I've been having some conversations with my PhD supervisor about the finer points of one of my chapters as I near completion, and some interesting angles for further writing have come up. In some ways my thesis is setting myself up for a whole lot of more specific research questions later, which I guess is a good thing. This topic is one of them.
I'm becoming more and more interested in Mass Effect as time goes on. I haven't even managed to play the third one yet, but its now on its way to me from everyone's favorite importer, OzGameShop. I've already wandered into the territory I'm going to discuss here, though, before the whole fiasco with the ending to Mass Effect 3 transpired (and continues to). My thesis, generally, doesn't deal with people at large, but more with individual players as much as possible. Yet, increasingly, it is becoming apparent that to work out some of my interesting problems, I'll have to bring in "people at large" in a pretty big way. In trying to erect a useful framework for analyzing games, both in their ludological interactivity and dramatic narrativism, I've gotten into interpretations of canon.
In another in a series of pieces discussing largely unanswerable questions, this piece will examine the relevance of the ‘canon’ to an interactive form such as Mass Effect. The background to this discussion is the overall controversy regarding sex in videogames, and why it is such a difficult subject to handle well, that began in particular regarding Mass Effect a few years ago. More recently, speculation surfaced and inspired a heated debate regarding the possibility of expanding same-sex relationships with previously-established characters in Mass Effect 3. The debate, while very likely motivated by personal aversions to non-heterosexuality in general, revolved around canonical and continuity objections. My question here is, can an interactive medium have a non-interactive canon? Who is to say what the truth is, in a medium where nothing is true, and everything is permitted?
I'm getting a lot of mental mileage out of this topic, and I'm spreading the thoughts out in various outlets. This blog post is one version of the thinking. I will be developing it further in a paper I'm presenting in July at an academic conference, and I had a chat to Mark Serrels over at Kotaku AU for a slightly more approachable take (albeit with slightly different concentration). There is a lot more to be said about Mass Effect, romance, fiction and simulation and I hope to be involved in saying. For now, let's begin with this discussion of canon.
This is a few days late, but in the interests of keeping a reasonable record of what I’ve written and posted around the net, I am making an entry for my latest piece on Kotaku’s AU website. Anyone familiar with my writing and thinking on games will undoubtedly recognise these ideas, but once again its a thought piece which intends to generate some critical discussion among the public, non-academic readers of Kotaku. Thanks again to Mark Serrels for his support with this project, and thanks for the by-line this time! I exist for reals now!
Kaiden or Ashley? Rescue or Harvest? How do you make decisions in video games? Video games were described by Sid Meier as ‘a series of interesting choices.’ Indeed, many good video games today involve choices that go beyond which gun to use or how fast to run through a room. Many involve decisions between two general strategies, or like the above examples between two characters or responses that affect the rest of the game. The question here is, how do those choices matter?
I want to suggest that there are two different types of choices available in video games, and wish that there was a third. The first I will call a ‘mechanical choice.’ These are the kind that may not even seem like choices to experienced gamers, as they are built into the mechanics of the game. These are the ‘choice’ to grab a Mushroom in Mario, or to pick up a sniper rifle in Call of Duty while standing on a rooftop. Do you upgrade your sword and armour or not? Of course you do these things, because they help you to beat the game. Mechanical choices are economic: they make the player-character (or his allies) more powerful.
The second kind of choice is a ‘narrative choice.’ These are the kinds of decisions that affect the fiction/story of the game, but not the relative power of the player-character. By rescuing either Kaiden Alenko or Ashley Williams in Mass Effect, the strength of the overall party isn’t affected, since the two characters are more or less interchangeable given the right balance of the other party members. We do not have the option to rescue both, so a loss is inevitable. The only difference is which personality you lose. Playing as a good or evil Cole in inFamous is a general strategy (like any other good/bad split we see so often these days), but doesn’t affect the strength of the hero either way. Each power is balanced against its opposite, so in the end, a Cole of either alignment has equivalent firepower.
I want to take a moment to pour over the semantics of a few important terms/concepts often used in the context of videogame studies. These terms are fundamental to our study, but are in my opinion, abused. That is to say they are either given new or limited definitions, or claimed by game studies when up to now, they've been deployed with different meanings and in different contexts. So without further ado: Play, Rules, Learning and Goals.