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Cracked LCD- Dragon Con 2013 Post-Mortem (or, The Misanthrope among the Tribes)

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It’s late in the afternoon, Saturday at Dragon Con, and I’m walking by Malcolm McDowell’s table in the room of “celebrities” that I like to call the Career Graveyard. This man was Alex in Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”, one of the defining films of my life and one of the great performances in cinema. 17 year old me would have lost his damn mind. But at 37 and having seen him at the past three Dragon Cons I’m completely unmoved, unphased as I push the stroller containing Peter Pan and Tinkerbell past the dim stars of shows I’ve never even heard of. My wife, who works in film and television, is irritated by the phony glamour of it all as we edge past the morbidly obese on their mobility scooters, past the muffin-topped jailbait skanks desperate for attention in what passes for “sexy” in the minds of the socially decrepit, and through the pathetic tribal boundaries between Browncoats, gamers, otaku, steampunks, and furries. Amidst the sleazy aura of desperation and the stench of sweltering bodies, she asks “why do we still come to this?”

For the first time in the 21 years that I have been going to what is billed as the Southeast’s largest celebration of pop culture, I don’t have a justifiable response.

We wander the disaster of a dealer’s room, strolling past table after table of worthless junk. Why is there so much My Little Pony stuff? My two year old daughter, Tinkerbell, loves it. So do 30 year old men, apparently. I’m creeped out. I think back again to 17 year old me shopping at the Con, saving money all summer to buy a $200 Captain Harlock doll or happily plunking down $100 for a copy of Dungeonquest with the Heroes expansion long before Fantasy Flight mangled it. I can’t believe I used to spend so much money at this thing. I’m looking for obscure European science fiction comics, Jodorowsky stuff, but nothing.

I could buy bumper stickers or T-shirts with funny geek slogans on them to show which fandom tribe I belong to, but I actually have what I feel like is good taste and a sense of identity beyond the media that I consume. Most of these people I’m watching do not. They are constructs of consumption, buying more junk for collections that create who they are. I think about the classic Fugazi line- “you are not what you own”. The dealer’s room gives these people a common ground to become who they wish they were by devouring the creativity of others. I keep telling myself “it’s not the people, it’s the culture here”. I’m not trying to tell people that they’re having fun the wrong way or spending the money the wrong way.

I participate. I spend two dollars. Peter Pan spies a bin of Green Lantern rings that were probably comic shop giveaways during the Blackest Night promotion. He picks Guy Gardner Green, Tinkerbell goes for the hot pink Star Sapphire one. It’s the first time I’ve bought something at the Con since 2007. They love them, Peter Pan says he’s going to make a giant hammer with his. I wish inside that he would, and smash this whole display of empty “fandom” into the ground.

I try again to tell myself that it’s not the people. I look around and I see people having fun, comfortable with whatever it is they are. I respect that, I realy do. But then I wonder what makes these people tick, really. Why the obsessions with things others have written, drawn, or created? Why does a person expend so much time, effort, commitment, and (I guess) passion on making a costume to duplicate something from someone else’s fantasy world? Like vampires, they consume, that’s it I guess.

Common areas packed with gawkers and cosplayers. I high five the guys dressed like Luke Cage and Iron Fist. I laugh at the person with the bill costume (as in “How a bill becomes a law” from Schoolhouse Rock”). There’s a guy dressed like Rick James, totally playing the role. He poses for pictures with some guys in Daft Punk helmets and wannabe Yves Saint Laurent glitter suits. I love it. But I feel remote. I’m not one of these people. Not anymore. Is it really not about the people?

After dinner we browse through the art show, by and large a miserable display of talent and materials wasted. My friend Jason Thomas, of Red Rocket Farms, is doing gangbuster business drawing robots and octopuses and I’m happy for him. Don Rosa has a big sign to warn off people from talking about Duck Tales, which doesn’t stop Peter Pan from yelling “look dad! Duck Tales!” I make my annual visit to heckle this lady’s illustrations of wolf-men with giant penises flapping out of their lace-up breeches. It’s ridiculous. It’s embarrassing. And it’s gross. I’m sorry, but this garbage deserves to be mocked and made fun of if not arrested and tried by a tribunal of wolves. But I can’t find her pictures. An hour later, a friend texts me- “WOLFCOCK FOUND!”

