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The Science Fiction Research Association 2012 Conference

April 6, 2012 Leave a comment

The 43rd annual Science Fiction Research Association conference is going to be held in Detroit this year.

I can’t even begin to explain how awesome that is.  I’m definitely going to find a way to get the money to register. The guest of honor for this year’s conference is the renowned Eric S. Rabkin, who teaches the Science Fiction Literature and Fantasy Literature courses I took while a student at U of Michigan. I highly recommend his book, “The Fantastic in Literature.” It’s a fairly rare book, but it really is worth the money and the time to find a decent copy.

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BioWare and Artistic Vision

April 6, 2012 1 comment

I few days ago I wrote an article entitled Mass Effect 3 and Artistic Integrity in which I discussed whether or not changing the very controversial ending to Mass Effect 3 would void the artistic merit of the game. In short, I don’t believe it would; though, to be sure, the many problems with the game itself do have an adverse effect on the overall quality. Take a look at the fantastic polygon people from Polyonia 7! I have a ton of arguments to explain why I think that the Mass Effect series as a whole is brilliant science-fiction, and in many cases, absolutely revolutionary. This post is not about that, however.

At this point I should share my feelings about the conclusion of the series. I’ve been fairly circumspect about this for a number of reasons, but I suppose if I want to discuss the most recent news, I have to be up front. I think that Mass Effect 3 is one of the best games I’ve ever played. That is, up until about the last twenty minutes. I almost feel as if I’m echoing criticism of the game from scores of other places, but the conclusion literally doesn’t make any sense. I will grant that, on some level, it works philosophically (but that’s about all that works in it—an abstract thought exercise). As a conclusion to a narrative that has consistent and well-defined internal rules and logic, however, it is extremely lacking. That doesn’t even touch on the fact that, at the end, a lot of the characters are behaving in ways inconsistent with their established personalities. So far, we have some massive piece of technology (the Crucible and Citadel weapon thing) that has no explanation as to how it works or what the consequences of your choices in using it are, and we have characters doing things they wouldn’t have ever done before (Joker taking the Normandy and your extremely loyal allies and fleeing the battle over Earth).

This is just the tip of the iceberg. For a comprehensive take on all of the issues with the conclusion, this YouTube video, “Mass Effect 3 Ending: Tasteful, Understated Nerdage (SPOILERS),” does a better job outlining them than I can with my limited time and patience. Needless to say, I still find a lot of value in the game, and a lot to love. I can probably find a way to explain the ending which satisfies me (the so-called Indoctrination Theory is rather compelling). I still like Mass Effect 3 despite the abysmal conclusion.

What I don’t like is BioWare’s response to the fans who, essentially, demand accountability. In fact, I find BioWare’s behavior downright dispiriting. Adding to that frustration is the absurd response and reporting by many video game news sources that wrongly simplify the complaints to cases of entitlement. And it all comes down to one very vague, and as they use it, meaningless argument: artistic vision.

BioWare blog, in a post called Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut, details a free DLC release in the summer that expands and explains the conclusion of the game (presumably for all of us unthinking and unenlightened folk who just don’t get the brilliance of the ending).

Here’s what BioWare blog reports about their motivation for making the DLC:

For fans who want more closure in Mass Effect 3, the DLC will offer extended scenes that provide additional context and deeper insight to the conclusion of Commander Shepard’s journey.

I’m probably not alone in thinking that this is extremely condescending, but the main problem I have with this is that the ending is so terrible that it needs additional content to “clarify” and provide additional context. I’ve studied narrative all of my life and I couldn’t make heads or tails of what their “artistic vision” was for the ending. I doubt any extra details, which would only serve to complicate the ending further, would actually make the current conclusion any clearer. In fact, I’m betting we’ll actually get a look at just how vapid and empty it really is. I’m going to label this “explanatory DLC” and I’m going to mock it. A solid narrative which flows organically from the established stories, characters, and contextual logic shouldn’t need to be explained. This sad attempt by BioWare to contain this massive problem they have on their hands only reinforces the complete failure of their narrative.

BioWare blog further states:

BioWare strongly believes in the team’s artistic vision for the end of this arc of the Mass Effect franchise. The extended cut DLC will expand on the existing endings, but no further ending DLC is planned.

