Simulating Cultural Identity
By Christos Reid
What is culture? Is it music, fashion, architecture? When does an environment become a separate culture to the one we live in currently? It’s arguable that London and Tokyo hold different cultural ideals, certain aesthetic differences that differentiate the Land of the Rising Sun from the Land of the Falling Knife. But when it comes to videogames, are we able to become “cultured” by the environments we find ourselves in?
To venture into BioShock’s utopian underwater city of Rapture, we must traverse into the middle of the ocean: the one area of the world where man is no longer king of the castle. This brings us to a Bathysphere, and in using this new form of transportation we are introduced to the technology of another culture, and its progenitor, in one swift interactive cut-scene. Through descending into this watery world, we agree with the man who “chose something different.” He chose the impossible. He chose Rapture.
The Rapture we descend into is a place of broken dreams, of a culture that became a socio-political time-bomb from its very inception. But to understand the reasons for the separation between the high society of Ryan and his cohorts and Fontaine’s parasitic subservient army, we must learn the world which now surrounds us, almost claustrophobically, in the darkness of the sea bed.
//Like father, like son?
Players experience the life and times of Rapture’s many denizens – some dead, some very angry and barely alive – through audio diaries scattered around the city. Some deal with the hotspots, the locations where the hip and happening citizens of Rapture came to have a good time – or, in Ryan’s case, father a child who became his own undoing – all told in both humorous and harrowing anecdotes and screamed warnings. However, some of these diaries deal more with the day-to-day running of the city, such as the curious equilibrium wrought by the Big Daddies and Little Sisters that still persist post-apocalypse. It is through this binary opposition of the mundane and the melodramatic that we can be drawn into a lifestyle that is now our own, a new culture, and embrace it as readily as we would dine at a restaurant specialising in foreign cuisine.
“A man chooses! A slave obeys!” roars Ryan as you approach him during the climax of your interaction. This is indeed a pair of opposing definitions of the human mindset to consider when exploring the city, even as you begin to plan its downfall. No one forces you to listen to the whimpering tales of those trapped in the depths of anarchist culture gone to pieces, but most players did so anyway. We engage in foreign culture because our natural curiosity about the dark unknown overwhelms us, the desire to explore the Other becoming exciting and intriguing instead of terrifying.
This is fitting for a game in which knowing the cityscape you explore throughout the course of the game’s narrative helps you overcome your fear of the place itself. Splicers are no longer drug-addled, sociopathic murderers; they become pitiful creatures, reduced to the barest elements of humanity. You are no longer a scared foreigner; you are their saviour, the Grim Reaper to Rapture’s uncouth souls.
To absorb culture, from the perspective of a sentient entity, it becomes a case of taking in your environment in a way that feels both natural and self-motivated. We are urged to consider Rapture’s vision of what constitutes “art” through Sander Cohen’s masterpiece, and encouraged to think about science and the quandaries it presents to us as moral human beings through the diaries of Dr. Suchong and Bridgette Tenenbaum. But the most interesting and intriguing aspect of this world is that it’s so different from the one we know and engage with on a daily basis. Man as a personification of industry and war has been removed, and all links to man’s superiority over nature through religion, conflict and technology have been largely severed. What we are left with is nature populated by humans alone, resulting in an environment that is – when we arrive – feral in nature. A culture that has warped, and distended into something else, but at the same time remains as seamless and natural as our own chaotic identities.
//The SPECTRE’s guide to the galaxy
Mass Effect is a difficult game in many aspects. Not only are we presented with a scientific explanation for infinite ammo, but the total background information will, by the end of the trilogy, begin to rival that of early Star Wars. Every race is distinguishable, not just aesthetically, but by mannerisms, attitude, and the education with which they gift your Commander Shepherd during his or her travels through the galaxy.
It begins with something comfortable, something we can relate to, mainly because we are the origin of the Mass Effect universe. It starts on Earth: no alternate reality, simply a possible future. From the discovery of alien technology so high above us primitive apes it borders on sorcery, humanity as a whole is drawn into another world. We are gifted with experiences of galaxy-wide conflict, of genocide on scales that would extinguish our contemporary global population, of cultural differences and prejudice that stretch beyond the simple fat jokes Han Solo could have levelled at Jabba the Hutt.