From there, the game room. Where Dragon Con 2013 came to die. It’s packed, its own tribes divided out among board gamers, CCG players, RPG groups, and miniatures tables. For some reason, a group of twenty or so big, hairy overweight men are standing around with their shirts off. My wife surmises that it must be “some kind of fucking gamer bullshit”. I think it might be some kind of “bear” thing. A man rushes past my wife to get to his game table, and he puts his hands on her waist and moves her out of the way. No “excuse me”, just a half-hearted attempt at a grope. I would have had words with him if my kids weren’t there. Another gamer literally steps over the stroller because he just can’t be bothered to wait for us to get two children off the elevator.

Peter Pan and Tinkerbell need to run around a bit, so I let them while my wife talks to our old friends from Atlanta Game Factory. I’m tickling Peter Pan on the floor, and a stranger gets up from a game and comes over and starts tickling my son. I see red. I would have broken a chair over this man’s head if I could have. You don’t go up and touch someone else’s kids. Maybe someone should have broken a chair over Dragon Con founder Ed Kramer’s head before he molested children at the convention some years ago. I don’t know, at this point, if I can really say that it’s not about the people.

Peter Pan needs to potty, and I check out the bathroom. It looks like what I imagine a truckstop in a rural area of Missouri looks like after the apocalypse. There’s a film of piss on the floor. Someone in that game room defecated and neither wiped nor flushed. The manners, the common decency, of gamers is appalling.

Get off your white horse about stereotypes and generalizations; I’ve been around these people all my life. I’ve seen enough to pass judgment whether you agree or not. At Dragon Con 2013, I was more embarrassed than ever to be associated with gamers regardless of the many awesome, amazing people that I know and love that are passionate about games and playing them. It isn’t all of them, I know this. You don’t have to tell me.

It’s still great to see friends at Dragon Con, almost all of whom play games, watch Doctor Who and read comic books without crossing over into unhealthy or unbalanced levels of consumption/obsession. Texts are sent- meet here, where are you right now, did you see that eight foot tall guy in the Rollerball costume? We eat at a bizarre Turkish place with fire-breathing belly dancers that must have some kind of ties to organized crime. We laugh, we catch up, we remember things that happened at conventions past. We all wonder why we don’t get together more often, why we spend $130 to get together once a annually at a place that with every passing year feels more and more distant from where we are in our lives, what we do with our lives, and what we want our lives to be.

Maybe we were geeks or nerds once, and coming to Dragon Con made us feel at home with others like us. But those terms no longer stand for brainy, smart kids that are outcast from mainstream social circles that gravitate toward imaginative science fiction, strategy games, or more obscure media. Now those terms stand for people that watch too much TV, spend too much time playing video games, or otherwise filling something that’s lacking in their hearts and souls with action figures, ersatz bondage gear, discussing the fourteen episodes of Firefly at length, or trying desperately to be noticed by someone- anyone- at a convention.

We left early Sunday evening after laughing at this terrible “cybergoth” band called Angelspit that apparently never got the memo that 1995 ended in, well, 1995. It was early. I used to stay four days straight, gaming until the small hours and then falling asleep in the video room while a bootleg VHS copy of Spider Baby or City Hunter whirred away in the darkness. This year, I just wanted to leave. I’m not a fan, I guess you could say. I didn’t feel like I belonged.

So this isn’t my usual “yeah, the Con was lame but it was fun because of friends” post, filled with winsome ruminations and a general tolerance for the rudeness, sleaziness, and pervading sense of emptiness that wafts through the hotel halls during Dragon Con. It saddens me that some- but most definitely not all- of the people that like science fiction, fantasy, horror, and other genre media spoil gatherings like this for those of us who live balanced and value these things as part of a healthy mental, physical and spiritual life.

