Best-selling game trilogy carries respect for narrative and inclusivity for players

Life is a series of choices.

Some are last minute, like choosing between regular and peanut M&Ms. Others can alter your life significantly, such as deciding to move to a different city or get married.

In BioWare’s “Mass Effect” trilogy, choices are the lifeblood of the narrative. As Commander Shepard, you must stop the mechanical race known as the Reapers from harvesting the galaxy’s advanced civilizations. How Shepard reaches this goal is up to the gameplay and conversation choices you make during the game.

The first “Mass Effect” game was released in November 2007 on the Xbox 360 and a year later on PC. My initial reaction to the game was mass indifference. I couldn’t be bothered to invest my time in a game that required a ridiculous amount of micromanagement and even more disinterested in the paragon versus renegade conversational choices in most interactions with other characters.

Welcome to Mass Effect

In 2009, my resolve to avoid “Mass Effect” faltered after a late night trip to a burger joint with a good friend.

My friend Travis had recently picked up “Mass Effect” and was blown away by the game’s narrative, customization, voice acting, and overall structure.

In between bites of his hamburger, I sat in silence as Travis unloaded the entire plot of the game. For the uninitiated, the plot revolves around Commander Shepard and his crew who are in a desperate race against rogue agent Saren, who tries to destroy galactic civilization by bringing about the return of the mechanical species known as the Reapers.

As someone who had grown up surrounded by science fiction, I was intrigued by the almost “Star Trek”-like qualities of the game: galactic civilization, a lone ship with a brave crew against overwhelming odds, etc. I needed to play this game.

To get a different perspective on the appeal of Mass Effect, I spoke to Paul Fleck, an editor at www.GameGuiders.com. Fleck is a lifelong gamer who has worked for the site for four years.

While Fleck acknowledges the appeal of the science fiction/fantasy aspects of the series, he says it is also because of strong writing and character development.

According to Fleck, while “Mass Effect” isn’t the first game to include the audience, it’s the game’s vast universe that appeals to many.

This backdrop is apparent when I first stepped onto the giant space station called the Citadel that houses the galactic government in the series known as the Council.

As Shepard, I’m hounded by advertisements for alien adaptations of Shakespeare and dropped into the middle of disputes between the Citadel’s residents.

“Many games focus on trying to make the player feel like they’re part of a world, ‘Mass Effect,’ (and BioWare in general) creates a universe and drops the player in the middle,” said Fleck.

All about choice

“Mass Effect 2” was released in January 2010, and like most new things, I had to have it. Unfortunately, I was still bogged down in the first game. Besides character customization, Shepard’s choices made in the game are vital to the experience. Instead of finishing what I had started in the first game, I immediately popped in “Mass Effect 2” and played through the title.

Since I hadn’t saved the galaxy all the way in number one, I found my experience in number two to be lacking. The “Mass Effect” series encourages players to transfer their save files from previous editions to get the full experience when playing the next game.

I realized quickly that I had better get in line with “Mass Effect” dogma and play the games the right way.

I went back to the original Mass Effect and started it over again. The choices in the game hadn’t really meant anything to me before, but now as I typed in my new Shepard’s first name, I began to understand what it was all about.

To Fleck, the choices inherent to “Mass Effect” are both positive and negative.

“Gaming has always been a good outlet for people as interactive art and what ‘Mass Effect’ brings in terms of choices that not only impact your character, but the entire universe evolves to a whole new level,” said Fleck.

However, Fleck believes gamers and video game companies may be missing the point now.

“We’ve been spoiled as video game enthusiasts; there was a time where all that mattered was your arbitrary score, which evolved into needing a strong narrative to grip the player,” said Fleck. “Now it’s not only important that we’re given stories that books could never tell but somehow the player needs to control that story for a custom experience.

“The line between what a company creates for its consumers and what the consumers want is blurring. There is a scary sense of entitlement forming around the gamer subculture, which [I believe] is one of the symptoms of being given too much choice.”

Your Shepard, My Shepard

When you start a new game in the “Mass Effect” series, there are three sure things: your last name, your rank and your military affiliation. It is up to the player to decide Shepard’s gender, race, first name, family, soldier class and early military career.

