2051: Mass Vexations Retrospective – Gontermanesque: A Tale of Stu AspectsPosted: June 7, 2018
Title: Mass Vexations
Author: Herr Wozzeck
Media: Video Games
Topic: Mass Effect, with a dash of Heavy Rain, Dead Space, Dragon Age, and other assorted properties
URL: Mass Vexations 1, Mass Vexations 2, and Mass Vexations 3. Also, the TVTropes Page.
Critiqued by Herr Wozzeck
Hey guys, it’s your friendly Neighborhood Herr Wozzeck here, and… well, we’re gonna do something a little bit different with these installments of snark that I’m gonna be writing over the next couple of weeks. Let’s call it a hindsight commentary.
See, y’all probably have seen that it’s Mass Vexations on the snark block today. Issue is, I have no desire to snark the entire thing. And that’s for one very simple reason: word count. The whole trilogy is just too damn long for me to sustain any kind of full-length line-by-line snark, and it would be a fool’s errand to try to do the whole thing.
‘Cause let’s be real: Mass Vexations is wordy. I mean real wordy. And let’s break that down for a second: Mass Vexations, if we look purely at the fanfiction.net word count function (which admittedly includes A/Ns in this, but one set of variables at a time), the word count comes to just under 188K words. The median average of most novels is about half that, at 99K words. That’s bad enough, but it gets worse, because then Mass Vexations 2 and Mass Vexations 3 both boast a word count that totals at about 607K and 603K words, respectively. For reference, that means that both MV2 and MV3 individually are longer than Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Oh yeah, and there’s the fact that the entire trilogy’s wordcount eclipses the entire Harry Potter series by about 300K words, and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (which is the current Guinness World Record holder for the longest novel) by about 100K words.
You are crazy if you expect me to sit here snarking that entire mass of words line by line for any amount of time. I do not have that much time in the world to dedicate to such an insane project, and I say this as the guy who wrote the thing on the snarking block. Even a summary snark wouldn’t exactly work here.
But… well, let’s face it. It’s still a fairly problematic series in a lot of ways, and looking back… well, while I wouldn’t totally call it an old shame, there are a lot of things I would change about the series knowing what I’ve written now. So this time, I’m gonna go ahead and take the gloves off.
*takes gloves off*
Oh, it’s not because I’m about to go hard-core on myself: this is admittedly going to be a more serious affair than what you normally see at the Library, mostly because I think I’m going to go in deep with real critical self-analysis here, with more of a critic’s eye than a jokey-joke eye than usual. I’ll crack a joke or two here, but expect this to be more in the style of, say, a Lindsay Ellis video essay.
Also, I’m not really going to plan on tackling this thing in chronological order. I think, for me, discussing this particular previous work of mine is going to involve going at it and talking about the broader issues of narrative. We can nitpick individual typos and silly lines of dialogue all day long (and trust me, that’s in the cards, too), but for me, it makes more sense to talk about this from a standpoint of “here’s an aspect folks criticize/I think was a problem, let’s talk about it more”.
And if you’re wondering why I’m doing this? Eh, I felt it was time. I’ve been thinking a lot about these things for the past few years, across the time I’ve done FBA fiction and also these Library of the Damned snarks, some of which were written in conjunction with the writing of MV3. And… well, in the interest of full disclosure, I also discovered recently that there’s a line-by-line snark of the trilogy elsewhere on the world wide web that got started in September. While those of you who know one of my previous snarks know I normally wouldn’t mind that happening, in this case it’s written by someone who, in Hannity-esque fashion, failed to disclose that not only is he a former “friend” with whom I had a vicious falling-out, but that he made some contributions to the Mass Vexations universe that got excised (more on that later). Also, as best as I can tell given his past behavior regarding Mass Vexations and me as a person, he’s doing it to spite me.
You’re probably going to call this a product of bruised ego, and honestly, I can understand why you might think that given what I just disclosed. But here’s the thing: snarking things out of spite means that you lose a certain objectivity when you critique it, and doubly so when you fail to disclose your previous relationship with the fiction. Thus, I’m hoping that hearing some of these criticisms straight from the horse’s mouth proves to be an exercise in greater objectivity.
So yeah. Without any further ado, let’s get started!
So first, I guess the top thing to address? Let’s talk about the characters. Or, more specifically, the character, singular.
Yep, let’s start with our main character!
Gonterman-esque: A Tale of Stu Aspects
So we’re going to open up with this question: how is Art as a character? In my estimation, admittedly not that good. I personally don’t think he’s as bad as the worst Stus of SI fanfiction in the ME fandom, but considering the low bar some of them have set (looking at you, Subject 23 and Kye Jen), I’m not really sure that’s saying much, and from a writing standpoint it’s really not saying that much, given that most of the guys that came after me picked up the worst tendencies in character writing that I indulged in.
