Archive for videogames

VALE GameTrailers: Goodnight and Good Game.

Posted in Uncategorized, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2016 by drayfish

GameTrailers logo

Last week the videogame media community was shocked by the surprise closure of GameTrailers.com.

And I do mean ‘surprise’.

Defy Media, owners of GameTrailers, ran the closure like an execution. The entire GameTrailers staff turned up to work, were unceremoniously told they were fired, and were to be out of the building all within the space of a handful of hours. There was no grace period, no warning. (One of their employees, Daniel Bloodworth, was on his honeymoon.) It was a shady, needlessly brutal final blow, seemingly the final ‘Screw You’ from Defy, who, having clearly never known what they wanted to do with the brand after purchasing it from Viacom two years previous, had systematically bled the site of funds, carved down their staff, and splintered their viewership.

For those who might be unaware, GameTrailers was a site that had been active for over thirteen years. It pioneered the early capture, discussion and critique of videogames on the web before sites like YouTube and Twitch oversaturated the market, and for over a decade it remained at the forefront of its medium. Its writers offered thorough and thoughtful (if, in the early days, a little overly-mechanical) reviews. It’s on-air talent, particularly in its last few years, consistently set an industry standard for their professionalism and content (a herculean achievement after numerous job losses had dwindled the staff to a small team of accomplished multitaskers), and it continually fostered new programming around the games medium.

In the early years it offered video podcasts that exhibited welcome variety, if not always high quality. This is just personal preferences, but for every Invisible Walls, hosted by Shane Satterfield but fleshed out with a charming, rotating guest panel from the staff, there was an inconsistent Annoyed Gamer helmed by Marcus Beer, or a redundant Pach Attach (why anyone would consider Michael Pachter’s opinion relevant to anything is mystifying).

But this willingness to give a platform to a diversity of voices payed dividends. Soon passionate, intelligent content creators were being invited to explore games from their unique perspectives. Michael Damiani was able to create programs like Pop Fiction that explored the quirks and myths in game design. Michael Huber’s unassailable enthusiasm for the medium radiated out from Huber Hype. Kyle Bosman, whose The Final Bosman was all wit and welcome, offered quirky commentary on games and the games media, revelling in absurdity and always defending the right to treasure games that no one else cares about. There was the lighthearted, thoughtful weekly podcast, GT Time, that dissected news of the day and topics of contention. There was the more surreal Mandatory Update (which started as an overt Weekend Update knockoff manned by Elyse Willems and Ian Hinck and morphed into a lovably shambolic chat show. There were retrospectives and countdowns and live streams, and always, throughout it all, a genuine sense of camaraderie and joy.

GameTrailers was a place in which games were not simply spruiked and slammed in an endless Sisyphean loop. Particularly the site of the past few years, under the guidance of editor-in-chief Brandon Jones and Daniel Bloodworth (although it is fair to also commend previous editors like Ryan Stevens* and Brad Winters for setting this course), never treated videogames as chum to stir a feeding frenzy of spoilers and snark.

Games were art objects worthy of discussion and debate – and not in a dry dialectic mode of pretentious waffle. Games were always something to be shared; to be experienced together or reminisced about after the fact. GameTrailers cultivated the welcoming, enthusiastic tenor of friends enjoying their play experiences together. That sense of community that countless bro-ho-hoing podcasts strive vainly to manufacture and that feeling of shared experience that has made a streamer like Pewdiepie a millionaire were baked organically into the site.

Seemingly without effort it evoked all those sensations that have become the sensory memory of gaming: those times as a kid when you would stay up all night with your siblings to beat M. Bison on Street Fighter II; when you poured over screenshots of upcoming titles in preview magazines, trying to riddle out their possibilities; when the Konami code was whispered like a sacred text; when you realised you could grieve for the loss of characters that were merely lines of computer code stirred to life with a controller input. GameTrailers knew, and celebrated the fact, that games were experimental, experiential spaces; singular and shared; ridiculous and marvellous at once.

GameTrailers farewell stream

IMAGE: The Farewell GameTrailers Live Stream

And so, on the day they ended, GameTrailers went out as they had lived, with one last impromptu Twitch live stream – a play through of Grand Theft Auto 3, the first game digitally captured by the site way back in 2002. And even here, with every reason to rage and moan, the combined staff showed their signature class and spent the hour laughing. They took comfort in each others’ company, nitpicked beloved films, remembered old friends, and thanked their audience, again and again, for the honour of sharing those years with them.

Rather than gnash their teeth, they reasserted the joy of community. They thanked everyone, from the bottoms of their hearts, for playing along.

In the past week many have waxed lyrical about the whys of GameTrailers‘ closing. Jim Sterling has called it the inevitable consequence of YouTube’s ubiquity and the inability of a corporate business model to adapt to a broadcasting service optimised for lone content producers. Those more predisposed to conspiracy theories have speculated that Defy wanted to funnel their viewership toward some of their other gaming venues like Smosh Games and The Escapist.

For my part, I just wanted to briefly pay respect to a community that right to the end was a source of heartening entertainment. I admired GameTrailers, and the philosophy it embraced. And given that the soul-deadening, hatemongering nightmare of ‘Gamergate’ seems to keep churning out its exclusionist, paranoid judgemental dictation of who is, and who is not allowed to be a ‘gamer’, it seems especially sad to farewell GameTrailers, a place in which everyone was welcome. Where games brought people together rather than splintered them apart. Where the questions of sexism in games, or the strip-mining of nostalgia, or the interplay of aesthetics and narrative and game play, could all be debated freely, amongst friend who respected one another’s opinions, without the whole thing descending into invective and name-calling. Where games were not solely product to be consumed, but could be appreciated as tests of skill and strategy, or journeys into narrative, or art objects and curios.

The closure of GameTrailers is worth lamenting not solely because a lot of good, talented people lost their jobs and were treated poorly in the process. It’s painful because of what the site represented, and what the videogame community can always use. A variety of unique opinions were valued at GameTrailers; individual voices were allowed to be heard. And in a games media being strangled between corporate interference and a desire to pander to consumers who merely want to hear their own opinions mirrored back at them, that was something spectacularly rare, and deserving of respect.

gametrailers_group_pic_1-600x338

IMAGE: The GameTrailers Crew

* Speaking of which, Ryan Stevens’ podcast Game is a Four Letter Word is a fantastic listen, and well worth seeking out.

Gate Keeper Games: The Co-opt Option of GamerGate

Posted in art, criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 18, 2014 by drayfish

angry-mob

Well isn’t this horrible?

The past several weeks there has been an eruption online unlike anything before seen in the gaming media. It has been vicious, hurtful, weirdly both organised and shambolic, and has devolved into petty name-calling and accusation on all sides.  It’s the kind of shocking issue that demands a response from every free-thinking, rational observer, and I know that people have been wanting me to weigh into the debate.*  So even though I’m neither a videogame ‘journalist’, nor one of the members of the enraged contingent of ‘gamers’ calling for action, I’m going to do add my thoroughly ill-informed voice to the fray.

That’s right. I’m going to talk about it:

Sonic the Hedgehog’s new scarf.

It looks idiotic.

There. Discussion concluded.  Huzzah!  Justice has been done!  Peace has been restored!  Everyone return to their homes!

Okay, so that didn’t work. Because no matter how stupid Sonic’s new scarf looks (and it does), obviously it is not what has been at the forefront of every discussion of videogames for the past couple of months.

No. Sadly – very, very, very, very sadly – I’m referring to ‘Gamergate’, the latest, and perhaps most extreme Rorschach test of gaming social media movements.  To some, it has been a call to arms for journalistic integrity in the videogames media; to others, it’s a reactionary, at times utterly psychotic territorial squabble with ‘No GRLZ ALLOWD’ scrawled in crayon on the door.

Whatever your perspective, though, it would be hard to argue that the whole thing isn’t a complete mess. With artists and critics having been driven from the field (and their homes!) in fear, with whole swaths of the videogame audience being tarnished as misogynists or terrorists, with some people arguing for more transparency and others literally just calling for critics they don’t like to shut up, it seems like the moment you scratch the surface of this thing, it all unspools into a labyrinth of contradictory agendas, counterarguments and inconsistency, with no two people seemingly arguing the same thing.  And this is all despite the misleading appearance of bipartisanship – the us against them trap; ‘gamer’ versus ‘journalist’ – that too many people on all sides of the argument seem to be willing to fall into; one that has frequently, misleadingly been reported in the mainstream press.

Indeed, to an outsider, superficially, the whole situation probably looks a little like being stuck at a nightmarish dinner party, where some long-time couple – the videogame media and the videogame audience – have just exploded in a horrible fight.

They’re one of those couples that have clearly had a fractious relationship for some time – everyone could see that, even if they refused to acknowledge it – but now, tonight, they’ve finally snapped and started screaming hateful abuse at one another in front of everyone.  Suddenly both of them are hurling every ugly, petty, spiteful (sometimes even knowingly inaccurate) accusation they can at one another, just so that it hurts.  Just so that it sticks.  Just so that they, and everyone else at the table, know that they’ve been feeling ignored and maligned for quite a while, that they’re not going to take it anymore.

The truth, of course, is far more complicated. Because not only is there some fact mixed in amongst all the hyperbolic hatred (lies work so much better that way), but there are more than just two opposed voices in the mix – and some of them are only too happy to have shamelessly coopted the discussion, making vicious comments under their breath to spur both ‘sides’ on, turning debate into division and delighting to watch the whole thing blow itself all to hell.

But for now, while the cutlery on the table is shaking with every pounding fist, and everyone looking on, feeling sick with shame, bows their heads into their wine glasses to avoid eye contact, what’s clear is that this couple – the players and the industry – is on a precipice. This is the moment in which it’s gotten so ugly, so overt, so undeniable, that something has to change.  Because this can’t go on.  Because yes the ones shouting the loudest are hurting, but the issues go deeper than the insults, and the damage is far more toxic than just words.

And so, as ill-advised as this may well be, I want to offer a few scattered thoughts on this chaos. Not because I think they’ll ‘help’.  Not because my utterly subjective opinions are by any means conclusive or inarguable or ‘right’.  And believe me: not because I am under the delusion that anyone actually gives a crap what I think.  Mostly just because I want to remind myself that there is some nuance amongst the angry confusion, that things can’t simply be boiled down – as some have unhelpfully tried to do – into an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ conflict, where one side is self-evidently ‘right’ and the other is unquestionably ‘wrong’.

After all, it’s precisely that kind of partisan, unbending mentality – with heroes and villains and easy stereotypes – that enables people to get whipped into such furious zealotry. It allows some to excuse fraud or hideous threatening behaviour to themselves , because, hey, they’re the ‘good guys’, right?  So who cares how they won?  Destroying your opponent is just a means to an end.  And those guys were ‘bad’ anyway, so who cares?

So instead of resorting to cheap generalisations and clichés, I’m going to try to speak to specific examples of people amongst the crowd. To offer my perspective as an observer, and to voice things that I think are worth repeating as many times as possible, particularly as the conversation (if it can be called that) gets even more crazed and unkind.  Again: these are just fragments of random thoughts, in most cases pure opinion, and are meant only as personal observations applicable to those I’m addressing, not to some faceless one-size-fits all mob.

The result is long. Too long.  Seriously too damn long.

So if you want the TLDR (or: Too Long Don’t Care) spoiler: when you boil it all down, I’m mostly just going to plead. To plead with each of them; all of them; ‘Gamers’, ‘Games Journalists’, and ‘Industry insiders’ alike.

I’m going to ask them to please stop.

Because there is an important and necessary discussion to be had here – several of them, to be honest –  but no one is going to get to any real debate if everyone is wilfully misrepresenting everyone else; if hate and abuse are being waved aside; and if naked contempt is the base level from which everyone speaks.

So here goes…

space-invaders

(Although, before we move off the topic entirely: Sega, do something about the scarf.**)

***

Firstly, to anyone, anywhere (but particularly in the mainstream press) who thinks this whole backlash against an art form is ‘unprecedented’:

It’s not.

As counterintuitive as it may at first seem, the first myth to unpack when approaching a discussion of everything that has unfolded recently, is the misconception that this is all somehow totally unprecedented. A lot of ink has been spilled (a lot of it online, but some even in the mainstream media) about how ‘Gamergate’ is entirely unique; an incomparable audience backlash against an Art form.  It’s actually an observation that’s been used (in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways) to imply that the videogame community, on all sides of the argument, must be filled with some rather immature people if they could overreact to their entertainment in such an extreme, unparalleled manner.

Now, you could perhaps say that it is one of the more personally ferocious – with threats of rape and severe injury being levelled at artists; with organised campaigns of harassment and slander being directed at critics – but frankly, dishearteningly, we humans have a long sad history of freaking the hell out and rising up in fury in response to our Art.

