A quick note on the photos: I’m not really a photographer at all, but was just sort of fascinated by the phenomenology of suffering as a form of entertainment. The below photos should not be judged by their technical merit rather than their content.
The below essay was originally published at USA Today College, but I’ve edited it (or rather, brought it back to a more uncensored form) to publish here.
“Sufferin’ succotash,” the catchphrase of Sylvester the Cat, a phrase that without the trademark lisp would read ‘Suffering Savior,” a hallowed reference to the man that so many of us worship as love and righteousness, a man whose suffering we revel in, a man whose suffering has venerated him as a God.
In many ways, Auschwitz-Birkenau is the Disneyworld of suffering; it is as though the grounds, reconstructed from Russian liberation, have been resurrected for this very effect, to create an attraction that swells us with sadness rather than joy. Auschwitz-Birkenau is the business of suffering, and it’s a type of suffering, that no one, not even Jesus, would want to be remembered for. And this type of suffering while a sad business, is a business nevertheless.
“Work Sets You Free” reads the gate above Auschwitz I. We walk through it and think about those poor emaciated Jews and Poles and Gypsies. We all know work is hard and tiring, and all we want to do at the end of the day is take a load off, curl up and partake in our favorite waste of time. But they could not, so we lean to the left for them. We visit here to remind ourselves how things could have been, were we born in a past era. But they were not, so we remember the only way we know how. We walk the walk they all walked, but we could never really suffer in that way, so we savor in their suffering. We pass by tons and tons of human hair raked with Zyclon B and cry at the horrible inhumanity of such a crime. And then we feel our scalps and rub our full heads of hair, glad that there it is — still intact.
It was 9 a.m. in the morning when we first left for the camps – a reasonable enough time for most. We were intended to leave an hour and a half later, but the driver showed up earlier than expected. It was no cattle-car (although some may imagine it to be) but it was cramped, the type of white van that we’d imagine the most stereotypical pedophile driving in, cruising down Main Street with a bowl of candy on his lap with the hope of scoring a big catch. Without shower or breakfast, we were hauled into the vans and began full speed ahead toward the camps. In this way we got the tiniest glimpse — the suffering of inconvenience.
We arrive at the camps, slightly sleep-deprived and a bit disoriented. We walk into the entrance to receive our head-sets, where the tour guide, the voice of suffering, will boom sobering facts into our brain for the next three hours. Bankomats, the European equivalent to ATMs, line the walls like slot machines, a hollow reminder that for all of our artificial suffering, a quick swipe of a credit card would make it all go away. I wonder if the Nazis ever received golden teeth from their Bankomats. We get all of the suffering, but without any of the humiliation or shame.
Disentangled from the group, the we becomes me. I insert a five zloty coin into the coffee machine for an extra-caffeinated latte and sip on it tactfully. With latte in hand, I awkwardly light a cigarette with one hand. I’m not a smoker, but Poland turns everyone into a nicotine addict. A group of Israelis walk by and are draped in the Israeli flag. They mumble sobering prayers to the heavens. As a Jew, I never feel so alone.
I rejoin the tour group and me becomes we again. We are now in a room full of shoes, of all ages, shapes and sizes. Step right up ladies and gentleman, what type of footwear would you like today?
The voice of suffering booms in my ears.
It is repeated, as if to emphasize the tragedy that could not possibly be more tragic. Some brutal dictator once said that just a single death is a tragedy, but that one million is a statistic. But what about 40,000? It is a tragic statistic, one that we can fathom, one that mounds of shoes remind us was once a reality.
We exit the hall of perfectly preserved shoes. We look down at our own shoes and tie the laces — it may be time for a new pair.
We see Auschwitz — but I see it alone. With no one to console me but my own thoughts, I walk as friends and lovers comfort each other and let out a good cry, mentally chanting “Never Forget” to each other, assuring each other that this will never happen again. They’ve gotten in their 15 minutes. Their suffering is complete.
We walk down a hallway and photographs of victims with numbers on their arms. The photos stare back, with defiance in their eyes. This is artificial, I realize, but the we does not hear me. To notice sometimes is the loneliness of businesses — one that may be closer to suffering than this artificial construction, a memorial of suffering for men and women who had no business dying.
Number 10771 — this is not a real number, but like everything else in this hallway, a construction — stares back at me. I move on, not letting myself get in a staring match with a man. Before he was martyred, before we remembered him as a symbol, this man must have been someone else entirely. He could have been a butcher, a farmer, a husband and a father. But now he’s just a number, martyred without purpose.
