?  No, of course not.  But that is and always was a disingenuous argument to begin with.  The world of cinema has produced Vertigo, but it also gave us Norbit.  Music granted us Brahms, but it also gave us Rebecca Black.  Arguing that every single text has to justify the value of its entire medium or else they are all suspect is a reductive act of sophistry that knowingly chases its own tail.  It debases the whole discussion of Art by making it some rote test dictated by elitist patriarchs whose prejudices are already irrevocably calcified.  But just as Shakespeare’s artistic expression is not demeaned by the shaky 4th grade Christmas pageant I once participated in as a child, the entire span of potentiality evident in the videogame form is not dismissible because one thinks Call of Duty 19 looks like indulgent gush.

If, in contrast, those who imprudently disparage videogames actually bothered to try them – to free themselves from the mire of lazy bias and prove themselves capable of re-examining the constraints of imagination that such works so frequently embrace, they might not only find something worthy of exploration, but could well find a whole new experiential medium through which to explore the endlessly shifting limits of human expression. Otherwise, they just continue to spout the ‘conventional wisdom’ that games are indulgent toys gratifying insularity with nothing worthwhile to say.  And as Beyond Good and Evil articulates so adroitly, there’s nothing less beneficial to the progress of society, criticism and Art than simply regurgitating the same old tired party lines without ever exhibiting the capacity for self-reflection that they would demand of others.

They too reveal themselves to be like that fish – not urged to test their limitations, not inclined to seek for more; instead trapped in the same tired contrarian routine.  The circle their definition of Art in a infinite self-justifying stagnation, emboldened by their own limitation as they deny it the capacity to evolve.  As for me, I don’t presume to know definitively what Art is.  I’m too stunned by its diversity and magnitude to want to try.  And in here, in the living diorama Michel Ancel and his team have brought into being, I’ve got a head full of sweet melody, a pocket full of pearls, and a world to treasure.  I’ve been invited to help directly enact a message of audacity and hope, to fall in love with a land, and to believe that both it, one’s own curious, indomitable will are things that are precious, things worth preserving.

I know that might not be Roger Ebert’s definition of Art.  He would (and did) cry ‘selfishness’ and ‘time-wasting’ – declared them uncivilised, corrosive and childish.  But in truth that’s what all Art has always been.  Art itself is an act of play: the selfish imaginative pursuit of an artist, the indulgence of an enraptured audience; a sublime waste of time that consequentially reflects something resonant about the human condition, something enduring, back to us.  We are creatures that have stirred pigment into paint to decorate our caves; transformed religious festivals into the history of theatre; cultivated the carnival curiosity of moving pictures into the diversity of cinema; exploded the boundaries of Art to soup cans and signed urinals and sharks suspended in formaldehyde.  Why then must we be frightened off by our capacity to weave new environs to explore – new emotions, new engagements to inhabit – in pixels and electronic code?  It seems the height of complacent stagnation – a fish swimming up against the same glass walls, content to never extend beyond them, terrified to lose its way.

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*   *   *   *   *

* One can read Ebert’s dismissal of the medium, in response to game designer Kellee Santiago’s rousing TED, talk here.

** Something that the Big Momma trilogy and Transformers 2 can do, apparently.

*** Elsewhere, in his final, rather patronising opinion piece on this matter, titled ‘Okay, Kids, Play On My Lawn’, Ebert does use the example (repurposed from a debate with Clive Barker) of Romeo and Juliet.  In a game, he argues, the story would be rewritten so that the lovers might both live in the end, thereby destroying the whole tragic trajectory of the narrative.  But this too is a completely disingenuous argument.  Nowhere does the notion of videogame ‘interactivity’ dictate that all things must be possible at all times to everyone.  Multiple forking paths of narrative are a possibility of a certain form of videogame; not the requirement for every text.  Ebert’s position would be like arguing that because Pulp Fiction and Memento utilise non-linear storytelling, every other movie obviously must do the same – cinema is incapable of following a character’s life chronologically from birth to death.

Wonder Woman: She Stood Up

Posted in comics, criticism, movies, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2017 by drayfish

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If nothing else, Wonder Woman finally proves that DC is willing to allow a woman to have a confusing, weightless, CGI-heavy third act of her own.

And that is something.

Yes, I’m being snarky, but don’t let that obscure the important takeaway here:

Wonder Woman is important.  And I loved watching every second of it.  Loved it.

With an asterisk.

Because in order to discuss what is deservedly praiseworthy about this film, you unfortunately have to acknowledge the pedestrian material that surrounds it.

So to get this out of the way:

This is a film with a fairly workmanlike screenplay.  At times characters blurt exposition at one another and the plotting is stiff.  There appears to be character arcs and side narratives that, to me, were clearly either lost in editing, or left half devised during the drafting process.  There are moments of levity amongst the characters, but you would be forgiven for thinking that these brief flashes were whipped together on the day of shooting rather than a tonal feature of the script.  The bag guys are so disposable you often forget about them while they are still on screen.  Some of the action continues to bears the fingerprints of Zack Snyder’s obsession with empty, slow-motion plasticity.  And you can still hear echoes of the original studio pitch-meeting that decreed this film should be a mash-up of Thor and Captain America (an observation I have seen others critics make).  Indeed, it can be argued that the story this film seeks to tell was already presented, more successfully, in last year’s Moana.