Sure, we like to tell ourselves that we’re past all that stuff now, that those were just the dark, unenlightened days. But with every generation we keep presenting new examples of Art being trashed as unworthy or offensive, and artists being persecuted as agitators – particularly so whenever a medium is in a state of growth or transition.

In the late 16th century Caravaggio was called the ‘antichrist’ of all painting (a bit harsh), supposedly threatening to lead all artists who might follow his style and technique into damnation. In the 1950s Charlie Chaplin and the pointed political satire of his films seemed a little too ‘communist’ for Red Scare era USA, so he was subject to a campaign of slander by conservative columnists and the FBI, labelled everything from a philanderer to a white slaver, having his films threatened out of theatres by conservative lobbyists, and eventually finding himself run out of the country in political exile.  In 1960 Penguin Books was prosecuted in the United Kingdom for publishing an uncensored version of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, an over-three-decades-old book by one of the most celebrated writers of all time.  (Indeed, check out just a taster of some of the books the USA has banned over the years for being ‘inappropriate’ in a list compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union).  In 1989, a touring exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe – which included images of BDSM acts and same sex couples embracing – led to several protests, threats to cut funding to associated galleries, and even charges of ‘pandering obscenity’ brought against museum directors.  And one need not even linger on the grotesquery of the Third Reich’s targeting of artists like Paul Klee and Max Ernst for creating ‘degenerate Art’.

Indeed, when I first heard of the ‘Gamergate’ controversy – and specifically the harassment some of its supporters had inflicted upon game developer Zoe Quinn and critic Anita Sarkeesian – my first thought was of two infamous moments in history in which audiences similarly went so irrationally, chaotically wild…

The first, on the 29th May 1913, was Stravinsky’s first performance of The Rite of Spring.  Listen to the piece now and you will be struck by just how impactful Stravinsky was upon all music that followed in the 20th century.  From it’s opening, impossibly high lilt on a bassoon, through its thunderous pageantry and discordance, it is a staggering work.  Indeed, even aside from the innumerable classical composers it clearly influenced, it’s hard to imagine the entire history of cinema without his sweeping sound design.  John Williams alone owes him such a debt that it’s almost criminal he doesn’t have a co-credit on the Jaws theme.  Seriously).

Rite of Spring Original Dancers and Costumes 1913

IMAGE: Original dancers in costume for The Rite of Spring (1913)

But if you’d attended its premiere performance, you would have heard nothing but boos. Because by all accounts – and to put it politely – that night his audience went completely f**king nuts.  Only moments after the curtains rose, a large portion of the crowd had already started hissing and jeering and swearing and stomping their feet.  As the show proceeded, they made so much noise that they drowned out the sound of a full, booming orchestra, preventing anyone else from hearing it too.  Stravinsky fled backstage in fear; someone kept switching the lights in the hall on and off (like you might do to distract children) trying and failing to calm things down; a splendidly attired woman in one of the private orchestra boxes leaned over to the next box to violently slap a man in the face.  And this was an orchestra crowd!  The genteel and upper class – out of their minds with fury.  It must have been like seeing the Monopoly guy pull a shiv.

The second example that sprang to mind was a notorious incident surrounding two performances of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in New York in 1849.  The two productions had been scheduled for the same evenings, one starring Edwin Forrest, the most renowned American actors of his age, and the other starring William Charles Macready, the most renowned English actor of his day, who was touring his production in the USA.  Fans of both actors became agitated that the other man had the temerity to try and play the same role, on the same nights, in the same city; and as the dates drew nearer, the hostility grew so heated that there were angry tirades written in the papers, propaganda spread amongst the populous, protests, vandalism and threats of violence at each man’s performances.

Then, after a few days of the shows running concurrently, on May 10th the two livid crowds met in Astor Place in a swarm of around ten thousand people, and in what was a surprise to no one at that point, the whole thing erupted in a full-blown street riot.

Literally.

There were bombardments of hurled stones. Brutal clashes with the police.  Windows smashed.  Bricks thrown.  The theatre was being physically torn apart, with people repeatedly trying to set fire to it – despite Macready and his audience still being trapped inside.  By the end of the night around thirty people were dead (many shot by police), and well over a hundred were injured.  Those who escaped the theatre alive described the performance as, ‘Still more enjoyable than watching Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.’

Astor-Place-Riot-1400

IMAGE: The Astor Place Riot

It seems crazy now that such a horrendous disregard for life, property, and public safety could have emerged from a squabble over who played the better version of Shakespeare’s scheming Scottish king – but of course, that’s only a fraction of the truth. In actuality, the hostilities between the two fan bases  were enflamed by anti-British protestors, who resented the thought of an Englishman drawing acclaim away from their home-grown American talent.  By stirring up the still-lingering resentment over English rule, these politically minded antagonists coopted a disagreement about aesthetic preference and mutated it into a racially intolerant fear campaign.  Add to that the fact that Macready and Forrest had spent the previous few years mired in a contest of petty personal antagonism – chasing each other around one another’s countries, egotistically competing for attention – and the whole thing becomes very foolish and unfortunate indeed.

Which brings me, finally, back to video games – a medium itself too often dismissed by those unfamiliar with the form as just violent, childish competitions; one that, in the past several weeks, has put on the mystifying, rancorous display that has led many people to conveniently forget about Astor Park, and Stravinsky’s frenzied crowd, and the persecution of the Little Tramp, all to label this the audience backlash without equal.

So again, to anyone who thinks this is unique: not so much.

That doesn’t make it ‘right’, and it certainly doesn’t excuse anything done in its name, but it is disingenuous to imply that ‘gamers’ are the first audience to ever overreact – even with violent, discriminatory, irrational rage – at a work of Art.

Oh, how nice it would be for civilisation if that were true…

***

Secondly, to anyone who doesn’t really know how all this got started:

Hey, a few weeks ago I was right there with you.

But no doubt like you, when the name ‘Gamergate’ first swam into my consciousness, I was mightily intrigued. Despite not being a member of the games media, and being nowhere near consequential enough for my jabs at EA or Microsoft’s underhanded business practices to land with anything but a wet flump, the medium of videogames, their perception and acceptance as an Art form, remains close to my heart.

And it’s not as if anyone paying attention can be blind to the many issues bubbling away under the surface of the industry…

I’ve spoken before about the perception of bias in the videogame media.  About how poorly it reflects on the medium that paid preview junkets and lavish advertising arrangements can be so commonplace between publishers and reviewers that they often go undisclosed.  About the way in which industry writers have, at times, unhelpfully reduced ‘gamers’ into clichéd mobs, devolving more nuanced conversations about potential problems in the industry and the review process by depicting anyone who might question the status quo as enraged, entitled, ‘vocal minorities’, too stupid to comprehend Art.

I’ve also spoken (only just recently) about how corrosive exclusionist language like ‘real gamers’ and ‘hardcore audiences’ can risk being on the legitimacy of this medium.  Rather than validating the ‘true’ fans, to me it often just alienates the whole form, making both videogames and their enthusiasts look closed off and territorial –  an unbefitting image for a medium all about experimentation and shared experiences and co-operative play.

And applying the suffix ‘gate’ to a controversy? Come on.  That implies some pretty huge revelations.  Big, empire-shaking truths.  It’s Watergate – the moment when the highest office in the most powerful land was called to account for its corruption and deceit.  It’s about the reclamation of legitimacy through thorough, reasoned truth telling.  That’s a big promise.

gamergate logo

So ‘Gamergate’ sounded like a compelling rallying cry. What kind of smoking gun must have been found to warrant a title like this?  I mean, this is an industry in which it is just accepted that swag and junkets are routinely lavished on ‘journalists’ in order to help sway their preview coverage of upcoming products.  One where Microsoft have clandestinely paid YouTubers to live stream their games and talk them up without disclosing that these are therefore the literal definition of advertisements.  One where several industry insiders have been fired for even raising questions about some of these murky practices.  One where Duke Nukem Forever was a thing.  An actual thing!

Who did Activision or Sony threaten to blackball this time to get favourable publicity for their game previews?  What kind of seedy, undisclosed, cross-promotional extortion could set the bar lower than inviting games journalists to tweet free ads for their game in order to win a Playstation 3?  Who did EA have killed that could trump getting a reviewer fired because he didn’t praise their game enough?  Did someone find Crash Bandicoot’s corpse in a basement torture pit?

From a cynical perspective, it’s hard to set the bar much lower on some sections of this industry – so whatever these ‘Gamergate’ people had their hands on must have been solid gold proof of corruption unlike anything ever seen before.

Hoo nelly. I was salivating.

And what did we get?

The gossipy smear of a jilted ex-lover trying to slut-shame his former girlfriend.

…No really.

It seemed that what kicked off all of the acrimony that followed was an accusation from a guy called Eron Gjoni claiming that his ex, a game developer called Zoe Quinn, had effectively tried to sleep her way to the ‘top’. (…The ‘top’ apparently being the promotion of a free browser game designed to bring awareness to the issues of chronic depression and suicide.  That lofty Xanadu.)

Suddenly the spectre of Nixon and wiped recordings receded and I was instead recalling words like ‘Bridge-Gate‘ and ‘Rosen-gate‘ and ‘Monica-Gate‘ and ‘Shoelace-Gate‘ and ‘Rodeo-Clown-Gate‘ and ‘Nipple-Gate‘ and ‘Gates-Gate‘.  They were all ‘gates’, sure, but less the kind that needed to be torn down, and more the kind that you step over because you’re too lazy to unhook the latch.  (…And seriously can we get a new damned suffix for scandals already?)

Where was the meat of this thing? Where was the substance?!  I wanted to believe, but why were people congregating around this specific ‘outrage’ – which at best seemed to be a sorry character assassination from a disgruntled ex spewing the word ‘liar’ and ‘sex’ as though it were an involuntary tic?  And why was an actor from two of my all-time favourite shows, Firefly and Chuck, going all Chris Brown on women in the videogame industry?

Adam Baldwin Gamergate tweet

It was weird. Confusing, ugly, and weird.

There had to be more to it.

It turns out there really wasn’t. At least not with the original story.  The pertinent charges in Gjoni’s rambling, hysterical outburst – in which he accuses Quinn of sleeping with …well, everyone,  including reviewers that gave her positive mentions of her game – turned out to be untrue.  The criticism and scores her work received were not written by anyone she was said to be dating, so this invasion into her personal life was not only slanderous, but irrelevant.

So then why all the rage? Why the outcry? Why the sudden mock surprise that game makers and game reviewers should know each other personally?  It’s been common knowledge for decades now that game publishers and developers hire from within the ranks of their media (to take but one solitary example: look at a list of previous Game Informer employees and track the places they have gone on to be employed); likewise designers can be (in some cases the most aggressive) critics of their competitor’s work.

And yet for some reason it triggered something. People started rallying around the story.  Quinn was suddenly the face of corruption in the industry.  Not some CEO, like a Don Mattrick or a John Riccitiello. Not someone running a major publisher or an industry-leading, taste-making journalist.  Not whichever thug in a suit threw their weight around to get Jeff Gertsmann fired for writing an unflattering review for Kane and Lynch 2.  No.  A small, indie developer.  Who it appears wasn’t involved in the corruption she was accused of, and whose primary ‘crime’ seems to have been ‘being a crappy girlfriend’ – at least according to the testimony of an emotional ex-boyfriend with an axe to grind.

Please tell me this wasn’t all just a good ol’ fashioned witch burning…

***

To anyone who thinks Quinn ‘deserves’ to be burned as a witch:

Are you nuts?!

Sorry. I broke my own rule there.  I wasn’t going to get judgemental or petty or insulting.  …But seriously.

Put aside that the accusations of ‘sleeping with writers for positive reviews’ were proved false; put aside the cowardice and illogic of blaming one woman for an industry lousy with misdeeds; no matter what you think of her, there is no way that what has been inflicted upon Quinn can be considered a fitting response.

Quinn was publically and privately harassed – attacked and intimidated on Twitter, pestered over the phone, menaced through email,  vilified, and threatened with physical and sexual attack – all by a disturbing amount of crusaders who somehow conflated threatening one woman into silence with tackling institutional corruption.  She was accused of fraud and manipulation; and because those railing against her believed that the media wasn’t making a big enough deal about the scandal, she was even accused both of stopping an entire industry from reporting on it (somehow), and of having forum moderators on numerous sites including 4chan and Reddit delete discussion threads (despite these threads being described as too slanderous, hostile, and potentially illegal by the mods themselves).  And always, throughout it all, that slur about her being ‘sexually promiscuous’ kept surfacing, again and again, revealing far more about her accusers than it did about her.

