By Kieron Gillen on May 20th, 2010 at 4:13 pm.
So, I sexed a lizard and saved the universe. A little later than everyone else, but not too late to share a couple of sets of thoughts. The first follows, as it’s an area I don’t think people have wrestled with enough. It’s also as spoilery as spoilery can be.
John reviewed it and Alec was troubled about whether it was an RPG or not. I tend to side with the position Jim forwards in this week’s podcast – that it’s not actually a reduction of the RPG but an extension (or even apotheosis) of the shooter. It’s something which the-artist-previously-known-as-Cliffy-B has picked up on, talking about it influencing Gears of War 3, which does make you wonder whether the homoerotic subtext will bubble over into inter-party romance, with Marcus struggling to decide whether to pursue Romance options with the mighty thews of Dom or with the locomotive-sized arms of the Cole Train.
What’s interesting about Mass Effect isn’t how that it’s cut away from the RPG – what’s interesting is that how, by using techniques of the RPG, it expands a shooter. The traditional way for a shooting game to extend the appeal of the same mechanics is multiplayer. At least in the modern days, a straight shooting game almost always starts to drag after 15 hours. By drawing from the RPG toolbox, they’ve managed to extend that to at least thirty hours, without ever outstaying its welcome. The 20-seconds-of-fun of Halo rhythm is turned into a dual structure – the five minute loop (Five minutes of shooting, followed by a little plot element which gives you a reason for the next five minutes of shooting) and the one-two hour loop (the basic length of an episode of the game, moving from conversation to combat and back again). And the main reason why putting greater weight on the shooting works is because – to state the obvious – the shooting’s a lot better – and any RPG tropes which distracted from the thrust of combat has been jettisoned. The enormous inventory of weapons approach is a distraction from the combat, if the combat’s good enough. The enormous inventory says “This is a game about choosing your weapons”. Mass Effect is a game about shooting that weapon. If it’s an RPG, it’s an RPG which understands that Conan spent his time cutting apart dudes and making out with ladies, not shopping.
The key part of the game which pushes you on is the plot. And the plot, as many have noted, is primarily the cast and the trouble. The actual main arc is somewhat slight, with the majority of the game’s long second act based around gathering your team-mates in a Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven fashion (I’m pretty sure that Thane’s initial inspiration was Kyūzō/Lee. And if not them, at least Gelt from Battle From Beyond The Stars). Then, with team gathered, the actual end-game is short-and-sharp, about the similar length of the final act of any normal-length shooter. The team head in on their suicide mission? Will anyone survive?
And it works, better than any shooter end-game in the last few years. My heart was in my mouth the whole time. I haven’t felt as much affection for a group of computer-controlled team-mates since the Chaos Engine, at least. I simply didn’t want any of them to die. Even Jacob.
Actually, let’s talk a little about Jacob, as I feel a little sorry for him. Yes, he’s the boring taciturn straight-man, but dramatically speaking it’s natural that he and Miranda have to take that job. If you drop someone with a lot more flair as Cerberus’ representatives, you change the nature of the organisation. Drop a Jack or a Thane, and you have a bleak, black organisation which is full of fundamentally broken people. Drop someone with crazed charisma like Mordin, and they’re loveable funsters. They wanted Cerberus to be played straight and competent, so they had to have people to play straight and competent. I also think Jacob was something of a missed opportunity as a character, if only because he’s the odd man out. By which I mean, he’s just a man.
One of the things which Mass Effect 2 is good at is in amping up the implied power of your supporting cast. These just aren’t people you’re with. These are characters of real note. On one hand, you have the scientific prodigies, designed to be perfect – whether they were created (Jack, Grunt) or trained (Thane) or both (Miranda). On the other hand, you have characters who – by their actions – have performed acts which shaped the entire universe (Zaeed as founder of one of the Mercenary organisations that hounded you, Mordin as the primary architect of the twist of the Genophage). And the ones who aren’t that, are positioned as the highest part of their species – Tali is a foremost genius, Samura as a member of a genuinely legendary order and Legion (though novelty, even if nothing else) is clearly unique – the first Geth we’ve ever talked to. Note how they re-introduced Garrus, as a mythological creature of Omega’s underworlds, preying on the cruel like Batman with a sniper-rifle. They make him alien to you, to make you think of him in a way other than simply “your old friend”. These are big people.
Jacob’s just a guy. A well trained guy who’s done some impressive things… but nothing compared to everyone else. He’s in the top .1% of humanity, I’m sure… but everyone else is something like .0000001% in their species. As such, he must feel like a complete dolt. It was easy for me to feel a little sorry for him, and be aware of what it must take to walk in this company. I suspect if they made this explicit, it may have been enough to actually endear him to more people – “I’m not as good as everyone else, but I’ve got to try” is a character motivation which resonates with most people, because that’s how most humans tend to view themselves. But they didn’t do it, and these thoughts totally didn’t stop me dumping his sorry ass when I realised I could sex a choice of not one, but two lizards. Truly, Mass Effect 2 is the game heptophiles were waiting for.
Anyway, its structure strikes me as interesting for two reasons, both of which I think other developers could do well at looking at.
Firstly, it’s we talk a lot about games being based on films. Mass Effect 2 isn’t. Mass Effect’s structure is far closer to a television series – and not necessarily one with the tight MUSTWATCHEVERYEPISODEORYOUWILLNOTUNDERSTANDAFUCKINGTHING structure that’s currently popular in geek-media. The semi-loose one. There’s a main plot, sure… but an episode is an episode. I found myself thinking about Firefly as much as Battlestar Galactica, as the recruitment and loyalty missions acted as spotlight episodes on each characters, at first introducing and then resolving them in our minds. Each character’s loyalty mission is, basically, as Firefly’s Jaynestown is for Jayne. The final suicide mission is the equivalent of the double-length season finale. When viewed through this prism, the finale seems far less truncated.
