Archive for November, 2012

Prose Poets

Posted in criticism, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on November 30, 2012 by drayfish

Complete Poems (Revised Edition)

IMAGE: Ernest Hemingway Complete Poems (Bison Books)

As a frustrated poet myself, I am always intrigued to see when famous writers of prose fiction choose to explore the verse form.  There are, of course, numerous examples of writers who have crossed over with grace.  Thomas Hardy’s hilarious ‘The Ruined Maid’ is a long way from his narrative’s fateful chewing up of the luminous Tess Durbeyfield.  Raymond Carver (who I think I will no doubt return to and rave about one day) offers soulful and elegant verse that is a fine extension of his rich fiction.  And if I’m completely honest, I prefer D.H. Lawrence’s poetry to his prose – I get infinitely more from his ‘Piano’ than his Rainbow (although the flood chapter is impressive).

Perhaps one of the most surprising transitions from one medium to the other is seen in the work of Ernest Hemingway who, although not the most accomplished poet, I find has a unique and bold take on the form.  For anyone interested, there is a nice edition of his collected works edited by Nicholas Gerogiannis (here).  This volume is worth checking out, not only for the fine introduction, but for the inclusion of some of Hemingway’s handwritten manuscripts, which contain hilarious doodles of fat grinning cats and weird bunny-eared creatures in the margins.  For anyone just curious, a small selection of Hemingway’s verse can also be viewed online (here).

Not surprisingly (for a man who used to teach Ezra Pound to box in the hope of toughening him up), Hemmingway proves to be an unsentimental poet.  These works are often satirical or playful harsh.  The poem ‘Lines to Be Read at the Casting of Scott Fitzgerald’s Balls into the Sea from Eden Roc (Antibes, Alpes Maritimes)’ certainly stands out.  Likewise his poem ‘To a Tragic Poetess’ (an attack on Dorothy Parker, who he considered an overly-theatrical pseudo-tragic …and who didn’t return his typewriter) is absolutely vicious, as its epigraph will attest: ‘Nothing in her life became her like her almost leaving of it’.

One of the works I most enjoy however is also one of his earliest, a short humorous piece titled (or not titled) ‘[Blank Verse]’.

‘[Blank Verse]’, by Ernest Hemingway (1961)

|          “                                                   ”

|                     !                  :                  ,                 .

|                                   ,                 ,                  ,              .

|                     ,                    ;                             !

|                              ,

What I really like about the poem (aside from the obvious audacity of stripping out the most basic units of any literary work: nouns, verbs, conjunctions), is that the final sentence – if indeed it can be called a sentence – is left hanging open.  The final line contains a comma, but no full stop.  Not only does the work contain no linguistic datum, but in its absence, it only projects further, compounding emptiness forever after in an anti-sentence that can never be concluded.

‘This is the way the world ends’: A Response to Mass Effect 3’s Extended Cut

Posted in video games with tags , , , , on November 23, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: Bioware

[As will be almost immediately evident – this post was originally written (but not published here) back in July – but there’s nothing like fermented heartbreak, so please endulge me.  And it should go without saying: spoilers, spoilers, spoilers…]

Huh.  Well that was a hell of a thing.

Depending on who you ask, last week (26th June) Bioware, the creators of Mass Effect 3, either ‘caved to fan pressure’, ‘corrected their ham-fisted, hurried storytelling’, or ‘wanted to provide closure for those who appreciated their vision’ by releasing an Extended Cut of the concluding game of their trilogy.  From whichever angle it was viewed, this free downloadable addition to the current game was a direct response to months of criticism directed at the game’s plot holes, inconsistencies and sloppy design – all elements that even the creators themselves came to admit needed clarification lest the confusion continue.  Many have found these revised and expanded endings to be satisfactory (if not outright brilliant) additions to the Mass Effect lore, which is no doubt a good thing.  I however will have to admit right out of the gates – before the tenor of my response drifts into inevitable sorrow – that I was not one of those people.  So if you are (quite understandably) sick of hearing people whine about these endings, it might be a good idea to pass on by right now…

Many (myself included), had criticised the game’s original ending for its thematic, character and logical inconsistencies, and although a great deal of effort was exerted to justify these problems in the new cut, it is odd to note that so many narrative absurdities still litter the work – this time arguably even more pronounced as they work overtime to clear up the jarring details left hanging the first time around.

Now, crewmates that were once somehow mysteriously transported onto the Normandy are shown in the process of being bundled onboard – despite the fact that this involves the ship parking itself right directly front of a giant Reaper, a creature that was spewing a volley of devastating lasers that were only moments before annihilating objects as small as scampering humans with surgical precision.  The Reaper, Harbinger, seems to take a mystifying coffee break while Shepard evacuates her team: ‘No, you guys have your conversation.  I’m just gonna fill in this crossword for a minute and –  Oh?  You’re done?  Well: Laser!  Laser!  BLAM!  Mmwoah Ha Haaaa…

Similarly the ship’s pilot Joker no longer runs off during the battle and abandons you without a reason; he is shown being ordered to do so by Admiral Hackett because – well, because…  Just because. You know what Admirals are like.  And although Joker looks momentarily conflicted, fan-favourite character Garrus leans over the console to agree with the call and tell him to scram.  So now you are no longer abandoned by the guy who earlier in the game promised never to leave you, you’re also abandoned by the guy who promised that he’d walk into hell with you and order a beer.  So that’s two people off the Christmas list.

