Start Press: Lost In Space
Lately it’s been getting dark around five o’clock in the evening. Ireland is situated far enough north that it won’t be long before the daylight—notice I said ‘daylight’ and not ‘sunshine’—will fizzle out each afternoon around 3:30pm. I like to imagine that the sun has gotten sick of its job and begun showing up late to work, slipping out the backdoor early. I don’t mind the shorter days. Nighttime amplifies the comfort of your domestic environs. Like when you’re watching a stage play with an elaborate set and all the lights fade to black except for one spotlight trained on a married couple having an intimate chat at their kitchen table. Nighttime is all those other stage lights going out, the merciful muting of life’s distracting concerns. You can breathe. The phone and your skull have finally stopped ringing.
This past week I’ve gotten lost in the dizzyingly rich intergalactic world of Mass Effect. Not the sequel; the original game that hit shelves in November of 2007. I’m embarrassed to admit, I never really gave it a proper go.
Full disclosure: a games critic that I admired had given it a somewhat dismissive review and I succumbed to that great temptation—mindlessly co-opting someone else’s opinion because it saved me the trouble of weighing, sifting, drawing my own conclusion. People do it all the time in matters of religion and politics and fashion, but it’s especially prevalent in consumer entertainment culture. We lack the intellectual stamina to assess the worth of a never-ending flood of cultural artifacts so we take shortcuts. For example, maybe Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw's latest Zero Punctuation review claims the new blockbuster sequel Space Marine Shootout 2 is tripe. And since Yahtzee is a savagely funny, culturally literate and insightful—albeit, cranky as hell—videogame critic, we’re compelled to rubber-stamp his assessment. We might even paraphrase his words when someone asks us what we think of the game in question.
Fuller disclosure: the tepid Mass Effect review I mentioned in the previous paragraph is one I commissioned for Paste’s print edition. While BioWare's space epic received a chorus of seemingly unanimous praise, my admission doesn’t sabotage Paste's credibility. Even though talented critics may approach their work with a scientist’s care, the realm of taste is amorphous by its very nature. At the end of the day critics merely tell readers how something made them feel. And our feelings at any given time are susceptible to an infinite number of x variables. The best game critics—the Yahtzees and Gus Mastrapas and Robert Ashleys of this world—are able to articulate their encounter with a game in a way that manages to somehow provide an emotional facsimile of the gaming experience itself. Thoughtful criticism enriches its audience, as long as we remember that the tempting proposition of blind agreement costs us nothing. Thankfully I had the good sense to revisit a marvelous, stupidly ambitious game that I too hastily brushed aside upon its release.
Nighttime is the perfect setting for playing Mass Effect. I’ve been firing up the 360 after my wife Summer goes to bed, and playing deep into the early-morning hours. I slip on my beloved Sleek wireless earphones so that I catch every sonic nuance (As a side benefit, the earphones also keep my upstairs neighbor from drilling a hole ice-fishing-style in his floor and plunking a tear-gas canister down into my living room.) I particularly love the explosive noise made when my SSV Normandy SR-1 spacecraft soars through a mass relay and is slung into deep space. Mass Effect offers players a wonderfully visceral sense of traveling through that lonely, incomprehensible vastness. Long before George Lucas ever made a dime from a Star Wars action figure, the final frontier has served as a perfect context for epic narrative. And not just because the unknowable scale of outer space offers writers free license to dream up a spate of badass, crazy-looking alien races. Space exploration has always been a powerful metaphor for humanity’s struggles with the thorniest philosophical questions of God and existence. There’s a reason why earlier civilizations began referring to space as ‘the heavens.’ If there’s a higher being, he—or she, or it—must be camped out somewhere in that starry expanse, right?
Maybe it was the subconscious influence of the Halloween holiday that just passed, but last night I had the urge to play through the final chapter of Dead Space again. [Brief PSA: skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers.] Though the game goes out of its way to create a perpetually disconcerting, often-grotesque interstellar dystopia, I find the game’s conclusion oddly beautiful. Even while you’re tromping back and forth trying to dodge the fleshy tentacles of a 10-story-high squid alien as they slam down inches away from you, a gorgeous flaming-orange sunset periodically cuts through the planet’s dusty surface with dazzling rays. Once you’ve dispatched His Supreme Ugliness, stumbled onto your spacecraft and made that final panicked ascent, you find your spacecraft floating calmly in space. The contrast in mood and atmosphere is remarkable. In a moment reminiscent of the original 8-bit Metroid for the NES, you see Dead Space’s protagonist Isaac Clarke slowly remove his helmet for the first time. He exhales a well-earned sigh of relief, venturing once more into that great cosmic quiet. Isaac's spaceship hanging there in outer space reminds me of sleep—the idyllic silence, the darkness of shut eyelids.
Before powering down my 360, I peek out the window and imagine that I can see every last flickering star beyond the urban haze of Dublin’s night sky. I imagine that my apartment’s living room is an escape pod drifting in space. I imagine the early-morning tranquility lasting forever. I imagine how lonely it would feel to be a planet, floating like a tennis ball in space’s wide ocean. The bed is already warm when I crawl under the covers. I can hear my wife breathing softly and I’m compelled to slide closer. That’s when I remember the most comforting truth about outer space. The planets in our solar system don’t meander in chaotic unpredictability. The sun’s gravity keeps them orbiting tightly, depending always on her light and warmth.
Jason Killingsworth is Paste’s games editor. He is based in Dublin, Ireland, and writes about music, film, tech and games for a variety of outlets. You can reach him online at jason [at] pastemagazine.com.