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Video Games vs. Movies, The End of Freewill, and The Mass Effect Debacle

Some years ago, in 1998 actually, Metal Gear Solid was released on the original PlayStation. It was the first truly cinematic game that I ever saw. The gameplay, story, and graphics all combined to form an event that rivaled any movie-going experience. After all this was a time when we were coming off of the death of a beloved friend and mentor in 1997’s Batman and Robin and 1998 was no picnic either with remakes of Godzilla and Psycho. The only bright spot being the Rage Against The Machine song “No Shelter” from the Godzilla soundtrack that proclaimed the movie to be “pure mother******* filler.” But then again that soundtrack also produced Puffy’s rendition of “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin mockingly titled “Come With Me.” So I guess that was a wash after all. The point is that a watershed moment occurred, where with new technology like the CD-ROM (remember those), we could play a game that could rival the simulated reality of a movie with the added bonus of being able to interact with a living environment.

After all, Snake the main character of the Metal Gear series is named and modeled after Snake Pliskin from John Carpenter’s Escape From New York and Kyle Reese from The Terminator. And who wouldn’t want to be them for 10 or 15 hours. Video games have progressed a lot since then. They haven’t overtaken the popularity of cinema but it has carved out a niche where blockbuster games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 can rival James Cameron’s Avatar in earnings…of over a billion dollars. That’s Dr. Evil territory (accounting for inflation). But there are certain trappings to this topic and although I’d like to say they are just starting to rear their ugly head, really there has been a debate for some time about video games as art. The recent conclusion of the Mass Effect series has smashed open this debate and I blame Ian for getting me involved since I was content to just play the demo for Mass Effect 2 until I played 20 minutes of it at his house while preparing a Canned Laser podcast.

The long and short of it is this: BioWare created a trilogy of sci-fi action/role-playing games with an expansive universe of characters from different races of aliens all pitted against an ultimate evil known as The Reapers. They purge the galaxy of organic life every 50,000 years. It’s a galactic colon-cleanse of sorts entreated to promote life through destroying life like a controlled burn in a forest also known as “swailing.” Of course humanity is on the chopping block and we have the only dude who can stop it: Commander Sheppard. Actually that’s not true, you have the choice to make Sheppard a woman depending on your preference. And that in a nutshell is what the game is about: choices. The game is a series of alliances and confrontations with individuals, cultures, and governments and you have to choose how it plays out. You can act in accordance with your favorite mores from the likes of Captain Kirk, Ripley or Riddick. Or combine the ones you like.







So where is the controversy? Well if you type in “Mass Effect 3 Ending” on any search engine you will undoubtedly stumble upon numerous articles and hilarious YouTube videos about how bad it is. There are many reasons and opinions vary. As I completed the game and saw my three possible endings I didn’t have any other opinion than it sucked and I’m used to disappointment. “Frankenstein Vader” comes to mind in Episode III and all of Episode II lingers as well. What no one could have predicted is the outcry and the demands for a change, which BioWare is apparently doing in the form of free downloadable content available sometime this summer.

My feelings towards the game at this point can best be described as a reaction to the reaction. It runs the gamut. There are feuds popping up on message boards all over the internet ranging from telling people to shut up and get girlfriends and stop worrying about a video game to Mass Effect ruined my life. But the most heated topic seems to revolve around the debate if video games should be classified as art. Roger Ebert was one of the first high profile people to poo-poo the idea with comments like “video games cannot be art.” BioWare has maintained it’s artistic vision of the game despite the forthcoming DLC. I understand BioWare’s position. They are a brand that doesn’t want to lose customers. They don’t want to look like punks either.

But the gaming community may have lost their minds over this one. Firstly I want to blame analogies for ruining discourse in America. They are unavoidable and have become the basis for almost every point people make including myself. I’m not sure what it stems from, maybe its concurrent with the notion that we learn from past mistakes. But really analogies just create a sense of entitlement for the analogizer who feels that it’s proof of an argument because something exists even if it doesn’t pertain directly to the issue. As a result there has been some rather mean-spirited discussion over Mass Effect. Also gaming culture like movie culture and specifically comic culture has it’s snobs who know everything. You aren’t allowed to enjoy certain things and others are sacrosanct. When Ian and I were in college, we frequented a comic shop that wouldn’t sell you a comic if you didn’t like Alan Moore. I pretended I was mute for four years.