We exit the building and the weather fits the mood; rainy and bleak, but not overly temperate, the perfect mood for suffering. The light peaked at the clouds as we walked the grounds of Auschwitz and the tour guide rattled off statistics and facts, ritualizing the whole memory until it becomes an abstraction.
I leave the group and tell myself it is an abstraction. Any experience of pain or horror is long buried beneath these hallowed grounds. We cannot live through their suffering in the way that Jesus being on the cross was not glorious. It was a shameful act to be crucified, as it is to remember the victims of genocide for what they represent rather than who they were.
In between Auschwitz and Birkenau we get a brief recess, although unlike middle school the kickballs and basketballs are noticeably absent. I buy an overpriced sandwich — which I’m genuinely surprised isn’t thoroughly rotten to its core — and take a quick nibble. I enjoy my luxury good, I do not suffer in my sandwich — I enjoy half of it thoroughly.
Still holding my sandwich, I contemplatively light and smoke a cigarette, half-pretending that I’m an out-of-work James Dean who couldn’t afford his latest car payment, when two guys staying at my hostel strike up a conversation.
“Did it mean more to you — because you know — you’re Jewish and all?”
I’m not sure how to respond. Does suffering run thicker in blood? There’s no way to answer that without being wrong. Because of who I am, I am expected to — almost compelled to — feel a certain way about this. I should be out there with the other Jews, waving around my Israeli flag and chanting slogans, suffering in the way that they do.
I give them the answer they want to hear. Of course it meant more to me because I’m Jewish, I relate because my blood runs thick with suffering.
And then I let my people go and never look back at the fire and brimstone behind me, boarding the big white van to Birkenau.
At Birkenau I walk through the gate, nibbling at the second half of my sandwich. The tour guide is not pleased by this.
“Why?” I ask, the youngest child, the only one who does not suffer.
“It is disrespectful,” she repeats, not giving me a second glance.
I eat the sandwich anyway, almost defiantly, making sure that I savor in every last crumb. I rationalize that any Pole, Jew or Gypsy who died here would literally kill for a bite of this sandwich. In a place like this, everybody suffers, no matter the era.
I walk by a cattle car and see an Asian couple taking a picture in front of it. The cameraman seems to be getting the couple in a sad pose, as if they can mimic the suffering of people who were shipped here in these years ago, literally paying for their own deaths.
To me, that seems slightly more disrespectful than eating a sandwich.
The woman throws more facts and statistics at us, but I am no longer we and am unable to comprehend anymore. It is not an honest reflection, but a construct — rows of decayed slabs of rock that served as beds are no longer beds, they are conduits of suffering.
An emaciated husk of its former self does not want to be remembered as an emaciated husk of its former self, I reason — but evidently it is only me that thinks this.
Here at Auschwitz-Birkenau, we remember in the only way that makes sense to us, by putting in our 15 minutes. We have become suffering saviors; we have found glory and honor where it does not exist. We have martyred men, women and children who will never have a clue.
And then we hide the bread of affliction, and wait again until next year, burying our suffering along the way.
I just wrote my final college academic essay, and it’s the most ‘out there’ and philosophical thing I’ve written for college, so given that I haven’t updated in God Knows how long , I figured I’d post it for you all to enjoy maybe. It’s a letter to Dennis O’ Rourke, the maker of the film Cannibal Tours, which if you haven’t seen I’ll post the link before the essay.
To Dennis O’ Rourke,
Having watched your film Cannibal Tours and read your essay on the making of the film, I feel as though I have at least a bit of knowledge to write to you in reconciling my own views and thoughts with yours as expressed in both your film and essay. To me, and I think to you as well, the central thesis of Cannibal Tours is “There is nothing so strange in a strange land, as the stranger who comes to visit it.” While I think we’d agree that this is the premise of your film, I for one found that in a sense, that was the most superficial aspect. While the film was certainly an ethnography of sorts about European and American eco-tourists, I found that there was a lot more going on there. We are not meant to simply laugh at the tourists or feel disdain or disgust for them, rather we are meant to feel the experience of “self-recognition and embarrassment,” and see a reflection of ourselves in the tourists.