It’s interesting that you are allowed to change Shepherd to fit the appearance that suits you most as an individual, from a protagonist that is for now foreign to you, both socially and culturally. This ability to turn your hero into a man, woman, black, white or otherwise, to even alter his shaven head to a woman’s feminine locks, is something that questions the player intimately. Someone about to engage with sentient life that may not even be the same shape as the player may certainly have a lot of preferences about their own species, the culture of the protagonist either settling into their own mould, or sitting in the approachably American visage of the default male.
But what of the other cultural aspects of the Mass Effect universe? Surely it stretches beyond character creation and talking to jellyfish that are able to stand. The Citadel, a space station so colossal in size that it classes as the capital “city” for one half of the Milky Way, is a hub of cultural identities mixed together with a variety of positive and negative results. This is a narrative that confronts racism through various allegories, most especially through the Turian species and their effective neutering of the Krogan race, a genocide frequently discussed during the course of events. So much so, in fact, that it leads to a gun-invoked standoff between you and a fellow warrior – nay, your friend – and this division between two different viewpoints is as staggering between humans and Krogans as it is between George and Lenny in Of Mice and Men. You will lose your innocence in this universe, your blind ignorance to the issues inherent in science fiction, and only through learning, through becoming cultured, are you able to deal with this obstacle adequately.
The Galactic Codex is a logbook available to you from the start, though you will have to work to fill it up, and slave to fill it completely with knowledge of different places, people, and technology so vital to fully understanding Mass Effect’s universe. However, to read this database of cultural knowledge you’ll accumulate over the course of your explorative lifetime, you need to exit the game-world, and find it in the menu. To some, this is a simple task, almost as though you were checking emails on a BlackBerry. To others, to not be able to deny this PDA-esque identity of the menu due to the fact the levelling system, save and load functions are all residing on the screen, breaks the immersion irreparably.
Consider your place in the Mass Effect universe, as the leader of a team of brave men and women charging through the galaxy, hot on the heels of an omnipotent government agent gone rogue. The narrative seems generic when such a simple synopsis is attached to it, and yet the amount of holes in the plot break the flow of the game, in turn breaking the flow of cultural information into the mind of the player. I can’t focus on the Elcor diplomat’s given explanation for his verbal etiquette when I’m wondering why, if these politicians are so active in their duties, they are able to represent an entire species standing in the same spot up until the area is rendered unsafe later in the narrative. These small issues – the menu-based codex, the avoidable plot holes – are breaking the very realism of the game. A culture is not viable when it becomes unrealistic, and for this reason it becomes harder to adapt to Citadel life than it does to life as a plasmid-addicted interloper.
//Fly me to the moon
Are we able to become cultured as participants in Mass Effect’s cosmic joke? Are we able to become true residents of Rapture? Arguably, the narrative dictates we always were Rapture’s child. But do we, as the entity outside of the screen, dictate the degree to which we become able to interpret the various cultural idioms of these environments without breaking stride? The induction of your Shepherd avatar into the ranks of the SPECTRE agents makes you feel immediately important, your government status allowing you to experience every aspect of culture without barriers. This all-access pass gives you the opportunity to learn, and if you can look past the flow-breaking codex placement, you can become cultured as a citizen of the Milky Way.
There are a lot of different methods of approaching a foreign land. It depends, really, what you would want from a fictional universe in terms of a cultural education. Are you comfortable with reading a Time Out of Japan, the odd Tim Rogers anecdote and a few Wikipedia entries on Ahikabara? Or do you want to fly there, walk its streets, and save a second-hand Dreamcast from the dumpster out back? To engage with Bioshock, and to become cultured, immersion is key. To put audio diaries in the menu denies Jack his technologically-bereft identity, and you, the player, your immersion in the game. But to have Shepherd, and you the player, listen to an audio diary that would feasibly be hours long if attempted in full is improbable at best.
How we approach foreign cultures, whether digital or real, is something we can attribute to our personality and how deep our Jungian shadow-self sinks into the primal fear and anger at things we are ignorant of. But to become cultured by a video game is as immersive as it’s likely to get, thus we cry out to see Rapture as it once was, to know the true culture Andrew Ryan tempts us with in his opening monologue.