Tuesday, September 22, 2015

"Dialect" Doesn’t Intensify (Mass Effect 2)

Note: Discussions about profanity require using profanity, at least in quotation. Just so you know.

Space operas might have gone out of style in the SF community, but they’re all the rage among gamers, and few have garnered as much critical and popular acclaim as Mass Effect 2. With over four million copies sold, this second installment in the venerable shooter/RPG series avoided the sophomore slump by getting grim from the outset. The game opens with the player character, Commander Shepard, perishing from deep-space decompression as the Normandy, the ship he or she was captaining, gets blasted to bits by an insectoid species called the Collectors. (FYI, you can select Shepard’s sex at the onset.) Good night, sweet prince or princess? Not quite. Shepard wakes up two years later on an operating table. A shadowy organization named Cerberus has brought Shepard back from the dead using cutting-edge technology. But Shepard’s new life comes with strings attached, namely finding out why the Collectors are abducting entire human colonies and then destroying the marauders. It’s a suicide mission, no doubt about it, and to succeed Shepard will need to recruit some of the deadliest talent the galaxy has to offer. A scientist responsible for the nigh extermination of an entire species. A grudge-bound, amoral biotic (think of the psychic hijinks in Stephen King’s Firestarter or Paul McGuigan’s Push). A lethal hitman who’s devoutly religious. Still, Shepard doesn’t need such death dealers to figure out who’s being the Collectors. It’s the Reapers, a race of sentiment machines who appear every fifty-thousand years to obliterate all organic life.

While a dour tone dominates, Mass Effect 2 wisely includes some comic relief in the form of Jeff “Joker” Moreau, a hotshot pilot who suffers from Lobstein syndrome and is as quick to crack a joke as he is a bone. His banter with the rechristened Normandy’s cold-as-Arctic-ice artificial intelligence EDI never failed to bring a smile to my face. I wish the same could be said for the single mission in which you, the player, get to control Joker. Some background: Commander Shepard and the Normandy’s fighting forces have absconded on a shuttle when a group of Collectors surprise the ship and start taking out its skeleton crew. Their only hope is for limping, brittle Joker to remove EDI’s protocol restraints and give it control of the Normandy.

“Shit, shit, shit,” Joker exclaims, lurching down the Normandy’s bridge as a chitinous, multi-limbed monstrosity with an anvil-shaped head lit by lambent eyes rends his friends apart. A second such horror scuttles up a nearby laboratory window as Joker ducks into a maintenance tunnel, muttering, “Shit, shit, shit, shit.” A brawny security guard gets hurled into a bulkhead moments after proclaiming, “Stay close. I’ll protect you.” Meanwhile, a comely yeoman is dragged shrieking into an elevator by a malformed humanoid horror. “Shit, shit, shit,” Joker states. Then EDI dispassionately informs him that the main reactor is offline. “What the shit?” Joker opines. After Joker gets to engineering and discovers that the rest of the crew is either dead or abducted, he huffs, “Shit.”

Quick quiz: Is this section supposed to be humorous or dire? I played it several times and still can’t tell. It isn’t devoid of chuckles. When EDI tells Joker he has to reactivate the primary drive, Joker says, “You want me to go crawling through the ducts again.” EDI sweetly responds, “I enjoy the sight of humans on their knees. That is a joke.” Neither does it lack terror. Watching the Collectors dispatch characters you’ve come to know by name is chilling. Sadly, Joker’s dialogue doesn’t cater to either tone, a consequence (I’d argue) of it being composed almost entirely of a single, oft-repeated profanity. Yes, yes, I know it’s possible to wring pathos and drama out of a lone obscenity by repeating it with different inflections (content warning). But you can count such examples on one hand, and you know why? Profanities and obscenities are intensifiers, ways of adding emotional and rhetorical impact. Repeat an intensifier enough, though, and it stops, er, intensifying. It becomes dialect or patois—commonplace, in other words. And while we can argue the various merits and demerits of that, it does nothing to make our art more impactful.

(Picture: CC 2012 by Midhras)


Daniel said...

Loren - good post and good questions. I'm going to go with Joker on this one - his dialogue here as a response to the situation came across to me as an attempt to keep it together in the face of incomprehensible tragedy in the only way he knew how, by humorously repeating that simple, crude version of "this is really bad." King's Speech style. In that particular scene I felt like I was sharing with Joker (and EDI) in his attempt to deal with the extent of how bad the situation was rather than laughing in a disconnected way.

Loren Eaton said...


It could be--emphasis on could. The King's Speech (awesome movie) and The Wire did it much better, mainly because profanity was rare in the former and highly stylized in the latter. It isn't either in ME2, and I thought that made the particular section fall flat.


