Archive for January, 2013

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West: Freedom in a Cage

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , on January 25, 2013 by drayfish

[I’m about to utterly spoil Enslaved (particularly the ending). If you ever intend to play (and I encourage you to), DO NOT READ ON… ]

IMAGE: Enslaved (Ninja Theory)

‘Slaves lose everything in their chains, even the desire of escaping from them: they love their servitude’

– Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract

So…  ummm…  How come no one told me about Enslaved?

You know, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West?  Created by developers Ninja Theory and released two years ago for the Playstation and Xbox consoles?

I mean, sure, I had heard about it…  From the makers of Heavenly Sword (who have also just this month released their take on the reboot of the Devil May Cry series); staring, and partially directed by, the incomparable Andy Serkis; a retelling of the Chinese classic Journey to the West…  But no one told me it was sublime.  No one said it would fire my every gaming endorphin in a blaze of immersive bliss.  No one said it was a mystifyingly underappreciated gem in this age of redundant sequels and reiteration.

So how come?!  Why did no one bother to tell me I would fall in love with this game?!  Why was it kept from me?  Were you all just hiding Enslaved for yourselves?!  Secreting it away?!

J’accuse…!

…Ahem.  Excuse me.

What I meant to say was: I am something of a fan of this game.  It was the good.

In truth, I had known little about Enslaved before trying it out.  Continuing my now well-established tradition of being embarrassingly behind contemporary pop culture, I decided to pick up (on sale) a game that, since its release over two years ago, has seemingly fallen into relative obscurity (although to be fair, it seems to have made very little splash when it was released; is mystifyingly not heralded as an underperforming classic like Beyond Good and Evil or Psychonauts; and from what I can tell no sequels are in the works).  So when I payed for my copy, I was buying it on something of a whim.

Indeed, I only bothered giving the experience a chance for two reasons.  Firstly, because it was loosely based on the ancient Chinese text Journey to the West, and by extension the television series Monkey, a show that I admit I was slightly obsessed with in my youth (yes, I have faint recollections of playing with a toothpick behind my ear to pretend is was Monkey’s elongating bo staff, and doing the whistle he used to call his cloud*).  And secondly, because it stars the extraordinary Andy Serkis (Smegol from Lord of the Rings; Caesar from The Rise of the Planet of the Apes; and the giant ape-monkey-thing in King Kong …you know, whatever his name was) – and simply put: if you don’t like Andy Serkis, then you may have less humanity and soul than the  sequences of ones and zeros that he so effortlessly dance to life in his pioneering of live-action computer animated acting.

Beyond that I knew nothing.  Beyond it being just another game with a nonspecific but intriguing cover, and the pronouncement of its ‘Captivating story’ declaring itself on the game’s own list of attributes, I had no idea what to expect.  (…But, again, I knew that Andy Serkis could make the narrative coma that is Twilight suddenly compelling if he was given the chance.)

So despite my ignorance, and perhaps helpfully with my expectations lowered, I slid the disk in, loaded up the game, and played through the first levels, immediately finding myself overwhelmed by a kind of stupefied awe…

For those who have played the game no doubt you already know what I am about to say, but I was delighted to find Enslaved utterly enchanting.  And I mean that on every level.  It’s a game that throws everything at you.  The whole toy box.  Mêlée combat; ranged weapons; sneaking; Prince of Persia style acrobatic platforming; stirring cinematics; exploration; hover surfing; increasingly gargantuan boss battles.  It’s colourful without being garish; heartfelt without being saccharine; rousing without being witlessly bombastic; the game walks a delicate line of storytelling, gameplay and emotion, all, somehow, without ever tumbling into excess.

The aesthetic too is exquisite.  Set in the overly familiar videogame territory of a post-apocalyptic landscape, Enslaved eschews the predictable sepia wash of bombed out dust and ash, and instead shimmers with a backdrop of verdant green scissored with rusted scrap metal.  A dishevelled, abandoned New York is overrun with lush vegetation.  Broken streets and railway stations lay eviscerated, the natural world sighing in relief as the urban sprawl is reclaimed by grass lands and trees.  Your character clambers though shattered office buildings, cracked open, overgrown with vines, and spilled through with the warmth of the midday sun.

Legitimately: how is it that no one seems to talk about this game as a high watermark for videogames?  From its sumptuous art direction to its generous gameplay; from its absorbing story to its charming characters; from the tweaking and upgrading of skills to the genuinely heart wrenching performance of these actors.  This game is like a jewel, polished and deep and gleaming.  It has charmed me utterly, left me enraptured, ensnared – which, of course, is wholly fitting given the subject matter the game presents.

Because over and above all of its other achievements, the game’s most extraordinary magic trick is the way that it reinvigorates and legitimises one of the most tedious and infuriating of gaming conventions: the escort mission.

At the centre of Enslaved, melded into the mechanics of every aspect of the experience, is the obligation to care for a persistent NPC, and as anyone who has ever had to suffer at the hands of a wonky AI will attest, this is quite an ominous task.  Personally, I despise escort missions.  Give me some chump to shepherd about in Skyrim, or a car to shield in GTA, and it takes about thirty seconds before I am squirming with fury in my seat, desperate to abandon this burden in a misty wilderness with the sounds of comically exaggerated wolves howling from the fathomless reached of the night as I sprint away.

