Of Mass Effect and eschatology.

The rest of the world was deep into Mass Effect 3 (and ranting about the apparently horrible ending) when I finally played and finished Mass Effect 2 sometime last October. Lately I’ve been playing through it again as a different class, making alternate choices, and picking up the expansions.

A few thoughts (ah, more like praises) on the game, and more on the world. NOTE: I have played ME1 and ME2 (so this post assumes their knowledge), but I have not played ME3. If you’re planning to comment, do not spoil ME3 or I’ll sic a drell assassin on you.

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Whatever ME1 did well, ME2 did excellently. I thoroughly love the streamlined game mechanics — it took a little getting used to, but played so much simpler and tighter than ME1’s. All the characters were memorable and made their way into my affections. The story and execution of gameplay was fantastic: darker and grittier than the idealistic ME1, which was befitting for the progression of the human race through Citadel history. It’s not often that I enjoy the final stage/battle in a game (they tend to be annoying, because I’m really not a skillful gamer), but I loved every moment of the suicide mission. The sombre yet determined, “against all odds” mood of that final stage definitely had a big hand in this.

And the music… I adore the music. I’m a sucker for good game soundtracks, and ME2 was excellent. The soundtrack playing on the derelict Collector ship was especially eerie — I’d never been so unnerved playing a game before. Literally kept looking over my shoulder at everything! I’ve listened to the soundtrack repeatedly on YouTube and relished picking out all the variations on Shepard’s theme throughout the main mission tracks, and trying to hear how/if the individual squad members’ themes have any roots in it. Part of the reason why I liked the suicide mission was the music on the levels — I won’t get tired of hearing the first and second parts.

In all, ME2 was a thoroughly enjoyable, satisfying game, and an excellent, emotional story with fantastic characters. It may have followed all the standard tropes for a heroic saga, but the tropes were packaged so well. Definitely a game I’ll keep coming back to.

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Apropos of this incisive observation by John Scalzi, I’m attempting to think more critically about the games I play, particularly in terms of what world-view is presented by the narrative and world-building. Not hard to do with the Mass Effect universe, and my favourite kind of thing to think about.

(I agree with Scalzi. Tale of Tales comes the closest with its aesthetic/experiential games, but video games as a vehicle for cultural criticism is so primitive to be currently nonexistent. I don’t think anyone really knows how “video game criticism” is going to look like, let alone what aspects can serve as most effective vehicles for cultural commentary. Even I am just commenting on ME’s world-building, not the “hermeneutics” of gaming.)

Even though the ME universe is built on foundations of evolution, (trans)humanism and naturalism, it makes tons of theological statements. Even if they are “gods” simply because they have reached the pinnacle of evolution, the Reapers — as seen in Sovereign and Harbinger — have all kinds of god-like qualities: they are immortal, omnipotent, act through intermediaries, speak in “prophetic” tones, and utterly inscrutable and supernal both in form and motive. What intrigues me most are their motives. In ME1, the Reapers seem wholly bent on ushering in Ragnarok and cleansing the universe in an endless cycle, although their reasons for carrying on a cycle are completely mysterious. ME2 reveals more interesting implications: it appears that the Reapers want to uplift the human race into godlike status. It’s not clear how transcendence will be achieved, but it appears that humanity will lose its individuality and be assimilated as a collective into Reaper-hood. You could say it like the Sufis and call it annihilation in God, albeit a naturalistic, “genetic” annihilation instead of spiritual. But it seems to be more like oblivion to me — a coerced, unwilling loss of self (indeed, extinction) for the sake of a wholly impersonal godhood. The fact that the Reapers’ offer of godhood at the expense of individuality is to be fought at all costs, reveals the individualism of the modern psyche. (Hm, I wonder whether Japanese/Asian epics like the Final Fantasy series make similar statements? Have to investigate that.)

Shepard is full of heroic and religious symbolism too — you can’t get more obvious than his (naturalistic) resurrection, the god-killing, and the band of faithful disciples. He is the ultimate humanistic ideal: he defies fate and the gods, forges his own destiny, and maintains his own individuality. I’d always wondered at the names Shepard and Reaper, as they have such strong religious and eschatological overtones. According to this segment of unused game text, it seems so. (That is an astounding and haunting text, by the way. I wonder if it was left out because it shades too religious.)