Zoe Quinn

IMAGE: Zoe Quinn

And yet the outrage was never proportional with any other shady industry dealings…

Even in this past week it was revealed that the biggest game of the year, Destiny, the first salvo in Bungie’s new uber-franchise, has on-disc DLC.  Material, already made and paid for has been discovered in the base game, withheld  behind a second exorbitant pay-wall  for future release in a game that already feels stripped of content.  And yet relatively few (if any) people are making a fuss.  One of the biggest, most over-hyped games in the history of the medium, participating in a glaringly underhanded business practice (one inherited from publishers like CAPCOM who have strived to perfect the procedure***), and yet far more angry screeds and protests have been offered about how dangerous Quinn’s behaviour apparently was, even though it’s been proved that she never actually did what got people so worked up in the first place.

It’s bizarre.

Now, to be clear: Quinn may be a bad girlfriend – I wouldn’t know. She might be personally unpleasant; she might be an utter delight.  She may speak twenty-seven different languages, cry marmalade tears, be part centaur.  My point is: it doesn’t matter.  It’s utterly irrelevant.  The original accusations of corruption brought against her were false, the slander of her character was immaterial, and the threats she has endured are inexcusable – even if every single thing that her detractors were saying was true.  Even if she was the one who cancelled Firefly.

…Wait – is that why Adam Baldwin is so mad?

And yet her demonization continues unabated, with many still keen to fashion her into an effigy – a symbol of the videogame media’s shame. And aside from being terrifyingly misguided, the greater irony is that this ends up being a massive distraction from the real issues that need to be addressed in the industry.  At the very moment Quinn is being decried as pure evil, a developer like Bungie is being shrugged off as doing what comes natural (‘Hey, they’re a big company trying to make a profit, man.  What do you expect?’)

Ultimately all it has proved is that – whatever else you think of her; Centaur or no – Quinn must have real guts to persist in spite of it all.

***

To anyone who thinks that women in gaming is a problem:

No.

Just, no.

I can’t bring myself to believe that the people who hold this belief make up a large portion of the gaming community – especially considering half the gaming community is made up of women – but I have read commenter s express this opinion – often in quite repugnant ways.  By their reasoning, games are really by men, for men, so women, both as creators and players, don’t really belong.

So to those people, those specific people who actually believe that kind of exclusionist, sexist, backward nonsense, I want to make this as clearly and as strenuously as I can:

There is no problem with women in gaming.

There just isn’t. That would be like saying that there is a problem with women in Art, or women using libraries, or women in politics, or women using the internet.  It’s asinine.  It’s indefensible.

Now, if you want to argue that women face greater struggles than men when breaking into the gaming industry (an undeniable fact of life when most every workforce leaves women proportionally underpaid), or that they have to fight a lot harder to be heard on creative teams that are still dominated by men (I’ve heard several stories expressing exactly that), or that there are still too many instances in which female players have been the targets of inexcusable sexual harassment, then, sadly, you will find a wealth of examples to prove your point.

But you cannot – you cannot – say that they have no right to be there.

Escapist Cover for Femal Game Journalists

IMAGE: Title slide of an exceptional collection of essays compiled by The Escapist

There is a reason that humanity looks back in shame on things like ‘Whites Only’ drinking fountains and job advertisements that say ‘No Irish’ – and trying and argue that half of the human population has no right to participate or be heard in the production and consumption of one of its most prominent Art forms is just as backward and vile.  Thinking that they don’t, trying to reduce an entire industry and medium down to some juvenile boys club, is just sad.

Particularly so because it has already had such a poisonous effect. Once Quinn was accused, several other female developers and critics in the field were attacked too.  Journalist Jenn Frank and critic Mattie Brice (who was also a game designer), both passionate advocates of the medium, have been tragically harangued and threatened out of the industry after they dared voice their disappointment with the situation.

And such instances reflect very poorly on the ‘Gamergate’ movement, because whatever its goals may be, thanks to this fringe of abusers it will always remain stained with a tone of sexism and vindictiveness. That’s not to say that ‘Gamergate’ at large doesn’t make some pertinent points (I’ll get to those momentarily) but since this whole mess began with an overt tone of misogyny (let’s all judge this slutty woman who used her slutty powers to do slutty things for sluttiness), and has been used as a cudgel to terrorise more women out of the industry (because they don’t belong there anyway, apparently), it completely hijacks the whole argument.  Who cares if a portion of what they are saying has merit if the rest of it is utterly reprehensible?

(Even Quinn’s ex-boyfriend realises this. His republished original blog post now carries a disclaimer distancing himself from all of the harassment being inflicted upon Quinn and ‘her friends’.  …Although he was also screen-capped in a 4chan forum encouraging the horror being inflicted upon her and everyone she knows, even scheming with several others to try and ‘destroy’ the lives of her boyfriend and other people in the games industry.  …So he may not be the most reliable, ethical voice in all this.  To say the least.)

***

To anyone who has said anything hostile or angry about Anita Sarkeesian:

Please, for the love of Metroid, stop.

Obviously things were heated at the time. Once the knives were out for Quinn, once accusations were being flung from all sides, in all directions, maybe it seemed like provocation that Anita Sarkeesian, a critic in the midst of an extended series of video essays about the representation of woman in videogames, would release her latest instalment.  But it wasn’t.  And even if it were, there’s still no excuse.

But because the new video was (as much of the series had been) critical of the way in which women have traditionally been depicted, it was seized upon by a segment of the ‘Gamergate’ supporters as evidence of some ‘feminist’ campaign to ruin all their stuff. And once again threats of rape and violence were hurled upon a woman who had nothing to do with whatever social injustices they believed they were suffering.  It soon became so heated that the police were involved, and she has even had to cancel speaking arrangements, such as at Utah College where some appallingly death threats included mention of unleashing pipe bombs, pistols, semi-automatic rifles, and writing a ‘manifesto in her spilled blood’:

‘This will be the deadliest school shooting in American history and I’m giving you a chance to stop it.’

Anita Sarkeesian

IMAGE: Anita Sarkeesian

So I want to make this very clear: there is nothing wrong with a critic like Anita Sarkeesian writing whatever she likes about videogames.

Literally nothing.

That is what criticism is. You may disagree with her process, you may take issue with her conclusions, you may believe that there are flaws in her process, but she has every single right in the world – both as a human being with the luxury of free speech, and as a contributor to the breadth of critical analysis – to pursue whatever inquiry she likes.

That does not mean you have to accept her conclusions. That does not mean that she is impervious to interrogation or rebuttal.  (I personally took many issues with Roger Ebert’s perspective on the videogame medium.)  But declaring that such criticism has no right to exist, that the person who posed those questions should die or be terrorised until they shut up, is so antithetical to a healthy, evolving discourse, that it beggars belief.  And in the case of Sarkeesian, her Kickstarter was such a success that clearly there is an audience eager to hear her thoughts, so sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears and yelling ‘I’m not listening!  You don’t exist!’ is extremely unhelpful.

A conversation doesn’t just end because one person has put a single point in print or made a video.  There’s no killscreen for debate.  And trying to troll people out of the argument is not a victory for anyone, it just condemns us all to stagnation.

If you take issue with Sarkeesian, then confront her theories, not the person herself. She may be right; she may be wrong.  But the only way to know is to raise those questions and cross-examine them head on.

***

To those in the community that have participated in the condemnation of Zoe Quinn, or Anita Sarkeesian, or who have tacitly perpetuated it by shrugging it off as no big deal:

Please stop.

I literally cannot believe I have to type this, but it is not okay to threaten anyone with violence if you disagree with them. Ever.  Under no circumstances is it okay to type the words ‘I hope you get raped or killed’, or publish someone’s address and contact information with the express purpose unleashing a campaign of harassment and hatred upon them.

Believe me, I know that not everyone in the ‘Gamergate’ community has done this, but some have, and they have done it in the name of the ‘Gamergate’ crusade. And allowing such behaviour, excusing it after the fact, or (as I have seen a disturbingly large contingent of people do) trying to downplay it by claiming that everyone gets threats on the internet, that Sarkeesian didn’t actually call the police, or that Zoe Quinn ‘deserved it’ because she wanted publicity or something, is just as contemptible.  A human being should not be threatened – in any way – because they have dared to express an opinion or publish a work of Art.

The thought that this could be how low public discourse has fallen for some people breaks my heart; and such behaviour should never be excused or tacitly allowed.

Gamergate threats excuse

IMAGE: Comment from Gamergate article by Jim Edwards at Business Insider

***

To any videogame journalists who have dismissed ‘Gamergate’ members as just a mob of entitled misogynists:

I know it’s tempting. Hell, I just listed a handful of disturbingly sexist, reactionary behaviour perpetrated in the name of ‘Gamergate’.  And I know that when the yelling gets loud it gets hard to tell who’s what – at a certain point the disparate voices seem so enraged that the cacophony drowns out all nuance and it becomes easy to just write the whole thing off as a petulant boy’s club tantrum.

Angry Gamer picture

IMAGE: That same damned picture that always gets used in articles like these…

But it’s wrong, and it’s not helpful.

‘Gamergate’ raised a myriad of issues. It is impossible to lock down any one agenda, and it is both a disservice and a mistake to try.  Sure, when ‘Gamergate’ started it was born out of a petty personal attack, and yes, the majority of the fallout seems to have reprehensibly fallen upon women in the industry, but that hashtag was also taken up by many people who genuinely wanted to call for more transparency in the games media.  (I’m going to put aside the anti-‘Social Justice Warrior’ crowd – I’ll speak to that momentarily.)

Because what many ‘Gamergate’ proponents wanted – after a whole seedy history of backroom dealings – was for reviewers and journalists to make it clear when they had financial or personal relationship with the subjects of their commentary. To be made aware of when they were reading critique, and when it was just an advertisement in disguise.  It’s no doubt why the whole movement gained such heat beyond just the lunatics threatening women’s lives.

And yet when some journalists responded to the protests they painted all ‘Gamergate’ members (indeed, some even went so far as to label all ‘gamers’) entitled misogynistic infants.  And that too is in no way helpful.

So games journalists: when you lump everyone who has a legitimate complaint about the industry into a reductive cliché you not only insult the entirety of your audience, you reduce all debate to the very petty name-calling you accuse your opponents of engaging in.  It blithely, and rather disingenuously excuses you from answering the more pressing questions that, amongst all the noise, lend ‘Gamegate’ substance.  And that appearance of obfuscation is precisely what those who have questions about the industry’s ethics do not need to hear.  Indeed, it merely adds fuel to the fire.

Because pretending that there is no relationship between games developers and press when any question about journalistic ethics are raised, but then blithely gloating that a developer told you something HUGE is gonna happen next week but you can’t say what, send, at best, mixed messages.  And when there is a history of shady business practices, when publishers regularly recruit from the games media, when non-disclosure agreements, publisher-paid junkets, and ‘integrated marketing’ are standard operation, it becomes utterly dishonest to ape confusion and offense that anyone could ever doubt the integrity of the industry.

Geoff Keighley Doritogate

IMAGE: ‘Dorito-gate’, because we need more words with ‘gate’ on them.

There’s a reason that the now infamous image of Geoff Keighley sitting beside a display stand of Doritos and Mountain Dew looking like his dog just died has weight. It has meaning, because it is symbolic of a road toward parroted product integration that the games industry risks sliding every day.  It doesn’t mean that you personally engage in those kinds of practices – thankfully there are many publications that make it clear when there is a conflict of interests or promotional consideration being paid – but pretending that it doesn’t and hasn’t happened at all, is knowingly hypocritical.

Similarly, there is a division between ‘gamers’ and ‘journalists’ – a not altogether healthy one.  To pretend that there isn’t – that ‘Hey, we’ve always just been gamers too, guys, we’re exactly like you’ – only exacerbates the problem.

Perhaps the clearest example of this divide (from my perspective, anyway) was in the wake of the Mass Effect 3 launch, when the industry largely rallied unquestioningly around Bioware, calling anyone who had any complaint about that game (whether it was about its buggy, unfinished state of release; it’s ethically repellent ending; its day-one DLC) merely a member of a spoiled, disgruntled ‘vocal minority’.  But it is a division that sadly recurs whenever games like SimCity or Diablo 3 or Battlefield 4 are released functionally broken, despite being lavished with great scores because the pre-release review copy worked swimmingly.  Or when an asinine fanatic like Colin Moriarty publishes some hypocritical Chicken Little diatribe attacking the mean audiences who don’t like his favourite games – because somehow (even though he gets his games for free and is paid to express his opinion) anyone else expressing their opinion in any way besides ‘voting with their wallet’ is going to totally ruin the industry forever! For real this time, you guys!!!

