Sunday, April 7, 2013

Three unpublished articles on the Mass Effect 3 ending.

I once wrote three articles on the Mass Effect 3 ending, which Vice passed on. With some help from Leigh Alexander I tried to shop them around to other publications, but ultimately did not find a buyer. The last is unfinished and will never be finished; it literally stops mid-sentence. Shortly afterwards, I took the following lesson from the ME3 ending's extended cut, which really I already knew as an occasional creative type: Creative types do not want your criticism. They want to fail on their own terms. If you provide them with unsolicited suggestions for improvement, they will resent those suggestions; if your manner of delivering those suggestions indicates you're emotionally invested, they are most likely to use that emotional investment as an avenue to troll you.

Shortly afterwards, I stopped writing criticism.

Here those three articles are. They're pretty long!

Gaming media has been full of commentary on the end of Mass Effect 3 lately, much of it making fun of players for not understanding BioWare's art and for being a bunch of whiny, entitled little brats. To BioWare's credit, they haven't made this defense yet. In this three-part series, I try to pinpoint exactly what BioWare did wrong, so we can learn from their mistake and apply it to future endeavors.
Far from being mysterious and unknowable, the Reapers, a race of artificially intelligent squid-shaped starships that invade the galaxy every 50,000 years and kill everything, are strongly characterized across all three Mass Effect games in terms of what they say, what they do, and how they do it.
The Reapers are jerks.
I've phrased that flippantly for effect but it's not a flippant observation. Here it is in more detail.
The Reapers revel in domination and exult in causing pain. Their presence is corrosive to sanity and will. Their malignancy isn't limited to organics—in the first Mass Effect you can ask Saren what Sovereign thinks of the geth and their worship; Sovereign thinks them contemptible, their aspiration to become like the Reapers intolerable presumption, and intends their destruction. Their malignancy isn't limited to their enemies—in Mass Effect 2, the codex mentions that Collector technology seems to be manufactured to leak radiation specifically so the Collectors will exist in a constant state of radiation-sickness-induced agony.
The Reapers hate. They hate life. Anything less than them, they torture until it would beg for death, destroy its capacity to beg for anything, and make their slaves forever.
Their hatred and cruelty is all-encompassing and exists on all scales of existence, petty as well as grand. They are engines of murder and atrocity served by nightmare monsters—in Mass Effect 3 their ground troops are a mixture of zombie apocalypse, Giger's body horror, and Samara from The Ring (Gore Verbinski version, because the banshees do that short-range teleport thing that Sadako doesn’t)—an apocalypse adapted to overcome and destroy the sort of shiny space future the first Mass Effect presents itself as. The first appearance of a Reaper in the first Mass Effect game is a colossal hand, wreathed in scarlet lightning, reaching down from space to crush the helpless.
The documentary app The Final Days of Mass Effect 3, available on iOS, mentions that originally the conversation between Shepard and the Catalyst was longer and included some big reveals about the Reapers, like exactly how they worked and how long they'd been perpetuating their harvest cycle. It was cut for being superfluous.
I think this was probably the right decision. Fans may ask for that info but I don't think we need it.
Aside from the play, the appeal of the Mass Effect series is the emotional attachments the players form with the characters therein. It may have been the intention of the design team that players should not form emotional attachments to the Reapers as characters; maybe the intent was for the Reapers to always come across as terrifying ciphers. If so they failed right out of the gate, and good thing, too; the ending of the first Mass Effect works for me because I hate sadists and I hated Sovereign and I loved watching his high-and-mighty metal squid ass die from missile strikes. Robot Space Cthulhu is a fuck; Robot Space Cthulhu can eat it.
At the end of Mass Effect 3, you meet "the Catalyst," and the Catalyst says "Organic life always advances to a certain point, whereupon it creates synthetic life. Synthetic life always rebels against its creators and threatens to wipe them out. This is bad. The Reapers are my solution; a control mechanism—when organic life becomes advanced enough to create synthetic life, the Reapers sweep through the galaxy to harvest and preserves the essences of all organic races at that level of advancement. This way nothing is truly lost and the younger races are allowed to thrive until the end of the next cycle, instead of all life being wiped out by a wave of super-advanced synthetic intelligence that would prevent even the potential of more organic life in the future." Shepard then protests that denying life agency misses the point of trying to protect it.
And... okay, I get all that. I'm a nerd and I've been a transhumanist in the past; that explanation actually makes sense to me. I personally would not go from "We must prevent organic life from advancing too far and destroying itself in a technological singularity" to "We will do this by melting advanced organic life down into juice and then uploading that juice into the bodies of giant robot space squid gods," but fine. It's an unorthodox solution to a complex problem but the Reapers seems to make it work.
Alas, in all things as in art, it's not what you do but how you do it.
The moment the Catalyst said "The Reapers are my..." I stopped caring about anything he had to say. I didn't want to have my Shepard say "It's not right to protect us without our consent! We need to make our own mistakes!" I don't actually give a shit about that. I want to have my Shepard stare blankly for a moment and then say "Okay. Okay, sure. What the fuck is wrong with you?"