Perhaps the most extraordinary addition to the work, however, is the further elucidation of the Catalyst character.  Previously your standard deus ex machina (literally a God from a Machine) through expanded conversational choices he is now revealed to be a sociopathic Artificial Intelligence, designed several eons ago to solve the ‘inevitable’ problem of synthetics and organics eventually slaughtering one another.  Having watched The Matrix and Terminator 2: Judgement Day one too many times, the Catalyst used his dispassionate machine logic and decided that the best way to stop the bloodshed was to just kill all advanced species himself and save them all the time.  He therefore rolled out a swarm of killer space-locust who turned everyone to goo, and to make ever more machines of slaughter out of their remains.  You know, as you do.

Once again players are not offered the opportunity to point out that they may well have already solved the synthetic versus organic conflict that has him worked up in such a tizzy; synthetics and organics are currently working together right now, knocking on the outside door to come in and kick his ass.  Likewise we still get no explanation for why he’s decided to wear a dead kid’s face to have this conversation; nor do we know why he’s so eager to tell us the best way to wipe he and his creations out, despite arguing that his is the only solution.

And so, unswayed, the Catalyst, ultimate face and voice of the Reapers, goes ahead and explains his new options to resolve the conflict, each of which remain precisely as they were in the original ending, and all still carrying the arbitrary price of death:

Firstly, you can Destroy the Reapers, but by doing so also wipe out all sentient life forms, thereby committing genocide on a race of creatures that have been proven to respect life and fear the implications of death, and who in most case are fighting alongside you at that very moment.

Secondly, you can Control the Reapers, dissolving yourself to overtake the hive mind of the Reapers, brainwashing them to do your will (something that you’ve been trying to stop people doing for three straight games).

Thirdly, you can choose to merge all organics and synthetics together as one race, thereby destroying all distinction and diversity and removing (in the Catalyst’s rather eugenically-perverse vision) all cause for conflict.  Essentially you pull a reverse King Solomon, employing his wisdom in some ugly, monstrous reverse: ‘Can’t decide which is better, robots or fleshbags? Well just smoosh them together, natch!’

If anything, the three conclusions become even more twisted and unappealing, because the source of these options is better understood: each is the product of an incomprehensibly deranged mind; the most successful, pitiless mass-murderer in all of existence is offering you three choices that will fulfil his ultimate scheme, and you get to pick one to help him out.  …So yay?  In your name you get to impose his will upon the universe, become a Reaper yourself, and decide how all life will be lived in the future.

But for three games we have been invited to investigate the myriad examples of when authority is unwillingly exerted over another species – when decisions of how another sentient being should live their life is unceremoniously stripped away: Indoctrination, the Geth, the Krogan, the horror of the Batarian slave-traders, Protheans misguidedly dominating other species under their rule, the mass slaughter perpetrated by the Reapers.  Every race we meet seems to be healing from some kind of atrocity in which their autonomy was maligned or abused, and in every instance – every single one – the writers present these acts with all the grim moral ambiguities that such domination evokes.

That’s not to say that they are always depicted as outright wrong (one may of course side with the decisions to keep the Krogan sterile; to wipe out the Geth wholesale), but at no point in this universe is it appropriate to say that ‘I-will-force-my-will-upon-you-because-I-know-better’ ever ends happily.  There is always resentment, there is always horror, and the game invites (does not compel, but I would argue encourages) you to fight against the arrogance of such dominion.

Until the end.

In the end you are directly responsible for making such a choice.  After years of wandering the universe sweeping up the wreckage of a hundred such abuses – from the thuggery of pirates, to the persecution of entire species – the game forces you to become the thing you have fought.  To me it felt like I was not only becoming a Reaper (embracing at least one of their nut-bag visions of the universe), but I also had to be a bully.

Playing through this ending I felt all of this impotent frustration over again – but then I realised there was something new.  Because here, newly added to the Extended Cut, a direct response by the creators to the fan’s critical outcry, was a fourth option.

I cannot express the glee I felt at discovering that this fourth option existed.

We did it, I thought.  The fans and Bioware connected.  They saw what was wrong!  They felt the pain.  They never wanted to put their audience through all that!  Force those who despised the endings down a cattle grid of moral slaughter.  Suddenly it was clear that they were going to offer a new way: perhaps not necessarily a better way, but new.  For those who remained unnerved by the endings, here was the alternate path; the means to preserve what had meant most to them about their Shepard, and to still defeat the big bad.  To stand up and glare it down.  To maybe take some hits, but to never acquiesce, not aligning ourselves with the enemy and embracing their psychosis.

And so, in spite of the emotional devastation of her last experience tottering on that spot, my Shepard rallied.  She rose: a resounding, towering figure.  A silhouette amidst the blaze of ruination around her.  Damn right we will not bend, she seemed to be saying.  We will not lose faith.  We’ll fight on – in a universe of cruel, dispassionate violence and hate, we will forge a path of unity and reassert our indomitable will.  We will not be terrified and bullied into submission to some sacrifice of virtue.  You cannot lay us on an altar and cut the very heart out of our spirit.

And so, after months of being haunted by that moment, I got to tell the face of all the Reapers to go screw off.  Got to tell him right to his smirking little face that his endless, cyclical scheme was madness, and that he was but an unhinged monster on a witless rampage.  No matter what his original intentions had once been, he was nothing but a ghoul now, a husk devoid of purpose, bringing darkness and pain wherever his shadow was cast.  A mockery to the very life he was trying to ‘preserve’.

