Archive for Mass Effect 3

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.

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

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

IMAGE: Mass Effect 3 (Bioware)

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

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

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

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

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

. . . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Screw you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marauder Shields: Fanning the Fiction

Posted in comics, literature, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: Marauder Shields by Koobismo

Fan fiction has long had a rather turgid reputation.  For many people, the first images that spring to mind when hearing the word ‘fanfic’ are probably sappy fantasies of Mulder and Scully moving to Miami and having babies; weird psycho-sexual encounters between Harry Potter characters; or stilted, universe-collapsing crossovers titled BattlestarWarsTrekGate* – but in truth the history of fan-made art is a far more complex and fruitful than one might at first presume.  Indeed sometimes, as is arguably the case in the extraordinary Marauder Shield’s series – an alternate fiction designed to retroactively contextualise the controversial ending of Mass Effect, it can be seen as a way of rescuing the original franchise from itself.

Fan fictions have long been a way for those most enamoured with a text to try to engage directly with the work, to project their own identity into the material through the most overt possible act of homage – carving out their own imaginative space within a universe they admire.  But there are many other reasons for undertaking this form of intellectual reappropriation – not all of them merely an attempt to exist within a beloved imaginative landscape – and there are many surprising works of fiction that can emerge from the pursuit.

One can see this diversity of intent by just looking at a few of the most immediate examples that spring to mind.  Aspiring screenwriters looking for work have long been encouraged to develop speculative scripts for established programs that they can then go on to use as evidence for their skill when applying for work – an act that is technically a form of fanfic.  Indeed, Donald Glover of Community fame has an unproduced Simpsons episode going idle that I am going to arrogantly speculate would be funnier than anything the show itself has delivered in the past ten years.**  Secondly, the current publishing sensation E.L. James, author of Fifty Shades of Grey,reportedly began writing her novel as a form of Twilight fan fiction (although I cannot begin to express the wellspring of loathing I have for both franchises…)  Indeed, even the book Wicked by Gregory Maguire, a subversive take on The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch, or Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean, an officially endorsed continuation of J.M. Barrie’s tale, are both technically forms of fan fiction.***

And then there are those works of unsanctioned fan fiction that can be seen to transcend the term, that capture (or even eclipse) the original work so effortlessly that they become, for many fans, the abiding canonical experience.  For some fans (full disclosure: myself included), one of the only good things to have emerged from the whole debacle surrounding the conclusion to Mass Effect 3 earlier this year has been the emergence of an ‘alternate ending’, created by a fan named Koobismo, called Marauder Shields.****

For those unaware, the character of ‘Marauder Shields’ was a meme that surfaced as the disappointment over the Mass Effect ending was at its earliest and hottest stage – indeed, I had already heard of ‘Marauder Shields’ by internet osmosis well before I had any idea what to expect by the actual details of the ending.

To briefly summarise: at the original conclusion of Mass Effect 3, the designers of the game had chosen to conclude their narrative in a dialogue scene with a character called the ‘Catalyst’ – the mouthpiece of the genocidal enemy the central character, Shepard, had been trying to stop all along.  This Catalyst forces Shepard (and by extension the player) to chose one of three vulgar options with which they must end their journey: they must either commit an act of genocide; genetically mutate every living being against their will; or brainwash the enemy in order to themself become the new totalitarian overlord of the galaxy.  It was an alarmingly nihilistic ending, in which a war crime was the price of victory – and to many fans seemed in stark opposition to the inclusive, hopeful message that the series had until that very point, championed.

On March 14th (only a week after the game was released), a player on a message board 4chan noted that because this Catalyst conversation effectively overtook the end of the game in an elaborate depressing cut-scene, this therefore meant that the ‘final boss’ the player encountered was a lowly Marauder (a stock-standard enemy type that recurs constantly throughout the game; his last name, ‘Shields’, came from the graphic above his head that showed, literally, his shields).  In fact, it was soon posited, this Marauder had tried to ‘kill’ the player to save them from seeing that awful ending.  He was, in the greater scheme of things, a misunderstood hero, and if only the player had listened to him and just died, they would have been spared a greater pain…

Koobismo, creator and still guiding hand of the Marauder Shields comic, took this notion of the ‘final boss’ and used the character to make a satirical screw you to the end of the game, actually showing Marauder Shields to be a more complex, introspective and soulful figure, intent on righting the wrongs of a narrative conceit gone haywire.  It was highly comedic, but in truth had nowhere to go once the mighty Marauder blew the Catalyst away, spitting out his resignation like a synthetic Dirty Harry.

Since those first few snarky strips, however, the work has grown and evolved into a full-fleshed and compelling narrative, a genuine and passionate alternate world in which the fiction of Mass Effect continues on, not derailed by the artless deus ex machina and arbitrary moral surrender of the original.  In contrast, the work has rather become emboldened by the act of declaring a loud narrative and thematic ‘No’ to such nihilistic compromise.

