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Mass Effect 1: ‘Never underestimate the power of words’ (A Mass Effect Retrospective part 2)

Posted in criticism, Uncategorized, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2017 by drayfish

GAME PLAYED: Mass Effect (base game); DLC: ‘Bring Down The Sky’

To Read Part 1 of this Retrospective

Mass Effect title screen maxresdefault

In the beginning there is fear.

The first game begins with Shepard staring out into the inky black of space, over a planet that either is, or is meant to evoke, Earth.  Back when I used to replay this series, that expanse of possibility was delightfully vertiginous.  The journey ahead but a series of potentialities, none yet realised.  The player, like Shepard, was able to look ahead and wonder at what was to come.

But now there’s fear – because I already know it all leads to one place.  Awash with recollections of the series’ grandeur and disappointment; the prophesy of oncoming darkness and ruin that is about to be vomited into Shepard’s brain already gnawing away at my memory.

So I was wary when I fired up the game again after all this time.

And yet, to my delight, I found the experience to be instantly, gloriously reaffirming.

Beyond the comforting thrum of the menu music, which still evokes in me a kind of Pavlovian response of joyful anticipation, beyond the visuals and mechanics that hold up better than I’d feared, and even acknowledging that my affection for the series might lead to some blind spots in my critical thinking (I have always adored that beautiful Mako, wonky handling and all; hell, I even like the elevators – yes, really), I maintain that the first Mass Effect is still one of the most perfect marriages of form and function in any text, videogame or otherwise.  Its narrative, and the mechanics through which it expresses itself work in unison to create an experience that is thoroughly absorbing and profound.

You play the game, but the game plays you.  And together, through an intuitive conversation between audience and text, both are elevated, entwined in an understanding that validates the journey shared.

Mass Effect ashley and kaiden

The What

Mass Effect’s detractors might call it merely a pastiche of other great sci-fi texts.

It emulates the universe-building of Star Trek, the tone of Blade Runner, the political manoeuvring of Babylon 5, the pseudo-magical powers of Star Wars, the ominous dread of Lovecraftian horror, and revolves around a cast of oddball loners on the fringes of respectability somewhat like Firefly.

The first response to such an accusation would no doubt be: So what?!  Are you serious?  That sounds incredible!

And indeed, it is.  So shut up, imaginary naysayer guy.

But the more successful rejoinder would be to point out not what Mass Effect borrows, but what it offers that is purely its own.  Because Mass Effect presents, unique to any sci-fi universe ever crafted, the opportunity to truly discover an unknown universe; to use one’s own thirst for understanding and perspective as a videogame player to propel the way in which the narrative and its themes open up in an act of cooperative exploration.

To its credit, the game initially does this by placing its player and protagonist in a disempowered position.

This might sound strange for a game centrally concerned with the first human being accepted to the Spectres (a galactic police force who effectively answer to no one), who receives a prophesy that leads them on a crucial, universe saving quest, but despite this grandiose premise, the game manages to largely avoid Bioware’s now patented You-Are-The-Chosen-One-Messianic-Rise-To-Greatness narrative structure.  In this first foray into the Mass Effect universe, crucially, humanity are the underdogs.  And Shepard too – although already a decorated soldier when the plot begins – has to scramble to get respect.

Unlike in a universe such as Star Trek, where humanity has become a dominant force in galactic politics, charting new frontiers and leading by example, here humanity is the plucky, spry, slightly obnoxious newcomer to the galaxy.  When we stretched out into the stars (on the back of alien technology we merely stumbled across), we immediately began poking our noses into everyone’s business, accidentally picking a war with a dominant species, and aggressively trying to weasel our way onto the council of the universe – something that other races have not been allowed to do for a millennia.  Consequentially, we are often viewed with suspicion, contempt, or pity by the other races that see our eagerness as folly.

Thus Shepard too is frequently met by distrust and condescension – by dignitaries, police officers and merchants, who hold various prejudices against the human race; by the council she eventually works for, who patronisingly refuse to believe the evidence she is gathering; and even, at first, by her crew, some of whom join her for their own purposes, but eventually come to admire her goals.

