Archive for Mass Effect 3

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

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

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

To Read Part 1 of this Retrospective

Mass Effect title screen maxresdefault

In the beginning there is fear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mass Effect ashley and kaiden

The What

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mass-effect-shepard-citadel-arm-presidium

The Why

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

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

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

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

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

mass-effect-xbox-360-screenshot-dialog-choices-use-a-radial

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

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

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

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

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

mass-effect-1-squad

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

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

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

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

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

‘Never underestimate the power of words.’

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

Mass Effect Normandy_feros

The How

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

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

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

Mass Effect 1 earth

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

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

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

mass effect elevator

The Huh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mass Effect Screenshot3597.1

The Rub

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mass Effect climax

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

Mess Effect: Andyou’reawhatnow?: Foreseeing the Forerunners Foresight (A Mass Effect Retrospective part 1)

Posted in criticism, Uncategorized, video games with tags , , , , , , on May 5, 2017 by drayfish

Bet I’m the First Person to Use That ‘Mess Effect’ Pun …Right?

Mass Effect Andromeda 2

I don’t know what people are talking about.  I’m playing Mass Effect and I love it.

Actually, that’s too small a word.  I adore it.  Without reservation.  Warts and all.  It’s splendid.

It’s a game equally sprawling and bold and beautiful.  Rich and atmospheric, spilling over with captivating characters, and dense with philosophically complex social and political mores to traverse.  It takes its mythology seriously, but is frequently still playful and wry.  And yeah, sure, there’s a bit of janky design and clunky animation, but it remains a visual and auditory marvel, with absorbing, sprawling game play and a sense of endless potential.  It’s everything I’ve ever wanted in an interactive narrative experience, and has easily become one of my favourite video games ever.

No wonder they made a sequel.

Oh –

Sorry.  You probably thought I meant Mass Effect: Andromeda, right?  Simply because I knowingly engineered the beginning of this column to actively imply that I was?  Simply because I used an Andromeda picture in the header – and another one right here?

Mass Effect Andromeda 1

IMAGE: Intentionally misleading

Simply because I am a jerk?

Yeah, but no.  No, I meant the original Mass Effect.  Classic, not New flavour.  The decade old first entry into what I’m happily rediscovering might now well be considered a largely superfluous franchise.

It’s fair to say that the release of the new Mass Effect: Andromeda – the first game in the series since the ignominious conclusion of Mass Effect 3 five years ago – has been met with a tempered enthusiasm at best, and mocking scorn at worst.  Over the past several weeks the game has been knocked for its bizarre facial animations, game-stalling bugs, and stilted dialogue – videos of which seemed to have mutated on contact with the internet into a virulent strain of snarky (if admittedly hilarious) memes.

There are suspicions that the game was rushed out before it had finished development (given the state of Mass Effect 3 when it was released, this would not surprise me), that its pacing is slowed to tedium by rote fetch-quest padding, and that it is littered with multiple unresolved plot threads that serve more as cheap bait for future DLC packs and sequels than offering a satisfying narrative experience in its own right.

(Please note: I’ve not played the game, myself; this is simply what I am gleaning from the general scuttlebutt on the interwebs.  And do not take this as an attempt to denigrate anyone else’s interest in the game.  If you’ve enjoyed playing it, I’m very happy for you.  Similarly, this is in no way an attempt to insult the hard work of its many talented designers and creators who have worked on it.  I cannot speak to the game’s actual quality – though I do think some of its alien vistas look quite striking.  These comments, and what is to follow, are all based on speculation, and should be treated as such.)

For my part, however, none of the primary criticisms being levelled at Mass Effect: Andromeda have contributed to my complete disinterest in playing it.

Yes, the rubbery faces look silly, and yes, the quality of the dialogue – with lines like ‘My face is tired’ and Ryder’s father’s ham-fisted blather about ‘dreams and ‘dreaming for achievement’ – looks to have taken a dive, but usually I would still be keen.  Throw all the bugs and glitches at me that you want.  I’m deranged enough to have played Dragon Age: Inquisition on an XBox 360; I can deal with some jank in my tank.  In the past I’ve found even an unfinished Bioware game to be more absorbing than most other major releases; I played Dragon Age 2; I can handle a rushed production that makes ninety percent of its locations shoddy re-skins of the same warehouse and stretch of cave.  And I’m certainly not going to be scared off by whatever hateful, rabid conspiracy theory is being cooked up by gamergate trolls to slander Bioware on any given week.  (Gods, I cannot believe how depressing it is to still have to deal with the toxic bilge of gamergate in 2017.)

Mass Effect my face is tired

IMAGE: ‘Sorry, my dialogue is contrived’

But in this case my apathy for the game is tied more to narrative and thematic concerns for both it and the trajectory of the series as a whole – all of which I only seem to be seeing confirmed in the aftermath of the game’s release.

To explain my issues properly I would have to go off on yet another tedious, pedantic rant about Mass Effect 3 – specifically the way that it was already heading in a disheartening direction even before its reprehensible end – and no one (including me) wants that.  Besides, I’ve banged that particular drum plenty of times in the past.  Seriously.

But to offer a quick summary: to me, Andromeda appears to have problems with the basic logic of its plot, and looks to be tackling a problematic theme that I doubt its creators have fully thought through.

Firstly: the plot.

From the information circulated in the marketing, I get the sense that the premise of the new game actively works against it.  While I can sympathise that its creators want to get away from the controversial baggage of Mass Effect 3’s poorly-received conclusion, by choosing to set the story between Mass Effect 1 and 2 (before swiftly blasting the player several hundred years into the future into a different galaxy), the result is that Andromeda’s audience is being asked to suspend not only its disbelief, but the logic of all the preceding games.