A futuristic eschatology, a humanist saviour, all very interesting to me. I hope ME3 reveals more of the Reapers’ motives… but then again, I also hope not. It’s good to maintain some mystery even to the end.

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Some more observations:

The ME universe strongly assumes consciousness is anchored purely in the material. Shepard can be fully resurrected without loss of self-identity from intact cryopreserved remains. This jives well with Legion’s dialogue which reveals that organic and synthetic consciousness are, at heart, the same. Unlike the Final Fantasy games which have a strong dose of the spiritual, the ME universe is wholly naturalistic.

I noticed that the loyalty missions overwhelmingly involve family. Miranda’s sister, Jacob’s father, Tali’s father, Thane’s son, Samara’s daughter; also Jack’s childhood and Grunt’s rite of passage. Mordin and Garrus don’t have family, but honour — professional for Mordin, personal for Garrus — are major aspects of their character and racial makeup. I wonder if it’s a coincidence that Tali and Legion’s missions have a wider community, namely their peoples, at stake.

Speaking of Garrus, I was a bit unconvinced by his character development. It seemed like a huge jump from ME1 C-Sec officer to ME2 vigilante; that didn’t seem to jive with typical turian personality traits. Well, perhaps vigilantism outside the law is a form of civic duty, and certainly Garrus’ turian nature was hugely influenced by Shepard. I’m not completely reconciled to the more jaded, hardened Garrus, and feel a bit sad that he’s lost so much of his early idealism, but it doesn’t stop him from being one of my favourite characters. (Heck, I generally like turians. They look badass, like armoured cats. Does anyone else think so too?)

Obviously I haven’t played all the classes, but it’s Infiltrator all the way for me. Nothing more fun than popping off heads through a scope, and I always go for the tech/mechanic type of classes in any game. My favourite characters are Garrus, Thane and Tali… yup, the snipers and the techie.

Time to get hold of ME3! I really want to experience this “disappointing” ending. I think the universal outcry has made me determined to find a reason, any reason, to like it and thumb my nose at everyone else. In any case, it’ll make for good analysis!

One thought on “Of Mass Effect and eschatology.”

  1. ME2 was definitely a vast improvement in terms of gameplay. But overall, it’s probably my least favourite game of the trilogy. There’s not much story to it – it’s mostly just a series of unrelated sidequests. ME1 had a pretty focused story, with a lot of sidequests tied into it, with another set tied together through hunting down Cerberus. I won’t spoil ME3’s storyline, but it’s definitely the most focused – everything you do is connected to the main story. (That’s not to say ME3’s story is perfect. There’s a huge number of problems with it even aside from the ending.) Talking about ME2’s story is tough, because there’s so little to it. Instead, it’s a character-driven game.

    Except that it did the least effective job of handling the characters, too, a result of simply having too many of them. There’s no interaction between squadmates – the fight between Miranda and Jack and the one between Tali and Legion, maybe the occasional one-off comment, and that’s it. Compare that to ME1, where bringing different people to, say, the Citadel resulted in a lot of different interactions. You get a sense that they actually do talk to each other, where ME2 never gives you that sense of camaraderie between them. Again, without spoiling anything, ME3 does the absolute best job of giving that feel, since the squadmates actually DO talk to each other on the ship. Walking in on a conversation between James and Garrus is really pleasant. The bigger problem with ME2’s characterization is that it mostly comes in isolated chunks. Conversation, do a couple missions, get another conversation, do another couple missions, do the Loyalty mission, do another couple missions, and get the final conversation. It all feels arbitrary and unnatural. 1’s conversations felt more natural, and 3, as I said, does the absolute best job of characterization in the series. Bar none.

    Infiltrator is my favourite class, too. Cloak + Sniper Rifle = Maniacal Cackling. Sadly, the only thing Infiltrator really gets extra in 3 is the Sabotage skill. Luckily, said skill can be hilarious at times, such as when turrets are set up, since it allows you to hack them. Vanguard easily benefits most from the changes 3’s combat system. With the right setup, your cooldown on Charge is only a couple seconds. Just long enough to unleash a Nova blast, which has no effect on your cooldown. So Vanguard goes from being extremely risky, to ridiculously overpowered, since you can Charge into a group of enemies, unleash a Nova blast to knock them all back, and unleash another Charge before they can recover. It’s hilarious.

    As for ME2’s Loyalty missions involving family, there’s a hilarious line about that in 3. And also a great series of jokes about Garrus’s love of calibrations.

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