In typical Seventh House fashion I set out to write a relatively well-ordered and concise multi-topic article with which I could share some impressions from the Mass Effect 3 demo, discuss the awful misuse of random children present in the game’s promotional campaign, and even talk about some ideas I’ve kicked around about what the series might have been like if it continued in the same direction as the first game. Naturally I ran up a total of nearly 2000 words and a bunch of hand-picked flavour images on one of these subjects in short order. The good news is that the next update is already halfway done; the other good news is that I have an article for today! Everybody wins?
Les Enfants Terribles
I suppose it’s only fitting that I dispense with… this before delving into deeper waters with my next update. It’s… well… suffice to say I now understand how the main character of an HP Lovecraft story feels when faced with the task of communicating a thing of indescribable horror, the nature of which the human mind can scarcely grasp, upon an absolute medium. No words nor strokes of the brush can approximate even the barest inklings of the encounter – it must be witnessed to be understood, and then only barely. Behold, and in doing spare me a few paragraphs of frenzied typing (don’t worry – the frenzied typing will still arrive in force below).
First of all, who or indeed what is responsible for the conception of this unholy child? Those giant glassy doll eyes, that face oddly plump and puffed as if in the final throes of strangulation, that hollow un-smile at once overstimulated with and yet harrowingly devoid of human expression. Where have seen these qualities before? This girl does not merely fall into the Uncanny Valley – she hits the bottom and mines a hole several thousand metres beyond a level of disturbing previously thought impossible. Look at this! Look at it!
Possibly more disturbing, however, is the environment through which Anne of Green Dunwich can be seen cavorting so innocently. The entire scene is a pastiche of elements you might find in an idealized period drama of a bygone century produced fifty years ago: the endless rows of farmer’s crops along dirt roads with nary an inch of concrete or glass in sight; the cheery little insects buzzing against the smog-devoid blue sky; the playful barking of a dog (Lassie, no!) somewhere offscreen; the little girl’s dated, almost hand-knit clothing and anachronistic hair braids; the motionless plastic toy she makes believe with as opposed to an electronic thing of flashing lights, recorded sounds, and interactive screens designed for constant stimulation… these things aren’t even relevant to a child of today.
Personal taste notwithstanding, I find the whole scenario comically out of touch with reality as of right now, let alone as a framing device for a science fiction story supposedly set several centuries into our future.
When I think of good things one might find on Mass Effect Earth, I do not think of idyllic farmer’s fields, children playing, ladybugs, rainbows, and sunshine, and when I see them threatened I merely laugh at the suggestion that I should care. I did not grow up on a rustic country farmstead and have no desire to live on one; the natural beauty of rainbows has nothing on the sight of a distant nebula; sunshine causes burns, uncomfortable heat, and that damnable screen glare; and I’ve been completely soured on the appeal of ladybugs ever since they descended on my city like a swarm of hungry locusts one summer. My toys were Japanese robots which transformed to dole out death in the form of easily-imbibed plastic projectiles, guns which lobbed styrofoam missiles at high velocities, and far more importantly – games played on a computer. Why should I feel anything for a cloyingly sweet depiction of a lifestyle that was long gone before I was born and never truly existed except in Hollywood to begin with?
But back to the children. Why children? This is twice now that we’ve seen unattended and unsupervised kids thrust into danger and killed (or killed by implication) just to provoke an emotional response from the audience. It’s lazy, it’s cheap, and worst of all it’s exceptionally unrealistic. Where are these kid’s families during all this and why are they allowed to wander around alone in a war zone? Are they afraid that we won’t be worried enough about a family and only a completely helpless little girl or boy in mortal peril will be able to get our emotional goose? Wouldn’t poor young soldiers being drafted to fight a hopeless war fit this context much better, not strain believability, and achieve the same thing? What in the seventh house is going on with that 1900’s farmland setting? It’s just too much to take seriously. There is no subtlety or tact.
The first time we see a child murdered in front of us in a video game we’re likely to cringe or wince or curse purely because it was unexpected and shocking, but just like swearing and gore and nudity it loses its edge with repeat exposure. For many gamers the novelty has already worn off and watching children die purely to set the tone of a story just cheapens the entire experience while adding nothing of worth. We never really cared about these kids as people (or indeed as anything other than vague, abstract concepts). We weren’t invested in their safety – we just weren’t expecting them to suddenly explode because children are usually treated better in popular media, and they exploited that assumption. There are infinitely better ways to get us to care than producing something cute/innocent/helpless from out of nowhere and pointing a gun at it.
