Wednesday, August 15, 2012

His finger touches God's

My good friend Ben Domenech has been putting out one of his usual, depressing-because-it's-so-insightful series, this time on modern video games, and the relationship between those who play, those who create, and the medium they share.

In probing the moral reaction to playing the bad guy in a video game, Ben recently asked,
Decisions like these have moral consequences. And if video game players take the games they play seriously, they should take the consequences of these decisions seriously as well. Do they? This will be the topic of the next entry.
As I am not a fraction the writer Ben is, I don't think I'd be stepping on his toes to answer this before he does, so: In response to his closing question, I think the answer is yes and no.

I think a few caveats are in order first. I have played, over the course of my depressingly-close-to-four decades of life, a lot of video games. I have played through dreck and I have bathed in sweet, pure metal. I have experienced the glory of Bard's Tale and Bard's Tale II and the pathetic, anti-religious hackery of Bard's Tale III. I marveled at Betrayal at Krondor, wept over the waste that was Wizardry 8, cursed my way past the damned bird in Ninja Gaiden, defeated the Kilrathi, fought alongside Euria, sought him out a game later, and finally defeated the Dark Harrier. I chased Diablo from Tristram to Hell, and then hunted down his remaining brother to boot. I followed the terrible saga of Man-Bot and Alchemiss to its bitter end, I helped revive the Grey Wardens, and I was Joe Musashi.

I have taken on the Gods of Olympus three times since 2005 alone, and I have lived the miracle that is Minsc and Boo.

But I am not a "gamer." I think that's a perfectly fine title to give yourself if you play video games for a living (sign me up), I think you can indulge in that sort of thing if you have a real job as long as you're not married with kids, but once you have hostages to fortune, it's time to be an adult and view video games for what they are: Escapism, stress relief, challenges, or just plain old time-wasters.

But with all of that, I think it's fairly easy to see why you shouldn't take too seriously what you do in a video game. Simply put, it's not real. I don't mean merely that you're controlling a rendered avatar with absolutely no impact on our existence, I mean that you're controlling a rendered avatar with absolutely no impact on our existence, with no impact on anyone's existence, who can be reset or recreated at will and who at any rate can do things like blow up planets with a few carefully chosen words.

But I won't play a girl. Nor do I ever play the evil guy. Every human sacrifice in a God of War game leaves me ill in real life. I feel dirty for the orgy scenes, too. I always play the Jedi. I always play the paladin. My wizards are pretty decent guys. Optimus Prime was one of my three heroes growing up, and God knows he couldn't just tell Omega Supreme to get it over with, just once. This either makes me a nutty hypocrite, or it means that there is some view of the question beyond the literal one.

I'm a practicing attorney, so I refuse to admit that I'm a nutty hypocrite. Make of that what you will.

I think the clue to understanding this lies in a premise that Ben implicitly rejected in a prior piece (on movies and video games), that video games are merely a new way of telling the same stories we once lived in books.

J.R.R. Tolkien once called his Middle-Earth saga his "sub-creation." He was not trying to coin a portmanteau, but rather to express a range of emotions and concepts about what humans, the product of Creation, do when they try to make something out of nothing. There is joy and there is glory in the act of small-c creation, and whether you believe (as I do) that this is because we are experiencing an echo of God's joy at his achievement or (as I do not) that we are just monkeys whose brains respond well to overcoming challenges, you will likely concede that the joy and glory are addictive.

It is this sensation -- this euphoria at creating -- into which the best video games tap. They invite us to feel like we are joining in the act of creation.

A god with no attachment to his creation is merely an instant of solipsism, and so we become emotionally attached to, and involved in, our sub-creations.

Of course, the overwhelming majority of those who play video games have never coded anything more extensive than the BASIC program their third-grade teacher taught them, and the overwhelming majority of the rest have never created anything like Dragon Age: Origins, or even been on the marketing team for it. And so even in the most open-sandbox worlds -- the Elder Scrolls games, any decent MMORPG -- you are no more creating than you are writing the copy of Anathem you just finished.

But the sense of creation matters, the feeling that you caused your character or world to be as it is right now matters, regardless of its truth. It's why Knights of the Old Republic is a decade later still viewed as one of the great games of all time, and Knights of the Old Republic II is considered a rushed disappointment. It's why Baldur's Gate and Arena (and its progeny) sold so well and influenced so much.