The whole production is abuzz with reasons to sink away and be forgotten.

Except for her.

Wonder Woman – both Gal Gadot inhabiting her, and Patty Jenkins behind the camera – proves just how shameful it is that it has taken this long to put this extraordinary hero on film.

Because, as Wonder Woman shows, a great hero, portrayed with respect, rises above whatever dreck they might find themselves in.  Patty Jenkins may have been hamstrung by a weak script, she may have been fending off interference by studio executives (I’ve not heard anything specific, but since Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad it certainly sounds like the DC films are lousy with intrusive meddling), and she may have had her aesthetic choices hampered by the established Syder-universe style of sepia funk, but she clearly respects her character, and recognises the significance of presenting her as an inspirational figure for generations of viewers to come.

And this ability for a hero to rise above their narrative is nothing new.  After all, it’s not just that Batman v Superman is awful; it’s that the Superman it presented was a psychotic emo twit and its Batman was a bro-sociopath Frank Miller wet dream.  In contrast, the Richard Donner Superman film is ridiculous, straight up lame at points (why is Lois rhyme-singing?!  Why the hell does turning the Earth the other way reverse time?!), but it treats Clark and Kal-El with deference, and allows Christopher Reeve to do that magic trick he perfected of playing both sides of the character with commitment.  The Dark Knight Rises is likewise pretty silly, but it gets Batman’s self-sacrifice and struggle to defy the temptation of his own darkness right.

So when Jenkins show Diana as a child, a smile of ambition and defiance breaking on her lips, it lights up the screen – even if the idyllic society in which she is both beloved and feared is so thinly sketched.  When Wonder Woman rises out of the muck of war to cross No Man’s Land (a land where no man can go, as the script not-so-subtly insists), the moment her determined gaze and burnished armour rise above the trenches, the film too transcends its limitations – even if the CGI matting washes everything out and the spatial relations of the characters are not always tracked.

Rather than treating her character as some myth to ‘deconstruct’ and debase (although in truth nothing in the DC movie universe so far actually constitutes an actual deconstruction of these characters, more a cynical revision), Jenkins valued what Diana, Princess of Themyscira represented enough to unapologetically embrace it.

Love.  Hope.  Compassion.

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In the Snyder universe these notions have so far been belittled and mocked as outdated.*  Its two most prominent ‘heroes’ have instead been motivated by self-interest and lost in their own narcissistic funks; Superman mopes around like Krypto the Dog just died and only seems to spring into action when either Lois or his mother are in danger; Batman has become a brutal fascist, literally trying to force the world to fit his world view; and even when the two of them decide to stop posturing and work together it’s because their mothers have the same name.  Screw altruism, or idealism, or service to humankind; the greatest superpower in the universe is apparently ego.

But out of this affected, self-indulgence, Wonder Woman arises, unsullied.  Embracing the incommunicable charisma of Gal Gadot’s performance – a magnetism that stole and solely justified last year’s asinine funeral dirge Batman v Superman – Jenkins allows the character’s radiance to operate as it should, like a sun around which everyone else orbits; from which everyone else draws light.

The result spills out into every other aspect of the film, elevating even the DC universe’s most generic tropes.  Here Diana’s supporting characters aren’t merely plot devices to be imperilled and spout emphatic one-liners for the trailer; we see them inspired by their time with Diana, and they are allowed moments of quietude in which to exhibit personality that in turn helps shape Diana’s world view.  Similarly, the slow motion CGI fights no longer overwhelm.  Jenkins uses them more sparingly, with a less lascivious gaze than in the previous DC films.  It is actually possible to follow the action, rather than descending into over-edited, incomprehensible mush.  And even that awful oversaturated brown aesthetic Snyder favours is more pointedly utilised here.  Jenkins employs it in the bulk of the second act – when Diana is traversing the murk of London and the front line of the war; both environments choked by male oppression; but this second act is preceded by the verdant paradise of Themyscira, and is later burned away by the reveal of Diana’s vibrant costume, which becomes something of a beacon shining through the gloom.

Ultimately, I guess what I’m saying is: it shouldn’t have been this damned hard, DC.  You finally made a movie that’s pretty good, with all the same ingredients as before, except that this time the hero was not afraid to stand for something, rather than dissolving into a puddle of half-baked pubescent nihilism.

But in hindsight, of course it would be Wonder Woman that showed the way.

After all, Wonder Woman has always been created to answer a lack.  In the fiction of her origin she was fashioned from clay by a mother who longed for a child.  In reality, she was designed as a response to a comics industry that was devoid of strong female characters.

Comic books in the late 1930s were still a relatively new entertainment, and found themselves accused of being sensationalist, masculine garbage, filled only with violence and vice that must surely be corrupting its readers.  Much of the criticism was hysterical, but it reflected a real absence, both of inspirational heroines, and of role models who solved the world’s problems with more than flamboyant kicks to the face.