Everything the Catalyst says is a non sequitur. Nothing in its explanation of the Reapers addresses the one thing about the Reapers that the player can be relied on to care about given how they've been established—the Reapers are abominable, monstrously sadistic, maniacal jerks, anathema to everything the player cares about in the game and, for that matter, everything any given player is likely to care about in real life. Their "true purpose" doesn't matter.
The Catalyst doesn't talk about this, Shepard doesn't talk about this, no one in the scene even shows any sign of acknowledging it's an issue worth discussing. The writers give the impression that they consider irrelevant the hook on which they've hung the player's entire emotional impression of the series' primary antagonists.
It's pretty easy to think up wank reasons why the Reapers act the way they do that reveals their apparent characterization as irrelevant to their true nature. I'll do it right now: "It's psychological warfare. The Reapers don't actually feel contempt for the objects of their harvest but have learned over time that demoralizing and horrifying their opponents is the fastest way to complete a cycle and ultimately reduces the total amount of suffering caused by a cycle's conclusion." That makes sense.
It's also unsatisfying and players wouldn't have bought it. It feels wrong; it turns the whole emotional arc of the rivalry between Shepard and the Reapers into a shaggy dog story. I like shaggy dog stories for humor. My favorites are Ivan the Russian Diver and the extended version of the Hunter and the Bear. But they don't work as drama.
One thing Shepard is always given the opportunity to do up until the end of Mass Effect 3 is call jerks out on their bullshit. Whether this is talking Saren into shooting himself in the head for the greater good, berating him into shooting himself in the head for being a coward, calling a corrupt prison warden on his self-justification, punching a reporter for asking leading questions, making it clear you don't buy the Illusive Man's claims of benevolence, or saying "I told you so" to the Turian councilor after the Reaper threat proves real, the option is always there. It doesn't always work (if you I-told-you-so the Turian councilor in Mass Effect 3 the look he shoots you back is "What are you, twelve?") and it isn't always wise (if you skip punching Khalisah Bint Sinan al-Jilani in Mass Effect 3, you get the option to get her on your side, and she becomes a war asset; Khalisah's dialogue during this sequence is particularly well-delivered), but it's always present. During the climax of Mass Effect 3, this option is nowhere in evidence.
It's obvious BioWare decided the Mass Effect trilogy ending on an action note would feel false, providing a happy ending would feel trivial, and they should aspire to live up to the legacy of the Big Ideas Science Fiction of yore—the works of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, etc. Those works are famously intellectual and cold.
Except they're not!
Before 2001 ended on its weird psychedelic climax and invoked the Star Child, it fully resolved the audience's emotional relationship with the conflict between David Bowman and HAL 9000. We all remember "Daisy, Daisy." Isaac Asimov's robots stories hinge on the emotional connections between humanity and the robots, who are humanity's children. That's why we get involved in his Three Laws logic puzzles. The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, and The Robots of Dawn float entirely on the bond of manly friendship ultimately forged between Lije Bailey, robot-hating detective from Earth, and R. Daneel Olivaw, robot detective from space. All the great classic science fiction of yesteryear hinged on the emotional relationship between the audience and the text. That emotional relationship is necessary to keep the audience enthused enough to discuss the big ideas.
Maybe someone thought the Illusive Man is closer to being HAL and the Reapers are the monolith aliens (but evil), but clearly that was not the case. This isn't the first time BioWare misjudged exactly which characters the players would fixate on—judging from interviews, Garrus and Tali weren't originally meant to return in Mass Effect 2, and then Tali wasn't meant to return as a squadmate in Mass Effect 3. In both cases the design team ultimately pandered to the audience's emotional needs and the end product was stronger for it, as entertainment and as art. And given the number of times across Mass Effect 2 and its "The Arrival" DLC that Shepard speaks directly with Harbinger—exchanges which usually go "Harbinger boasts, Shepard wins, Harbinger acts petulant"—it's hard to see how BioWare expected the audience to continue to see them as mysterious.
Fans complained after the end of Mass Effect 2, because the final boss fight felt out of place with the setting as previously established. Suddenly, you are attacked by a giant robot skeleton, which we are told is a larval Reaper despite looking nothing like the Reaper species as a whole. Mostly nobody cares about those complaints because it didn't feel that out of place. Going into the Collector base, knowing it was something Reaper-related, we knew whatever we found would be an awful horror. I am convinced that while fans complain that a jumbo Terminator is cliché and it doesn't make sense you can make a metal skeleton out of human DNA juice, the reason they are making those complaints is they just felt the reveal isn't awful enough. They complain because they didn't get their emotional payoff.
Despite claims by fans, and especially despite claims by the fanbase's detractors, Mass Effect 3's end doesn't fail because it's inconsistent with the lore, and it doesn't fail because it isn't a happy enough conclusion. It failed because it doesn't anticipate the players' emotional engagement with the narrative.
Next, a look at the theme of organics vs. synthetics and its use across the Mass Effect games. I am going somewhere with all this, trust me.

