Friday, November 30, 2012

The Neverending Story: Star Wars Edition

Four billion dollars sounds like a lot of money. And I guess it is.  It's also kind of a meaningless figure. If you told me you had four billion dollars, you might just as well have said you had a hundred bajillion cazillion shmashmillion dollars, because both figures are beyond my realm of comprehension. When dealing with money in particular, numbers as high as four billion become surreal and completely theoretical. The difference between having a hundred million dollars and four billion dollars is arbitrary at best. Most regular people can determine the worth of five dollars or ten dollars or even twenty dollars, because they can conceptualize the quantity of shit that amount of money equates to. We kind of have an idea, given the current (un)fair market value of most products in that price range, of the amount of physical matter we could acquire in exchange for those sums of money. Even values like a million dollars are within the grasp of most ordinary citizens. After buying a decent house and a car or two, you'd maybe have enough money to last for the rest of a decade, assuming you set aside a comfortable annual allowance of $50,000 a year and maybe invested a bit.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Delete Method

Bachelor parties really aren't my scene.  It seems highly illogical to me to celebrate one's bachelorhood (or eminent loss thereof) long after the fact.  Bachelor parties typically happen in temporal proximity to the actual date of the wedding, which according to the Western tradition occurs after a period of engagement, which in turn is preceded by a period of dating, and all of which presuppose the monogamous intent of both parties involved which means that the state of bachelorhood -by its very definition (ie. not being involved in a romantic relationship)- for each party has actually been abandoned for some time.  It would make slightly more sense to have a bachelor party every time one of your friends became romantically involved with another person, a social innovation I'm sure certain industries such as strip clubs and breweries would have very little argument against, except for the obligatory social custom of trying to politely decline a generous offer that you actually have every intention of accepting.
"Let's just do the same plot from the first movie."
"No, that's crazy, no audience would be stupid
enough to pay for... Oh, really?  Alright, let's
get Pauly Shore on the phone for Part III."

But that would only seem slightly less illogical to me.  The entire modern day mythos surrounding the bachelor/bachelorette party hinges on the presupposition and expectation that this particular social event automatically comes equipped with a licence for all manner of stupidity and downright asinine behaviour as glorified in such cultural texts as THE HANGOVER.  Normally, I would not be overly critical of such hedonistic impulses.  In a lot of respects, Oscar Wilde and Lord Henry Wotton were right on the money, philosophically speaking, with regard to certain lifestyle choices.  However, the carte blanche for drunken debauchery in this particular instance lacks resonance with me because it is so explicitly scripted.

It doesn't come down to whether or not the social circumstances are constructed.  Every cultural script we follow every waking minute of our lives is constructed, whether consciously or unconsciously.  The point is whether these constructions are organic.  Are they constructed in such a way as to mask the nature of their construction.  It is a distinct level of disillusionment when we see the puppet's strings.  It is another level entirely when the puppet sees his own.  A skillfully designed performance keeps the machinery far from view.  Though we are conscious of its existence, we are not constantly reminded of it and can engage in the oft-quoted "willing suspension of disbelief" that would no doubt earn the Keats' estate a nickel every time it was uttered had he been prudent enough to copyright it thereby ensuring that his progeny had more than ample financial means to sustain itself indefinitely.  It's the difference between fantasy and delusion.  It's one thing to allow oneself to believe in the Infinite Possibilities of Existence; it's another thing entirely to tend an orchard you know for a fact will bear no fruit.

A few weeks back, I participated in my first true bachelor party experience.  For my own wedding, I forewent what I saw as a needless and potentially expensive ritual which would force me to reallocate financial resources over my then-bourgeoning DVD collection.  The closest I came was a night of video games fueled by copious amounts of alcohol on the eve of my wedding, during which time my youngest brother (a fresh-faced whippersnapper of 17 years at the time) provided countless hours of amusement, drunkenly stumbling around for our entertainment with no concern for his dignity or personal well-being.

But this time, I was to engage in the Authentic Bachelor Party Experience.  As best man, I had intentionally neglected my particular duties surrounding this ritual, hoping instead to default to the groom's earlier suggestion of a leisurely weekend camping trip punctuated, of course, by alcohol/weed-inspired hijinks.  This was purely for selfish reasons.  As a starving student and the only one involved in the wedding who would have to travel a minimum of six hours just to reach the festivities, this option would have required less financial investment and less travel time on my part.  Alas, my machinations were for naught as another friend of the groom took it upon himself to organize a bachelor party proper.

I didn't know much about being the best man in a wedding, but I knew that even if I wasn't spearheading the campaign I couldn't be the only asshole who didn't show up.  Despite my desire to maximize my own convenience factor, I knew that my primary role was for Moral(e) Support, and my participation in such activities was obligatory, even if the bulk of my trip would consist of travel time and I really had no desire to spend large quantities of money on alcohol and cover charges with narry a Blu-Ray or video game to show for it.
Based on the true story of the life
and times of Jesus Christ

From its earliest inception, I knew that this would be a traditional bachelor party in every sense of the word.  There was talk of typical activities, but the one that seemed to dominate was, of course, the time-honoured tradition of the strip club.  I suppose it was inevitable, with the sole purpose of half the group to make our way to the nearest strippers (Who, on an interesting side note, they kept referring to as "rippers," a truncation that I'm not sure is part of a larger sociolinguistic context of which I am not aware, or simply due to a specific, regional dialect).  At any rate, we ended up at a local establishment that regularly headlined the talents of beautiful, young women willing to take their clothes off in front of a room full of (mostly) strangers as the climax of our evening.

Now, perhaps I'm in the minority of Heterosexual Men Who Aren't Morally Opposed to Strip Clubs But Finds the Prospect of Going to One Unappealing.  And it's not because I have any moral or social objections to the erotic arts, or because a strip club is supposedly hygienically inferior to other bars.  There are two main reasons that the concept of the strip club takes the wind out of my sails (so to speak):

1)  I hate high-pressure sales situations.
2) The whole experience seems so contrived.

I know that high-pressure sales tactics are implemented for the same reason that nuclear weapons are effective: because they get results.  And I know that the base salary for strippers is probably not that great and that the real incentive for the profession is the fat stacks they can rack up with the sacred tradition of the lap dance. I just don't like the expectation that walking onto the premises of a business means I have entered into some kind of silent yet legally binding contract that I must now partake of its wares or services in some way.  The notable exception to this rule, of course, being food and drink.  I can understand how the food services industry in particular relies on the volume of customers to maintain a sustainable business model and you can't just have shiftless layabouts taking valuable space away from other potential customers.  And to be fair, I did buy a couple of (overpriced) drinks at the club we went to.

I did not, however, end up going to the notorious "back rooms" with any of the lovely ladies.  In part because my wife (who's pretty fucking cool most of the time) had laid out strict ground rules in anticipation of the eventuality (or likelihood) that the bachelor party would end up at a strip club.  Her rule was basically look but don't touch, which I can appreciate, because if she were participating in the even more depraved bachelorette party I probably wouldn't want some dude grinding up against my wife with his sweaty ballsack and no-doubt meticulously manicured asshole.  Maintaining a relationship can be a tricky balance sometimes, and as sexual beings it's one thing to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of other attractive human specimens through the visual cortex, it's quite another to engage in full-on physical contact (especially in our bathing suit places) in a sexually-charged context, which to a great number of people who embrace monogamy in all of its forms bespeaks a certain level of intimacy.  Which is to say, I can appreciate and respect why my wife didn't want my face buried in some other woman's tits while under the influence of copious amounts of alcohol.

But even if I was a single guy living the high life, I still think I'd be unlikely to get a lap dance at a strip club.  And it has nothing to do with the potential hygiene issues for both of us that might result from grinding my crotch with her loins unfettered.  (In all fairness, though, I don't know where her pussy has been, and she doesn't know where my pants have been.  This is not to try and cast some type of stereotype that strippers are "dirty" in some way, and for the most part I'm sure they take fine care of their pussies.  Nor is it to imply that I typically wear unusually soiled or contaminated articles of clothing.  I'm just saying.)  It's more about how explicitly artificial the whole the whole situation seemed.

The lap dance seemed like a highly illogical place to go after witnessing the same stripper ply her trade on stage.  It was like trading one form of blue balls for an even worse, more intense form of blue balls, only you're not really trading because you're paying a lot more money for the lap dance.  It is the strip club equivalent of (what I assume) is the law of diminishing returns: you are never more acutely aware that you won't be getting any pussy than when you are closest to the pussy that you know for a certainty you won't be getting.

