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A personal review of 2012

2012, for me, was a year of quiet engagement. It was a year without bombast or fanfare, but one in which I accomplished many small things, to the point that I am at this moment regretfully recalling stray moments of achievement, weighed down by the notion that they are evidence that I have forgotten more.

I did precious little professionally. The teaching of English as a second language overseas is a career blessedly free of ambition, and although that fact when remembered sometimes evokes a paranoid anxiety about the direction of my life, for a person like me where ambition is a natural state to be in, to be in this halted place is a strange sort of benefit. Although I am terrified for my prospects after my time here, for the time being knowing that my horizon is perfectly flat in some ways frees me from the pressure to excel.

This is not to say that I'm doing poorly at my job. Rather the opposite. And, in fact, at the big prefecture-wide conference to spread knowledge and experience to other English teachers, I was asked to present an unprecedented four times out of six time slots. I also presented twice at the orientation for new teachers arriving to the prefecture. Important people somewhere are noticing my talents in this sphere, which is more validation than I expected, and enough that I can subside off of that for a while.

Socially, my experience here has improved, as well. Although the local expat community is marked by a certain Mean Girls style cattiness and cliquishness, I've managed to slowly make connections with native English speakers who aren't terrible at life. I tend to drift around at a distance from people, with an aloofness that is a learned skill that I don't particularly like having as a natural pattern. With the pool of potential acquaintances so incestually tiny, forging a decent social life here was one of my biggest challenges when arriving in Japan. I'm glad that things have improved on that front, although the transient social dynamics of the region make things far from stable here.

Still, with this group I've not only made friends but also collaborated on some projects. For example, I helped produce and performed in a dramatic reading of a set of one act plays to benefit tsunami recovery efforts on the anniversary of the Touhoku Earthquake. It was kind of a big deal, as a local effort in what was a global network of people using these professional pieces in like capacity. It involved organizing a ton of people, both expats and native Okinawans, acting as a liason with the theatre-festival organizers who donated the space but didn't speak any English.

One of my major goals for the year was to improve my Japanese ability, and I've certainly done that. I took the Japanese Language Proficiency Test at the N3 level and passed. This test is probably the best-known benchmark for Japanese language abilities, and the N3 level is where it's assumed that you leave the "studied in college" area and head into "actually somewhat capable" territory. I'm capable! And my real-world experience with the language validates the test results. Although my spoken abilities have certainly improved, the biggest increase in skills have come in reading Chinese characters. Although I'm far from mastering the 3000 characters in the language, I've come a long way in transforming the opaque symbols around me into actual information. And literacy feels really good. I feel like much less of a child in this society, and I have so much more context now for so many things.

I've also modestly achieved in the area of physical exercise, as well. As anyone who had seen me physically before I left for Japan can attest, I had put on quite a bit of weight, becoming the heaviest I have ever been in my life. I wanted to change that. I also didn't say anything about this goal, because I didn't want to be one of those people who announce loudly that they are going to change their habits, then quietly fail to do anything useful. At first, I was doing marathon training, but that proved unsustainable; although a younger me could have handled it, my body quite literally stopped me from continuing, and there was a good couple of weeks where walking had become a challenge. Despite that, throughout this year, I have managed to run 2-3 times a week pretty consistently. There have been a couple of periods where I slacked off, but those didn't last too long and I started back with only a bit of effort (and a lot of whining, but I still got back into it).

I think what I'm most proud of is a relatively recent development: I started freelance writing for a video game. I'm not making a lot of money, and it's for a small indie game, and the level of expected output is immense (think NaNoWriMo level of writing speed) but there are a couple of cool things about it. For one, it's the sequel to Academagia, which is a life sim set in Hogwarts a wizard academy. It's narrative-based, and fairly well-regarded, despite being a very niche title. Although you can't but point out the dementor elephant in the room, the game actually stands strong on its own without any feeling of being derivative. It's a title that I thoroughly enjoyed, and so getting to work on the sequel is really nice and a lot of fun. Plus, I'm getting paid to write for a video game.

So where do I stand going forward into 2013? Well, I feel that the way I went about my quiet accomplishments in 2013 represents a big change in the way I normally do things, providing not only a greater sense of responsibility and follow through over my former practice of talking about things I want to do and not following through, but also a sense of momentum. I'm happy with this change, and I'd like to continue it, including with some of the patterns and goals I started from last year, but there are also some other focused goals I'd like to work on, too.