These kinds of obligations are tedious, frequently just a cheap means of prolonging game play as you watch the baggage you are meant to be protecting get sidetracked walking mindlessly into a wall as zombies overwhelm them, a ‘Mission Fail’ screen flashing up for the twelfth time in a row.

But again – and I cannot say this enough – I love this game; an experience built entirely around this premise of babysitting another figure.

Perhaps it’s because of how deeply the metaphor runs; how this deceptively linear game ingeniously uses this entrapment to speak to the nature of gaming itself…

One of the first actions depicted in the narrative moments after a dynamic escape from a slave ship that is plummeting from the sky is the manacling of the central character.**  Monkey, the loner protagonist, awakes to find that he has been shackled to Trip, a desperate girl who needs his help to cross a dangerous wasteland of violent mechs to return to her village; and that’s precisely what the game mechanics are doing to you the player.

Trip imprisons Monkey, just as the mechanics funnel the player.  You (through Monkey) are then compelled to follow her every command – to do her (and by extension the game’s) bidding in order to progress through a streamlined, straightforward path.  There is room for deviation in how you confront enemies, or clear a stage, but the journey is already programmed in, and you are bound to your obligation.  Move too far out of her general proximity (which coincidentally runs the span of each level’s playing area), and Monkey suffers seizures and eventually dies; fail to climb where she tells you to, or to fight through the creatures she tasks you with, and the game erupts in a searing warning that you have strayed too far.

The onscreen gaming hud is even incorporated into this fiction: the headband Monkey is wearing  taps into his vision and allows him to see his shield strength, enemy health, and marks points of interest with cursors.  You look, effectively, through Monkey’s eyes (although not in a first person perspective); you too are trapped.   Here are your tools, here is the pathway, and here is the assignment you are tasked with fulfilling.

And yet, just as Monkey will come to realise, it is a happy kind of enslavement.  You come to want those parameters.  You want to keep Trip safe.  She’s not merely some helpless tissue paper target.  She’s smart enough to hide from danger, to run, to get out of the line of fire.  She takes heed of Monkey’s orders; can offer a needed distraction; and if backed into a corner can protect herself, disabling enemies with a defensive pulse.  The relationship between Trip and Monkey grows fluid, symbiotic.  They dance together, each informing the other’s progress.  It is through Trip that Monkey upgrades his skills; through Monkey that she can be propelled to higher platforms; and only together that they can proceed through the lush detritus of this wasteland.

When Monkey, at the moment he is freed from his obligation, tells Trip to switch his collar back on, the scene crackles with a happy frisson.  Player and character are united in the same embrace of bound agency.  For me, this was another ‘Would you kindly…’ moment, only this time, the shackled player is committed to action by love, not pre-scripted mechanical obligation.  Unlike the original Bioshock, Enslaved is not making a statement about the minor gradation of choice in a deterministic framework, but rather the potential unity of duty and pleasure.  By pledging oneself to the goal, serving another willingly at the behest of the game’s structure, the narrative opens up to celebrate selflessness in a medium that can frequently reward individualistic indulgence.

And so, the journey continues to its revelatory endpoint, through cyberpunk revisions of Pigsy, the ‘spirits’ and ‘monsters’ that impede their progress, and the ‘West’ to which they travel, through nods to Monkey’s bo staff, cloud, and being ‘born’ from an egg, through Trip’s heartbreak at losing her home and history, to watching Monkey commit to a purpose greater than merely self-preservation…  Monkey and Trip finally reach the pyramid that has marked their journey’s end – they confront the source of all this slave technology, exposing the reason for all this horror – and the game climaxes in a sublime, ambiguous conclusion.  (Ambiguous in the best way: morally complex and ripe with potential; not weighed under with infuriating unanswered questions, and faux-philosophical pretention – I’m looking at you, Mass Effect…)

Monkey and Trip confront the leader of the slavers, and in an effort to understand his idiosyncratic motives, Monkey is invited to peer into a mask that will reveal the purpose of this self-perpetuating system of forced captivity.  Monkey slides the mask over his face, but what he sees, ironically, is us – we humanity, before the devastation of our world.  Monkey stares into a miasma of colour and light – a panoply of activity and sensation that we do not see (save perhaps in the snapshots of the real Andy Serkis that pepper the game as mask Easter Eggs), but that we are invited to intuit from the look of wonder in his expression.

In this moment he is – if you enjoyed the experience of the game as I did – effectively mirroring back at you your own delight playing the game.  In its concluding beats the text reveals its perspective on you, how it has watched you sitting enraptured in your seat, stirred by the journey you have just undertaken on this excursion through its multiplicity of scenic and game mechanic splendour.

And it is at this moment that Trip, after a game of being rescued by Monkey, returns the favour.  She makes her decision, exacts the vengeance that she sought, and in the ensuing destruction a system of oppression is ceased in a feeble, gasping collapse.  But her final line, the last piece of dialogue spoken in the game – ‘Did I do the right thing?’ – hangs in the air, a question mark with no simple resolution.

