A Gaming Education: Mass Effect

“Erm,” I text to my friend, eruditely. “I think I have the hots for that blue alien who got pooed out of the sentient plant in Mass Effect.”

How embarrassing. And not just because I got mixed up with characters, and actually meant the blue alien I found down the mine, not the one excreted by the killer triffid. It’s embarrassing because falling in love with an imaginary alien creature from a roleplaying videogame set in a sci-fi universe … Well, does that sentence even need completing? It’s self-evident: falling in love with imaginary aliens is axiomatically Not Cool.

But I’m totally cool! I’ve got a cool hat, I’ve got yellow boxer-shorts with red robots on. I’ve got Dolly Parton on my Spotify playlist. Hats and robot undies and Dolly Parton are axiomatically more cool than loving blue aliens is not cool.

And besides, Liara isn’t just some blue alien. She’s different. Come, let me take you on a journey through love, loss and upgradeable ammo types…

Mass Effect is a series of sci-fi action roleplaying games featuring squad-based combat, developed by BioWare. Sheesh, genre definitions, eh? Us gamers can be boring at times. Basically the series aims to combine games where you chat to people and fiddle with your inventory with games where you shoot dudes in the face. The first game was a bit dull but occasionally thrilling. The second was tighter, but dropped some of the roleplaying complexity for more streamlined shooting-of-dudes-faces. The third is out ANY TIME NOW OH GOD HYPE HYPE.

No, this is not an article of hype, but of measured criticism. For Mass Effect has some deep flaws, the most fascinating of which for me concern the way it presents its narrative. I find these flaws emblematic not just of storytelling issues in BioWare games, but within Western RPGs in general. My experience with Liara is interesting because it is, conversely, one of the few examples I can cite of the genre truly arousing my emotions.

Here’s the issue, as I see it. The designers of Western RPGs confuse narrative density with narrative depth. All the writing time is spent amassing lore — piling up mountains of data on myriad invented species, on byzantine wars and political shifts and treaties, on companies, alliances, councils and organisations. Then the act of turning the data into emotion — of telling the story — seems almost an afterthought. The data gets vomited right into your face, through codex entries and utterly flat dialogue, and you’re expected to wipe it off, pick through the chunks, then assemble it into something meaningful yourself.

RPG fans, inevitably, will disagree with me. But they’re the sorts of people who read videogame tie-in novels and write Babylon 5 fan fiction on the internet. As the ever-insightful Tom Bissell notes:

“Asking an expository-lore-loving gamer whether there should be expository lore in a game … is like asking an alcoholic if he’d like a drink. (He would.)”

To be clear, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the sorts of people who write Babylon 5 fan fiction. I am a man sitting in robot-festooned underwear about to explain how he fell in love with an imaginary blue alien. I judge no one.

What I am saying is that satiating a very niche market’s desire for reams of invented data is not the same thing as telling a story. That background lore is important, of course. But only to the designers. It’s the leg-work the designers should be doing to ensure they know their world inside out. And then their job is to go away and decide what to tell the player, what to hint at, what to leave mysterious.

Because the truth is that a game — or a novel or a film — is not the story. It is the source document. The story comes alive in the audience’s mind. The source document is the magical spell that can conjure up the story. As such it needs to be crafted with care.

Or to use another metaphor, it is like composing a song. A musician isn’t judged on their ability to cram as many varied notes as possible into a piece, they’re judged on how they discriminate — on choosing the right notes at the right times, in order to evoke an emotional response from the listener.

The lore of an RPG is like the scale a musician plays within. It is the sum total of the raw material to work with, but it is not the song itself.

So it was that in Mass Effect I didn’t much care that Liara was an asari, or that she was Matriarch Benezia’s daughter — who was sort of a baddie but was being mind-controlled by the other baddie so it wasn’t really her fault. The fact I found Liara in the Artemis Tau cluster, researching a long-extinct species on a mining site on Therum, was neither here nor there. I didn’t even remember that, I used the Mass Effect wiki to read up on it just now. My brain has this weird thing where it instantly forgets information that isn’t beautiful or meaningful.

What I cared about with Liara was that she was socially awkward.

After she joined my crew I found her in the medical bay of my ship when I was exploring between missions. I started talking to her. She told me how her previous job had been solitary, how she liked that because sometimes she just needed to get away from other people.

You and me both, I thought.

Then she accidentally let slip that she found me (I’m Commander Shepard by the way, humanity’s last hope for … rescuing the Smurfs from Skeletor or some shit) fascinating. She got all flustered trying to explain what she’d meant. She made it worse. Her eyes went big, she stammered, looked away.