Because nothing about this game’s central premise is possible in the universe of Mass Effect between the first and second games.  Here, several arks, stuffed with hundreds of thousands of cryogenically frozen souls are sent on a journey to an as-yet unexplored galaxy in order to populate new worlds; but there seems to be neither any reason to do this, nor any explanation for how this heretofore inconceivable scheme is now occurring.

There is no population crisis driving them to action (nothing is ever mentioned in the original games, where humanity still has room to expand all over the place), nor does it appear to be a failsafe in case the apocalyptic threat of the original games’ antagonists, the Reapers, prove to be real.  (Admittedly, this could be an eventual plot twist in the new game, but again, no one in Mass Effect 2 or 3 ever mentions such a mission).

Moreover, given that the state of the universe at the end of Mass Effect 1 had neither the science, political co-operation, nor resources, to put together an enterprise of such magnitude – and, again, the fact that no such astonishingly expensive, complex, time consuming program was ever mentioned in all of Shepard’s subsequent interactions with the several governments involved – it seems to be a narrative device chosen more out of fear than purposeful storytelling.

Perhaps if the story had been set many hundreds of years after the original trilogy it could have made sense – science might have advanced enough to make what was proposed less preposterous; a new predicament could have been established to justify why such a gargantuan undertaking needed to be; but in an effort to avoid the consequences of Mass Effect 3, the writers appear to have simply jettisoned the logic of their own universe entirely.  And it is hard to invest in a story that has already disrespected your willingness to believe in it before it begins.

But what is most worrisome for me is that theme of colonialisation at the heart of the new game.

Because Andromeda clearly has a precarious narrative tightrope to walk.  These humans are not the upstart, inquisitive underdogs looking for a seat at the grownups table of galactic politics that they were in the original trilogy; here they are invading colonisers.  Humanity is intruding into a new world, looking for lands to populate, and they are involved, almost immediately, in violent exchanges with the present occupants of these lands.  There is a disquieting aroma of imperialism in that set up, one that appears to only intensify when your player character’s father dies and you inherit the role of King.

…I mean, ‘Pathfinder’.

Mass-Effect-Andromeda-Fighting-The-Kett-on-Eos-1036x583

IMAGE: ‘Hello chaps!  I wonder if we might discuss a time-share arrangement?’

Ethically, that is an uncomfortably loaded position to place the player.  In the days of Mass Effect 1 Bioware I would have trusted that an awareness and sensitivity would permeate the writing, exploring the complexities of this premise to tantalising effect.

Unfortunately this project has been led by Mac Walters, one of the two principle writers responsible for Mass Effect 3’s grotesque finale and asinine central plot.  In that game, whether consciously or not, Walters took the myriad possibilities of the original two game’s branching narratives and reduced them into a quest to build a giant spacemagic doohickie that could end war with a pick-a-box of hate crimes.  He took complex philosophical contemplations of cultural diversity, questions of artificial life, free will, and justice, and boiled them all down to a clumsy grey nihilism, producing a text that by its end actively championed mass-murder, mind-control, and forcibly rewriting people’s DNA against their will, all in a thumping, Michael Bay tone of vulgarity and vapidity.

So, to me, watching a writer who literally tried (and catastrophically failed) to put positive spins on genocide, brainwashing, and forced eugenics now handling the nuance of a plot centrally concerned with intergalactic terra nullius sounds dreadful.

And given that Andromeda already appears to be following its predecessor’s mistakes – the writers are lazily rehashing the ‘ancient unknown aliens have left mysterious plot-helpful devices scattered around for mysterious reasons’ story; as mentioned, they leave the majority of the larger plotlines inconclusively hanging – it’s hard to give them the benefit of the doubt.  After all, none of those gimmicks worked out so well last time.

And finally, while I’m throwing unjustified shade at the game, I may as well admit that to me it simply doesn’t look that fun to explore.  No doubt I’m wrong – and again, I welcome players to correct this misconception – but from everything I’ve seen so far, I can’t help it.

Andromeda is clearly big – the advertising and pre-release previews incessantly promised environments several times larger than all previous Bioware games – but to me Mass Effect has always been about more than traversing a landscape.  It’s about exploring different cultures, different personalities.  So while this new universe might be physically expansive, it sure looks a lot emptier.

By all accounts the game has jettisoned the entirety of its most idiosyncratic alien species.  There are no appearances from the drell, the hanar, the elcor, the quarians, geth, volus or batarians.  Meanwhile, in their place, only two new additional races are expected to fill the void – one that looks to be cannon fodder; the other like a fairly generic clone of Avatar’s the Na’vi.

So, long, long, long story short: I’m not exactly racing out to buy a copy of Andromeda.

Mass Effect Andromeda bug

IMAGE: Secret third race of new aliens in game: the NoBetaTests

But what all of this recent buzz in the press (both positive and negative) did achieve was to make me nostalgic for the original games: Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2.  These works were – and still remain – two of my most beloved gaming experiences, so in light of all my newfound apathy I started to wonder:

How well do they still hold up?

It was a question that was particularly pressing given that I now find it impossible to think back on those experiences without recalling the way in which they ultimately conclude – all that hope and wonder and grace reduced to a spiteful, nihilistic wet thud that its writers presumably thought was profound.

So I decided to revisit the first two games in sequence.  To re-explore them, both with the (relative) fresh eyes of several years distance, and examining – really for the first time – the way in which foreknowledge of the trilogy’s vile ending impacts the experience.

That is what I will therefore be doing over the next few posts: cataloguing my tedious, erratic, distractible, rambling (and yes, long) thoughts on each game.  Pondering what, at least for me, remains of this revolutionary series.  What has dated it, what has tarnished it, but overall, what once made – and still makes – this series so magnificent.

And spoiler alert for the first game: It’s fantastic.

