Sunday, August 19, 2012

Dead Men Tell No Tales: Reflections on Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut

This story was originally posted at  Though I did my best to keep this spoiler-free, if you have not finished Mass Effect 3, it's best to just not read this.

I hate to say it: the extended endings to Mass Effect 3 (DLC released June 26 on XBox Live, PlayStation Network, and PC) are good.  Even though these––in many people’s eyes––are the endings that should have been there in the first place, these have merely fallen in line with what is expected of “epic video game endings.”  With this new DLC, the Mass Effect franchise, but mostly the still brilliant Mass Effect 3, are now just a really good video game series with a “video game ending,” and is not worth talking about any more, and that’s a tragic shame.

I was one of the few, apparently, that had no real qualms with the original endings.  They were a little curt, undoubtedly, but when I reflected upon the alternative, I realized satisfying every fan’s choice, in every possible combination, would be a ridiculous prospect to consider.  For a game built around the conceit of “choice” (more on this later), I argued that the original endings were the ultimate transference of choice.  Over the course of three games, “choice” develops as a sort of ironic, metacognitive philosophical concept, one that organically and believably moves from being 1. choices made by the game (or, to use the parlance of the series, choice has a “synthetic” beginning) to 2. choices made by the player and the game together (a “hybrid” process) to––with Mass Effect 3’s original endings, at least––3. choices that are the player’s alone (becoming an “organically” controlled concept).  This movement, one rife with and ripe for conversation between fans, was not only brilliant and mature, but it created something I hadn’t seen in the gaming community before: a critical discussion of the meaning, depth, possibility, and purpose of a video game’s ending.

Bioware rigorously mapped out how to satisfy every fan.  Their heads exploded.

The lengthy gameplay of the series is a fantastic exercise in video game roleplay and storytelling in addition to the aforementioned philosophical exercise of choice, a stew which made the series essential for gamers to play.  The original endings, however, made this series ascend from being excellent sci-fi to being flat-out literary.  Only the player knows his or her Sheperd best; in truth, only the player knows how the future of the galaxy (not the universe, by the way) could play out based on the supply of choices made.  Furthermore, those final choices carry a self-aware, emotionally-charged importance for the player (well, for me, at least) because no choice felt safe, no future could be guessed, and no person aside from one’s self could be consulted. It forced a player to really push the religious undertones all the way to its boundaries and make the choice based on a sort of faith––the player has to trust that his or her "shepherd" will do the right thing, and that the endings don't tell you what happened force the player to rely on that faith, just like we all have to do in life's major decisions.  While initially making my final choice, my heart was pounding––I honestly had no idea what to do.  It is a rare game that can make a player feel like that––locked in a standstill because of moral and personal implications of a simple choice.  Combined with the vagueness of the original endings, this experience is what made Mass Effect 3 one of the most beautiful games ever made––you had to believe that everything worked out the way you wanted it to.  Choice, however, was also at the heart of Bioware's narrative.

Here, a designer is testing the new "spoonfeeding" narrative engine.

First and foremost, this is a series about a character named Commander Sheperd.  Sheperd is an amazing specimen, one who seems perfectly built to fight this war.  Most importantly, Sheperd is not a god.  Unlike other RPGs (or games in general) where the player can build a character or a team of characters to become unstoppable death trains, Mass Effect’s Sheperd is always fighting an uphill battle.  This keeps Sheperd human and relatable to whomever is playing.  Like a good book, the story about Sheperd ends when that character’s story is complete.  With the exception of one of the original endings, there is no possible way for the character to know what happened following the final decision.  The original endings were enough to let the player know the immediate implications of what happened (and here is where I felt the original endings faltered a bit by not offering enough difference and that the extended cut improves) but, as far as Bioware’s intent was concerned, the story ended with the player’s last decision, and so the game should follow suit.  The choice made in those final moments determined what kind of person Sheperd ended up being––which was arguably Bioware's goal with the series––and was, with any hope, informed by all the character’s previous decisions so that the player could make a choice that was absolutely valid.