The ending proves itself to be genuinely bittersweet: hopeful yet ominous, filled with the trepidation of sated revenge, with Trip finally visiting vengeance upon the creature that decimated all she cared for, but weighed against the ambiguous future that awaits those now free to reclaim a broken, but rejuvenating world.

You played the game, you were enslaved.  You had a task that was Monkey; Monkey had a task that was Trip; and as your time with the controller in your hand abates – the player in control while being controlled by the game – the beauty of that imagery that dances across your eyes starts to fade, but reminds you of the role you played in their quest.  Monkey’s headband flickers out; the lights sputter to darkness; and you are left to ponder your own place in the mechanics of this journey – your own bond to these characters, and your joyful servitude to their purpose.

A wind howls past the pyramid that stands defiantly beneath a golden sunset – another symbol of imposed slavery – nonetheless majestic in spite of, or perhaps in service to, the constraint that brought it into being.

IMAGE: Enslaved (Ninja Theory)

* All of which will no doubt sound like gibberish to anyone not familiar with the program.

** This is apparently the demo of the game, if anyone is interested.

‘I come not just to bury 2012, but praise it’: A Gaming Retrospective

Posted in video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2013 by drayfish

IMAGE: Journey (thatgamecompany)

As gaming publications around the world finish declaring their Game of Year awards and looking back over the previous twelve months of releases, it is hard not to pick up on the sentiment that overall many do not consider 2012 the most stellar year for gaming.  Sure, there were some standout surprises that defined much of the critical discourse – X-Com: Enemy Unknown, The Walking Dead, Journey, and Dishonoured for example (all games I am ashamed to say I have not yet had the opportunity to sink into) – but overall the picture being presented by even some of the most glowing commentary is tinged with a vague sense of gloom.

New consoles were seen to be flagging: Sony’s Vita, thanks to an anaemic launch line-up, was released into the world to be greeted by the sound of tumbleweeds; Nintendo’s Wii U has likewise underperformed, and despite having the most unique (or needlessly convoluted) control scheme ever devised it was criticised for taking so long to catch up with the HD graphics of 2006 and botching its online capabilities.  The purported ‘future’ of gaming through motion control titles (to put it politely) failed to impress: the horror of Kinect Star Wars’ dancing Han Solo cannot be unseen, and what in the name of Batman’s shiny grapple was Steel Battalion: Heavy Armour?!  Publishers too came under fire as many of the most highly anticipated games (read: giant, sequel blockbusters) were said to have disappointed on some level or another, offering experiences that, despite being highly polished, were either derivative, anti-climactic, or technically and narratively lacklustre (see Resident Evil 6, Max Payne 3, Diablo 3, Far Cry 3 …and personally, I’ve not yet shut up about the half-baked grotesquery of Mass Effect 3’s morally deplorable conclusion).*

Of course, thankfully these kinds of sweeping generalisations are not the whole picture of this past twelve months, and wholly fail to capture the more interesting minutia that has defined this exciting period of the videogame medium’s growth.  Because, yes, while a catch phrase like ‘2012 was a bad year for gaming‘ is unfair to some of the works being shovelled into the ‘fail’ pile, what is far more unfortunate is that such a blanket summary completely dismisses the innovation evidenced in the smaller, noteworthy trends that were able to flourish this past year now that (perhaps for the first time ever) the usual saturating buzz that surrounds every Triple-A title could finally be penetrated.

2012 was a disappointment‘ fails to capture any of the nostalgic innovation we saw this past year in games like Mark of the Ninja and Fez; it totally dismisses the industry-wide revolution of downloadable titles and independent publishers that have exploded to the forefront of the audience’s consciousness with games like FTL and Hotline Miami; it barely even touches upon the works that tried (even if not always successfully) to explore the nature of gaming itself, to test the boundaries of its capacity to convey complex, emotionally resonant material, such as in Spec Ops: The Line’s autopsy of the shooter genre, the utterly charming Thomas Was Alone’s playful evocation of rich interpersonal relationships between two dimensional shapes, or Papo and Yo’s poignant metaphorical depiction of domestic abuse.

Yes, this past year may have been a little sparse if judged by the traditional blockbuster headliners (Halo 4 was celebrated, but not really considered revolutionary, and Assassin’s Creed 3 seems to have alienated as many as it enraptured); it may have suffered some from the displacement of a few of the most hotly anticipated games of the year being pushed into early 2013 (Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider are still being polished, and the long, long awaited GTA5 will arrive whenever Rockstar deigns); and it may be judged a little saggy and tired by those, both in the industry and audience, who are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the limitations of the current hardware and who simply want the next console cycle to be announced; but the year was by no means a resounding downer.

Certainly it was not a failure in light of the revolutions in mechanics, artistic expression, and distribution that flourished in its span.  FTL was birthed into the world through the then-untried method of crowd-sourcing investment (and Double Fine’s adventure game is still forthcoming through the same route); Journey revealed untapped potential in emotive co-operative online multiplayer experience that extended beyond being verbally assaulted through a headset because you tanked a death match; and The Walking Dead proved episodic narrative to not only be viable, but potentially the most absorbing, exhilarating means of investing an audience in a harrowing, adaptive tale.  And Fez?  Come on!  He’s wearing a Fez, people!

