essay, video games

It’s a designed world, we just happen to play in it

In any discussion of Mass Effect 3, I’m at a loss: I still haven’t played it. Yet, given that disclosure, I would still like to weigh in on something I’ve thought about in connection to the game and with something Roger wrote about a few days ago. In his recent post “Irrevocability and meaning in Mass Effect (rules of the text)“, he gets into why he thinks that Mass Effect 3 both fails and succeeds in its irrevocability: the presentation of finality, yet realization of the fact that it is a game.

From what I have read, some of the arguments over Mass Effect 3’s ending boil down to that fact: the conflict between what the player thought was important and what was actually important. It’s the point, I think, Roger is making about comparing it to the myth of the cave. We, as players, make up meaning and assign importance to the shadows and miss — or forget — that they are, in fact, shadows; we become so consumed with what we feel, think and how we react that we forget that we are not looking at the real thing, but a projection against a wall from another source. When confronted with this fact, we get angry, confused or maybe even a little scared. Reality, even in a virtual world, was not what we thought it was.

In considering this, I can’t help but remark that the difference between the ending of three choices and the rest of the games is that there is one less choice. All of the dialogue options, assuming the player has the required statistic of Paragon or Renegade, consist of four choices. We pick from what is given to us, we make our narratives up through a chain of acts; our performance is a composite of all the small choices adding up to one long chain leading us to, as the ending shows, yet another final choice. This is what the medium of video games is all about, in one sense: agency within constraints.

We aren’t writing our characters. Yes, we might build them up, breathe life into them through details we invent, in our heads, about their lives before we found them, but our experiences come from picking one thing over another. We aren’t inventing, but constructing. These are designed worlds, made up places, we visit. We don’t live there. From time to time, we might forget that and get fooled into thinking that the experience is all about us. We get pulled into believing, because we are making the choices, that everything we do matters in the world. This isn’t true and it is important to realize that.

In getting back to thinking about the shadows and what we make out of them, we can see that this is also part of the medium that both serves us and allows us into their worlds. Actors don’t get mad when the play is over. They said their lines, chose how to make the performance their own and realize that, next time, they might make it different. They don’t rail against the stage and question the screenplay after the play is over. To see something new, they do it again; they bring a different interpretation or reading to the material and run through it another time. We don’t command the shadows, but we do control our responses to them.

The light flickers and the shapes dance on the wall. We have the ability to play in worlds not of our own making. Even though we change things, we propel the stories and often seem to the center of one particular universe or another, we aren’t really making the decisions that guide it. The world and its ways existed before us. We come along, in media res, and pick up a life and live it for a time. We shape not by addition, but subtraction. We discard other options for one choice each time. We choose one way or another from among many options.

Is this permanent? Irrevocable? Sure, in a way, yes. That performance ended and now, a new one can take place. We collapsed the possibilities into a singularity, drove down street after street until we got to a specific destination. We change by our actions, gain some knowledge, skill or even mastery that we can take with us into, maybe, another performance or even another run of the same game. This is the medium in action and, in a way, this discussion is directly at the root of Mass Effect 3’s ending: we open doors set before us. We didn’t make the frame, shape the handle or set it in place. We merely come along and open one door or another.

Yes, they are shadows. Yes, the game operates by design. The code was written by others, frequently teams of people. They each made some part, set something down. The player did not start the fire, nor arrange the light. Stories are told and our narratives, made up from what we see and hear, are dependent on what we do only in part; we do not make the ruleset up, we learn it from other occasions and interpret it in the present context. We built it, bit by bit, from what we are given and how those parts fit together for us; the puzzle resolves into a picture of our choosing made up of pre-cut pieces.