Archive for video games

‘Habit is a Great Deadener’: Peter Molyneux and Waiting For Godus

Posted in criticism, literature, Uncategorized, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2015 by drayfish

Peter Molyneux 22Cans

IMAGE: Peter Molyneux (22Cans)

‘Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come—’
Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett

Over the last few days most every article written about Peter Molyneux and his company 22Cans has started with some variation on the same sentence:

‘Peter Molyneux has had a bad couple of weeks…’

(Well, that and the obligatory Waiting For Godot reference that self-loathing pun-junkies like me just can’t resist.) It’s the kind of catch-all observation that’s both undeniably true and open to whatever inflection the author chooses to apply to it.

For those sympathetic to Molyneux it’s a statement of solidarity – an industry luminary, a beloved, if occasionally over-eager creator has fallen into tough times, his reputation maligned by a string of unfavourable news reports. For those who have little patience for the designer, however, it’s a grim kind of schadenfreude. Finally, after years of reckless hyperbole, Molyneux is finally being brought to task for spruiking endless features, and entire games, that never come to fruition.

What triggered this whole mess was a series of glaring own-goals scored by Molyneux himself as 22Cans winds down production on Godus – the Kickstarter funded game that has yet to meet even its primary stated goals almost two years after it was supposed to have been completed. At the Fun & Serious Game Festival this past December, Molyneux announced that he was shifting his attention onto a new project, a smart device game called The Trail. Godus, he lamented, was a game that ‘lacked in narrative, progress and reward’, but The Trail (whatever it was) would be brimming with the stuff.

Everything snowballed from there.

Firstly, for a lot of people the tone of finality and regret rang some alarm bells. After all, whether his sentiments are genuine or not, Peter Molyneux has developed a reputation for disparaging his previous games whenever he wants to promote his next one (the Fable franchise being the most notorious example): ‘Don’t worry about that last game, that’s in the past; this next one is going to do everything that one failed to…’ Hearing this refrain from Molyneux again while mentioning his next project implied that he was drawing a line under Godus and abandoning it – something that came as quite a shock to the Kickstarter backers who were still waiting for a completed version of the game they had purchased. Predictably, social media and the Godus forums lit up with scorn.

Secondly, games journalists started combing back through the numerous promises Molyneux had made over the course of Godus, and the results were immediately troubling. Not only was the game still in an alpha state that lacked all of the multiplayer and competitive functionality Molyneux had been touting from its conception (in some interviews he had spoken of five hundred thousand players engaging simultaneously in dynamic battles; at present it remains a solo experience devoid of conflict), but some core promises from the Kickstarter campaign had been so walked back or ignored that the whole enterprise began to look suspicious…

After declaring that he had used Kickstarter specifically to avoid using a publisher, five months later, having met his funding goal, Molyneux signed with a publisher. The stretch goal of importing the game to Linux appears to have always been impossible. Molyneux’s own employees were posting on forums their dissatisfaction with the project and their regret that core elements of the game would never be completed. Even purchases supplementary to the Kickstarter pledge had not been honoured. Art books were neither produced nor delivered. A behind-the-scenes documentary had not been made. Some of the 359 students who paid for developer consultations and career advice felt they had been ignored.

Most gallingly, however, and inarguably the charge that has cast the biggest shadow on Molyneux, was the discovery that Bryan Henderson, the ‘winner’ of the Curiosity game that tied directly into the promotion of the Godus, had been effectively abandoned by 22Cans.

Henderson, the man repeatedly, publicly promised that his ‘life would change’ after winning the Curiosity challenge, was contacted by Eurogamer, who discovered that, despite Molyneux’s claims that Henderson would play a pivotal role in Godus (he would be ‘god of gods’; he would get a cut of the game’s ongoing profits) almost two years later he has so far received no money, had no direct involvement with the game, and been actively ignored by the company, who even stopped replying to his emails.

In an effort to hose down this controversy, Molyneux apologised to Henderson through the press, explaining that he was baffled as to how such an oversight could have occurred, and made assurances that – despite what principle members of the Godus development team had said – the game was still on track to implementing its online features. Henderson, he enthused, would definitely, eventually get to play the ‘life-changing’ role promised him.

But this latest round of interviews culminated in an exchange with John Walker at RockPaperShotgun who, rather than simply copying down the official quote, walked Molyneux through the litany of seemingly broken promises that the Godus crowd-funded project had already left in its wake. What resulted was so excoriating that Molyneux declared he was being hounded, and vowed to never again talk to the press.

That, he said, would be his final interview.

He said the same thing in an interview he gave to the Guardian, which he conducted almost immediately afterward.

And again to Kotaku, in the interview he did with them.

…And just in case the point wasn’t made strenuously enough, once more to a UK student newspaper called The Linc.

No more interviews! Except for those four and counting.

For those who claim Molyneux has cried wolf too many times, it all seemed like more feigned theatrics.

And so, in this roundabout way, we reach the point in which I too inevitably type the words:

Peter Molyneux has had a bad couple of weeks…

Godus MeteorStrike

IMAGE: Godus (22Cans)

Before I get into my opinion – about this RockPaperShotgun interview, about the audience backlash, about the industry and Molyneux himself – I should probably lay out my own history to try to head off any accusations of bias.

For what it’s worth, I’ve got no horse in this race.

I was a great fan of Populous back on the Sega Master System, was intoxicated by the grimy cyber noir of Syndicate on PC, and had a good deal more fun with the Fable series than most it seems, but I was never a Molyneux faithful. Black and White, Theme Park, Magic Carpet, and Dungeon Keeper all passed me by, and aside from appreciating that he was a cheerleader for the industry, I never personally invested in any of the hyperbole that has so often made him a subject of ridicule.

