I’m not sure if you remember, but aaages ago, when the year was still called 2012 and before iRez broke down and was renewed… I wrote an article called Avatar & Identity – Mass Effect (1), and promised to write the sequel soon (fail!). Either way, here you go! Be sure to read post nr. 1 first, or it will probably look as if I’m just talking nonsense (that is, more than usual).
Avatar & Identity – Star Wars
Avatar & Identity – Lord of the Rings Online
Avatar & Identity – Conclusion
Following a story vs playing together
Indeed it felt a bit strange for me to start an article about virtual identity while talking about a single-player game. I thought about why this was, and I think the answer is that playing together with other people in a virtual world forces you to think about how those people will perceive you. And by thinking about that, you will – whether consciously or unconsciously – create some sort of identity of yourself. So often I’ve heard MMO-players say something along the lines of “The game is okay, although I’ve seen most of it by now. It’s the people that make me return over and over again.” And this is of course what game makers want: people need to get attached to a game, so they will continue to play it.
Now Mass Effect clearly is designed as a game to play on your own, so as a substitute they built a story to attach the player. And along to the story, there are characters that you develop relationships with. (It might look all tough with the guns and stuff, but this part is pretty soapy, really.) I got so attached to one of them myself that I almost didn’t want to continue playing when he didn’t return as a companion in Mass Effect 2.
Actually, it seems to me that story almost literally is a substitute, as there does seem to be some sort of correlation between story and social interaction in the virtual worlds I know: the more story a world contains, the less interaction between people there seems to be (and the other way around).
Story vs Interaction
|Mass Effect||Lord of the Rings Online,
Star Wars: The Old Republic,
|Second Life||no story,
As you can see, MMOs float somewhere in between the two extremes. Often they want to facilitate both group-players by offering challenges that can only be bested by working together, and solo players, who can follow a storyline and complete most content on their own. Most players I know follow a combination of both playstyles to their liking. On the other side, far away from Mass Effect, is Second Life, which has no story. As an effect, SL encircles around social interaction and creating your own adventures, as there simply ‘isn’t much else to do’. People may invent their own stories and background to spend their time doing what they like most, but if there wouldn’t be anyone else around to share that with, many would loose their interest.
Identity in single-player games
So if nobody is going to see what you do in-game anyway, does it still matter how you behave and what you do?
Well, strictly seen, no. If what others think is all that matters to you, that is. However, I don’t think there are many people who just do things at random. The storyline and the intriguing amount of influence you have on it, will make you want to make up an identity for you avatar. Remember, you are getting confronted with difficult decisions all the time, and a consistent way of thinking makes it a lot easier to deal with those. “What would Shepard do?” is the question you ask yourself repeatedly. This way, you are actually constantly role-playing.
I say role-playing, because you can’t really play as yourself in Mass Effect (unless if you’re employed by the army, I guess). While you may choose what to do yourself, there are some limitations to your character: you are a soldier and you are no pussy (here is where I fail on both accounts!). Let’s check the facts:
|Lupine Shepard||The Human behind the keyboard|
|Hair||Short, black||Long, blonde|
|Equipment||Rifle||Pencil / shovel|
|Job||Killing evil aliens, saving the galaxy||Studying life and culture of the past|
Not, uhm, very compatible I’d say, but it’s great fun to imagine you’re that hero with all the responsibilities that come with it.
There are some additional mechanics that stimulate role-play in Mass Effect:
1) Paragon & Renegade system
Conversation options may offer choices that are well-thought/a bit pussy (paragon) or stern/aggressive (renegade). It’s not a straight black-and-white division between good and bad, but you get the idea. People may react differently if they encounter you depending on the amount of paragon or renegade choices you’ve made in the past. In Mass Effect 3, you can choose special paragon or renegade actions if you have accumulated enough points of one of the two.
2) Importing your character from Mass Effect 1 to 2, from Mass Effect 2 to 3.
There are three different Mass Effect games, and for each game you can import your character from the previous one, including the choices they made. There’s also the option to start a new character instead, but 100% of the Mass Effect players I know import their old characters. I always do so myself: playing another Shepard in the next game simply wouldn’t feel like ‘me’.
Mass Effect is a game in which the story is extremely well developed, but there are no social interactions. I believe that social interactions aren’t necessary in order to speak of a virtual identity. Identity can be formed by feeling a connection with the virtual world and its avatar. In Mass Effect, this mostly happens through the story and the great amount of influence the player has in its development.