And so, my Shepard selected the fourth option, and I readied myself to watch the Reapers feel what happens when the downtrodden bite back…

But instead, the whole goddamn universe ended.

Was wiped out.

I saw a galaxy of life get flamed away in an instant – even after the cause of all that devastation had agreed with me that his ridiculous plan no longer worked.  I had shown the villain the flaw in this scheme; he had admitted that his solution was no longer acceptable; but he decided to go and do it anyway.  What the hell?  The gasoline was already spilled.  Why waste it?  Like a frenzied child he lit it up because I refused to obey, because I wasn’t willing to perpetuate his narrow vision of existence.

To be honest, it was the most heartbreaking meta-textual moment of narrative I have ever experienced; final proof that the whole promise of individuated interaction that drew me to the Mass Effect universe in the first place (and that was repeated ad nauseum in Bioware’s marketing for half a decade) was a complete misinterpretation on my behalf.  This was not my story.  This was never my universe.  I fell in love with these characters, but I was never fighting beside them.  I really was just looking through the window as they talked amongst themselves, imagining what I might say if I was there.  I never talked Samara out of killing herself; I never helped Thane reconnect with his son; I never tempted a traumatised biotic to reconnect with the world; I certainly never stared down a Krogan ready to rip me to shreds.  I pressed buttons.  I stared at a screen.  Watched polygons dance.

For months I’ve been hearing critics who decry the fans that have voiced their displeasure at the ending say ‘Why are you getting so upset?  It’s just a game’.  And not only could I not agree with this sentiment, but on many levels, I literally couldn’t even understand what such a sentiment meant.  It wasn’t just a game.  It was a world in which you were invited to project yourself: to participate in and influence.  It was a reactive agent, and you were –  Well, you were any other term than the ‘Catalyst’.

Or it was.

I guess the final message of Mass Effect, the message its creators went to extra pains to communicate, was that yes: it was just a game.  There was a structure and there were parameters, and unless you agree to the win-scenario in its absolute moral vacuum, you forfeit your right to success.

Because I refused to play according to the rigid, objectionable rules that Bioware laid down in the final moments of the game, I watched a galaxy of beauty and grace annihilated, and got to acutely feel that it was all my fault.  Hell, I was even told I failed by the companion tasked with cataloguing my fight for the ages.

I tried to play by my rules (the rules I had been led to believe up until that point were at the heart of the experience), and was punished for it.  Foolishly, I tried to hold on to the beliefs that I thought made human beings more than automatons.  Critical Mission Failure.  You lose.  What a jerk I turned out to be.

Instead I got to watch the galaxy spin on until someone else was willing to come along and push the button I couldn’t.  Either way, the only way life perpetuates in this narrative is through an act of fear and moral compromise.  Life will go on, but the standard of that life is proved irrelevant.  The principles upon which it is now founded are genocide, domination, or the arrogance of compelled mutation.  Three games, all leading up to a final thesis of moral futility.

And to add the final insult, it all still gets credited to ‘The Shepard’, even though the thought of such an eventuality literally killed her.

A whimper, not a bang.

Yay nihilism.

And so, if Star Trek is about hope, and Firefly about defiance, and Star Wars is about the balance of good and evil (and infuriatingly stilted dialogue), and Battlestar Galactica is about cycles of self-destruction, and our capacity to alter that inevitability, then in its final moments Mass Effect reveals itself to be wholly about compromise.  What are you willing to sacrifice in order to succeed?  For some that’s everything.

How far will you compromise those ‘ideals’ that pushed you along the whole time?  Or do you even need to sacrifice your beliefs at all?  Because if you never saw Synthetics as people, then gravy.  Not only does the game force this compromise upon you for victory, but it only rewards you for making a choice that gives you over to your enemy’s point of view.

But what I don’t understand, what even now fills me with bewilderment and genuine shock, is why, if the whole theme was compromise, did they kept insisting that the central thrust of the game was ‘hope’.  Liara even throws the term out to future generations in the opening of her holo-log in the ‘Refuse’ ending.  We offer you hope.

…No we don’t.  We hoped and failed, remember?  We didn’t do what apparently needed to be done.

And the word hope is not just a trump card that you can slap own amidst a cavalcade of despair to pretty up the carnage.  As silver linings go it’s pretty flimsy.  Just four little letters, more a puff of air than a declaration.  It has to be attached to something.  There has to be something to hope for.

So why on the whole way to those final choices was everyone blathering about hope?  I mean, all the ‘I’ll-see-you-after-this-is-all-overs’ were heartbreaking enough, knowing what was to come, but to then have everyone praising Shepard for sticking to her beliefs, a litany of platitudes about how magnificent it was that she never sacrificed what defined her, how that fortitude was a beacon for the peoples of the galaxy.  And what for?  To be called an abject failure for continuing to stick to those beliefs when it counted most?

In his farewell Javik told my Shepard that she was the ‘avatar’ of all life.  That everyone and everything in the universe was looking to her and at her at that very moment.  That She was a symbol of all that existence could, and will, become – it is from her metaphorical blood that a new generation will emerge.  Even the Illusive Man, while cursing her name in a video feed said that he respected that Shepard’s beliefs never wavered.  She would do what she believed in, no matter the cost, no matter what the circumstance.

