Notes à l'usage de qui en voudra.

Ici, quelques entrées, classées chronologiquement, abordant des sujets divers qui nous touchent tous, ou pas.

Stories from games: my two Shepards

I don’t want to talk about scenarios and dissonance bullshiet, here. The topic is: games that give you stories to tell, which is to say games that surprise, possess an ability to offer many routes, and give to the player a sense of continuity. You see, I love stories and I love games, but these two still haven’t managed to a full-on symbiosis yet except in very, very, very few cases.

One of those examples would be DayZ, that is such a lonely yet powerful experience at times that you can’t help but feel the need to tell the people around you what happened and how it happened, to write about it, to relive it in memory, and to post it on the net. I could mention full multiplayer experiences too, but MMOs tend to spread their storywise interest over too much time, and PvP games over too short matches. I’ve been playing Tribes: Ascend since launch, some 18 months ago, and so many epic moments happened in there that none of them strikes my mind as something I need to talk about. Less than stories, games like that give you anecdotes. On top of that, being essentially multiplayer experiences, they are already shared by other people, limiting the urge to communicate those moments verbally.

I’m very glad that, once the roar of frustration appeased, once the trolling voice of the web skipped to other topics, what is left of Mass Effect commentators sounds mostly apologetic. I will follow film crit Hulk in the use of such expressions as “the Citizen Kane of video games” even if only to criticize Citizen Kane, but there you have a practical application of the use of patience. In the long term, people will remember only the good in all this, and the good is coming, for good things always take more time to happen.

Case in point: I started playing Mass Effect again. I mean I started back at the beginning of the trilogy with another Shepard, and this is the log of my experience (spoilers ahead).

 

My first Shepard was named Samuel. He was a cold hearted type of a man, with a past in gang activities and the dubious reputation of “getting the job done whatever the cost”, as his officers liked to repeat. Samuel Shepard, you see, didn’t start as much more than a type-A renegade mercenary. But when I think back at the beginning of all this, before he and I learned about the Reapers and repelled a galactic genocide, when I think back, what I see is the story of a man who learnt so much, who changed so drastically over time, that I can’t help but feel at times that Samuel Shepard really was a person, and that I knew him as you would a friend. As a matter of fact: a dead friend.

It was especially ironic that I started this character thinking it’d be fun to try and play a racist in a game opposed to it, when actually I had no idea that the theme would be more or less central to the development of the story. I always liked space operas, yet funky humanoid aliens have ruined more that Episode One to me. So it was funny, puzzling and compelling at the same time to send a dude of African ancestry with a red buzz cut and xenophobic tendencies in space, to command a ship full of weird aliens. I really had no difficulty at all sympathizing with notorious racist Ashley Williams, who like Samuel was first and foremost a soldier. These dialogs between a black officer and a white female soldier were very precious moments.

Not being too fond of magic in general, I also tended to keep biotics at bay while I went down on planets with Ashley, Wrex or Garrus, whom I grew fond of not so much for their characters than for their skillsets. Samuel Shepard didn’t have any choice in the constitution of his crew in general, and having aliens on board, working for the alien council, all that didn’t suit him. But the priority was always to, y’know, “get the job done”, and at that Wrex and Garrus proved their worth more than once. As it happened, my affection for them grew stronger. My own xenophobic reaction to their weird appearances transformed itself into an odd kind of respect. I grew to see beyond their scaly faces, and what I saw, what Samuel saw, was the warrior part of himself. That, and the dedication to the tasks at hand, was all that was needed for his respect to grow.

And as time went by, as we fought wave after wave of Geth, thorian creeps, Krogan clones, robots and all kinds of programmable troops, including that god forsaken VI on the moon, Samuel’s hatred slid from the Citadel population to this mindless army forming against it. You see, to some extent, Samuel’s racism and his “job doer” tendencies became two facets of one single origin story in my mind, a story that I never felt the need to imagine in concrete terms. But obviously, Samuel Shepard had no family, he was a man who believed in nothing, who had no faith in mankind, science or religion. Soon enough, it became obvious that he had joined the Alliance military only to be given the permission to kill. Samuel Shepard had a problem with life itself, with choice making, with free-will. He had joined the army just as he had joined the gangs: to belong in a place where his own actions could be dictated to him. Yet, he did not like to serve. He liked being given orders only to feel his own potency when deciding or not to obey. And most of the time, he would obey, but in an ironic matter that tried so hard to shout “I am free !” that the very opposite became more and more obvious. Samuel Shepard was trapped. He was a prisoner of himself.