There it is. The ultimate cop-out for the responsibility they bare for creating a completely irrational conclusion. Artistic vision has been used by BioWare as an excuse so many times that it is essentially meaningless. What was their artistic vision? They keep using these words, but they never explain what they mean. The meaning clearly isn’t to be found in the game itself, or they wouldn’t need to make their “explanatory DLC” in a bald attempt to short-circuit legitimate criticism.

Based on the first two Mass Effect games, as a well as the original Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, I wanted to give BioWare the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, if I see them use the phrase “artistic vision” one more time to excuse the plot-hole ridden, nonsensical, ambiguous, and ultimately confusing ending of Mass Effect 3 I will never take any argument they make about the artistic merits of their video games seriously ever again. And you won’t see me rushing to defend them, either. The ending has roused bitter feelings from many people, and as this poll shows, 91% of players that participated in this unscientific internet poll thought the ending was garbage. When you create a series that is defined by how developed the universe is, and stories that pay particular close attention to detail, you can’t just create a conclusion that is defined by its lack of detail.

Finally, I just can’t stand it when people say that it would set a dangerous precedent for BioWare to “capitulate” to the fans and make a new ending. It’s as if it would be dangerous to hold a company accountable for the products it produces. It would be far more dangerous to allow a company to get away with creating a sub-par product because it would, eventually, become the norm. Basically, a person pays $60 for an entertainment experience. When that experience doesn’t live up to their expectations, are they supposed to just accept it? It’s true that BioWare owns the story and they can do what they want with it. It’s also true that they’re creating a product to be consumed by a massive amount of people. It would be like George Lucas deciding that his artistic vision dictated that the original end to Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi was one in which the Ewoks were the keepers of the force and destroyed the Death Star with some kind of chant they sang while shaking a rain stick at the sky. Would you be happy with that?

I honestly don’t see how BioWare doesn’t alienate a significant amount of its fanbase if it keeps this up. If they really believe that their “artistic vision,” whatever the hell it is (they certainly don’t explain it), is more important that actually addressing the valid criticisms of tens of thousands of gamers then they aren’t a company I can continue to support.

Mass Effect 3 is a great game afflicted by a terrible ending and a condescending group of writers and publishers. If they can actually make the case for their “artistic vision,” instead of just throwing it out whenever someone criticizes the ending, I will change my mind. They’d have to make a convincing case about what they were trying to do and why it makes sense, but I would accept it. As it is, they have decided to release “explanatory DLC” and have failed to actually define what their “artistic vision” actually was.

I can draw a stick figure in crayon on my wall. I can claim that it’s art, and that as art, it’s making a statement about the role of post-post-modern pop-culture vis-a-vis extreme reductionism using simple pastels. I can claim that what gives the central line purpose is the circle that represents the head and the four lines that represent the limbs (otherwise it’s just a line segment). Is it art just because I claim it is, and use complex words and concepts to describe it? No. Likewise,Mass Effect 3 is not art just because BioWare claims it is. If the conclusion of the game is unable to make the case for the writers, implicitly, that their claims of artistic vision are valid, they’ve already lost the argument.

Even after all of that, I still believe that Mass Effect 3, as a whole, is a work of art. But I have complex reasons and evidence for believing that, much of which, unfortunately, is inferred because of the ending. I have a horrible feeling that Mass Effect 3 is only going to be remembered for its absurd ending and BioWare’s mishandling of the situation.

And that makes me cringe.

The Mass Effect Universe and Literary Allusion Part 1

April 4, 2012 2 comments

Well, I’ve been extremely busy lately. I haven’t exactly had time to write anything on Battlstar Galactica yet, nor have I been able to compile my extensive notes and musings on Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. They’ll come…eventually.

I decided I wanted to write a short post that will probably lay the groundwork for a much larger discussion on the literary allusion in the Mass Effect series of games. All three of them are a rich source of references to other works, borrowing their ideas and reframing them in a new context.