It is why half of the people enraged about the ending of Mass Effect 3 are so very upset.

I should offer two more caveats here. First, I am nearly finished with Mass Effect 2 and while it is a fun game, it is not a challenging game unless played on Hardcore or Insanity level (I find this remarkable because the last shooter I played was Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64 back in 1997), and it is a real miss by BioWare -- you aren't creating Commander Shepard when you play, you are creating the people who surround him.

Second, because I find the game so lacking in emotional strings of any kind (other than seeing what Tali looks like under that mask), I have not played, and likely will not play, Mass Effect 3. I have to assume Shepard remains the same cypher he's been to this point -- a real shame, because BioWare used live Origin's creed of We build worlds. I therefore not only have not seen the ending of ME3, I have deliberately avoided spoilers.

But consider this. Without reading the spoilers, in their own way, Holkins and Krahulik are satirizing what was apparently a keenly-felt sense of disgust from the people about whom BioWare used to care most, before being eaten by Electronic Arts (they're called "customers"). There are, generally, two threads of complaints about the ending of Mass Effect 3:

(1) The ending sucked because there's no pure, happy ending.

(2) The ending sucked because nothing you do to that point has anything to do with the ending choices presented: You're given two or three or four, I'm not sure how many, choices, each of which exist regardless of any actions taken to that point in the entire series, and whichever one you pick will turn into a fifteen-minute cut scene again independent of your actions and choices to that point.

Now, I have no way of judging the accuracy of these things, and I can say from playing ME2 that the BioWare guys have lost a lot of their plot and dialogue mojo from their days with Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, and even Dragon Age:Origins, a sense I understand is more pronounced in ME3 as in Dragon Age 2.

If you feel that you have been co-creating the story and the world of Mass Effect for three long (oh, Lord, the dialogue is soooo long) games, an ending that reeks of Deus ex machina is an insult, a letdown, and more importantly, a break in the feeling that you were co-authoring the story. Insofar as you feel you've created a Commander Shepard, you are entitled to help decide his ending, or at least to have your choices matter.

Now, the people who are only upset about the lack of a happy ending don't actually care about the character. They want a movie with a happy ending. I'm not going to poo-poo this; as my wife likes to say, if I want to cry, I'll watch the news. I view The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant as great because they're well-written and truly in every sense tragedy, much as I enjoy the tales of Arthur and the coming end of the Wheel of Time, but it's nice to escape to a world where the good guys win in the end, dammit.

But these people are not invested in the game the way an emotionally unstable person such as I would be. They're in it for the escape, not for the experience. Again, that's fine; I'm not emotionally attached to every character I've ever played. But it signals a critical mass who play for the thrill and the escape, not for the mental and emotional identification.

But the ones who want a say in the very structure of Shepard's final battle with the Reapers? They care. They cared about what happened to Viconia and Aribeth and Bastila, they cared about being the Avatar and the moral choices they made, they cared about whether Admiral Tolwyn would see justice, they cared about all of the great and small things in the worlds in which they thought they had played a part.

It is to BioWare's shame that they've lost track of those people.

I should note that you can have that emotional investment regardless of your feeling as author or agent. Homeworld is, to my mind, one of the greatest games made. The graphics are uneven by today's standards, and in 1999 or 1998 when it came out, they were noted as being deliberately rendered in a certain way for speed of play and a few other things.

But this scene:

is still one of the most affecting things I've ever seen. It's in part because of the Agnus Dei playing in the background, but the entire scene brings home immediately the emotional impact of billions of people dying in a firestorm, just minutes into the game, in a way that the destruction of Taris in KOTOR did not and could not. (That's arguably because the Sith tend to get all wasteful with planets, so you kinda expect that.)

There is a question around which I -- and to a lesser extent Ben -- have danced: I don't know how many people actually will experience or do experience this sort of thing as the years crawl by. Most people who play games play stupid crap games on their phones or on Facebook. My sense from meeting normal humans (and lawyers, but that's a different species) is that most would be bemused by this kind of attachment to video games even now, and I speak of those age 20-60. Getting hung up playing Angry Birds is one thing. Getting choked up because Aerie got kidnapped and turned into a vampire and the only way to save her is to kill her is another.

But those of us who write and imagine and talk and conceive for a living -- we will care.