William Moulton Marston, an American psychologist, saw the potential for comics to do more, to offer more.  With the help of his wife Elizabeth, Marston created Wonder Woman in 1941 to prove this potential true.  She was strong, capable, intelligent and loving.  As powerful as Superman, but seemingly more aware of the further role she could play as a symbol for change.  She sought to better the lives of those around her, encouraging human kind to aspire for more.  To fight for equality and truth (truth even literalised in her lasso), and to treat each other with compassion in the face of fear and division.**

And so, Wonder Woman stood up.  She remade the comic medium.  Not by breaking and reinventing the form, but by showing how that form could be better employed.

And happily, history has repeated.

So far the DC films have created a garbage pile of machismo, garbled pseudo-philosophy, and wilful stupidity.  They have been (rightly) maligned for being so busy dithering about in their Juggalo redesigns and empty pretentiousness to offer even the most basic of heroic iconography.

And once again, Wonder Woman stood up.

She climbed out of the stagnating trench of the DC universe, sloughed off the baggage of the perpetual sequel/prequel franchise to which she is still beholden, and shone brighter than all the turgid, inward looking-posers around her.

Wonder Woman may not be the kind of film that reinvents the medium in terms of its script or its themes – this is no The Dark Knight or Captain America: Winter Soldier – but Wonder Woman the character, as presented here, is the kind of hero who has now remade our expectation of all future blockbuster films to come.

Shamefully, for all of the success of the Marvel movie empire, they still have yet to place a female hero at the centre of a film (it is straight up insulting that at this point Black Widow has been the most dynamic thing in several of their films and yet never been the star).  And despite pumping out several films in their entangled universe, DC has yet to actually present a hero.  But Wonder Woman – both character and film – proves how pitifully reductive this thinking has been.

But with this foundation in place, there is now finally a chance that things might truly change.  That the cowardly, whining idiots on the internet who are fearful of women having superhero entertainment that also reflects their experience will be drowned out by the film’s success (please, please, please let this be true).  That studios will finally shake up their tired formulas of using women as mere props and damsels.  And perhaps, with a luminous presence like Gal Gadot inhabiting her, Patty Jenkins keen to do a sequel, Joss Whedon’s take on Batgirl in pre-production, and a deep bench of underutilised female characters waiting to get their moment to shine (where’s my Supergirl at?!), DC might actually be able to get out of their own way and remember that they have the opportunity to create diverse, dynamic entertainment that actually speaks – albeit in grand spectacle – to human truths.

It would be a fitting addition to the history of a trailblazing cultural icon.  Because despite appearances, Wonder Woman was always standing there.  It just took until now for some to notice.

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* Before anyone mentions it: yes, I know that Snyder is credited as being partially involved in devising the story for this film, but he was also, if the scuttlebutt is true, swiftly nudged away from the project when the feedback on Batman v Superman emerged.

** There were also some more themes of bondage and Sapphic love in the subtext, but that is for a more comprehensive discussion of Marston’s philosophy…)

Mass Effect 1: ‘Never underestimate the power of words’ (A Mass Effect Retrospective part 2)

Posted in criticism, Uncategorized, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2017 by drayfish

GAME PLAYED: Mass Effect (base game); DLC: ‘Bring Down The Sky’

To Read Part 1 of this Retrospective

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In the beginning there is fear.

The first game begins with Shepard staring out into the inky black of space, over a planet that either is, or is meant to evoke, Earth.  Back when I used to replay this series, that expanse of possibility was delightfully vertiginous.  The journey ahead but a series of potentialities, none yet realised.  The player, like Shepard, was able to look ahead and wonder at what was to come.

But now there’s fear – because I already know it all leads to one place.  Awash with recollections of the series’ grandeur and disappointment; the prophesy of oncoming darkness and ruin that is about to be vomited into Shepard’s brain already gnawing away at my memory.

So I was wary when I fired up the game again after all this time.

And yet, to my delight, I found the experience to be instantly, gloriously reaffirming.

Beyond the comforting thrum of the menu music, which still evokes in me a kind of Pavlovian response of joyful anticipation, beyond the visuals and mechanics that hold up better than I’d feared, and even acknowledging that my affection for the series might lead to some blind spots in my critical thinking (I have always adored that beautiful Mako, wonky handling and all; hell, I even like the elevators – yes, really), I maintain that the first Mass Effect is still one of the most perfect marriages of form and function in any text, videogame or otherwise.  Its narrative, and the mechanics through which it expresses itself work in unison to create an experience that is thoroughly absorbing and profound.

You play the game, but the game plays you.  And together, through an intuitive conversation between audience and text, both are elevated, entwined in an understanding that validates the journey shared.

Mass Effect ashley and kaiden

The What

Mass Effect’s detractors might call it merely a pastiche of other great sci-fi texts.

It emulates the universe-building of Star Trek, the tone of Blade Runner, the political manoeuvring of Babylon 5, the pseudo-magical powers of Star Wars, the ominous dread of Lovecraftian horror, and revolves around a cast of oddball loners on the fringes of respectability somewhat like Firefly.

The first response to such an accusation would no doubt be: So what?!  Are you serious?  That sounds incredible!

And indeed, it is.  So shut up, imaginary naysayer guy.

