Tag Archives: narratives

A Re-examination of the so-called ‘Tyranny’ of Dr. Ivo Robotnik

Perhaps one of the best-known faces among gaming’s antagonists, Dr. Ivo Robotnik (aka Dr. Eggman or just Eggman) is the longtime foe of Sonic the Hedgehog and has grown famous for his lust for the Chaos Emeralds and the quest to roboticize all living things within his empire.

Or that’s the Blue Blur’s official line, anyway. If you are inclined to put aside your prejudices and overlook the propaganda, I’d like to highlight what I believe to be the truth behind these lies, which can be demonstrated by facts that no amount of Sonic’s lies can obscure.

First, and most simply, let us consider the sheer endurance of Robotnik. No matter how many times Sonic’s gang of insurgents sabotages his plans, destroying an absolutely staggering array of material (including several vast space stations) he always returns. Some would say this proves his lust for power; I say it proves his resilience and his capability. How many of us could go through even one loss on the scale of Robotnik’s and recover, let alone do so over and over? He is clearly an unrivaled master of planning and forethought if he always has the necessary resources to rebuild, and in these troubled times I think we can agree someone with a proven record of excellence in planning.

Nothing to lose but your chains!
Nothing to lose but your chains!

This leads into the greater thrust of my thesis though. Planning is only part of the story and it can be used to plot evil as well as good. What does Dr. Robotnik use his considerable talents for? Sonic’s cadre claims it is to enslave, which is a handy fiction, but let’s look at who is making that claim. Sonic the Hedgehog is “the fastest thing alive”, capable of unbelievable feats of speed and dexterity. He is, in point of fact, uniquely fast and strong. Few things can even pose a threat for him, and only Robotnik’s most dedicated and specialized units such as Metal Sonic have ever slowed him down. Robotnik, meanwhile, gives us a great clue in his name, whether it’s his true name or a nom de guerre. The term ‘Robotnik’ is a word meaning “Worker” in the Polish, Czech, and Slovak languages. Indeed several underground papers in Polish history have borne the name “Robotnik”, and in 19th century Czech areas, peasants revolting against landowners were referred to as “Robotniks”. Does this by itself prove anything? No; but it does help in providing an understanding of Dr. Robotnik’s operations and motives.

Dr. Robotnik’s roboticization policies are intended to convert the animal population of Möbius into robotic equivalents. This is portrayed as being a truly evil act – but who is responsible for this portrayal, and what do they gain from it? The answer is Sonic, and what he stands to gain is the preservation of his status as an elite. This is the crux of my argument, so let’s make sure it’s properly outlined. Sonic is the arch-bourgeoisie, he is capable of feats unique to any living being on Möbius, and he is special precisely because of this. A couple of his allies are also special, but they have their own unique qualities as well – Tails has two tails and can fly with them; Knuckles can punch like Vodka Drunkinski – and Sonic tolerates them only insofar as they are subservient to him and never steal his primacy in the spotlight. The other animals, the ones ‘rescued’ from Robotnik’s machines, are universally average. None of them have any outstanding qualities which we are shown. They will never be as fast as Sonic or as tough as Knuckles, or able to fly as Tails can – unless they adopt the technological power offered by Dr. Robotnik.

Robotnik’s policies are raising every animal on the planet to parity with Sonic and his cadre’s powers. They are becoming faster, stronger, and gain abilities such as flying or operating aquatically. Robotnik is a revolutionary figure who is trying to overthrow the existing order, and Sonic is a reactionary, counter-revolutionary whose sole objective is maintaining his position of primacy and privilege. Witness, for example, how animals ‘released’ from Robotnik’s exosuits are completely unharmed. They are immediately aware of their surroundings, they are in perfect physical condition, and they are evidently in no way permanently attached to those machines. It is also telling that the second they are ‘set free’ they bound away from Sonic at top speed – except those who have no such luxury, because Sonic destroys a squirrel’s flight units while it is several thousands of feet in the air (cf. Sonic 2, Sky Chase Zone). In short Robotnik’s machinery is painless and its only purpose is to enhance the inhabitants of it. Sonic cannot stand for this.

Sonic also enforces patriarchal values and denies the agency of Amy.
Sonic also enforces patriarchal values and denies the agency of Amy.

Sonic (tellingly a blue creature, the traditional color of Tories and the phrase “blue-blooded”) is surely a figure of hate to these creatures, who don’t even presume to equal him, but only to exceed their own bodily limitations. He will have none of that. Only he, and to a lesser extent his biologically gifted and ideologically pure allies, may possess any form of exceptionalism. Only he may stand out from the crowd. Only he may be special. By virtue of nothing more than birth he is to be elevated and venerated and he will brook no challenge from Robotnik – the Worker, dressed in red and black, the very flag of revolution. He fights violently and campaigns tirelessly to defeat absolutely any and all technological developments made by Robotnik and to keep Möbius in its pastoral state. This is a handy secondary effect of his oppressive crusade, as it allows him to paint his side as the one supporting a pristine, natural world opposed to the artificiality and machinery of Robotnik’s. These is never any examination on Sonic’s part of why one should be inherently better than the other, never any attempt to seek an agreement with Dr. Robotnik, never any consideration that perhaps those animals are encased in machinery not by force but by choice, to enhance their own capacities and labor in a worker’s collective for the benefit of all. A final damning comparison: Robotnik seeks the Chaos Emeralds to power vast machinery, enhancing again the power of many citizens and providing who-knows-how many jobs. Sonic seeks them in order to enhance his own power, becoming even more superlatively strong and unassailable.

