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Monthly Archives: June 2012

Mass Effect 3: Gaming, Stories, and the Democracy of Fandoms

ImageToday marks the official release of the ‘Extended Cut’ of the video game Mass Effect 3 by BioWare.

This is a bit of a deviation from my usual fare of film, television and literature, but I am extremely interested in this event as a fan of Mass Effect, and as somebody for whom a good story is above all treasures.

For the non-gamers in my readership, allow me to explain…

The Mass Effect trilogy is a science fiction Role-Playing Game by developer BioWare. It takes place in the 22nd Century, where humanity is a newcomer in the cosmopolitan galactic community. You play as Commander Shepard, a Human Systems Alliance Marine. More than that is up to you. Commander Shepard can be male or female, look almost any way you like, and you are given a set of options in character background and in the game’s dialogue to sculpt what kind of a person your Shepard is.

Shepard runs up against a rogue agent of the galactic UN, and is given the same status (called a Spectre) to put a stop to said rogue. In so doing, he uncovers an apocalyptic plot eons in the making that forms an imminent threat to the whole of galactic civilization.

Mass Effect 2 sees Shepard continuing to plan against this threat outside the approval of the head-in-the-sand galactic government. Shepard has to pull together a ragtag bunch of mercenaries, criminals, and general weirdoes to help foil the Big Baddies and learn their plans for invasion of the galaxy.

Mass Effect 3 sees that invasion underway, and where in 2 Shepard had to synthesize a group of individuals into a fighting force, he now has to rally whole civilizations for the final showdown.

It must be said I am not a particularly avid gamer. Strategy games like Age of Empires and puzzle games like Myst have long been my fare. Shooters and Role-Playing Games did not interest me for a long time.

Mass Effect stands as the exception to that rule. The sheer depth of the universe is stunning. The civilizations are marvellously original. The music is lovely. The graphics were already pretty good and got exponentially better from ME1 to ME3. The combat was wonderfully exciting, a science-fiction graft onto the fantasy game character classes of warrior, rogue, mage and so on. Just replace swords with assault rifles, axes with shotguns and bows with sniper rifles. Magic is replaced with ‘biotics,’ the power to manipulate gravity by people with ‘element zero’ in their systems. The same element zero is used to power faster-than-light space travel; this is the titular ‘Mass Effect.’

The story and the characters are what make it, though. The story itself is a classic epic quest with a Lovecraftian twist. As Shepard, your piece is to talk to, get to know and help prepare your allies for the mission. By those means, you get to participate in and shape you character arc and those of the other characters, many of which are genuinely heart-wrenching and beautiful. It has become, as a result, hugely popular, spawning a horde of memes, fan art and fan fiction, as well as supplementary comics. I’ve heard it called the Star Wars of our generation.

Unfortunately, the worst implications of that statement came out with Mass Effect 3. Mind you, most of Mass Effect 3 was absolutely spectacular. The dialogue was as great as ever (and for the first time there was a lot of dialogue between non-player characters, as opposed to just Shepard having one-on-one chats all the time). Some long-running plots were settled, and Shepard’s own character started to show a path to resolution.

And then the ending happened.

I didn’t write about it at the time because I didn’t actually play Mass Effect 3 until a month after it came out. I was on an overseas internship and intentionally kept myself locked off from reviews and spoilers until I finally got to play the game. I had heard that the endings were a bit of a letdown. I had fancied that they might have been rushed or just unable to live up to our very high expectations.

There’s not a lot I can say that hasn’t been said already, many times. I’ll recommend these articles to outline the problem:

Gamefront: Mass Effect 3 Ending-Hatred: 5 Reasons the Fans are Right

Doyce Testerman: Mass Effect, Tolkien and Your Bullshit Artistic Process

Suffice to say for now is that as you near the end of the game, and of an emotionally intense and demanding adventure, the last ten minutes seem to come out of a completely different game, a different genre even!  The themes built throughout the game are totally discarded, player choices in the game have no significance, and the end of the game is reduced to three isolated choices. Worse still, the choices seem to make no significant difference apart from the colour scheme of the ensuing cutscene, much of which literally makes no sense in the context of the game up until then.

When I finally reached the end of the game myself, I was at first convinced I had misunderstood something, and wracked my brains for some time to try and fathom it. Then I was furious at the carelessness shown by trying to disguise incomprehensibility as high art. Then I was heartbroken because I realized that without any real closure, there was no appeal in playing the game again.
It was at this point that I thought, “Good grief, Alexander, you’re going through the Five Stages of Grief over a video game!” That’s a measure of how good it was, right up until the end.