Perhaps I'll post tomorrow about that.
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Do I meet the criteria of a fully developed 30 year old?

If you look at the link provided, there's a tongue-in-cheek list of what you're supposed to be able to accomplish by the time you're thirty, based around those cheesy Piagettian guides to pop-psych childhood development. Since I'm 3/4 there, I need to figure out what's still left on the list. Anything struck out is something I have yet to accomplish. Comments after certain items are in italics.


Keep in mind that all adults reach their developmental milestones at their own pace. It is important not to compare your adult’s rate of development to that of his peers. The following list is meant only as a guideline and not as a cause for alarm.

By thirty-years-old, your adult will probably be able to…

Feed and maintain a house pet only thanks to my wife
Hold down a job
Maintain eye contact while speaking only if I don't like you, or have known you long enough to trust you; that makes me seem crazier than I feel?
Refrain from discussing high school
Cook a meal (three-course) actually, I'm quite good at this
Make small talk another skill where my ability is inversely proportional to how much I like a person
Forgive his family kinda, maybe... maybe I should strike it?
Acknowledge other viewpoints (social)
Detect and respond to ambiguity Japanese survival skill
Finish school

Your thirty-year-old adult may be able to…

Make a martini (vodka)
Tie a half-Windsor knot I prefer a full Windsor for the extra in-your-faceness
Drive a manual transmission
Refrain from discussing college
Get married
File his taxes (EZ form) except not this year... I should do that
Remember 5-10 friends’ birthdays
Acknowledge other viewpoints (political) I can acknowledge they exist, but I have gotten surprisingly less tolerant as I've aged
Get a flu shot
Give a toast
Install storm windows
Go back to school

Some advanced thirty-year-olds may possibly be able to…

Make a martini (gin) Why is mixing awful drinks an important skill?
File his taxes (standard 1040)
Make and keep dental appointments
Have a baby lololol
Finish school That thesis remains elusive

In sum, I need to learn to mix crappy drinks, drive a transmission that provides no benefit except nonsense status, and make a baby? I think I'm all set. But I guess you'd expect that from someone who hasn't reached the proper maturity of a thirty year old.
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(no subject)

The rhythm of life for someone living abroad is just so different. I have to be much more mindful of my energy and how I'm spending it, because it is so much more finite as a resource. It's not that I have less of it, but it just takes more effort to do most anything outside of my house, despite having adequate language abilities. Even so, I feel like I've kept up a busy and social life. A lot of my time not spent recuperating is involved in exploring and enjoying my new home, trying to immerse myself in the culture of my father, and staying involved in the lives of my family. But I do spend a lot of time doing mindless things like playing video games. Actually, a good metric for how stressed and exhausted I am is how many hours of video games I'm playing over any given period of time. Thankfully, I've learned how to avoid games that hit my grindy-hate-myself buttons, and so any time I spend playing games is not as compulsive as it used to be.

Anyways, despite being perpetually at war with potential exhaustion, I have visibly accomplished a lot in the year since coming here. For example:

* I was integral in the staging an evening of theatrical performances as a charity benefit for the recovery effort in Fukushima on the anniversary of the earthquake. It was my friend's vision; she was heavily involved in theatre in NYC for a number of years, and it was her connections to the global theatre community that gave it the spark of life. But she's the sort of artist who needs another person to shape her own vision, and she also needed someone to help with general project management, not to mention someone who spoke decent Japanese. It's exactly the kind of role I enjoy, and I was happy to provide my skills. After a few rehearsals and a ton of meetings, the evening went off perfectly, drawing a decently-sized local crowd.

* I improved my Japanese a hella large amount on all fronts. I'm pretty close to graduating elementary school in terms of literacy (500 kanji or so), and I can now comfortably do light conversation on most any topic, as well as have deeper conversations about things I'm knowledgeable about (e.g. education). Most any public interactions are pretty easy, too.

* I took the Japanese Language Proficiency Test for the third rank and passed (first rank is best; second rank is next best; and so on to fifth rank). I'm going to take the second rank in a couple of months and expect complete failure.

* I read a lot more. My predecessor left a bunch of paperback scifi/fantasy novels, and I've worked through them. I've discovered that Mercedes Lackey really isn't to my taste, though I probably would have liked the novels as a young teenager or a preteen. Now, I just want to thwap all the characters for being that irritating combination of smug and privileged-asshole.