And then the game places before her three atrocities cooked up by the guy who has been strangling the life out of the universe and demands that she go along with one.  Her legacy is to be a sycophant to the sociopath who eons ago lost himself down a perverted path of malformed altruism.  Not to shut him down.  Not to expose the horror of his actions to him, nor argue him back to sense.  To agree that his ways (destruction or control) or his wildest fantasies (* sparkles just-makes-everyones-the-sames rainbows *) are the only way forward for life.  We’ve spent hundreds of hours fighting against such twisted ideals, and now we must not only suffer one of them, but wholly embrace it.  Make it our own choice.

The Reapers get to stand over us – even metaphorically in their deaths – shouting ‘Stop hitting yourself!  Stop hitting yourself!  Stop hitting yourself!  What?  Gonna cry?’

Hope it aint.

To give them credit, Bioware did ultimately let me reject the three endings that I continued to see as repellent, but the price was that I was no longer permitted to exist in their world anymore.  Indeed, they vowed to torch it all down rather they let me spend another second there: ‘The universe ends now.  You can see your own way out.’

As the credits rolled and I saw the creators names pass by all I could feel is that it would have been nice if they had have let me know all this three games ago: that I, and my dorky little ideals, weren’t welcome.  Bioware disabused me of my misconception that I was even part of their vision.  I guess I was just fuel for that purging fire that the Catalyst wanted to unleash upon the galaxy – too mired in my primitive hopes and faith to exist in his new galactic order.

But I guess if I hadn’t taken the ride I would never have enjoyed such rich characters.  And it’s true: you can’t grieve for something if you didn’t love it first.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution: A bold new future… mired in the past

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , on November 16, 2012 by drayfish

Deus Ex: Human Revolution concept art (Square Enix)

Going in I had heard rumour that there was an uncomfortable, anachronistic moment in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  I was vague on the details, but had a faint recollection – from out of the mists of those early weeks after the game’s release – that a number of players had expressed discomfort with one minor aspect of the game.  I even remembered hearing that this mysterious element was considered by some to be a blemish on the otherwise elegantly realised vision of the future that developers Eidos Montreal had sculpted.  But to be honest, whatever that imperfection was, I wasn’t seeing it.

Here I stood, having finally set aside the time to sink into the game (over a year after everyone else had watched the final credits roll), moving around that wonderfully sombre, burnished gold space, stunned by the whole game’s noir-inflected cyberpunk aesthetic, utterly thrilled with the rich potential of narrative and game-play that stretched out before me.   But still, nagging at the back of my mind like some glitch in the Matrix, I wondered: what on earth had people been complaining about?

Was it Jensen’s voice?

Sure, it was probably a little too Clint-Eastwood’s-Man-With-No-Name from the Fistful of Dollars trilogy.  …Indeed, if you swapped out the poncho and replaced it with a pair of Swiss-Army-Cylon-Arms they would be virtually identical.  ‘I didn’t ask for this…’, Jensen would rasp around a chewed up cigar, his voice crunching like a handful of gravel.

Was it the unnecessary, slightly obnoxious sunglasses?

I mean, okay, fine – a little pretentious.  But hey: people can have sensitive eyes.  Even at midnight.  In Detroit.  In a dark alley.  Hiding under a box.  …And maybe getting completely-shot-to-death and rebuilt by the clandestine machinations of a corporate overlord can result in scratched corneas?  Robocop went with a visor too, after all.  Who am I to judge?

Surely it couldn’t be the cityscape…

I mean, yes, maybe the streets of a future American metropolis are a little barren of moving cars.  And all pedestrian activity does seem to be rooted in redundant behavioural loops.  That same couple has been arguing about that same traffic accident for quite some time now.  That hotel cleaner has been loitering in place for days, and he clearly didn’t bring a magazine to read or anything.  And sure – I hear it – a lot of voices and dialogues are getting rehashed…

But come on.

A grumbling monorail glides overhead.  Police officers patrol ominously, seemingly poised for the ideological riots that might break out at any moment.  Street punks that appear to have wandered out of Michael Jackson’s Bad video clip, by way of Philip K. Dick, pepper the back alleys, warming the night air with the glow of their cigarettes.  No, if there was some weird aberration in this glistening techno salad it had completely passed me by; for a projected, fantastical environment, Deus Ex’s dystopian vision felt wonderfully familiar and alien all at once.

Indeed, this had to be some of the most beautiful, absorbing art direction I’ve ever seen in a videogame – that honeyed techno conflagration of society; that worn in, decayed futurism; characters nonchalantly sporting or debating upgrades and optics and augs.  Walking around this world, watching though Jensen’s gold-tinged visual display, you feel like a mosquito suspended in amber: the relic of an age that has passed, watching a new society swirl into view just beyond the confines of your screen.  I could almost feel the pistons and pressurising fluids pumping through my appendages; tingled with the hum of nanotech under my skin; was even a little worried about what that discoloured rain might be doing to my swishy leather coat…

‘Well, sheeyit!  If it ain’t the Cap’n, hisself!’

What the – ?

‘Mister Sarif done fixed you up good, ain’t he?  Give you a new set of glasses an’ everythin’!  Damn…’

In my usual borderline OCD game-play style I had been clicking away on every container and NPC in sight – and apparently the speaker was the middle aged homeless woman in front of me, her hands at that very moment plunged into a garbage can.

