Oh good golly…

Dear taxi driver: just because you’re older than me doesn’t automatically make you an expert on every subject in the world except for computers.

And not everything you hear in a crowd is absolute truth. In fact, most people don’t know what they’re talking about when they just repeat rumors, often mangling them even more, and if I, 25, have to explain such things to you, old enough to be my father, then something is wrong with the world.

And I don’t think you’re in any position to accuse women of being gossipy when you spent a few dozen times you’ve driven me to work saying nothing but hearsay, and I’ve always been the one calling you on lack of facts and critical detail. You know what it’s called? Hypocrisy.

The Soviet STTOS Jr.

Mostly writing this to coherently sum up my thoughts.

For better or for worse, I was born in the Soviet Union. It’s an unfortunate reality that people don’t get to choose where they’re born. Maybe someone out there is working on fixing that. :)

In particular, Soviet fiction has influenced my own writing. My pet project in progress, a time travel thingy called Insight (it sucks, so I wouldn’t dare call it a novel), has throwbacks to Soviet science fiction of all timeframes, from We to Alice, Girl from the Future. Soviet SF from about the 1960s onwards, especially aimed at children, has an air of optimism about it; it has this spirit of benevolent exploration, broadening the horizons of knowledge, eternal moral values.

One of the unconscious influences — ones I didn’t realize until I rewatched a bit of it — was an old children’s movie dilogy that rubbed into my own childhood: Moscow — Cassiopeia. Of course, back then I was too young to realize its main fault: that it was a work of socialist realism, which was less about showing reality as it was and more about how it “should be”, from the perspective of Soviet ideology. Everyone, both child and adult, acts “too perfect”. The positive characters are ideological embodiments of qualities, not reading like real people, and the negative are likewise symbolic embodiments of flaws. The end result is that it ends up feeling wooden, unrealistic (and I don’t mean unrealistic in the sense that it has an FTL starship and an alien planet).

And the plot itself? Well, it’s nothing surprising to anyone who has seen any Star Trek series ever. Again, I only know that now. You don’t particularly expect a 1973 movie to be original by modern standards, so it follows the usual route: robot creations blah blah turned against their masters blah blah emotional suppression blah blah mind control rays blah blah blah. The resolution was narmy even by STTOS standards: the deus ex machina came in the form of an iron nail stuck in a power socket! Ah well, it’s for kids, you don’t expect them to appreciate clever writing, right?

Still, it has the kind of innocent charm in it that I like in Soviet movies in general, so it would be watchable for me now if not for one factor that utterly kills my enjoyment.

It’s this guy.

IOO

I hate him so much. He’s basically the antithesis of everything emphasized in Soviet SF.

He has no name, he is referred to by the unwieldy acronym “IOO” (in Russian, “one assigned to special responsibilities”) and he never directly interacts with any of the adults, only with the children. And with the audience, who are, again, assumed to be children.

The movie starts with him directly addressing the audience and claiming that the events of the movie really happened “next spring”. He speaks in a somewhat playful, pointedly polite, almost patronizing manner. And he fulfills the role of a deus ex machina, nudging the events to get the story going. He’s apparently omnipotent — he can teleport, even across planets, contact an FTL starship from an ordinary rotary phone, etc.

Who is he? An interdimensional bureaucrat?

G-Man

Nah, that would be too generous an interpretation. (Incidentally, although I don’t exclude the possibility that Valve was influenced by the IOO, the chances of this are slim.) Although he drops hints that he works for some kind of superiors, he is human and benevolent in his emotions, very much unlike the G-Man, despite fulfilling a similar handy deus ex machina role. The IOO is Gandalf assembling the company together on an adventure — in this case, the space expedition.

Ahem! This movie is otherwise very serious. Imagine the most straight-faced moments in Star Trek without all the character-based humor, where every character is Picard and can do no wrong. Perhaps the IOO was an attempt at injecting humor? But I’m sorry, it’s supposed to be SF as in “science fiction”, not “space fantasy”. It’s not about space princesses, space emperors and space dashing swordsmen. A Gandalf figure, or even an Obi-Wan figure, is utterly out of place in a movie that spends about a fourth of its run spitting out relatively realistic scientific jargon.