I think in a lot of ways this is a hard fact for us to reconcile with, as when we watch the film it’s easier to create an us vs. them paradigm. I remember when I was in High School; a question came up in my English class where the teacher asked what students would do if there was a school shooting at our High School and how they would react if confronted with a school shooter. Most, with a false sense of bravado, said they would directly confront the shooter and assault him to the best of their ability, but given the actual situation, I’m sure that they would do just the opposite, as I pointed out and then was promptly shut down, as just about everyone in the class felt that they would legitimately confront the shooter in some weird and twisted scenario that they thought represented reality.
I point this out merely as a point of comparison; just as my former classmates did not want to admit that they would not actually confront the shooter in a real-world scenario, viewers of your film do not want to admit that in some way they represent or identify with the viewpoint of the tourists, even on a more derivative or subtler level. Rather, viewers of the film place themselves above or beyond the level of the tourists, viewing themselves with a sense of cultural superiority and tact. It’s good that you recognize this in the critical and cultural recognition of your film and poke fun at the journalists who condemn the “ugly tourists,” “who… were wallowing in a state of cognitive dissonance (thinking to themselves: “I couldn’t possibly behave like that!”).” To me, this reaction is arguably more amusing than the portrayal of tourism in the film itself, which rather than a biting social commentary seems more like a meditation on the somewhat reciprocal although ultimately uneven relationship between the tourists and those who are toured.
I think what really blew my mind and significantly altered my preconceived notions was the idea of ‘performative primitism,’ which frankly I had no idea was a thing before viewing your film. I’m sure you understand this to a large degree, but as a Westerner, it’s pretty easy to stick to the idea that the society you belong to and the consumerist pop cultural values that you hold are while not exactly enlightened, the natural course of influence of media on cultural evolution. However, the tourists in the film almost construct a reality that they believe gets at a deeper sense of enlightenment, a kind of back-to-basics principle. And I think that’s what’s so interesting to me, is the reciprocal yet uneven relationship. As viewers, we “recognize both the hopelessness of their [the tourists] experience, and we can recognize ourselves,” which I think is an acute and accurate observation, and one that makes Cannibal Tours work as a film beyond the easy and obvious bashing of the cultural insensitivity.
While searching the web and listening to reactions within my Anthropology and Photography lecture, I noticed that most people’s reactions to the film stemmed from a type of Heart of Darkness exploitation of the white man’s burden and a sort of moral outrage at the ineptitude of the tourists. For me though, your film reminded me a lot more of the latter half of Brave New World. The ‘noble savage’ receiving mass media attention, ideas of media-conceived notions of primitism, and the performative aspect of it all I think are essential themes in both the novel and your film. Being that Brave New World shaped a lot of my world views when I was in High School, I think it’s safe to say that Cannibal Tours is an extension of some of those views, on the continual struggle to search for a sort of utopian enlightenment, one that, as one of the tourists in your film put it we want to “get close to, but not that close.”
I think this is a big takeaway from your film that a lot of people seem to miss, although that by no means makes their viewing invalid. Particularly upon a first viewing, it’s easy if not somewhat impossible to view the tourists with frustration and anger, and disconnect with their emotional and cultural reality entirely. However, the closer we get to the material, in a way the closer we get to ourselves and our sense of what is primitive and what is culturally enlightened, and what is modern but also deeply unfulfilling. I think for me the deepest takeaway from your film is that we are not or cannot find cultural enlightenment or worldliness in any sense of travel or appropriating as a cultural being. Rather that stems from yourself and your own views. We need to recognize this within ourselves and accept it. Everyone is a bit racist, a bit apprehensive of cultures of peoples they do not understand, and for good reason. Change is scary and fluid, but at the same time it’s the only constant, and I think as humans it’s not something we are just not accustomed to, it’s something that takes time to get used to.
In a weird way — and this may be a bit of a stretch regarding your film, but more of a personal reflection — but graduating from college is almost a ritualistic process in our modern Western culture, a process which is not only deemed socially acceptable, but socially and professionally highly desirable. A person who does not attend or graduate college is considered less enlightened, and has not reached a type of utopian sense of purpose that non-graduates have. However, if we are to apply a sort of deconstruction theory to this principle – which I think is essential to both understanding your film and thought in a broader context, then we realize that the value of a college education has a dual purpose as both a tool to employment and fulfilling a social obligation to our contemporaries. As a result of this process and the ever-increasing influx of potential college students, colleges and universities can up their prices at alarming rates, playing into this sort of cultural dichotomy, profiting off an almost touristic system of knowledge and quasi-professional experience that is needed to make it in this type of real world that we construct based on abstract principles of social and cultural responsibility.