So yeah, I’m going to start by running down the checkpoints on the lithmus tests that most folks use to define Suedom. Here we go:
So, we’re going to start with the basics, and the lithmus test that some people stupefyingly stop at before declaring a character a Stu: their abilities within the narrative.
Art starts off as a musician: so, you know, not a ton of combat experience, and all his expertise is in music. If we want him to have any importance in the games, therefore, we have to figure stuff out. Art’s solution to getting onto the Normandy?
Ashley gives me an odd look. “According to what you’ve told us so far, you have no military training, are a little out of shape, and used your first firearm barely two hours ago,” she replies. “What can you show us to show that you can get in shape fast enough to help?”
“I don’t have anything,” I say, shaking my head. “But sooner or later Saren’s going to find out that I helped you guys out. And I don’t know if he’ll have time or not, but he’ll probably be coming for me when he does. I don’t think I could stand up to Saren in my current state, and I’m one of a very small amount of people that knows the specifics of all this…”
“Protection…” mutters Kaidan. “He’s got a point Shepard.”
“That he does,” comments the commander. “But we can always take you on as a non-ground unit. You don’t have to go down and fight things with us.”
Well… “I don’t want that, though,” I reply, shaking my head. “You guys are going off to do great things, I can tell. I know I can’t exactly do much right at this moment, but this sounds like an opportunity that’s too incredible to pass up. And… I don’t know, ma’am. But I’d like to help you guys any way I can, and I don’t think sitting on a ship waiting for you to come back is going to do it. I’ll work as hard as I have to to make sure I can help you out if you take me on, you have my word on that.”
“Sounds like he really wants to help,” says Garrus.
“He doesn’t have combat training,” reiterates Ash as she crosses her arms. “But he’s got a strong will Commander.”
The first part is fair enough: safeguarding someone who knows too much would be a valid excuse to get him on the ship. But it’s the lack of combat training that really sort of muddies that. Especially since, later, Art learns how to shoot guns a little bit too fast: all it takes is one chapter that takes course across one sixteen-hour period and he’s suddenly fairly good with assault rifles, and good enough that he’s allowed onto the ground team on Noveria the next chapter. He also does learn other weapons as it goes on, and they all take about the same amount of training time for him to master so well that he’s able to stand side-by-side with military folks who are both the best at what they do and have been at it for years.
Yeah, that’s kind of a big bullshit moment from the early parts of MV1: but it’s what happens when you want to regurgitate the plot of the games and want to insert your character in there faster than he’d logically be able to get in there. Because the fast expertise with shooting a gun not only is unrealistic, but also ignores the psychology of a soldier whole-sale in favor of getting to the action real quick. (And yeah, there’s a whole thing about the psychology of killing people that I find problematic in this fic, but one point at a time.)
To be fair, that’s the only real ability-wise thing that happens: Art doesn’t really gain any special technological expertise, and he also never gets biotics. It certainly beats a lot of what other SI’s would do, especially Subject 23’s overpowered Aquaman/Iceman shtick.
But when you’re looking at the abilities there, you also have to look at what’s detracting from them. And… yeah, especially at the start of MV1, whatever physical imperfections Art has get quickly taken care of. All I really need to say is this bit here about eye surgery:
“All right, doctor,” I say. “I’ll get right to it. Oh, and when do you want me to come for eye surgery.”
“I’ll prepare it for tomorrow morning,” she says.
Incorrect punctuation notwithstanding, after having actually had LASIK in real life after this story, part of me glares at younger!me and is all “uh…”. Because yeah, laser eye surgery is way more complicated and has a much longer recovery time than I portrayed here. Actual laser eye surgery requires at least a week of not moving too much, an entire regimen of eyedrops that lasts a month, and not getting too close to bright light sources in the first 48 hours? Here, in the fic, he walks it off within 12 hours of the surgery. Also, and this could be slightly different in the ME universe, but laser eye surgery can’t be prepared that quickly, considering they have to test your eyeballs mostly to see if they can even do certain forms of the surgery, and that would certainly take long enough that it wouldn’t be possible the morning after a general physical exam.
Yeah, that’s a bit fast there, innit? And it moves by so quickly I’m surprised more folks actually don’t point out how ridiculous the laser eye surgery bit is!
And then there’s lines like this:
Heh. He’s fighting a hand battle with a violist, who is required by nature of his instrument to have strong arms and stronger hands.
Ah yes, because all violists are apparently built like Rambo now! Yes, watch him win the hand battle in which he vastly overstates just how strong his hands actually are!
There are also matters throughout the rest of the trilogy. For instance, there’s this, from the prologue of MV2:
It actually also ended up involving a lot of agility courses. Needless to say, I think my agility only improved with time in that thing. At my peak, I ended up learning how to crawl up and down the Citadel in rather short increments of time without anything holding me down. In any other case it would be illegal, but special passes do special things. So that was pretty interesting, getting to climb up the Citadel. I usually got the best view of the Citadel Tower money could buy for free thanks to that, so for this I was thankful.
