Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Mass Effect 2, Values-Driven Gaming, and Me

Aside from the "Lair of the Shadow Broker" and "Arrival" DLC missions, I finished Mass Effect 2 on Saturday night.  And I have to admit, despite how much I dragged my feet starting the series to begin with, how much I didn't enjoy the first few hours, and how I initially only played it as a promise to my spouse -- I loved it.

I'm a tiny bit in love with Kate Shepard's life and story, the same way I was a little bit in love with Lord of the Rings in 2001-2004 and with Star Wars in the mid-1990s.  I keep wanting more.  I genuinely felt the adrenaline pumping as I chose my final team and I noticed after we finished that I'd actually been biting my nails at one point.  Now, the Christmas gift isn't that I paid for this household's copy of Mass Effect 3 (I pre-ordered it last December as a gift for him), it's that he gets to play it first, with his Shepard, no questions asked.

But I actually had a moment, along the way, where I walked away from the PC in frustration and anger, ranting, and considered walking away from the game entirely.  (This discussion will have some big spoilers, as you might expect.)

Oh, Miranda.

Oh stupid, annoying, weasel, sashaying, fight-picking Miranda.  I spent all that time and energy rescuing your stupid sister who you lied to me about, and then when I get back on board the Normandy the first thing you're doing is picking a fight with another member of my crew -- my crew -- who your boss told me to recruit?

I mean, what the fuck?  I did all that for you on Ilium and I don't even get ten minutes of loyalty from you?  Way to waste my damn time, lady.  Feel free to take a long walk out of a short airlock any time.  *grumble*

But of course, Miranda Lawson didn't actually do anything or make any decisions, because she's a fictional character.  The true source of my frustration lies with a handful of writers and designers at Bioware, who created a game that gives the player choices but then does the Nelson Muntz laugh when I try to make them.  Ultimately, what frustrated me was not losing Miranda's loyalty* (although that was frustrating), but the feeling that my actions were futile.

I actually did Miranda's mission twice: I loaded an earlier save after the first time, and swooped around the galaxy picking up more paragon points before I went and tried it again, just in case.  From further research, outside of the game (which I hate doing), it seems that unless I had done Miranda's mission much, much earlier in the game, I would be unable keep both Miranda and Jack unless I played essentially full paragon or full renegade.

I do know that people play the game that way: "A is my paragon Shepard, and B is my renegade Shepard."  But to me, that feels as if it's entirely missing the point.  The game gives you so many chances for nuance, and so many opportunities to define the character for yourself, that  it feels much more natural and organic (and much better-scripted) to pick and choose how you'll react in any given situation.  Where the first game always presents paragon, neutral, and renegade options, ME2 is better about being sensitive to context.  Sometimes the paragon option is "shut up," and sometimes it doesn't exist.

Sometimes it's better to play a situation neutral while you still lack pertinent information.  Sometimes it's better to negotiate a diplomatic and peaceful solution to an issue.  And sometimes it's better just to shoot the fucker.  The Mass Effect franchise is all about that choice.  (For the record, my Shepard finished ME 100% paragon and about 15% renegade; she concluded ME2 about 95% paragon and 20% renegade.)

Shepard has, transparently, what all of us have experienced at one time or another: the proverbial angel and devil on her shoulders.  Paragon and Renegade aren't meant to translate directly to right vs wrong, nor to good vs evil.  Sometimes they do translate to doormat vs badass but they equally can translate to compassionate vs asshole.  Ultimately, I think, to me the choice boils down to Shepard's leadership style: does she want the love and respect of those she commands, or their obedience and fear?  Either will lead to loyalty, of a kind.

The game strongly encourages this level of in-character thought.  They don't want you looking behind the curtain.  Your weapons and armor don't have visible, comparable stats the way they did in the first game.  There are no personality- or damage-determining numbers on Shepard's character sheet.  In combat, damage has no visible numbers associated with it and neither does health.  In short, they want you in the character and in the moment.  This is your Shepard, and this is her (or his) crew and her (or his) story.  And we make it so.