In the end, Samuel’s actions were all about giving to others the free-will that he himself was devoid of. He sympathized with the Geth species even after hating all kinds of synthetics for a while. He became rather friendly with EDI that he’d first hold in awe. He helped cure the genophahe for the same reason as he respected both Quarians and Geth. He destroyed the Thorian without any remorse yet freed the Rachni queen without much hesitation. Ultimately, as the holographic kid tried desperately to reach a compromise, Samuel Shepard walked straight to the conduit said to destroy the Reapers, thinking to himself he was not going out of this alive, and it didn’t matter. Ever since the beginning, he acted as everything else that an altruistic person, he took all the bribes he could, yet in the end, he was given a mission, and completing that mission was the only kind of free-will he aspired to. Mass Effect took my egocentric, twisted, tortured, xenophobic and suicidal character, and had him learn all the values that lead to his ultimate sacrifice.

I am weeping as I write this.

 

For months I tried not to think about all this too much. What started as an exercise in choice-making, a disengaged gaming experience, after all, had ended in a tragedy of epic proportions. A grief process was involved, which made me consider all the ruckus more than my own experience with some kind of comfortable stoicism. This is what I do.

Yet, even though I’ll admit that the second part of the trilogy tops the rest, I can’t say I really was dissatisfied with the whole. My journey in the Mass Effect universe was, indeed, ominously coherent, and I suppose retrospectively that I tried to maintain intact my own appreciation of it amidst the general controversy. Since then, I’ve longed to rediscover it through the eyes of another, another Shepard, another player also.

For even though it was not the only factor in my own growth I must say that my first run through Mass Effect had indeed changed me. I could not play the same Shepard again, there was absolutely no sense in conserving my saves, and all the unwritten story I solely had been the witness of could from there only exist as my own experience. The choice offered to me was between pure nostalgia and another more scientific approach of the trilogy, of which I feared it would ruin all possibility of nostalgia. Truly, as I play again the Mass Effect series through another Shepard, smaller memories of the first journey come back to me, and Samuel is closer to me now that he used to be since then.

This new Shepard, first name Ionzu, was not at first a Shepard. It was so very difficult to come up with a new character, sufficiently different from the first in order to make the journey significantly new, that I resorted to some weird novelty. Agent Ionzu is the character I created in Star Wars : The Old Republic, which came out right after I’d played the Mass Effect trilogy. She was an Imperial Agent, a bald cyborg assassin selected at birth, genetically and technologically enhanced only to become the kind of specialist a tyranny needs to enforce secrecy. She is a woman who understands duty, authority, hierarchy, and who has absolutely no problem in being used as a tool by her superiors. Without such a system, you see, she simply wouldn’t exist.

But I wouldn’t have thought of taking her to the Mass Effect series if I hadn’t first played her during the summer in Firefall. The idea simply came from playing another bald white tactical operative, without caring for a new name. Yet as I fought the Chosen it was difficult not to see their resemblance with the Sith for whom she had worked all along in another part of the galaxy. Soon enough, I became bored of too much freelancing and left Firefall to rest.

But when I had to select a background to Ionzu Shepard, the most interesting thing happened. By having her being a survivor of Akuze, I ended up imagining Akuze was the planet (Earth) on which Firefall happens. You see many big critters that could be Thresher Maws in that game after all, and imagining all the players in Firefall dead, me the only survivor, really had some fun to it (because really I suck at this game). In the end, it also meant that Ionzu could indeed have lost contact with the Sith Empire for plausible reasons. So there I was, playing a “human” from another galaxy in the Alliance military who barely just had first contact 26 years ago, and climbing the ladder to a point where the Specter status would become equivalent to that of Imperial Agent. Later (quite recently really, which made me write about all this) discovering that I wasn’t the only survivor from Akuze, that it was all an experiment orchestrated by Cerberus, oddly, didn’t feel like anything new.

