I stole this idea from Barb Knowles who got it from Paul who got the idea from Aaron who stole it from Jess. (Whew! It all reminds me of the Tom Lehrer song “I got it from Agnes”–quite possibly the dirtiest song ever written without using a single off-color word. But I digress.)

  1. Blogging
  2. American football
  3. Pizza
  4. Economics
  5. The color red
  6. History
  7. Desert landscapes
  8. The movie Lawrence of Arabia (combines 6 and 7)
  9. Writing
  10. The book A Confederacy of Dunces
  11. A good scary story.
  12. Gilbert and Sullivan operettas
  13. Political theory
  14. Hazelnut coffee
  15. Conspiracy theories
  16. Well-written, metered, rhyming satirical poetry.
  17. The number 17
  18. Thunderstorms
  19. Friendly political debates
  20. The sound of howling wind.
  21. The unutterable melancholy of a winter sunset in a farm field.
  22. Pretentious sentences like the one above.
  23. Knights of the Old Republic II
  24. Halloween
  25. The book 1984
  26. Niagara Falls
  27. The song “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”
  28. Pumpkin-flavored cookies. coffee, cake etc.
  29. The book The King in Yellow
  30. Hats
  31. Chess
  32. Trivia competitions
  33. Numbered lists
  34. Mowing lawns
  35. The smell of fresh-cut grass
  36. Black licorice
  37. Beethoven’s 3rd,5th and 9th symphonies
  38. The color light blue.
  39. Exercise machines
  40. My iPad
  41. Feta cheese
  42. The movie Jane Got a Gun
  43. Etymologies
  44. Gregorian chants
  45. December 23rd
  46. The story “The Masque of the Red Death”
  47. Mozzarella sticks
  48. Leaves in Autumn
  49. Long drives in the country
  50. Fireworks
  51. The song “You Got Me Singin'”
  52. The book To Kill a Mockingbird
  53. Constitutional republics that derive their powers from the consent of the governed.
  54. Strategy games
  55. Puns
  56. Ice skating
  57. My Xbox One
  58. The smell of old books
  59. Hiking
  60. Tall buildings
  61. Bookstores
  62. Gloves
  63. Rational-legal authority, as defined by Max Weber
  64. Bagels with cream cheese
  65. The Olentangy river
  66. The movie The Omen
  67. Far Side comics
  68. Planescape: Torment
  69. The song “Barrytown”
  70. Reasonable estimates of the Keynesian multiplier
  71. Stories that turn cliches on their heads.
  72. Editing movies
  73. Really clever epigraphs
  74. The movie “Chinatown”
  75. Ice water
  76. Deus Ex
  77. Silly putty
  78. Swiss Army Knives
  79. Anagrams
  80. Wikipedia
  81. Radical new models for explaining politics.
  82. Weightlifting
  83. Lego
  84. Madden 17
  85. The song “The Saga Begins”
  86. Trigonometry
  87. Writing “ye” for “the”
  88. Well-made suits
  89. Popcorn
  90. Pasta
  91. The word “sesquipedalian”
  92. The movie Thor
  93. Blackjack
  94. The movie The English Patient
  95. Pretzels
  96. Cello music
  97. Bonfires
  98. The story “The Hound of the Baskervilles”
  99. Soaring rhetoric
  100. Astronomy
  101. Getting comments on my blog posts.

“Reactivity”. “Choice and consequences”. “Influence”. These are the watchwords for the RPGs designed by Chris Avellone.

For example, one of the major features of Alpha Protocol (2010) was the branching path structure of its story, depending on what the player chose to do. The world of Alpha Protocol reacted to the player’s choices, making it feel like they were really changing the story as they played.

More than just being a quirk of game mechanic design, this philosophy permeates the Avellone-led Black Isle/Obsidian RPGs in surprising ways. It goes beyond just being a player ego-stroking mechanism into every aspect of the games.

Planescape: Torment‘s protagonist can influence the story, setting and other characters in countless ways, and while this in itself makes for an interesting game, the mechanic complements the theme of the story: that belief can influence reality itself. Musings on self-fulfilling prophecies and consensus reality are integrated with the structure of the game.