I hope this essay has demonstrated why the presented, official line put out by Sonic propagandists should be doubted and questioned. Robotnik may not be perfect (Though it bears mentioning he is far from paranoid – his objectives have as I said been repeatedly foiled by Sonic and he faces a constant threat from the reactionaries and their running echidnas) but he is clearly the superior moral force in this struggle, one who seeks to ensure equality not by keeping everyone equally subservient but by making them equally capable, equally free.

Grab-Bag for the weekend!

So hi guys, just going to throw something up real quick for the weekend! We’ve been extremely busy with videogames as usual, but even more than usual somehow, so here’s what I’ve been playing lately!

World of Warcraft Yep, still immersed in Pandaland, although these days I can at least drag myself away to play other games for a bit. It’s amazing how great this expac is though, one of Blizzard’s finest hours since the WC2/SC/D2 era. And I want a big strong Klaxxi to chirrup gently while I play with his antennae.

The Walking Dead I know I said there’d be a proper post on this, and I still intend to do that but I am astonishingly lazy so that post is not this post! Still, it’s a genuinely brilliant adventure game set in The Walking Dead world which doesn’t shy away from the sort of grim stuff in the comics and TV show, and it has a whole bunch of well-written and interesting characters, some of who you get really attached to. And then they die.

Liberal Crime Squad This was a game Toady One made before he became obsessed with Dwarf Fortress and, like that game, this is a pretty spergy and incredibly addictive devourer of time. It is a (very) satirical game based on American politics where, as the titular LCS, you set out to demonstrate to the country why the Arch-Conservative trend sweeping the country is a bad idea and to instead institute Elite Liberal laws. The big draw is the sheer variety of ways to achieve this. Break into a Corporate HQ and steal evidence of misdeeds, hack into government websites and deface them, seduce Judges so they act in your favor, go out into the street and protest, the list goes on and on.

Sweet Baby Jesus this kid is hot

Assassin’s Creed III This long-awaited continuation of the AC series is proving to be pretty much everything Pike and myself hoped it would be. It’s an expansion of pretty much everything the previous games had, just as II built on the original massively. It’s also a game in no real hurry; you don’t even get control of Connor until several hours in (But that’s okay because the guy you are instead, Haythem Kenway, is a superbly debonair gentleman) and the game isn’t afraid of throwing some considerable soliloquies at you. The best of which has to be Ben Franklin’s musing on his Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress and why cougars are totally great.

Also there’s some sprinklings of FTL and Project Zomboid in there!

What have you readers been playing lately, and are planning on playing this weekend? Do share your thoughts in the comments below!

Sleeping Dogs

Here’s a game I’ve been playing a lot over the last week or so. Sleeping Dogs began as True Crime: Hong Kong, which wasn’t tremendously promising because True Crime was never a very good series in my eyes. But after much kerfuffle, being dropped by Activision and then picked up by Squenix, and being renamed to Sleeping Dogs, it managed to come out. Anyone familiar with vaporware and the like will know that commendation must be given just for getting a working game out the door after that; what’s all the more surprising is that this game is damned good.

You are Wei Shen, a cop on loan from the San Francisco PD to the HKPD in order to go undercover and infiltrate the Sun On Yee, a large and powerful branch of the Triads. You do this through basically being a far greater threat to stability, the innocent, or the police than the Sun On Yee ever could. It’s great! The game features fairly typical free-roam gameplay on the surface, but it has a lot of polish and features inspired by other games. For example melee combat, which is by far the mainstay of combat in this game, with guns and shootouts being somewhat rarer than is common in the genre is similar to the Batman: Arkham games, whilst there’s a lightweight implementation of freerunning that, when done properly by you, makes getting around on foot through Hong Kong’s dense urban maze a good dear smoother and quicker. If this sounds derivative or shallow then I’m here to reassure you, because the game may take inspiration from other places and it may not implement any one thing with the same depth as its inspirations, but everything works together so well that you’re going to be enjoying yourself pretty much no matter what part of the game you’re partaking of.

The story – so far at least – is surprisingly well-realized, with some great characters who you grow rather attached to before terrible things happen to them. The voice acting is especially brilliant, with a mix of Cantonese and English that is quite unique and fascinating. On that note I’ve never been to HK but this game really sells the atmosphere like few others do; the look, the sound, the music, everything is pitch-perfect and makes you feel like you’re there, even if you’ve never been. (And I’ve seen people who have been there say it’s a pretty striking representation.) The only real downside of the game is that the city is fairly small, but the extent to which it feels small varies considerably. They used a lot of tricks to make it seem bigger than it really is, and for me it works great because I’ve never yet felt at all confined. And what is there, generally speaking, is absurdly detailed.

Pic entirely unrelated, we just find it hilarious here at The Android’s Closet.

