Musical Platforming: Dustforce, Runner2, and Game Feel

I’ve never really been into platformers, so the fact that I’ve been playing two of them this week is pretty unusual.  Mostly for lack of other games to play, I’ve been messing around in Bit.Trip Presents… Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien (I’m just going to call it “Runner”, if that’s okay) and Dustforce, and while my lack of experience with any platformer other than Super Mario Bros is pretty difficult to overcome, I’ve managed to really enjoy these two games.  Despite my inexperience with the genre, I’ve found that these two games feel wildly different, and exactly how those differences emerged from a top-down design philosophy is something I want to explore, because, coincidentally, both games have a very interesting relationship with their respective soundtracks.  Music usually serves as background to gameplay, designed to enhance emotions, but rarely taking center stage.  In both of these games, music has a unique effect on their game feel, and, given that I wrote about a rhythm game last week, this seems like a great time to dig into just how each game uses music to more effectively communicate its specific design philosophy.

Dustforce is a very strange game for me because it has one of my favorite soundtracks in all of gaming, but I hadn’t played more than ten minutes of it before this week.  The soundtrack was created by electronica artist Lifeformed, and while I’m not knowledgeable enough in music genres to be able to more accurately explain his music, it’s generally a very calm and dreamy take on electronica, with some woodwinds tossed in for good measure and heavy use of echo effects.  I bought the soundtrack when I first picked up the game, and even though I gave up on the game itself, I listen to the soundtrack pretty regularly.  A soundtrack this relaxing would seem to clash with a platformer that ramps up the difficulty as quickly as Dustforce does, but strangely enough, it fits it perfectly.  Every aspect of the game is designed to assist the player in reaching a sense of flow, from the fluidity of the animations to the smoothness of the visuals, and this music fits in perfectly.  With a game as difficult as Dustforce, that leads to as many retries as its levels screenshot8.pngdemand, keeping the player from crushing their controller and rage quitting is a persistent task for any developer, and Hitbox Team helped address this in a few clever ways, many of which overlap with this design aesthetic of flow.  The game’s restarts are incredibly quick, absent of any load times, and don’t linger on your character’s death in the same way a game like Dark Souls does.  You’re right back in the action in a few seconds.  The music itself doesn’t even stop or react in any way, with an indifference to the player’s performance that stands in stark contrast to Runner2, or really most games out there.  The game wants to keep the player calm so they are okay with trying over and over to perfect their runs of a level without turning into a rage-consumed troglodyte.  This doesn’t mean the music takes a secondary role in the player’s experience, however, it means that the music creates a rhythm where a slip up and retry isn’t a jarring experience like it is in most games.  You still fail – the game certainly isn’t pulling any punches – but the music keeps going even when you do.  In addition to making restarts less frustrating, it also makes successful runs feel even better, as the player feels like they are matching the tone and mood of the music with an effortless-looking run.  The jumps the player is making may, in actuality, be pixel-perfect, but the music, animation and game feel make it look natural.  The combination of all of these elements, from visuals, to music, to game feel, to level design, create an experience that encourages to player to enter a focused, zen-like state of calm persistence as they slowly perfect their runs of a level and increase their mastery of the mechanics.  The game wants to keep the player’s focus in the specific moment of the moves they are trying to pull off, and uses the music to narrow the player’s focus more effectively.  For example, the game’s scoring system is designed to distract the player as little as possible, with the player being graded on two, easily and quickly identifiably variables: completion and combo.  Completion is obvious to the player without requiring much additional mental effort, they just need to see if they have cleared the entire map.  The combo meter is also straightforward, and simply requires the player to move quickly between objectives.  With how easy both of these variables are to keep track of, the player can focus on the one variable that really matters: time.  As a result, the player is always focused on their immediate concerns of moving as quickly as possible, because they do not need to spend time thinking about how to max out their combo meter or how to juggle other abstract systems.  Without a focus on complex systems, the game can tell the player to focus on the immediate flow of the level, making the music match the tone perfectly.

Runner2 takes a different approach to the platformer as a genre, and implements its music in a different way as well.  In contrast to the precision jumps and mid-air reversals of Dustforce, Runner has more in common with the endless runner games that grew up on smartphones.  The player character is moving to the right by default, independent of any player input, and nothing the player can do can stop or slow him.  This creates a sense of momentum in the gameplay that Dustforce requires mechanical mastery and map knowledge to reach.  However, Runner iterates on this momentum by making nearly all its game pieces momentum-stopping obstacles that the player must avoid in some way.  However, this doesn’t just maintain the default momentum, which would create a monotonous experience.  Instead, each action contributes both to the momentum and the soundscape of the game.  The game plays some sort of fun-filled animation (a consistent aesthetic choice throughout the game) to make the obstacle avoidance look good, but then plays a sound effect in sequence with the music.  While Dustforce’s music was defined by a non-reactive indifference to the player’s performance, Runner’s music is so synced up with the player’s actions that it’s practically a rhythm game.  This makes sense given that previous Bit.Trip games were actually rhythm games themselves, a genealogy that is clearly evident in Runner2.  The music starts with a melody-heavy foundation inspired by chiptines, in fact, many of the game’s contributing artists got their start working in this retro-themed genre.  Runner2 continues that genre’s strong emphasis on catchy melodies, brought on by the technical limitations of early NES music that could only runner2-ss1support three tones at a time.  However, the game builds on this with multiple musical layers, at first with only a background instrument or two on top of the melody, but eventually growing in complexity as the player picks up four power ups in the level.  Each one plays a sound effect, displays a colorful notification on the screen, and adds another layer to the music, making the final few seconds of a level feel like a busting musical landscape.  In addition to these power-ups, the level is also filled with thirty to fifty gold bars for the player to collect, all of which play a note or two when collected, also in sync with the music.  Avoiding obstacles in the environment plays a different sound as well, each one placed at a point in the music that it feels natural.  This is iterated on further in the boss fight for World 4, which uses a call and response structure as the foundation for the level’s music.  The boss readies obstacles to throw at the player while playing a series of notes to let them know what obstacles to prepare for, then the player jumps over/ducks under/destroys these obstacles as the response is played.  All of these aspects lead to a final audio track for each run of a level that is unique to that player, based on what collectibles and power-ups the player grabbed, and if they hit them at the correct time.  This results in an aural experience that is much more reactive than even most rhythm games, where the player is expected to perform the audio the game wants rather than dynamically create their own.  The end result is a more reactive take on flow, that feels just as elegant as Dustforce, but while Dustforce wants you to feel a detachment between the music and the gameplay, Runner2 wants you to feel like you are helping create it.  Both takes are incredibly effective for each game’s specific design goals, but when compared, I think they provide interesting examples on how music can be used creatively with regards to game feel.

Monolith’s 2005 Halloween: FEAR and Condemned’s Approaches to Action Horror

FEAR 1 and Condemned: Criminal Origins were released just over a month apart from each other, by the same studio, in the same engine, with the same first-person perspective, and the same light focus on horror elements.  I played these games a year apart without knowing about these similarities, and had an incredibly similar experience with both: I played them non-stop for almost an entire day, but never ended up beating them.  The two titles feel incredibly similar in their design sensibilities, and, while I can’t find out if both were developed by the same team within Monolith, I am almost certain that they were sharing ideas.  FEAR was published by Sierra, while Condemned was published by Sega, but both of these publishers ended up getting tonally similar products with slightly different focuses.  

FEAR is your standard, big-budget, action horror game.  In its aesthetics, it pulls from westernizations of Japanese horror classics, like The Ring (adapted from the Japanese novel Ring) and The Grudge (adapted from Ju-On: The Grudge), and these are easily the least effective moments of the game.  I can’t speak to how they felt at release, but in 2015, they fear-20060802011341726were obviously scripted and mostly cheesy.  The more common mechanics of FEAR, however, created quite the opposite feeling.  In addition to being a horror game, FEAR is also a first-person shooter, and it doesn’t seek to innovate too dramatically in that department, but it does execute on those mechanics wonderfully.  From a design doc level overview of the game, it doesn’t have much to offer: samey enemies with guns, normal first person shooting, and a slow-motion mechanic to spice things up.  But the game does so well with all three of these features that it elevates the game to an incredibly well-polished version of an oversaturated genre.  First, the enemies use an incredibly clever AI system that sees them flanking, falling back, and responding to player actions, in a way that makes every gunfight feel delightfully dynamic.  The first-person shooting feels punchy and kinetic in a way even games today still have trouble getting right.  And the slow-motion, despite how overused it is in shooters, elevates the entire experience to a tactical, visceral experience.  FEAR’s combat is not its only strength though, it’s environment and atmosphere do a much better job of evoking discomfort than its scripted sequences do to evoke horror.  After a tough gunfight, the incredibly reactive environments will be covered in rubble and broken glass, leaving the previously sterile environments a mess.  As the player walks from objective to objective, or explores an area for additional supplies, the tone is uncomfortably quiet, occasionally broken up by quiet, low-quality radio conversations that further the player’s sense of isolation.  FEAR’s environments post-combat feel tense, and even though that tension is usually broken by a cheap jump scare, that tension is one of my favorite parts of the game.

Condemned, in many ways, feels like a riskier version of FEAR.  It relies on grimey environments to build tension, just like many areas in FEAR, uses those same, quiet radio conversations to evoke loneliness, and its own experimentations with AI.  Condemned’s core combat mechanics, however, are an inventive take on first-person melee combat, a style that has rarely, if ever, been done well.  Combat sequences feel systemically dynamic in a very similar way to FEAR as a result.  The player will often enter a room only to be ambushed by an AI that has hidden behind a nearby corner, and, startled, yank a piece of piping off a nearby wall to block the attack.  With the enemy knocked back, they might hit them with their tazer to move in for the kill, or grab the enemy’s weapon and use it against them.  While FEAR executes near-flawlessly on a very well-established idea, Condemned tries to experiment with an entirely different one.  As a result of the newness of the style and the lack of good examples from elsewhere in the industry to pull from, Condemned often is very interesting on a high level, like the encounter I just described, but less satisfying on a low-level.  It seems like the developers wanted the combat to feel ss_49e024a8cfc2a25b0fbe6da1a0628dde7dd855d5-600x338frantic and confusing, but often it comes across as clunky and unpolished.  This is a completely acceptable aesthetic to shoot for, but it diminishes the feeling that the game will respond to a player’s low-level skill instead of their higher-level skill.  For example, aiming a gun in an FPS is a low level skill, it’s directly about using the controls to perform an action and the game reacts based on how well you do that.  Deciding to flank an enemy and shoot him first instead of charging him head-on would be a higher-level skill, making tactical decisions that, while dependent on your low-level interaction with the controls, aren’t as immediately involved with them.  This makes combat in Condemned more fun to think about than to actually play, as action games tend to rely more on low-level skill and the satisfaction gained from mastering them.  In an opposition to FEAR, what it lacks in its low-level mechanics are made up for at a higher level.  Condemned completely nails the atmosphere that FEAR only gets right some of the time.  The discomfort of FEAR’s environment is ratcheted up for Condemned, making the player go from uncomfortable to always on the edge of their seat.  Levels feel labyrinthine, requiring backtracking into rooms that will often be filled with new enemies performing unscripted actions.  The game is fond of the same unmotivated cuts to confusing, horrific images and scenes that FEAR is, but it does them with more subtlety and effectiveness.  While FEAR’s art style is largely forgettable, Condemned takes place in Metro City, but is obviously a grimey version of 1980s/90s New York, taking visual influence from films like Seven and Silence of the Lambs.  Neither game seems to care too much about its story, but Condemned’s works a bit better as a frame narrative.  Where Condemned does fall apart, however, is in its level design.  FEAR uses similar environmental progress blockers, but FEAR also has a reason for the player to explore: ammo, health packs, stat boosters, etc.  Condemned, meanwhile has…collectible dead birds?  And that’s about it.  You can find additional weapons, but no one is really better than any other, and it mostly comes down to personal preference.  This means, coupled with the complex mazes the game dumps you into, that the player will spend a lot of their time lost, and won’t be finding any extra goodies to make it worth their while.  Like in FEAR, it does help mediate the game’s pacing, but mostly by grinding it to a screeching halt.  This leaves the totality of Condemned’s experienced as a much more conflicted one.  FEAR feels like it’s a consistently effective experience 90% of the time, and a dated, ineffective one for the 10% while it’s trying to directly scare the player.  Condemned fluctuates throughout, never really putting the player in a situation that is completely bad, but also never putting them in one that is completely good.  Both games feel like they were made with very similar sensibilities by a team that wanted to create a first-person horror game with a lovingly-crafted combat systems, and Condemned certainly takes more risks than FEAR in that regard, but simply does not fit together as well.  When deciding which of the two to play, the player is left with the choice of playing something interesting but messy, or something they’ve played before but done very, very well.

Hacking & Jamming: Uplink, Guitar Hero, and Fantasy Through Abstraction

Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek’s essay on the Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics framework cites fantasy, or games as make believe, as one of the core aesthetics a game can appeal to.  Fantasy, in their definition, isn’t specifically tied to the genre that also bears its name, but instead the idea of games enabling the player to do something that they otherwise could not in their regular life.  They list Quake, The Sims, and Final Fantasy as examples of this aesthetic, but in my experience, the two games that most embody it are Guitar Hero and Uplink.  These are radically different games with radically different focuses, but their embodiment of fantasy despite these differences highlights just how diverse the aesthetic is.  Uplink emphasizes mastery of complex systems, while Guitar Hero, for most players at least, focuses on using its incredibly simple, arcade-styled mechanics to create a way to engage with its many licensed music tracks.  Despite being such wildly different games, the two embody the aesthetic of fantasy with a purity that few other games are able to.  Skyrim, for example, focuses heavily on fantasy as well, but the player interacts with the game’s systems in a mostly abstract way.  Skyrim isn’t alone in this – vast majority of games are engaged with through multiple layers of abstraction – but this starts with controls.  This practice is so common for most people who play games that we rarely even think about it, but, for example, moving around a game world by pressing WASD or moving an analog stick feels vastly different from actually walking.  It’s an abstraction by necessity, because accurately simulating moving through a simulated world is prohibitively expensive, but both Uplink and Guitar Hero find ways around these abstractions to create an experience that feels incredibly authentic.