The first Mass Effect game makes the series’ best case, both in plot and play, for the benefits of being hampered, but persisting in spite of the constraint.  Mass Effect is about struggle; about sucking it up, taking your knocks, wrestling with the wonky controls of the Mako (gods, I love it).  It’s not about being indulged and told you’re great all day.  It is only in Mass Effect 3 that the lazy Jesus metaphors start up in earnest, and in Andromeda (it appears) when you get to be the ‘chosen one’ and ignore your cheeky imperialism while bro-fisting your pals.

In Mass Effect 1 (and 2) the universe actually gives very little damn about you.  It is only in caring about it, in spite of its contempt for you, that you not only earn your place, but can be part of the effort to join together and make it better.  For all out faults, it says, we human beings are tenacious; and that is one of the traits that makes us thrive.

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The Why

The other feature that both Shepard and humanity have in abundance is curiosity – something that likewise marries beautifully with the player’s experience and the design of the game.  Humans might be underpowered, underrepresented, and unrespected, they might be tethered to the training wheels by alien races that look down upon them with misplaced sympathy, but we (and the player) are inquisitive.

We ask questions that few others seem to be bothered with.

Why are there Keepers on the Citadel?  What the hell are they doing?  Why is there all of this Prothean crap littered everywhere across the galaxy?  Who set up this government?  And why?  So what’s the deal with Spectres?  How can you have strictly enforced ethical codes if you’ve also got a secret police force that answers to no one?  Why did the Protheans leave a little mass relay statue in the Citadel?  That seems a little weird, no…?

While the bulk of the other races are seemingly content with profiting from the technology they suspiciously inherited from an unknown ancient race, Shepard and the player explore the whys of this universe, asking questions, seeking answers, and gathering a band of misfit aliens who likewise want to upend conventional wisdoms, so that together they can uncover some uncomfortable, dangerous truths.

And all of this feeds beautifully into the game play experience.  It’s why Bioware’s signature dialogue wheel was such an ingenious development, and still feels so inspired.  It invites and rewards exactly this kind of inquiry.  It satiates curiosity, but even more ingeniously, it allows for emotional responses to the revelations that unfold.  Not only does asking questions and considering options open up the central narrative, it also advances that other great attribute that speaks for humanity’s worth: it encourages empathy.

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It’s what makes Bioware’s decision to require player input for all of Shepard’s dialogue so significant.  Throughout the game Shepard does not utter a word in conversation unless directly prompted by the player.  Literally every line has to be selected, for tone, or inquiry, before she speaks.  It might sound like a small detail, but this direct contribution has a distinctly different feel to the distancing auto-dialogue that creeps into Mass Effect 2 and overtakes Mass Effect 3.  For a game fundamentally about the ways in which language binds people, every sentence feels like an incremental building of your distinct Shepard, rather than a shading of the predetermined character the game requires.  This is largely just an illusion, but it is an artful one, uniting player and character in a fluid, grammatical expression.

Exploring dialogue about other races and cultures, considering the rationale behind other moral codes and other ways of life; the game encourages the player to observe the disparate ideals that can unite a biodiversity of thought.  The game proposes that kindness, consideration and respect can be universal – particularly in the face of an unfeeling, omnipresent threat that seeks to crush all life different from itself.

(In the second game, this thesis of curiosity and empathy would be extended further – on the micro scale through sharing your teammates’ emotional baggage on their personal loyalty missions, and on a macro scale, by exploring hostile races like the Geth and an artificial intelligence like EDI.  In Mass Effect 3 this invitation to cultivate empathy and investment would be largely abandoned.  Rather than introducing new societies and personalities – allowing their perspective to sway the player’s experience – the conclusion of the trilogy spent its entire run time cynically exploiting the investment cultivated by the first two games.  The narrative’s threat was powered almost solely by the devastation of the familiar as races and companions from the past games were wiped from existence, the player trying to save what little they could from the galactic bonfire.  The trilogy’s conclusion did not invite the player to invest in the experience of others so much as gormlessly threaten what was already beloved to evoke a visceral, persistent sensation of loss and dread.)