The music deserves a special mention. There are some absolutely great tunes in this game, and it definitely features the best (and best-named) classical station I have ever heard in any such game, Boosey & Hawkes. Tell me that’s not the best possible name for a radio station. And rolling through a nightclub, screaming people everywhere, having a shootout while Hudson Mohawke’s FUSE is blaring out? Baller as all hell.

So if you’re looking for an open-world crime game you could do a lot worse than Sleeping Dogs. It’s not just a game that escaped from development issues to be released; it’s a game that did that, then both shed a rather ropy pair of predecessors, and then came out to be seriously impressive. I challenge anyone who plays it to refrain from starting to use Chinese words.

And in closing, Activision can eat all of the shit.

Gamer? Hardcore? Enthusiast? Buff?

Today’s topic is about how we see ourselves, in terms of being gamers. Obviously (really REALLY obviously) everybody’s identity is a unique and complex thing, and the things important to one person might be incidental to another. To some extent this is, I suspect, where the hostility of “in-groups” like hardcore gamers or early adopters of new bands to newcomers stems from, but that’s a tangential topic so we’ll put it aside for now.

Pike and I both identify as “Gamers”, in the sense that we play a lot of videogames, think about them a lot, talk about them, and read about them both on and offline. Oh and I guess we write about them too! We’re at the far end of the spectrum, where it’s not just another thing we do for fun but an important, perhaps even central aspect of our identity. Just as a lover of books like my mom spends a huge amount of time reading, collects books, and has filled every room in her house with stuffed shelves and numerous stacks of books on the floor, Pike and myself are the same with games. But the terms surrounding this identity are strange and nebulous things with some very different connotations to different people. It would be absurd for someone to call themselves a “reader”, but we would accept a “connoisseur” of books much more readily. Everyone watches movies, but a “movie buff” is a different creature.

Pinkie Pie is a connoisseur. Of you.

So does “Gamer” really work as a label? Sure we play games, but so do enormous numbers of other people. “Hardcore”? It’s probably a bit closer, and we are indeed both tremendous neckbeards and deeply cynical of the direction the industry is going in, but it’s not like I don’t love a good round of Plants vs. Zombies and Pike does little else besides play Angry Birds these days. [Editor’s Note: I DO NOT I PLAYED IT LIKE ONCE IN MY LIFE. ~Pike] “Connoisseur”? Perhaps that fits a bit better in that we are, after all, interested in gaming as a whole medium and are fascinated with it beyond just playing the things. It was easier when we could just insult the people playing the other side’s console because SEGA was far better than Nintendon’t.

So, time to open up the comments! What sorts of terms do you readers use in this regard?

Watching and Reading Let’s Plays

One of my pleasures related to gaming is to read Let’s Plays, so I thought I might cook up a little blog post about the topic and then open the comments for suggestions! If you’re at a loss for something to occupy your Sunday then you might consider seeking out a LP and reading it with a nice cool refreshing soda/nice soothing hot chocolate, depending on local weather conditions!

A Let’s Play is essentially a player taking the viewers/readers through a game, or series of games, by writing about them, showing screenshots, or providing videos with commentary. LPs come in several flavors but the general principle is to show the reader/viewer the mechanics of the game, examples of artwork, music and FMVs, all that sort of thing. Where relevant you’ll see plot exposition, and very commonly people will show secrets, Easter eggs, perform feats of skill, or abuse game mechanics to show how utterly broken some games can become. Some are serious, some are humorous, usually though the idea is to show the game off, whether it’s to encourage everyone to play something really great or to explore the mendacious depths of a truly turgid turd.

Somewhat related to LPs, but often with a greater focus on storytelling or the like, are After Action Reports (AARs), which I’ve written a short example of for this very site. If you have a quick look at that you’ll see what I mean, I’m not talking about mechanics but rather interpreting what happened in a narrative sense, giving it meaning and context – something strategy games like Darkest Hour are very open to.

And some scenarios defy explanation.

A good LP is a great thing; one of the most famous, and one you’ve most probably heard of already, is Boatmurdered. It is an uncommonly hilarious and deeply enjoyable account of a Dwarf Fortress even more doomed than the usual. The fame of Boatmurdered does more than show off the comedic skills of a bunch of goons though; it also had a fairly significant impact on the fame of the game on which it was based, and for an indie game made by a two-man team who rely entirely on donations, this is a fairly big deal.

So as part of gaming’s culture and milieu I think LPs are a great thing, and I really enjoy going through them. Sometimes I read one for a game I thought I knew completely and learn many new things. Sometimes I read one of a game I would never play, and see what others see in it. Sometimes I just find myself tremendously amused.

If you want to find a whole treasure trove of Let’s Plays then the LP Archive is a great place to start. You can also search YouTube and find a vast store of video-based LPs, and various forums have their own sections from Something Awful’s dedicated and vast Let’s Play subforum to Paradox Interactive’s many AAR forums.

Are there any LPs you would recommend to people, any that you’ve found particularly funny, or any that have sparked interest in a game where you had none before? Tell us all about it in the comments below!

