The bane of fanboys across the ‘verse, The Picky Geek is a column that takes the glaring faults of popular games, puts them under a magnifying glass, and leaves them there until they’ve been fried by the sun. With snark, cynicism, and maybe even a little hyperbole, Ryan Larrabee explores why he never gets invited to any games industry Christmas parties.
First off, let me say that I’m going to get through this whole feature without spoiling any substantial story elements. I might make references to the big events that happen throughout the game, but I’ll keep them as vague as possible for those who haven’t made it through yet.
At this point, I’m sure you’ve heard of the fan complaints about Mass Effect 3. A shitty ending and on-disc DLC are all valid complaints, but an issue you don’t see getting a lot of exposure is the game’s embarrassingly melodramatic attempts at emotional engagement.
The example I’m going to use and the prime offender is Shepard’s recurring dreams of a child that died on a shuttle back on Earth. Now, I’m not one to belittle the impact the death of a child can have on someone, but Commander Shepard isn’t exactly a stranger to traumatic events. Depending on story choices, Shepard could have had a friend and squadmate die in nuclear fire, as well as his entire crew turned into a grey human paste, among other life-scarring horrors. In fact, since that fateful moment on Earth, I, as Shepard, have brutally decapitated hundreds of humanoid enemies with my sniper rifle. So what makes this one impersonal death stand out so much that it gives the galaxy’s biggest hero nightmares? Nothing. The answer is nothing.
This is very much an example of the writers breaking taboos in order to shock you into feeling something. It’s the same thing the Modern Warfare series has been doing lately, first with the infamous No Russian mission, and next with… whatever the one in Modern Warfare 3 was called. This happens because, over our careers, most people familiar with video games have ended thousands of virtual lives, but very few of them are women, and even fewer children. We’ve been desensitized to the in-game deaths of faceless white males, but since we don’t see many kids bite it, it still sends a wave of shock to our brains. Proving my point is the fact that in the same shuttle that the child is in, there are half a dozen or so adults, but do those people get their own slow motion dream sequences? I think not. It’s like when your grandparents watch you play MadWorld. They’ve never been exposed to video game violence, so a whole different spectrum of emotions go through their heads when they see a man ripped in half.
The biggest problem with this form of writing is that it’s completely disregarding the character you’re playing and pandering to the player’s emotions. While many players do like to put themselves into the character, there’s a certain point where you have to realize you may be that character, but the character isn’t you. If the Reaper threat was your responsibility, we’d all perish. The game doesn’t play to your military training, or your skill at diplomacy, so why should it play directly to your emotions?
BioWare tries to market their games on “emotional engagement”. However, with the way they’ve handled the events in Mass Effect 3, it borders more on emotional manipulation. They’re not endearing you to characters and having you experience their troubles and hardships with them, they’re just shocking you into feeling sadness or anger with quick, cheap deaths and sad piano music. Some of the characters returning from previous games, depending on story elements, even follow this formula, seemingly appearing just to die while said piano music fills the background. It follows the Infinity Ward style of emotional manipulation almost exactly.
You see, death is cheap. If you can cut a character’s story short, you can save money and effort by not having to record their voice actors or write out a compelling story for them. Also, there’s the twinge of sadness the viewer gets when you remove a character from the equation. However, the diminishing returns set in quickly. Remember feeling bummed out at the end of Call of Duty 4 when you saw all of your squadmates bite the dust? Did you feel the same way when characters died in Modern Warfare 3 or even 2? Of course not, because after seeing it so often the idea becomes routine to you. Now, characters dying in Modern Warfare is just as expected as the firing of guns. This is what’s happened to the Mass Effect series. At one point in Mass Effect 3, one of my favorite characters made a return and then died. I had the chance to reload a save and make sure it didn’t happen, but did I? No, because I was so used to the idea that it didn’t seem worth the time. The exact opposite of what should be happening in such a story-driven game.
All in all, for a game whose goal is emotional engagement, there’s very little real engagement at all. Once you reach the point where you realize most of your squadmates will likely be dead by the time the game’s over, it becomes less of a story you want to be a part of, and more of a regular old shooter. Then again, maybe that’s the road Mass Effect has been taking all along.