…And hey: I’m not judging.  I had just been fishing through that same canister in the hopes of finding stray consumables.  (Speaking of which, why does Jensen – a man working for the wealthiest company on the globe – need to scrounge for discarded candy bars?  Is there seriously no expense account for the one guy you got covering your multibillion dollar global enterprise?!  Anyway…)

Her name was Letitia.  An African American woman dressed in a dishevelled pull-over, with cool grey eyes and no discernible augmentations – she looked like any other figure huddled away from the chill of the streets.  But her voice

I wish that I were exaggerating how overwrought her dialogue and its delivery was, but there is literally no way to overemphasise her inflected intonation.*  Unless Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel was yet to make a surprise appearance as a higher level boss battle, her speech (unlike any other figure, including the other homeless people that peppered this level) remains by far the most flamboyant caricature I had stumbled across in game.

Now, at this point, I want to make it very clear that I have no interest in making a statement as to whether I personally think this characterisation is racist.  Having subsequently explored online for an explanation for this curious depiction, I have found many such readings, with a number of interpreters seeing Letitia as a pastiche of every insulting, culturally vilifying stereotype that one would have once heard in the grotesquery of a blackface minstrel show.**  As those interpretations have pointed out, she says ‘pacifics’ instead of ‘specifics; drawls ‘So whatchu wanna know?’; and vacillates in an hysterically inflected patter:

‘Didn’t think I’d see YOU walking this boulevard any time soon, that’s fer sure.  Not afta what happen six months ago.  People said you’s down for the count…’

But, once again, while sadly I think there is a wealth of worthy (indeed necessary) questions to ask about the potentially racial stereotyping of such a character, for the purposes of my discussion here, I will put that loaded issue aside momentarily.  The publishers of the game, Square Enix, when asked for a comment on this peculiar characterisation, responded by saying:

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a fictional story which reflects the diversity of the world’s future population by featuring characters of various cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. While these characters are meant to portray people living in the year 2027, it has never been our intention to represent any particular ethnic group in a negative light.***

And thankfully there are other African American characters within the game – business people; police officers; scientists – who reflect more varied personalities.  (Although it is sad that in a 21st century text such a qualification even needs to be made.)

Instead, what baffled me more than the fact that my quest-giver recalled those two ‘comic relief’ robot twins Michael Bay loaded into his second Transformers atrocity, was how antithetical this depiction was to the overarching themes of the game’s narrative, both on a practical and conceptual level.

Letitia’s purpose, it appeared, was to be a font of contextualising information – a person from the street; one of Jensen’s old informants from his days as a cop – a figure who might offer the player a fresh perspective upon this unfamiliar new culture.  But rather than presenting a unique glimpse into the world of the haves through the eyes of the have-nots, instead we get a character largely ignorant of the class structure, concerned predominantly with the acquisition of alcohol and spare change.

Indeed, in her third line of dialogue (ironically, in response to the suggestion that that people underestimate Jensen), she replies by begging for money (‘You an’ me both, Capt’n!  You an’ me both!  Uh, you, uh… got any credits you can spare?’); and if the player goes to some effort to deliver her four beers (of the brand that she likes), she eventually responds:

Damn’ Capt’n.  You knows how to warm a girl’s insides!  Here.  You takes this.  I founds it on Brooklyn Court, near the basketball court.  Thought I might hold onto it, ‘case I needed to crawl inside some rainy night.  But maybe you find some use for it instead.’

So while it is nice that Letitia is offering up a cache of goods to Jensen, the literal trade occurring here is the exchange of shelter for alcohol.  She happily forgoes accommodation in order to drink.

This was not the researched, artful dialogue of the corner-hoppers on The Wire; instead it felt rather more like a gauche, naive stereotype:

‘Oh, things ain’t looking good, Capt’n.  People losing their jobs… their homes…  Locking everything theys own inta those, uh, garage-door storage units ’round town, hoping nobody breaks in an’ steals stuff.  Mr. Sarif gonna save us, he better do it soon.’

It’s not even clear that she understands the augmentation debate that festers at the very core of this societal unrest, even referring to Jensen as ‘an adventuring man … fixed wit’ suma them fancy technolimbs Mr. Sarif makes…’

Most strangely of all, however, on the larger thematic scale, falling back on such dated, outmoded caricatures works in complete opposition to subject matter of technological and ideological evolution that this game is trying to explore…  For a narrative fundamentally concerned with blurring the divisions between man and machine, biology and synthetics, suddenly finding oneself face to face with gaming’s version of Mr. Yonioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s is an ugly fissure in the otherwise finely wrought artifice of the Deus Ex world.

On most every level the game dares the player to move their ideology beyond rigid, old-fashioned modes of thought, to not become mired in conventional or tediously outdated presumption – life, it says, is to no longer be shackled by the biological metronome of a heartbeat; identity and thought cannot be tethered merely to electrical impulses and grey matter; the delineations between humanity and machine, good and evil, advancement and regression, gender and sexuality, all are to be inextricably, immutably blurred…

Except here.

Here, in this one bizarre pocket of dialogue, where two characters are depicted shooting the breeze over the contents of a trash can, all of those notions of diversity and progressivity, that whole sombre dystopian panoply that the designers so skilfully wrought, is momentarily jettisoned, marred by a garishly reductive cliché (whether racist or not) that – like the bottle of Hot Devil Ale Jensen retrieved from another pile of refuse a few streets over – arguably should have remained discarded.