I remember through my drunken haze a bunch of guys sitting across the stage from us.  They were young guys, probably university students putting their student loan money to good use.  There was one guy who kept lying down on the stage with a five dollar bill on his face, which would elicit the appropriately seductive response from whatever woman was on the stage at the time by getting up close and personal before taking the money.  Probably the image that stuck in my head the most from that particular mission was the final act of the night who ended up removing the bill using only her vagina.  Never having been a woman I'm not exactly sure how hard it is to pick up objects with your vagina, but I was fairly impressed nonetheless.

But there was one of these kids that stuck with me just as much.  It was this kid in a hoodie and glasses, who in between cheering on his drunken friend with the never-ending supply of five dollar bills, and one trip to the back room with a slim blonde, could be found nursing a drink staring up at the dancers on the stage.  I remember him because of the look of awe on his face.  This was basically the wet dream of every marginalized adolescent boy who was either too unpopular or had lacked the confidence to see a lot of action in highschool and had to watch as others went off dutifully to the front lines to "take one (or a dozen) for the team."  I could clearly see that he was not one of the galant members of the football team or popular crowd who had served their time down in the trenches and done their small bit for king and country.  I could see it in his face, because I too had largely served at the homefront during those turbulent times.

And here was a teenage fantasy come to pass: fully grown, real-life, attractive (for the most part) women ready, willing, and able to take their clothes off.  It was almost too easy.  Like a slap in the face.  For a kid straight out of high school who -let's face it- was probably no Romeo, there was probably something mystical about the whole thing.  After four years of trying (to some extent) to find a woman who was willing to get naked in your presence and largely or entirely striking out here was a room full of women who would willingly take all of their clothes off and show off every single inch of their body for you in less than five minutes flat.  It must have seemed like goddamned Christmas in Valhalla.

But the look on this one kid's face really exemplified the whole experience of the strip club.  I won't compare strippers to used car salesmen, because that would be unfair to the strippers, but there was a social practice at play that, for lack of a better word, took the form of a hustle.  And it went something like this:

First, they'd bait the line as they danced on stage.  With the distraction, it was easy for them to pick out their marks.  With all of the raging hormones and inhibitions lowered by alcohol it must have been ridiculously easy for the dancers to immediately pinpoint exactly which sets of eyes were drawn to her more than others and lingered those extra two or twenty seconds.

Second, they cast out the line.  After determining their marks, they would make their way through the room and start working them over.  It wasn't hard (or was it? Giggety!).  Every heterosexual man in the place had laid his cards clearly on the table.  It was simply a matter of convincing them to go all in.  The tactics were deceptively simple.  Physical proximity.  They'd invite themselves to sit at your table, and you have no reason to decline.  Emotional engagement.  It was friendly conversation.  What's your name?  Where are you from?  What brings you here?  Then feign a little interest.   The ultimate strategy was equally as simple: make the client feel special.  Like he's the only one in the room.  Like you hand-picked him from the rest.  He was somehow different than the rest of the rabble.  

Third: hook, line and sinker.  All that's left is to reel them in.  The slow walk to the back room.  Behind closed doors, anything is possible.

The whole process, from bait, to cast, to reel, was slow, deliberate, and calculated.  It was straight out of SunTzu's companion piece, The Art of Seduction.  (Those ancient Chinese generals really knew how to swing.)  But looking at that kid across the stage, and as the short blonde with the heart tattoo above her left breast led him to the back, it all became depressingly clear to me.  By making everybody feel special, it really just made me realize how not special I was.

Far sooner than I expected, the lights came on and we, along with the last lingering patrons, wandered out into the night and I was left with a lingering quandary.  As a heterosexual male, I can't deny finding pleasure in the aesthetic beauty of the female form (read: I love tits).  At the same time, I couldn't help but wonder if I was in some way objectifying these women.  I found myself questioning whether the profession of stripping was empowering or degrading to these women.  Or was the potential for empowerment and degradation of stripping any more or less than working at a fast food restaurant or anyone else working in the service industry?  Was my crisis of faith specifically because of the inherently sexualized nature of the proceedings which I was unfamiliar with?

On the other hand, was it possible to just have a little bit of fun and just enjoy the illusion of seduction, the rush of endorphins, and a pleasantly persistent erection without worrying about the potential sociological ramifications?  

Maybe.  Maybe I was overthinking the whole thing.  Was it possible to simultaneously admire and objectify another human being?  Was it possible to reconcile the tension between my dick and my brain?

Or was such stuff the spice of life?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Mass Effect 2: Mass Affect Also... Stories of a Gamer Back From the Brink... Real Life Rules. Carry me Back from Tali

Video game players, particularly those of us of a certain age (read: mature.  But not "mature" in the porn sense, like we're a bunch of horny grandmothers looking for ripe, young cocks to satiate our anal proclivities, but mature in the sense that we are grown-ass adults over the age of 18) have a very distinct chip on our shoulder, a burden that comes from a prejudice born of genre discrimination.  Or I suppose it's actually a form of Medium Bias, that is bias based upon conceptualizations of a specific medium (be it cultural or technological) and not some type of half-assed, average bigotry.

In terms of media, video games have, since their inception, been held in relatively low regard, by the "mainstream."  Having been dismissed as a recreational endeavor completely devoid of cultural or societal merit to being out and out blamed for everything from causing childhood obesity to inciting horrendous acts of violence, public perceptions of video games have run the pejorative gambit, from dismissive to outright accusatory.  Most cultural authorities have  constructed and enforced a cultural hierarchy based on the espoused merits (or lack thereof) of various media, that generally goes something like this:
1) Books
2) Opera
3) Live Theatre
4) Movies
5) A Steaming Pile of Horse Shit
6) Video Games

I suppose, in all fairness, out of all the media listed above, video games are by far the newest kid on the block (call me Donnie...) and as such the onus is purely on their culture of authors and consumers to persevere and endure the process of cultural hazing that all new media are required to endure before being allowed into the Great Fraternity.  But sometimes it sucks having your ass paddled and your mouth stuffed with yet another of the frat brother's sweaty cocks on a seemingly daily basis, especially when you've been pledging for so hard for so long.  Even more of a kick in the balls is that video games, while consistently derided by parents and authority figures alike as mere frivolity or triviality of the worst variety, have also become a huge part of mainstream culture.  Video game culture has become a billion dollar industry, a juggernaut in its own right that rivals Hollywood, or whatever metonym is used for the music industry, or those book things.  I'm not saying that money is the only indicator of cultural significance (though certainly sales are indicative of widespread consumption of a product), but when games like Halo 3, Grand Theft Auto IV, or, *insert random Call of Duty title here* can gross more in their opening weekend than most movies will ever make in their entire run in theatres and home video sales combined, that's got to give people some pause to think.

I've long had to live with this cultural baggage surrounding video games, especially as I grew older and still remained devoted to the medium.  I don't feel guilty about playing video games, but what with stereotypical notions of masculinity it's hard not to feel a little out of the loop in certain circles.  For dudes, watching the Superbowl, drinking beers with his buddies down at the local tavern, performing repairs on his house or automobile, having promiscuous sex with random women, surviving in the woods with nothing but a jack knife, and killing all manner of creatures with a variety of firearms and deadly implements like fishhooks, then relaying stories of these glorious conquests in between belts of belching and raucous speculations as to the sexual purity of their mothers is the typical behaviour expected of males in our society.  Unfortunately, this particular breed doesn't put much stock into certain other proclivities.  Surprising as it may seem to me and my ilk, these creatures care little about things like the merits of the Left 4 Dead DLC, my all time high scores on SSX Tricky, or old war stories about camping out with some proximity mines in the bathroom of the Facility map in Goldeneye reigning down precisely planted death upon all those who dared oppose me.

All of this to say that it can be difficult finding an interested outlet or audience with which to discuss or ruminate over some of my favourite texts in one of my favourite media in a significant or satisfying manner.  This happened to me most recently after finishing a little game called Mass Effect 2, Bioware's follow-up to their groundbreaking 2007 RPG Mass Effect.  Since finishing ME2 a couple weeks ago, it has been  at the forefront of my conscious thought, and I've been unable to shake myself awake from this perpetual reverie.  And the thing is, I'm not sure if I really want to.