I only think about these types of things because I’m on the verge of graduation from Sarah Lawrence and while in a better situation than most, still not in a great situation. I guess in that context, Cannibal Tours seems kind of meaningless, but really it’s not. It’s about the struggle within us to reconcile with our culture and the culture of others, and what that struggle ultimately means, and how that struggle has and always will result in a type of suffering. And that suffering is what it means to be human, like the anger and frustration of the elderly female vendor in your film, we are angry and frustrated when we feel exploited, when we feel our power or agency being taken away.
This perhaps aligns with Michel Foucault mode of thinking in Discipline and Punish, but at the same time is not so much a form of social control as a form of cultural control. While we are not told what to do, how to think, or how to act, we are influenced in these aspects by social mechanics, but in a cultural context. A good example of this is the current issues regarding gay marriage and LGBT rights. If we harken back to the cultural consciousness of Greco-Roman society, it was considered socially desirable to marry a woman to carry on your line, yet have sex with men as well, and form a deeper and more lasting bond with the men. Pederasty, or the mentoring of a younger boy by an older man in an intellectual, cultural, martial and sexual context, was considered the norm. But today that kind of relationship would be considered blasphemous and illegal, and wind up with the older man in a lifetime of prison sentencing and the boy in a lifetime of therapy.
In essence, the bisexual man, in a relationship with either an equal or a younger, was considered the cultural norm, and thus was considered socially desirable. In a way, one affects the other, but they both influence each other, culture dictates what we think of as socially acceptable and normal, whether it provides to a cultural world view, popular cultural, or any sort of derivative of that. It’s easy to reject that world view and try to make it fit into some sort of cultural and social paradigm, but the fact is that history dictates cultural context. What it acceptable in one age is not acceptable in another, and what is acceptable in one cultural is not acceptable in another at any given period of time. Things fall apart, things change, things come back together, but ultimately they always change, and that’s something we have to learn to accept.
I think it’s relatively easy to apply this philosophy to a viewing of Cannibal Tours, which makes plain to viewers our views of a post-colonial world. While most wouldn’t go as far as visiting a place like Papa New Guinea for a cultural experience, we still consider travel to be a type of cultural enlightenment. I think for me, what the biggest takeaway from your film is the following: there is no such thing as a greater cultural enlightenment or greater purpose, and rather than striving to find that, we should probably reconcile with that and make ourselves better for it. As the film shows us that we are complicit in this, we need to recognize that it’s impossible to be entirely culturally insensitive and politically correct, and while we shouldn’t act to actively offend or exploit, we at the same time should recognize the concept cultural, social and ultimately political struggles that come being a part of humanity’s cultural consciousness, and regardless of race, gender or religion, we are in a way, all complicit in the greater human suffering. But as long as we recognize that we can’t change or alter that in any significant way, but that there are smaller and more manageable things that we can affect and alter around us, well, that may just be the first step to actually finding a genuine sense of fulfillment.
I just came home to find my car booted…for the second time in 48 hours. Way to treat a cripple, Sarah Lawrence.
Dear Sarah Lawrence,
Dear Larry Hoffman,
I arrived home tonight to find that my car was booted for the second
time in 48 hours. Given that according to the Director of Health
Services, you have given me permission to park in front of Lynd Annex
due to my extremely debilitating back injury that requires me to be
able to drive to places on campus. I need to go to physical therapy in
the morning, so I hope to wake up and have my car unbooted, as well as
be given a special parking pass so that this incident is not repeated.
This is a serious communication issue that I was willing to let go
once, but this is out of control. I cannot miss physical therapy in
the morning and I am extremely upset by the way I am being treated.
Hopefully this issue will be resolved in the morning, or Sarah Lawrence will have hell to pay… from my raging Jewish mother.
Kaidan Alenko Alliance Marine and crew-mate, is perhaps the most overlooked character in the Mass Effect series. Many felt that he was too whiny or generic in the first game, and subsequently killed him off, leaving Ashley Williams to live. However, I let Kaidan live during the events of the first game, and I was very excited about how that affected my play through of the trilogy.
Possibly because the promo art of the Mass Effeect trilogy focuses on a male Shepard, Kaidan often becomes sidelined, and is generally not marketed as an option on the team, as opposed to Ashley Williams, who is featured more prominently in promos for the first Mass Effect. However, I would say that the friendship, relationship and eventual partnership with Kaidan offers far more depth and reward than the one with Ashley, or arguably any other character in the game by a wide margin.
