Posted tagged ‘science fiction video games’

Mass Effects 1 and 2, Some Reflecting

June 29, 2017

Sometime ago, around when I wrote the Dylan/Anthem post, I think, I finished Mass Effect 1 and fired up Mass Effect 2.

I’ve played Mass Effect 1 plenty, made it to the end three (now four) times, yet I’ve only moved onto Mass Effect 2 once (now twice). I’m not sure which game I like better. Mass Effect 2 is way more intense and I fell hard for it the first time around. That was the main reason I was never able to play it again: too many feels. It’s been like 5 years, though, so I think I’m good. I even have thoughts like “I should come back and play this as ManShep, see if it feels different”. (All while those 3 months of WoW I bought trickle by unused.)

As much as I adore the Mako, or perhaps the idea of the Mako, Mass Effect 1 has too much boring “drive around the mountains” for this impatient completionist’s taste. But while others complain about the dated graphics, I find them charming. (My age is showing, I guess. Back in my day, we played our video games uphill through the snow without shoes. Or something like that.) As for the overall story, I don’t grab my monitor with both hands screaming “WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?” like I do when playing Mass Effect 2, but I’m completely engaged nonetheless. I’m totally intrigued by the future and Citadel space and can spend hours wandering around, talking to NPCs, moving my camera to trigger “Hit (E) to examine”, searching to discover more, more, more. My gamer soul was forged on the anvil of RPGs, so Mass Effect 1 caters to my intincts and comfort zone, however, Mass Effect 2 is so fun and exciting that it taught me that I could be rewarded by giving action/shooting-style games a chance.

Then one day, someone on Reddit (I don’t post on Reddit or even have an active account – self-preservation strategy – but I lurk) linked Shamus Young’s Mass Effect Retrospective as a reference when discussing Mass Effect 2’s writing faults. I did a double-take. What do you mean Mass Effect 2’s faults? Mass Effect 2 is the Internet’s favorite Mass Effect. It can’t possibly be that faulty!

I went to give it a skim. “A skim” turned into 3 nights of intensive reading and reflecting when this retrospective turned out to be a 50-part dissertation, published over the course of a year, on the storytelling in Mass Effect. The language is intended for a casual audience, but the depth and structure could easily be at an academic level. One of the most interesting things I’ve read in years. Highly recommended to anyone curious about the mechanics of storytelling, even someone who’s never played Mass Effect (or any video game, really). Then I went and bought his books because, seriously, that man has a gift.

Anyway, his analysis made sense of my feelings toward the series, in particular about how my love of Mass Effect 1 is different from my love of the two later games, as well as the intensity of my feelz while playing 2 and 3. I can’t recap pages and pages worth of discussion nor compare to his expertise, but I would like to highlight some major points relevant to my personal story-enjoying experience (with my own conclusions and interpretations mixed in, just in case someone happens to read my blog and thinks “that’s not what Young said!”):

1- The Shepard team in Mass Efect 2 consists of characters who, for the most part, are multidimensional, sympathetic and entertaining. They’re introduced with a backstory that you can usually partake in, and you directly observe their development (and the development of your relationship with them) through an engaging loyalty quest. It’s never made clear why you actually need some of them (why do we expect an assassin to be useful beyond the relay? a justicar? a thief?) but it doesn’t matter because you’re just grateful to have met their awesomeness.

2- The main storyline is only loosely connected to Mass Effect 1 (Collectors vs Reapers). It kind of comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere. Why are the Collectors/Harbinger after Shepard personally? How did Harbinger even find out about Shepard? Why is the Alliance doing a half assed job with its human colonies? Why do the Collectors want to make a human (as opposed to an asari or other) baby reaper? What does Shepard actually do in the Collectors ship since EDI doesn’t seem to need Shepard at all? Why is there only one Collectors ship? How did they find the dead reaper? Why wasn’t it found before? What do/can we learn from the Collectors base? The questions go on. Shame because I believe it would have been possible to properly intergrate the Collectors and the resulting story experience would have been mind-blowing.

