I don’t know what to say…

Overall I tend to have a pretty positive view of our species, despite all of the horrible things that have been done by us. Then I come across stories like the one posted by PZ Myers today (1) that makes me really fucking hate humanity!

Like most cults, [the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints are] very protective of their own and hate apostates passionately. They must send a message to anyone who dares leave the church, as Isaac Wyler discovered. He found a kitten on his property: a kitten half-encased in concrete, which suffered for a little while before it died.

I know this isn’t even close in scale to some of the horrors committed in the past by humanity, but fuck! It just baffles me to see the horrors that some people will do just to make a point about their imaginary piece of shit sky fairy. I know I shouldn’t be surprised anymore, but the fact that is isn’t unexpected doesn’t make me any less angry. There is a video of the kitten as well. I haven’t watched it; I just can’t bring myself to do it.

Reading through the comments on a Huffington Post article on the subject (a site I normally steer clear of), it’s sad to see all of the “he/she is in a better place now” comments. I know that these people are just trying to deal with it the best way they know how, but this attitude is nothing but a distraction. It’s just a placation that ultimately says “evil is OK because my sky fairies ultimate justice will even things out in the end.” This behavior not OK! This unfortunate kitten is not in a better place. He/she is dead. That’s it. End of story. And the reason this kitten is dead is, more likely than not, because of religion. Stupid…fucking…religion.

(1) Myers, PZ. “How can anyone do that to a kitten?” Pharyngula. 9th July, 2012. Available: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/07/09/how-can-anyone-do-that-to-a-kitten
(2) Moye, David. “Cat Buried Alive In Concrete A Warning Message From Polygamists?” Huffington Post. 9th July, 2012. Available: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/09/cat-buried-in-concrete-colorado-city-az_n_1660320.html

Mass Effect 3’s ending part 2 – praise and criticism

In Part 1 of my discussion on Mass Effect 3’s ending, I discussed why I thought that the player outrage over the ending of Mass Effect 3 is mostly, but not completely, unjustified and misguided. There were some problems with the ending though, so I want to discuss what I thought the problems were and how big they were.

Warning, major spoilers of the last few minutes of Mass Effect 3 ahead.

I think that there were basically three problems with the ending:

  1. The choices at the end were not based on any previous choices.
  2. There was one too few endings.
  3. The cut scenes needed to be fleshed out more.

The first issue is one that is commonly cited against the game, but I feel that the proper solution is not what others have suggested: there shouldn’t have been a choice between the options at all. One way that BioWare could have handled these choices better is exactly how 2K handled the endings of BioShock 1 and 2 (especially 2). The two BioShocks had a variety of different endings as well, but the ending was preselected for you based on your decisions leading up to that point. If BioWare had simply removed the player’s ability to choose their ending, and instead preselected the ending based on your previous choices, then the ending would have been improved dramatically. Alternatively, BioWare could have hidden the choice in a conversation tree about the nature of the relationship between synthetics and organics (which they already had) such that you still made the decision at the end, but without dropping the player out of the flow of the ending while they made their choice. A player’s renegade and paragon would have also shaped the options available, as they do in other conversations.

I think that there should have been a fourth option as well: the reapers are deactivated/allowed to go live their lives as they see fit/etc while simultaneously allowing organics to go on living as they see fit, or something to that effect. Basically nothing changes except that the Reapers are called off (or maybe destroyed). To keep in line with the theme of “every option has consequences”, the story could have been weaved such that synthetics and organics eventually do destroy each other (perhaps thousands or millions of years in the future). I’m not sure if any other endings would have been necessary (I can’t think of any), but this fourth one would have definitely been a proper addition, especially if this option required the player to have saved both the Geth and the Quarians.

When playing the ending I got the distinct impression that it was rushed, which is not unusual for projects of this scope. A little more time to polish the cut scenes and flesh out some character appearances would have made for a more impactful ending. I must emphasize though that I didn’t think the cut scenes were bad really, just a little weak. People complained that the endings were all the same, but they really weren’t; it was just the visuals that were the same.

Recycled explosion cut scene

Recycled explosion cut scene (1)

In all of my criticisms, notice how I said nothing about the basic premise/structure of the ending being flawed or inconsistent. This was intentional because I think that BioWare got the premise of the ending right. It didn’t have major structural flaws, it just lacked polish. BioWare has announced that they are going to be releasing a sort of “extended cut” DLC that will flesh out the ending. One thing that BioWare should NOT do with their extended cut DLC is to retcon the ending and do something entirely new to appease the fanbase. Many players have clamored for this, but fortunately BioWare doesn’t seem to be pursuing this route. This is important because a) I think it would weaken the potential of the ending and b) it would set a bad precedent. If gamers always get what they want, then the medium will stop moving forward because the average gamer just wants to blow stuff up real good and have fun. They want more of the same.

