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Mass Effect 3 and Artistic Integrity

March 31, 2012 3 comments

Let’s face it: the conclusion of the Mass Effect trilogy has been highly controversial. I’ve been mostly silent in this debate, largely because I see validity in both sides. On one had, the ending was philosophically brilliant and rounded out some of the higher concepts that were introduced throughout the series in a spectacular way, leaving the end open to various interpretations. On the other hand, in terms of epic science-fiction space opera, the conclusion was a vast disappointment. There is really no resolution for the characters, and there are many jarring plot-holes that, frankly, leave a sour taste in one’s mouth.

Do you really believe that your squad mates somehow made it from Earth to the Normandy in the middle of a massive land and space war only to flee the Sol System in the end? It really makes no sense, given what we know of the characters and their dedication and loyalty to Commander Shepard (they went on a suicide mission with him through the Omega 4 Rely, so it seems highly unlikely they’d flee in the end).

This is not the point of this article. I want to discuss something I’ve seen thrown around by BioWare and some fans that are opposed to rewriting or changing the endings in any significant way: artistic integrity.

I’ve argued for years about the artistic integrity of video games, and Mass Effect is certainly a form of art. It’s controversial, unique, and explores age-old questions and ideas in a beautiful and thought-provoking way (well, between shoot-outs and massive space battles–but even the best literature has conflict on a massive scale). In some ways it is downright dangerous because it challenges the players to acknowledge the legitimacy of artificial life as a true form of life, which skews and perhaps destroys what we currently define as life. In many science-fiction stories, such as Asimov’s I, Robot, robots are a way to explore humanity, especially if those robots share our values to some extent. The Geth share our values in that they value life, their continued existence, and their right to self-determinate. We see ourselves reflected in the Geth consensus. This can provoke some uncomfortable realizations, which is a hallmark of great art.

What I think people forget about art is that art is, simply, not infallible. It isn’t unassailable, and part of the reason art exists is to inspire criticism. Good authors and painters and musicians want people to criticize their work because the artist is just as much a member of the audience as the critics. The best works of art push people to understanding without actually blatantly stating some fact of the universe, so that when a piece of art is critiqued, the artist learns just as much as the audience.

The question with Mass Effect 3 is this: would changing the ending result in voiding all of the artistic integrity of the game? The answer, quite simply, is no. In fact, it would strengthen the artistic merit of the game. If video games are to be considered art the people who play them and the people who design them have to admit that video games aren’t like other forms of art. They aren’t like movies. They aren’t like literature. They aren’t like paintings. You’re obviously not going to critique Macbeth the same way you’d critique the Mona Lisa, so why wouldn’t you create and apply different critical theories for video games?

I think that video games offer a deeper sense of the connection between artist and audience. The player becomes a part of the action, and in games like Mass Effect, they actually make choices that impact the progression of the story. The player actually gets to mold the story according to his preferences. This offers an almost unprecedented level of control for the audience, which means that, invariably, the artist has to forfeit some of his power. Mass Effect has different endings and outcomes based on a plethora of decisions that the player makes, which doesn’t follow the normal pattern of narration. It creates interaction. The artist, then, is allowing the player to shape the art in a way that movies, books, and paintings simply cannot.

Art is dynamic. It changes as time passes, and even interpretations of older works change. It goes without saying that we don’t interpret Beowulf the same way that the original Anglo-Saxon storytellers interpreted it. But art is also dynamic in that part of what makes it art in the first place is that an audience criticizes it. An audience, in a very real way, shapes art. Mass Effect 3 has had its share of critics, and rightly so. Allowing a democratic process, such as feedback and audience input, actually reinforces the notion that Mass Effect 3 is art because it actually does expose something about the culture surrounding video games.

Gamers are passionate, and they’re smart. The main reason that video games are starting to develop artistic integrity in the mainstream doesn’t just come down to talented writers and designers. The gamers themselves demand immersive, thoughtful, and smart games. They want compelling stories with intriguing characters. Mass Effect has always delivered these things. It’s been innovative, engaging, and thoughtful. More than that, though, is that the different choices and variables allowed the player to create a story that was wholly his own. It’s not very likely that any two Mass Effect playthroughs are exactly the same, because each player crafts the story to fit their preferences. In a way, each player can claim Mass Effect as their own.

If that’s the case, doesn’t the audience actually have real artistic input? Part of the way the game functions is that players determine the final outcome of their game. They get to design the facial features of the character, name him, and make Shepard’s decisions. They’re allowed to take part in the artistic process.