Over the course of the first Mass Effect the player meets floating brains, bird/lizard people, elephant creatures, sentient space crustaceans, asexual blue sirens, jittery amphibians, ‘roided out reptiles, migrants hidden beneath non-descript protective suits.  It is a breadth that would never be matched by its following games (curiously, not even in the new, larger scope of the Andromeda universe, as many of the established races are now M.I.A.), with each race having different styles of speech and grammar and distinct behavioural practices.  Some races communicate through aromas, and so had to actively describe their tone of voice so as not to be misunderstood in translation.   Some huff through breathing apparatuses, or hum through fluctuations of light.

And you are encouraged to get to know them all.  To ask them questions.  To learn their ways.

mass-effect-1-squad

You can pepper the members of these different cultures with queries about their politics, history, philosophy, businesses, finances, and family.  You can explore hot button issues like religion and slavery and genocide and environmentalism and crime.  You can probe them on everything from the effects of technology, to their eating habits, and their thoughts on space prostitution.

Consequentially, it is a game centrally concerned with knowledge.  Information becomes power, both as a play mechanic (asking more questions, being more persuasive or threatening, opens up greater options to the player) and as a recurring part of the plot.

You are tasked with solving a sci-fi detective story, so fittingly, along the way you meet people who manipulate information, withhold information, bargain information for power.  You are forced to deal with representatives of spy networks, cult leaders, scientists pushing their research to its limits; corporations and company stooges block you, reporters interrogate you, ambassadors try to spin your actions for their own agendas.  You hear the media, at the behest of the military, manipulate the truth of what you confront on the frontline into numbing lies spewed out across the presidium radio.

Your team-mates likewise pursue answers – some gathering new information to offer their migrant fleet, some hunting for intel into criminals that eluded them, learning something about themselves in the process.  The villain you pursue likewise uses information about an oncoming threat, a truth that has poisoned his mind, to twist and misuse fear to indoctrinate others to his will.  And the entire journey is motivated by a cryptic info dump jolted into your head in the game’s first mission – a prophesy of unknown devastation that you must spend three games unpacking and seeking to comprehend.

Thus every interaction that fleshes out this world, binding you to it, is reiterating the same theme: that knowledge, the language of understanding others, is the most transformative power of all.  As the esteemed Asari consort (who you are encouraged to assist deal with a scandal of leaked misinformation) says:

‘Never underestimate the power of words.’

So fittingly, you make friends with pariahs and hotheads and renegades, academics and warriors, people on the run from the shameful actions of their past and casual space-racists.  You collect a team of charming weirdos and you shoot off into the stars to make your own way together.  A merry assortment of colliding ideals and agendas, all proving the game’s hopeful thesis that with respect and curiosity, even unfathomable cruelty can be met and ultimately overcome.

Mass Effect Normandy_feros

The How

This sense of exploration – both ideological and physical – is exactly why seemingly trivial things, such as being able to draw or sheathe your gun at any moment (a feature stripped out of Mass Effect 3), using the Mako to trundle across the tundra, or travelling in elevators (which didn’t’ survive past the first game), become so important in Mass Effect.

Arming and disarming yourself wasn’t just a neat visual; it was emblematic of the fluid grandeur of the game.  It indicated that you really were at the mercy of an unfamiliar universe at all times – not just in predetermined, spotlighted ‘fight’ scenarios.  You might round a corner at any moment, even in the ‘safety’ of the Citadel, to be confronted by assassins; the survivors you try to help on some blighted wasteland planet might surprise you with a threat.  These vast environments live and breathe, and you inhabit them along with everyone else, rather than just blasting through on the way to the next scripted objective point.  You were there to explore, and never knowing from where danger or aid might appear, that journeying was fraught with peril, made the whole process richly rewarding.  The act of adapting to this ebb and flow of conversation and conflict, being able to vacillate between the two by pulling or replacing your weapon, therefore further enmeshed you in the grammar of the game.

The same was true of being able to rocket along the surface of planets in the Mako, exiting to wander on foot any time you wish.  Indeed, while I know many in the past have criticised these long sojourns on alien planets as barren, palate-swapped ranges largely devoid of life – it is hard to deny their beauty, and for me this loneliness only enhances the experience.  By the time you return from the wilderness back to Asari civilisation you are desperate to reconnect with people, to deep dive back into the game’s conversational systems and glean more from these societies that have sought for meaning amongst the emptiness of space.