* I presented two workshops at Orientation for the new JETs coming in this year.

* I learned a little bit of Uchinaaguchi, which is the native language of the Okinawa islands. I learned a LOT about Okinawan history, including the more recent stuff that helps explain the crazy politics involving the military bases on this island.

* I navigated the crazy social politics of the local JET scene, and have come through a difficult year in a good position.

* I have done an awesome job at my work. I'm a good teacher, my students love me, and I've been able to use my classtime like an engineering laboratory for education and game design. I'm able to do rapid prototyping of games/lesson plans based on stuff that was mostly theoretical for me up until now.

* I navigated Japanese bureaucracy and got my local driver's license. That process is a god-damn nightmare, involving the two most ridiculous bureaucracies on the planet colliding into one super-hot mess.

Still, the period from when hazliya was in America to recently has been pretty fallow, until just now. Now I've got a crapton of stuff on board, from presentations for more prefectural JETs to performing standup comedy next week.

It's just strange. When living my life day-to-day, it feels like I'm doing nothing, but when I take stock of my time, all these things magically appear.

There's no final thought for this entry, no satisfying conclusion. Just another data point adrift amongst my busyness.
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Advice to the bullied in Japan

My friend asakiyume's daughter posted this video, which she then posted to her lj, and it prompted a bit of reflection on my part.

As a bit of context, bullying is a big problem in Japan, and is quite popular as the social issue du jour. In many ways, it's worse than the similar problems America has been having recently, since Japanese culture places so much emphasis on group affiliation. In many ways it's easier to be involved in bullying on both ends thanks to social pressure to be a part of a group and adhere to its norms, kind of like how every Mean Girls group in American high schools has their whipping girl who endures all sorts of abuse from the others--especially the Queen Bee who set the standard for all of it--because the bottom ranked girl so desperately wanted to be a part of the group. Think of that, and make it the norm across pretty much every group and clique, and you can start to see just one way the problem is so extensive.*

Add in the recent string of suicides related to bullying, in children as young as middle-school-age, and you can see how many people are concerned, but nobody knows what to do in concrete terms.

In the video above, the young lady is translating and responding to a series of letters written to the newspaper in a kind of informal "It Gets Better" project aimed at all school-age children.

(It's worth noting that Japan does have an "It Gets Better" project, but it is not remotely as popular or extensive as America, partially because non-heterosexual people tend not to come out. As a result, LGBT teens in Japan tend not to be bullied for those reasons.)

Those of you with an interest in comparative culture, please check it out.

After watching it, I responded in a comment on the post about my experiences as a teacher here, reproduced here:

I see bullying all the time. It's often really subtle, like the frequent mildly negative exertion of peer pressure. Sometimes it's not, like when one half-Japanese half-Filipino kid gets "die" written all over his desk while he's in the bathroom. Most of the time, it goes misunderstood or ignored by the teachers. The most common practice is the "wait and see" approach, even in the most extreme cases. It's considered better to tell the bullied student to "just try and endure it." That's considered activism. But, on the other hand, it is nearly impossible to enforce discipline, because teachers have so few tools to deal with disruptive students except in the most extreme cases. In the worst classes at my lower-level school, the students just do what they want, and the teacher does their best to do a bulldozer impression with the material mandated. It's very dysfunctional on that level.

I think one of the major problems with bullying in both countries is that bullies tend to be socially successful, and are often vibrant, interesting, and exciting people. They are natural leaders. In Japan especially, they are often the type who succeeds in becoming a teacher and are often picked for 生徒指導部**. As a result, even as they become compassionate and responsible adults who want to help solve this problem, they are simply blind to bullying. They don't understand it, because in their minds, they were never bullies--just rambunctious teenagers. And that's what they see the current generation's bullies as.

In America, the problem is not quite as trenchant in that way. We have the lack of prestige teachers receive to thank for that.

All my cultures are defective. -_-

* We're conditioned by Western pop culture to feel sorry for the poor girl, and think of her as a bit pathetic, even though it's a fairly frequent occurrence that often goes unnoticed when we directly experience it. But it's not quite the same in Japan. In every group, there is always someone on the bottom, and in most social circles that person is not treated disrespectfully by Japanese standards, and so it's not a pathetic place to be. With time, a person rises from the lowest station. It's a cultural difference that's difficult to articulate. My point here is that it's easy to apply American cultural values to this setup and misunderstand what's going on. The fact that it is very prone to abuse by the ones in charge is one of the major negative qualities inherent to Japanese society, and is only starting to have effective safeguards put in place across all levels of society.