I really do think that the ending was quite good, despite my criticisms. I was on the edge of my seat during the entire time on the citadel. It was very powerful and very moving at times. One surprising turn of events was during the final push to the citadel, Harbinger mortally wounds both Shepard and Andersen. This leaves both characters, and by extension the player, barely able to function. There are no more insanely powerful weapons, no more biotics, no more tech. It’s just you, and you can barely do anything. This may have frustrated some players, but I think this was absolutely genius. It almost forced the ending to focus on story over gameplay, and benefited greatly from it. It was much more focused and impactful than the endings to ME1 and ME2 which both focused on a huge boss battle.

This focus lead to a masterful final encounter with the Illusive Man. Instead of turning this encounter into some huge boss fight, it instead was a much more interesting, storied encounter. Ideas of control and free will were discussed. Much pent up anger was released, and the dramatic tension was palpable, leading to the Illusive Man committing suicide with the realization of what he had done (in my play through).

The Illusive Man, Indoctrinated

The Illusive Man, Indoctrinated (1)

Andersen and Shepard then open the Citadel so the Crucible can dock and be activated. They finally accomplished all that they set out to do. Shepard and Anderson, both on the verge of death, finally have a moment to relax. They have won. In what is one of single the best scenes I’ve ever seen in a game, Andersen and Shepard contemplate all that has happened, and all that they have accomplished. Few words are said because few are needed. Finally, Andersen dies. It’s not a tragic event, but rather one of sad beauty.

Shepard is waiting for the inevitable, ready to invite death with open arms. Death has other plans though when Hackett calls in saying that nothing is happening. It isn’t a moment of panic though, nor of frustration or anger. Instead, Shepard trudges herself up, like a good solder, stumbles back towards the console. It’s almost as if she just instinctively reacts to what is required of her, ignoring the fact that she is dying. Try as she might though, she just can’t make it and collapses on the platform in front of the console. It’s a moment of profound, aching sadness. I felt that what came after these scenes just didn’t matter from an emotional standpoint because the emotionally satisfying conclusion had already been reached.

I played as Femshep (if that wasn’t obvious), and I wonder how these scenes would have played out as Maleshep. I always felt there was a certain vulnerability and complexity to Jane Hall’s portrayal of Femshep that Mark Meer’s portrayal of Maleshep lacked. This vulnerability was crucial in creating the impact of the ending, so I don’t think that the Maleshep ending would have been as good as a result (of course I could be wrong since I didn’t play it).  Since 87% of players play as Maleshep (2), I wonder if this factored in to people’s negative opinion of the ending.

It’s also worth noting that the music during the ending is absolutely phenomenal! It’s no surprise, then, to learn that Clint Mansell, Darren Aronofsky’s go-to composer for his films, lent his talents to this project. It perfectly fits the balance of emotional and intellectual weight of the ending, perhaps even defining it. It’s a testament to Mansell and team’s work that I still have one of the ending piano pieces, “An End, Once and For All” shown below (3), stuck in my head a week after I finished playing the game. I even found a piano arrangement of the piece that I am now learning.

In part 1, I mentioned a quote from another gamer. I want to requote just the first part, because this person got the first part absolutely right: “Mass Effect 3 emotionally wrecked me.” (4) It absolutely did, which is high praise indeed. The night after I finished playing I couldn’t sleep because I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I still find myself thinking about it a week later. When something grabs hold of me like this, I know that I have just experience something truly incredible. All of the analysis and discussion about what worked well and what didn’t really doesn’t matter. This is what matters: I experience something that I cannot forget, and that is the sign of something wonderful.