3- The game is inconsistant about Shepard’s fit in the world. Some people heard “rumours” about Shepard being alive and working for Cerberus, other people know for sure and other people have no idea. Which makes sense until you realize “who knows what” is kind of random. Dumb kid on Omega sends you an email after you bump into him, while people with high intel access and motivation (such as ex-boyfriend and Important Alliance Guy Kaiden) are clueless. Some people are midly surprised you’re alive again, others aren’t fazed at all.

4- Cerberus is all over the place too. It makes sense that Cerberus would have different cells with varying ethics and ideals (I think this is very cool), but you don’t see much beyond Lazarus and ME1’s Kahoku’s questline (and maybe Overlord? Haven’t reached it on this playthrough yet.) Clearly, they’re able to attract lawful good personel like Jacob and Kelly, but you never learn anything about their lawful good endevours. Sometimes they go above and beyond for their employees (on the Normandy there’s a talk in the crew quarters about someone’s family being evacuated by Cerberus from an at-risk colony), other times their scientists are abandonned to a fate of insanity on a dead reaper. I think it would have added a lot to the story to be able to learn more Cerberus’ structure and key players beyond TIM. (It may be addressed in the books/comics, but I believe it would have added a lot to the game if details were included there, maybe as side-quest rewards for those who want to go above and beyond.)

5- The Illusive Man feels like a great tool that no one knows what to do with. I think he’s supposed to be a superhero story style evil business mastermind villain. This has tons of potential but interactions with him seem to have no purpose but to confuse and irritate me the player. I used to think it was just me because I’m easily confused (you know when you’re at the movies and there’s this kid who’s constantly asking “who’s that? why is he saying that? where are they going? why are they there? I’m the quieter, more polite grown up version of that kid.). Turns that being sent aboard a Collectors’ ship that was powered down by Turians, only not powered down by Turians but by the Collectors themselves as a trap, by TIM who knows it’s a trap and doesn’t have much reason to send you there and who doesn’t have to lie to you since you’re curious about Collectors and follow his orders anyway to keep your ship but still lies to you is actually confusing to everyone. You never get to properly tell him off and he never gets to shut you down by being right although unethical. All your interactions just end with you rolling your eyes and moving onto the next mission.

These brought me to the realizations that:

1- The characters are so much fun that you don’t care if the main storyline is just an excuse to go on adventures with your fictional friends. Before my replay, I had actually forgotten about the story in Mass Effect 2. I remembered Shepard dying and being reconstructed, I remembered recruitment and most of the loyatly missions, I remembered a suicide mission where you have to asign your squadmates to appropriate tasks, I remembered Kaidan being an ass after you save his life, I remember being creeped out by TIM. I didn’t remember about Collectors, what they were, what they did and where they came from. I didn’t remember any of the actual conversations with TIM. I couldn’t even remember what I was doing with Cerberus. None of that stuff really mattered because I was too busy enjoying my time with Shepard and her crew.

2- The unexplained parts of the story are hinted to be “explained later” (for example, when you ask EDI about Cerberus’ funding, she says the information is classified so you think “oh, something will happen to unlock this”), then you’re then distracted by shiny events and by the time “later” rolls around, you’ve forgotten all about wondering where Cerberus gets their ressources (or why Wilson wants to kill you). I think this is a big difference between books and movies versus video games. When you’re reading a book or watching a movie, you’ve got nothing better to do than sit there and process the story. In a game, you have to choose your gun, scan the room for treasure, kill the trash mobs, read your quest journal. It’s pretty easy to distract players from lacking story elements and if players do notice, most won’t care unless the distractions aren’t enjoyable enough.