In essence, this means that the players themselves had a legitimate stake in the artistic process. If they weren’t satisfied by the conclusions it isn’t necessarily because they felt entitled to getting what they wanted, but because the game revealed something about it’s artistic nature. The artists that designed Mass Effect 3 don’t hold all of the artistic power.

And that is what is most relevant in this discussion, and why video games have an uphill battle in terms of being accepted as art. Video games create art that is a shared process, and the Mass Effect series was especially innovative of this particular aspect. The logical conclusion is that the players should have as much control over the outcome of the games as the writers and developers do themselves. If the gamers are upset about specific aspects of the endings, and they provide feedback to the studio as to what their grievances are, it is the height of hypocracy for that studio to hide behind an argument like “artistic integrity” when the art of the game itself hinges on the gamers participating in the process.

So it really boils down to this: the artistic integrity of Mass Effect 3 actually rests on the participation of the gamers. My argument is that if BioWare tries to brush off the valid feedback and criticism of the gamers by claiming artistic integrity, it actually destroys the artistic merits of the game to a very large degree (especially in an age of video games with DLC, or downloadable content, which actually changes the game by adding characters and missions and other such things that fundamentally change the story and narrative).

Changing the ending to provide the conclusion that a relatively large population of the fans would consider fitting would not reduce the merits of the art, but actually add to it. One of the chief complaints I’ve read from people that don’t want the ending changed is that if BioWare did acquiesce to the change then it means the ending they liked would not be the real ending. The flaw in this argument is that Mass Effect really has no certain ending. One of the most interesting aspects of the Suicide Mission in Mass Effect 2 is that it could be the death of Shepard and, essentially, the end of the story. That is actually a valid ending to the whole story, which completely voids the need for Mass Effect 3 at all. If a player decides that they liked the original ending, they don’t have to download the new one. It really is as simple as that. And this is the kind of art that Mass Effect embodies.

In the end, if video game developers, and even journalists, want video games to be taken serious as an art form, they must make room for criticism. If they rush to defend a video game from legitimate criticism with arguments like “artistic integrity” as a reason to not entertain notions that Mass Effect 3’s ending should be changed, or that it was flawed in the first place, they’re undermining some of the great strides video games have made in the last decade toward becoming art. If we want to actually make the case that video games are art, we have to start to turn a real critical eye toward them. They have to stand the process of being picked apart and analyzed. The greatest works of art are great because they withstand criticism and constantly create topics for discussion and interpretation. Mass Effect 3 has done this, whether by intention or not. It has sparked passion on all sides, and it has been critically analyzed and picked apart. There is ample evidence to support many different theories about the true nature of the endings of the games, and many theories are clever and well-reasoned. Mass Effect 3 is living up to its legacy. The very criticism and dissection of the game, leading in some cases to plausible and convincing theories about the true events and meaning, cements its status as art.

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The Hunger Games: May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor

March 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Last Sunday I decided to throw on my lucky “Vote Smuggler” shirt featuring Han Solo and Malcolm Reynolds and head to the local movie theater to see the blockbuster movie, “The Hunger Games.” According to Rotten Tomatoes the movie has grossed $152.2 million since its release, which isn’t really surprising given the subject matter and the success of the books.

Set in a dystopian future, “The Hunger Games” introduces the audience to 16 year-old Katniss Everdeen, resident of the impoverished District 12 of Panem. Everdeen, a hunter who subsists on the animals she catches in a forest outside of the bounds of her district, also feeds her family and raises her younger sister, Primrose. District 12 is, apparently, a miner town with starving residents and horrible living conditions. The setting paints a fairly bleak picture of the future, which is only reinforced by ruling society.

According to a treaty that was created after some sort of uprising, every year the residents of each district much select, by random lottery, one male and one female between the ages of 12 and 18  to participate in The Hunger Games. This competition is a reality TV show in which the participants fight to the death, with the last survivor declared the victor and showered with riches. When Primrose is selected to participate, Katniss volunteers to go in her place, along with Peeta, the selected male.

Peeta and Katniss travel to Capitol, the effete and decadent capital of Panem, where the games will be held. They must compete in various competitions before the actual start of The Hunger Games to win sponsors and popularity, which increase their chances of survival. While Peeta seems to be a natural at winning over a crowd, Katniss is obviously more contemptuous of Panem and its culture.

One of the most fascinating spectacles of the movie is the action in Panem. The city is massive in scope, and the inhabitants seem to be far removed from the plight of the people in the districts. They dress in gaudy clothes bleeding all of the colors of the rainbow, and none of them spare the makeup and hair treatment. It is, to be blunt, a debauched society. I looked on with disgust as Katniss and Peeta were treated to an overabundance of food as their families and friends in District 12 starved, trying desperately not to think about the amount of food that is wasted in the United States while children in third world countries starve.

