Friday, February 12, 2010

Mass Effect 2: The Love Of An Old Friend

By Kirk Hamilton

And so as the Illusive Man sat and smoked, the screen faded to black, and my playthough of Mass Effect 2 came to a close. Considering how I've been writing about almost nothing but this game for the past week and a half, I thought it would only be proper to put together a quick wrap-up. Plot discussion abounds, me hearties, so consider yerselves forewarned: Here there be spoilers.

It took about 30 hours for renegade Blade Shepard to fully assemble his team of intergalactic badasses. Along the way, he helped a lot of them with their various familial issues, engaged in fisticuffs with the press, learned enough about the hugely varied cultures of the galaxy to fill a giant, incredibly-detailed codex, and even fell in love with an old friend. Actually, that last thing is something I'd like to talk about a bit more.

In past BioWare games, the story has tended to present one character as the "right" girl for heterosexual male characters, and one as the "dark girl," or the competition for the protagonist's heart and the one you wind up hooking up with on your second, evil playthrough. In Jade Empire, Dawn Star was the girl that any clich├ęd hero would fall for, and Silver Fox was the dark, mysterious Other Woman.  In the first Mass Effect, Ashley was presented as the down-home human babe, and Liara the exotic, shy alien. Dragon Age presented us with the clever, good-hearted rogue Leliana and the cold, self-interested witch Morrigan.

What surprised me was that just when I thought I had Mass Effect 2's romantic options pegged - Miranda as the primary hetero love interest, Jack as the darker option for renegades - the game threw me a curve in the form of Tali'Zorah Vas Normandy.

I was going through my game, content to let Blade go the conventional route and hook up with Miranda, when Tali joined the crew. We'd crossed paths near the start of the game, and Tali seemed more world-weary and tough - it was a good look for her.  She and Shepard reminisced about their past adventures, and I found myself thinking how truly nice it was to see her again.

After he helped her out of a jam on her homeworld, adopting her into his crew and allowing her to be renamed "Vas Normandy," it became clear that Tali was romantically interested in Shepard. As I watched them talking down in the engineering room, Tali growing flustered about her feelings, Shepard gently reassuring her, I realized that Mass Effect 2 was playing with a feeling that I have never encountered in a game before - familiarity coupled with the spark of something more, the unplanned attraction that can blossom after reuniting with an old friend.

Whatever can be said of Mass Effect 2's overzealous streamlining and unfortunately shallow RPG elements, the fact that BioWare managed to replicate that subtle, specific feeling is truly remarkable. Kinda beautiful, even. I realized that in my Shepard's story, it absolutely made sense that, despite his attraction to Miranda, he would find himself falling for Tali. And so fall he did.

And yeah, I was a little mad that we never got to see what she looks like behind the mask, but I got over it.

So the Normandy jumped through the Omega Relay, and Shepard made the call that Tali would sneak through the ducts on the Collector ship to hack open the doors for the rest of the team. He kept her safe as she made her way through, but just as she got the doors open and cut off their pursuers, she caught a stray round and was dead before her body hit the ground. Shepard reached out as if to touch her one last time but stopped short, bowed his head, looked up at the surviving party. There was no time to grieve.

Dude, that is some good shit right there. I talked a good game about how if I lost anyone I couldn't stand to lose, I would load up an earlier game and do what it took to ensure their survival. But as I played through that final mission, I realized that no matter who I lost, there was just no way I was going to do that.

Maybe it was the streamlining, or the fact that I had imported my character from the first game, but for some reason, this playthrough felt definitive to me, much moreso than in previous BioWare games. I'm far less interested in playing through it again to see what Paragon choices might yeild - the way the story was told feels like... well, like canon. What's remarkable is that it feels like my canon; millions of others no doubt have their own personal variations, as well.

BioWare has actually accomplished what they set out to accomplish - they have given each player his or her own unique story. Red-headed, square-jawed Blade Shepard assembled a team, made some tough decisions, killed a lot of bad people, and built a strong, loyal family aboard the Normandy. He formed an uneasy alliance with Cerberus and stopped the Collectors before they could enact their horrible plan, saving the galaxy yet again.

And along the way, he fell in love with an old friend, then tragically lost her.