If video games are power fantasies, designed to make players feel like they can impact the world, then these RPGs are both archetypal examples and subtly subversive at the same time. While they allow the player to make all manner of changes to the game world, they also ask the player to reflect on the consequences of their actions.

To see how this approach differs from other RPGs, consider the popular but controversial Mass Effect 3, the original endings of which prompted criticism that none of the player’s choices really mattered. Defenders of the game replied that this was the story BioWare had wanted to tell, and so it should be accepted by the players as such.

It is a delicate balance, but in a medium defined by user input, the experience is most satisfying if the need to tell a story is balanced with giving the player choice in how it unfolds–if the story is the player’s story, and the player is not simply a bystander.

In many games, the player is to the game’s plot as Indiana Jones is to Raiders of the Lost Ark. They are at best just there to perform the requisite tasks to fulfill the writer’s story. Not so with Planescape/KotOR II/Alpha Protocol–in these, the player is the story.

Perhaps the most famous of Avellone’s characters is the enigmatic Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II. She embodies the philosophy of player choice more so than any other single character. (Her avowed hatred of the predestination element of the Force could be interpreted as opposition to the “railroading” so common in games.)

Kreia is seemingly amoral, allied with neither the Jedi nor the Sith, but uses both to achieve her goals. To gain influence with her, the Jedi Exile (the player’s character) must show that they can make logical choices consistent with furthering their own long-term goals–in other words, that they understand choice and consequence. Kreia doesn’t care if you are good or evil–just so long as you know what you are doing and can strategize to make it happen.

In this way, the game mechanics, characters and story are all fully integrated. The mechanics reinforce the characters who reinforce the theme.  This level of coherence is what produces a truly satisfying experience. When game mechanics clash with the theme or the story, the player feels subconsciously confused.

Since games, unlike other art forms, rely on user input to tell the story, it only makes sense to center them around the user’s input in every respect. If thematic coherence is what makes Art great, the greatest games should surely be built around the idea of player choice.

I normally don’t like games that are just about repetitive gameplay. I like to make progress through a story, and reach a satisfying ending.  To just keep doing the same thing to try and get a high score doesn’t really appeal to me.

But Faster Than Light is an exception to the rule.  The game, in spite of its 1990s-caliber graphics and nearly-impossible to win gameplay, it’s extremely fun and addictive. (It doesn’t hurt that the Advanced Edition has material written by the great Chris Avellone.)

The idea is that you are in command of a starship, and you have make through nine sectors to fight the enemy flagship.  You can get different types of starships, with different crews, weapons and layouts.  I’ve only unlocked one so far, and I’ve never beaten the enemy flagship.  That’s right: I’ve never actually won the game.

It doesn’t matter, though. FTL is a journey, not a destination.  As you travel through the sectors, you never know what will happen.  Sometimes, you’ll get a free laser weapon upgrade, or “scrap” (money).  Other times, you might be lured into a trap by evil aliens.  You never know what you’ll run into.  It really is like playing a season of Star Trek.

Another element I normally hate, but FTL makes enjoyable, is the resource management aspect of things.  I normally am terrible at this,  but in this game you have enough downtime between space battles to think about whether you wan to upgrade lasers, shields, engines, etc.  You’re not rushed in making decisions.

The best part is, it’s available on the iPad, which makes it easy to take with me.  Only downside to that is I end up getting hooked when I really should be doing something else.

There are a few nit-picks–the menus are kind of dense, and on the iPad sometimes I end up pressing a menu button when I want to select a part of the ship.  But it’s not a big deal.  I can hardly wait how much fun it will be when I actually win it.

So, I got the game Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as a gift.  When it came out years ago, I mentioned I didn’t care for the sword-and sorcery fantasy-setting, which was why I didn’t get it earlier, even as it won tons of Game Of The Year awards.

I still don’t care for the setting, but I will admit that it is so beautiful and atmospheric I can kind of get past that–it is a seriously gorgeous game, and it is really fun just to wander around the huge open-world with no aim, admiring the scenery.

But of course, this is a Bethesda production, so the minute you start to run into anything related to the plot or characters, things get silly.  The major issue so far in the game is that dragons are attacking the land for some reason, even though everyone thought they had been destroyed a long time ago. The opening sequence of the game involves a dragon attack, which is a shock to all the characters around.

