May 1, 2012

Mass Effect 3, the nerd cult, and American education

All Mass Effect 3 images copyright

After a $80,000 charity campaign by fans, a $1,000 cupcake-baking campaign, a response from Forbes, and uncountable angry forum posts, it is impossible not to see the success—and importance—of Mass Effect 3's ending/s. Like Michael Bay's signature film style, no matter how you view the ending/s quality they act as important cultural artifacts that have the power to change a medium.

Bay's style altered how films are edited and thus how we can read film, while BioWare's endings are pushing the very nature of company-consumer relations and DLC. More than that, that people are so passionately engaged in Mass Effect 3's endings is proof that something is working in there. There is something powerful in there to cause people to do all of the above, gain interest from the Better Business Bureau, and still create headlines over a month after release.

Before we reach Mass Effect 3's ending, we have a journey ahead of us.

Our first stop is Halo. When thinking about this sci-fi trilogy's ending, we should think about its context in relation to other sci-fi trilogies. How does Halo's ending compare?

After all, Halo also based its final numerical entry on the premise of taking Earth back from a foreign menace, is military-infused sci-fi, and even involved a glowing pillar of energy that must be reached at all costs as vital to its resolution. Would Mass Effect 3 be better with a Halo 3-style ending? You know: recreate the first game's climax, drop a new character in it, give fans a hoorah, and leave everyone with an absolutely certain promise of another sequel?

BioWare did almost do that, according to original plans discussed in The Final Hours of Mass Effect 3 and leaked in concept art. Thankfully, series creator/writer Casey Hudson & co. avoid the forgettable path limped down by Halo 3.

Yet more needs to be said of that game, especially compared to Mass Effect. Never before has an apocalyptic final act to a trilogy been so phoned in, never before has a climax been without sense for spectacle or scale than Master Chief #3.

That last cutscene of Halo 2, showing Master Chief diving from one ship to another mid-space, is more breathtaking of a climax than anything in Halo 3.

Rightfully, its presence in trailers stirred buzz to new heights. There is peace in the stars, weary determination portrayed without words in the Chief, and an eye-boggling spread of chaos beneath the viewer. Roll credits, enough said. Perhaps it's the openness of Halo 2's ending that satisfies so much. That Bungie choose to skip over it entirely when opening 3 should trouble more people. Imagine the skydiving mission of Saint's Row: The Third, but first person and in the silence of space.

Briefly, Bungie flirted with the same mystery that filled Marathon, but instead of continuing that in Halo 3 they decided to go down a checklist, marking off plot points that needed covering. They gave in to fans by removing plans for a playable Arbiter in Halo 3, ruining any sense of meaningful continuation of Halo 2's ideas, which showed gamers the Other by shoving them firmly in their strange boots for half of the game. With “H3,” they missed the chance to connect them by showing the characters/cultures crossing path from their own point of views, instead (lamely) directing them around with cutscenes. Fans applauded more Master Chief action.

The very nature of Halo 3 as a rote end piece sates what fans (think) they crave from a game. It ticks off boxes of things people want in a haphazard fashion, all in an effort to please its fans. Mass Effect 3 bucked off Halo 3's example.

What we're talking about here is a nerd problem, of course. “The ending is not what I expected, therefore the game is incomplete.”

It is not canon.

The idea of “canon” is omnipresent in nerd debates, the participants of which behaving like fictional Harold Blooms considering the books in their fictional bubble universes. Italo Calvino could write this comedy, a novel where the self-dubbed, self-loathing “intelligent” men and women spend their time debating details and labeling their encyclopedias.

The need to believe in a fictional universe as actual universe is overpowering. There is love there, there are things noble in that love for the fictional. These fictional universes are places for people to belong.

Overall, there is nothing wrong in that need to belong or in believing in a fictional universe.

But proving or disproving the universe overwhelms the nerd cult. “The universe” takes precedence over the actual works, until whatever they are communicating is lost in minutia. Universe mantra and universe rite must be ordered. Nothing must betray the order they have imposed on the universe. To them, the works exist to feed the universe and not as part of a medium.

We cannot entirely blame the nerd cult. This is how American schools are increasingly teaching people to behave. Even when you reach college you may not be taught any more than to fill out a worksheet or a paper with plot details, and that “the green light at the end of Daisy's dock represents money.”