BioWare has, or had, a reputation for respecting fan desires and their wish for a choice-heavy game experience. This reputation was enough to cause a sense of betrayal. Worse still, the executive producer Casey Hudson had, up to within two months of release, made several fairly specific statements that the conclusion of the trilogy would tie together choices made throughout the game, that numerous different permutations of the ending would be possible , and that the game would be not just be a bland A, B or C ending. And they delivered the exact opposite of all of those.

Exactly what went wrong is unclear. Drew Karpyshyn, lead writer for the first two games, left the Mass Effect project before 3, but left a detailed outline for the others to build on. There was a story circulating that Hudson locked most of the writing staff out of the creative process late in the game and did the ending independently, but I haven’t been able to track it to a reliable source, and I’m ever more convinced that this isn’t true. Many blame EA, which lately became BioWare’s distributor, for meddling in the writing in the pursuit of fan controversy. Again, I have as yet no way to verify this.

Such a popular franchise’s ending would be polarizing, that one expects. But a poll on BioWare’s own site showed about 1000 voters happy with the ending, and over 60000 completely outraged and demanding the ending be changed. For many players, the inconclusive and meaningless ending killed off the appeal of starting a new version of the game, to take Shepard and company down a different path, because that path leads to nowhere worth going.

What followed was absolutely fascinating. For one thing, it exposed a severe disconnect between gamers as a community and gaming journalists. The latter threw many high scores at the feet of ME3. When confronted with the outrage of gamers, MovieBob and other known game critics were utterly savage to the community that they are meant to serve. Even the ever-contrary and intelligent Yahtzee Croshaw came down against what became known as the ‘Retake Mass Effect’ movement (after the game’s advertising slogan of ‘Retake Earth’).  Even other gamers (possibly especially other gamers) sneered at the ME3 fan base as ‘whiny’ and ‘entitled.’

As heartbroken as I was by the ending, for the same reasons as most everyone else, I was inclined to feel guilty about even caring this much. It’s only a story after all, and isn’t it rather reflective of the gamer stereotype of having no life that this is all they can get outraged about?

Happily I found myself vindicated by the way in which the ‘Retake’ movement handled things. Just to make the point about how unhappy they were, a campaign was launched that raised, eventually, US$80,000 for charity in the name of ‘Retake.’ My own empirical investigation of comment threads on BioWare Social Forum, Facebook and the Escapist show, contrary to my usual experience of internet arguments, that the abusive, trollish and aggressive behaviour of commenters comes overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) from the anti-Retake side. Retakers are certainly passionate, and some are extremely blunt, but mostly seem very rational and even responsible.

Forbes magazine has gotten in on things on the side of the consumers and players of the game, which has been taken as a sign of gaming becoming a ‘mainstream’ industry. There were even attempts to formally report BioWare for False Advertising. Perhaps excessive, ultimately unsuccessful, but telling.

After some statements by BioWare wherein they insisted that they wanted an ending that caused discussion and controversy, and that to change it would violate ‘artistic integrity’ (provoking the reply ‘what artistic integrity?’) they said that they would produce an ‘extended cut’ to ‘clarify’ the endings.

This hasn’t satisfied a lot of people, myself included. The endings are so at variance with the rest of the game that it is felt that they are a complete write-off. ‘Clarifying’ them has been regarded as more of a cop-out than a concession. The ‘Retake’ movement has been hesitating to continue their pressure since that announcement, at once hoping and fearing for the outcome.

Apart from my own interest in a worthy ending to such a great story, I think this is a really neat study in the democratization of art. With projects like TV Tropes, people interested in a good story are teaching themselves and others what stories are made of, and becoming informed consumers of stories. Once, only academics and professional critics got to pass judgement on the quality of stories. Now anyone (like me!) can plead a case for them.

Because games can be altered easily with Downloadable Content (patches or expansions of the game’s software that can be downloaded into a computer or console) they are the ideal medium for this process. Some people fret that BioWare’s concession (if such it be) sets a bad precedent of the unwashed masses ordering the professionals and artists around. That not only sells the masses a bit short, but the precedent was actually set in 2009 by Bethesda. They created the Broken Steel DLC for Fallout 3 after fans expressed displeasure with the ending. Their complaint was more to do with mechanics than story, but then again Mass Effect’s misstep is seen as far more serious.

