Wednesday, April 4, 2012

“That’s the end of the story-There’s no more to it than that!”: Mass Effect 3 and Narrative Ownership

I don't usually like covering current events on this blog. Those who want my Gonzo take on the gaming news of the day are encouraged to follow me on Twitter, where I do this obsessively. For Forest of Illusions I usually prefer looking at more abstract concepts or profiling specific games (or characters) that struck a chord with me. In the time it would take me to come up with a thoughtful erudition about some hot-button issue, translate it from ethereal thoughts into a textual form, edit and publish it it'd already be out of date and my thoughts would most likely already have been echoed by someone faster than me and with a bigger podium (hence my somewhat harried attempts to do just that in Summer 2011). However, if you followed the industry this past month as of this writing in any capacity, it's been damn near impossible for you to avoid hearing about Mass Effect 3 and, more specifically, the furor over its ending. I'll give you a minute to peruse that article in case, for some bizarre reason, you were unaware of what this hullabaloo was all about.

Back? OK good.

The discourse in the mainstream gaming media has been cacophonous and holds severe repercussions for how we as video game aficionados interpret a game's meaning. Since I've already written a great deal about this very subject and thinking critically about games is the primary reason I started this site, I guess I'd better toss in my two cents worth.

First of all I have to make the disclaimer that I am not a Mass Effect fan. I appreciate what the series was trying to do ( a point), but I took one look at the wonky vehicle sections and convoluted combat in the first game and immediately went back to Super Mario Galaxy. I gave Mass Effect 2 a shot due to the reverence it received upon release in 2010 and while I appreciated the refinements to things like combat and travel, I wasn't a fan of the dialogue and morality system, reading through reams and reams of lore to figure out what the heck was going on reminded me of the worst parts of The Lord of the Rings and put me to sleep and the whole suicide mission thing made me a nervous wreck. In my opinion, the series feels like a choose-your-own-adventure book except with more nonsensical quicktime events, a puzzling fixation on softcore titillation and is on the whole indicative of a trend in games I find, to be blunt, patently stupid. However, my thoughts on cinematic and otherwise conventional approaches to narrative in video games are discussion fodder for another day: Basically I decided that Mass Effect was too complicated and too much work for my tastes and just something I wasn't ever going to completely get.

One thing I will praise the trilogy for though is its really progressive approach to feminism and gender roles (regardless of whether or not BioWare intended it to turn out that way), but even there it'll have to be something I applaud on a theoretical level rather than love because of what I experienced. So, needless to say I have zero emotional investment in whatever the ending of Mass Effect 3 turned out to be. However, I do have a very big investment in the way the game is being talked about and that EuroGamer article I linked to is actually is a terrific metaphor for why: The game's ending has touched such a nerve that it's raised issues about meaning and intent and it's actually really justified to ask if Mass Effect 3 as a finished product truly belongs to BioWare and is reflective of the themes they were trying to convey. In other words, the controversy over Mass Effect 3 is the biggest test of the post-structuralist approach to reading and interpretation I outlined back in my Super Mario Bros. series I've yet seen on the mainstream video game stage. In order to fully explain why though, we should take the time to look carefully at what the Mass Effect fans and their detractors are actually saying.

Let's take the self-professed “Retake Mass Effect” people first. These are people who have a significant emotional investment in the game's story and universe and who, for one reason or another, feel the trilogy-closing curtain call at the end of Mass Effect 3 either did not live up to their expectations for an epic finale, did not do enough to tie up loose ends or simply did not make logical coherent narrative sense. Maybe these concerns are valid, maybe not: As a non-fan I can't critique the work or their reading of it and thus am not in a position to make any judgment calls in this regard. That said, the actual demands the Retake Mass Effect camp are making to BioWare are...bold, to put it kindly. They are in turn requesting additional material via ether downloadable content or expanded universe lore to “better explain” the events of the ending, calling for the ending to be retconned outright and launching initiatives to rewrite the whole game themselves to better suit their interpretation of how they feel it “should” have ended. In addition to submitting their list of grievances, they have taken it upon themselves to, in a seriously surreal turn of events, mail hundreds of cupcakes to BioWare's offices because reasons.

