Monthly Archives: March 2011

Masochists Stole My Picturebook

[Wrote a piece for Eurogamer recently. Subject was masochism. The tame kind. Not the sexy kind. Some elements left unexamined. Attempted to let it go. Took a shower. Hated self. Took another shower. Unclean feeling remains. Article follows…]

*

“It’s just not a single axis is the thing,” said Adam Saltsman. “There’s definitely this – I feel – completely invented idea that there is a ‘challenge axis’. And the ‘challenge axis’ has masochistic, hardcore games on one end and it has accessible games on the other end.

“I actually think that there’s two axes.”

Who is Adam Saltsman, you ask? And what the fiery Dickens is he talking about? He’s only the creator of Canabalt. “So what?” So what!? Hey. Fuck you, pal. You ever played Robot Unicorn Attack? Yeah. Well, just thank your lucky Saltsmans that even exists, okay?

He spoke of difficulty. To define a game as “masochistic” you gotta know what makes a game difficult.

Sometimes you find a game difficult because of the content of the game. Sometimes there are just a load of spikey spikes. Think VVVVVV. Often there is one, sickeningly precise method of avoiding the obstacle in question. But sometimes in games, the spikey spikes are intentionally impassable. Either way you’re like a baby with a pack of brand new, razor sharp colouring pencils. Sure, they’re stationary. And, yeah, they’re colourful all right. But if you leap at them too enthusiastically they’ll mess your life up. Ouch. Hurt baby imagery. Get used to it.

That’s only sometimes. Othertimes you find a game difficult because you are still getting to grips with the control scheme or the user interface. Think Dwarf Fortress. In which case the art materials aren’t so immediately dangerous. They’re just a hundred times harder to use. The pencils are now an advanced graphics tablet with a MacBook and all the appropriate software. But you’re still a baby. And everyone knows babies can’t use advanced graphics tablets.

Both VVVVVV and Dwarf Fortress are difficult. For entirely different reasons. In the article mentioned above I explored the reasons someone might call these games not just difficult, but masochistic. Any sensible person would have interviewed Terry Cavanagh, the creator of VVVVVV. I didn’t. He was pretty busy. I quoted Adam Saltsman. Creator of a one-button game that even you in your pencil-punctured, Mac-illiterate, metaphorical baby form could play.

Justification stations!

The reason I included parts of a conversation with Adam Saltsman was because Saltsman had the above to say about axes of difficulty. It’s pretty fascinating stuff. And his point cleaves  any clean definition of masochistic in two.

Observe Graph Uno.

Oh no. Graphs.

The horizontal axis stands for the Ease of Access. Stay with me here. Graphs are dull, I know. But they aren’t half as dull as trying to think all of this up in your brainmind. So stay with me.

Like I says, the horizontal line stands for Ease of Access – how easy it is for the average player to get used to the controls, the menus, all the input methods. In general, the user interface. An old Infocom adventure game might be further left on this scale than, say, a point-and-click adventure game. Since in Infocom games there are more commands to discover and memorise. In point-and-clicks, you just go buck-mad with mouse-power, clicking all around you until it’s the only thing you ever hear. In your dreams you see your mother tutting. But all you hear is that neutral plastic, that Logitech tick. Anyway, point-and-click is more to the right than command-driven. Argue ergonomics if you like, weirdoes. One is undeniably easier to access than the other.

The vertical axis stands for Ease of Play – in other words, how easy or hard the gameplay features are to the average player. Like the Ease of Access line, this is subject to the natural ability and/or the previously acquired knowledge or skill of the player. I say “and/or” because this isn’t the place for a nature/nurture argument. It isn’t. It isn’t. Isaiditfuckingisntsopleasegoaway.

An example: the section of VVVVVV that begins at “Doing Things The Hard Way” reportedly used to have less spikey spikes when it was in Beta. It now has a few more spikey spikes. Statistically, you are now more likely to die when trying to complete this section than you perhaps would have been if you had played in Beta. So the Beta of Six-Vees-No-Spaces would be higher on the Ease of Play axis than the final release.

Similarly the Dark World of Super Meat Boy is lower on the axis than the World That Is Not The Dark World, because it is harder. This all appears to work fine when discussing games within themselves. But the Ease of Play axis starts to rumble disapprovingly when you use it to compare games to other games, startled as it is by the terrible, beautiful beast they call SUBJECTIVITY. Is Super Meat Boy harder than VVVVVV? My twisting, bilious inside-gut says yes. Your flabbadocious beer-belly says no. Whatever whatever.

Man. Fuck graphs.