And so, with all of this righteous surety ringing in my head, scoffing at anyone who would dare dismiss this past year as a shadow of greater times, confident that despite the fact that we are crowding around the light of this console cycle’s dying embers we are still being lit with its warmest glows, I decided to arrogantly give it a shot myself, to think back on my own most transformative gaming experience of 2012 and decide which game most entranced, most moved, and most surprised me this year…

And to my utter astonishment (and rather to the complete contradiction of everything that I’ve just been blathering about in the preceding paragraphs), it’s actually not a game from 2012 at all.  It’s a game from 2010 that I only just got around to playing…

Damn.

That’s embarrassing.

So for me, in my utterly subjective, walled-off-from-the-rest-of-civilisation, so-anachronistic-as-to-be-completely-meaningless, opinion, 2012’s game of the year is…

…the game I’ll be talking about next week.

Oooo… was that theatrical?  Did I create dramatic anticipation?

No?

It was just annoying, and you don’t actually care anyway?

Excellent…

IMAGE: Fez (Polytron Corporation)

* And considering that the 10 top selling games of the year were all sequels, this was particularly evident (http://www.computerandvideogames.com/386138/us-the-ten-best-selling-games-of-2012-revealed/?cid=OTC-RSS&attr=CVG-General-RSS#).  Also, for a brief summary of some of the biggest controversies that blackened the year see: http://www.kotaku.com.au/2012/12/the-year-in-controversy/

Does Shepard Dream of Electric Sheep? Thoughts on the Indoctrination Theory in Mass Effect 3

Posted in criticism, literature, Uncategorized, video games with tags , , , , , , on January 11, 2013 by drayfish

IMAGE: Mass Effect 3 (Bioware)

Although I am not a subscriber to the theory, and was not a contributor to their discussions, I was rather disturbed this past week to see that Bioware, publishers of the Mass Effect series, have decided to clamp down hard on a subset of their fans: those who believe in the ‘Indoctrination Theory’ (a theory that argues the muddled, obscure ending of Mass Effect 3 was in fact a dream-state from which the protagonist, Shepard, was struggling to wake).  Without warning, and with little explanation, Bioware’s Community Coordinator Chris Priestly began culling anything remotely to do with the discussion of IT, halting the primary thread (which had been running in some form or another for the past ten months), banning people who kept trying to discuss it elsewhere, dismissing anything written on the subject as ‘Spam’, and even completely deleting some threads (including an open letter pleading with him to allow fans to speak on a topic they care about).  Instead, fans who wanted to continue talking about IT were instructed that they could only do so in a closed off, invitation-only Group section of the site – that they were no longer permitted to discuss their interpretation in the public forums.

Again, I am not ultimately one of the fans effected by this blanket censorship, and so did not follow their discussions closely, but as far as I could see the (single) IT discussion thread was not a flame war, nor was it awash with triviality.  It appeared to be a group of people who passionately loved the game (in a way that I no longer can, given the disgusting implications of the text’s underlying thematic message),  players who were in many cases praising the work of the developers for being genius enough to sculpt a mystery of Hitchcockian depth and wonder.  Not exactly the barbarians storming the gates.

Frankly, it seems a rather shameful and prejudicial way to treat the fans that remain, arguably, the company’s most loyal and fervent supporters – particularly as it is a move that directly imposes a censorship upon what subject matter can and cannot be discussed in a forum that purports to offer a voice for the Bioware community.  I’ve not seen the topic of Synthesis, or Control, or Destroy (the other three primary conclusions to the ending (each of which concerns eugenics, totalitarianism or genocide as their central tenets) being forced to dismiss themselves to invitational groups away from the public discourse.

To me there seems to be a very unsettling precedent being set in this censorship, one that appears to be escalating a pattern of silencing the subject matter that fans are allowed to discuss on that forum (a prominent thread pointing out the many contradictions between the pre-release promises made by Bioware representatives and what was delivered in game was also shut down, with complaints disappeared).

In any case, in light of this unnerving development, I thought that I would (if you will permit me) return to some thoughts that I originally wrote on the BSN forum concerning this subject and its broader implications for gaming, back before even the mention of this concept was taboo.  As will be immediately evident, these comments all concern the potential implications of the Indoctrination Theory, should it have been revealed to be true…

. . . . .

As much of the criticism I have levelled at the conclusion of Mass Effect 3 is predicated upon the notion that the narrative arc with which we have been presented by Bioware is the entirety of the game, I did want to speak briefly (and I know my version of the word ‘briefly’ differs from most) to what it would mean if this is not, in fact, the end of Shepard’s tale.  …And yes, I am about to utter the words ‘Indoctrination Theory’, which I know for many players will no doubt inspire images of me sitting in a basement with a tin-foil hat.