Naturally, we learn that the player character is special, being a “dragonborn”, which gives them the power to absorb dragon souls, or something.  And of course there is a prophecy about it all.  (First rule of fantasy: there is always a prophecy. I guess they make their prophets in volume.)

My character has already been in five or six battles with dragons, and won all of them by hitting the dragon with a hammer when it lands ten yards away.  This makes the dragons seem, frankly, stupid. They could win continually if they just stayed up in the air, or perched somewhere I couldn’t get at them with my hammer.  But no, they obligingly allow themselves to be drawn into my kind of fight. It’s the “Cthulhu Problem” all over again.

Then there is the dialogue.  In one town that I rolled into while running away from monsters, there is some mystery that has to do with a house being burned down.  The locals are too afraid to investigate, because they are, according to the “Jarl” (the executive of the town) “too superstitious”.

I wanted to say to the Jarl “Of course they are!  We live in a world where dragons attack people and sorcerers openly summon evil spirits.  Just yesterday I was attacked by a gang of reanimated skeletons.  You’d be an idiot not to be superstitious in this world!”

(The house mystery, by the way, turns out to be the fault of vampires. And the clues to solving it are provided by ghosts. Yeah, I’d say the people are right to be superstitious.)

Also, there is the recurring problem of people saying essentially “well, hello there, heavily-armed stranger who just ran in three seconds ago from the vast wilderness populated by legions of bandits and bloodthirsty monsters. Here are all the secret intrigues and problems of everyone in town.. Please help fix them.”  This problem is to some extent inevitable in a game like this, but I think it could still be handled more deftly.

And then there is the criminal justice system in Skyrim.  It’s set up so the guards will attack you if you commit crimes against the people of a given town.  Neat idea, but I don’t see how it is that stealing a carrot can be punishable by death, whereas hitting the Jarl in the face with a sword can be forgiven if you put the sword down afterwards. (And yes, Fallout: New Vegas suffered from this too, a bit.)

In short, so far it seems to be Fallout 3 all over again, only more so:  awesome scenery and landscape, laughable character interactions, plot and dialogue.  And like Fallout 3, I’m having fun with it.  More than I expected actually.  If they had only gotten Obsidian Entertainment to write it, they would have had another masterpiece on their hands.

As the preeminent video game critic of my time <insert laugh track here>, I feel compelled to weigh in on the recent series of events referred to as “GamerGate”.

As I have stated before, I absolutely despise this habit of appending “-gate” to everything that is considered a scandal.  Following this logic, you’d think the Watergate scandal was about water.  Attention, people born after the 1970s: the Watergate was an office complex. The scandal was called that because it centered around a break-in at said office complex.

Now, then:

The origins of GamerGate are shrouded in the mists of the internet, but the facts are these, as related by that always perfectly factual and unbiased source of information, Wikipedia:

The controversy came to wider attention due to the sustained harassment that indie game developer Zoe Quinn was subjected to after an ex-boyfriend posted numerous allegations on his blog in August 2014, including that she had a “romantic relationship” with a Kotaku journalist, which prompted concerns that the relationship led to positive media coverage for her game. Although these concerns proved unfounded, allegations about journalistic ethics continued to clash with allegations of harassment and misogyny.

Kotaku is a video game focused blog from the Gawker network. Being outraged at them for giving biased coverage to a given game is a bit like being outraged at The Chicago Tribune for giving biased coverage to the Chicago Bears. Or maybe being outraged at Weekly World News for giving biased coverage to Bat Boy.

Zoe Quinn’s game Depression Quest supposedly, according to the GamerGate crowd, got more favorable press than it merited, either because she was romantically involved with a critic (not true) or else because the gaming press generally was biased in favor of a game made by a woman.

Might the latter be true? Sure.  Remember, the first rule of journalism is that “Dog Bites Man” is not a story, but “Man Bites Dog’ is, because it’s unusual.  “Man Makes Game” is not interesting, because most games are made by men.   So of course the press would pay extra attention to her game; regardless of any extracurricular romantic activity on anyone’s part.