I’m not just rambling here. What I’m building up to is this: the same character with a built-in respect for authority, which used to work for the most Evil Empire of the universe, is now the spearhead of the same free-will believers as Samuel Shepard belonged to. My two Shepards would(’ve) certainly hated each other. More importantly, I am at this point unable to foresee the choices Ionzu will make in due time, even if I already know these choices.

The result is most satisfying, yet puzzling, as my actions tend this time slightly more towards Paragon than Renegade. When you embrace the status of a tool, you embrace the values of those who command you. Here lies the reason why the paragon/renegade couple is so much more interesting than the good/bad crap we’re used to in such games. Ionzu Shepard believes strongly in everything Samuel Shepard fought. She understands the Geth as an experiment gone wrong instead of a wrong experiment. She sees in the mind-controlling Thorian a power that the Citadel could well be interested in using, yet deplores a private corporation does research on it. She is well used to shipping with various alien specialists, she respects the telekinetic powers of the biotics that remind her so much of the powerful Siths she worked for, yet bear implants and go through conditioning just as she did. In a word, I think I really nailed the anti-Samuel with her.

 

I read and hear all kinds of suggestions for the next Mass Effect game, and obviously there are things I myself would like to say, yet feel a little stupid saying them. Maybe you people out there could elaborate for me, in a thread with a specific topic, why it would be so awesome to play as non-military freelancers such as the crews from Cowboy Bebop and Firefly :) – but actually, I am quite confident that I will love it even if it’s anything else. At this point, I really do trust Bioware to deliver solid narrative. My only wish, and it’s not crazy, is that they make again several games where you recuperate your character. This, and nothing else, is what puts Mass Effect apart from other RPGs.

To anyone reading this who hasn’t played Mass Effect once or twice, I would recommend this: do not play the “John Template” or “Jane Template” and do not go for pure paragon or renegade choices, for by doing so you will ruin any possibility of fully appreciating these choices. We have enough Bethesda games to troll around, and plenty enough action games much more satisfying than Mass Effect on these matters. Bioware’s true quality as a studio lies in their ability to have us discover ourselves and our characters through action, situation, and involvement. Even if you start the trilogy not knowing your Shepard, you will only discover him or her at the condition that you do not hold back from reflecting on all the choices the many missions and sub-missions propose. Whether your Shepard has a background or not will indeed determine if you learn more about the character or about yourself, but this I’d rather leave to your personal appreciation. Bear in mind: both are interesting and as such justify another, different, playthrough.

As far as I am concerned, I am quite content with playing characters who have a definite relation to free-will itself. I see no point in making a copy of myself in such a different from ours universe (third playthrough ? I don’t think so). So there lies my main recommendation: that you first start to determine whether the Shepard you would most like to play is satisfied or not under the command of his superiors. From there, the games will take you by the hand, and you must not pull back too much if you truly expect to be moved. From there, you must be open to surprise, for the Mass Effect trilogy really is one of the most surprising forms of storytelling ever made. Faithful to the tradition, it does, indeed, “boldly go where no one has gone before”.

Men’s attitude towards feminism

Earlier today I’ve been digging into Anita Sarkeesian’s entries, and I mean those previous to the rather well-known Tropes vs women in videogames. In case you haven't heard of Ms. Sarkeesian, it might be good to remind that she has been the target of quite a lot of machist attacks since she kickstarted her show. But despite the title of this article, this perticular point is not the one I am interested in commenting ; for that, you can go there.

While listening to Sarkeesian, I couldn't help but think of a recent France Culture broadcast about feminist men that consisted of interviewing said feminist men. It was very troubling that the animators judged fit to conclude this hour-long broadcast by saying there were so damn few feminist men around. Because I mean : why should there be any ? Hopefully you have raised an eyebrow.

Having personnally grown up in a mostly feminine environment, I consider myself one of those modern men who are able cook, wash dishes, advocate gender equality, and even one of those most willing to do so (except maybe the second one, that is). Why is it then that I would never call myself a feminist (even though I spent the past months teaching young adults about the representation of men and women in early cinema) ? It is because this cause is not my calling. All of the men interviewed by France Culture in that previous broadcast were intimately tied to the cause by personnal relations with this or that person or event. People only take the label of a cause when they are in direct relationship with it, right ? It is then a logical necessity that most of the feminists be women.