‘Acorns that grow into trees’ and generations of children that live on after your character dies sounded wondrous, but at that time no one in the industry had even programmed convincing looking hair, so I was not exactly surprised when his promises fell short. What always struck me as more irritating was that the interviewers he would tell these things to never bothered asking how exactly any of it was possible. They just printed the words verbatim, shook their heads in wonder, and whipped up some anticipatory summary about how eager they were to see the final product.

Perhaps most significantly for this discussion: I neither participated in Curiosity, his grandiose ‘experiment’ in literal social click-baiting (to me it looked futile from its first announcement) nor did I invest in Godus, purported to be the successor to every one of his previous hits (the Kickstarter page describes it as part Black & White, part Populous, part Dungeon Keeper, etc). I did download the free Godus iPad app some months back. I remember thinking it was pretty but a little perfunctory, and deleted it once hit the predictable pay wall for advancement.

So when I approached the RockPaperShotgun interview, I was neither looking to defend Molyneux nor to see him kicked around for my amusement. What I found instead felt strangely inevitable. The natural end result of a cycle that has spun on for too long. It sounds trite, and the pun in the title doesn’t help, but what I found really did make me think of Waiting for Godot, and the uncomfortable tragicomic angst that plagues that play. Of characters locked into dialogue that now feels rote and overly familiar, emptied of meaning. Of people exhausted by the roles that they have no choice but to enact.

Defenders of Molyneux have criticised the interview as brutal and unfair. Walker was getting overly emotional, they say, being belligerent and twisting Molyneux’s words against him. That was not the way to speak to a games developer – an artist. Robin Parrish of Tech Times described it as an ‘assault’. Thomas Ella of Hardcore Gamer went to the hysterical length of labelling Molyneux the messiah in the article ‘The Crucifixion of Peter Molyneux Shows How Far We Have Fallen’. He describes Walker as having ‘nailed Molyneux to the cross again and again’, opining that:

‘We are not dealing with criminals or crooked politicians here; these are artists. Sometimes there will be mistakes, there will be unethical business practices, and there will even be games that failed to meet their creator’s lofty promises, but we are still talking about video games — about entertainment — and that cannot be emphasized enough.’

Voices such as these have waxed lyrical about what a grand shame it is that such a talented artist is now being chastened, unable to voice his ideas. This will stifle creativity itself, they warn. And indeed Molyneux’s response to the interview was to claim that Walker – and a hostile games media at large – were driving him out of the industry. Clearly he was being targeted in a smear campaign designed to tarnish his reputation and tear him down.

It’s an emotional appeal, and one that on first glance is hard to dismiss. Here is a guy who loves the medium and clearly loves talking about it. But to categorise it as an attack on an artist is a gross misrepresentation, one that obfuscates the real issues by appealing to the easy terrors of censorship.

Undeniably, it is a bracing interview. When the first salvo is ‘Are you a pathological liar?’ you can fairly safely assume that the follow up is not going to be, ‘So how do you juggle work and family?’ But nothing within it seemed cruel or unjust.

Whatever else you think of the piece, Walker wasn’t attacking an artist, his work, or his ideas. He didn’t slag off the dog in Fable 3 for having crappy AI, or label Theme Park a failure because it didn’t synch with Theme Hospital like Molyneux once promised. He was asking him – in his capacity as the head of a business – why his company had failed to deliver on goods that had already been paid for by consumers, such as the art books that have still not even been printed, or features like multiplayer that have now been denied due to financing decisions that Molyneux made with third parties. He was asking him why he told investors that he could produce a game in nine months when his own experience showed he had never turned one out in less than three years. Why he would knowingly ask for less money than he was already aware he would need.

Curiosity-cube

IMAGE: Curiosity (22Cans)

He was asking him why a young man who had already been utilised as a piece of advertising – compelled by his ‘win’ to give interviews to publications like Wired, Game Informer, and several news outlets around the world – had subsequently gone uncompensated and ignored by his company. How he could possibly claim to still be overseeing a project if he had already announced he had handed it over to someone else – Konrad Naszynski, previously a Kickstarter backer who joined the company because he believed the game was in trouble.

Consequentially, the interview was a completely legitimate piece of journalism – even that confronting opening question. In Britain, and here in Australia, you see precisely such probing questions from journalists. Just last week an interview with the Australian Prime Minister, conducted by one of our foremost reporters, literally started with the query, ‘Are you a dead man walking?’

In fact, if anyone really wants to cry foul about Walker’s ‘journalism’, then really his only inappropriate moments were when he – clearly sympathetic to Molyneux – took him at his word, or reassured him. When Molyneux claimed to have made good on some of the forgotten student consultations, Walker replied,

‘I think what I’ve done there is fill in one [crack in the story], that’s brilliant news. I’m really glad that that existed and that you did it and that’s good.’

If he were really being an unfeeling bully, such late unsubstantiated excuses would have meant little.

The problem is that despite the occasionally exasperated tone of the interviewer, the only one Molyneux was really combating was himself. Walker was simply quoting back to him explicit promises Molyneux himself had made – often not even in the heady adrenalin of an interview, but written down, contractually agreed, and repeated in multiple venues.

So to me, this overprotective reaction from people who believe Walker stepped over some unspoken line – evoking Molyneux’s status as an artist as immunity from questioning; suggesting that holding an incorrigible day dreamer to account for straightforward business decisions is somehow killing his creativity – is more indicative of another larger problem in the industry, and gaming ‘journalism’ as a whole.

Because there is and should be an important difference between a promotional junket and asking a businessman to explain himself when it appears that might have committed the literal definition of fraud. It’s a distinction that Molyneux is clearly having trouble making, and it is frankly a little alarming that so many other commentators in the industry, wringing their hands about the mistreatment he has apparently just suffered, don’t appear to recognise it either.