(1) Stretch. “Mass Effect 3′s Ending & Shepard Indoctrination Theory.” Bag of Games. 2nd April, 2012. Available: http://www.bagofgames.com/2012/04/mass-effect-3s-ending-shepard-indoctrination-theory/
(2) Hillier, Brenna. “Loving FemShep: BioWare’s first lady finally steps forward.” VG24/7. 19th Fuly, 2011. Available: http://www.vg247.com/2011/07/19/loving-femshep-biowares-first-lady-finally-steps-forward/
(3) “Mass Effect 3 Soundtrack – An End Once and For All.” YouTube. 4th March, 2012. Available: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5JvbD2Zc9I
(4) Kuchera, Ben. “Why the ending of Mass Effect 3 was satisfying, and worthy of the series.” Penny Arcade Report. 13th March, 2012. Available: http://www.penny-arcade.com/report/editorial-article/why-the-ending-of-mass-effect-3-was-satifying-and-worthy-of-the-series-mass

Mass Effect 3’s ending part 1 – Retake Mass Effect is wrong

I just finished playing Mass Effect 3 on Saturday. While I didn’t love the ending, I certainly didn’t hate it like most people did.I do have may thoughts on the ending though, enough that I am splitting this post into two parts. Part 1 will deal with the criticisms of the ending, namely the Retake Mass Effect effort. Part 2 will deal with what I thought was good and bad about the ending, and some a few tweaks that could be made to the ending to make it incredible. Now that I have played the game, I can confidently say that I think the Retake Mass Effect point of view on the game is, for the most part, wrong.

Warning, major spoilers of the last few minutes of Mass Effect 3 ahead.

The Retake Mass Effect petition states (1):

A Petition for Alternate Endings to the Mass Effect Trilogy

We, the undersigned, respectfully request the consideration of the following petition.

Whereas:
* Mass Effect is an interactive video game providing a detailed framework within which the player may create a unique story
* A major concept of the Mass Effect games is that your choices significantly affect the outcome of the story
* Another major concept of the Mass Effect games is success in the face of seemingly impossible odds

We believe:
* That it is the right of the writers and developers of the Mass Effect series to end that series however they see fit

However, we also believe that the currently available endings to the series:
* Do not provide the wide range of possible outcomes that we have come to expect from a Mass Effect game
* Do not provide a sense of succeeding against impossible odds
* Do not provide a sense of closure with regard to the universe and characters we have become attached to
* Do not provide an explanation of events up to the ending which maintains consistency with the overall story

We therefore respectfully request additional endings be added to the game which provide:
* A more complete explanation of the story events
* An explaination of the outcome of the decisions made, especially with regard to the planets, races, and companions detailed throughout the series
* A heroic ending which provides a better sense of accomplishment

To this end, we donate to the “Retake Mass Effect 3″ Child’s Play Charity drive in lieu of our signature to this petition, in order to establish our sincerity, our love for these games, and for the Mass Effect universe.

We thank you for your consideration.

For the most part I just don’t agree. BioWare is all about story. They set out to tell a story with the Mass Effect games, just like they did with the Dragon Age games. I think that the point of view above places gameplay over story. They want the story to be the expected outcome of how they played the game; in other words predictable! It’s sad, but everyone wanted a formulaic ending. I’m going to do my due diligence though and go through these arguments one by one instead of just hand-waving them away as being asinine.

“Do not provide the wide range of possible outcomes that we have come to expect from a Mass Effect game.” This is the only point that I do agree with. While the choices weren’t bad, and they can be an interesting reflection on the part of the person playing, I do think there should have been one (and probably only one) more option which I will discuss below.

“Do not provide a sense of succeeding against impossible odds.” Seriously? No matter which option you choose, the Reaper threat is over. There are no more cycles. How is this not a sense of success? Do players need to see parades with everyone singing yub nub to get a sense of success? Can these players not handle open ended endings? Sadly the answers to those last two questions are “yes” and “no,” and these answers have been born out by decades of film history. This is why mainstream summer blockbusters sell so well, even though they are incredibly formulaic, predictable, and boring, while the really interesting, thought-provoking, and truly great movies are lucky to be made at all and make orders of magnitude less money than their summer blockbuster brethren. People just don’t want to be intellectually challenged, they wanted to be intellectually satiated.

“Do not provide a sense of closure with regard to the universe and characters we have become attached to.” This can be nice sure (this is something Dragon Age: Origins did very well), but to say that the ending sucked because it wasn’t there? That’s ludicrous. That type of ending didn’t fit with what BioWare wanted to do, and did do, which was to provide a thought-provoking, cerebral, and open-ended ending.

“An [sic] explaination of the outcome of the decisions made, especially with regard to the planets, races, and companions detailed throughout the series.” I’m sympathetic to this argument, but I still think Bioware did the right thing. An explanation wasn’t necessary…the outcome of all of the races, etc, was obvious. Explicitly showing what happened to, say, the Krogans based on whether or not you saved Wrex and Eve and whether or not you told them about the STG sabotage was unnecessary because the game made it painfully obvious what was going to happen given those decisions. An explanation like this would have just served as a pat on the back to players and wouldn’t have contributed anything new to the story. It would, however, have diluted the story that BioWare did want to tell because the core ending would have had to share screen time with this fluff.

