Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “Mass Effect”
As you know, every once in a while I reach out on Facebook and Twitter to ask people what they think you need to know about, because as a great philosopher once wrote, “true enlightenment comes from complete submersion into the unknown.” Okay, that great philosopher was me pulling some words out of my ass just now, but the concept is sound, right?
Anyways, a friendly fellow by the name of Woody Tondorf suggested that you needed to know about the video game series Mass Effect, which is a video game I have heard a lot about, but have never played, because as previously mentioned, my gaming abilities are pretty sub-par. However, I knew of someone who had played it: Kate Cox, of the video game criticism blog Your Critic is in Another Castle. Not only is the name of her blog AWESOME and her analysis of the video game industry from a feminist/media perspective very smart, but we went to summer camp together. Which makes her a most trusted expert.
So this week it’s less Liz Tells Frank and more Kate Tells Liz What to Tell Frank. But to be honest about it and show my work, below please find the chat conversation in which Kate reveals the first Mass Effect‘s secrets, I ask a lot of stupid questions, and we learn how complicated sexytimes in space can be.
Liz: So, Kate, to start let me tell you what I already know about Mass Effect.
Liz: Um. It takes place in space! And you can be a lady commander or a dude commander. And either way you sex up on people a lot.
Kate: Well, the sexing is optional. (That said, most players opt in.) But it definitely takes place in space.
Kate: When I play, Commander Shepard is a lady. (Kate Shepard, in fact, with red hair like mine ’cause, er, gamer self-insertion ego.) The first game, you start as the XO on a spaceship, and you go do this mission with a couple of redshirts, and one of them actually survives and the other one turns out to be not such a nice guy, actually. More or less. And you would never have guessed it, what with his evil gaze, evil armor, and evil music.
Liz: I approve of this.
Kate: The bad guy, Saren, is a Turian — they’re a kind of avian-ish alien species, but the part that mainly matters is that they’re not human. And in fact the rest of the galaxy doesn’t tend to like humans in general, because they just sort of sprang our of their (our) solar system all at once and went everywhere and got their sticky Coca-Cola-covered fingers in everything, as it were.
Saren’s a Spectre, which is basically like… really public CIA, maybe? They’re the “go get stuff done and we don’t care how” arm of the Council, which is the galactic government. And he turns out to be a bad guy, what with all the evil.
Liz: So where does Commander Shepard of whatever gender you might choose fit into this?
Kate: The Council needs to send a Spectre to catch a Spectre. So your captain and the human ambassador to the Council (the folks in charge of the galactic government) get you promoted, and boom! You’re the first human Spectre, with carte blanche to go poking around the galaxy in a super swanky prototype ship of awesome.
Liz: Wait, you’re a space CIA agent? That’s RAD. And so is Saren a rogue space CIA agent?
Liz: Gotcha. What’s his evil plan?
Kate: He’s working with the Geth, who are, like… Borg, or Cylons. They’re an intelligent AI robotic race. And they’re running around killing people and looking for ancient artifacts from a long-dead race called the Protheans. No-one knows why, at this moment, just that a lot of people and colonies and ships are getting dead and blowing up.
Liz: Do all of your secret space CIA missions involve trying to track Saren down? Or do you switch it up with other stuff?
Kate: You switch it up with other stuff; there are a number of side missions although they’re optional. And actually, I should backtrack for a moment, because the Protheans are important to what makes the story go. “Mass Effect” refers to the sort of hyperjump points, I guess you could call them, that make interstellar travel possible. They’re called Mass Effect relays. And the tech that makes everything work is “mass effect fields.”
Liz: So mass effect is what makes your super-spaceship go?
Kate: Yeah, the super-ship (the “Normandy”) uses the tech.
Liz: I was gonna say, normally I don’t need to know all that much about what makes the spaceship go. I am the kind of sci-fi fan who’s like, oh, it’s a spaceship, rad, let’s have some space adventures.
Kate: Right. And that’s where you are at this point in the game, really: Spaceship! Awesome! Your crew are: Ashley, human (and racist, or speciesist I guess), Kaidan, human, and Garrus, another Turian (like Saren) and some other party members, including Liara the attractive blue girl. In fact, all Asari are attractive blue girls. And conveniently, they can get busy with any member of any species.
Liz: So they are the source of the sexytimes?
Kate: Indeed. A dudely Shepard can choose to romance Ashley or Liara; a lady Shepard can choose to romance Kaidan or Liara.
Liz: No dude-on-dude action, though?
Kate: No. Not in the sequel, either, although it’s been promised as an option for the finale (March 2012).
Liz: It seems only fair.
Kate: Oh, and the man flying your spaceship is Joker, who is played by a sarcastic and acerbic Seth Green. And that is as awesome as it sounds.
Liz: That in fact does sound awesome!
Kate: So. Shepard, her motley crew, the awesome Seth Green pilot, and the super-special ship are out and about in the galaxy, trying to stop this rogue agent. Along the way they rescue kittens, shoot smugglers, and so on.