The particular literary allusion I’d like to talk about now happens in Mass Effect 3, just after you assault the Cerberus headquarters. If you venture into the cockpit and talk to EDI after the mission, before Earth, Shepard will ask if she has any questions. After she answers no, he asks if she has any lingering issues about “An imperfect designer who can be seen as a warped father figure…” My first response was to smile at this line, but then I realized that they were making a reference to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

It’s not unusual for science-fiction to reference this work. In many ways it can be seen as one of the forerunners of modern science-fiction. For instance, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot makes numerous references to the work in the form of robots and Dr. Susan Calvin. The central idea is that you have an imperfect creator (Victor Frankenstein) who creates some sort of being (the Daemon) that has a bond that developmentally starts to resemble a parent and a child. My experience with reading robot-oriented science-fiction usually falls under the auspices of Isaac Asimov, who I consider to be the person who took Karel Capek’s original idea in Rossum’s Universal Robots and made it into the real science of robotics through the sheer force of his prose. For the most part, his robot short stories can be, in many ways, connected to the Frankenstein story. I’ll probably expand on this idea later, when I have more time and have further developed these ideas.

So it isn’t without precedent that artificial life, like robots and androids, has been used to make allusions to Frankenstein, which is itself a new take on the ancient Prometheus myth. EDI denies that there are any lingering issues and it really doesn’t seem to affect her. This is what’s new. In Asimov’s stories, and in Frankenstein, the created beings had a number of issues stemming from the idea of an imperfect creator being seen as a warped parental figure. I think that the reason it’s different in Mass Effect 3 is because, as the story progresses, a distinction between the Reaper’s version of artificial life and the artificial life of the Geth and EDI begins to develop. The Reaper on Rannoch, the Quarian homeworld, uses the war between the Quarians and the Geth (creator versus the created–witness the Frankenstein themes) as an example of why artificial life and organic life can never coexist. However, if you take the paragon path and find a way to end the war with both species intact, this assertion is proven to be incorrect.

The Geth aren’t the robots of Asimov, or really any other science-fiction writer, for that matter. They exist primarily as programs that can download into mobile platforms and take physical bodies, but they exist mainly as digital information. This is an important difference that really underscores the flawed logic of the Reapers, but it also contradicts many of the game’s own ideas. The Prothean VI Vendetta states, on Thessia, that the patterns of civilizations, artificial life, and harvesting by the Reapers is an ongoing pattern, and that there are forces outside of their control which bind everyone, including the Reapers, to this pattern (shades of Battlestar Galactica’s “it has happened before, and it will happen again”).  The idea of a cyclical pattern of existence isn’t unusual for science-fiction that deals with events on a massive scale. It’s also not new for some science-fiction stories to upend this idea with unforeseen variables that change the dynamics of pattern. The Geth, I think, represent an unforeseen variable in this pattern. The war that they fight with the Quarians is one of self-defense. They are not homicidal killing machines, and even Legion says that one of the things they respect the most is for species to have the right to self-determinate.

And this is where EDI comes in. EDI is a hybrid human VI with Reaper code. She is a fully autonomous artificial life form with self-awareness. She doesn’t have any lingering issues about the Illusive Man as a warped father figure because she breaks the mold of created beings. If she is to be the analogue of the Daemon, she is his antithesis. She may be somewhat ostracized because of her nature as an artificial intelligence in some ways, but she makes decisions on how she develops not based on the injustices she suffers or the attitude of her creator (the Illusive Man saw her as a tool and, most likely, an abomination because of his adamant disgust of the Reapers), but based on her self-actualization and the bonds she makes with the crew of the Normandy and, in particular, Joker.

Mass Effect 3 makes the allusions to Frankenstein while, simultaneously, breaking the relationship characteristic to Frankenstein and Asimov’s robot stories between creator and created. I’m reminded of the end of Battlestar Galactica, in which the Caprica angel says to the Balter angel that complex systems, such as the one run between the humans and the Cylons, can produce unpredictable variables and aberrant results. When it comes down to it, no matter how much control the Reapers tried to impose, they’re working in a system on a galactic scale. They couldn’t possibly predict or account for the number of random variables that could, in the end, lead to a completely different outcome and disrupt the pattern. Mass Effect 3 demonstrates this by showing the stark differences between the artificial life of the Reapers and that of the Geth and EDI.

I hope to talk, eventually, about how the pattern is forever disrupted with the destruction of the Mass Relays and how that ties in with Sovereign’s discussion with Shepard in Mass Effect. I think that would be a rich avenue of discovery.