So please: please stop.  No more generalisations of ‘all gamers’.  No more feigned shock that anyone might not have absolute faith in the ‘journalistic’ process.

Yes, absolutely there are outrages with which to take issue, and for that you should be celebrated. Calling out the persecution of individuals, combating the spreading of misinformation, holding anyone to account who would engage in sexism, racism, or threats of violence – that is a profoundly worthy mandate.  But painting everyone who doesn’t have absolute faith in the industry with the same detrimental brush does far more damage than good.

***

To anyone who thinks there is a ‘Social Justice Warrior’ conspiracy:

You know what – who knows?

Again, I’m not part of the industry, so if there is some secret cabal where everyone gets together to eat kale chips and talk about using nouveau roman game design as a Trojan horse for social engineering, I’m not invited. But to be completely honest, I just don’t see it.  Not at all.  And I’ve really tried to understand where this perception is coming from.

It seems that when the ‘Gamergate’ hashtag started up, some saw it as an opportunity to voice their frustration at what they perceived to be a ‘liberal bias’ in the games media. The term ‘Social Justice Warrior’ was suddenly being directed at anyone (critic, designer, commentator) who, in their opinion, was trying to peddle a ‘liberal agenda’: celebrating female empowerment, exploring the LGBT experience, exhibiting racial diversity.  Somehow, these ‘warriors’ were attempting to ruin the videogame medium by turning everything into a political statement; stripping out the ‘fun’ (or, rather, whatever the person complaining believes ‘fun‘ to be at any given moment) in exchange for a judgemental lecture.

But truthfully, I just don’t see any evidence for this kind of a conspiracy theory – neither in the writings of the accused critics, nor the supposed impact upon the production of games.

Social Justice Warrior

IMAGE: Social Justice Warrior t-shirt by Olly Moss

Firstly, rather than thinking that these ‘Social Justice Warriors’ (the more I type that, the cooler it sounds, which is probably not what its critic intended) are proselytising some agenda, I think the answer is actually a lot simpler, and far more innocuous: I think they’re just excited.

To me, it’s not that shocking that reviewers – who probably spend ninety-five percent of their time stuck playing generic white male power fantasies in endless FPS and hack ‘n’ slash clones – might occasionally celebrate when a game comes along that explores an underrepresented human experience. Personally, I feel exactly the same – and I’m not the one stuck having to assign a score to Rambo: The Videogame.

When they see a game like The Stanley Parable or Dear Esther come along – something unpredictable, that shakes up their expectation or shows them something new – they get excited.  Not because the other stuff is all rubbish that should be destroyed, but because it reminds them that games can do many, many things – not just iterate upon the familiar, or perfect the ideal progression tree (neither of which am I suggesting are bad things).

Secondly, I really do not see how – even if there was some master plan behind it all – it has had any effect at all on the industry.  The most profitable and ubiquitous games being released every year continue to be things like Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Street Fighter and Uncharted – games with countless sequels that can hardly be said to be plagued by moralistic handwringing, or a lack of unapologetic, bombastic fun.  With thousands of employees, multiple studios and a Smaug’s den of financing behind it, Assassin’s Creed: Unity couldn’t even be bothered to put a female character option in their co-op game because ‘reasons’.  So whatever clout these SJW’s are supposed to have, it seems pretty limited.

***

To anyone who thinks that indie games are part of a SJW agenda, and aren’t ‘real’ games anyway:

One of the weirdest results of the ‘Social Justice Warrior’ backlash in the ‘Gamergate’ movement has been people taking it upon themselves to slag off small, niche titles like Gone Home and To The Moon – passion projects keen to use the malleability of their form in unique and experimental ways – for not being real games.  Despite the fact that they in no conceivable way damage the profit of the more mainstream, popular, and ‘real’ games, they are condemned as somehow threatening what ‘real gamers’ want.

Again, I’m sorry, but try as I might to comprehend that it I just genuinely don’t even understand the reasoning.

Gone-Home-2

IMAGE: Gone Home (The Fullbright Company)

There are always going to be big, explosive, fun games; someone downloading Braid is not going to stop that.  Just like there will always be thumping action films and raucous comedy films and slashy horror films filling the cinemas, no matter how many Richard Linklater experiments, Charlie Kaufmann mindbenders and Sophia Coppola character studies are released.  Michael Bay’s deplorable oeuvre is devoid of anything resembling humanity yet his films will go on earning the revenue of whole nations (gods help humanity), no matter how much praise a film like Her receives.

And I say this as someone who has grown up in a country that struggled (and still struggles) for many years to even catch up with the rest of the world in seeing games as adult entertainments: no one is going to take anyone’s videogames away.**** Big-budget shooters and fantasy games and fighters and sports franchises and action adventures are always going to be around.  Appreciating a work like Journey does not invalidate God of War.  The experiential mechanics of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons does not undo all the engagement and split-second precision to be mined from Devil May Cry.

Brothers a Tale of Two Sons

IMAGE: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (Starbreeze Studios)

That would be like saying that once you’ve read The Waste Land you have to chuck every Charles Dickens book on the fire.  If you like 2001: A Space Odyssey then you must hate Star Wars and want it erased from history.  Whistling a Taylor Swift song means the Rolling Stones have to be rounded up and shot.  It’s totally illogical.  One isn’t necessarily better than the other.  One doesn’t have to belittle the other.  And even if someone does come along wanting to disparage one in favour of another, so what?  It’s opinion.  We don’t have to be so petrified of other people not liking the things that we like that everyone starts marking their territory, snarling, and savaging each another like rabid dogs.

Frankly, the idea of anyone complaining that they are being ‘persecuted’ because, somewhere, a game that they don’t have to play is being produced for people who aren’t them, is kind of ludicrous. If someone doesn’t like a game – either its mechanics or what it is saying – then they should just not play it.  Being so self involved as to actively try to prevent others from experiencing something that has nothing to do with them is a whole other level of narcissism that I cannot comprehend.

Indeed, when I think about it – if the people who believe such things had their way, games like A Dark Room, The Walking Dead (the good one), and Gone Home would not only have never been discussed, they would never have even been made. So to get selfish for a moment: How dare they try to take away experiences that I personally have found unique, enlightening and rewarding.  I am never in my life going to master a fighting game or dominate a multiplayer shooter, but I would never wish one of those games unmade.  Why would I want to deprive someone else of something they enjoy?

It’s a pretty sad hypocrisy that the only people actually actively endorsing censorship are the one’s complaining about ‘Social Justice Warriors’ trying to take away their freedoms.

***

To anyone using the ‘Gamergate’ hashtag:

Okay, so this one is going to be tricky to explain, but here goes.

‘Gamergate’ is filled with good people; great people. It simply has to be.  It’s too broad, and too far-reaching to just be some enclave of sexist, abusive crackpots, no matter how many articles get written describing them that way.

But I think you might need to stop using the name.

I’m not saying stop demanding more journalistic integrity and transparency from the games media and publishers. If that is what you signed up to ‘Gamergate’ for, then I am right with you and couldn’t agree more.  But the truth is, that’s no longer what the name ‘Gamergate’ represents – if it ever did.

‘Gamergate’ is Hydra. Multi-headed.  Multiform.  It isn’t just about dude-bros saying sexist crap; just as it isn’t only about calling for full disclosure in reviews; or rooting out ‘Social Justice Warriors’; or preventing people from calling ‘narrative experiences’ like Gone Home ‘games’ – all of which, at various points, have been attributed to the movement by its diverse supporters.

And that’s a problem.

Earlier, I called ‘Gamergate’ a Rorschach test, but given its history, really, there’s a better analogy. Because when you peel back the layers, there are too many different agendas, too many different visions for it to all cohere into a oneness.  It’s more like the turducken of enraged twitter trends: a petty personal character assassination, wrapped in a call for journalistic ethics, jammed inside a territorial gender war, and seasoned with a reactionary screed against ‘Social Justice Warriors’.  There is some good stuff in there – some great stuff – but it’s too overloaded by all the other confusion to cohere.

It’s why good, well intentioned people have gotten caught up in the mudslinging, because there is a layer of truth in what is being said.  It’s also why some games journalists have made the mistake of lumping all ‘gamers’ into one catch-all category, seemingly writing off the whole audience of videogames because a movement such as this was allowed to get any traction at all.  On the macro scale, both sides are right – partially.  But it’s also why both sides are wrong.

And I do believe that there is value in what many of the people applauding this movement are asking for. There is a genuine discussion to be had here.  Real questions to be answered.  Real expectations of full-disclosure to demand.  When a reviewer has a personal relationship with the developers, that should be divulged.  When a critic has not done due diligence in their analysis, that should be questioned.  When a developer or publisher is funnelling wads of cash into intentionally misleading promotional consideration, that should absolutely be called to account.

But I don’t think ‘Gamergate’ can forward that message. ‘Gamergate already comes pre-packaged with too much vindictiveness and fear.  In the end it has become something else entirely.

chainsawsuit 20141015-theperfectcrime

IMAGE: chainsawsuit comic

Because when you’re calling for integrity, but have to first explain away the fact that your movement started with a guy trying to slander his ex girlfriend as an unfaithful slut – that’s a problem. When multiple people are running crusades of terror, using character assassination, literal threats of assassination and jokes about rape in your name, then it is hard to argue that some critic excited about an interactive novel has ‘gone too far’.  And when you are talking about not having your personal ‘freedoms’ impinged, it loses some impact when several writers and artists have been terrorised out of their jobs (and in some cases homes) because they tried to express themselves.

Again, it’s not about saying that everyone in ‘Gamergate’ is guilty of everyone else’s crimes, it’s just a reality. ‘Gamergate’ began, and continues to be co-opted by people more interested in silencing and frightening women out of the industry, so using the name, even to forward a more virtuous argument, means having to accept or excuse some reprehensible behaviour, ultimately undermining the entire message.

Personally, I’d suggest it’s much better to regroup and retitle. To gather around a new name that need never be muddied by anyone using terror to shut down debate, or becoming distracted with weird anti-women agendas.  Apparently at one point some people did try to set up another hashtag – ‘gamersethics’ – but it was prevented  from catching on because others thought it was better to keep the original title running, even in spite of its problematic history.  That’s  a shame, because I think it might have done far more good than the mixed, and at times outright terrifying messages coming from those signing their movement ‘Gamergate’.

***

To anyone and everyone:

Games are better than this.

They are bigger and more wonderful than all of this pitiful crap. They can be Fez and Battlefield and Mario Cart and Papers Please and Civilisation and Pac-Man and Chrono Trigger and Assassin’s Criminywe’vemadealotofthesenow and Cookie Clicker and Skyrim.  They can be Barbie’s Damned Horse Adventures (note: this was my harried mistyping; the horses, as I understand it, are not actually demonic).

They can be – and I mean this in the most hyperbolically romantic way possible – everything.

They have allowed us to imagine walking on distant planets; to craft gargantuan, elaborate structures fashioned entirely from scavenged resources; to build communities in fantastical worlds; to solve mysteries; to see through the eyes of an abused, frightened child trying to literally escape a magical realist vision of their village; to bend our brains inside three dimensional, spatial physics puzzles; to give up our plumber jobs, eat mushrooms, and wear a kinky raccoon suit in public. They offer the chance to test ourselves, to grow beyond our limitations by learning new skills, by inhabiting other lands, by empathising with other characters, and adopting new ways of thinking.

Skyrim Landscape

IMAGE: Skyrim (Bethesda)

But any time someone types the words ‘Well, Depression Quest is not a real game anyway’ or ‘You don’t have the right to talk because you’re just a casual gamer’ or ‘All gamers are just violent spoiled children’ or threatens someone – anyone – for simply expressing themselves or having an opinion, it reduces the whole medium.  All of it.  It makes games smaller.  Shallower.  Less able to reflect the grand miasma of human experience that, so far, they have been inexorably reaching toward.  You may as well anchor a boat off the Galapagos Islands and shout at the finches to quit evolving.

Because, like I said, videogames are bigger than this. They have to be bigger than this.  We’re long past the days in which figures like Jack Thompson were trying to strangle the medium through legislation and censorship down into the kiddie-pool of art.  They have eclipsed most every other entertainment industry in profit and cultural saturation.  When a Grand Theft Auto game premieres it is a phenomenon.  When a new Legend of Zelda appears we get a twang of nostalgia that can only arise from an Art form that transcends generations.

We all – all of us – have to grow up. Game publishers and journalists have to stop patronising their audiences like ignorant children and treat them with respect.  Players have to accept that part of legitimacy of their medium is allowing people with differing views to express themselves artistically, and to speak their minds critically.  Whoever put that scarf on Sonic the Hedgehog needs to check themself.

