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SUPERVERSIVE: Unlikely Bastions of Superversion –

SUPERVERSIVE: Unlikely Bastions of Superversion

Tuesday , 20, September 2016 14 Comments

In case you’re not adept at interpreting mid-1990s sprites, from left to right, that’s a cave-woman; a silent, spiky-haired youth; and a knight who has been turned into a frog. (An awesome frog.)

The first and only video game I ever got in trouble for playing was Squaresoft’s Chrono Trigger. You see, early on in the game, there’s a chapel in the woods that has been taken over by monsters, and in order to keep the charade up and hide their dastardly deeds, several snake-women disguise themselves as nuns. Being a video game, you promptly kill them as soon as you have a reason to do so. Dad, unsurprisingly, did  not take well to the wholesale slaughter of nuns, even faux-nuns. (Eventually, the situation resolved itself, and I went back to that wonderful game. But that’s another story.)

I’m going to guess that most people of my parent’s generation or older– and probably a big chunk of my generation, frankly– think one of two things about video games: they’re a waste of time, or they’re murder simulators. Either option presents little in the way of redemptive value. And to be fair, there’s a lot of time wasters and there are a few murder simulators. I’m not likely to let my kids play games from Rockstar when the time comes.

But last month I picked up the final installment of Blizzard’s Starcraft 2, and I as I was replaying the whole darn thing and pondering how everyone in the Starcraft universe is built like a linebacker or a model, I realized something interesting: It was bucking the cultural trends. The men were manly and the women feminine. Everyone was competent, even the squeaky-voiced science geek. Heroism was fully evident, even during the revenge-centric Heart of the Swarm. The stakes were big and sets matched; by turns, Starcraft 2 has you fighting at the end of the universe and in a space station older than the universe. It was like I’d stumbled into Warhammer 40K‘s superversive cousin.

I’m not about to claim that video games are inherently superversive. Sturgeon’s Law always applies; 90% of anything is crap. But I think there’s something about video games that actually makes them friendly to what Brian Niemeier calls “the superversive mandate”: the idea that people want heroism, good characters, and wonder in their stories. That superversion isn’t just something that a couple of us got together and decided to push down people’s throats. That superversion calls out to something inside the viewer/reader/player.

Bioware’s Mass Effect series is an interesting example. It’s definitely not immune to some of the culture’s SJW shenanigans (though not as badly hit as Dragon Age Inquisition was), and it gives you the option to play as a relatively morally bankrupt anti-hero. But apparently, two-thirds of the players for Mass Effect 3 chose to play as heroes. I’m sure some have gone back and played as anti-heroes; I certainly did. At least for a few hours, when I realized this wasn’t the way the Shepard I knew would act.

quarian-geth-peaceMass Effect 3 is largely maligned for a poor ending, but at least initially, I had a largely different experience. One of the ongoing conflicts in the series is between the geth and the quarians. In times past, the geth were created and then poorly treated by the quarians. Conflict ensued, as it is wont to do.

In the third game, you are given the chance to choose who you side with, geth or quarian; if you’ve done the right things, you can broker a peace between the two of them and ensure the survival of both. I liked both, and I made sure I was able to broker that peace. Everything was happy– or at least, as happy as it can be when organic life is being wiped out horrible Lovecraftian robo-monsters.

Another feature of the game– one that was kind of iffy on how it was executed– were “war assets” that you accumulated over the course of the game. At the end of the game, those assets would determine the quality of the ending you saw. Someone early on had warned me that Shepard’s survival depended on having an absurdly high war asset score. I busted my butt trying to achieve that score, got it… and then found out that in order to protect both the geth and the quarians, you had to choose the ending path that Shepard couldn’t survive, war assets or no.

The way Bioware implemented the endings was hamfisted, but I got to experience a tiny little sacrifice to protect others: all my work to keep Shepard alive went down the drain as I sacrificed him to save both organic and inorganic life. It was a wonderful, bittersweet note. (And then I watched the other endings on youtube and saw the pallet swaps and was thoroughly annoyed.)

Video games tap into something that too many books and movies have forgotten how to tap. Or maybe they disdain the idea altogether; I’ve seen more than a few people complain about “bombastic space opera” elements in Mass Effect. Things like giant sweeping sets, the fate of the galaxy, heroism. All those things that the our “enlightened betters” tell us are trite and worn out. If memory serves, the “bombastic” comment was directed at a scene involving the corpse of one of those evil robo-gods in a decaying orbit around a brown dwarf; you leap from its husk and onto your ship at the last minute. A wonderful, wonderful scene, and anathema to all those literary types who want video games to be about trans-issues  and the evils of the male gaze.

Maybe it’s the relative “immaturity” of video games that’s largely saved us from that crap. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a newer medium, and until recently, it’s been ignored by those folks. In depth stories weren’t really all that possible until twenty or twenty-five years or so ago; before that, we had to settle for “Your princess is in another castle!” But maybe, just maybe, it’s the fact that it gives us a chance to do something that we don’t have a chance to do in real life, and we appreciate that chance for heroism. I will never jump off the body of  robo-monster to avoid burning up in a brown dwarf. I will never liberate an isolated forest chapel from snake-women and stumble upon a 65 million year old secret that’s threatening to destroy the world.

Alright, guys. Sound off. Let’s hear your favorite moments of video game heroism.

  • Anthony says:

    Every time I need to teleport my crew over to the Flagship in the final stage of the boss battle, knowing that I’m asking them to sacrifice their lives to save the Federation and defeat the evil rebel scum, I’m deeply moved.

    Gets me every time. Sniff.