Liz: Funtimes! So that’s your act two, then?
Kate: Basically. The key story missions kind of punctuate act two and act three. There are a couple of planets you stop into along the way, to learn what’s going on with Saren, and that’s where Commander Shepard starts to learn that something even shadier is going on with Saren than just working with the Geth. Because Saren’s ship, Sovereign, is sentient. And indoctrinates people.
Liz: Like brainwashes them?
Kate: Yeah. The longer you’re with the ship, the more brainwashed you get.
Liz: Is the spaceship made by the Geth or some other force?
Kate: As it turns out, in the grand finale… the ship itself is something called a Reaper. And they’re an intelligent alien race that wiped out the Protheans. And in true “all of this has happened before, all of this will happen again” fashion, this is a cycle that has repeated many, many times through the history of the galaxy, roughly every 50,000 years. When the galaxy teems with intelligent life, the reapers arrive and wipe it out.
Liz: With their magic brainwashing ships?
Kate: Well, the ships are the reapers. Aaaaand after some really dramatic missions in which either Ashley or Kaidan are guaranteed to die for good (I picked Kaidan… and good riddance), basically lots of stuff happens and you discover that this conduit is a mass relay. And that the fancy mass relay statue in the middle of the Citadel, where the galactic government sits, isn’t a statue. It’s the other end.
So you leap through space and crash into the middle of a Citadel fountain millions of miles away while driving a dune buggy. Saren’s there, and you finally have your confrontation with him. He’s been totally indoctrinated by Sovereign at this point — it’s Denethor with the palantir all over again.
Liz: I totally had to Google that reference.
Kate: Yeeeeah, I’m a nerdly nerd. So if you’ve played the game a certain way, you can convince Saren what’s going on, and he will shoot himself to remove Sovereign’s tool from Sovereign’s hand. Or you can shoot him. Either way.
Liz: Clearly the first way is better. Especially if you’re moral and/or lazy.
Kate: Then shit gets real, and Sovereign somehow possesses the body, and reanimates Saren, and you have the real boss fight. Really creepy.
Liz: Does he have extra powers when possessed?
Kate: Yeah, he’s a lot tougher. I don’t even remember all the details honestly because mainly I was in “argh shoot this SOB no no stop shooting me argh cover argh” mode. The whole, “Why won’t you DIE” sort of thing.
Liz: So the game essentially ends with a lot of gun-shooting?
Kate: Not exactly. While Shep and her allies are fighting Saren in the Council chamber (and making a mess of it), the Alliance (human) fleet and the Citadel fleet are basically beating themselves bloody fighting Sovereign, who then has a seriously epic crash. BOOM. You can either choose to save the Council, or let everyone who isn’t your human buddies die. If you do so, the balance of power in the galaxy shifts to humanity rather quickly. But that’s generally seen as the total dick move and most people don’t, unless they’re having a full renegade play-through.
Liz: Wait, which option is the dick move?
Kate: Killing the council is the dick move. “Renegade” is the term for dick move options in the game.
Liz: That just makes them sound cool, though.
Kate: Yeah, paragon is the “love me and respect me” set of tactics, and renegade is the “fear me” set of tactics.
Liz: So once you’ve either killed your friends or the government, what happens?
Kate: The game ends. Shepard goes back to the Normandy. And the Council is all, “la la la la la, threat over.” Shepard at least is saying, “Hey guys? Other reapers strongly implied?” But what becomes of that is Mass Effect 2.
Liz: So, if it’s possible to sum up, what is it about this game that makes it important?
Kate: Bioware does a really great job of making the space opera compelling. I had to be dragged into playing, but then I got hooked. The narrative, dialogue, gameplay and writing are sharp, and good. The consequences are meaningful. And Lady Shepard — best female lead in gaming in ages.
Liz: Is that because she’s written exactly the same as Dude Shepard?
Kate: Yeah. It keeps them both in line — no excessively gendered or stereotypical traits in either direction. Just a competent commander. Who is a bad-ass. I don’t know that I’d consider the ME games revolutionary, but they are exemplars of their genre. Like Star Wars for the sci-fi blockbuster movie.
The devil is in the details — the smaller, more intimate and character-driven moments are what really make it go. For me, Shepard found her appropriate romance in the second game.
Liz: Is said romance with a dude or a lady?
Kate: Dude. My Shepard went with Liara in ME1 but she’s my husband’s (Shepard’s) girlfriend so that was always a little awkward. Oh the perils of a multi-gamer home!
Liz: At least you guys have similar virtual taste?
Kate: That, and mostly Kaidan was icky. (Your fangirl readers may murder me for that, haha.)
Liz: Why did you find Kaidan icky?
Kate: Eh, he hit on me too early and sweated a lot and was a pretty meh guy.
Liz: I love that sweat was an issue. Unforeseen problems in the uncanny valley!
Kate: He’s famous for it.
Frank, please join me in thanking Kate for her help! I highly recommend following her gamer musings.
And let us remember what we’ve learned today — perspiration control is always important. Even in space.