Mass Effect 3 to get ending DLC

You’ve most likely already heard about this, but I thought I would share some of our thoughts about the situation anyway. As you may recall I’ve written at some length about the endings as they stand, so I won’t retread that here. And it wouldn’t be a revelation on the scale of Saint John’s to say I hope they do it well, though I am somewhat skeptical as it sounds like they are just adding to the cinematics rather than doing the work that I suspect needs to really be done in order to fix this up properly.

Still, there is something about this all that is very heartening. There has been a lot of talk about “artistic integrity” and whatnot in relation to the ending – that BioWare shouldn’t change the ending because of fan dissatisfaction. To some extent this is a fair point, as otherwise we would no doubt have all kinds of nonsense like Square trying to make games more like FFIX instead of, you know, good FFs. Nonetheless the attitude that fans are ‘entitled’ is bizarre, for a great number of reasons. First, yes we are. We’re entitled to getting our money’s worth and if a product, for whatever reason, doesn’t deliver that then we are perfectly within our rights to demand improvement. Maybe not to expect it, but to want it, certainly. If I buy a car and some aspect of it doesn’t function properly it’s not unreasonable to want that to be fixed, whether it’s something trivial or vital to the car’s functioning. Second, and our dear Pike can elaborate on this with far greater insight and expertise than I can, it is a pretty well-established notion when you create a creative work and put it out for people to consume, it becomes the property of the consumers. I’m a writer. I dread the idea of someone taking my work and finding it so thoroughly flawed that they want big changes made. But if that does happen, I sincerely hope I have the humility and integrity to sit down and consider the complaints on their own merits – and if they do indeed have merit, to see how a solution can be incorporated. When Pike first explained that to me I was somewhat horrified. “It’s mine!” I cried, “I can do what I want with it!” Well, yes. I can. That doesn’t make it wise to do so, and it may demonstrate great disrespect for the people who are sharing this work with me.

This has nothing to do with anything, but tell me that's not the most metal England you've ever seen.

The more interesting aspect here is that they’ve been willing to do this. To whatever extent they do make changes, to go back and change a fictional work once it’s done is fairly unusual. Yes you have, say, director’s cuts in movies when they’re out on DVD, and remixes of music tracks, but those aren’t really the same thing as making a change to the canonical version of the thing itself. The only real precedent I can think of, and Pike and I tried for some time to come up with something, was the Broken Steel DLC for Fallout 3. But even that was a small change, a simple “Oh you survived after all” and the ability to carry on after finishing the main quest, as it should be. And it was paid. The ME3 DLC is to be free, and at least has the potential to make significant, even sweeping, changes to the canon of the series.

What are your thoughts on this, readers? Are you hopeful, or do you despair about BW’s caving to angry mobs? Does this bode well or ill for the industry? Tell us what you think in the comments!

Mass Effect 3 Ending Discussion

I shall warn you now: This is going to be a long post, and it is also going to contain an overabundance of spoilers, not only for the very end of ME3 but plot points throughout the series. Therefore if you are not interested in having it spoilt for you, do not read beyond this point!

Now we’ve all seen the great hullabaloo surrounding the ending of Mass Effect 3 – RPS provides a good summation of the current state of affairs – and that lets us launch into one of the core points that needs to be made explicit right from the beginning. People are invested in this game, this series, and deeply so. Mass Effect has been going for five years now, encompasses three vast games, and a number of other media like books and comics. A core concept of creative endeavor is that the creator and the consumer of it are engaged in a compact – at the very simplest level this compact is that the reader/player/watching agrees to suspend disbelief, while the creator agrees to deliver a satisfying story. The suspension of disbelief is vital. When you find the story coherent and internally consistent, you’ve got yourself a stew going. When you encounter something that is obviously nonsensical, contradictory, or the like, your ability to suspend disbelief is harmed, perhaps even shattered, and that makes your ability to enjoy the tale weaker. You can read a fairly excellent summation of this whole concept here, although the last bulletpoint may not apply!

In short this does matter. It’s not just the ending of a game, it’s the ending of something that people have invested in. Invested their money, their time, and their emotions. If anything the outrage is a testament to BioWare. Nobody gets too worked up about something they don’t care much about, but when we do get attached to things we naturally have expectations.

This honestly has nothing to do with anything, we just needed a picture to break up the text.

The problem, therefore, is not that the ending was anything in particular. It’s not that it was sad or happy or bitter-sweet or anything in-between. There’s nothing wrong with any particular ending, but it does have to have thematic ties, foreshadowing, and when it purports to be the ending of a series, it needs to provide satisfaction. Mass Effect 3 only succeeds on the first two in a very shaky fashion, and falls down on the third entirely.

The three choices given at the end of the game, by Magical Star Child von Ex Machina III, are roughly as follows – you can choose to either Destroy the Reapers, to Control the Reapers, or to merge all organic and synthetic life in the galaxy. The first of these options is fine – you’ve been trying to do that all game. The second is problematic. You’ve been specifically trying to stop the Illusive Man from figuring out how to control them throughout the game, and it’s pretty much outright stated that it’s not possible to control them. It turns out they can be, but you’re never given much reason to think it’s a good idea. In previous ME games choices like that were always given context and meaning. In the original game at the end you are presented with a choice of whether to charge in to save the Galactic Council, or hang back as it will help you fight more effectively. Sacrificing them has another purpose however – throughout the game you’ve seen humanity’s place in the galaxy, and how they are not given the due they feel they deserve. Failing to save the Council would propel your species to a position of power, as the new Council would be built around the people who saved the Citadel itself.