It was a good story. But more importantly, it was mine.


Russ said...

So here's how my spoiler-rich variation played out.

When it was suggested to Starge Shepherd that Tali was acting like she might be interested, he headed straight to engineering. When she told him that he needed to talk to Miranda, he headed straight to the crew deck. And though I was disappointed he got to see behind the mask and I didn't, I appreciate the aesthetics of the decision made by the designers. I thought, "Well, that was nice." I had no idea how it would soon affect my experience of the game.

On the other side of the relay, when Shepherd had to choose team members for roles, I sat there for many minutes, trying to find a way for him to legitimately choose someone other than Tali for the technical mission. It was when I accepted the inevitability of it that I decided there could be no reloads, whatever happened. My Shepherd chose Garrus to lead the other squad, because he didn't trust Jack to follow Miranda, and at that moment he was pretty much overwhelmed with a sense of connection to those that had been with him the longest.

The operation started to take shape, then the squad got bogged down after opening the first couple of vents. And Tali started talking over the radio about the heat rising, sounding increasingly anxious. I didn't know at this point what was going to happen if Shepherd didn't get to the vent controls in time, and whether the results would be permanent. And something just snapped.

My Shepherd, a vanguard, but normally a cautious one, just started leaping barriers, punching collectors, using the charge basically to get forward as fast as possible, without paying attention to where the other squad members were or what they were doing. He stopped shooting altogether, just punching and using biotics to incapacitate long enough to get to the next vent control, and then the next after that. When he hit the last one and heard Tali confirm she was OK, he grabbed the Krogan Claymore shotgun, skidded into cover, revived Thane and the Justicar, and blasted his way back them, absolutely exhilarated. He went through to full set of six Unities before things finally went quiet.

He ended up not losing any team members, but saving Tali was the true climax of the narrative for me, with everything that followed just a wrapping up of the loose ends.

This is now part of my personal canon of pinnacle, unrepeatable gaming experiences.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Man, epic! I've been talking with several people now, and everyone's endings are so extremely different... you know, the more time I spend away from the game, the more it's clear that in six months or so, I'll probably play it again to see what's different. I talk a good line, but I'm not going to be able to walk away from a game this good.

Your description of the drama of saving Tali reminds me of something that happened in Dragon Age. It was my first playthrough, and my rogue character, along with Shale, Morrigan, and Wynne were fighting the dragon up near the sacred ashes.

It's a bitch of a fight, and it went on for like ever, but we were doing okay, the dragon was down to really low health, and then I think Wynne got killed. So suddenly we had no healer, and everything got intense. Partly because it had been, like, twenty minutes fighting this giant thing, and the prospect of losing was taking on real-world implications.

So, we keep wailing on it, and then Shale gets killed, so it's just my little rogue and morrigan, and the Dragon has like a sliver of health, but relatively speaking, that's still a ton, right? So I have my dude put away his bow, pull out his swords, and run up to the thing and just start wailing on it. And Morrigan's almost dead, I'm sure I'm screwed, and it's super fricking intense in a way that combat rarely is in that game, and I'm hitting the "attack" button even though it doesn't actually speed things up, and then all at once my guy goes into the kill animation on the dragon, jumps onto its head and jabs his swords into its face in slow mo and it was so freaking badass.

I never, ever shoulda won the fight, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing, and made the victory actually seem epic, not just like another "win" in a role-playing game. It's so cool when that sort of thing happens - the gameplay reflects the story in unexpected and emergent ways.

maviolo said...

hey Kirk.

thanks for the official coverage of mass effect 2 here over the past few dasy/weeks.

very enjoyable.

Axel Shepard.

Anonymous said...

Man, this almost exactly captures my reaction to tali, and I hadn't clocked quite how adeptly I was being manipulated until I read your post. I don't generally pursue the romance subplots, but here the feeling of meeting an old friend and seeing that spark kindle was just deliciously well done and drew me in bit by bit in a very naturalistic manner. I love the way that the cues are dropped around (eg just a few too many mentions of Shepard's name in her audio diaries) and then left for the player to react to, creating a much more personal connection than 'you are hot' on the dialogue wheel. It's this feeling of romance simply being a dialogue choice that leaves me cold on the majority of game romances (this was true of the first mass effect, for me). Bioware are clearly excellent writers but they are equally clearly evolving their craft. Colour me impressed. Incidentally, on my next playthrough as evil red eyed stomp your face shep who is as nasty to everyone as possible just on general principle, I simply couldn't bring myself to be horrible to tali.