Videogames are not the first to go through these kinds of growing pains. Those people in Stravinsky’s audience were afraid of change.  They reacted furiously because they feared what they personally didn’t understand.  The people who coopted the Macbeth riots didn’t care.  They welcomed the carnage, believing it could serve their biased world view and rationalised away whoever got chewed up in the fallout.  But Stravinsky’s audience are now the butt of a joke; the Macbeth rioters are viewed as dangerous bigots.  The medium of videogames has legitimacy; but that doesn’t mean that those who would leap violently to its ‘defence’ do also.

‘Gamergate’, in a completely different circumstance, could have been – should have been – a force for positive change.  Perhaps once the fire dies down, once the sexism and murder threats recede and legitimate concerns can be heard above the din, perhaps then a healthy conversation can take place – the conversation that should have occurred the first time around.

After all, the beauty of games is that if you screw up, if it all goes wrong, you can start over again. Reload and do better next time.

journey

IMAGE: Journey (thatgamecompany)

That probably means little to people like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian and Jenn Frank and Mattie Brice (and oh look, even as I have been typing these words another developer, Brianna Wu has just been threatened with rape and death and had her home address published online by her attacker. How nice).  But those women, and all the other so-called ‘Social Justice Warriors’ got into the games industry in the first place because they believed that it was capable of more, that it was expanding and saying more each and every day.

And if games, as I believe, are natural extensions of the way that we human beings interact with our world – if play and exploration and challenging ourselves is the way that we grow as a species – then thankfully, women, cultural diversity, criticism, experimentation and adaptation aren’t going anywhere. They and their influence will just grow exponentially as we see more and more of ourselves – the better parts of ourselves – in the Art that we create.

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring outlived everyone who stomped their feet and wanted to drawn it out with their howling.  It persevered and it inspired, going on to indelibly impact the course of all music – of all Art – to this day.  That doesn’t mean that everyone has to like it, it in no way means that it is beyond criticism, but it has a right to exist, and with the acknowledgement of that simple truth, the discussion of its merits or otherwise can go on with respect.

***

To anyone who read this far:

No matter what you think of what I said: genuinely, I thank you. That was a long post (frankly too long), and it was a fairly disheartening one to write.  So you, like I, probably need a good lie down.

Thanks for seeing it to the end.

***

P.S. – To Adam Baldwin:

Come on, man. I love you.  I love your work.

Getting all panicked about women in the videogame industry? Belittling threats and acts of sexual harassment?  Pondering whether Obama secretly wants Ebola to sweep through the nation?

Adam Baldwin Ebola tweet

That’s bananas. You must know that’s bananas.

Please tell me Simon just drugged you with something. That things were just getting a little …bendy.  That for a moment you just went a little crazy and then fell asleep.

***

Sonic_Boom_Trailer_Sonic

IMAGE: A spinal injury waiting to happen

* As you can probably tell, I’m just building up to a gag, but I wanted to make it clear: I’m aware that this is completely untrue – no one cares what I think.

** No really: it does.  Because nothing says ‘breakneck speed’ like literally strangling yourself when your neckwear gets snagged on a tree branch at 90 miles an hour.  Also: he’s naked, but the neck is somehow his primary concern?  He’s leaving the house in the morning and his mental checklist is: ‘Keys?  Check.  Gloves?  Check.  Scarfy scarf scarf?  Checky check check.  Pants – so that I don’t get arrested again…?  Oh no!  Am I running late?  Better hold that thought and get going…’

*** Meanwhile, EA used the release of The Sims 4 to declare a bold new business model: slicing the base game apart to distribute later as paid content, like some deranged kidnapper sending a pinkie toe in the mail.

**** For decades Australia belligerently used a flawed ratings system to treat videogames like a toxic spore. Critics of the medium would spout the ‘conventional wisdom’ that videogames were for children, thus anything with adult themes and content was inappropriate.  Not ‘needed to be properly rated for adult audiences’, just banned and censored outright.  They ignored consumer demographics, countless petitions, and the entire rest of the world, and even after they were dragged kicking and screaming through one of the most farcical and protracted bureaucratic processes ever devised to introducing an R18 rating, we still have games like South Park: The Stick of Truth forcibly edited before release, protecting us, apparently from ourselves, and our ability to make our own decisions about the entertainment we consume.  Joy.

Verb Yourself: The Naming Of Gaming

Posted in criticism, literature, stupidity, television, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2014 by drayfish

Scott Pilgrim Gamer pic

IMAGE: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Universal Pictures)

I’ve been reading a lot of Shakespeare these past few weeks, which means I’ve also been reading a lot about names. Not surprisingly, as the most talented and prolific writer of the western world (this is a fact; the end), Shakespeare, was particularly obsessed with language – how it functions and alters over time. It means that he can go a little nutty for the puns at times, but it’s forgivable, because ultimately what he’s exploring is the way that we can take our language for granted. A crappy pun about ‘maiden heads’ or ‘country matters’ – aside from being surprisingly smutty – is a way of forcing us to re-evaluate the associations that words carry with them, to stop and compel us to examine the way that we use words and invest them with meaning.

As a consequence, he interrogates the nature of names and naming repeatedly throughout his work. In Julius Caesar, Antony, while giving a eulogy after the murder of Caesar, calls Brutus ‘an honourable man’ for his actions in the scheme; but by the end of his speech he manages to load the phrase with so much irony and contempt that when he repeats the word ‘honourable’ it translates to pernicious, traitorous killer. It is a compliment that becomes, effectively, a sneering declaration of war. Meanwhile in Richard II, when Richard has his throne usurped, he spends the remainder of the play mulling over what the name ‘King’ – previously an inextricable element of his very being – now means. He is King. Or was. And if he’s not King anymore, then what – if anything – remains of the man underneath?

We can still see the kinds of grammatical concerns with naming play out today. There are certain names that carry so much baggage with them that merely their utterance entirely derails a discussion. The most obvious examples of these, the ones that first spring to mind, come steeped in asinine partisan politics, or preloaded with bigotry and offence – hackneyed, racist, and prejudicial terms that carry with them the idiocy or ugliness of their past. For obvious reasons I don’t want to talk about those (despite how pertinent such a discussion might be while the Washington Redskins continue to be a thing).

Instead, I want to wade into the shallower end of the semantic swimming pool, to pick a target of lesser consequence, but one with a similarly loaded connotations. Because over the last few years, in the midst of its ongoing struggle for artistic respectability, the videogame medium has had a curious relationship with one such name:

Gamer.

It’s a word that looks innocuous enough.

Gamer. (Noun.) A person who plays games.

Simple.

But in practice, the word ‘gamer’ raises a number of problematic connotations that often muddy or complicate meaning – questions of what does or does not determine who is allowed to call themself a ‘gamer’. It’s a word that has evolved beyond ‘a person who plays a game’, to take on a whole new dimension, one where the amount of time spent playing, and the intensity of these sessions, are somehow being implied by the use of the term.

A ‘gamer’, from this perspective, is not a dispassionate descriptor, it delineates a kind of player of games. A ‘gamer’ plays the ‘HARD MODE’. A ‘gamer’ knows what ‘animation cancelling’ is in fighting games. A ‘gamer’ can get a twenty plus killstreak with only the throwing knife. A ‘gamer’ gets to say things like:

‘Oh, you’ve played 20 hours of Skyrim, have you? How quaint. Maybe you get to have an opinion when you’ve logged 300…’

Candy Crush becomes cited as the trash ‘non-gamers’ play; Dark Souls is for the ‘serious’ ones; Pokemon games are for hoarding, animal-blood-sport enthusiasts on acid. (By the way, Twitch Plays Pokemon was profoundly cool.)

Suddenly these kinds of exclusionary statements imply (or outright declare) that there is a self-evident division between what constitutes a real gamer and a fake one. It sets up a dichotomy of ownership of the medium in which only those devotees decreed to be in the inner circle can be considered the true audience, and everyone else condescended to as just along for the ride. It’s from this kind of classy system distinction that terms like ‘casual’ and ‘newbie’ and ‘gamer girl’ and witless garbage like ‘girlfriend mode’ spring.

It’s not clear where all of this started. Perhaps an attempt to engender some kind of tribal mentality (a spill over from the ridiculous brand loyalty wars of the Nintendo versus Sega days, and the current Xbox versus Sony age*); maybe the unintended result of the competitive nature of some games and the communities that support them; or the unfortunate, if natural, extension of the enthusiasm that inspires all fandom (we’ve all felt that; as for me, if you do not love Firefly then I regret to inform you that you are not a real person) – but whatever the cause, ‘gamer’ has come to represent a subcultural, elitist divide.

It’s a shame, because it risks taking something that should be inclusive, something to be celebrated, and turns it into a tedious pissing contest. Say to someone that you are a ‘gamer’ and suddenly a sense of judgemental snobbery threatens to overwhelm. They worry that you’re looking upon them as a Farmville barnacle; you worry that they think you’re a foulmouthed, teabagging thirteen year old on Call of Duty. And even if none of that disapproval is actually going on, it’s still in the atmosphere, stirred into being by the endless clogged forums and comments sections that do mean it all as an insult.

The answer, one might argue, would be just to not use the word anymore. We could say ‘people’ instead. Or ‘audiences’. Or ‘external biological reactive input interfaces’. Anything to let ‘gamer’ fall into that junkyard of sorry, formless terms we’ve abandoned, left to burn itself out on its own asinine steam – like jeggings, or Rob Schneider. The most logical choice would be to say ‘player’ – people who play videogames would be ‘players’, just as people who listen to music are ‘listeners’, and people who read books are ‘readers’ – the verb dictating the title.

Shakespeare’s Juliet would probably agree. For her a name was completely arbitrary. They literally didn’t have to carry around the stink of their past associations; a ‘rose’ by any other name would still smell as sweet. But what did she know? She was hopped up on adolescent lust. And as far as most research suggests, never even had an Xbox Live account.

But for the very same reason, using a different word seems like a needless concession. It is, after all, just a word; and when removed from its funk of juvenile competitiveness, it’s an entirely fitting one. A ‘gamer’ is just someone who wants to play a game – which is perfect if only it can be rescued from all that grammatical smog.

It’s not even like this kind of linguistic restoration would be anything new. Years ago, the idea of a television audience was observed with cynicism. A viewer? People would scoff. A ‘viewer’ was just whoever happened to be plonked on the couch willing to soak up the half-baked pabulum being spewed at them from the screen. Probably they were ironing and not really paying attention. Maybe they would fall asleep half way through, or flick over during the ad breaks and not return. Being invested in whatever the networks served up week to week was a waste of time. Next week Jeannie would still be misunderstanding Master’s orders (how was that show ever okay?); Magnum would still be P.I.ing; Gilligan was never gonna get off the island. The shows were only there at the behest of the advertisers anyway – yes, those are some smooth cigarettes, Fred Flintstone – so the viewer could just lap it up and call it ice cream. Of course, just as it is with videogames, this was all a gross oversimplification – but it was an opinion that for a long time continued to hold sway.

And yet.

Over the past couple of decades the notion of a viewer has been reclaimed. Redefined. In part this was aided by the surge in prestige programming that could not so easily be dismissed as cheap televisual distraction (your Mad Mens and Buffy the Vampire Slayers and The Wires), but it has also been a product of the empowerment of the viewership. Only a decade ago a network program sitting on 10 million viewers would be dismissed as a failure (remember Newsradio? NBC hopes you don’t); now it would be considered a smash hit event of the year.

Audiences are not, and never were, passive sponges for whatever is vomited their way; and the ubiquity of the medium, and our myriad ways of interacting with it, have shown this acutely. Shows can be time-shifted, recorded onto DVRs, bought through iTunes and watched on Hulu. What were once ‘water cooler’ events are now dispersed through circles of influence – people sharing programs with friends and loved ones.

‘Viewers’ are now something to be wooed. Cultivated. Treasured. Viewing is not just a passive act. ‘Viewers’ can bring shows back from the dead (Chuck, Star Trek, Futurama), they can crusade for programs they believe in (there is no way that The Wire would have run for five seasons on its relatively small ratings were it not for the rightful adoration of its loyal audience – many of whom, thankfully, were television critics**). In just the past few weeks Community, abandoned by NBC, announced it will be resurrected on the new broadcasting platform of Yahoo (huzzah!), largely because it carries its loyal fans in its wake.