IMAGE: Letitia, Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Square Enix)

* Indeed, the snatches of dialogue I am recounting are lifted, unaltered, from the spelling of the game’s own subtitles.  You can see video of the exchange with Letitia here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RwGI7su0QlA

** See ‘The Worst Thing About Deus Ex: Human Revolution’ by Evan Narcisse (Time, http://techland.time.com/2011/08/31/the-worst-thing-about-deus-ex-human-revolution/)

*** http://www.gamesradar.com/deus-ex-racist-square-enix-responds/

LIMBO and LOST: One is a dark, dreary, ominous excursion into a nihilistic nothingness …the other is LIMBO.

Posted in criticism, literature, philosophy, television, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2012 by drayfish

or: Wherever You Are, There You Are (Even If You’re Nowhere)

IMAGE: LOST (ABC)

An eye opens.  A pair of eyes in fact.  Two eyes; both opening.  Two orbs waiting to perceive, to absorb their strange new surrounds, and in that act of viewing, to come to know themselves.

The owner of those eyes, our protagonist, staggers slowly to his feet.  An unfamiliar landscape suddenly meets his gaze.  He is bewildered.  This alien environment is unsettling, foreboding; strange sounds filter in from beyond the trees, and a portentous, thunderous music punctuates the air.  Our solitary hero has no recollection of the events that flung him into this anachronistic land, and over the course of his adventures he will confront dangerous, shadowy ‘others’, predatory animals and otherworldly beasts, even convoluted machines that change the very fabric of space, time, and influence the elemental forces themselves.  He will find himself in world that seems to defy all logic or expectation, and over the course of his attempts to free himself and return to the familiar, he will seek to comprehend the nature of his circumstance, and in doing so perhaps better know himself.

This premise (indeed, this exact introduction) is the set up for two very distinct, yet thematically analogous works: one a videogame, LIMBO; the other a multimillion dollar television epic, LOST.  In the first a young boy, in haunting silhouette, moves across a shadowy two-dimensional plane solving a series of perilous puzzles in order to progress; in the second a character named Jack awakens on a mysterious island after a plane crash, soon finds himself the leader of a makeshift band of survivors, and likewise fights to survive in an environment that appears to defy all conventional reason.

Both texts invite their audiences to invest in their respective journeys into the inexplicable: LOST asks its audience to keep watching, promising that eventually all of its seemingly random narrative threads will link together into a cohesive whole; LIMBO meanwhile is propelled by the possibility that, perhaps, by continuing through its stages, the player will eventually be able to conceive of where exactly this small boy is located, what this nebulous ‘limbo’ state actually is.  And yet ultimately both texts knowingly thwart this desire for resolution, disabusing their audience of the hope that any of these mysteries will ever resolve into meaning.

For the six seasons that it ran (2004-10), LOST proved itself to be a recursive Russian Doll of ambiguity.  As the showcontinued from week-to-week viewers were left to hunt for clues to make sense of the narrative’s overarching mythology, sifting through a pastiche of sci-fi, horror, mystery, philosophical and spiritualist tropes for evidence from which they might glean answers to the riddle of what was actually going on in the tale.  Smoke monsters; electromagnetic Rube Goldberg machines; Egyptian hieroglyphs; ubiquitous recurring number chains; time travel; mysterious caverns with magical properties; every new puzzle piece seemed to tempt revelation, and yet each led only to more obscurity and confusion.  Indeed, often it seemed that the writers were just free-associating imagery (something that appears to have been true for the first three seasons at least, as show-runner and writer Damon Lindelof has since indicated in an interview with The Verge*).

Eventually, the viewer is compelled to realise that all hope of ultimate explanation is fraught with disappointment.  Just as the central characters find their questioning met with only more queries, so too does the audience find that every avenue of reasoning fails to offer absolutes to the experience of this island.  Instead we repeatedly watch as characters flushed with surety that they can penetrate the meaning of the island are stripped of their hubris and forced to realise that they too are but unknowing cogs in a larger, incomprehensible metaphysical machine.  The physicist Daniel Faraday who claims that the answers lie in science; industrialist Charles Widmore who believes the island can be possessed and exploited for profit; John Locke who experiences a transformative epiphany and comes to see the island as a spiritual oasis; the calculating Ben Linus, political leader of the Others, who, using his mastery of behavioural manipulation schemes his way into power; each figure represents one of numerous diverse fields of human endeavour, each purporting to know the answers to the island, all of whom fail profoundly, robbed of their misapprehensions, and often killed for their presumption.  Even the immortal figures like Richard Alpert and Jacob, who appear to themselves be products of these irrational elements, are themselves exposed to be little more than victims of circumstance.

Life is mystery, the work wants to suggest, and the grand metaphysical questions of what motivates us all cannot ever satisfactorily be answered, locked as we are behind our subjective vision and singular beliefs.  Indeed, the structure of the program itself embraces this notion of an individual’s fundamentally limited perspective: each episode is bound to a loose first-person viewpoint as we watch events unfold from one character’s angle, even dipping back into personal history that seems comparable to their current circumstance.  And in every instance, though they may yearn for comprehension, they consistently fail to see their place in the larger unfolding of events.

Curiously (for a narrative that fuels itself utterly with mystery), the final message of the show seems to be that no one can ever know all the answers, can ever escape their bewildered ignorance.  There is no key that will unlock meaning, and the pursuit of such answers are merely breadcrumbs leading us down several forking paths of aberrant misinformation, hubristic confusions, and mystic irresolvable vagary.  Instead of celebrating the pursuit of ultimately unattainable truth, the narrative instead acts as a cautionary tale: life is mysterious, so don’t try to figure it out or you’ll just go nuts, be slaughtered, abandoned, or get attacked by a polar bear.