As easy as it is to point and laugh at the Retake Mass Effect campaigners for acting “spoiled”, “demanding” or “entitled” (as indeed the vast majority of the counterarguments leveled at them in the mainstream press seem to) it's equally easy to see how they could have come to the conclusion that this was a reasonable course of action and perfectly within their rights. Mass Effect as a series has always claimed to stress individual choice, proudly touting that every little action the player makes will make a difference and have consequences and that each playthrough can be radically different depending on the choices made. In other words, BioWare seems to have been selling the series as a kind of traditional RPG in the original tabletop sense of the term: The player has complete autonomy to exude a level of authorial control over the events of the game and craft it to suit his or her own needs, values, opinions and whims. At least, this is how the discourse from BioWare and the games' trademark playstyle has been interpreted by this group of fans. In sum then, the Retake Mass Effect fans feel, rightly or wrongly, that BioWare's focus on choice and branching narratives in their games means that the whole narrative belongs to them, the playersXreaders, and that they are entitled to deciding how it ends. To invoke the tri-sphere model for reading I proposed back in my Super Mario Bros. essay, they want all the power in determining textual meaning to fall to the Personal Experience sphere.

On the other side we have the opponents of Retake Mass Effect: The many and varied game journalists and pundits who have added their voices to the din of the past month to criticize these fans and rebuke their claims of ownership. I hesitate to reduce a wide and disparate group of people and opinions down to a few bullet points, but as many of them seem to carry the same flavour I at least feel somewhat justified in summarising what I see as the major arguments they're employing. The anti-Retake bunch, put most generally, seem to feel the claims made by the Retake crowd are completely and totally invalid because, bluntly, the fans aren't BioWare. Because the fans didn't write the game's story (though the fans would actually probably disagree at this fundamental level) they don't get a say in deciding how the trilogy ends and should accept whatever BioWare threw out at them because BioWare are the authors and are trying to make an aesthetic and thematic point with their work. Sometimes this is dressed up in the language of art, and that art shouldn't always be about pleasing people (which is a true statement, but not in the way these people are using it in my opinion) but the sentiment remains the same: BioWare are the authors, the fans are not, and only the authors get to decide what a work says and what it's about. This group also militantly opposes any attempt to elaborate on or alter the ending of Mass Effect 3 in any way because they feel it would compromise artistic integrity in favour of pandering to the series' whiny, childish and demanding fanbase.

Just as it's easy to see where the Retake Mass Effect fans are coming from, I argue it's easy to see how their detractors have come to their conclusions. Emboldened by a love of video games as a creative medium and armed with the language of art, they've spent a big part of their careers trying to in some sense “validate” games as a medium, perhaps against those on the outside who would criticize its legitimacy as an art form. Probably more accurately and relevantly though, they've also spent a great deal of their careers trying to corral ravenous, immature fans and defend themselves from the vile hate speech that is leveled at them with disturbing regularity and frequency. It's not difficult to imagine game journalists would have a knee-jerk reaction to a situation like this and immediately write off the actions of a group like Retake Mass Effect as the usual theatrics and not feel they're worthy of any attention. And, to be honest, the Retake crowd doesn't make a good case for itself when it pulls dumb stunts like filing a formal FTC complaint against BioWare and EA and unleashing their own army of cyberbullies. And cupcakes.

Now that we've defended the integrity of the anti-Retake people though, let's step back and look at what their core arguments are actually implying. By claiming that the fans have no say in deciding how Mass Effect 3's story plays out, they're essentially saying two things: Firstly, they are, in the eyes of the fans, completely flying in the face of what they perceive the series' entire set of core values to be. To them, Mass Effect has always been about their choice, from the first character creation screen to the last fork in the road in the climax of the third game (yeah, I did enough cursory research to have a basic idea about what happens). To hear from their opponents that their choice doesn't matter is completely incongruous and will only serve to make them angrier and more passionately dedicated to their cause. Secondly, and more importantly and relevantly to us, what the anti-Retake side is really saying with this impassioned appeal to sanctity of fiction and authorial vision is that, in post-structuralist terms, they want to give all the power in deciding what a text means to the author. This is, frankly, no better and no more satisfying a concluding argument than what the Retake side is offering from a Lacanian perspective.

