Tag Archives: war

War Games But Without The War

I’m playing Mass Effect: Andromeda again, trying to polish off my second playthrough and nab that elusive Platinum trophy. With the sheen of “Oooh, it’s new” worn off, the game is decidedly a buggy mess, UI popups stay on screen long after they should have disappeared and I’ve spent an entire cutscene viewing my character as a party member blocked the camera (after we walked through a door whose opening animation didn’t happen).

It’s a bummer, really, because there’s such promise in it as an idea. A group of explorers, millions of lightyears away from everything they know, strike disaster and have to make do with what they’ve got. There’s first contact with a hostile alien society, and then again with a friendly one. One thing that makes Andromeda really stand out, though, is that for all the fighting and all, the Andromeda Initiative is a fundamentally civilian organization. They ain’t trying to be conquerers, nor are they an army outfitted with warships and other such weaponry — most all of the Initiative’s ships are unarmed.

You play as the Pathfinder, Ryder, and yes, you’re fighting outlaws, genocidal Kett, and ancient Remnant robots, but the narrative as a whole is less about a war than it is exploration and setting up colonies to find a new life. You’re not a member of a group of warfighters, you’re explorers (who are good at fighting, yes). Compare this to the prior Mass Effect games. In the second, you were putting together a team to fight an existential threat, and the third saw you fighting said existential threat. It’s less pronounced in the second, where Shepherd is former military, though one who has thrown in with a militant pro-human organization whose leader believes Shepard is the only one who can stop a mysterious alien threat. There’s a lot of emphasis put on Shepard’s military background and how he’s the one who can fight this war.

It is a pleasant change, then, that Andromeda eschews a militaristic outlook. Even though the Pathfinders are military trained, they’re no longer part of an army; their skills now used to protect the colonists. Though there is a big fight against the Kett, the main drive of the Initiative is to establish a home in the strange Andromeda Galaxy. As much as you’re fighting Kett, defeating them is the goal than is exploring the galaxy and terraforming planets to support life.

A lot of big operatic science fiction tends to revolve around, well, war. Halo and Gears of War are both Thames that revolve around war — but in space! This is not a criticism; setting these stories in space frees them from a measure of baggage. One reason that Halo’s narrative works is that its existential fight is against a genocidal alien alliance so that militaristic rah rah is less rooted in xenophobia (see: most Call of Duty games and other ‘realistic’ militaristic shooters). All the same, when everything is skewed one way, it’s pleasant to see a narrative that goes in another direction.

It’s less an issue of one necessarily being better than another, and more the need to have different narratives. I love Star Wars, but I enjoy watching Star Trek because it’s a fun change to see a group of characters trying to solve the Problem of the Week (but in space!) rather than fighting an out-and-out war. Though the Trek has its Admirals and Captains, Starfleet isn’t a military organization so much as one that’s about exploration. Generals and such need not apply.

All this to say, there’s an enjoyable relief when it comes to these different narratives. For Andromeda to feature a space explorer trying to overcome the challenges of the galaxy and doing stuff instead of being the hardcore military commander is a nice change — one that you don’t really see much in video games. Such a shame that the game itself is so lackluster.

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Order, and Narrative Thereof

I’m one of those people who will respect you less if you pick an album to play, and then play it on shuffle. See, there’s a deliberate rhyme and reason for the order of songs on an album.

U2’s War needs “Surrender” to be its penultimate song. After an album about war, violence, and fighting for hope, we have a song about giving up which leads into “40,” an adaption of the Bible’s Psalm 40. It’s crucial that the album ends there, in that space of a different sort of surrender. Furthermore, its refrain “I will sing a new song” works in tandem with the first track, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”’s “How long must we sing this song?” Listening to War in any other order robs you of the experience. Look at how “New Year’s Day,” a song about being apart from a lover, works as a sort of reprieve in between “Seconds” (about nuclear threat) and “Like A Song…” (in some ways, about military proliferation). With “New Year’s Day” where it is it takes on another level of longing; musically it’s far more understated then the fast paced songs around it and the song itself becomes a desire for an escape from the world. Sure, you can listen to the songs alone, but putting the album on shuffle’s just stupid. There’s an intentionality to how it’s set up.

Hang on, an intentional order that echoes and mirrors what came before creating and complicating a general emotion? This sounds like a narrative. And you bet it is. No, it’s not a beginning-middle-end story, but there is still and arc (still on War, each side of the record ends on a quiet song, “Drowning Man” and “40,” giving it something of a two act structure). All this to say, a narrative can be built out of order. If you’ve ever agonized over a mixtape or a playlist, you know that the tracklist matters as much as the individual songs.

So now let’s talk about Star Wars.

The saga is a bit of an oddity, with episodes 4, 5, and 6 coming out before 1, 2, and 3 (only to be followed by 7). This, of course, has led to a variety of different ways to introduce someone to the movies. Do you screen them within the chronology of the films (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)? Or in the order they were released (4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3)? Do you ignore the prequels entirely (4, 5, 6) or try out the Machete Order (4, 5, 2, 3, 6)? No matter what you do, these are still the same movies. But the order you watch them in shifts the narrative.

