Andraste’s Knicker Weasels, Part V: Mass Effect

I am posting here some analysis I’ve written over the last few years about my experience of Bioware games, slightly edited from its original form.

mass effect

The great thing about discovering Bioware games over the last couple of years has been the feeling they give me that the designers actually get something of what I want out of computer gaming, and allow for it (to a greater or lesser extent) in the possibilities they create. Primarily, they understand that satisfying gameplay isn’t just about interesting tactics or bigger and more zappy guns. It’s about narrative, and narrative is primarily about interactions, the myriad individuals and sub-plots and dialogues and relationships which give you reasons to identify with the hero and actually care about the armies facing off amid giant swathes of political turmoil. For me, good gameplay is about emotional investment way before it’s about shooting things.

I was primed for this by my experience of Dragon Age, and the Mass Effect trilogy definitely has a lot going for it. The world-building is wonderful: while it’s a rather Star-Trekky universe, full of conveniently humanoid aliens able to share air, gravity, scale, food, language and kinky sex with humanity, it’s a rich, dense and enthralling space-opera environment, with all the necessary trappings of cool spaceships, beautiful planets and interesting alien cultures. (I love the Elcor. And the speeded-up squeaky babble of the Salarians. Mordin Solus singing Gilbert and Sullivan patter-songs ftw). The bad guys are satisfyingly bad, Shepard gets to be satisfyingly heroic, and the scale is appropriately epic and prone to political back-stabbery as well as essentialist confrontation. Also, Cerberus has my vote as a highly compelling reification of human tendencies towards selfishness, self-righteousness, power-grabbing and xenophobia – they’re far more terrifying than the damned Reapers.

It’s also been a fascinating insight into the development process behind the classic Bioware character interactions, which I knew from Dragon Age I and II before I went anywhere near ME. The change in ethos across the three parts of the trilogy has been very obvious, particularly when you consider DA as interleaved chronologically with ME: ME, DA, ME2, DA2, ME3. There has been a definite change in sensibility and focus in terms of how the character interactions are framed, even within the clear, obvious and rather stereotypical tendency to give more space to romances in DA than in ME. (Presumably because sf is for Boyz and fantasy is for Gurlz and everyone knows only Gurlz do all this emotional interacty stuff. Gender stereotypes, so lovely.) ME itself was preliminary, its relationships rather perfunctory, while DA is to me the high point in terms of complexity and depth in its interactions. Thereafter Bioware has backed off a bit from commitment to well-rounded relationships, although DA2 still has more detail than ME2 does. By ME3 the relationships have become mechanical and rather superficial, thrown in, I can’t help feeling, as a sop to the soppy types who actually like that sort of thing. Because clearly, real gameplay is all about the guns and the graphics. Ptooey. (And I deeply, deeply mourn the loss of the DA-style sarky companion dialogue in the background as they comment, frequently scurrilously, on your current relationship). Nonetheless, the later games are still engaging and fun.

It also does some slightly bizarre things to character interactions to play the same character throughout the trilogy – particularly if you suffer, as I do, from lawfully good monogamous tendencies. ME2 made some odd choices, not only in the change of tone (it takes itself way too seriously, and the new squad members are too often tight-arses lacking all sense of humour; ME3’s banter levels are better) but in the decision not to allow the romance options of the first game to join the squad in the second. I spent the first ME2 play-through resolutely single and fulminating slightly at Kaidan’s damned unfair rejection, and the second one pursuing interestingly-conflicted broody aliens while simultaneously feeling unfaithful. The effect of the Bioware character interactions, particularly coupled with the high-stakes conflicts and desperate need for supportive allies, is to foster attachment. (A point which the always wonderful Ben Croshaw makes rather entertainingly here.) It’s a bit of a rug-yank to have the carefully-built-up attachment of the first game offhandedly denied in the second.

Above all, though, what computer gaming does for me is to embody an ideal of agency or instrumentality, the sense that if you’re careful and clever and persistent and thoughtful in the choices you make you can actually maximise outcomes, make a difference, save the day. Computer games at base give me the same kind of narrative pleasure as superhero films. And of course that kind of neat outcome is not at all realistic; as far as I’m concerned, realism in games should be a feature of lovely graphics and game balance, not of the story itself. Computer game narratives are heroic romance, their patterns and outcomes essentially unrealistic, predestined, the stuff of legend. I think I respond as strongly as I do to the character interactions because they, too, play out in these essentialised, idealised terms; they offer the completion and roundedness and sense of achievement of narrative rather than the messiness of the real.

All of which explains, if it doesn’t quite excuse, the fact that the climax of ME3 reduced me, as per my tweet at the time, to “the ugly crying of sheer, frustrated rage”. Previous Bioware game endings have been extremely clever in skirting the narrative knife-edge between realism and satisfaction: outcomes which are not so flat-pack heroic as to be entirely obvious, but which still deliver narrative satisfaction. This time, the shark they jumped with their dreadnought was of the more galaxy-spanning kind. The ending completely denied the careful raft of decisions, choices, moral deliberations and purposeful alliances which the three games have built up. Instead, it presented you with (a) an entirely arbitrary and unscaffolded one-click choice disconnected in all instrumental ways from your previous decisions and relationships, (b) lacking any sort of actual narrative satisfaction of the heroic sort (regardless of what you choose, you kinda die and trash the galaxy), and (c) delivered at unnecessary length in the painful, helpless, cut-scene slow motion of the more unpleasant kind of nightmare. By the end of it my throat was raw from shouting obscenities at the screen.

And I suppose the sense of betrayal is itself a testament to the success of the series to that point: the extent to which it did, indeed, present its narratives as a co-operation between designer and player rather than an imposition by the designers, and the power it has to foster this enormous sense of emotional investment as a result. I have no idea what went wrong. A lot of it felt simply rushed, as though they flung together the ending to make deadline rather than developing it properly, so that the implications were never properly thought through. I derive a certain amount of consolation from the mental image of the better writers on the series ritually disembowelling themselves in back rooms as their mutilated creation shipped. But I am sad, sad, sad beyond belief that they wrecked an otherwise lovely and satisfying thing.

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