Godus Mining_Settlement_cropped

IMAGE: Godus (22Cans)

Perhaps you can argue that the tone of the questioning was a little rough – but again, unlike the majority of the other interviews he would have had with gaming press, this was not meant to be a puff piece. This was not about each participant following along to the dance steps of a prearranged preview, where Molyneux had a checklist of features to mention about the product he was spruiking, and Walker was just hunting for a splashy lead. It was a reporter seeking answers to troubling questions, backing them up with research, and not accepting obfuscation and evasion in reply.

It’s exactly what journalism looks like in any other industry.

To his credit, Molyneux didn’t just take offence and hang up the phone – but that’s because even he knows he to get in front of the story before it swallows him whole. Walker wasn’t beating him up, he was giving him a right of reply; in many cases offering him the chance to clarify his own damning testimony.

That’s not to say that it isn’t still worth asking why so many other Kickstarters and games publishers have not been similarly castigated for shady practices. Why focus on an independent publisher like Molyneux when Ubisoft can advertise clearly phony footage of Watch Dogs in their pre-release marketing and slap embargoes on reviewers to prevent them mentioning the buggy, unfinished mess of Assassin’s Creed: Unity before consumers had made their purchases? Why not tear apart Randy Pitchford at Gearbox for making similarly lofty promises about Aliens: Colonial Marines, a game advertised with fake footage, farmed off to underfunded secondary studios, and released borderline unplayable? But that’s not the same thing as saying such questions shouldn’t be asked.

Lamenting that the entire industry has been apathetic to these issues in the past doesn’t mean that everyone should just give up, continue asking softball, prearranged questions, and agree to play nice. For too long this is an industry that has been beholden to utterly ridiculous trains of hype, where unfinished products are feverishly talked up. Where ‘reporting’ and advertising become inextricably mixed in previews and demos. Where visibly uncomfortable creators are prodded out onto the marketing treadmill to peddle their wares and soulless PR reps fake up enthusiasm for design features that they had nothing to do with, and don’t fully understand anyway. Where early access and pre-orders and season passes actively try to circumnavigate delivering a finished product that can be judged on its own merits.

Thomas Ella’s extremely silly reference to Molyneux’s ‘crucifixion’ is therefore rather revealing because I think it does exhibit (albeit accidentally) the problem in the gaming media that this whole situation has exposed, and why the backlash against Molyneux in particular has such resonance. Because until now the distinction between artist and businessman in video games has been unhelpfully, systematically obscured; and while many might argue that Molyneux is not the worst offender, by his own actions he is the most symbolic.

Because Molyneux made himself a god. A god of the gaming industry.

And people notice when gods come tumbling down.

godus_head-pic

IMAGE: Godus (22Cans)

There has been a communal mythologising of Molyneux over the years – partly something that he has cultivated, partly something projected upon him. His history of trading on impossible, patently loopy ideas is such common knowledge that it has even spawned a parody persona lovingly lampooning him on social media in the form of ‘Peter Molydeux’, and has given rise to an entire competition, the Molyjam, premised on trying to bring ridiculous, wilfully impractical concepts to life. He has occupied a lofty, indulged position in the industry not just because of his achievements in the past, but because he continues to be such a charismatic, mysterious subject.

It’s what makes him such an appealing interview. He seems open, unfiltered, unrestrained. Consequentially, industry commentators are always swift to describe him as charming. Just read this interview at the beginning of Godus’ development in 2012 in which Molyneux breaks into tears (something he had also done in a couple of other venues and on a pre-recorded Kickstarter video at the time), and the interviewer, describing him as the ‘godfather of god games’, seems utterly enamoured:

Personally, I think [the tears] came from the exact same place as Molyneux’s childlike excitement from earlier this year. He loves games. He loves the possibilities they present. He loves his creations. And even if they destroy him, he’s going to keep investing his heart, soul, and reputation into each and every one. “I think I will be doing games until the day I die,” he said. “At this rate, the way I’m burning through my life, I don’t see that I’ll be alive much longer.”

The tenor of this description is all too familiar. Molyneux is besotted with games – in love with them. He can’t be held responsible for getting carried away when he’s so deep in the throes of inspiration.

Never mind that (as a Kotaku article, ‘The Man Who Promised Too Much’, outlined) there are numerous anecdotes – some of which Molyneux tells himself – showing him in a far less flattering light. Lying in order to receive a gift of cutting edge computers under false pretences; throwing a stapler at an employee who argued for a higher bonus cheque; taking credit for features that were not his; embarrassing co-workers with impossible demands directly in front of the press.

He has even admitted, while excepting a BAFTA award that he frequently makes big promises that are complete fabrications in interviews just to keep reporters guessing:

“I could name at least 10 features in games that I’ve made up to stop journalists going to sleep and I really apologise to the team for that.”

Elsewhere he has acknowledged publically describing features that do not exist in the hopes that it will compel his employees to make them a reality.

And yet rather than leading reporters to question him more thoroughly in future, it just becomes part of the cycle; the contradictions just get folded into the grand narrative. Enigmatic genius or playful rapscallion? We’ll just keep describing the endearing glint in his eye and pretend everything he’s saying this time is true…

It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement for the industry because Molyneux makes – and actively courts – headlines. His promises make headlines. His apologies make headlines. The new promises he makes on the back of old apologies make headlines. Even a few weeks ago he warned Microsoft about over-promising on their HoloLens prototype and a predictable slew of articles, ripened with the irony of it all, rolled out.

But in the past three years the gulf between promise and product became too pronounced to shrug off.

Fable Acorn

IMAGE: Acorn Achievement, Fable Anniversary (Lionhead)

It is conventional wisdom that the Beatles’ biggest mistake was claiming that they were ‘bigger than Jesus’. Pride precedes the fall, and all that. But looking back, Molyneux seems to have tripled down on the self-deification after founding 22Cans. He wasn’t just bigger than Jesus. He was God.