Most curiously, neither side seems to be paying much attention to the actual text itself. What actually happens at the end of Mass Effect 3, or in the various possible endings? Not just a rote summary of events (like, say, the one I totally didn't read on Giant Bomb and Wikipedia), but what literally transpires in the ending cutscene that has provoked such powerful emotions on both sides? More importantly than even that though, how does this connect with the themes BioWare claim to be exploring with the Mass Effect Trilogy? Has anyone from BioWare come out to explain what the core themes and motifs of the series are and how they relate to the finale? Has anyone bothered to ask? Or have you all been too busy screaming at one another about who has the better claim of ownership over the narrative? Almost the first rule of doing a serious upper-level critical reading of a text is taking these kinds of questions into consideration.

For the sake of argument, let's say BioWare did indeed have specific things they wanted to address with Mass Effect 3. Even then though, it's entirely possible the finished product doesn't adequately reflect this intent: Whenever you write something, there is by necessity a translation taking place from the hazy ideas you had in your head to physical, textual reality and maybe some of them didn't properly make the transition all that effectively (I had actually planned on doing a whole article going into more detail along these lines before this nonsense came up). Likewise, it's equally plausible for an author to neglect a certain aspect of the finished product causing the readers to interpret it in a way completely contrary to the one that was intended.

Look at the famous example of Bruce Springsteen's “Born in the U.S.A.”, a deeply cynical song about a returning Vietnam veteran horribly mistreated and abandoned by his community upon returning home from the war jarringly and purposefully incongruously set to a towering, anthemic melody. It was infamously misinterpreted by the kinds of people who don't pay attention to lyrics in songs and only focus on catchy hooks and pretty noises to be a flag-waving patriotic anthem. The problem was so widespread it was amusingly picked by Ronald Reagan as the theme song for his re-election campaign before being told in no uncertain terms by Springsteen he missed the point entirely. In Mass Effect terms, think again about that Eurogamer article and Commander Shepard herself: BioWare wrote the character to be male by default and didn't pay any attention to how the story would play out if fans chose to play a woman. This resulted in Shepard becoming heralded as a near-perfect example of post-feminist progressive thinking even though later events proved that had BioWare taken into account the fact people might actually care about her when they initially designed the game she most certainly would not have been.

Were Springsteen's lazier fans right to claim “Born in the U.S.A.” as a patriotic anthem even though the lyrics and Springsteen's intent argue it's not? Not really, because the lyrical content of the work and Springsteen's own quick response made it clear they were blatantly and obviously reading the song incorrectly and being intellectually irresponsible. Are BioWare's fans right to claim Commander Shepard is a feminist icon despite BioWare not intending her to be such? Absolutely, because she displays all the trappings of such in the finished product and that's solely a result of BioWare not taking the time and effort to make their far-less-progressive politics clear in the text that got passed on to the readers. The thing about the triple-pronged Lacanian approach is that it relies on balance: In order to read a text thoroughly, as I've argued in the past, the three spheres must be weighed against one another and sometimes two of the three cancel out the third.

Which brings us back to the subject at hand. The thing about the Commander Shepard example is that a lot of the fodder for the argument in favour of reading her as a feminist icon comes from the games themselves, the actual texts. Even though this wasn't BioWare's intent, what they actually wrote that made it into the finished product lends itself very nicely to being interpreted as such. In other words, the text seemingly pretty clearly contradicts the word of the author. This is nontrivial: A finished text is going to live on far past its author and as long as people are alive and able to experience it, a text will always lend itself to new interpretations. That's why there are about a billion different readings of something like, say Lewis Carroll's diptych tour-de-force Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There: It's longevity and endless versatility as a work lends itself to countless questions and points of discussion and Carroll wanted to make sure his books would stimulate people's imaginations for generations to come. If BioWare and its fans want Mass Effect to last and stand as one of the great works of the video game medium (as many are already claiming it is) this is absolutely something all sides are going to have to take into consideration.

