Friday, April 30, 2010

The Sensationalist: Homeward Bound

This post is part of "The Sensationalist," a continuing series here at Experience Points in which we examine games' abilities to evoke emotions and sensations in video game players. Please have a look at the series' introduction as well its previous entries.

WARNING: The tenth paragraph contains minor spoilers for
Heavy Rain.

Just last Monday, I returned stateside from a three week excursion across the Atlantic. As you all know, the sense of comfort one feels upon returning home from a long journey is immensely satisfying - you almost want to sing about it. Home is more than a place of central operation. The idea of home is often associated with calm normality, refuge, contentment and peace of mind. It is our reward after a long days work and a venue for relaxation. The sensation of feeling at home is undeniably strong, yet videogames rarely exploit this emotion.

The mythological adventure of the hero's journey begins with a departure from home, leaving the mundane world behind. The home environment may contrast with the perilous realm, heightening its abnormality. It can also tell a story on its own, displaying the hero's faults which will be mended during the adventure. Of course this story could also be told entirely in the home. However, incorporating the ordinary into a game system designed for extraordinary feats can be difficult and seem meaningless. Thus, the home is mostly neglected. Most games begin just across the border into the fantastical.

There are a few notable counter-examples. Chronotrigger begins with Chrono lying in bed, awoken by his mother. Home is given a physical presence, although the house is quickly abandoned and rarely revisited. His village does become home-like in a way. As Chrono returns with his compatriots in different time periods, it generally remains geographically similar. The town's frequent appearance makes it familiar, somewhat evoking the sensation of home, but it is still not a bastion of comfort.
Familiarity only partly captures the sensation of home. By the end of Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, Termina's Clock Town becomes very familiar. Link navigates its streets and interacts with its citizens constantly. He only does this on a superficial level, however. Link is a still an outsider, a voyeur dawning various masks to interact with the town and its inhabitants as someone else entirely. While it is clearly a home, it is not his home.

The construction of a personal place is very important to our idea of home. It needs to feel like ours, sometimes through ownership. The apartments in Quantic Dream's Indigo Prophecy feel more personal because their residents conduct within them both important business and mundane tasks. Yet as players, watching Tyler Miles interact with his girlfriend at his home feels a bit intrusive. So while it does depict Tyler comfortably at home, it does not evoke within ourselves the same sensation.
Some games try to give players a personal investment in their abode. Many players are attracted to The Sims because they can imagine and build endlessly diverse homes of their very own. Each dinner table, grandfather clock, and bathroom is put there by the player specifically. This act connects players to their houses in a way other games do not. The home is undeniably personal.

Assassin's Creed 2 attempts to capitalize on the collector's satisfaction of ownership and personalization by allowing players, if they so choose, to amass an impressive array of 14th and 15th century paintings. Likewise, players can discover statues to adorn the Villa Auditore. Whenever they wish, players can visit and peruse their gallery. I personally took pride in my estate as it became wealthier and better attended. While this too can be associated with home, the Villa still feels cold and emotionally lifeless. It feels more like a large display case than a home.
Home ownership in Fable II personalizes the experience, but also expands beyond what AC2 offers by allowing players to merry and raise children within their residence. For some players, the experience of returning from an expedition and actually being greeted by a welcoming family evokes a strong sense of home. While I did not experience compelling family ties myself, Fable II has the potential to engender the sensations of comfort and respite associated with home.

As the old adage says, "home is where the heart is." Home is deeply associated with family and friends. While we all relish solitary activities in the home, these small moments often become rituals sandwiched between interactive relationships with other people, or even animals.
Interestingly, Heavy Rain captures this sentiment with its depiction of Ethan's various living situations. The most powerful sensation of home is created in the beginning of the game, when Ethan plays with his children in the yard and enjoys a meal with his family. When Ethan lives alone and has a strained relationship with Shaun, his home is dark, rundown, and shabby. Once Shaun is kidnapped, Ethan sleeps in a hotel; he essentially has no home. Finally, in the optimum ending, Ethan moves into a new apartment waiting to be furnished, creating a new family with Madison and Shaun. Throughout Heavy Rain, the physical home environments are metaphors, reflecting the current state of character relationships.

Games have largely abandoned homes on account of narrative and technical limitations. The few titles that successfully evoke sensations of home do not rely on the creation of physical space. Instead, they recreate the relationships which many of us associate with home. The most evocative sensations of home are not created in kitchens and bedrooms, but in the moments between battles, the calm before the storm.

The Normandy of Mass Effect is a constantly moving space ship, yet it feels like home. As does the fireside camp of Dragon Age: Origins. In Chronotrigger, and a few other games, "home" is created through the comfort of friends, when allies come together, share stories, and rest. The idea of home within the mundane world still remains largely unexplored by games. However, in many of our journeys, we may yet find the calm and familiar sensation of home along the way.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

EXP Podcast #75: Olympic Review

We have reached the lands of the Gods, gazed upon their infinite knowledge, and returned with another enlightening podcast. This week, Scott and I eagerly delve into God of War III, the final installment (maybe) in the epic Kratos trilogy. Join us this week to discuss the game's new features, the design of Olympus, fun with fleeces, over-the-top aesthetics, and the brilliance of thematic consistency. Comments are encouraged and appreciated.

Discussion Starters:

- How well does God of War III carry the torch from the first two titles in the series?
- Should this game be the last in the franchise? Is this content all tapped out?
- What are your thoughts on the game over all?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 44 min 23 sec
- "Time for God of War to Call It Quits," by Chris Kohler via Wired
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, April 26, 2010

Fantasy vs. Imagination

Each disc-based Final Fantasy has pushed the limits of consoles in terms of cinematic presentation and the artistic representation of vast worlds with intricately designed inhabitants.

Even though it now shares space with such artistic powerhouses as Uncharted 2 and Mass Effect 2, Final Fantasy XIII upholds the series tradition of possessing generation-defining graphics. Its beautiful in-game engine compares favorably to pre-rendered video in most other games, and its cutscenes have the sparkling clarity and frenetic action of a Wachowski-directed Pixar film. While the game's story is typically obtuse, the world in which it unfolds is full of life that is at once foreign to us and natural in its context: there is enough outlandish machinery and mythical fauna to rival the Star Wars films in terms of sheer variety, but it all seems to adhere to a certain, foreign logic. Even the small details like animated menu transitions or text layout speak to painstaking craftsmanship designed to draw the player further into another universe.