Yeah, TLDR is that Art learns parkour. Unfortunately, it serves no actual purpose in anything after that, so it’s literally just something that’s there for the hell of it. Nothing really quite says “hey, this guy is Awesome McAwesomepants” quite like an ability that doesn’t serve any kind of function after it’s mentioned, right?
And there’s also the film scoring aspect of the whole thing, which, having navigated the music world… yeah, that part’s pretty bullshit. The film scoring process is more involved than “send applications in for a thing”, especially since that field is overcrowded enough today, nevermind a few centuries from now. Art breaking into the industry through a call for scores is not exactly something that happens, you know? And especially not on a major studio production that would be a huge, epic thing: a short film or a student film, maybe (and that’s a big maybe), but not a huge Oscar bait epic like what I was going for. And the fact that it propelled him to fame… yeah, no, not exactly. If it had been for film score, it would’ve tracked him along for film score unless there was a big attitude change surrounding all of that.
And then there’s other stuff. Like, for instance, Chapter 19 of MV1 where Art is able to pilot a Mako tank with no real driving experience, and then also being able to pull off drift on it (a tank!) a la the Mario Kart powerslide. That gets bonus points for Shepard being made to be indisposed mere seconds before Art has to do it, and then having Art do it despite the fact that Kaidan would probably be a better option anyway.)
So yeah. In terms of pure combat ability, Art isn’t technically overpowered by the standards of the universe, but he picks up his skills with such unrealistic speed that he pretty much is overpowered in spirit. He also miraculously can drive a Mako without having driven even a car before, he’s overpowered on the music front, and the disadvantages that he starts the story with are rendered totally meaningless by the time we’re a quarter of the way through MV1.
And that, by the way, is before we even get close to approaching all the chosen one stuff that runs through the entire series. But, even though the chosen one stuff does put Art on a pedestal, that is tied to other, much bigger problems with the way the series is plotted, so I’ll save talk about that for when I talk about the bigger picture there.
So that’s not a good start. But is he a likeable character? Well…
The Jerkass and the Scatterbrain
A common criticism I see with Mass Vexations is a critique of the scatterbrained narrative style. To give you a sense of what they’re talking about, here’s an example:
I’ve been hanging around Chora’s Den. And there is a hell of a lot on my mind that I’ve found out.
I checked my cell phone in the alley, and noticed that no matter where I walked, I did not get any bars, even when I discreetly checked outside of the alley. Well, shit. I’m cut off from everybody I knew. I’m… I’m really alone now.
Alone. That’s… terrifying, really. I mean, I lived by myself, but I was never alone. I had people I could trust. People I could talk to. People I could go to if the situation was right… Shit… This is a bit hard to swallow.
I’ll hang on to the phone, however. As a memento of a life gone by so I can think of all the people that will probably miss me most. I wonder. If I got teleported here, then what happened to my body over there? Did I die? Did I disappear? Did I get found in an alley somewhere in the city of Boston? I don’t know, and I never will. Well, you never know. Knowing my parents, though, they’re extremely paranoid, and they would throw a fit when they find out I’m no longer there. I just wish that I could somehow send them a message. Let them know I’m okay, that I’m still alive, and that…
Damn it, I’m getting all misty in public. Not good form.
And later in that same scene, there is this:
I guess also that since I know the events of the game, I can always just sidle along. Hiding it will be the tough part, though. Especially when we get to Virmire. Dear Jesus, I am not looking forward to seeing who gets offed in an incredibly tragic manner once we get there. I should say something, but… it’ll give me away. And people will think I’m insane. And then I’ll have no place here. It’s… Now that I think about it a little more, it’s actually a bit scary. It’s just… so wierd… Here I am, expecting prettyness and rainbows and all that, and in my first day here I’m robbed by batarians. The irony is palpable. Not like the Mass Effect universe was totally bright and happy anyway, but still, I was expecting it to be a bit more… civilized than this.
It’s just… I need to get used to the fact that this isn’t a game. I need to think of it like Heavy Rain. You fuck up, you die. No plot armor here. No second chances. No continues. No dying a lot. No becoming the object of the Angry Video Game Nerd’s rants, even if he wouldn’t do something this recent anyway.
John, I wish I could give you a pat on the back now. At least in the Fire Emblem universe you were able to definitively prove that you were from another universe. Here, I have no way to prove it, except maybe via what is most likely a vintage cell phone. And my glasses. Those too, but then again, if the Illusive Man can have that suit, chances are there are people in need of glasses. So I salute you. Also, because you’ve given me a tentative survival guide on how to survive being in another universe, and how to make friends in said alternate universe.
I’m just waiting for something eventful to happen. It’s been eight hours since I first got here, and all I can say is that being in the Citadel is incredibly fucking surreal, especially with all that’s happened.
But I know one thing’s for sure; the mindfuck has just begun.
