awesomated: You Came Back Wrong: Justifying Evil in Mass Effect 2

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

You Came Back Wrong: Justifying Evil in Mass Effect 2

Warning: Mass Effect 2 story spoilers ahead.

In Mass Effect 2, the new videogame from Bioware/EA, players are able to import their main character from the first Mass Effect. I'll admit, finding out I was able to bring my particular Commander Shepard, Sophia, along for the ride was a large part of the appeal of buying the sequel ("Shepard" is the given last name for the protagonist in the Mass Effect series - players may alter the gender and first name only. While all the promotional materials consistently portray Shepard as a male, playing as a female is, in the opinion of many, the only way to experience these excellent games.)

Imagine the extent of my surprise then, when mere seconds after uploading her, poor Sophia was killed in action when the Normandy came under attack; ejected into the void of space, out of oxygen, and burned to a crisp when she entered the atmosphere of a nearby planet.

That is, until the shady organization known as Cerberus rescued her body and resurrected her for their own purposes.

In the first Mass Effect, I played Shepard as a hard ass, but one with a soft spot for certain asari researchers and people in need. However, because I often chose the middle ground between the two moral sides in the game (called Paragon and Renegade in game terms), I missed out on some of the more interesting choices available when you go all-in as either good or evil.

Not this time, I told myself, and made a decision to always choose the Renegade options when available. Why stop in the middle of a mission to give an innocent, dying salarian civilian some medical attention when you can just let them bleed out (after they've fed you critical information, of course)? Why simply disarm someone when you can push them out the window...of the 30th floor? Why threaten someone verbally when you can put a gun to their temple?

At first, I had trouble justifying all this evil. It seemed so out of character with the choices I had made in the previous game ... and at times a little troubling on a personal level. But then, as happens so often, a stray line of dialogue from Buffy the Vampire Slayer put all the pieces in place. Any Buffy fan worth their salt remembers Spike's dire warning after it's discovered that the electronic restraint chip planted in his head no longer recognizes a resurrected Buffy as a human being:

"You came back wrong," he teases her.

Suddenly, I had my eureka moment. My Shepard came back wrong. And to the great credit of the creators of Mass Effect 2 (and the reason for this over-long post!), the game never gives me reason to doubt the fiction I've created in my head. It allows me the freedom to overlay my own narrative about Shepard over the one the game is trying to tell.

Case in point: early in the game a lot was made of the fact that Cerberus scientists had the goal of bringing you back "as you were", and that not doing so perfectly (i.e., a personality shift of some kind, some new physical flaw) would be a failure on their part. The fact that Shepard awakes before the resurrection process can be fully completed lends itself wonderfully to my personal narrative: Cerberus did fail. Shepard isn't the same woman she was. The game never works to contradict it by having a non-player character say, "We did it, you're exactly the way you were." Instead, characters make reference to "improvements" they've made to you, which could be taken as good or ill depending on how you're playing the game.

Sure, my Shepard now seems a bit sociopathic, and I don't always agree with her decisions, but I've enveloped them into being part of her character and overall narrative. And, yes, she's starting to sport some rather interesting physical manifestations of her personality (read: huge, gaping, glowing scars across her face ... and, I'm sorry, but are her eyes turning red?), but in the end, being allowed to make her story my own is worth it.

Like most things pop-culture related, the whole idea of coming back "wrong" is a trope around which many of our favorite stories revolve. In my case, the "Damaged Soul" trope - my Shepard came back without a conscience.

What's more, I can't wait to go back and start again as a Paragon Shepard, experiencing a totally new narrative - one in which she's also not quite the same (she never was an angel), but also not the equivalent of Darth Vader. As other reviewers have noted, Mass Effect 2 is also the first game I can think of in which decisions made in the previous iteration directly affect your experience in the second, which means you can play through Mass Effect 1 again to change how certain things turn out in Mass Effect 2 (and, by extension, the inevitable third game).

Any game that warrants you playing its predecessor out of want (as opposed to need: see Devil May Cry 2, Guitar Hero III, Call of Duty 3) is a good thing in my book.

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