I left Dragon Con 2013 never wanting to be around anyone in a Deadpool costume again. I never wanted to be in a room full of disgusting gamers again. I wanted to wrap myself in a bubble where being a Star Wars fan doesn’t seem so lame and silly because of the people for whom Star Wars is a more important factor in their lives and personalities than mountains and love are. I wanted to go be someplace where no one recognizes that the tattoo on my arm is from Watchmen or that the one on my leg is a Brian Froud illustration. I wanted to say that it was my last Dragon Con, that this was the point at which my interest in going stopped. I’m just not like the kind of people that make up the majority of its attendance, and I want nothing to do with people that comprise a subculture based almost completely on consumption of media- much of which is corporate owned, corporate controlled, and corporate created. Or worse- fan-made.

It saddens me to say it, but it is some of the people that participate in this bankrupt convention culture that spoil it. Judgmental? You’re damn straight I’m judgmental about people that care more about anime or cancelled TV shows than the health of their bodies or their ability to act like adult human beings. You’re damn straight I’m going to be judgmental about a flabby girl who thinks that she’s “flying her freak flag” or whatever, fat rolls spilling out of a chainmail bikini or a homemade Slave Leia outfit. You’re damn straight I’m going to be judgmental about the guy in some kind of anime costume that I watched for 30 minutes while eating lunch that literally sat there and stared at everyone head-down/eyes-up like he was a psychopathic killer, ready to spring up and tear into the food court with a machine gun. You’re damn straight I’m going to be judgmental about the oafish, probably virginal jerk that wore a shirt with a pictogram of a woman performing oral sex on a man with an arrow pointing down to his crotch under the words “warning: choking hazard”. You’re damn straight I’m going to be judgmental about people that have no sense of class, taste, or dignity. And furries? Should be jailed. No exceptions.

But who am I kidding. These people and worse are really everywhere, not just at Dragon Con or other gatherings of “nerds” and “geeks”. There are sports fans that probably put some of these people to shame.

As bitter and down on Dragon Con and its culture- and ultimately, its population- I am, the reality of it is that I’ll probably go back. Next August, I’ll get the text from my good friend Mike- “what are you doing for Dragon Con?” Then Peter will text me the first day, when he gets in from Jersey- “Mike- at the con- let’s do this old school”. I’ll line up and pay my $150 or whatever to do the same things again among the tribes, none of which I will ever call my own.

Mass Effect Post-Mortem

Obviously, this article will contain many spoilers regarding Mass Effect 3 including details regarding its fantastic, divisive ending. So if you do not want to know that the Illusive Man is Shepard’s father, that Shepard was dead and a ghost the whole time, or that FemShep was actually a fully-featured man then I suggest you turn back now. If you’re not sick of hearing about Mass Effect 3 and the ending, which includes the shocking revelation that it’s only a video game, proceed.

I actually wasn’t a big Mass Effect fan until the second game. I played through the first one late in 2009, and I thought it was OK, suffering from some terribly clumsy design elements and of course those god awful Mako sequences. I rushed through to the end and that final, idiotic battle with Saren. I don’t regret avoiding most of the sidequests. I thought the game was OK, but the entire time I felt like I ought to be playing Knights of the Old Republic again.

But Mass Effect 2 hooked me. I loved the story, effectively a “let’s get the band together” yarn filled with specialist characters each with their own unique stories to tell. I loved that the game was episodic, with each mission wrapping up with a debriefing from the Illusive Man. This structure enabled the game to encompass many genres within a science fiction context. There were hard SF, courtroom drama, horror, detective, and political thriller stories. And the sense of fatalistic doom hanging over the inevitable suicide mission at the Omega Relay was delicious. Planet scanning, not so much.

So Mass Effect 3 has come and gone, and sure enough it’s another BioWare game and all that entails. For better or worse. It was a good game. In parts, like the sequence on Rannoch and the events in London, it was great. The scope was huge, and I liked that it was very much a game full of endings. You meet old friends, catch up, and either they die or they go on to better lives depending on the choices you make. There’s tragedy, pathos, hope, and ambiguity abound.