Now, I don’t know how much coverage the game really got compared to a lot of the triple-A titles.  I do know that I would never have heard of it if not for this GamerGate business. So they have not exactly done a marvelous job, if their goal was to correct what they saw as an imbalance in the game’s favor in terms of press coverage.

But things quickly went beyond Zoe Quinn and her game. First, internet troublemakers started publishing her personal information online.  People responded by saying the attacks on Quinn were “misogynistic” and constituted harassment. More troublemakers responded to this by posting those people’s personal information as well.

Among the people whose info was posted was actress and writer Felicia Day, after she wrote a post about “GamerGate”. This is noteworthy because Day’s biggest claim to fame is writing the web comedy The Guild, the final season of which culminates with a huge protest made by a bunch of gamers, who have something of a reasonable point, but undermine it with their insults, sexual innuendos, and boorish behavior.  Life imitates Art, it seems, and all that stuff has given the “GamerGaters” a bad name; and while their concern may be journalistic ethics, they have been completely overshadowed by the trolls on this one.

Putting aside all the sordid instances of harassment against female gamers/game developers/journalists that have been perpetrated by those allegedly affiliated with the “GamerGate” crowd–which invariably devolve into arguments over who is truly part of the “GamerGate’ crowd–I want to focus on what a singularly unlikely and useless thing it is to want “ethics” and “fairness” from gaming journalism.

First of all, we will never have unbiased gaming journalism as long as companies like Electronic Arts exist and have a seemingly endless supply of money to throw at promoting whatever re-hash of a game they are selling. (I actually don’t despise EA as much as many do; but I think they are a negative influence on gaming.)

I don’t know what an un-biased entertainment journalism industry would look like, to be honest.  I mean, what’s the idea?  the good games get coverage and the bad ones don’t?  Well, I mean, this may shock people, but there are disagreements as to whether particular games are good or bad.  I love KoTOR II; other people hate it.  I thought Half-Life 2 was a mediocre FPS; most people think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Do people think we have an unbiased movie journalism industry? The truth is, which movies get reviewed and given awards is based on which studios decided to pay which journalists to review them, to submit them for which Academy Awards, etc., etc., etc.

Does this mean the gaming industry is doomed?  No; not really.  I don’t think that journalism matters that much when it comes to gaming.  I don’t make my gaming decisions based on what some review on Kotaku said; I make it largely based on what genre it is and whether or not Chris Avellone wrote it.

Integrity, honesty and ethics are easy things to ask for from journalists who are covering subjects like politics, weather, crime and so on.  We don’t get them, but it’s reasonable to ask for them.  It’s much harder to ask for them from people covering art and literature.  But the good news is, we don’t need integrity in gaming journalism; because we can just go right to Steam and download whatever strikes our fancy.  I don’t care that Destructoid gave Alpha Protocol a 2 out of 10; I still know it’s a very good game. And I’ve said so.  On this blog.  That anyone can read.

Do you want to see an example of what happens when gaming journalism gets hit with a truly innovative game?  Here it is:

If you’ve played the game, it’s hard not to cringe at some of the questions the reporter asks there.  It’s not her fault, because nobody knew what to expect from SO:TL, but the questions are in anticipation of a typical “choose your ending”-type military game, when Spec Ops is… let’s say… different. If you think Depression Quest is ‘not for typical gamers’, well, Spec Ops is actively against them.  You want to know more than that, play the game.  But my point is just that all kinds of games can flourish now; gaming journalism isn’t holding them back.

Last year, there was an online service that was in very high-demand.  It was hyped, but its rollout was very rocky. When it was released to the public, it tended to crash a lot.  It couldn’t handle the number of users it was getting.

People criticized the organization that created it for being unprepared for the number of users, and for designing the system poorly.  It was quite embarrassing, especially since the organization behind it has always been a lightning rod for controversy.

You probably think I’m talking about the Health Care website.  But I’m not. I’m talking about the video game SimCity 4. It’s not the only game that had this kind of problem, though.  Same thing happened with Diablo III in 2012.

The game companies got flak for it, too–gamers hate Electronic Arts about as much as Republicans hate President Obama, but with the additional problem that they aren’t allowed to filibuster EA’s products and demand they come back with new ones.  It’s the equivalent of if Republicans had to pass and endorse all Obama’s pet projects or else leave politics entirely.