“Do not provide an explanation of events up to the ending which maintains consistency with the overall story.” I simply don’t see any inconsistency. There are two major consistencies I see discussed: 1) the kid came out of nowhere and 2) everyone should have been destroyed by the relays exploding. Both of these claims are flat out wrong. On 1), the existence of something controlling the reapers was explicitly mentioned earlier in the From Ashes DLC (which should have been shipped with the game) which takes place fairly early in the game. In addition, this theme of new layers being slowly revealed has a very strong precedence. First, we thought the Protheans were the only previous race, then we learned that the Reaper’s also existed with the Protheans, then we learned that races existed before the Protheans, then we learned the Protheans weren’t a single-race species but rather a multi-race empire, and so on. Whoever claims that the kid came out of nowhere simply wasn’t paying attention to the game. On 2), well everyone wasn’t killed because the relays didn’t explode. Everyone compares the events of the ME2 DLC Arrival, where a relay did explode because an asteroid was crashed into it with the end of ME3 and claim OMGZ PLOT HOLE !!!!11!1!@#! Once again, these people simply weren’t paying attention. The relays broadcast a signal across the galaxy that did whatever choice was chosen, and overloaded in the process. It’s like detonating a nuclear weapon version breaking one by over volting the circuitry. The nuclear weapon is destroyed in both cases, but only the first one destroys an entire city. The other consistency issues brought up are so tiny and assinine, I can’t believe people got hung up on them to begin with. I am someone with a lot of physics and some biology background, yet I still enjoy sci-fi movies. If I got upset at the MAJOR misunderstandings of science in virtually EVERY sci-fi movie EVER MADE, then I wouldn’t be able to watch movies, period. Entertainment isn’t going to be perfect down to the last detail, it’s just simply not possible.

Party Time (this is what fans wanted)

Party Time (this is what fans wanted) (2)

There is a common trend among all of these complaints: people wanted a predictable, thoughtless ending that was focused on them. They wanted the ending to Return of the Jedi, not the ending to 2001. They wanted a party with everyone getting drunk, as shown in the fan art above, without any real depth or intellectuality at all.

To quote another player mentioned in Ben Kuchera’s excellent writeup on the issue: (3)

Mass Effect 3 emotionally wrecked me. It’s Bioware’s game so it’s their choice. And obviously the game was effective to get that response, but I still feel like shit,” one fan told me. “I don’t play games to feel like this after [they’re over]. How do I trust Bioware to not wreck me again if I decide to join them on their next epic?”

This player is pissed off that the game made him/her feel something other than satiated happiness? That’s…just…fucked…up. It is through emotional and intellectual discovery that we advance as a species. This type of discovery doesn’t occur when you have the attitude expressed by this player, and it really makes me despair for humanity to see opinions like this proffered. These types of fans hated the image from the synthesis ending of ME3 below, despite the fact that this is a very powerful scene, just dripping with meaning. The sad thing is that it went over most people’s heads.

Synthesis of love (what people hated)

Synthesis of love (this is what fans hated) (4)

I wrote the following paragraph when discussing the ending of another recent BioWare RPG in which people hated the ending: (5)

I suspect that the majority of these players weren’t making choices because it’s what their interpretation of Hawke would actually do, but because it would result in the outcome they wanted in the story, thus making these choices a game itself. These type of players wanted to “win” at the game of “choice,” instead of taking part in a narrative. Given this mindset, it is no wonder that they were upset because they felt that the game cheated them out of winning.

I get the distinct impression that the same phenomenon is manifesting itself with Mass Effect 3 too.

People often complain about the banality of AAA games these days (I’m one of them), but the Retake Mass Effect effort tells us exactly why most AAA games are so mundane: the average gamer hates intellectually challenging games! So much so that they create petitions to try to force game companies to make the few attempts made at interesting games be rewritten. The ending of Mass Effect 3 wasn’t perfect, as I am going to outline in part 2, but the response by the average gamer to the ending fills me with far far more rage than the actual ending itself. And that’s just sad.