And she had me. What can I say? I find embarrassment sexy. Probably because it means we’ll have plenty of common ground.

Over the remainder of the game Liara and I grew closer, became intimate. I’d trudge through repetitive missions, force myself to engage with a fiction that didn’t interest me, learn which type of ammo to slot into my combat rifle, solely so that when I got back to my ship there would be new dialogue options available with my blue alien in the medical bay.

I’d grow frustrated when she had nothing new to say, get worried something might happen to her when she was part of my squad for missions, find myself excited by words from her that sounded loaded with double-meaning.

One time she told me about the mating rituals of her species. Love-making for the asari was a deep and spiritual event, forming a “connection that transcends the physical universe.” I wondered what our wedding song would be. Into the Mystic, probably. I wanted to rock her gypsy soul.

Then, the night before the game’s climactic battle, Liara came to visit me in my quarters. I chose dialogue options in the affirmative, and she and Shepard had sex. It was a tasteful cut-scene. The kind of thing you wouldn’t mind your kids watching in a PG film.

So why do I feel awkward writing this? Why would I have squirmed if someone had walked in at any of the times I was pursuing Liara?

We’re drawn to romance in fiction. Scriptwriters may learn to ensure love scenes reveal more about the characters, are integral to the plot (something BioWare should work on), but that’s not the reason Hollywood producers will rarely green-light a script without a romantic sub-plot.

Human beings are lonely animals looking for a way home. We spend our days as solitary ships tossed on a violent sea. But forming a connection with another — or watching a film about it happening to someone else, or playing a game simulating it — momentarily reminds us that we’re not little ships at all, that at the root of our consciousness we are the waves themselves, and the shared ocean stretching ceaselessly below.

Maybe it’s the interaction involved in a videogame that unnerves us. Isn’t wooing a pretend woman who responds to my input a little like … well … owning a robotic sex-doll or something?

Except the romance in Mass Effect has nothing to do with sexual gratification. I wasn’t flirting with Liara so I could see her polygonal breasts. I was thrilled by the feeling of a connection. Liara may have been pretend, but the people who created her are real. The voice-actor, the designers, writers, animators … The magical spell they used may have been in the shape of a blue alien, but the emotion they conjured was entirely real.

I’m playing Mass Effect 2 at the moment. The early events of its narrative force Shepard apart from his old crew. I have a new ship now, a new mission. Mass Effect 2 found save files from the first Mass Effect on my hard drive, so it remembers the decisions I made in that game. When I enter my quarters now, nestled among the model spaceships, data terminals and mission-critical dossiers, sits a framed photograph of Liara. Looking at it I feel a sense of loss, as, I believe, does Shepard.

We’re cool with games that simulate the orgiastic joy of combat, the satisfaction of silent take-downs, the horror of mutilated corpses. Why do we still feel so uncomfortable enacting a simulation of two people connecting with one another?

19 Comments

Filed under Game Ponderings

19 responses to “A Gaming Education: Mass Effect

  1. Pingback: Pretend Best Friend « So Far Untitled

  2. Sam Rhodes

    Awesome as always, good to hear from you.

  3. Pingback: The Sunday Papers | Rock, Paper, Shotgun

  4. Oh, sir, if you wish to see some seriously fascinating Liara-based story (and more of that lovely emotional impact that you can get out of the relationship dynamic between her and your Shepard), then you absolutely must obtain and play the Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC.

    It was absolutely spectacular in terms of picking up your relationship with Liara and factoring in everything that happened in the two years since the two of you last met.

    • Rob

      Hey, yeah a friend was telling me the exact same thing yesterday. Looks like I’ll have to make the purchase. Thanks for the tip!

  5. luckz

    Because people for you to connect with are out there in the real world.
    Outside you don’t take down people, mutilate corpses, orgiastically vanquish foes. I hope.

    • Rob

      I disagree that the only aspects of life that deserve to be simulated are the ones you absolutely should not perform for real. What about the value of exploring your responses, exploring differing outlooks, of roleplaying? The act of play, which is what this is, allows us to grow and mature as individuals and members of a society, as well as being valuable for its own sake.

  6. Rob,
    Note that Bioware writers CANNOT make the romantic moment plot-critical as you request, at least as long as they make it optional.
    My Shepard did not manage to create a romantic relationship with any companion across both games – I find that this somewhat sad fact is part of her story, her make-up. To hang the main plot on that means I’d have either missed a huge part of the game, been made to establish that relationship, or required Bioware to create that much more content.