Even before the Extended Cut was released I was always reluctant to weigh in on whether I thought the Indoctrination Theory was valid (although I will admit that I dearly, passionately hoped that it would have been so); but now that both the Extended Cut has rolled out and seemingly discrediting the reading, and Bioware itself has declared definitively there will be no more content after the ending, it seems that what I will go on to describe is more an account of what might have been, rather than what will.  So in that light, I would like to speak to what it could have meant for this game, this franchise, and the entire medium of video gaming, if it had have been the plan.

People need not have me repeat yet again the components of the Indoctrination Theory – suffice to say that it involves the jarring ending being but a psychological morality play within Shepard’s wounded psyche; Ghosty-McSpace-Scamp represents the voice of three options, two of which led to surrender, and the third, Destroy, playing out as a catalyst through which to break the stranglehold of Harbinger’s influence (hence the breath amongst the rubble: Shepard is reawakening to the real world).

If this is what is actually occurring, if a later supplemental free DLC patch to the game were to reveal these events to be the imaginings of Shepard moments before the true conclusions of the game (whatever they might actually be) play out, this narrative will be one of the greatest acts of literary manipulation and storytelling ever conceived.  (Again, I want to point out: I am not saying that this is what is happening – merely what it would mean if it is.)

The symmetry between audience and experience would be sublime: all the rancour and disbelief on the internet, all the fighting for Shepard’s identity and ideology would perfectly parallel the character’s own fight for survival, breaking the hold of an omnipotent, omniscient force that seems to compel him/her to act against his/her actions.  All of the angst, all of the sorrow, even my own pretentious blather, would therefore feed directly into the psychological rallying cry that that our focal character, Shepard, requires to wake him/herself up from this delirious stupor, and return to the fight.

Indeed, if Indoctrination Theory is accurate – if the concluding moments of the game as we have them now are but the shadows cast upon Shepard’s mind by Harbinger in an attempt to bend him/her to the Reaper’s will – then Mass Effect 3 would not be Game of the Year: it would be Game of the Century.  No hyperbole.  It would do for the communicative form of gaming what Citizen Kane did for film, what Joyce’s Ulysses did for modern fiction: it would turn the medium itself into a fundamental, inseparable element of the means through which the narrative was communicated.  It would elevate the audience’s engagement with this text to a profoundly intimate level (arguably impossible in any other artistic form), would fold dissenters and believers and self-righteous critics on both sides all into the miasma of speculation and emotion required for Shepard to act.  It would be the perfect culmination of player agency in the story-telling medium that Bioware has promised (and for the great majority of these narratives, delivered) for the past several years.

This ‘ending’ would be an intentionally, necessarily disturbing waypoint in the journey towards this tale’s epic dénouement.  And in such an instance, I will be at the front of the pack, howling myself hoarse with praise for the audacity and brilliance of this writing team and its talented crafts-people.

There would be no more question as to whether games were art.  People would simply harrumph and murmur the name Mass Effect as they do Mona Lisa, and then swan away to drink lattes and wear berets and talk about Kierkegaard.

Having Shepard (and by extension the Player) awake from the most audacious (and in fact necessarily cruel) act of player trolling in the history of gaming, only to then fight on with a greater comprehension of the alluring pull of this mind-altering persuasive power that has rippled through the entire Mass Effect canon…

Well that would be…  Would be…  Well there aren’t even words to put into context what that would be, because it would necessitate a whole new descriptive language of player and text interaction. (‘Cluster-Mind-frakafication’ leaps to the tongue.)

Mean?  Yes.  Deceptive?  Yes.  Misleading?  Oh, my wordy, yes.  But a rousing way in which to further bind the player to this character with whom they have journeyed, fought and loved?  Sign me up.

So in this light, I would have loved to have seen Indoctrination Theory play out.  It would have been an extraordinarily audacious play on the meta-fictional structure of the game.  Movies and fiction can’t do that: hold off on the release of the final scene of a film until the audience is good and invested in one reading, only to kick it up a notch with a later addition to the tale.  It is one of the great benefits of the delivery system of the games medium, one that I would love to see people utilise in more experimental, expressive ways than simply: ‘Hey guys, here’s Sonic 4: part 1…  Maybe you’ll wanna try part 2, ‘kay? ‘

I remember Stephen King experimented with that old-fashioned episodic form with the original publication of The Green Mile, and while I wasn’t a huge fan of the book, it seemed to work quite well for him in ensuring that the true narrative wasn’t spoiled.  His rationale – drawing on the experience of his mother, who he said had a tendency to always flip to the back of a book and spoil the ending – was to ensure than no-one could leak the information before he was ready to reveal it, and that by doing this he was participating in a very focussed, specific engagement with his reading audience.

My dream – and with the passing of the Extended Cut release it has now been revealed a completely insubstantial fantasy – is that with time constraints pressing in, Bioware decided to give the audience the cold, hard-sci-fi conclusion that this franchise has always flirted with, intending always (with the freedom of extra time to work on the DLC) to release the soaring, but-heroism-and-unity-can-still-fight-back conclusion that has always (until the ending) triumphed over the rigidity of the Lovecraftian nightmare.