My point is not that every group bullies somebody, but that the opportunity for bullying is more frequent and easy to engage.

** 生徒指導部 = せいとしどうぶ = seito shidou bu = Student Leadership Group

This group of teachers handles a lot of business for the school, including administrating club activities and sports as well as the student council, but one of the major responsibilities is dealing with punishment and discipline throughout the student body.
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(no subject)

I was looking forward to today. It's the first day since hazliya left to go back to America for 3 weeks that I've had some spare time to do something besides take care of basic necessities. I had errands to do. The apartment to clean up. Maybe even take some time to get back to stuff like thesis and other writing. But my body chemistry has decided today is a day to be just slightly off, and I can't muster the motivation to do any of it, which makes me disgusted with myself.

But, hey, the dog's still alive. My Japanese is improving a lot every day. Little things, right?
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Dear creators of big budget storytelling media

It appears that pretty much all of you need this:

Everything mass market that I've consumed recently has been awesome, until we hit megafail at the end. ME3. Korra. George R.R. Martin needs years to put down the prose, so I guess that's kind of a middle-of-the-road situation.

My Japanese grammar textbooks are providing more satisfying closure right now, which is good, I suppose, since I'm taking a massive certification test this Sunday. -_-

I need something that doesn't suck to cleanse my palate, and the last things I read that did that were actually things you guys wrote. So, link me to your stuff, plz? If it involves monies, my credit card sploded while in Japan, so I am kind of on a cash only system right now; sorry about that. :/
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I have decided that health is better than the dreaded alternative

In November last year, I started running. I was theoretically training for a half-marathon last April, but after basically a decade of only a little exercise here and there, I was too ambitious and sustained an overuse injury.

I didn't want to tell anyone my plans because I have that common habit of getting motivated for about a month before slowly sliding back into lazier ways. And there were a couple of months where I didn't run at all, most notably the month I had pnuemonia and the month after I realized a compromised ability to use stairs meant I needed to let my legs heal. Still, I always got back into the habit in my own irregular way.

I can't keep a schedule. I can't have a goal. All I do is go out and run for a mile when I feel I am capable. This ends up being about 3 times a week.

People with plans frighten me. But, like a good scientist, I keep data: distance, time, steps, and many numbers derived from those things.

It's difficult for me to commit to a future goal, but I have managed to find motivation through keeping track of my past behaviors. Rather than telling myself I'll do better tomorrow, I can look at a scatterplot and see a coefficient of death. Evidence that you're killing yourself is good motivation, just like my waistline, which I have finally put into stasis. (I'm not over-large, but I am starting to look like a normal person for my height, and I can feel my body slugging around and basically betraying my nimble mind in decaying flesh, how daaaarrrrreeee it.)

Maybe I'll try to use this method to finish my thesis. Starting tomorrow.
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ME3 followup: the Indoctrination Eulogy

More spoilers ahoy.

At first, I thought Indoctrination Theory was stupid. After reading a little bit about it, I changed my mind: it is an awful abomination. Basically, Indoctrination Theory states that the final Star Child sequence of Mass Effect 3 is a hallucination Shepard is experiencing during a Reaper indoctrination attempt. It’s not the theory itself that’s offensive. If the possibility is an intended reading of the ending--even leaving out the graceless execution--then the game has gone way past the zone of bad writing and into the realm of “I wrote this for my undergrad creative writing course, and some of the other kids told me it was cool” awfulness.

This 20 minute long video puts forward a solid argument as for why the reading is legitimate. You can watch it if you want; I have no intention of rehashing it. Suffice to say that I accept the reading as legitimate and not just the hopeful wishing of fans trying to somehow escape the awfulness of the diagetic ending.

There are a couple of awful things about this, from a writer’s perspective. The first and most basic is this: if you’re going to call the basic established reality of your text into question, you need to fulfill a number of criteria to have it possibly be a not-bad story. Here are a few:

* Twist endings suck. The very very very few times a twist ending has not sucked are vastly outnumbered by the times that it has. I say this with confident experience as a writer, reader, and editor. It is way better to tell a compelling and emotional story than it is to write a twist ending, and if you must use a twist ending, think up something less cliche than the standard “it was all a dream” bullshit that apparently every hack writer believes is genius the first time they shit it out. Don’t question diagetic reality as a twist at the end. Just don’t.