But the more successful rejoinder would be to point out not what Mass Effect borrows, but what it offers that is purely its own.  Because Mass Effect presents, unique to any sci-fi universe ever crafted, the opportunity to truly discover an unknown universe; to use one’s own thirst for understanding and perspective as a videogame player to propel the way in which the narrative and its themes open up in an act of cooperative exploration.

To its credit, the game initially does this by placing its player and protagonist in a disempowered position.

This might sound strange for a game centrally concerned with the first human being accepted to the Spectres (a galactic police force who effectively answer to no one), who receives a prophesy that leads them on a crucial, universe saving quest, but despite this grandiose premise, the game manages to largely avoid Bioware’s now patented You-Are-The-Chosen-One-Messianic-Rise-To-Greatness narrative structure.  In this first foray into the Mass Effect universe, crucially, humanity are the underdogs.  And Shepard too – although already a decorated soldier when the plot begins – has to scramble to get respect.

Unlike in a universe such as Star Trek, where humanity has become a dominant force in galactic politics, charting new frontiers and leading by example, here humanity is the plucky, spry, slightly obnoxious newcomer to the galaxy.  When we stretched out into the stars (on the back of alien technology we merely stumbled across), we immediately began poking our noses into everyone’s business, accidentally picking a war with a dominant species, and aggressively trying to weasel our way onto the council of the universe – something that other races have not been allowed to do for a millennia.  Consequentially, we are often viewed with suspicion, contempt, or pity by the other races that see our eagerness as folly.

Thus Shepard too is frequently met by distrust and condescension – by dignitaries, police officers and merchants, who hold various prejudices against the human race; by the council she eventually works for, who patronisingly refuse to believe the evidence she is gathering; and even, at first, by her crew, some of whom join her for their own purposes, but eventually come to admire her goals.

The first Mass Effect game makes the series’ best case, both in plot and play, for the benefits of being hampered, but persisting in spite of the constraint.  Mass Effect is about struggle; about sucking it up, taking your knocks, wrestling with the wonky controls of the Mako (gods, I love it).  It’s not about being indulged and told you’re great all day.  It is only in Mass Effect 3 that the lazy Jesus metaphors start up in earnest, and in Andromeda (it appears) when you get to be the ‘chosen one’ and ignore your cheeky imperialism while bro-fisting your pals.

In Mass Effect 1 (and 2) the universe actually gives very little damn about you.  It is only in caring about it, in spite of its contempt for you, that you not only earn your place, but can be part of the effort to join together and make it better.  For all out faults, it says, we human beings are tenacious; and that is one of the traits that makes us thrive.

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The Why

The other feature that both Shepard and humanity have in abundance is curiosity – something that likewise marries beautifully with the player’s experience and the design of the game.  Humans might be underpowered, underrepresented, and unrespected, they might be tethered to the training wheels by alien races that look down upon them with misplaced sympathy, but we (and the player) are inquisitive.

We ask questions that few others seem to be bothered with.

Why are there Keepers on the Citadel?  What the hell are they doing?  Why is there all of this Prothean crap littered everywhere across the galaxy?  Who set up this government?  And why?  So what’s the deal with Spectres?  How can you have strictly enforced ethical codes if you’ve also got a secret police force that answers to no one?  Why did the Protheans leave a little mass relay statue in the Citadel?  That seems a little weird, no…?

While the bulk of the other races are seemingly content with profiting from the technology they suspiciously inherited from an unknown ancient race, Shepard and the player explore the whys of this universe, asking questions, seeking answers, and gathering a band of misfit aliens who likewise want to upend conventional wisdoms, so that together they can uncover some uncomfortable, dangerous truths.

And all of this feeds beautifully into the game play experience.  It’s why Bioware’s signature dialogue wheel was such an ingenious development, and still feels so inspired.  It invites and rewards exactly this kind of inquiry.  It satiates curiosity, but even more ingeniously, it allows for emotional responses to the revelations that unfold.  Not only does asking questions and considering options open up the central narrative, it also advances that other great attribute that speaks for humanity’s worth: it encourages empathy.

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It’s what makes Bioware’s decision to require player input for all of Shepard’s dialogue so significant.  Throughout the game Shepard does not utter a word in conversation unless directly prompted by the player.  Literally every line has to be selected, for tone, or inquiry, before she speaks.  It might sound like a small detail, but this direct contribution has a distinctly different feel to the distancing auto-dialogue that creeps into Mass Effect 2 and overtakes Mass Effect 3.  For a game fundamentally about the ways in which language binds people, every sentence feels like an incremental building of your distinct Shepard, rather than a shading of the predetermined character the game requires.  This is largely just an illusion, but it is an artful one, uniting player and character in a fluid, grammatical expression.

Exploring dialogue about other races and cultures, considering the rationale behind other moral codes and other ways of life; the game encourages the player to observe the disparate ideals that can unite a biodiversity of thought.  The game proposes that kindness, consideration and respect can be universal – particularly in the face of an unfeeling, omnipresent threat that seeks to crush all life different from itself.