The battle in which the characters and player were engaged at the end of Mass Effect 3 still rages on, and ironically, while the player avatar Shepard still functions as the nucleus around which the depicted characters spin, he/she is not directly visualised in the comic – only referred to as another hostage of the drama playing out for his/her sake.  Some characters, who in the original text abandoned their commander, remain fighting by his/her side; others who were offered arbitrary deaths in the final moments of the game, live on to fight tenaciously; perhaps even more extraordinarily, major plot points (like: Why are the Reaper’s even focused on London?, What were the other strike teams doing?, What was the Illusive Man up to anyway?) are offered answers that were ignored, glossed over, or never intended to be justified, in the original.

But above all of this continuation of the story, what Koobismo’s rich, self-aware alternate universe truly offers is the rescue and resurrection of the primary theme that Mass Effect had, until its ending, always abided by, and which it unceremoniously sacrificed (both figuratively and literally) in its endgame.  As Koobismo so perfectly articulates in a written response to the additional paid ‘Leviathan’ DLC: Marauder Shields was an attempt to recapture what had been lost in that ending, what had repugnantly twisted a universe that was so beloved into a shade of its former beauty…

Because, of course…

Of course it had to be…

That emotion that has driven every narrative that has ever meant anything to we precocious little creatures of flesh; that sensation that has ever given breath to our silly, but surprisingly resilient beliefs.  That fire that has burned within us since we first stared out into the immensity of an existence that seemed to vast to comprehend all at once – a universe that we have ever since tried to compartmentalise with myth and legend and fiction…

Obviously it was always going to be hope.

As Koobismo states in that statement of poetics:

One could argue that the solutions presented by the [Catalyst] grant you some kind of hope… And one would be wrong.  The very philosophical themes of the ending indicate that nothing matters, neither in the past (all choices become invalidated), nor the future (everything can be invalidated once again, by another godlike creature with an even stupider plan – these are the new rules of the narrative).  Your hopes, presented to you over the course of the narrative, were false – this is why it stings so much to return to the previous games, this is why replayability gets murdered by this finale.  Let me emphasize this… The crucial emotion of Mass Effect was HOPE.  Believing in a positive outcome fueled by your efforts and sacrifices, which is invalidated retroactively.  You can hide away the “it’s about the journey” asspull – how can you take the same journey again, how can you hope again, if you know that it’s just a lie?****

And for many players (although it is fair to say not all), Koobismo is perfectly, heartbreakingly right.  The seismic shock of that final repugnant end, being forced to rob the universe of the very freedoms that allowed it to yearn and dream, to fight to live not merely survive, ultimately devastated any capacity to return to that narrative, to engage again with the fraud that lies at its core.

For many, there is, at present, no more hope in the original text of Mass Effect 3 – only a love note to moral relativity.  For now, the only place that one can find that sensation again is in the realm of what began as fan-fiction, in Koobismo’s spectacular work Marauder Shields.  For it is here that the characters have not yet given up the fight; here that the audience and author have not abandoned the luminescent hope that always made this narrative grand.  Indeed, it is a belief so immense that it has now carved out a whole new universe, free from the contamination of the old, and the thematic betrayal that undermined the entirety of the journey.

Indeed, it explains why (and I am not ashamed to admit this), after the Extended Cut of Mass Effect 3 was released, I choked up to see the banner rallying-cry  with which Koobismo had signed that week’s release:

FUELLED BY NOTHING BUT FAN LOVE / MASS EFFECT LIVES ON

Damned right it does.

And for that, I cannot personally thank Marauder Shields enough.

Postscript:

In the past few weeks, a mod for the ending of the game Mass Effect 3 has been released by an ingenious and artful modder named MrFob.  Answering the call of many fans who were disheartened by the arbitrary sacrifice of the hero and the total moral surrender of the ending, MrFob tweaked the details of the conclusion to offer an alternate resolve.  The ending plays out much the same, subtracting only to forced genocide of an innocent race of allies and the surrender of the main character to the whim of his/her intolerant enemy’s nihilistic bargain.  Details of this ending, and links to video can be found here: http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/368/index/14795358/1#14795358

 

IMAGE: Marauder Shields by Koobismo

* I call copyright on BattlestarWarTrekGate.  Look for it in theatres never.

** Something he revealed in his appearance on the Nerdist podcast.

*** The Wall Street Journal has quite a nice summary of the history Fanfic that cites many more such examples: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303734204577464411825970488.html

**** Marauder Shields (http://koobismo.deviantart.com/gallery/#)

***** ‘The Leviathan and the death of Hope’ (http://koobismo.deviantart.com/#/d5d7f66)

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