Also, really enjoyed the series of posts on ME2. They've been my intro to your blog, and astute observations and thoughts abound. Great stuff.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Thanks, Mavolio (Axel) and Anon, for the kind words.

I agree that the subtlety with which the writers handled Tali's attraction to Shepard was really well-done, and felt like the first time in either game that the romance felt natural and earned.

It was hard to shake the feeling, particularly in the first game, that Shepard's eventual romantic pairing was a goal to be attained, and not just something that happened in the course of the story. It always kinda felt like a minigame - if you play your cards right, you'll finally get together just before the last mission.

I didn't experience all of the outcomes in ME2, but the story of Tali and Shepard was organic and subtle enough that it didn't feel that way to me, which was nice.

As I mentioned in the post, in the third game, I'd like to see other party members pair off independent of Shepard, as well as different pacing in the romantic subplots, moving away from what the writers at The Borderhouse call a sort of conquest-reward system.

That is to say, it'd be cool if, in the third game, Shepard could pair up with someone earlier on (or even bring in a romance from the second game). It would allow for some good stuff, dramatically speaking - shifting of loyalties, unspoken yearning and heartbreak, spurned betrayal, etc.

Last thing - they really need to get with the times regarding same-sex partnering in ME. One of the ways that Dragon Age was actually ahead of ME2.

T said...

I'm the anonymous commenter from above.

Kirk said: 'It always kinda felt like a minigame - if you play your cards right, you'll finally get together just before the last mission.'

This. Exactly. See, this is why you're the blogger and I'm the commenter.

Very interesting posts at The Borderhouse, thanks for the link. Sort of tangentially related to one of the points raised there (sex as an endpoint), did you happen to run through Jack's paragon romance? I was intrigued enough by Tali's to try another on my next playthrough and found that while it certainly wasn't as natural, it was very rewarding, and superior to anything in the first game. The writing really burrows into her character and managed again to create feelings and emotion. Unfortunately for the writers, by the time the lurrve scene rolled around, while I really liked and wanted to help Jack, it was entirely platonic. If she'd just wept on my shoulder that would have been enough validation of their trust and friendship, I didn't need to see her and shep making out.

I wonder if the binary nature of gaming relationships hasn't stunted them somewhat, as currently my desired relationship with Jack is impossible by the game's rules. ie, I can't be her confidante but not her lover. Of course, this binary nature is probably a function of controlling the dialogue complexity, but that's another issue.

It would indeed be fascinating to see what Bioware could make of carrying romances through, and the possibilities thereof, given that (as stated in the post) their incorporation of ME1 choices was so spot on in creating the illusion of a world that the player themselves has crafted.

With you entirely on the same sex business. They've issued some half assed statements, but it's pretty obvious that they didn't want controversy associated with their big budget mass market money spinner. You're not fooling anyone guys.

Finally (and apologies for this overlong and self-indulgent comment), it's fascinating to be an observer of videogames in 2010. Not much is set in stone and the rules are still being written before our eyes. There are reasons for pessimism, but look at the opportunities. What will Bioware do in ME3, and what new innovations will they bring that will become industry standards in 10 years? Nobody knows, and that's absolutely thrilling to me.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Hi T, good times. I'm with you on the next ten years being pretty exciting to look forward to. It's fun to watch an artistic medium begin to come into its own!

I was looking for this piece by Alex Raymond (writes for the Borderhouse) that I wanted to link to, but I couldn't find it for the longest time... because it wasn't on Borderhouse. But I saw a link to it, and so I thought I'd toss in a link. It's here, and is a really interesting discussion of the gaming and the commodity model of sex.

Good stuff. And side note - even though it's only been a few weeks since I finished my "definitive" playthrough, I'm already kinda looking forward to going back (maybe sometime in the summer) and playing through it again as K'iara Shepard, paragon heroine, good-hearted savior of mankind. K'iara is nice to reporters.