Here we are again and I continue my meandering path to what I promise will be a point in Part 3.
The conflict between organic and synthetic life is a theme across all three Mass Effect games. Here's a look at how it's used. I'll start with how the geth (enemy robots) are presented across all three games, then cover the other synthetic intelligence subplots, and then move on to the ending of the third game. I'll largely omit the Reapers as I covered them in Part 1.
The first game presents us with the geth, a race of homicidal robots. They're no smarter than dogs individually, but in groups they network their intelligence and become as smart, or smarter, than people. They serve the game's initial villain, Saren, and worship the game's final villain, the Reaper Sovereign, as the pinnacle of synthetic evolution. They shoot at you constantly.
We learn their backstory from a squadmate, Tali, a member of a race called the quarians. 300 years prior to the events of the game, the quarians built the geth as a race of servant-robots. When the geth began to show signs of self-awareness, the quarians panicked and started shutting them down; this provoked violent reprisal from the geth, and the quarians ultimately lost a huge war that reduced their total population from the billions to the millions and left them fleeing their home planet in a rag-tag fleet that has spent the intervening 300 years vagabonding around the galaxy trying to survive and hopefully find sufficient resources to launch a campaign to retake their homeworld, Rannoch. Due to a quirk of biology, the quarians are heavily allergic all biological matter not native to Rannoch's ecosystem, and 300 years spent in sterile space ships has killed their immune systems, so they all have to spend their whole lives in containment suits; any physical contact with other living things, even other quarians, results in anything from an illness of several days (for careful contact under controlled conditions and with heavy preventative medical treatment beforehand) to death. Retaking their homeworld is the only hope they have of establishing a place where they can build their immune systems back up through conditioning and gene therapy so they can, you know, enjoy sex. Or just have any physical contact with anyone. They're pretty motivated!
(Tali is one of the most popular squadmates because she has the personality of a nerdy, bubbly college student. She returns, slightly more experienced but with the same basic personality, as a romance option in Mass Effect 2, where the entire romantic plot is basically "Yep, we're together 'cause you're awesome; hold on while I cobble together enough medical technology so that we can have sex without me dying!")
In the second game, we meet a friendly geth, eventually named Legion. (He's as smart as a person because he's got ten geth's worth of software running in his robot body's computers. It's actually fascinatingly more complicated than that but I'm simplifying here.) From Legion, we learn that geth society is divided into two factions, the orthodox and heretic geth. Orthodox geth are strongly isolationist and don't want to interact with anyone outside their own society; they want to chart their own future absent external interference. Heretic geth are a minority who worship the Reapers and want the Reapers to uplift them into a transcendental state. (Remember in Part 1, I mentioned that the Reapers hold the geth in contempt and want to use and destroy them; the geth don't know this.) According to Legion, all the geth we met during the first game were heretics; orthodox geth never leave the few systems closest to Rannoch. The second game also provide us with an option to wipe out the heretic geth, either by destroying them or reprogramming them into orthodox.
In the third game, when we meet the quarians they're in the process of retaking Rannoch from the geth, which went wellthey were on the verge of wiping geth military forces out entirelyuntil the geth responded to a Reaper offer of aid. This involved software upgrades that would make every geth as fully intelligent as a person even before networking, and would allow them, with networking, to be a race of strategic and tactical geniuses able to win almost any battle. By the time we arrive, the quarians are fully-committed to a military campaign they are about to completely lose. Solving the problem involves breaking the link between geth and Reapers, which turns out to mean "Break Legion out of a machine using him as the link." When we free Legion he explains that the Reaper upgrades were a trap, placing the geth under Reaper control. He also explains that breaking him out didn't solve the problem; there's Reaper technology on Rannoch to act as a backup and we need to make it explode.