So what you see there is a character who has trains of thought that go all over the place quickly, who drops in pop culture references every twenty seconds… Of everything that folks have criticized Mass Vexations for, this is one of the biggest criticisms that I keep seeing, and at first glance for me, it’s kind of a confusing one.
See, here’s the deal: for me, this was an attempt to portray a character with some form of ADHD, which I was actually diagnosed with at a young age (and yes, I was on the Ritalin regimen, same as how practically every other ADHD kid that grew up in the 90’s was). There’s a reason his thoughts keep flying around all over the place: he’s very much in a scatterbrained mindset, and he would think in terms of “here’s something, my mind is going to wander here for a second, now it’s back on the subject, oh hey, a random pop culture reference”. But also, that was a way to try to make the character somewhat relatable and funny, at least to my mind: what could be more relatable than a guy with trains of thought that, to my mind then, were amusing and comical?
So from that standpoint, their criticisms are weird. Woe be unto me, then, because in all the fireworks I was attempting to pull in the name of being “funny”, he kind of comes off as being a tryhard, and indeed the TVTropes page in its current form mentions this. But worse, is the fact that, in a lot of ways, this attention to that kind of also steamrolls over realistic character development.
Take this, for example, from Chapter 1 and the first time Art kills a man:
I come out of that victorious, putting the gun to his head and firing.
Oh God. The recoil. I fired at an angle such that my entire arm swung back the slightest bit. I can impersonate the Venus de Milo, so it’s not that much of a problem, but still… My funny bone… Ow…
Can’t let it get to me, though; I gotta do the double tap. I quickly fire it again, and the bullet goes into the helmet. I know Salarians have small heads, so I shoot it again, satisfied when I see blood seeping out from the cracks of the glass on his face-mask.
Taking a few deep breaths in, I realize what I’ve… Shit, I just killed someone. Someone who was going to kill someone else… but still… Shit, now I know how that guy from Southland must feel about this. The fact he was going to do wrong doesn’t change much. But… still… Fuck, I can’t believe I’m killing people in an alternate universe. What would Pupa say if she saw me doing this?
Shit. I haven’t got time to dwell on it. I’ll think about it later…
Gathering my composure, I stand back up, breathing in and out quickly. I look behind me and see that the other salarian and the turian are both dead. A pool of blue blood surrounded the turian, and the salarian was still, its face armor having shattered to reveal a few bullet holes in its head.
Quite full of carnage.
Now all that’s left is to hear Brad Pitt’s comically exaggerated Southern accent from above and this will be straight out of the bar scene from Inglourious Basterds.
He says he’ll think about it later… except that “later” never comes. The most we get out of it is a pop culture comparison to a TV cop drama, a reference to the Venus de Milo mid-kill, and a reference to Quentin Tarantino. It isn’t quite Kye Jen’s “too many video games” line, but in spirit it’s not much better, because what could have been an important character beat is essentially glossed over in the name of “hey, here’s an amusing train of thought, look at it and laugh!”
It also doesn’t help that the way Art treats his precognition can sometimes come off extremely sociopathic. I’m talking, of course, about Art freaking out about losing his precognitive abilities like so:
There’s no fucking way this is right! No. His squad can’t be alive! There’s no possible way they could be alive right now! No way whatsoever!
That’s not true! That’s impossible!
“Oh, Thank the Lord,” Jenny says, letting out an exasperated breath. “I still can’t believe it though.”
“Well, think about it,” comments Garrus. “He’s a quarian biotic. I’m sure you know it’s true somehow.”
This can’t be happening! What the fuck is Garrus’ loyalty going to be now? Now he has less reason to want Sidonis dead! I mean, come on, most of his squad was saved! And… No, this opens up plot holes too! How the hell did his squad survive? How do we know the mercs won’t chase them? What do I do now? How am I gonna break this to Tali? More importantly, how the fuck did the squad find out before the attack? How the fuck did they survive? And where the fuck does Sidonis fit into this? Why, God, why?
No… No no no no no. No. No. Hell no. No. No. I can’t believe… No. No.
Not one drop! I’ll taste it for you!
Because clearly, the fact that lives have been saved is less important than the fact that you can’t tell the future anymore, Mr. Winnie-The-Pooh-Reference-That-Only-Folks-With-Encyclopedic-Knowledge-Will-Get!
I feel like this is a pretty good microcosm of a big problem that plagues the character here, and elsewhere: his reactions are usually not rooted in anything serious, or are typically glossed over, owing to the narration’s constant attempts to crowbar in pop culture and other things like that in an attempt to look “cool” and “funny”.
And that’s the thing: the narration isn’t the only place this happens. Take, for instance, this bit of dialogue between Art and Shepard in MV1:
I shrug while looking at the treadmill behind me. “I’m struggling a little,” I say. “But you know what they say: keep pushing yourself, and you’ll get results.”
“Just don’t push yourself too hard,” she says. “We don’t want you suffering an injury.”