Because it’s all there in that first game.  All of it.  Everything that made the Mass Effect universe great.  Everything that captivates and excites the imagination.  Yes, the sequel’s promise of decisions that carry over from game to game was ripe with possibility; yes, the chance that you could watch entire civilisations change over multiple years, or grow alongside characters that you had fallen in love with was enticing; yes, the hope that game play mechanics would get polished and refined with new instalments tantalised; but returning to that first game, as I have over the past few weeks, provokes a startling revelation: much of what follows Mass Effect 1 is unnecessary.  Or at least, not impactful enough to dull the charms of the original.

To be clear: I’m not suggesting that the sequels should not exist.  Speaking as someone who adores the second game in the series (niggling narrative issues and all), and who even found momentary flashes of greatness in the trilogy’s dumpster fire of a conclusion, the subsequent games clearly have a reason to be.  All I am saying is that in revisiting the first game I have been delighted to discover that although Mass Effect is often spoken of as a trilogy (and now as a trilogy with a weird prequel/sequel/soft-reboot thing poking out of the side of it), in truth everything that made this series so wondrous appears, already fully formed, in the first game.  Some concepts may get fleshed out further in later instalments, the combat might be tightened, and there is a general uptick in the visuals (aside from your own character’s face in game 3), but often, not only does the first Mass Effect perfectly achieve the overarching narrative’s thematic goals, in many ways it articulates its mission statement more eloquently than the series would ever manage again.

But I’ll get to that next time.  For now I’ll just leave my argument unfinished, but overflowing with promises of what’s to come.  Let that tantalise and excite the imagination.  Let it build up impossible expectations that can never realistically be met.

Because, as this wondrous series has proved, that always works out great.

…Right?

Mass Effect title screen maxresdefault

p.s. – I am serious about welcoming people to tell me I’m utterly mistaken about Andromeda.  I highly doubt I will ever play it, but I would be delighted to hear of people’s experiences enjoying the game.

Losing the Plot: Or How I Learned To Love Making LOST Puns

Posted in television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 25, 2014 by drayfish

lost_a

IMAGE: The Cast of LOST, season one (ABC)

It’s been ten years since LOST burst onto our televisions screens making bold promises that its writers now admit they never intended to keep.

I don’t say that to be a jerk or get pissy about it; that is literally what the showrunners, Damon Lindeloff and Carlton Cuse, have themselves described in several interviews and statements in the years since the show’s controversial conclusion. It was the very point of the show, apparently. For them, LOST was always a narrative about people searching for meaning. And searching – as the narrative went on to prove – is very different from discovering. Searching, for example, doesn’t necessitate that anyone actually finds the answers they seek.

This past month I wrote a long, convoluted article about the ending of LOST (because the world needs more of those, right?) for the PopMatters journal. You can read it here. Weirdly, despite being decade-old news, it seemed the thing to do. The ending of How I Met Your Mother was foremost in pop culture’s communal consciousness (and went on to provoke a good deal of audience dissatisfaction itself*), and the creators of LOST had just appeared at the Paley Centre to celebrate the ten year anniversary of the their show, once again referencing their controversial conclusion as the definitive statement that they wanted to make, even if in their opinion it still appears to be misunderstood.

It all got me thinking. Firstly, about what it is that makes the ending of LOST so controversial – why it still enflames audiences, for and against it, even now. Plenty of shows have ended poorly, and yet the ending of LOST still remains the punching bag of narrative letdowns. Meanwhile, it’s by no means universally despised: it has quite a vocal group of supporters who cannot themselves see what all the fuss was about. In many ways it’s the Vegemite of television: there are those who love it, who will never understand those who don’t; while those who despise it, who will stare in bafflement at anyone that could find it edible. I guess I wanted to know what was in the ingredients.

Secondly, I was curious to understand why one of its creators, Damon Lindeloff, seems intent on repeatedly revisiting this argument – in the reviews he writes about other programs and films; in his (now defunct) Twitter account; in interviews – almost as though he legitimately doesn’t understand why people would not appreciate (or at least respect) the authorial decisions he made in closing his opus. Lindeloff can be delightfully self-depreciating about his work, but this seemed like a peculiar form of self-flagellation, actively inviting further criticism by constantly bringing the topic up, even when it wasn’t part of the conversation.

So I set about wildly speculating about why all of this was. Why some fans found the ending a violation of trust, and a complete abandonment of the show’s entire premise; why others found it an ideal, even inspired resolve for their characters’ journeys; and even why Damon Lindeloff, understandably, seems unable to let go. Hopefully I teased out an answer. Almost certainly those who read it will disagree. In any case, it’s done, it involves a minimal amount of snark, and for some reason contains a faked up poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

‘Cause that makes complete sense.

For the sake of neutrality, I tried (and undoubtedly failed) to leave my own personal history with the show out of the article. But I did want to talk, briefly (ha!) about it here. Not because I think it will be particularly revealing, not even because I think anyone else shared my experience, but just to get it out.

Because I have a complicated history with LOST. One filled with a lot of conflicting emotion. I loved LOST. I hated LOST. I loved to hate it, then hated to love it. By the time the tenth anniversary rolled around I told myself that I now mostly just think of it as a cautionary tale about buying into too much marketing hype …and yet I go and write a several thousand word article about it, trying to constantly tamp down the rising emotions that are rekindled with just the mention of its name…

I think, much as I say in the article, it’s because I really was enamoured with its potential. So for me it remains one of the most frustrating, contradictory, and aggressively wasteful uses of an extremely fertile premise ever conceived. It wasn’t offensive in the way that something like the end of Mass Effect 3 was. It wasn’t gaudy pretentious drivel that lazily milked religious iconography the way The Matrix sequels had (although the hero of LOST was a ‘Shephard’, with a father called ‘Christian’, who led them all to an afterlife in a church… so it was certainly pushing it). It just felt as though it was actively and continuously dishonest with its audience, so that when it concluded not only was I left let down by the ‘resolution’ it offered (not a big surprise, this is television after all), I felt as though it had actually robbed me of the opportunity to enjoy the program for what it always was – not what it had constantly purported, falsely, to be.