A couple of years back when I first got my Xbox 360 -a birthday present from my wife who bought it several months ahead of time yet forbade me from opening it until my actual birthday (an edict which, to my credit, I adhered to) thereby forcing me into a downward spiral towards a full psychological breakdown- I received a whole slew of obligatory game recommendations from fellow gamers.  I think I was only a couple years late to the party, but I had a shit-ton of games to catch up on.  I remember talking to my then-soon-to-be-brother-in-law, and he kept mentioning this game called Mass Effect, which he described (quite accurately) as an RPG set in space.  He even tried showing me some game play one time, but taken out of context, a few short minutes of shooting random bad guys from behind a forcefield didn't really make much of an impression.  However, I had heard good things, so as soon as I got my Xbox I ran out and bought The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Mass Effect.

In fact, looking back, Mass Effect might have actually been my Xbox 360's inaugural game, which I think is fairly respectable, and not a bad way at all to have started my gaming life on Microsoft's state-of-the-art (expect for Blu-Ray playback capabilities) gaming system.  In fact, as a video game RPG fan, it was actually a pretty kick-ass way to start things off.  It's been a while since I played Mass Effect, but I remember two very distinct initial responses as I began delving into Bioware's sci-fi universe.

The first response I remember having went something like this:

The astute observations made in this comic by the kindly folks over at Penny Arcade are (as usual) right on the fucking money.  There wasn't so much a learning curve that one could describe as steep or shallow or chewy (for some reason...) but a total lack of any kind of pedagogical arch whatsoever.  At first the lack of blatant, jarring tutorials which in most games really make a mess of the whole fourth wall, was kind of refreshing.  But then, after achieving total emersion in the narrative and just being kind of dropped (or pushed) into the thick of things, I felt overwhelmed and underprepared for my excursion as the newly-minted Lieutenant Commander Logan Shepard, a strikingly handsome, rugged young man with deep, brown eyes, a buzz cut, and a very stylish goatee (Van Dyke style), who may or may not resemble a certain human being I know (hint: it's me!).  All in all, my Commander Shepard looked pretty badass, if I do say so myself.

Sure, the fucking codex explained every political and social intricacy and the galactic ramifications of the Krogan uprising and the Salarian-developed, Turian-deployed genophage, but I just wanted to know how to Force-push the shit out of a bad guy use my biotic powers to my tactical advantage and just in general do... stuff.  The relief of not being spoon-fed every little fucking detail of game play quickly gave way to the frustration of having no sense of direction whatsoever.  Of course, maybe that feeling was because of the fact that so many games tend to take you by the hand that we've just gotten so used to it over the years.  Whatever the case, playing Mass Effect for the first time, I very quickly became acutely aware of everything I didn't know.

Which kind of leads me to the second sensation I felt when I started playing Mass Effect, and that was another feeling of being completely overwhelmed, but this time because of the awe and majesty of the game world I had been allowed to inhabit.  I mean, you're set up as the Hero of the narrative, but the depth of the background for the Mass Effect universe left me feeling very small.  And it felt fucking incredible.

The original Mass Effect quickly climbed the ranks in my list of favourite video games of all time, and not just because it was an incredible RPG experience.  I'd had those before (followed by the metaphorical cigarette).  It wasn't because of the impressive graphics, or any of the game play mechanics.  It wasn't (just) because you had the opportunity to fuck a hot alien babe.  It wasn't even about the narrative in the traditional sense, though the framed narrative of the game was well-written and compelling.  There was some undefinable alchemy that transformed the game into something far greater than the sum of its parts.  And though I can't define the sorcery used to conjure the Mass Effect experience out of the Ether, I can at least begin to describe the factors that made it so engaging.

1) Emersion

Rarely does one find a narrative so meticulously constructed and intricately fleshed out as the ME universe.  It basically took all the best aspects of STAR WARS and STAR TREK and combined them into some delicious goodness.  It's got the epic feel and urgency of WARS and the exploration, discovery, and moral quandaries of TREK.

But ME "feels" more real and accessible than either of Lucas' or Roddenberry's creations.  Where TREK can sometimes get bogged down in its attempt to "say something" or its own particular brand of cheese and WARS can drift into a zone where substance is sacrificed for the sake of style and big explosions, ME felt like it effectively balanced the ass-kicking and the space explosions with some deeper themes and emotional engagement.

What seems to be at the forefront is that sense of adventure, of the unknown.  The whole conceit of ME is that humanity finally gets its shit together, starts exploring the solar system, finds some alien technology that lets them travel to the far reaches of galaxy... and then we find out that there's already a bunch of alien races out there who have already done the same thing long before us.  That may sound like a kick in humanity's collective nutsack (or clit depending on your point of view (By the way, we really need some cool, pithy slang for female genitals, because after searching the internet, everything was either "meat something-or-other" or stupid shit like hairy goblet.  Once again the ladies get the shaft.  Metaphorically speaking.)), but what it really does is give you that sense of stepping out into a larger world.  By effectively knocking humanity off of its self-constructed pedestal as the greatest sentient species since sliced bread (wait a minute...) with the humbling realization that we may not be the warm, chewy Centre of the Universe we had made ourselves out to be invokes this posthumanist view that we a merely part of a much larger whole.  We thought we had the whole picture, but all we really saw was just a small piece of the puzzle.  And not one of the corner pieces or edges, either.  One of the ones in the middle that's all one fucking colour so you have no idea how it fits. Motherfucker, I hate puzzles.

It's like a reverse Alice.  (Actually, I think I saw that in a porn once...)  Instead of going deeper down the rabbit hole, we expand outward through the mass relays.  What this particular trope does is expand the frontier and the borders of what we thought we knew about ourselves and our place in the universe.  This narrative device also sets up humanity as the new kids on the block (Joey...) and essentially as the galactic underdogs having to prove themselves to the other established alien races.  What the framed narrative of ME does is make the player feel small and relatively inconsequential, but also just big enough to think that maybe there's a small hope that he could make it out there in the universe.  It basically dares you to prove yourself.

Of course the other element that contributes to the sense of emersion in ME is the very nature of its video game genre.  As an RPG, a large aspect of the game play and game mechanics are designed to let you play a role, to take on an alternate identity, and customize that identity as much as possible within the confines of the game world.  As such, ME has many of the hallmarks of the genre: there's the upgradable weapons and armour, a levelling system, and a whole host of stats that allows players to build their character according the game play style to which they have grown accustomed.  All of this is well and good, but then Bioware really took it to the next level in Mass Effect with a game mechanic that, both literally and metaphorically, changed the game.

For me, the real role playing aspect of Mass Effect, the thing really took things to a whole new level, was its unique dialogue system.  Any ME veteran will immediately recognize the ME conversation wheel, which looks something like this:
Now, when I first started playing, I remember choosing a dialogue option, but then that fuck Shepard would go off script and just start making up his own stuff, like he was fucking Joe Pesci in GOODFELLAS or some shit.  It took me a while to get the feel of it and realize that the dialogue wheel is to Shepard's dialogue what my thoughts are to the words that tumble out of my mouth.  That is, I would pick a general direction for my character to go, but I really wouldn't know exactly how it would sound until he actually said it, which is a really clever codification or gamification of how we communicate, and there's not always a one to one correlation between thought and speech.

The other thing the conversation wheel did was allow a sense of choice.  It gave me a sense of agency that I hadn't really felt in other games before, because it allowed me to interact with other characters, which is a large part of what RPGs are supposed to be about, but mostly got lost in the translation of tabletop RPGs to the virtual realm of video games.  I could choose to be a totally awesome dude (or Paragon in ME-speak) or a complete ass-hat (Renegade), and not only would NPCs in the game react accordingly, but there were potential repercussions in the narrative itself, which brings me to my second item which is:

2) Consequence

After playing Mass Effect for a while this peculiar sensation started to creep over me.  I slowly began to realize that I was having an effect on the world around me.  In short, I felt that what I did mattered.  And I began to play very differently.  For most games with a supposed morality system, there's no real consequences for being a complete douchebag or the saviour of humanity.  And, arguably, there's not that much of a consequence for playing on either side of the morality system in ME either because no matter which way you go -Paragon or Renegade- you can still finish the game and achieve the same ultimate goal of saving the universe.  But it feels like there could be positive or negative consequences, both personally (for the character you inhabit) and for the game world at large (in this case, the entire Milky Way galaxy).

In large part this is due to the phenomenal job Bioware did of crafting not only a believable universe, but also of populating it with a cast of fully-realized, three dimensional characters, which is really one of ME's greatest strengths.  No matter how you play the game, you will get more or less the same ending (depending on a few big choices at the end), but the journey before you reach that final destination can be drastically different.  Because characters might react differently towards you based on your previous decisions, and because depending on how you upgraded your character you could even unlock Paragon- or Renegade-specific dialogue options in certain situations, I began to really think about the decisions I made.  This role-playing system provided me with a sense of motivation, and helped me to engage more intimately with the narrative experience.  And, like usual, I tended to choose the Paragon route, because even though it's a virtual world with virtual consequences, I still feel bad about unnecessarily fucking with other people's shit just for the sheer malevolent joy of it.