Final Fantasy XIII's world is one in which players are invited to lose themselves. However, after spending some time in that world, I cannot help but feel nostalgic for some of the older titles. With all of its hyper-realistic splendor, Final Fantasy XIII seems like a place that can exist without any help from the player. More than any other title in the series, Final Fantasy XIII is a ready-made universe that asks relatively little from its players in terms of imagination.

Final Fantasy XIII's visual fidelity serves to standardize interpretations of its characters. The version of Lightning seen in the pre-rendered cutscenes and artwork is essentially identical to the one the player controls in game:

Aside from less minute details in her hair and skin tone, the playable character model is impressively similar:

Lightning is defined without much help from the player: her movements, appearance, and personality traits are shared across gameplay, cutscene, and artistic representations. A player wanting to fashion their own image of Lightning must struggle against a strongly-established version created by the developers. This stands in sharp contrast to Final Fantasy games that pre-date Final Fantasy VII.

For example, in Final Fantasy VI, Terra takes this form when the player controls her:

Because of a mixture of technical limitations and contemporaneous design philosophies, Terra's interactive form uses a traditional, "super deformed" art style. The oversized head and face lend themselves to representing the essence of emotions and mannerisms rather than attempting to simulate them. The game gives the player an impression of the character and leaves it to them to construct the particular details.

At the same time, the game presents an alternate representation of Terra in the menu system:

The portrait suggests a different interpretation of Terra by using more realistic facial features and a subdued expression in juxtaposition to the cartoonish in-game representation. Since both of these versions exist in-game, the player learns that the game's aesthetic and characters are somewhat malleable.

This plasticity becomes even more apparent when viewing Yoshitaka Amano's artwork. As lead character and graphic designer, he offers a glimpse into a third, highly stylized version of a character who already has two developer-created visual identities:

All three of these representations convey an important aspect of Final Fantasy VI's storytelling: the player is encouraged to use their imagination while exploring the narrative. The various kinds of artwork hint at a universe whose image is veiled; the game's form is a projection of something the player helps construct. In order to experience the world, we must imagine it as we would the setting of a novel or a campaign in a table top game. The sprites, portraits, and brushstrokes are all different yet valid ways of interpreting a universe whose existence relies on our interpretation.

In contrast, Final Fantasy XIII's world is pre-packaged for the player's consumption. The gorgeous character designs leave little to the imagination: their voices, equipment, and personalities are rendered as beautiful, yet immutable, works of art. While Final Fantasy games have always been heavily authored experiences, Final Fantasy XIII defines the narrative experience in a way largely independent from player interpretation. The danger with this is that if a player does not like a character, there is little that can be done to change it.

Examined in this way, the utility of simplistic or impressionistic graphics goes beyond technical limitations or a philosophical statement. Minimalism is a narrative tool that stimulates the player's imagination. Every person's playthrough of Final Fantasy VI was slightly different based on how they conceived of its characters: Each person's Locke spoke differently, every person's Sabin was a different height, some imagined Terra as an ethereal water-color painting where others saw a manga caricature. The simplicity of crude graphical representations can reward a player's investment in the game: taking part in crafting the experience engenders a sense of ownership that facilitates immersion and enjoyment. I suspect this is one of the reasons behind the retro aesthetic in the recently-released Sleep is Death: simple graphics are both technically flexible and narratively conducive to creating a tabula rasa for player-driven creation.

Over the years, Final Fantasy has shifted the onus of storytelling away from the player and towards the developer. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it has changed the nature of the series. What was once a collection of sketches that comprised variations on a theme is now a single portrait. Make no mistake: Final Fantasy XIII it is a beautiful painting, but I do miss being able to add my own brushstrokes.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Cultural Conflict: The Politics of Mass Effect, pt. 3

This post is the final installment of a three part series exploring the politics of the Mass Effect universe as created by Bioware. Each post seeks to explore some of the political and cultural dynamics of the series through the lens of real world politics and ethics. Comments are appreciated. You can find part one here and part two here.

Warning: These posts include minor lore spoilers for
Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2.

In the Mass Effect universe, major struggles ensue between entire species. Politics is mainly conducted along racial lines, meaning cultural antagonisms can lead to century long wars between large identity groups. Considering our own history, cultural conflict may seem inevitable. Yet the affect of culture and identity on politics is still hotly contested amongst political thinkers. There are those who doom mankind into endless feuds over incompatible beliefs and practices. Alternatively, some believe our shared natures lead towards mutual cooperation. The debates surrounding culture, identity, and politics are mirrored themselves within the Mass Effect universe and other mainstream cultural artifacts.

Clashing Identities

For many political thinkers, the end of the Cold War proved the undeniable success of Western liberal market democracy as a political system. Francis Fukuyama's The End of History popularized the idea of a world free of ideological conflict. In response to Fukuyama's thesis and the rise of ethnic strife in the early nineties, Samuel P. Huntington wrote The Clash of Civilizations. In Huntington's own words:

It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural.

Numerous political scientists affirm these claims, attributing various ethnic conflicts to "ancient hatreds." It is easy, when looking upon civil wars around the world, to see an underlying cultural component.
The same can be said for the violent encounters in the Mass Effect universe. As discussed last week, the krogan are a culturally violent race deemed too dangerous to exist without the sterilizing affects of the genophage virus. All the citadel races warn of interactions with krogans because of their "nature." The rachni, batarians, and vorcha are also looked down upon or feared because of perceived innate behaviors - potentially fueled by cultural misinterpretations.

Similarly, a political misunderstanding between expansionist humans and a turian fleet led to the First Contact War between the two races. The animosities between humans and turians as the result of the war exist well into Mass Effect 2. There are also various conflicts that occur between species aboard the Citadel, from racial epithets thrown at quarian exiles to arguments between overly-polite hanar citizens and impatient turiens. Race appears as a common narrative concern in both games, testifying to its importance in the universe. When difference is considered biological and culture immutable, conflict quickly becomes colored by identity politics.

