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September 16, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»mass_effect

Mass Effect and Romance: A Tragedy in Four Parts

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.

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