In which I muse about my opinions on game writing with some sizeable spoilers about what I've been up to in Mass Effect 2 and some choices I made in the climactic scene of Mass Effect. More so even than my other posts on the topic. If you want to go into either of these games open-minded, now would be a good time to go somewhere else for a while.
(And yes, I know that BioWare ate my brain and that it's been nearly all Mass Effect, all the time over here, but this too shall pass in short order. I'm mostly not sorry.)
Okay, y'all. I can't help it. They were made for each other.
Shepard and Garrus have been friends for years, they've been through hell and back together, and frankly I the player just really like Garrus the character. He's got a dry and funny sense of humor, where nearly everyone else on the Normandy takes themselves so seriously it's a miracle they don't all implode. He keeps to himself a lot but when you draw him out he's great.
And of course, my values carry through to my Shepard, because of my big gamer ego, and my values are such that I married someone I'd been friends with for years, with a dry sense of humor, who keeps to himself a lot but is great when you draw him out. Sometimes your critic can't help herself, you know? ;) And this being the 21st century and all, and I being the sort of person I am, I have no greater issue with two consenting future adults of any species hooking up than I have with any two consenting present human adults of any race or gender hooking up. What matters is their personalities. The rest is just details, right?
I stand by that, but all I'm sayin' is: with a turian / human pairing, those are some pretty important (and perplexing) details. I'm glad the game has a fade to black written in and I NEVER EVER WANT TO KNOW what the fanficcers out there have filled in the spaces with.
Anyway. I kind of love this pairing, and it's added a new dimension to the game for me. I have an emotional connection now, to the story, that I really didn't get at all in the first game -- even while I did pursue the Liara romance.
BioWare clearly wants us, the players, to develop these emotional connections. Mass Effect is at once an enormous, sweeping story (save the galaxy, yo! Eternal immortal horrific danger!) and also a very personal one. With the Collector threat in the background, Shepard spends all of ME2 gathering a crew around her, talking to them, earning their loyalty, and perhaps spending some time on a more intimate one-on-one relationship to boot.
In the first game, though, I felt deeply and transparently manipulated by the script and by the mechanics. Here is Ashley or Kaidan for you to have a romance with (depending on if you're a male or female Shep), and oh by the way, now you have to assign either Ashley or Kaidan to get killed on this critical mission. Oh, AND, once you made that decision, surprise! We're going to make you make it again in the middle of this critical mission. Your heartstrings: let us pull them for you.
Of course, I personally developed all the attachment to Kaidan that I develop for wet leaves on the sidewalk in November, and so I felt that this structure was intentionally, structurally, transparent and manipulative. Someone who felt that her Shepard and Kaidan were a perfect pair, or that his Shepard and Ashley were same, would probably buy into the emotional pull of the story more. (And in fact, I know such a someone, and she did.)
But that's just the problem: they give you the story and the rest is just details, right? Fade to black, let the player fill it in?
Where the writing in Mass Effect and its sequel has frustrated me is when it doesn't fit into the character framework I've been given the tools to build. Because here's the thing: although you only get two or three options to choose from each time your Shepard says something, over the course of an entire game all of those little choices have put a very different person inside that N7 armor. And it may not be the person either BioWare or the player at first expected to find.
The rest is just details... and we fill in those details like nobody's business. I felt, without at first knowing it, that not only did my Shep bear the burden of proving humanity through her Spectre assignment, but also that she bore the continued burden of proving women through her Spectre assignment. I brought that in with me, and a whole lot more. In ME2, I brought in a pragmatic caution: I think Cerberus can go pound sand and that the Illusive Man can bite me, but they have an awful lot of tech, and money, and they did sort of rebuild me (better, faster, stronger!) and now I'm surrounded with their crew and their spies. So I don't actually tell the Illusive Man to his face that he can get bent, because I have a vested interest in continuing to live, and in not drawing the attention of those spies. (Though this changes, over time, now that my Shep is surrounded by people that are loyal to her.)
But there are a lot of different ways a player can choose to approach that situation. My husband said that his Shepard was pretty pissed off about it all, and about being used that way, and had no difficulty in venting that anger. And that's a valid choice. I strongly suspect other players had other outlooks and opinions. (And I expect to hear about them in the comments.)
BioWare is treading a very, very difficult line here, and I don't envy the position in which it puts their writers. Each player who comes to the table is really defining her own Shepard -- and not just the character's looks, but the character's motivations and desires. We're all bringing something to the table that comes from outside the game, and we're all defining stories told and actions taken within the game differently.
The main issue with this arises when the words that are left to come out of Shep's mouth no longer suit the kind of character she is. And bringing us around full circle, that was the issue I had instigating the Garrus romance. In fact the words were so wrong that I actually skipped them the first time, thinking there had to be a more subtle option available later, because Shepard was far too diplomatic, far too tactful, and respected her friend far too much to say those words.
But no. It turns out that really, she does get aggressive, and basically has to say, "So. You, me, my quarters, kink now?" in order to progress the conversation. I had to go back to an earlier save and choose those lines.
And all I'm saying to you, BioWare, is that the rest of this had better be worth that writhingly awkward embarrassing conversation. Because I've done some fairly aggressive flirting in my time but lordy, not like that! All it took was a handful of words to take something genuinely emotional and that felt plausible and organic and punt it right back out into the "this is really wrong for my Shepard" space.
When the players make up all the details, the designers can't be sure they're giving us the right game anymore. That's risky. But I'm glad at least they're taking the chance.