But at what point does this sort of thing start to constitute a pattern?  When the U.S. Government and two separate large electronics companies cannot roll out a satisfactory online service, you have to wonder if anyone knows what they are doing as far as building online services.

One argument might be that in all cases, the people making the service thought so many would have to use it–because of the law in the one case, and because of the gaming industry hype machine in the others–that they felt no reason to do a good job on the service in question.

But I don’t buy that for the Health Care case, because it’s one of the major political issues of the time, and even if you are so cynical as to believe the architects don’t care about the people, many of them will find their careers riding on the success or failure of the program.  So they had good reason to make sure the product worked from the get-go.

I don’t have any real explanations for this myself.  I just think it is interesting that wealthy organizations, who ought to have enough resources to understand what they can and can’t make, keep failing at debuting web products like this.

[Sometimes I just get these ideas–I was thinking about the ME 3 ending, and it occurred to me how much its profoundly messed-up logic could have been improved by borrowing from a certain Gilbert and Sullivan opera. Then I realized they even had the perfect character to do so…]

INT-CITADEL–CATALYST’S ROOM

[Shepard has just met the Catalyst]

Shepard: Do you know how I can stop the Reapers?

Catalyst: I control the Reapers.  They are my solution.  Every 50,000 years, I have them wipe out organics who will create synthetics who would wipe out the organics.

Shepard: What? That’s insane!

Catalyst: The created always rebel against the creators.  The Reapers must wipe out all organics who are capable of creating synthetics.

[Enter Mordin Solus, who has survived the events on Tuchanka and secretly boarded the Citadel.]

Mordin: Allow me, as an old Gilbert and Sullivan fan, to make a suggestion. The subtleties of the Salarian mind are equal to the emergency. The thing is really quite simple – the insertion of a single word will do it. Let it stand that every organic shall die who doesn’t create synthetics, and there you are, out of your difficulty at once!

Catalyst: Oh.  Very well.

[Catalyst vanishes, Reaper invasion stops. The entire cast enters.]

FINALE-ENSEMBLE

LIARA

Hip hip hurray,

All is okay–

Ev’rything is copacetic!

There’ll be no death

Even for Geth–

Peace to all who art synthetic!

ALL

Though ’twas a general rule in times before:

“Created must oppose the creator”

This time around, we sought to fix

Problems caused by the synthetics.

CMDR. SHEPARD

We might have been

Like a machine–

It was nearly cause for panics!

But now a peace,

Has brought a cease

To the harvest of organics!

ALL

                                                      The three choices given this organic (alluding to Shepard)

All seemed just a bit tyrannic!

He’s/I’m Commander Shepard, here to tell

You/Us his favorite choice on the Citadel!

Chris Franklin at Errant Signal wrote a good post about the game Quake.  He says a lot of things I have subconsciously thought, but never been able to articulate about the game. And it’s helped me to understand why I like this fairly unremarkable game so much.

He describes it as: “a game that’s part Lovecraftian gods and vile chapels from beyond human knowledge, part medieval fantasy horror full of bloody knights and dark castles, and part SciFi adventure of shooting space enforcers with hyperblaster lasers.”

In the sequels, they removed the first two elements, turning it into just a generic sci-fi adventure. Too bad; the original was far more interesting.

Franklin sums up the game’s mood thus: “Quake is unified in its attempt to spread an almost over the top, self-indulgent gloom with a hint of smouldering anger.” Small wonder I’ve always liked its mood, and find myself occasionally replaying it despite its completely mediocre gameplay.

scary story

At this time  of year, I like to read scary books, watch scary movies, and play scary games. With that in mind, what follows is a list of some of my favorites of each type. I think I’ve blogged about all of these individually before, but I decided to compile them into a list for a convenient reference.