Observe Graph Uno again. For surely now you comprehend. This is why Dwarf Fortress is masochistic. It is the only one of the games discussed that falls into the lower left corner of the graph. Hard and hard. Or, if you prefer, ‘ard an ‘ard. This is because it is mind-crushingly complex. And because inherent inaccessibility actually has an effect on the ease of the gameplay features. If you can’t figure out how to dig a hole, controls-wise, how are you meant to dig a lot of holes, gameplay-wise? Difficulty of access has a gravity. Such a singular concept! And nobody bothered to tell me before. When Adam Saltsman first explained it to me, it was one of those bewildering moments of clarity. Like I’d just noticed the RAF Spitfire that had been following me for the past four days. Periodically hiding behind trees and tittering to itself.

As Dwarf Fortress’ interface becomes easier for the player to use, the gameplay features become easier to implement. Through practice and – let’s face it – a YouTubian education, we can defeat inaccessibility’s gravity. We can achieve escape velocity.

Duh, I suppose. This much is obvious. Practice = less hard. But does Dwarf Fortress become less masochistic? Maybe. But only if we use Graph Uno as a diagram for both difficulty and masochism. And only if you agree with what my previous article says – that masochism is not a static thing but is defined at the moment of an enjoyed failure. I.2.da.E. – a game is only masochistic at the moment a player fails (and likes it).

I’m serious. They offend me.

This maso-moment is at the central point of the graph. Where the big, red wobbly line represents the players experience of Dwarf Fortress. As they learn the UI it becomes easier to play on both axes. And when it smacks the centre – a transcendence. Difficulty and Enjoyment fuse and cocoon. We think, simultaneously, “this is frustrating me!” and “this is entertaining me!” This is the feeling of spiritual ambivalence required for a game to be called masochistic. Because masochism is a completely paradoxical term. The meat of pain and the pastry of pleasure rolled into one healthy and unhealthy snack. An oxymoronic sausage roll of lovehate. So bad. But so good.

All that is one reason why I would describe Dwarfy Hideout as masochistic. Here is another: it cannot be completed in any traditional sense. Adam Saltsman is again to blame for this destructive thought-germ. (“I will say this: you can beat Super Meat Boy. You can’t even beat Canabalt.”) The keeper of dwarves is destined to fail. As is the Canabaltic runner.

I choose you, Graph Dos!

Dwarves like graphs. But only for the axes.

Here the Ease of Access line remains the same. But the vertical axis is now tracking Ease of Completion. Where the bottom of the line is Impossible and the top of the line is Super-duper-fluffy-bunny-easy. Mark you the positions of Canabalt and Robot Unicorn Attack. Compare them with Super Meat Boy and Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. And looky here. Dwarf Fortress remains huddled away in his corner.

Actually. You know what? Graph Dos is functionally flawed. The top and bottom do not represent approximate opposites. The opposite of Impossible would be Automatic (something that happens bizarrely often in modern offerings, for cinematic purposes or accessibility’s sake).  Hear ye, hear ye. We, the writers, do solemnly declare Graph Dos negligent. Graph Dos II will take his place in office. The predecessor will hereby be hanged until dead. All observe Graph Dos II and do the law well unto him.

Hail to the King, maybe.

This bad boy now has the vertical axis in the form of a question – ‘Can the game be “completed”?’ Which simplifies the issue somewhat. Pledge allegiance to whatever diagram you want. It doesn’t matter to me. But note well: where is thon Dwarf Fortress? Still burying into the extreme bottom-left. Hunkering down for a harsh winter and scaring away every other title that scurries near. The bottom-left is the masochist’s domain. It is where the Harmers live. Should you go there, be wary.

Weeeeeeeee! Dwarves! They obstruct everything. Defying every convention except the one that holds the ground to be a Good Thing. They are my collective nemesis. And it is mainly because Dwarf Fortress, while being decidedly masochistic, defies one of the central attributes of masochistic games – that they have simple narratives. Super Meat Boy is your basic save-the-princess story. You Probably Won’t Make It doesn’t have a story at all. Even that monarch of masochism I Wanna Be The Guy has a very basic story (there’s this kid, called The Kid. He just wants to be The Guy).

Hard platformers tend to shy away from complicated narrative. Is this because constant death can break the flow of story-telling? If the reverse can be a problem – constant story-telling breaking the flow of gameplay – then it seems possible for difficult patches of play to screw with the progression or timing of a story. Even if it only disrupts the player’s memory or attention to specific details in the plot.

In Prince of Persia: Sands of Time you spend the game alongside Farah (finally, a princess developed past the point of being a weepy chick in a pink dress). Although initially being at odds, the Prince and Farah grow fonder of each other as you progress. Then comes a point in the game where they become separated and you have to find Farah by navigating some darkened doorways, arranged in a circle. You go in one doorway only to come out another, right back where you began. It’s like watching a Benny Hill sketch with only one person. And with the TV on Mute.