He left Microsoft because he no longer wanted to be ‘constrained by what they can and can’t do’; he wanted to ‘ change the world and everyone will be happy.’ He was going to make the ultimate god game. He was going to make everyone in his audience gods. One lucky winner he was even going to make god of all gods, even cutting him a healthy slice of godly bounty.

Molyneux was declaring himself god of the god game that would spawn a god of gods amongst a network of infinite gods. The hype had built to a colossal, ludicrous level.

Pride precedes the fall.

Because ever since, Molyneux’s signature exaggeration has become less endearing. Since founding 22Cans and soliciting a small fortune through crowd funding he hasn’t just been delighting the press in the lead up to his big reveal – he has been perhaps been misleading the people who had already invested in his vision. These weren’t just apathetic potential customers whose attention he was trying to snare, they were the faithful who already believed in him.

Molyneux is delighted by the word ‘belief’. He believes he can make great things. He believes in the industry. He believes in games. Unfortunately, however, as the past few years have exposed, Molyneux sometimes also uses ‘belief’ as bait, robbing it of its meaning. Belief becomes a caveat. An excuse. Occasionally a weapon.

One of his popular refrains when getting called out for a promised feature that never appears is to regret that his enthusiasm so often gets misinterpreted as a promise. He shifts the blame from himself, the guy who said the words, onto the listener, the one who foolishly took them at face value. He effectively declares, ‘Well, you took the risk by believing me.’ But this ignores the fact that when he makes these statements, he explicitly declares them to be features. He’s not saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be good if…?’ or ‘This is what we’d like to do if we can figure it out…’; he says: ‘This is what we’ve done. This is coming.’

Believe me.

It’s a semantic sleight of hand that recurs again and again when one sifts through his innumerable apologies. Repeatedly, when it appears that he is accepting blame, or looking wistfully back upon mistakes, the fault is always subtly laid somewhere else. He didn’t lie, he just didn’t know what he was saying. Sure most of the goals won’t be met, but Kickstarter makes you say reckless things. He had to exaggerate.

And this is particularly true for the RockPaperShotgun interview in which his repeated mea culpas actually operate as attempts to make himself look all the more endearing. He’s sorry for being too honest. Sorry for sharing too much. Sorry for being so excited. For caring about what he does.

He’s sorry he tried so hard, but believe him, none of it is really his fault.

Blaming someone for dreaming too big, for trusting too much, feels mean. That’s certainly what Molyneux’s supporters argue in this whole mess. But it’s important to realise that what is coming under attack is not Molyneux, god of gaming. It’s Molyneux, god of marketing. The guy who knowingly traffics in deception to fortify sales. Who said that Fable: The Journey wasn’t on rails when it clearly, at every point, visibly was always on rails. Who said that Kickstarter was the only way to avoid publishers, right as he was signing up with a publisher. Who now admits the final days of crowd funding made him think,

‘Christ, we’ve only got ten days to go and we’ve got to make a hundred thousand, for fucks sake let’s just say anything.’

The people who cry foul at Molyneux’s treatment in this RockPaperShotgun interview are defending the dreamer, the artist, the sincere, if devoid of self-awareness enthusiast of the games medium. But he was not the one who was being interviewed. It was Molyneux who actively mixed those two figures up. And to continue to conflate the two just perpetuates the cycle of spin and marketing that gave rise to this muddle of a god complex in the first place. It furthers the uncomfortably reciprocal relationship that has masqueraded as games ‘journalism’ for too long.

And that is what this whole sad scenario has crystallised for me.

Experimentation is a vital part of creativity. It should be cherished and allowed to flourish – particularly in a medium still exploring and testing its fundamental expressive potential. But too often the videogame industry steps on the toes of its own innovation by promising too much too early – touting features and revolutions in game play not yet tested, funnelling everything into a bullet-points that can be rolled out as hyperventilating advertising promises before anything has even been coded. They become their own form of restraint on inspiration.

Molyneux began this downward spiral not by flying too close to the sun – as many have romantically tried to suggest – but by falling into a pattern of empty promotion, muddying the waters of creativity with marketing. Rather than experimenting with these ideas in his studio, or talking them through at games conferences, he would wind them inextricably into his sales patter. Essentially, what he was asking for was a license to workshop ideas in public, but with everyone playing along that the dreams were real, wilfully forgetting anything that he had said before, and suspending all expectation for the future. He was asking for a belief so absolute that risked becoming pure indulgence, where the promotion was more important than the work itself.

He made himself a god. He promised impossible things. But his need to stoke hope into white hot hype has set fire to his own icon, and threatens to burn the whole thing to the ground.

In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, stand awaiting a man called Godot who they have been told will meet them. They too believe. But after an eternity of waiting, with day after day after day of disappointment, of the same messages being spewed by the same messenger – not this time, next time for sure – their hope has finally faded to apathy. Words are empty. Promises unfulfilled. Sentences repeat ad nauseam.

Peter Molyneux has had a bad couple of weeks…

‘But in all that what truth will there be? He’ll know nothing. He’ll tell me about the blows he’s received and I’ll give him a carrot. …. But habit is a great deadener.’

– Vladimir, Waiting for Godot

In Godot there are no more gods left. Just a dead tree and the familiar sting of self-loathing for ever having believed in the first place.

Waiting for Godot Sara Krulwich NYT

IMAGE: Waiting for Godot (Sara Krulwich, The New York Times)

‘This is the way the world ends’: A Response to Mass Effect 3’s Extended Cut

Posted in video games with tags , , , , on November 23, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: Bioware

[As will be almost immediately evident – this post was originally written (but not published here) back in July – but there’s nothing like fermented heartbreak, so please endulge me.  And it should go without saying: spoilers, spoilers, spoilers…]

Huh.  Well that was a hell of a thing.

