Estimated reading time: 4 minutes —
Yordie’s excellent posts about Becoming Someone Else reminded me of my duty to write part 2 of the Avatar Series I started. I must say I love her articles, which do not only have a better title, but even feature the five points I made up and describe how each of them are presented in Second Life. As a non-SL player, it taught me a lot about how SL as a world can be experienced. Hopefully I’ll be able to achieve the same today, because I’ll write about a world not all of you might be familiar with: Mass Effect.
Avatar & Identity – Mass Effect (1 & 2)
Avatar & Identity – Star Wars
Avatar & Identity – Lord of the Rings Online
Avatar & Identity – Conclusion
Shooting, aliens & strange planets
If you have heard about Mass Effect before, the picture above probably sums up your expectations: it has something to do with shooting, aliens and strange planets. And to a certain extent, you are right.
Yes, Mass Effect involves shooting, and a lot of it. You run around carrying a terribly effective weapon with you all the time, which you’ll have to use during the many occasions that evil aliens cross your path. Now I must tell you a secret: I am terrible at shooter games. Not only because I don’t have any practice, but also because I just can’t bear to shoot down other people (or animals, for that matter). I just hate it, even if they’re evil aliens or something. So I sort of had a problem there.
Eventually I did a very unfeminist thing: I let my boyfriend play all the violent parts for me. After a part would be completed, he’d hand the keyboard over and I’d deal with the rest of the gameplay. And while this would certainly bore me to death in any other game, it worked for Mass Effect. For I dare stress that you spend most of your game time like this:
This is my avatar, Lupine Shepard. She is sitting in a dark hangar, on her way to the next battle, wherever that may be. What is she thinking about? It is not a happy moment. Perhaps she is thinking about all the innocent people that were and are getting killed, or of how tired she is of fulfilling her duty. The shooting is not what this game is about, it’s a necessary evil. And this brings me to – what I think – is the core that provides the Mass Effect experience that made so many embrace this world and its avatar: the story.
The world of Mass Effect: Talky & Techy (1:27 – 8:26)
(Pro-tip: stop at 8:26, as then the subject will be over and we’ll get spoilers about Mass Effect 3.)
Telling a story
I think you can compare Mass Effect best to a crossover between a book and a movie. While in form more like a movie, the time you spend in there, the amount of details and therefore the story are more that of a book.
As in every good book, Mass Effect’s story is written so that you always just have the right amount of information to keep gameplay exciting. You know there’s danger somewhere out there, it has a headstart on you, yet you are the one of known civilization that has the most knowledge and power to do something about it. Without you, the world may very well be lost. This knowledge, combined with a process of unraveling more and more secrets, creates a tension that keeps the game exciting. What lifts Mass Effect above the average action game, though, is an amazing sense of reality and the occurrence of many overarching themes. These are the first to pop up in my mind:
multiculturalism – prejustice – gender – identity – friendship – nationalism – life & death
I’m not just making this up. There are lots of smaller storylines that come up during the main story, and each of them presents a problem that the player has to wrestle with. For instance, a continuing theme throughout all three games is Artificial Intelligence & Identity. In the world of Mass Effect, artificial intelligence has been developed so far that it can undertake actions on its own. Near the ending of Mass Effect 3, you are forced to take a position in this debate and make far reaching decisions that will change the course of the galaxy. You have to answer the question: can artificial intelligent beings be considered lifeforms of themselves? And if so, are artificial intelligent lifeforms destructive against organic lifeforms by nature?
It’s not shooting aliens that makes this game so attractive to so many people. It’s the solving of big problems and the feeling that you make a difference that does.
In the world of Mass Effect, you really do make a difference. You’ll be confronted continuously with hard choices that might greatly influence the course of the game. Each decision you make will probably change the course of history in some way. And just like in real life, you don’t know beforehand how it’s all going to turn out. I’ll illustrate the complexity of this below. If you are planning on playing Mass Effect for the first time, you might want to skip this part (go further to ‘So what?’), as it will contain major spoilers.
The picture above shows my avatar, Lupine Shepard, to the right, and a Krogan, Urdnot Wrex, to the left. We don’t particularly appear to be best friends, but in fact we are. This scene near the ending of Mass Effect 1 will greatly influence your options in Mass Effect 2 and 3. Depending on what I did earlier on in the game and what I’m exactly going to say at this very moment, either we settle the argument or the Krogan will be killed.
What we don’t know yet, is that – if not killed – we will meet this particular progressive Krogan again in Mass Effect 2. He will then be leader of the most important clan on the Krogan homeworld and tries to unite the violent other Krogan clans, in order to work together peacefully. In Mass Effect 3, you need the help of his Krogan to fight a dangerous invasive force. The strong and numerous warriors are crucial in order to win the fight, but they live with no purpose, faith or plans for the future, as they have been made infertile by another alien race, when their huge numbers threatened to wipe out the galactic community.
What happens if you let Wrex die in Mass Effect 1? Or if you don’t meet him and don’t take him along on your journeys at all? Will the Krogan continue their disorganized warfare based culture? And how the hell am I then supposed to get their support when I need it in Mass Effect 3? To find this out, I’d have to start a whole new character and play the game all over again, making different decisions. My point is that, with all the detailed information you get, the game creates a great sense of reality with all these decisions and storylines that influence each other.
Okay, so Mass Effect manages to create a credible story which the player creates themselves, to a certain extent. So what does that have to do with my avatar’s identity?
I’m getting to it, really! However, as this article is already beyond ‘Vaneeesa-proof’ in terms of lengthyness, I’ll continue in a second Mass Effect article. I’ll discuss the consequences of being a single-player game and how this affects forming a game identity in part (2).