By John Walker on August 26th, 2008 at 11:03 am.
I’ve been playing lots of Mass Effect recently, because as a leading games critic it’s essential I stay ahead of the curve and keep my finger on the pulse. A mere nine months after buying it on 360 and then never playing it, and then blagging a PC version only three months after its second release, I’m on the case.
It would probably be controversial to say that BioWare‘s three most recent RPGs, Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, and Mass Effect, are all exactly the same game in a different setting. Because Mass Effect’s setting is quite similar to KotOR’s. But what’s rather fortunate is that they change the combat style in each, so there’s always something unique to complain about on a forum. What’s also important to note is that they’re all three flipping ace, and I love them. They just… they just tend to do this one really silly thing.
One thing I really want to do is go and sit down with Dr and Dr BioWare, and be having a regular chat, probably asking questions about Dragon Age or something journalistic like that, and then suddenly in the middle of it all I’d shout, “MY SISTER WANTS TO GET AN ABORTION! WHAT SHOULD SHE DO?”
When they look scared and ask what I’m talking about, I’d only offer them the very slightest pieces of information about the situation, probably saying that the unborn baby might have some sort of horrible disability and she doesn’t want it to be born to suffer, but her husband is currently away at sea and unreachable (because it’s happening in the past or in space or somewhere where radio signals don’t work) and won’t be able to have his say. I’d only give them two possible answers, and their stuttering, unprepared response would decide the fate of this unfortunate foetus. And then I’d ask them about how the Sonic license first caught their attention.
I’m not sure, but I don’t know if RPGs are quite the place to try and resolve the most controversial and devisive subjects of our day. Well no, that’s not true at all. They could be, but perhaps in a setting slightly more dignifiied than as a result of overhearing a conversation on a street, and then immediately being given life or death decisions to make for complete strangers.
It just happened to me in Mass Effect. I’m back in Space City One (I don’t pay much attention to names – if you ask me, I’ll tell you what all the companion characters are called in my head) and trundling about the confusing bridges, popping in to see people who need to know about the contents of crates on distant planets, and I pass an arguing couple. Being a paragon of virtue (seriously, you should see my Paragon status. I haven’t quite matched my immediately being a glowy angel like in KoTOR, but my goodness-o-meter is almost full) I of course stop and ask them what’s up. Oddly they don’t tell me to fuck off, but rather immediately adopt me into their family and confidence, and explain the skeletal nature of their dilemma. They’re brother and sister-in-law, and her kid might have some illness. But she’s heard on the news that the treatment for it is potentially dangerous, and doesn’t want to risk losing her child treating him for a disease he might not have. Her husband just died, and the brother says she’s acting out of grief, and that she should just take the treatment.
So we’ve got ourselves a cipher for the MMR debate. You find out the stats, and the chances of having the illness are reasonably high, and the chances of the treatment causing problems are 1 in 300. But she’s heard this news story, and she says what if her kid is the 1 in 300? DECIDE THE CHILD’S FATE!
So, as anyone with a modicum of scientific reason knows, there’s no evidence that the MMR vaccine causes harm. Utterly none. But that’s hard to keep relevant when you’re a mother of a baby, and you have to make this decision without any expertise of your own about whether the evidence is correct and there’s definitely no chance of your kid getting autism… Good grief, this suddenly got a bit heavy. Which would somewhat be my point. This is a completely inappropriate subject to appear in this jokey, silly post. And it’s far too big of a subject to decide on the bridge of a scifi game for a couple of strangers, before I carry on looking for that last bloody Keeper to scan that I cannot find anywhere despite combing the entire place three times.
I really love that BioWare include these tough choices, but I wish they’d include them in a slightly more dignified way. I wish they’d be part of a larger story, a continued struggle of conscience where decisions are made based on multiple conversations, varying expert and inexpert opinion, and a wealth of emotional and emotive situations. I want to be forced to contend my scientific reason against the irrational emotions of those in the throws of a situation. I want to wrestle with the toughest subjects, with data and passion from people on all sides trying to sway me to their way of thinking. I think, in these fleshed out circumstances, an RPG could be the most remarkable place for getting to grips with matters like abortion and euthanasia. I think because they’re the sorts of subjects it’s completely pointless to talk about in the pub, because it inevitably descends into people entrenching themselves in their currently held position and then hurling stones at the other side, that the RPG would be a space in which the emphasis of thought and consideration would be squarely on you.
Bizarrely, I told the bridge couple that it was her child, and her choice, and as a consequence he had the emotional breakthrough of recognising his motivations were not as pure as he had claimed, but rather because he wanted to hold onto this last piece of his brother. But that’s not what I think! I would have gone through the statistics of the situation with her, had her talk with doctors, and encouraged her to go with the scientific odds. But I was given two choices and one cop-out. Side with her, side with him, or leave them to it. Really, I think the right answer in that situation should have been to leave them to it, but dammit I’m playing a videogame and I’m going to see what the consequences of my choosing would be. I’m interested that I went against type and chose her. But that was because the situation was so peculiarly binary that I was really deciding: who has a right to make a choice about a baby, the mother or the uncle. Well, the mother then. That I want to clobber people who ignore science and risk their children’s health because of reading idiots misreporting facts in newspapers was suddenly irrelevant. And more, that I think that wasn’t challenged by the situation. In the end, the encounter oddly cheapened a serious topic.
It is great that BioWare aspire beyond most other developers when creating their games, and I love that the worlds are rich enough to have space for recognising universal subjects. Occasionally it works – the woman who had transfered her love for her dead husband onto her missing droid in KotOR was especially splendid, but mostly because it played out as a quest, rather than a conversation, and the situation was remarkably complex. You could force the droid to stay with her, leaving her in a perpetually futile relationship and the droid trapped against what he knew was best for his master, but her apparently happy. You could free the droid, and in doing so force her to face her grief, potentially destroying her. You could even kill the droid, and then go back to her and tell her it was still alive and she should keep looking for it. Muah ha ha! But it was a droid, and unique to a science fiction world, and it gave you space to discuss and explore the subject. It wasn’t a morally ambiguous situation on which you’re forced to flick a giant fate-deciding switch before you can quicksave, which unfortunately is the more typical.
I can’t wait for Dragon Age. But I do rather fear I’ll be wandering through some remote village, searching for the missing mystic rune of Grogglefanaar, when a local baker’s wife will ask me to decide whether she should allow her sickly husband to die against her doctor’s wishes.