In the opening of the original Mass Effect, we begin on Eden Prime with Kaiden and Jenkins, who hardly makes it around the corner before being killed. As a result, Kaiden is the only significant NPC to be a part of Shepard’s crew before the events of the Mass Effect trilogy, creating an existing and established bond between the two. The player soon runs into Ashley Williams, donned in her bubble-gum pink and marshmallow white battle armor, running from the battle with the Geth.
When Ashley joins your party, Shepard, Kaiden and Ashley are seemingly the only three humans defending the human colony of Eden Prime against the Geth onslaught.
In the original Mass Effect there are several instances when Kaidan Alenko says or does something that defines his character, and it is surprisingly soon before we come across the first. After meeting a couple of survivors, including one that is a bit loopy, Shepard engages them in conversation. Given dialogue options, Shepard has the option to smack the wacky man over the head with the butt of his/her pistol.
Kaiden then responds to Shepard:
“That… may have been a little extreme, Commander,”
Kaiden remains unfazed behind Shepard, calmly and firmly stating his opinion on the situation. His manner is relaxed, as though this is not the first time he has pointed out to his superior officer where they’ve been a bit out of line. The lack of response from Shepard serves to reinforce the depth of their friendship as Shepard does not confront this particularly insubordinate subordinate.
While the military etiquette of the future is not exactly clear, it’s likely safe to assume that one would need an unusually good relationship with one’s superior officer to get away with such a remark, especially in front of others, and even more so in the presence of a brand new comrade such as Ashley. The military of Mass Effect does not seem to be too dissimilar from our own, for all their fancy guns and biotics.
Kaidan later accidentally triggers the Prothean Beacon on Eden Prime and is pulled out of the way by Shepard, who receives the vision and suffering in his place. If you choose to have Shepard vindicate Kaidan of blame upon regaining consciousness, Kaidan seems quietly pleased, the friendship seeming quite natural.
Ashley Williams, on the other hand, is quite harsh and brash by comparison. Maybe witnessing Kaidan’s remark made her believe that she could get away with speaking back to Shepard, but having just met her, her attitude is out of line, as Shepared explicitly states when he/she asks:
“Do you have a problem with me?”
Ultimately, this contrast between the two characters validates Shepard’s bond with Kaiden, which extends far beyond the opening events of the story, while Ashley is just some bubble gum armor-wearing warrior that you picked up along the way.
Kaidan and Williams shadow each other throughout much of the first Mass Effect in the trilogy, in that you are ultimately working towards sacrificing one of them. Although the player does not know this from the start of the game, the player must choose to sacrifice one of the two humans on board the Normandy in order to continue to overcome Saren and the Reaper threat. However, from a narrative standpoint this is not a choice at all. Kaiden is Shepard’s oldest friend, who he/she shares a unique bond with; while Ashley is merely a straggler picked up on Eden Prime. If you saved Kaiden (which you should have) you get the option to tell Kaidan afterwards that there was no way you could have chosen him to die in her place. He is suitably humble, yet sad that your decision came down to rescuing him over Ashley.
As a result of his subtly as a character, Kaiden often gets written off as boring, generic and whiny. Instead, what we are witnessing, what gamers are ultimately not familiar with, is a quiet and sensitive man that will only open up to you if you get the chance to know him. He doesn’t like crowds or dance clubs, but he appreciates true connection and dinner and drinks with someone he is close to. He could have easily been written as a stereotype, but BioWare chose to give him complexity, despite the fact that he’s a handsome solider that wields weapons of mental and physical destruction. He could have Been A Man in the most obvious way, but instead BioWare chose to make him reserved introspective, and reflective.
Kaidan’s reservation and self-control is seemingly a direct result of an incident from his youth. As a human of biotic talent enhanced by an electronic chip, he found himself part of an experimental group, the forerunner to the current biotic program. The conditions there were poor, and he and his classmates were treated badly by a Turian instructor named Vyrnnus. Kaidan recounts an incident to Shepard in which he lashed out with his biotic powers and killed the Turian in defense of a girl that he had become close to.
As Kaiden recalls of his experience in the ‘Jump Zero’ program:
“You either came out a superman or a wreck. A lot of kids snapped. A few died.”
