Archive for Mass Effect

‘EVERYONE SHUT UP SO I CAN HEAR MYSELF DECIDE WHAT ART IS!’: Colin Moriarty and the Fallacy of Commercial Self-Regulation in Art

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 2, 2013 by drayfish

IMAGE: Six Days in Fallujah (Konami)

Who doesn’t love and angry rant written months ago and left to ferment?  Mmmm hmmm…  A nice, acidic argument – now completely out of context, with references that almost no one recalls – lambasting an opinion piece that pretty much everyone has already forgotten?  Those smoky, earthy tannins of matured rage smouldering on the palate.  Who doesn’t love that?

…What?  Nobody loves that?  In fact, people actively despise that?  Oh.  Well, this blog might not be the taste experience I predicted…

Anyhoo…  This piece was actually written in response to an IGN Playstation editor, Colin Moriarty, and the peculiar editorial appeal he made last year to the videogame industry, declaring that ‘political correctness’ was stifling the creative potential of game designers.  It struck me as a ludicrous (and rather childish) screed, one that fundamentally mistook personal gratification for artistic license.  That this irrational tantrum was being offered by a prominent representative of videogaming – a medium that I believe deserves more regard than it is currently afforded – unnerved me greatly.  (Indeed, in truth I’m still rather shocked that he retains such a high position in the industry.)

My response (which follows here) was written and published last year at What Culture, but I offer it up now in all its un-contextualised, un-timely, utterly-irrelevant anti-glory:

‘EVERYONE SHUT UP SO I CAN HEAR MYSELF DECIDE WHAT ART IS!’: Colin Moriarty and the Fallacy of Commercial Self-Regulation in Art

IMAGE: Tomb Raider (Eidos)

 I: ‘Do what I say, not what I do’

I’ve taken issue with the opinion of IGN Playstation editor Colin Moriarty in the past.  A few months ago when Moriarty loudly decried the temerity of fans who would dare question the rushed, illogical, nihilistic endings of Mass Effect 3 (a game whose creators themselves went on to agree needed ‘clarification’ with a free Extended Cut), I lamented the way in which Moriarty, despite being a mouthpiece for the videogame community, had joyfully set back the debate over the validity of games being Art with a number of stifling and anachronistic sentiments about the way that they should be approached as texts.  In a curiously hypocritical declaration for a game-reviewer, Moriarty had posited that audiences had no right to be heard by the creators of videogames, that their only options in engaging with a text were to either purchase the work and unquestioningly praise it, or to not buy it, shut your mouth, and walk away.  For Moriarty there was no avenue for feedback or critique; you either paid your money or got the hell out: nothing to discuss here.  Seeing this as a shockingly reductive way in which to interact with any work of Art – let alone in the still-burgeoning medium that videogames represent – I concluded that Moriarty was probably in the wrong profession, and that his stifling hostility certainly did the legitimacy of his own position as a critic no favours at all.

At the time I had hoped that Moriarty would prove this strange outburst to be a momentary lapse of thought.  Having finished venting his ire at the ‘entitled whiners’ of the Mass Effect community who seemed to have somehow personally offended him by not agreeing to being satisfied when he told them to, I believed he would return to his function as a reviewer, perhaps even, one day, looking back to appreciate (if never vocalising) the irony that his very career was based upon the commentary he had condemned others for attempting.  And yet, only months after his first outburst, in the past week Moriarty has chosen to cast his net even wider.  Expanding his buy-it-or-shut-the-hell-up treatise to the whole of the videogame world, Moriarty has decided to decry the ‘Political Correctness’ that he imagines is stifling all creativity in the field.

II: All the little things…

In an opinion piece published on the IGN Playstation website, Moriarty argues that, as he sees it, all videogame Art is currently under threat.  Games in the midst of development, he argues, are being choked by the whims of vocal minorities; voices of complaint are stifling the creativity and innovation of developers, compelling them to change their visions based upon the most insignificant of personal grievances.  All because, as he states, ‘Even the most mundane and inconsequential something can send a person into a tizzy.’*

But what are those inconsequential ‘tizzy’-inducing ‘somethings’?