And so the endpoint (as much as there is one) comes as our central character descends into a cave to move a gigantic plug in a pool of illuminated water (…honestly, I haven’t a clue).  Somehow he restores order, and eventually is mortally wounded, left unknowingly wandering, bleeding, back to the exact spot in which his journey began.  Jack slumps to the ground, prostrate, his consciousness fading to rest in the same position in which his adventure on this island, long ago, began.  He becomes the last in a long line of believers succumbing to death, his eyes now closing, his wandering fugue state now at an end.

The game LIMBO likewise ends where it started: the character lying back on the same patch of grass, his eyes sliding shut as a seeming death overwhelms him.  The journey to this point has similarly been fraught with peril, laced with conundrums and complexities that must be overcome.  Antigravity machines that require precision and poise to utilise; spidery beasts that must be outpaced or outwitted; mind-controlling bugs; vicious children with elaborate snares; electricity; cavernous drops; decaying suburban ruins; having seen his way through them all, the nameless boy undertakes the final puzzle, and in the course of its solution is propelled, weightless, through a glass pane (much like the monitor/screen through which we are viewing his journey), time slowing as his body flips gracefully through the glistening shards, tumbling to rest in precisely the same position that the game began.  Just as in LOST, we struggle onward in LIMBO invited to believe that the truth of where we are and what’s going on might at last be revealed, only to realise in the end that we are literally right back where we started…

But then something masterful happens: the boy wakes back up.

In LIMBO death has not been the end: the boy rises again and sets out once more upon his ceaseless quest.  Although nothing substantive in the narrative has been addressed – indeed, we have been left in no doubt that this is a literal state of limbo – our whole perception of his journey, and its meaning, is fundamentally altered.

Here the revelation of the endpoint invites us to embrace the indeterminate state within which we too have existed for a time.  Rather than watch a quest for meaning flicker and die we realise that there is no escape from this pattern of repetition and action; we end up right back where we began, having now realised that it was in the doing of things that our actions most mattered.  There was no magic endpoint, no final resolve, just action: what you did and how you did it.  We are instead invited to lose ourselves in the accomplishment of the game itself; like the unnamed, faceless protagonist, compelled to appreciate our place in this loop of programming and gameplay, we too are ensnared in the unceasing repetition of a platforming purgatory.

In its absence of narrative conclusion LIMBO therefore celebrates the momentary, embracing the ephemeral nature of agency.  We are presented with the definition of a Sisyphean task, not tasked with rolling a rock up a hill for eternity, but locked in a similarly experiential web without end.  And just as Camus described in ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, we, like the absurd hero, must struggle on, perpetually rolling the rock up the hill, knowing that there will be no end to his labour, because by embracing this inevitability, by welcoming the truth of it, we claim ownership of the task, folding the noble absurdity of our circumstance back into ourselves.

If we are not blindly struggling for an imagined metaphysical enlightenment we become masters of our own action, empowered by the knowledge that it is our actions that define our identity, our morality, ourselves.  Thus, when we play through the game again, the ease, the grace with which each dilemma is confronted and conquered delights us with the thrill of a task embraced and elegantly resolved.

Both texts, LIMBO and LOST, seem to embrace the structure of a dream.  Both begin and conclude with the actions of fading or waking from sleep, a sleep that is emblematic of death; indeed, both texts seem to articulate the Shakespearean adage that ‘Our little lives are rounded with a sleep.’   The line is taken from his extraordinary play The Tempest, a narrative itself concerned with a mysterious, magical island, removed from the real world.*  More specifically the line comes from a scene in which Shakespeare, in a wonderfully self-reflexive acknowledgement of his own practice, is directly advocating the capacity for plays to express the profound truths of human experience.

In the scene, the all-powerful Prospero has been presenting a masque for the entertainment of his daughter and her prospective lover Ferdinand (it’s also a none-too-subtle warning not to get up to any pre-marital nookie).  As he scatters the performers to the wind, mid-performance, he offers a speech about the nature of art, likewise dissipating all the traditional delineations between fiction and lived experience, pretence and reality, dream and the waking world:

                                              These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And, like the baseless fabric of vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with sleep. (Act 4, Sc 1, lines 148-58)

I showed you merely a vision, he says, but this vision speaks to our own experience of existence.  We too are merely the stuff of dreams, beginning and ending in an immortal sleep – our brief span on Earth but the flicker of a transitory illumination, soon reclaimed by the dark.  His exquisite, meta-textual play – folding our mortal existence, our fantasies, his own theatrical history altogether – celebrates humanity’s capacity for self-expression and imagination, a means of capturing, even in fragment, the exquisite vibrancy and expressive potential of exploratory play.  (He also throws in a magnificent reference to the ‘Globe’ – a literalised world of potential that shimmers with imagination – that I have to believe was an acknowledgement of his own Globe Theatre.)

For Prospero, as for Shakespeare, the fantastical dream of the theatre was an artful enactment of the most fundamental defining attribute of human experience: our brief, grasping efforts to define our own existence before fading to the transom of death.  In their respective articulations of this same vision in television and videogame, LOST and LIMBO too both seek to articulate the span of all human life, and our efforts to comprehend ourselves.  Both texts therefore operate as an elaborate form of imagistic ouroboros: the ending immediately reinitiating the beginning, returning us to point of deathly status quo.