If we're going to civilise this discourse, the obvious first step is to sit everyone down and take a good, long hard look at what Mass Effect 3 actually is: Does the finished product adequately reflect the themes its authors attempted to imbue it with? If not, what does it say to readers instead? Unfortunately for the journalists, the simple fact Mass Effect 3 exists as a text, not to mention the fact BioWare have already shown their work can take on a life of its own apart from their intentionality means fans really do have a say in interpreting its meaning. However, the Retake crowd shouldn't celebrate victory either because they need to come to terms with the notion that theirs' is not the only reading possible. Perhaps their complaints do indeed have merit and deserve to be heard (again, I'm not in a position to say), but if they're going to make any kind of legitimate case for themselves they need draw on actual textual evidence to back up their arguments, not histrionic language of entitlement.

There. That's done and out of my system. Can we go back to talking about more enjoyable things now please?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Elise Riggs: It’s Good To Be Back (Part II)

Butterfly High
Elise is very intimately connected to my personal history with SSX and the video game medium in general over the past decade. Introduced to the series with SSX Tricky over at my cousin's house (the same one who introduced me to Super Mario Bros. and games in general) I was initially drawn to Kaori because her massive trick stat and hyperactive, cartoon-like personality seemed to me to fit the game's overstated, caricatured tone and atmosphere the best of the characters I saw. However, after a few rounds with Elise I had immediately found my character, not just the one whose play style I liked the best, but the one who I genuinely liked as a person and the game clicked for me.

The first thing that really struck me about Elise was her Devil-May-Care attitude and that she seemed to me to be someone who, despite her constant egomaniacal boasts, knew at heart she wasn't anywhere near as cool as she let on and was really just putting on a bit of an act, but who ultimately didn't care one way or the other because she was doing what she loved. I'll chalk that up to Lucy Liu primarily: Her subdued, withdrawn and nonchalant, crucially not boisterous or confrontational, delivery of lines like “I'll get over it”, “I'll get it next time”, “Easy come, easy go”, “Throwin' it all away” and “Think you're hot stuff, huh?” when Elise falls or gets passed, not to mention the consciously exaggerated and over-the-top bluster of Elise's self-congratulation in general, are all good examples of how a skilled actor can add layers of meaning to a script.

That said, there's enough in the writing of the first two games to support this reading as well I argue: Whether that's due to EA Sports' actual intent or some comical misunderstanding on their part of what passed for hip and trendy amongst the young'uns in 2001 (hence the somewhat amusing inclusion of the slang term “mofo” in a E-rated game; Elise tosses it out to bookend her chatter every once in awhile) is actually beside the point. The implication and meaning I read in either case is that while Elise will trash-talk to keep up appearances, when it gets right down to it she doesn't so much talk as she just does: Letting her actions speak for themselves, concentrating on being the best she can be at something she loves, always keeping in mind she's ultimately answerable to herself and nobody else, and furthermore that she's her own harshest critic. Put another way, Elise's interpretation of “cool” is almost a Glam or Drag version of cool rather than a straight pursuit of fame and popularity: She wears the trappings, and while she always knows she can't take full advantage of them it doesn't bother her in the slightest because her priorities lie elsewhere. Paradoxically, seeing how Elise didn't seem to care about being cool (despite halfheartedly pretending she did) and only concerned herself with following her passions made her seem really cool in a backhanded way to me. The fact Elise was so multi-talented, yet ultimately a bit of a goof with a loose attitude towards style made her really endearing to me and brought to my mind memories of Marsupilami, another character I'd loved as a kid (to the point Elise, rather uncannily for me, even used some of the same slang and vocal inflections, which I thought was awesome).