Again, in such a case, the ending would have to be free (they would be rightly pilloried for trying to ‘sell’ the hopeful ending), and it would have to be handled delicately so as to not undermine the fans that have, quite rightly, invested in the conclusion as it stands.  Bioware would have to avoid posing this as a: ‘Ha! Ha! Gotcha!’, but rather as a bold expression of the whole experience of indoctrination, binding the players experience to Shepard, to manifest the battle within.

I should clarify, however: personally, I have no interest in Indoctrination Theory if it does ultimately turn out (as it appears it now has) to operate as no more than an ‘alternate’ reading on the current canon ending.  Indeed, in such an ending it seems merely a vicious malformation of the player’s engagement with the plot, failing to even provide a satisfactory conclusion.  If the end of the game really is just Shepard lying bleeding to death in rubble, then I completely check out.

Ultimately, one of the major problems with the Indoctrination Theory – aside from the fact that Bioware has almost certainly denied it’s very existence – is that it is an ending that backs the player into the corner of having to commit a heinous act in order to fight through the dream-state: obliteration, domination, or eugenic purging.  You have to select one on order to even hope to end the deception – and you have to do so without actually knowing whether your dreaming or not.  It’s a horrifying, and grotesquely pricey gamble.

The only way that this action could function is if Bioware’s plan was always to push us into an extreme act, an act for which we could never forgive ourselves, in order to (clumsily) force a kind of empathetic bond with the major villains of the work.  In such a case the question would become how much could you/would you, Shepard, be willing to sacrifice to save the Universe – as a prelude to the real conclusion, waking the character from whatever choice was made in DLC and stomping some Reaper ass.  Still awkward, still vile, still an utterly unjust violation of the player’s agency, but one that intentionally muddies the stark moral delineation between the potential for action between the heroes and ‘villains’, forcing a hypothetical moral conundrum upon the player that will reverberate even after the uplifting conclusion…  Of course, this presupposes that the Reapers are little more than the rocks upon which our characters dash themselves, and Shepard is compelled to see the choice that confronted all those who pursued these creatures before him/her, hoping to control or thwart them.

Again, I frankly don’t think that this is in any way what Bioware had or has planned – it seems to me that this revelation should have already been made by now if they had any actual intention of running with it…  But I guess for me, the Indoctrination Theory is like a scratch on the roof my mouth that I cannot help but keep touching with my tongue.  It lingers because although I can ultimately dismiss almost everything else that supports Indoctrination under the shortcomings of apathy, rushed design, or happenstance, one doubt remains.  Sure, no one looks at the creepy kid as he scrambles onto the ship; fine, because who’s looking anywhere but at the giant mutant insect blowing civilisation into powder?  Sure, there is absolutely no way that Anderson could have gotten in front of me with pristine clothes and no visible wounds; but he said the walls were moving around and maybe the developers (somehow) didn’t catch that logistical speed bump.  And yes, even those goddamn dreams – intrusions into my Shepard’s semi-cipher identity that really stick in my craw (it’s a thing; a craw can be a thing!); if I squint a little in my mind’s eye I can finally dismiss them as purely clumsy, woefully mistimed swings at emotional engagement.

But that breath scene.  Someone has to explain that Shepard breath scene after the Destroy ending. I have to have it explained.  Need it explained: justified, contextualised, even deleted as a fault – anything.  But something needs to be done, because at the moment, from whatever angle I read it, it seems to be saying to the audience: ‘Oh, and by the way, gentle player:

‘Screw you.

‘…No really. You, drayfish.  You.  Screw you.’

Because that scene has no merit whatsoever besides intentionally, openly trolling the audience.

They know that we’re not infants – simply shaking a set of keys in front of our eyes will not delight us to forget everything else we’ve seen.  They may not have known that a healthy portion of the fans would react as vehemently to the principles of the endings.  They may not have foreseen that everyone would (I think entirely justifiably) interpret the Relays exploding as the ruination of all life (although when you pull out to a universe-sized wide-shot that reveals tsunamis of devastation rippling into countless stratospheres, I’m not sure what else they were expecting).  But that breath scene is an addition (needless at best) to this salad of gormless iconography.  And because it goes nowhere, asking its viewer to believe that Shepard not only survived the Reaper destruct code that was meant to kill him/her, but lived through the structurally devastating Crucible explosion; and then lived through re-entry into Earth’s now blighted atmosphere, the premise goes so far beyond the realm of the fantastical that it would be like the creators sat down with a game of Mad-Libs to devise the ending plot:

‘I was walking through LONDON when I found a GIANT LAZER that sent me to SPACE . It was here that I met CREEPY GHOST who made me feel EXISTENTIAL NIHILISTIC ANGST until I BLEW UP the UNIVERSE and went home for more DLC .’

If the creators of this franchise really have that little respect for their audience then there is little left to say at all. If the breath scene (as it currently does) continues to have no relevance except to tantalise with utterly fruitless speculation, then I fear that my investment in this franchise will be truly eroded through – and I desperately do not want that to be so – because it really will mean that a prank was more important to the creators of this universe than thematic cohesion and narrative sense.