Another version is that he’s an author stand-in. Based, of course, on the assumption that children are such morons that they can’t tell reality from fiction unless they’re constantly pointed out that it’s fiction (in this case by drawing attention to the IOO’s outlandish antics). Is it the same kind of logic that has prompted Soviet writers to constantly put fantastic elements in framing stories, for example, by making Ivan Vasilievich revealed to be a dream in the end? (Just in case, you know, the audience thinks time machines are actually possible?)

There is, however, a certain point at which the character appears too often, turning from a “necessary plot device” into an “author’s pet character”. The IOO not just gets the plot going, but he also appears several times later, randomly teleporting around, acting as a mysterious advisor living outside time, showing knowledge of the future, switching between acting playful and patronizing…

River Song

Why, hello, sweetie.

Like River Song, the IOO ultimately suffers from overexposure, to the point that he stops being that interesting quirky enigma and simply steals too much of the spotlight for himself. But the absolute nadir is the finale, in which, after the kids resolve the conflict on an alien planet, he simply teleports them back home. Just like that. Leaving the expensive starship behind.

Even if it’s not an “all just a dream” cop-out, it has the effect of saying: “Hah! You thought you were watching a space exploration story! But what you were actually watching was an imaginary fairy tale about space exploration! None of this was real!” And it cheapens the moral and emotional impact of the story.

In an interview to a Soviet newspaper back in those days, director Richard Viktorov had this to say about the concept of the IOO: “To make it easier for kids to understand the film, we have added a familiar archetype of the kind wizard.”

In other words, the director’s stance was that kids are morons and won’t understand a plot without an archetype that is completely inappropriate for the genre.

Goshdang it to heck.

Apparently I’m narrow-minded now.

From an LGBT event a week ago (I’ll get to writing about it when I stop procrastinating…):

Everyone is standing in a circle…

Host: [holding a pen] This is a magic pen. Whoever you point it at, when you make a wish, it will rub on that person!
Me: I’d like to stay out of this game. Its setup conflicts with my rationalist worldview.
Guy standing opposite to me: Can we still target wishes at you, though?
Me: Sure, I guess.
Guy: [points the pen at me] Maia, I wish you to broaden your worldview!

A Reply to Ryan Keyworth

Since I can’t find your email address anywhere, I’ll use the comments to post a summary impression of your Mass Effect posts so far.

I found your blog in a Google search for “ME3 will suck”, and I found myself agreeing with most of your five-part series of caution about ME3. I’ve been following the development of ME3 for the past year, and the more I learn, the more it seems they’re steering development in a direction that goes away from what got me hooked on ME1 in the first place.

Story is the main reason I play video games at all, and I often set the game to an easier difficulty if the frustrating save-load cycles distract me from story presentation. I look for themes, messages, clashes of ideas, and I like to ask myself, “What was the author thinking when they wrote this scene?” In your analysis of the ME games, I saw a kindred spirit.

ME1, if you ignore the fact that it was basically KOTOR without the Force and lightsabers – in other words, it had the same kind of basic story as every other BioWare game – it was indeed about humanity proving itself to the rest of the galaxy. We are, for all intents and purposes, aliens to them. Alien immigrants who’ve been taking their jobs and demanding privileges. My Shepard’s goal was to prove to the galaxy that we could all live in peace, and that we could be trusted with responsibility – and to prove to the Alliance that they were right in advocating her for Spectre status. And although the side missions were mind-numbingly repetitive, I took them too, because I actually felt like an officer on duty – an officer responsible for the lives of her crew, and for making hard decisions.

And when I was scanning unexplored planets, it felt like I was really treading into the unknown, like Columbus sailing to the west, ready to do a service for the Alliance – and for the benefit of the entire Citadel space.

Then in the first minutes of ME2, the hand of the cosmic Author cuts that entire Gordian knot of relationships surrounding Shepard, estranged from the Council, the Alliance, and the ME1 crew, and puts us back at square one. And it feels jarring. It almost feels like Shepard’s story was supposed to go in a different direction, like ME2 is an altered timeline that went off the rails. It’s like seeing your protege ascending a lavishly decorated stairway, only for a trapdoor to open at the worst moment and kick her down into the garbage dump.

At first, I was prepared to hate ME2. I was skeptical about the “streamlined” direction they took, as well as the superficial “darker and edgier” elements. I hated Cerberus, I hated being railroaded into working for Cerberus, and I still do. I chose the most “in your face” options when talking to the Illusive Man, I avoided talking to Miranda and Jacob or taking them on missions at first. In the end I’m glad I did, because there were layers to them that I wasn’t aware of, judging them based on initial impressions.