I wave a hand dismissively, chuckling. “I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that,” I say. “I’m usually so overworked about whether something is safe or not that… well, you know…” I lift my hands then. “Plus, I’ve had years of attempting to keep my hands safe,” I add to that. “Comes as part of the job description when you’re a musician, really.”
She rose an eyebrow at this. I shrugged as I continue. “Well, you know, I need my fingers to write music, and if I don’t have any fingers on my left hand I can’t exactly produce any notes on a viola,” I add.
She nods. “I see,” she says. “But you never can be too careful. Exercise caution.”
Because, as we all know, carpal tunnel totally leads to massive hemorrhaging the way a mass accelerator wound does.
Or what about this, from MV2:
“This your first time on Omega, kid?” [Aria] asks.
I frown at this, crossing my arms. “I’ll have you know I turned 22 just a few weeks ago,” I correct her. “And technically speaking, yes, this is my first time on Omega. On business, but still…”
“You have quite a mouth on you,” she says. “My first suggestion? Keep it shut; it might get you into quite a lot of trouble here on Omega.
“Like right now, when I shall let my security detail open fire on you for mouthing me off like that, you little bitch.”
Or what about this:
“You know what the worst part of all this is?” I ask.
“Not exactly,” says Garrus. “What?”
“It’s that there’s no fucking incidental music for this!” I say, crossing my arms as I shake my head. “That would have made things so much more awesome!”
I hear Ash groan as Shepard shakes her head.
What Ash should’ve said: “Art, we just killed Liara’s mother and just made a decision about saving the rachni where we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, could you maybe not bring an immature Facebook meme into this?”
You may start to notice a pattern: Art tends to speak out much more like an immature 12-year-old who’s trying to grab attention where everything is about him. And yeah, all this forced, lame humor keeps up in both the narration and in Art’s dialogue with practically every other character, and I’m sure there are people who could go through this line by line and start a counter on this thing. I wouldn’t recommend it because you’d probably be in the 300’s by the time MV2 ended, but you get my point.
So are they right to criticize that about the narrative? Actually, yeah: it’s an interesting narrative concept, for sure, but the execution is one of the things that makes him a fairly unlikeable character in some ways. In trying too hard to be cool and funny, the whole fic just winds up coming off as extremely forced and inappropriate, and the result makes Art a worse character in a lot of ways.
And it doesn’t exactly stop there, because then we get into the issue of…
Jerkassiness and Consequences
So the other main issue is that, of the above times Art acts like an obnoxious ass, he usually doesn’t get called out for it with nearly enough frequency that you would think this kind of behavior would call for. For example, let’s play the rest of that last conversation I quoted above:
I hear Ash groan as Shepard shakes her head. “Maybe if something else happens,” she says. “Right now, I’m concentrating on how we just did an entire race good.”
“You’ll regret this,” repeats Wrex in a half-grumble.
“We’ll see about that,” I reply, crossing my arms. “Who knows? Maybe you won’t have to clean up the mess at all. Only time will tell with that, I can tell you that much.”
“That works the other way around too,” replies Ash.
Garrus gives us all a look. “We’ll see how things pan out,” he says.
Yeah, see, there it is: they pretty much don’t even briefly tell Art take things seriously for three seconds. And no, this doesn’t even happen later in the fic: his more obnoxious moments throughout MV are treated as part of the squadmate banter, and not as something that requires him to get smacked around with a giant trout the way most people would. Again, this is a symptom of the tryhard nature of his comedy: I, of course not knowing what was inappropriate and what was funny, was so chuffed at how clever I thought my character was that, as a result, the squadmates wound up not really calling him out on his obnoxious behavior a lot.
Now, does that mean he was never called out for any of his actions? Not exactly. For instance, there’s this with Kaidan in MV2:
The lieutenant looks at me, his eyes wide as he shakes his head. “Art… I thought we were friends,” he says. “Listen to me because I’m your friend.”
No. Just no. You could’ve used a completely different argument, Kaidan.
Too bad I don’t have a gun… that would be great to go all Jules Winnfield on his ass. But not now. I’ve got other things in mind.
Before I can even think about it, my hand curls into a fist. It promptly flies into Kaidan’s face, and a harsh crack sounds as suddenly, he’s sent falling back. He catches himself on another chair, the free hand rushing up to his face as his nose starts to bleed. He glances up at me in shock, and I shake my head. Some of the bar patrons turn to look as I cross my arms, looking right at him.
“Not good enough,” I say, crossing my arms. “For your information, I stopped considering you a friend when you denied Shepard the right to speak for herself back on Horizon. What comes around, goes around, Kaidan. Think about what I just told you.”
The rest of the conversation is a little long for me to show you here, but suffice to say Art is generally an ass throughout the rest of that conversation for a variety of reasons.
In response, Tali says this just after that chapter:
“Art, are you sure you should have handled that the way you did?” asks Tali as I come closer. “You didn’t give him a chance to speak, and you interrupted him twice. It’s not like you.”