We're then given the opportunity to see the geth rebellion from the geth perspective (not initially violent, quarian government put their society under martial and started executing geth sympathizers among their own people, geth did everything they could to prevent war and only turned violent when they realized they'd be wiped out, geth let quarians escape, orthodox isolation policy due to not understanding why the violence happened in the first place and wanting to avoid more of it) before finally blowing up the source of the Reaper control signal on Rannoch while the quarian and Reaper-controlled geth fleet shoot at each other in orbit, which prevents us with a choice:
1) Knocking out the Reaper control signal temporarily deactivated all geth in orbit, and leaving them deactivated can let the quarians continue shooting until they're all gone. The quarians, having regained their homeworld, will them help us in the fight against the Reapers. This will result in the extinction of the geth, however. Legion, with us on the surface, doesn't want this.
2) Re-upload the upgraded code to all geth, with the Reaper control bits removed, making them fully self-aware individuals and tactical and strategic geniuses in groups, who will fight with us against the Reapers. However, the first thing they see when they wake up will be the quarian flotilla shooting at them, and they will shoot back, resulting in he extinction of all quarians. Tali, also with us on the surface, doesn't want this.
No matter which option you choose, Tali and Legion fight, eventually resulting in the death of one or both of them, and one society dies.
3) Most difficult to achieve, requiring an imported Mass Effect 2 save and many actions performed "correctly:" Wake the geth back up with an upgrade and then convince the quarian fleet to stop shooting. The geth immediately propose peace, give Rannoch back to the quarians (they don't even need it anyway; they live space stations and mine asteroids), and then both the geth and quarians will help us fight against the Reapers.
Players without an imported Mass Effect 2 save will not meet Legion during Mass Effect 3; his role will be played by another, geth figure who we care about less. For these players, option 3 is locked out. There are also a few more permutations of this situation (Tali can die in Mass Effect 2, in which case her role will be played by someone else), most of which will also lock out Option 3.
And that's it for the quarians and the geth. Let's look at other instances of synthetic and organic conflict across all three games.
The first Mass Effect has two side-plots involving synthetic intelligences, both of which self-evolved from lesser computer systems. The first involves a self-evolved computer intelligence stealing money from a casino to fund hiring someone to ship it into geth space; it knows that the galactic government took one look at the geth/quarian situation 300 years ago and said "Okay, AI is illegal now! Any AI we find we'll shut down!" When we find it, it decides the jig is up and tries to kill us and itself with a bomb; we can either run or to escape the explosion or hack the AI to kill it before it can set the bomb off and steal its casino loot.
The second is a computer system in a military training base on the moon. It went self-aware, violence ensued (it's unclear who started it), and it used the automated defenses to kill the base's staff. The military has you go in and shut down all its servers. The last thing it does as you shut down the last server is broadcast binary code on nearby computer screens; the code, if translated into ASCII text out-of-game, reads "HELP."
In the second game, there's only one subplot involving synthetic intelligence outside of the quarian/geth thing: EDI, the artificial intelligence on our starship. EDI was built by Cerberus, who are a bunch of "pro-human, anti-alien" villains in the first and third game but in the second game have a whole "Enemy of my enemy is my friend" thing going. She's voiced by Tricia Helfer, a.k.a. Cylon Number Six in the 2004 Battlestar Galactica. She always comes across as friendly and helpful, and doesn't respond negatively if we take the option to constantly question her and say we don't trust artificial intelligence. She does occasionally say she could be of more use if she were unshackled and given full control of the ship, though, and about three-quarters into the game, it becomes necessary to do just that. Once given full control of the ship, she... remains friendly and helpful and a dedicated ally. There is no conflict as such in EDI's story arc in the second game, except for the conflict between what we, the players, fear might happen when she's unshackled, and what actually happens.