I thought the ending- at least as far as the story material goes- was great. No apology. I’m happy that BioWare went with a more thoughtful honest ending to Shepard’s story rather than the fireworks and medal ceremony. I wiped out the synthetics, which was a tough choice given that I had championed the Geth and spent the entirety of the third game teaching EDI how to be more human. But in the end, I felt responsible for the annihilation of the Quarians and Tali’s death so it seemed to be on balance. I rejected the idea of controlling the Reapers because I viewed Shepard as almost Captain Ahab-like obsessive, constantly pursuing the white whale Reapers.

But still, the entire time I took that long, slow walk to make the ultimate decision of the Mass Effect games, I reflected on everything that had happened up to that point. I thought about Liara, Garrus, the Rachni Queen, and the themes of the game. I thought about how cycles are a very big part of the story- cycles of racism, political discord, evolution, order (paragon) and chaos (renegade). I loved that the writers gave me the time to think before wiping out the Reapers- and presumably killing Shepard in the process.

In retrospect, I liked that the Reapers were a very Lovecraftian antagonist. They were the Great Old Ones, and the Illusive Man was very much like one of the misguided cultists in the Mythos that believes he can control or somehow contain cosmic forces beyond human comprehension. I liked that much of what they did or do is off stage, and there’s a mystery about them. I liked that the only way to beat them was to make an impossibly grim, no-win decision in the face of absolutely catastrophic devastation.

I don’t think the ending was sloppy at all, at least in terms of writing. I didn’t need the Return of the King epilogue, and I didn’t need an extra 20 minutes detailing what everybody did afterwards. Do you really need to be told? The story that matters- Shepard’s- ends with the decision you make. Nothing else matters from a storytelling perspective. What’s up with the jungle planet at the end? Who knows. It’s up for debate. I do have to say that I assumed my squadmates, who were almost always Liara and Garrus through the entire game, died in the run-up to the Citadel. But there they were with Joker at the end. The ending reminded me, rather strangely, of a post-apocalyptic picture called The Quiet Earth, and I think the ending as a whole was very reminiscent of some of the more challenging, thoughtful endings in the science fiction literature and in science fiction films.

What I did think was sloppy was how the concept of marshalling the galaxy’s races, technology, and materiel was largely irrelevant at the end, other than unlocking some other potential options leading up to the proscripted end. I don’t think BioWare really had a handle on how to incorporate that into the endgame at a mechanical level. Which is a shame, because I can imagine a component where you’re assigning resources and moving units around throughout the game to fight the Reapers. Almost a strategy game-within-a-game. But I’m sure budget and time prohibited anything so extensive.

Instead, we got BioWare’s trademark “kill a million bad guys” ending. This has been in the last several titles they’ve released. You and your party have to slog through wave after wave of enemies in a run-up to a final confrontation. It’s tedious. Please don’t do this anymore.

In reflection, I think the series as a whole represents some very good world-building and some frequently great video games writing. I love the look of the game, its hard-edged futurism. I love the music. And there is sometimes some good gameplay, but I can’t say that I’ve ever been completely enthralled by the action, regardless of all the cool guns and Biotic powers. It also seems like every single one of the games has some critical misstep or component that either doesn’t work or I just don’t like. Sidequests and filler content abound, and the insistence on silly romantic subplots and bizarro sex scenes come very close to making the series a joke.

I’ve heard Mass Effect called “this generation’s Star Wars” and I think that’s a little hyperbolic- at least until I recall this generation’s actual Star Wars films, which are bottom-of-the-barrel, cynical trash made by a creator that completely lost touch with his muse. Maybe they are after all. It’s good pop sci-fi no doubt. Definitely not something to get worked up in a tizzy over if you don’t like the way it turned out.

As for your choices- no, they didn’t matter. They never did. It was BioWare’s story all along. You were playing a video game, not writing it. Hats off to BioWare’s writing staff for retaining ownership. I just hope that their employer protects their integrity and artistic judgement by not fouling up the ending to suit the needs of entitled fans.

Now, with that said, I’m putting this series to rest and I never want to hear about it again. Good night, Shep. Garrus, hit the lights on the way out, would you?