Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I Want to Talk About Israfil

By Kirk Hamilton

Almost to the end of Mass Effect 2 now - I'll have some final thoughts on the game when I finish, and then it'll be time for a much-needed break from dialogue wheels and shallow-but-enjoyable morality systems. Oh, wait, I'm actually going to check out Bioshock 2 next, so never mind on that second one. Sigh.

As the holy-wow factor of firing up the game for the first time wears off, I'm finding myself surprised at how much I miss certain elements of the first game. The borderline-psychotic amount of streamlining BioWare has done makes for a compelling-as-hell game experience, but also jettisons a lot of things that I really enjoyed in the first game. Maybe those features weren't implemented so well, but BioWare's "If it moves, kill it" approach seems extreme.

But one thing that continues to impress is the quality and depth of the game's writing. And if you need any further evidence of the staggering amount of detailed, thoughtful writing in this game, I would like to direct your attention to the asteroid Israfil.

It's located in the Micah system, two stops outside of the Quarian Migrant Fleet's location in Raheel-Leyya, and one stop past the Paz system. Micah is an empty solar system with no side-quests, contains four survey-able bodies, three of which are little more than floating rocks, all but hidden within an asteroid belt. Upon entering Israfel's atmosphere, we learn the following:


Largest of the "eezo trio," Israfil is a silicate-heavy carbonaceous asteroid. It is home to approximately 40 species of microorganisms in its liquid water, and was blamed as the source of the prion-based biowarfare agent EHE (exotic humanoid encephalopathy) used by the terrorist group Totenkopf in their attack on Gagarin Station in 2184.

While many in the scientific community protested that Israfil did not have sufficient atmosphere or evolutionary history to sustain life at the prion level, the asteroid and its eezo miners were nevertheless quarantined to reassure the public that the Systems Alliance was taking action. Though no evidence has yet been found that EHE originated from Israfil or was even synthesized in a local lab, the SSV Manila and a team of epidemiologists maintain watch over the asteroid's ship traffic for now.

Population: 1,006

Orbital Distance: 4.3 AU
Orbital Period: 8.9 Earth Years
Radius: 905 km
Day Length: 68.6 Earth Hours
Atmospheric Pressure: Trace
Surface Temperature: -100 Celsius
Surface Gravity: 0.3 G

Are you KIDDING me with this shit?  We're talking about a rock two solar systems removed from the main story that, even when you're looking right at it is almost invisible. And yet here we are, with the prion-based biowarfare agent EHE and the terrorist group Totenkopf and the Gagarien Station, and the oh my GOD.

Something like 90% of the game's players won't ever even see Israfel, let alone read that entry, and yet someone wrote it anyway, taking it the extra mile (or, light-year) more out of love of the universe that he and his team created than any sane desire to improve the game or sell more copies.

And Israfil is one of literally dozens of that type of planet in Mass Effect 2, each with its own tale to tell, its own specifically and painstakingly created history, threads in a galaxy-wide historical tapestry that must've covered TEN corkboards in the BioWare writing room.

When I say I'm floored by the depth and quality of the work done by Mac Walters' writing team - Chris Hepler, Drew Karpyshyn, Brian Kindregan, Luke Kristjanson, Chris L'Etoile, Jay Turner, and Patrick Weekes (it only seems right to publish ALL of their names) - this is what I'm talking about.

I'm talking about Israfil.


Brittany said...

Haha, I know how you feel. When I find those little gems in games, it gives me that peculiar, warm-fuzzy feeling and a huge smile. I love writers who are happy to satisfy the wandering gamer. I've never been big on following story lines to the letter... I'm glad to see you're honouring writers of video games... they rarely get eh respect they deserve in this industry. In fact, no one even really mentions them unless their work is atrociously bad, which I suppose isn't really a good thing either...

Kirk Hamilton said...

I agree about the lack of recognition for writing teams; these guys should be getting noticed more! Especially with awards, when it seems as though writers' guild membership affects nominations more than does actual writing.

Like, Gears of War 2 got nominated for the big gaming writing award, and a ton of games that weren't retardedly written didn't.

It does seem as though, lately, the industry is acknowledging the fact that they have to hire good writers, and even promote the writers' work, to make better games. (see 2009's years-overdue, giant critical love-fest for Tim Schafer.)

While the weird, stilted dialogue of old NES games and the like weren't without their charms, the fact that the last few years have given us no shortage of Bioshocks, Uncharteds, Mass Effects, Dragon Ages, and the billion-and-one games that have yet to drop this year, seems like we're on track to have great writing become the norm, rather than the exception.

Which is just groovy by me. :)

Anonymous said...

It's possible that this is massively misguided, but it seems to me as someone totally uninvolved with the world of game development that things like this are the purest way for the writers to demonstrate their love for what they do. That's perhaps badly expressed so put another way: planet descriptions and codex entries are not playtested, focus grouped or otherwise adulterated by committee. They will not be read or seen by the majority of gamers (even more true for a random blob of rock like Israfil) so the only reasons to put them there at all are fan service and the joy of writing them into the universe at all, neither of which really serve the company's bottom line. Basically, you don't get this in most games, even those that have clearly been laboured over and buffed within an inch of their lives, and to see something simulaneously so unnecessary and yet so wonderfully engrossing is, well, a testament to those within the company who are clearly in love with their own creation.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Couldn't have said it better myself. :)