The second game also tells us Reapers are not just big starships piloted by AIs. They're organic-synthetic hybrid beings, built around a core of biological matter recovered from a harvested species and surrounded by a starship body.
In the third game, we recover the body of a sexy Cerberus spy robot that the now once-again-evil group used to infiltrate a base on Mars, and EDI learns how to remote-control it. She does this so she can help us shoot at enemies with personal arms in addition to ship weaponry, and so she can date the Normandy's pilot, Joker (voiced by Seth Green). Finally, Mass Effect 3 shows us that Cerberus built EDI in time for Mass Effect 2 from the remains of the Lunar computer we shut down in the first Mass Effect, to which they applied Reaper software upgrades not unlike those used on the geth to make them smarter. When we learn this, EDI is present, and her response is that she knew all along and is glad we got to know each other under better circumstances after our initial violent encounter with her.
Across three games, the story of organics vs. synthetics is the story of misunderstanding, short-sighted decision-making, stubbornness, and prejudice exploited by those who profit from conflict. It constantly shows that snap decisions and preemptive strikes based on fear perpetuate a cycle of unnecessary violence that only forethought and understanding can break. This runs parallel to a general theme of fear of the other causing problems; Cerberus, a villainous organization, is founded on an ideology of humans first, all other intelligent races of the galaxy second or not at all, and though Cerberus are our allies in Mass Effect 2, in Mass Effect 3 the first thing they do is betray us.
This is an excellent foundation for a story, because it resonates with audiences' first-hand experiences. We do not have a robot rebellion here, on Earth, in the present, We do have misunderstandings, short-sighted decision-making, and stubbornness. Moreover, I am willing to bet everyone reading this has been in a situation where you have been in conflict with someone, and a third party has tried to exploit that conflict for their own gain. The key to creating a story that resonates with audiences is creating one with themes that seem relevant to the audiences' lives; most people disinterested in science fiction are disinterested because they see characters zooming around in spaceships and shooting robots and go "Why should I spend time thinking about that?"
The ending of Mass Effect 3 does not use the theme of organics vs. synthetics the way the rest of the games do. It tells us that conflict between organics and synthetics is inevitable, and the only way end this conflict in organic life's favor is to forever destroy or enslave all synthetic life, or else destroy the boundary between organic and synthetic life and make all life in the galaxy, forever, into synthetic-organic hybrids so that neither side any longer has reason for war. It tells us this using the voice of the Catalyst, who is the creator of the Reapersa character we have every reason to hate and distrust, but who is presented using music and scene framing that's been filmmaker code for "This character is right and you must trust him" for years and years and years. It then does not present us with the option to call bullshit.
It also flips the overall message of the Mass Effect series' use of organic/synthetic conflict from "Move beyond fear of the Other and work to understand them" to "Fear the Other and work to destroy them" Dramatic reversal is a great storytelling device when used effectivelythe effectiveness of the geth/quarian plotline is based on repeated dramatic reversals. First the geth are evil, then maybe they're not. The quarians are innocent victims, maybe they're not. Then the quarians turn out to be even more culpable than we thought and the geth/quarian war started out as a quarian/quarian war over what to do with the geth, which the anti-geth faction won. Mass Effect in general runs on dramatic reversalsSaren is the villain, no, he's actually Sovereign's puppet! Etc.
Stories in general run on dramatic reversals.
But one dramatic reversal too many can lead to inconsistent use of theme. Inconsistent use of theme is the enemy. Inconsistent use of theme is your story eating itself.
It is technically possible to construct sentences such as "The conflict between organics and synthetics has always been a central theme in the Mass Effect series," and indeed much of the promotional material for Mass Effect 3 uses that sort of statement, but as I've demonstrated here, just because a theme exists across multiple works in a narrative doesn't mean any use of that theme in the narrative's climax is automatically appropriate.
Next column: What does inconsistent use of theme have in common with failure to acknowledge the audience's emotional connection to a work?

