By John Walker on December 4th, 2008 at 5:58 pm.
For the second game of Christmas my true blog gave to me… well, you’ll have to click on to find out.
It’s Mass Effect!
I never got on with the downloadable content for Mass Effect. For a storywhore like me, Mass Effect gave me both a large, established history to investigate, and within it, something self-contained with a beginning, middle and end. While the universe was left with vast, unanswered questions, for Shepherd and her gang there was closure. My cast of characters had achieved their goals, and it was time for a slap-up tea and high fives all round. Why on Earth would I want to go back in time – with them in particular – and delay their success?
The combat was an interesting departure for Bioware, almost getting into a third-person action place, which of course gave me cause to worry it wouldn’t be delivering what I want from their RPGs: big old conversations with my companions, and on-the-spot ethical dilemmas. But of course they were there in force. (And often as daft as usual). And I came to quite enjoy the fights, and most of all, bouncing around planets in that spacecar.
So while you were always pursuing rogue Spectre, Saren Arterius, and attempting to fathom the mystery of the Geth, the real story was one that had happened in the past. An elaborate recent history of the colonisation of space, and the Human’s latter involvement, as well as a far greater story that’s only hinted at throughout, about the very nature of conscious existence in the galaxies. These levels of magnification mean that Shepherd’s story, while of course vital the continued survival of almost every species, seems almost quite minor. But it’s still your story, and I think the role you play only feels more meaningful for its being set within the larger framework.
The scale allows a sense of tragedy to permeate throughout, and never more so than when you discover the Prothean’s underground preservation chambers, intended to save them from the Reaper attacks. But of course all that remains is an AI, long ago having had to turn off the cryogenics to keep itself running. Death is everywhere, and has been happening for an awfully long time. It offers perspective.
If there was one aspect I’d like to have seen explored more – and in fairness, it was explored quite a lot – it would be Humanity’s fledgling role in the universe. Obviously we join the story after the most momentous events, when Humans discovered Mass Effect capabilities and learned they were not alone in the universe. This is such an interesting time as Humans shift from top predator to bottom of the pile, and the game prods at it, most notably with the pursuit of a seat on the Council, but I’d love to have seen it take it further. Human arrogance is talked about, and as a species they’re already not liked by other “minor” races for even being considered for a Council position so soon. But I’d have liked to feel the effects of this a bit more. See what consequences it had had on Earth’s politics, what extremist fractions had occurred (beyond experiencing racism), whether it had dramatically affected the Human psyche.
I’d love to play a prequel set during the earlier times of transition. In fact, if Bioware want to give me a job I’ve got a few pitches… But in the meantime, Mass Effect was a real highlight of 2008 for me. I think Shepherd’s specific tale perhaps felt slightly trivial (despite the implied impact) within such a fascinating context, and perhaps this was in part because of its non-linear paths and side-quests, which let me muddy the story as it progressed. It became hard to differentiate clearing out a bunker on a remote planet for the sake of finding some ancient runes, or doing the same for the sake of the main plot. But I’m left with memories of a rich story, and the part I played in it. I remember Shepherd and her relationships. I remember saving the universe.
Kieron: John’s pretty much nailed the appeal of Mass Effect really. In fact, more than anything else, it’s Mass Effect which allows me to stay hopeful for Dragon Age despite its somewhat iffy I-am-in-armour-i-am-the-armour-man-+3 aesthetics. Mass Effect felt like a lived in, well designed and relatively novel Science Fiction universe. Most videogame fictions don’t really have the sense they could support anything other than random shooting of other characters. Mass Effect did. I have no idea what the Mass Effect novels are like, but there’s no reason why they won’t be good. I’m actually surprised there isn’t a tie in comic – and I dare say there will be when the second part comes out. And it’s one of the games that’s been licensed for film which abstractly could work.
(Er… that “It will be a comic” isn’t me pitching for work, by the way.)