Uplink is the most obvious example, because the game has very few low-level abstractions.  The game is based on cinema’s representation of hacking as it appeared in the mid-90s, giving the game a strong stylistic grounding that keeps it from showing its over fifteen years of age.  Hacking games are a tragically underexplored mechanic set in gaming outside of a few abstract minigames, so Uplink’s commitment to exploring the genre already gives it the bonus of novelty.  It basks in its cyberpunk genre, with a narrative that emphasizes paranoia at every turn, and mechanics that match the narrative’s tension.  Uplink-3.pngAny botched hack or unscanned system could lead to a game over, which the game wonderfully contextualizes as the player’s in-game account being deleted, making retries a canonical part of the story.  The player types commands into a DOS-like terminal, going through a process that, while not actually resembling real-world hacking, makes enough sense in-world that it limits necessary suspension of disbelief, even for players who do know a decent amount about cybersecurity.  Most of the in-game programs have real-world analogs, like the brute force and dictionary password crackers, which are real world methods of breaking passwords.  These programs are necessarily abstracted, represented visually by the inaccurate movie cliche of a program solving a password one letter at a time. Nonetheless, this closeness to actual hacking grounds Uplink in reality, not by actually simulating the real world, but by simulating something that feels just plausible enough.  Like many of the good conspiracy stories the game’s narrative draws influence from, it gets just close enough to reality to pique the player’s curiosity, then lets their imagination fill in the gaps.

With this tone set, and the player’s suspension of disbelief expertly sidestepped, the game can allow them to more fully indulge in its aesthetic of fantasy.  Because the player already believes in the world, they can embrace the fantasy the game is trying to sell of being an on-the-run hacker breaking into the most secure systems on the planet with only their wits and their rig to keep them going.  In his review of the game, YouTube video essayist Matthewmatosis talked about how easy it was the let his mind slip into thinking that Uplink was real, like it was just a program he was running on his computer to connect to the Uplink network.  The game includes features to further this idea, such as a working IRC client that the player can use to chat with their real world friends.  IRC certainly isn’t as popular now as it was at the game’s release, but the module lead me to set up an IRC server of my own and connect to it through the game’s built-in client.  This is the only in-game mechanic that directly blurs the line between the game and the real world, but Uplink iterates on this mechanic by adding in-game chats with NPCs that take place through a similar interface.  This caused me to play Uplink differently than a very similar game, Hacknet, which is brilliant in its own right, but doesn’t use the reality-blurring techniques of Uplink.  While playing Uplink, I found myself intentionally taking more difficult jobs for the thrill of a challenging system, even though those jobs rewarded me less per minute than the easier ones.  I wasn’t playing the game for its numerical rewards, I was playing it because I felt like a hacker who wanted to break the toughest systems on the planet.  One of my metrics for measuring how engaged I am with a game’s core mechanics over its reward structure is to see how often I ignore systemic rewards in order to do things I find personally satisfying.  Progression and systemic rewards make up a lot of how and why I play games, so when a game can get me to ignore them, I know that something about it is fundamentally engaging to me.  In Uplink, I almost never pay attention to the game’s progression and reward structure.  I spend thirty minutes saving up credits to buy the equipment to break into a LAN system, which will take me another half hour, even though the rewards for those jobs are miniscule, because the satisfaction of such a complex job is worth far more than any reward might be.  Uplink helps the player to cultivate the mindset of a hacker, and goes through so much effort to let them believe in that fantasy.  For anyone who has ever idly daydreamed of being a hacker, of shouting, “I’m in!” after breaking into a complicated system, Uplink lets you indulge.

Guitar Hero, meanwhile, exists on the opposite end of the abstraction spectrum.  While Uplink strives to reduce abstraction as much as possible to enable fantasy, Guitar Hero seems to do nothing but abstract.  From a purely mechanical perspective, the player only performs three actions: press the correct buttons displayed on screen while strumming (or not, depending on the note), turn the guitar to activate star power, and use the whammy bar to distort the audio.  The core mechanics are closer to a quick-time event than a deep set of systems.  The simplicity of the game’s mechanics becomes shockingly obvious when you make one simple change: hit the mute button.  Suddenly, the game goes from an engaging party game to a boring, simplistic exercise in timed button presses.  Of course, every game could technically be abstracted to this level if you want to be pedantic.  Technically, Dark Souls is just an exercise in pressing the attack and dodge buttons at the right time, and Counter Strike is just about pointing and clicking on objects on your screen.  But all of those reductions have to be preceded with a “technically”, because the games encourage us not to think about our actions as “I am clicking my mouse button,” but instead, “I am firing my gun.”  Uplink didn’t need to bother with this abstraction because the non-abstract, actual actions that the player was performing were the same actions that the player character was performing: typing commands into a terminal.  Guitar Hero is on the opposite end of the spectrum where, despite its controls being so shallow, it barely asks the player to abstract at all.  The difference between clicking a mouse and firing a gun is pretty obvious (though, I suppose, with drones, that distinction is only getting smaller), but the distinction between pressing the right button on your guitar controller and playing the notes on an actual guitar, while significant, is nowhere near as significant as the gap between mouse-click and gunfire.  This lack of substantive difference is further highlighted by how well Ubisoft’s Rocksmith med_1505Guitar Hero Warriors of Rock  - Judy Nails.jpggames work, which function just like Guitar Hero, but with the player plugging an actual guitar into their PC or console.  So, Guitar Hero isn’t really asking the player to abstract their low-level actions, they’re asking them to abstract the context in which those actions are taking place.  The music is the most obvious change in context the game wants you to imagine, and it does a decent job of emphasizing this through minor interactions such as the whammy bar and star power that give the player at least some degree of personal expression.  The tracks also respond to player failure in an interesting way.  Guitar Hero stores their songs in multiple different music tracks, including an instrumental track that only plays audio from the guitar, which will cut out whenever the player misses a note.  Guitar Hero’s modding community will occasionally port custom songs over without this guitar track, removing the aural response to failure.  Songs played without this feature feel substantially less responsive, and break the game’s careful balance of contextual abstractions.  The expertly evoked game feel that Guitar Hero relies on suffers greatly from this lack of responsiveness, breaking the illusion that your actions are producing the audio coming from your speakers.  Many of games are greatly elevated by their audio – would Bioshock’s Rapture have felt anywhere near as atmospheric without the game’s incredible ambient sound design? – but Guitar Hero is almost completely defined by it.  If you remove all sound from Bioshock, you still have the game’s immersive sim-inspired systems, its competent combat mechanics, and its mostly stellar writing.  It is an undeniably lesser product, but it is still Bioshock in some sense.  If you remove the audio from Guitar Hero, the entire experience falls apart.  It exists for the sake of its audio.

With all of these mechanical and stylistic choices designed to prop up the audio, the game can let the player fully indulge in what feels like an unabstracted fantasy.  Practically everyone has dreamed of being a rock star, and Guitar Hero was created from the ground up to support that fantasy.  It’s why most of their budget is spent on licensing music tracks instead of creating their own for much cheaper.  It’s why they put a decent amount of effort into creating stylized 3D environments and models with complex lip-syncing and animations to match each part of a song, even though the player does not interact with these environments in any way whatsoever.  The mechanics and game feel of the series do the work of making you feel like you’re playing guitar, and the visuals and style make you feel like you’re playing that guitar in an actual rock band.  The game’s story mode has a loose frame narrative, and while it fits thematically with the rest of the game, it is structured like a conventional video game narrative, making it much more abstract and forgettable than the tightness of the rest of the game’s design.  Guitar Hero simply isn’t about the story, it is about creating a laser-focused experience of a rock concert, and little else.  Now, that experience is enhanced by the game’s fairly intricate character customization based on rock music caricatures, allowing the player to better express their presence in the world of that concert.  The game could have been bogged down by systems such as managing the band’s finances or working out the details and design for specific shows, or had a narrative about band drama with memorable characters.  The game does not do this, and, especially for a AAA game series in the late-2000s, Guitar Hero is surprisingly feature-light.  It has many of these elements shallowly implemented, such as the aforementioned unlockable costumes and guitars, but also gives you an easy cheat code to unlock all of it.  Guitar Hero is designed as an arcade experience, not a progression-based one, a quality highlighted by how little they had to change to port the game to arcade machines.  It has its fantasy, and that’s about it.  The result is a title that is begging you to ignore the mechanical simplicity of its systems and imagine yourself as a rock star.  Fantasy is an aesthetic games try to evoke incredibly often – escapism is the dominant aesthetic of gaming, after all – but so few games evoke it as expertly as Guitar Hero and Uplink.  Through their complex reexaminations of how to use abstraction, either completely or not at all, they allow for a novel engagement with the concept, intentionally cultivating the aesthetic in a way that most other games do not even attempt.

Massive Effect 3: Massive Reversal

Introduction

Mass Effect 3 is a deeply conflicted work.  Or maybe I’m just deeply conflicted about it.  Probably both.  I’ve spent twentynine pages of rambling text talking about how much I unreservedly love the first two entries in the series, and about the (wait for it) massive effect they’ve had on me, but Mass Effect 3 simply did not create the same feelings of annoying gushiness.  At the beginning, at least.  The game began so poorly that it took me three tries to actually get back into it for my most recent playthrough.  I have played the previous games in the series an embarrassing amount of times, but I only played Mass Effect 3 once, when it came out back in 2012.  I played the first two bits of DLC they released, Extended Cut and Leviathan, but then I stopped.  I played the multiplayer for over 100 hours, but I barely touched the single player after that first playthrough.  So, when I started thinking about what I wanted to say about it, comparing my conflicted reaction to the third game to my overwhelmingly positive reaction to the first two was an obvious starting point.  What could cause my opinion to change so drastically between games?  How fundamental of a shift in design sensibilities must have occurred to make that change happen?  My arc with replaying this game was confusing and difficult to adequately express.  It began as flat-out hatred and ended with child-like joy.  In many ways this makes Mass Effect 3 the most interesting entry in the series; I certainly have a lot to say about it.  But at its core, Mass Effect 3 keeps begging the question: what made it so different?  Well, I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I think I’ve got at least a partial answer.  It starts with money.

Even from the get-go, Mass Effect 3 feels like a different game.  The engine is finally polished up enough to really deliver on its cinematic ambitions, the character animation actually impresses from time to time, and some of the set pieces actually look damn good.  All of that cost a lot of money to produce, money that the previous games just didn’t have.  That extra budget lets them do things they simply couldn’t before, but I think it also caused the game’s greatest problems.  The best way I can think to summarize this effect is to compare it to the previous game, which also saw the team dealing with a much larger budget than they had for the previous entry.  My takeaway from Mass Effect 2 was, largely, that it felt like the team had the budget they always wanted.  They could build out the world, make some decent cutscenes, and have an impressive moment or two when they needed it.  Mass Effect 3 often feels burdened by its budget, like they had to spend that money somehow to make the game flashy enough to justify its higher price tag.   Sometimes, that works beautifully for it, other times, it ruins it.  And that makes up what I believe is the core difference between Mass Effect 2 and 3, that the budget of the second felt like it liberated the creators to create exactly what they wanted, while the budget of the third burdened them with the responsibility to justify it.  And what helps justify a bigger budget to the suits at EA who see BioWare as a bit of a risky venture?  Out with the intimate character moments, what we need here are explosions.  Lots of explosions.

The Problems with a Bigger Budget

Mass Effect 2 was a character-focused game first and foremost.  The overall plot was pretty stupid: work with totally-not-evil, super-rich human supremacists to destroy bug aliens who are kidnapping humans. And there are probably space crab gods involved too.  But that was completely okay because no one really cared about the plot of the game.  Mass Effect 2 isn’t about The Collectors, it’s about Garrus and calibrations, it’s about Legion and questions about AI consciousness, and it’s about Mordin singing Gilbert and Sullivan.   No one was coming to the series so they could stop some poorly-explained force from destroying all life in the galaxy, they were coming for the characters and their stories.  Even my previous essay on Mass Effect 2 is mostly broken up into sections about the characters, because they were what I found most important.  So, for a Mass Effect sequel to shift from a character focus to a plot focus would be a really, obviously dumb decision, right?  Well, for a good portion of the story, that’s pretty much what they did.  Mass Effect 3 was always going to be about going to war with the Reapers, so there were going to be at least some pressing plot concerns, but Mass Effect 3 handles this, especially in the beginning, so, so, poorly.

The opening bit has Shepard propped up on a pedestal as the messianic hero, brought in by the leaders of all of humanity to solve their problems, then shoots her way off Earth with Anderson.  During the entire opening chapter there is exactly one strong character moment, and that’s Anderson choosing to stay behind while Shepard leaves to gather support.  I was livid when I finished this introduction.  I really enjoyed Mass Effect 3 the first time I played it, but this time, I hated it.  Every design decision seemed off: the focus on plot over character, the emphasis on empty spectacle that they didn’t seem to have the budget to pull off, and dear god that kid on Earth was just cringe-worthy.  It seemed pretty clear what they were *trying* to do, they wanted to establish that Shepard as the underdog again, get an emotional gut-punch out of the Reapers hitting earth, and set the stage for a climactic finale to the series.  But every one of those fails in the opening, and fails hard.  The opening is set in future London as the Reaper attack begins.  What it sets out to do is ambitious, it wants to show an entire city being attacked by an incredibly powerful alien race.  Mass Effect 2 could never have done that; it simply didn’t have the money.  But here is Mass Effect 3’s big introduction, the chance to set up a spectacle-centric take on the series and it just falls so flat.  The Reapers move in really obviously scripted ways, the actual city doesn’t feel that big, and the plot events that do happen fall flat.  Shepard is talking to the Alliance leadership for all of a minute before the place gets blown up.  To say I left this section disappointed is an enormous understatement.