Say you watch them episodically. You get a very straightforward story about Jedi and trade disputes, forbidden romances and arbitrary falls to the Dark Side, a time skip and a plucky Rebellion against an evil Empire. The narrative shift really starts to show when you compare it to the order the movies were released. Episodically, there are fun beats like seeing an adult Boba Fett and meeting Yoda again in Empire. Luke’s arc is a mirror of Vader’s, and Jedi sees him in the position to make a similar choice due to the foreshadowing provided by Sith. Watched in the order they were released, however, shifts Anakin’s arc to be a mirror of Luke’s, where he fails where his son succeeded. The mirror, episodically, makes Luke’s success more heroic and, release-wise, makes Anakin’s fall more tragic.

Machete Order, where The Phantom Menace is dropped and Clones and Sith are watched in between Empire and Jedi, somewhat gets the cake and eats it too. By putting the prequels after Empire, we get a two-movie long flashback sequence that expounds on the twist that Vader is Luke’s father, explaining not only Anakin’s rise and fall, but also more on Obi Wan, Yoda, and the Emperor. It shifts the overall narrative, giving a great deal more focus on the stakes of Luke’s choice between the Light and the Dark. It also gives Luke’s line “I am a Jedi, like my father before me” much more impact, given that it emphasizes Anakin as a Jedi rather than Anakin as evil. Still the same Star Wars movies, just different emphases.

The order something’s presented in can do a lot for it. It gives U2’s War an additional layer of subtext and shades the overall arc of Star Wars. Think about that the next time you hit shuffle on that new album you got.

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No Home from War

I’m in college now, and one of the things you do in college is write essays. Every now and then one of these essays (which are certainly not rants) have a similar thread to the ones I post here.

So I have an assignment to look at a contemporary depiction of a soldier’s return home in light of a classical work of literature. Said paper is underway.

I’m taking Ulysses as my example, or Odysseus as he’s known in The Odyssey. But the man I want is Ulysses from The Divine Comedy (or as everyone who’s not a literary snob calls it: Dante’s Inferno). See, in the Inferno Dante meets Ulysses in hell.

After the ten year long Trojan war (y’know, Helen, Achilles, the Trojan Horse and all that) and the ten year journey back (cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, his own trip to the underworld, etc) Ulysses finally returned home to his wife and son.

Finally.

Thing is, as Ulysses tells Dante, that wasn’t enough for him anymore. He couldn’t sit still. Despite how much he loved his family and kingdom he couldn’t resist that call of adventure, to return to the seas.

And so he does. He assembles his crew once more for a final push, one last hurrah. It’s an epic adventure, crossing seas uncharted and finding lands unknown. But the sea overcomes them and their ship sinks and, as Ulysses tells it, that was it.

Ulysses couldn’t go home.

 My contemporary example is The Hurt Locker: Sergeant First Class William James is an EOD technician in Iraq. He’s really good at what he does. Really good.

Then, as the film draws towards its close, his tour comes to an end and he goes home. He’s home with his wife, shopping for groceries. Told to get cereal he’s suddenly overwhelmed by choice. This isn’t what he’s been trained for. He’s a weapon: a machine forged to diffuse bombs. Choosing cereal and shopping are as foreign to him as planting a C4 charge would be to his wife.

He confesses to his infant son that he doesn’t love much, and the one thing he thinks he loves is war. Bomb disposal. So he returns to the battlefield and starts his next tour.

So what’s this theme? This irrepressible call of battle? Why couldn’t life go back to normal?

It’s because they changed. The people who went off to war are not the same who returned. They have skill sets refined for warfare, some of which are not easily translated into civilian life and many of which have no equivalent. Suddenly they feel useless. Like the world they worked so hard to save has no space for them. Shooting bad guys is easy, coping with everyday life is something else entirely.

In Ender’s Game Ender saves the world from the alien invasion. But for him to return to earth would ignite a political storm. So he heads out into space to help start a colony. But even then, life as a mayor/governor is not enough for him. Ender leaves the colony for another, using relativity to stay young as the world ages around him. He cannot stay still: normal life is foreign to him.

Raiden, the player character for most of the second Metal Gear Solid game Sons of LIberty supposedly got his happy ending with his girlfriend at the end of the game. The soldier has beat the bad guy, saved the world, now he rides off into the sunset, right?

In the chronological sequel Guns of the Patriots, however, we find that it’s not the case. During the interim between games Raiden tried to settle down with his girlfriend and live a normal life. But he couldn’t. His almost-forgotten past as a child soldier haunts him and he grows distant and eventually leaves to find a war.

Because there’s always another war, another fight. These people don’t come home. Some, like Raiden and Ulysses, have been at war for so long that that is all they know. Others, like Sergeant James, get off on war: it’s their drug, it’s what they do. There’s no rest for them, because for them rest is torment.

It’s a question we see posed not just in fiction but in reality: once you’ve been through hell where do you go?

 

Also: buy my book In Transit! There are characters who aren’t sure about home in it too!

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