(1) “Retake Mass Effect.” ChipIn. 12th March, 2012. Available: http://retakemasseffect.chipin.com/retake-mass-effect-childs-play
(3) Plunkett, Luke. “Mass Effect 3 Gets A Happy Ending After All.” Kotaku. 21 March, 2012. Available: http://www.kotaku.com.au/2012/03/mass-effect-3-gets-a-happy-ending-after-all/
(3) Kuchera, Ben. “Why the ending of Mass Effect 3 was satisfying, and worthy of the series.” Penny Arcade Report. 13th March, 2012. Available: http://www.penny-arcade.com/report/editorial-article/why-the-ending-of-mass-effect-3-was-satifying-and-worthy-of-the-series-mass
(4) Freeman, Zadishe. “Outrage over the ending of Mass Effect 3: Not just a game.” Freeman’s Mind. 25th March, 2012. Available: http://zadishefreeman.com/the-outrage-over-mass-effect-3-not-just-a-game/
(5) Salo. “The Illusion of Choice in Dragon Age 2.” Chrono-Synclastic Infundibulum. 26 October, 2011. Available: http://chronosynclasticinfundibulum.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/the-illusion-of-choice-in-dragon-age-2/

Part 2 is live!

“Shame”

I recently watched the film “Shame,” directed by Steve McQueen starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a successful person in his 30’s living in New York who suffers from a sexual addiction. It is a truly amazing film, and it’s really unfortunate that it wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award last year. Unfortunately, the existence of the film and the reaction to it say almost as much as the film itself does.

Shame Movie Poster

Shame Movie Poster (1)

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

It’s difficult to classify specifically what Brandon’s addiction is, and the film wisely doesn’t try and explain it for us. Instead, the film simply observes his behavior and his interactions with others. It simultaneously tries to make a statement about addiction in general, but also sets out to tell a very personal story as well. We see Brandon engaging in as many sexual encounters as possible. He takes several breaks during work to masturbate in a bathroom stall. He always arrives late to work, even though he leaves his apartment early. He takes long lunches and takes off during the afternoon to have sex with prostitutes. He starts looking at porn and masturbating as soon as he gets home, and doesn’t stop until he goes to bed. His life is consumed by sex.

Brandon’s sister Sissy is a singer trying to make it in New York, but hasn’t had a lot of luck. Early in the film, she stops by Brandon’s apartment and asks to stay with him because she doesn’t have anywhere else to stay. Brandon, desperate to conceal his addiction, is very reluctant to say yes but he eventually relents. They don’t get along and constantly fight, but she stays and he doesn’t throw her out. We learn that Sissy cuts herself and it is implied that she has attempted to commit suicide in the past. Both of their pasts are shrouded in mystery, but we get the impression that they went through a shared trauma together.

Brandon

Brandon (2)

Brandon sometimes goes out in the evening with his boss, David, to various bars and lounges. David is the type that hits on anything that moves, and usually fails spectacularly. Brandon never hits on anyone, which ironically makes him more attractive to others than David does. Brandon never puts any effort into picking up women at all; if they happen to want to have sex, then all the better, but otherwise he couldn’t care less. I suspect that Brandon doesn’t try because he is so used to porn/prostitutes who don’t say no that pursuing women at a bar just isn’t worth the effort. One night, David and Brandon go to hear Sissy sing, leading to one of the best scenes in the entire film.

Brandon eventually asks a co-worker, Marianne, out one evening which leads to a very awkward dinner. Brandon obviously doesn’t know how to act around real people. At one point, he goes to a hotel with Marianne where they try to have sex, but Brandon isn’t able to maintain an erection. It’s a rather unusual situation for someone with a sex addiction, but at the same time it kinda makes sense. Brandon is not used to having to care about the sexuality of a partner, and indeed is not used to having any connection at all with his partner. It’s possible that Brandon feels that having sex with Marianne is letting her into his secret life, making him apprehensive. Or perhaps it’s that sex with Marianne is a little to “real” for him. Or maybe it’s just simply too much effort. Sex with prostitutes is an act of fantasy that is completely focused on Brandon, so this situation just doesn’t fit with his usual experiences.

The comparisons with drug abuse are obvious, but there are a few key differences. Drug abuse has, in a way, become “accepted.” Not in the sense that it’s OK to be addicted to drugs, but in the sense that it’s OK to admit if you have a problem. Society has accepted that drug abuse is just a part of modern society, albeit an undesirable one. Sex addiction, however, has no such acceptance. Admitting that one is a sex addict is likely to result in much shaming and revulsion for all but the most experienced therapists. It must be an incredibly lonely experience compared to other addictions. We see this in the reaction of Brandon when his sister catches him masturbating one evening. This, in and of itself, isn’t that big of a deal; most guys, myself included, have been caught masturbating at least once in their lives. Normally it’s just an embarrassing situation that you get over quickly, but not so with Brandon: he utterly flips out. He is aware that sex addiction is universally reviled, and is freaked out that his may be exposed. While most addicts display similar behavior, the severity of the reaction for Brandon seems much greater.