Players who want an "epic" ending can use two monitors now.

This was where many players had issue with the original endings, arguing that all the choices made in over a hundred hours of gameplay “meant nothing.”  I would wonder how these people define “choice” as it relates to Mass Effect.  I have the feeling many people think Mass Effect is a stellar example (pardon the pun) of choice in video games.  It’s not, but that’s not a bad thing because the series is still amazing.  A player’s Sheperd is not an accurate representation of one’s physical self in a digital world, no matter how physically similar the player made Sheperd look.  A Mass Effect player does not have the freedom to choose what to do.  Instead, players usually only get a choice between option red or option blue.  That is not an open-ended morality system; that’s binary.  It’s the compilation of all the either-or choices made throughout the series that builds this sense of ownership, authority, and uniqueness in the audience, not the choices themselves.  While the newly updated variety of choices in the game's final moments may indeed make a player feel more empowered, such variety is actually incongruous with how choice was defined by the series, making the ending, technically, more anomalous than before.  People's complaints about the choices having no value is like saying which light switches you flip within your home during a given day makes you who you are––and that you should be president because of it.

If all the choices meant nothing to a player in the final moments, then I argue it was the player not paying attention the entire time, not Bioware.  In my experience, the choices I made brought fantastic and tragic repercussions throughout the series and I felt like I was actually making a difference in this story.  I didn’t need the ending to tell me as much because it was pretty clear all the way through.  I wonder what complainers wanted.  I wonder if they expected the game to keep track of their decisions (which it does), codify them and create what it deems to be “Commander Sheperd” and then judge the player’s final choice.  Do these haters want the game to give them a bad ending with a text box that says, “Your Sheperd would never have made that choice, and here’s a list of reasons why” or vice versa?  Do they need a (synthetic) game to tell them that they’re good at staying in character?  Or do they want what they got with Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut: cheesy freeze-frames and short sequences with ponderous voice-over?  If so, then congratulations, you got the game and endings you wanted.  And they’re good, they’re great, even––but it’s just a game, now.  I’m sorry over a hundred hours of gameplay, story, and characters meant less to you than a ten-minute FMV.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Obvious Impostures: A Review of At the Mountains of Madness by I. N. J. Culbard

Generally, I am very skeptical of graphic novel adaptations of anything, but especially of literature.  The trend of adapting classic literature into graphic novels has been developing over the last decade or so, and with each book I see on the shelves, I involuntarily wince because I’m biased.  Maybe it’s because of my English major past, maybe it’s because I’d rather see original content be developed by talented cartoonists, or maybe it’s because it smells like a quick, easy, and cheap cash-in on a burgeoning graphic novel market using free public domain properties.  It’s probably all of those and more that causes me to cast sideways glances, hoping no one saw me looking at such a travesty of public pandering.

The full wraparound cover for At the Mountains of Madness.
Art by I. N. J. Culbard.
However, many publishers have smartened up and hired very talented visual storytellers for the adaptations.  A great example of this is Paul Karasik & David Mazuchelli's excellent, artful adaption of Paul Auster's post-modern detective novel, City of Glass; also, Neil Babra’s excellent, artful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet for the artless and sanitizing “No Fear Shakespeare” graphic novel series by Spark Notes; or there is also the recent Jane Austen novel adaptations by Marvel.  I think “sanitizing” is the key word for me.  Though I don’t want to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I don’t want to read a watered-down version of it, either.  That was why I became particularly disheartened when I first saw I. N. J. Culbard’s graphic novel adaptation of my beloved H. P. Lovecraft novella, At the Mountains of Madnesson the shelves at the local chain bookstore.  Now that I’ve spent some time with it, I am glad to say that it is, actually, not only a fantastic adaptation of the Lovecraft classic (hardly sanitized at all, despite first impressions), but it’s also a brilliant graphic novel in its own right.