“Well, Kaidan didn’t give Shepard a chance to speak, and he also interrupted her twice,” I say, rubbing my hands together. “I say it’s time someone gave him a taste of his own medicine, you know?”
“But why be so violent about it?” asks Mangdalar.
I shake my head. “Because he pissed me off,” I reply. “You know what I hate? I hate it when people are trying to tell you something and you won’t listen. That’s why I was so pissed at Kaidan. He should’ve let Shepard explain herself to him, end of story. And if I have to get violent to hammer that into his head, then so be it.”
Tali shakes her head. “I don’t like that you did that, though,” she says. “You should have been the better man and let him explain.”
But I can’t. Because I wanted him to get a taste of his own medicine. Or whatever. “I should’ve,” I say. “But I didn’t want to let him explain. I wanted him to know what it was like to be in Shepard’s shoes when he dumped her.”
The quarian looks a little dismayed at this, but before she can say anything I hear a click from Mangdalar’s mouth.
She only doubles down on it next chapter:
“About that.” The girl I’ve been falling for turns to me slightly, her voice a little icier than usual. “I… I still don’t think you made a good call with him there.”
Oh, seriously Tali? “Hey, he kind of asked for it,” I reply, frowning slightly. “I wanted him to know what it was like to be unable to explain yourself to someone hard-headed. You treat people the way you want to be treated, you know?”
Tali shakes her head. “Your definition of reciprocity is very strange,” she states. “You should have been the better man. But you sunk to his level. I would even say you went below his level.”
Kaidan himself also gives Art hell for it in MV3, particularly after he finds out that Art knew everything.
Speaking of which, there’s the whole long-running plot thread where Art feels he has to hide the truth about himself from everyone lest he get called crazy for kind of knowing how the events of ME1 and 2 are going to play out. This constantly comes back to haunt him throughout MV2 and even some parts of MV3, where one of the first reactions is that people call him out for betraying their trust like that. It even threatens his position on the Normandy, and he does notably lose a friendship in one case, even if he does get a bit too “woe is me” about it later on in MV2.
So yeah, Art does get called out, but I think it’s important to note that Art doesn’t receive blowback for a lot of the obnoxious behaviors that the fic tries to pass off as “banter”. That colors pretty much everything that happens after, because if you get the sense the other characters would have told him off well before this point and they don’t, doesn’t it cheapen the times when they do give him hell for his decisions?
And then there’s also the issue of…
So the issue with character arcs in Mass Vexations is an interesting one: for me, there were at least attempts at characterization arcs throughout the series. There are varying degrees of success here, and I think they vary wildly.
For example: we have Art’s character arc in MV1: where he doesn’t really take it super seriously and hoping that he’ll get back home via Virmire. This goes horribly tits up, and it was supposed to culminate in him trying to die at Virmire. Why he wouldn’t try to get himself killed any other time is anybody’s guess, but it would have meant to lead up to the moment he has with Tali in Chapter 16 where he finally reveals the truth about himself and says:
A tear rolls down my cheeks despite my best effort to hold it in. “Now… I’ll never know,” I say, my voice becoming shaky. “I’ll never know if it would have sent me back. And now I’ll never see Joc or Sturge or Mom or Dad or Pupa or Anneli or Augie or any of my other friends again. And I’ll never get to see my beautiful red viola again. And Ashley is dead despite everything I did to try and convince Shepard to save her. Now… I have to live with with all that… I… I don’t know… It’s just… I… I’ll miss them… And… I…”
I can’t take it anymore. But I have to stay strong. I have to. For my own sake. A knot forms in my throat, and I shake my head softly.
I feel a hand on my shoulder, and Tali looks at me. I can’t understand her expression… What is she feeling?
“Art…” she says, voice seeping in tenderness. “I… I had no idea…” She hesitates briefly, patting my shoulder and causing her to look directly at the two glowing daimonds behind the face mask. “Art… If it makes you feel better… You can come to me… I don’t care what the rest of the galaxy does… But you’re my friend. I can’t just let you sit here and carry this burden. If you have anything you want to tell me about this dimension that you’re from… anything at all… you can come to me. Let me help you carry your burden. You can tell me anything. Art… I’m here for you if you need anything. And I promise by Keelah that I won’t turn you away.”
What she tells me was completely different from what I expected. It’s so… beautiful… And… I didn’t think she would… She should have rejected me. Turned me away. But here… She’s offering me something… I… I can’t believe this…
And now I can’t hold the tears back. “Tali…” I say, just under my breath.
I don’t get to say anything else before she gathers me into her arms slowly. I instinctively wrap my own arms around her, and as she cradles my head against her shoulder sobs wrack my body. I close my eyes, and I finally cry all the pent up tears on her shoulder noisily. She simply holds me, patting my back comfortingly as she whispers soothing things into my ear that are just soft enough for me to not be able to translate effectively.