As I wait pensively to hear how the Extended Cut holds up, I look forward to seeing where organized story advocacy goes from here. I fear that if the new DLC isn’t up to scratch, I may need to join the hosts of fanfiction writers using that medium to cope.

Video games stand to become a very powerful storytelling medium (as Yahtzee Croshaw has famously said) because they break down the divide between protagonist and audience. In addition to showing the evolution of an involved and intelligent audience, the ‘Retake’ movement’s charitable concerns have done something almost poetic. A common stereotype of nerds is that we only care about fantasy and escapism while everyone else is getting on with real life. ‘Retake’ rejected this A or B choice just as they rejected the Red, Blue or Green choice in ME3 by helping people through charitable fundraising .

So I wish well everyone embarking on testing this (hopefully) olive branch from BioWare. It would be a crying shame if these superb storytellers lose the great respect they’ve earned for good. We on the fan side will continue to appreciate a good story well-told, and stand for their value in a good world. Or, as we say in the Mass Effect fandom…

We Will Hold the Line!

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Posted by on June 26, 2012 in Video Game

 

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Snow White and the Huntsman: A Colourful Rainbow of Dreariness

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You have to wonder if there’s some kind of race being run in Hollywood. How often do two different movies dealing with the exact same source material come around at once.

I am of course referring to the movies Mirror, Mirror on the one hand, and Snow White and the Huntsman on the other. Two different takes on the same classic fairy tale.

Perhaps against my better judgement, I sallied forth to see Snow White and the Huntsman last night. Ladies in armour, dark magic and castles seemed reason enough to give it a whirl. Lots of people took the mere presence of Kristen Stewart in the title role as a warning sign. Probably they were right to do so. Fair-minded as I am (or stupid, depending on your viewpoint) I reasoned that Stewart has been judged and damned principally because of her part in the abominably written Twilight. Furthermore, that low quality was laid in by writers and producers before the question of the cast even arose. Shall I then force the actor to endure alone the ignominy of the role they had inflicted on them?

Wouldn’t I love to know, because it turns out that Snow White and the Huntsman is not going to provide Ms. Stewart much chance to spread her wings, if indeed she has any.

We find ourselves in an anonymous kingdom, usurped by a witch-queen who sucks the life force of the land’s fair ladies to maintain a spell of eternal youth. For years the daughter of the murdered king, once renowned for beauty and kindness, has endured imprisonment at the queen’s hands. When she escapes, the queen’s magic mirror warns her that the fleeing princess is the sole one whose pure heart and beauty can break her power. She hires a huntsman to, oddly enough, hunt her down so that she can take the princess’s heart, which promises to make her power permanent.

The huntsman finds the princess, but, captivated by her, aids her instead, and they make their way over troll bridges, through fairy realms and through many a trap and pitfall to find allies to overthrow the queen and retake the kingdom.

If that sounds like a dangerously standard plot, you couldn’t be more right. The plot lacks for twists so desperately that I got bored in no short order. It has a number of interesting and amusing setpieces, but no plot momentum to back them up. It’s more of a bad guided tour than a movie in a way.

Let me put it this way: you remember that in the story of Snow White, there are a certain group of supporting characters? About, oh, seven of them? A bit on the short side?

They don’t show themselves until nearly two thirds of the way through the film, and are little more than comic relief. It’s especially jarring considering that veteran actors of the likes of Ian McShane (lately Blackbeard in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) and Ray Winstone are among them.

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Likewise, there’s a subplot concerning the princess’s childhood friend and potential romantic interest trying to find her, but it does nothing to aid the main story, and can barely sustain itself. Furthermore, the crisis of the apple, which most of us likely remember in the Disney version, is treated as hardly more than one more speed bump on the way to the end of the story, wherever it is.

The villainess is likely the most interesting character, with a clearer motivation than the heroine. The huntsman is a far more interesting character on the hero front. Our leading lady scarcely has any lines, and (as is often said of Stewart) only one facial expression. She’s a Messianic Macguffin and little else.

And that touches the reason why I feel this story suffers in its relevance in modern experience. The Princess (we have it in the prologue that Snow White is her name, but she’s never actually addressed as such) is exactly as you’d imagine in the story, and that just doesn’t work. She’s too perfect; everyone loves her instantly, and she’s supposed to possess all this wonderful quality that neither the performance nor the writing can back up. So far, they adhered to the letter of the original story, but this kind of meandering, over-idealized story simply doesn’t work anymore.