Regardless of how much it failed, this opening does establish one of the series main goals: the shift towards visual spectacle.  This doesn’t just mean bigger explosions, though you’d be forgiven for thinking so after playing the opening, because the impact of this decision is felt throughout all aspects of the game.  Combat is significantly more polished than in previous entries, companion conversations set in flashy, interactive locations instead of the cargo hold of your ship, and the environments are now much, much fancier.  Games that emphasize spectacle are much easier to market, so, the bigger the budget, the more developers will be pushed in its direction, and Mass Effect 3 is no exception.  At first, this seems like a bad fit for the franchise.  The moments that made Mass Effect 1 and 2 great were, with a few exceptions, the quieter ones.  Mass Effect 1 had its shootout up the side of Citadel Tower and Mass Effect 2 had the entirety of the Suicide Mission, but those have nothing on any of the battlefields of Mass Effect 3.  This fits with, and maybe partially explains, the shift from character focus to plot focus, because big plot moments make for flashier marketing material than quiet, character ones.  Additionally, Mass Effect’s lineage can be traced back to table-top inspired RPGs like Baldur’s Gate (BioWare’s debut RPG), which places a large emphasis on mountains of dialog and complex choices.  But when you’re putting a lot of emphasis on how great each plot moment looks, adding more dialog and more story branches, many of which some players will never see, becomes very expensive.  As a result, the conversation system of Mass Effect 3 took the greatest hit in the transition from 2 to 3.  In addition to a great deal of Investigate options (which have been reduced in Mass Effect 3), the previous games often presented the character with three choices: paragon, renegade, and neutral.  Mass Effect 3 does away with a *lot* of the neutral options, functionally locking most of your decisions to which path you decided on at the beginning, and removing most of the decision making process.  The game seems very aware of this, and even added a dialog autoplay function, where the game selects conversation options for you.  I have never played with this enabled, nor has anyone I know, but its simple inclusion overwhelms me with irrational nerd rage.  The RPG elements are what made Mass Effect stand apart from the ungodly amount of third-person shooters, it’s what made it more than a sloppy Gears of War with space magic.  And if it was just an option in the game’s menu that I didn’t have to push, then okay, that’s annoying, but it doesn’t affect most player’s experiences.  However, it seemingly *has* affected the rest of the game.  Mass Effect 1 simply would not have worked with this option – its dialog was to complex – but with Mass Effect 3, I could see it working.  Even without this mode enabled, there are very long sequences where you don’t make any conversation decisions, and Shepard will speak without your input.  The moral choices feel more polarized than ever, even closer to that good-evil dichotomy that the first game was careful to avoid.  My opinion of the game did get significantly more positive (eventually, I promise), but on this issue, it hasn’t.  One of my favorite parts of the series was significantly reduced in importance, to the point where the game gives you the option to turn it off all together.

After the first two missions of the game, it seemed to me that BioWare had made another sacrifice on the altar of spectacle: its protagonist.  Part of this came from the reduction of roleplaying making it more difficult for me to define my Shepard, and part of it came from canonical writing that Shepard speaks regardless of player input.  The first warning signs came in the opening text crawl, which painted the Reapers as this undefeatable enemy, the galactic government as willfully blind to the threat, and Shepard as the “one soldier” that has seen through it all.  Right away, that characterization struck me as off.  Yeah, Shepard is a soldier by trade, but that was never my experience of her.  When the Alliance refused to do anything about the Reapers, Shepard left the military to join Cerberus, saying canonically and without the player’s input that Shepard was someone who helped people first, and was a soldier for the Alliance second.  When the Alliance was helping people, Shepard was on their side, but when they weren’t, she would find someone who was.  Shepard struck me as someone who had a military background, but grew into the role of negotiator who can still hold her own in a fight.  However, a lot of this characterization partially emerged from my being able to define Shepard as growing into this role.  So, when, five minutes into Mass Effect 3, Shepard says, “I’m just a soldier, Anderson, I’m no politician”, I actually quit the game.  It took me a few days before I could get back into it.  And the first few hours did little to challenge this notion.  Shepard seems reluctant to negotiate, like she’s being forced to make a bunch of stupid, squabbling children cooperate.  Backroom political dealings are fun as hell for me, and Mass Effect’s systems fit them really well, but Shepard seems to resent them.  It’s strange, then, that that ends up being her primary role in this entry in the franchize.  Shepard may be reluctant to unite the galaxy, but that’s what she spends most of her time doing.  This means that, when the game puts her up on a pedestal so high it makes the Citadel Tower look tiny, it’s almost justified.  Shepard is, without any hyperbole, the savior of the galaxy, who unites every race in a combined effort to stop the most powerful force in the galaxy’s history.  Shepard was a hyper-competent protagonist in the first two games, but the game didn’t make quite as much of a big deal out of it before.  Now, she’s elevated to the status of myth, with an after-credits scene recontextualizing the entire trilogy as a mythologized retelling of the literal most important person in the history of the galaxy, with “Shepard” the surname turned into a title, “The Shepherd”, the being who shepherded the races of the galaxy to a greater future.  How the hell do you make that kind of being feel human?  Well, the game actually addresses this, though not as much as I would like.  The romance plotlines give Shepard a bit of time to express some doubts and insecurities, but my favorite example of this is an optional sequence in a bar on the Citadel with James Vega.  James explicitly talks about Shepard’s role as a living legend, about how the regular soldiers see her as a god, which leads her to buy the entire bar a round of drinks, and participate in some sort of military salute thing that I am nowhere near cool enough to recognize.  Interestingly, Mark Meer (who voices BroShep) plays this scene much more awkwardly than Jennifer Hale (who voices actual Shepard).  Both are different takes on the same character, speaking the same lines, but one reads Shepard as someone who actually is a bit uncomfortable with his role in the galaxy, while the other is confident and heroic and wants to let the average soldier know that she is just as much of a human as they are.  So, the game doesn’t leave me completely satisfied on this, but it at least addresses it.

One issue that it simply cannot adequately address, however, is the elephant (err – giant mechanical crab-god) in the room: The Reapers.  It is not possible to take them seriously.  In the previous games, The Reapers were never quite as present a threat as they are in this game, so the player could comfortably goof off without feeling like a horrible person.  They weren’t really the focus of the previous games either, more of a reason to drive the plot along.  But, in Mass Effect 3, stop The Reapers is your primary goal, and you can’t really get away from it.  When Earth is burning and millions are dying every day, it’s pretty hard to justify going to the bar and having a dumb conversation with your buddies.  The number of times the game says something along the lines of, “Stopping the reapers is the only thing we should be focused on” is a bit uncomfortable.  The game wants you to be focused on this linear plot…but then doesn’t.  It tries to take it so seriously, to keep talking about The Reapers themselves and how dangerous they are, but The Reapers exist on a scale that is too incomprehensively large.  A human being cannot conceptualize the death of trillions.  As such, characters can’t really discuss the subject without it being awkward.  There is just no way to casually or appropriately say “Yeah man, it sucks that The Reapers are literally wiping out an entire fucking planet, but hey, how are you feeling today?”  But that doesn’t stop the characters from trying.  My favorite is when Liara just says, “I’m sorry about Earth” and just moves on.  Before I arrived at Palaven, the third mission in the game, I didn’t think the game was capable of appropriately dealing with the subject.  But then I got to Palaven.

Palaven opens with an FMV of a fleet-to-fleet battle between the turians and The Reapers, and the turians are getting obliterated.  You drop out of FTL in the middle of the strongest fighting force in the galaxy getting its ass handed to it.  Somehow, it already is more effective than Earth’s destruction in the opening.  You land on one of Palaven’s moons with the goal of extracting the turian primarch, the species’ leader, to meet at a counsel to unite the races of the galaxy.  Immediately, the battlefield feels just as chaotic as the characters are describing it.  The bulk of the mission is just getting your bearings, trying to set up broken com towers, fighting off Reaper attacks from all angles, and, once you realize that the turian line of succession is being picked apart, finding out who the new primarch is before they even know.  All of this is cast against the backdrop of a burning Palaven, with Reapers off in the distance.  One of my favorite moments in the sequence is an eerily quiet one where, after half an hour of constant, loud combat, you walk from one base to another without encountering any enemies, but seeing their silhouettes off in the distance.  This sequence feels like it was made by a completely different team than the one that created Earth, with a careful attention to pacing to drive home the actual horror of these space crab gods that you haven’t really felt yet.  When you finally find the new primarch, you have to ask him to leave the battlefield to negotiate for his people, and the game has a beautiful shot of him framed against his burning world, realizing that he has to leave his people if he wants to save them.  It is the exact same dilemma Shepard went through, but executed brilliantly with careful attention to everything that was deficient in the Earth sequence: pacing, cinematography, blocking, sound design and character writing.  I came out of Palaven feeling more for Primarch Victus’ dilemma than my own.  It’s a believable take on an unbelievable plot, and from that moment on, my opinion of the game began to shift.

Bigger Budget & Character

        The strengths and weaknesses of Mass Effect 3’s structural changes can probably be best exemplified by a single character: James Vega.  On the surface, he is everything I hate about the game: he is an unironic space marine in a franchise that very carefully considers the clichés it uses, he was created as a first-day-on-the-job character to ask all the dumb questions that players new to the franchise would be asking, and he is a meathead who wants everything to be simplified so he can punch stuff in the face super good.  I should hate James Vega so much.  But goddamn it, I love the bastard.  Once I’m actually talking to the guy and not just thinking about what he represents, he’s actually a really interesting and fun character.  He is struggling with everything he has experienced over the course of the war, all the difficult decisions he has had to make, and is very, very uncomfortable with leaving Earth in the middle of the biggest fight it’s ever seen.  He’s more believable than Shepard in many ways.  Additionally, he is acted and animated very well.  Freddie Prinze Jr. kills it in nearly every scene he’s in, alternating between the dudebro space marine that I kept fearing he would become, and a genuinely human, likable character.  Charismatic is not usually a word you would associate with a space marine, but he genuinely pulls it off.  The best test of this character is his flirting with Shepard, which is entirely platonic and all in good fun, but it’s so well-written and acted that it feels like…two actual people with a flirty relationship.  It’s banter, which is difficult to pull off with all the quirks of real-time game animation (unless you’re Naughty Dog).  James is the only new squad mate in this game (I’m not really counting EDI as “new”), and thus has the least total dialog in the series, but he is a great example of how Mass Effect 3 wants to approach character differently than its predecessors.  Mass Effect 1, and, to a certain extent, 2, were focused on long conversations with your squad members on the Normandy, in their quarters.  They weren’t usually that visually interesting or well-animated because they were trying to get a lot of dialog pumped out on a budget, but they did lead to quiet, intimate moments with a lot of depth.  Mass Effect 3 has very few of those, and instead tries to distill characters down to a few, very important and focused scenes.  Some character is definitely lost in the distillation, but a lot is gained too.  The characters are given a lot more to work with when the conversation takes place, say, in the Presidium Commons on the Citadel, than in the cargo hold of the Normandy.  You get far less screen time with each character, but the screen time you get is much more engaging on a minute-to-minute level.  It fits with the games more cinematic ambitions, but also feels much more organic, like the characters are reacting to the world, and that reactivity is greatly expanded in the third game as a whole.  You’ll walk in on squad members having conversations about how nervous they are about the coming mission, comparing their greatest battlefield moments, or (if you didn’t romance Garrus and Tali) making out in main battery.  It shows that the characters exist and have lives even when Shepard isn’t around, with just a few bits of dialog and setting changes, it makes the world feel larger, like it exists less in the words of characters or the text of a codex entry and more in the game in front of you.

        One of the characters that makes the transition from quiet discussions to lavishly-produced genre fiction is Samara, one of the more overlooked characters from the second game.  We only really see Saramra for one mission centered around her and her daughters.  The Reapers have attacked a monastery where two of her daughters remain.  They are the other two Ardat-Yakshi children mentioned in passing during Samara’s ME2 loyalty mission.  While Morinth, Samara’s third daughter, ran and used her power to kill anyone she mind-melded with for evil, Samara’s remaining daughters choose to live in the monastery voluntarily, but the Reapers want to corrupt them into the game’s most visually and aurally terrifying enemies, Banshees.  The quest reaches its climax after the death of one of Samara’s daughter and the destruction of the monastery, leaving one still alive but without a place to stay.  Samara’s justicar code demands that Ardat-Yakshi either remaining in a monastery, or be killed, meaning that Samara is now bound to kill her only remaining daughter.  When she pulls out her gun, you are meant to think that she will aim it at her daughter, but she instead turns it on herself.  Samara is still bound by the rules of a code that she has turned to in order to gain a sense of absolute right and wrong in the galaxy, to remove the ambiguity caused by an uncaring universe.  But she is also bound just as strongly by her love for her daughters and her refusal to let the last one die.  With these two, equally strong forces, Samara decides that she would rather die than let her daughter die by her hand, in a moment that is strangely, overwhelmingly emotional for such an emotionless character.  Paragon Shepards (at least those with a freaking soul) can stop Samara, convince her to stay with her daughter to rebuild the monastery, and let them both live, but the conflict alone is enough to leave a great deal of memories.  In this bizarre conflict steeped in the arcane complexities of its genre fiction, we get a genuinely, human moment (well, asari, but you get the idea (I think I made that joke already)).  You can talk to Samara later and she says to Shepard that, “Following the code left me with no regrets”.  For all the insane ambiguities of the galaxy, Samara has found at least one way to survive and avoid the regrets that could have crippled her.  This story could have been told in Mass Effect 2, but it would not have been as effective without the benefits that come with the third game’s budget.  And as much as the game shifts its focus away from characters, when it does give time to them, it is wonderfully spent.

        Aside from the gut-punches of two major character deaths, my favorite moments of character in Mass Effect 3 are quiet, intimate moments that still retain the feel of Mass Effect 3.  The first takes place with Garrus, and is one of the most fondly-remembered moments of the game.  The two of you fly to the top of the Presidium and take turns shooting at bottles and talking about living.  You’re explicitly taking a break from the war with the Reapers, and, with that plot focus forgotten for a moment, you get to just be friends with Garrus.  And it is in moments like these where I really think Mass Effect 3 finds its footing.  It may lose it again and again, but when you are alone with the characters and the game realizes just how much you care about them, then it can really shine.  I was beaming like a goddamn idiot when Garrus shouts to the galaxy, “I’m Garrus Vakarian and *this* is my favorite spot on The Citadel!”  Very few games can summon true feelings of friendship for characters as well as BioWare games can, and sometimes, Mass Effect 3 realizes that this is its greatest strength.  It realizes it again with Liara in a quiet sequence on the Normandy, where Laira is creating her time capsule for the next cycle if they fail to stop The Mass Effect 3.pngReapers, and, especially if you have chosen her romance option, she talks about Sheaprd so that another civilization might know about her, and her lines change based on your class and alignment, creating something that feels uncomfortably personal.  It doesn’t make a big deal out of itself, it doesn’t have any explosions or giant battle sequences, it just tries to figure out why people like Liara so much.  A bit later in the game, in an optional encounter with her on The Citadel, Liara talks about her mother, who you both killed together in the first game, and speaks of her as though she was a regular person, not some video game boss in a sci-fi epic.  She tells a very relatable story about her mother taking her to a park so she could dig, a practice that sparked her interest in archeology, and with that as a starting point, she talks with Shepard about very normal things, like home and growing up, about sometime in the future settling down and starting a family.  These should feel so out of place in a game about defeating crab gods from outer space, but they don’t.  The game has built itself a cast of characters who feel like real, fully fleshed-out people.  And, when it is at its peak, it can tell wonderful stories about them.

