Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “Mass Effect 2″
You, like anyone else who checks in with the official Liz Tells Frank Twitter account, might have noticed that over the past few months, I’ve been spending some time playing a video game. This might not seem like a huge deal, except for the thing where I don’t really ever play video games — I mean, I enjoy the mind-fuck that is Portal, and I can still kick anyone’s ass at Street Fighter II (if you let me play Chung Li). But for the last fifteen or more years, video games have not been a part of my life — which is why it is SO WEIRD, how Mass Effect 2 COMPLETELY ATE MY BRAIN.
When I told you about the first Mass Effect last year, Frank, I did so with help from my friend Kate, because I hadn’t played it myself. I mean, the franchise sounded relevant to my interests, in a sexy Star Trek kind of way, but have I mentioned how I don’t really play video games? It wasn’t something I really considered an option for me.
Then my brother bought me ME2 as a Christmas present, and on a whim a few months ago I decided to crack it open and see how badly I’d do at it… Basically, your classic “meet-cute” love story.
In Mass Effect 2, you are a bad-ass space commander of whatever gender you like (my Shepard’s name, in fact, is “Commander Badass Lady Shepard,” because I might have been drinking when I set it up). After successfully saving the galaxy in the first game, Commander Shepard now has a reputation for problem-solving — which is why a shady organization called Cerberus recruits you to take on the Collectors, a potential source of mega-badness who may be coming to kill us all.
Of course, you can’t do it alone — so basically what happens is you get set up with a ship and sent around the galaxy to recruit duders to join your space mission. And what a motley crew you assemble! There’s kinda racist human Miranda, adorable sniper guy Garrus, stealthy thief lady Katsumi, a very large tank-grown mercenary aptly named Grunt, quasi-Jedi knight Samara, and a bunch of other folk. They’re all unique strong personalities. And you can bang them!
Accumulating buddies to take along on your mission, and then winning their allegience to your cause by taking them on loyalty missions, makes up the bulk of the game’s action — the game’s second act, if you will. It’s an interesting approach to character and world building, as each of the loyalty missions not only takes you to different pockets of the universe, but gives you deeper insight into the dame or fella’s backstory and family life: Tight-ass solider Jacob has a bunch of daddy issues to address, mysterious assassin Thane wants to keep his son from assassinating a dude, Kitsumi needs to steal something from an old employer, and so forth.
The thing that I found enjoyable about all this was how full of surprises each mission was. The primary forms of narrative interaction you have as a player are running around with a gun:
Or using dialogue options to converse with folks:
But every once in a while, the game throws something crazy at you, like chasing spies in a space taxi or being Tali’s space lawyer or using your masculine/feminine wiles to seduce Samara’s psycho daughter. It spices things up! It’s fun.
And the galaxy is laid out as an open world for you to explore in your ship on (largely) your own timetable: You can mine planets for their resources, go clubbing in a Mos Eisley-esque dance club, talk to the people in charge back at the capital Citadel place and shop for minature models of your space ship! The level of dicking around you can accomplish in this game is epic.
But eventually you have to get back to work on saving the universe, rescuing colonists and tracking down alien tech that will help you find the Collectors’ home base. This means a lot of running through halls and using your guns and fancy biotic powers to kill robots or mercenaries or these FUCKING ZOMBIE FUCKERS WHO KEPT KILLING ME OVER AND OVER I FUCKING HATE THOSE HUSK ZOMBIE ASSHOLES SO MUCH.
Let us remember, Frank, that I am not good at playing video games — like, the physical act of using a controller to navigate through a room is a real challenge for me. Add shooting a gun to this, and I tend to die early and often. But Mass Effect has Easy Mode, and Commander Badass Lady Shepard is an engineer type (which refers to your fancy powers, I suppose). So she has the ability to shoot fireballs and electrical blasts and attack drones at bad guys, and I got pretty good at cowering behind cover and firing my fireballs and whatnot to lay waste to my enemies. Incinerating zombies? A good time.
Finally, the final chapter arrives, almost out of the blue: Your crew gets captured by the Collectors, and now you have two reasons to track those assholes down. And that’s where how well you’ve played the game becomes important. If you stall leaping into action — people die. If you haven’t been mining planets and using those resources to upgrade your ship — people die. And if maybe you fucked up a loyalty mission or two and that squad member wasn’t fully on their game — people die.
I successfully beat this game, Frank. I stopped the Collectors from doing a totally evil thing. It is, to be completely honest, the first video game I have EVER beaten on my own. But holy shit did a lot of people die along the way.
But just because I beat the game doesn’t mean the adventure is over! Now, apparently, I have several options: I can keep exploring the universe, or I can replay the game, building up my stats and upgrades, maybe redoing some of those loyalty missions I fucked up (LOOK SAMARA’S DAUGHTER WAS PLAYING REALLY HARD TO GET, OKAY?), and thus getting My Shepard into shape for Mass Effect 3.
Because Commander Badass Lady Shepard has made a lot of decisions over the last three months, and from what I’ve been told, many of them will have major consequences in Mass Effect 3 (in case you didn’t know, Frank, my Shepard will port into ME3, meaning that the next game will continue my personally customized epic space adventure, with similar characters and arcs). It may take me a while before I get to ME3, because spending the better part of the last three months playing a video game means that I am BEHIND ON EVERYTHING, but this franchise has its hooks in me, in a way I’ve rarely experienced in science fiction.
When you talk about this game with other people (which was honestly a big part of the experience, from which I picked up many useful tips!), by the way, something you hear a LOT is the phrase “My Shepard.” Because narratively, there’s this fascinating duality where you are an active participant in the story — you ARE the protagonist — but at the same time, you’re also a consumer of it. You guide the adventure, you have choices in its outcome, but there’s an authorial voice behind all of your actions, propelling the plot forward.
Over the years, I have had long, long fights with my afore-mentioned brother over the question of “can video games be considered art?” He would argue for, and I would argue against, because I felt that when the player drives the action, there’s no room for auteurship, which you could argue is instrumental to a piece of art. I thought that before Mass Effect 2. I don’t know if it’s fine art, but I know when I am experiencing something.
I think what it comes down to is the issue of self-insertion. Here’s the best way for me to describe it: One of the reasons I fell so hard for Doctor Who, back in the day, was because I identified with the character of Rose. But that was because, coincidentally, I had enough in common with the character for me to connect with her. With Mass Effect, there’s no coincidence in me identifying with the protagonist — because while the game set me clear paths to walk, I was actively involved in Shepard’s creation and her choices. It was, ultimately, a storytelling experience unlike any I’ve experienced, because it was mine.
This all might sound super-obvious to the gamers of the world. But Frank, as I might have already mentioned, I’m not a gamer.
At least, I wasn’t.