It is a particular personal shame, because I would have had no problem had they been up front to begin with and just admitted that there was no overarching plan – that it was all just an experiment in storytelling in which the writers too were on a ride – just as the audience were. After all, I’m one of the viewers who drank the Ron Moore Kool Aid of the Battlestar Galactica remake, happy to follow that narrative wherever it led, accepting that (despite the first few season’s naff pronouncement that the Cylons ‘Had a plan’) it was less of a tightly ordered tele-visual novel and more an excursion into reactive, evolving, serialised plot. Just as the human race’s familiar conventions and structures had been decimated, leaving the survivors to eke out new social orders and an endlessly renegotiated status quo, so too was the narrative racing to keep up, testing its character’s hopes and fears and faiths.

Sure, it plunged into some pretty nutty mysticism, and swung for the fences on a central theme of cyclical technological singularity and self-destruction that it struggled to always fully articulate, but this kind of urgency, of desperately trying to find meaning in the face of incomprehensible loss, to rebuild belief structures in a vacuum, was always thrilling. You just weighed the wins (’33’; ‘Unfinished Business’; ‘Exodus’) against the losses (whatever the hell ‘Black Market’ was meant to be), and you ended up way, way ahead. And when resolve was finally reached, and a new Earth founded (although many, many, many people no doubt disagree with me here), the peace was earned. The gauntlet of struggle and bewilderment along their journey revealed to be the chrysalis for a necessary change.

But LOST was always a text irreconcilably torn between its intent and its execution, seemingly unsure of what viewership it was trying to serve.

If you were watching for the mystery, what you finally discover is that there isn’t actually a puzzle to unpack. All that fan investment, all that effort to parse out the clues, all the theorems and hypothesis and projections into the text to give it meaning, all risks being revealed a waste of time. That’s not to say that such fan imagination is itself invalidated, or pointless; but it is, ultimately only a projection onto a text that is trying to remain wilfully abstruse.

If, on the other hand, you were watching the show for its characters, and for human drama, then this too was constantly swallowed by the plot’s overriding infatuation with mysteries. The characters were obsessed with searching for answers. The episodes invariably revolved around big honking questions: Who are the Others? What’s under the hatch? Who is Jacob? So what’s going on in that weird room with the –

AHHH!!! POLAR BEAR!!!

Consequentially, I’ve often wondered what I would of made of the show if I had not followed it as it first went to air; if I’d not (for the first few seasons at least) actually believed the writers when they assured their audience that there was a grand narrative they intended to unveil. Perhaps if I was instead seeing it all for the first time on DVD, fully aware the entire time that there would never be any fundamental answers coming (ever), then maybe I would be able to enjoy it all a great deal more. To actually see it for the courageous, oddball mesh of genre tropes and bombast that it attempted to be.

Because for all of its floundering around** – trying to gesture towards arguments about free will and determinism, about the nature of the metaphysical, the impossibility of human comprehension – LOST was ultimately just an elegantly made, exceptionally well-acted, rollicking adventure story. Nothing more.

And that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It actually rescues the whole enterprise. It makes all its efforts to tie inconsequential puzzles into one another a fun quirk that propels its eccentric momentum. It makes the whole adventure fun, rather than pretentiously obscure. And if I had have known all that going in, rather than getting incessantly distracted by the aimless magic trick of ‘mystery’ perpetuated by its writers, I suspect it would have been a far less aggravating, and infinitely more satisfying ride.

It certainly would have justified the mawkish, totally-illogical-but-feel-good ending they eventually bowed out with. Because, ‘Thanks! We love you! And we appreciate you hanging out with us for six years!’ is a lot sweeter a message when it’s coming from a show that was just trying its hardest, every week, to take you on a big, fun giddy ride, instead of from a text that just called you a gullible idiot for making you believe it could ever be anything more.

Lost ending

IMAGE:  The Sensation of Watching the End of LOST (ABC)

* I was never a viewer of How I Met Your Mother, so I can’t speak to its ending personally, but I did have the details of it spoiled by a particularly irate friend who had always adored the show and needed to vent his frustrations to someone. …And yikes. (He rechristened the program ‘How I Met Your Disposable Plot Device’.) For whatever it’s worth, in his opinion the last few minutes of the finale would have worked well after a season or two; but once several years had passed, once characters had moved on and the mother herself had been introduced as a legitimate, likeable character, he felt that the way both she and the emotional growth of the other characters were treated, all to service a trite ‘happy ending’, was not cool. …But again, I haven’t seen it, so I have no idea.

** The second and third series are particularly guilty of this: can anyone explain why the survivors of the back of the plane were in any way relevant to anything?

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

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

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

Crucible constriuction

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

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

CC: iamnottheshadowbroker@shadowbroker.com

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signed,

Terry Props

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

crucible blueprint

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geez.  My head.

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

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

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

Phew.  My head is buzzing.

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

Signed,

Terence PrEPARETOBOWBEFORETHEHARBINGERSOFOURPERFECTION!

I mean: Props.  Terence Props.

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

Crucible chamber

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

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

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

Mass Effect 3 Control Ending

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

Mass Effect 3: A History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drop the mike.

I must have misunderstood something?

Right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t.

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

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

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

Mass Effect 3 Catalyst Conversation

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

Mass Effect 3: Re-History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mass Effect 3 The Crucible

IMAGE: The Crucible, Mass Effect 3 (Bioware)

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

I think I just got a nosebleed.

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

It’s farcical.

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

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

 …Right?

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

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

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

Well, because…

Because she just is?