To start, you have no idea which doorways to go through and in what order to do so. But it’s clear that there is some combination of entrance and exit that’ll lead you somewhere. Eventually, through a spark of thought or the resigned acknowledgment of Internet’s superior intelligence, you discover that standing in front of certain doorways trigger a subtle watery sound effect. Go through the doorways that “trickle” and you will reach a room of baths, where Farah is waiting for you.

Then Prince and Princess wordlessly have sex.

You always know these two likeable rich-kids are sexually attracted. But the pacing leading up to the, er, climactic event is jarred by the confusion of the preceding puzzle. Unless Ubisoft were trying to make some kind of ‘nice guy’ point about how many hoops you have to jump through to fuck somebody, the unforeseen difficulty of this segment can make the story wobble.

Super-hard games avoid this pitfall by either having no story at all or by giving their player’s character a single, uncomplicated goal. Even Canabalt has a goal (even if it is just a bottomless pit with an overhanging banner that reads “better than last time.”)

Masochistic games are full of contradictions. For all the difficulty ingrained in the environment of masochistic games, the motivations for their characters are among the simplest in gaming.

Chris Breault of Post-Hype has a great essay about narrative and difficulty, focusing on VVVVVV. But he is talking about extended narrative, outside of the story created by the game’s author. He’s talking about narrative that is a part of gameplay itself. Note that this is not the kind of narrative we’re talking about.

Still, you might argue that VVVVVV is a strong balance between story and difficult gameplay. Yet the narrative of All-The-Vs is not complex. Captain Viridian’s shipmates are lost and he must find them.

This is not to say that simple storylines are bad ones. VVVVVV’s story is involved and emotionally engaging to the point where its simplicity is part of the charm. Vermillion’s pining for Violet and the mutual concern for shipmates as demonstrated by the pixelly smiles and frowns of the characters might be simple touches, but they are far more effective at provoking empathy than, say, the Abramsesque tripe that occurs in the complex narrative of Assassin’s Creed. Regardless, VVVVVV’s story remains uncomplicated.

Canabalt – only “masochistic” by the judgement of the imposing, absolutist bastard that is Graph Dos II – has an equally simple narrative: you run away from something. Or perhaps you run to something. Who knows? Nevertheless, you run. You run because shit is going down. And some abstractly dangerous, possibly invasive force, is launching that shit down. Or perhaps you run for other reasons. Perhaps you are simply a devotee of that great thinker Forrest Gump, in which case you run because You. Just. Felt. Like. Running!

So it might be a fair expectation that “masochistic game = simple story.” Ah. Ahh. But in Dwarf Fortress, the narrative is complex. It twists and fizzles as your dwarves go on errant quests to contaminated water sources, or slowly go insane at the prospect of working without the right materials. It’s like an underground Eastenders. Except it is interesting.

However, this is more akin to that type of narrative which is wedded to gameplay. Not the kind over which the author has full(er) control.

For the sake of big, rowdy argument, let’s say this doesn’t matter. The assumption that “masochistic game = simple story” then asplodes in our face because of the Ascii demon that is Dwarf Fortress – that abusive digital husband of a hundred journo love-hate marriages. It will therefore be necessary to amend our statement, if we consider Lovely Fortress/Dwarf Cuntpain to be a masochistic game (and I do).

Therefore, the amended statement should look like this: “masochistic platformer = simple story.”

There is no reason why this ‘rule’ could not be challenged. There is probably a game out there I don’t know about which already disobeys. In any case it is troubled by the initial problems of definition (What is “masochistic” to you? What is a “complex” narrative to you?) However, there does appear to be a trend, at least within the current indie market, for difficult platformers to intentionally limit the complexity of their tale.

That said, let us be fair. For masochists, a complicated story is frankly unnecessary. They don’t need elaborate neo-noir characters of grey, dubious loyalty. They don’t need convoluted moral maze drug-dealing sub-plots. They don’t need to walk in the garden of forking paths or navigate swirling, entwined social relationships. The only thing a masochist needs is a goal.

And lots of spikey spikes in front of it.

*

[Addendum: Apology in order. Actually did speak to Terry Cavanagh eventually. Words said. Interview follows… ]

*

In summary: I think VVVVVV is a masochist game. This interests me. What do you think about that kind of genre?