    …Okay, I’m being a little sarcastic, but if you have a crew all game and you end up being forced to sacrifice them in the final battle (which is relatively rare but does happen), it is a little bittersweet.

  • PCBushi says:

    Mass Effect was great, especially the second one. Masterpiece.

    I wrote about this a little recently, but I’m currently mulling whether the Witcher stories might qualify as superversive. After I think on it and read/play further, I’ll share some of my thoughts on it, but I appreciate that despite the dark and brooding atmosphere of the Witcher’s world there are still redemptive elements to be found and some traditional messaging (unlike Game of Thrones, largely).

    • Josh says:

      Of all the names, I did not expect to see the Witcher mentioned here. Admittedly, I only really played through the prologue of the first one, but everything I’ve seen since then has painted a picture of God of War mixed with Game of Thrones: boobs and nihilism.

      Not that boobs aren’t nice and all.

      • PCBushi says:

        Indeed, I don’t blame you for being surprised. Let me refer back to my recent blog post:

        “While I’m not sure yet whether I’d venture to label him as “superversive,” he possesses a complexity and nobility that is difficult to dismiss. Though he is an unquestionable man-slut and possesses his share of vices, we can often see why he exhibits such spiritually destructive behavior and the damage it does to him.

        In some of the early Witcher stories, we’re repeatedly reminded of the fact that witchers are mutants, rendered sterile. Similarly sorcerers and sorceresses are made barren by the magic they wield. Power comes at a cost. A part of Geralt has been riven by this element of who he is, and we can plainly see how it pains him. This is also one of the central themes of the stormy and self-destructive relationship between Geralt and the sorceress Yennefer. They are destined for one another, and yet they both regret their inability to reproduce. Nothing can come of their being together, it is said.

        Certainly not a happy or uplifting part of the Geralt and Yennefer romance. However I find this tragedy adds a bit of a redemptive quality to the characters (particularly the oft-bitchy sorceress). Given the times we live in, when parenthood is often portrayed as an inconvenience and sexual “freedom” and promiscuity regarded as virtues, it’s satisfying (though also saddening) to see two characters possessed of immense power and freedom longing for “family” and mourning their inability to create. Indeed, Yennefer’s quest and obsession is to find a way to restore her fertility – something which, at least at the point in the story I’ve read up to, is considered impossible.

        Unlike many of Martin’s characters, Geralt is also able to adhere to his morality without being savagely beheaded or piked or torn asunder, despite the hostility of a gray world. He is fiercely loyal to his friends and assists others in need when able. He often dismisses this, calling himself a mercenary, but at times he accepts pittance for payment when dispatching monsters or protecting those in danger. Even when it comes to monsters, he refuses to slay creatures that are intelligent and benign or endangered. And he won’t kill humans for pay.”

        So yeah…I’m not sure if the Witcher is superversive, but I think there is an argument to be made. Much like the Mass Effect games, the Witcher games give the player the option of making Geralt a much softer, more heroic hero. The stories do contain their share of boobs and nihilism, but I think there’s something deeper, too.

        • Going to back you up here. The Witcher storyline is the closest thing to the old school Fantasy I love, yet its mixed with a lot of new elements and styles. What I love about it is that it’s 100% Eurocentric.

        • Andy says:

          There’s a disconnect between how the games are marketed and what they’re really like. There’s a part in the third game that literally mocks the grimdark “killing moooonnnsterrrrrssssss…” ad that came out before the game’s release. The third game, which is really all about Geralt as an adoptive dad, is downright sweet in places, especially if you play the fully expanded version.

  • hereandnow says:

    In a way, video games could be more superversive than other media. Like in Chrono Trigger(and unlike many RPGs), the heroes really have no immediate reason to fight the world-destroying monster of the game. They could simply return to their time, use their newfound power to deal with their legal issues and live out the rest of their natural lives in peace. Instead, faced with the human suffering of the far-future post-apocalypse, embark on a history-spanning quest to save the future. Enduring various hardships and difficult battles. The characters are heroes entirely by choice(excepting a few of the later additions), acting largely from their morality, rather than any sense of survival. By playing the game, perhaps the player is making a similar choice, as he guides the characters through their quest.

    Or at least I would like the think so XD.

    • Josh says:

      That’s actually a very good point about Chrono Trigger. I had wanted to talk about it a little bit more, but it didn’t go that way… But either way, you’re right. Chrono and crew could easily have pulled the covers over their heads and ignored the future. Or passed the buck and told someone with armies to deal with it. Their decision to keep fighting is definitely a heroic one.

      • hereandnow says:

        Thanks! I found their actions especially so, as the apocalypse itself happens about a Millennium after their time. In a sense, they aren’t even trying to save “their” world, considering how alien such a gulf of time would make it.

  • David says:

    So are Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 worth playing but skip the 3rd game?

    • Josh says:

      Actually, I still love the 3rd one. It’s not perfect, but there are so many wonderful little notes and moments in it that I have a hard time faulting it for a lackluster fifteen minutes or so. Someone made the suggestion that you treat the entire game like the end of the series, instead of just those last moments, and if you do that, it hits the bullseye far more frequently than it misses. But yes. The first one is a slow start, but once you get going, it’s great.

  • D.J. says:

    I’ll go for the Suikoden II for the original Playstation, (and to a lesser extent the first one as well), for being good and wanting to set the world right.

    And showing heroic sacrifice in both games (looking at you, Gremio and Nanami), that, if you work really hard at (Guide, Dang It!) you get the payoff of reunion.

    Also, the Iron Chef sidequest is the best sidequest I’ve seen in any game.

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