Flawless, Socrates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder Shepard killed herself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hope-in-mass-effect

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

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

‘Before the Bang, or the Whimper …a House Party? …Wha?’: The Narrative Bubble of Mass Effect 3: ‘Citadel’

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 9, 2013 by drayfish

or: The Yuks Before the Yuck

IMAGE: Mass Effect 3: ‘Citadel’ (Bioware)

This past week the final downloadable content for the Mass Effect trilogy, ‘Citadel’, was released, capping off a tale of galactic genocidal devastation, the tacit endorsement of war crimes inflicted upon one’s own allies, and the surrender and arbitrary death of a heroic protagonist.  And it ended (as we all surely must have suspected that it would) with a Sims-lite apartment decorator; the opportunity to chill out and lose our cash at a casino; and the option to get all dressed up pretty and host a shindig that brims over with playful hijinks…

Sure, outside those walls unfathomable monsters from beyond time and space are raining destruction down upon innumerable innocents on countless  worlds…  Sure, you, as the sole hope tasked with saving them all, know that every second of each day is being measured with all that you hold dear being pitilessly tortured, mutated and annihilated…  But never mind – it’s cool, because you can always watch a romance film with your girlfriend or upgrade the decor in your holiday house.  And yeah, okay, so the guy who gave you that luxury pad you are kitting out is currently spending his time scrambling about for scraps in a literal hole in the ground, running guerrilla raids to stay alive, his clothes reeking of the smell of burning corpses as he watches Earth reduced to ash…

But hey: that private captain’s cabin on your personal star ship that you already owned – with its aquarium, office, and en suite – wasn’t nearly enough.

You really did need a plasma screen TV.

The ever expanding practice of selling downloadable content in videogames has proved to be one of the great contradictory boons of the medium.  On the one hand it offers the potential for some publishers to cynically exploit their consuming audience by withholding material that clearly was intended to be in the initial purchase behind a secondary pay wall.  One can think of Capcom’s Azura’s Wrath, in which the actual ending of the game was withheld as ‘additional content’; the ‘Epilogue’ to the recent reboot of Prince of Persia, sold under the pretence of being extraneous despite the game hanging on a heart-wrenching cliff-hanger; or even Bioware’s own day-one DLC scandal with Mass Effect 3, in which, on the very day of the game’s release, they charged a supplementary fee to access the Prothean character Javik, the last remaining member of an extinct race, whose story offers an irreplaceable perspective on the entire trilogy’s plot, and upon whom other characters like Liara rely in order to have any narrative arc at all.  For that matter, one might even think of Bioware’s second DLC release, ‘Leviathan’, in which the audience was charged for the back story and explanation that justifies who, why, and what the series’ mysterious alien antagonists even were.

From another, more generous perspective, DLC allows developers to correct or expand upon material that they may have come to realise, after release, audiences were keen to explore further, allowing plots to organically grow in controlled narrative excursions that one would usually only see in a more long-form narrative medium like television.  Games like Skyrim (although one might argue whether a game with hundreds of hours of scripted content that literally never ends needs to offer more things to do) have continued to swell their worlds with whole new quest lines and environments; a game like Enslaved offers the chance to play as secondary characters like Pigsy, who served a supporting role in the main game, as he undertakes his own smaller adventure in prelude to his later appearance; and (to be fairer to Bioware for a moment), their addition to Dragon Age: Origins, ‘Awakening’, was set well after the events of the main game and offered the opportunity to govern a vast, previously unexplored land, with an all new cast and an entirely new quest line.

In the case of ‘Citadel’, however, it is difficult to gauge where this material sits on the logical, thematic, or even material scale by which one usually assesses such DLC.  At its heart it is additional content that many fans felt was notably missing from the core game: a chance to reconnect with beloved characters that were dismissively sidelined in the vanilla experience, and an injection of humour to break up the maudlin dirge of the larger plot.  (Although from what I have gleaned that humour sounds like it may have been a little too wacky in the midst of a literal day of reckoning…  Did I read correctly: Javik – brooding orphan of an exterminated race – stars in a Blasto movie?!)

A cynic might suggest that Bioware – noting that their preceding pieces of DLC were being met with a sliding scale of apathy (ending in the widely criticised ‘Omega’) – have decided to cash out, to cobble together one last mission with a checklist of audience requests and raise the price fifty percent to cover their losses.*  An optimist, however, would see this DLC as one last, joyful pastiche of all the elements they loved in the series that the base game simply had no time to address.

Either way, it is certainly true that it seeks to satisfy many of the superficial criticisms fans had directed at the game over the past year.  Another hub environment?  Check.  Romance options to pad out the paltry exchanges in game?  Done.  Some conversation with comrades that is about something – anything – other than war and death and dying?  Sure thing.**  But it stops well short of tackling the naff deus ex machina at the heart of the plot, or the lie of hope and inclusivity repeatedly espoused throughout that is abandoned with its Pyrrhic victory.  As an answer to the fundamental issues that many fans (myself included) had with the ending of the game, it seems almost belligerently peripheral.***

Consequentially, ‘Citadel’ appears to likewise sit in a weird nether space of narrative, seemingly a textbook example of the potential discordance that can emerge from mishandling the DLC model as a medium for storytelling.  It’s very existence indicates that this was an addition of character service and reflection that the story required; but in refusing to violate the nihilistic endpoint that the plot is heading toward anyway, and by ignoring the war upon which you are unwavering focussed at any other point in the game play, it becomes an irresolvably discordant aside from everything it is intended to echo.  Thus from every angle, this addition to the narrative seems to ask for an insurmountable leap in logic for the player to successfully suspend their disbelief.

It’s true to say that so far the content appears to be getting highly favourable reviews, but again, what is being praised – a surprisingly light-hearted tone, filled with a playfully naff sci-fi premise and punctuated with gags that wink-at-the-audience with fan-service – strike me as extraordinarily out of place considering that this remains a tangential diversion from the central thrust of the narrative, and the desperate, claustrophobic imminence it sought to press upon the player at every angle.  Admittedly, this is something that, in itself, might not be an issue, except that the game itself, in literally every moment outside of this DLC, breathlessly demands that the player realise: there is no time to relax, that every moment of pause means whole civilisations are being brutally wiped from existence, and that quietude and self-indulgence are now luxuries all life in the universe (let alone that universe’s saviour Shepard) can no longer afford.