My opinions on that subject are not going to gel very well with what you’re writing about because I love V and I’m proud as hell of making it but I think my focus as a designer has changed a lot since I made it and I’m not interested in the same things anymore. I’m not so interested in challenge anymore, I guess, as a way to make game design interesting. I think it’s been done to death. I dunno. I’m more interested in the other ways that you can make [a game interesting.]

Is that a reaction to how VVVVVV was received or praised?

I feel like if I was to go back and make, say, another challenging platformer I think that I would just be retreading ground that’s very well-worn at this point. And there are people that do it better to be honest. I’m exploring other avenues right now.

Do you feel VVVVVV was a “masochistic game”?

When I was making it, I didn’t think of it that way at all. In fact, it took like two or three months of development before I even realised that it was hard. It’s kind of weird to say it but when I was making V I was more interested in the kind of permutations of the challenges that you could create for the player to explore. I was more interested in the composition of each scene. Getting from one area to the next should be interesting and very often that meant it was hard. But it’s only one way to make a room be interesting – to make it hard, to make the player sit back and look at it, see how they’re going to approach it.

And in other rooms there is something else to be interested in. There’s a big space outside the ship where it’s just exploring.

Yeah, that came very late in development actually but it was always part of the plan. And by the time it was implemented I was kind of worried that it clashed with what I’d done in other places. But I think it works very well as a contrast.

Would you say there’s a comparison to games like SMB, which are designed to be hard? But you say VVVVVV wasn’t designed with that in mind?

No, it sort of… near the end of development I did make some hard challenges just to be hard. But it was more about exploring the possibilities of what I could do with a small set of verbs. It wasn’t about making challenges that were frustrating or were in any way meant to even challenge the player, I guess. That wasn’t what I was thinking about. That’s not how I was thinking about it.

A lot of people would say it’s a hard game but the frequent checkpoints keep it forgiving.

Yeah, it’s very important to approach it that way. If you’re going to ask the player to do a challenge hundreds of times then it’s really awful to ask them repeat anything y’know… My idea behind the layout of V is that there should be checkpoints after every screen challenge, so you should never have to do anything you’ve already beaten. That’s done.

This is why in say Sonic 4 there’s a rising water challenge with no checkpoints followed by a difficult boss whereas in VVVVVV there’s a rising spikes challenge with lots of checkpoints.

I think there’s like thirty checkpoints in that level [laughs].

A subject that comes up when you talk about masochism in games is accessibility. VVVVVV is very accessible – basically three buttons. Do you think that an inaccessible game (Dwarf Fortress for instance) could be described as a masochistic game?

I’d have to think about that. It’s a good point. But you also need to separate accessibility from complexity, I guess. I can’t really say much about Dwarf Fortress just because I’ve never gotten into it. But there are other games which are similar in ways, like Space Chem. Space Chem is incredibly complex but very accessible and I guess that would introduce a third axis into that equation.

Do you reckon Space Chem is a masochistic game in that way?

I think we’d have to define the difference between just being difficult and being masochistic. Masochism would kind of imply that you somehow get off on making the player go through explicitly difficult challenges, right?

Well, that could be a sadist’s game, from the point of view of a developer.

Oh, of course! [laughs nervously]

A lot of people had that experience with VVVVVV, of getting frustrated but going back to it time and time again for some compelling reason.

It definitely introduces a difference to Space Chem, which doesn’t ask you to redo the same challenge until you get it right. It more just keeps telling you to work out the solution.

I have a message to pass on. It’s rude, so I apologise. It’s quite sweary but it is a sentiment that comes up quite often when I discuss VVVVVV with anyone.

Is it something about how awful it is?

No, it’s not that. It’s more about the difficulty of it. It reads: “If you get the chance, see if you can slam a door on Terry fucking Cavanagh’s fingers. Tell him I told you to do it and that I said “Piss fuck fuck fucking Veni Vidi Vici fuck piss.” Do you have a response?

Your friend needs to remember that that part of the game is optional and he’s doing it to himself. Nobody needs that trinket! [Laughs] I’m actually surprised at how much I point this out but the collectibles in that game are actually called “Shiny Trinkets” – I mean, how unsubtle can you get! There’s a menu option that allows you to unlock every single challenge in the game and it’s intentional. The idea is you challenge yourself, if you want to, y’know? Nobody has to do Veni Vidi Vici. It’s a ridiculous challenge, it’s muscle memory. I’m shocked at the amount of people who jump right into it to get Shiny Trinkets.