Well, helpfully Moriarty offers a list.  They are: rape; the sanctity of people’s religious beliefs; and graphic recreations of ongoing real-world military bloodshed (actual events in which currently serving soldiers have watched their squad mates die).

You know?  The small stuff.

Extraordinarily, considering how harangued he sounds in his Chicken Little proclamations, Moriarty offers no legitimate examples to support his claim that this kind of censorship is rife.  Citing the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot (in which pre-release advertising showed the game’s protagonist being overtly threatened with sexual assault), the game Smite (which offers gratuitous and unflattering depictions of Hindu Gods), and the now-cancelled Six Days In Fallujah (an FPS that recreates in painstaking detail the real-world events of the bloody insurgency in Fallujah), Moriarty argues that somehow – he’s not actually able to articulate how, but he can feel it: somehow – these games are being stripped of all creativity and communicative potential by voices of dissent that would question how such subject matter is being depicted.  However, in the three examples he has selected only one can perhaps be said to have been effected by the criticism it received.  Tomb Raider and Smite are both confirmed to be going ahead without any alterations at all, and it still remains unclear why publishers Konami pulled the release of Six Days In Fallujah – though one can fairly comfortably suspect that it was more to do with projected sales figures than the moral outrage of a ‘vocal minority’.

For Moriarty even the suggestion that one could question any of the design decisions in these games equates to an affront to free speech, but, as now appears to be the case with his entire thought process, he misses the nuance that can put these complaints into context.  The issue with Lara Croft’s threatened rape in the recent trailer was not that the subject matter of sexual assault itself should never be depicted in fiction, it was that it was being used, cynically, as a tool through which to disempower the central protagonist in order to make her sympathetic to a playing audience.  Much of the complaint centred around the suggestion that we, the players, needed to be so ham-fistedly manipulated, that we would feel no compulsion to follow a strong female character unless she was first violated and beaten down, a weakened damsel in distress that we, with our godly player-agency, could rescue from the ravenous advances of predatory men.**  It was an advertising move that insulted its audience as much as it did the heroine (who thankfully, we were soon assured, was not actually going to suffer a sexual assault in game just to elicit empathy).

Indeed, in order to scramble up to his fearful, speculative peak, Moriarty has had to completely ignore the reality that in the history of the medium very little – indeed almost none – of this so called ‘Political Correctness’ has ever actually succeeded in altering the design of a game.  Nonetheless, he believes that all dissenting opinions (such as those of veterans of war who questioned how appropriate it was to release a sensationalised portrait of an ongoing conflict in Six Days… – this is literally the argument Moriarty makes***) should always be ignored in favour of the marketplace, which has a better chance of regulating the material to which the public should be exposed.  Instead of debate and dialogue, Moriarty proudly subscribes to a form of Darwinian Capitalism in which the dollar is the sole measure of a text’s artistic merit.

And who knows, perhaps he’s right…  It’s certainly true that money has, in the past, always been the best arbiter of Art.  That’s why Transformers remains the most important cinematic touchstone in recent history; why Twilight is the finest piece of literature to have elevated the written word; and why Justin Bieber is widely considered to be history’s finest composer.

…Hold on.  What?!

Alongside being patently idiotic, Moriarty’s purely commercial vision would also theoretically silence any critic who did not speak with their wallet …although it goes without saying that Moriarty (as a ‘critic’) reserves the right to himself complain about whatever he feels (it would appear that he is either addicted to, or is incapable of comprehending, irony).

III: ‘Yer with us, or agin us’

To arbitrarily shut argument down, to point to some mythic commercial idol that will somehow rescue us from the need to converse with one another about social and artistic issues is so mind-numbingly reductive that it is hard to believe Moriarty could be unaware of the false dichotomy he employs.  By pointing to some mythic commercial idol that will rescue us from the responsibility of actually having to think for ourselves Moriarty uses the oldest and most rote means of shutting any discussion down; in his new fallacious bipolarity of argument he decrees that either everything is allowed, or everything is not:

Should we succumb to the plight of political correctness and let it ruin the creativity of our industry like it’s corrupted so many other artistic avenues? Or should we stand up and say “anything goes” and encourage the creative minds that give us the games we love to push the envelope, social consequences be damned?

