Mass Effect: A Missed Opportunity

In a bizarre turn-around of my usual long tailyness, I’m actually up to speed on Mass Effect.  I finished the game recently, and I’m looking forward to playing the sequel.  Say, isn’t that coming out sometime soon?  I might even get to it this year.

The cutting edge, exclusive first-view blogotubes make their hay from this perspective: “All the stuff that was broken in the last game is fixed in this one.”  (See Adrien Cho’s remarks if you’re interested.)  He makes lots of comments like “the planets are now all different” and such.  Me, I don’t think the planets were really a problem with the game.  Game play in just about every form was, I think, very solid.  I was truly impressed with Mass Effect.

(Is it weird that there are a lot of exclusive preview posts?  Shouldn’t there be, like, just one?  Anyway.) 

But since we’re all on the same “It could have been better” page… I have one thing I’d really like to see addressed.

Remember the part about how the secret, scary space monster was able to secretly corrupt good people’s moral sense?  How it could subtley turn even the most trustworthy, indominable will into a servant of darkness?  How every major bad guy you face was once a shining beacon of hope … until they discovered they had succumbed to forces beyond their measure?  Each one talked about the gentle penetration of their mental defenses, the corruptable righteousness of their cause, the horrific realization that they’d been converted …

Yeah.  They missed an opportunity there.

OH (like with Batman) BTW SPOILERS AHEAD.


I’d hoped that Shepard would have to face that very problem while hunting down the evil.  And by “Shepard,” I mean “me,” because I’m the player, and I play for exactly that kind of experience.  Every RPG sense I have was tingling at the notion.

Wouldn’t that have been cool?  I’m Shepard the Paragon, out to save the galaxy.  Over time, I begin to suspect: I’m being manipulated.  Choices aren’t as clear cut as they once were.  I’m working for the benefit of all, but the elevator news updates paint a different picture.  Galactic civilization is weakening, despite all my efforts.  Or maybe… because of them?  The allies I’ve gathered around me start to question my orders — or perhaps complain that I haven’t gone far enough down a road I’m sworn against.

Or maybe they’re starting to sound more sympathetic to the cause I’ve been fighting to defeat.

Suddenly I realize: I’ve been gently and pursuasively diverted onto a new course … just like Saren and the Matriarch.  My team is being influenced.  I’m being influenced.  My personal scenario becomes horrifically familiar.  I’ve become like the people I had to destroy.

In retrospect, I don’t recognize myself.  Something’s changed.  And I don’t know if I loathe it, or if I want more.

Now I have to find my way out of an ontological nightmare.  That, or discover my place in the enemy’s plans.  Am I truly a paragon, or do I embody a more cunning, debilitating approach?  Either way I have to bring my own ethics and values to bear.  I must  face the real aftermath of my own good intentions, knowing that I may be deceived.  I have to reveal my frailty in the face of temptation.

Maybe this scenario flashes back to Revan from KOTOR, but that’s a good thing.  KOTOR had a brilliant twist, executed with style.  In Mass Effect, I felt set up for something similar, yet unique.  I was convinced that before the Big Battle, I would discover that my morality was not what it once seemed.  With that expectation, the actual climax was disappointing, to say the least: a battle of guns rather than wits, reflexes over ideology.  It lacked the “role” of role playing.

That’s what I’d fix for ME2.  Give Shepard an ethical challenge that blows open the battle for Humanity beyond just the body count.

The corruption of Saren and the Matriarch exposes the existential, transcendant notion of Humanity as something that all races can share: in trying to do good, we are sometimes corrupted to do evil.  It’s something that every species has in common.  As the uniquely Human Spectre, Shepard is perfectly positioned to let the player embody that on a galactic scale.

Mass Effect successfully captures the generic conventions of militaristic space opera: the stars, the armor, the telekenetics… but in the end that’s just for show.  It’s the setting, not the premise.  The theme of “the road to Hell paved with good intentions” is a more powerful weapon in the RPG arsenal.  It contributes to an RPG’s ethos and power.

My real hope is that Mass Effect 2 makes the player’s own humanity the real battleground.  Shepard’s role is ripe for that richness, and I long to experience it through her eyes.