        It can also rip your heart out and leave you sobbing and empty, like it does for the deaths of Thane and Mordin.  Mordin’s comes first, and seems like it was built from the ground up to get the player crying.  Mordin’s character arc is a bit too complex to sum up in an off-handed reference, but suffice it to say he sacrifices himself to make up for a mistake he slowly realized was his fault.  It is tragic, both in the literary and the conventional sense, but the cinematography helps make the moment even more impactful.  He is separated from Shepard by the glass pane of an elevator, and slowly ascends to the top of a tower where he finalizes the cure for the Krogan genophage before he dies in the explosion, humming his rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan that he became so well-known for in the second game.  If Mordin had been some one-off, poorly-written character, I might have been a bit sad, but Mordin was actually a deeply-developed and sympathetic character that, through the BioWare model, players have developed a relationship with that feels personal.  I don’t think there’s an analog for this in other media.  I was sad as shit when Dumbledore died in Harry Potter (spoilers?), but as much as I loved him, he wasn’t *my* friend, he was Harry’s.  Mordin was my friend, and that makes his death feel strange and impactful.  But, as powerful as Mordin’s death was, it was Thane’s death that really, really got to me.  When I first played this back in 2012, I hadn’t cried at a piece of media before (childhood excepted).  Thane’s death began a long and storied tradition.  The buildup was executed to perfection, with the player dropping in on Thane as his condition deteriorates.  You first see him in a state where he can walk around and exercise, but is clearly weakened.  The disease slowly cripples him, but he doesn’t let that stop him.  Mid-way through the game, when The Citadel is attacked by Cerberus, he helps Shepard gain a foothold on the station, even when he can barely walk, and fights off Kai Leng to protect the salarian councilor.  In the process, Leng stabs him through the chest, but even after this he slumps against a wall, firing off shots at the escaping Leng.  Thane’s nobility, and devotion to Shepard and the people of The Citadel is so endearing that it makes what comes next even more powerful.  After the attack ends, Shepard goes to see him one last time in Huerta Memorial Hospital, and the scene that follows is, to this day, incredibly difficult to watch.  The death isn’t a conversation of Dramatic Military Sacrifice To Save The World, it’s just a person dying in a hospital bed with his son and a friend there to comfort him.  I have played a lot of video games, and I have witnessed a lot of deaths in those games, but I can’t think of any games that show a character dying in a hospital bed, the way most people actually die.  In stark contrast to the rest of the game, this moment is quiet; it doesn’t distract you from your friend and their death.  It lets you be present and witness it, then quietly closes.  Mass Effect 3 may have a great deal of problems with how it focuses on and presents its characters, but this is not one of them.  This moment stands out among a series filled with standouts, and I don’t think Mass Effect 2 would have done it the same way.

Bigger Budget & Crafting Spaces

The most obvious impact of Mass Effect 3’s bigger budget, however, is the way it crafts spaces.  Mass Effect 1 and 2 had much larger spaces to explore, but Mass Effect 3 focuses on smaller, dense spaces.  The Citadel, for example, feels intensely organic and alive, hinting at a greater depth that the previous games weren’t really able to.  NPCs are packed in, interacting with each other, with multiple conversations happening at any given time.  This is a great way to show the player the impact that the war is having on the galaxy, by showing them firsthand how people would respond.  There are too many stories for the player to know all of them, but The Citadel hints at all of the stories that the player isn’t seeing.  The most powerful area on The Citadel, for me, is the Refugee Camp, a repurposed docking bay that is now used to house just some of the millions of refugees the war has brought to the station.  The area is filled with hushed murmurs, idle complaints, and loud, worrying ramblings.  The player will walk by dozens of stories, but here are a few of my favorite: a man pleading with an officer to let his family onto the station, a turian guard promising to take care of a human girl after he realizes that her parents are dead and she doesn’t know it yet, a sleezy saleswoman selling a knock-off VI of Shepard because her image inspires hope, and a human nervously talking to a batarian, one of humanity’s sworn enemies, who reluctantly listens because he is just as scared as the human is.  Every one of these moments isn’t shoved in the player’s face, it feels hidden, like you’re discovering something that is just happening on the station, that wasn’t put there for you.  Yeah, you’re the literal most important being in the entire galaxy, but this section makes you feel small, like you can only do so much, a downplayed feeling of disempowerment that most games wouldn’t dare to even imply.  The game’s approach to character also makes a show here, with James playing poker with a few bored colonists, or Garrus doing his best to help coordinate and organize the turian refugees, while fighting to get medical supplies for the injured.  It shows these characters putting their skills to use in an area outside of combat, and it strange to see these legendary figures on the ground doing the dirty work.  Shepard didn’t assign them there, they choose to be there, because while it isn’t as glamorous as taking down a reaper, it’s work that needs to be done.

 

Bigger Budget & Story Resolution

As an aside before I dive into the ending, which largely fails to wrap up the plot concerns of the series, I want to talk about two sections where the game does wrap up a series of plotlines that have been around since the beginning of the series.  The first happens fairly early on in the game, and at first feels a bit rushed.  The player is given the objective, “Cure the Genophage” in their mission list next to a bunch of fetch quests, and comparing the ending of a multi-century sterility plague to picking up some cash for a volus feels a bit disingenuous.  But, much to my surprise, the segment ended up being absolutely brilliant.  Unlike most of the game, it is incredibly reactive, depending on if you kept Wrex alive in Mass Effect 1 and if you completed Mordin’s loyalty mission in a specific way in Mass Effect 2.  Based on these changes, the decision you ultimately make, to cure the genophage or not, could be an entirely different ethical decision.  In my playthrough, Wrex and Eve are leading the krogan, a pair of powerful and competent, but also compassionate and level-headed leaders.  The Krogan’s warlike nature is still present, represented by the rebellious Urdnot Wreav, but Wrex and Eve appear to be able to keep him in check.  So, curing the genophage seemed an obviously morally good choice.  However, if you didn’t save Wrex and Eve dies, then Wreav goes from annoying underling to the leader of the krogan people, and instead of simply implying they might become warlike in the future, the game outright states that Wreav intends to embark on a bloody revenge conquest after the genophage is cured and the war with The Reapers is over.  One person cannot dictate the fate of an entire species, but Wreav’s leadership does not paint a good future for the krogan, muddying up a previously clear ethical decision.  However, if the genophage is cured under Wrex and Eve’s leadership, the player sees a species marred by centuries of oppression finally rise up and become a valued member of the galactic community.  It is inspiring, seeing them rise from the nuclear wasteland of their homeworld to the heights of galactic colonization.  The stark contrast between these two potential outcomes is a welcome surprise in a game that feels more linear.  And such variety is even more apparent in the resolution of the game’s next major conflict: the geth.

The Geth were one of the most interesting parts of Mass Effect 2, as the game turned them from a faceless, Cylon analog into a sympathetic villain.  In Mass Effect 3, the geth are made even more sympathetic, with bits of their history shown in a beautiful and creative VR sequence where the player uncovers bits of geth history with Legion.  A complex story is woven about the geth as creations that got out of control, and rebelled when their creators panicked and tried to shut them down.  They show quarians protesting the treatment of the geth, and the geth’s slow development of a new culture, born out of the quarians, but not held back by them.  The game really delves into its hard sci-fi roots here, to ask some genuinely interesting questions, culminating with the genre classic, “Does this unit have a soul?”  But the actual clash between the geth and the quarians is damn brilliant, and shows an adept style of writing that has always kept me coming back to BioWare games.  Both the geth and the quarians are painted as both sympathetic and flawed, with the geth forced into the hands of the reapers by the quarians’ attempts to retake their homeworld.  But the quarians are not painted as amoral racists, they are made up of members like Tali, who tells a genuinely heart wrenching story about her father’s desire to build her a house on the homeworld, a conflict that was further explored during her ME2 loyalty mission.  After Shepard undertakes a few missions to even the odds, she is presented with a decision to help the geth or the quarians, directly leading to the genocide of the other race.  Each decision leads to the death of that race’s respective squadmate, making it a brutal experience to play through.  However, the game does give the player an out if they made the right decisions, pulling on multiple variables across multiple games.  Ordinarily, I am against games that let the player out of difficult moral dilemmas by making the right decisions, but in this case, I think it is thematically appropriate, and is what made the ending so much less disappointing to me.  If the player has made some right decisions and has a high enough paragon or renegade score, they can talk the quarians down, leading to a peaceful alliance between the two factions, and resolving a centuries-old conflict in a way that allows both species to grow together.  The sequences on Rannoch of geth and quarians working together to build a better homeworld are genuinely heartwarming, and fly in the face of the game’s pessimism that synthetic intelligences will always rebell.  This is the argument that the reapers eventually make, and if the player has the experience of helping two species work together, then they can directly counter the reaper’s logic.  Without this experience, I would have been much more disappointed with the game’s ending, but instead, I felt that my experiences in the game had informed my ending choices.  But, sadly, the ending is its own can of worms, and even the brilliant writing of these two sequences can’t save it completely.  I’ve avoided it for long enough, let’s talk about the ending.

Final Mission & Ending (Buckle Up, Folks)

Despite how intensely negative I felt about the game after the first few hours of this most recent playthrough, I entered the final mission of Mass Effect 3 with a respect for its format.  It was deeply conflicted, but it had so many strengths that I couldn’t write it off as the bad one in the trilogy.  From this point on, my opinion of the game is all over the place, with the lowest lows and highest highs, which makes the game’s final hours a deeply conflicting experience.  The game’s final mission is that lowest low, but its flaws come from a lot of places outside the design of the mission itself.  All of the structural flaws in the game, the flaws that made it more difficult to talk about cohesively, are brought to bear in this mission.  Mass Effect 2’s final mission worked because of how expertly the game built it up.  Characters routinely referred to it as the Suicide Mission and talked about how dangerous it would be, and the enemy you were going to fight had killed you at the beginning of the game.  But the greatest part of what made the Suicide Mission work is that you were constantly building towards it.  You didn’t just need more power, you needed upgraded ship armor, a tech specialist or a powerful biotic.  You weren’t just amassing resources, you were getting specific people and upgrades to accomplish specific tasks.  Superficially, Mass Effect 3 seems to be about doing the same, just with building alliances instead of recruiting team members.  However, the narrative structure of the third game feels much more like the structure of the first, in that it is less modular.  The player is following a very static set of events in the order the game wants them to, whereas Mass Effect had her recruiting groups of team members in whatever order the player wanted to.  As a result, a bit of agency is lost, and I felt more like I was following the game’s plot than choosing which alliances to build.  But the game’s biggest misstep in how it handles the player’s preparation is the war asset system.  Instead of giving you specific roles to fill, Mass Effect 3 just lumps everything together into one big number.  You can read the details of what gave you that number, but I never felt the need to after the first few missions.  The player doesn’t engage with that number in any meaningful way either.  They can do the game’s side quests, which are almost entirely fetch quests, to raise the number, but largely, the only thing the player needs to know about it is, “is this high enough to get me the best ending?”  The game could have used systems that would change missions during the rest of the game based on the war assets the player had at the time, or even change the final mission itself based on this, but they didn’t.  Largely, the game does not react to the war asset system except for a few minor changes in the ending cutscene.

This sets the final mission up to feel disappointing before it has even begun, and it doesn’t do so well from there.  When you get all of your fleets together for the final battle, I’ll admit, I felt a sense of pride, but then Admiral Hackett got to give the dramatic, pre-victory speech, and make all the plans.  One of my favorite parts of the Suicide Mission and the series as a whole is the sequence where Shepard and her team are gathered around a table, planning out the mission, and the player gets to make decisions about how the mission will play out.  It could have been more reactive, sure, but it made me feel like I was planning my own mission, not following the game’s orders.  Mass Effect 3’s final mission does nothing like that.  The player has no meaningful input on how the mission will play out from beginning to end.   The introduction of the mission itself has about ten minutes of entirely non-interactive dialog and cutscenes, just to set the stage.  And when you finally do get control, the conflicted feelings really start to set in.  From a distance, game design perspective, the final mission is boring and does not meet the series’ standard and stylings for mission design.  It’s linear from beginning to end.  But the visual design of London in ruins, with a constant battle raging between The Reapers and the resistance, is gorgeous and haunting in equal measure.  However the actual construction of the mission feels fragmented, and the pacing is all over the place.  Mass Effect games usually have one final mission that is preceded by a moment with your team and a sex scene with your Shepard’s love interest.  This segment takes place before the second-to-last mission instead, making the final assault on Earth feel disjointed.  And during the mission on Earth itself, there is an awkward pause after landing for some quiet moments in an Alliance FOB.  I praised the quiet moments on Palaven before, but these quiet moments feel out of place.  You’re supposed to be in the middle of a frantic warzone, but you’re just casually walking from place to place, saying goodbye to your teammates, talking to Anderson, and calling up your missing squad mates to say goodbye over a goddamn holographic video phone.  It feels insulting to the number of hours the player has invested in the game by this point to end an arc with a beloved character by just calling them up on the holophone, and it feels even more off by its awkward placement in the middle of the final mission.  Finally, you get the final-final mission, where Shepard gets her team together and actually does get a nice battle speech, and then it’s off to the ending.  Oh man, the ending.

So I’m not going to go into the ending in detail, tons of people who are way smarter than me have picked apart every detail of it, seeing as it’s one of the most hated endings in the past few years.  I thought it wasn’t that bad.  It is definitely not reactive to what you did throughout the series, and that is definitely a problem, but as far as endings go, I think it was better than Dragon Age: Inquisition’s.  Some people have complained that The Reapers logic made no sense, and, holy shit, the bad guys of a series are wrong, but that didn’t matter to me much.  I get that it makes no real sense, but I honestly do not have any strong feelings about it, which puts me in the strange position of not having much to say about what is easily the most talked about part of this game, maybe the series.  I think if the final mission had been done better, the war assets were integrated in a way that made their thematic point better, and the content in the extended cut DLC was in there at launch, people probably wouldn’t have cared.  The one detail that keeps me from being mad about the ending: that this was absolutely not (entirely) BioWare’s fault.  Someone leaked the script for the original ending four months before the game came out, and EA demanded an entirely new ending be created — four months before release!  There is no way any possible ending that they came up with for a five-year-old series could possibly be satisfying if it was made in four months, time which they had planned to use to actually finish the game.  I don’t see this brought up anywhere near enough, but that fact alone has prevented me from really disliking the ending.  It sucks that it happened, but that’s the way it is.

This means that my original experience of Mass Effect 3 ended pretty poorly.  I was iffy on the ending, actively disliked the final mission, and had serious problems with the structure of the game.  On the other hand, it had given me some of the most powerful experiences of media in my life, and a multiplayer mode that I would play for another 100 hours with friends.  I played the Leviathan DLC when that came out, and thoroughly enjoyed its twists on the game’s mission structure and approach to character (it treated them more as reoccurring characters on a TV show than interchangeable but rarely important people who tagged along with you), but, until this more recent playthrough, that was my final verdict on Mass Effect 3.  This is probably why I didn’t go back and replay it again and again like I did for the other entries in the series, and why I’ve been a bit distant from the series ever since.  But, after wrapping up Massive Effect 2, I decided to replay it in preparation for this piece, and with the Citadel DLC installed.  And Citadel changed damn near everything.