And indeed, the writing does not do enough work to back up the ideas the movie wants to communicate. It seems to say, “Here are our heroes. Just root for them,” and then do little work outside of it. When the Princess actually does speak, the lines have an unpolished, incomplete feeling. While the dwarfs and the villains are actually fairly interesting, their lines give no life to their potential.

My main interest in this film are in its visuals, which are impressive, and its value as a study in the death of the classic fairy tale. I think that modern sensibilities are savvy to the simplicities, narrow-mindedness and unrealistic ideals that many fairy tales uphold. I almost think that the writers knew that in some way, and it shows in the weakness of their efforts.

The movie could still have been fun, at least. Better dialogue could have saved the clichés, and the introduction of the dwarfs alone, my friends and I agreed, would have added and variety and momentum to the story that it simply doesn’t have.

On the bright side, if we are let down by the iconic seven dwarfs, we have only a few months ere a certain thirteen Dwarves will come to save those ancient style of stories for us!

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To dungeons deep, and caverns old…

 
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Posted by on June 19, 2012 in Movie

 

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Dark Shadows: Entertaining if Insubstantial

Last night Tim Burton’s latest production, Dark Shadows appeared in my local theatre and so I and my colleagues went out to see what the creator of Beetlejuice and the Nightmare Before Christmas had to say for himself.

Dark Shadows had its origins as an American supernatural soap opera in the 1960s and 70s, which combined the standard plot entanglements and melodrama of a soap opera with ghosts, alternate worlds, vampires and werewolves. One of the big boosts to the show’s popularity was the introduction of the protagonist family’s ancestor, the vampire Barnabas Collins. Barnabas was a breakout character for the series, and in an age when vampire fiction is enjoying one of its periodic heydays, Burton has made him the central character of his film.

Barnabas Collins was the son of a successful 18th century tycoon. Spurning the affections of the witch Angelique, he finds his family cursed, his parents killed, his lady love sent to her death, and himself turned into an immortal vampire and locked into a coffin to think about what he’s done.

Fast forward to 1972, one Victoria Winters, a slightly strange young lady arrives in the town of Collinsport, to serve as a governess to the troubled young nephew of the current matriarch of the Collins clan, now reduced to a family of eccentrics living in their run-down estate house. Her charge, young David, is convinced that his dead mother speaks to him. His father is a money-grubbing, neglectful debaucher. His live-in therapist is a useless alcoholic, as is the house help. David’s cousin Carolyn is a typical angsty 15-year-old.

Even as Victoria begins to see signs that David may not simply be acting out from grief, a construction crew digs up Barnabas. After massacring them (with fulsome apologies, he’s extremely thirsty) Barnabas resumes control of the family and begins to resurrect the business. He also becomes enamoured of Victoria, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his lost beloved. At the same time, he begins, in his own special way, to restore the dignity and wellbeing of his family. His efforts become all the more ferocious when he realizes that the current business magnate of the town is none other than ‘Angela,’ the same witch who cursed him and his family.

There’s a lot of good stuff in this movie. There’s humour for everybody. Different parts of the theatre laughed at different things. Barnabas – played by Johnny Depp – and his anachronistic bewilderment is great comedy material. The 70’s camp aesthetic on its own is a hoot. Chloe Moretz (Hit Girl in Kick-Ass) goes at the ‘angsty 70’s teen’ role with her usual gusto.

The story itself is vacuously enjoyable. Its major weakness is that it suffers an excess of B-plots. Given that this was based on a soap opera, I’m not entirely certain that this wasn’t intentional. Nevertheless, Barnabas’ showdown with Angelique is mixed up with the tensions of David and his father, Victoria’s past and her affection for Barnabas, and Carolyn’s…issues. They tend to surface in the story seemingly at random and then get drowned in each other again. Themes of love and redemption, humanity and monstrosity, and the meaning of family are all there, but none of them get substantial airplay.

The movie is a lot of fun, to be sure. Nevertheless it’s all over the place, a bit like several movies all slamming into each other. Or, more probably, several episodes of a soap compacted into one movie.

A jack-of-all-trades, master of none, Dark Shadows has something for everyone, it’s simply a matter of taste whether it has enough of any of those things. Give it a whirl and find out!

PS Credit must go to my journalistic colleague Clare for the title of this entry. Cheers.

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2012 in Movie