There's probably not a better modern space opera than the Mass Effect games, which is what makes its wildly incoherent plot all the more bizarre. Replaying the first title, it's hard to miss that the way that it eventually gets undercut by everything in the third. I can't decide which one looks better in hindsight — Mass Effect 1 is less ambitious (and not nearly as good mechanically), while 3 is ultimately lazier and, I think, more dishonest — but I think it does point out a really interesting problem in the way that Bioware builds their big, tentpole franchises.
Let's recap: in the first chapter, Commander Shepard (that's you) stumbles across a galactic double-agent named Saren while on a rescue mission, and is given carte blanche to hunt the traitor down. Eventually, it's revealed that Saren is working for a giant murderbot right out of central casting, and their plan is to open a gateway that lets all the other murderbots into this universe from whatever pocket dimension they've been hiding in. But surprise! the gateway is actually the ancient space station that galactic civilization picked as its center of government (living in Seattle after that New Yorker article, I know how they feel). Lots of stuff explodes.
By the time Mass Effect 3 rolls around, it would make sense for people to have thought, geez, maybe living on a massive, prehistoric portal to robot doom-town might not be a good idea. You'd think that, but you'd be wrong. In fact, during the plot of the final game, not only are people still living on the Citadel, but Shepard finds out that it doubles as the power source for the super-weapon that will wipe out the bad guys. Handy! And by handy, I mean tremendously lazy in a narrative sense.
Truthfully, the overarching plot is the weakest parts of the Mass Effect franchise. The first game is too small to sell "epic scope" — when characters like Wrex die, they haven't been around long enough to feel important, or for many players to even realize they can be saved. The third spends too much time trying to wrap up plot threads instead of actually telling a story.
By contrast, Mass Effect 2 is a heist flick. The beginning is nonsense, as is the ending (the less said about the giant glowing skeleton boss, the better), partly because those are the pieces that connnect to the other storylines. But the middle 95% of the game is brilliant, because it mostly tosses the Reapers and their Robot Death Party out the window. Instead, you wander from planet to planet, assembling your crew and settling their debts so they can join you in the final mission. It's in these smaller stories that the writers can actually explore the universe they've built, with all its weird little corners and rivalries.
At some point, it starts to feel like the quest for spectacle is not helping Mass Effect, or Bioware games, or games in general, in much the same way that the "huge crashing object" finale is the worst part of our society's superhero movie infestation. Maybe it's a broken record to say that we need more AAA games that are more about character and less about saving the city, country, world, or galaxy. It's still true, though, and the best evidence for it is the games themselves.
This is not a post about Mass Effect 3's ending. Of course, the ending is fine. No, it doesn't account for the whole of player choice during the last five minutes--but you get plenty of choice and repurcussion for previous choice during the entire rest of the game (I brought the same Shepherd through all three). No, the final reveal doesn't make a lot of sense--neither did the endings for BSG or Lost or every William Gibson novel ever written, but nobody started petitions to force the creators to change those. It says a lot that after years of trying to get games recognized as art, huge swathes of the community still seem to be blissfully unaware of what that would actually mean: artists don't have to alter their work just to fulfill your expectations.
Ahem. Not a post about the ending.
Although it would serve everyone right, I think, if Bioware's upcoming patch just removed the treacly "stargazer" narration from the end.
I think the progressive side of the gaming blog community tends to spend a lot of time calling out the many, many ways that developers screw things up, via sexism and racism and all the other various -isms. This is a good thing--public shaming can and does have an effect on the industry. But lately I've wanted, as a counterpart, to give credit where credit is due when things go right. And for all its issues, I do think Mass Effect 3 gave me a pleasant surprise when it came to its take on LGBT rights.
The game contains a number of same-sex couples, but the moment that really stuck out for me comes early on, when Commander Shepherd drops in on the ship's shuttle pilot, Steve Cortez, to find him replaying a recording by his now-deceased husband. The dialog doesn't make a big deal out of that--it's not a "More You Know" teaching moment. It's just a guy who's torn up because a loved one was killed. I like to think that it only underscores the in-game banality of gay marriage that Bioware then makes Cortez a romance option, for people who really enjoy playing as "creepy rebound Shepherd."
The usual suspects have, of course, chimed in, and it's genuinely heartwarming to see that EA isn't taking their demands seriously here or elsewhere. Although, to be fair, when the demands include people using headlines like "rebel fleet surrenders to gay empire," they're not exactly struggling against the eloquence of history's greatest activists here.