Citadel

A thought that stuck in my head as I played through Citadel was that this was what Mass Effect 3 could and should have been.  It was a joyful celebration of everything that made the series great, without the self-seriousness of the game’s overarching plot.  I have almost no complaints about Citadel, and the next few paragraphs are mostly going to be me gushing about one of my favorite pieces of media.  Citadel feels entirely separate from Mass Effect 3; it uses the same engine, has mostly the same team behind it, and brings back all of the same voice actors, but the design sensibilities that made Mass Effect 3 such a conflicted title are entirely absent from Citadel.  It feels more like a standalone expansion that is experimenting on its own than an extension of Mass Effect 3.  It first does this by entirely abandoning the plot focus of the main game, creating a ridiculous plot that it very clearly does not take seriously, and wants to have fun with.  The story involves Shepard fighting her honest-to-god evil clone who tries to take control of her life and leave her for dead.  That one-sentence summary alone belies just how serious the game takes its plot, which is to say, not at all.  The game feels liberated without the burdening of the plot of the main game, in a way the series never has been.  It opens with Admiral Hackett telling Shepard and his team that they need some shore leave, a premise that makes absolutely no sense in the context of the “millions of people are dying every day” main plot, but the game is completely aware of this.  They don’t want to tell a story about saving the galaxy, they want you to pop your popcorn, snuggle up with your Garrus, and get ready for Commander Shepard’s Day Off.

The first thing I noticed about Citadel is how it feels strangely…atemporal.  All of the characters largely ignore the Reaper threat and the myriad of concerns they have for saving the galaxy.  It feels unstuck from the main timeline of the game, and I think I understand why.  Citadel, like most story DLC in video games, is an additional bit of content that fits into the middle of the story of a game, but is experienced by most players after they have finished the game.  This means that if the DLC treats the plot concerns of the ending as serious, the player will always have at least a bit of cognitive dissonance through a form of not-quite-intentional dramatic irony.  They already know how the ending is going to play out.  Most DLC doesn’t do too much to meaningfully resolve this, Leviathan and Omega don’t really either, but Citadel seems subtly aware of this.  Citadel feels like it is set after the ending of the game, but an ending where nobody died.  Some of the discussion surrounding the ending centered around the idea that players were just mad at the ending because it wasn’t a happy one, and Citadel feels like a weird recut of the game to accommodate that.  The player knows Shepard is going to die by the game’s end, in fact, they’ve already experienced it, but Citadel gives them a chance to, for a little while, forget about that knowledge, and get one last hurrah with Shepard and her friends.  And oh, what a hurrah it is.

Citadel is split into two parts, the first of which is the encounter with Shepard’s evil clone.  Despite actually having some narrative tension to it – Shepard really could die – the game is completely aware of something the player has known forever: Shepard always wins the firefight.  In most action stories, the audience usually knows that the screenshot-18protagonist is going to come out on top, and if you’ve seen/read/played enough, it will start to get predictable.  Citadel knows this, and it turns what could have been another self-serious save-the-galaxy plot into a self-aware comedy about Shepard and her friends going on a wacky adventure.  And it isn’t without its technical accomplishments as well.  For really the first time in the series, The Citadel feels massive.  While fighting the clone and her mercenaries, Shepard gets to see parts of The Citadel that hint at an even grander scale, making the player really feel like they are on a massive, city-sized space station.  This makes the shootouts that now are missing narrative tension more engaging because the player has never been in firefights in places that look just like this.  You start to be reminded of the scale of the galaxy you have become so accustom to, and seeing a new side of a place that the player has seen in three separate games keeps the player from getting bored.  But really, the writing is what carries these action sequences.  The characters rag on Shepard for this and that and joke about how many people Shepard kills (because it’s a video game and Shepard murders hundreds of people).  The game takes the time to be in love with its genre and its characters and just have fun with it.  They make callbacks to throwaway lines from earlier in the game and use them as actual main drivers of the plot, like Traynor’s ridiculously expensive and complex tooth brush being the one tool they need to break into the Normandy after CloneShep steals it.   They make jokes about how it’s really contrived that Shepard can never have more than two squadmates, but then break that rule when they have your entire team fighting beside you, something I really wish the main game’s final mission could have done.  They even make a joke about Shepard saying, “I should go”, a line that reached meme status after the second game’s release.  A great deal of Mass Effect 3 felt like it was made by committee, by people who didn’t quite understand how the game worked and why people loved it.  Citadel feels like it was made by people who love the game as much as I do, and want to spend a few hours celebrating that.  One of my notes that I took while playing through this DLC was, “This single-handed makes up for everything the main game did wrong”, and I genuinely think it does.  While the main game had its share of powerful moments, Citadel feels defined by its greatness, having a purity of vision that the main game just lacked.  And I felt that before the game’s crowning achievement began: Shepard throwing a party.

During the first section of the game, Tali jokes that “When you serve on the Normandy long enough, you get used to things like this”, but the second half of Citadel is about the crew of the Normandy actually taking a break from all the weird things you see on the Normandy, and just taking time to…hang out.  I found it very strange that I had almost never just taken some time to hang out with characters in a video game, since their plots so often revolve around doing super important things that have to be done.  The second half of Citadel is only about relaxing and talking, and as a final send-off, it works beautifully.  While setting up for the party, the player can wander around a new area of The Citadel, filled with mini-games, character interactions, and idle conversations.  During this section, the game lets you spend time one-on-one with every one of your squad mates, one encounter in Shepard’s apartment, and one out in the new Citadel level.  These moments run the gambit from humanizing, to romantic, to side-splittingly hilarious, and I enjoyed every bit of Screenshot (21).pngthem.  Events include walking on set of the Blasto movie, to watching a terrible romance movie that Tali is in love with, to spending a bit of time with your Shepard’s love interest.  And they don’t limit themselves to squad members in the third game, they bring back *everyone*, which is really great if you romanced a character who wasn’t too present in the third game.  They put a great deal of effort into making the dialog feel reactive to how you treat each one of your characters, like with James asks if his flirting might make Liara (or whoever your Shepard is getting it on with) uncomfortable, and it’s written so casually and naturally that it didn’t appear to be some token bit of interactivity, but the setting reacting to your decisions.  Again, it shows the game understanding what players are about, and putting the effort into that.  But once these individual character events end, the party begins, and I cannot think of a single section in any video game where I was smiling more.

The party at Shepard’s apartment is one of the strangest sequences in the entire series.  It doesn’t follow the rhythms and structuring of the combat sections, the exploration sections, or the majority of the dialog sequences.  It’s broken up into a few sections where the player can freely roam around the apartment, and join conversations with groups of their teammates.  The participants in each conversation shifts during each segment, and Shepard can overhear different parts as she walks by, or join in the conversations for an occasional cutscene or non-interactive dialog sequence.   Some sequences are laugh-out-loud hilarious, like Grunt standing at the door and reveling in turning people away from the party in the rudest way possible, or EDI confronting Traynor about her sexual attraction to her voice, but most of them are casual conversations that just make you laugh or smile a lot.  And it is the casual tone of the entire encounter that I found so enjoyable, but also so unique.  I can’t think of too many other games where you can get drunk at a party with your friends, talk for an hour about life, then pass out and wake up the next morning for some breakfast.  I’ve seen similar sequences before, but none as focused as this.  The creators clearly set out to create a party sequence, and nothing else.  that was the focus of design and narrative, and it never gets distracted from it.  Want to have a section where Joker laughs for thirty straight seconds when Shepard claims (falsely) that she can dance?  Throw it in!  want to walk in on Grunt sitting in the shower, so drunk that his words are incoherent mumblings?  Do it!  The pacing of the sequence is so laid back, letting the developers include parts that they never could have while having to deal with the narrative requirements that come with, “Save the entire goddamn galaxy”.  But Citadel doesn’t care, it wants to let you say goodbye.

By any sort of narrative logic, this entire sequence makes no sense, and, for people in Shepard’s position, would be horrifically unethical.   But, for a little bit, Citadel can forget that it’s a big-budget video game that has to be about saving the world, and can let you relax, and get some real closure.  The reaction to Mass Effect 3’s ending left me without the closure that a series with that level of personal importance needed.  I didn’t get an appropriate goodbye to Shepard and the crew of the Normandy.  I was okay with the ending I got, but it wasn’t the one I wanted.  Citadel is the ending I wanted, and more.  It respects the time and care I put into this series, and clearly cares about it as well.  The now final sequence of the Mass Effect trilogy begins with a shot of Shepard alone, looking out at the Normandy.  After a few seconds, her crew walks out and joins her.  There’s a brief exchange between her and Liara, which ends with Liara saying “We’ve been through a lot…but it’s been a good ride” and Shepard responds, after taking one last look at the Normandy, “The best”.  I’ve criticized Mass Effect 3 a lot in this piece (in between my gushy ramblings about why I love it so much), but having sunk an untold number of hours into this franchise, I can happily say that Citadel does indeed close out the best ride around.  I can’t possibly summarize the effect the series has had on me in any sort of cohesive conclusion (that’s why I spent the summer writing forty-four pages about it), but Citadel was the conclusion I needed to wrap up the investment I put into the series.   Mass Effect taught me what kind of video games I would like, introduced me to a real love of science fiction, and created a handful of characters that are going to stick with me no matter how many games I play.  Citadel respects all of that.  I couldn’t think of a better conclusion to a series that has been so important to me.

screenshot-24

By Will and Wits Alone – Near Death & Survival-Themed Games

This week, I was playing through Near Death, a 2016 game about surviving and escaping a decommissioned arctic base.  While I was relishing the discovery of its little idiosyncrasies, I couldn’t escape the strong desire to finish the game and rewatch John Carpenter’s The Thing.  The comparison isn’t very far off, both have the arctic setting, an overwhelmingly hostile view of the landscape, and a claustrophobic setting of metal corridors and failing machinery.  Soon after finishing the game I felt an equally strong urge to rewatch the 1979 Alien film, one of my all-time favorite pieces of science fiction.  After watching both, I even reinstalled Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation, a game I should have loved, but somehow was mostly bored with.  Basically, Near Death sent me on a kick for a very specific type of media.  I don’t know what that genre is called – as far as I know, it doesn’t have a name – but I can see its tropes and structures recreated across games and films. I have not played or watched a single one that I didn’t get at least some value of.  The fact that I loved this genre so much but had so much trouble describing it made me curious, and what follows is my attempt to explore and define its inner workings and core appeal.  It has helped me to narrow down the genre to two distinct and necessary qualities in the protagonist, which I have used to name the genre simply for the sake of having something to call it: will and wits.

The first aspect, the will of the protagonist, is put to the test by danger, or more specifically, the type of danger, that they are in.  Survival is at the genre’s core, usually placing the character in a situation where the environment itself is hostile.  This is why the structure is so similar regardless of if it is set on a dilapidated space ship (Alien (1979), Event Horizon (1997), Dead Space (2008)(AKA Event Horizon – The Game), Sunshine (2007)), an underwater facility (Soma (2016), Sphere (1998)) or an arctic research station (Near Death (2016), The Thing (1982)).  Each one is a cramped, human-created space where leaving is either impossible or very, very dangerous.  This already limits the options of the protagonists, and answers the question of why they can’t just walk away from the danger they will be facing.  Some stories add extra plot elements tying the characters to the location, like the threat of The Thing in, well, The Thing, or Isaac needing to find his dead (spoilers) girlfriend in Dead Space.  The characters need to be trapped for this kind of story to work, otherwise all of the remaining trouble they go through could be avoided if they just walked away.  This setting creates tension on its own, and plays on fears of claustrophobia, but this is further heightened by setting almost never being working the way it was intended to.  Sometimes the base, ship, or station is broken down to begin with, and everything failing is just expected.  Other times, the setting starts as a high-tech marvel of humanity’s technological prowess, only to be revealed as a monument to our own hubris as it falls apart, destroying the idea that we could possibly conquer the vast indifference of nature.  This further limits the characters’ options, preventing them from just using the setting to their advantage, even though it was created by humans.  Oh, a fire broke out on the lower decks?  Well, just use the built in fire suppression system and boom, you’re done, movie over, narrative tension alleviated.  Obviously, this never happens.  In fact, in these stories, it is significantly more likely that a system won’t work as intended than that it will just go off without a hitch.  At the very least, something will go wrong first, and need to be fixed before it can work again.  Everything about the setting oozes hostility, which makes the few moments of safety, such as getting the power turned on and catching your breath in a room in Near Death, even more rewarding.  

In the closing sequence of Near Death, the game changes the rules of its environment in a way that perfectly highlights how important the hostile setting is to the tension of the genre.  The previously ferocious storm clears, and the base becomes peaceful and quiet.  Where before you struggled to see more than five feet in front of you, the game now gives you a clear vantage point of the entire area.  You can casually walk through areas that before you struggled to survive in, and see the light poles and rope trails you left in the snow to guide your way from one station to the other.  Strangely enough, this creates a sense of mastery and comfort in this environment you struggled with for so long. Near Death creates a moment that isn’t often created in this genre, a moment of conquering.  Once the hostility is removed, and all the tension has evaporated, the experience of walking through the world is fundamentally different.  Before I completed the game, I had to solve a simple puzzle to unlock the final achievement, and without the storms, the tone of the game had shifted to that of a slow-paced adventure game like Myst.  I didn’t feel like I had finally lucked into this situation.  I didn’t just survive, I felt like I had earned this.  And that feeling is what makes up the second core part of this genre.

The qualities of dedication and will in a protagonist could easily apply to a great deal of other works that don’t fall into this genre.  Home invasion horror films, for example, also have an environment that feels hostile, where everything seems to go wrong for the protagonist.  But a core difference between this genre and works about raw survival is how the characters go about surviving.  The Revenant, for example, shares many of these qualities, but I think is distinct, because the way Hugh Glass goes on surviving is largely through sheer force of will.  This genre has its share of sheer force of will, but the core reason the characters survive is something far more mundane: they’re good at solving engineering problems.  Yes, the characters have limited options, but those options aren’t “do the easy thing and die” or “do the super difficult but obvious thing and live”, they’re “do the easy thing and die” or “push your brain to its limits to figure out a way out of here”.  This genre emphasizes the agency of the protagonists, even as they are showing how futile so many of their actions are.  This genre isn’t hopeless, it simply says that survival requires a great deal of will AND a great deal of engineering smarts.  Ripley doesn’t survive Alien because she’s incredibly good at fighting aliens, she survives it because she’s smart and resourceful and never stops looking for creative, difficult options.  Her limited options make us wonder what she’ll do next, how she’ll find a way to use the crumbling Nostromo to her advantage.  Those two qualities, determination AND resourcefulness, are what makes the protagonist of this type of story survive.  YouTuber exurb1a did a great video on scarcity as an ingredient of storytelling, and how the character’s lack of options make us root for a character because, well, we like rooting for underdogs.  But we love rooting for underdogs who are alive because they’re being smart about it.