Mass Effect is, in fact, designed to be values-driven gaming.  It's not the only title aiming for that particular niche these days (Fallout: New Vegas leaps to mind), but it's probably the most successful one.  Because of the strong writing and design in the franchise, along with the top-notch voice acting and third-person perspective, the player can very easily get carried along on the tide of the story.  The reapers will be the reapers no matter what (also holy FUCK that human Reaper reveal on the Collector base was OMG, I went slack-jawed), and the Council and the Citadel and all the rest, but Shepard is malleable.  She becomes whoever we decide she is.  And, ego-driven gamers that we are, we tend to make our (first pass at) characters in idealized version of our own image.  The value system the player imparts upon Shepard informs the way the whole game is played: side quests, main mission, and all.

I know that choice in gaming is an illusion, and at best the Mass Effect franchise can sustain binary decisions across games.  And life's not binary.  But the disconnect came for me when the illusion of choice and the illusion of character were so complete that a deviation -- a reminder that this is indeed a constructed world, not of my making, running on rails with a set script -- was jarring.  I reached the point where my value system, the ethos I had determined for Shepard, was no longer able to apply.  I felt angry with the game, for implying that I should have been 100% Dudley Do-Right or 100% asshole to my crew in order to advance in the way that I felt was natural.  I'd have been better off never seeing the greyed-out charm and intimidate options, rather than having them hover there, unattainable.

But you can't have everything, right?  Mass Effect is a lesson in that, too.  Still, against my own expectation (I thought for sure Zaeed at least would get bumped off, and possibly Jack for sheer recklessness), all 12 of my crew will live to see Mass Effect 3.  So watch out, Reapers: Shepard is ready to bring it.  FOR HUMANITY!  (And maybe, just a little, for Garrus too.)

*"Why choose Jack's loyalty over Miranda's?" you ask.  "You could have gone the other way on that, you know."  Well, one of them is spying on me to her boss, who finances a major terrorist organization -- but the other is a psychopathic, murderous, hair-trigger biotic sleeping right next to my ship's highly explosive engines.  On whose good side would you decide to stay?


  1. Interesting! I played Linus Shepard as a mix of Paragon/Renegade, and went on Miranda's mission about a third of the way through the game. But I was able to choose the Renegade diplomacy option in the Jack/Miranda dispute.  Linus was at about 40% Paragon and 30% Renegade at that point, if I recall correctly. It may just be that it's easier to win these particular people over with intimidation than with sugar-coating, which does fit their personalities.

    That said, Teresa Shepard - my first character - was closer to the Paragon side, and I had a similar experience to yours in this situation. But I was absolutely delighted with how it turned out. Teresa hated Miranda! It made sense that they wouldn't get along, and I was glad that I was given a chance to side with Jack over her. A problem I have with Bioware in general is that it's usually too easy to be everyone's friend. As a player, I have the impulse to get everyone on my good side. But as a roleplayer, that makes the interactions with the characters feel flat. Interpersonal conflicts are a great source of drama, and should be exploited! The party disputes in ME2 are one way to approach that; another is how Dragon Age 2 gives you bonuses for being both friends and enemies with your party members. I appreciate that Bioware is exploring this more. 

  2. That was the funny thing: I hated Miranda.  I didn't like her or want to like her, but somehow I still wanted her to like me.  Because yes, I have the exact same issue: I always want everyone to like me, in gaming.  Which is stupid.  I'm better off without someone like the Illusive Man liking my anti-Cerberus Shepard.

    (I have been told that the Miranda/Jack dispute actually keys off of how many paragon or renegade points you've earned so far as compared to how many have been available, rather than an absolute threshold.  So yes: if I had done Miranda's mission earlier, I probably would have had a negotiation tactic available.)

    Eventually I realized I could take a lack of loyalty from Miranda... but I'm beyond relieved that I was able to negotiate the Tali / Legion dispute.  (Which I expected from the start.  I mean... duh.)  Those are both characters I'd genuinely have hated to be hated by.

  3. I wonder if I would have enjoyed ME2 more if I had played ME1 (which I will probably never do now).  I don't recall the human collector being that big of a deal.  Then again, my memory is terrible.  Sigh.

    It was a neat game though.  I keep thinking I'll play it through again as something other than a sniper, but every time I try there is too much I want to skip. And load times.  Man, games still have those?  Weren't they supposed to go out of style when hoverboards came in?    Wait.  Crap.

  4. Oh. Shit. I should have thought about the fact that Jack sleeps next to the explosives before I broke up with her..

  5. ME2 really does pigeonhole you.  I think if they relaxed the thresholds some it would help.  Doing more missions with Jack/Miranda and Tali/Legion should not make them less likely to trust you.

    Dragon Age 2 has a much better system. There are 2 kinds of "I win" choices - personal and companion.

    The PC (Hawke) can make dialogue choices with associated tones (generally diplomatic/do-gooder, sarcastic/charming, and aggressive/direct).  The game tracks these, and assigns Hawke a dominant tone.  In some circumstances, having a particular dominant tone will allow you a special "I win" choice.  Note that not all tones do not give special options in all cases. 

    The other is companions - your companions will sometimes be able to use their personalities/roles to give additional dialogue options.  A smooth-talking character can help you lie, a guardswoman can scare the piss out of people, a mage can help with magey stuff, etc.

  6. Red Jenny Shepard chose Jack because Miranda's loyalty to Cerberus would do in a pinch. Boy Shepard (I don't remember his name, I didn't pick it) chose Miranda because he wanted to schtup her.

    You can regain the lost one's loyalty through conversation later in the game. I don't remember the details but I've done it. 

  7. Had I but words enough and time, that's what I would have written. Well said.

  8. Don't worry: She's an incredibly powerful biotic (at least in the cutscenes*) so distance from the engines probably wouldn't save the Normandy.


  9. See, I thought the human Reaper was gross.  And I was wowed by the idea that they don't all look like bugs, that in some way they take on the aspect of the species they annihilate... to me that was a thing with enormous psychological punch potential, imagining a giant turian one coming for the last turian survivors, a giant human one coming for the last human survivors... slightly less intimidating when you think of the hanar, admittedly.

    I actually was never able to have the necessary conversation with Miranda to win back her loyalty.  I went back, repeatedly, until my crew were captured and it was time to go.  (BTW having you play as Joker there is a nice touch, I forgot to mention it in my initial post.)  Both the paragon and renegade options stayed permanently greyed out no matter how often I went back to have that conversation, so eventually I decided the hell with Miranda anyway.  She wasn't someone I needed to have by my side in Mass Effect 3; others were more important to me (Garrus and Tali most of all, which I think is not uncommon, though also I quite liked Mordin, Grunt, Legion, and Kasumi).

    I didn't win Zaeed's loyalty; I told him to go to hell and saved everyone else from the fire.  He was one step too far for my Shepard, and he wasn't someone she would have picked for her crew on her own.  That's part of why I'm surprised he survived the game, but I think that's mostly down to having made all good leadership and specialist choices whenever the game made me pick.  (Most of which are relatively easy to make, if you think about what the character is going to need to do and which characters are most suited to the task.  Although I spent a long time making some of those decisions.)

  10. slightly less intimidating when you think of the hanar, admittedly.

    I dunno, Blasto the Hanar Spectre is one bad mutha-shut-yo-mouth...

    It's not a bad thing. My first reaction to the concept was more "OK, how the hell is a species, even a mostly mechanical one, supposed to evolve a method of reproduction that requires you to pulp nearly the entire population of that species in an entire galaxy for their genetic material?" I just didn't feel that held together especially well in a logical consistency sense.

  11. There's an opportunity, but never a guarantee.  I never could get Miranda to sit down and shut up.