Indeed, in a curious piece of tragironic (I call copyright on this word) prophesy, Joker, the ship’s pilot, earlier remarks in the body of the game that he is repulsed by the cavalier way in which the people of the Citadel are ignoring the horrors of the war effort.  As he says to Shepard, through a sarcastic snarl:

‘Hey commander, big news: the new Blasto movie is breaking opening week records; there is also a big expose on Quasar tournaments; tips on how to make your apartment look bigger; and – oh yeah – a big ass Reaper invasion.

And so, as if intentionally trying to spotlight the fundamental disparity in this plotline – in this DLC (set during an even more climactic, ominous part of the conflict) Shepard has a run-in with Blasto himself; is able to waste time in a casino gambling on Quasar; and can become the universe’s feng shui master of interior decoration.  All while the universe burns.

It would appear that this DLC asks its audience to maintain two completely contradictory states of being at once: to invest in the severity and casual horror of war omnipresently in play during the larger game-structure (in which the plot kills off characters and whole worlds in every mission; in which tales of loss and madness and hopelessness press in from every angle from antagonists, allies, newsfeeds, and overheard NPCs), while at the same time embracing this momentary oasis of frivolous, playful abandon (where – for the sake of the war effort, apparently – you are invited to relax in a hot tub, or break a record on how many pull-ups Shepard can do, or turn on a raging kegger).

Indeed, even expressly stated character agendas are conveniently, temporarily abandoned.  Many of the living squad members from the previous games, although having offered pressing, unavoidable reasons for why they absolutely could not join you in Mass Effect 3, are suddenly willing to forget those obligations and return here, for this rest-stop abstraction, before disappearing again back to their directive.  To take but one example: many players were disheartened when the character of Miranda, arguably the principle squad member of the second game, spent this final arc of the trilogy off on her own quest to find her sister, refusing to join the war effort and reboard the Normandy.  But now, arbitrarily, she is back to get dressed up and have a night out to relax – her kidnapped sister be damned.

Ultimately, if only this were a legitimate epilogue set after the events of the ending (which would, of course, clearly need to be fundamentally altered), the lighter tone and earned respite would be a perfect tonal fit.  We would be in Return of the King’s ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ territory – the stakes a little lower, the chance for character resolution and reflection more organically informing the tale.

And a narrative (even as goofy as this) about Shepard having to restate what makes him/herself so individual in the light of a nefarious doppelganger, makes a perfect kind of sense for the dénouement of a series that purported to be concerned with player choice.  Suddenly, the symbolic alternate to all your/Shepard’s choices (evil clone evile clone evil clone) would be made manifest, an opportunity to mirror back a distorted image of what might have been.  Although admittedly clichéd, it would offer a nonetheless legitimate through-the-looking-glass trope that has danced alongside sci-fi for as long as people have been growing menacing goatees and theatrically cocking their eyebrows.

One suspects that the mindset behind creating this non sequitur addition to the narrative was a product of Bioware trying to simultaneously distance themselves from their polarising ending while still embracing it – an act of gymnastic duality that results in an impossible illogical snare.  After all: they’ve already declared that they would not touch or alter the ending from this point on (at this point, given the dismissive, frequently sarcastic tone of their Community Coordinator Chris Priestly, they’ve effectively chiselled that message into stone tablets), but contradictorily, they now want to offer players an opportunity to wind down after the narrative, to immerse themselves in a static bubble that operates both within and abstracted from the endpoint they retain the right to point to as an artistic ‘vision’.****

Presumably Bioware are banking on the majority of players being widely apathetic to the ending, knowing that many (if not most) will happily play this pocket of story after their already finished game, willing themselves to overlook how ludicrously it juts out from the unwaveringly focused structure of a journey that screams linearity.  After all, it’s a premise that expects players to have either forgotten the insistency of the plot (‘Well, the Reapers are killing everyone and everything, but we’re gonna paaaaaarty‘), or to have willingly divorced themselves so utterly from the narrative that they can just embrace it as a non-canon farewell of sorts, blocking out the real conclusion to paper it over with this paradoxical but playful kiss to the audience.****

Indeed, even in their advertising in the run up to this release, Bioware were finally no longer spruiking ‘war assets’ and ‘big, universe changing choices’ – instead promising moments of quietude and peace with the characters many longed to hang out with in such a manner before the game was launched.  It was a complete 180 from their usual advertising message, but it was one that required Bioware to pretend nothing was wrong (even in the basic logic of where this mission and hub exists in the narrative), while asking the player themself to just block out that smothering, ominous knowledge that all of this joviality is merely a pantomime of solace before the apocalyptic storm that will wipe it from memory.

And personally, I apparently can’t even begin to do that anymore.  That plaintive whistling sound in my head is telling me that if ever there was a time that I could have – that I might have walled off that nihilistic conclusion as a peculiar dream and just embraced the bubble of respite offered, headcanoning my way to a muddled kind of peace – that time is now gone.

But maybe that is ultimately the message of this whole thing: maybe this is all on me.  I drank the Kool Aid and believed that the choices mattered, that the decisions made in the journey were worth respecting and that the plot deserved the investment it invited.  But if even this farewell – a mid-narrative-epilogue to a series about morality and choices – is designed to utterly dissolve the relevance of its own logistical spine, to undermine the conceit that it is wrapped within, then maybe I really was just playing the game all wrong.

In the end (or the middle, or whatever) the choices really didn’t matter; the end was a lie.  Sure, one day soon you’ll be forced to abandon all that is being cherished in this curious little siesta, but it’s okay, because none of it mattered anyway.  So why not just raise a glass and drink away the regret?