It is a simple system of teaching our young, but maybe if we rearranged our systems we could teach the next generation how to break down and process the world around them, from books to everyday situations. Possession of facts is rule, and while not evil on its own no one teaches them how to use their facts and how to formulate arguments.

How to read.
From the school system to publisher-provided book club questions to the perpetuation of Cliff Notes and Wikipedia as something that can even be used to do work for a literature class, our current leanings perpetuate illiteracy among all ages. Having learned it from books, our prized gatekeepers of culture, we cannot help but to apply that learning to the rest of our world. We are trained. Indoctrinated.

The nerd cult is an exaggerated problem stemming from this education system. Without being taught to truly read (to formulate thoughts and contextualize works), how else can they react? Without someone teaching visual literacy, telling them what images are and how to read these images, how can they help to be anything but illiterate? Our society today is increasingly visual. Text, more often than not, is imposed. The system has put the nerd cult in a state of learned helplessness.

This goes beyond the nerd cult, though, and is ultimately not their fault. Most people are equally as illiterate. This goes beyond Mass Effect 3, as well. What is at the heart of the fan reaction is the inability to communicate. It's a symptom of that inability to read, and that inability can also be seen in how people at large contextualize video games, films, and books. This goes beyond simplistic notions of "high" and "low" art, striking us all.

At its most basic state, art in any form is information communicated via a medium. (What that information is or how it should communicate is another matter for other people.) That's all it is, but "all it is" happens to be a lot to us.

It is our culture, it is us. Reflections of us, records of us. If we cannot read or know our culture, we are cave men. We lose what separates cultures and people from each other; we lose identity. We lose communication. We lose art.

What can be read of Mass Effect 3's ending is hopeful, complex, unexpected. The lack of variety in how these are endings are portrayed, the lack of variety in the game's recognition of allies in the final battle, are two points in it that do not work at all. BioWare would have been smarter to structure the ending off of Mass Effect 2's suicide run, but complaints of its nihilism are incorrect.

The nerd cult pouring over lore to point out reasons that the destruction of the mass relays ignore that it is not anything similar to the galaxy-killing relay destruction portrayed in “Arrival.” (Now that is a Mass Effect title worthy of disgust.) The colors of the beams that shoot throughout the galaxy, the fact that Joker and several miscellaneous crew can survive it, and what can be intuited from the Reaper AI conversation support this. But since the nerd cult's Wikipedia says that ramming an asteroid into a relay causes it to a kill a galaxy, then of course even the blatantly "magical/miracle" destruction of the relays in 3 should too. Trained by the education system, they ignore what is present in a work for the rules they imposed by turning it into a universe to be experienced rather than a medium to be experienced.

What we instead should be reading is Sheperd fulfilling the role of his/her Christ imagery: self-sacrifice in a beam of light that reduces you to nothing, and that then beams you from galaxy to galaxy. In the end, the player effects the entire universe, down to the smallest planet.

But wait, someone will call out, what about the allies we built up? Will the Quarians settle their home planet? What will happen to the Krogan females? Etc., etc. With surprising subtly, we know from the dialogue and situations we have seen before that: if you brokered peace between the Geth and Quarians, both left people behind on their planet to rebuild; Wrex left the females and bodyguards behind, plus he proudly points out that some are already pregnant in the pre-battle camp scene; more importantly, the game takes careful pains to paint the Krogan current situation as socially-enforced, so even if Wrex never makes it back we can always hope.

More than anything, the game expects you to hope. What else is the point of the Joker/crewmate scene? It references Eden imagery, suggests a new beginning. What else is the point of the post-credits scene? It shows us a Ray Bradbury level of joy and respect for space and humanity's place in the greater world via the pan to the field of stars, the last image in the series. This also serves as a tasteful reference to one of Mass Effect's logical sci-fi ancestors, Star Wars, by recalling Return of the Jedi's pan to the stars from Vader's funeral pyre.

Not only that, but the outcry that “Shepard murdered the galaxies!” is further shown absurd by the presence of two humans, a man and a boy. Those two act as a twin image to Shepard and the dead Earth boy. The last words spoken in the series come from the boy and the man, paying heed to humanity's original (and mythical) form of storytelling, the oral tale. Maybe, the man promises, one day we can go and visit those planets and other peoples out there.

The endings address man's place in the world, destiny vs. free will, and the equality of peoples via images and sound—as all images and sounds are, when combined, a form of communication.