Depending on who you ask, last week (26th June) Bioware, the creators of Mass Effect 3, either ‘caved to fan pressure’, ‘corrected their ham-fisted, hurried storytelling’, or ‘wanted to provide closure for those who appreciated their vision’ by releasing an Extended Cut of the concluding game of their trilogy.  From whichever angle it was viewed, this free downloadable addition to the current game was a direct response to months of criticism directed at the game’s plot holes, inconsistencies and sloppy design – all elements that even the creators themselves came to admit needed clarification lest the confusion continue.  Many have found these revised and expanded endings to be satisfactory (if not outright brilliant) additions to the Mass Effect lore, which is no doubt a good thing.  I however will have to admit right out of the gates – before the tenor of my response drifts into inevitable sorrow – that I was not one of those people.  So if you are (quite understandably) sick of hearing people whine about these endings, it might be a good idea to pass on by right now…

Many (myself included), had criticised the game’s original ending for its thematic, character and logical inconsistencies, and although a great deal of effort was exerted to justify these problems in the new cut, it is odd to note that so many narrative absurdities still litter the work – this time arguably even more pronounced as they work overtime to clear up the jarring details left hanging the first time around.

Now, crewmates that were once somehow mysteriously transported onto the Normandy are shown in the process of being bundled onboard – despite the fact that this involves the ship parking itself right directly front of a giant Reaper, a creature that was spewing a volley of devastating lasers that were only moments before annihilating objects as small as scampering humans with surgical precision.  The Reaper, Harbinger, seems to take a mystifying coffee break while Shepard evacuates her team: ‘No, you guys have your conversation.  I’m just gonna fill in this crossword for a minute and –  Oh?  You’re done?  Well: Laser!  Laser!  BLAM!  Mmwoah Ha Haaaa…

Similarly the ship’s pilot Joker no longer runs off during the battle and abandons you without a reason; he is shown being ordered to do so by Admiral Hackett because – well, because…  Just because. You know what Admirals are like.  And although Joker looks momentarily conflicted, fan-favourite character Garrus leans over the console to agree with the call and tell him to scram.  So now you are no longer abandoned by the guy who earlier in the game promised never to leave you, you’re also abandoned by the guy who promised that he’d walk into hell with you and order a beer.  So that’s two people off the Christmas list.

Perhaps the most extraordinary addition to the work, however, is the further elucidation of the Catalyst character.  Previously your standard deus ex machina (literally a God from a Machine) through expanded conversational choices he is now revealed to be a sociopathic Artificial Intelligence, designed several eons ago to solve the ‘inevitable’ problem of synthetics and organics eventually slaughtering one another.  Having watched The Matrix and Terminator 2: Judgement Day one too many times, the Catalyst used his dispassionate machine logic and decided that the best way to stop the bloodshed was to just kill all advanced species himself and save them all the time.  He therefore rolled out a swarm of killer space-locust who turned everyone to goo, and to make ever more machines of slaughter out of their remains.  You know, as you do.

Once again players are not offered the opportunity to point out that they may well have already solved the synthetic versus organic conflict that has him worked up in such a tizzy; synthetics and organics are currently working together right now, knocking on the outside door to come in and kick his ass.  Likewise we still get no explanation for why he’s decided to wear a dead kid’s face to have this conversation; nor do we know why he’s so eager to tell us the best way to wipe he and his creations out, despite arguing that his is the only solution.

And so, unswayed, the Catalyst, ultimate face and voice of the Reapers, goes ahead and explains his new options to resolve the conflict, each of which remain precisely as they were in the original ending, and all still carrying the arbitrary price of death:

Firstly, you can Destroy the Reapers, but by doing so also wipe out all sentient life forms, thereby committing genocide on a race of creatures that have been proven to respect life and fear the implications of death, and who in most case are fighting alongside you at that very moment.

Secondly, you can Control the Reapers, dissolving yourself to overtake the hive mind of the Reapers, brainwashing them to do your will (something that you’ve been trying to stop people doing for three straight games).

Thirdly, you can choose to merge all organics and synthetics together as one race, thereby destroying all distinction and diversity and removing (in the Catalyst’s rather eugenically-perverse vision) all cause for conflict.  Essentially you pull a reverse King Solomon, employing his wisdom in some ugly, monstrous reverse: ‘Can’t decide which is better, robots or fleshbags? Well just smoosh them together, natch!’

If anything, the three conclusions become even more twisted and unappealing, because the source of these options is better understood: each is the product of an incomprehensibly deranged mind; the most successful, pitiless mass-murderer in all of existence is offering you three choices that will fulfil his ultimate scheme, and you get to pick one to help him out.  …So yay?  In your name you get to impose his will upon the universe, become a Reaper yourself, and decide how all life will be lived in the future.

But for three games we have been invited to investigate the myriad examples of when authority is unwillingly exerted over another species – when decisions of how another sentient being should live their life is unceremoniously stripped away: Indoctrination, the Geth, the Krogan, the horror of the Batarian slave-traders, Protheans misguidedly dominating other species under their rule, the mass slaughter perpetrated by the Reapers.  Every race we meet seems to be healing from some kind of atrocity in which their autonomy was maligned or abused, and in every instance – every single one – the writers present these acts with all the grim moral ambiguities that such domination evokes.

That’s not to say that they are always depicted as outright wrong (one may of course side with the decisions to keep the Krogan sterile; to wipe out the Geth wholesale), but at no point in this universe is it appropriate to say that ‘I-will-force-my-will-upon-you-because-I-know-better’ ever ends happily.  There is always resentment, there is always horror, and the game invites (does not compel, but I would argue encourages) you to fight against the arrogance of such dominion.

Until the end.

In the end you are directly responsible for making such a choice.  After years of wandering the universe sweeping up the wreckage of a hundred such abuses – from the thuggery of pirates, to the persecution of entire species – the game forces you to become the thing you have fought.  To me it felt like I was not only becoming a Reaper (embracing at least one of their nut-bag visions of the universe), but I also had to be a bully.