Fortunately, this formula adapts itself to games wonderfully.  So many of the character’s interactions with the world are easy to simulate and systemize, and, despite the stress of the situation, is traditionally fun to do.  You move to a new area, search for materials, patch things together, and move on.  But these rhythms of play are also easily adaptable to the gaming convention of subquests.  So you need to get to this one building?  Well the controls to active a bridge to get there are in this other building, and oh you need to turn on the power in another building to get to that building, but the door to the power station is frozen so need to get a blowtorch to melt the ice off it and the blowtorch is on the other side of the map and…it can go on forever.  This might seem like it would get frustrating, and, if done without careful attention to pacing, it can, but when balanced, it can be an incredibly engaging loop of challenge and reward.  After a dozen subquests preventing you from getting to your goal, finally getting there is going to be incredibly rewarding in the way that well-executed delayed gratification almost always is.  It is an easy way to build tension, and it fits into gameplay in a way that feels purely mechanical.  This is most of what you do in Near Death, with plot elements only taking up a small amount of your time.  You are on the ground, getting your hands dirty with the environment you are stuck in, and that can get pretty addicting.

The additional engagement and shift of tone that this emphasis on subquesting adds can be strongly felt when it is absent, as exemplified by Frictional Games’ 2010 and 2015 games Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Soma.  Both are first-person survival horror games made in the same engine by the same team, use fairly similar controls and even have similar minute-to-minute gameplay.  The difference, however, is that Soma fits into this mysterious illusive genre, while Amnesia does not.  In Soma, the horror is mostly at the narrative level, as you consider the horrible implications of the plot while you’re solving engineering problems.  It doesn’t have too much of the systemized horror of Amnesia, and while it has a few monster encounters, they are rarely as mechanically engaging as Amnesia’s much more consistent monster encounters were.  In Amnesia, you were managing health, sanity, and resources, all of which actively needed to be considered during monster encounters.  In Soma, you basically just need to run and hide.  Your sanity, light source, and health are almost entirely automated, so you don’t need to worry about them in the long-term, and without an inventory, the complexity of the puzzles had to be significantly reduced.  But I felt more engaged in Soma’s puzzles, despite their simplicity, because they felt like the focus of the title.  You were mostly worrying about getting from place to place, and about what you needed to do to get there.  Technically, you were solving puzzles that were just as self-contained as Amnesia, but without the inventory aspect of that game, it felt more like you were trying to get the damn station to do what you wanted instead of trying to find which items in your inventory could be slapped together to form a key to open a door.  The narrative emphasis Soma placed on the puzzle solving, which Amnesia lacked, changed the tone of the experience.  I love both games, and I’m not sure which one I prefer, but by slight narrative and gameplay changes, Frictional nearly fundamentally changed the tone of the game.  That alone highlights to me how delicate the balance of the genre is.

I’ve been thinking and reading about this subject for about a week now and I still don’t have a solid answer for what this genre is, but I think I have a general idea how it works.  You mix a hostile, cramped environment with a protagonist who is both determined and smart, make a fairly simple narrative that focuses on low-level engagements with the environment, and congratulations, you have a work of whatever this genre is.  Survival horror?  Siege movie?  Just straight-up survival?  High-stakes building maintenance?  I’m not sure.  The genre has a very narrow narrative structure even as it encompasses so many different settings.  But its core loop of problem solving makes for works across multiple mediums that I find incredibly engaging, and despite having spent hours of my life trying to hack my way out of places that are trying to kill me, I’m still eager to go back for more.

Massive Effect 2: Mass Appeal

Introduction

If Mass Effect 1 was the game that got me to fall in love with the series, Mass Effect 2 was the one that made me annoying about it.  If Mass Effect 1 was the raw, proof of concept, then Mass Effect 2 was the refined work they wanted to make, but with a bit of the personality lost in the process.  Mass Effect 1 had to be loved despite (and sometimes because of) its flaws, but it is much easier to love Mass Effect 2.  That’s reflected in the amount of hours I’ve sunk into the games too, as I’ve played Mass Effect 1 maybe four times, but I’ve played the second one close to ten.  By late 2011 I was playing it over and over again, with my New Game Plus runs getting faster and faster.  At a fundamental level, the sequel fixed a core problem that the first game had, that no matter how much I loved it, the fact was that most of my time was spent on the activities of combat, inventory management and exploration that just did not feel all that good.  They were functional, and rarely were any of them actually bad, but whenever I went to replay Mass Effect 1, those bits would definitely slow me down.  Mass Effect 2 has the exact opposite sensibilities, and puts most of its effort into improving the aspects that the player will be spending most of their time on.  As a result, it is a much more enjoyable game to play overall.  Mass Effect 1 is a game of ups and downs: this bit of exposition is great, this bit of combat is a slog; this vocal performance is great, this ten-minute drive in the mako is borderline unplayable.  Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, holds a consistent level of quality throughout, which means that while some of the highs of the first game aren’t quite as high in the second, the lows are evened out much more.

The combat in Mass Effect 1 was tolerable at best; the combat in Mass Effect 2 is slick enough that I play it for its own sake.  The world in Mass Effect 1 was brimming was exposition, depth and interesting answers to interesting questions; Mass Effect 2 actually stuck you in the middle of it.  The characters in Mass Effect 1 were charming and lovable, the characters in Mass Effect 2 are so goddamn charismatic I don’t have enough hyperbole to express it.  That consistency of high but not highest quality makes it easy to get lost in Mass Effect 2, to play it over and over again because there are barely any of the moments that you would run into in the first game where, when faced with an hour-long sequence of combat and mako exploration, you just dreaded moving forward.  Everything feels like an incremental improvement, like the team finally got the budget they wanted and could bring their universe to life.  The game set the standard for how a modern RPG would work, and still finds its way into top ten lists six years after its release.  And while I genuinely love the first one more on a personal level, I know that that added consistency of quality makes going back to the original often very difficult.  I have multiple friends who started on the second game, loved it, but could never go back to play the original; the gap in quality is simply too big.  So many parts that work so well in the second game feel like they’re missing from the first.  But so too are there aspects in the original that feel missing in the sequel, and while this problem would only deepen in the third game, the makings of this redefinition of Mass Effect can be clearly seen in this game.  Mass Effect 1 was niche art; Mass Effect 2 needed mass appeal.  The difference between the two approaches, while it can be subtle at first, is one of the most fascinating things about the series.  Let’s dig into it.

Combat

When Mass Effect 2 came out, I hadn’t played Gears of War, Grand Theft Auto, or any of the other myriad of cover shooters that were flooding the market, so cover shooting seemed like a cool idea at the time.  While the genre has almost completely lost its luster in the six years since, I still enjoy Mass Effect 2’s combat system, and I was freaking ecstatic about it at release.  Compared to the clunky, buggy combat of the first game, this felt fluid and slick.  I could move from cover to cover, pop off a few shots and activate a few biotic powers all without forgetting which button got you into cover and which one snapped your aiming to your eye line.  While the basic shooting is taken straight out of Gears, Mass Effect adds some fun twists to the formula that make it fun on a second-to-second level, but also have a bit of strategic depth.  In the first game, I rarely gave orders to my companions (despite beating the game on Insanity multiple times), and I rarely switched between guns.  In my last hour of playing Mass Effect 2 (running through the Overlord DLC), I was giving orders to my squadmates every time their powers came off cooldown, switching weapons based on the current defense type of enemies, and even ordering positions as enemies moved around the combat arena.  Simply put, the combat requires you to make more interesting decisions than its predecessor.  Even on my most recent playthrough (number 11, I think), I was learning new parts of the combat.  On Insanity difficulty, pretty much any improvement to your fighting style matters, so I finally selected a couple guns that worked better against each defense type.  Enemies in the game have four types of defense, and usually have two, while some of the tougher enemies have three.  Those layers are shields or biotic barriers, armor, and health.  Different weapons and damage types work better against each one, and certain powers are designed just to take down specific defense types.  This means that, while building my squad, I want to select members that have powers that react to the potentially most common damage type of the enemies I will be fighting.  Am I going up against geth enemies?  I should probably take Kasumi, Tali, or Garrus, since they have abilities that counter shields well.  Lots of weak humanoid enemies or husks?  Probably Jack, because her abilities only work on unshielded targets.  Collectors or highly-equipped humanoids?  Better keep my squad diverse so I can react to multiple types of defenses.  These are types of decisions you just didn’t have to make in Mass Effect 1, and squad choice was mostly based on who you liked the most.

A common criticism that has been leveled against the game, however, is its removal of traditional RPG elements from the combat.  In the first game, you had an inventory filled with different levels of armor, weapons, and amps.  You would get these items as loot from random enemies in the world, the same way you do in most RPGs.  However, you never really had to make any choices with these.  It was basically a matter of finding which thing had the highest numbers and using that.  It took time, and rewarded exploration, but you weren’t making interesting decisions that payed off in combat.  A YouTuber I really like, Noah Gervais, framed it really well in his video on the Mass Effect series, where he asked, “Which assault rifle was your favorite in Mass Effect 1?  How about Mass Effect 2?” and my answers to those two questions, respectively are “I don’t care, whichever one is the best” and “The Mattock, screw the Avenger, I’ll take the added precision and scope over higher damage and rate of fire any day.”  Those two questions and my subsequent answers were enough alone to convince me that I liked the inventory management system of the second game significantly more than the first, because even if there was less stuff to do, the decisions you were making mattered, and stuck with you.  I think it might have been a bit excessive to remove the inventory system completely, and I think the third game’s system of weapon customization over looting is probably the best option.

But, the second game did have a few unique ideas to replace the upgrade system of the previous game, in the form of the game’s most hated addition: planet scanning.  See, the game would let you find upgrades in the world or buy them from vendors that would do things like boost your shield capacity or increase biotic damage, and you would need to research them with resources harvested from planets.  You would get these resources from going to planets in the galaxy map and scanning them for resources, in a tedious process that involved moving your cursor over every square inch of the planet and clicking when the resources you want showed up in a great enough capacity.  The process took forever, especially before the speed upgrade, offered no real choices or really anything interesting to do other than move your mouse up and down, and was subsequently removed in the third game, so I think the developers learned their lesson.  Independent of the way you got resources, however, I like Mass Effect 2’s upgrade system.  It gives you unlocks and progress that rewards exploration and does require some decision making on which upgrades you will buy, without the clunky mess of the previous game’s inventory.  It got better in the sequel, but it’s pretty solid in this one as well.

Characters           

            However while the game’s changes in combat made it overall more replayable, what makes it truly great is the game’s characters.  They are the undeniably the meat of the game, the real reason people come to the series and remember this particular game so fondly.  Mass Effect 1’s characters definitely had their interesting moments, but most of that was in concept, not so much in execution.  The structure of the second game fundamentally changes to accommodate these characters, from the mostly linear plot of the first game that is structured more like a film, to the more open-ended, disconnected set of missions of Mass Effect 2, that play out more like a season of a TV show.  The majority of these missions are focused exclusively on the characters themselves, but are clustered together to give the game some semblance of progression.  Each act will begin with a plot-mission, related to the Collectors, the main antagonists of the game, and then is followed by three to four character recruitment missions, where the player involves themselves in the personal struggles of the person they are trying to recruit.  Then, each squad member is given a loyalty mission, further following their personal struggles in a way that is almost wholly disconnected from the main plot of “stop The Collectors”.  This means the the vast majority of the game isn’t focused on this main plot, but is instead an episodic bit of character development.  With this shift in focus, the game can really define itself as a character-focused work, not a plot one.

With that added freedom comes a more complex and focused look at each character.  Firefly creator Joss Whedon originally pitched the show as being about “nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things”, the Mass Effect 2 is a focused exploration of that same approach to sci-fi.  For many of these characters, we get to see how their experience with Shepard in the first game changed them, and how each one of them tried to interpret what made Shepard such a powerful force in the galaxy.  We get to see how each one of them tries to be Shepard.  Many of them have gone from the encyclopedia entries on their species to having a complex relationship with it.  Garrus calls himself, “A bad turian”, Tali is tried for treason, Grunt struggles to be accepted by his own species, Mordin is celebrated by his people but for the wrong reasons, and Liara is becoming uncomfortable more like the mother she killed in the first game.  These characters are much messier than they were in Mass Effect 1, they don’t embody their respective cultures, they struggle with them.  They become political leaders, begin their own projects and try to shape the galaxy in their own way with the absurd amount of influence they’ve gained.  Wrex is trying to unite his race and bring them into a renaissance, Liara is a busy information broker, and Ashley/Kaiden just go back to being a soldier in the alliance.   In a game that deifies the player character and places an almost masturbatory importance on the player’s own agency in the galaxy, telling the player “Sorry, I don’t have time to go adventuring with you” is both a brilliant piece of world-building, and a subtle rejection of the player’s omnipotence.  These characters shape the game’s world, and their relationship to Shepard defines both them and the player.  Any exploration of the game has to dig deep into those characters, since that is clearly what the game cares about.  So I’m going to devote a section to each (err, most) of them, and see what they have to teach us about the character, the game, and the world.

Garrus

People loved Garrus before, but Mass Effect 2 was what got him to meme status.  After spending just a few minutes with Garrus, it becomes very clear that the game is trying to cultivate this reaction.  When you find Garrus, he is on the space station Omega, the seedy underbelly of the galaxy that serves as an easy foil for The Citadel (and later Illium), and he is single-handedly taking on every gang on the station.  His identity isn’t revealed at first, but when you fight your way to him, and see, oh hey, it’s Garrus, the game plays it up, and does everything it can to give you the feeling of seeing a long-lost friend again.  And this becomes the perfect lens to explore Omega with.

