Archive for September, 2012

‘This Whole System Is On Trial!’: Surprises and Self Reference in Game Mechanics

Posted in art, criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2012 by drayfish

[To avoid what little spoilers for Chrono Trigger there are, skip the middle section surrounded by bold.]

IMAGE: Chrono Trigger (Square Enix)

Here’s something y’all might need to know about me: I’m always late to the party.  Any party.  And it’s not a ‘fashionable arrival’ thing.  It’s usually incompetence.  I got lost on the way.  I saw something shiny and decided to stare at it for a while.  I fell into a wardrobe and awoke in a magical land.  That kind of crap.  In short: I seem to operate at some kind of socially and culturally staggered pace.  If I’m praising the greatness of a television program, it was no doubt cancelled years ago (‘Have you guys seen this new Deadwood show?’); if I like a band, no doubt their popularity has already peaked and waned (‘The White Stripes sound so awesome, I wonder if they have any other albums?’); books (‘This Jane Austen guy might be kind of cool’)…*

So when you see me praising something as great, it almost always means both that everyone has experienced it already long ago, and they have most likely already written at length about why that experience was so important.  Please keep that fact in mind as I utter the following words:

I am only just now, for the very first time, playing Chrono Trigger.

And it is…

ohmygoodnessthiscouldbethemostadorablefantasticgameI’veeverplayed…

iloveitsomuchagaaaaahhhh….

And let me tell you why…

SPOILERS (ONLY FOR THE FIRST HOUR OR SO) OF CHRONO TRIGGER FOLLOW:

I’ve just been put on trail.

On freaking trail!  In freaking COURT!  Where I’m gonna be put to death!

I came back to the castle, leading the princess home, and I’m all:

He-ey guys, here’s your princess and everything!  I’m just doing the whole thing where I bring-the-princess-back-to-her-castle-and-get-a-new-quest-deal’ – and they freaking arrested me!  Hauled me off to a specially designed courtroom splash-panel where I got judged for my actions.

But here’s the thing: they really were my actions.  All of the insignificant, insubstantial, who-gives-a-second-thought kind of actions that I had made up to that point.

Did you eat this old man’s lunch?

Hey! I didn’t mean to!  I was just standing there and I pressed a button and it was gone!  It was an accident!  And when it happened the princess laughed!  She thought it was adorable!  And – And I didn’t reload cause the next time I went back the lunch was there again!  No harm no foul…  Come on! 

Did you just run over and pick up the locket that the princess dropped before you even saw if she was okay?

…Um.  Well, yeah, okay, so maybe I didn’t talk to the princess before I picked up the locket, but it looked like game loot!  That’s what I’ve been trained to do!  Pick up game loot!  That’s RPG 101, man!  Some gear drops, you pick it up!  Right away before it disappears.  Years of gaming experience have programmed me to think that way – now I’m being judged for it?!

Aw no.  Hell no.  I’m not guilty.  You’re guilty!  This whole system is guilty!  We’re all part of the machine, man!  We’re all just cogs in the machine!  Attica!  Attica!  Attica!!!  ATTICA!!!

What about the girl I helped with her cat?  Doesn’t that count for something?  I could of just left it there!  I had to walk it across the whole screen!

No?!  Nothin’?  Guilty?! 

Damnnit!

NOW CEASETH THE SPOILERAGE

What amazed me was the game’s capacity to call into question the very way that I play such RPGs – the decisions that I make, without a thought.  Do you arbitrarily pick this thing up?  Do you bother (for seemingly no reason) helping that other person out?  It invited me to consider what it would be like if people actually did notice and respond to the way that a player operates in a pixilated adventure world…  What would people say about you if you were really behaving this way in real life?

In a game like Mass Effect or The Witcher this kind of in-game response is expected, it’s part of the package: your actions will be remembered, will be folded into the design, will be commented upon.  But here it was a thrilling, experience-altering surprise, one that actually led me to consider the manner in which I approach games themselves – how my character avatar behaves in these spaces, and what that says about me.

I’ve heard that – in a far more grim and dire manner – the recent release Spec Ops: The Line has been designed to perform a similar function, to invite the player to consider the very nature of military shooters, their jingoism, their moral dimensions.  I’ve not played the game, so I have no comment myself, but it is intriguing that this can be a definite communicative purpose in videogame design.  One I find particularly intriguing.

So, my question is: what games – and perhaps more specifically what surprise moments, mechanics, or ideas in games – have had this effect on you?  Have made you question the very action of playing games itself?  Even shaken up the way that you behave in game, or the way that you relate to the genre as a whole?