A great deal of science-fiction is extrapolative, and “The Hunger Games” is definitely that. Its purpose is to create a bleak future with enough resemblances to modern societies that the audience invariably connects the decadence and horror of Capitol to their own situations. The wasted food that the people of Capitol glut on and the ways in which children are treated as a media commodity with little inherent value are two examples from a movie brimming with things to say.

I think that the main problem with the movie is that it focuses too much on the survival scenes when “The Hunger Games” is underway, sacrificing time that could be spent establishing the cultures of the Districts, Capitol, and the ways in which the characters respond to the different cultures. Haymitch Abernathy, played brilliantly by Woody Harrelson, is underdeveloped as a source of comic relief and disenchantment. I definitely think that they could have cut some of the tree-sleeping scenes and gave characters such as Cinna more screen time.

The movie was, for me, highly unsettling. I haven’t read the books, so I don’t really have a good background to judge the merits of the movie versus the books. I can say that, apart from the underdevelopment of the locations and some of the characters, it was an excellent movie. I was on the edge of my seat nearly the whole time. To be honest, I’m glad that they decided to spare the gruesome details of the deaths; reading about them is one thing, but seeing a teenager die a gruesome death is another. I think that the movie makes its points without having to really get into the gory details.

The most disturbing realization, for me, was that when they adapted the story for a movie, they’re inviting the audience to be a willing observer of the games. Because we have a connection to Katniss and Peeta, we root for them to win and, truthfully, breathe a sigh of relief when they survive a situation or a competitor dies. I didn’t find myself cheering a death, but I didn’t mourn the passing of one of the rather anonymous teenagers from a different district.

As far as the technical aspects of the film are concerned, the only real drawback was some of the confusing camera work. The movie tries to capture the first-person narration of the book, and it isn’t always successful. For instance, the shaking and jarring movements of the scene in which Katniss gets stung by the hybrid wasps were enough to make me dizzy, and it was hard to follow. Otherwise the camera work was fairly standard and uninspiring.

Out of a score of 10, I’d give “The Hunger Games” a 7. It was a thrilling movie, and it did have an interesting message that didn’t really get fleshed out. It does resemble the classic Japanese movie “Battle Royale,” but the themes and subject matter are different enough to set it apart. The movie stands on its own without having read the books, and offers a level of immersion that the book couldn’t.

The movie forces you to watch the 74th annual Hunger Games as a citizen of Capitol might.

Onward, Intrepid Fool!

March 13, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve always been a proponent of the idea that nothing describes humanity better than the stories we tell. This fueled my interest and passion for studying English Language and Literature for five years and now it compels me to continue to expand upon what I learned as a student. The reasons I chose to focus the latter half of my scholastic efforts on analyzing science-fiction literature can actually be reduced to three categories:

  1. I have had a lifelong passion for speculative fiction. Simple enough.
  2. Science-fiction is made of about 95% rubbish, but the 5% that is good is some of the best literature that has ever been produced.
  3. Science-fiction is woefully underrepresented in literature studies classes and, consequently, lacks a kind of academic legitimacy that I feel is unjust. My aim is to change this (and I was introduced to the expansive and rich literary value of fantasy and science-fiction by Eric S. Rabkin).

With this post I am embarking on a project that will most likely take a few years to complete. The first couple of posts will probably be discussions of Battlestar Galactica, and a review of Mass Effect 3 (which will hopefully lay the groundwork for later discussion). I  have also created a searchable category called “Battlestar Galactica” which can be used to access any of the posts that I write. I have also created and post, and will update it as needed, with links to all of the episodic articles, which itself is linked to the “Sci-Fi Analysis” page located at the top of the blog.

I don’t know when I’ll be able to post my first piece. I’ll try to cover every episode with a mini-analysis of that episode and more in-depth analysis as the series progresses, taking many things into consideration. One of the things I most look forward to is a discussion on how the music not only evolves as the series progresses, but how it eventually comes to inform the viewers of the evolution of the characters and circumstances.

I’m also planning on working with several books and a few other television series as well, which will probably be updated along with the Battlestar Galactica posts. I’m not sure if there will be any regularity. I assume that there will be some coordination with Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek: Voyager because of a major theme that I want to explore that is present in both and, indeed, inform each other.

The first book I’ll write about will be Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. I won’t do the entire book all at once, but I’ll break it down into chapters and then probably write something of the work as a whole.