Daniel said...

I lost Mordin. :( And I get what you're saying. It's possible I give ME2 (&1, &3) a free pass sometimes based on relative writing quality that it might not deserve on its own merits.


...speaking of which, have you played Fallen London or Sunless Sea? Or have any plans to play The Witcher 3? Or pay attention to the interactive fiction (IF) scene? We should talk about writing in games.

Loren Eaton said...

Man, I loved Mordin.

A couple years ago, I discovered Steam, went hog wild during one of the two annual sales, and now have a massive backlog. I'm slowly plowing through it. I've heard wonderful things about the narrative in Sunless Sea, so I may have to tackle that one eventually. As for The Witcher series, I ... don't really like it. The original short stories left me cold, and so did The Witcher 2. I managed to finish the game and found the plot interesting, but all the sex and obscenity (think the drunk, whoring dwarves in that mountain hideout) just seemed silly. Plus the combat. Goodness, the awful, awful combat.

What I'm really excited for is the new Torment title. Patrick Rothfuss is one of the writers on it.

Daniel said...

Sunless Sea is definitely worth your time, but/and you'll want to know that it's based in the fictional world of the free-to-play browser game Fallen London (fallenlondon.storynexus.com) which is just incredible. You don't need to have played it to enjoy Sunless Sea but it's just worth playing for its own sake and would give you some background for Sunless Sea when you got around to it.

I agree that the Witcher series is a mixed bag at best. I mentioned the third game specifically because it surpassed its predecessors in the quality of the writing and stories; it still has a lot of unpleasantness, a lot of objectified depictions of women, and an excessive amount of explicit sexual content, but if one is able to wade through or avoid the worst of that muck I think it has some of the most human, personal stories of any game I've played. And the combat didn't suck this time. But, given your experience with the other two, I wouldn't recommend it, I was more curious to see if you had played it so I could pick your brain about it.

I haven't allowed myself to get excited about the new Torment game because I haven't ever finished the original. :( I've tried a couple of times and really enjoyed the little that I experienced but got distracted by other games, and it's kind of a pain to re-install because of the mods required to run on modern computers. If you care to apply peer pressure, I'm vulnerable.

I don't know if you've ever dipped a toe into the interactive fiction scene (formerly text adventures), the modern IF world is alive and kicking and has been one of my favorite things in gaming this past decade. The 2015 IFComp is going on right now (ifcomp.org), with a record number of entries (55) currently available for anyone to play and judge, most of them playable right in your browser. If you wanted to see what it's all about it'd be a good opportunity. I could recommend some of my favorite past games as well.

Loren Eaton said...

GET THEE TO GOG.COM RIGHT NOW AND FINISH TORMENT, DARN IT, AND REMEMBER TO NOT TRUST THE SKULL. Seriously, it's an amazing game if you treat it like a marginally playable high-fantasy novel. Run as a mage, pump up your persuasion skill, and talk to everyone. Seriously, it's amazing.

I got into the Zork games a little bit (and, yes, I'm almost that old). Haven't tried much of the newer IF stuff. Reading on a screen tends to irritate my chronically dry eyes, so I tend to default to books.

Yeah, I've heard that The Witcher 3 is more fun to play but I think I'd rather get into the whole Dragon Age series given my druthers. But that may take a while!

Ooooh, free browser games ...

Daniel said...

All right, all right, stop twisting my arm, I'll go play critically acclaimed classic games! ;) (p.s. thanks for the excuse)

Don't apologize for being old enough to have played Zork, I imagine we're of an age. It's certainly not easy on the eyes. If you're feeling particularly optically hydrated, though, and want to see what's out there, you can't go wrong with the winners of the annual XYZZY awards, although they tend towards the more lengthy and complex (many of those have a "Play Online" button at top-right corner). Photopia and 9:05 are two that are great entry-level modern classics of IF games that are also short.

You'll notice if you look at the list of award winners that IF is beginning to encompass not only "parser IF" like Zork (text only, input commands through a command line) but also games with graphic interfaces that are text-heavy in their presentation like the recently-released-on-PC and critically acclaimed 80 Days (you probably saw its review on RPS recently). I would include Fallen London and Sunless Sea in that latter group, because I don't intend to stop mentioning them until you're sick of it and play them to make me stop, as well as Inkle's "Sorcery!" and "Sorcery! 2" that were iOS releases.

Loren Eaton said...

80 Days is on my iOS wishlist -- at least once the price falls! I'm a cheapo when it comes to my gaming. Ditto for the Sorcery games. The irony with gaming today is that it's far easier to buy titles than to find time to play them.