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From Here to Eternity

[Journalism tutor once said never mix hobby journalism with personal politics. Disobeyed. Wrote hybrid bastard child. Deliberated posting for hours. Lots of politics. Quite fictional. Very long. Made cup of tea. Cup of tea said go for it. Must obey tea. Article follows…]

*

So, a Human, a Salarian and a Turian walk into a bar, right. The Human says to the bar lady, “I’ll have three shots of Whiskey please.” The Turian walks up and says “I’ll have three shots of Sambuca, please.” They’re both necking their drinks when the Salarian steps forward. Without warning he slams his own face hard against the bar. He falls over, he’s pissing blood, he can’t stand, totally concussed or whatever. Everyone stops and looks puzzled.

“Why’d you do that?” asks the Human.

“Ah,” replies the Salarian. “Your directive. Came here to get ‘smashed’, correct? Estimated effects of alcohol on body, calculated potential disruption in co-ordination skills, concluded that the most obvious course of action was to throw my head into this counter. Disorientation much more efficiently achieved this way.”

Get it? The Salarian is so consequentialist and utilitarian. It’s not the means that matter – it’s the end! Ha ha. Ha.

Yeah, that’s it. That’s the joke. Yeah, well. One for the philosophers in the audience, I guess. Whatever.

*

They say that when you dream about somebody, it means they went to sleep thinking about you. It was late on a Friday night in Munich when the Prime Minister dreamt of me.

“You know,” I said, as he stepped off the shuttle into the busy spaceport of Nos Astra, capital of Ilium, “this is going to be a weird one.”

“Oh, how interesting!” enthused David Cameron. “Where are we?”

Ilium is an Asari planet. It exists solely in the Mass Effect universe (and David Cameron’s mind, for some reason). Big skyscrapers house bigger corporations. Crime doesn’t really exist because nearly everything is legal. Hovercars careen through lanes of air. No double yellow lines, no zebra crossings and no lollipop ladies sporting friendly smiles. Huge cities moan under the weight of 85 million stock brokers.

It has very lax corporate goods laws, which is useful for politicians and businessmen. And it has a 25 hour day, which is useful for more politicians and more businessmen. But I don’t have 25 hours with David Cameron. If he was anything like Margaret Thatcher (and many suspect that he is) I may only have four. You can understand why I didn’t spend more time explaining the average temperature of the planet (63 °C) or the history of the Asari’s 7th Expansion Wave (fucked if I know). I took the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland by the lapels and dragged him straight to the bar. Straight to Eternity.

I see your point.

Eternity is a small place. For a pub so close to a landing port, it doesn’t have many patrons. The bar is zero deep. Exactly how I like it. Not too sure how Davey likes his bars. Understaffed, probably. He gives me a look that says “why here?” I respond with a look that says “honey mead.” Except it’s a look reserved for the Asari Matriarch serving the drinks, not for Davey.

“We’re here for several reasons,” I say. “One: that bachelor party with the stripper at table three. Two: the pair of friends having a drink other side of the partition. Don’t look. It’s rude. Three: this bar lady, right here.”

She slams down the honey mead. I smile and take a sip. Davey isn’t drinking. He has work tomorrow.

He looks around at the bachelor party, then he looks around for the press.

“Dreams are not orderly, Davey. We start with number three. No cameras, either. But you can do your meet ordinary people bit without them.”

The bar lady tells us about her parents as she wipes down the surfaces. Mother was an Asari, father was a Krogan. They fought on opposite sides during the Krogan rebellions. Her mother knew all along, but the Krogan father only found out a hundred years after his daughter was born. He went apeshit.

“They called me and said they were going to have it out,” she says. “Made me promise to love whichever one survived. Turns out that was easy, since neither of ‘em did.”

“Oh, that’s dreadful,” says Davey. “In the UK, our party had proposed tax incentives for married couples, to avoid such unpleasant situations. Unfortunately, they didn’t go through in the end. Luckily we have a benefits reform in the pipeline. We hope to see more couples like this stay together, and if they do they will be entitled to an extra £34 a week in benefits.”

The Asari Matriarch looks at the Human, a mix of amusement and scepticism in her eyes. I think she’s looking at his chin. No. No, she can’t be. David Cameron hasn’t got one.

“Do you really think it wise to encourage abusive relationships by offering them cash to stay together?” I ask.

“If the relationship is truly abysmal,” he says, “£34 is not going to be enough to convince the innocent party to stay with an abusive partner. Assuming there is an innocent party.”

“And if the relationship is loveless? Not necessarily abusive. But silently resentful? A poor family might be convinced to stay together. To the detriment of a child, possibly.”

“Every marriage, every relationship, goes through problems. Who hasn’t resented their spouse at some stage?”

“Oh, yes?”

“No! I mean –”

“It’s a dream Davey. You can’t control your mouth. It’s your brain talking. Say what you mean. You won’t be able to help it. I’m taking notes by the way.”

