Emotion and Mass Effect
So much ire has been targeted at BioWare and Mass Effect 3, despite overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics, I feel I need to chime in on something the franchise, including — maybe especially — its latest installment does right: emotion.
You’ve done it a thousand times: take control control of the hero, arm him to the motherfucking teeth, and gun down countless, faceless men. Brutal mass murder can be morally excused as long as the hero shows remorse for A) an innocent, usually a child or helpless female, or B) one of the game’s villains, who becomes a cipher for the hero’s humanity. Human life has been reduced to nothing, or very little, in the context of today’s games.
One of my most frustrating gaming moments in recent years was the “moral” choice before the climax of Grand Theft Auto IV; as Niko Bellic, I’d spent hours and hours viciously murdering men in the thousands, and I felt insulted that Rockstar would put such emotional weight on the decision to kill or spare a sad, treacherous drug addict. Yes, this decision would be enormously difficult if the game took place in the real world, but if the game took place in the real world Niko Bellic would be the most prolific mass murderer in history. I blew the wretch’s damned head off and drove away.
Makes sense though, doesn’t it? If you’re gonna set a game in something like the real world, the main character needs to, y’know, do something. If action gamers be your market, it’s not a huge stretch to guess guns are going to be involved, and if guns are involved, it’s even less of a stretch to guess the main character will probably be shooting something — other people with guns. I can’t complain. I love a good shooter, and I’m willing to forego realism for awesomeness.
The Mass Effect series is certainly guilty of this. Shepard tears through hordes of mercenaries with an array of brutal weaponry; s/he rips aliens apart with merciless biotics; the “Renegade” QTEs offer a myriad chances for him/her to beat or outright murder other, often sympathetic and sometimes innocent, characters. This is the way modern games are designed: we gotta shoot something.
But playing through Mass Effect 3 after replaying Mass Effect 2 made me realize something: this series nails so many of its emotional cues. I love when a game can properly convey emotion; it reminds me (and adds arsenal to the argument) that video games are art. Heavy Rain and Pascal Landale’s performance did justice to the horror of losing a child. Shadow of the Colossus and the Souls games brilliantly suggest a feeling of cripplingly sadness and detached loneliness. I’d put all three Mass Effects on the same level: BioWare’s commitment to humanism is commendable.
Look at the Normandy crash site DLC level: you collect the dog tags of all the men and women, most of whom were never named in Mass Effect, who died when the Normandy was attacked. There’s nothing much to it. The in-game rewards are minimal. You just go around and collect pieces of identification for the families of the deceased and experience the odd flashback. If you read my DLC article, you’ll notice I complained about its inclusion as “pointless,” but after replaying it I was struck by how sincere it felt. There was no run-and-gun level tacked on. Shepard just gets the chance to appreciate and say goodbye to the dead.
The best example of this is likely Mordin Solus’ loyalty mission: you take him to Tuchanka in order to rescue his ex-assistant. There Mordin — a key architect of the genophage, a disease tailored to make the vast majority of the Krogan race barren — has a crisis of faith: his logical mind, which tells him that the genophage was necessary to stop the violent Krogan from warring across the galaxy, clashes with the fact that he has basically committed a holocaust. The situation is wildly science fictitious, but the emotions ring true. Even the much-maligned DLC mission ‘Kasumi: Stolen Memory’ ends on a poignant moment: the simple act of Kasumi replaying her lover’s final message over and over.
Mass Effect 3 has lived up to that standard of excellence. (I won’t go into much spoilery detail since I know many people haven’t gotten the chance to beat it yet.) The death of a certain — and excellent — character you’ll remember from previous games, which involves no more than Shepard and a family member visiting him/her in a hospital, is remarkably tender. Unless, of course, s/he died in the final mission of Mass Effect 2; that alone makes the Mass Effect franchise worthy of note: characters can die. Not video game die, but die-die depending on your decisions. Its hardly the first franchise to do so, but knowing a character — even one integral to the plot — can leave and not come back makes them more significant.
The storyline of Cortez, the Normandy’s gay shuttle pilot who recently lost his husband, is sweet and well handled. His inclusion as one of male Shepard’s romance options has been the target of some vile homophobia, and anyone who sees his inclusion as some sort of political statement is foolishly ignoring some very fine game writing. There is a moment involving my favorite character from Mass Effect 2 that, after his views clashed with (my) Shepard’s, still has me shaking. I’m happily playing the game Renegade the first time through, but I feel reprehensible for the decision I made. The wall of the dead on the crew deck of the Normandy is heartbreaking.
No, it isn’t completely moral: like Niko Bellic, Shepard is undoubtedly a storied killer. But BioWare makes the effort to make human life, be it the lives of your crew or random causalities of the war, actually mean something. They don’t just tack on a narratively appropriate moment to show Shepard feels: they’re everywhere. I feel confident saying that BioWare’s greatest achievement with the Mass Effect series is its humanity.