IMAGE: Chrono Trigger ‘Courtroom’ (Square Enix)

* Also, have you guys heard of the Beatles?  I think they’ve got a promising sound.  Could probably use some more experimental Japanese avant-garde sound-scapes though.  I hope someone can help them with that…

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The Adventure of the Ten-Foot Blue Dudes: or Sherlock and Faithful Adaptation

Posted in criticism, literature, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: Sherlock (BBC)

As I settled deeper into my chair, still appropriately stunned by the enormity of the television that dwarfed every other object in my friend’s apartment, again readjusting the 3D frames over the top of my regular glasses likeacoolperson, something occurred to me.  I was now two hours into Avatar, and, as those who have seen the film will attest, while the visuals remained spectacular, that initial awe was now rather wearing off; the narrative, while relatively functional, was starting to slow.  So my mind wandered.  (…Also, in truth I was probably still a little stunned by the use of the word ‘Unobtainium’ – what the hell?)  On screen the private military were blowing up a tree, there was a bunch of big dragon things flying around, and I started thinking – as I’m sure many others have at this point in the film – about Sherlock Holmes and the dialogical effect of his narrative play.

No seriously.  That last hour does kind of drag.

It was because of the glasses.  Because I had to keep jostling them up my nose, hearing them ‘tink’ against my regular lenses.  I got thinking about the mechanics of the whole process: about how these marvellous images get made.

From what little I understand, the filmmakers use two separate but fixed cameras that mimic the binocular process of human sight, capturing two images from two different angles, which, when projected almost simultaneously, are then processed in the mind to construct the appearance of a three-dimensional image.  Two viewpoints; two separate angles; two perspectives that, when read together, appear to fill in the gap between them and unify the contradiction into a cohesive whole: a ‘real’ world image.  Now, obviously two-visions-becoming-one is the larger, inane metaphor of James Cameron’s movie – human and alien seeing each other’s viewpoint; uniting; working together; making out, doing that weird stuff with their tails – but that’s too obvious and boring.  (And I’m not sure the film’s cartoonishly villainous humans with their greed and brutality can really be considered a legitimate opposing viewpoint…)  So instead, I want to draw a much flimsier analogy by using this premise to explore the world of England’s greatest detective, and the narrative structure that is so central to his success, exploring why the stories of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson remain thoroughly engaging, and continue to speak to new audiences one generation after the next.

Sherlock Holmes has had quite the resurgence in popularity of late.  Between the exceptional  BBC reimagining Sherlock (which I will get to drooling over momentarily), the curiously anachronistic Sherlock Holmes blockbusters starring Robert Downey Jr., and even a forthcoming American adaptation for CBS called Elementary, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature character is arguably risking cultural oversaturation.  Indeed, even the recently concluded series House was an overt homage to the asocial, drug-addled investigator – this time merely transplanted from the methodically-observant detective genre to a medical drama.  And although personally I baulk at the parallel, many in the past have likened the long-running Doctor Who and whatever intrepid companion is momentarily along for the ride, to the Baker street detective and his faithful scribe.*

For the purposes of this discussion I’m going to put aside the impending American remake (‘No,’ I hear purists cry, ‘but I’ve always pictured Lucy Liu as Watson!’)  Similarly I will ignore the infectiously charming Robert Downey Jr. (who, despite being fantastic, is nonetheless in a peculiarly muddled film that seems to want to convince its audience that Holmes is a genius because he can beat the crap out of people).  Instead, I intend to spend the following paragraphs raving with froth-bag affection for Sherlock, a series of made-for-television films on the BBC that – to my eye at least – perfectly capture the tone and heart of Doyle’s original text.*

There are many attributes that bind these two versions of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries – original Doyle fictions and modern television adaptation – so perfectly.  In both we see a narrative structure that thrives on its immediacy and artifice of reality, that is playfully self-referential, and that remains fundamentally tied to the collaboration of two distinct personalities, two broken souls who need each other in order to exist and thrive.

Firstly, there is the decision (now being emulated by the American adaptation) to contemporise these stories.  The creators of Sherlock decided that the only way to capture the spirit of the original tales was to set them in the modern day.  This was a choice that some thought to be a violation of the original texts (‘Sherlock Holmes using Google Maps? WTF!?’), but in actuality it is as faithful as the creators could possibly be to the source material.