 

Coming back to Sarkeesian, I couldn't help but listen to her wondering exactly who she is addressing. Obviously, this being a web-show implies she addresses a public already willing to listen. The question at hand, here, is when it comes to feminism, or gender equality, which speech is best served to which audience ? As a matter of fact, I can't really shake the idea that Sarkeesian is preaching to the wrong choir, as they say, but then again she does it by documenting rather accurately a number of socially embedded representations, giving to the adept more intellectual elements to grasp the current state of men-women complex relationships. I rather like her shows, as you may guess, and I think she avoids most of the traps many feminist I've listened to fall in.

These traps I refer to basically come down to the rhetorical problem of "which speech is best for which audience". When any cause is raised in a speech to some kind of priority, in order to call upon attention about a world-wide problem, might it be biodiversity, climate-wise, economic concerns or feminist claims, the nature of speech itself and emphasis even more bring the necessity of not mentioning worse problems. You don't raise funds to fight copyright infringement by mentioning World Hunger to a crowd of philanthropists, right ? You give them weeping actresses.

Why is it then, that so many feminist speeches are engineered in such a way that they feel not as if they were aimed at women but at men, telling them : "it is a given fact that you own the reins, so could you please not behave like such a jerk and let me, let us, women, hold one of the reins ? Maybe both ?", when a rein-holding-man will not give the reins to someone who does not take them by force with enough confidence and mastership that the man can feel safe, driven by another ? I wonder. I like much more the feminists who like Simone de Beauvoir address directly the women, telling them to be strong in the face of adversity, and how to be strong in an efficient way. It isn't chance who made de Beauvoir such an influencal lady to the feminist movement : she describes in her writings a new, modern woman she also incarnated at the time, giving to the women around the world a beacon of hope and a model towards which aspire.

 

Back to Sarkeesian again, I got deeply troubled by her video about the fembot trope. Although I can admit that beer-drinking women have good reasons to take offense from the Heineken advert, the one about the razor lady seems to me highly different. Here you see the application of the problem I raised earlier : men razors being designed differently than women's for questions of biological differences, it can safely be said that the Philips advert is exclusively targeted at men. EXCLUsively, like in "excluding" : not only does it not care about what women think about it, it also plays on a comfortable feeling of male-male complicity, like in an abstract sports room of some sort where all the men are gathered, in order to flatter the viewer's masculinity. Notice how it basically is a clip about a beautiful male showering, and how the man himself is poorly eroticized. See ? Male-male shower bonding. There is a lot of irony to that.

But moreover, if the Philips advert seems to me quite harmless, now that we've established that it is targeted to a male audience and playing on exclusively masculine values, it is precisely because it uses the objectification of women to such an extreme extent. Sounds paradoxical, eh ? But here the Figure of the objectified woman is given a face, it is not lied about, rendered realistic, or vaguely humane, or plunged into some hardly probable but live-looking creature like it is the case with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl for instance. And objectification itself is the stuff fantasm is made of. Although, sadly, you cannot stop publicists from using their knowledge of how the human mind works in order to bring customers to buy their products, the real point here is that women objectify men just as much as the contrary. Sure, society being what it is, that part of the female psyche is not so prompt to show up in advertisements, but lately more and more female-targeted TV-shows and movies have been revealing it to the male audience. I could for instance mention the recent Warm Bodies in which the male character plays out not much more than a glorified emo-looking poodle. I am nowhere near contesting that the balance of power leans in favor of men, understand. I'm a nearly pointing out a recent phemonemon that (quite ironically, I admit) made the Twilight saga into a feminist weapon able to be heard by the industry of entertainment. The point is : things are changing.

And far from the bygone era of the nineteenth century, when phallocentric values were so deeply entrenched that many wives throughout Europe didn't even raise their own children, I am ready to see in the recent proliferation of women-objectifying images some kind of nostalgic celebration of a soon lost domination over the beautiful gender. We end up ourselves being the ones asking, with the puppy eyes : "can you please not act like such a jerk and let me, let us, men, hold the reins for a little while longer ?".

