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.
As part of my PhD research I am undertaking case studies of various AAA videogame titles. These end up taking the form of long critical reviews with essay-like analysis in the latter half of the piece. Many of these will be appearing in the Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds as reviews, with supplementary information that just doesn't fit in a stand-alone article on my Videogames Reference Wiki. So far they all contain a longish discussion of the narrative and game mechanics, with some critical judgment of each in turn. I will analyse the narrative in terms of story-telling, and make some recommendations, or refer to those of others. Similarly with the mechanics, I have done some work to understand their 'gameness' and their relationship to the narrative framework. The Assassin's Creed article below is an example of the results of one such study. (Or two since AC1 and AC2 consisted of two separate sections in my thesis and in the journal.)
One game I have yet to tackle is Grand Theft Auto IV. Though it is quite old now (wow, 2 years is old?) I will be revisiting Liberty City and writing out my adventures there for the first time in the coming weeks. I left this one late intentionally because I felt I needed some practice at this craft of criticism before tackling such a monumental example as GTA4. And yes, I do begin this task with the bias that GTA4 is a monument. There is simply so much in it. I wanted to have some kind of framework that would help me hang onto the wildly differing array of topics that is sure to come up when I play through this thing again, and I think the time is just about right.
So what I have here are a list of topics, themes, points and questions that I hope to address in some way as I play through this game. They are not in any particular order, but the groupings are how I am at this point understanding certain clusters and relationships. Please feel free to comment with additions or omissions. Please feel free to reference your own work as I am happy to synthesize and cite any other analysis that will make this work deeper and better rounded. So here we go:
The media furor surrounding Mass Effect's sex scene has long since died down, and I am not writing this to stir that particular pot. Rather, it occurs to me that a game like Mass Effect might be described as an effective remedy to some of the stereotypical problems with sex on screen. Namely, those ideas that men are always the instigator of sex, that women are merely objects for the men on screen and the men in the audience, with their passivity and one-dimensionality and inevitable surrender. I am not suggesting that all women in film or television are like this, what I am suggesting is that women in videogames can be quite directly the opposite. In Mass Effect, there are a number of opportunities for addressing this stereotype quite directly, without actually subverting the ostensible science-fiction drama.
Some familiarity with Mass Effect is assumed here, but hopefully not so much that this article will not make sense to a non-player. The player occupies a character called Shepard. Shepard can be made either male or female, and cosmetically customized with sophisticated tools. As part of a 30+ hour game experience, Shepard can engage in a romance sub-plot which is the main focus here, but is not the main focus of the game. Instead, Shepard is an elite soldier that is tasked with nothing short of saving the galaxy.