In LOST this moment presents a conclusion: the eyes close rather than open.  Jack is warmed by the sight of the plane full of his friends rising from the island, presumably to a newfound freedom far from the island’s strange purgatory.  But this seemingly conclusive image merely reinstates the arbitrary nature of the journey that has been undertaken.  Jack is back where he began, and despite the text’s allusions to an awakening knowledge, or a peace that transcends reason, he has learned nothing of his place in the universe.  He has fought for what he believed was right and given all that he could, but is no wiser, and has watched people die arbitrarily at his command, sacrificing themselves for his leadership in wholly unjustified ways; and by extension, we the audience have learned that only frustration, disappointment and death await those who bother to pursue the most fundamental human desires to understand our place in the universe.

In LIMBO one is likewise right back where they started, but the world they now view is utterly reborn.  By embracing the absurdity of our circumstance, the unknowability of the grand metaphysical truths, we can instead refocus upon the present, and our engagement with ourselves and others.  In our exploration of the dream we come to see the value in our every movement and interaction.  Gameplay becomes the expression of selfhood, and we illuminate ourselves, validating our own worth to the uncaring void.

And so, as all three texts conclude, The Tempest, LOST and LIMBO,the lights dim and we are left to ponder our own place amongst the fantasy.  The pair of eyes shut.  The dream is over.  And we have learned all or nothing as the darkness seeps over us all.

IMAGE: LIMBO (Playdead) 

* http://www.theverge.com/2012/5/21/3030913/damon-lindelof-on-lost-on-the-verge

** LOST even makes a number of thematic and explicit references to the play: the character of Ben, who appears to be in control of the island like Prospero, has a (adopted) daughter whose romance becomes central to her story, much like Miranda; characters vie for control of the island much as the shipwrecked stewards of the King did; each of the characters brings with them baggage from their previous lives that must be resolved in their time upon the island; and one of Dharma stations on the island is even called ‘The Tempest’.

Farming the Footnotes

Posted in criticism, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: Ariel and Prospero by William Hamilton (1797)

I’ve been revisiting The Tempest again (and truly, is there a better play, ever? okay, maybe Superman: The Musical) and I’ve discovered that my reading of the text has become inseparably entwined with the Rainer Maria Rilke poem ‘Der Geist Ariel’, or ‘Ariel’, which he wrote after himself adoringly absorbing the play.  So much so, in fact, that I have had to slip a copy of the poem into my edition.

I will confess immediately that I don’t speak German, and thus cannot read Rilke’s luminous work in its original, but I have found Stephen Mitchell’s translations to be rather striking.  You can get a marvellous Selected edition (which includes the Duino Elegies and ‘Ariel’) from Vintage International (here).  Likewise, as fans of the book will attest, Mitchell’s translation of Letters To A Young Poet captures the wonder and consolation that Rilke offers to any soul-starved (though frankly a little whiny) artist awaiting inspiration (here).

But back to The Tempest and the multi-layered, enriching experience of Rilke’s cross-pollination: ‘Der Geist Ariel’ is a wonderful short poem, The Tempest proving itself to be perfectly suited to Rilke’s sensibilities.  Themes of the agony of longing; the tremulous bonds of love that quiver with desire and despair; ghostly images of absence and loss; Rilke explores them all, tracing the immaterial bonds that unite us all in a tidy summary of Ariel and Prospero’s relationship:

And half imperious, half almost ashamed,

you make excuses, say that you still need him

for this and that, and, ah, you must describe

how you helped him.  Yet you feel, yourself,

that everything held back by his detention

is missing from the air.’

Come on.  That’s good stuff.

For much of the poem the narrator speaks to Prospero as though in the midst of a dialogue, but at its conclusion Rilke projects himself into the eyes of Ariel, in a nicely embedded parenthesis, watching as Prospero surrenders his power, becomes merely a man again, and asks the audience for the indulgence of their applause.  And what a magnificent moment!  Shakespeare, through the character of Prospero, is dropping his authorial mask at the end of his ‘final’ play to ask his audience to bid him and his work a fond farewell, but Rilke’s manner of respecting this request is to instead slide into the text, putting on the mask of Prospero’s newly freed spirit to admire his once-master as a grateful participant in the fiction, swooning in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome of Artistry.  It’s lovely.

Ultimately, this exchange got me wondering about other examples of such artistic and authorial conversations, where one work directly responds to the stimuli of another masterpiece.  Obviously there are the famous ones – Keats’ ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’, Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ and its description of Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, or for that matter, William Carlos Williams’ collection Pictures From Brueghel – but are there ever famously negative responses?  Reactions against a work that in its revulsion creates art?  ‘I Hate Madame Bovary And Here’s Why’, a haiku?  Traditionally we think of the artist sitting in stunned bliss or giddy excitement, striving to scratch out their response to a work that has rocked them to their very core, but the artist can be notoriously petty.  The genius even more so.  (I’ve heard that that elephant who paints with his trunk is a complete bastard.)

I’m positive that there are numerous such examples of writers responding with rebukes rather than regard, but my enfeebled brain is struggling to think of one.  And I guess that for now I am happy enough to swim through the warmer waters where everyone is struck with a dreamy wonder.

p.s. I don’t hate Madame Bovary.  I think she’s funny.

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