Mass Effect 1 earth

Similarly the ability to board ships that you found floating in space; or to infiltrate facilities speckled throughout the stars; or selecting you and your party’s equipment and armaments; or even the act of physically watching yourself enter or exit the Normandy, going through quarantine scans and handing over command to the XO when you became part of the shore party; the whole game, at every level, encourages you to feel your freedom and isolation at once; investing you in an unbroken experience that evokes a sense of being truly out on the frontier, exploring a real universe.

Even the much maligned (I think very unfairly) long elevator rides that punctuate the game not only enhance the sense of this being a real universe that you are navigating, they allowed companion characters to converse: sometimes with playful banter, other times enabling two races with complicated histories and generational animosities to respectfully debate, to learn more about each other by valuing one another’s point of view.

In a time of videogame critique in which ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ has already become an obsessive buzzword for anything even momentarily immersion breaking, this decade old game still stands out for the way in which its design only deepens the engagement its players feel, with every perilous exploration, question asked, or elevator ridden, only further embedding them in its fiction.

mass effect elevator

The Huh?

As I indicated in my previous post – what is most remarkable about the first Mass Effect is how fully realised it already is in this its initial outing.  While the gun play may improve as the series goes on and while some of the themes alluded to here might be fleshed out further in Mass Effect 2, this first game fulfils every promise it makes.  Each major story beat and theme is explored and brought to a resolve; there is a sense of cohesion to the several sci-fi narratives it explores – from an Aliens-like facility infestation lockdown, to a Thing-style colony overrun by an ancient extraterrestrial mind control, to an assault on a cloning facility, several run-ins with robot zombies, amoral paramilitary groups gone wild, and a gloating inscrutable Cthulhu beast – and a thrilling resolution in the way that all of these elements ultimately converge, revealing the terrible secrets of an ancient cycle of imminent devastation at the heart of every space faring society.

The series really never does tie its plot together so elegantly ever again.

(An argument might be made that it is not until we meet EDI and Legion in the second game that the potential of this narrative’s exploration of Artificial Intelligence is fully explored, but even here the first game in the series leaves enough ambiguities and subtle clues to imply that this inexorable journey toward synthetic sentience is not as simplistically dangerous as the characters who oppose it would have you believe.  From the gambling AI that has slipped its programming leash, to the moon based system (subsequently revealed to be a prototype for EDI) that has developed a sense of self-preservation and actually feels pain, to the moment that you stumble upon a facility of Geth and find these hostile robots have been listening to a mournful old melody by their Quarian creators, a song about regret and lost innocence, the player is repeatedly invited, should they wish, to view the inevitability of artificial consciousness as something more complex than a binary good or evil.)

And to my mind this is easily the most climactic ending that the series will go on to offer.  For all of the personal dramatic stakes of Mass Effect 2’s suicide mission, even it cannot compare for scope or theme.

After finding a way to interact with the last surviving knowledge of the ancient Prothean race that you’ve been chasing the entire game, you infiltrate the Citadel via a backdoor built surreptitiously into its design (a doublecross of their doublecross), fight your way up the innards of the structure in zero gravity, straight toward the looming spectre of a sci-fi Lovecraftian demon, arrive back at the chambers of the council you were appointed to serve, battle your rogue adversary (or persuade him into a moment of sanity to stop himself), issue orders to the armada of ships engaged in a raging space battle outside, making decisions that will dictate who survives the fray and remaking the face of galactic politics for generations to come, and survive certain death, crawling out of a pile of rubble that used to be a mouthy wannabe god.

There is so much fist-pumping spectacle and elegant narrative resolve that even though you are left desperately wanting more, it is more from enthusiasm and a love of the universe than a sense that you were cheated of anything.  The conclusion of Mass Effect 1 operates much like the ending of the first Matrix film.  The creatures threatening humanity might not be gone, but the hero of the saga now knows what they are up against, and is resolved to see it through.  Like Neo’s phone call to the code, the smile breaking on Shepard’s face as she strides from the rubble is more than enough to know that the Reapers – whatever their goal – will never succeed.