Cultural Conversations

One pillar in Huntington's argument is the strong belief in community homogeneity. We exist within identity groups with shared values which define our political interactions. When values are incompatible we inevitably clash. Thus, on a large scale, difference can become dangerous. However, this need not be the case. As philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah would argue, "We can live in harmony without agreeing on underlying values (except, perhaps, the cosmopolitan value of living together)."

Cultural differences are, in fact, the norm. We are all multicultural individuals. We are constantly interpreting and reevaluating our cultural identities, blending them into a single being. As Appiah states, "cultural purity is an oxymoron." Cosmopolitanism as a political ideology seeks to value these differences while fostering international communication and cooperation. Some political thinkers go so far as to suggest the creation of a world government - something perhaps similar to Mass Effect's Citadel Council. In brief, cosmopolitanism is founded on two principles:

One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance. People are different, the cosmopolitan knows, and there is much to learn from our differences.

The ideology need not fall into the trap of cultural relativism, nor become solely a tool to rid the earth of non-western values. Yet clashes between the two principles can arise. "There's a sense in which cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge." That being said, mutual respect can and does occur on a regular basis, even amongst the fictional races of the Mass Effect universe.

Political Playgrounds

Despite the racial antagonisms with humans, turians prove they can be quite tolerant, allowing complete religious freedom within their own species - something we cannot claim of our own kind. Likewise, the monotone elcor accommodate other cultures by clarifying their sentences, explicitly stating their intended tone. The quick thinking, fast talking, seemingly emotionless, and very short lived salarians still manage to maintain healthy relationships with most other species, despite the occasional awkward verbal exchange. In actuality, the Citadel is a remarkably cosmopolitan city run by a relatively diverse political body.
Besides the tragically violent vorcha of ME2, the game succeeds in depicting morsels of hope for mutual cooperation. Even the despotic batarian government can explain their frequent criminal behavior, freeing them of cultural stereotypes. Similarly, a freed rachni queen may help save the universe and sooth the fears her ancestors once birthed.

Cultural exchanges are frequent in both ME games. A paragon focused player might have Shepard release the rachni queen, a universally despised species, because of her proven sentience and ability to conduct rational thought. Similarly in ME2, a paragon Commander Shepard may legitimately choose renegade actions in her interactions with krogans on Tuchanka, navigating their cultural behaviors while respecting the customs that do not needlessly destroy. Many of the recruitment missions in ME2 require similar cultural interactions. The diverse crew of the Normandy testifies to cosmopolitan virtues in the fictional universe, as well as our own.
The politics of identity are complex. If our species were to one day reach the stars and encounter new life, and with it new value systems, would we recognize a common sentience? Would we appreciate our mutual ability to imagine other worlds and search them out? I would like to believe, with enough practice on our own world, cross-species conversations would prove fruitful. Our political beliefs and ideologies play out in our day-to-day lives and in the international arena, across borders. We test them in the fictional worlds of books, films, and videogames, reimagining our context anew. We, game designers among us, create self-revealing political playgrounds in which I gladly enter.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

EXP Podcast #74: Perspectives on Play

When playing games with others, the already-challenging task of learning the systems and rules is compounded by having to learn about the other players. Differences in techniques, skills, and expectations definitely keeps things lively, but what happens when problems arise? This week, inspired by Alex Martinez's article about how cute little Sackboy precipitated a big ugly fight between him and his wife, we look at what happens when players see things differently. We discuss how games approach the challenge of accommodating players of different skills, goals, and play philosophies while also touching on some of the ways players communicate with each other. As always, if you want to add your perspective, jump into the comments!

Some discussion starters:

- How much is a player's enjoyment impacted by their "gaming literacy" and how much is influenced by how they approach games generally? Are there certain games at which you are not skilled but still enjoy because of their dynamics?

- What games do a good job of accommodating both highly-experienced and minimally-experienced gamers? Do they do this through levelling the play field or by quickly and efficiently educating the newcomer?

- How can players reach an agreement about what they want to get out of a game?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 35 min 44 sec
- "Little Big Trouble," by Alex "Spaz" Martinez
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, April 19, 2010

Race and Rain

This post contains spoilers for Heavy Rain.

Although Heavy Rain is set in a nameless American city, David Cage has been forthright about Philadelphia's strong influence on game. When members of the development team visited the city, it inspired the dark, gritty world players would ultimately explore:
"What we discovered in Philadelphia was beyond anything we could imagine. We saw despair. We saw violence. We saw fear. We saw poverty, in a way that no one in Europe could imagine takes place in the U.S."
While most games have a subtextual American slant, it is rare to find a game that so earnestly addresses the country's failings. Trying to say something meaningful about a society is difficult, and even games like Grand Theft Auto tend to sneak their messages in subtly via satire.

While Heavy Rain stands out as a game that explores the ugly side of American life, it does so without making much of a comment on the elements of that society. Specifically, Heavy Rain says almost nothing on the subject of race explicitly, even though it is one of the most important factors in shaping the country.

Although race is never addressed directly, the game does engage with the concept. Unfortunately, as the game glosses over racial issues, it also partakes in a long tradition of creating stereotypical portrayals of non-white characters.

1. The Non-Character

The lack of a non-white playable character ultimately made as much of an impact on me as any one of the characters themselves. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, black people account for approximately 43.5% of Philadelphia's population. White people account for approximately 42.5%, and Latino people account for approximately 11%. Without making any kind of idealistic judgment, I think it is fair to say that it is at least strange that every single major character in the game is white (including many of the NPCs).

To take inspiration from a city and then strip it of a large portion of its identity strikes me as artistically disingenuous. To model the game so closely on Philadelphia in regards to its geographic layout, climate, and social problems while at the same time scrubbing it of the people who inhabit the space turns real human pain into an abstract tool through which to elicit generic sympathy from the audience.