* Establish the possibility early, not just in terms of the setting’s potentials but in terms of the protagonist’s experience, so the reader does not feel cheated and blind-sided when you decide to make good on the promise. This does not mean seeding “clues,” but providing a solid sense of wrongness on a metaphysical level. Phillip K. Dick does this right. M. Night Shyamalan does this poorly.*(1)

* Give us a sense of the potential consequences of this, even if you don’t do so directly or are sticking to the “ominous hinting” version of this plot. On a basic level, that Buffy episode that ends with her stuck within her delusions as a mental patient does this, which is why that episode is not totally execrable on its own and is actually a really interesting commentary on the whole Buffy mythos when placed within the context of the series itself (and I even wish they’d continue to play with it by dropping subtle hints throughout the rest of the series as a result). A more complicated version would be... well, basically any well done unreliable narrator plot in the history of ever.

The last point is really the one that’s key--especially in a game series that’s promoted as one where choice is fundamental to the outcome of the story. I think it’s lazy that they ignored the rest of your choices in the game, but I see that simply as an artistic decision, if a particularly poor one. The real problem is that if Indoctrination Theory is the preferred reading of the final sequence, then their lacklustre presentation implies that even your final choice is irrelevant. Which, you know, is almost cool, except they don’t develop the theme of futility of choice at all throughout the series or at the end. Negating your established themes at the end of your text is the literary equivalent of saying, “Nuh uh,” and it’s just crappy writing. At best, those sorts of stories end up being heavy-handed parables. Most of the time, they’re just stupid.

Really, I can’t drive this point home enough: you should not write an ending to your fiction that is at odds with the story you spent time telling. That is a failure of basic writing craft.*(3) But an even greater failure is subjecting a consumer to it, and it is downright criminal to sell it to millions of people with expectations of having that story fulfilled--especially if they are expected to devote 90 plus hours following one story to receive the ending to another.*(4)

If the Destruction option is rejection of indoctrination; if Control is capitulation; if Synthesis is becoming a super husk or something, we need to see and understand the consequences of that in the diagetic world somehow, even if you don’t want to give the whole “this could be an illusion” thing away. Or we need to see the narrative fragment and dissolve in a way that echoes with the themes established and the choice(s) you made, David Lynch style. Either way, we need some way of understanding and coming to terms with Shepard’s journey. That’s just to ensure that the idea is merely tolerable.

Even then, if that’s the story they wished to tell, there were just better ways to do it. There is a very special kind of horror of having your mind and your actions not quite your own, and since a video game by necessity must limit your possible actions to a few pre-determined by the developer, it’s the perfect medium to explore that.*(5) You want to save the Princess? Too bad.*(6) Your options are choosing to kill her so the bad guy doesn’t get her, or letting her die so you can accomplish a more important objective.

They could have done things like that throughout the game, each time having the presented options drift further and further from any kind of optimal outcome. Or they could have cleverly played with the War Assets system at the same time by having the possible options presented to you for every scenario depend on when you choose to accomplish it. It would have been a subtle and lovely way to show indoctrination at work. They chose not to. Why slap on that idea at the end, when you could have made a much more intriguing statement about choice and consequence by interweaving it more carefully throughout?

All of this is assuming that they were aspiring to Lynchian greatness at the end. Honestly, I’m not sure which is worse: that they were hoping to make a great artistic statement that violated the very spirit of the series and failed on every possible level, or that they just wrote a shitty ending.

*(1) Really, you only get to watch an M. Night Shyamalan movie three times. The first is to try to see if you can figure out the stupid twist. The second is to recontextualize it and see what clues you missed. The third time is to marvel at how you thought such a shitty movie could have ever been good. This is why most people can’t be bothered with the pain of watching a non-twist Shyamalan movie like The Last Airbender even once. *(2)

*(2) The one exception is maybe Unbreakable.

*(3) For the record, I’m not opposed to narrative dissolution or stories that show the futility of the mental greed found in apophenia. Although they require some heavy chops to pull off, they can be fascinating.

*(4) Although it makes for a joke headline, it’s not really a stretch for that guy to have filed an FTC complaint on those grounds.

*(5) This is one thing the first Bioshock got completely right, and then totally failed to develop for the last third of the game.