(In the second game, this thesis of curiosity and empathy would be extended further – on the micro scale through sharing your teammates’ emotional baggage on their personal loyalty missions, and on a macro scale, by exploring hostile races like the Geth and an artificial intelligence like EDI.  In Mass Effect 3 this invitation to cultivate empathy and investment would be largely abandoned.  Rather than introducing new societies and personalities – allowing their perspective to sway the player’s experience – the conclusion of the trilogy spent its entire run time cynically exploiting the investment cultivated by the first two games.  The narrative’s threat was powered almost solely by the devastation of the familiar as races and companions from the past games were wiped from existence, the player trying to save what little they could from the galactic bonfire.  The trilogy’s conclusion did not invite the player to invest in the experience of others so much as gormlessly threaten what was already beloved to evoke a visceral, persistent sensation of loss and dread.)

Over the course of the first Mass Effect the player meets floating brains, bird/lizard people, elephant creatures, sentient space crustaceans, asexual blue sirens, jittery amphibians, ‘roided out reptiles, migrants hidden beneath non-descript protective suits.  It is a breadth that would never be matched by its following games (curiously, not even in the new, larger scope of the Andromeda universe, as many of the established races are now M.I.A.), with each race having different styles of speech and grammar and distinct behavioural practices.  Some races communicate through aromas, and so had to actively describe their tone of voice so as not to be misunderstood in translation.   Some huff through breathing apparatuses, or hum through fluctuations of light.

And you are encouraged to get to know them all.  To ask them questions.  To learn their ways.

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You can pepper the members of these different cultures with queries about their politics, history, philosophy, businesses, finances, and family.  You can explore hot button issues like religion and slavery and genocide and environmentalism and crime.  You can probe them on everything from the effects of technology, to their eating habits, and their thoughts on space prostitution.

Consequentially, it is a game centrally concerned with knowledge.  Information becomes power, both as a play mechanic (asking more questions, being more persuasive or threatening, opens up greater options to the player) and as a recurring part of the plot.

You are tasked with solving a sci-fi detective story, so fittingly, along the way you meet people who manipulate information, withhold information, bargain information for power.  You are forced to deal with representatives of spy networks, cult leaders, scientists pushing their research to its limits; corporations and company stooges block you, reporters interrogate you, ambassadors try to spin your actions for their own agendas.  You hear the media, at the behest of the military, manipulate the truth of what you confront on the frontline into numbing lies spewed out across the presidium radio.

Your team-mates likewise pursue answers – some gathering new information to offer their migrant fleet, some hunting for intel into criminals that eluded them, learning something about themselves in the process.  The villain you pursue likewise uses information about an oncoming threat, a truth that has poisoned his mind, to twist and misuse fear to indoctrinate others to his will.  And the entire journey is motivated by a cryptic info dump jolted into your head in the game’s first mission – a prophesy of unknown devastation that you must spend three games unpacking and seeking to comprehend.

Thus every interaction that fleshes out this world, binding you to it, is reiterating the same theme: that knowledge, the language of understanding others, is the most transformative power of all.  As the esteemed Asari consort (who you are encouraged to assist deal with a scandal of leaked misinformation) says:

‘Never underestimate the power of words.’

So fittingly, you make friends with pariahs and hotheads and renegades, academics and warriors, people on the run from the shameful actions of their past and casual space-racists.  You collect a team of charming weirdos and you shoot off into the stars to make your own way together.  A merry assortment of colliding ideals and agendas, all proving the game’s hopeful thesis that with respect and curiosity, even unfathomable cruelty can be met and ultimately overcome.

Mass Effect Normandy_feros

The How

This sense of exploration – both ideological and physical – is exactly why seemingly trivial things, such as being able to draw or sheathe your gun at any moment (a feature stripped out of Mass Effect 3), using the Mako to trundle across the tundra, or travelling in elevators (which didn’t’ survive past the first game), become so important in Mass Effect.

Arming and disarming yourself wasn’t just a neat visual; it was emblematic of the fluid grandeur of the game.  It indicated that you really were at the mercy of an unfamiliar universe at all times – not just in predetermined, spotlighted ‘fight’ scenarios.  You might round a corner at any moment, even in the ‘safety’ of the Citadel, to be confronted by assassins; the survivors you try to help on some blighted wasteland planet might surprise you with a threat.  These vast environments live and breathe, and you inhabit them along with everyone else, rather than just blasting through on the way to the next scripted objective point.  You were there to explore, and never knowing from where danger or aid might appear, that journeying was fraught with peril, made the whole process richly rewarding.  The act of adapting to this ebb and flow of conversation and conflict, being able to vacillate between the two by pulling or replacing your weapon, therefore further enmeshed you in the grammar of the game.

The same was true of being able to rocket along the surface of planets in the Mako, exiting to wander on foot any time you wish.  Indeed, while I know many in the past have criticised these long sojourns on alien planets as barren, palate-swapped ranges largely devoid of life – it is hard to deny their beauty, and for me this loneliness only enhances the experience.  By the time you return from the wilderness back to Asari civilisation you are desperate to reconnect with people, to deep dive back into the game’s conversational systems and glean more from these societies that have sought for meaning amongst the emptiness of space.

