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Sunday, 5 July 2015

Mass Effect and the Curse of Becoming the New Star Wars

I just finished the Mass Effect trilogy last weekend, amid reports that the next game in the series has finally been given a name (along with almost exactly nothing else). It's fair to say that as I played through Mass Effect 3, it started to consume my life, much like a Reaper consuming a planet's population (now there's an in-joke for you). Also, let me just warn you up top:

It also goes without saying that this is his favorite blog.

To give you an idea, I took the better part of a year to finish Mass Effect 1, as I was doing my usual thing of getting bored and switching out to catch up with other games. I did something similar when I started Mass Effect 2, but only had a single break, after which I powered through the rest of the game and started immediately on part 3, which I played without a single break. Probably the last game I played so single-mindedly was on the NES.

Part of the reason for this fanaticism is clearly the story. Over the three installments you guide your character, Commander Shepard, from life as an ordinary soldier to the person who saves the galaxy from the Reaper threat. At the start you choose how Shepard looks and what his skills and abilities are (I played as a dude, so I'll be referring to Shep as "he" from here on), and then you choose how he reacts to people and situations.

This all involves you more heavily than the so-called sandbox games, like Skyrim or GTA, especially because choices made in one game eventually impact later games - not to the point of keeping you from winning at the end of ME3, but they do affect who's on your team or available to help with the final battle.

One point that Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V Gordon made on their Indoor Kids podcasts relating to Mass Effect is that the combat is actually pretty bad compared to, say, Gears of War, but that the main draw is the story. While I've never played Gears, I can see what they mean - and frankly, the fact that the story's such a big part of the game makes up for it. I don't remember all the times it kept me from diving for cover (possibly because there were so many that they blur together after a while), but I do recall the feelings of WTF when I was forced to send one of two characters to their deaths, or when I found myself choosing whether the Quarians or the Geth should survive.

I believe the Indoor Kids also said something to the effect that Mass Effect was effectively this generation's Star Wars, which I find compelling but not necessarily accurate. I could quibble and say that it's more Babylon 5, but really I just don't think it has the cultural reach of Star Wars or Star Trek. Video games are still a niche pursuit, at least at the level of blockbuster games like Mass Effect - they might make jokes about the ending on shows like HBO's Silicon Valley, but I'd say it's still too left-field for something like the Big Bang Theory.

Yet it does hold up with something like the Hyperion series, by Dan Simmons (as the guest on those Indoor Kids episodes, Nick Ahrens, said). Like any good novel, the Mass Effect games present you with a wider world and the rules under which it operates - you can make certain choices (like who to sacrifice at the end of ME1, or with whom to pursue a relationship), but at the end you've gone through a set number of plot points. And like a novel, there are loads of other, smaller stories spider-webbing out of the main narrative, but here you can choose to pursue or ignore them.

Now, when Kumail and Emily said that Mass Effect was like Star Wars (again, assuming it was them who said it), what I suspect they meant is that the game had the same emotional resonance as when Luke blows up the Death Star or rescues Darth Vader's humanity. I mentioned my WTF feelings when sending people to their deaths - I also found myself heartbroken at plot points like Mordin, my Salarian scientist from ME2, sacrificing his life to propagate the cure for the Krogan genophage in ME3, resolving a giant plot thread from way back in ME1.

Because there was time to range around the ship between missions, you'd get to chat to crewmates, and learn that, for instance, Mordin was fond of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. That's one example, but the point is that Mass Effect went out of its way to flesh its characters out, which I've seen little of in the other games I've been playing lately.

As for the ending, I have to say that I'm not that disappointed. I think the extended endings were better, and Bioware should have added those in from the start, but overall I think they had the concept right. There was a sense that all your choices over three games had led to this point - control the Reapers, destroy them or live with them. As I chose my course, I had the same doubt that assailed me whenever there was a big choice, but I also had the precedent of all my previous choices - in the end I chose destruction, knowing that it would also mean the death of my synthetic crewmate, EDI, who had also powered my ship. And while that was sad, it also felt like I had to be loyal to the Shepard character as I'd developed him - the way others played would likely have led them to other choices, and perhaps that's why the game's ending was so controversial.

In any case, I've given myself a break from all the feels, but I expect that at some point soon I'll be trying again - seeing the effects of different choices and character configurations. Which is another feature of the great SF stories, whatever their medium - wanting to experience them again.