    • Rob

      Hey, thanks for the comment. I love that your Shepard ended up alone, and that that is now part of your connection with her. Fair point about the romance essentially having to be optional. It can still be built from where the story has been though, and can and should still reveal character. A sex-scene is still a scene, and should be intriguing, personal, powerful, meaningful. The scene with Liara was flat and generic — it could have been between any two people in any situation in life. Think of Butch, and his girlfriend asking him for “oral pleasure”, in Pulp Fiction. The scene wouldn’t have played out in that way if the plot before had been different (she’d been waiting up for him, worried how the fight went; he was back in the motel and safe, his plan coming to fruition) or if the the characters were different. There’s none of that personality or truth in Mass Effect, just a man and a blue alien moving together quite coyly.

      • Yep, the scene could have been one better, but that can probably be said of most scenes in most games :)
        I guess they’ve made a generic sex scene that the participate can be replaced as required by the player’s choice of paramour – keeping player choice and (voice, animation, writing) asset cost down, at the cost of a weaker scene.

      • Rob

        I can see that that might be true, but if so it’s pretty interesting that BioWare sees things like the narrative worth of its scenes as something it can scrimp on to keep costs down. But yeah, I’m only criticising constructively. I loved some of Mass Effect, and was disappointed by other aspects — of which some, I felt, signified deeper failings of the industry as a whole.

  7. day

    Reading this made me feel warm after a cold day. Cheers!

  8. Darren "the space Adonis" Lewis

    I’m declaring myself part of the Parkerist movement. I absolutely love Mass Effect (despite it’s flaws) and the way they have developed their core game design so the subsequent sequels still come across as relevant to the current gaming climate. However, I don’t think I have ever actually read a single of the hundreds of unlocked codex entries, arms construction dealership descriptions (I mean who really gives a shit about the history of the company that made the pistol they are using) or any other source of additional information on the universe lore. From playing both games multiple times, I’ve gleaned all the information I’ve needed from the many interactions and conversations with NPCs to make the story both engaging and interesting to me. Bioware have done an excellent job of conveying this information through their extensive script and I find the additional expository information to be entirely unnecessary. On a lighter note, are you going to stay faithful to Liara through ME2 or has Miranda’s genetically enhanced figure started to tempt your eye? My first character was also swayed by the prospect of some interspecies loving from the bisexual Asari, but as I saw him as a Captain Kirk style character, also couldn’t resist the chance to see just how good the genetic modification of Miranda had been as well as hooking up with Liara again in ME2. Roll on ME3 so I can see just how he’s gonna get out of that little pickle…

    • Rob

      Thing with the lore, it’s not that I hate it per se. It is optional, after all. Problem is that too often RPGs will put all the effort into creating the lore at the expense of the actual story, which should be about people, not construction companies, and should be elegantly related. I mean I remember being a kid and (to my shame) reading up on X-Wings and A-Wings and Snow Speeders (which I recall weren’t actually called Snow Speeders, and could obviously be used in conditions other than snow) — who they were made by and on what planet and whatnot — on Rogue Squadron on the N64. But what’s important is that I was geeky kid wanting to discover more about a universe that had captured his imagination. It wasn’t the Snow Speeders that had enthralled me, but the powerful human drama played out in the films. This was the heart, around which all the extraneous information could be draped. RPGs too often feel like extraneous information draped on a skeleton of dust, with no beating heart in the centre.

      P.S. Mass Effect 2: that cheeky personal assistant on the Normandy has got my eye. Harmless workplace flirting though, I’ma stay true to Liara.

      • luckz

        The “human drama” in Star Wars is so painfully cheesy and formulaic that I feel ashamed a little every time I think of it (for liking something that spawned drivel as bad as that Episode 1 sawmill/child).
        I only like the “construction companies”.

      • Rob

        Hmm. I’d say the importance of forgiveness, and love being the only way to conquer hate, are what Star Wars is about. Those themes just play out while the characters are in X-Wings.

  9. Brandon

    I have just stumbled upon this article while performing research on how video games educate the population, specifically teens. I agree with you on your points, relationships are something that should be teaching how to connect to people. I had a very similar play through. The first time, however, I never knew I could have romance (which was probably OK since I was young). I first got into a romance with Miranda and felt that same connection, always worried she would get hurt etc. I found myself keeping her with me at all times during the suicide mission so to make sure I would be there to protect her. It may have sacrificed other members of my squad but I cared greatly for this woman. After playing the third game and having my romance be almost forbidden and kept under wraps, only getting that connection with Miranda again briefly or in downloadable content was sad and I felt that loss. I played through all three games again with Liara and found an amazing connection. We were much more compatible, but with her absence in the second game I went back to Miranda. Liara noticed. I believe games need to emulate real life relationships and situations, just in fictitious worlds and situations. The teenage population can “practice” love in a completely safe environment and build strong connections, all while in the safety of their home.

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