Through the use of analogies, people have been equating the video game industry and it’s counterparts in music and film in terms of artistic merit as well as deployment of the product specifically relating to post-release director’s cuts and b-sides. There are many valid arguments to the philosophy of re-imagining art. In an upcoming podcast, Ian and I will be discussing Blade Runner, a movie that was re-edited and re-released no less than 4 times. We will be comparing it to Cybernator,a movie that clearly parodies Blade Runner and was made once and seen by four people. Which will be more arty? Well only one version of one of these movies has a unicorn in it so I’ll go out on a limb and declare that the winner for now.

Art is also a subject that apparently angers many people. My good friend Reuben and I have had one fight in our entire 17 year relationship and it was inexplicably over art. We were returning from a viewing of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000 and I guess we hit art overload. Ultimately he was right. What is art to you may be be trash to the next person. When people asked me if they should go see Crank 2: High Voltage I prefaced my response with this question: did you like the original? They would say no. I would reply: No, you can’t see Crank 2, it’s even more awesome. This episode reveals two things. The first, my standard for art is quite lower than most and two that if something is created within certain parameters and maintains that aesthetic then it is successful regardless of your contempt for it. Crank has two parameters: mayhem and violence. Mission accomplished.

The art question is subjective and endless in debate to the point it’s inconsequential to the reason Mass Effect 3 sucked at the last. Fans are hurt more so because BioWare didn’t follow their own mantra and advertising campaign. In a game built around choice where every decision would count, in the end your choice was moot. You had your choice of different colored explosion and slightly altered cutscenes depending on your final decision. But that’s not why Mass Effect 3 fails. For all your choices, three games worth and some 80 hours of gameplay, you were told in Mass Effect 3 that freewill does not exist. It’s a determinist’s dream. And I might even agree with it. From a philosophical standpoint freewill has been debated for over 2000 years. I understand the power of that as a plot device even if it’s a jack move akin to what Metal Gear Solid 2 did to us when we were told in game that we were stupid for buying and playing Metal Gear Solid 2.

But the ending failed in every other respect. Inexplicably, your crew who was fighting with you on Earth two seconds ago, is bounding on your spaceship to points unknown when they crash on a distant planet. The circumstances of the game not only render them stranded but every other species in the armada you amassed as well, since the technology is destroyed that allows long distance space travel. Presumably the armada is stranded on recently annihilated Earth. You don’t know. Your crew barring any Lord of the Flies incidents appears to prosper at the end of the credits in a parasitic ending where an unknown grandpa tells a youngn’ about “the Sheppard’ and all he/she did.

The ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey is more concise than Mass Effect 3 and that is a problem because I think 2001 is supposed to confuse you. As a statement the ending to Mass Effect is bordering on powerful if you look at it from the stand point that it’s a challenge to the freewill tradition in heroic storytelling. But the execution is perplexing. When you come out and say genocide is a good idea and in fact necessary, which is effectively the message of the Reapers and then bring their vision to fruition despite your intervention whether by killing or isolating the various entities, then you will invite criticism. Not giving the player an out may have been an “artistic” move by BioWare, but the shoddy execution of the ending, the first day $10 DLC, and the general glitchiness I experienced in the game with three freezes leading to manual resets makes me wonder if they didn’t just take the easier and cheaper road out.

I’m not trying to settle the debate that video games are art. It’s really up to you. Many people also feel that there is too much movie influence in video games, that they are paying $60 to watch a movie instead of playing a game. There have been arguments made by leading video game industry people that story is not that important in games. These are competing views that will play out in the market like everything else. And there will always be people who are not satisfied with a given product. A general rule that I believe is that if a person or group care enough about what they are doing then your project will most likely turn out to be good even if it’s bad. Just ask Tommy Wiseau. He has turned The Room into solid gold.



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  1. Libby says
    2012/04/09, 20:56

    Wow! You mean like an INTERACTIVE CD-ROM?!?

    In not-really defense of the Godzilla soundtrack, the Wallflowers cover of “Heroes” is pretty bitchin’.

    • Pete says
      2012/04/10, 00:23

      Wow, Heroes was on that too. What an epic summer.

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