Playing through this ending I felt all of this impotent frustration over again – but then I realised there was something new.  Because here, newly added to the Extended Cut, a direct response by the creators to the fan’s critical outcry, was a fourth option.

I cannot express the glee I felt at discovering that this fourth option existed.

We did it, I thought.  The fans and Bioware connected.  They saw what was wrong!  They felt the pain.  They never wanted to put their audience through all that!  Force those who despised the endings down a cattle grid of moral slaughter.  Suddenly it was clear that they were going to offer a new way: perhaps not necessarily a better way, but new.  For those who remained unnerved by the endings, here was the alternate path; the means to preserve what had meant most to them about their Shepard, and to still defeat the big bad.  To stand up and glare it down.  To maybe take some hits, but to never acquiesce, not aligning ourselves with the enemy and embracing their psychosis.

And so, in spite of the emotional devastation of her last experience tottering on that spot, my Shepard rallied.  She rose: a resounding, towering figure.  A silhouette amidst the blaze of ruination around her.  Damn right we will not bend, she seemed to be saying.  We will not lose faith.  We’ll fight on – in a universe of cruel, dispassionate violence and hate, we will forge a path of unity and reassert our indomitable will.  We will not be terrified and bullied into submission to some sacrifice of virtue.  You cannot lay us on an altar and cut the very heart out of our spirit.

And so, after months of being haunted by that moment, I got to tell the face of all the Reapers to go screw off.  Got to tell him right to his smirking little face that his endless, cyclical scheme was madness, and that he was but an unhinged monster on a witless rampage.  No matter what his original intentions had once been, he was nothing but a ghoul now, a husk devoid of purpose, bringing darkness and pain wherever his shadow was cast.  A mockery to the very life he was trying to ‘preserve’.

And so, my Shepard selected the fourth option, and I readied myself to watch the Reapers feel what happens when the downtrodden bite back…

But instead, the whole goddamn universe ended.

Was wiped out.

I saw a galaxy of life get flamed away in an instant – even after the cause of all that devastation had agreed with me that his ridiculous plan no longer worked.  I had shown the villain the flaw in this scheme; he had admitted that his solution was no longer acceptable; but he decided to go and do it anyway.  What the hell?  The gasoline was already spilled.  Why waste it?  Like a frenzied child he lit it up because I refused to obey, because I wasn’t willing to perpetuate his narrow vision of existence.

To be honest, it was the most heartbreaking meta-textual moment of narrative I have ever experienced; final proof that the whole promise of individuated interaction that drew me to the Mass Effect universe in the first place (and that was repeated ad nauseum in Bioware’s marketing for half a decade) was a complete misinterpretation on my behalf.  This was not my story.  This was never my universe.  I fell in love with these characters, but I was never fighting beside them.  I really was just looking through the window as they talked amongst themselves, imagining what I might say if I was there.  I never talked Samara out of killing herself; I never helped Thane reconnect with his son; I never tempted a traumatised biotic to reconnect with the world; I certainly never stared down a Krogan ready to rip me to shreds.  I pressed buttons.  I stared at a screen.  Watched polygons dance.

For months I’ve been hearing critics who decry the fans that have voiced their displeasure at the ending say ‘Why are you getting so upset?  It’s just a game’.  And not only could I not agree with this sentiment, but on many levels, I literally couldn’t even understand what such a sentiment meant.  It wasn’t just a game.  It was a world in which you were invited to project yourself: to participate in and influence.  It was a reactive agent, and you were –  Well, you were any other term than the ‘Catalyst’.

Or it was.

I guess the final message of Mass Effect, the message its creators went to extra pains to communicate, was that yes: it was just a game.  There was a structure and there were parameters, and unless you agree to the win-scenario in its absolute moral vacuum, you forfeit your right to success.

Because I refused to play according to the rigid, objectionable rules that Bioware laid down in the final moments of the game, I watched a galaxy of beauty and grace annihilated, and got to acutely feel that it was all my fault.  Hell, I was even told I failed by the companion tasked with cataloguing my fight for the ages.

I tried to play by my rules (the rules I had been led to believe up until that point were at the heart of the experience), and was punished for it.  Foolishly, I tried to hold on to the beliefs that I thought made human beings more than automatons.  Critical Mission Failure.  You lose.  What a jerk I turned out to be.

Instead I got to watch the galaxy spin on until someone else was willing to come along and push the button I couldn’t.  Either way, the only way life perpetuates in this narrative is through an act of fear and moral compromise.  Life will go on, but the standard of that life is proved irrelevant.  The principles upon which it is now founded are genocide, domination, or the arrogance of compelled mutation.  Three games, all leading up to a final thesis of moral futility.

And to add the final insult, it all still gets credited to ‘The Shepard’, even though the thought of such an eventuality literally killed her.

A whimper, not a bang.

Yay nihilism.

And so, if Star Trek is about hope, and Firefly about defiance, and Star Wars is about the balance of good and evil (and infuriatingly stilted dialogue), and Battlestar Galactica is about cycles of self-destruction, and our capacity to alter that inevitability, then in its final moments Mass Effect reveals itself to be wholly about compromise.  What are you willing to sacrifice in order to succeed?  For some that’s everything.

How far will you compromise those ‘ideals’ that pushed you along the whole time?  Or do you even need to sacrifice your beliefs at all?  Because if you never saw Synthetics as people, then gravy.  Not only does the game force this compromise upon you for victory, but it only rewards you for making a choice that gives you over to your enemy’s point of view.

But what I don’t understand, what even now fills me with bewilderment and genuine shock, is why, if the whole theme was compromise, did they kept insisting that the central thrust of the game was ‘hope’.  Liara even throws the term out to future generations in the opening of her holo-log in the ‘Refuse’ ending.  We offer you hope.

…No we don’t.  We hoped and failed, remember?  We didn’t do what apparently needed to be done.

