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Let’s Cohere

March 27, 2012

This week you get a long one. I’ve been knee deep in Wittgenstein and postmodern angst of the last few months, so I didn’t want to get into that this week. Instead, you get a rather lengthy diatribe on video games, which somehow turns back into a discussion of critical theory, because that’s just kind of what happens.

The goal this week, broadly speaking, is to dig into the pseudo-philosophy that goes on at a lot of video game websites when people develop some critical theory with which to approach video games. This can be alternately enlightening or horrifying, but there’s a lot to be learned by looking into the theoretical moves people try to make.

So, no history lessons or rambling academia this week. Instead I talk about video games, pretty much the entire time (if that’s your thing).

Depending on who you are and what kind of websites you troll, these first few paragraphs will either be entirely new or nauseatingly familiar. Whichever camp you’re in, I’ll keep it brief. This is only a setting off point.

A few weeks ago Bioware released Mass Effect 3, the third and final game in a trilogy of video games centered on the fictional Commander Shepard. Not long after release there was a pretty vitriolic backlash from some fans, who found the games ending(s) unsatisfactory. This led to demands that the games ending be changed. After a few days of silence, Bioware announced new content would be released to address fan complaints.

I don’t intend to weigh in on the merits of Mass Effect 3’s ending; I haven’t even played it yet. I’ll do my best to stay neutral on the whole “Retake Mass Effect movement” (don’t look at me like that, they named themselves), it’s not really germane. I should be honest though, my reaction is pretty much revulsion, and that will come out sometimes. I’ll come back to this in the end, and try to explain exactly why.

But first, a little more vitriol. This may seem a little non-sequitur, but hang in there. I’ll bring it all around in the end (if you don’t feel the conclusion is satisfactorily resolved, I’ll patch it later). Last month, Michael Thomson posted this article on Slate. For those wondering, yes, this is the article Roger Ebert tweeted about, but I like to pretend I live in a world without twitter, where Roger Ebert says smart things about movies and doesn’t feel the need to take pot shots at other mediums he knows little about. The Thompson article discusses lengthy video games (60+ hours), questioning whether or not there could be any merit to that kind of length. His focus rests squarely on the recent (and critically/commercially well received) Dark Souls. Again, like the “Retake Mass Effect” thing, I’m going to try to focus on the approach more than the conclusion. But, again, in the interest of letting my potential bias be known, I’ll let you know where I stand right from the start. I have played Dark Souls, and I quite like the game (though I am a mere 27 hours into its reportedly 100 hour length. Not for lack of wanting to play, I just have stuff to do). I don’t find his stance fundamentally upsetting the way I do the Mass Effect 3 thing, but I still don’t agree.

I’m pointing out my potential bias in advance because of something I don’t want to do. In an interview from the early 90’s David Foster Wallace pointed out that “It’s always tempting to sit back and make finger-steeples and invent impressive-sounding theoretical justifications for what one does”. I do my best to avoid that, but it is a temptation, yeah? I play videogames, so they must be valuable. All I have to do is figure out why. That’s not a good starting point, but it’s where a lot of theoretical defenses of videogames start. IIt’s not easy to tell when you’re starting from that place, so I figure I’ll just give you all the heads up. Keep an eye on me, I’m a tricky one.

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