*(6) The game Braid has great writing, by the way, except for all the parts with text.
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How Mass Effect failed at stealing stories

So, a couple months ago, I played Mass Effect 3, and like so many others was appalled by the ending. Although a lot of other people have written about how and why it’s bad, most of it is fan rage. There were a couple of writers tackling it, but they seemed pretty ignorant of games and what they do and how they work and their history. Lots of gamers taking a look, but most of them weren’t too knowledgeable about writing craft. I figured I had some perspective to bring to bear, so I wrote three-quarters of an essay and let it rot on my hard drive, because I had better things to do. But now that the ending dlc is coming out, I figure it’s as good a time as any to finish it up and release it to the wild.

So, here’s what I think about the debacle that was the end of Mass Effect 3.

Let me just say first, to get a couple of common whines out of the way: I don’t think creators “owe” their consumers anything, nor do I feel that a fanwanky happy ending is necessary or warranted. Many people are giving negative backlash to any critical response towards the ending--a common response of fan love to fan hate. However, as a creator, I feel like matters of craft are important, and so therefore criticism is important.

Let me add: Yes, I know making video games is difficult and takes a lot of work. Almost every creative endeavor does. That does not make them immune from critical discussion.

Yes, it’s just a game. This is just an essay. Deal with it.

Of course, spoilers are all over this post, for both ME3 and a 10 year old awesome game called Deus Ex.

When I first heard about the outpouring of fan rage over the endinig of ME 3, I think my exact feeling was a mix of surprise and hope. Given the writing of the previous games, I expected this one to pretty much be the Return of the Jedi for the series, with Shep leveling up sufficiently to kill the clearly evil bad guys and save the galaxy, emerging from the wreckage of her awesome to earn a big shiny medal, galactic acclaim, and high fives from her teammates. It’s the ending that would have pleased the most people and offended the least. The early rumblings of “bittersweet” from the Dev Team I took to mean some side characters would die tragically along the way. Maybe Shep herself.

But the sheer volume of rage clearly said that something else was up. I wondered if the writers took an artistic leap and told an emotionally-cathartic story that wasn’t necessarily a crowd pleaser. The idea that they might do that on such a big budget title really got me excited, and so I played through the game to see what the fuss was about. But when faced with the final minutes of gameplay, I wound up both confused and disappointed. I felt like I had played this game before. The first time I played it, it was called Deus Ex.

The comparisons are inevitable. At the end of both games, you’re faced with almost exactly the same three choices: destroy the Evil Robot Magic enslaving humanity, co-opt it so you can do the “guiding” of humanity yourself, or choose to fuse with it and achieve techno-organic evolution into some kind of higher being. But Deus Ex succeeded where ME 3 failed through just the basic writing craft writ large into one of the most masterful works of interactive narrative yet created. And it was released 10 years ago.

When you get to the choice at the end of Deus Ex, the game has led up to this by presenting smaller choices similar to the final one throughout the game, simultaneously telegraphing the ending and building emotional resonance as you dealt with the ramifications of your previous actions. Thematically, the game deals with the struggle between control and freedom, as old and ancient conspiracies struggle to determine the destiny of humanity through the power of technology.

Trapped between all of this is the main character, JC Denton, who is the first non-prototype “augmented” human, a kind of cyborg who has superhuman abilities through mechanical implants. We are constantly made aware of this, even on the basic level of just completing missions with your spectacular abilities. Consequently one of the major themes of the game is also transhumanism, as Denton explores and defines what it means to be the first (or maybe forerunner of the) posthuman, dealing with existential issues at the same time as explosions.

In the end, when faced with the final decision, you have deep emotional resonance that’s been built up by the game itself, so you feel the weight of the possibilities of each choice. When you choose, the brief cutscene you get really hammers home the physical and emotional consequences of your choice. More than that, because of the brilliant ludonarrative design, the ending multiplies into way more than three because of the emotional baggage you built from just the way you played the game. Depending on your choices and even the way you complete missions, you view the same cutscenes in entirely different ways.

Mass Effect, despite adopting the exact same three choices at the end, does not deliver this deep kind of experience. Although it occasionally touched on the same themes, it chose instead to develop something along the lines “At what cost victory?” That’s fine, but it doesn’t particularly fit well with the options at the end, except in a shoehorned kind of way with a stray bit of dialogue. Frankly, even ignoring the fact that it’s blatantly stolen from a better game, it robs the series of its power, and doesn’t even make much sense.