Conversely, although the possibility is raised in ME3 of controlling the Reapers, it’s never highlighted as a serious proposition. It’s something a madman is doing, something that the Reapers themselves have suggested to him in order to divide humanity’s efforts.

But at least that has some measure of foreshadowing, hamfisted as it is. The third option, “Synthesis”, comes right out of left field. Now, let’s be clear, I am an ardent transhumanist in the real world and fully desire ascension to becoming cybernetic. However, in this game it is completely insane to think Shep would choose that in the state he reaches the end in. He’s seen synthesis – it’s how the Reapers get their ground forces. There would need to be a HELL of a lot more in the way of setting this up beforehand for it to be remotely palatable.

The third problem with the choices given is that Shepard is not the kind of person who just accepts the choices given. The series is about defying the inevitable fate others have prescribed, and it doesn’t just come through in the big picture. A lot of small quests throughout the game can have an alternative option that Shepard figures out where nobody else could. At this point he should absolutely be able to say “Fuck you, we’re done playing by your rules.” as a Renegade, and “But look at the evidence” as a Paragon. And then what you have done in the series to date has an effect on what happens next.

How you have played should totally influence how the endings work out. Here’s how I envision things: You have brought peace to the Geth and Quarian, and present this to the Catalyst as evidence. It responds by saying “Yes, temporary peace has been achieved. Only through our presence. We have seen this in preceding cycles.” and they give you a long list where it has occurred. Then you can offer “EDI and Joker are in love.” as evidence, and the Catalyst says something like “Interesting. We do not have enough reference points to determine the outcome of this eventuality.” and then you have speech checks to convince the Catalyst to at least give the galaxy a chance to see if it can work. Alternatively you can choose to fight on, and then the battle just plays out. The outcome is determined by your War Assets – you should entirely be able to lose everything here! That would be a really great bad ending that made sense. And either of this would put things in the player’s hands, and made the choices over the game and series fundamentally matter. You could have three tiers of outcome – victory, a close defeat that is a Pyrrhic Victory for the Reapers and gives hope that the remaining galactic powers might be able to muster enough force to survive (or at least that the next cycle will), and total, crushing defeat.

So much for the choices. Let’s move on to the consequences. The choices of the ending are bad, but the outcomes are if anything even worse. Very little makes sense here. You see almost nothing except a few dying repears or whatever, and then the Mass Relays start blowing up (Seriously all it took was ONE LINE from Hackett earlier about how the Crucible’s effects seem to be propagated through the Relay system) while Joker is escaping through one. Why is he running when Shepard isn’t confirmed dead, and indeed the Citadel just opened, so Shep is probably not dead? How did Ashley and Liara get back aboard the Normandy? Who knows! Anyway the advertised multiple endings just plain don’t exist. You get a couple different colors of explosions, and you get a few minor scene changes, and that is that.

Gamers want choices. And we want choices that matter – choices and consequences used to be the watchwords of the RPG genre, and it is something we have sadly come to almost totally lack. One of the reasons Mass Effect was always so exciting was that it promised to oppose this trend – but it hasn’t done anything of the kind. It presented a total copout, in fact. Now, take my suggestions above, and you can see just how disappointing it is. I’ve not been spending forever drafting ideas, I pretty much plucked them out of thin air in the course of a few minutes. And though I’m not going to say I should be writing for videogame (I should totally be writing for videogames) it demonstrates that it would be easy to have come up with alternative endings that made sense. Endings that, as I’ve said but must hammer home, synthesize the gameplay and narrative choices over the course of the series to adjust your final options and their outcomes. This is surely the Holy Grail of games that purport to give the player significant choice – we all make gameplay choices constantly. Who to shoot in which order with which weapons, etc. etc., and how a battle plays out is the consequence thereof. In ME we make narrative choices regularly as well. Combine the two and baby, you’ve got a stew going!

Of course, this entire post rests on the concept that companies aren't evil bastards who destroy the best things ever.

Finally, when it comes to consequences, whatever the outcome we should have seen a lot more about your allies. Mass Effect is really about your other party members and how you interact with them. To see nothing except that they are stranded on an alien world is completely unsatisfying. Fair enough if you had a bad ending where Joker fled the battle once it was totally lost, I suppose, but otherwise just what. Assuming a good ending, like one where you convince the Reapers to leave or your superweapon works as advertised, you should see vignettes of where your comrades are five or ten years down the line. Liara excavating the ruins of Tuchanka. Javik is with her if you convinced him to become a bro, and they are working together to search for other Prothean ruins and perhaps other Protheans who survive in stasis. Garrus is a highup on Palaven helping to organize rebuilding. Wrex is doing the same on Tuchanka, keeping the tribes in line and working to create a new krogan identity. You see others as well, if they’re still alive. And finally you come to a scene maybe thirty years on, where you are older now, and your comrades too, and everyone who survived the series has gathered at the opening of a new Normandy Memorial Museum or something, a definitive and permanent memorial to the Reaper War and its heroes. You see a wall of the lost, as on the Normandy, you listen to your comrades make brief speeches about you, and you get to make a final one yourself about where the galaxy should go now.