It’s the kind of infantile either/or scenario that is popular in any rhetorically specious debate: ‘Well if you don’t agree that torture is acceptable then you’re pro-terrorist’; ‘If you eat meat then you can’t complain about animal cruelty’; if you laughed at Leno you must hate Dave; Pepsi versus Coke; Jacob versus Edward; ninja versus robot.  In discourse it’s the equivalent of putting one’s hands over one’s ears and shouting ‘La la la la laaaa…’ to avoid responding to contrary opinion.  It’s pathetic.****

Indeed, in any other circumstance it would be comical to hear someone so witlessly misapplying this kind of arbitrary delineation to a debate on artistic merit.  It is as if Moriarty were intentionally evoking each and every cliché in the history of turgid irrational screeds.  We get the predictably uncontextualised Benjamin Franklin quote; the ‘Thought Police’ have their obligatory mention; and his tantrum even comes packaged with its own victimhood complex: I’m sick of being told how to live; I know plenty of fire fighters but I never stop anyone saying anything about 9/11!!, etc.  Taken completely out of context (as Moriarty impossibly wants people to consume all Art), his opinion piece is an hilarious, although unwitting, parody – the indignation of a paranoiac with a persecution-complex, wailing that the ‘PC’ bogeymen are ruining all his fun.

However, as Moriarty is not joking, and as these opinions are being espoused by a commentator who is himself a member of the gaming press, this ludicrous fear-mongering has the potential to be quite harmful for a new medium of expression that has, throughout its relatively short span, struggled for legitimacy in a world that frequently dismisses it as juvenile distraction.  Moriarty might well be content to pursue an illusory enemy, leaving his city to burn in the process, but for those of us who do genuinely care to see the videogame form accepted for the innovative artistic medium that it is, seeing someone who should be using their platform to advance this message instead railing like a petulant child is quite disheartening.  I can only presume that this is why his employers at IGN provided a more rational response from a fellow editor the next day, seeking perhaps to offset the unflattering portrait his eruption presented of the contemporary gamer.*****

For critics who have long dismissed videogames as the competitive playthings of people too self-involved to conceive of what the purpose of ‘Art’ actually is, Moriarty’s petulant ultimatums – silencing debate and reducing the medium to pure consumer product – will confirm their every ugly stereotype of games and the people who play them.  Rather than innovative texts that have the capacity to redefine narrative experience and audience interaction, games will merely remain a means of juvenile gratuitous satisfaction, feeding whatever wanton or base desire for which its customers are willing to pay.  By reducing the conversation of Art down to a cartoonishly politicised either/or proposition, Moriarty undermines the very validity he claims to defend and risks making gamers everywhere look like infantile fools.

IV: ‘The reason we all have one mouth but two ears’

In the end, Moriarty sounds like little more than a brat throughout his opinion piece, squealing for his toys as the big mean ‘Politically Correct’ mummies and daddies of the world try to tell him that sometimes it’s important to think of someone else in the world besides himself.  Indeed, there are so many things wrong with his ill-conceived fantasy of a commercially-dictated artistic merit that in trying to formulate a rejoinder it is difficult to know where to start.

Does one begin by pointing out that Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime, so profit alone is no validation of Art?  Does one explain to Moriarty what the highly profitable pornography industry actually is, and how profitable it has proved over the years – since he seems to have made himself wilfully unaware?  No.  In the end, one needs to settle on the simplest answer; the most fitting response in this case.  One needs to offer him the advice one would offer to the tantrum of a child:

Despite what you might think, Moriarty, you don’t know everything.

No one person does.  And it is only through being willing to participate in healthy, adult discussion that works of artistic merit (and ideally of profit) can be produced, dissected, and enjoyed.

For all his bleating about protecting the rights of freedom of speech and expression, Moriarty is so busy weeping for the fun he imagines himself to be denied that he utterly forgets about the social responsibility that any self-respecting artist should value.  No artwork is divorced from the social and cultural milieu into which it is presented; no artist works in a vacuum.  Any piece of Art (if it is to be considered worthy of the title) – and even if it aspires to speak for generations beyond its time – remains a conversation with an audience that cannot be divorced from its context.