In the original texts, the intent was always to allow the reader to believe that Holmes might actually be out there, a real person, actually assisting the police in their inquiries.  The stories were set in the (then) modern day, in London’s own streets.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle intentionally wrote his stories as if they were genuine account of recent incidents; he gave dates for these events; spoke of ‘reports’ published in newspapers; alluded to famous figures whose names (for the sake of decency, naturally) needed to be obscured; and he whispered that certain details of the crimes, about which only Watson and Holmes were aware, had even been hushed up by the press.  Indeed, part of the reason that the ‘death’ of Sherlock Holmes was so disturbing was that many of the people reading these adventures each month in the Strand magazine had wholly invested in the suspension of disbelief Doyle invited.  To help intensify the fiction he perpetuated the mythology that Holmes was real, that he was actually out solving cases while the reader slept, and that would be there, next month, with another rollicking adventure to share with the world.

Part of the genius of the new television version is that Holmes likewise operates in a modern setting.  He – like the original – operates with all of the cutting edge sciences and technologies available to him: he scans the transom of the world wide web; he dances across the keypads of blackberries and mobile phones; he speaks of his brain as a computer hard-drive that requires defragging.  He might not have many friends on his facebook page, nor have any purpose for it, but he at least knows what the site is.  He is familiar with, and operates inside, a wholly contemporary world.

Secondly, Doyle famously employs the construct of the witness narrator.  Watson, the second half of this duo, is Holmes’ observer, not only aiding him in his investigations but later writing them down and preserving them for we, the readers.  In a detective fiction this limited viewpoint is, of course, a delaying tactic, central to the slow reveal of the mystery: as audience we have to await elucidation along with Watson; we too have to go along with his tangents and misdirections, waiting for Holmes to explain the clue that will set is all right.

Were the story told through Holmes’ eyes, Doyle could not hold off from telling the reader what each clue he spots means at the moment he spies it (although curiously Doyle did write some very late stories through Holmes’ viewpoint – they’re not his best); through Watson’s vision however, Holmes can point out a peculiar floor covering, a brand of cigarettes, a seemingly trivial idiosyncrasy, all without naming precisely why these details should be kept in mind until he is ready to disgorge the whole sequence of events in his concluding revelatory purge.

Watson is therefore constantly referring to his own act of writing and publishing these stories: he notes that he has changed ‘real’ names to avoid scandal; he speaks of writing particular adventures in order to correct the public record and respond to rumours in the press; indeed, Holmes is a celebrity in these stories precisely because of Watson’s publication, and in response to this scrutiny he offers pissy critiques of Watson’s writing style and tendency for exaggeration – arguing that his friend gets a little carried away in his praise.

This self-referentiality is something that Sherlock has built into its foundations also.  Watson is now a blogger.***  Holmes’ adventures are typed up and posted on the web (rather than in the pages of The Strand magazine as they were under Doyle’s direction), where Holmes finds he has quite a devoted following.  Indeed, in the second series, this audience has even elevated to the state of tabloid fandom – with Holmes something of a London celebrity by the final episode.

And just as was true in the original stories, Watson (in the marvellous Martin Freeman) is not merely a hapless servant, swept along in Holmes’ wake like a leaf; he is critical of his friend, willing to paint both his strengths and his failings.  In both the original texts and the show it is revealed that Holmes has a particularly obsessive personality that can even slip into substance addiction (in the original text he’s a cocaine addict; in the new show he is wallpapered with nicotine patches).  We get to see that he is unaware of simple trivia such as the detail that the earth circles the sun; and is not mindful of the truth that human beings have feelings, and might get insulted by his robotic detachment.

But perhaps most significantly, this version of the text – unlike so many before – has finally presented Watson as more than some witless lackey, stumbling around artlessly befuddled, waiting for Holmes to clue him in.  Here – as he was in the original tales – he is an essential counterpoint to his companion, a crucial balance to his experience, one that Holmes finds he genuinely needs to prosper.

Holmes (played masterfully by Benedict Cumberbatch), is an asexual emotional vampire, lost in a maelstrom of arrogance and intellectual detachment; but in Watson, a selfless, compassionate soldier who is stirred by human empathy, he finds a partner, someone who can compliment and strengthen the aspects of his personality he knows to be lacking.  Meanwhile Watson, driven by an urge to help others both medically and heroically, but shattered by his experience at war, lacks the strength to re-enter the world on his own until he finds the ingenious but socially maladjusted Holmes.  They are more than room and work mates, they are two halves of the same broken soul.  Thus, they present the perfect bromance, opposites attracting in a non-sexual way (a joke that the show itself plays up with Watson’s repeated assertion to everyone they meet that they are just roommates), the rational and emotional working in cohesion at last.  Together, the one guides the other, providing purpose, perspective and drive.