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Similarly the ability to board ships that you found floating in space; or to infiltrate facilities speckled throughout the stars; or selecting you and your party’s equipment and armaments; or even the act of physically watching yourself enter or exit the Normandy, going through quarantine scans and handing over command to the XO when you became part of the shore party; the whole game, at every level, encourages you to feel your freedom and isolation at once; investing you in an unbroken experience that evokes a sense of being truly out on the frontier, exploring a real universe.

Even the much maligned (I think very unfairly) long elevator rides that punctuate the game not only enhance the sense of this being a real universe that you are navigating, they allowed companion characters to converse: sometimes with playful banter, other times enabling two races with complicated histories and generational animosities to respectfully debate, to learn more about each other by valuing one another’s point of view.

In a time of videogame critique in which ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ has already become an obsessive buzzword for anything even momentarily immersion breaking, this decade old game still stands out for the way in which its design only deepens the engagement its players feel, with every perilous exploration, question asked, or elevator ridden, only further embedding them in its fiction.

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The Huh?

As I indicated in my previous post – what is most remarkable about the first Mass Effect is how fully realised it already is in this its initial outing.  While the gun play may improve as the series goes on and while some of the themes alluded to here might be fleshed out further in Mass Effect 2, this first game fulfils every promise it makes.  Each major story beat and theme is explored and brought to a resolve; there is a sense of cohesion to the several sci-fi narratives it explores – from an Aliens-like facility infestation lockdown, to a Thing-style colony overrun by an ancient extraterrestrial mind control, to an assault on a cloning facility, several run-ins with robot zombies, amoral paramilitary groups gone wild, and a gloating inscrutable Cthulhu beast – and a thrilling resolution in the way that all of these elements ultimately converge, revealing the terrible secrets of an ancient cycle of imminent devastation at the heart of every space faring society.

The series really never does tie its plot together so elegantly ever again.

(An argument might be made that it is not until we meet EDI and Legion in the second game that the potential of this narrative’s exploration of Artificial Intelligence is fully explored, but even here the first game in the series leaves enough ambiguities and subtle clues to imply that this inexorable journey toward synthetic sentience is not as simplistically dangerous as the characters who oppose it would have you believe.  From the gambling AI that has slipped its programming leash, to the moon based system (subsequently revealed to be a prototype for EDI) that has developed a sense of self-preservation and actually feels pain, to the moment that you stumble upon a facility of Geth and find these hostile robots have been listening to a mournful old melody by their Quarian creators, a song about regret and lost innocence, the player is repeatedly invited, should they wish, to view the inevitability of artificial consciousness as something more complex than a binary good or evil.)

And to my mind this is easily the most climactic ending that the series will go on to offer.  For all of the personal dramatic stakes of Mass Effect 2’s suicide mission, even it cannot compare for scope or theme.

After finding a way to interact with the last surviving knowledge of the ancient Prothean race that you’ve been chasing the entire game, you infiltrate the Citadel via a backdoor built surreptitiously into its design (a doublecross of their doublecross), fight your way up the innards of the structure in zero gravity, straight toward the looming spectre of a sci-fi Lovecraftian demon, arrive back at the chambers of the council you were appointed to serve, battle your rogue adversary (or persuade him into a moment of sanity to stop himself), issue orders to the armada of ships engaged in a raging space battle outside, making decisions that will dictate who survives the fray and remaking the face of galactic politics for generations to come, and survive certain death, crawling out of a pile of rubble that used to be a mouthy wannabe god.

There is so much fist-pumping spectacle and elegant narrative resolve that even though you are left desperately wanting more, it is more from enthusiasm and a love of the universe than a sense that you were cheated of anything.  The conclusion of Mass Effect 1 operates much like the ending of the first Matrix film.  The creatures threatening humanity might not be gone, but the hero of the saga now knows what they are up against, and is resolved to see it through.  Like Neo’s phone call to the code, the smile breaking on Shepard’s face as she strides from the rubble is more than enough to know that the Reapers – whatever their goal – will never succeed.

And like the Matrix film, perhaps it would have been best if it had have just left it at that.

Mass Effect Screenshot3597.1

The Rub

Is Mass Effect perfect?  Absolutely not.  There is little to no reason to gate every surveyed mineral deposit or archaeological find you run across behind insipid quick time events.  Why anyone should need to press five buttons in sequence simply to loot a mummified corpse is never adequately explained.  And although I think that the Mako is an unjustly maligned joy, it is true that the planets you are asked to traverse with its help are frequently lacking in thoughtful design.  They are often beautiful spaces to look at (even if some of them are barren colour-palate swaps), but when you spend half an hour sliding in place unsuccessfully attempting to ascend a sheer rock face to gather up one objective marker, it’s easy to lose patience with the whole process.  (Speaking of which, whoever designed the planet surface of Nodacrux: please go straight to hell.)  Also, to get really picky, that film grain filter they put over everything to give it a noir aesthetic is the very first thing anyone playing the game should switch off.  The game is far prettier than that filter suggests.