Here’s what I imagine the writer’s room was like when it came to script the end:

“Hey guys, so we’ve made a pretty good story about sacrifice and war. Shep’s almost dead and a bunch of others are dead, too. I guess we just have Shep press the button and win, right?”

“No way. Player choice is the heart of our games! The ending HAS to have a choice of some kind.”

“Oh, let’s just steal the choices from Deus Ex! Ignore that it has little to do with our story. That game was awesome!”

“You know what I really liked from Battlestar Galactica? How it was semi-randomly revealed at the end that God was arbitrarily orchestrating everything the whole time for reasons that are barely touched upon and mostly nonsensical!”

“Hey, in Babylon 5, they draw on themes of the conflict between chaos, order, and free will. We haven’t done that at all, but it’s not too late! But let’s not give them an option similar to the awesome speech Sheridan gives in Season 3 where he tells them all to go the hell. That would be too easy and lame.”

“Those are great ideas. Let’s do all of them!”

“What does this have to do with the story we’ve already written?”

“Nothing! But we’re stealing from such great sources! How can we possibly go wrong?”

In the end, I’m not even angry. I’m just confused. Bioware can release DLC with “what happened after” cutscenes all they want. They can give closure about crew, show how the other choices mattered (choices mattering I do feel is pretty important, but dwarfs the importance of the ending here). Having the last 15 minutes scripted the way it is without regard to the emotions and themes you opened up earlier is just lazy and stupid. The “artistic intent” argument is barely an excuse. I agree that fans shouldn’t be entitled to fanservice, so I don’t care that the written ending fails at fanservice. But it fails at art--even by the standards set by other videogames, which is a notoriously difficult medium to work with. There were so many lost opportunities to explore the notions of duty, sacrifice, tolerance and unity, and the cost of victory. Instead we get this tacked on near-meaningless “choice.”

To be honest, I felt there were many times in Mass Effect 3 where the writing was weaker compared to the other entries in the series. There were a lot of great moments, too--pretty much the entirety of the Quarian/Geth storyline in ME3 comes to mind, and there are flashes of good stuff in the Krogan storyline (though not particularly to my taste). But generally, it fell into the mostly subpar. Perhaps this is due to my high expectations. There were many times where I thought the writers were making an unorthodox choice and going somewhere really deep and interesting, but in actuality they were being even lazier than I thought possible, usually obliterating an interesting setup from a previous game. I could go on forever with examples, but trying to fit everything into a coherent essay would be brain-numbing. So here I’ll switch to a list.


At first, I was frustrated by the out-of-nowhere dream sequences where Shep has emo over a dead child she barely saw. Why add that, except for bathos’ sake? After a bit of thought, though, I got very excited because that’s how PTSD works for a lot of people; there’s no controlling what you associate the negativity of violence with, or how that chooses to mark you psychologically. For all the glorified war violence in video games, PTSD gets little treatment, especially beyond a shady plot device (hole) for the cRaZy antagonist. The idea of watching Shep struggle more and more to keep it together in the face of overwhelming odds, of possibly suffering a breakdown at crucial moments--that story is really interesting, especially stuck in the midst of an otherwise typical Hero’s Journey video game plot.

After the fall of the Asari homeworld, I thought we were seeing the cracks start to show. In the end, it was just Shep having a grumpy day. And the nightmares? Bathos. And an excuse to have Evil Space God Computer present itself in as cliched a manner as possible. This is a failure on two fronts: one over not exploring an interestingly set up story, and one from ending up as such hackneyed and lazy writing.


EDI was a character that started interesting and ended cliched through lazy fanservice writing. “Sheperd. Teach me to be human. Teach me to luuuuuuurve.” EDI, you have access to the entire creative and scientific output of not only the human species, but every known species in the galaxy. Right now in 2012 there are a ton of stories about robots learning to be human and learning about love. Read a book! Then ask some questions.

Liara’s Romance

I chose to continue my romance with Liara from the first game, and I regret it because it was extraordinarily poorly done, especially compared to what they had done with her in previous games. In the first game, leaving the lesbian or Captain Kirk overtones alone, if you wanted a romance as FemShep, you had to choose between Damaged-but-Stable-Soldier-Boy and Awkward-but-Enthusiastic-Nerd-Girl. Neither were especially appealing to me, but the 100-year-old virgin story was pretty solid for what it was.