My version of Commander Shepard was born on Earth and lived his early years as an orphan in a megacity. Eventually, he joined the Alliance Navy and became a war hero battling alien enslavers on a human colony world. My Shepard is a standard Alliance soldier; no special powers here. I also chose to make Shepard a man and kept him Caucasian.

On the surface, I admit to making Shepard a white male because I wanted to match the image used on the game’s marketing. As a 27-year old Caucasian male, I wanted to create a Shepard that I could identify with and use as an avatar to place myself into the game.

The Commander Shepard on the front of the video game box and in all the marketing is typically a white man modelled after Dutch fashion model Mark Vanderloo. Who is this Shepard supposed to appeal to?

To a video game reviewer like Fleck, the issue of people representing themselves in the game is truly a matter of perception.

“It would be ridiculous to entertain the idea that representing only one section of humanity is okay,” said Fleck. “Let’s say that middle-aged, physically fit heterosexual white males make up 20 per cent of the entire population. Why would anyone risk alienating 80 per cent of a consumer base?”

To Fleck, the problem comes from preconceived notions of what the public is comfortable with and wants.

One thing the public did call for was the inclusion of “FemShep,” the female Commander Shepard, in the third game’s marketing. BioWare released a handful of trailers and box art featuring a white redheaded Shepard in response.

“The idea [shouldn’t be] to represent people, [but] to change people’s perceptions first,” said Fleck.

Love in Outer Space

Within the Mass Effect universe resides an all-female race known as the Asari. One of the game’s main characters and a potential romantic partner for either a male or female Shepard is Dr. Liara T’soni.

Asari are blue-skinned creatures of vast intelligence and age. Asari are found attractive by all races in the “Mass Effect” universe and use this to their advantage when it comes time to breed. As of the third game, my male Shepard and Liara are now “bondmates” as I’ve spent time nurturing that relationship through dialogue choices dating back to the first game.

Other romance options exist for either Commander Shepard, including a few lesbian options. Such options did not exist until the third game for male Shepard, a surprising turn of events considering directions other role-playing games have taken.

Calgary gamer James, who is gay and wishes not to reveal his real name, says the customization impact of gay character development in games intrigues him.

James said he would follow in-game actions which lead to a gay relationship, but at the same time be inclined to develop straight relationships in the game.

“For me, just because a certain game offers the option for gay interactions doesn’t simply sell me on the game,” said James. “In fact, it probably wouldn’t even be in the top 10 reasons for me to choose a particular game to buy.”

James is however pleased with the amount of gay-friendly entertainment in today’s video games. Popular titles such as “Grand Theft Auto IV” and “Fallout” include gay interactions, according to James.

“I have gay friends who work for some of the major video game developers,” said James. “I think that there are actually quite a bit of gay employees in the video game industry and this may be the most significant reason for the amount of gay-optioned games,” he said.

Fleck agrees that gay relationships are making it into games, but he still has concerns.

“‘Fable 2’ approached the subject matter by allowing gay marriage only a year, (2008) after ‘Mass Effect’ was released and was met with generally positive reception,” said Fleck. “To be completely fair, even BioWare allowed gay male relations in ‘Dragon Age: Origins’ a year later.”

However, 2010’s ‘Mass Effect 2’ didn’t continue the trend; there were no gay male romance options available. Fleck believes the game’s popularity and title recognition perhaps caused a shudder in the shareholders who were afraid to make waves.

Be who you want to be

Quick glances through the legions of “Mass Effect” videos on YouTube or on gaming sites often show people’s vision for Commander Shepard. Some attempt to make the most grotesque galactic saviour possible; others feature an Asian-female Shepard saving her crew whilst on a suicide mission.

Choice is the power in the “Mass Effect” universe and that power lays in the gamer’s hands. Default or randomized characters are often portrayed by Hollywood archetypes: handsome, physically fit white men. Mass Effect lets you change that stereotype, and allows men and women to properly insert themselves into a wild fantasy universe.

In the end, you can be the Shepard you want to be and just explore that universe.

banson@cjournal.ca