Simply being able to say something is no immediate indication that one should (as Moriarty’s own article proves); and reminding artists that they have a duty to communicate something of value, not to simply pander to whatever base desire floats momentarily across the transom of their mind is not the Orwellian censorship about which Moriarty apoplectically shrieks.  It is simply part of the organic dialogue of creativity in which every artist must participate; to pretend otherwise, to mistakenly equate ‘freedom of speech’ with a reckless abandon of purpose and taste is to fundamentally devolve the act of expression itself.

It would therefore serve us all – artists, audiences and critics – to remember that communication itself is the most elemental component of all artistic expression, and lies at the heart of every interaction between audience and text.  Videogames offer us an unprecedented window into a thrilling new relationship between creator and player; but with restrictive voices like Moriarty in the gaming press conceitedly shouting such dialogue down, the debate over whether videogames should be considered Art is only made harder to justify; they become nothing more than soulless product met by a silent audience, made-to-order fare with nothing innovative to say and nothing to ask of their player.

IMAGE: Smite (Hi-Rez Studios)

* http://au.ign.com/articles/2012/07/17/opinion-the-problem-with-political-correctness-in-video-games

** The producer Ron Rosenberg in an interview with Kotaku stated that he wanted players to feel an urge to ‘protect’ Lara from danger: ‘When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character.’ (http://kotaku.com/5917400/youll-want-to-protect-the-new-less-curvy-lara-croft)

*** ‘Never mind that we have hundreds of games about World War II – a war in which some 65 million people died – anything to do with Iraq should be censored. Why, because it just happened?’ (http://au.ign.com/articles/2012/07/17/opinion-the-problem-with-political-correctness-in-video-games)

**** Besides, the ninja clearly wins.

***** http://au.ign.com/articles/2012/07/19/political-correctness-a-different-view

Jump, Jump, Left, Right, Express-Fundamental-Truths-Of-Human-Experience, Down, Up

Posted in art, criticism, literature, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: Red Cow & First Chinese Horse (N. Aujoulat, 2003)

Although videogames have been around for some time now (long enough in a rapidly expanding, adaptive culture to have mutated beyond anything that people could conceive in the days of Pong and Frogger – indeed long enough that museum retrospectives like the Game Masters exhibition recently held at the ACMI in Melbourne, Australia are starting to emerge)* – timeline-wise, we in the gaming sphere are still in what, comparatively, was the black-and-white days of film. Games are still just taking their first thrilling steps into exploring the boundaries of their communicative potential, testing how far they can push in any one direction and still be considered a game:

‘Hey, that looks like one enormous, tedious cut-scene.’

‘Nope, it’s Heavy Rain.’

‘Hey, that looks like a gigantic fully-realised Lego play box alive with limitless potentialities.’

‘Nah. Minecraft.’

‘Hey, that makes my heart sing. I feel that I am being bathed in the raw unfiltered majesty of creative potential. I weep uncontrollably, but my soul is emblazoned with newfound life, ascending to a state of purity beyond space and time. ‘

‘Yes. It’s Petz Pony Beauty Pageant for the DS.’

‘…Hold me.’

Sure, at the moment (and perhaps for some time onward) games are still hampered by processing limitations that can stifle creative decisions in a manner not quite as evident in film; but just as in the early days of cinema (look at Metropolis, or The Maltese Falcon, or Charlie Chaplin’s work), in these burgeoning years of this new medium we are seeing some exceptional examples of creators working within the limitations of their technological canvas to communicate extraordinary works of Art.

I think in many ways there is value in thinking of the current state of gaming as analogous to the paintings in the Lascaux Caves in France.

If you’ve not seen them before, they are considered to be the earliest surviving recorded images made by human beings. They are tucked away in caves so dark that they required their artists to bring firelight with them in order to even see what they were painting – and they still remain utterly, stunningly splendid.