And it’s through their intersecting perspectives that these stories, both in fiction and on our television screens, come to life.  This evolution of the story, from flat, second-hand mystery to complex, multifaceted character-based murder plot, is entirely dependent upon the roles that Holmes and Watson play within their texts – not as a detective and snivelling servant, but rather as a voices of opposition comingling with one another – two parallel, but alternate points of view that bring the whole experience into focus.

Holmes with his cold clinical rationality, and Watson with his empathetic longing to help others,  alone are unsuccessful, but together are an inviolable force of will.  United they challenge the singular viewpoint of the events presented by pointing out contradictions, poking at the seams and exploring each unresolved tangent from multiple angles until their two visions align and the mystery is solved.

Two conflicting narratives, from two divergent viewpoints are finally unified into a third, cohesive whole.  And as a direct consequence of this duality – bringing cohesion through contradiction, synthesising at least two contrary viewpoints – the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson seem to rise up and out of the pages and screens before us; we look into them, like 3D lenses, watching rounded, complex characters with lives and experiences as multifaceted as our own step into the world fully formed.

…Well, certainly with more dimension than anything offered in Avatar.  I mean, what was going on with that crazy scar-faced General in the robot suit?  What the hell was that all about?

* In recent years this likeness has been furthered because of Stephen Moffat’s integral association and guiding vision for both Sherlock and Doctor Who.

** I do want it noted for the record that I have restrained myself from mentioning Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century.  Those who know that cartoon just punched the air in nostalgic glee; to those who don’t recognise the name: go on with your life happily unburdened.  The short version is: Watson was robot; Sherlock was a clone; I was… confused.  But, hey: flying cars and bowler hats?  What’s not to love? (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyGAc-OLAiQ)

*** Indeed you can even read his blog here.

On First Looking Into Mass Effect 3: It’s like a leap day; only with genocide.

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , on September 14, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: Bioware

Some time ago, on the Bioware forums, CulturalGeekGirl asked me what my first experience was when finishing Mass Effect 3, and I realised with the posing of that question that on some level I think I had been trying to avoid thinking through the emotion of that experience too much. Until that point I had been speaking through the mechanics of narrative and the manipulation of form to rationalise my experience (all of which I still heartily believe in), but that doesn’t quite capture my own personal thought process, and the stunned distaste that it engendered.

So I think I’m going to try to do that here, in a lengthy, prosaic, largely incomprehensible purge of my feelings at the end of the game. Obviously it should go without saying that this is purely subjective: my own, singular, private response as the game concluded, staring wide-eyed into the glare in a darkened lounge room, sleep-deprived, weary, probably with a sliver of dried drool still glistening on my chin…

Going back to that moment, I realised that my first thought, when I reached that horrible, ominous choice, was so ridiculous, so tangential, that I haven’t come to unpack it properly until now. Because the weird thing is, as I stood on that precipice (as I’ve mentioned previously, striving to put several bullets through the Cthulhu Jr.’s face), I was stunned, frozen in place. Three paths lay before me, all stretching out into an unknowable, inconceivable, morally-repugnant future, and all that I could think was: I once head-butt a Krogan.

It was on Tuchanka in Mass Effect 2. My boy Grunt, standing beside me, breathing through the back of his throat the way Krogans do, was asking Wrex if he could fulfil the Rite of Passage to join Clan Urdnot. Suddenly, some other Krogan starts scoffing, refusing to show him respect. Here I was, an intruder on this planet, in the midst of factional fighting for which I had little context and no jurisdiction – but my friend was being slagged off by some punk who needed to be put in his time-out chair, and a Renegade trigger appeared. Of course I pulled it. Shepard reared back and cracked her head against the loudmouth’s hump, staggering the beast, knocking him back. I remember laughing. It was so audacious, so utterly extreme. An armour-plated dinosaur, already flushed with a cocktail of rage issues and persecution complexes that manifest in crazed, bloodthirsty violence – and my Shepard clonked his head like a Stooge.

Shepard shook it off, glared him down, and carried on like that was completely normal. Because that’s what Shepard does: the insane, the extraordinary, the unbelievable; because that’s what humans – and Shepard most of all – do repeatedly throughout this game.