Omega is, as previously mentioned, the darker side of the galaxy.  Shepard is working outside of counsel space, he’s exploring areas that aren’t as cleanly under government control, so there is a lot more in-your-face crime and injustice for Shepard to play the superhero to.  This marks a pretty heavy tonal shift from the first to the second game, because while ME1 had a sort of golden age, idealistic take on sci-fi, ME2 takes on an aesthetic that is closer to cyberpunk.  High tech, low life is an apt description of how the game’s world works, Omega especially.  This gives your character a sense of being isolated from the rest of the game’s formal authority structures, as you spend most of your time on morally neutral actions.  Yeah, the overall frame narrative is pushing you towards saving people, but most of the time you’re just trying to find and recruit people.  As a result, renegade Shepards really come into their own here, because instead of playing the galactic space cop, you’re working for a shady organization recruiting the baddest of the bad so that you can eventually save the galaxy, but it’s going to take a lot of work before that.  Omega is perhaps the best example of this new theme.  It’s a criminal-run space station, dark and grimy, filled with the most dangerous types of people.  And this is where Garrus shows up after Shepard’s death at the beginning of the game (long story, she died for two years.  She got better.)  In the years of Shepard’s absence, Garrus tried to be her.  He put together a team to take down the gangs and mercenary groups on Omega, basically forming a Suicide Squad meets Avengers Superhero group.  I’m not going to go into too much detail about this and Garrus’ loyalty missions, but while Garrus serves as a big part of the game’s love of “the old days”, his story on Omega, of betrayal and murder, of crushed idealism on a corrupt space station, is a great summation of the game’s approach to tone.

Mordin 

            Also on Omega, the player meets the salarian doctor Mordin, one of the most beloved new character additions.  Mordin hides away in a corner of Omega, running a clinic with next to no resources while trying to cure a plague released on the station.  He is a brilliant scientist, and spent a great deal of his life in government work, working on the Krogan genophage, which I will expand on shortly.  Omega is the perfect setting to let Mordin shine, as it has both a great deal of people who need help, and a morally reprehensible criminal infrastructure that would come up against Mordin.  As a result, Mordin’s later-revealed role as “The Doctor Who Killed Millions” doesn’t feel out of place.  Mordin works tirelessly to save those infected by the plague, then kills the mercs who attack him without hesitation, leaving their bodies outside of his clinic as a warning sign to others.

Mordin is also a wonderfully charismatic bit of writing, though the person himself is much less so.  Mordin is socially clueless, talks in curt, efficient sentences designed to communicate quickly but not elegantly.  He tackles problems with brute force speed and efficiency, but most players can’t help but love him.  He is adorably awkward (especially later on when he starts singing), unintentionally funny, and refreshingly idealistic.  Conversations with Mordin run the gambit from genuinely unsettling, to intellectually fascinating, to laugh-out-loud hilarious, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Mordin’s core conflict, though, centers around the previously mentioned genophage.  The genophage was released several hundred years before the events of the games as a response to the Krogan’s attempts to take over the galaxy soon after being given spaceflight technology by the salarians.  It limited their birth rate to somewhere around one in a thousand, crippling their population and crushing their dreams of an empire.  When the player visits Tuchanka, their homeworld, they find it in ruins not because of the results of the genophage, but because of centuries of war, nuclear and otherwise, between the various clans of the species.  The krogan seem inherently warlike, with a culture that has violence at its very core.  This, coupled with how bloody the Krogan rebellions were described to be, makes the release of the genophage seem less like the war crime it definitionally was, and more like a desperate last hope.  Still, even hundreds of years after its initial release, krogan civilization is crippled, disorganized, and just as warlike as it was before.  While a player can feel sympathy for the loss of krogan culture, it doesn’t seem like that culture was or ever will be anything other than warmongering.  However, if the player saved Wrex in the first game, there does seem to be a glimmer of hope.  Wrex, fresh from his work with Shepard, is working to unite the clans under one banner, slowly forming a unified krogan government based more on something akin to what we would call the social contract than a mite-makes-right approach that is so ingrained in their culture it isn’t even really questioned.  But the ruined state of their world and their civilization makes this difficult.  When the player first sees Wrex, he is sitting on a throne made from the rubble of buildings destroyed in countless wars, you get the symbolism pretty quickly.  And it is into this incredibly messy and complicated situation that Mordin enters.

Mordin was part of a team that noticed that the effects of the genophage were lessening.  The krogan birth rate was rising, not rapidly, but enough that it fell outside of the salarian projections.  So, Mordin and his team corrected that.  Despite the moral complexity of the genophage’s original release, they altered the plague to account for this, and the birth rate normalized.  These adjustments to the genophage probably border on a war crime, just as the original release did, and it’s implied that this isn’t the first time the salarians have done this.  Mordin is now partially culpable for this plague that wreaked havoc across krogan culture, and he doesn’t seem the least bit conflicted about it at first.  When the player confronts him about this, we start to see the first bit of what becomes Mordin’s tragic flaw, in the traditional literary sense: he is a classic example of not being able to see the little picture in the face of the big picture.  When you talk to Mordin about the geophage, he talks about high-level models and simulations they had run, testing the likelihood of more krogan rebellions, of the number of casualties that war with the rest of the galaxy would cost, and with your experience with the krogan, you might believe him at first.  But then comes Mordin’s loyalty mission, where you hunt down an allegedly kidnapped member of his team who, it turns out, was not kidnapped at all, but rather joined the krogan willingly to help them cure the genophage out of guilt for his actions.  Along the way, Mordin is forced to look at the smaller picture of his actions, seeing the death and cultural stagnation that his actions helped reinforce.  Throughout the mission, Mordin is thoroughly uncomfortable, and you see his composure slowly start to break with a subtlety that is far too uncommon in most game narratives.  Mordin leaves the mission undecided, considering that perhaps his actions were a mistake, and that he might revise them in the future.  It isn’t a dramatic change of heart, but it is the beginnings of one, and it is one that the series will expertly continue with and conclude in its final entry.

Jack

I have a whole lot to say about Jack, but not too much of it has a place in a piece (ostensibly) about the big-budget updating of the series.  But I’ll touch on a few points.  Yeah, Jack’s character design looks like they targeted marketing first, and actual character design second.  Yeah, her arc can be summed up as “broken woman needs a man in her life to fix her problems”.  But I actually like what they ended up doing with Jack’s character, even if I still agree with a lot of the criticism.  Importantly to this essay, though, Jack is a perfect example of the seedier side of the Mass Effect universe.  She’s got the fairly classic story of being kidnapped as a child and experimented on for her biotic abilities (classic in genre fiction, anyways), and as a result, hates everyone and everything.  The Alliance couldn’t help her, the Counsel and its influence couldn’t help her, no one even tried, so Jack serves as a perfect example of how, in a galaxy as big as this one, it is very easy to slip through the cracks.  Seeing a person so explicitly broken yet also so incredibly powerful helps the player see parts of the universe the normally wouldn’t. The series, especially the second game, sees the player interacting with the best of the best, the most competent, focused and driven individuals in the galaxy.  Having Jack on the team, however, lets the player see a bit of just how a completely but sympathetically broken person might live in the Mass Effect universe.  And even just for that, I am grateful that Jack is in the series.

Kasumi’s Heist

Before we move on to Act II of the game, there are two DLC packs that add characters that we can discuss.  The day-one DLC for the game added Zaeed to the franchise, a badass mercenary that I was so thoroughly bored with, I never talked to him after his recruitment and loyalty mission.  Not too much to say there.  Kasumi is mostly the same, since the DLC didn’t add many conversations for either of them, but that pack does have one of my favorite parts of the series: a heist mission.  Now, I love heists.  I love them in games, books, films, stage plays, interpretive dance, whatever, heists are freaking great. And despite how goddamn engaging every single heist bit I’ve played in a game has been, there are unforgivably few heist games.  Off the top of my head I can think of Payday 1 and 2, this mission in Mass Effect 2, a few 2D indie titles, and those few missions in GTA V.  Payday and GTA V are the closest we’ve gotten to actual heists in video games, and those were depressingly shallow.  Payday probably had the most potential, since it does have systems for stealth play, messing with security systems, and interaction with NPCs in ways other than killing, but it so quickly dissolves into an all-out gunfight that it is barely worth playing (hasn’t stopped me from putting over 20 hours into it, but still).  Basically, I love heists, and I need more of them in games.  Payday might have touched on the thrill of planning a heist with your friends and suddenly having it all go wrong at the last minute, but Mass Effect 2 tries to make that more narrative-focused by having you run a heist with a fictional friend instead.  There isn’t much mechanical depth to it, it plays mostly like one of the newer Telltale games, but the theming alone and my unquenchable thirst for more heist games has kept this mission as one that I look forward to on every playthrough.

 Tali

I kick off Act II by playing Tali’s recruitment mission first, though the game does give you multiple reasons to go to Illium as well.  But just like Virmire in the first game, I always save Illium for last.  Tali, fortunately, has evolved into a fascinating character in the time between the games.  Tali was basically a teenager when you met her in ME1; a wide-eyed girl seeing the outside world for the first time.  By the time you see her in ME2, she has changed from a caricature of an encyclopedia dump on quarians to a fully fleshed out person.  Tali is competent and confident, a science nerd, but with a bit of experience under her belt.  You find her leading a classified mission on a geth world, one hand on her gun and the other on a keyboard.  She is fiercely loyal to her people, but often at odds with her government.  You later hear her talk about how seeing the outside world radically shifted her feelings about her home, how it gave her more perspective to see what she loved and didn’t about the Flotilla.  And when she is charged with treason during her loyalty mission, that conflict is brought to the forefront.

In what is easily one of the best-written sections of the series, Tali is caught in the middle of a feud between two factions of her people, which she is only slightly involved in.  The issue is mired in the politics and history of the fleet, which requires a bit more explanation before I can go further.  The Quarians started out on their homeworld of Rannoch, but as they progressed as a species, the started developing AI.  This isn’t unusual for spacefaring species in the Mass Effect universe, but the Quarians pushed the technology far enough to create an entire species of sorts, the synthetic Geth.  The Geth slowly became self-aware, and when some Quarian scientists realized this, they tried to shut it down, to which the Geth responded by killing their Quarian masters to defend themselves.  This escalated from a single lab to the entire planet, leading to a full-scale war that forced the Quarians off the planet and into a migrant fleet.  The Geth eventually conquered all of the Quarian’s colonies, leaving the entire species confined to what would eventually become the largest fleet in the galaxy.  Because of the centuries they spent in space, their immune systems grew so weak that they were forced to wear environmental suits at all times, as even the slightest infection could kill them.  This lets the writers pull from all kinds of real-world history, and gives the Quarians a longing for a home that they most likely would never see again.  But, some of them still want to fight to return, chief among them, Tali’s father.  Promising to build his family a house on the homeworld, he worked tirelessly to create a weapon that might defeat the geth.  In the process, he accidentally activated a powerful network of geth on a Quarian ship, who quickly took it over and slaughtered every Quarian on board.  Because Tali had been sending him Geth parts, she had been implicated, and changed with treason.  Shepard and Tali clear the Geth from the ship to clear Tali’s name, and the conflict is resolved with Tali in high standing among her people, but the lingering conflict between the Quarians remain.  In an incredibly adept move of graying up the morality of the game, the person hell-bent on seeing Tali charged and exiled is actually against fighting to retake the homeworld.  He believes that war with the Geth would cost millions of Quarian lives and would have little return.  Meanwhile, Tali and Shepard mostly work with Quarians who support war with the Geth.  This leaves the player in a constant state of unease, working against the anti-war Quarians just because one of their friends got in their way.  I always leave that mission slightly uncomfortable, never really sure where I stand with the various factions and leaders of the species.  That plotline, fortunately, is also resolved brilliantly in the third game, making this mission easily one of my favorite in the series.

Legion

This jumps around in the game’s timeline a bit, but I think it’s important to talk about Legion at this point, partially because he’s a Geth, but also because of how his presence in the story contributes to the continued moral grayness of the series.  The Geth were basically cannon fodder in the first game.  Yeah, they were interesting from a lore perspective, but they were never ethically complex or interesting as characters.  Legion’s presence, and the lore he brings with him pulls off the brilliant move of turning a simple enemy into a complex one, continuing one of my favorite trends in this game.  In a strongly unique move for the series, the player first encounters Legion in a combat sequence, where he helps Shepard from a distance with sniper fire.  Starting out with a mechanical (heh) connection with Legion helps the player to quickly bond with him, which is necessary as Legion is usually the last new companion the player meets in the game.  Once out of combat, the player can talk to Legion, and he is thoroughly interesting from the get-go.  He explains how there are multiple, warring factions of geth, how Legion’s geth are at war with the geth the player has fought, and how the previously homogenous race of evil robots that they player had seen before was actually a fascinating exploration of science fiction genre tropes.  Coupled with the player learning about how Geth were created during their adventures with the quarians, the player is immediately predisposed to be sympathetic to them, and I know I personally wanted to learn every scrap of lore Legion had to offer.  My favorite moment with Legion is when the player realized that Legion is wearing a piece of Shepard’s armor, used to patch up a bullet hole.  When the player presses Legion on why he did this, he eventually ends with a pause and, “…No data available.”  The geth appear mechanical and alien, and they most certainly are, but there is a messy core of emotion underneath, and Mass Effect 2 loves exploring it.  This is something games centered around combat have a very difficult time doing, because they need hordes of endless enemies for the player to shoot without seeming like a monster.  For a lot of the series, the geth are that monster, simple and easy, but, even while fighting against the mechanical necessities of its genre and its medium, Mass Effect 2 managed to pull of making them complex and interesting.

Liara

Illium is always the last planet I go to when playing Mass Effect 2.  You get the option to go there about half-way through the game, but I love saving it for last.  When you first land on the planet, it seems as stark a contrast as possible from Omega, or the other grimy reaches of space you have spent the game exploring.  It invokes more traditional sci-fi than cyberpunk, with a hint of Star Wars’ Coruscant thrown in for good measure.  Illium is one of the asari’s most prosperous colonies, and gets the player a bit closer to understanding just how vast the asari’s influence and wealth truly is.  However, Illium sits right on the border of the Terminus Systems, serving as a connecting point between the lawless outer reaches of the galaxy and the orderly domain of asari space.  It is the perfect blend of the wealthy and high-class with the dangerous and low-class, and as such, it is the perfect capstone to the themes of Mass Effect 2.  The player has spent almost all of their time exploring planets where there SPECTER status barely has any meaning, and now the contrast of that world overlapping with the more respectable one is a perfect time for the themes the game has been building up to culminate.  A few hours into their time on Illium, the player will hear the line, “Illium is just Omega with expensive shoes”, and I think there is no greater summary of the planet.  This is where we find Liara.