2. Set Piece Characters

When non-white characters do crop up, they often take the form of the speechless black children that inhabit the early playground scene. While it is nice to see some diversity, they have little impact in the story besides setting the mood. They represent naivete and innocence in the face of their terrible surroundings. These children are suspiciously parent-less (unless all the other white folks in the park are adopted parents). They carry their hardships gleefully and without complaint while Ethan and his son seem to be the only ones aware of life's cruelty.

Similarly, there are a surprising number of black police officers in the police station where Jayden works. None of them seem to be participating in the case, and most are confined to menial-looking routines. They exist to fill in the scene while Jayden and Blake spearhead the entire investigation as a two-man squad.

3. Mad Jack

Mad Jack is the first non-white adult the player meets who offers any direct impact to the story. Based on his potential to affect the story, the amount of dialogue he has, and the extent to which the player can interact with him, he is the story's leading non-white character.

Unfortunately, he turns out to be a burly, murderous, ex-con whose only role is to aid the killer and try to kill Jayden. He conforms to the long-standing cultural trope of the menacing black thug and voices the game's only racial epithet: "cracker."

4. Paco Mendes

While Paco's skin tone makes him appear ethnically ambiguous, his name and accent identify him as the game's sole Latino character. Like Mad Jack, he is quickly cast as one of the game's villains and his role consists of threatening one of the protagonists.

Paco exhibits and is defined by extreme machismo: In the nightclub, he lustfully summons women for his entertainment and dismisses them after he gets bored. After Madison flirts with him, he decides he is entitled to her body and makes her strip at gunpoint. In doing so, he simultaneously evokes undercurrents of the dangerous, sexually-obsessed Other and reenacts historical fears based on miscegenation and the defiling of white women.

Ultimately these traits become his own undoing, as Madison shows that his lustfulness is also his weakness. His defeat is a metaphorical castration precipitated by the threat of a physical one.

5. The Gravedigger

In the scene when Shelby and Lauren search the graveyard looking for clues to who might be the origami killer, they encounter a variant of "the magical negro."

While the gravedigger has no explicit magical powers, he still conforms to the trope of the folksy black person who happily and inexplicably offers advice that aids the white protagonist. Lauren and Shelby find themselves wondering what the connection might be between the dead boy and the origami killer. Luckily for them, the old gravedigger saunters up to share "Alls ah know" about the fate of the "poor youngin'."

Somehow, this grave digger knows the exact details of the boy's death and that he was adopted. After imparting this wisdom he dismisses himself: "well, better be gettin' home," having moved the plot along and served his sole purpose.

To make a game explicitly about life in the U.S. is to wade into the complex racial dynamics that define the culture. While none of the choices in the game seem malicious, they do speak to a either a lack of understanding about the forces that shape U.S. society.

With Heavy Rain, David Cage "wanted it to tell something about, maybe our societies in general, maybe about the US especially." Without fully exploring the contours race makes on a culture, Heavy Rain makes only the bland, obvious statements about social ills: urban blight is a problem, serial killers are bad, it's sad when children die.

Left unexplored are the more complex questions. For example: Philadelphia's mayor, police chief, and district attorney are black. Why is the city's video game doppelganger represented by Mad Jack?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Mad About Madison

This post contains spoilers for Heavy Rain.

David Cage hoped Heavy Rain would show that video games could provide "adult experiences based on emotions; that it's possible to make games that are not based on shooting, on driving, on jumping, on solving puzzles, or whatever." In attempting to accomplish this, Heavy Rain relies on an unusual mixture of nontraditional gameplay and a heavy emphasis on its characters.

Because the game's mechanics are contextual, the characters must be sufficiently nuanced in order to convey believable experiences. However, it is extremely difficult to create characters that can inspire empathy without simply using them as tools to manufacture emotion. Unfortunately, in the case of Madison Paige, story and gameplay techniques mix with long-standing gender tropes to transform her from a person into a prop.

Our friend Denis Farr wrote a comprehensive piece over at The Borderhouse about the many thematic problems with Madison Paige, and I highly recommend reading it. As Denis states, "While violence visits all the characters in the game, there is a sense that all the scenes involving Madison have a tinge of sexual assault threatened on top of everything else." The perpetual threat of sexual violence is established in Madison's first scene, in which a group of attackers enter her apartment. At this point, most players will have completed a shower scene that contains several lingering shots of Madison's nude body, including a few focused directly on her breasts. David Cage explains this scene by saying:
"I think it really helps to build a relationship with the character. You saw her really fragile and vulnerable and naked, and this is out of the way now, and then you can really start to like her as a character. I think that the perception of Madison would have been very different without this first scene where you share intimacy."
While it is true that this scene shows her vulnerability and fragility, it does little explain her "as a character." Besides being an insomniac and having an inexplicable crush on Ethan, the only thing the player learns about Madison is that she is a constant target for sex, violence, and the combination thereof. The game never goes into her background, her motivations, her skills as a reporter, or the toll of all the harrowing situations in which she finds herself. Furthermore, the gameplay continually suggests that Madison can only react to the problems that befall her, instead of assuming control and agency over a potential situation, both before and as it develops.

Madison's thematic portrayal is continually defined in narrow, gendered terms: in addition to the nude/rapist scene, an insane doctor tries (and for some players, succeeds) to drug her, tie her up, and threaten to penetrate her with a power drill. In another scene, she goes to a nightclub looking for clues, and finds herself herself stripping for the club's sleazy owner at gunpoint. Madison is able to escape both of these situations, but in doing so does nothing to transcend her role as the game's avenue to explore sex and violence: she can kill the doctor with his own formal phallic symbol and she gets the best of the club owner by threatening to crush his testicles. As Denis notes: "To engage him on any level, she still had to threaten his sexuality."

The Heavy Rain DLC continues to define Madison in terms of sexuality and violence. In Giant Bomb's playthrough of The Taxidermist, she is threatened by the prospect of being turned into a literal sex object:

If she avoids being butchered and stuffed, the scene's climax sees her wield another large, deadly phallic symbol between her own thighs before she plunges it into her attacker's crotch. Again, Madison is defined as an object of sexual violence whose only means of engagement is reciprocal sexual violence.