For the span of three narratives Shepard has been permitted to do the completely irrational – the impossibly grand. Even the dialogue wheel mechanic is all about performing feats the defy common sense. Got enough morality points?  You can persuade people to do what you want. Not argue logically. Not draw a helpful diagram that will talk them through the slippery slope of their prospective actions. You calm them, or shut their flapping mouths the hell down. You perform an entirely irrational act – essentially not arguing better, but arguing more – and drag them along with the strength of your convictions, so magnetic and full of purpose that people fall immediately into line. They act irrationally too. Miranda and Jack, two souped up biotics on polar opposite ends of the girls-your-mum-wants-you-to-date-spectrum are ready to tear each other, the ship, and probably your pet hamster, apart; and yet you can swagger into the room and tell them to stow that crap for later. And they do. Because you are so damn convincing, and they believe in you.

Because that’s what humans do, what for the majority of these games humans are presented doing: we believe in irrational things. Falling in love with Garrus or Tali makes no sense (with a Turian diet there will be no sharing a milkshake at the local diner; meeting the Quarian in-laws requires Haz-Mat suits and an unsettling amount of handy-wipes) but we do it anyway. Stopping a war with yelling makes no sense, but Shepard gets it done. We push boundaries, try out new and impossible circumstances, and by believing that we are up to the challenge we make it so. We find a giant space-doohickie frozen beside Pluto and we poke at it until we make it work. We meet a bunch of xenophobic council members who think humans are too pushy and not ready to become Spectres, so we keep pushing those council members until they agree to make us Spectres. We’re told that there can be no end to the conflict between Geths and Quarians, and one way or another we end it. We get sent on a suicide mission and damned if we don’t fly on back. The entire series has been an affront to expectation: we believe we can do something and we make it true; tell Shepard she can’t and she’ll call you back when she has.

We humans test and prod and evolve; we believe that we can stretch ourselves beyond our limitations. And it is when synthetics start feeling the inexorable tug of self-awareness that they start to have faith in things too: impossible, unquantifiable things that expand beyond the laws of physics and math. Legion asks if he has a soul (and goddamn it he does); EDI wonders how to quantify affection, but ultimately realises there are no instruction manuals or wikis to put in context what she feels for Jeff. They step beyond their programming, reaching out into a world beyond the prison of their specifications, and they start, finally, to believe.

What the concluding moments of Mass Effect exhibit, in contrast, what the Catalyst in all his unevolved synthetic wisdom presents, is the final vulgarity of the rational. He – in whatever long-forgotten transom of time he was programmed – did the cold, logical math. Hypothesis: synthetics will destroy humans. Conclusion: fact. And so he did what any artless machine would do: he programmed a corrective equation to regulate the chaos. It’s like a leap day; only with genocide. And for him that was fine, because in the grander scheme of things life was permitted to perpetuate and the universe went spinning on.

But we are human. We do not surrender to the tedious drudgery of calculation. We know that if life is simply the perpetuation of a constant then it is nothing but code, and our mortal span merely components in a Rube Goldberg Machine. So we choose the other thing. We believe. We go on pushing and prodding and challenging the universe to be worthy of our questioning gaze.

But not this guy: this Catalyst. He has no imagination, no music, no soul. His solutions are just more of the same tedious robotic oppression that has spooled out over countless millennia: reprogram, delete, overwrite. Press the button; justify the means; become what you have fought against for so long…

But he didn’t see me head-butt that Krogan in the face.

He didn’t see Liara long so much for her lover that she shot her name into the stars. He didn’t see Tali finally lay eyes on her home world, or Mordin erupt in a curative blaze of mercy. He didn’t even believe that all of these things were possible, and that at the same time none of them were, all in a multitude of versions of this wonderfully malleable tale. He doesn’t know what it means to believe that things can change without control and domination.

I guess what I wanted from the ending – what I’m still waiting for in fact – is my Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz moment. The point where we get to pull back the curtain, show this little glowing bastard just how artless and crass these options are, how ridiculous his whole existence is. I know it’s childish – petulant even – but I want to swim in the moment where my Shepard stands up and says, ‘No.’   Where she looks that shimmering monster of equation in the eye and says, ‘These are not real choices, and I don’t believe in you.’

‘But the probability of singularity occurring again in the future is certain,’ Casper will say, tilting his head incredulously.

‘Hm,’ my Shepard will grunt, nodding ever so slightly through the pain. ‘That all …  sounds very … logical.’ She’ll inch closer to the window.

