Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Surprising Moral Clarity of Mass Effect 3

I've been working on a commissioned feature about film noir lighting in video games.  Without going into what I'm writing in that essay, my very first thought was: "Oh, that's easy. I've played Mass Effect 2."

It's Blade Runner! It's Double Indemnity! No, wait: it's Thane!

ME2 casts Shepard in an ambiguous moral position.  Not only does the paragon/renegade problem carry over from the first game, but its effects are amplified dramatically.  With interrupts added to the game--sudden, one-click decision points that add to Shepard's paragon or renegade scores--as well as charm and intimidate keying to reputation, rather than to skill points, the question of Shepard's soul begins to matter more.

As well, she is in a more tenuous position with regards to, well, everything.  Now employed by the shadowy Illusive Man, she is working for Cerberus, known from the first game only as a terrorist organization.  The crew she assembles around her is full of misfits, exiles, and murders who, if we're lucky, mostly turn out to have hearts of gold, or at least good intentions.

Of course, we all know where the road paved with good intentions leads.

The essay in question will be running in early 2013, and I have been asked to make it current, to tie it to one or more big 2012 releases.  Knowing how strongly Mass Effect 2 relies on the conventions of film noir and neo-noir, I thought that my sprawling, ludicrous collection (1800+) of Mass Effect 3 screenshots would lend me the perfect inspiration.

I was wrong.

With only a handful of exceptions (as in the shuttle, above), Shepard's lighting in Mass Effect 3 is surprisingly clear and unambiguous.  Even when she is in a visually dark location, the lighting spares her.  Shadows fall around her, but not on her; even her companions are largely of the light.

As the game itself gets darker, in every possible sense of the word, the ambiguity becomes stripped away from the Normandy and its passengers just as it becomes stripped away from the plot.  Yes, every decision has consequences, and the strings of three games' worth of choices bear out in many meaningful ways.  But even while that matters, the time for ambiguity is, simply, behind Shepard and behind us.

By ME3, the reapers are here. They are destroying worlds, cultures, civilizations, life... everything.  There is no question of "sides," of "morality."  Respect her (paragon) or fear her (renegade), Shepard is our hero and the hero's time is now.

In fact, the more I browse my enormous gallery of images, the more I feel like Mass Effect 3 is lit with a series of spotlights.  Where Mass Effect 2 threw diagonal shadows around the place to create effect, ME3 is doing everything it can with framing, light, and color to highlight our heroes, fighting to the end in a darkened world.

Sometimes that world is darkened a little too literally.
Indeed, even in an area and on a mission where moral ambiguity and character confusion could easily have been added, the game avoids that construction.  I am speaking of a point somewhere near the end of Act 2 (relatively speaking) where the asari Council representative has summoned Shepard, to impart a secret and necessary piece of information.

The asari's motives and goals are unclear.  She could be honest; she could be dishonest.  Shepard's reaction is unclear: the player can be angry or resigned.  The conversation takes place in an office, where light and posing could easily have conveyed ambiguity and confusion.  Instead, the conversation is brightly lit, with all the whites the Citadel presidium has to offer.  The greatest distance the scene ever creates comes through framing one shot on the other side of a window, hinting at a sense of voyeurism and eavesdropping.

You know, if you had mentioned this BEFORE your planet was invaded, that would have been helpful.
By the time the Shepard's saga reaches its third and final game, that which is... well, is.  Most of the questions and mysteries are removed from the story, and the moral ambiguity of our players along with.  This is not a game for introducing new characters, or questioning their motives; this is a time to revisit the consequences of the stories we already told, and resolving the fates of characters we already know.

Even knowing that, though, I was surprised at how strongly the visuals bear that out.  Subconsciously, they of course reinforced that message the entire time I was playing.  That's what visual language does.

There is also, of course, an exception.  Or in fact, a pair of exceptions.  The Leviathan and Omega DLC add-ons each provide dozens of examples of moral ambiguity and character confusion conveyed through noir-like use of light and shadow.  And it makes sense: these are the segments of game that introduce new characters and new concepts that stand slightly to the side of the hero's straightforward quest for war resources.  Aria, Nyreen, and even the Leviathan itself are all moral wildcards when they are introduced, standing aside from Shepard's binary perspective, and so the lighting lets us stand in Shepard's shoes for a little while, uncertain about who we have just met.

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