Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mass Effect: I Did It My Way

 We must live with the choices we make.

Much has been made of the romance options in Mass Effect. There has been speculation and rumor about whom you can have a relationship with, arousing all sorts of responses from fans. I used to think this was just about fanboys getting their kicks. Now I'm not so sure. I'm starting to think that it's a reflection of something else: just how deeply we get into the act of participating in storytelling.

 It's not just about having fun playing a game. When I was playing Mass Effect, I started thinking about the characters like real people. A certain baron wrote about his own cross-species interest in a certain young quarian with an unseeable face and something with mandibles. Personally, my own interests are rather closer to my own gene pool. As I mentioned before, I romanced Liara in the first game, but turned her down when it came time for the love scene. In Mass Effect 2, I romanced Jack. I didn't purposefully choose her for her species, but because I liked her best out of the available choices. The baron can tell you about a certain conversation we had in which I may have let the following slip....

It's like choosing between holding hands watching a silly movie and sitting in the back row 'heavy petting' watching an action flick.
Tali, you're the good girl every guy wants.
  You're sweet, caring, considerate, a little shy and nerdy....
  But Jack is punk and cool and has tattoos.
  And Jack has shown me her vulnerable side, and I don't want to be another man to let her down in her life.
Maybe in another world, Tali. :3
  A world where someone else is playing Shepherd.  As you can tell, I took it seriously, and that's what prompted this post. I'm a completist, and I enjoy seeing as much of the content of a game as I possibly can. I stop and search around every level to see every little hidden thing, I watch cutscenes end to end, and I ever listen to third-string characters say their spiel instead of hurrying them up to get to my dialogue. The designers spent countless hours putting this work of art together, and I feel like I haven't read every page of a book if I know there are things in a game I haven't seen. Normally, I would have explored every possible romance dialogue option in the game just to see what happens.

But I didn't. Instead of only thinking about which option would be more 'fun,' I did what I would have done in reality. I played Shep as a person, not as a figure in a game. I felt like I was playing with someone's life. Although she's nothing but some voice acting, animation, and scripted conversation, Jack mattered to me.

Jack, you are fine as frogs' teeth.

I'm not crazy. I don't have a picture of Jack I snuggle with at night. That's not what I'm getting at. For the first time, I played a game as a simulation of a real experience. When it came to the lives of the characters, I didn't--dare I say it?--play games. I wasn't seeing what would happen if things happened the other way. As I said before, I only played through the game once. I thought about going back and choosing the Renegade options, but I chose not to. And now I realize why.

By choosing one path and staying with it, I told a definitive and unique story. The choices I made were the choices. The story I saw was the story. By testing all of my options, I would see the man behind the curtain. It would be like keeping my finger in a book of Choose Your Own Adventure and seeing what was on page 17 and 183. It would be like alternate realities. But I chose to stick with one story, one reality. People have talked about whether video games can be art. In a book or a film, there is only one story. In the past, I always thought games had multiple stories, but it's not just that. There's also the possibility of just one story, my story, one I have had a unique role as a collaborative storyteller to tell. Admittedly, it's like the choice of a film editor, having to choose between pre-created clips, but even that is starting to change. Video games are evolving emergent gameplay, which allows us to tell stories in ways the developers never imagined.

I opened this post with a picture of another situation in which Shepard has to make a choice between two characters. The choice is simple: one lives, another dies. This isn't the only such choice in Mass Effect. And I can tell you that every time I have had to do this, I have laid my path and dealt with the consequences. These are the decisions a good warrior has to shoulder. To me, it's no longer just a matter of experiencing the variety of stories Bioware could tell. It's about telling my own story.

Regrets, I've had a few, but then again, too few to mention.

 I did what I had to do, and saw it through, without exception.

 I planned each charted course, each careful step along the by-way.

 And more, much more than this, I did it my way.

1 comment:

  1. I was thinking about this, and I reflected on the fact that replaying a game is a decision about whether you want to see all the new content you missed more than you don't want to see all the old content you've already seen. At first glance, it seems like a simple question of whether it's worth being bored by the repetition in order to get the excitement of the new content, but I think it also comes down to whether seeing the things you can change with your decisions can outweigh the disappointment of seeing what happens regardless of what you choose to do.

    The first time I play through a Mass Effect game, I don't know which parts are specifically tailored to my actions, so I always assume that almost all of it is. Replayings inevitably reveal that a lot of what I thought was unique to me is shown to everyone regardless of their decisions, but I think that's okay. The bits that really are different for everyone are worth it.

    When I think about the different decisions the player makes in Mass Effect, I usually think in terms of Paragon or Renegade. There is another set of decisions that I have not even begun to explore in my games, and that's winning or losing. I made sure that each of my Shepards kept everyone alive in the suicide mission at the end of ME2. That means that I'll never see all of the content they added to ME3 to fill in the gaps left by squad members who might be dead. That leads to another decision: is it worth the heartbreak of losing a character in order to see what happens to replace that character?

    You know what I'd say to that.