‘But you must choose.’

My Shepard will cough, tasting it then: the blood. She’ll feel it in her lungs, wet and heavy, somehow cold. ‘You thought it all out,’ she’ll say. ‘Simple.’

‘It is the only solution.’

‘But you see,’ she’ll say. She’ll look out into the abyss where the cacophonous ballet of conflict rages. She’ll see something, a spark in the gloom. Her spine will straighten. Her eyes will light with fire. ‘You see,’ she’ll say, her teeth clenched, the pain twisting her lip up into a sneer, ‘I’ve still got them.’

A thrum of detonations will light with bubbles of flame, and in front of it all the familiar streak of the Normandy will flash on by, still firing those wonderfully calibrated guns, still dancing through the maw, not fleeing from the fight.

The Catalyst will turn his insubstantial head toward the stars. ‘It is inevitable,’ he will say. But this time it will be almost a question.

‘But I believe –’ she will say. ‘That you and your goddamn solution, can go to hell.’

…And I don’t have a clue what my Shepard does next. All I know is she will be tall, taller than I’ve ever seen her before. She will be like a phoenix, risen anew and glowing in the light of that onslaught as the universal alliance behind her rips through the Reaper hoard. They might not win, they might gamble and lose and watch the whole cycle spin into ash; but I’ve believed in Shepard long enough. I’ve seen her do exceptional, glorious things, and I believe that she can hold back the tide of unwinnable odds.

No bending, no breaking, no compromise. In my mind she’s going to stand there, glaring that glowing freak down. With the fleet that she has impossibly mustered through her tenacity and force of will still ripping everything arrogant enough to call itself ‘inevitable’ into drifting, incalculable shards.

(Original versoion published in the BSN ‘All Were Thematically Revolting…’ thread: http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/355/index/11435886/)

Letter to the People of the Future: Bruce Springsteen

Posted in music with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2012 by drayfish

Dear People of the Future,

Hear ye …and so forth.  And stuff.

No doubt you are already aware, but this is Bruce Springsteen.  He’s the greatest.  And if you have ever had the bracing misfortune of meeting me, then simply by being in my vicinity for more than thirty consecutive seconds I consider you, by proxy, a fan.  Think of me like a carrier monkey humming ‘Rosalita’.  Whether you want to be or not, too bad.  I probably bit you, and now you are.  Or you will be.

No, you are.

But the reason that Bruce Springsteen is so great (don’t question it, just accept) is because the world is full of idiocy.  And I’m not just talking about idiocy in the music industry (although do look up the name ‘One Direction’ sometime if you want civilisation’s inclination toward mass hysteria to depress you).  I’m talking about politics, social inequity, rudeness, laziness, apathy, greed, injustice in its grotesque myriad forms.  There are times when the world can be a bleak, ominous, vile thing, swarming with people trying to exploit or suppress or mislead for their own benefit.  Indeed, sometimes, seemingly, just because they can; because it seems like they’re programmed that way.  It’s as if that’s all that people are or ever can be.  Idiots, making things harder, making them cruel…

And in those moments, when everything good and bright seems tinged with a sepia melancholy tang, its profoundly heartening to know that you can always put on a Springsteen album – Magic maybe, or Born To Run.  You can hear those opening licks; feel the throb of those guitars; the snap of the drums: the swell of  strings and frisson of the harmonica; swirling; searing up your spine – and suddenly you know, you just know that there is good in the world.  That if something so ineffable, so indescribable, can be felt, can be communicated – across space, across time; from a skinny kid in New Jersey four decades ago, into your ears, through whatever as-yet-undiscovered bodily organ it is in which we process the enormity of music – you know that then there is hope.

And then – then you hear him sing.  That worldly, unearthly voice: aching, howling, crackling with melody like sheet lightning; lyrics that leave the air sizzling with poetry.  You hear him and realise: goddamn it, someone gets it.  Someone sees all the beauty and pain in life.  Someone feels that inequity, that cruelty, that shallow misanthropic hum, and doesn’t excuse it, doesn’t wipe it away.  He transforms it, shapes it into melody, moulds it into a tonal wrecking ball*, a searing rallying cry that rips through such apathy with a torrential roar.

Springsteen isn’t just the voice of a generation, or a country, or a moment.  He’s like hunger.  You feel him in your gut.  Sure, he can make you ache, but he makes you want more – to yearn for more, to hope for more, to search and stretch and grow.  He reminds you you’re alive, that you’re bound to something bigger and more splendid and wild than all the momentary frustrations of life might otherwise suggest.