As for the Mass Effect series, I am excited to talk about something that the first reaper, Sovereign, said to Commander Shepard on the planet Virmire: “Your civilization is based on the technology of the mass relays. Our technology. By using it, your society develops along the paths we desire. We impose order on the chaos of organic evolution. You exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it,” and Legion’s description of the nature of the reapers after the suicide mission in Mass Effect 2.

I’d like write a post about the nature of the conflict between Shepard and the Reapers (see a connection with the names, alone?). Shepard represents organic life, which is, to be frank, aberrant, chaotic, unpredictable, and subject to change. Sovereign, and the reapers in general, represent a static, predictable, and controlled form of life. That is actually a weakness because it means that it can never change or evolve (which makes my favorite conclusion to Mass Effect 3 so damn good–I don’t want to give away the ending). There are a lot of ideas at play in this series, and I would like to fully explore them. Of particular interest is the nature of the forced harvesting of organic lifeforms to create the reapers (and thus destroy future iterations of organic life) versus the synthesis of organic and synthetic to create the polar opposite and herald life. There are clear parallels with Mass Effect and Battlestar Galactica when it comes to destruction versus synthesis and repeating cycles of destruction, but this can be saved for another time.

For right now, I’d just like to say that I hope you enjoy the pieces that I write on these subjects.

Battlestar Galactica Magnum Opus

March 13, 2012 1 comment

This post is intended to be the linking and listing point of all of essays that I write about Battlestar Galactica. It will be updated as I progress through the series. I wanted to list all of the writings categorically in one place so that it’s easy to find specific pieces. As of now, it is divided into seven categories, splitting the series specials (minus “The Plan” for now), seasons, and general essays about such things as music and other ideas that don’t fall into the other categories.

   1) Battlestar Galactica Mini-series:

   2) Battlestar Galactica Season 1:

   3) Battlestar Galactica Season 2:

   4) Battlestar Galactica Season 3

   5) Battlestar Galactica Razor:

   6) Battlestar Galactica Season 4:

   7) Battlestar Galactica General Essays:

The Wonderful World of Modern Science Fiction

March 10, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s been quite a while since I’ve been able to update this blog. There are reasons, none of which are interesting. So, I have decided that in order to actually post content and pretend to be a writer, I will be doing a review series of my favorite science fiction in the weeks to come. I’ll spread it out over different series and media to make it diverse, because my original idea was to rewatch the remake of Battlestar Galactica and comment on those episodes. However, since Netflix offers me way more science fiction that I can possibly stand (and by this I mean I’m very tempted to throw my life away and just watch TV shows all day), I can spread it out a bit more.

First things first: I have just finished Mass Effect 3, and I have to be honest: I think it is the best video game I’ve ever played. I’ll go into more detail about this when I play it again, but suffice it to say that I really hope that this game represents the future of video games (though, to be fair, EA has done it’s damndest to monetize it, which is the dark side of this kind of gaming experience).

What I’ve been particularly interested in lately is the roles of women in science fiction, so I gather that a great deal of my attention over the course of this science fiction series will be devoted to this area. I apologize in advance, but I will note when other cool things happen. I imagine that Star Trek: Voyager and Battlestar Galactica will give me ample resources for my critiques in this area for television. As far as science fiction books go, I’ll probably focus on some classics, like Asmov, Bradbury, and a few others.

I guess I really do miss being an English major. I used to say that literary analysis wasn’t exactly my strongest area of expertise, but I miss the lengthy papers I wrote discussing necessary and sufficient conditions required to define a being a superhero of supervillain (hint, there are no generalizable necessary or sufficient conditions—there are, however, groups of necessary conditions that create a jointly sufficient conditions in specific contexts–for instance, early Superman is not that same as modern Superman, so how do we define each as a superhero?). You know what else I miss? Talking to people who actually care that Italo Calvino’s character, Qwfwq, in his book Cosmicomics, took his name from the equation describing a heat engine (Q=W=Q) as described in the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This leads me to speculate that, perhaps, he is the embodiment of entropy and the inherent irreversibility of the nature of the universe. He always take on new forms, and remembers his past forms.

But that’s for another time. Entropy and thermodynamics are complicated issues which I don’t fully understand, so before I talk about those I’d rather learn more about them.

Anyway, I’ll most likely start out with the first miniseries that started the modern Battlestar Galactica. Eventually I’ll have this posted. I also want to get to writing my essay about Half-Life 2. I’ll be making a new page with links to the posts for easy access and categorization (which is something I’m obsessed with, so you’ll have to put up with it).