There’s no reason ‘gamers’ need to be seen any differently. Sure, some might scoff that they ensure derivative FPS franchises keep chugging along (a fact far less offensive than the realisation that Transformers 4: Greasy Shouty Shiny Smash is set to become one of the highest grossing films of all time), but that lazy cliché is hardly the whole picture. They also foster and support the smaller, experimental games. They invest in Kickstarters and keep online communities alive. They help conduct gene research in order to find cures for cancer.***

Again, as Juliet would suggest, maybe the word ‘players’ would get this variety of interaction across just fine – just as ‘viewer’ can equally mean someone yawning their way through an episode of Two Broke Girls or an academic writing a dissertation on the Faustian descent of Breaking Bad. But it seems a shame if ‘gamer’ can’t be reclaimed as well. It just needs to be hosed off a little. Scoured of all that exclusionary us-versus-them drivel that, in a sad irony, has tried to turn it into a badge of honour by souring the very thing it is meant to celebrate.

For me anyway, to be a ‘gamer’ should just mean that you play games; that you see something of worth in the medium. It could be that you view them as a competitive sport, a work of interactive three-dimensional architecture, a narrative with which to invest yourself, a challenge to overcome, an auditory and visual stimuli, or all of these things at once. Whatever. All that matters is that you see them as something worthy of exploration. Something deserving of the attention you pay them when you pick up a controller, or tap a screen, or waggle your hands fruitlessly in front of an aggressively non-responsive Kinect sensor.****

You are a ‘gamer’ if you bother to play a game. Simple.

Because making that choice – for whatever reason – is a worthy act in itself. We don’t have to feel guilty, or territorial, or turn a definition in to some twisted, competitive point of pride. We could just be ‘gamers’, and be content that there is a medium as expansive and idiosyncratic as we are, where everyone is welcome if they just agree to all play along.

Heh.

Play.

How’s that for a pun, Shakespeare?*****

gamer-life_img2

IMAGE: Gamer Life (Mimo Games)

*Personally, I was a Sega kid by circumstance (Go, Alex Kidd!), but looked on longingly at my Nintendo compatriots (Go, Tanooki suit!) …Atari I could take or leave (Go, Faceless-Man-Jumping-Over-An-Alligator-Onto-Underground-Swamp-Ladder!)

** Just to put it out there: The Wire never won for best drama series. Way to keep proving your utter critical irrelevance, Emmys.

*** In contrast, Michael Bay spends multimillions to film a robot pissing on John Tuturro. And he makes sure that the camera angle is so overdramatically low that the splash off hits the audience; a more fitting metaphor for his asinine directing style I have yet to find.

**** At least until game stores and publishers perfect that process of segmenting and merchandising every component of a game behind preorders and pay walls, finally reducing ‘gamers’ to the cash-spewing compulsive magpies they have always suspected we were.

***** Yeah, okay, I know it was terrible. Shut up.

 

 

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

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

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

Mass Effect 3 Control Ending

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

Mass Effect 3: A History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drop the mike.

I must have misunderstood something?

Right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t.

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

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

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

Mass Effect 3 Catalyst Conversation

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

Mass Effect 3: Re-History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mass Effect 3 The Crucible

IMAGE: The Crucible, Mass Effect 3 (Bioware)

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

I think I just got a nosebleed.

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

It’s farcical.

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

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

 …Right?

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

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

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

Well, because…

Because she just is?

Flawless, Socrates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder Shepard killed herself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hope-in-mass-effect

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

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

‘I Am Rubber And You Are Glue…’: Art, Criticism, and Poop

Posted in art, criticism with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2013 by drayfish

Statler & Waldorf BalconyBox

IMAGE: Statler & Waldorf from The Muppet Show

Criticism is a funny thing.

Too frequently it is mistakenly viewed as a detached, objective, practice; a figure blessed with a breadth of knowledge and experience in the field brings his or her objective, reasoned perspective to bear upon the analysis of an artwork.  In truth, of course, criticism is anything but.  Yes, one may aspire to impartial, scholarly interpretation, but an artwork – any artwork – is designed to elicit a response, to stir its audience in unique, intimate ways.

Perhaps the most iconic image that now leaps to the mind whenever one speaks of criticism is the fictional character of Anton Ego, the restaurant reviewer in Ratatouille (I have even cited him previously in a rant about videogames and Art).  A quintessential cliché of the sneering malcontent critic, Ego* spends the film glowering and sweeping about like an insurmountable killjoy, seemingly drunk on the power he wields to act as the arbiter of literal good taste, able to make or break those who would venture to pour themselves into their Art.  As the film progresses, however, Ego’s self-importance is shaken, and he is compelled to reconsider the obligation he owes to those works, and artists, that he would presume to assess.

The speech that accompanies this realisation is marvellous – Ego laments that the act of criticism can oftentimes be less worthy than the garbage it would seek to deride (‘The average piece of junk is more meaningful that our criticism declaring it so’) and he celebrates the promise available to critics: to support and defend that which is original (‘But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defence of the new’) – but the part that I find most striking is how he comes to this moment of revelation.

Anton Ego revelation gif

IMAGE: Ratatouille (directed by Brad Bird)

Ego takes a bite of an extraordinary rat’s** culinary craft, and is transported back to his youth – to the comfort and warmth and love of his own childhood home.  A work of Art stirs him in a profoundly personal, individual manner – evoking a sensation that even if he could explain it, is so subjective that it could never be dissected and disseminated into scholarly prose.  And it is in the shock of this undiluted singularity of experience that he reconsiders the folly of his analytical arrogance.

As Ego realises, critics, in order to be able to speak with any context about the success or otherwise of this artistry, must be willing to open themselves up in this conversational exchange between work and receiver; not to be blinded by subjectivity at the expense of all else (the most unhelpful ‘critic’ is the one who shouts, ‘Well I like it, so everyone else can just shut up!’), but rather to be mindful of their own preferences and persuasions, to know when they have projected themselves and their own prejudices upon a text, and whether this has unjustly impacted their judgement.

With this in mind, this past month I have waded back into the thoroughly fished out waters of the ‘Are videogames Art?’ debate (dear gods, how can there even still be considered a ‘debate’?) to take issue with Roger Ebert’s criticisms of videogames.  Ebert famously considered videogames as a medium too ‘immature’ and ‘indulgent’ to constitute a form of Art.  In his view, the act of surrendering authorial control to the player meant that the text itself became incapable of conveying meaning, and as a ‘game’, it lacked the ability to evoke empathy or self-reflection in its players.

What Ebert, an otherwise admirable advocate for the celebration and assessment of Art, failed to observe was that his own prejudices – about what constitutes ‘Art’; about what even constitutes a ‘game’ – had blinded him to a wealth of expressive potential.  He was applying the expectations of a movie reviewer onto a completely different medium, obstinately refusing to actually explore these texts on their own terms, and had therefore irreparably muddied his own argument.***

In response, I decided to use Ebert’s own criteria to perform the analysis of a videogame that he, curiously, had not bothered to undertake.  I chose Michel Ancel’s Beyond Good and Evil because (and here my own prejudices emerge) I just think its exquisite.  The result of my analysis can be read over on my latest PopMatters column, but I don’t think it will come as any surprise that I end up arguing that Beyond is every bit as good as any film (indeed probably more-so) at evoking civility, self-awareness and empathy.

…Also, you may be surprised to learn that I still think Beyond Good and Evil is great.

Spoiler alert.

But that’s all boring.  Me yammering on (yet again) about a number of misguided comments a film reviewer made years ago; applauding a game that is now a decade old; hashing out an argument that for anyone not harbouring some lingering loathing for the videogame medium really is as dead as can be?  Urgh.

Instead, I want to talk about what is by far the best piece of criticism I have read of late.  It is an article titled ‘Australian Art and the Search for Faecal Purity’, written by an Australian artist named Duncan Staples and published on his website (Duncan Staples Art).

Before doing so, however, just so that my own critical bias is laid bare, I should mention that I know Staples personally – indeed, it is his portrait of me, ‘Writer at the Bar’, that I proudly sport as my avatar.  But don’t think that just because he is a friend of mine I am predisposed to agree with everything he says****; and you can check out his Art for yourself to see that when I refer to it as some of the most lively, urgent, and expressive work I have seen, I am being completely sincere.

I mean, just check this one out:

Duncan Staples In Preparation

IMAGE: In Preparation by Duncan Staples

In his article, Staples responds to the recent outrage that emerged in the wake of critic Waldemar Januszczak’s review of the Australia exhibition at the London Royal Academy.  Having perused the exhibition – purported to be one of the most sizable and comprehensive overviews of the history of Australian Art – Januszczak had made a series of rather disparaging and farcically hyperbolic remarks about its quality, including gems like ‘tourist tat’, ‘poverty porn’, and culminating in the rather hysterical ‘cascade of diarrhoea.’  Overall, he considered the wealth of Australia’s artistic output (or at the very least this curated snapshot of it) ‘lightweight, provincial and dull.’

Staples, himself a member of this country’s Art history, has every reason to take umbrage at Januszczak’s petty dismissal of Australia’s ‘provincial’ tastes; but instead of getting indignant – as it appears much of Australia’s Art scene and news media have done – Staples instead chose to explore the ignorance Januszczak exhibited in his dismissal of two prominent painters, Fred Williams and John Olsen, who had their work likened to ‘cowpats’ and a ‘diarrhoea’ respectively.  He takes the descriptions at face value, actually putting more thought and perspective into these snide insults than Januszczak clearly did, and by doing so, reveals the accidental truth behind them – commending Olsen’s untrammelled Romantic spirit, and admiring William’s meticulous eye for capturing the reality of his landscape.

Staples performs an act of critical alchemy, elegantly redirecting the superficial insults of a reviewer who had allowed his ignorance and disdain of the subject matter to cloud his perspective.  Marrying the profound and the profane, the professorial and the puerile, the perceptive with the poop, it’s an article that is funny, insightful, and that elevates the discourse …all while still making several wonderfully indulgent references to faeces.

It is a pity that critics like Januszczak and Ebert do not more frequently take after an artist like Staples, who not only proves himself to be knowledgeable and attentive, but is alert to his own place in this dialogue between artwork and viewer.  It is a lesson that they would have done well to heed.  Because ultimately, even if they do not like the Art they are viewing, even if it offends their senses: they are the ones standing in it.

The Sydney Sun by John Olsen

IMAGE: The Sydney Sun by John Olsen

* Ah, what a marvellous name for a critic!

** Ah, what a marvellous name for an artist!

*** One can even see this mistake – to a far more asinine extreme – being played out in the increasingly patronising tirades of a figure like J.Shea at the Exploring Believability blog (someone with whom I have taken issue previously).  No longer merely denying videogames the possibility of being considered an Art form based upon his own arbitrary (and honestly rather sad) definition of what ‘Art’ is, Shea now appears to be fixated on some weird crusade to openly insult anyone who would dare approach them as anything more than violence generators for training psychotics.

**** We have had some quite heated debates in the past about issues of great importance.  …Turning the world back around the other way at the end of Richard Donner’s Superman cannot reverse time, Staples!  I DON’T CARE IF IT’S NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE!

‘No More Vegetables Until You Eat Your Dessert’: Why Art is Fun, People!

Posted in art, criticism, literature, movies, music, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2013 by drayfish

bioshock screen grab

IMAGE: Bioshock (Irrational Games)

A few weeks ago I was checking in on one of my favourite interwebby gatherings (here) to recharge myself with the spirited and welcoming discussion of the fine folks who call it home.  Them’s good people.

In the midst of one of many conversations about the expressive potential of the videogame medium, one of the contributors referenced a blog, in which the writer, known as J. Shea, dismissed the validity of videogames as art.  Now, of course, there is nothing new there – indeed, at this point that is a tediously familiar drum for naysayers to beat – but I do feel rather compelled to speak to the second half of Shea’s argument, in which, in his misguided attempt to rescue the term from the debasement of videogames, he offers one of the most depressing, and misjudged attempts to define Art that I have ever seen (‘Stories in Games: A Survey of Quality’, from Exploring Believability).

And so – and I mean this sincerely – if you don’t feel like subjecting yourself to the angry spittle of a very grumpy, very rambling man, shouting as if there were kids on his lawn, I encourage you to skip the post I am about to inflict upon you and continue on with your life.  I should also point out that while I am directing this response at Shea’s blog, it is not he himself that I am trying to attack (indeed, I have no idea who he is) – it is instead the mindset that he is espousing – an opinion of Art that I have heard elsewhere before, one that arrogantly disparages the capacity for certain mediums to even be considered Art, and posits that ‘worthy’ texts cannot, by necessity, be pleasurable…

You see, an hour before I was introduced to Shea’s blog post, I had been reading Jane Austen’s Emma and feeling happy.

I’m not teaching a class on it.  I’m not writing an article (well, I’m now about to use it as a petty cudgel, but you get my point…)  I was just enjoying the book.  Indeed, if I were to draw up a Venn diagram of that experience, it would be a perfect circle: Pleasure and artistic appreciation perfectly overlapping each other into an uninterrupted pie.