…Even as I type this, however, I can acknowledge with sorrow that I am in the bargaining stages of having my hopes dashed.  It’s Christmas Eve, I’m standing in my pyjamas, a teddy bear tucked under one arm on the staircase as I watch my parents stuffing the stockings with gifts from a trash bag, both hushing each other in case they wake me.  ‘But – But there is still a Santa, right?’ I’m murmuring into the dark.

Come on, Bioware.  Let there be some kind of impossibly fortuitous path through the murky narrative haze.  Give me back Santa.  You have no idea how much I still want to believe.*

http://themenastics.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/hope-in-mass-effect.png

IMAGE: Mass Effect 3 (Bioware; additional snarkiness: me)

* But as we were all made aware: on 26th June Santa lay beaten to a pulp in a back alley. A note, left by the attacker read: ‘For the Lulz’.

(Originally published, in parts, on the ‘All Were Thematically Revolting…’ thread: http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/355/index/11435886/)

Burning Down the House: Cabin in the Woods and Genre Immolation

Posted in criticism, movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 4, 2013 by drayfish

[Seriously, DO NOT READ IF YOU EVER INTEND TO WATCH CABIN IN THE WOODS ever… and I do encourage you to watch it.  SPOILERS AHOY.]

IMAGE: Cabin in the Woods (Lionsgate, Mutant Enemy)

Joss Whedon – finally the world recognised uber-director/writer his fans always knew he was destined to be thanks to a little bohemian art-house film he made recently called The Avengers (you’ve probably never heard of it) – began the first television project he created on his own, Buffy the Vampire Slayer*, with a two minute sequence that kicked the legs out from under one of the most firmly established, and frankly tired conventions of horror.  Within the sequence a young blonde girl and a larger, muscular young man are wandering down a dark corridor, trying to find somewhere to be alone.  The girl, giggling as she sashays coquettishly in her school uniform,  grows suddenly timid, ruminating on what dangers might be lurking in the shadows around them…  The young man, amorously predatory, skulks closer, leering over her, telling her not to worry about it, that there’s nothing she needs to fear, as he looks her over hungrily and snuggles closer to her neck…

The darkness closes in, the boy towers over her, his frame eclipsing hers as they linger in this lonely alcove, cut off from the world, unable to escape, the viewer knowing that the trembling girl is wholly at his mercy…

And at that point, she spins around, revealing herself a vampire, and rips into his throat to feed.

Whedon took the sexually-promiscuous-blonde-girl-who-gets-moralistically-devoured-by-the-monster motif common to the history of the horror genre, and before the opening credits had even run, flipped it wholly on its head.  In the universe of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (as if the title wasn’t enough) it was made immediately evident that women were no longer to play the rote damsel-in-distress roles, and that weary conventions of schlock cinema were going to be fundamentally shaken up and subverted.

For seven years Buffy was a malleable catch-all for revolutionary genre pastiche, blurring fantasy, horror, comedy, romance, sci-fi, and effortlessly manifesting the heightened emotional turmoils of adolescence with literalised demons and a handful of apocalypses.  In his more recent collaboration with fellow Buffy writer Drew Goddard, Cabin in the Woods (Goddard co-wrote and directed the film), the two have sculpted an even more focussed, and arguably more acerbic, exploration of the horror genre, offering one of the finest examples of textual self-assessment I can think of, capturing a sense of homage, parody, and unapologetic embrace of traditional genre conventions all in one cohesive narrative salad.**

Yes, Cabin in the Woods lays out the mechanics of the horror narrative and riffs on them with a metatextual self-awareness; but rather than simply tear them down, or satirise them as repetitive drivel, it finds a legitimate means of validating their perpetuation.  It argues that there is a reason we let these clichés play out, a synchronicity that explains why this group of kids looks like a corporeal Scooby-Doo Gang as they drive onward to their doom; because these narratives tell us something about ourselves, about our communal psyche and the traditions of storytelling that define us.

We can laugh at it – just as we laugh at all of the things that we love – but what is embraced or emboldened is more important than what is derided.

The central conceit of Cabin in the Woods revolves around the dissonance between two depicted worlds that rub up against each other and eventually collide in a spectacular, chaotic eruption by film’s end.  Throughout the tale a group of teenagers travel to a cabin in the woods (the most clichéd location for any specious tale of dread), and begin living out the machinations of any number of urban legends that have become hard-wired into our communal human psyche (mutants; cannibals; escaped psychotics; werewolves; clowns…  ergh…  clowns), gradually getting picked off as this evil is unleashed upon them.  This is the first level of narrative.  The second level concerns a group of technicians, seemingly working in a sterile office space, who are in fact looking on at this horror playing out.  It is revealed that these men are in fact orchestrating the monstrous fate that is befalling these young people – trapping them in a snare from which the only escape is gratuitous, theatrical death.

Some have justifiably seen this structure as a fictionalised commentary upon the making of horror films – the dreariness and contemptuousness of the men in their ties a statement on the rote production of these films, playing out hackneyed, predictable narrative beats with overly familiar gore: the technicians complaining about tight schedules, broken pyrotechnics, and having to deal with that weird actor who takes his role as crusty old harbinger of doom a little too seriously – it definitely appears to be a glimpse into the behind the scenes machinations of these tired narratives and their restrictive mechanics.