Kaiden later gets into detail about the killing of his biotic instructor:
“He hurt Rahna. Broke her arm. She reached for a glass of water instead of pulling it biotically. She just wanted a drink without getting a nosebleed, you know? Like an idiot, I stood up. Didn’t know what I was going to do…just something. And Vyrnnus lost it. Beat the crap out of me. Kept shouting how they should have bombed us back into the stone age. That’s when the knife came up. A military-issue talon. Right in my face. I cut loose. Full biotic kick, right in the teeth. Almost as strong as I can manage now. At seventeen, that’s something. Snapped his neck. They probably could’ve saved him, if they got him to an infirmary quick enough. But they didn’t. Caused a stir when they shipped him home. BAaT training was shut down. Conatix folded a couple of years later. It’s funny. I’m not sure which of us got the worst of what happened.”
A Paragon or Neutral Shepard can then offer Kaiden words of reassurance:
“You’re not a burden: Kaidan, you’re a strong man. Talking about this doesn’t make you a whiner, and it doesn’t make you immature. It makes you human.”
Kaiden later offers Shepard words of solace regarding their connection, tying his past into their current relationship:
“When someone important to you is up on a ledge, you help them. Keep them from mistakes better made by a kid.”
This experience made Kaidan who he is today; determined not to make the same mistake again he keeps himself together, even if it means cutting himself off from the world around him.
In the first Mass Effect, only a female Shepared has the option to have their way with Kaidan.. Kaidan and Shepard have an existing friendship and have a great deal in common, so this is a clear natural progression of their relationship. Liara, the only other option for a female Shepard, is also a unique and interesting character, but ultimately is gender neutral and not male and that relationship as a female Shepard has a large voyeuristic element to the likely heterosexual white male player, which would take them out of the immersive experience. Unfortunately, BioWare was not quite the progressive storytellers that they became in the third Mass Effect game, and as a result a male Shepard and male Kaiden relationship is not possible, whereas this would really add to their sudden feelings for each other in the third game. However, as a caveat to that, a player can operate through the use of save edits by switching the gender flags of Shepard to allow for a homosexual relationship with Kaiden throughout the trilogy. Still, for a female Shepard, Kaiden is the only clear romantic option on the Normandy, as Liara is the only other option.
The player again meets Kaiden in the second Mass Effect game on Horizon. The man has matured immensely; he’s been promoted and is doing quite well in the Alliance military structure. Due to Shepard’s involvement with Cerberus, Kaiden is not exactly happy to see Shepard, regardless if they had had a romantic tryst in the previous game. Due to his rightly placed mistrust of Cerberus, .Kaidan remains firm at the expense of a friendship, and quite possibly a relationship. As a result, he has begun to fulfill his potential as a leader rather than a follower. Kaidain’s treatment of Shepard on Horizon stands to show that the quiet, reserved man that needs a few nice words from his commanding officer to open himself up, a man who has enough integrity to step out from the shadow of that very commanding officer and has the gall to tell him/her that they are wrong to involve themselves with Cerberus, as Kaiden feels betrayed and conflicted.
As Kaiden angrily states to Shepard on Horizon:
“Is that all you have to say? You show up after two years and just act like nothing happened? I would have followed you anywhere, Commander. Thinking you were gone… it was like losing a limb. Why didn’t you try to contact me? Why didn’t you let me know you were alive?
This is a sad and compelling moment, and a character defining one for Kaiden. As an apology, Kiaden will send the following letter to Shepard:
I’m sorry for what I said back on Horizon. I spent two years pulling myself back together after you went down with the Normandy. It took me a long time to get over my guilt for surviving and move on. I’d finally let my friends talk me into going out for drinks with a doctor on the Citadel. Nothing serious, but trying to let myself have a life again, you know?
Then I saw you, and everything pulled hard to port. You were standing in front of me, but you were with Cerberus. I guess I really don’t know who either of us is anymore. Do you even remember that night before Ilos? That night meant everything to me… maybe it meant as much to you. But a lot has changed in the last two years and I can’t just put that aside.
But please be careful. I’ve watched too many people close to me die — on Eden Prime, on Virmire, on Horizon, on the Normandy. I couldn’t bear it if I lost you again. If you’re still the woman I remember I know you’ll find a way to stop these Collector attacks. But Cerberus is too dangerous to be trusted. Watch yourself.
When things settle down a little… maybe… I don’t know. Just take care.
