Archive for Mass Effect

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

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

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

To Read Part 1 of this Retrospective

Mass Effect title screen maxresdefault

In the beginning there is fear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mass Effect ashley and kaiden

The What

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mass-effect-shepard-citadel-arm-presidium

The Why

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mass-effect-1-squad

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

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

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

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

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

‘Never underestimate the power of words.’

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

Mass Effect Normandy_feros

The How

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

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

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

Mass Effect 1 earth

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

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

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

mass effect elevator

The Huh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mass Effect Screenshot3597.1

The Rub

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mass Effect climax

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

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

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

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

Mass Effect Andromeda 2

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

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

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

No wonder they made a sequel.

Oh –

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

Mass Effect Andromeda 1

IMAGE: Intentionally misleading

Simply because I am a jerk?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mass Effect my face is tired

IMAGE: ‘Sorry, my dialogue is contrived’

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

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

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

Firstly: the plot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…I mean, ‘Pathfinder’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mass Effect Andromeda bug

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

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

How well do they still hold up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…Right?

Mass Effect title screen maxresdefault

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

‘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/)

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