That’s only one possibility of course. I understand that we all have our ideas about how everything should be different, too. I’m not trying to say I have all the answers and my ideas are best, but I am hoping to point out that not only is the current situation a bad one, it’s doubly bad because a better ending would not have been difficult to come up with, and given the money invested in the series, it wouldn’t have been an undue strain on resources to implement more.

Fundamentally it’s not disappointing just because of choices ignored, or consequences ignored, but because both are ignored in combination. Add a bit of nonsense and there we are. It’s disappointing not just as series fans, not just as paying customers, but as people who love the medium – because it could have been so much more, with so little extra effort. Maybe even enough to have a very clear way to demonstrate to Ebert that an experience can be enhanced by player agency and control, not diminished.


You know, I think I’ve identified another hook that strategy games tend to have for me. It’s something I’ve noticed I feel in such games for a long time but have never really connected it in a logical sense to a reason of appeal.

That is quite simply potential. Think about when you begin a game, especially a 4X like Civilization. Think about how you see almost nothing of the world, just your immediate surroundings, unblemished by human actions, and beyond that the dark mystery of the unknown. Your first, tiny, puny settlement, protected by a handful of clubmen. You send out a scout and begin gradually cranking out buildings and units, gradually expanding.

I don't have a relevant pic, so have this cat hugging this kitten.

It’s that exact moment right at the beginning, the moment of seeing the potential but not yet being able to achieve it, that I love. Or at least is the first half of what I love. You begin planning, mentally placing future settlements, looking at how to fight a defensive war, scouting out your neighbors, all that sort of thing. The entire game is before you and it is a quantum, Schroedinger-esque value at this moment. It is not yet a game, but the potential of a game. Over at Flash of Steel, a good while ago, Troy Goodfellow wrote an excellent piece that is related to this. As he says it’s not that things are complete unscripted, in fact a lot of things are constrained by various rules and/or in-game costs, but one of the core aspects of a good strategy game is that it is fundamentally a story, or a series or collection of stories. The story of how the Iroquois conquered the world, or when the Cold War went hot, or whatever it might be.

And that pregnant moment in the first few turns of a good 4x where so, so many stories are possible, and you get to wrestle with your rivals to write one – that moment is truly delicious. Much later you will look back across a cultivated, irrigated, networked empire that has left no tile untouched in the quest for dominance and efficiency, and the story of getting from A to B is there to see. Some things will be obvious, like the masses of farms and mines. Some a little more subtle, perhaps, like how all the cities in the southern end of your Persian empire have French names. But all there to be seen and remembered. The potential has been realized, and now you have a completed game, and the memories of playing it.

A core aspect of this is the ability to affect the world itself, which may be why strategy games (and management/sim games) seem to scratch this itch most effectively for me, as opposed to the more typically narrative-led genres. It’s not just the transfer of territory, but also the utilization of that same territory once you own it. Not just the achievement of a prize, but the use of the prize. It’s an inherent strength in strategy games I feel; until you achieve your ultimate victory you’re always looking for more efficiency, how to get more gold or credits or beakers or whatever, using your past conquests to become ever-stronger.

Also, when Troy Goodfellow said “No action game has ever made me want to be a writer. Some strategy games have.”, that could have been me saying it. In fact my book, which I am currently editing, was originally intended to just be an AAR of Space Empires V, but it rapidly blossomed far beyond that.

Full Sperg Saturday Special.

So Pike found an article online with the amusing and attention-getting title The Fascist Politics of the Infinite Respawn and, because I am not doing anything better with my copious qualifications, I thought I would take a look at it and provide a critique. I shall forewarn you, this is certain to be a long post and liable to be nothing more than masturbatory self-importance and a bunch of political jargon that has little use outside demonstrating that I know what political jargon is.

Maybe some Latin, too!

Fiat equus, et pereat mundus

Now, the article isn’t without some merit. Indeed for a medium to be considered an art, saying meaningful things is part and parcel of the deal. If we look at, say, movies, it’s very easy to find a very wide range of movies that have commented very seriously on a very wide range of political and social issues, from all kinds of angles. And we can find plenty of writing about what movies which don’t avowedly take a political torch up are saying as well; whether that be a feminist perspective on why strong women always get killed or a political examination of what hyper-macho 80’s action movies are all about.

I should state that I tend to shy away from overly analyzing every single movie/book/game etc. that comes along. Yes lots have things to say, and many more betray prejudice (conscious or simply not cared about) on the parts of their creators, but sometimes a big dumb action movie is just a big dumb action movie and trying to read more into it is silly. Still, the article I linked to is one which talks about an entire swathe of game mechanics and their implications, rather than any particular game, so I feel it’s worth engaging with. The argument, essentially, is that the mechanics of your typical modern FPS are ultimately “fascist” in nature, because they simultaneously represent A) The immovable and perfect State, in the form of the player character, and B) The numberless and overwhelming Enemies, in the form of… well, the numberless and overwhelming enemies.