Sure, in theory, before you look upon them, it’s easy to dismiss these Palaeolithic images as mere scrawl on a wall, but if you actually let one of those visuals wash over you, the effect is truly sublime. You realise that on every possible level, these paintings are aesthetically and communicatively exquisite. You look at the coiled calligraphy of those horses hooves, their rotund proud haunches, that soft delicacy of their manes peppering the length of their neck. There is a solemn gracefulness to the bulls; while the unflinching menace of their horns, like unsheathed sabres, remain ominously erect. The trammel of thunderous footfalls seems to resound from out of a stampede.

In every image the grace, the artistry, the respect for subject matter with which these images were brought into being, swells them over with meaning. Indeed, it’s why Picasso drew from these very cave paintings, inspired by them to try and fuse primitive expression with modern technique in paintings like Guernica (1937), and his many (perhaps rather too many) images of bulls. …Really, what was it about him and the bulls?

I would – without the slightest hesitation – call these images on the walls of the Lascaux caves ‘Art’. Indeed, in many ways they are the purest Art ever conceived. They are a vision of the world produced and communicated by an artist who understood his/her subject matter, and who was able to deftly render an experience to the viewer (whoever that might eventually turn out to be) – fashioning it in the most compelling manner he/she could with the tools he/she was able to utilise.

Some (no doubt videogame nay-sayers like Roger Ebert), might revolt at me likening the burgeoning brushstrokes of humankind’s attempts to render life with the advent of the double-jump, but really, I see striking similarities. Human beings express themselves in any number of adaptive ways, and just because videogames may at first appear superficially crude (particularly in these early years when we see developers taking their first experimental steps, stretching the limits of what this medium can convey) this does not discount them from consideration. I have laughed and wept at a videogame (in a totally manly way); I have felt pride and achievement at a videogame (look it was a very emotional game); I have been swayed by the elegance of a game’s mechanics (hey, you would have cried too if you’d played that game); and lost myself in its alluring design (and I had something in my eye… okay, I don’t need to be judged by you right now).

Videogames may struggle with depicting sex-scenes that aren’t laughable, realistic eye movements, or the incalculabilities of character interaction, but when they are at their best they capture pure human expression, inviting their audience to invest wholly in an experience. And that is the very foundation of all that is Art.

And I firmly believe that video games are capable of communicating such human experiences in ways that no other medium can. Indeed, with videogames, like no other Art form, we actually get to exist within the text, to react to it, to engage with it. It invites us to participate in the way in which the text itself makes its meaning; we can help charge it with purpose if we decide to buy into what it is attempting to express.

Often videogames therefore attempt to convey triumph or success: they show characters overcoming obstacles; they invite us to use lateral thinking to expand our comprehension; to fight tenaciously; to become lost in a vast, dangerous worlds of creeping horrors; or to dress like a plumber in a racoon suit and save a princess from a mutant dinosaur who heavilly invested in castle real estate. …Yeah. Okay, some are more abstract. Like Dada.

But in every case, if the game has performed its intended purpose, it has transported us into an experience. Although the definition of what can be Art is sometimes dauntingly vast, it is almost always communicating a human truth, in many cases, one that could not be said in any other way; and games most certainly do what no other medium can with such visceral immediacy.

Whether something is good or bad Art, however, is an entirely different question…

* http://www.acmi.net.au/game-masters.aspx

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

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

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

IMAGE: Chrono Trigger (Square Enix)

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

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

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

And it is…

ohmygoodnessthiscouldbethemostadorablefantasticgameI’veeverplayed…

iloveitsomuchagaaaaahhhh….

And let me tell you why…

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

I’ve just been put on trail.

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

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

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

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

Did you eat this old man’s lunch?

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

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

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

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

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

No?!  Nothin’?  Guilty?! 

Damnnit!

NOW CEASETH THE SPOILERAGE

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

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

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

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

IMAGE: Chrono Trigger ‘Courtroom’ (Square Enix)

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

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

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

IMAGE: Bioware

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘But you must choose.’