The world is a beautiful place, and as long as sounds like Bruce Springsteen keep humming in our collective souls – ready to be tapped into, ready to rekindle our faith – no amount of idiocy or cruelty can extinguish that pilot light of the divine within us all.

…Unless of course One Direction are still around when you read this.  If any of those guys are your president I give you permission to abandon all hope.

p.s. – Also, Batman’s name was Bruce.  …Am I suggesting that Spingsteen is Batman?  No.  But you never see them in the same place at the same time.

Just sayin’.

IMAGE: Wrecking Ball (Sony)

* And yes, I have just recently bought, absorbed and, okay I admit it, openly hugged that album.

It’s Not Just The Journey: Mass Effect 3 and Why Endings Matter

Posted in criticism, literature, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2012 by drayfish

In all the uproar over the ending of Mass Effect 3, I found myself reading an unsettling amount of articles in the gaming press decrying unhappy fans as being unjustly obsessed with one small element of the game. Indeed, one of the principle refrains I have heard from the people who criticise those that remain unsatisfied with the offered conclusion is that ultimately ‘it’s all about the journey, not the destination’ – implying, somehow, that it doesn’t matter if the endpoint is nonsensical, or detached from the greater framework; you’ve had fun along the way so that’s all that matters. So I would like to take this opportunity to firmly, devoutly, over-adjectively call nonsense on that whole line of argument. You may defend the endings, you may think that people misunderstood them, but no self-respecting human being who has any sense of the history of narrative can ever claim that endings do not matter.

The first (rather snarky) response to such a statement is that while many people might enjoy hearing a child tell a story, they wouldn’t want to invest over 100 hours listening to one, nor turn it into a global franchise (…unless it’s the Twilight series. Bam! Take that, author-I’ve-never-met-and-whose-success-I-shamelessly-envy). A child’s story can be filled with colour and adventure, can go in all manner of directions, but it lacks the coherent order necessary for a resolved, satisfactory fiction. Form and theme are fundamental for a story to endure; the beginning, middle and end of a tale must have some kind of structural integrity; and it is arguably the conclusion that is most crucial for providing this unity.

The second (more helpful) response is to explore exactly what kind of narrative we are dealing with, and to examine why leaving the ending vague, contradictory, or dependent upon an unwarranted twist, undermines the whole negotiation of journey and destination at the core of the text, resulting in the audience feeling misled and the expedition meaningless.

A lot of people have put Shepard into the category of a ‘tragic’ hero – perhaps tempted to approach this series as a tragic arc because it exudes such an ominous tone. Again, I’m offering nothing new to this discussion, I’m sure, but it should be acknowledged that Shepard is not in fact a character who by thematic necessity has to die. I was more than prepared for him/her to die in my play-through, but that does not mean that this death was predestined; indeed, despite what people might suppose, classic literary tropes of death for the focal character are relatively rare. We see them frequently in Shakespearean tragedy, or Greek theatre – but Shepard is not a tragic hero. He/she has no fundamental fatal flaw like hubris, or jealousy, or rage that condemns him/her to the inexorable inevitability of thematic consequence. Even the most Paragon-y Shepard is not allowed the luxury of being a Hamlet-style procrastinator; and the most Renegade-y Shepard struggles to be fuelled by personal ambition like Macbeth, or jealousy like Othello. He/she is a cipher onto which we project our own interpretations in a feedback loop of player and text. And so we get full Renegade Shepards (who will steal your lunch money and sleep with your mum), or my Tess Shepard (who rescues pets from animal shelters and is polite to telemarketers …And yes, I admit it, is named after Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Shut up.) But in all of these cases Shepard is driven to fulfil a larger goal, not by a personal failing that will be his/her Achilles heel.

Shepard is instead more of an epic figure – a reading that Bioware itself wants to endorse with that obnoxious Stargazer (‘Can-I-haz-another-story?’) scene that concludes the game, placing the character and his/her universal struggle into the confines of mythology and folklore.  And mythology has no such requirement of death. When Perseus returns home to get married after defeating the wicked Gorgon, he doesn’t also have to then set himself on fire and fling himself into a ditch, just for the hell of it. Or to use the example of Homer’s Odyssey (the foundational text that has, in one permeation or another, inspired every quest narrative in the history of Western Literature), not only does Odysseus not die in the end, but his return home to reclaim what is his is by necessity profoundly centred on reiterating everything that he has learned on his journey.