In the Mountains of Madness is found... a salad.
Art by I. N. J. Culbard.
If you do a Google image search of terms like “Lovecraft,” “Cthulhu,” “At the Mountains of Madness,” or “The Elder Ones,” you’ll undoubtedly be inundated with nigh-gothic, macabre, shadowy, ugly, desaturated images full of tentacles, cyclopean architecture (as Lovecraft loved to say), and questionable anatomy, even for creatures of inconceivable horror.  Looking at Culbard’s At the Mountains of Madness (ATMoM), with such Google searches in mind, was a startling departure from the norm.  Starting with the starkly gorgeous, brightly lit cover, the work inside is even more surprising: the linework is crisp, confident, and––for lack of a better term––cartoony.  It very much speaks to a lineage stretching back to Hergé’s ligne clairestyle and, upon first glance, does not seem to be immediately suited to tell a Lovecraftian story, at least not in terms of indifferent cosmic entities and the abandoned cities they left behind in the mountains of the antarctic.  Culbard's art––from the character design to the page design––is simple, effective, and smart, aspects that many might not immediately expect from a Lovecraft adaptation.

Lovecraft's likely vision of Cthulhu.
Art by D. Bethel

But one must consider Lovecraft as a storyteller.  To put it bluntly, Lovecraft, as a stylist, is impenetrable.  I tried to read Lovecraft for years before I was actually able to do it because his style, in technical terms, is boring.  He writes these supposed tales of horror in a reflective, journalistic language, detailing the simple facts in a stolid manner evocative of the 18th-century (a time Lovecraft admitted he would have preferred to live––yearning for the days of respect for blood-borne aristocracy rather than those with wealth built from a Puritan work ethic).  To summarize his style and language, Lovecraft writes––for all the shapeless, cosmos-hopping, plethora of monsters he created––concretely.  While we might expect an art style that matches what a Google image search would suggest, Culbard’s style in fact fits Lovecraft's stylistic mold all too well, except for the boring part.  There is not much left to the imagination in Culbard’s retelling of what is probably the most concrete and descriptive of Lovecraft’s mythos-focused tales (ATMoM literally describes how the creatures we know and love got to Earth, what their hierarchy is, and how they tie to humanity).  Luckily, he is also a modern artist with sharp sensibilities and a keen awareness of how to guide a reader through what is, even in its original form, a harrowing, terrifying, and interesting story (once you get past the antiquated syntax and diction, that is).  I realized while reading this book that there was nothing really to sterilize from the source material, that Lovecraft, just by being Lovecraft, wrote a book that translates pretty easily and effectively into a graphic novel.  As a graphic novel it pulls no punches, or, at least, Culbard swings every time Lovecraft does in his novella and, thusly, creates some quite shocking scenes that need to be seen to be believed (those poor, poor dogs) and speaks to what makes the source material so memorable.

Yes, extend the search for more quality Lovecraft adaptations.
Art by I. N. J. Culbard.

 Each entertainment medium is its own thing, and any adaptation into another medium should be judged on the merit of whatever genre it is in and not on how well it has adapted the source material.  The fact that I. N. J. Culbard was able to capture the awe, anticipation, weirdness, and terror that is hidden behind Lovecraft’s inimitable style so perfectly points to the book’s success as an adapted work, while the quick pacing, stark dialogue, masterful coloring, and confident layouts and character designs prove its success as a graphic novel in its own right.  Even if ATMoM is a cash-in (which I can't confirm nor deny), this is the one of the most well-thought out and considered adaptations of literature into graphic novel form I have seen.  On his blog, Culbard has shown images of another Lovecraft adaptation––this time, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward––and now, instead of involuntarily wincing upon seeing it, I eagerly await to have it in my hands.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Sea Change: Thoughts on Comic Book Reboots

Since the the triumphant success of Batman Begins, the word “reboot” has been wafting through popular culture, particularly among comic book properties. For the most part, I haven’t paid much attention to it because I unhooked myself from the lure of comic continuity a long time ago. Rebooting recently took center stage due to DC Comics’ widely publicized “New 52” where they, basically, “rebooted” their entire line.