3- I was so heartbroken by the ending because the elements fueling my love for the series were 1)pride in my work in making the galaxy a better place, 2)my dear companions and 3)a Shepard that I pretty much worshipped. The ending 1)undoes my hard work, 2)takes me away from my companions (and never properly tells me what happens to them, though the extended cut is an improvement) and 3)destroys Shepard (even the scene where people say “Shepard survives” is useless to me because you don’t see her in the epilogue). I have been offended when told “you just wanted a happy ending”, but after proper reflection, my offense comes from “happy ending” being a simplication. I think I wanted an ending that doens’t consist everything I like about the series being stripped away and thrown into a fire. Or beam of light or whatever.

So after a week of reading and reflection, I’m ready to get back into the game. Have a couple of loyalty missions to redo (I screwed up my romance with Garrus by choosing the wrong options and my best option is a save from two missions ago…I vaguely remember doing that on my first playthrough too. Apparently the right options are obvious, but I always miss them. I suppose I’m as dense as he is.), then some side quests, then off to collect Reaper IFF.

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Coming up for air after Mass Effect (*mild spoilers*)

June 16, 2012

I picked up the Mass Effect series shortly before Mass Effect 3 hit the market. Friends (notably this friend and this friend) kept telling me how much I’d love the games.

In the sci-fi vs fantasy division of the world, I’ve been sold to fantasy. It happened on my 10th birthday when my mom’s cousin bought me the first Lord of the Rings book. I’ve been fixated on medieval stuff for so long that the idea of playing a sci-fi game just didn’t get me hot and bothered. But then I liked SWTOR. And if I liked SWTOR, it wouldn’t hurt to give Mass Effect a try.

So I bought the first game for cheap during a Steam sale.

Where it all begins.

Once ME3 had been out for a little while and fans were outraged at the piss poor final moments of the series, friends started to change their minds. They urged me to stop playing, to get out before it’s too late.

I understand. They were trying to spare me heartache.

I played anyway.

I don’t regret it. I am saddened by how Bioware painted a masterpiece and, instead of putting on the finishing touch, set fire to it. My heart does ache.

Despite the unsatisfying wrap-up, though, Mass Effect did reach into me and yank my imagination to new places. For the first time in a long time, I completely lost myself in another world. They were real to me: Shepard, Garrus, Kaiden, Liara, the others. The intensity was unexpected.

As I crept close to the credits, I cried big, round, juicy tears. You know, with shaking shoulders and reaching for kleenex and the whole deal. Not because of the ending itself (which really wasn’t very moving), but because it was over. I had to cut ties with these characters and this world that had invaded my mind for a short, but powerful, time. It hurts so much, but it was so worth the journey.

Bossy Pally and Mass Effect: A Love Story

It did take me awhile to bite on. Games have come a looong way in the past 5 years. Back in the day, we were patient. We were cool learning things by ourselves. We didn’t mind not getting it right on the first try. I hadn’t realized how badly modern games have spoiled me.

Mass Effect, the first one, starts off with a short, unhelpful tutorial. Once you sort of have an idea of how combat works, you’re dumped in puzzle-adventure game mode for a few hours. Once the game is sure you’ve forgotten everything from the tutorial, it ships you off to your first real mission. Mission, of course, where the mobs easily one-shot you if you don’t move right. Mass Effect and I wouldn’t have even become friends had fellow gamers not stepped in to give me pointers.

Next thing I knew, I’d beaten the first Mass Effect three times and got all achievements except for Insanity, AI Hacking, Assault Rifle kills and 2 last companions. (Note that I did beat the game on Hardcore. Insanity will be my next run-through.)

Graphics have come a long way too!

Mass Effect 2 and 3 didn’t have the same replay value for me. It’s sort of a good thing, really. It’s that, early into ME2, I fell hard. Hard. Like falling from the 30th story onto hot, black pavement hard.

For about 3 weeks, I barely ate, I barely slept. I spent my work hours in a daze, counting the minutes until I could go home and play. Any breaks I took involved me lying on the couch with cold compresses on my eyes, trying to relieve the strain of staring at a computer screen for hours on end (I know, I know, I should have gotten the 360 version). I played the fuck out of the game.