“I mean – the point is this: we do not try hard enough. Marriage and partnership is about sticking it out. We give up too easily.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps some of us don’t give up soon enough? We are liable to destroy ourselves. Male and female. Krogan and Asari. At eachother’s throats, til death do us part.”

“This is a complete reversal of the truth.”

“Perhaps.”

The Matriarch rolls her eyes at both of us, like she’s heard it all before. For a second it seems she knows something we don’t. The kind of look born of caution and resignation. Like we are straying into gender politics, and that it’s a pointless sewer from which nobody can emerge without smelling like someone else’s shit.

“Come on,” I say. “Let’s go to the stripper.”

“Yes, quite.”

On our way over I tell the Prime Minister the joke about the Human, the Turian and the Salarian. He likes it. I mean, I think he likes it. It could just be politeness. You can never tell with jokes like that.

The three patrons – a Human, a Turian and a Salarian – sit around an Asari stripper, writhing soundlessly atop their table in a navy blue number. The Human and Salarian sit forward, occasionally gesturing their hands in conversation. The Turian sits stiff, hands on his knees. Do Turians have knees? Oh. Yep. Yep, they do. They’re just ‘not supposed to bend that way.’

All the while the Asari wriggles. Viridian neon light bounces off every bleached, clinical surface. Even dirty bars are clean in 2185. This is where we are headed. This is futuresleeze.

“You said bachelor parties were for very close friends,” says the Salarian. “We’re just co-workers.”

“We’ve been co-workers for five years,” says the Human. “Aren’t Salarian years like dog years?”

“Now, that’s offensive.”

Offensive. The word puts Davey’s back up for a millisecond.

So this is were this is going, he thinks. Of course. What with my big gig in Munich tomorrow and my speech on multiculturalism all prepared. Of course.

“It’s called a belly button. Humans and Asari have them,” says the Human. “And you’re going to be doing shots out of it later tonight.”

“That can’t be sanitary,” says the Turian.

“Not the point, man!”

Why wouldn’t I be worrying about this? It is an issue which must be addressed. All this must be unconscious deliberation. I am checking myself.

“I don’t understand how Asari can find humans attractive. They look just like Salarians,” argues the Salarian.

“What? They’re exactly like Humans!” says the Human.

“Look at that head fringe!” scowls the Turian, with the head fringe.

Multiculturalism has failed. I won’t say those words exactly. However, I feel the forcefulness of the message should remain intact. Multiculturalism has failed. That’s how the Staggers will put it. That’s how the rest of them will put it.

“I don’t understand. Humans celebrate wedding contracts by tempting infidelity. That makes no sense.”

“Don’t embarrass me in front of the stripper.”

“What do Turians do? Do they do this too?”

“I’m just here for the drinks.”

This place is a case in point. Look at this disunity between that fellow with the eyes and this young man with the teeth. Separate voices all throwing up opposing identities. It is not good enough. Not good for a liberal society. We need a new liberalism…

“Salarians don’t have have weddings. My family simply negotiated a reproduction contract.”

“It’s the closest thing you get.”

“A MUSCULAR LIBERALISM.”

Everybody turns to look at Davey, whose outburst has attracted the attention of the entire bar. Except the stripper of course, who continues to cycle through the motions – a seedy, looping program, undisturbed by David Cameron.

I make no apologies.

“You see,” the Prime Minister starts, “there is a division of identity here. It can be very discouraging and even dangerous, since it leaves some young people vulnerable to extremists.

“What I’m about to say is drawn from the British experience, but I believe there are general lessons for us all.

“In the UK, some young men find it hard to identify with the traditional Islam practised at home by their parents whose customs can seem staid when transplanted to modern Western countries.

“But they also find it hard to identify with Britain too, because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity.

“Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream.

“We have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values.

Hey, this is good practice. Nice work, REM sleep.

“So when a white person holds objectionable views – racism, for example – we rightly condemn them. But when equally unacceptable views or practices have come from someone who isn’t white, we’ve been too cautious, frankly even fearful, to stand up to them.

“The failure of some to confront the horrors of forced marriage – the practice where some young girls are bullied and sometimes taken abroad to marry someone they don’t want to is a case in point.

The men at the table might be listening but they do not respond. The Salarian blinks, purely for biological reasons.

“This hands-off tolerance has only served to reinforce the sense that not enough is shared. All this leaves some young Muslims feeling rootless.”

“Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism. A passively tolerant society says to its citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.

“It stands neutral between different values. A genuinely liberal country does much more. It believes in certain values and actively promotes them.”

No response. The stripper gyrates, ignored by all.