The story took a very different turn than I expected based on ME1 alone, but now I think you are wrong about ME2 not having a theme. I agree it has a weaker main story than ME1. Much weaker. But in my eyes, ME2 isn’t really about the Collector arc. I don’t even see the Collector Base mission as the sole ending of its arc. The Collector Base, LOTSB and Arrival each provide some kind of closure for parts of Shepard’s personal arc. But none of them provide the definite end to anything. This game has no end. Shepard is restless. The mission is accomplished, but the adventure continues.

Here’s a comparison I saw somewhere: if ME1 is a novel, ME2 is an antology of short stories. The Collector plot only serves as a premise to bring the characters together, while they themselves are the real meat of the story.

As I see it, the main theme of ME2 – at least the Paragon story, since I haven’t played Renegade – is healing broken minds. Shepard assembles a team of ten (Kasumi and Zaeed, as DLC characters, don’t count) dysfunctional, messed-up individuals, and gives each of them a renewed sense of purpose and hope of recovery – as well as helps with one of the causes of their grief. It’s not enough to fix them completely, but it’s a start. And then there’s Liara, the not-quite-companion, for whom LOTSB serves a purpose similar to the one loyalty missions serve for your regular companions.

And my Shepard, in my personal internal view of the story, was also healing herself as well. She didn’t ask to be revived – she was forcibly pulled out of the grave, kicking and screaming. She came back broken, if not physically, then at least mentally, seeing everyone she knew and cared for bite the dust or go their own separate ways. Dumped to the bottom of society, working with the trash and scum, so she could find herself again.

I wouldn’t say that the theme is executed particularly well, mind. With two exceptions, the companions feel like they ignore each other’s presence, and the choices made on loyalty missions don’t affect the finale, either. DA2 did better with its “Questioning Beliefs” series, when your actions towards your companions meant a lot in determining who would stay at your side in the end, and for what reason. And in the end, I think both ME2 and DA2 were damaged by being marketed as sequels, while they were really side stories.

Just like DA2 was better off being something like “Hawke: A Dragon Age story”, so was ME2 not really a sequel, and ME3 would probably work better being called ME2. It’s not about the Reaper menace, and I’m fine with that. Screw Reapers. They’ve served their purpose in the story. We’ve gone from Sovereign, whom I found the one BioWare villain that actually scared me by creating a sense of unstoppable approaching doom, to Harbinger – a total joke after you kill its avatar the first five or so times. I actually applaud Dragon Age for having the guts to shift from a bland and arbitrary external threat to exploring conflicts inherent in the system. Alas, ME is set up as a trilogy about the Reapers, so it will have to bite that bullet, even when I think there’s inherently no satisfactory resolution that won’t feel like a deus ex machina.

Regarding the treatment of Ashley and Kaidan in ME2… I’m obviously biased, being pro-Liara, but I think the main problem is not the shifted characterization per se: it lies deeper. It lies in the merging of two very different Alliance officers into one combined “Ashdan Willenko” hybrid that doesn’t do justice to either of the original characters. Their lines in ME2 are exactly the same, from what I can tell. It seems that ME3 is bound for the same treatment. It saves the writers the bother of writing different situations for them, sure, but it also takes away everything that made them unique and memorable. And don’t get me started on the redesign of Ashley’s looks in ME3. EA’s “streamlining” and “wider audience” in action. Ugh.

I actually read through the leaked ME3 script you avoided. Without spoiling anything, I think that it’s bad, that it doesn’t do the setting justice, and that there are some ideas in it that should have never ever entered the brain of any halfway competent ME writer. Between that, and everything else you said – the excessive marketing focus on the wrong elements, shooterization, EA influence, having a story too crammed with characters to do each of them justice – we have a recipe for failure. With the exception of SWTOR sales, since SWTOR has already launched and is apparently doing well, I expect your worst-case scenario to kick in.

Strong clever writing can still be that game’s saving grace even with everything else ruined, but I already know this is not the ME3 I want. Whether or not it’s good or bad, it most likely won’t be a part of “my personal canon” and I’ll end up plotting a different conclusion to Shepard’s story in my mind.

And weeping over what could have been.