There are still plenty of other deeply problematic nits I could pick with ME3: the weird and uncomfortable "sexy robot" character, the lingering shots of Miranda's leather pants, or female Shepherd's anatomically-correct armor plate, to pick a few. The Asari still seem like they were imported from one of the Star Trek episodes where Will Riker makes out with Aliens of Low Self Esteem. But progress doesn't come all at once, and I'm glad to see that neither Bioware nor its parent company is rolling over the moment they get hit with some criticism.
Now, if they can just grow a backbone when it comes to the
ending parts of
the game that this post is not about.
There's a moment early in Mass Effect 2 where your character, the resurrected Commander Shepherd, answers a series of questions about the events that occurred in the previous game. I think what they're trying to do is remind you about those plot points so you won't be taken quite so much by surprise when other characters mention them later on--or, if you're a new player, establish a little context so it won't seem completely random. But because the writing is a little awkward, it doesn't come across as an establishing infodump. Instead, in a surreal twist, it sounds like the characters are participating in a kind of retcon--letting the player's answers redefine their past actions. I love this idea, and wish it wasn't an accident.
A retcon, for the non-fandom crowd, is a portmanteau word for "retroactive continuity," and Wikipedia (unsurprisingly) has a fine list of examples, ranging from Nero Wolfe's birthplace to the altered appearance of Klingons in post-Kirk Star Trek. The retcon is a tradition as old as humanity, but it's rarely invoked in a planned fashion--in part, because it's usually so clumsy. Humans are good at maintaining continuity in our narratives, and we don't take kindly to authors who break their own fictional rules unless they can do so very, very elegantly.
But in video games, we have a sort of special case. Often here (and specifically in the Mass Effect games), the player is in control of continuity to a greater degree than other media. Is Commander Shepherd a woman of principle, or a ruthless pragmatist? The player chooses between these two, or even mixes them on a case-by-case basis. You don't know, necessarily, what kind of person she is until the player makes that decision: does this Commander Shepherd approve of the Genophage bioweapon, or find it deplorable? Does she believe in killing mutineers? What about the murder of treacherous former allies? And if those answers differ, it's up to the player to mentally reconcile them as a coherent character, offering up retconned justifications as necessary.
So why limit this to just the character arc, when a virtual world could offer so much more? ME2's dialog misfire offers a glimpse into a game mechanic where dialog doesn't just define a character, it can redefine the events that led up to the current moment, or the world around the player's avatar (cross a gap by insisting that you funded a bridge, perhaps, or clear out dangerous animals by bemoaning their extinction). If I had the time to spend on personal coding projects right now, that's something I'd explore: a game where you can redefine the state of play just by verbally disagreeing with it. I think it could even be an opinionated statement, not just about the way we adapt stories over time, but also the power of rhetoric to effect change, and the subjectivity of human history.
Or maybe I'm just describing a pretentious version of Scribblenauts. Either way, surely it's an opportunity missed.
1. In Which The Problem Is Introduced and Prodded Gently
Last week, during one of my interminable link posts (which generally signal a paucity of actual creative thought on my part, combined with the guilt of not writing something every! day! for you people, all three of you) I mentioned that Mass Effect has a romance problem. Specifically, it features a subplot dedicated to a liason between Commander Shepherd (the player's alter ego) and one of his or her crew members, but it narrowly confines this romance to set of four or five cutscenes. During missions, or during breaks between non-story-related missions, there's no hint of any personal life between Shepherd and the chosen paramour.
So it's kind of schizophrenic, to say the least. Absent any kind of explanation, you begin to wonder if this isn't some kind of admission on Shepherd's part that they are, in fact, basically engaging in the kind of cross-ranks fraternization (sorornization?) of which, at best, command would probably disapprove, and at worst would result in a sexual harassment charge. If so, the commander should be get some kind of award, because he (or she! this will get old fast.) certainly never lets the slightest hint of impropriety slip in front of anyone else. It's possible, but not at all believable, as anyone who's had a relationship in a workplace/team situation soon discovers.
I realize, of course, that storage space and programmer time are finite--alternate versions of almost every cutscene and line of dialog are, perhaps, too much to ask. But I wonder if there's still not a possible solution. Surely, in a game that features entirely in-engine cinematics, variations in reading could be recorded for a few lines, bringing out an undercurrent of flirtation? (Otherwise known as the "that's what she said" version.) You can't tell me the voiceover crew wouldn't have had more fun, since they don't seem to be enjoying the game's deadly earnest dialog much as it is.