Kaiden is not heard from again in Mass Effect 2, but reappears in Mass Effect 3, now as a potential love interest for a male Shepard. Kaidan is now very much his own man. He becomes a Spectre as he follows in Shepard’s footsteps. Kaidan is laid-up in hospital for a while following an incident on Mars where Kaiden is nearly killed by a Cerberus biotic. But Kaiden is now an independent and confident officer in his own right.
The evolution of Kaidan’s character throughout the trilogy, and as a potential heterosexual or homosexual love interest, is powerful and compelling, and makes Kaidan perhaps the most developed, well-rounded and fully realized character in the Mass Effect universe. Kaidan and Shepard’s bond is, at the very least, worth exploring in a play though of the game, as his more subdued nature will likely be overlooked in a first play through.
‘What if every conspiracy theory ever was true?’ In a nutshell, that’s the premise of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. The factions of the Templars and the Assassins, fascism vs freedom, is painted surprisingly thick throughout the latter three games (Assassins Creed 2, Brotherhood and Revelations) in Ezio’s quest for vengeance and later truth. But in the first Assassin’s Creed game, the narrative is much more morally ambiguous. From a narrative standpoint, the story in Assassins Creed: 2 may have been more straightforward and was evidently created with more of a franchise mentality in mind, but it did not have anywhere near as interesting character and philosophical questions about life, death and reality as the original Assassin’s Creed did.
In the opening of Assassin’s Creed it is immediately clear that Altaïr is not meant to be a likeable character and is not concerned with morality or justification of his actions. After slaughtering an innocent, Altaïr has a moral argument with a soon-to-be-dead Assassin.
Assassin: “Indeed, he’ll teach you how to disregard everything the masters taught us.”
Altaïr: “How would you have done it?”
Assassin: “I would not have drawn attention to us, I would not have taken the life of an innocent. What I would have done is follow the Creed.”
Altaïr: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted. It matters not how we complete our task.”
Assassin: “But this is not the way of—”
Altaïr: “My way is better.”
Here, we have a young headstrong Altaïr who fundamentally misinterprets the Creed as ‘the ends justify the means.’ Of course, the end here is the death of the Assassin who wishes to uphold the Creed, and interprets the Creed in a way that is more palatable to the player. While Altaïr does grow as a character throughout the ensuing narrative, there is never a moment where he shows any real kindness or charity, and a result he is not a wholly sympathetic character. However, where the narrative strength of the game lies is in the moral questions it asks: which ends justify what means. This is largely explored in the death sequences of each of Altaïr’s targets. Where this is perhaps most apparent is in the assassination of the Garnier de Naplouse.
Altaïr: Let go of your burden
Garnier: Ah… I’ll rest now, yes. The endless dream calls to me. But before I
close my eyes, I must know… what will become of my children?
Altaïr: You mean the people made to suffer your cruel experiments? They’ll be
free now to return to their homes.
Garnier: Homes? What homes? The sewers? The brothels? The prisons that we
dragged them from?
Altaïr: You took these people against their will!
Garnier: Yes, what little will there was for them to have. Are you really so
naive? Do you appease a crying child simply because he wails? “But I
want to play with fire, father!” What would you say? “As you wish.”
Ah, but then you’d answer for his burns.
Altaïr: These are not children, but men and women full grown.
Garnier: In body, perhaps, but not in mind. Which is the very damage I sought
to repair. I admit without the Piece of Eden — which you stole from
us — my progress was slowed. But there are herbs, mixtures and extracts.
My guards are proof of this. They were madmen before I found and freed
them from the prisons of their own minds. And with my death, madmen
will they be again.
Altaïr: You truly believe you are helping them?
Garnier: It’s not what I believe. It’s what I know.
Here, we wonder if we, as the player, were justified in killing Garnier and stopping his experiments. Is Garnier the monster that we were lead to believe? Did he deserve death? In the end, the answer is left up to the decision of the player, although they do not have any choice in the matter of the assassination of Garnier. On one hand, Garnier, like the other Templars, wants to take over Jerusalem by force. But on the other hand, Garnier, and by extension, the rest of the Templars, have the same goal as the Assassins, to bring peace to the Holy Land. Here, our moral question between the righteousness of the Templars and Assassins is the following: Is peace better achieved through freedom or force, and which peace is the proper kind?