But then I read Shea’s piece – a piece that reasons (with some extremely narrow examples and some tiresomely reductive presumptions) that all videogames serve one specific purpose; and that logically this purpose does not fit into some his definition of what ‘Art’ is.

You know, true ‘Art’.  …Whatever that is supposed to mean.

It was at that point that I got sad.

I was discouraged firstly because (as all too frequently happens in commentaries like these) the parameters of what constitutes a ‘videogame’ had been so narrowed as to be utterly meaningless except in the unhelpfully specific battleground of this writer’s own head.  Here, the span of the ‘videogame’ medium – everything from handheld games diddled about with on a mobile phone while waiting for the bus, to worldwide multiplayer behemoths that give rise to competitive sports, to immersive narrative epics that allow players to invest in and influence fictions across several years, to innovative downloadable games designed to engage their player in as-yet unexplored experiential dialogues between audience and text – had been arbitrarily reduced to Spec Ops: The Line, the first Bioshock, and Final Fantasy 8.

Somehow, all videogame narrative was thereby summarily reduced to nothing more than the pursuit of, and justification for, ‘cool stuff’.  All game narratives are slaves to their designs, Shea argues, and those designs are dictated by trying to load the experience with fun: explosive action, hilarious things to try, transitory playful indulgence…  Cool stuff.*  I mean, I’m sure I need not even bother to make this analogy, but that would be like reducing all poetry that has ever been written down to ‘the pursuit of rhyme’.  It’s a single element, of some verse.

…No, that’s fine.  Be sure to explode a single element out to make sweeping generalisations of the whole form.  That’ll be helpful.

But again, what I find most sad here is not that once more someone is ignorantly demanding that an argument still needs to be made for videogames to sit at the grown-ups table of Artistic potential**, it is that now it seems Art itself needs to be defended as being fun.  Because this piece not only unfairly maligns videogames as being unable to express anything of worth, it also reveals a wholly depressing (and frankly rather juvenile) misconception about what Art itself actually is.

Fundamentally, the blog posits that something fun, something designed to elicit pleasure in its audience, cannot therefore be Art.  Art, it argues, should instead be solely concerned with offering dry philosophical treatises, and compelling its audience to muse upon the deeper, important issues of life.  The example offered by the post is that Art must speak of human ‘isolation’ – a peculiarly specific, and tediously limiting dictate that is never helpfully elaborated upon.

But this notion, delivered in such an earnest, simplistic manner, is so patently ridiculous, and so at odds with the entire history of artistic creation and consumption, that I scarcely know where to begin.  (Literally, I’ve re-written the next paragraph several times now because I am dumbstruck by the absurdity of this concept…)

So if there is anyone out there who needs to be disabused of this notion, please take my word for it: Art is not some sombre, distanced, privileged means of expression intended to tower over its audience, dictating to them from afar what emotions and truths are appropriate to be explored, what experiences are worthy of exploration, nor that those experiences, by necessity, are not allowed to be fun.

At no point did Huxley, when he sat down to write Brave New World, say to himself, ‘Now, how do I make this book as tedious and unenjoyable as possible so that when students are forced to read it, they will know that it is “Art”, and not anything that they should bother to enjoy?‘  And (as my recent experience of reading Emma reminds me) when people gathered to read Jane Austen as a family by the fireside in years past, nobody was cursing their luck, lamenting, ‘Awww… damnit.  Now we have to learn something…’

Art talks with its audience.  It doesn’t condescend to them.  It’s not meant to frighten people away or stare down its nose.  It’s meant to invite its audience  in.  To start a conversation.  And that dialogue begins, frequently, in pleasure.  After all, you cannot delight, bewilder, or excite someone by making them feel unworthy of the attention (unless of course you are trying to make them feel small and unworthy – but not everyone is Ayn Rand).

What this blogger’s argument is essentially positing is that there is an absolute and necessary distinction between Art and fun.  In the Venn diagram of Pleasure and Worthy Artistic Expression, the two circles cannot overlap, because under such a severe definition indulgence becomes the kryptonite of insight.  By this logic, my reading of Emma is really only about me nodding along knowledgably as a young woman comes to know the truth of herself and her misapprehensions about life and love.  I’m certainly couldn’t be enjoying  it.  And Austen must have only written it to act as a turgidly instructive morality tale – definitely not to entertain.  Right?

So how, then, does Camus’ The Stranger – one of the funniest books I’ve ever read – not diminish itself because it injects a detached humour into an examination of human existentialism?  Because that’s fun, isn’t it?  How can there be fun in such a bleak, important narrative?  Surely Camus cannot have wanted to amuse his audience?  That really would be absurd…

What about Annie Hall?  A phenomenal piece of filmic Art – smart, snappy, with a statement to make about human experience and the metatextual potential of film  …Oh yeah, and it’s a comedy that is enjoyable as hell.  Does that not qualify?  Or Fight Club?  Whether you like the message or not, it is a text that speaks to human alienation and the loss of self in a progressively mass-marketed world – but again, it is one spectacularly fun film to watch…

annie hall screen

IMAGE: Annie Hall (United Artists)

Even in the examples that he chooses to (I think rather naively) offer, his argument doesn’t hold up.  His predictable mention of Hamlet?  …Yeah, because Shakespeare never wrote comedies, nor was acutely attuned to the commercial appeal of his work…  Please.  He was the most successful producer of his age.  He knowingly tailored every one of his plays to the dictates of his audience and their pleasure.  After all, there’s a reason that the stage is littered with corpses when Hamlet finally shuffles off his mortally coiled up bits: his audience loved it.  They – and we – loved them some gore, and watching the grand procrastinator go out in a blaze of furious, anarchic double-crosses and slaughter was an almighty ironic thrill.  One of the greatest disservices to Shakespeare’s legacy is this ignorant misconception that he was some cloistered poet genius, hermetically sealed away from his audience.  In complete contrast, the man was a masterful reader of his viewers – one who knew how to sculpt work that dually appealed to fans of ‘high’ and ‘low’ Art (whatever those distinctions might mean on any given day), creating something transcendent in the merger.

Similarly, Joyce’s Ulysses might appear (to those who haven’t read it) to be rather daunting – filled with austere allusions and literary reverence – but in actuality it’s hilarious, and (although I’m sure many won’t believe me) actually a great deal of fun.  Joyce peppered the work with a great deal of comedy and smut and farce.  Well before Leopold Bloom wigs out in a brothel, even before his masturbatory jaunt on a beach (set to the percussion of fireworks), he decides to use the bathroom.  After breakfast he retires to his outhouse, where he sits to evacuate himself (in fairly graphic description), and while doing so reads a published piece of fiction.  He finishes the work, considers whether he might one day write one himself, and then tears out a page of it to wipe himself clean.  Art, even for Joyce, was not some remote, esteemed relic; frequently it is made to serve humanity’s most base and immediate needs – just as it does for Bloom.

And that, frankly, is what every artist worth a damn is trying to do: Art has always been inextricably bound to entertainment; artists have always tried to delight as well as communicate deeper truths.  This didactic, professorial notion of artistic statements that Shea (and those who would subscribe to such a premise) is proffering does not actually exist beyond clichés of beret wearing, red wine sniftering, art house cafes fantasised to have existed in the beat generation.

People might yawn now at the stiff pageantry of an ancient fresco, but those sanguine images were profoundly moving to their original, intended audience – not because they made ‘declarations about what life is’, but because they communicated the unutterable sublime.  Should Monet be struck from the record as a failed artist because his imagery failed to speak to human isolation, as this article describes?  He crafted scenes of luminescent elegance and a hyper-real surfeit of colour within which viewers could lose themselves, utterly enchanted – but he never did say anything ‘valuable’ about social interaction, so I guess he sucks too.  Staring into one of Goya’s darker frames can be like making a smoothie out of Saw 1 through 4 and chugging it down for the brain freeze – because it too was designed to affect its audience with a fearful, unnerving thrill.

In fact, the attitude of this blogger exhibits everything that is wrong with the pretentiousness that sours people from engaging with literature and fine Art.  Art is not – and should never be – a chore.  Putting gaming and appreciating Art on two sides of a spectrum that cannot touch, driving a wedge to separate them in the Venn diagram of expression, is dishearteningly ignorant.  Just because something is joyful does not mean it cannot be achieving an artistic end; just as solely because something is delicious doesn’t mean it can’t be healthy.

Such smug divisiveness has no place in legitimate artistic discussion.  Picasso can legitimately be appreciated for using bold, striking colours; Mendelssohn can just be enjoyed as beautiful melodies; Beckett can just be some hilariously weird stuff on a stage.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying Art as entertainment, and nothing wrong with seeing in the realms of entertainment the potential for great Art.***

If this blogger’s argument were simply that games don’t operate like novels, then fine.  No argument here.  In fact: well done on pointing out a basic compositional reality.  I would like to add to the redundant observation pile that it is likewise difficult to paint a sonata, or to rhyme a photograph…  But this commentator said ‘Art’ – and that is simply too wide and magisterial and necessarily inclusive a terminology that it makes such disparaging and choking restrictions hysterically inadequate.****

So the problem is not that games don’t qualify as Art.  Ultimately the issue is precisely what this writer says in his opening paragraphs (without comprehending the irony in his statement): people bring their own definitions of Art with them.  And sometimes (as this blogger does) those people unjustly and naively attempt to dictate to everyone else what those narrow parameters should be.

This blogger not only sets up a reductive, unjust and impossible standard that he arbitrarily declares videogames to have failed, he further goes on to reduce the whole definition of ‘Art’ to such narrow subjective terms, wholly defined by his own ignorance (perhaps it would be kinder to say naiveté), that the entire discussion dissolves into irrelevance.  One ends up arguing with his personal limitations rather than the issue at hand.  One may as well be playing ‘What am I thinking?’

And if he cannot be bothered to even entertain the idea that his understanding of either topic might need expanding, or that his proudly arbitrary dismissal is a dead end rather than the invitation to debate he mistakenly believes it to be, it seems an exercise in futility trying to disabuse him of the several misapprehensions he has embraced.

Personally, I think it’s sad if this writer cannot see the pleasures in Art, or if he views only frippery and indulgence in games, but both are his right.  I would hope that one day he could outgrow such antiquated notions – both in his approach to videogames (which are, frankly, a rather easy target when their history is still so brief, and continues to test the potentialities within the limitations of their form), but even more so in his approach to the possibilities of Art.

Ultimately, however, videogames are far wider and filled with more potential than he seems to be aware; and moreover, Art is not the comically rigid canon of austere anachronism that he has dreamed up.

So considering that he seems to be unable to show any comprehension (let alone definition) of either ‘videogames’ nor ‘Art’, I would think it wise for him to not get so presumptuous in dismissing the possibilities of either.  Indeed, the very fact that he even equated ‘Art’ with ‘Narrative’ in so simplistic a one-to one-ratio in the first place is probably indication enough that his argument at present, has little to add to this debate.  In that Venn diagram his comments don’t even cut a sliver out of the sprawling, multifaceted, incomprehensibly vast pie that is Art…

[EDIT: To his credit, J.Shea responded to this post, and our discussion continues in the comments section below…]

File:Claude Monet - Springtime - Walters 3711.jpg

IMAGE: Springtime by Claude Monet (1872)

* One might well direct his attention to the purposefully dour and laborious game Cart Life to cure him of that misconception.

** Note I said ‘potential’, not unalienable right.

*** Although the music of Bruce Springsteen will in any context, at any time, be considered Art.

**** Indeed, if one wanted to be intentionally petty to this blogger (and perhaps I do), one might even categorise some of the examples he provides of his favourite videogame catch-phrase ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ (so hip and surprising and revolutionary), with ‘dramatic irony’ in fiction (one of the oldest and most familiar forms of narrative self-reference in human history).

Gears of War: Postpartum Edition

Posted in video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2013 by drayfish

IMAGE: Gears of War 2 (Epic Games)

I remember the blood.  The shouting.  I remember sweat and pain and carnage.

I remember losing all sense of time – minutes seemed to be hours; but somehow hours disappeared in a flash.  There was exhilaration, and chaos, and confusion.  Bunkered in, feeling wave after wave of intensity and fight, bearing down against the rush.

At one point I thought it was all over, but there was even more struggle, more agony to come.  It seemed altogether more terrifying than I had ever imagined, and yet I surged with adrenaline that made me alert, and alive, and left me shivering.  And then, when it seemed we could give no more, when we had been pushed beyond the point of endurance – it was over.  A swell of staggered, numb relief washed over me as I realised we’d made it through.  All of the fight was worth it, and the horror washed away in a flash, in the achievement of something sublime.