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

‘It is the only solution.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Slaughter of the Suitors

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

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

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

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

Thematically Revolting: The End of Mass Effect 3

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

IMAGE: Bioware

Putting aside all of the hanging plot threads that rankled me when first playing through the ending of Mass Effect 3 (where was the Normandy going? why did my squad mates live? Anderson is where now? wait, the catalyst was Haley Joel Osment? etc), I would like to take a moment to explain why, when I was offered those three repellent choices, ‘Destroy’, ‘Control’, and ‘Synthesise’, I turned and tried to unload my now infinite pistol into the whispy-space-ghost’s face.

It was not because I was unhappy that my Shepard would not get to drink Garrus under the table one last time, or get to help Tali build a back-porch on her new homestead, nor that I was pretty sure no one was going to remember to feed my space fish – it was because those three ideological options were so structurally indefensible that they broke the suspension of disbelief that Bioware had (up until that point) so spectacularly crafted for over a hundred hours of narrative. Suddenly Shepard was not simply being asked to sacrifice a race or a friend or him/herself for the greater good (all of which was no doubt expected by any player paying attention to the tone of the series), Shepard was being compelled, without even the chance to offer a counterpoint, to perform one of three actions that to my reading each fundamentally undermined the narrative foundations upon which the series seemed to rest.

In the Control ending, Shepard is invited to pursue the previously impossible path of attempting to dominate the reapers and bend them to his or her will. Momentarily putting aside the vulgarity of dominating a species to achieve one’s own ends (and I will get to complaining about that premise soon enough), this has proved to be the failed modus operandi of every antagonist in this fiction up until this point – including the Illusive Man and Saren – all of whom have been chewed up and destroyed by their blind ambition, incapable of controlling forces beyond their comprehension. Nothing in the vague prognostication of the exposition-ghost offers any tangible justification for why Shepard’s plunge into Reaper-control should play out any differently. In fact, as many people have already pointed out, Shepard has literally not five minutes before this moment watched the Illusive Man die as a consequence of this arrogant misconception.

The Destroy ending, however, seems even more perverse. One of the constants of the Mass Effect universe (and indeed much quality science fiction) has been an exploration of the notion that life is not simplistically bound to biology, that existence expands beyond the narrow parameters of blood and bone. That is why synthetic characters like Legion and EDI are so compelling in this context, why their quests to understand self-awareness – not simply to ape human behaviours – is so dramatic and compelling. Indeed, we even get glimpses of the Reapers having more sprawling and unknowable motivations that we puny mortals can comprehend…

To then end the tale by forcing the player to obliterate several now-proven-legitimate forms of life in order to ‘save’ the traditional definition of fleshy existence is not only genocidal, it actually devolves Shephard’s ideological growth, undermining his ascent toward a more evolved conception of existence, something that the fiction has been steadily advancing no matter how Renegadishably you wanted to play. This is particularly evident when the preceding actions of all three games entirely disprove the premise that synthetic will inevitably destroy organic: the Geth were the persecuted victims, trying their best to save the Quarians from themselves; EDI, given autonomy, immediately sought to aid her crew, even taking physical form in order to experience life from their perspective and finally learning that she too feared the implications of death.

And finally Synthesis, the ending that I suspect (unless we are to believe the Indoctrination Theory) is the ‘good’ option, proves to be the most distasteful of all. Shepard, up until this point has been an instrument though which change is achieved in this universe, and dependent upon your individual Renegade or Paragon choices, this may have resulted in siding with one species or another, letting this person live or that person die, even condemning races to extinction through your actions. But these decisions were always the result of a mediation of disparate opinions, and a consequence of the natural escalation of these disputes – Shepard was merely the fork in the path that decided which way the lava would run. His/her actions had an impact, but was responding to events in the universe that were already in motion before he/she arrived.

To belabour the point: Shepard is an agent for arbitration, the tipping point of dialogues that have, at times, root causes that reach back across generations. Up until this moment in the game the narrative, and Shepard’s role within it, has been about the negotiation of diversity, testing the validity of opposing viewpoints and selecting a path through which to evolve on to another layer of questioning. Suddenly with the Synthesis ending, Shepard’s capacity to make decisions elevates from offering a moral tipping point to arbitrarily wiping such disparity from the world. Shepard imposes his/her will upon every species, every form of life within the galaxy, making them all a dreary homogenous oneness. At such a point, wiping negotiation and multiplicity from the universe, Shepard moves from being an influential voice amongst a biodiversity of thought to sacrificing him/herself in an omnipotent imposition of will.