In any ending, even the semi-hilarious failure one that occurs when you don't rack up enough military readiness points, the Reapers are gone: you join with one and lead them into dark space, or Earth is incinerated and everything dies, or the Reapers and synthetics are destroyed, or synthetic and organic life blends together.

From Alicia n John, on NeoSeeker forums.
None of this violates “the promise” of the series: stop the Reapers. You got what you paid for. The Reaper's motivation is understandable not as "BioWare is so dumb, have an Xzibit meme" but as dramatic irony. Perhaps this is, again, a failing of the education system, but we need to understand that this revelation is positioned as absurd: Sheperd reacts with disbelief, and doesn't understand the Child AI when it tries to answer why. 

The revelation works as proper dramatic irony because we, the players, are privy to outside information: in every other side quest of Mass Effect 2, there is a homicidal AI that went crazy (off the top of my head, I can think of five quests including this idea), so there is precedence for what the Child AI tells us; what EDI tells us in 2 about unshackled AIs further cements and foreshadows this; and EDI's revelation that she was the crazy moon AI in the original Mass Effect links this idea in the trilogy together. The Geth relations adds further to the idea that machines and organics cannot work together. (A flaw: the ending should probably take into account whether or not the player successfully creates peace between the Geth and the Quarians.) But beyond all this, the dramatic irony depends on our outside knowledge that the Reapers view themselves as superior to machines, given Sovereign's reaction to their worship being distaste.

Keep in mind that what the Reapers are doing is not "killing organics so they won't be killed by synthetics," but "killing organics so they will be synthetics." Forced equality and evolution.

Now could those endings have been delivered with significantly different visuals instead of copy-and-pasted cutscenes? Yes, and that would be more appropriate, since one set of images does not match the right tone for every type of ending, but we are required to take the bad with the good. There are very few pieces of perfect work in any medium.

Ultimately, what people have yet to recognize is that the whole climax is an act of humanism, where “Will there be peace?” is the most important question that can be asked between enemies and the entire galaxy is essentially wiling to sacrifice its life and stability so that future forms of life (whom they'll never meet) can live without threat of extinction. It's the equivalent of a stepping in front of bullet so it does not hit a child. 

The final images frame Mass Effect as a story-within-a-story. A larger story not just of Sheperd, or even of the fate of the galaxy, but of existence as a whole. It is a tale of hope and destiny, about goodness in the face of apocalypse and whether this is something that can be maintained, a la The Road. It is a story that ends with a man and a boy staring up at stars that suggest wonder. They invoke the player character as a mytho-religious figure of hope, “The Shepard” (a blatant play on “shepherd” and Christ lore). 

Due to the position of the camera, we are staring over their shoulders with them, at the dark but blinking lights. Music plays. It is the first song a player of the original Mass Effect hears when starting up the game, and the act of watching that the player has been performing the entire trilogy: “Vigil.”

We should not give in to despair over death, Mass Effect 3 suggests, but celebrate that someone else has lived thanks to us. This returns us to an earlier moment in the game, when Admiral Hackett gives a rallying speech to the assembled species of the universe, telling them that “Never before have so many come together from all quarters of the galaxy....Each of us will be defined by our actions in the coming battle. Stand fast, stand strong. Stand together." 

It links to the Reaper Master AI/Ghost Child changing its mind about the Reaper plan due to no one else having ever before reached it. This is backed up by Javik, the "From Ashes" DLC character, telling stories about how fractured the universe was at his time and how everyone working together seemed unthinkable. (An actual flaw in the ending: BioWare cut "From Ashes" from the main game, when it's actually a key component for proper tonal context of what we witness.)

That's what the Crucible device is, really. Beyond being a part of the plot, it is a symbol of unity and the dignity of survival in face of holocaust.

On a more literal level, what people aren't catching is that it is necessary to build the Crucible to be able to 1) reach the Reaper AI and 2) transmit Sheperd, in the form of the beam, across the galaxies. The universe must begin again, the ending tells us, so it employs the Christian rebirth and sacrifice metaphors in Sheperd's death, Joker's crash landing, and the post-credits scene.

More than that, it shows us that life can and will go on even in the face of world shattering destruction. That's the ultimate victory. That's the language of imagery and sound and the player, all working together to create a story in Mass Effect 3.

That is the language of a medium, not of a universe.


Alex said...

I just want to say that Harold Bloom analogy is one of the greatest things I've ever seen on the internet and an apt introduction to the sentiments that follow.

Post a Comment