Effected Masses: The Inexorable Climb of My Standards

28 Feb

You’ll have to bear with me on this one. Not that my usual foofaraw demands any less of you, of course.

The past week was spent in a flurry of activity; I’ve been more productive this week than I have in ages. I’ve been blasting through my schoolwork and ripping the diet for one purpose: so I can immerse myself, uninterrupted by pesky things like responsibility, into the world of Mass Effect 2. I’m replaying it in preparation for Mass Effect 3, which launches a week today, and I’m taking this opportunity to explore the reasons this series means so much to me – not just as games, but as works of art, and as an inspiring model of masterful fiction – and why, upon recognition of these things, many other works have begun to fall short in my eyes.

First, I’m going to direct you here: an essay called Why Mass Effect is the Most Important Science Fiction Universe of Our Generation, which will do a far better job than I can of explicating this idea. If you take the time to read that whole thing, kudos – you’ve just won 800 Justin Respect Points. These are given out sparingly, and if you think I don’t have a record of all points given out ever, to whom, and for what, you obviously don’t know me very well. I have an iPhone now, remember? That’s what those things are for.

The above article can be summarized in its central thesis: that Mass Effect is the only fictional universe with the bravery to demand that the player answer the triple-layered question of “What value does galactic civilization bring to the universe; What value does humanity bring to galactic civilization, and What value do I bring to humanity?” As a science fiction enthusiast, and as someone who hopes that someday we as humans will get off our collective asses and explore the universe, this is deeply exciting to me. I’ve waited my whole life for someone to ask me these questions. I’m not even sure I have answers.

And this is the true profundity of the Mass Effect narrative, and why I’m so impressed by it. These questions aren’t directly placed before the player. An alien with a clipboard doesn’t run up and poll you on this stuff. It’s buried deep within the choices you make, as you shape and construct your own galactic legend. Most people gawk at the ooh-so-shiny rendering and fire the shooty bang-bang space guns and that’s enough for them. Sometimes it’s enough for me, too. But something I’ve always demanded of my media is that it at best challenges me on a fundamental level, and at worst paints an evocative canvas of fiction. I love having worlds to dive into, and the deeper the pool, the more gaily my lil’ waterwings will flap.

Take my Femshep, for example. In Mass Effect, you play as Commander [Insert Graspingly Badass, Deliberately Stupid, or Your Actual Real Name Here] Shepard, a human soldier serving in the 22nd century. Most games let you choose your main character’s name, and sometimes modify their appearance. Mass Effect lets you choose Shepard’s name, gender, appearance, skillset, history, temperament, and more – and most of these features are emergent, revealing themselves in the choices you make as you play. “Femshep” is the affectionate nickname given to the female version of Commander Shepard.

Ah, there she is. That’s my Xanadu Shepard, galactic badass and all-powerful bitch. From her harsh beginnings as a survivor of a slaver raid, during which her parents were murdered in front of her; to her climb to Spectre status (sort of a spacefaring double-oh designation – the first human to achieve that rank); to her strict command of the SSV Normandy, Xanadu’s world has been defined by anger and hate. As a human, and therefore a galactic minority, she experiences racism and intolerance on every planet she visits. Her long history in battle has hardened her – not just physically, but emotionally. She solves most problems with the liberal application of intimidation, and if that doesn’t work, with the butt of her shotgun. She finds it hard to connect with people. She is clumsy with relationships, ravaged by a long life of trauma and war. Her once beautiful face is corrupted by cybernetic implants, and aggravated by stress and rage. She begins to hide it, donning armoured masks that conceal her scarred visage. She is feared and respected by her crew, and reviled by her enemies. She laughs little, and loves even less.

She gets the job done, at any cost. And when it’s over, and the crew drinks and celebrates on the lower decks, she sits alone in her darkened captain’s cabin, ensconced by innumerable medals and commendations. She is empty, and alone, but still human, and still very much alive.

That’s the character Mass Effect has allowed me to create. I don’t even think I’d have that many things to say about myself, for Christ’s sake. The point I’m labouring towards is this: even ignoring Mass Effect‘s stimulating philosophical quandaries, I am given a framework and told to go, go out into the galaxy, and create an experience that speaks to me. I care more about Xanadu than any character in any video game or movie I’ve ever enjoyed, and that’s not an exaggeration. There’s more than a bit of me in her (heh). I am simultaneously attracted to her and appalled by her; I respect her, and I fear her. I have a deep well of affection for her, too – because her choices are mine. I guide her hand. I wield Xanadu like a sword of vengeance, cleansing the galaxy of evil. What other medium allows connection of this kind? If someone else created her, I’d laud their work as exquisite art. But I created her, and so what she is transcends art, and becomes something else entirely.

With Mass Effect 3 rounding out the trilogy, I’ll see Xanadu’s story come to an end. She will be faced with a cataclysm the likes of which no living being can fathom, and she will stand in the light of ruination and not look away. I don’t know if she’ll survive. I don’t know if there’s redemption or healing waiting for her. But I do know I am pants-wettingly excited to find out.

And this is what I meant when I said other stuff has begun to fall short. Here’s a great example: The Legend of Zelda series has steadily been losing its lustre for me, and with its latest, much celebrated installment, has whacked the final nail into the coffin. As a boy, I identified with Link. The ageless story of the Hero of Time, thrust unprepared into a destiny he doesn’t understand, resonated within me. I’d stand at the foot of Death Mountain and feel very small indeed.

Now, though, the story is an extraneous annoyance, a parasitic limb hanging from a broken frame. All sense of exploration, fear, and wonder are gone from Zelda games. We’re given a set of keys and a linear corridor of locks to open. There’s no challenge, no danger, no sense of uncertainty. I’ve always been a Zelda fan, but I’m no apologist. Trust me, it hurts to say it. But Zelda has very little to offer me anymore, especially when I can choose something like Mass Effect instead.

I don’t believe this is simply a byproduct of having become less of a bloated man-child. I really do think the Zelda series has been taking a steady mine-cart ride downhill ever since the audacious and terrifying Majora’s Mask. And I also really do believe that Mass Effect has more on offer than any interactive experience your money can buy, at least in terms of true craftsmanship and personal investment on a profound emotional level.

And Zelda is far from the only example, of course. Absorbing concentrated excellence like Mass Effect has served to skyrocket my standards for all media I consume. Is it a little bit easier, now, to understand why shit like this:

…is simply not okay anymore? It’s not just that there’s nothing of value on tap; there’s something fundamentally wrong with the intention. That piece of shit wasn’t made with love, or care, or personal investment. It was made with giant clanging dollar signs popping out of everyone’s eyes.

Trust me, we are not opening that can of worms.

But, man…being a snob is just so goddamn exhausting. Just as I’ve grown to understand what I want from my media, I’ve also grown to appreciate the uselessness of yelling myself hoarse outside George Lucas’s bedroom window. If there’s one thing Mass Effect has impressed upon me, it’s the power of choice. I’ve learned that the most effective way to be heard is through the choices I make. My wallet is the sexiest damsel in the land, and only the worthiest of suitors may pass her trials, solve her riddles, and impress her enough to bust through that chastity belt to the dazzling treasures within.

And trust me – I’ll be first in line at Mass Effect 3‘s launch. Well, okay – not first in line. Those guys are insane.

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