So that’s a fairly fitting climax, no? The problem is, it’s a decent climax to an arc that, honestly, is not very well set up. The result is that the characterization beat doesn’t really work.
One problem is tied to what I mention above with how the narration’s tryhardiness gets in the way of other, unrelated character beats: there’s a similar thing going on here, where he’s trying so hard to be like “LOOK HOW COOL I AM” that it kind of doesn’t leave any room to insert those kinds of beats. Thus, Art’s nostalgia isn’t super well set-up: most of these things that he goes on about in the ficbit above are introduced in the body of the same chapter, which is never a good sign as far as set-up and payoff is concerned. The bits that are included before now are also told and not shown, which adds an extra layer of wrong here.
That theme of lack of set-up and payoff recurs throughout the trilogy. There’s most of MV3, for instance, where Art winds up in control of the Normandy on virtue of Shepard being arrested and in the process of being tried for treason. In-fic, Garrus and Miranda co-control the Normandy with him, sure, but functionally Art winds up taking charge. The character arc I went with was not actually something I thought of when I started MV3. And I think that contributes to the main issue with his characterization in the first half of MV3: the “he’s not competent to lead” didn’t really come in until a writing-based reckoning I had midway through writing MV3. After that was when I wrote the Kahje chapter of MV3, where Thane gets killed because of Art’s leadership, even though previous chapters of MV3 didn’t really seem to follow a consistent thread of “Art is making stupid mistakes, what the hell is he doing” until possibly the Rannoch arc of MV3 (and boy howdy, are parts of that extremely problematic for reasons we’ll talk about later).
This also plays into some of the other arcs throughout MV2, as well. The Overlord arc, for instance, I don’t think really lands in quite the same way I hoped it would because, again, Art’s family in his previous living situation is not really established very well, so there isn’t as much payoff there as there could be there. Rael’s survival hinging on one thing also isn’t set-up super well, and I’m counting it towards characterization issues with Art considering that Art simply sending a message being all “be careful” would not be enough to really nudge Rael’Zorah into survival territory now that I really think about it.
A vast majority of Art’s characterization arcs throughout the MV series are not really plotted out super well. Thus, while you could argue that the arcs do exist, you can’t necessarily argue that they’re done well. And, as I’ve stressed elsewhere, it’s all about the execution, so if the execution is lacking, then it’s bad. And here, the execution left a ton to be desired.
And speaking of execution, some things are just flawed at a conceptual level. Including…
Art and LGBTQ Representation
This is actually not a super common criticism of Art as a character, but ultimately this is a failing I feel I should bring up because it’s a fairly big one on the scale of representation. I also do want to address this point because one thing to understand is that a vast majority of the Mass Vexations trilogy was written before I fully came to terms with the fact that I’m gay, and I think this is one of the bigger points of a rewrite that I would have to address just on virtue of that fact alone.
So, one thing you notice in the fic is that, yeah, Art mentions he’s bisexual. And yeah, some folks would probably dispute that “oh, no, it’s fine representation because it isn’t hammered in to death”. While true, that’s also a problem with the narrative. The TVTropes page, for instance, mentions this as one of its entries:
Informed Ability: Art’s bisexuality is rarely mentioned after Mass Vexations 1, since he never seems to note male character’s attractiveness and winds up getting into a relationship with Tali before the Suicide Mission. However, he did get mildly taken with James Vega’s muscles upon first meeting him, but that’s about it.
I personally am kind of surprised that sexuality is framed as some kind of “ability” (which, personally, I find to be eight kinds of problematic), but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bring up a really valid point. Because yeah, Art’s bisexuality isn’t really explored in any real depth throughout the trilogy, as he just winds up falling for a girl and that’s that. And yeah, one throw-away line about liking James Vega’s muscles and finding krogan hot definitely isn’t enough.
And you might say that it’s okay, because ultimately, bisexuality can also rest on a spectrum of male or female preference. That would be fine, if it weren’t for the fact that the one gay interaction that Art engages in throughout the MV trilogy is incredibly problematic. I’m talking, of course, about Chapter 10 of MV1, titled after Edgard Varèse’s large orchestra piece Arcana. Right off the bat, that should be a warning sign, considering that the piece, like so much of Varese’s other works, is dissonant, violent, and often features instruments screaming in extreme registers. All you really need to listen to is the first few seconds and you’ll see what I mean:
And indeed, it doesn’t get better: the chapter has Art square off with the turian that Wrex wanted to kill, who’s converted into an extremely dirty old man with… well…
The story tries to frame it as being creepy, but if you look at the actual story, it’s fairly par-for-course behavior for gay bar adventures:
As I sip on my screwdriver, I hear someone get into the seat next to me. I hear the glass get plunked down on the table. Okay, that gets my attention. I turn my head and-
O-ho-ho-hoooookaaaaaaay… This is getting uncomfortable. Tonn Actus is sitting right next to me, giving me a look as I give a glance. Oh, shit. Yeah, this is uncomfortable. Don’t tell me this guy preys on younger people… It’ll be like O-Ren Ishii getting her revenge all over again.