It was in Mass Effect 2 that they really made this relationship shine. Even though Liara barely showed up, when you first saw her again, you could see the spark rekindle for a moment before all the hurt and pain from grieving came tumbling back. Plus, all this heartache was filtered through her newfound resoluteness and created a kind of maturity.

In Mass Effect 3, very little acknowledgment is made of all that. There are a couple of Meaningful Glances here and there (and I’m impressed both on a technical level and in terms of writing that Bioware is capable of storytelling visually in a medium that is interactive first, visual second, and written/aural third), but Liara is basically a cold fish. And, actually, I thought that was an extension of the growth she’d acquired in the second game. But that’s not where that story was headed: instead, it was just Liara incomprehensibly ignoring Shepard until the game decided it was okay to hit the “romance” flag, after which we basically settled into a storybook romance with little accounting for the history behind it.

I got the sense that on some level the intention was to show the relationship as one of quiet strength and reliance, and not a melodramatic or showy one. I like that notion. However, in so doing they ignored the history that had been built up and obliterated a good part of the character growth that had occurred in Liara. It took a potentially compelling story and turned it into what felt like a generic Bioware romance plot.

Perhaps they were writing for a different story. I read one person’s account of how they almost romanced Liara in ME1, but chose not to “consummate” the relationship, instead choosing to view it as a very close friendship. This made the deepening of the relationship in ME3 seem natural and a very moving sequence. I can easily imagine that--which is why I have trouble understanding why they had trouble incorporating a few lines of dialogue acknowledging the emotional struggle behind having had and failed to have a romantic relationship throughout the series.

Cerberus and the Illusive Man

Here is the biggest writing fail of them all. The Illusive Man was the most interesting character in the whole damn series, and really one of the thematic lynchpins of the game. He is one of the reasons ME2 was actually quite good: because he demonstrated that choices weren’t just Jedi/Sith. He was even deeper than “Does bad things for good reasons.” His reasons were complicated and interesting: he was a racist and ruthless fuckhead who was the only person with power fighting on the right side of ensuring the survival of the human race. He was a stellar character that is almost unheard of in any form of popular entertainment, to say nothing of the game medium, a dark mirror held up to the player’s own choices as she struggles with a terrible ethical calculus.

In ME2, we are presented with the questions, “How far will you go to save the most people?” and, “Is there such a thing as too far?” In ME3, the Illusive Man’s arc resolves the second one with an unequivocal, “Yes.” In ME3, he turned from an ambiguous cipher into a cackling mad scientist.

To be clear: good fiction is made of questions. Religious fiction and self-help books are made of answers.

There were plenty of opportunities to develop the Illusive Man further in the directions he had been used for in ME2. The writers chose to use none of them. He could have been an excellent foil for Sheperd. Instead, he was a standard-issue antagonist. He could have offered an excellent devil’s bargain plot twist somewhere along the line. Instead, he just lived to die.

Invincible Meaninglessly Chinese Space Sephiroth

Do I really need to elaborate further?

Well, let me point out that 80s diversity is not real diversity. Being a villain does not automatically make a character deeper or more interesting. Bad writing will always fuck up your day. Every fucking time.

Summing Up

It’s not that the ending is diagetically bad, although it is. It’s not even that the writing is consistently lazy and bad throughout this entire game (which is strangely at odds with the rest of the series). What makes this so spectacularly bad is that the writing craft somehow supersedes its own badness at the end and devolve into total incoherence.

You know how sometimes you’re watching a cheesy-bad movie, and you know the writers are phoning it in? They didn’t bother to think about their characters or really consider the plot they had set up. They just read this book that says “3 act story” and they know deep down that audiences like it when the villain gives a monologue and then is humbled by Hero McWhite near the end. So that’s what they deliver: a simulacrum of a satisfying story.

AAA games are awesome at this.

ME 3 fucks even that up.

p.s. Yes, I know about Indoctrination Theory. I have another half-written piece about how that’s not a saving grace for this game, and is also bad writing.

p.p.s What I really want to write about is ME racefail and the fanhate of Ashley Williams in the series. I think there is a lot of interesting stuff going on unanalyzed there.
totally not a cylon

(no subject)

Out of hatred for the universe, I just learned the Careless Whisper intro solo on guitar.

But mostly I learned it to troll my wife. ^_^