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I chose my eyes and my hair and my face. I chose where I’m from and what I’ve done. I chose my name.

Despite its cinematic presentation (and what cinematic presentation it is!), Mass Effect is rooted in the Western RPG tradition (whether or not it actually is a Western RPG first and not a third-person action game with elements of western RPGs ala Deus Ex), which means players have a significant influence on how their character acts within the game–after all, the game was developed by Bioware, best known for Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Knights of the Old Republic, the epitome of Western RPG tradition. Mass Effect begins with a player choosing their name, physical appearance, and history. Before the opening cutscene finishes the player is already presented with their first choice: will they chastise a sarcastic crew member or listen to their concerns?

Those who have played Bioware’s other games know the drill. The first two-thirds of Mass Effect play like a better, Star Wars-less version of Knights of the Old Republic. The plot is authored, and so are the menu of your character’s responses, but you do have a menu of responses. You always have the choice: fight or negotiate. Kill or don’t. Or, of course, don’t do anything at all, for the myriad side quests. It may not be much of a choice, but combined with the custom appearance and custom “talents” (AKA skills, spells, whatever you level up when you level up in an RPG), most players come to feel a sense of authorship over their character, a sense that they are their character. That’s (generally) the point of Western RPGs, in the way it is absolutely not in their Japanese counterparts.

At the conclusion of the introductory mission, the player’s character is affected by an alien “beacon” and experiences a vision. A player only sees quick cuts of unintelligible images, but when approached by party members, the character starts talking about killer robots and mass extinction. It’s a startling disconnect between player and character, but digestable: alright, so that’s what it was, what now? But the disconnect doesn’t go away; it grows. As the player continues through the game, the character expresses more and more certainty that the killer robots from the vision are the real threat, not the renegade special forces operative the character has been persuing, going so far as to demand action from the Council that rules most of the galaxy. The Council’s response is predictable: you had a vision. We’ll wait for a bit more evidence before starting a war.

The problem with this was that I thought the same thing. Following the “paragon” path (the “good” way, which also emphasizes cooperation), I wanted to agree with the Council, agree to look for further evidence first, agree to continue searching for the rogue operative. But the options presented to me were: demand the Council take action against the killer robot threat, or demand it nicely.

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A new plan of attack involves more shorter posts, so that there aren’t months without anything. I stayed away from that here before because I keep really short thoughts to Facebook status updates (would be Twitters if I had any friends on Twitter, but I don’t), but there’s a place between rambling essays and one sentence thoughts that I hope I can use to good effect in the future. In the meantime, a few quick shots:

  • Pushing Daisies be dead. Terrible, horrible, depressing, expected. On the very minor positive side, Bryan Fuller may well end up running Heroes and perhaps save it from the abysmal joke it’s become. (During Heroes’ second season, the first time I watched the show as it aired, I repeatedly took it to task for ugly sexism until I eventually concluded it was just lazy writing, not actual misogyny, and gave up. This is still the case, and still one of the few things I actively despise about the show. Please save it, Bryan Fuller. Make it whimsy and fun!)
  • Far Cry 2 is a great game, but I’ve barely played it (or any other games) since I started Letters from Africa. As a result, I haven’t updated that particular project since then. I hope to get around to it eventually, but at this point I kind of just want to play the game. I also bought Overlord during its 75% price reduction on Steam and played it for an hour or two. It’s cute.
  • I’m a terrible DM. Not really, of course, but not a very good one, anyway. I don’t intend to continue the campaign log, although I do intend to keep the wiki updated with shorter summaries and to post some thoughts on DM-ing (and how much I suck at it). Seriously, it’s hard (especially when the online campaign I’m playing in is so well-designed. Here’s to you, stabs!) I almost want to start something new next semester (with a month of preparation over break), but I think the players would prefer to continue, because they don’t have as much of a problem with what I do as I do (and that’s what’s important, anyway)–and there are still some (hopefully) really interesting moments to get to.
  • Quantum of Solace is a conundrum to me. I’m planning on writing some more thorough thoughts (and I’ve thought a lot about what those will be) but I’m waiting until I probably see it again this weekend.

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http://www.flickr.com/photos/lettersfromafrica/

What’s at the convergence of video games, social commentary, and hyperconnectivity? Here’s one suggestion, perhaps. Hopefully it becomes interesting.

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Narrative space

I’m a storyteller. I see the world in stories. That’s not saying much, because this is true of everyone. What is a story, after all? It’s an organization of reality, an illusionary order imposed by our brains to make sense of the fundamentally nonsensical universe. So why say I’m a storyteller? Because it means something else to most people, and the difference between that meaning and my meaning is what I want to talk about. For those with some knowledge of narrative theory this won’t be anything new or interesting, except maybe the stuff about video games and D&D later.

When most people think “story”, they think a book, or a movie, or whatever. Words, images, a sequence of events experienced by and actions taken by characters, fictional or non. For most people, a story is a distinct entity, separate from them, that they may borrow for a time but that remains outside of them. If a story is in a forest and no one’s around to read it, is it still a story? Most people say yes. The answer is no.

Well, not necessarily, because “story” is just a word and it means whatever you want it to mean, whatever meaning you endow it with, but there are other words for that sort of thing. “Text”, usually: if a text is in a forest and no one’s around to read it, is it still a text? Yes. (Well, actually, I would say no, because I think that all that really exists is the relationships between things and that the idea of “things” is just another false order constructed by our brains to make sense of nonsense, and so something without any relation to anything else doesn’t exist, but that’s for another time.) Unless you mean something else. But using a different word isn’t the problem; the problem is that people don’t accept that anything exists besides text. That, whatever you want to call it, there is something more than text.

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