On top of all that, knowing that my cousin's favourite character was Eddie and mine was Elise added an extra layer of intimacy to my connection with the game in a way that can only happen when two close friends play a multiplayer game together in the same room. It's a great example of how two people can bond over a shared gaming experience, accentuated by what little background information about the characters we got. Despite its pretenses, SSX Tricky was really a retro game, being most comparable in my opinion to classic time-attack and sports pastiche games in the arcade tradition than the big-budget AAA titles that were starting to become the norm in Generation 6. And, just like the characters of those games, SSX icons like Elise and Eddie have very little in the way of biographical information and certainly no elaborate, fleshed out backstory. All we get is just enough for us to get a feel for who they are and what's important about them because that's all we need: Elise is a fun-loving, super confident adventurer with a Glam approach to style, Eddie is a wacky goofball with a huge Afro and a love of pop culture and they're best friends. That's all we needed to know and that's all we required to be able gravitate towards them. And it worked, not just for me and my cousin, but for others who I could share the experience with: Later on, when I got my own copy of the game, I'd introduce my younger sister to it the same way I'd been introduced once she reached gaming age and I could bond with someone else through the simple joy of SSX Tricky's arcade revivalism and pure fun.

Only 11 years later and the video game industry is a vastly different place than it was my cousin invited me to pick up SSX Tricky for the first time and I've seen every twist, turn and bizarre lateral turn it's taken. Through all that Elise and SSX have been almost a kind of constant for me: Despite the series experimenting and making many changes over its life, it's remained remarkably consistent, both in terms of core gameplay and more broadly thematically and tonally, which can be rare on a long-running game series (just take a look at the Sonic the Hedgehog series for an example of how that can go badly wrong). Despite maintaining a solid intellectual footing, SSX never feels stale because just enough is polished from entry to entry to keep the series feeling fresh (just take a look at The Legend of Zelda series for an example of how that can go badly wrong!). And, just like the series she hails from (and in spite of the brief speed bump that was SSX 3) Elise has never compromised her ideals, but remains on top of an ever-changing cultural zeitgeist, her rotating stable of jobs and hobbies becoming a metaphor for her ability to adapt, and that of the series as a whole. Elise and SSX have kept me playing through a generation of tight, hectic competition (Generation 6), helped ease me into one of the most radical, groundbreaking console launches and generational shifts of all time (SSX Blur, the Nintendo Wii and Generation 7) and now, after a worryingly lengthy period of prolonged absence, are once again barnstorming the industry to prove Generation 7 still has some life left in it and Elise Riggs, just like SSX, is impossible to keep down.

I must confess I was very worried when the 2012 XBOX 360/PlayStaton 3 reboot was announced: A dark, intense teaser trailer at the 2010 Spike Video Game Awards that seemed inspired by the gritty, testosterone-heavy likes of Gears of War and Call of Duty rather than the kitschy '70s and early '80s retro trash of SSX Tricky and in which Elise, who up until then seemed to be the series' mascot, only appeared as a subtle Easter egg via a decal on a distinctly Black Hawk-esque helicopter left me frankly appalled at the new game's prospects. My panic subsided a bit as developer diaries started to come out that seemed to reassure fans the series' sense of fun wasn't going anywhere, and neither was Elise (a revelation that caused me to breathe possibly the biggest sigh of relief in my entire wannabe journalistic career) and I started to feverishly anticipate the reboot.

My panic quickly returned, however when I actually got hold of the game and found it seemingly built around a checklist of my worst 7th Generation demons: Mandatory persistent Internet connections, online passes, competitive online multiplayer, leaderboards and social media not just a primary focus but deeply integrated into the fundamental core of the game, a complete LACK of the splitscreen multiplayer that allowed me and my cousin to bond over the series in the first place, short, linear maps in place of expansive, nonlinear ones made for exploration, arbitrary difficulty spikes and cruel, unfair level design intended to artificially lengthen the game in place of adding more content and a crass points/credits system that monetized every aspect of the experience, from board upgrades to level progression. It seemed, horrifyingly, that this new SSX had been meticulously crafted to focus on the absolute worst industry trends of the past five years. Most baffling of all, in an attempt to make the series feel “hip” and “current” to a new generation of players (something SSX never felt the need to do before, even for SSX Blur on the Wii, a console explicitly marketed towards new players) a soundtrack almost exclusively populated by dubstep, the current trendy indie music genre (and also one I happen to despise, speaking bluntly). It seemed for all the world that this was finally the game in which a great deal of SSX's timeless soul had been excised to make room for Generation 7 window dressing and dubstep.