In a way, this is answered for the player by the betrayal of al-Mualim, Altaïr’s mentor and the man who set up his assassination contracts. al-Mualim, a secret Templar, used Altaïr to eliminate the competing Templars, thereby solidifying his place as the primary Templar leader. Here, Altaïr, and by extension, the player, is morally compromised, as their killings are just as bad as Altaïr’s initial killing of the innocent.
Unfortunately, while Assasin’s Creed 2 and its sequels are better games technically, offering far more refinement and polish, their narratives are not nearly as complex or ambiguous. Ezio, the star of the final three games, is a character that drives events, rather than one that is affected by them. Ezio begins the series as an impetuous boy, and ends the series as an old man seeking truth. Still, Ezio is easily a better character than Altaïr explicitly because of his development and character arc, but we, as the player, never question the righteousness of his cause. When the villain, Rodrigo Borgia is introduced, is it revealed that he ordered the murder of our player character’s family, including his thirteen year old brother. As a result, we never question the wickedness of Rodrigo Borgia, and the game’s plot turns into a classic revenge tale with political machinations and intrigue.
In essence, Assassin’s Creed 2 and its spinoffs are better games about being an assassin, but not a better story about being one. The original Assassin’s Creed makes the case that the Assassins are morally upstanding despite the murders that they commit, while Ezio’s story suggests that the Assassins and Ezio are morally upstanding because of the murders they commit.
It takes balls to…
It takes balls to write. I think. At least to write something of note or consequence. To work on a story that you feel is important. Putting your words on the page is not enough. Sometimes. They have to be words that make sense. In sequential order. But it’s hard when you want to create something but you just can’t find the words. Or the time. The time away from prostatination. I actually think most of my writing, but never actually get around to doing it. It’s hard to translate those thoughts and feelings on the page. Are those thoughts and feelings that I even WANT to translate on to the page?
You know, probably not.
It’s so easy to procastinate, I spend ninety nine percent of my time doing it. The Internet is a release, in a way.
I can binge on TV. Apparently that’s acceptable now. I can enjoy great stories that already exist, without ever having to try my hand at another one of my own.
It takes balls to…
Be honest with yourself and your feelings. That’s hard. It’s much easier to just tell yourself certain things, to convince yourself that the world works in an entirely different way than it does to fit your point of view. Reality is subjective, is what I tell myself.
But the matter is that it isn’t. Each demographic is expected to partake in certain things, and if you don’t — well you’re weird I guess.
Sometime during the past year, I somehow wound up signing myself up for Barack Obama’s email blasts. For those of you who have ever read any of his campaign emails, Barck really likes to ask for three dollars, and then thank us all personally for our potential contributions. He even went so far as to invite me to a sleepover with him and George Clooney, where we can could take bubble baths, paint our nails maroon and talk about boys we liked. I, of course declined, for better or worse, but there will always be those unshared memories. Lately, my buddy Barack has been telling me about his gray hairs, which seems like a little too much information.
I would read these emails like these out loud to my roomates during the past year, and laugh it up. Then it came out that Mitt Romney beat up a gay teenager. In other words, he was quite literally a gay basher. Then it also came out that he raised ten million dollars in a month, which is a lot more than my buddy Barack has apparently raised. While I don’t consider myself an overt liberal, I’ll say this – I find it morally repugnant to deny anyone their social freedoms, which the Republicans seem to be all about these days.
I thought this election would be like David and Goliath, except that Goliath would be a scrawny rich guy who just happens to be named Mitt Romney. I was keeping up with the election as much as I keep up with the Kardashians, which thankfully is not at all. And then Mitt Romney out-raised Obama for a second month in a row. To me, that is legitimately scary. When Romney first won the Republican primary, I had thought he was basically the Republican doppelgänger of John Kerry, a man without a chance who very obviously flip flopped on every issue imaginable to pander to his base, a man who wears jeans to pretend that he’s one of you.
But it turns out far more people are eating that cake up than I had previously believed. This may be a product of living in the Northeast. Sometimes it’s hard to consider that on the outside, it’s a whole different world, where people regularly have babies before graduating High School, but somehow also believe in individual responsibility.
Still, it’s important that we pay attention. Romney seems to have a real shot at this whole president business, a lot more than I had previously realized. Especially if you live in a swing state, your vote may just really count in this one. Obama’s previous outing may have been a historic race, but not a hotly contested one. But this upcoming election – it seems like it will be a close race, a battleground for our values and fears. Let’s just hope we choose correctly.