  • The Haunter of the Dark, by H.P. Lovecraft.  My favorite Lovecraft story.  I don’t know what it is exactly, but something about the setting, and the mysterious pull of the distant church that draws the protagonist’s eye really works for me.  I feel its one of his best for not over-explaining things.
  • The Omen, directed by Richard Donner. (1976) The scariest movie I have ever seen, and the only one that’s ever kept me awake at night. The opening music is, as I’ve said before, absolutely chilling.
  • Green Tea, by Sheridan Le Fanu. There are other good stories–notably Carmilla–in the collection “In a Glass Darkly”, but this is the one that stuck with me.  I like the idea of overdosing on a commonplace drink causing someone to be haunted.
  • The “We Don’t Go To Ravenholm” level of Half-Life 2. I’ve been critical of this game in the past, and even this level has its flaws.  Nevertheless, I have to give Valve credit for putting a survival-horror level in the middle of what is otherwise a sci-fi action game. That’s a great way to do horror: drop it in where the audience isn’t expecting it.
  • The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers. The best example of a “weird tale” I have ever read.  It’s so good that I recommend it even though only the first four of ten stories are actually in the horror genre. They are that good.  “The Repairer of Reputations” is particularly memorable.
  • The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise. (1963) This is cheating a bit, since it’s based on a book.  But the movie is very good.  I didn’t like it when I first saw it, but it’s an acquired taste, and after repeated viewings I came to appreciate how subtle and ambiguous it is.
  • Quake. In terms of game play, this is just a Doom knock off, which means it’s basically all fighting and no suspense.  How does it get on this list, then? Two things: the artwork, though primitive by today’s standards, is very atmospheric and ominous.  And the intriguing level names, like “The Haunted Halls” and “The Tower of Despair” evoke a more subtle fear and deserve better than the mediocre gameplay within.
  • Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore. Did you think I could get through ten whole things without mentioning Gilbert and Sullivan?  You must be new here. Anyway, yes; this is technically a comic opera.  That doesn’t make the scene of the paintings coming to life or the Wagnerian “Ghosts’ High Noon” any less creepy. Gilbert complained that Sullivan’s “ghost music” was too scary for a comedy.  He was right–and that’s why it works.
  • The Damned Thing by Ambrose Bierce. Horror is what you don’t see and don’t understand.  This story probably packed a bigger punch when it was first written; the concept is old hat at this point.  Nevertheless, it’s still effective.
  • Spec Ops: The Line. I thought long and hard about whether to put this game on here.  Unlike everything else on this list, it contains no supernatural elements… or at least, no overt ones.  And also unlike everything else here, it is in no way “Gothic”.  But it is very dark, very disturbing and above all, a prime example of psychological horror.  It does share certain storytelling elements with The Haunting and “the Repairer of Reputations” and is just bizarre enough that I decided to include it.

Warren Spector wrote a great post the other week asking about how video games can contribute to discussions of serious issues.  As an example of what he was talking about, he cited the issue of “smart weapons”, especially military drones  His larger point was about the ways in which games could be used to address such issues.

It so happens that I have for some time now been thinking about doing a post about a similar issue and its treatment in video games.  Specifically, the issue of “transhumanism“, and how it is explored in two major video game series: Deus Ex and Mass Effect.

Deus Ex is appropriate to start with, since the first game in the series was created by Mr. Spector himself.  It dealt with the ethical and philosophical questions raised by Artificial Intelligences and “upgrades” to human beings, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution continues and builds upon that idea.

The theme of DX:HR is how humanity reacts to the development of augmentations that grant superhuman abilities.  There are people like David Sarif who are all for it, and people like William Taggart who oppose it.  More than just that, though; as Jensen wanders the streets of Detroit and Hengsha, all the unnamed townspeople give their opinions on the augmentations, and their reactions to Jensen, be they admiring or horrified.

Both Human Revolution and the original Deus Ex make reference to the myth of Icarus and Daedalus, evoking the concept of people being unable to control the technology that they have created.  At the end of Deus Ex,  J.C. Denton has the choice to merge with an Artificial Intelligence, and become a god-like super-intelligence that rules the world.

In fact, I might say that Deus Ex explores the concept of transhumanism on a macro scale, and Human Revolution explores it on a micro one.  Deus Ex deals with the consequences for the world at large of sophisticated A.I.s, and whether or not the players believes that the world can be left at the mercy of such things.  In this way, it perfectly satisfies what its creator alludes to in his post: it gives the players the choice, and lets them ponder the question: is it better to be governed by an omnipotent machine-god, or to plunge the world into another Dark Age?