Dude, bro, buddy, come on man, don't do me like this
There's an example of this sense of consequence near the end of the game.  The game narrative eventually puts you at odds with Wrex, your krogan team member, and all of the sudden you're in a situation where, unless you have the necessary level of Renegade points, you're basically put in a position where you have to kill your teammate who's been with you the whole game.

For me, this decision was made even worse for two reasons.  One, Wrex was one of my main men who I'd taken with me on almost every single mission and who I'd augmented to a point of badassery that basically made him goddamn-near indestructible and hence indispensable for the combat portions of my missions.  Second, I didn't have the requisite Renegade points to talk my way out of the situation, so I had to watch in horror as Shepard or Garrus or whoever shot Wrex dead in the sand.

Shit got real, real fast.

Fans of the Mass Effect games quickly came to understand something that set the series apart from other video games: the idea of permanence.  Or, at least, limited permanence.  If I had just continued on from there, Wrex would have stayed dead in both ME 2 and ME 3.  This was something I had never really encountered before in a game, or at least not to this level.  But since Wrex was such a big part of my team, and because his character was so fleshed out that the boundary between virtual and real became increasingly blurry and I had developed an emotional attachment to this entity, I pulled a SUPERMAN and basically reset the world to a point where I would be able to save the people that needed to be saved.  I replayed a couple hours of the game, got my Renegade skill pumped up, went back and saved my buddy.  Fuck yeah!

And then not five minutes later I have to make a life or death choice.  For realsies this time.  No stupid fucking Superman trick was going to work here.  In a mission critical situation I had to send two people on two different assignments, knowing that one of those assignments was basically a death sentence.  And one of those characters was definitely going to die and definitely not going to be around any more.  Ever.  Kind of like real life.  Holy shit.  All of the sudden I realized I had an emotional stake in what happened.  These weren't characters; these were members of my crew and as their commanding officer and as their friend I had a responsibility to try and bring them home safe and sound.  But I couldn't.  What the hell was Bioware trying to do to me?  For the record, I totally saved Ashley, but that means that I will never see Kaidan ever again, except apparently as a name on a memorial plaque in ME 3.

Even though I hadn't really played with Kaidan that much (uhhhhhh, er, I mean...) it was still a huge fucking bummer, and it overlapped conceptually just enough with "real life" rules of mortality that it felt like there were some serious consequences to my mission.  It was a rude awakening and a narrative experience I will never forget.  Which leads me to item number three, which I will get to in just a moment.

Fast forward to September 2012.  I finally got around to playing Mass Effect 2, even though I played the original Mass Effect roughly three or four years ago, and Mass Effect 3 has been out since March 2012.  I've been asking myself why, after having such a positive experience with ME, it took me so long to pick up ME 2.  To be honest, I have no fucking clue.  As far as my gaming life goes, I went on a huge Bethesda kick with some Elder Scrolls and Fallout 3 action, then got went through my Left 4 Dead phase.  Plus there were some kids that kept coming out of my wife and a bunch of other shit that took away valuable gaming time.  There was no one thing.  ME just kind of got lost in the shuffle.  But now, after finally playing Mass Effect 2, I'm kicking myself for not playing it sooner, like as soon as it became available on store shelves.

The thing about Mass Effect 2 is that not only did it provide me with one of the best narrative experiences I've ever had, but it also enhanced my enjoyment of the first Mass Effect.  With ME 2, there was a lot of discussion about its classification, genre-wise.  With Bioware's "streamlining" of the traditional RPG aspects like levelling and skill trees and upgradable gear and enhancement of the combat system, there was a lot of talk about whether ME 2 was an RPG with shooter/actioner elements, or a shooter with remnants of its RPG genetics.  And yes, a lot of the traditional RPG elements were pared back, but because of Bioware's unique conversation wheel mechanic and multi-linear narrative construction and impeccably crafted character interaction, ME 2 was most definitely a role playing game, because it allowed the player to play a role (ie. create a virtual alter-ego).  Even with less focus on inventory management and skill trees, ME 2 was still more of an RPG than most RPGs that clung to traditional mechanics like a monkey to a crate of bananas in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  Or whatever.

It was near the end of my ME 2 playthrough with the determined and battle-hardened Logan Shepard that the final piece of the puzzle came to me.  That final factor that made both Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect so engaging and that I had been unable to put into words some four years earlier:

3) Emotional Affect

After going through the Omega 4 relay and embarking on the Suicide Mission (ie. final mission) in ME 2 I kind of sat in quiet disbelief for a few minutes as I watched the credits roll by.  Then I slowly got up and turned off my Xbox 360, and just kind of wandered through the house in a daze.  There was this feeling right in the middle of my chest that stuck with me for over a week, and it still hasn't completely faded yet.  I felt simultaneously like I was filled to the brim and ready to burst but also as if there was something, some void inside me that could never really be filled.  As one unaccustomed to human emotions, it was a bizarre feeling.  It was some unnameable, bittersweet sensation comprised of equal parts joy and sadness.

While ME is rife with emotionally affective elements, ME 2 is basically nothing but emotional affect as it is centred around recruiting your team and building their loyalty towards you.  ME2 takes a lot of narrative cues from the classic heist movie, namely the team-building archetype.  There's basically two missions for each team member: a mission to recruit them in the first place, and then a so-called loyalty mission whereby you help them out with some personal shit and they either love you for it if you succeed or are mildly indifferent towards you if you fail.  In between missions when you're not chilling in your pimped out space-bachelor pad on board the Normandy, you can talk with each of the team members.  The thing is, you keep finding out more and more about each character, and they're so well fleshed out and their back stories are so detailed that they begin to seem less and less like detached characters in a story and more and more like three-dimensional, living, breathing beings.

The point is,  by the end of the game/narrative, you have a huge emotional stake in the fate of your team, and the tactical decisions you make in the Suicide Mission (assuming you didn't Google the shit out of it beforehand) truly are gut wrenching.  All of the sudden you're not just making Choose Your Own Adventure-type decisions (which is basically what the narrative structure boils down to on the back end), you're trying to determine the course of action that's going to ensure the safety of your team, and not just for the achievement points (or whatever the fuck the PS3 equivalent is), but because you feel like you're actively involved in saving the lives of people you've grown to care about.  Or at least, I did.  Whatever spark of life Bioware managed to ignite in these characters made their potential demise that much more potent and meaningful.

So when I did my run through of the Suicide Mission I lost both Thane and Mordin, which totally sucked balls, and I experienced the initial knee-jerk reaction to go back and SUPERMAN the whole thing and keep retrying the mission until everyone survived, and I could get my super happy ending.  But I didn't do this.  If I had gone back to an earlier save file and replayed that portion of the game to get the happy ending (oh yeah!) it would have cheapened their deaths both narratively and emotionally.  After losing two of my trusted teammates, I felt frustrated that I had been unable to protect them, and, yeah, a little sad that I would never be able to interact with them ever again.  And as shitty as I felt after losing these dudes, it occurred to me that the fact that I felt anything about their deaths at all that was the point.  I felt a sense of loss because I had become emotionally invested in these characters to the point that I actually cared whether they lived or died.  I had reached a point of emotional saturation and though it may have eased my grieving process, it also would have diluted the emotional affect and the significance of the experience would have been lessened considerably.            

To be clear, I was not in the midst of some psychotic episode where I was unable to determine the real from the virtual.  I was (and am) fully aware that these are virtual characters in a virtual world.  But the emotions were real.  You can't experience a fake emotion.  You either feel something or you don't.  You can fake having emotions, but you can't fake feeling them.

I know Thane and Mordin were virtual characters who existed only within the confines of the Mass Effect universe, but I wanted to honour their memory.  They sacrificed themselves on a mission to save not only their friends but (potentially) billions of other people who meant absolutely fucking nothing to them.  The fact that they were willing to give their lives for the greater good meant something.  It had to.  If only to me for a few short weeks until the feeling inevitably faded, or at least decreased in intensity leaving me somewhere in the spectrum of emotional normalcy in which I existed before playing ME 2.  Rest in peace you glorious bastards.

There was another instance of emotional affect that I would be remiss not to mention, both because it seems to be one of Bioware's signatures in their games, and because of its effectiveness in engaging me as a player.  As I'm sure any player of the Mass Effect series will attest to, one of the biggest narrative draws is the ability to romance any number of characters in each game.  The strange thing is that even though it's not really imperative to the overarching narrative of saving the galaxy (again), in the larger sense of player engagement it is incredibly significant.