“They won’t answer you,” I say, guiding Davey away from the table. “But let me. There’s a pretty country-sized contradiction in your speech. To be a liberal country, we must enforce liberalism? That is like God saying ‘I give you free will to do whatever you like – but you mustn’t do this, this and this.’ I don’t mean to compare you to God, of course. It’s just that, right now, it seems to me you are equally ethereal, equally fictional and equally stupid.”

“Yes, it is a contradiction,” he says. “I make no apologies. Liberal society is built on certain principles. To be a part of that society, you should believe in these principles. We should ask more questions of extremists. If they do not conform to a liberal democracy, then they should expect no help from it.

“So let’s properly judge these people,” he goes on.

“Do they believe in universal human rights – including for women and people of other faiths? Do they believe in equality of all before the law? Do they believe in democracy and the right of people to elect their own government? Do they encourage integration or separatism? These are the sorts of questions we need to ask.”

“Wait, Davey. Don’t think I didn’t notice that slight of hand.”

“What?”

“‘Do they encourage integration or separatism?’ is a very vague question, subject to very vague answers. In what respects must someone integrate?”

“In the above respects. In democratic respects. In libertarian respects.”

“In cultural respects?”

“Now you are the one being vague. Yes, in some cultural respects. Language being an obvious example.”

“And if an immigrant doesn’t want to learn your language, you would encourage them. Why not leave them alone? That would be the liberal thing to do.”

“But not the muscularly liberal thing to do. You are failing to listen.”

“Never mind all that,” I say, by means of soliciting a ceasefire. Or a distraction. “Go stand by that pair of friends. The Quarian and the Turian over there. Listen in. What? I don’t know. Just pretend you’re looking at the horizon or something, that’s what I always do. That’s right, the girl with the mask.”

The Prime Minister is an obedient man. He rises unquestioningly. Maybe he’s just tired. Should probably get some sleep. Oh, wait.

He steps up to eavesdrop on the conversation.

“This is why you shouldn’t date Humans,” says the Turian male, gesturing calmly.

“So then, I had to explain about cross-species fluid contact,” she says. “Completely killed the mood.”

“Not to mention that you’re a Quarian. How could he be so insensitive?”

The Turian is incredulous. Then he starts dropping his hints.

“You deserve somebody who respects you. Someone who’d treat you right… If you’re hurting for things to do, we could catch a vid after work.”

Oh ho. She’s not keen. Hee hee.

“If worst comes to worst I did get the nerve stimulation program built into my suit. Oh, yeah. Standard equipment for any responsible adult. Here, let me fire it up. Uh, excuse me, Human. Private con-ver-say-shee-on!”

They call it ‘the MP shuffle.’ An awkward, strafing motion made by half-smiling men in suits with unpredictable hand gestures. One moment pointing at something dull and asking a question, the next stroking non-existent stubble and trying to look interested yet common. All the while their lower body has – completely independently – made several lengthy steps escapeward. Face and legs stretched apart in 180 degree contradistinction. Like the girl in the Exorcist, guest-starring in an episode of Looney Toons.

It is thought provoking. I have genuinely provoked thoughts.

“Man, you scurried back here very quickly, my right honourable friend,” I say, as Davey reaches for a drink from the dispenser. He looks flushed. “I guess that’s just flight instinct kicking in.

“Don’t worry, that wasn’t to teach any lesson against government policy. I just wanted to make you feel uncomfortable. I guess, if anything, it might deter you from excessive state surveillance.”

I was never too keen on that anyway.

He hasn’t forgotten the thread of our discussion. Oh, you wily party leader, you.

“The truth is,” he continues, “that instead of encouraging people to live apart, we need a clear sense of shared national identity, open to everyone. It’s that identity – that feeling of belonging in our countries that is the key to achieving true cohesion.”

“No Davey. You are talking bollocks.”

I had sworn. But he didn’t look taken aback. Which made me look rather taken aback. I carried on anyway.

“The best way to make someone identify with their country,” I continued, “is to make their country work for them. Give them more reasons to be grateful. You’re asking people to change to fit their country, when the country should change to fit its people.

“Furthermore, you’re asking people to be proud of a hunk of rock and a set of colours on a cloth. To me there is nothing more despicable than encouraging patriotism at a time of genuine internal social unrest. There are people out shouting ‘Tory wankers’ on the streets. They’re shouting ‘shame on you’ and ‘solidarity’ and all the rest.

“And can you blame them? Most of them are young people. People you will have charged extortionate amounts of money just to go to university in their home country. Meanwhile the big dogs get off lightly. You’re discouraging patriotism in policy and encouraging it in stupid fucking speeches aimed to distract people from real problems.”