Sissy

Sissy (2)

The climactic moment in the movie has Brandon spiraling out of control wherein he goes on a sex “bender.” He goes to clubs, meets up with prostitutes, and even frequents a gay bar where he hooks up with some men, something he hadn’t shown an inclination for before. It seems obvious that Brandon just needs more and more, and is willing to try anything to satisfy his cravings. Like any addiction, his fixes become less and less fixating over time, requiring him to do more and more to satisfy him. During this time, Sissy attempts to commit suicide. When Brandon finally gets home, he finds her in a pool of blood on his bathroom floor. She survives, barely, and Brandon is utterly shaken. He resolves himself to rid himself of his addiction, and we get the sense that he may finally find some resolution. But, as in reality, this is not bound to last. While riding on the subway, Brandon exchanges glances with a beautiful woman and we immediately know that he has slipped back into his old habits. Although not exactly an uplifting ending, it is sadly realistic. People who overcome their addictions are, unfortunately, in the minority.

One frustrating aspect of this film is it’s rating. This film was rated NC-17, and that is absolutely absurd. It’s not surprising in the least, but it’s still absurd. In any absolute measure of the sense, there wasn’t anything in this film that Eyes Wide Shut, Original Sin, or Basic Instinct didn’t also have. So what makes this movie different? Two things: it contained full male nudity, and it contained gay sex. This is something that just pisses me off to no end: full female nudity is perfectly OK (hell, PG-13 rated Titanic had full female nudity), but full male nudity is verboten. It’s a perfect example of the inherit sexism present in the mainstream media. They feel that women are supposed to be sex objects, and men aren’t. Same thing with sex. Heterosexual sex can be very explicit, as long as it’s not hardcore, to be R rated as Original Sin showed. But if it’s gay sex? Forget it. That this film was rated NC-17 shows off perfectly well the biases in mainstream movie industry today, and shows just how far we have to go before we really achieve equality. At least we have people like Steve McQueen who are willing to make films the way they need to be made, regardless of the impact it will have on their bottom line.

(1) “Shame Movie Posters #3.” IMP Awards. 18th November, 2011. Available: http://www.impawards.com/2011/shame_ver3.html
(2) “Shame.” Fox Searchlight. Available: http://www.foxsearchlight.com/shame/

Dear Esther

I just finished playing “Dear Esther,” (1) a game, if you can call it that, about the the death of a man, and I have to write about it (Warning, spoilers ahead). He is sick, or so he says. He was friends with a man named Donnelly who suffered from syphilis and abused laudanum, or so he says. He pines for his lost love Esther, or so he says. The player’s character narrates the game, but is he a trustworthy narrator?

In the game, you wander around an island, witnessing sights of beauty while listening to the forlorn tale of the island’s inhabitants. There is Jakobson, a poor man who tries to raise himself out of poverty by herding goats, and Donnelly. Who are these two people, and how do they relate to the player? We gather that Donnelly was the player’s friend but that there was a falling out.

Why is the player on the island? We hear that the player has cordoned himself on the island to isolate the sickness from others. Perhaps. When we first start out, we can see a communications antenna on the peak of the central mountain on the island, with it’s pulsating light at the top drawing us in. We immediately know that this tower is our destination. What awaits us there? Why must we traverse the island to get there? The narrator tells us that the seagulls have all left the island, and that the original inhabitants of the island have left as well. There is nothing left, just the remnants of buildings and the sickly, scraggly plant life, rocks, and sand. The feeling of loneliness and emptiness is palpable.

A beautiful cave

A beautiful cave (2)

There is a tension between the idleness of the island, the feeling of inevitable death, and the drive to reach the top. The narrator calls it his Damascus. As we travel through the island, we come across sights of true, awe-inspiring beauty. We come across paintings on the walls of caves and cliffs; paintings of hydrocarbon chains, alcohol compounds, and electrical schematics. Perhaps this is symbolic of how Esther died? Then start the messages…at first they tell the tale of the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus, but they start to take a subtle turn. “Was Paul’s conversion the result of brain trauma?” it hints to us. Is our trip also the result of brain trauma? Is any of this real? We start to feel more and more that we are being led to the top, not going there of our own accord. It is nighttime now and the moon is up, and there are candles lighting the way. Who lit these candles? We catch glimpses of a hooded character in the shadows, but nothing more. Who is this stranger?