And the word hope is not just a trump card that you can slap own amidst a cavalcade of despair to pretty up the carnage.  As silver linings go it’s pretty flimsy.  Just four little letters, more a puff of air than a declaration.  It has to be attached to something.  There has to be something to hope for.

So why on the whole way to those final choices was everyone blathering about hope?  I mean, all the ‘I’ll-see-you-after-this-is-all-overs’ were heartbreaking enough, knowing what was to come, but to then have everyone praising Shepard for sticking to her beliefs, a litany of platitudes about how magnificent it was that she never sacrificed what defined her, how that fortitude was a beacon for the peoples of the galaxy.  And what for?  To be called an abject failure for continuing to stick to those beliefs when it counted most?

In his farewell Javik told my Shepard that she was the ‘avatar’ of all life.  That everyone and everything in the universe was looking to her and at her at that very moment.  That She was a symbol of all that existence could, and will, become – it is from her metaphorical blood that a new generation will emerge.  Even the Illusive Man, while cursing her name in a video feed said that he respected that Shepard’s beliefs never wavered.  She would do what she believed in, no matter the cost, no matter what the circumstance.

And then the game places before her three atrocities cooked up by the guy who has been strangling the life out of the universe and demands that she go along with one.  Her legacy is to be a sycophant to the sociopath who eons ago lost himself down a perverted path of malformed altruism.  Not to shut him down.  Not to expose the horror of his actions to him, nor argue him back to sense.  To agree that his ways (destruction or control) or his wildest fantasies (* sparkles just-makes-everyones-the-sames rainbows *) are the only way forward for life.  We’ve spent hundreds of hours fighting against such twisted ideals, and now we must not only suffer one of them, but wholly embrace it.  Make it our own choice.

The Reapers get to stand over us – even metaphorically in their deaths – shouting ‘Stop hitting yourself!  Stop hitting yourself!  Stop hitting yourself!  What?  Gonna cry?’

Hope it aint.

To give them credit, Bioware did ultimately let me reject the three endings that I continued to see as repellent, but the price was that I was no longer permitted to exist in their world anymore.  Indeed, they vowed to torch it all down rather they let me spend another second there: ‘The universe ends now.  You can see your own way out.’

As the credits rolled and I saw the creators names pass by all I could feel is that it would have been nice if they had have let me know all this three games ago: that I, and my dorky little ideals, weren’t welcome.  Bioware disabused me of my misconception that I was even part of their vision.  I guess I was just fuel for that purging fire that the Catalyst wanted to unleash upon the galaxy – too mired in my primitive hopes and faith to exist in his new galactic order.

But I guess if I hadn’t taken the ride I would never have enjoyed such rich characters.  And it’s true: you can’t grieve for something if you didn’t love it first.

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…

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/)

Show Us Your Human Bits: Play and the Shifting Paradigms of Art

Posted in art, criticism, video games with tags , , , , , on August 22, 2012 by drayfish

pacman2_0

IMAGE: Pacman installation Art by Benedetto Bufalino and Benoit Deseille

(Website: http://benedetto.new.fr/)

Everyone ready for a self-indulgent rant? Because I bought this soapbox in from the car, and they only let you hire out these megaphones for the day. So, ready? Excellent. Testing. Testing. Is this coming across self-righteous enough up the back there? Can you hear me being all judgmental? Okay. Here goes.

I’d like to take a moment to dive back into what I admit are the thoroughly fished-out waters of the film critic Roger Ebert’s now infamous declaration that videogames cannot be Art. I want to explore this premise again, briefly, because I think that it is still in this presumptuous, ill-conceived dismissal that we can see many of the most pervasive misconceptions that continue to stifle the discussion and celebration of the videogame medium in its relative infancy.

And yes, at this point you might be thinking to yourself: but why? Why bothering referencing Ebert again? I mean (you will probably ask) does it even matter if some film critic foolishly tries to wade into utterly foreign territory? Hasn’t he already revealed his own ignorance by superimposing foreign rules upon an artistic medium in order to point out how it has failed to live up to criteria under which it was never intended to function? And is this just because he recently (vaguely) slagged off Naughty Dog’s upcoming release The Last of Us,having neither seen nor played it, because he believed it would ‘leave absolutely nothing to the imagination’?

You might even inquire whether this is all just my petulant, thinly-veiled jab at a cantankerous, nay-sayer because he disregarded a medium that I hold with genuine affection. ‘You’re not that petty, are you?’ you might very well ask.

…Well, yes. Yes it is. And yes. Yes, I most certainly am.

In 2010, after belittling the artistic merit of videogames, it was suggested to film critic Roger Ebert that he should watch a TED presentation by game designer and cofounder of thatgamecompany Kellee Santiago. It was hoped that he might get a greater perspective on the medium, even a vague respect for its potential, and its new breed of auteur. Ebert viewed the talk, but rather than gaining any insight, he instead responded by immediately doubling down on his comments, offering a condescending opinion piece in which he declared that videogames could never in his opinion each a point at which they might be considered Art. He dismissed them as wholly devoid of any relevant narrative, tonal, or thematic potential; finally aligning them (at best) with intellectual sport:

‘Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form. Nor did Shi Hua Chen, winner of the $500,000 World Series of Mah Jong in 2009. Why aren’t gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care.’*

He effectively likened them to time wasting amusements such as Jenga or Hungry, Hungry Hippos – mere exercises in rote memorization or reflexes – and waved them away as not worthy of serious consideration.

He then went on to make several attempts to classify what Art actually was, arguing in each example that games do not and cannot fit any definition he could cite. In one notable instance he even referenced Plato’s discussion of mimesis. (Although if a philosopher who called all artists mad and who advocated the most draconian censorship of literature in history was his go-to for such classification, he might not want to throw stones: there’ll be no more watching Taxi Driver or Singing in the Rain in the Republic either, Ebert…) Believing he had seen off the possibility of their being confused with ‘real’ Art, Ebert then antithetically attempted to dismiss some examples as not even being games – at least by his extremely narrow, antiquated conception – arguing that he failed to see how a work like Flower could even operate in the absence of a scoring system or ‘win’ state.