David Cage describes the DLC as: "just a short story of something that happened to Madison." In doing so, he eloquently summarizes the main problem with Madison, as well as Heavy Rain in general: things "just happen," both in terms of the plot and ludic narrative. Madison seems to be unable to control what kinds of situations she finds herself in and is continually in a reactive state of existence. At the same time, the game's mechanics reinforce this lack of agency for both the player and the character.

Heavy Rain's gameplay is an inherently reactive: since the action takes place in quicktime events, there is little the player can do except wait and react to the prompts on screen. The player's main source of agency is deciding whether to activate these events. Disappointingly, yet not surprisingly, the three male playable characters (and the player who controls them) all have far more agency in terms of choosing their actions than Madison: Ethan can give up or fail the origami challenges. Jayden can decide whether to use lethal force, take drugs, or work on the investigation. Shelby can choose whether to help Lauren on multiple occasions and whether to have mercy on a sick, yet reprehensible old man.

As Madison, the player has no choice but to deal with things "that [just] happen" to her instead of making active decisions about what paths to take. Madison is strangely eager to act as Ethan's nurse and personal investigator, and the player cannot deviate from these roles. The nightclub and strip scene forces Madison into a sexually violent situation while simultaneously forcing the player to participate in it, as any attempt to deviate from tightly-scripted event stops the game's progress. To initiate the sex scene between Ethan and Madison, the player makes the decision as Ethan. It is both a thematic and ludic impossibility for Madison to control her sexuality: either the plot is foisting unwanted sex on her or the decision is being made by the player while they are controlling a male character.

The vast majority of actions the player and Madison take together are either in service of a male character or part of a narrative attempt to create an atmosphere of uncertainty and sexual violence. Be it mundane tasks like carrying groceries or harrowing action sequences, Ethan, Jayden, and Shelby have a variety of motivations and experiences that define multiple aspects of their characters. By contrast, even Madison' smallest actions, like putting on makeup or cleaning Ethan's wounds, serve to supporting male agency or traditional, vapid images of femininity. Heavy Rain confines its female lead to a supporting role, and in doing so fails the Bechdel test in both a narrative and gameplay sense.

Trying to create "adult experiences" in games is a noble goal, but Heavy Rain shows that it is not so much the genre, but the execution that matters. Even the "shooters" that Cage dismisses can convey complex stories and emotions. A game like Portal demonstrates how a character's vulnerability can be explored and utilized for dramatic effect while still allowing the character (and the player) to retain her agency. Chell is in constant danger, but the game and its story is structured to create a proactive experience: Chell and the player are empowered to take control of a situation; to face challenges on their own terms rather than just reacting to them. The result is not simply a story of female empowerment, but player empowerment.

Madison, David Cage, as well as the rest of us, could probably learn a thing or two from Chell.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

EXP Podcast #73: Just the FAQs

The digital wilderness can be a confusing place. Thankfully, when we need a guide or a helping hand, we have the luxury of being able to turn to the gaming equivalent of CliffsNotes: FAQs. Whether they are called walkthroughs, guides or cheats, it's likely that every gamer out there has at some some point consulted them for clues on how to get the most out of a game. This week, inspired by Robert Janelle's profile on some dedicated FAQ writers, we discuss the relationship between games and guides. FAQs have always been more than simple spoiler lists, and we explore the different ways to use walkthroughs, the role they play in gaming culture, and what it takes to write a great guide. As always, feel free to offer your own thoughts on tips, tricks, and techniques in the comments.

Some discussion starters:

- Are there any particular games you have played in which FAQs were particularly useful? Does this correspond to specific genre or gameplay style?

- In what contexts are FAQs most useful? Should guides be more integrated into games? How have services like YouTube affected the way you seek out hints?

- Have you ever written a FAQ? If so, how did you like the experience? If not, would you ever consider writing a FAQ for any particular game?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 27 min 44 sec
- "Bad MotherFAQers," by Robert Janelle, via The Escapist
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, April 12, 2010

Salarian Dilemmas: The Politics of Mass Effect, pt. 2

This post is part two of a three part series exploring the politics of the Mass Effect universe as created by Bioware. Each post seeks to explore some of the political and cultural dynamics of the series through the lens of real world politics and ethics. Comments are appreciated. You can find part 1 here and part 3 here.

Warning: These posts include minor spoilers for
Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2.

For many years, the genre of science fiction has provided a venue for exploring and reimagining real world politics. The dangers of scientific discovery has populated the works of the genre since its inception, and carries on into today. Like the quarians who developed the rebellious robotic race, the salarians in the Mass Effect universe wrestle with the outcomes of their scientific endeavors. From the real world into the fictional realm and back again, the politics and ethics of scientific advancement raise fascinating moral dilemmas.

Bad Science

Salarians are an interesting species. They have a relatively short life span, roughly 40 years. As if to accommodate for this short amount of time, they think and act quickly, approaching emotion critically and quickly. Handling an ethical dilemma is, by consequence, an exercise in rapidly weighing the tangible pros and cons. One such dilemma arises in which Shepard must make a moral choice.

During the loyalty quest for Mordin Solus, Shepard's crew member and "the very model of a scientist salarian," encounters an old compatriot of his, Maelon, working with a clan of Krogan to cure the genophage. Maelon has kidnapped and tortured numerous individuals, conducting brutal experiments to collect his data. Their mutilated remains are found throughout the facility. There is no doubt that what he is doing in the name of science is wrong and unethical. The dilemma lies in what to do with Maelon's data once he has been stopped. Is it unethical to keep and use information that has been attained unethically?
This is not a completely fictional hypothetical situation. This question has surfaced before and is deeply related to how we view scientific discovery in relation to real world conduct. Most notably, this ethical dilemma arose concerning the use of Nazi research. During World War II, numerous medical experiments were conducted on prisoners held in German concentration camps. These brutal tests were forced upon the captives and often lead to death and disfigurement. The public reaction to these experiments led to the Nuremberg code of research ethics for human subjects which forms the foundation for most of our medical code of conduct today.