A word about fascism itself. Fascism is a political philosophy with a single concept at its core: That the People and Polity should be the same thing, indeed must be, and that any other scenario is quite literally against the natural order of things and will by definition lead to the destruction of “Us”. It is important to note that Fascism does not consider this the consequence of living in a chaotic world or a lack of understanding on anyone’s part – it is a deliberate and concerted effort on the part of “Them” to destroy “Us”. “We” is fairly easy to define; “We” as a Nation (the only legitimate political unit for Fascism) are the natural owners of This Land who speak This Language and have This Culture. We have existed in this form since the mythical time immemorial (cf. just about any national origin myth you care to mention) and only in recent years, usually due to internal treason, are we being undone by alien influences of some nature. I reiterate that these aliens are acting very deliberately, with full knowledge of what they are doing and it’s consequences.

This leads itself to a whole host of interesting issues for the Fascist. We can see one of the most relevant if we take a look at Eco’s writings on the matter (You will generally find yourself enlightened if you ready Eco’s writings on any matter), most specifically the following quote:

When I was a boy I was taught to think of Englishmen as the five-meal people. They ate more frequently than the poor but sober Italians. Jews are rich and help each other through a secret web of mutual assistance. However, the followers of Ur-Fascism must also be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.

Eco goes to one of Fascism’s absolute core contradictions here; the Enemy (and Fascism MUST have an Enemy because it is defined entirely in terms of “Us” and “Them” and cannot exist without both) are both cockroaches and masterminds; we are both superhumanly glorious as a people and fundamentally threatened by the enemies. Both parties are simultaneously incredibly strong and completely vulnerable. This is necessary for the Fascist; the Enemy must be strong enough to necessitate the Fascist’s proposed solutions (Obviously if They were actually a bunch of feckless layabouts with barely the mental ability to read, We would never be in any danger from Them), but We must be strong because the foundation on which Fascism is built shows and requires this to be fact. We are at risk of being overwhelmed despite the fact that we are almost divine in our nature and the greatest of all nations, and the fact that our enemies are “rats” and “cockroaches” and – a perennial favorite of the Fascist – “germs”.

The Fascist narrative is a clever one however; they shift the rhetorical focus, but they can do so damned well by simultaneously appealing to an actual or imagined historical Golden Age and current actual or perceived difficulties, or usually a mix of both in both cases, coupled with identifying an Enemy. The Enemy which is identified is only one part of the true foe of the Fascist, which is essentially anything that dilutes the power of the Race and Nation. This is why they object to homosexuality. Homosexuals do not reproduce and they do not fulfill the ‘natural’ roles of men and women in their roles as breadwinners and reproducers. Here we see how Fascism uses the mythologized past as well; the past was an agricultural idyll where men did honest work on the land and women did honest work creating and raising the young. Enemies are conflated in part due to this. To use a classic example, Jews not only must own the media because they are insidious and have influence everywhere, but the media must be owned by Jews because the media is a fancy, “not real” entity which does little honest work. The contradiction of using the media for propaganda purposes need not be addressed. There is a good reason Orwell’s 1984 has Doublethink as a central conceit.

So how does all this tie into the article linked, and into videogames? The article apprehends a lot of things quite well, in my eyes, but there are a handful of fundamental issues that it overlooks, or at least fails to properly address.

Yes, games do tend to provide an endless stream of undifferentiated enemies for the player to destroy and, yes, they do tend to do so in a fashion which gives little to no insight into them as people. But this is a necessity. First, games are fast-paced and involve large numbers. It would be very impractical to give every single person you kill in your average CoD a background and some characteristics, and I sorely doubt that it would be remotely enjoyable to play. Second, and similarly, games are made on a timeline and a budget. I dearly wish there were more games which offered the player more options with greatly diverging consequences, but that’s simply not the path that was taken, a failure of the art and medium certainly but far from inherently political in any way except, perhaps, love of the dollar.

Still, whilst I feel there is merit in criticizing how games present the enemies, I find the argument that the Player represents the Fascist State/Nation to be a rather shaky one. Indeed the player’s avatar is generally a superhuman force who performs impossible feats of endurance at the very least, but what is the alternative? There are games out there where the player is a very vulnerable figure, even manshooters (ARMA II being the obvious example), and they certainly have their place but I sincerely doubt that “realism” would serve CoD very well (No matter how much they might want to proclaim themselves a realistic military shooter).

It’s my opinion that the article has things backwards. Games use an arguably fascistic attitude in order to serve their ends, and thus they must have elements of fascism in them. My interpretation approaches it from the other direction – games make use of “fascistic” elements not because they are fascistic, but because they happen to share propagandistic tools. We see exactly the same tools employed by all manner of people, from state ideologues in fascist dictatorships to comic book writers in countries where free speech is sacrosanct. That the fascists happen to make use of such rhetorical tools does not ipso facto mean that using such tools makes one a fascist, nor that the tools themselves are fascist. We can use another example brought up by the article, that of zombies, to expand on this point.

The article states,

The zombie genre, in its various media incarnations, has been using the unstoppable mindlessness of its enemies as a justification for brutality for years. There’s a definite streak of fascist thought in the vanilla concept of zombies, although it’s usually complicated and subverted by the now-cliché “We Are The Real Monsters” subtext.

