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.

Warren Spector recently wrote an excellent article stating that what video games need to legitimize them as a medium is a Roger Ebert-like figure whose criticism will help interest the general public in gaming.

I’ve often wondered about this myself, but I’ve ultimately concluded that it’s getting the order wrong.  I think the popularity of gaming will lead to the emergence of such critics and not the other way about.  I think the reason for this is that what popular criticism requires to exist is a sufficiently rare set of qualities that you need a large pool to choose from.

Now, that said, I think having a “Roger Ebert of gaming” would be awesome.  In fact, that’s kind of what I dream of becoming whenever I write a gaming post.  Not that I ever will be.  I think the thing few people realize about criticism is that the key quality it takes to be a good critic of anything is to be a good writer.  It’s not enough to know your subject matter and be able to come with interesting analyses of it; you need to be able to do it concisely, intelligently and above all else, cleverly.

Let me cite one of my favorite literary criticism essays: Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses“.  I suggest you read the whole thing–it’s short–but to encapsulate what makes it great, let me explain that I have never read any Fenimore Cooper books, and yet I enjoy the essay tremendously.  For all I know, Twain’s criticism is completely unfair.  But I enjoy the essay anyway.  Think about that: I have no idea what these books are about except for what Twain mentions, but his evisceration of them is fun to read.

So consider that the most important element of criticism isn’t about what you’re criticizing or what you’re saying about it; it’s about how you phrase it.  If you can be witty in your reviews–that’s the real key, I think.   Not that there isn’t plenty of wit in game criticism, but the issue with game criticism is that the humor too often comes from “in-jokes”, or references to other games.  It’s not accessible to the layman.

In contrast, take this quote from Ebert’s review of the movie Armageddon: “The movie is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense, and the human desire to be entertained. No matter what they’re charging to get in, it’s worth more to get out.”  I’ve never seen that movie; so I don’t know if I agree or not.  But it’s a great quote.  He could have said it about any bad movie, though; it has nothing to do with the subject of the movie.  It’s just a generally funny line.

I’m not saying that’s all Ebert was about–he had truly interesting ideas about movies, too.  But that’s not what made him famous.  What made him famous was that he was a very witty writer.

All we need then is somebody who loves video games, has interesting things to say about them, and is an extremely witty writer to boot.  So where is that guy?  Everybody who writes about games, including myself, wants to be that guy, but no one yet has succeeded.

Here’s another question: where’s the new Roger Ebert of movies, now that the original Roger Ebert has passed away?  I don’t know that there is a comparable figure in movie criticism.  Spector apparently couldn’t think of one either, or he would have used that person’s name.  He pretty much said on his blog that Ebert was the most famous movie critic he could think of for an example.

I have a theory: criticism in general is not as good nowadays.  People just are not as good at it, possibly because the internet makes it easier to seek out criticism targeted at their specific interests.  Criticism is Balkanized now, unlike in Ebert’s heyday, when there was one movie critic in the city paper, and he had to write to appeal to the widest audience he could.

This theory could be wrong–I don’t like it because it’s a little simplistic, “things-ain’t-what-they-used-to-be” kind of thinking,  but it does account for why there is no Ebert of gaming.

NOTE: Spector’s article has generated a lot of reaction–Shamus Young and Chris Franklin, among others–have written posts in response to it that make some good points about the issue. Young makes basically the same point I did about the need for game critics who can be read by non-gamers.