I remember discussing the romance option in the first Mass Effect with Ryebone.  In the first game if you were playing as a male Shepard you essentially had two options for romance.  You could go with Ashley Williams:

Or you could get to know Liara T'Soni:

 Or, I guess technically, you could also go with option number three:
How you doin'?
Rybone, ever the xenophobe, adamantly clung to Ashley Williams despite the promise of extra-terrestrial poon tang on league with the late, great Captain James T. Kirk.  As soon as I found out about the romance subplot, I immediately started talking up Liara.  She was hot, she was young, and she was a fucking alien.  An alien!  She was exotic.  She represented the infinite possibilities that existed in the universe.  I mean, I could (theoretically) fuck human women right now.  But the chance to fuck an alien babe with blue skin?  How often does a chance like that come around?  Not very often, let me tell you.

Looking back at Mass Effect the main reason I became interested in the romantic involvement was the novelty of it.  I'd never before witnessed such a mechanic in a game before, and not one to this extent.  There was also the sexual titillation that accompanied any potential forays into voyeurism (read: I might get to see some boobies).  Because of the perceived novelty of this particular narrative aspect, there was still a sort of proto-adolescent attitude of "Tee, hee, hee, I get to tap some virtual ass" that acted as an immature yin to the yang of narrative gravitas that accompanied the encounter.

Then I started playing Mass Effect 2, fully aware of the ability to foster romantic relationships with several of the main characters, but a funny thing happened along the way.  Because of my increased emotional engagement with the game than that of its predecessor, I began to become extremely conscious of the choices I was making in that respect.  I even began to consider the "feelings" of my potential virtual love interests.  Crazy?  Maybe.

First, let me run down the space babes that my Commander Shepard had the option of getting to know better.  So, you've got the genetically-engineered-to-be-perfect Miranda Lawson:

Then you've got the badass ex-con, Jack (AKA Subject Zero):

There's Samara the asari milf:

Your space secretary:

If you bought the Shadow Broker DLC (and you fucking should) then archaeologist turned semi-gangster Liara T'Soni is back on the table (so to speak):

And finally returning for the sequel, everyone's favourite quarian engineer, Tali'Zorah:

So, basically, throughout Mass Effect 2 you have the opportunity to talk up any and all of these characters, and as you progress through the game, depending on earlier conversations, they may or may not open up to you more and more.  The potential culmination of this romantic subplot is a cut scene involving a sexual encounter between your Commander Shepard and whatever lucky lady you took the most time and effort to woo, which occurs right before the final Suicide Mission for added narrative and emotional impact.

This sounds simple enough, but love in a video game turns out to be no less complicated than love out here in the real world.  Allow me to break down my thought process as I embarked on a quest to find digital love.

As I started Mass Effect 2, shit quickly hit the fan and my poor Commander Shepard underwent some serious trauma (ie. He dead) and it turns out that he's been posthumously made out to be some kind of intergalactic Chicken Little and tales of a possible Reaper invasion have been officially dismissed by the leading political bodies of the galaxy.  So, I figured after all that bullshit, I'd play Shepard as a Renegade, basically a cold-hearted son of a bitch who would shoot first, ask questions later, intimidate and/or murder his way through the galaxy to get what he wanted, and not play by anybody's rules, not even his own.  So in keeping with that spirit of badassery/assholery/douchebaggery, my first inclination was to begin a romance with the baddest baddass woman I could find: Jack.

Jack seemed the perfect fit for my newly reminted Renegade Shepard.  When given the choice in these kinds of games, I tend to play the "good" side, so I was looking forward to mixing things up a bit.  It started out well.  I was doing all kinds of Renegade shit.  Even my own teammates who were mercenaries and assassins and murderers were questioning some of my actions.  I was one bad motherfucker.  It was pretty early on in the romance, and all of the sudden Jack asks me if I wanted to fuck her.  And I thought about it for a second, then I figured that A) From what I know the sex scene happens just before the final mission, so if I happened to change my mind there'd still be a chance to romance someone else (Hey, I was a fucking Renegade) and B) My new badass Shepard would definitely say yes to any sexual invitation from a heavily-tattooed, totally hot, murderous ex-con, wearing only a leather belt to cover her nipples.

I was happy.

Imagine my surprise when Shepard and Jack got down and dirty right then and there on the floor of the engine room.  This chain of events completely contradicted my narrative expectations set by the first game and I left the encounter kind of stunned.  Despite my intention to play as a Renegade and the fascination that comes with depictions of sex, I felt kind of bummed.  As a heterosexual male, the urge to fuck an attractive member of the opposite sex was natural, but I had expected some sort of build up.  Some sort of prelude.  Instead we had just fucked.  Just because.  This was not part of my normative life experience.  Plus, the backstory for Jack was that she had been abused and betrayed and used by practically everybody she had ever known, and I had basically just done the same thing.  Unintentionally, of course, but I suppose that's the point.  The decisions we make can have unforeseen or unintended consequences.

My intention had been to woo Jack throughout the game, proving to her that I wasn't like everybody else she had known, and that it was possible to trust other people despite all of the shit she'd gone through.  I was going to try and give her something to believe in, and then I realized two things.  One, my dream of being a purely Renegade badass was officially over before I had even completed a quarter of the game.  And two, I was a complete jackass.  By trying to romance Jack in an effort to prove that she could trust again, I was really feeding into the Hero Paradigm, whereby I felt it necessary to save everybody. This meant that the real reason I was trying to get into Jack's already pretty loose pants was out of some misplaced sense of nobility, which was really kind of arrogant and conceited and sort of insulting.  Then I felt guilty because I was using my relationship with Jack as a way to feed my own ego, and that wouldn't be fair to either of us.

I was sad.

So I dropped the romance with Jack, and as I feared, I was unable to keep up my Renegade ways when confronted with other decisions in the game, and fell back on my old Paragon roots.  For the most part, anyway.  Then as I started rounding out my team, and low and behold Tali -one of the characters from the first game- finally joins up with me again.  And so I start chatting her up, to keep my options open, because my forlorn Commander Shepard was still looking for love in the galaxy.

And as I'm flirting with Tali, I start leaning more and more towards her as a romantic interest, and then the thought occurs.  I have a history with this girl.  In the first Mass Effect my go to squad mates were Wrex and Tali.  I took them along in practically every mission; Wrex for his fighting ability and Tali for her engineering prowess.  Then my mind started filling in these narrative gaps.  Tali always stuck by my side.  She was the first to volunteer for missions.  She had saved my (virtual) life on several occasions.  She was out there mixing it up with krogan battlemasters, but she also had this really vulnerable side when I talked to her in private.  She was intelligent, possessing both a technical proficiency and expertise in engineering, passionate in her quest to aid her people, and had grown from a naive girl into someone who was capable of occupying a leadership role, leading teams of her own on dangerous missions across the galaxy.  Plus, I was really curious as to what quarians looked like under their suits.

I was happy.

Then I happened to be at a bar.  Totally on a mission... to get wasted, bitches!  And also helping out Liara, who had been my love interest in ME, but without the appropriate DLC ("Lair of the Shadow Broker," totally awesome) she just makes a brief cameo in ME2, and I couldn't actively continue the romance, besides which she had changed a lot in two years.  But anyway.  I was at this bar, and I overheard this conversation between this quarian and a turian who was trying to get into her proverbial pants, and during the course of this exchange she mentioned how people were trying to sleep with quarians just to see what they looked like under their masks.

And it occurred to me that perhaps my eagerness to see Tali without her gear on was a sort of fetishization of her and her people, and actually quite insensitive, and a rather unhealthy foundation for any kind of romantic relationship.  I actually began to consider how Tali would feel if she knew that was one of the reasons I was pursuing our relationship, even though I was conscious of the fact that technically she was still a character in a narrative and not a flesh and blood person who actually couldn't feel anything in the traditional sense.  But the emotional affect was real to me.  I realized that despite my best efforts, my intentions had not been as pure as I had first thought.

I was sad.

Then I did Tali's loyalty mission, and I won't get into details, but it came down to a choice between having Tali exiled from her people for crimes she didn't commit or having her father's memory dishonoured for crimes he actually did commit and having Tali hate me for it.  Both of these options sucked total balls, and I was really fucking frustrated because I couldn't help Tali.  My Tali.  The real kick of it was, there were actually three ways I could have helped her.  Had either my Paragon or Renegade level been sufficiently high enough, I would have had more speech options and could have avoided either negative outcome, or if I had saved two characters earlier in the game (I had failed to save one), they would come to her aid and again save both her future and her father's reputation.