As one might imagine, Ebert’s satisfaction at disregarding games he happily admitted not being bothered playing soon grows tiresome – he even goes so far as to describe a handful of examples ‘pathetic’ despite having only glimpsed seconds of them in action and without ever holding a controller in his hands. Reasoned, contextualised criticism at its finest this was not; indeed, using Ebert’s logic, if someone hadn’t seen Citizen Kane it would be okay for them to arbitrarily bin it as a dreary, pretentious, ill-lit bore – an undergraduate mess where people draw lines on their faces to indicate that they have aged. …And how come the dude likes roses so much?  It’s probably some dumb reason. Best not bother finding out.

When responders inevitably called nonsense on Ebert’s ignorant proclamations he swiftly bowed out of the debate – although conceding nothing – admitting that he was still unwilling to play a game to explore the experience for himself. He effectively shrugged, passive-aggressively asserted that some people just evolve their artistic perspective differently, and clamoured back out of the  mire to return to the higher ground of novels and film, where the once hotly-contested battles for artistic integrity have already been fought and won long before he appeared on the scene.

But it was in this, his tactical retreat from the discussion, that Ebert revealed the fundamental disconnect at the heart of his position: he argued that in every conception he could conceive Art must remain static. His issue with the videogame form is that the very element of interactivity that gives them identity renders them too fluid to be artistically expressive. If one could re-spawn and replay the ending of Romeo and Juliet again, he said, it would render the tragedy and pathos of their original deaths meaningless. But this line of argument is, at best, misguided, at worst, wholly disingenuous: of course one can’t get a do-over on Romeo and Juliet. It’s a play. It obeys different conventions. Just like you can’t see a song, or listen to a painting. They necessitate entirely different engagements with their audience. And to demand that new media be dictated by the limitations of the old is a fatuous, knee-jerk response mired in outdated thought, one that stifles rather than elucidates artistic innovation.

Ultimately Ebert’s comments reveal that it is he and not videogames that had failed to meet the standards of Art. With the proliferation of games that flaunt expectation and convention, that provide innovative and immersive experiences that expand our understanding of communicative possibility, anyone arrogant enough to dismiss the possibility of games being Art based solely upon their personal failing to wrestle the medium into some preconceived notion of what Art must be, or what it needs to contain, exposes their own incapacity to adapt to the shifting dynamics of expression. Such categorisations are based upon outmoded, ill-conceived notions that have remained nebulous since humankind first applied colour to cave walls; and Art should never be shackled by the expectations of the old. Art is innovative, progressive. It manifests human experience; and if we are nothing else we are creatures of adaptation and evolution to new stimuli. A contemporary Art that remains mired in old thinking loses the capacity to meaningfully reflect anything of our existence back to us.

And if the purpose of Art is to articulate something of the human condition; then it must acknowledge that we are creatures of play. It is through play that we develop language; is how we learn social structure; how we develop our motor skills. Storytelling is a manifestation of imaginative play; theatre is an expression of imitative play; music; visual art; dance; all have their basis in the freedom and modulation of play. And it is arguably only now, in the birth of this new medium of videogames, that we can see one of the most natural and engaging forms of crafted play in our history.

Massive multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft or DayZ allow for explorations of play and social organisation on unprecedented new levels; game like Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire provide an immersion in genre arguably more striking and intimate than film can provide; an adaptive game like The Witcher 2 allows us to play out moral ambiguity and consequence; and this is all before even calling upon the more nebulous gaming beasts like Heavy Rain, Journey, Braid and Fez. To dismiss all this as childish fancy (as critics once did with graphic novels); or merely a tacky commercial product (as they once did with cinema), or a thoughtless leisure activity (as they once did with the novel form), only further perpetuates the same tired reactionary fear of the new that has consistently plagued all Artistic development.

Todd Howard (of Skyrim) spoke in his keynote address at the 2012 D.I.C.E. conference of the way in which games are the only form of artistic expression capable of evoking the sensation of pride in an audience. Because we as the player participate in the activity of bringing the game’s narrative to life, he said, we invest in an expression of the game that has the capacity to inspire triumph at our successes; and it is a form of satisfaction that is only possible because of the unique interplay between player and text. Games therefore don’t just communicate in new ways: they have the capacity to evoke whole new emotions and experiences; sensations that film, fiction, music, by the limitations of their form, cannot.

So while I’m sure that in many other discussions Ebert has some profound things to say (although lest we forget the man gave Speed 2 a glowing thumbs up), in his foray into the debate over videogames he has proved himself to be a critic staring at the precipice of something altogether new, but remaining utterly blind to its significance. His comments are a stark reminder of why reviewers have the capacity to be such dangerous creatures; his arbitrary definitions of Art are so ingrained as to have already begun the steady decline toward intellectual stagnation.

Ultimately, the final word should probably go to another critic, Anton Ego (a character from an animated film; yet another medium once patronisingly dismissed as being only for the frivolous delight of children) who said:

‘In many ways the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and themselves to our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critic must face is that in the grand scheme of things the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something: and that is in the discovery and defence of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent. New creations. The new needs friends.’

– Anton Ego (Ratatouille)

I believe that we need to acknowledge that games can be Art (even if, as yet, not all of them are), because that sad truth is that if we players do not take it upon ourselves to defend the new against those who would ignorantly malign it: no one else will. If we, like Roger Ebert, rely upon trite, reductive patterns of analysis, striving to draw categorical lines around the expressive potential of gaming before it has even grown into being, we risk strangling the most experimental and dynamic medium to emerge in human history, missing perhaps the finest opportunity, through the Art of play, to better understand ourselves.

* here

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/)

%d bloggers like this: