Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Archive: Mass Effect 1 & 2

Since Mass Effect 3 is coming in just two weeks (NOT THAT I'M COUNTING) and its prequels have absorbed so much of my free time of late, it seems appropriate that the first of my new series of posts on notable pieces of media from my past would focus on the Mass Effect universe.

SPOILER WARNING: this post contains massive and extensive spoilers for Mass Effect 1 and 2, and some speculative spoiling for 3 based on the art book that's currently out.Those who have not played the games probably should not read this post at all. It contains both spoilers and the assumption that the reader has some knowledge that playing the games will provide. Also: I played both of the games as a male, Paragon ("good") Shepard, so my commentary and perspective are highly colored by this.

When Mass Effect first came out, I really didn't even notice it. I had nothing particularly against the game, it just wasn't on my radar. I wasn't really following the games industry that closely back in 2007 and so I missed it at launch. I did, however, catch the manufactured controversy over it and subsequent backlash and sheepish retractions. Out of curiosity, I picked it up in 2008 on sale (I want to say for about $20?) from a Gamestop and tried it out. The game "clicked" with me almost immediately. A lot of the things that I was skeptical of in the game, such as full voice acting and the dialog wheel, worked far better than I'd anticipated they would.

It wasn't until later that I really came to appreciate the universe. Mass Effect created a clean-looking, sleek future and then populated it with politics and flawed characters that ring true. All of the major races have good and bad people in them, ambiguous motivations, rivalries, friendships, and individuals that go against the norm. That plausible, believable feel absorbed me and then, just when I thought the game had nothing else it could throw at me, the encounter with Sovereign on Virmire happened. The whole cosmic horror angle gave me a whole new appreciation for the series and hooked me even more, because Commander Shepard's reaction to staring down an ancient being that is equal parts Cthulhu and Terminator is to spit in its eye.

That reaction, and the theme it implies, is something that has always stood out to me as cool about the Mass Effect series. The odds are stupidly high - Reapers have been exterminating advanced civilizations for at least 37 million years, and probably much longer than that. The cosmic horror is unmistakeable, and yet one of the central themes to the series is that there is, even in the face of that, some hope left.The Protheans, staring into the face of their own oblivion, peppered the galaxy with nuggets of aid for the next civilization that would follow. They identified some of the Reapers' few vulnerabilities and pushed on them in subtle ways. And they did this not to save themselves, which they knew was impossible, but to give those that came after them a fighting chance. And it actually makes a difference. It even seems to be the case from The Art of Mass Effect that one of the Protheans somehow managed to stay alive in stasis for 50,000 years so they could aid the next civilization.

There has been some interesting writing about how postmodern and progressive the games are, and there is certainly something to that, but equally interesting is how (especially for a Paragon path through the games) a lot of the plot revolves around rejecting or refusing to accept certain bleak "truths" in various ways. One of your potential squadmates, Ashley Williams, is an avowed theist (and it is possible for Commander Shepard to be one as well) and much of the plot for a Paragon Shepard revolves around themes of hope, compassion, self-sacrifice, and individualism. Mass Effect 2 in particular is practically an essay on the idea of individualism in game form. Commander Shepard is such a unique, singular individual that Cerberus, an agency that opposes him in the first and third games, retrieves his freeze-dried body and reconstructs him, his death and subsequent return making him into a messianic figure. In other words, despite the cosmic horror, the series is both in possession of traditional Western values to at least some extent, and is an archetypical Hero's Journey in the truest mythological sense.

Also interesting is that it seems like there is a definite theme of forgiveness and reconciliation to be found in the series. The Geth, basically a form of cannon fodder in the first game, are shown to be far more sympathetic than originally portrayed in the second game, and in fact seem far more interested in being allowed to keep existing than exacting any sort of revenge on the Quarians. If the player brings Legion along on Tali's loyalty mission and talks to the Quarian admiral pushing for peace, it becomes apparent that the Geth may be sort of an anti-Terminator. Terminators are summed up in the memorable quote of: "Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead." On the other hand, Geth can be bargained with, reasoned with, and while they don't seem to feel fear, necessarily, it is hinted at that one thing they certainly do not feel is hatred, or even a desire for revenge. Despite numerous attempts by the Quarians to wipe them out, the Geth do not wish to eradicate the Quarians. EDI also exemplifies this. Alternately mocked, distrusted, and used as a tool, "she" takes pains to save the crew and the ship and even demonstrates a willingness to help people - because she wants to. Squadmates forgive the player and occasionally even each other for making choices that they don't agree with, sometimes passionately. In the original game, Saren and Matriarch Benezia both express regret at what their actions have wrought, and it is possible for Shepard to forgive a race that had formerly been eradicated for their misdeeds and allow them to start anew.

With all of that and some really top-notch cover shooting besides (to say nothing of the fantastic dialog writing and voice acting) it's no small wonder that Mass Effect 3 is probably my most anticipated game ever. I am really happy it's coming out soon.

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