Even the term "data" is politically loaded, for some the word sterilizes the monstrous acts committed by the Nazi regime. Using the information collected is even more politically charged. There are fears it would legitimize the experiments in some way, indirectly honor the Nazi scientists, or morally taint the resulting data. There are also concerns about sensitivity towards holocaust survivors and relatives.
For many reasons, the Nazi data is largely useless. It went unpublished and is unreplicable today. Also, the scientists may have been shaping data to conform to Nazi ideology and the expectations of superiors, and it involved severely malnourished and distressed individuals unrepresentative of normal populations. Regardless, the dilemma is an important one. How do we, if at all, use unethically attained information while maintaining moral certainty? How should science account for political realities? These questions shape our political future in more ways than one.

Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds

Salarian history is marred with the blind pursuit of scientific progress. In an effort to spread their intelligence across the galaxy, salarians uplifted the violent Krogan species with advanced technology, increasing their expansion faster than their cultural evolution could handle. Although the Krogan helped defeat one galactic threat, their high birthrate and propensity for violence resulted in war. Nearly three centuries later, salarian scientists developed the Genophage, a virus that results in only 1 in 1000 successful Krogan births. Maelon acted out of guilt for his role in perpetuating and maintaining this virus he considered a form of genocide.
According to the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Maelon would be correct. The UN convention defines genocide as any act "committed to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group," including forced measures "intended to prevent births within the group." Today, genocide is largely recognized as the worst possible war crime. We look back upon eugenics and our own history of forced sterilization with disgust.

Interestingly, the salarians initially created the genophage as a deterrent, without knowing the Turians would use it immediately. They did not consider the political and moral implications of such a weapon. My thoughts immediately turn to J. Robert Oppenheimer, the leading physicist on the Manhattan Project who developed the first nuclear bomb. His role in the process was far removed from the realities of nuclear devastation, as if science were not inextricably tied to politics and culture. After completing the bomb, Oppenheimer spent much of his life lobbying against a nuclear arms race and encouraging science communities to organize with other disciplines to affect policy. Oppenheimer knew first hand the dangers of science in the hands of fools - a fact the salarians continue to learn in the Mass Effect universe.

The Pursuit of Peace

The altered genophage deployed by Mordin and his team was designed to maintain peace, intentionally designed to stabilise Krogan populations at a reasonable level. Considering themselves a doomed species, the Krogan became fatalistic, isolated, and more criminally violent. The genophage affected their culture as well as their biology. Again, a poor outcome based on the pursuit of good.
According to Mordin, many believe maintaining the genophage virus is necessary. The Krogans are considered an innately violent species whose unchecked growth will inevitably lead to war. Looking back on human history, its easy to consider mankind similarly burdened. The argument about biologically ingrained tendencies towards violence is incredibly important, particularly for non-violence activists and peace theorists. If humans, or krogans in this case, are innately violent, then the prospect for peace is shadowed. How we manage conflict is inexorably altered.

Despite our own violent history, there is actually plenty of evidence to say we are a generally cooperative species. There are also numerous examples of human beings overcoming basic biological desires through cultural practices. Similar cultural adaptations can be found in nature as well. The work of Biologist Robert Sapolsky's can attest to "a natural history of peace" even amongst our most violent genetic relatives.
In the Mass Effect universe, the krogan show a similar potential to live as a peaceful, genophage-free species. If Urdnot Wrex was not killed in the first Mass Effect, he leads a krogan clan, implementing large cultural changes that seem contrary to krogan "nature." The krogans also have a sacred tomb called the Hollows where violence is forbidden. Their own learned cultural traits overcomes and restricts their violent behavior. Even in fictional worlds, violent culture can be tempered. The hope for non-violent means to end violence, the possibility of just management of the krogan dilemma, is why Mordin feels a sense of guilt despite his rational belief in the genophage strategy. It is the same hope that fuels those activists and political scientists seeking to manage conflict without relying on coercion and violence.

The decisions the salarians face in Mass Effect mirror our own real world ethical dilemmas. The fictional universe portrays the difficult decisions that arise at the intersection of science, politics, and culture. These moral questions have no easy answers, yet Bioware asks players to think about and resolve them anyway. These are issues on which games seldom tread with such brazen assurance and it deserves our attention.

Thanks again for reading. Come back next week for part 3 on intergalactic culture, cooperation, and cosmopolitanism.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Little Things

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Heavy Rain.

Heavy Rain has given pedantic gamers a splendid venue in which to pick nits. There is a certain puerile fun to be had from making "Jason!" jokes, and many of the scenes would be right at home on Mystery Science Theater 3000. While having some fun at the expense of plot holes and production values is entertaining, it also serves to illuminate the game's real problems.

Plot, setting, and dialogue serve more important functions in Heavy Rain than they do in many other games. Because the game's dynamics shift with every scene, the author-controlled content is responsible for creating a believable system in which player actions have meaning. As a counter-example, take Halo, a game in which details of the plot and setting-based narrative are largely used as convenient vehicles that shuttle the player in between sections of the real story: the gameplay dynamics. Stripping it of its authored narrative, Halo will still retain much of what makes it unique, as it is the dynamic player-controlled action that creates the real story.

Heavy Rain takes a much different approach. Because of the nature of its quicktime event-based gameplay, it is much harder to create gameplay-driven narrative. Instead, the game relies on plot, characters, and settings to define and imbue actions with meaning within various contexts. In Heavy Rain, pressing the X in one scene allows the player to pick up a child, whereas pressing X in another scene means trying to punch someone in the face. It is the fiction's responsibility to give meaning to mechanics that are largely generic when devoid of dramatic context. In a situation like this, when the fiction itself is flawed, both plot and gameplay narratives become casualties.

Heavy Rain stands out as a game that aspires towards realism and normalcy. Instead of being dropped into the middle of an inter-galactic war or magical dreamscape, players find themselves in a world that looks like their own. Their digital avatars share this penchant for the ordinary: there are no ultra boosts, magic potions, or rocket jumping. Instead, the game immerses the player in highly detailed environments and situations in an attempt to demonstrate how each character grapples with both emotional obstacles and physical challenges. It is the richness of the world that defines arbitrary button presses meaningful ways to achieve immersion. To do this requires great attention to detail.