Aaaand the ME2 Shepard!

Same goes for Mass Effect 3 (which was included in the 3 weeks of obsessive gaming). I lived the story, I left no stone unturned. I redid a few missions to see how they could go differently. I even had to restart ME3 a few times, just to get Shepard to look the way I wanted.

That’s what happens when you wait until you’re finished the game to take all your screenshots: boring pics from your last save.

It’s a huge emotional investment, you know, getting involved in a game like that.

Commander Shepard

I think someone asked me once what the appeal of Commander Shepard is. I was still playing the first game on repeat at the time so I didn’t know the answer. Shortly into ME2, the answer is obvious:

Shepard is the space hero every kid dreams of being.

The game even takes into account that while every kid has, at some point, dreamed of being a space hero, our space heroes differ in flavor . And for the first time, I had a game who let me be a space hero the way I wanted to be a space hero.

I found that the first game gave me the most freedom to explore Shepard’s personality. As the series advances, her personality, interests and limits were a bit more pre-determined. I’m not sure what I think of it. On one hand, I missed being able to make Shepard exactly the way I want, on the other hand, I did enjoy just sitting back and being surprised by her reactions. I guess that as the game went on, she felt less like a fantasy-enhanced version of myself and more like a friend that I really click with.

The stats are what? 18% of players play as FemShep? Sounds low, but it does translate to 1 out of 5, which could be right. I loved FemShep. I’ve never been one to care much about my representation in the media, but I definitely enjoy a chunk of media more when I can relate to the main character. Generally strong female leads tend to be portrayed as men with a woman’s body. Or they start out good, only to succumb to Western society’s notion that in order to be happy, a woman must fall in love with daddy-figure and trade in her life of adventuring for diaper changing.

They did a good job with FemShep. She’s tough, she’s logical, she can hold her liquor pretty good but she’s got a warmth about her that makes her feel like your girlfriend. I’d totally have a girls’ night out with FemShep any day. And in her romances (at least the ones with Kaiden, Liara and Garrus – but I’m sure Jacob and Thane follow the same pattern), her partners are drawn to her because they admire her. It’s refreshing.

Between the excellent writing and Jennifer Hale’s brilliant voice acting, I can’t even imagine what Shepard would be like as a guy. It just wouldn’t seem right. (Though I’m sure I’ll do one playthrough as BroShep, just to see. Plus, I’ve met Mark Meer and that man has a sexy, sexy voice.)

Leaving the Mass Effect Universe

I’d only been playing for a few weeks and I was prepared for disappointment, so my last impression was one of “could have been worse“. No matter what direction the story had gone, I would have still sobbed my poor little heart out, not because of the story, but because it had ended.

But I definitely feel for the long time fans who’d been waiting years to save (or gleefully destroy) the galaxy. Had I not been expecting a let-down, the random, half assed ending would have felt like a slap in the face to me too.

I can’t, for the life me, understand how anyone thought this would be a good idea. (I’ve also heard accusations that the Mass Effect ending was plagiarized from Deus Ex but I’m not familiar enough with Deus Ex to judge.) The first two games had excellent endings. And they were simple endings. Mass Effect ends with a “good job”, Mass Effect 2 ends with “lets bury the dead if necessary and submit our reports”. Both were predictable, because, well, that’s how epic stories end.

Mass Effect 3 could have easily gotten away with “lets start rebuilding the galaxy and show how all our favorite characters are getting on with their lives”. Have Shepard-alive and Shepard-dead endings (some people prefer their heroes to live happily ever after, others prefer sacrifices). So what if it’s not creative? The entire series was creative. Mass Effect took video games and storytelling and world building and science fiction to freaky levels. There was no need to try to fit a weird last minute twist into the story.

I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but personally, what I would need in an ending to get a perfect experience of the game is a slow tribute to the main characters and to the world they lived in. A gentle disconnect from the mindspace I’d submerged myself in. Some time to pay my respects.

Basically, a proper chance to say goodbye.