It’s hard to know what to expect regarding reboots because I think the general definition of the term for comic books is more fuzzy than it is for comic book-based movies. With movies, it seems to mean that when the creative team wholly changes (mostly meaning just actors and directors), and the new flick is not based upon previously filmed continuity, then it’s a reboot. This is what happened with Batman Begins, sort of what happened with X-Men: First Class, and is arguably happening with the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man (and, please god, be the case for Transformers). Creative teams in comics, however, change guard all the time, and it is expected that whatever comes next respects what was published before. So, when timelines get too convoluted or marketing brains believe that the comics on the stands are impenetrable to new readers, the bigwigs announce via an unsubtle press release that a certain book or line of books is getting rebooted. In fact, continuity seems to be such a majority shareholder in comic books that a title that keeps the same creative team but abolishes all previous story ties could classify as a reboot, too.
A page from Prophet #21, art by Simon Roy
For comics, it seems that to “reboot” a line means a few things: first, it often means to start the numbering over from #1; second, it can mean that age or time is getting rolled back so that the setting, character, and theme can be modernized and made “more relatable”; third, it jump-starts the collector’s market and generates notable media attention, thus boosting sales. Though the reasons can go on (I admittedly only compiled those most cynical), just cutting out years of story and taking a license “back to basics” doesn’t scream “reboot” as much as it does, in filmic terms, “splicing,” a process whereby a length of film is cut at two points, removed, and the remaining hole is closed by joining the two cut points together. Most reboots are more like removing scenes from a story rather than actually starting from scratch. While this is perfectly serviceable, and does achieve the goals numbered above, what it doesn’t do is actually more interesting.

If a character or brand is honestly outdated, simply starting over again from issue #1 isn’t going to do the job, and neither is increasing the contrast in the art, adding curse words, filling pages with more violence, interspersing a new adjective into the title, or merely updating the popular culture references. That’s just a new coat of paint on a car that can’t pass a smog check. Though it may not meet well with die hard fans or core audiences, it seems generally beneficial that the term “reboot” should be a more severe action. Instead of just being a challenging of the previous continuity, a reboot should challenge the very concept of the character. What if the title of the main Batman book were to remain the same, but the very idea of Batman and how the character is represented within were completely and utterly new? What if Bruce Wayne, the Joker, Gotham City, and the gadgets were all gone?

While rebuilding from the ground up a property like Batman would undoubtedly bring mutiny, I am quite impressed with how Image Comics has truly “rebooted” one of their properties that had lapsed into complete obscurity.
Prophet #1, from 1994, on the left; Prophet #21, from 2012, on the right
Prophet was a character created by Rob Liefeld, a man whose career trajectory (in hindsight) is so bizarre that it warrants study. During the late 1980s and early to mid 1990s, Rob Liefeld was one of the most important and influential comic book artists on the planet. For the 1990s collector’s era of comics, his style is unmistakable and ingrained into what defined that culture: ridiculously over-muscled men, bullet casings filling up negative space in panels, geysers of blood bursting from webs of veins protruding from every bit of exposed skin, illogically proportioned women who are able to show you a full view of their rears and their helium-filled breasts in a single pose, and really––biblically––big guns. Without a shred of personal malice or judgment toward the man, he is generally considered to be the poster child for everything that was wrong with 1990s comics (his own creative studio even embodied this trend, calling itself Extreme Studios). Prophet came from this particular mindset and, with the addition of a new superstar penciller named Stephen Platt––basically, the guy who showed how Rob Liefeld should be drawing by taking all the things Liefeld did and amping them up exponentially––made Prophet a shining beacon of the times.
Thankfully, tastes change
The comics scene was a different beast then. With the advent of Image Comics––a creator-owned publisher created solely by the hottest Marvel artists who got fed up with the lack of creator control over content, of which Liefeld was the spearhead––the leaders of the comic book business were comic book pencillers. Because of this, it can be generally argued that during this time art in a comic book was more carefully considered than the story, something that’s hard to debate when I look back at the dusty longbox of Image comics I recently pulled from the back of my closet. Looking specifically at Prophet, it is a comic compiled of dynamic poses and double-page spreads, fraught with microscopic cross-hatching and early use of computer coloring. To be honest, even after rereading what old Prophet books I have, I have no idea what it’s about. It was for sure three things: a lot of action, a lot of blood, and a lot of grimacing. In short, it was 1990s comics and, with time, was something best forgotten.