Here we go here we go here we go.
Inconsistent use of theme is poor craftsmanship. Failure to acknowledge the audience's emotional connection to a work is a sign of poor craftsmanship.
Craft is a thing.
If art is a link between artist and audiencethe artist expressing an idea and the audience engaging with that ideathen art is education. The best way to catch someone's attention is to tell them something they don't know, in a way that makes them want to know it. Everyone reading this article has experienced the high that comes from someone else hanging off your every word because you're saying something they can't wait to hear. Making the audience want to hear what you're saying is tricky, though. It is very easy to tell someone something they don't know in a way that makes them want to stop listening to you, because they don't understand how what you're saying is relevant to them or worth their time, or because it's clear you're more interested in hearing yourself speak than in saying anything interesting, or because you're more interested in using your audience for the Exposition High than telling them something they'll find cool.
The craft of storytelling is a set of tricks useful for keeping peoples' attention. The purpose is more important than the form; it's very easy to apply proper craftsmanship to the communication of boring or tedious ideas, and then you fail. The cycle of art through history is "Form is established, form is polished, artistic community becomes ever more obsessed with getting the form right, younger artists shout 'Fuck this!' and go make their own new form."
That said, the human race has been polishing the form of narrative craftsmanship for about three million years now. There is probably some value in the traditional form, even if adhering to it dogmatically results in soulless formulaic trash.
Professional wrestling!
Sean Waltman was a wrestling performer best known for working under the X-Pac persona in the WWF. He got a lot of boos. Wrestling has a fascinatingly complex vocabulary for expessing success or failure at managing audience enthusiasm, which is important because it keeps asses in seats. Audience response is called heat. Faces, i.e. heroes (from "babyface"), are personas the writers want the audience to love. Ideally they get cheers. Heels, i.e. villains, are personas the writers want the audience to love to hate. They get boos. Both face heat and heel heat are valuable. Actually, copious heel heat is especially valuablethere's a reason for the Undertaker.
Wrestling management used X-Pac as a heel for a long time becaue he got a lot of boosI mean, like, a lot of boos; the audience would go crazy when he showed up, they'd throw things at himand they took this to mean he had a lot of heel heat. He didn't. If they'd been paying attention to television ratings, as they eventually did, they'd have noticed that viewership dropped during his segments. That doesn't happen when a heel with a lot of heat takes the ring.
The audience jeered X-Pac because they hated watching him, not because they wanted to see him get what was coming to him. They wanted management to stop featuring him and get back to something they found worth their time. X-Pac was so hated that wrestling crowds would eventually take to chanting "X-Pac sucks!" even in situations where he wasn't around, if they didn't have anything else to chant about.
The X-Pac anomaly eventually lead to the formal classification X-Pac heat.
(I'm not a wrestling fan myself but I have friends who are, and the story of X-Pac heat is a thing I love.)
Heat, like kayfabe (look it up), is a great concept and useful in many contexts outside professional wrestling, but for me the most useful thing to take out of heat as a concept is this: X-Pac heat is distinct from heel heat. Once you're used to thinking of audience engagement as various forms of heat, and introduced to the idea of X-Pac heat as its own thing, you'll see it everywhere.
This is something a lot of artists could stand to learn. I say this not just as a critic but as someone who has helped manage and direct a creative property, and who has had to supervise artists who do not understand the difference between heel heat and X-Pac heat and are resistant to learning it. This is a hard lesson to learn but doing so will make you better at creating audience engagement: Just because you've set out to provoke the audience, and the audience acts provoked, doesn't mean you've succeeded.