The drive to get to the top gets stronger. We are moving faster now. The messages on the walls start to hint at something less hopeful. We aren’t heading to our salvation at the top, but rather to the inevitable conclusion of our fate. We get to the top, to the communications tower. We climb to the top of the tower and look out over the island. We look down, past the tower, past the cliffs, to the ocean below, and we jump. We fall in slow motion, pas the tower, past the cliffs, and begin to fly across the ocean. Our shadow is that of a seagull. We fly out over the ocean, soaring, and the screen begins to fade until there is nothing left but the sound of the ocean. We are dead.

I sit pondering the game. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is supposed to be a story of redemption, but that is not the fate of the character. The continual references to the story seem to say many things, but never confirming. Perhaps the story is a sort of wistful hope that the character clings to in order to avoid dealing with his fate. Perhaps the game itself is saying that stories such as there only serve to divorce ourselves from reality. It certainly shows a sense of desperation in dealing with death…and perhaps even in trying to find meaning in life; some sort of sign that this journey has some revelatory meaning.

The lonely island

The lonely island (2)

Just what was the journey? Was the island real? Was there really a person leading us to the top, and if so who was he/she? Was it Esther? Donnelly? The narrator himself? We never really find out. The narrator refers to “Esther Donnelly” a few times; are they actually the same person? Was Donnelly really the narrator’s lost love? Are they perhaps different parts of the narrator himself? Does the narrator even exists for that matter? These are not questions that the game answers.

It’s amazing to see how indie game devs are really pushing the boundaries of what can be done with games. Games such as “Dear Esther” show that there is such a huge potential for telling meaningful stories in the medium. While it may sound strange at first to use a game to convey a story like this, it actually was the perfect choice. The story is one of discovery (as much as you discover anyways), and by using an interactive media, we are actually making the discoveries for ourselves. As the drive to reach the top increases as the game moves on, it is not just the character that is driven, but ourselves that is driven. We aren’t just contemplating the death of a character, but the death of ourselves. By using the format of a game, it becomes much more introspective, and much more personal.


Dear Ester Trailer (1)

(1) Briscoe, Robert. “Dear Esther.” Dear Esther. Available: http://dear-esther.com/
(2) [H|G]~Modred189~ “Dear Esther Screenshots”. Steam Community. 19 Februrary, 2012. Available: http://steamcommunity.com/id/Modred189/screenshots/?tab=public&showdate=1&filter=app_203810

And now back to the regularly scheduled program

It’s been far to long since I last did a blog post. I’ve been swamped at work for the last two months preparing for a major software release and have been traveling some too. I must also confess that I haven’t really been inspired to write a post either for much the same reasons that Jen McCreight recently talked about (1). I’ve felt that much of the news lately has just been more of the same old crap we’ve been dealing up, wrapped up in a fresh coat of paint. Thankfully, both of those reasons are no longer relevant. I’ve got free time again, and am starting to feel the desire to write again, partly due to various things grabbing my attention, partly due to knowing that we just have to keep talking about these issues . I’ve got two blog posts coming up, one about the film “Shame,” directed by Steve McQueen, and another about near death experiences, so hang tight.

(1) McReight, Jen. “Sorry for the lack of posts.” BlagHag. 16th Apri 2012. http://freethoughtblogs.com/blaghag/2012/04/sorry-for-the-lack-of-posts/

Atheist vs Agnostic vs Pantheist vs…a matter of semantics

Christina over at WWJTD posted a blog entry talking about Dawkins’ debate with Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. (1) During this debate Dawkins reiterated that he was not 100% certain that god(s) does not exist. Of course this isn’t anything new to those of us who have read The God Delusion (2) and have been around the movement for a while. It also isn’t surprising, just a little depressing, that some religious organizations and individuals have declared “Victory! Dawkins is not an atheist! He’s one step away from joining the dark side!” (okay, maybe not quite that last part about the dark side).

Dawkins is an atheist; there really is no debate over this. Any claim to the contrary is caused by a disconnect in semantics. There are differing opinions on what the terms “atheist,” “agnostic,” and even “theist” mean, but there is a general consensus with which to work. As I’m sure you have guessed, the naysayers don’t use the consensus definition. There are two similar schools of thought that I think accurately codify the consensus, although there are slight variances between them.