“I noticed you outside,” he says. “You paced around here.”
Shit… I think he’s hitting on me. Or trying to. Either way, this isn’t entirely comfortable… Shit… Swallow it in.
“I just wasn’t sure what to think,” I reply. “This is the first time I’ve ever gone to a bar alone.”
At this, I see his mandible flex slightly. Oh, dear, I think he’s got some lewd thoughts going… “You don’t have to do it alone,” he says. “Here. The least I can do is buy you a drink.”
Okay, Tonn… Shit, this is creepy as fuck. Man, I’m in this way over my head.
The narration continues with a similar tone throughout the rest of the chapter, right down to when Tonn Actus takes Art home and has him engage in a striptease that is ripped straight from a chapter of Heavy Rain—a fact that the narration lampshades, by the way! Difference is, Tonn Actus isn’t holding Art by gunpoint, and there’s nothing to suggest that Tonn has really earned his “dirty old man” shtick apart from the age difference between him and Art. Sure, Art is creeped out by the touches that he gets, and it’s clear he isn’t exactly into it due to him being in it for Wrex’s armor, but that just makes it worse when you consider it’s the only time Art encounters any kind of same-sex contact throughout the series.
In hindsight, the fact that the story employs this as its only point of homosexual contact for Art really kind of makes Art’s bisexuality super heteronormative. Combine that with what the “Informed Ability” entry on the TVTropes page said, and… well, you got a recipe for disastrous representation on the LGBTQ front, something that wouldn’t be fixed until MV3 came along and introduced other characters on that spectrum (and even those aren’t 100% kosher considering that both of the gay pairings in MV3 suffer from a minor case of Bury Your Gays by the time the whole thing ends).
And again, this is something that is an even worse problem given I’ve since realized I’m gay. And yeah, some of you might wonder why I take “ew, old man” as a problem here with the storytelling: considering that I lost my virginity to an older man, and then considering that some of my partners since have been older men, I will tell you that this chapter of MV1 plays into a rather ugly stereotype of the “old, lecherous gay man” that just shouldn’t be indulged in. The fact that Tonn Actus is treated in such an “ew, gross” manner really doesn’t sit well with me now.
Combine that with the fact that it’s a complete reimagining of what the canon version was (run to one of the fifty million other warehouses in the galaxy and shoot his ass down), and it’s just a disaster of epic proprotions.
So yeah. Art is a really bad LGBTQ character, and I’m surprised that not a ton of people talk about that aspect of the character, because all told it’s fairly problematic.
That Stupid Loyalty Mission
Yeah, Art’s loyalty mission was fairly stupid, too. For my taste, it was based on an interesting idea (what if someone’s identity got swiped out from under them by a doppelganger?), but yeah, it just went in a stupid, over-the-top direction. The Evil!Art is a literal Awesome McEvil, he goes to extreme lengths to get revenge, the amount of resources at his beck and call is really stupid…
His loyalty mission was kinda crowbarred in there, too, as a way for Art to spill the beans to Shepard. I still feel like the idea of Art having a loyalty mission is a fairly interesting one, because I feel like it’s the best context for Shepard to discover Art’s big secret. But… yeah, there are much better ways I could have found to deal with it than this. I don’t quite know what they are, but they’re better than what we got.
So if I Were To Rewrite This Character…
First, I’d excise the bisexuality angle and just make him totally gay. I’d have to find a new love interest at that point, but hell, there are a bunch of directions I could see that going, so it’s no big deal. Besides, Tali could have fun with a sassy gay friend, you never know. Then, I’d probably take a cue from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and have Art’s immature pop culture stuff be an actual character flaw the way Peter Quill’s immaturity is often framed throughout that movie. That, and I’d also massively tone it down, because man, that stuff comes off less and less like comical banter the more I read it.
And then there’s also the fact that, in all honesty, I’d relegate him to a supporting role on the Normandy. Maybe something like The Heart on the ship and all that. I think it’s tough to underestimate just how much I can’t get into the soldier mindset, so honestly I guess I’d have to make my insert character in a similar sense, you know? So there is that, too.
But overall, I think the main thing is this: don’t try so hard to be funny. I think the art of banter is a tough one as far as dialogue goes, but here Art was clearly trying too hard to be relatable by comedy, and because of that he just wound up being a dickhead to folks. While he does get better, it’s often said that first impressions are everything. And yeah, the first impression is not great here.
So that’s how I feel about my own character.
Now, of course, there are lots of over things over the course of the trilogy that wind up being fairly problematic, and it’s enough content for a series. So next time, we’re going to start by talking about what is probably the dumbest plot fail of the whole trilogy: that damn Chosen One crap.
So I’ll see you next time, folks! See you then!