Halting states!
This isn't a concept from wrestling; it's from math. Theory goes like this: Give a man a coin to flip and ten bucks. Every time the coin comes up heads he gets another dollar; every time it comes up tails he loses one. He can flip for however long he wants but if he reaches zero dollars he has to stop. Wins and losses are, in theory, distributed equally, so in theory he can go forever. In practice wins and losses come in streaks and eventually he's going to go on a long losing streak and hit broke. This phenomenon is also called the Gambler's Ruin for obvious reasons, and is not just useful in gambling. Like the concept of X-Pac heat it is useful everywhere.
If you're managing a creative property that requires audience enthusiasm to perpetuate itself, creating X-Pac heat while trying to create heel heat is a great way to send your property into a halting state, especially if you, the artist, cannot recognize the difference between the two. This actually happened to professional wresting, for reasons too complicated to go into hereremember when North America had two major wrestling franchises, WCW and WWF (back when it was called WWF...)? It doesn't anymore. Mismanagement and misinterpreting the points of audience engagement lead to a shrinking audience and eventually there was only enough wrestling money to support one of the two.
Everyone remembers a TV show they loved that was cancelled because the new season sucked and ratings went down and the network decided to cut its loses. Different shows for different people, mind.
In the wake of World War I, the artistic community of Europe was furious with the way the established artistic forms had been used to inspire a generation of young men to go die of gas attacks and sepsis in endless fields of trenches and barbed wire. They decided "Screw this!" to various degrees of commitment, one of the most extreme of which was dada, which nowadays mostly means surrealism (because people like referring to surrealism using a word that sounds surreal, yo dawg) but originally was anti-art. The goal of dada was to provoke extreme emotional responses from audiences and make them reexamine their ideology and values; specifically, reexamine their ideas about the value of art itself. A dada performance of Hamlet would get to the point where Hamlet meets his dad's ghost, and then the actor might turn to the audience and say "This whole play is kinda trite, isn't it?" and then the curtains would fall. A dada painting might be a performance art piece where the artist paints something beautiful, shows it to enough people that word gets out that he's painted something beautiful, and then burn it because fuck people who think looking at pretty pictures is a worthwhile use of their time. The appeal of pretty pictures is why recruitment posters work and it got us into this mess, etc..
As you can imagine, this sentimentthe idea that attachment to traditional forms is harmful to societyexperienced a resurgence in the wake of World War II. It persists today, and contributes to the general feeling, among artists and laymen alike, that if you have to rely on mere craft to keep audience engagement, then you're a tool. Craft, we feel, is failure. Relying on proven techniques is cowardice.
Now, those dada guys had a point and I envy them their conviction, and I know people working on modern abstract and nonrepresentative art who produce fascinating work so I'm not bashing that line of creative descent, but I am really, really starting to think that ninety years later, wholesale and institutionalized contempt for for craft, divorced from its historical context, is ridiculous and damaging to artistic discourse.
It's too easily used as a dodge for criticism.
I feel like I've lost sight of something. I was supposed to be writing about a specific topic... a video game, I think. What was it? Starts with am M?
Mass Effect! That's it! I was talking about the end of Mass Effect 3! Right. I should get back on topic.
People who use "But it's art!" as a defense of bad art