Also, I would be lying if I tried to argue that the wondrous promise of the first game isn’t still somewhat marred by the narrative slurry it is destined to slide into in Mass Effect 3.  This is far more pronounced when returning to Mass Effect 2 (which I will discuss in the coming weeks), but not even this first game is immune.  In particular, the plot-twist moment in which you speak to Sovereign is entirely undermined.  When one first plays this game, hearing Sovereign speak to you is chilling; a shift in your character’s very sense of reality as you realise that the object you thought was just a looming space ship is itself actually an ancient sentient creature of untold devastation.  But now all of Sovereign’s threats and pontificating ring utterly hollow.

I would never understand your grand, unfathomable purpose, huh, Sebastian the Dark Matter Crab?  Well, your pals give me the Cliff Notes version in game three, and not only is it very ungrand and super fathomable, it’s complete asinine.

But overall these gripes are miniscule when weighed against the splendour of everything else this game achieves.  There is a thoughtfulness and care and polish to everything here that makes the entire experience, on every level of design and narrative and character, thoroughly absorbing.

In  my replay of Mass Effect I was delighted to find that not only is the magic of the series still present, it has seemingly only intensified with age, as so many other series (Mass Effect itself even) have strayed from the absorbing world-building it accomplished.

Perhaps my biggest surprise, however, is that I have come to discover a flaw in Mass Effect’s marketing…

All of that talk about ‘big impactful decisions’ that was used to spruik the game is actually something of a misunderstanding of its real concern (and no, this is not me being snotty about how none of your decisions will ultimately matter in Mass Effect 3 …although, yeah, that too).  These promises of ‘consequential choices’ that were made in its advertising (and often misleadingly guaranteed by the game’s creators; I’m looking at you, Casey Hudson) often only add up to some minor shifts in the narrative, or in the superficial behaviour of some of the game’s personalities.  At their most extreme – most evident in this first game – these choices might lead to the death of certain characters that will not be seen again; but the essential plot rolls on, unrelenting.

But that’s fine, because what Mass Effect is actually concerned with is the context surrounding decisions.  Not what decision you made, but why you made it.  What impulses led you to decide, with the little information available, how to react to a situation?  Save the Racchni Queen or kill her?  Bargain with Wrex or put him down?  Trade intel with the Shadow Broker, or tell him to screw off?  Do you have faith in the goodness of others, or are you more pragmatic?  Are you focused on the mission at all costs?  Willing to gamble on luck?  A fan of minor chicanery or a straight shooter?

For all of the promises of future revelations that they offer, what the decisions in Mass Effect really provide is an opportunity to expose your own thought process.  Just as you interrogate your companions and enemies throughout the game in order to understand them and their worlds, the game reveals itself to have been questioning you.  What kind of player are you?  What kind of person?

It is a conversation through play.  It wants to get to know you, and offers the chance, if you are willing, to better know yourself.

It’s quite an achievement.  You stare into the RPG, but the RPG stares back into you.

Mass Effect climax

Next Time: Mass Effect 2: ‘Suicide is painless.  It brings on many changes.’

Twin Peaks: Flame Wars Walk With Me

Posted in criticism, stupidity, television, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2017 by drayfish

Twin Peaks log lady

My log has something to tell you.

My log knows the ways of popular culture.  Of the fans that brighten the flame.  My log has seen television revivals come and go.  My log has a Twitter account.

Behind all memes are reasons.  Reasons can explain the absurd.

Twin Peaks will return.  It is a miracle.  But it will open a gateway.

My log knows what is to come.

Can you hear it?

I will translate.

On the first week David Lynch will be a genius.  It is wondrous, the people will cry.  Articles will scatter like dandelion seeds.  ‘THIS is why Twin Peaks had to return’, they will say.  ‘Lynch and Frost teach modern television creators how to do it.’  Much shade will be thrown at the most recent season of The Walking Dead.

On the second week, columnists and critics will agree that the show is taking its time.  But this is universe building, they will argue.  Perhaps the weirdness is not quite so quirky, some will suggest.  It is still better than everything else on television.  Listicles filled with spoilers counting the ’10 Best Things About the New Twin Peaks‘ will clog websites everywhere.  People will already tire of their workmate’s references to ‘damn fine’ black coffee.

In week three there will be disparaging chatter about some of the returning actors, and whether or not they should have come back.  Magazines will create spreads of the female cast members, rating them alongside photographs taken twenty years ago.  Copy-editors will ask who has ‘let herself go the most?’  The male cast will be referred to as ‘distinguished’.  Humanity will continue to die a little inside.

In week four conspiracy theories abound.  What does that salt shaker mean?!  Enough with the owls!  Memes will fly wildly on Twitter.  One line, taken out of context in episode two, will have become so ubiquitous and overused in daily conversation that your aunt will facebook you to ask what it means.  A Guardian newspaper columnist will list reasons why this new series is exactly what Twin Peaks was once all about.

Week five will leave viewers wondering aloud whether the long pauses and abstract dialogue are intentional.  People will haunt comments sections of articles loudly proclaiming that they ‘Don’t care!’ about this series.  That they ‘heard’ it wasn’t that good in the first place.  That they are only writing this in every comments section, on every review that they find, because they are ‘SO UNINTERESTED!  SERIOUSLY!’  Critics begin to wonder whether Twin Peaks has shown its age.  In the wake of Breaking Bad and Mad Men, does Twin Peaks still have ‘it‘ anymore?  A Guardian newspaper columnist will list reasons why this new series is the complete opposite of what Twin Peaks was once all about.