I was really fucking sad.

In keeping with the spirit of the game, I was going to let it slide because in life you don't have foreknowledge so you have to live with the consequences, good or bad.  But this was Tali.  My Tali.  So I SUPERMANed the shit out of Tali's loyalty mission, replaying nearly three hours of the game so I had accumulated what I hoped were enough Paragon points to be able to clear both her name and her father's.  So, finally, the moment of truth came and I wasn't quite sure if I could pull it off, and I really wasn't willing to replay that section of the game a third time, so this was it.  I had given it my all.  And the dialogue option came up, and sure enough the blue text of the Paragon dialogue choice was highlighted.

And no word of a lie, I actually stood up out of my chair, possessed of some mad energy, and performed the infamous Fist Pump of Victory.  Alone.  By myself.  In the basement of my house.  I can't remember the last time any artistic endeavor actually physically made me get up out of my seat either in joy or consternation.  (Well, I can recall specific instances, they are just few and far between.)  I had difficulty understanding it myself.  But I had saved my Tali.

I was happy.

Then later I talked to her again, and she let slip that she totally had feelings for me, and the option came up and I was able to reciprocate.  Finally!  And then we started talking about the practicalities of pursuing a physical relationship.  The deal with the quarians and why they always wear their suits is because their immune systems are much weaker than most other races, and they get sicker a lot easier, so casual sex was kind of out of the question right now.  No, we needed serious prep.  She had to take antibiotics and herbal supplements and shit just so when we finally did the deed (Kif, inform the men I have made it with a woman) and exchanged bodily fluids she wouldn't die from snoo-snoo.  Once again, she was willing to risk her well-being and perhaps even her life to be with me.

I was really happy.

The time finally came before the last mission and sure enough I had my romantic encounter with Tali.  And there was no nudity, and though it showed her removing her mask, I never actually saw her face.  And I was totally cool with that.  By that point all the bullshit adolescent obsession with the voyeurism aspect had kind of melted away as I had evolved alongside my character.  It was no longer just about sex (although Shepard totally got laid, yo).  It was about the culmination of an emotionally engaging narrative arc where I felt like I had actually engaged with this character in a meaningful, significant way.

I was stoked.

Then we went on the Suicide Mission, and I kept having to make potentially life and death choices, and assigning different team members to different missions.  And it was then I realized I could never be an effective military commander, because I was totally unable to make objective decisions totally divorced from my emotions and personal connections.  I kept assigning Tali mission objectives to try and make sure she was in the least danger because I couldn't stand the thought of losing her.

I was fucking stressed as all hell.

In the end, though, Tali totally made it through.

I was happy again!

To many people, this entire description of my virtual romance might sound crazy.  It might sound as though I had suffered some kind of mental break and had reached some level of psychosis where I could not distinguish between fantasy and reality, and that it was sheer escapism in the worst sense of the word, a Charlie Sheen-sized detachment from reality.  While I can't reasonably argue that I'm not insane (as any true madman would not be aware of his madness and insist with increasing volume and intensity that he was indeed completely sane), I can say with absolute certainty that at no point was I not conscious on some level that I was playing a video game.  Just like when I'm watching a movie I know I'm watching a movie or when I'm reading a book, I know I'm reading a book.  And though I know that Tali does not exist as a self-actualized being with a physical body occupying real sense and time, I still became totally infatuated with her.

This is because of the emotional affect I experienced while engaging with the narrative.  And though the narrative may be fictional, emotions can't be.  The physical experiences of travelling through space fighting the forces of evil, saving the galaxy, kicking ass, and getting the girl were virtual, but the emotions I felt as I interacted and took part in these events were real.  And it's kind of a mind-fuck when you stop to think about it.  Virtual experiences can produce real emotions, so the question then becomes where the line is drawn between the real and the virtual.  And for anyone who has ever been moved by a piece of art, and yes I include video games in that category, the answer is not so cut and dry.

Some would question my inclusion of video games under the umbrella of Art, but for me it's a pretty large canopy.  Movies, and books, and video games to me are all examples of art.  The question usually boils down to the quality and the relative cultural significance of each individual piece of art.  As for Mass Effect 2, though there were some elements I would have changed, to me represents a huge step forward in legitimizing video games in the main stream as it is part of a trilogy which can truly be described as epic, both in the modern, bloated sense of the word and the classic literary definition.  Mass Effect 2, like its predecessor, is an easy 10/10.  I am now reached the level of "total stokage" on the Stoked-o-Meter to play Mass Effect 3, and if all the whiny internet bitches are wrong about the problems in number 3 (especially with the ending apparently) then this is shaping up to be one of my favourite trilogies of anything ever.              

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Death of a Bird Salesman

"There's a dead bird, daddy."

Well, that's a great fucking way to start the day, I thought.  If I smoked, I probably would have pulled out a cigarette, casually flicked open my lighter, shielded the tiny flame with my other hand, and lit the tobacco before calmly putting the lighter back into the pocket of my bathrobe, then taken a few pensive puffs before heading over to see what was going on.  But since I didn't smoke, and had never owned a bathrobe in my life, I had to feign the kind of nonchalance that smokers tend to exude.

It's hard to wake up when you know the rest of the world is still asleep.  It's soberingly lonely because for all intents and purposes, everyone else might as well be dead.  Next to sitting around a campfire, driving around on deserted city streets at three in the morning was, for me, the time for quiet contemplation and self-indulgent philosophizing.  It was like, being left alone with the world you finally felt you had the privacy so you could ask Her the really big questions.  Talk about your relationship.  Maybe think about seeing other people.

This wasn't one of those times.

My daughter was on the front lawn saying goodbye to her grandmother who had come to visit for the weekend.  And now, instead of metaphorical death, here I was confronted with the real thing.  A bad omen, I remember reading somewhere.  A dead bird.  Or a bird in the house.  A dead bird in the house?  Either way, the discovery of a decaying corpse on your front lawn, no matter its relative size, never really seems to sit well.

I dragged my ass to the front curb to take a look at the alleged deceased, and I had to calm myself.  One step at a time.  Slow.  Deliberate.  Play it cool.  Nothing to get worked up about.  It was just a dead bird.  It was just death.  Nothing major, you know.

I mentally took a few more deliberate puffs on my metaphysical cigarette.  I'd never really smoked before, except for a couple of cigars and, lately, a little weed.  But I wasn't a habitual, hardcore smoker with a two pack a day habit.  In fact, I can't recall ever even trying a cigarette.  To me, the whole proposition seemed immensely stupid.  I mean, you really have to be mentally retarded to do that to yourself, especially living in an age where decades of medical research had all but conclusively proved that the daily, habitual indulgence in cigarettes increased your chance of developing life-threatening and debilitating maladies up to and including cancer to a degree no sane, free-thinking individual would rationally accept.  Even the most hardened gambling addict would be loath to take those kind of odds.  And yet, the fact still remained that as retarded as it was, smoking cigarettes still looked fucking cool.      

While I could not fathom the mentality that drove people to chronic smoking (as opposed to smoking chronic), I could appreciate the the philosophical appeal.  Everything could be put on hold for a few seconds to inhale a few puffs of smoke.  The kind of zen that only a long-term, habitual smoker could ever probably fully understand, that sense that no matter how pressing or urgent a situation, there was always time to breathe.  Smokers could mentally put the world on hold, and somehow through the haze they saw a light that the rest of us missed that told them that for the short time they sucked on that little, white roll of burning floral matter, the universe would continue on, and wait for them to catch up.  Not too long, of course.  But whatever bullshit was waiting for them would still be there after the next puff, and in the grand scheme of things a few moments to steel their resolve against the next great barrage cost them little, and would most likely reap impressive dividends.

And then there it was.  A dead robin.  Just lying on my front lawn.  I don't know what it was about that bird just lying there, but all of the sudden, I felt something come over me.  In all the excitement of saying goodbye to granny, I managed to slip into the garage to grab a plastic Wal-Mart shopping bag.  With my wife keeping an eye on the kids, saving them from almost certain doom on the deathtrap of a street in front of our house I managed to abscond with the corpse without anyone noticing.  Normally, my first instinct would have been to toss it in the trash, but for some reason, when I went to toss away the lifeless body in the master garbage can in the garage, I hesitated.