Then I got to play Elise for the first time (after an unbelievably annoying, insulting and nerve-wracking tutorial where I actually had to *unlock* her), and all my trepidation and horror evaporated in an instant. She's no longer voiced by Lucy Liu (and in fact hasn't been since SSX Tricky), but absolutely all of her dialogue has been carried over from SSX Tricky, new dialogue written for the reboot sounds like it's a perfect extension of that game's script and the new actor delivers Elise's lines with the exact same kind of freewheeling, tongue-in-cheek confidence and fun that Lucy Liu did and is, for my money, the first to accurately capture Elise's character since Lucy Liu. The first time I heard her I knew that this was the Elise I loved, the Elise I remembered, and that she was back, and with her came the soul of the series I'd been missing in this game and honestly, hadn’t really felt in full since SSX Tricky.

Just as in the past, Elise had adapted to fit in a new gaming reality: She's now a seasoned adventurer and a living legend. At 33, she's the oldest rider in the game; a fact which makes her even more valuable as a feminist icon. I can count on one hand the number of female video game characters older than about 21 or so (being as we are in a medium where 21 is often bemusedly considered old, wise and experienced because our target demographic is still, frustratingly, adolescents), let alone the ones who are playable, major series leads and who are portrayed as individualistic, strong and yeah, sexy, as Elise is here: She's not fretting about her age or worrying about settling down, she's just looking for the next big adventure as always. Even Elise's good buddy Eddie is finally back too; this reboot marks his first major, official appearance since 2001. Every game since SSX Tricky had him either conspicuously absent or only available via cheat codes, and even then he was only a re-skin and had no unique dialogue. Bummer. But, now that Eddie's made a proper return at last you can bet the two best friends are busy tearing up the slopes and dominating the circuit together just like in the Good Ol' Days.

To have Elise back, and back in that fashion, was indescribably reassuring for me. Having her be in her 30s was one of the best ideas EA Sports has ever had, in my opinion, especially when paired with her characterization being so wonderfully loyal and accurate. Since so much of the game feels radically different than what the series had been in the past (though at its best it's still the SSX I remember), having Elise be recognisably the same person she'd been 11 years ago and not some strange hybrid reboot character as is so often the case when series are revived, meant it was effortless for me to relate to and latch onto her, making it much easier for me to accept and deal with how much else had changed. I could now walk through the game with Elise who, just like me is an old veteran returning to the scene after a very long absence even with her relevance (and most definitely her hipness) potentially now in question. We can tackle whatever the game throws at us together, her as much a stranger in this curious new land of online passes, Deadly Descents and dubstep as me. If she can make her way through and prove she's still got it, then damn it, so can I. Just as Elise often says in the game, “it's good to be back”.

SSX has changed, just like video games as a medium, and indeed so much else, has changed in the past decade. But Elise is someone who, if nothing else, knows how to adapt and remain current without losing her spirit, zest or identity. After all, nothing about Elise Riggs is accidental and any born self-promoter needs to be able to tackle whatever life throws at her head-on. If she can remain multi-talented, versatile and stylish without ever compromising who she is, Elise will continue to be, at least for me, a powerful role model to live up to. No matter where gaming, or indeed the rest of the world, goes in the next few years, hopefully I can be like Elise, look any new challenge square in the eye and tackle it head-on with the kind of inner strength and calm that only comes from a love of life and a confidence in one's own place in it.

Elise, you are a star and yes, you're absolutely right: I would indeed love to be you. You're my favourite video game character of all time. Stay Gold, honey.