Twin Peaks Damn fine coffee

In week six the online anger will rise.  ‘Why don’t we KNOW anything yet?!  Where are the answers?!  We waited twenty years for THIS!?!?’ they will furiously type, despite having only binge-watched the series a month ago.  Reviewers cataloguing episode summaries on websites like the AV Club will wonder why the screenwriters are concentrating on the peripheral characters.  Think pieces about why they are actually important, even though they appear completely irrelevant to anything, will emerge.  Some will sound nearly convincing.  #Where’sAnnie?

In week seven the ‘fans’ will become apoplectic.  A beloved character and actor from the original series that they have not thought about for a decade has been treated unfairly!  Boycotts are threatened.  #HAVETOSPEAKUPHEARINGISGONE.  Capitalising on this anger, an organised conservative moral outrage group will petition Showtime to cancel the show.  They will demand an investigation into whether something screened in a previous episode was too disturbing for broadcast.  The FCC will issue non-committal statement about looking into the matter.

On the eighth week Saturday Night Live will do a sketch claiming that Twin Peaks is actually about Donald Trump.  The White House is now the Red Room.  Jeff Sessions is the Man From Another Place.  Paul Ryan is an uptight nerd possessed by darkness.  Steve Bannon is Bob.  Ivanka, a vague beauty queen with no defined personality is ogled like a trophy to distract everyone from the evil goings on barely obscured behind the scenes.  Alec Baldwin will play Trump as a dim-witted Log in an unconvincing toupee, carried around by Vladimir Putin in a dress.

My log is not amused.

Week nine will bring with it hand-wringing think pieces.  ‘Lynch might just be a weird old man with singular antiquated beliefs’, they will suggest.  Is he celebrating, or mocking what he thinks is ‘weird’?!  Maybe Blue Velvet wasn’t that good after all.

Week ten there will be a controversy.  Perhaps Denise Bryson, the transgender character played by David Duchovny, will be presented in an arguably unflattering light.  Perhaps someone will rethink the use of the word ‘dwarf’ on national television.  A critic will write an article titled ‘Twin Peaks Is Not A Safe Space.’  It will be unclear if this is meant to be satirical.  #CancelTP

In week eleven people will have moved on to the return of Game of Thrones.  Can you believe that Khaleesi did that thing that she did?  It was about time!  Critics will praise Game of Thrones in inverse proportion to their criticism of Twin Peaks.  ‘David Lynch withholds too much!’  They will gnash their teeth.  Game of Thrones will cut a dude’s head off and show you some rude bits.  That’s how you tell a story!

In week twelve disparaging think pieces propagate.  Everyone will be reminded that before it was cool to brag to everyone about how underappreciated Twin Peaks was, it was fun to slag off the second season, while it was still screening, for not being as great as you wanted.  Endless columns will lament that Lynch is just stringing his audience along – just like before.  This is why Twin Peaks got cancelled in the first place, they will say.  #Waiting25Years

In week thirteen many clever, ironic people, who are all very popular and hip, will write disparaging comments about how Twin Peaks is still on television.  Yawn.  I forgot that was even a thing, etc.  I watched that new Archie Riverdale show and it was weirder.  Did you see Gravity Falls?  #LodgeAComplaint

In week 14 a subsection of Tumblr fans will be disheartened when it becomes clear that the romance they were shipping is never to be.  Whether this romance was between a stale box of donuts and a taxidermied deer head is obscured.  #DoughADeer

On the fifteenth week, the week before it ends, fan theories will run amuck.  Entire Wikis will flourish and fade daily.  Click-bait websites will dangle promises of ‘WHAT IT ALL MEANS’ behind several pages of single sentence paragraphs and a confetti of pop-up ads.  There will be rage from those who love the series; rage from those who ‘have never and will never watch it! Why doesn’t everyone just shut up?!’; and rage from those who believe that it is just not as good as it was when James Hurley went on that stupid road trip.

Twin-Peaks-sign

On the final week, there will be no definitive resolution.  The answers it does offer will be nebulous.  Much will remain obscure.  Articles will be written praising a work that is willing to excite, entice, and respect its audience in such a way; others will be written calling the show a fraud.  David Lynch will be labelled a scam artist; a genius; an auteur; a hack.  The show will be called exploitative; ridiculous; outdated; cutting-edge.  It will be both hip and derivative to hate on it; its defenders will be equal parts brave and gullible sheep.  It will be the greatest; it will be the worst.  Proof of the revival model; evidence of why it never works.

Twins; mirrors of one another.  The darkness in the light.  Inextricable.

#CUin25Years

The show will probably be magnificent; but none will be able to tell anymore.  The flames will rise regardless.  The smoke will blind.  From the warmth of recognition to a fandom ablaze.

In the feedback is the fire.   All that is good burns.

It happened to Arrested Development.  To The X-Files.  Even the Gilmore Girls got a working over.

All of this has happened before.

All will happen again.

All of this my log has foreseen.

And, yeah.

That Rosanne reunion sounds like a terrible idea.

Twin Peaks thumbs up

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