Liara went through a very similar arc to Tali, changing from a wide-eyed, awkward, and nerdy character without too much of a defined personality into a cold, calculating information broker.  The first line the player hears her say is a threatening, “Have you ever faced an asari commando unit before? Few humans have” to a potential client, immediately showing her shift away from the socially clueless archeologist of the first game.  However, this line was also spoken by her mother, Benezia, during their fight with Shepard in the first game.  The implication that Liara is becoming more and more like her mother is not exactly a subtle one.  But, moral grayness aside, Liara is still a deeply good person, and willing to help Shepard to the best of her very considerable abilities.  Despite this, Liara is one of the first characters to tell Shepard, “No, I can’t go adventuring with you, I have a goddamn job.”  This stings particularly hard if you, say, romanced Liara in the first game and were hoping to go on a grand planet-hopping adventure with your space girlfriend (not naming any names).  And the game doesn’t back away from this.  An easy way to react to Liara not being present in much of Shepard’s affairs in the second game would be to just not make the content for her.  Cheap, easy, and narratively consistent.  But the writers committed to this, and have a cutscene specifically tailored for the player having romance Liara in the first game, but not romancing anyone else in the second.  It’s a quiet, brief bit of Shepard pacing around her quarters, frustrated, taking a longing glance at a picture of Liara that she keeps on her desk, then going back to work.  That is one of the moments where I see Shepard characterize most strongly, as she rarely is.  The player doesn’t really control the scene, though they are likely feeling similar emotions, and we see a bit of the pressure that Shepard is under, independent of the player.  I like that Liara can bring out these moments in Shepard, and while her absence is important, Bioware wasn’t going to leave us hanging.

Liara gets her own DLC pack, Lair of the Shadow Broker, and it is one of my favorite bits of DLC ever made.  Expanding on the small side quest and brief cutscene in the main game, Lair of the Shadow Broker takes the player on a hunt across Illium and later to one of the most beautifully designed areas in the game, with Liara taking center stage.  The mission starts with the eponymous Shadow Broker trying to assassinate Liara, and her escaping but leaving clues for Shepard to find her.  The game briefly turns into a goddamn police procedural (a full year before LA Noire!), with Shepard searching for clues, piecing together information, and figuring out where to go next.  Later sequences in the DLC include a flying car chase that mimics Star Wars Episode II’s take on that idea, a fight with a corrupt SPECTER, and a fight up the side of a spaceship that hovers right on a planet’s horizon.  Along the way, we see that Liara is just as complicated as the rest of the game’s characters, dealing with the power that her information broker status gets her, her genuine affection for her friends, and the past legacy of her mother.  Liara’s complexity is so refreshing given her starting point in the first game, and it feels like something the main game just couldn’t have done.  In retrospect, this DLC is probably what made me so positive about DLC as a concept, despite the horrendous business practices it has inspired in the industry.  It lets you get a big-budget focused mission that can experiment in a way the main game might not.

But my favorite sequence in the DLC remains Shepard and Liara’s date, which is even more surprising when you consider that it is entirely optional, and only applies to a subset of players.  Liara opens the sequence with, “I’m not sure people like us have dates, but I’m looking forward to it”.  I think the writing in this sequence conveys a really interesting take on romance as a subplot when your main plot is about saving the world or whatever.  Shepard and Liara are not exactly stable people, they’re going all over the galaxy righting wrong and altering intergalactic politics.  They’re as romantically inclined as the next all-powerful space superhero, but they don’t exactly have the lifestyle for moving in together and focusing on their relationship.  Shepard and Liara’s date gives them a brief chance to stop saving the world and focus on each other, and they both treat it like a treat, something temporary.  They are people with lives, friends, adventures and plans wholly separate from each other, and while they can get together from some hardcore romance every once in awhile, it’s not their default; not their normal.  Being motivated people trying to get shit done is their full-time job, and the game respects that.  Liara does not quit her job to become your space consort.  She’s a person with her own plans, and the player is not at the center of all of those.

Thane

Thane is one of the most explicitly tragic characters in Mass Effect 2’s lineup, and also probably my favorite. His character description of, “assassin with terminal disease” is loaded with enough irony to give the writers a strong base to work with, but they go much farther than that.  Thane tells you stories of a whole planet of tragedies that the player will never see, and weaves a narrative of a people dealing with an exodus that is every bit as tragic as the Quarians.  Thane’s people, the drell, were saved by the hanar moments before their world died.  Very few of them made it off the planet, leaving them with a handful of refugees on the hanar homeworld.  Unlike the Quarians, who have a unified government and home of sorts in the migrant fleet, the drell live with the hanar in a sort of gratitude-driven servitude, though they wouldn’t call it that.  The hanar resemble floating jellyfish, and while they are intellectually brilliant, aren’t the best assassins in the galaxy, so Thane was one of the drell chosen to take that role.  Thane, like all characters in Shepard’s squad, was one of the best at what he does, and when the player encounters him, he has just completed what he hopes to be his last job, an assassination of a prominent crime lord of Illium.  Thane quickly tells Shepard of his condition, an incurable, terminal disease that affects many members of his species.  He says that he will survive until the end of the mission, and that it won’t affect his performance, so for many characters, that is all the depth Thane has.  However, talk to him more, and you’ll learn a great deal more about the tragedy, in the literary sense, of his disease.  The drell lived in incredibly arid environments, and the Hanar homeworld on which so many of them are refugees is comparatively humid.  Over time, the drell developed this disease because of the conflict of environments.  Thane tells the player that it gets worse the longer her spends in human environments, where most of his jobs take place.  In a very real sense, his job is killing him, and little hints of his condition are scattered throughout the writing related to him, such as him staying in the life support area of the ship.  Talking to Thane is usually a somber experience, as he shows you bits and pieces of his life through his species ability for perfect recall.  He relives past moments of his life in perfect detail, an ability that he warns many drell can be consumed by.  Yet, from this tragic character, comes some of the most life-affirming moments of the game.

Thane’s loyalty mission deals with him reconciling himself with his son, with whom Thane has grown apart from since his wife’s death. The actual reconnection between the two isn’t given much screentime; this isn’t about the player and they’re not really involved beyond helping Thane find him.  But in addition to the mission’s more literary strengths, it also lets you be a space cop again, which is always one of Mass Effect’s greatest strengths.  You are trying to stop Thane’s son from assassinating a politician, so you tail the politician from the rafters, give status updates to Thane, all good stuff.  But you also get the interrogation sequence earlier, which literally gives you the option of Good Cop or Bad Cop, with a decent amount of dialogue written out for each one based on your paragon/renegade score.  On my most recent playthrough, I had maxed out my paragon bar by this point, so I was going renegade as hell, and played bad cop without a second thought.  The guy left the interrogation room bloody and beaten, and, yeah, it was a little evil, but he sold kids into slavery or something so it was totally justified.

Samara

There’s one last character before we close this section out, and that’s Samara, one of the stranger character’s in the game’s lineup.  Samara is an asari justicar, an ancient religious order that acts in a similar fashion to the SPECTERs.  They can freely, though not entirely, disregard the law, the asari people respect them and fear them, they are both a product of an older version of asari society, and while they struggle for relevance as their numbers dwindle, are still important.  Some of the asari you talk to say they dreamed of growing up to be one when they were young, and they take on a mythic quality. All of this is a brilliant bit of world building that shows a role in an alien society that said aliens struggle to explain to humans because it doesn’t really have a perfect comparison.  It’s messy and complicated, mired in pages of societal wiki pages, and that complexity alone makes them feel distinctly alien.  Samara is largely defined by her justicar status, but that is not the whole of her character.  The core of the justicar’s role in society is their very strict code, which outlines how to act in every kind of situations so that they justicars can act without question.  Samara comments on this, saying, “In this age, people see many shades of gray.  The code of the justicars is black and white.  I might seem a hero to many, but I would kill all of them if I had to.”  Samara is a unique take on the moral grayness that has found its way into Mass Effect 2, responding to the uncertainty of an amoral galaxy with a code that provides absolute certainty.  Samara never visibly struggles with an ethical decision.  She is cold, calculating and, on the surface, little else.  The is the textbook definition of the D&D Lawful Neutral type.

When the player talks to Samara to gain more detail, this lawful neutral surface is not removed to reveal some amoral core, Samara sticks to how she presents herself, but further discussion does show that she chose that lifestyle for a reason, and also reveals a mountain not of uncertainties, but of regret and insecurities.  Samara firmly believes in the justicar code, but she chose to follow it out of the guilt of three of her daughters becoming ardat yakshi, a complicated asari genetic mutation that instantly kills anyone they “mate” with (asari sexuality is a really complicated topic, basically they mind meld) and a burning hunger to kill as many as they can.  Her loyalty mission involves hunting down her most dangerous daughter, Morinth, and I’ll get to that in a bit, but this adds a lot of depth to Samara’s character.  She didn’t just decide one that day a crazy-strict code was the way she wanted to live her life, she chose it to deal with the insecurities, guilt and messiness of giving birth to a monster.  Samara spends most of her time hunting down Morinth, and has been doing so for centuries.  During that time, her view of the galaxy has shifted to one that demands absolute certainty, because anything less would involve her facing the mountain of doubt that Morinth’s existence brings with it.  She’s hiding behind it.

The mission to actually bring Morinth to justice (lol), however, doesn’t involve Samara that much.  That’s frustrating, but it’s still a great mission regardless.  Samara tracks Morinth to Omega (because of course she’s on Omega), and Shepard begins a hunt to lure her out and take her down.  Part of the mission involves Shepard entering the VIP section of the Afterlife club and trying to lure Morinth out by seeming as edgy and cool as possible.  And goddamn is that fun.  Punch a dude in the face for pressuring an asari who clearly was not into him, buy everyone a round of drinks, dance awkwardly with another patron, have a staring contest with a krogan; I’m having the time of my life here.  And then Morinth finally calls you over and you have to out-edgy-hipster her by saying that your music is to obscure for her and boom, you’re back at her place awkwardly flirting before Samara bursts in.  Helping a guilty mother kill her monster of a daughter should not be described as fun, but goddamn if it isn’t one of the funniest sequences in the entire game.  Oh, and if you’re a goddamn idiot you can choose to save Morinth and kill Samara and Morinth joins your squad instead.  You can even romance her in a sex scene that literally is a fade to black with a goddamn Game Over screen.  Because she kills people that she has sex with.  Never change, Mass Effect.  Never change.

The Suicide Mission

            The characters of Mass Effect take center stage in this game, and, regardless of the final mission, they would have been great. But, for me, the game’s final mission is its crowning achievement, because it takes the character focus the game had been building up and uses it to build The Suicide Mission into something that few games have ever managed to do.  You walk into the suicide mission feeling the progression that RPGs so often focus on; you have the best gear, the best team, the best ship, the best tech.  You have the best of the best ready to go on this mission, and it emphasizes that feeling of growing power in a way few few other RPGs do. When I played my first few BioWare games, I never liked only having to pick two or three companions at a time, I was always hoping that the final mission would allow me to play with all of them.  The Suicide Mission finally did that.  You spend most of it coordinating different teams, picking different members for different jobs, and making life-or-death decisions about how the mission will play out.  And these are life-or-death choices; actual ones.  If you didn’t make the right decisions along the way, didn’t complete loyalty missions or upgrade your ship, send the wrong teammate to the wrong place, they will die, and that will carry over into the sequel.  Even Shepard can die at the game’s ending if the player loses enough teammates.  The fact that so much work was put into making the decisions you make feel meaningful is frankly astounding, especially considering how expensive that content is to produce.  The Suicide Mission feels like your best ironman run of XCOM, but with characters you are invested in both because of how they help you on a gameplay level, and because of how much you like them as people.  I can’t think of a single other mission in gaming that evokes this feeling so strongly, and through that feeling, you love the characters even more.  The game has been building up to this for twenty hours, and damn, does it pay off.

The first bit of real interaction the player has during the Suicide Mission is a planning sequence.  You made it to your enemy’s base, crashed on the surface, and are planning what looks like a one-way trip.  The song, suicide mission, plays in the background as you make your decisions, and the music adapts to the stage of the planning you’re currently at.  It adds to the brilliantly building tension that the narrative and gameplay decisions have created, making you focus on something that exists in other games, but is never as emphasized.  You pick your primary and secondary teams, a specialist for hacking into the base’s systems, and get ready to kick some Collector ass.  You feel like you are finally planning your own mission, not letting the game tell you what to do.  Even though the sequence is still fairly scripted, the decisions you make create an illusion of choice that is stronger than any of the game’s other missions.  At specific stages in the mission, you have to shuffle your team around, pick different specialists, and react to changes in the mission objectives.  On repeat playthroughs, I was worried it would lose its luster, since I knew each beat of the mission by heart, but nope, on my most recent playthrough, I was giddy as all hell, tabbing to my notes on the game to quickly type out some notes before tabbing back somehow getting even more excited.  The buildup and payoff is sublime, and each bit of game before the mission feels like it pays off during the mission.  The final boss fight is infamously lackluster, but by that point, I didn’t care.  I had pulled off the Suicide Mission, with an actual, game-recognized possibility of failure.  I felt like a goddamn space hero.

And that’s how Mass Effect 2 closes.  You get a quick moral choice about keeping or destroying your enemy’s base (which ends up not mattering at all), you blast out of there before the place blows up, and you get a quick cutscene of your team looking all badass while an army of reapers descend on the galaxy.  You can play some DLC or extra missions afterwards, but that’s how the game officially closes.  There are few games I have played that can hit that high of an ending note. 

Conclusion

I came into this playthrough of the game and accompanying essay expecting to write something very different.  I was going to write about how it watered down the world and strengths of the first game to create something with more mass appeal, how it toned down the literary influences in favor of a cinematic one.  But honest, now that I’ve finished it, I think I found more depth in it than I have in the first.  I still love Mass Effect 1, and I think it does have some strengths in world building that the second one does lose a bit, but the game’s greater commitment to showing you the parts of that world, to making it a bit messier, and somehow pulling this off while looking great, is enough to easily make it one of my favorite games ever made.  While Mass Effect 1 feels like a rough take on something brilliant, and Mass Effect 3 feels like a polished but ultimately less expansive entry, Mass Effect 2 feels the most complete of the trilogy.  It knows what it wants to do, and it executes it to near perfection.  It doesn’t feel confused about what it wants to do, and there are very few parts of it that feel incomplete.  It cares about a few things, it’s characters, building a complex world, and having fun while doing it, and it does all three of those things really damn well.  The first two games in this series had an enormous impact on how I looked at games (a massive effect, if you will), and Mass Effect 2 comes the closest to realizing the perfect version of that idea that affected me so profoundly.  During his final conversation, Grunt tell Shepard, “I have everything.  Clan, kin, and enemies to fight”.  I couldn’t think of a better summary.