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Posts tagged ‘mass effect’

Are Our Fictional Futures Too Bleak?

Screen shot of Fallout 3

Author Neal Stephenson has decided that we all need to stop being so negative. He complains that modern science fiction — books, movies, etc. — is overstuffed with the apocalyptic and the dystopian. He thinks that what the world really needs is an optimistic vision of the future, one that can give the world’s inventors a little inspiration.

And, well, he’s not wrong. The Hunger Games made dystopian novels a hit among the young adult audience. Thanks to games like Fallout and movies like The Book of Eli (or even The Road Warrior, if you want to go further back), pop culture now has an established visual shorthand for a post-nuclear apocalypse. (See the picture above.) The most recent novels from Cormac McCarthy and Kazuo Ishiguro, The Road and Never Let Me Go,  took a more “literary” approach to apocalyptic and distopian fiction, respectively. And how many recent sci-fi stories involve the world falling apart because of  zombies (The Walking Dead, World War Z, Zombieland, 28 Days Later, Resident EvilPride and Prejudice and Zombies, just to name a few)?

In fact, there are only two major science fiction universes I can think of that are as positive as Stephenson wants. The first is Star Trek, which has already helped imagine the creation of things like cellphones, flat screens, and bluetooth headsets. The second is Mass Effect, a series of games that are basically the spiritual successor to Star Trek, in that they also imagine a future of more-or-less peaceful interaction between alien races, a UN-like central alliance between powers, and major technological leaps forward (not just in terms of warfare).

If there is a tendency for writers to always lean towards the bleak, I can understand it. After all, everybody loves a scrappy underdog hero. Since science fiction gives its writers the freedom to imagine any universe they want, why not imagine one where the odds are impossibly stacked against the hero? Make the hero face off against an oppressive autocratic government, overpowered alien invaders, swarms of the living dead, or a dying planet. You’ve immediately established the high stakes of this life-or-death universe. You can fill an entire movie or book just following the hero’s fight to survive. Then you can save toppling the government, driving back the aliens, curing the living dead, or rescuing the planet for the sequels.

But I do want to slightly qualify Stephenson’s complaint. I don’t think you necessarily need a bright and shiny vision of the future to help inspire. Inspiration can come from the darkness as well. While McCarthy’s The Road details the day-to-day struggles of a man and his son after an unnamed event has spoiled the planet forever, I actually found the whole thing much less of a downer than, say, Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s surreal and gory tale about bounty hunters on the Mexican border. That’s because The Road was primarily focused on the father-son relationship. That sliver of gentleness and hope, however slight, softened the rest of the story. It’s inspiring in its own way, even if it’s not imagining a bright future.

I think Stephenson’s real complaint isn’t so much the lack of optimism, but the lack of imagination. The problem with a glut of zombie stories isn’t that it’s depressing, it’s that it gets to be tiresome. The story can still be worthwhile if it tries to do something different. World War Z works because it takes a worldwide view, seeing how society (rather than a handful of survivors) responds, adjusts, and contains the outbreak. The book uses the idea of a specific genre as a springboard for bigger ideas. It creates a thought experiment and tries to reason out how society would work through it. Even if the book isn’t imagining futuristic advancements per se, it’s still imagining progress of a kind, theorizing how the world would react to a giant-scale viral outbreak.

That’s probably the most important role of science fiction — asking questions and imagining big. H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds had the “big” idea of a powerful and advanced army being wholly unprepared for Earth’s microbial invaders. Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot had the “big” idea of establishing a moral code for artificial intelligence. Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale imagines technology that can implant memories, then, with a few clever plot twists, illustrates how impossible it could be to tell fiction from reality. I don’t know if I’d call any of these stories “optimistic,” but I think they still accomplish what Stephenson is asking for.

If that’s what he’s saying, then I’m on board 100%. I fully support allowing science fiction to be as open-ended and freely imaginative as it can be.

Facebook’s Timeline, Mass Effect 3, and Changing Your Past


Apparently, people hate the ending to Mass Effect 3. I mean really, really hate it. Compare the critics’ reaction (who typically write reviews after only a few days of playing) to the masses’ (who can submit a review whenever they want). Metacritic reports an average critic rating of 93/100 on Xbox 360, 92/100 on PS3, and 89/100 on PC. Metacritic users’ respective ratings are 4.9/10, 3.8/10, and 3.8/10. People were so outraged at the ending that they flocked to The Consumerist’s Worst Company in America poll, voting en masse for producer Electronic Arts. EA won the poll, beating out runner-up Bank of America.

Slowly but surely, the complaints transformed from “we don’t like this” to “fix this now.” And so began the demand for the developers to create a new, “fixed” ending. Less than a week ago, developer Bioware gave in to those demands and announced new DLC (downloadable content) that will expand upon the ending, offering players the resolution they felt the series denied them on the first go-round.

It’s a strange event. A company goes back and alters a creative work to retain their credibility among their customers. Stranger still is that the customers demanded that this precise thing happen. On some level, they expected it. They felt it was owed to them.

But maybe that’s not such an unreasonable request. It’s the direction the world is moving, isn’t it? When so much of our information is stored digitally, it becomes both permanent and permanently editable. Think about Facebook’s latest design: the Timeline. Love it or hate it, it does one thing very well: make it much, much easier to revisit your (or someone else’s) past. That’s a double-edged sword. Sure, other people can access old postings that you might prefer remain forgotten. But you can also access those old postings… and delete them.

If you want to scrub your past clean to present the world with a more refined version, you can. If EA wants to pretend that they didn’t make some major narrative blunders in Mass Effect, they can just write a new ending. Both Facebook users and EA/Bioware can change their past, hoping to change their present.

Unfortunately, this is the same motivation that leads George Lucas to endlessly tinker with Star Wars, adding out-of-place CGI, contrived self-defense, recasting roles, and ruining a great scene with melodrama.

The desire to change (for better or worse) indicates that all media, whether books, video games, TV shows, or whatever, are increasingly about a relationship between the creator and the consumer. Bioware gave in to demands for the DLC because they wanted to maintain a positive ongoing relationship with their customers. Facebook’s Timeline makes editing easier for users and searching for information easier for companies. Everybody gets what he or she wants through the magic of selective memory.

And luckily for the curious, despite the best efforts of PR teams, there will almost always be some record squirreled away in some Internet corner of the original Mass Effect ending, the unaltered Star Wars scenes, or the original inappropriate tweet by a Congressman long after the official version has been scrubbed clean.


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