(And lest we forget that the entire character arc of Javik (the ‘bonus’ paid-DLC character that gives unique context to the entire cycle of destruction upon which this fiction is based) is utilised to reveal that a lack of diversity, the failure to continue adapting to new circumstances, was the primary reason that his race was decimated. …So I guess we have that to look forward to.)

This bewildering finale felt as if you had been listening to a soaring orchestral movement that ended in a cacophonous blast, the musicians tossing down their instruments and walking away. I find it hard to conceive how the creators of such a magnificent franchise could made such a mess of their own universe. The plot holes, thematic inconsistencies and a deus ex machina that was unforgivable in ancient Greek theatre, let alone in any modern narrative, all combine to erode the foundations upon which the rest of the experience resides. (It’s a disturbing sign when apologists for such an ending have to literally hope that what they witnessed was just a bad dream in the central character’s head.)

And to hear Bioware and sympathetic critics arguing ‘artistic integrity’ as an excuse to hide from their audience’s criticism, or to arbitrarilly dismiss the idea of a re-writing of the end, seems a juvenile escape from valid critique. One can immediately think of Charles Dickens being alert to, and adapting his writing in response to the floods of letters he received from his fans in the serialised delivery of stories such as The Old Curiosity Shop; or of F.Scott Fitzgerald extensively redrafting Tender is the Night for a second publishing after receiving negative critical feedback. Indeed, whatever you think of the final result, Ridley Scott was able to reassert a definitive vision of Blade Runner in spite of its original theatrical release. Despite what critics might burble about artistic vision there is innumerable precedent for such reshaping, even beyond fundamental industry practices such as play-testings and film test-screenings. If a work of art has failed in its communicative purpose (and unless angering and bewildering its most invested fans was the goal, then Mass Effect 3 has done so), then it cannot be considered a success, and is not worthy of regard.

And for those who would respond that I, and fans like myself, are simply upset because the endings do not offer some irrefutable ‘clarity’ that would mar the poetic mysteries of the ending, I would point out that I am in no way against obscure or bewildering endings: if they are earned. In contrast to a majority of viewers, I happen to love the ending of The Sopranos for precisely this reason – because, despite the momentary jolt of surprise it engendered, that audacious blank screen was wholly thematically supportable. The driving premise of that program was a man seeking therapy (a mobster, yes, but a psychologically damaged man) – indeed, the very first beat in that narrative was Tony Soprano walking into a psychiatrist’s office. The principle thematic tie of the entire series was therefore revealed to be a mediation upon the underlying psychological stimuli that produces identity: whether the capacity to interpret and understand one’s impulses can impact upon the experience of one’s life; whether one can attain agency over one’s life.

That ending might have been agonising, but it was entirely fitting that the series ended with a loaded ambiguity, inviting a myriad of interpretations in which we the audience were now placed into the role of the psychiatrist, suddenly compelled to reason out the ending of those final thirty seconds with the cumulative experience of the preceding six years of imagery. Did Tony die? Did he have a second plate of onion rings and enjoy his family’s company? Did Meadow ever park that car? In its final act The Sopranos gives over the interpretive, descriptive function of its narrative to its audience, intimately binding the viewer to Tony Soprano’s own (perhaps failed) attempts to comprehend himself and attain authorship over his life. …But the only reason that they could even try this is because every minute of every episode to this point has been propagated upon the notion that Tony Soprano was a man with a subconscious that could be explored, and that motivated his actions whether as a loving father or brutal criminal.

The obscurities in the ending of Mass Effect 3 have not been similarly earned by its prior narrative. This narrative has not until this point been about dominance, extermination, and the imposition of uniformity – indeed, Shepard has spent over a hundred hours of narrative fighting against precisely these three themes. And if one of these three (and only these three) options must be selected in order to sustain life in the universe, then that life has been so devalued by that act as to make the sacrifice meaningless.

And that is why I shall go on shooting Haley Joel Osmont’s ghost in the face.

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

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