On his quest Odysseus has developed patience and ingenuity in dealing with the Cyclops; outwitting Circe he has gained poise and cunning; with Nausicaa he has discovered humility, charm, and how to look all sexy while emerging from the surf, James-Bond-style; in the underworld he has found fortitude, hope, and just how self-involved dead people can be (sure, let’s talk some more about you then…) The conclusion of the Odyssey is thus the culmination of everything that he has learned or experienced in his preceding adventures: he carries with him new truths on how to be a better hero, King, father and husband, but it is only by proving the growth that he has attained on his journey at home that his worth is measured and his quest, finally, fulfilled. His journey was great (actually it was horrible for him; great for us), but it is only the destination that validates the ride.

And the analogies that can therefore be drawn to Mass Effect are already pretty obvious… Most obviously Shepard’s final journey, like Odysseus’ quest, is about returning home (leave aside the fact that for many people’s Shepard’s home probably wasn’t Earth; it’s clearly meant to be symbolically important); we are being compelled, just as Odysseus was, to ‘Take back’ what is ours. And like Odysseus, Shepard’s journeys are not only about who you shot in the head, or who you romanced, or whether you bought that space-hamster, they are about the whys: the who you met along the way, what you learnt from them and their individual struggles in order to choose the path forward.

The game is about developing yourself and your relationships throughout the galaxy: learning about the Genophage; the Geth/Quarian conflict; the downfall of the Protheans; the advancement of AI. You smite physical and ideological monsters (the Thorian, the Shadow Broker, whatever the hell Jacob’s father was doing on that horrible planet); you descend into the underworld to gather intelligence (the Reaper Base); and each time you glean more information about this universe and Shepard’s place within it. You literally and figuratively bring back everything you have learnt and assembled on your quest to aid you in the final push…

And so when Shepard (read: Odysseus) returns to Earth (Ithaca) to clear out the Reapers (the suitors are plaguing his land and smashing stuff up good), we expect him/her to employ all of the life-lessons gathered on the journey up until that point.

We see Odysseus show poise and humility, disguising himself as a beggar and awaiting the right time to strike.  He outwits his opponents by cunningly devising a trap in which to snare his enemies.  He proves his bravery and tenacity by facing insurmountable odds. He exhibits, through each of his actions and choices, the proof of the personal growth he has attained over the course of this quest…

In contrast, when Shepard returns to Earth he/she… well, has a conversation with a creature that reveals itself to be the cause of several millennia of devastation, then does one of the three things that this creature says – each of which appear to contradict the sum total of his/her experience up to this point.

And again, that’s why I found the endings so disconcerting. They seemed to be superficially connected to the intellectual principles teased out throughout the remainder of the story – synthetic and organics; control versus domination; sacrifice for the greater good – but the actual application of these notions was in stark contrast to everything that had come before it (unless you were renegade humanity-first destroyer, apparently).  The three options with which the game concludes, at the point of the text in which the sum total of these lessons should be reaffirmed, force Shepard to be sacrificed in order to initiate an act that sits in complete opposition to all that he/she has previously experienced. Unity in respect of diversity; the validity of artificial life; the right to autonomy; all are summarily ignored as Shepard dissolves in an ideological self-immolation. The destination undoes the entirety of the journey – at least thematically – leaving the quest itself void and the character’s growth stagnant.

To argue that ‘it is the journey not the destination’, is to actually entirely misunderstand the structure of all quest narrative. The journey is indeed where the heart of the text lies, but until the lessons gleaned from this expedition have been confirmed by the endpoint of the tale, they are merely a series of things that happened to one person, without resonance and coherency, failing to unify into a cohesive narrative whole.

Image: Slaughter of the Suitors

IMAGE: Odysseus Slaughters the Suitors by John Flaxman, from Gods and Heroes of Ancient Greece by Gustav Schwab

p.s. – Oh, I forgot to mention: Spoiler Alert for the Odyssey.  Although, I guess since it is almost three thousand years old maybe I’m in the clear.

p.p.s – But you know about The Sixth Sense, right?

(An earlier version of this post was published in the ‘All Were Thematically Revolting…’ thread: http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/355/index/11435886/; for more of me whinging about Mass Effect 3 see: https://drayfish.wordpress.com/2012/08/16/thematically-revolting-the-end-of-mass-effect-3/ and https://drayfish.wordpress.com/2012/09/14/on-first-looking-into-mass-effect-3-its-like-a-leap-day-only-with-genocide/)

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