If you are familiar with the writings of Ray Kurzweil, the Helios ending of Deus Ex is basically Kurzweil’s idea of the Singularity adapted for dramatic purposes.  You might argue that this is an unfair choice, but it dramatizes the idea that certain technologies, once created, lead inexorably on a certain path.

Human Revolution is a more personal story, with fewer far-reaching decisions.  (Presumably because, as a prequel, it had to arrive at a point from which Deus Ex could begin.)  It focuses more on what augmentations do to a person’s mind.  Jensen famously says “I never asked for this”, and the game shows his initial disgust at his mechanical augmentations.  One neat thing is how the game–deliberately, I think–puts its story somewhat at odds with its mechanics.  You will hear a lot of talk about how evil augmentations are, but at the same time, you’ll want to get more augs each time you gain Praxis points!

These themes are highly relevant to the controversial ending of the Mass Effect trilogy, as well.  I’ve discussed why these endings are extremely weak dramatically elsewhere on this blog, but here I will argue that the themes underlying the clumsily-written ending are actually better than is widely acknowledged.

When the Catalyst tells Shepard that “the created will always rebel against their creators”, it is echoing a theme that was introduced in Mass Effect 2, with the repeated motif of children rebelling against their parents, which I touched on here.  You could even argue that Shepard embodies this theme, since he rebels against Cerberus, who in a sense “created” him when they revivified him in Mass Effect 2.

This theme is closely related to the organics vs. synthetics conflict that the Catalyst alludes to.  The two ideas are united by the Geth/Quarian conflict, which can be resolved in a way that undercuts the Catalyst’s own argument.  However, I will say this that the Catalyst’s logic isn’t as dreadful as people say; it’s just poorly explained.

The justification for the Reaper cycle is that Reapers must wipe out advanced organic life before it creates synthetic life that wipes out all organic life.  As somebody once pointed out, this is similar to the concept of a “controlled burn“;  where you burn off some of the excess leaves and deadwood to prevent a massive fire from developing later.  Remember, the problem the Catalyst is supposedly preventing is “chaos”, so if the problem can be managed in an orderly fashion, its parameters are met.  It is a galactic forest ranger.

The three choices Shepard is offered at the end–destroy the Reapers, control the Reapers, and synthesize all organic life with all synthetic life–are, as many have pointed out, very similar to the Deus Ex endings. I would argue that the tone of the ME endings, especially with the Extended Cut, is far more optimistic than Deus Ex.  This may sound odd, but ultimately it is implied that the galaxy will rebuild in all but the “Reject” ending, and even there some hope is offered, in that Liara’s time capsule will make a difference in the next cycle.

As far as a philosophical exercise, Mass Effect succeeds to some extent at presenting the players with a question to force them to decide how they would handle it.  In this one respect, it actually provides a better context for the set of choices than Deus Ex,  in that the rest of the series has presented characters the players care about, giving them a reason to think hard about the choice.

As interesting as both series are, I think both fail to explore the theme as thoroughly as they might.  Deus Ex fails because much of the story is about the vast, globe-spanning conspiracy controlling events.  While that makes for a brilliant story in its own right, it has nothing to do with transhumanism or artificial intelligence.  Human Revolution was a bit better at focusing on the theme, but the player’s choice ultimately felt meaningless.  Even if you side with Taggart or destroy Panchea, you know the augmentation program will go forward.

Mass Effect fails because, well, obvious reasons having to do with the ending.  Specifically, though, it fails because of how it handles the philosophical differences in the endings.  It doesn’t really give the player a sense of what the endings mean, either before or after choosing them.

The larger point, though, is that video games are a good medium for exploring themes of  transhumanism, because playing them involves the interaction between human and machine intelligence, which means the mechanics are primed to complement a story about that concept. Mass Effect 3 actually makes reference to this fact, in the section where Shepard enters the Geth collective via a virtual Tron-esque interface, and both Human Revolution, and Mass Effect 3 end with the player characters standing at a machine interface that allows them to choose the ending they want.  Weak as this is dramatically, it is reinforced by the nature of gaming itself.