To be clear, I’m not against something like the murder of a child happening in a story – far from it – but it had better be much more important to the plot than a shallow grab for emotional appeal if it’s going to get anywhere near as much focus as the cardboard stand-ins one might accidentally mistake for underdeveloped human beings in this video.
In conclusion, “Take Earth Back” is so oblivious to its own extreme bombast that it actually reminds me of a wartime propaganda piece, with a giant Reaper tentacle reaching out across the globe and a little girl cowering in the all-consuming shadow as it closes in, with the words “DO IT FOR HER” emblazoned in bright red across the screen. This would actually be an interesting ad campaign if its creators understood what they had wrought and deliberately tried to draw a parallel to WW1 & 2 recruitment posters (“Take back what’s ours – join the fight for Earth today!”) to sell the context of the message. But alas, this video is no more self-aware than a forgotten potato salad in the back of the fridge, so its hamfisted symbolism comes off just as stupid and exploitative as old war propaganda is to us today. It is painful to behold, and offensive to all other senses simultaneously.
All that ranting about ill-conceived trailer material may have inspired in you a collective thirst to see the same subject tackled in a far more effective manner. Strangely enough… that’s exactly what just showed up. Have at it:
Though both of these trailers do a frankly terrible job of representing a series which began with clear space opera aspirations (or I’m about to hate myself forever for purchasing a Mass Effect game that’s entirely focused on Earth – I’ll get back to you on this one!), aside from the clumsy CGI and obligatory “Shepard beats up some stuff” segment I was actually somewhat impressed by the ominously-titled “Fight”. Rather than some idealized meadow full of flowers, rainbows, and butterflies set up against the Reapers, it had the good sense to depict humans of all shapes, sizes, and most notably nationalities in their most likely habitats doing what they would probably do under the circumstances: panicking, hiding, fleeing, stealing, praying for deliverance, and of course fighting.
A little girl was also shown in this trailer, but you know what? It fit. It felt entirely natural this time because she was being rushed along the city streets by a frightened parent trying to put up a facade of confidence in the face of a clearly hopeless situation, as people do in clearly hopeless situations. It’s doubtless that the producers deliberately picked a little girl so that she would be easy to empathize with, but the direction and context make all the difference. “Fight” feels an order of magnitude less manipulative and cheap than its predecessor, and as a result works so much better… at least until the Omni-punching starts. This is solid proof that a little subtlety goes a very long way.
All told I give “Fight” a tentative stamp of Seventh-Approval for knowing its craft and not outright insulting my intelligence. It was believable and painted humanity in strokes narrower than a kitchen mop while also getting you to feel something for them in just under a minute of footage. It did this much more effectively than “Take Earth Back”, and without grabbing for the lowest-hanging fruit. Really, the biggest fault I can find is the one intrinsic to the entire marketing campaign – it’s not Mass Effect. It honestly is not. Were you to remove the distinct silhouettes of the Reapers over the cities, wipe the N7 logos from everything, and put a helmet on Shepard, only the most analytic of diehard fans would be able to tell what was being advertised.
Even in its current incarnation, Mass Effect is not a grounded and gritty survival story about a squad of human soldiers weathering the end of the Earth as we know it, and that’s exactly what it’s being painted as. Nary a sentient alien or spacecraft is to be seen, no political intrigue is hinted at, no biotics are present, and everywhere from the tone to the subject matter (I’ve certainly never seen a Christian church in a Mass Effect game) there’s an enormous divide between the impression given by these trailers and the narrative focus of the game’s own demo. In short, it’s deliberately false advertising meant to fleece customers of other franchises who for some unfathomable reason just can’t tolerate good science fiction. I can laugh because I’m not one of these people, but I know I’d be pretty steamed if a game came out hocking its deep character-driven plot, non-brown colour palette, and dark sense of humour with a great trailer only to deliver a barely mediocre four-hour campaign tacked onto a huge CoD-esque competitive multiplayer framework… full of one-note characters and brown.