And like the Matrix film, perhaps it would have been best if it had have just left it at that.

Mass Effect Screenshot3597.1

The Rub

Is Mass Effect perfect?  Absolutely not.  There is little to no reason to gate every surveyed mineral deposit or archaeological find you run across behind insipid quick time events.  Why anyone should need to press five buttons in sequence simply to loot a mummified corpse is never adequately explained.  And although I think that the Mako is an unjustly maligned joy, it is true that the planets you are asked to traverse with its help are frequently lacking in thoughtful design.  They are often beautiful spaces to look at (even if some of them are barren colour-palate swaps), but when you spend half an hour sliding in place unsuccessfully attempting to ascend a sheer rock face to gather up one objective marker, it’s easy to lose patience with the whole process.  (Speaking of which, whoever designed the planet surface of Nodacrux: please go straight to hell.)  Also, to get really picky, that film grain filter they put over everything to give it a noir aesthetic is the very first thing anyone playing the game should switch off.  The game is far prettier than that filter suggests.

Also, I would be lying if I tried to argue that the wondrous promise of the first game isn’t still somewhat marred by the narrative slurry it is destined to slide into in Mass Effect 3.  This is far more pronounced when returning to Mass Effect 2 (which I will discuss in the coming weeks), but not even this first game is immune.  In particular, the plot-twist moment in which you speak to Sovereign is entirely undermined.  When one first plays this game, hearing Sovereign speak to you is chilling; a shift in your character’s very sense of reality as you realise that the object you thought was just a looming space ship is itself actually an ancient sentient creature of untold devastation.  But now all of Sovereign’s threats and pontificating ring utterly hollow.

I would never understand your grand, unfathomable purpose, huh, Sebastian the Dark Matter Crab?  Well, your pals give me the Cliff Notes version in game three, and not only is it very ungrand and super fathomable, it’s complete asinine.

But overall these gripes are miniscule when weighed against the splendour of everything else this game achieves.  There is a thoughtfulness and care and polish to everything here that makes the entire experience, on every level of design and narrative and character, thoroughly absorbing.

In  my replay of Mass Effect I was delighted to find that not only is the magic of the series still present, it has seemingly only intensified with age, as so many other series (Mass Effect itself even) have strayed from the absorbing world-building it accomplished.

Perhaps my biggest surprise, however, is that I have come to discover a flaw in Mass Effect’s marketing…

All of that talk about ‘big impactful decisions’ that was used to spruik the game is actually something of a misunderstanding of its real concern (and no, this is not me being snotty about how none of your decisions will ultimately matter in Mass Effect 3 …although, yeah, that too).  These promises of ‘consequential choices’ that were made in its advertising (and often misleadingly guaranteed by the game’s creators; I’m looking at you, Casey Hudson) often only add up to some minor shifts in the narrative, or in the superficial behaviour of some of the game’s personalities.  At their most extreme – most evident in this first game – these choices might lead to the death of certain characters that will not be seen again; but the essential plot rolls on, unrelenting.

But that’s fine, because what Mass Effect is actually concerned with is the context surrounding decisions.  Not what decision you made, but why you made it.  What impulses led you to decide, with the little information available, how to react to a situation?  Save the Racchni Queen or kill her?  Bargain with Wrex or put him down?  Trade intel with the Shadow Broker, or tell him to screw off?  Do you have faith in the goodness of others, or are you more pragmatic?  Are you focused on the mission at all costs?  Willing to gamble on luck?  A fan of minor chicanery or a straight shooter?

For all of the promises of future revelations that they offer, what the decisions in Mass Effect really provide is an opportunity to expose your own thought process.  Just as you interrogate your companions and enemies throughout the game in order to understand them and their worlds, the game reveals itself to have been questioning you.  What kind of player are you?  What kind of person?

It is a conversation through play.  It wants to get to know you, and offers the chance, if you are willing, to better know yourself.

It’s quite an achievement.  You stare into the RPG, but the RPG stares back into you.

Mass Effect climax

Next Time: Mass Effect 2: ‘Suicide is painless.  It brings on many changes.’

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