I have no idea why.  I don't think I've ever been accused of being a sentimentalist when it came to animals.  I can't comprehend the strange emotional attachment that people seem to develop with animals.  The domestication of animals for the sole purpose of keeping them as pets to serve as some sort of emotional placeholder baffles me.  That's not say I don't appreciate the majesty of nature's creation, but to me actual interaction with animals should serve some kind of utilitarian purpose.  I can understand keeping animals if they are to be used to provide sustenance for me, or if they are to be used for transportation or trained to rip out an intruder's jugular should my house become besieged by hooligans or their ilk, but not for companionship.

But for some reason, standing there with the lid of the garbage can in one hand, and a dead bird in the other, staring into the stinking abyss of trash, I couldn't bring myself to just toss out his body like so many soiled diapers.  I remember a thought that I couldn't shake, that I couldn't push to the periphery of my consciousness, a thought that came to me unbidden with a startling clarity:

He deserves better than this.

I felt compelled.  I slowly closed the lid of the garbage can and set the plastic bag and its grim contents aside in a corner of the garage.  I waited until the next day when the kids were in bed and my wife was at work.  Then I went to the garage and retrieved the body and a trowel and went to the back corner of the garden in the back yard.

Underneath some bush I didn't know the name of, I dug a small hole, and solemnly laid the dead bird at the bottom of it.  I don't know what I was thinking.  I don't know if I felt some sort of connection to Mother Nature, and the communal, sacred spirit of All Life Everywhere.  I don't know if it was some sort of psychological transference where I saw the bird as an emotional surrogate for myself, or some part of myself.  I don't know  if it was supposed to be a symbolic gesture for god knows what.  I just know that I felt that the bird was dead, and even though it was just a bird, he still deserved to have his time here acknowledged somehow by somebody.  He was just out doing whatever shit it is that birds do, and wound up dead on my front lawn.  He was just out probably looking for something to eat, and then he was just... gone.  He just left for work one day and never showed up at home again.

I didn't know what to say, so I didn't say anything.  I just sat there for a couple moments on my knees, then I got back up and headed inside, hoping the neighbours didn't see me and start wondering what the fuck I was doing.  Before I went back inside, I turned and looked at the bush in the corner of the garden, where the dead bird was buried.

He was dead and I was still here.  I was still alive.  In my head I lit up another cigarette and took a long drag.  The rotation of the Earth seemed to slow to a crawl.  Then the moment was over, and I went back inside, back to my life.      

Monday, September 10, 2012


I didn't end up playing Bethesda Studio's Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion until about four years after it came out.  In fact, I believe I played through Fallout 3 (a couple times) before I went back and cut my teeth on Oblivion.  I didn't have any specific aversion, and in fact I grew up on the RPG video game genre, after a very steep learning curve with the first ever RPG I ever played, Final Fantasy Legend III for the original Game Boy back in the 90's, back when Kurt Cobain was an up and commer making waves in the music scene, the Diet Coke "Just for the Taste of It" slogan was out in full force, and the sanctity of the sandwich was still intact, defined as foodstuffs between two slices of bread and not, as the execs over at KFC would now have us believe, meat between more meat with a side of MSG and carcinogens.

Final Fantasy Legend III was unlike any game I had ever played before, and as a young whippersnapper of maybe ten or eleven years of age who had mostly played side scrolling actioners, as well as some Artari classics like Yar's Revenge or Frogs and Flies, I was quickly overwhelmed.  It was Christmas Eve, and I eagerly tore open the box completely ignoring the unusually thick instruction book and fold-out reference chart, rammed the new game into my Gameboy, and promptly lost complete interest in the game after about half an hour of trying to figure out what the fuck was going on.  I believe I received the game as a gift from my aunt and then-uncle as a total lark, the random purchase of adults who had no clue about games or gaming culture.  They knew I had a Gameboy, they gave me a cartridge that apparently had compatible software, problem solved.  It was the same twisted logic used by the first man to shove a small mammal up his ass.  Lost and alone in the woods, running low on food and fresh water, looking for one last tender moment, our hiker stumbles upon an unsuspecting squirrel, which he deftly snatches up then after a quick mental calculation about the daily amount of calories a full grown human being needs to facilitate basic survival and maintain simple organ function (including sphincter control), decides that instead of trying to fillet, roast, and consume the furry bastard and merely prolong the inevitable, he mind as well have one last thrill before he shuffles off the mortal coil and since he's already discounted oral and digestive pleasure realizes that the only other orifice he has readily available to accommodate his unsuspecting new playmate is his anus, which has thankfully already begun to slacken due to severe malnutrition, drops his trousers, braces himself, then winds up for the pitch, because, hey, he's got a hole into which another object fits, so what's the difference, really?

Well, thankfully, things worked out better for me and my Gameboy than for our hiker friend.  Months later, in a fit of boredom, when I finally picked the game up again and actually gave FFLIII a chance, I became a lifelong addict of the RPG video game genre.  I actually had an embarrassingly long learning curve on my first RPG experience, as I seemed unable to beat the first major boss I came across.  Luckily, after much cursing, bashing of my head against the wall (both literally and metaphorically), and repeated failure, I somehow miraculously defeated my First Boss, and shortly thereafter discovered the importance of upgrading weapons and that all that "armour" stuff was actually quite useful.

Is that an indistinct group of pixels
on your screen or are you just happy
to see me?
I'm not sure if it was a stroke of luck or the Hand of Destiny, but thankfully Final Fantasy Legend III turned out to be a kick-ass game, that still holds up as one of my favourites to this very day.  For the amount of computing power they had to work with "back then" the developers of this particular little gem turned out a surprisingly immersive (and fairly long) gaming experience with an incredibly detailed and engaging narrative that set my expectations for the RPG genre extremely high.  After my long and trying initiation, I eventually expanded my world with such titles as Might and MagicDragon Warrior, Faxanadu, Crystalis, and Dragon Warrior IV (another of my personal favourites), and then with other legendary titles like Chronotrigger and Earthbound.  There were some missteps along the way, like the disappointing Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, but overall, video game role playing treated me far better than I likely deserved.

Fast forward to Christmas 2011.  Jolly old Saint Nick (the holiday icon that makes obesity fun!) pulled his head out of his ass and got me The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim just in time for Christmas.  This was actually perfect timing, as it let me continue a very special holiday tradition I started by accident a couple of years ago.  As it so happened, my wife ended up working on that fateful Christmas Eve, and after putting the kids to bed, I found myself alone and bored.  So, I decided to head on down to the basement and pop a little game called Knights of the Old Republic into ye olde Xbox 360 and give it a whirl.  KOTOR had been released for the original Xbox way back in 2003, so I was only about six years late to that party.  But as it turned out, the old adage "Better late than never" proved to be all too true.  KOTOR not only turned out to be another amazingly detailed RPG experience, but also the perfect way to spend the holiday season, away from crying kids, arguing relatives and the general grab-assery that tends to accompany these occasions.  I love my wife and kids, and it's really shitty for my wife when she has to work Christmas, but I have to admit that a quiet night of contemplation in the basement with some solid RPG video game action has become my preferred modus operandi for the most wonderful time of the year.

Of course it helps if the game is totally kick-ass, which Skyrim definitely is.  Skyrim is definitely not a large departure from the classic sword and sorcery RPG, and you get your typical array of weapons, armour, and magic.  I mean, let's be honest, nobody's reinventing the wheel genre-wise with Skyrim.  Like previous entries in the Elder Scrolls series, it sticks closely to its fantasy roots.  That's not to say it's not original.  I think of genre within the analogy of music, where musicians take something like the classic twelve bar blues progression, and then riff off of that shared thread and do something unique.

Simply put, Skyrim blows away (most of) the competition.  It is, perhaps, the most emmersive, intricately designed game world I have ever had the privilege to explore on any console.  It's just so fucking comprehensive.  Truly this is the next evolution in the video game RPG genre.  I use evolution in terms of a sense of progress.  It's so obvious that the folks over at Bethesda have taken what they've learned in previous games, and made significant improvements to the latest iteration.  Skyrim puts the RP back in RPG.

Case in point, Skyrim's levelling system, which has been completely revamped since Oblivion.  It seems like they took the best concepts from both Oblivion and Fallout 3, and combined them here.  What makes the levelling system in Skyrim better than Oblivion is the fact that it is totally customizable.  In Oblivion, depending on your class, you were kind of stuck having to boost the same half a dozen stats, with no real opportunity to branch out.  But in Skyrim, you don't choose a class like knight, or wizard, or haberdasher.  As you level up you get the chance to upgrade various skill trees with a system reminiscent of Fallout 3's Perks system, but a lot more in-depth, and with greater customization.  The result of which is a thing of beauty, both functionally and visually.     