However, while this is a valid way into analysing the work, in truth, I didn’t read the movie as an analogy for the production of horror films so much as the viewing of them.  To me, those observers were not solely ‘writer’/’director’ proxies, but rather mirrors.  The guys in the button down shirts and the sensible ties; the figures whining about home-repairs and pressure from their bosses to meet quotas; looking on through the observational detachment of television screens as the young hot teens die; betting on the outcomes; hoping to see boobies; scarfing down snack food and yawping with disappointment as the comely young lovers get interrupted before the sexy stuff gets too carried away – they are us.  We viewers.  Both revolted and delighted at the ritualised narrative sacrifice playing out before them.

Sure, they engineer the scenario that will be enacted – but ultimately they are just as surprised as the audience at which kind of tale will play out, and how exactly it will go down.  Will it be the zombie cannibal story about buried histories of familial abuse resurfacing to brutalise the innocent?  A fiction about fantastical creatures of legend that intrude upon the rational?  The werewolves that expose (both metaphorically and in sprays of viscera) the beast within us all?  And what do these desires say about them that they long for one more than the other?  …Why is that one guy so enamoured with the thought of mermen, already?

Then, eventually, this natural human curiosity of the onlookers is answered by that same natural human curiosity of the victims caught in the snare: several potential fates await, but it is the most inquisitive personality that dictates what tempting bauble will trigger which sacramental plotline…  And again, we get to ask: why were they so attracted to that particular bait?  Why go for the dust-speckled diary?  Why not the shiny trinket, or the mystic prophesy?  Why not continue to unravel that puzzling curio, or finish latching that antique, cursed trinket around their neck?  But of course, in this world of Saw sequels and knock-offs, we had to go for the gruesome torture-pit…

On every level of the movie – both in the kids at the cabin and the sterile overseer hub – the movie speaks to that recurring inclination to explore our own, subliminal motivations and terrors by sublimating them onto a screen soaked with gore.

Traditionally we human beings explore ourselves in these morality-play genres, repeatedly punishing the aspects of ourselves that are too prickly and antisocial (lechery; stupidity; cowardice), and manifesting the fears that plague the darker regions of our communal consciousness (the unknown; the repressed; the injustice of the past), so that we can ultimately try to confront and overcome them.  Hence, of course, the revelation scene at the end: the explanation for the ritual that is said to appease the demons lurking below.  We feed them examples of human frailty, and maybe a chaste young heroine or two survives.

And here too, contemporary humanity does triumph in this film …if only briefly, and stupefyingly self-destructively.

In the end, when a randomised agent is thrown into the mix – the Shaggy-proxy, swimming in his impenetrable weed-coma – a cog is thrown, the machine spits, and the pressure lets loose in a sprawling, chaotic self-immolation.  As they show in the live feeds from other failed attempts at appeasement from around the world (damned Japan and those resourceful kiddies), the world is outgrowing the hackneyed old beats of these repetitious tales – J-horror, jump-scares, psycho-thrillers – we’ve seen it all already, so we know what’s coming; and people aren’t just ‘Jocks’ and ‘Cheerleaders’ and ‘Virgins’ anymore.  The ‘classic’ archetypes of these fictions no longer apply in such arbitrary ways – so trying to unimaginatively cram characters into boxes, and serve up conventional, predictable colour-by-numbers plots won’t work anymore.

Thus, both the viewers – and the characters in the Cabin – start to react, to begin shaking out of their stupor and literally attempt to escape the restrictive paradigm they find themselves within: ‘I am not a meathead – I’m freaking Thor.’ (Okay, bad example…)  How about: ‘I am not some helpless damsel – I’m the woman who flips the switch and turns the whole power-structure on its head…’

And then – Well then you have a movie; and potentially a rebirth of this genre that both embraces, and transcends the old.

That moment where the lever is thrown and anarchy unleashed – where every source of human dread, literalised into monsters, pours out of their cages to mutilate and destroy – that instant is a definitive call to arms for this genre and its viewership.  Yes, on one level it is declaring the historical need for these genre fictions: if the psyche does not have these spit valves for the release of these psychological undertows, if surrogates cannot be sent to the altar to analogously purge ourselves of our more detestable aspects, then we may well (psychologically) implode.

But more than that, it was saying that if all we are doing, as viewers and moviemakers, is watching these films for cheap thrills – if it is all just to catch a glimpse of some flesh and watch a pickaxe get buried in a dude’s face – if there is no deeper interrogation of ourselves being offered even if not actively embraced, then truly it all does just become a geyser of farcically eruptive blood.

And in that case, we may as well just burn it all down.

So when that demon hand bursts out of the earth at the end (in all its suggestively human dimensions), it is either the harbinger of doom for this genre, or the birth of things to come.

IMAGE: Cabin in the Woods (Lionsgate, Mutant Enemy)

* Itself based upon his earlier attempt at telling this story as a film, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (with which he was apparently not satisfied).

** An argument could most certainly be made for the masterful works of Messrs Pegg, Frost and Wright in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, however…

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