“Terrorism is a real problem,” he answers. “The point is this: the ideology of extremism is the problem. This ideology crosses continents – we are all in this together. At stake are not just lives, it’s our way of life.”

“How many people do you know have been blown up by terrorists?” I ask.

“I don’t know.”

“It’s a sad number no doubt. But not as big as the number of people to be affected in some way by public spending cuts. Not as big a number as the millions of unemployed – two and a half million people out of work.”

“Those people are without jobs,” he says. “Victims of terrorism are without lives, without limbs. Those are things you cannot get back with an interview.”

“Okay, okay. I see your point.”

Oh no. Oh, good heavens. What’s happening. Slowly a rusty, primal cog in my brain clicks slightly to the right. I agree with Dave. This is not his dream anymore. It’s my nightmare.

Outside Eternity information brokers buy and sell with no regard for people’s everyday troubles. Stock market jockeys make money buying up cheap shares from businesses on Horizon, a human colony decimated by a Collector attack. Somewhere beyond the transport depot Salarian workers are getting slaughtered by an ambitious corporate Asari called Nassana.

And here I am. I chill out in Eternity. I agree with Dave.

This is something the world of Mass Effect 2 is not lacking. Someone can be both an enormous dick and an intelligent person, with beliefs of their own – opinions you have to respect. You can ‘see their point’, even if you don’t agree.

“I agree,” I start, “I agree that liberal democracy must be defended from people who would take advantage of it – in some cases. If extremists were teaching in prisons I would want that to stop. But if they were preaching outside universities, that is different. Prisoners have nowhere to go. Their access to alternative, moderating opinions are limited. But students have an entire campus to engage in discourse. Trust in the influence of others as a natural countermeasure to extremist politics. In prison, liberty is curtailed. In law-abiding life, liberty is expounded.

“So yeah, knobhead. I agree with you. I agree that liberal democracy must be defended. But I don’t trust you to choose when or at what cost. You would prioritise the process of ‘integration’ and ignore the everyday elements of millions of people’s lives, which you deem mundane –”

“And you,” he says, “by placing less emphasis on the threat of terrorism, and ignoring separatism, would ignore the lives and limbs of the few, which you deem expendable.”

Somewhere in the bar can be heard the sound of a Salarian slamming his head against a counter. An Asari matriarch rolls her eyes. We are getting nowhere.

We sit in silence for a while. If he had a Blackberry I’m sure he’d be checking it.

Twilight spreads over Nos Astra. The thrusters of hovercars and ships glow steadily, drifting to ground level at random. Like orderly embers caught in the straight, horizontal slipstream of an aeroplane full of chain smokers – all huddled round the emergency exit, tossing their butts out one after another. The distant glowing specks drift along and, eventually, they fall.

In 25 hours someone else might dream of the same place.

Hopefully with better company.

“Look, I’m not asking for much here. I understand that capitalism works. But I also understand that it can run amok. Ilium works. But it isn’t exactly a liberal democracy.”

“I don’t accept that,” he says. “That is a complete exaggeration. You mean to imply that we are siding with big business instead of ordinary young people, when that is simply not true.

A voice on Eternity’s sound system interrupts us. An advertisement crackling out over all the clink and shine, a reminder of the unreality of it all, a break in immersion:

“I’m Commander Shepard. And this is my favourite bar on Ilium.”

I smile because it’s familiar. But also because that ad doesn’t belong here. That realisation is stirring. You think too hard about it, you’re liable to lose your place. Before, Davey’s dream and my nightmare had propped eachother up, a weird stable amalgamation of unconscious minds. But now the world began to disintegrate. This was all Commander Shepard’s fault.

“What a hussy.”

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing. Listen, we can argue left and right until the blue sun comes up, Davey. But what British politics needs is balance. Right now it leans too much toward the privileged and the aged. Balance. Balance should be restored.”

For a moment a glow appeared in David Cameron’s eyes – an ember of understanding. Then he looked around him, as if seeing the spaceport for the first time. He smiled and nodded like he could finally, triumphantly, see my point.

Then he chuckled and said: “Balance must be restored to the force.” And I realised he didn’t see anything at all.

As the Prime Minister got back onto his private shuttle, he turned to wave at the photographers, before remembering there weren’t any. He took off and I hoped against the dissolving, waking world that he’d think hard about at least some of the things we talked about. But dreams are like promises. Brittle things, easily forgotten.

Bye, Davey.

[You can hear the above character dialogues from Mass Effect 2 in Eternity on Ilium. But not the ones with Mr Cameron or me in them, obviously. And here you can read Davey C’s speech at the Munich security conference, February 2011]

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