Now, despite the caveat, I take considerable issue with this assessment. The zombie genre is not a pro-fascist one (Overtly or subconsciously or otherwise), but one which generally opposes the “mass” against the “individual”. The enemies are by their nature a mindless undifferentiated mass of bodies; the survivors are by their nature the ones we can identify with, if only by virtue of the fact that they can, you know, speak and otherwise emote. But again we are seeing things conflated when they shouldn’t be. The survivors in any zombie fiction are by definition individuals when measured against their foes. This is often read as a critique of unthinking capitalism, as indeed it very much was in such movies as Dawn of the Dead, but could just as easily be read as a caution of communism (A horde of creatures acting in instinctive unison to exterminate the handful of individuals still alive by either devouring or infecting them). The critiques provided by zombies are thus not inherently fascist, but rather they are inherently individualist. It is true that the Fascist at times has recourse to utilize such imagery, especially in the Anglo world with our extremely strong emphasis on individualism. For the American demographic even more so the zombie doesn’t have a fascist narrative but a survivalist, libertarian one, which emphases self-reliance, individuality, and generally a rejection of whatever structures may exist to help. There are those on the American right who have a very similar set of talking points to this, but it’s due to a similarity of perceived past and as a means of capitalization on current discontent, not necessarily an actual confluence of either goals or attitudes.

Similarly all polities utilize a mythologized past and concoct a present and national identity to some degree. These things are not natural, they hinge on collective agreed-upon beliefs about the past. Individuals may differ and disagree but the overarching narrative of any body politic has to be held to be generally true by a fair proportion of the population if said politic is to be effective. This does not necessarily have to be fictional, but human history is an ugly business and few, if any, can lay claim to a bloodless history. Still the fact that fascists utilize something everyone else utilizes does not make everyone fascist, any more than David Duke drinking milk makes all milk-drinkers Grand Wizards of the KKK.

The same thing applies, then, in their assessment of games as vehicles of fascist ideology or rhetoric. We have things that we might identify as Fascist in nature but only if we take the attitude that “Fascists do X, games do X, games = fascist”. We see in the article that the case is very clearly laid out; “I don’t mean to imply that the developers of these games are full-on fascists. In my opinion, however, their design decisions are a clear demonstration of fascist ideology expressed through the video game form.” This statement only works if my above one is held to be true, for if the game makers are not fascist, and the games don’t share fascist characteristics, the point has nothing to stand on.

None of this is to suggest that games should not strive to have more nuanced, deeper narratives, that they should not seek to humanize the other (Sometimes – but as I said, sometimes a big dumb action movie is just that and I don’t WANT Saints Row Goes Forth to have some huge thing about everyone you run over). These are very valuable things that games absolutely should be pursuing in order to grow and to begin saying more. I just think that the article in question is ascribing rather more to the current situation than it can justifiably be saddled with. Games may lack imagination and depth at the moment, but that is due to risk-aversion on the part of publishers long before it is due to fascist ideology, consciously implemented or otherwise.

Multiple and/or Ambiguous endings

Please note this post will contain spoilers for Breath of Fire III.

As you may recall, I’ve been playing through Breath of Fire III lately. Well, last night I got to the end of it, and I did something I never have in the other times I played it – I chose the ‘bad’ ending. What you’re intended to do is fight and overthrow the Goddess, who is keeping the world in a static place, in the belief that change can only make things even worse. There are hints of this throughout the latter part of the game, and she admits as much herself – but in my adulthood I’ve found her case rather more seriously presented, and compelling, than I did when I played through when I was much younger.

Now, to be clear, the game suffers from what I would suggest are poor writing decisions. One of the characters is implicated as being very much more important than you presume, but they only actually reveal this when you are talking with the final boss before deciding whether to acquiesce or to fight. Therefore I can as a player understand it all and deduce that this character is probably speaking sensibly – but it should be rather less convincing to my character. Indeed, some of the other reactions to what they learn in the very last room of the game are a bit weak as well, though it’s somewhat more forgivable because the characters really couldn’t have time to develop more complex opinions at that point.

Also because one of the characters is still a freaking onion

It got me thinking about it all though. The ‘bad’ ending isn’t really presented as being all that terrible, as long as you keep in mind what the characters know rather than what you know about tropes. And what the Goddess said about the possibilities of the alternative mean it’s quite believable that they would be happy enough with the outcome. Despite this it feels a bit lacking – it’s clearly the “bad” ending because if nothing else, there’s a good deal less to it than the “good”. A lot of games seem to suffer from this sort of thing; sometimes an alternative ending is acceptably given less time, or is quite clearly the worse option to take, and very often it’s not left up to the player to fully decide whether their course of action was right. Games try to do this sort of thing, and for many “player choice” and the like is very vaunted, but a JRPG nearly 15 years old seems to make a better stab at actual ambiguity and leaving it to the player to decide the worth of what they did than a lot of modern ones with their binary DOUBLE GANDHI/EVIL LINCOLN dichotomy.

These days I would normally load up a save towards the end of a game and see the other ending(s) just for completeness. I’ve decided not to with this playthrough. It feels satisfactory leaving it where it is.