My child was born.

…Oh, sorry – did you think I was talking about Gears of War? 

I guess it’s an easy mistake to make.  Both are filled with agony and blood; both involve a frenetic urgency, confusion, chaos, and more than a little fear.  Both rob you of all coherent thought as you start to react instinctively, and find a way through the confusion.  Both have a military organisation assembled from the last stragglers of human resistance fighting back against an unstoppable alien armada.  …No, wait, only one of them has that.

In any case, it’s fair to say that personally, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything so weirdly analogous to the experience of those first few moments of parenthood – the birth itself and those chaotic first weeks of caring for a newborn.

People often say ‘rollercoaster’.  The early days of parenthood are just like a ‘rollercoaster’, everything’s upside down and a big rush, but soooo exhilarating.  I disagree.  I’ve been on rollercoasters.  Rollercoasters have tracks.  Rollercoasters have safety harnesses.  Rollercoasters make you remove your hat and secure all valuables.

Some people say it’s like having your heart outside your body.  In this I slightly agree – certainly in those first few weeks I remember my wife and I feeling like all of the blood had rushed out of our systems, that our bodies were in a state of startled atrophy – sleep-deprived; exhausted; short-tempered; panicked by every noise or cry our daughter made; unable to concentrate – on some level we really did feel like the guy in Temple of Doom who gets his chest torn open and thrown into a pit of lava.  But still, it does not really capture the drudgery, the chaos, and the weird exhilaration that these first few weeks inspired…

For that, I submit for your consideration: Gears of War 2; videogaming’s finest depiction of the emotional maelstrom that comes in the wake of parenthood.*

Back up momentarily to the week before my daughter was born and my beautiful wife was (as logic would dictate) still in the final month of pregnancy.  We were in the long anticipatory period before birth; the anxious, poised state, waiting at any moment for the inevitable to kick in to gear.  A bag was already packed.  A crib was already assembled.  Linen was already tucked.  Diapers were stacked.  Pumps and wipes and feeding pillows and basinets and (for some reason) grinning soft toy dinosaurs were all gathered and arranged.  Now came the killing of time…

And so, finding myself – as I so frequently am – flicking through a shame pile of unfinished videogames, I decided to slide in a copy of Gears of War 2 (purchased on sale only days prior) and leap in to while away the hours…

To begin with, if I’m honest, I was a little nonplussed.  Perhaps it was the result of jumping on a series without having played the previous entry, but to me the whole aesthetic seemed to be predictably washed out browns and murk, rust uniformly spattered with blood; the enemies looked like WWF dolls left in a microwave too long; the harrumphing self-satisfaction of the main characters completely rubbed me the wrong way (dialogue that purported to be ‘banter’ came off more as ‘redundantly repeating the painfully obvious’); and the clunky sack I was controlling seemed to move with the grace of a rolling wheel of cheese.

I played through the opening sorties with a vague appreciation of its game-mechanical polish, an appreciation for the relatively optional turret sections now becoming obligatory in other shooters, and a gradually rising respect for the art direction, which was starting to show some variance, and a surprisingly deft hand at rendering the awe of an ongoing apocalyptic collapse.  But I was still, nonetheless, mystified by everything going on in the story, and although I’m not exactly squeamish, some of the finishing-move animations (my gun has a chainsaw?!), and the spigots of blood pumping out of everything seemed a little gratuitous…

Then, suddenly, it was time.  There was labour.  There was hospital.  There was birth.  There was a new little girl in the world.  And the tribulations of Delta Squad faded utterly into the nether.

Days later, back from hospital and putting that stack of change wipes to work, I decided to occupy my fatigued mind in between bouts of newborn crying by returning to the fight.  I needed something non-taxing; something that could be paused at a moment’s notice; a game that would not judge me for being incapable of following along with a plot given my foggy mental state…

Gears was still in the Xbox.  I loaded it up again.

I remember actually thinking, ‘Heh.  Look at that.  My gun has a chainsaw on it…’

And five minutes later it had clicked.  All of it.  As my divine cherub slept in her basinet, offering a few sweet moments of quietude, I tore through the Locust horde now emboldened with a synchronicity of player and text that only comes from understanding, at last, what the core of whole thing means…

Suddenly, sitting in the flickering half-light of the television screen, with every piece of clothing I was wearing stained with spit up and saliva, the game’s gratuitous obsession with blood and gore and puke – with bodily excretions and fluids of every type – made perfect sense.  Surrounded by a trash can filled with used diapers and scattered tissues filled with snot, suddenly, hearing the words ‘Shit!’ and ‘Crap!’ in every second clause structure, and watching my character get covered in slime and brain matter and viscous goop seemed completely familiar:

Hmm…  Now I’m fighting my way through the digestive tract of a giant worm?  Yeah, seems legit.  Hey, is that a guy being eaten alive by stomach acid?  Well, we’ve all been there…  Yeah, that’s not so much Riftworm blood to have to vomit back up…

Even the sight of the bombed out detritus of once bustling cities reduced to smouldering wastelands was instantly recognisable.  As I looked around the house what I saw was all but unrecognisable from the week before – sprawls of swaddles and teething rings and pumps and bottles and mobiles, blankets and soft toys and wilting flowers, boxes filled with discarded gift wrap and dirty laundry piling up for the morning.

And yet – just as it is in game – the sight of it all was somehow glorious.  The shambolic wreckage of a new parent’s house, retaining the shape of what once was, but spilling over with the happy, weary chaos of something altogether vibrant and new.

…And completely covered in drool.

And I realised in a flash: maybe that’s why the opening level started in a bombed out hospital!  Like life, the game was declaring: You were born into this shambles, parent – now embrace the life-affirming pandemonium.

As I played on, I was able to dive into the swirling, mayhem of the story.  Just like every moment of caring for the needs of a newborn, the game is not about making plans and schedules and adhering to rigid structure: it’s about reacting, running on instinct.  If your child needs food, you give her food.  If your child needs burping, you do of the burping.  If she needs to be changed, you change her.  Needs to sleep, you help her sleep.  Linear time does not exist – your logic, order, timeframes, are but ashes in the wind of her principal need.

So too with the game…

‘Why is the Locust Queen human? someone who sleeps in more than half-hour increments might well ask…   Or, ‘What’s all this about a bomb?’  Or, ‘Who’s the guy chained up to the thing, and why did he wig out like that?’  Or, ‘Why is the Queen exploding that bomb?’  Or, ‘Why is this building being knocked down, set on fire, and flipped over?’  Or, ‘Why am I exploding the bomb now?!’  Or, ‘How are we all suddenly riding on the friendly space bugs who wanted to eat our faces a minute ago?

And the answer will always be returned: Who the hell cares?  It all just is.  And if you run with it, it’s a magnificent squall.  Because Gears of War is not about narrative.  It’s not about causal links and arching plotlines (at least not that I saw), it’s about gut instinct.  About pure, primal, primitive emotion.  Rage.  Fear.  Revulsion.  Love.  It paints on a big canvas, and uses thick brushstrokes, but the result, if you suspend all disbelief (and maybe even a good deal of belief too) is an unfiltered, expressionistic roar.

Even controlling Marcus – now that I had just given over to the mindset that the game required – had become a joy.  My lumbering pile of meat was suddenly a fluid ballet dancer across a blood-soaked stage.  There was rhythm and drive to it all, and I was soaking it in.

And speaking of Marcus – I finally knew exactly what to make of Delta Squad…

Margaret Stevenson-Meere, an Early Childhood and Family Health Nurse, wrote, in the introduction to her book, Baby’s First 100 Days:

‘Babies are not rational beings …. Babies lose the plot occasionally …. A baby does not have a grasp on anybody else’s emotional needs until he is about 7 years of age.’**

They were children.  All of them.  Manifestations of humanity’s primal id.  That’s why they are all so snappy and rash.  Why Marcus shouts ‘Gimmie that!’ when he picks up a gun.  They, all of them, operate in a newborn bipolarity of emotion.  Mournful and melancholy one moment (‘Dear God, we lost them all…’), screaming and in shock the next, only to immediately undercut it all seconds later by cracking wise and giving pet names to captured space bugs.  Like a newborn they snap from glee to devastation and back again without warning, each time punctuated by seemingly random shrieks and snarls.

Indeed, these characters even look like inflated newborns.  At first glance they appear to be farcically over-muscled Y-chromosomes made flesh, but check those proportions: they are upsized babies.  Thick arms; chubby legs; Marcus Fenix himself looks like a toddler with a soul patch.  (I’ve not played game three, so I’m not sure if he ever takes it off, but I’m fairly certain that he wears that bandana non-stop because his fontanelles have not yet closed over.)

Perhaps the clearest example of this comes in the character of Dom.  Dom is haunted throughout the game – to the point of complete irrationality – by the hunt for his lost wife, who has been kidnapped by the Locust scourge.  And when he finds her, near the climax of the narrative, the Bro-thumping tenor of the game momentarily shifts, and for but a fleeting glimmer of time, we see some genuine heartbreak – true sorrow that creeps in amidst the locker room jocularity.

Dom’s wife is gone, a twisted, malformed shade of the woman she once was; turned into yet another monster.  Dom must do the unthinkable, and in a moment of profound pathos, we feel his loss.

…But literally seconds later Dom is spitting out the one-liners again as a fresh horde of meat-bags he can riddle with bullets files in.  Admittedly, I was not expecting him to sigh, brush a single, silver tear from his eye, and turn to the heavens to murmur:

‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come…’

But you would expect something

After almost an entire narrative filled with desperate obsession and emotional fanaticism intense enough to endanger a mission to save humanity itself, he leaps back into the fray and reverts to ‘Boo yaw!’ type.  In any other game this would be a universe shattering moment of cognitive dissonance, here it’s a sign that maybe Dom needed a nap.

Speaking of which (if you’ll forgive me the aside) but: What the hell is a ‘Cole Train’?

At one point I’m in the middle of a hopeless battle, surrounded on all sides by snarling, grasping fiends – a city block collapsing around me in flaming rubble as my squad scavenges for cover – and suddenly someone called ‘Cole’ barrels through the line, shoving grenades down throats, kicking unholy monsters through the thorax, and whooping like a rodeo clown.  And from that point on in the plot he appears to offer little more debate or discussion than a series of third-person catch-cries or yelps for joy.  It’s like someone took Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Bay and Elmo and squeezed them down in an olive press to make Extra Virgin Cole…

In any case, the men throughout are depicted as hunks of needy, flailing meat, while the women – the few that there are – become absurdly, hopelessly idealised.  I presume that someone, somewhere has already made this observation, but truly: the women in Gears of War (or at least here in 2) are exceedingly romanticised creatures.  When they are seen (which is rarely) they are statuesque, swimsuit model-proportioned, tactician voices of reason.  Frequently they appear only through headsets – angels calling from the beyond to try and calm down the chaos.   Dom and Marcus will be pinned down, screaming and storming, and a soothing voice will come over the com to act as a comfort, to direct them forward.

Substitute this sequence of events with a baby’s cries and the consolation of her mother’s voice, and the metaphor is potent indeed.  These women – protectors, guides, solace – who appear at the end to patch up the soldier’s wounds, are like surrogate mothers: a home to return to, a source of peace in a maelstrom of emotional turmoil.

From what I understand, women get to play a far more active role in Gears of War 3, which frankly would be nice to see.  Having watched one extraordinary example of their gender give birth to my child, and observing her superhuman capabilities while I fumbled about in a newborn haze, I can attest that they would handle the gore and endurance and carnage far more handily than any number of storming ‘Cole Trains’ or ‘Bairds’ or ‘Doms’.

What Gears of War 2 proved, again and again, is that often the greatest splendour can arise from the most acute disarray.  As the old adage goes: children – like an invasion by murderous alien bugs – do not come with an instruction manual.  There is no definitive handbook to read to prepare you to become a parent, no class you can take that properly renders the journey it puts you through.  But in the gory haze of Epic Game’s stirring sequel I found a distorted funhouse mirror of my own experience, and a striking experiential metaphor for the peculiar Stockholm Syndrome of love that it engendered.

By the end of those first few weeks of parenthood I could see beauty in a dirty diaper, and a peculiar glory in the exploding membrane of a writhing, mutated monstrosity, stewing in its own ungodly putrescence.  And while I’m not sure precisely who to thank in that equation, or even what exactly it is that I am thanking them for, it has meant a great deal.

Image: Gears of War 2 (Epic Games)

* Although I freely admit that this probably has a lot to do with my own, singular experience of the game than any authorial intent.

** Baby’s First 100 Days, by Margaret Stephenson-Meere. (Doubleday, 2001), p.xiii

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