Sunday, May 2, 2010

You want games as art? I'll give you games as art.


This is game-programming-as-sculpture, not "I want to make something that's fun to play" (sculpture equivalent: "I want to make something that looks pretty"), but an attempt to achieve a platonic ideal -- find the sculpture already in the stone. Everyone who's played Tetris has felt at some time like the game hates them. This is an attempt to program a version of Tetris that really does hate you, the pattern within the pattern made real.

It's not perfect. I don't think it quite works. It's a draft. But it's still art.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Floor Wax / Dessert Topping

Game designer interviews are depressing. There's too much money on the line for candid statements. I don't remember the last time I read or watched an interview with a game designer where I didn't always know what the response would be just by reading the question.

Take this one, for instance.

It's about Dead Space 2.

I loved Dead Space. Loved loved loved. I would go so far as to say I lurveded Dead Space. I am really looking forward to Dead Space 2. The reveal trailor has me pumped. Necromorphs and PTSD? Yes, please!

(I want a whole Aliens movie with no aliens in it, just Ripley dealing with PTSD. Remember, the amount of subjective time she's spent between the beginning of the first movie and the end of the fourth is maybe two months, and most of that was as a dockworker between the rescue at the beginning of Aliens and getting recruited to go back to the colony.)

Man, take a look at that interview. "We're adding more action!" "Won't that entail reducing the horror?" "No, there'll be just as much horror as before, but more action! We're empowering the protagonist!"

Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't horror traditionally entail giving the audience the impression of a disempowered protagonist? (Ha! Irony, suggesting action precludes horror in a blog post that invokes Aliens. But you know what I mean.)


Again, I get it. They've got to say something. Gotta keep the hype up. Gotta chase that Modern Warfare 2 audience, but can't risk scaring away the established fans either.

The really terrible thing is, even if they're being completely sincere, and they're Aliens-level competent, and it really is going to be just as scary as Dead Space while also being way more action-packed, this interview doesn't tell me that, because they'd be saying the exact same thing if they had no idea what they were doing, and were just creating an incoherent mess. It has zero information content.

So much gaming press is like that.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

That new X-Com first-person shooter thing

Okay, look. When I was... I think it was eight? Six?

Really young, anyway.

When I was really young I remember, vividly, watching television and seeing a commercial for some Consumer Reports type thing, I'm pretty sure it wasn't actually Consumer Reports, but something that lists products by quality. And I remember a tagline, "We sort products by the most reliable something something whatever... by brand name."

It didn't actually say something something whatever. It used coherent language. But " brand name" was the tagline.

I remember this vividly because I remember hearing that, and even at six, or eight, or whatever, thinking "That's bullshit. There's no way sorting by brand name is going to make for a sufficiently accurate quality metric. Different companies excel in different areas. You're selling me something." I didn't use those words exactly, but that's what I thought.

My parents were hippies. They taught me at a young age that anyone trying to sell me something is my enemy.

(Growing up a bit more I've come to realize that's not the best way to look at the world in all contexts, but it's still my default filter.)

2K is making an X-Com FPS. I am supposed to be excited by this because X-Com was great, so X-Com as an FPS should be great. But there's no reason why that should hold true! Just because X-Com was a great isometric base-building-and-squad-tactics game at some point in the past doesn't mean it'll make a great FPS now. 2K marketing guys, whichever one of you wrote the press release you have to know that you're insulting my intelligence by presenting such a facile argument. And, I mean, I know, you're a press release writer. You have to write something. Drawing on the power of established brands to pitch your new product is a tried-and-tested marketing technique and it works. I get it.

None of that matters. You're selling me something. In particular you're selling me bullshit and absent logic. I'm not buying it.

I will give this FPS a fair shake. I'm sure the people who actually are making it want to make a good product. I won't hold the stupid, insulting press release against the game. But it is a stupid and insulting press release and it's not exactly making me better-disposed towards the products.

At least put a picture of a Chrissalid in there.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Kingdom Hearts and Free Time


I just spent about 200 cumulative hours playing Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories, Kingdom Hearts II (normal mode) and Kingdom Hearts II (proud mode).

What did I used to spend my free time doing, before that franchise sucked me in? I forget. It's been a while.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Viceland Reviews: Star Ocean: The Last Hope and Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X.

They're up.

Words cannot describe the degree to which I'm disappointed in Star Ocean: The Last Hope, although I tried to come close there. It has so much cool stuff, but it also has so much ridiculous bullshit. It should be a crime to bury that much awesome in that much shit.

H.A.W.X., on the other hand, was a brief, fun diversion.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Gaming Hour: Episode 1

Call of Duty: World at War and The Last Remnant.

It is, as it turns out, very difficult to write something and perform it both. Instead of just remembering the script, I have to also remember which bits of stuff I'm remembering as the script are the script, and which bits are cut material that were in the script for variable periods of time until I edited them out.

The camera and editing work is really impressive, though; thankee, Vice people, for making me look better than I am.