 

So, in a word, objectification is good stuff that should be toyed with on a more or less artistic level, this is what I believe. I long to get more gynocentric perspectives on anything and everything, and I'm quite confident that this will not happen through repression of the gross masculine psyche, but instead through the liberation of the feminine grossness. On that matter, Anita Sarkeesian, I must say : I do like your name much, and I do like your words, but I especially love your mouth.

On top of that, I would restrain feminist speeches to women, in order to keep the spirit of struggle going : one has to feel set apart in order to wage war truly. Serving men speeches about equality remains good, but it won't help as much as if you girls start farting. And hit boys who complain. I know it may sound tough, but y'all ladies would understand all that fairly easy if you just had the balls.

 

Guerre de territoires sexuels

Les récents « débats » sur le droit des couples gays à l’adoption ont amené à mon attention un point amusant : on entend beaucoup d’hommes s’offusquer des rapports homosexuels masculins (touchés en profondeur qu’ils sont par le thème de la sodomie), et beaucoup de femmes s’ériger contre le droit des homos à être parents (adoption, procréation médicalement assistée, etc.), et pratiquement jamais l’inverse. Qu’un homme puisse se faire pénétrer ne choquerait pas les femmes, qu’une femme puisse se passer des hommes non plus, quant à la procréation ou l’adoption par les gays, j’aurais tendance à supposer que les opposants masculins à l’homosexualité n’en conçoivent même pas réellement la possibilité empirique – évacuant la question hors du champ du débat public.

Je caricature évidemment : dans les rassemblements publics contre le mariage pour tous, quantité d’hommes sont présents, mais de ce que j’entends à la radio ou vois à la télé, les journalistes semblent prendre un malin plaisir à ne donner la parole qu’aux dames. De fait : ce sont elles, dans leur rôle de mère, qui sont les premières menacées, de même que la seule pensée d’une bite dans leur trou à merde menace la psyché des mâles névrosés, héritiers des cultures religieuses monothéistes qui placent toutes le phallus dans la main droite de Dieu. Tous se réunissent sous une unique bannière, mais comme dans tant de manifestations, les causes abondent en vastes nombres.

Ce qui m’offusque ici, comme toujours, ce sont les amalgames vaseux. En premier lieu : l’amalgame d’individus derrière la cause prétendument commune de l’aspiration à la cellule familiale traditionnelle ; un amalgame à l’intérieur duquel se cachent des hommes craintifs de voir leur bite ou leur anus souillés voire, pire, leur sexe rendu inconséquent dans un monde où les femmes se font jouir entre elles, et les femmes, justement, craignant l’avènement du jour où, concurrencées par des utérus artificiels elles seront contraintes de n’être plus qu’objets sexuels pour hommes et/ou femmes matérialistes et portés sur la chair – comme si le fait qu’on veuille parfois les engrosser faisait d’elles autre choses que des potiches (creuses). Et la position de parent, dont on aime à faire courir qu’elle existerait à un niveau congénital chez les femmes (« instinct maternel ») mais pas chez les hommes (on ne parle jamais d’« instinct paternel »), sans que ne semble jamais être entendu le (pourtant bien admis et copieusement dénoncé) conditionnement des demoiselles dès la plus tendre enfance à s’occuper de gamins. Je maintiendrais, une main dans le feu, qu’il n’y a pas d’instinct naturel et congénital au fait de devenir parent, simplement un conditionnement social.

Ça n’est même pas le côté rétrograde et bassement conservateur de ces attitudes qui m’irrite, parce que je sais que les générations passées sont vouées à la disparition, et que le vingt-et-unième siècle m’apparaît comme porteur de révolutions sociales drastiques et encore à venir, une fois les rebuts du vingtième siècle évacués – auxquels j’appartiens moi-même, faut-il dire. Non, je pense que tout cela va se passer très bien. J’ai confiance. Qu’est-ce alors, qui m’irrite ? Les amalgames, je l’ai dit, et tout ce qui brandit l’argument de la nature, de dieu, et de l’ordre établi, pour défendre des intérêts largement égoïstes qui ne se regardent pas en face ; tout ce qui invoque le bien public pour parvenir à des biens privés ; tous ces putains de demeurés enfoncés dans leurs valeurs au point de ne même pas percevoir leur propre hypocrisie face à eux-mêmes, j’ai nommé : la mauvaise foi.

Copyright Jean Chose 2013, tous droits réservés.