Graph of Belief

Graph of Belief (3)

The first is one described by Peter Brietbart as a 2 dimensional graph. The terms atheist, agnostic, and theist aren’t points along a single dimension, but rather answer two separate questions that together form a worldview, and thus a location on this graph. Along one axis is the answer to the question “Do you think there is a god or gods?” with gnostic and agnostic representing the certainty of the answer. Along the other axis is the answer to the question “Do you believe in a god or gods?” with theist and atheist being at the two ends of the axis. These questions may seem at first glance to ask the same thing, but there is a subtle yet important difference. The first question allows for a very shaded answer; answers can be “yes,” “no,” “we can’t know for certain, so maybe,” and all sorts of other possibilities. The second question is narrower though; answers are pretty much just “yes,” or “no.” There can be various strengths of “yes” and “no”, but “I don’t know” cannot be the answer because the question asks what you believe, which, by definition, is opinion. (3)

To illustrate the point, let’s consider a thought experiment. We can debate all day long whether or not “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (4) is the greatest rock album of all time. The question is one that inquires about the truthiness of the greatness of the album. We can honestly answer “I don’t know” to this question, and indeed probably should answer this way because of the sheer complexity of the question. However, the personal question of “Is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band my favorite album?” is different. It either is or it isn’t. If you don’t have a favorite album because it’s impossible to choose (a legitimate position), then the answer to “Is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band your favorite album?” is unquestionably no, because you don’t have a favorite album. There can really only be one of two answers, “yes” or “no.” If you think don’t know the answer, then the answer is really no because you don’t already have a favorite album.

The Greatest Album of All Time?

The Greatest Album of All Time? (5)

With this approach, what Dawkins refers to as an “atheist” and what the naysayers refer to as an “agnostic” are really both “agnostic atheist.” The majority of Christians, I suspect (but do not have evidence to support), are “gnostic theists,” with a fairly large minority of “agnostic theists.” Personally I like this definition and tend to use it myself. For the record, I’m an agnostic atheist and gather that most atheists are agnostic atheists.

The second approach is the one used by Dawkins in The God Delusion and describes belief on a sliding scale from 1 to 7, much like the Kinsey scale. (5) On this scale, a person who has a complete belief in god(s) and believes that there is 0% chance they are wrong is assigned a value of 1 (notice how it correlates with being completely heterosexual on the Kinsey scale). On the opposite end, a person who has a complete disbelief in god(s) and believes that there is 0% chance they are wrong is assigned a value of 7. Dawkins places himself as a 6.9 on this scale, and I tend to place myself somewhere between that and a 6.5.

So where does an “agnostic” sit on this scale? It depends on your definition. According to a “dictionary atheist” or the naysayers mentioned above, anything less than a 7 is an agnostic. Of course this cuts both ways; such a belief also implies that anything greater than a 1 is also an agnostic, although we don’t exactly see people falling over each other to complete this dichotomy by calling 99.99% of all religious people “agnostic.” According to most of us in the non-belief camp (and many in the belief camp as well) an agnostic is, in practice, probably something below a 5-6 but above a 2-3, give or take. I mustn’t be remiss to point out that giving any hard cutoff is doomed to failure, and that agnostic is more like a fuzzy region in the middle part of the scale.

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins (3)

These two approaches are very similar and tend to provide similar results. I tend to prefer the former, because it provides a richer set of information than the latter, but the latter is easier to use and comprehend. I also tend to view the latter as representing a diagonal line along the former, going from gnostic theist to gnostic atheist. This view does require one change: the y-axis is transformed such that it goes from gnostic to agnostic on one side, and agnostic to gnostic on the other (yay non-linear vector space transformations!), but it’s more or less the same.

With this view, I tend to view the debates over whether or not someone is an atheist, agnostic, etc as kinda stupid. Any attempt to tell someone else that they are label X is an exercise in futility. The use of these labels merely serves to pigeon hole people who don’t necessarily fit those holes. Once someone is unwillingly shoved into one of these holes, then it becomes very difficult not to create strawman arguments based on this label. Everyone in all corners of the spectrum just needs to take labels, self-reported or otherwise, with a grain of salt until a clearer picture has been formed of the person through discussion. Otherwise it’s just a waste of time.

(1) Christina. “Richard Dawkins: not an Atheist?” WWJTD. 25th February, 2012. Available: http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd/2012/02/25/richard-dawkins-not-an-atheist/
(2) Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Mariner Books, 2006.
(3) Brietbart, Peter. “Atheist, Gnostic, Theist, Agnostic.” The Freethinker. 25th September, 2009. Available: http://freethinker.co.uk/2009/09/25/8419/
(4) “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sgt._Pepper%27s_Lonely_Hearts_Club_Band
(5) “Spectrum of theistic probability.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spectrum_of_theistic_probability