It has been twelve years since the last solo Prophet book hit the shelves (with its third #1 issue, no less, though it didn’t last any issues beyond that), and at the end of last year I was as surprised as anyone to hear that it was going to be “rebooted” for 2012, the 20th anniversary of Image Comics. My expectations were low not only because I was slightly familiar with the original property, but also because of a familiarity with how comic book reboots work. All I could see was another #1 and a creator banking on a surge of mid-90s nostalgia. However, the John Prophet found in Prophet #21––released to stands in January––is unrecognizable. By my estimation––aside from the numbering (which is actually new, none of the previous iterations lasted beyond issue #10, they just combined them all) and the book’s logo, Prophet is a reboot in every sense of the word.
Two Prophet 2-page spreads, 1995 and 2012
Without devolving into a mere review of the issue––that is not the point here––it is important to note that Prophet #21 is, rhetorically, about destroying the expectations any reader has coming to this title. If we are to expect out of a Liefeld title art shackled to ‘90s artistic excess, we are given in Canadian artist Simon Roy (whom I first encountered when I found his post-modern, sci-fi one-shot Jan’s Atomic Heart mixed in with the new releases a few years ago at my local comic shop) a sketchy precision more associated with European artists such as Enki Bilal, Moebius, Hermann, or François Boucq. Lines are no longer tools for hyperreality, they are abstract hints at shape and detail, lending the title a nigh impressionistic feel. If, because it’s a book linked to Extreme Studios, the reader expects story highly tangled and abstruse, Brandon Graham (a crazy good artist in his own right) crafts a subtle, mysterious, but inviting tale of a man lost in alien terrain that is actually Earth in the far future. Prophet has moved away from the self-indulgent, masturbatory, angsty teen dream it used to be, ridding itself of all attempts at tension caused by conspiracy and double-talk spoken through gritted teeth. Instead, we are given a simple and weird––but not uninviting––sci-fi parable, becoming not even the polar opposite of what it used to be but pulled from a different sphere entirely.
Plus, sex with gross aliens is awesome
Going back to the car analogy, the Prophet reboot is not necessarily comparable to a new design using an old name; instead, it’s as if Henry Ford created the Model T and, for ease of social dispensation, called it the world’s newest version of the bicycle. In looking outside the realm of comfort to find a new direction, Prophet #21 has created a new mold for what that property can be, a new definition for an old word, and has created something the recent reboots haven’t done. But why is such a huge shift important for comics wanting to reboot, especially in the modern market? If we can accept that all texts, even comic books, are created as a means to reflect a societal aspect of the times, then comics need to change as society changes. America today is not the same America as 1995, though books like Prophet perfectly captured the spirit of that time––bloated by the speculator's market, Prophet and many books like it were simply embodiments of confident, masculine excess. Today we are a more humble country, quieted by the divisive nature of our leaders (both politically and corporately) who look more and more alien to us every day despite their assurance that they are just like us. The heroes we want are not the unstoppable juggernauts of grotesque and unlimited possibility and violent potential, the modern heroes are, instead, the lucky men and women who awake to find themselves alone in a hostile landscape, with nothing but the will to put one foot in front of the other and call it success.