2. In Which The Author Tries Not To Anger Or Embarrass His Girlfriend Too Much in Pursuit of a Deeper Truth
Now, granted, I'm hardly any kind of Casanova. I put the "awkward, halting missteps" in "relationship." So take this with a grain of salt, but I genuinely believe that great love stories are told with the little things, whether it's the stories we tell ourselves or those that we showcase through writing and film. It's the little moments--a furtive glance or touch, a quirk in a facial expression, a silly conversation--that we talk and laugh about years later.
For me, at least, that's the case. I know this because A) Belle still teases me regularly about the smallest gaffes I made during our first encounters, and B) for her part, I've read her LiveJournal entries from those first couple of months. I've snickered at the giddy inconsequentialities written there from time to time, but they also perfectly capture why I found her adorable, and I'd be heartbroken if they were ever lost.
Instead of getting into specifics, which could prove painful for me, let me propose another example: The Office. In either its British run or the first couple of seasons in the American adaptation, The Office is a show centered largely on two characters whose entire romantic arc is made up of pointless little moments. Yet through a set of glances, grins, and awkward pauses, The Office is practically drowning in romantic tension. The suspension of romantic fulfillment has been a dramatic engine for plenty of shows, from The X-Files to Arrested Development, but Gervais' sitcom shows just how exquisitely tuned that engine can be, and how much it resonates with viewers.
3. Getting Back on Topic, Before the Post Wanders Completely Out of Control
A big part of the problem with Mass Effect's approach to its love story, therefore, is how badly it handles the little things--most jarringly, the facial expressions of its characters. Bioware's art style usually stays out of the uncanny valley, but when it comes to expressing subtleties the models' faces are still too stiff and stoic, and the body language too spastic, despite moments when it almost works. That it reaches the level of community theater is to be appreciated, but not lauded.
It does not help, while we're on the subject of the visuals, that all the women coming out of the character generator bear a strong resemblance to Alan Rickman no matter what you do. I've got a lot of respect for Mr. Rickman, but it's a little weird seeing him in future-drag, flirting with his second-in-command.
Still, the graphics aren't what kill the mood, it's the writing. It's the lack of interaction. And you can have both of those on a much more limited platform. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time managed to do it, with a fairly low-tech cross-platform engine. Not only that, but it left Farah (the Prince's love interest) off-screen for the majority of the game. But in addition to a tremendously satisfying mobius strip of a plotline, PoP never went more than a few minutes without an interjection from the Prince speaking to either Farah or himself. It took every opportunity to build up a picture of his personality, his outlook, even his endearingly awful interpersonal skills. Was the romance a little one-sided? Maybe. But it was also far more involving than anything in Mass Effect.
4. And All That Could Have Been
I know, I know. There's a certain degree of armchair quarterbacking to these kinds of posts, and I get a bit sick of it myself. I guess it's just kind of jarring how a game with such a strong narrative focus can get these kinds of things wrong.
I mean, take the morality system: like most of Bioware's titles, Mass Effect boasts a simplistic Paragon/Renegade duality for players. Virtuous or lawful actions earn Paragon points, while selfish or unlawful actions increase the Renegade score. Unlike in Knights of the Old Republic or Fable, tipping the balance either way makes relatively little difference in the game or the player's appearance, and seems to mainly exist for the purposes of earning an XBox achievement.
Again, none of this is tied to the romantic subplot at all. Which I found a little strange, really. I mean, the three possible partners are a xenophobic human female, a not-too-bright human male, and a purportedly-female alien. All three of these have decidedly different worldviews on the other galactic inhabitants, not to mention morality. So why is it that, when I go on a mission and decide to shoot up a bunch of helpless aliens, neither of the latter two seem affected by it? Or, if I spare them, why doesn't the xenophobe comment on my weak-willed appeasement? I found myself hoping, as the game proceeded, that something I'd do would get a reaction from someone, but nothing ever did. Choose to shoot an innocent bystander right in front of them? Nobody blinks an eye. Talk about dysfunctional relationships.
You know, I'm not one of those infinite storytelling kind of people. I don't want interactive fiction if that means I've gotta write it myself. Like a lot of people, I'm more than happy to enjoy a static plot, if it's a good one. And although it's mostly standard space opera, Mass Effect has a lot going for it. It just falters over the details--and unfortunately, in any relationship, fictional or not, the details matter.