Ohhhhhh, shiny
 The thing I love about Bethesda's take on levelling up is that it's deceptively simple.  To get better at a thing, you do that thing over and over again.  Kind of like... uh, what's that thing I'm thinking of... oh yeah, Real Life.  Gone are the days when you levelled up after receiving theoretical experience points after killing faceless monsters and ne'erdowells (although, senselessly murdering hordes of bad guys (or even good guys) still does give you a boost).  There are many aspects to the game, and not all of them involve wanton death and destruction.  I didn't learn until much later into my adventure how important things like enchanting and blacksmithery would become (hint: keep some leather around).

Just like the levelling system, the game play too is deceptively simple, yet disguised in such a way to make it engaging.  The central game mechanic in Skyrim is not the combat system (which, although satisfying, is nowhere near comprehensive, and one of the few aspects about the game I hope they'll overhaul for the inevitable sequel) or any other individual skill, but rather an overacrching, recurring narrative structure, something I've come to label as the Boomerang Mechanic.  When you break it down, each quest basically follows the same structure.  Some dude sends you on a quest, usually to find some ancient artifact, you go and retrieve said artifact, then return to the same motherfucker who sent you, much like a boomerang.  Which -especially for some of the smaller side quests- can wear on you and get a little repetitive.  For the main quest and the guild story lines, it's not nearly as glaring because the narrative is very engaging and you're waiting for twists and turns in the story, but when Mr. Joe Nobody off the street asks you to retrieve his +0 Generic Artifact of Plainness and bring it back to him for *random reasons*, you sometimes find yourself wishing there was a dialogue option for "Why should I give a fuck?"  There's nothing that says you have to complete this random quest, except, of course, for the existential reason "Because it's there" and also for the fact that it clogs up your quest menu with yet another quest.  Don't think I used the word "quest" enough in this paragraph.  Quest.

Narrative is an important part of any game, but perhaps in no genre more so than the RPG.  In a first person shooter, for example, the narrative only exists as a means to get me killing NPC's or my family and friends.  Wow, that last sentence would sound so wrong taken completely out of context and presented as evidence at a sanity hearing.  Just to be clear, I'm making a distinction here between the framed narrative and the ludonarrative, as defined by Tom Bissell in his book Extra Lives, which contains some incredible insights into the video game as an art form and the struggles game designers face moving forward as well as Bissell's own hard-to-shake coke habit.  Basically, the framed narrative is the narrative provided through expository dialogue, text, cut scenes, or through the structure and limits of the game itself whereas the ludonarrative is essentially the unique gameplay experience that each player has as he interacts within the limits (however they are defined) of the game world.  The problem, as Bissell points out, is the disconnect between the two, and difficulty of bridging that gap, a problem not entirely dissimilar from reconciling a feuding pimp and his ho.  Or maybe it's entirely different, I don't know.  The pimping game has changed a lot since I left.

The main problem, especially when dealing with more narratively complex, open-world games, is that the chasm between the framed narrative and the ludonarrative has a tendency to become more apparent.  In part, this is because the parameters of the framed narrative are rigid, having been determined and set in digital stone by the programmers and developers months or even years before a player even interacts with the game world, while the ludonarrative is fluid and may produce unforeseen variables or consequences via either a technical glitch, or a loophole created by an oversight on the part of the authors.  At some point or another, these two narrative components just don't seem to mesh properly.  One solution to this would be some kind of advanced, super-intelligent AI which continually developed the framed narrative in accordance with the player's actions in the ludonarrative, in essence a story which wrote itself as you read it.  As you can tell from the italics in the last sentence, this idea seems far too insane to even be feasible, plus the super-intelligent AI would probably go all Skynet on us and plunge humanity into an epic battle for survival (instead of travelling back in time a couple hundred million years and just wiping out all the cave-folks before they became a problem... but then humanity would never have existed to build Skynet in the first place!  Oh my god!  The TERMINATOR time travelling assassination thing kind of almost makes sense.  Because of causality, the machines can't just alter the past all willy nilly; they have to be strategic and precise... of course, it was only because of the original T-800 going back in time that Cyberdyne Systems got a hold of terminator technology and built Skynet in the first place.  Curse you, time paradoxes!).

While it's important for the framed narrative and the ludonarrative to mesh for any game, RPG are specifically driven by narrative, so the concern becomes paramount.  It's a philosophical and technological conundrum that may not be solved any time soon, and the only strategy now is to mitigate any particularly jarring disconnects, which is achieved admirably in Skyrim.  Basically all this to say that the narrative in Skyrim is engaging and coherent.

One of the ways games -and particularly RPGs- try to branch out narratively is by having different endings based on choices made within the game, perhaps the most notorious example of recent years being the Mass Effect trilogy.  But Bethesda took a different approach than Bioware and dared to ask that unspoken question that hung on our lips and in the air:

What is better than a game with multiple endings?

And they then dared to answer:

Dude, how about a game that never ends?

Having never played an MMO, I'm not sure how the quest system works in those types of games, but for a console RPG, I've never witnessed such a spectacle.  With Skyrim's revolutionary new Infinite Quest Generator System* (*not the actual name), the game just randomly generates quests, and then then continues to pummel you with them, over, and over again, until it wears you down into a mere husk of your former self, then takes that husk, crushes it into dust, incinerates the dust, then scatters your ashes into the far reaches of the galaxy, there to float in an endless sea of purgatory from which no mortal has ever escaped.

I suppose it's all an attempt on the part of game makers to game-ify life.  Nowhere is this more evident (except, of course, for games like The Sims) is this more evident than in a game like Skyrim.  What open-ended, open-world games like this allow you to do is, in one way, create your own game within the game, that has nothing to do with the original game.  It's all very meta.  You can game-ify elements of a game that have nothing to do with the intended rules or limits of that game which, in turn, had already game-ified elements of an even larger game better known as Your Life, that have nothing to do with the intended rules or limits of that game. For instance, thanks to the internet, I now know about a player who just goes around robbing people and leaving a vegetable as a calling card.  I can't unknow that.  You could literally go through an in-game cookbook, buy or collect the necessary ingredients, and sit around and cook vegetable soup for eight hours.  Or read thousands of pages on the history of an imaginary world.  Or collect scores upon scores of dinner plates.  Why the hell not?

In attempting to draw inspiration from the real world and incorporate them into their games, developers have attempted to create something as engaging as real life.  The result is actually much better than life, because it can keep going long after you die.  It then becomes less a case of casual gaming, and more a case of anthropological study.  The games we play may well be some of the only evidence passed on for posterity, documents your progeny will ponder over to try and get a sense of their own history.  What will your grandchildren learn about you from your saved files?  That you had a strange fascination with discarded brooms or calipers?  And how weird is it that they will be able to step into the lives of their grandparents and continue living them, continuing on their lifes' work?  It's actually kind of creepy.

Fuck yeah!
 Bottom line, Skyrim fucking rocked.  It embodied everything I've come to love about my video game RPG experience, and then added a bunch of stuff I didn't even know I loved yet.  Like werewolves.  Did I mention that you can become a werewolf?  The game is far too detailed to explore every aspect of it here, and if you're a (video) gamer, and especially if you love the RPG genre, and you haven't already played this for some reason, then pick this shit up now.  Skyrim is and easy 10/10 and in my list of top ten games ever.

10 Things I Learned From Skyrim

1. You can make dragons your bitch, but giants will continue to fucking own you.  Bullshit!
2. Double fisting - uncomfortable in the bedroom, great when casting spells or wielding weapons.
3. Giant fireballs burn friend and foe alike. 
4. Just like in real life, children are indestructible.  I really wish Skyrim would let me build my armour out of children bones instead of dragon bones.
5. Hundreds of pounds of metal armour in no way hamper buoyancy.
6. Transforming into a werewolf is totally awesome!... unless you want to talk to people, recover health at a decent rate, or not randomly get attacked by every random buttfuck in Skyrim who, no matter their differences, seem to be singularly united in their hatred of werewolves.
7. The best way to determine the properties of random plants you pick is to eat them indiscriminately.  Which is great, because I have these mushrooms growing in my bathroom, and I wanted to figure out if they were poisonous.
8. Not even saving the entirety of existence from certain destruction will result in a discount in goods or services from your local merchants.  Nope.  Nada.  Not even a free goddamn cup of celebratory ale at the local pub.
9. Blacksmithing is, perhaps, the easiest trade ever conceived of.
10. All bandits hide out in caves, and all caves contain bandits.  And sometimes ghosts.