Secondly, the whole middle-section is fundamentally a machine for making you give a toss. Remember: the plot is gather a group of people and take them on a suicide mission. The suicide mission is the punchline, the Damoclean sword looming over them. And the mission is only half of it – the key point is that it’s a “suicide mission”. And that long middle act is about trying to make you imprint on this bunch you’re leading to almost certain death. Putting aside the rest of the crew, it has 10-12 people in the core cast it wants you to have a preference on whether they live or die. As evidenced by the length of the middle, it takes a long fucking time to do that. And, in a world of limited development resources, if they wanted to have that many characters – and that’s an “if” I’ll return to in the second part – they made the right decision on stressing the caring over the main arc and finale.
Because the fact you do care makes the finale the aforementioned heart-in-mouth ride. You’ve spent the last twenty hours building up the power for this final confrontation – gaining the crew’s loyalty (which, as mentioned earlier, also has the effect of them gaining yours) and saving to acquire the upgrades for the Normandy which may give you the edge. And in that final confrontation, you see if it’s enough. You can see – or imagine you see – in every cut-scene, places where it could go wrong. Because you know it can go wrong – it’s been foreshadowed by the forced-failure of the abduction of your entire crew (and, it should be noted, a forced-failure which just about gets away with it, which is a rarity ). As you’re in the final steps before the assault, the ship’s corridors silence speak to seriousness of the situation. What could go wrong?
So, as you progress through the battle in the shadow of a black-hole, the choices weigh on me. Who to lead the fire-team? Who to send on the surely-suicide side-missions? I know I’ve prepared about as much as you could. I know that I’m making what are, I suspect, the sensible decisions – Garrus leading the other squads, because he’s both competent, experienced, loyal and not as hated by everyone else as Miranda. I mean, I’m not going to put Jack in charge, y’know? Similarly, when it comes to keeping up the Biotic field, it’s the girl with the ink I’m going to turn to. Your whole life has been building up to this, girl. Let’s save the godamn universe.
So, yes, I cared. I wanted to save them all. If I was going to be the universe’s Messiah, I was going to be theirs too.
In the end, I lost one. I sent Hard-nut mercenary Zaaed to escort the Normandy’s crew home. I suspected it would have been a suicide run, and already felt iffy for risking the Geth Legion in the tunnels. I couldn’t send Legion. Zaaed made sense. He’s a warrior – he could get through. And if I had to lose someone… it’s you, man. I’m sorry. A flicker of guilt when the report of him being gunned down saving them all comes through, but it’s only a flicker. As sacrifices go, it was even narratively satisfying. On his own mission, I lost his loyalty by insisting he go and save the people he endangers instead of pressing on with his hunt for vengeance. So him dying protecting people… well, makes sense. I’d like to think that in his final moments, he knew that. I also know, it’s not true, and as the Collectors took him down he’d be thinking FUCKING SHEPHERD HAS GOT ME BLOODY KILLED! THE FUCKING COW!
A flicker of guilt in the mission, I said. It hardened into something else afterwards, when I went to his memento-filled quarters, and found it just as he left it. Bar him. Oof. I got you killed, and I did it deliberately. Sorry, man.
But the rest I saved. I’m glad. As the final cuts-scene of the game proper, with my own dirty-dozen (minus a couple) hanging around the bay, I smiled. It turned out okay.
I wished it hadn’t.
That’s the thing. As warm as I felt towards them, I knew I’d have felt better feeling worse. The films which inspired Mass Effect 2 realised this, making you fall in love with the Samurai and Cowboys and military-bad-boys and then mowing them down. Supporting cast? They live to die. Writers are on some level sadists. We make you care because we know then we can hurt you more, because making you feel is what you came for.
I played the game pretty well. I was prepared as I could reasonably be. For all the preparations to be enough… well, it seemed to undercut the theme a little, the sense of desperation and heroism against overwhelming odds. Thanks to everything I did, the odds weren’t overwhelming. What was a suicide mission was actually… just a mission. The back of the box has a final line: they call it a suicide mission. Prove them wrong. By allowing you to do exactly that, by denying the game an Aeris moment if you play it well, is the thing I think which will keep Mass Effect 2 from a long-term position as a top-rank classic. As it is, it’ll just have to make do with being the prime contender for game of the year.
Another thought struck John and I when talking about the game this morning. If you simply power through the game, without doing any loyalty missions or any extraneous talking, I dare say you could do it in about the length of a normal shooter. Then, since you’re entirely unprepared, in the end-game would see your whole crew gets wiped out and your Shepherd dying, falling to the death after the destruction of the Collectors is ensured. In other words, experience the tragic ending which – on some level – I wanted to see. The irony being, the main reason why this would resonate, why seeing Jack get taken apart due to the insufficiently armoured hull, seeing Thane die while hacking in a tunnel, for everyone to fall and not get up again would move me wouldn’t be anything in that playthrough. It’ll be because of the memories of the previous game, when I considered them friends. If someone actually played the game this way, careless and slapdash, I suspect the deaths of your crew would mean little.
Still: Fantastic game. Next time I’ll play terrible back-seat designer and say where I think the future for Mass Effect and its children should be.