Unfortunately, Heavy Rain opens by instantly handicapping its potential for visual immersion. Before each scene, an ultra-realistic, possibly pre-rendered character model is shown as the scene loads. These character models are impressive pieces of technology: their eyes seem to glisten and dart around as if they were connected to human brains. Individual pores can be seen as they tense their jaws. One can almost feel the stress that must be responsible for etching the worry-lines into their faces.

Then, the player takes control: not over these wonderful creatures, but over things that look like Sims 2 characters by comparison. At the beginning of every scene, the player is reminded that they are playing approximations of what the characters are meant to look like. Even worse is how the stiff, cumbersome, awkward walking controls contrast to the action scenes in which simple button presses accomplish feats of acrobatics that are impossible to reproduce at any other time. The storytelling constructs a universe in which the characters can sometimes interact with the world and use their bodies, while at other times they are little more than clumsy mannequins.

Like the characters themselves, the world they inhabit contains a multitude of small errors and inconsistencies that distance it from the reality it wishes to convey. The game is set in the U.S. and David Cage has said that Philadelphia was a major influence in the setting, so I sighed when I read Jaydon's license plate number: "BNA_735_73." Currently, no state (including Pennsylvania) has more than seven characters in their license plates and none follow an "XXX_XXX_XX" format. If it was a government car (seeing as how Jayden works for the CIA), there would likely be even fewer numbers.

This may seem petty, but environmental oddities accumulated over the course of the game to remind and continually highlighted the world's artificiality. Small details like push-button toilets, door handles instead of knobs, asthma inhalers for sale in a liquor store, and sleazy motels that had bandages and various types of medicine in the cabinet all demonstrate poor attention to detail and a lack of investment in constructing a faithful representation of mundane American life.

Although Cage is adamant that the "English version is really the real version," the dialogue and acting continually undercut the game's attempt at an authentic American environment. Some of this is the lackluster voice work and baffling decision to use British actors for two of the four main characters. Aside from the occasional Hugh Laurie, British actors will have trouble pulling off a convincing Yankee accent. Despite their heroic tries, Cage and actors only succeed in a impersonating dialogue as opposed to owning it. Strange pauses and cadences are subtly unnerving to a native American-English speaker, as are words like "carousel" when it is pronounced "carouSEL" rather than "CAROUsel." An American would be much more likely to call it a "merry-go-round" anyway.

Heavy Rain's writing problems run deeper than its dialogue issues: the plot is riddled with holes and dead ends that punish, rather than reward, critical thinking. Ethan's blackouts are never explained, and if the player has him murder people, he is never held accountable. Shelby's asthma is dropped after the early parts of the game, never to be referenced again. It is never clear what kind of journalist Madison is, or what drives her to continually put herself in danger. Jayden has a magical augmented reality device (that people rarely comment on) whose functioning and addictive properties are never even given a cursory explanation. When Shelby kidnaps Shaun, was he just waiting for Ethan to blackout or did he have something to do with it? How does Shelby keep tabs on Ethan when he is out and about? Why does Madison think to make contact with Jayden in order to help Ethan when she and Jayden have never met or spoken?

The point is, when something in Heavy Rain's story or presentation "doesn't make sense," it attacks the very means by which the game attempts to immerse the player. Take the story away from Halo and you still have a set of dynamics that tells a powerful story. In Heavy Rain, meaningful interaction relies on the story's ability to inject sterile button presses with emotional substance, as the game dynamics mean very little when divorced from their plot and setting. When the world itself if full of flaws, inconsistencies, and oversights, the logic behind the arbitrary actions that unfold grows increasingly shaky.

One typo does not destroy an essay, nor does one bad cut ruin a movie. However, a multitude of little mistakes can slowly add up and combine to undermine a work's overall cohesion. In a broader sense, the mistakes found in Heavy Rain hint at larger, more nebulous thematic and gameplay problems. If Quantic Dream could not create a solid plot, how likely is it that they addressed ludic issues like player agency and sociological issues institutionalized racism and sexual violence? I think it is quite unlikely, but I will save those thoughts for later posts.

The choice to convey meaning in a video game via dialogue and plot rather than gameplay dynamics means that the author (the game designer) must assume responsibility for stitching together a cohesive experience for the player to enjoy. Because of the limited amount of player interaction in Heavy Rain, emergent gameplay cannot save a poor narrative; the player is powerless to salvage something they have no control over.

Engaging fiction, (or "interactive fiction," as the game would have us refer to it, although I would argue that all fiction is interactive) is more than a departure from the standard milieu of wizards and space marines. Fiction is hard to make, and it necessitates a careful eye to both large and minute details because the world is created from those details. Because of its narrative and ludic choices, Heavy Rain's developers exercise a large amount of control over the game's events and details, thereby shouldering the burden of storytelling. The burden is carried neither easily nor gracefully.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

EXP Podcast #72: Some Heavy Rain

There are, occasionally, titles that seem to herald a new day in videogames. Some have claimed Quantic Dream's latest creation as one such experience, marking the future of interactive fiction.We hope you brought your umbrella, because this week Scott and I venture into Heavy Rain to discuss whether or not this theory holds water. As usual, we will avoid spoilers until absolutely necessary. For the spoiler-sensitive out there, we give plenty of warning before we reveal secrets, so feel free to give this podcast a listen. Whether or not you have played the Heavy Rain yourself, we encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Discussion starters:

- Prior to the game's release, were you excited about Heavy Rain? If so, why?
- How well did the game's mechanics succeed in telling the story? Should they be emulated by other creators of interactive drama?
- How well does Heavy Rain succeed in telling an "adult" story?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 47 min 17 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, April 5, 2010

Quarian Exiles: The Politics of Mass Effect, pt. 1

This post is part one of a three part series exploring the politics of the Mass Effect universe as created by Bioware. Each post seeks to explore some of the political and cultural dynamics of the series through the lens of real world politics and ethics. Comments are appreciated. You can find part 2 here and part 3 here.

Warning: These posts include minor spoilers for the lore of
Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2.

