Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Gamer Drama: A Story Critique of Mass Effect

My summer quest to beat games that I own but didn’t have time to play since they came out begins with the first Mass Effect game. Begins? On August 7st? Granted, I finished the game last week, but I haven’t had much time to write the article, considering all the work I need to do and my obsessive play-though of the new Tomb Raider (a Gamer Drama review of that will be coming soon!)

In case you don’t know, Gamer Drama is the name for my collection of video game reviews. As you can tell by the title, I focus on the story-telling aspects of the game—setting, plot, characters—though I often comment on game-play mechanics, graphics, and glitches. Read on for my analysis of Mass Effect’s story line!


In case you didn’t know, Mass Effect is a Western RPG (I use this term to distinguish from Japanese RPGs, which have incredibly different game-play mechanics) set in—wait for it—outer space. Oh, you knew that? Whelp, anyway, in the game you control a character named Commander Fill-In-A-First-Name Shepard in a galaxy that has only recently been opened up to humanity. The main story mission is presented to you early on in the game. You find out that a Spectre (often presented as a space cop or secret agent with questionable amounts of power) named Saren has been up to naughty things, and is conspiring with mechanical beings (geth and Reapers) to bring about the end of the galaxy as we know it. Think of them like an intergalactic League of Shadows (from Batman Begins)—they have been behind a series of purges of intelligent organic beings throughout history. Shepard, with his or her team of aliens and humans alike, is tasked with stopping Saren and Sovereign, a Reaper.

So, basically, as Shepard you are tasked with saving the universe while improving the position of humanity in intergalactic society. So, you know, no pressure.

The Setting

Like all RPGs, the universe in Mass Effect is vast. Shepard visits many solar systems and planets from the central hub of the galaxy—the Citadel. The Citadel is the centerpiece of the new world that human life has entered since the beginning of intergalactic travel. It houses the governing body of the universe—a council of a conglomerate body of governments—as well as economic and security arms of society. The Citadel is home to representatives of at least nine other races, each with their own societies and disposition toward other races—especially the human race.

While the Citadel is fascinating, as a microcosm of the game’s universe, the rest of the open world of Mass Effect can be a little underwhelming. Exploration consists of fast-travel to different systems, and the majority of planets can only be observed from space. The game gives more information about some planets than it does others, and a small few can be landed on. Many of these planets are carbon copies of each other. There are three types of environments, none of which are particularly alien. Each planet has different atmospheres, some of which are deadly, but that’s only shown by a “damage” bar that comes on screen when you exit the Mako.

So, in conclusion, I think that the world-building (it’s so weird to use these terms when you’re talking about a space) is hit-or-miss. The society represented by the Citadel is engrossing and captivating, but the rest of the universe seemed flat. Here’s hoping the universe becomes more defined in the rest of the games.

 The Characters

As the main character in an RPG, Shepard doesn’t have a distinctive personality beyond that you give him/her. You form Shepard in every way—you decide everything from Shep’s past to Shep’s looks, to how Shep develops relationships with everyone around him or her.

So since Shep is a blank slate for the player, the characterization falls more heavily on the shoulders of the people around Shepard. Of particular importance are the members of Shepard’s squad—Kaidan Alenko, Ashley Williams, Urdnot Wrex, Garrus Vakarian, Tali’Zorah nar Rayya, and Liara T’Soni. The amount of character development you get for your squad members depends on how much you interact with them, and how often you take the character in your “away team” (yes, I’m a Trek fan). The more you interact with each character, the more information you “unlock” about your squad member, and the better you can relate to the character. I usually had Kaidan, Wrex, and Garrus in my squad, and I completed the Loyalty mission for Garrus and pursued a relationship with Kaidan. By the end of the game, I was extremely fond of all of the characters. At the same time, I found Ashley to be a little annoying. I think I figured out why, though. People on message boards seem to be fond of the characters that they interacted with most often, and brought on mission with them. Like me, they seemed to find those characters they didn’t use or interact with to be “annoying”. These characters become more developed for us, and we understand their motivations and the context behind their dialogue.

I was trying to figure out what to say about Saren and Sovereign, but I was kind of stumped. By trying to work through that, I realized that I thought they were kind of flat. They seemed like cliché villains, with cliché motivations. Saren was a good-guy turned evil, due to the insurmountable challenges facing the Citadel. He subscribes to the “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” method of existing, I guess. Sovereign is introduced near the end, and is basically just there to act as the game’s Big Bad (yeah, I’m a Buffy fan, too). I wish I found the baddies to be more interesting, but they didn’t really capture my imagination or my attention. I took the threat of species annihilation seriously, but Saren and Sovereign weren’t intimidating in and of themselves, which kind of detracted from the urgency of the mission.

(My favorite character? Joker. Probably because he’s voiced by Seth Green. I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for Seth Green since I was in elementary school.)

The Payoff

For the longest time, I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere in Mass Effect. I felt like the story wasn’t cohesive, and that I was spending too much time doing other things. I voiced this concern to my boyfriend at one point in time and he said, “Well, obviously, you’re playing an RPG.” I guess I got caught up in the FPS elements of Mass Effect for a while, and forgot about the very nature of an RPG. I really thought about Mass Effect as two different games: the main storyline, and the side-quests. They feel very disjointed: I’ve played quite a few RPGs in my day, and I think the side-quests here feel the most detached from the main quest as any game I’ve ever played. But that could just be me.

Despite not being too intrigued by the villains, I did feel very devoted to Shep’s mission. I was obsessed with the game in my last five or six hours of playing it. I powered through the last three or four steps of the main story line—didn’t eat, sleep, or go to work—and sucked it in. I felt very fulfilled by the end of the game. I felt like my choices had consequences and that I was able to stay true to the Shep I had created throughout the game. This is the most important part to me. Too often you play an RPG, and the end of the main quest nullifies or refutes most of the choices you’ve made. I feel like Mass Effect respected the Shepard I had tried to build.

I also thought the final battle in the Citadel was breathtaking. I really enjoyed how it wove the game play (with Shepard and the squad) with cut scenes of the battle in other places. I was wired for hours after the game ended, and I can’t wait to get back into the Mass Effect world.

Grins and Gripes

  • I played Mass Effect through Steam on the PC, and there were sections near the end of the main storyline where all characters and “props” you could interact with turned into lumpy, black shapes. I thought it was a problem with my PC, or my download, and I went to the message boards to try to figure it out. Apparently it’s a problem many people with many different computer parts experience which leads me to wonder—why wasn’t there a patch for this? It’s difficult to play a game when you can’t see what you’re dealing with.
  • While I did enjoy the romantic subplot for whatever weird reason, I was a little put off by the fact that it’s a relationship between a commanding officer and his/her subordinate. I think it would have been even more uncomfortable, in my point-of-view—if I had played in the role of the male Shepard.
  • It took far too long for my squad members to become useful in battle. My comrades were dropping like flies up until the last three quests of the main plot. I really just wanted to leave them on the Normandy while I went out to save the world. Don’t worry boys, I’ve got this.
  • The main plot is very short. I have the ability to immediately move on to Mass Effect 2 and 3, so I’m not too bummed by this—especially since it ends on an excellent note. If it was 2008, though, I would be incredibly depressed. It took me about 16 hours for 100% completion.
  • The voice acting is absolutely great. Sometimes I’m guilty of putting on subtitles and putting the volume down, but I didn’t do that for Mass Effect. The music is also a great homage to sci-fi, without being cliché.

Rating: 7/10

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