In the interests of full disclosure – and as is no doubt already clear – I freely admit that I have not played this final offering from Bioware (nor do I foresee myself doing so in future), so my comments are merely those of a mystified onlooker trying to make sense of a baffling marketing campaign that left me behind when Mass Effect 3 first concluded in an eruption of nihilistic angst exactly one year ago.  Yes, I’m the Dickensian orphan boy abandoned to the cold streets, my nose pressed against the frosted glass pane as I look in on another’s family meal.  Of course I’m riddled with jealousy that everyone still inside seems to be enjoying themselves so – laughing and lit with the glow of a comforting fire – but the larger, rational part of me is also thinking: ‘Wait a minute – this isn’t Christmas.  This is meant to be a funeral.  And that guy carving the turkey is meant to be dead…’

In any case, I remain desperately envious of those who have bought the DLC and who can enjoy it.  It sounds like there is a lot of character business in there that sounds like a good deal of fun (and I’m still not sure I’ve ever fallen so madly in love with a rag-tag team before – well, excluding Firefly, natch).  For me though, I just can’t seem to flip the switch in my brain that can justify the seismic rift this tangential mission would require of my suspension of disbelief; nor the thought of having it end only to feed back into a conclusion that undoes everything I would cherish about this sweet hiatus anyway.

But again, and I mean this sincerely, to those who can and will enjoy it: have fun. You will have all of my jealousy burning a hole in your back as you play…

IMAGE: Mass Effect 3 (Bioware)

* The critically panned ‘Omega’ was likewise increased in price – an action that perhaps led to more scrutiny lambasting its comparatively meagre runtime, derivative action, lack of character interaction, and peripheral narrative.

* Again, someone judging the work unfavourably might declare that given Mass Effect’s track record, these were all elements that the designers knew were expected in the original release, and that they simply withheld for ransom in this last hurrah.

** Although to be fair, this DLC was clearly never intended to win back those fans.

*** Without ever deigning to explain what that ‘vision’ was meant to be.

**** Indeed, it’s funny how one of those concept artworks with everyone drinking (pictured at the header of this post) seems to have been ‘inspired’ by an image I remember seeing of the crew partying in an alternate fan-made ending, here: http://fc02.deviantart.net/fs70/f/2012/075/9/7/mass_effect3_how_it_should__ve_ended_by_hellstern-d4stwab.jpg

Advertainmentorial: Blurring the ‘Journalism’ in Games Journalism (a rant)

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , on February 8, 2013 by drayfish

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IMAGE: Advertisement for Mass Effect 3 (Bioware)

The unprecedented fan backlash that emerged following the release of Mass Effect 3 early last year had a number of unforeseen consequences in the world of videogame journalism.  Most immediately it revealed a stark and needlessly hostile division between the gaming press and a subsection of their readership; but it further exposed some rather complicated interrelations between those critics and the publishers they are tasked with reviewing.

In the wake of the negative fan response to Mass Effect 3, many in the press condemned those unhappy with the ending presented by Bioware as ‘entitled whiners’, describing them as indulged consumers who, in their opinion, threatened to irreparably damage the legitimacy of videogames as an artistic medium.  In the opinion rant offered by Colin Moriarty (Playstation editor for IGN), his ferocious, infantile attack even refused any fan even the basic right to express their dissatisfaction once their purchase had been made.  You either admit you liked it (as he did), or shut the hell up.

Frequently, these arguments boiled down to a variation of one rhetorical plea: how can games be considered Art if the audience dares to question the absolutism of its creator’s vision?  It is a premise that embraced a reductive, narrow illogic that fundamentally misunderstood the whole history of art; but more than that, it revealed a self-righteous indignation at the heart of the gaming press itself.

After all, it was they in the press themselves who had spent years hyperbolically parroting the promises of Bioware’s publicity machine, ensuring player’s that, yes indeed, their choices would matter, that they would help shape the ending that they chose.  Indeed, in an extraordinary amount of cases, it was they themselves that had repeated these very sentiments in their reviews of the game (your choices matter; you define your ending; you decide your fate), and yet they immediately sought to discredit the fans who wanted to question those statements after making their purchase and finding it a distinctly different experience from the one promised.

But as many in the games media shook their collective heads in disappointment, lamenting that their audience was failing to live up to their expectations, the heightened scrutiny that this controversy stirred soon revealed some rather glaring omissions and conflicts of interest – few of which had been previously disclosed – all of which left the moral high ground from which they clucked their tongues a little unstable beneath their feet.

After all, Jessica Chobot, one of the principle representatives of gaming site IGN (one of Bioware’s most vocal supporters throughout), actually appeared as a character in Mass Effect 3, muddying the journalistic distance one might hope for in a publication’s criticism or review.  Indeed, it was a decision that made the ferocious screed Moriarty spewed at disgruntled fans appear a little personal.  (At the very least it threw a glaring suspicion over his ugly, and weirdly wounded vitriol.)

Similarly, the majority of reviewers of Mass Effect 3 were sent copies that could not import decisions from previous save games (here) meaning that they had no way of speaking to what is arguably the central conceit of the game experience (a fact many did not disclose in their copy), with consequentially few (if any) speaking of the face import issues that spoiled the experience for a great number of players.

And amongst innumerable other such examples, the publication Game Informer was happy to publish pre-release quotes such as Case Hudson’s promises of no ‘A, B, or C ending’ in expansive, gushing advertorial articles (here), while going on to not only fail to question the hypocrisies in such promises in their 10/10 review, but actively dismiss fans who questioned such contradiction after the fact.*

Sadly, however, incidents such as these have proved to be merely the tip of the iceberg in an industry that appears to lack the necessary objectivity that a word like ‘journalism’ necessitates.  As even a cursory exploration of the medium’s press reveals, in just the past several months a startling amount of evidence has surfaced that suggests that the relationship between publisher and reviewer has become, at times, uncomfortably cosy, with the average reader left unable to disentangle what is unsolicited analysis, and what is coerced, encouraged, or influenced by the very publishers who are supposedly being critiqued.**

* Jeff Gerstmann gave a negative review to Kane & Lynch and was summarily fired by Gamespot who caved to Sony’s threats to pull their advertising and exclusives.  The reasoning offered for his termination was that he ‘couldn’t be trusted’ to be an Editorial Director (here).