Our understanding of identity and belonging is constantly shifting. As it stands now, personal identity is wrapped up with our nationalities and cultures. We give credence to borders and stress non-existent divides, even in an increasingly globalized international environment. How we relate to each other as individuals, groups, and governmental bodies maps the future of our political landscape. The threat of war and violence, and the hope of peace and mutual cooperation, is dependent on how we manage conflict during times of strife. These truths will extend into space along with human advancement.

Our cultural artifacts are teeming with realized perceptions. Elements of reality weave their way into our fictions, colored with personal views on every subject. Videogames are no exception. Along with lore, those game designers tasked with world building fill their games with political dynamics. They draw on compelling narratives we see today while simultaneously planting their own cultural perceptions on politics, intentionally or otherwise. Bioware's Mass Effect universe, with its collection of alien creatures and well envisioned political structure, is an excellent place to explore how real world politics plays out within game worlds.

Migration and Nationality

The quarian species, in my opinion, is the most interesting galactic race in the Mass Effect universe. A brief intergalactic history lesson: The quarians designed the intelligent robotic race known as the Geth, a persistent enemy in both games. Originally a source of cheap labor, the Geth slowly became sentient. The quarians, fearing an uprising, began to terminate their creations. The Geth defended themselves, forcing their creators into a mass exodus of their star system. The quarians now live a nomadic lifestyle aboard a flotilla known as the Migrant Fleet.
Without a home world, the quarians are essentially a permanent diaspora of refugees. Millions of real world populations are members of diaspora or refugee communities. According to a 2009 report from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), roughly 42 million people were "forcibly uprooted by conflict and persecution worldwide" at the end of 2008. While many of these displaced persons will repatriate as some point, a staggering number must seek asylum in another country and may never return home.

The way we understand nationality is defined by a political system framework based on independent nation-states. According to international law, every person in the world has a right to leave their country for another. However, receiving states (aka countries) have no legal obligation to accept these individuals as citizens. Which means individuals, and even whole groups of people, can be stateless.
In the ME universe, the quarians are functionally a stateless-nation. As punishment for creating the Geth, the Citadel races ignored their pleas for help when their star system was being taken over and removed their place on the Citadel Council, the intergalactic governing body. This would be tantamount to the United Nations ignoring a nation of 17 million for a grievance that occurred three hundred years ago.

A Shared Experience

There are several examples of well known stateless-nations, perhaps the most prominent being the nation of Palestine. While there is a political body of the State of Palestine which claims political autonomy over a geographic region, they are given only limited international recognition and do not control a large portion of the area they claim. Other prominent examples of stateless-nations include the Jewish people before the creation of Israel, the Kurdish ethnic group, and the Romani people, known more commonly by their derogatory moniker of Gypsy.
The quarian species mirrors each of these populations. Their stories contain common elements of the refugee experience. On the planet Ekuna, quarians established a long-term colony before receiving approval from the Citadel. Because of this illegal act, the Citadel Council gave the planet to another species and forced the quarians to leave their colony in one month before they would obliterate the settlement from orbit. Similarly, in 1980, nearly 300,000 Kurds were removed from their homes in Iraq. When such an event occurs, many homes are sold to other citizens, making repatriation a difficult and ugly process. Regardless of the legality of unauthorized settlements, the forced removal and subsequent take over of homes is an all too common occurrence amongst refugee communities.

Diaspora groups often struggle with stereotypes and xenophobia, which are created by circumstance. In ME2, a quarian woman on the Citadel is falsely accused of theft. It quickly becomes clear quarians are generally distrusted by other races. Their nomadic lifestyle and limited resources necessitates extensive mining, the dropping off of criminals, and temporary employment.

Thus, popular beliefs about quarians stealing jobs, breaking the law, or stealing resources develop. These problems are then attributed to the quarians at large, not their unfortunate circumstances. Instead of mutual cooperation, stereotypes and hatreds form. The Romani, often associated with a nomadic life style, have suffered similar hatreds for over 500 years. They were among the groups of people with whom the Nazis attempted genocide during World War II.
To maintain a cultural heritage in a potential fractious scenario, the cultures of diaspora communities often develop unique and insular characteristics. The nomadic ways of the quarians and their reliance on group cohesion amongst the flotilla means they pay little attention to the actions of other galactic races. They even lack official political ties to humans, since they have yet to travel through human territory. They also embark on a pilgrimage, itself a well known faith practice amongst various religions. Although rather than return to a holy place, quarians leave their community and only return when they can add value to their fleet. The mythology of a wandering and shattered people is incredibly powerful. It has kept Jewish culture particularly strong despite its widely dispersed population. It would not be strange in the ME universe to hear quarians mutter their own Seder-like saying "next year on Rannoch."

Massively Effective?

On many occasions, saying a group of people compose a stateless-nation assumes these individuals have a right to self-determination within a territory. It becomes very problematic to say every seemingly homogeneous group deserve a land of their own. For one, cultural homogeneity does not exist, especially within borders. Even within culture, minorities exist and must be accounted for within their political system. Therefore, we must be able to make the claim that groups can maintain a healthy culture free of injustice even when they are citizens of a larger country. What, then, for the quarians?
The ideal situation for most refugees is to return to a safe home, preferably their own. Tali's loyalty quest reveals two factions amongst quarians arguing for and against war with the Geth. If we presume, as evidenced by Legion in ME2, that the Geth are not an inherently evil race of robotic killers, then finding a peaceful solution would be best. Perhaps the quarians should find a new planet to settle, or perhaps they can reconcile with and live alongside the Geth. Personally, I would like to see the quarians regain representation on the Citadel. International recognition and mutual cooperation across borders is imperative in our interconnected world and in Bioware's fictionalized galaxy.

Regardless of future events in the ME universe, the story of the quarian diaspora is compelling. It represents real world political dilemmas and actually suggests players immerse themselves within moral difficulties - no other game world is so audacious. I do not mean to make light of real world injustices by drawing parallels with a fictional videogame species. On the contrary, science-fiction has long been a venue for writers to explore political and cultural dynamics freely. The interactivity of games enriches such a unique environment. What better place than amongst the stars, in our own vessel, to prod at our own political realities on a galactic scale?

Thanks for reading and come back next week for the continuation of this series: Salarian Dilemmas.