* At the most recent GMAs, gaming journalists were offered the chance to win a Playstation 3 console if they Tweeted advertising for the upcoming Tomb Raider game.  When a Eurogamer’s Robert Florence questioned whether or not such a practice was above board considering that they were meant to be the critics, not the cheerleaders of these products, he was fired (here).

* Publishers routinely send swag to reviewers as ‘gifts’ to accompany the review copies of their games – things like pens, clothing, crazy expensive chess sets (here), and offer expenses-paid ‘preview’ excursions to hotels and events.

* Activision blackballed Gameplanet, refusing them interviews with the makers of their games, because they wrote (extraordinarily briefly) about one such junket in which Activision invited a bunch of gaming journalists to an exclusive all-expenses paid hotel event, questioning the legitimacy of such an advertising technique (here).

* Sony felt comfortable threatening Kotaku with blackballing when they tried to report on an upcoming Sony service, even emailing them some borderline extortion menace that included the lines:

‘I am very disappointed that after trying to work with you as closely as possible and provide you and your team with access and information, you chose to report on this rumor…. I can’t defend outlets that can’t work cooperatively with us. / So, it is for this reason, that we will be canceling all further interviews for Kotaku staff at GDC and will be dis-inviting you to our media event next Tuesday. Until we can find a way to work better together, information provided to your site will only be that found in the public forum.’ (here)

* Electronic Arts seemingly sought to manipulate reviews of Battlefield 3 in Norway by withholding review copies to reviewers that gave bad reviews to previous installments, and forcing reviewers to fill out questionnaires about what they might score it (here).

So to summarise: confirmed cases of obscuration, extortion, enticement, coercion, all in a systemised ongoing blur between advertising and criticism…

Many in the games industry claim that such actions are uncharacteristic and minor aberrations in an otherwise ethically sound field.  They would argue that it is unjust to look upon such incidents as anything more than the misbehaviour of a misguided few who stepped way over the line and were swiftly corrected; but to me, dismissing them as isolated events completely at odds with the standard practice of this field is highly disingenuous.  Rather, these events are evidence of an ongoing systemic pattern of behaviour that has shown no signs of cessation or legitimate regulation.

The firing of Robert Florence happened only months ago – and that decision has not been reversed.  Sony’s and Activision’s bully tactics appear to be ongoing – or at least have adapted over time.  Game publishers continue to send swag to reviewers along with copies of their game; still preview their games in exclusive expenses-paid junkets; and utilise their marketing divisions to determine which outlet will be provided what level of access and which exclusives.

While I agree that people need to exercise reason and personal assessment in their purchasing, to pretend that the division between PR and critique in this industry has not been inextricably blurred, to dismiss the reality that there are few (if any) places to seek out analysis that has not been clouded by the uncomfortably close relationship of publishers and reviewers, is wilfully naive.

While it is not (and is never) as simple an arrangement as ‘I will give you this ludicrous, expensive chess set and you will give me a great score for my game…’ it is instead a system of comingled marketing and analysis has become so engrained – indeed, so expected – that the discerning consumer looking on is now incapable of reasonably drawing a line between what is unsolicited, honest review, and what has been swayed by an undisclosed familiarity with the publisher.

There are innumerable means of influence and persuasion – and yes, they are a part of every business that employs advertising to survive – but when it is common industry practice to ply games journalists with merchandise to invite them to linger longer upon, or think better of a game***, and then those very same people are later tasked with the analysis of that finished product, a line has been crossed that I believe must be considered with reservation.  (And again: the recent game-journalists-tweeting-publicity-to-win-a- PS3 scenario is a worrying product of a system that currently appears to be functioning without strict regulation.)

Indeed, the fact that the ‘reviewers’ of games are thought of as potential advertising opportunities in such a manner – potential billboards that can be won over and utilised to spread product awareness – is precisely the issue that makes trusting any opinion offered by these figures suspect.  Roger Ebert may get free tickets to the films he reviews, but he is not pictured wearing a Spiderman 6: Rise of the Arbitrary Sequel hoodie at the time; he won’t be denied access to interviews with directors and programmers if he slags off a movie (because publicity is not part of his purview); and the advertising that keeps his job afloat comes from a more diverse field of companies than merely the makers of those film themselves.

When I disagree with Roger Ebert – and I frequently do (the man loved Speed 2) – I do so because it is his personal perspective that I conflict with, not the entire perpetuation of the publicity/critique system that he works within.  At present those divisions have not yet been established firmly enough in this medium – and until they are, until such gratis gifts and payed, wooing previews are the exception rather than the rule, such scepticism will, by necessity, always persist.

So no, this is not a field swimming in fraud and dishonesty, but it is hardly a paragon of incorruptible principle, either – and when onlookers of the whole Mass Effect saga see two facts: ’75 perfect scores’, alongside a player Metacritic score of 1.5, I think a little more scepticism on both sides is healthy.

* And Game Informer (a publication owned by GameStop) announced that Mass Effect 3 was their Game of the Year for 2012 on the very same page that they advertised the release date and details of the ‘New Wii-U edition!’

** And an article like this one by Erik Kain at Forbes is an extraordinary (and rather disheartening) place to start (http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2012/10/26/all-the-pretty-doritos-how-video-game-journalism-went-off-the-rails/)

*** Ninja Stan, a moderator on the Bioware forum who has previously worked for Bioware (and with whom I had the original discussion that evolved into this rant), confirmed that Bioware, like innumerable other publishers, has routinely employed techniques such as supplying free beer to games journalists at events like PAX in order to entice them to linger longer at their booths and think more favourably of their games.

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