The world doesn’t end
After 50 very pleasant hours playing BioWare’s Mass Effect 2, I’m at something of a loss to make sense of what just happened. Perhaps it’s useful to begin with my description of those 50 hours as “pleasant,” which isn’t quite correct. There was a tremendous — and very interesting — tension at work during my gameplay. I was often in something of a hurry, as the are very specific constraints on my play time, and portions of the Mass Effect 2 experience are supremely slow. I found myself cringing every time I needed to move beyond my immediate surroundings by taking a shuttle to a new landing site or docking at a city. Even taking the elevator between levels on Commander Shepard’s ship the Normandy meant an interminable wait staring at a loading screen. The Mass Effect universe is a place constantly tottering on the brink of total collapse, with each of the various societies Shepard encounters pleading for intervention in the final minutes of their darkest hour, but there’s no particular urgency. If Shepard receives a report of a ship in danger of falling into a planet’s atmosphere, the player can rely on the event to not actually occur until Shepard has leisure enough to make the trip.
In fact, the unintended implication of Mass Effect‘s episodic but non-sequential narrative architecture may be that the truly moral choice would be for Shepard to fly from system to system but never actually land. Each of the distress calls would continue to beckon, preserved in a stasis where some existential danger has been comprehended, but eternally delayed. I like to imagine entire generations living their whole lives on that ship, passing the story of the hero who will come to save them to their children and their children’s children. It’s an appealing counternarrative to the adolescent fantasy of an individual hero whose labors succeed where armies, scientists, and politicians have failed. It would also save the player from having to wait for all of those loading screens.
Even so, while it may not be quite right to speak of my time playing the game as pleasant, I have to acknowledge that Mass Effect 2 was a rich experience. Peter Brooks1 argues that a great deal of the pleasure of narrative comes not just from knowing the ending, but in the postponement of the ending, and in that light, Mass Effect 2 is a masterpiece. The plot of Mass Effect 2 is actually pretty thin — Shepard dies (why not?), is brought back to figure out who is kidnapping entire human colonies, a crew is recruited, some navigational information is recovered, and everyone flies to the center of the galaxy to save the world and learn a little something about themselves.
But while the main story itself doesn’t give the player that much to do, there are a million ways to put off doing that handful of things. Every character Shepard recruits wants something, and expects Shepard to get, save, and/or destroy it for them. While I think BioWare would argue that these errands constitute a major part of the main storyline — and they did indeed compose a significant fraction of my play time — they’re also entirely optional. More importantly, in terms of the narrative architecture, making the character loyalty missions optional means that they have to be entirely independent of each other. Nothing that you do on any one loyalty mission can directly affect any other because the game can’t assume that you’ve completed (or will ever complete) any specific mission before completing another. Without that necessary sequential relation, there is no room for causes and effects. Each mission is its own context, meaning, and self-contained consequence, and Shepard remains a blank state onto which entire civilizations can project their hopes and fears, a knight-errant.
While BioWare is famous for their choice-centered good or evil/light side vs. dark side/paragon vs. renegade gameplay, and for creating game franchises where the choices made in earlier games carry over into sequels, these choices can necessarily have only marginal impacts. If the player makes a choice that results in a character’s death in an earlier game, then this character will not show up in the sequel, but since each game must be created to encompass both the possibility that character X is alive and dead, then characters from earlier games must be limited to secondary (or cameo) roles in later games. Commercial constraints mean that BioWare cannot create a Mass Effect 3 which cannot be beaten (or is ultimately any less rich of an experience) if any single character is killed in Mass Effect 2. (Imagine, for example, a Lord of the Rings where it doesn’t really matter whether Boromir or Aragorn dies. Tolkien would not have been able to make Aragorn so central to the plot of the second book, and so absolutely critical to the resolution of the war. Boromir’s death would be robbed of its classically tragic nobility.)
The result is that each game demands that you assemble a new cast of characters, and largely abandon your previous crew. Relationships still exist, sort of, but of necessity cannot be central to the action or narrative development of the new game. There are major choices in Mass Effect 2 that promise to impact Mass Effect 3 — you can strengthen or decimate the Geth, you can deliver the Collector base to Cerberus or destroy it — but these decisions cannot do much more than change a handful of cutscenes. (The outcome of the war does not really depend on whether you win the loyalty of Rohan or tell them off.)
None of which is to say that you shouldn’t play Mass Effect 2. It’s an extraordinary game in terms of visuals, setting, and characterization, but it’s a triumph of storytelling and not of story, of world building and not of narrative. Raph Koster has argued that “Narrative is not a game mechanic” — that is that narrative in video games is not a central operation of the game itself but a way for the game to provide feedback to a player who is navigating the game’s essentially non-narrative problem set (mash button, kill monster, steer car, etc.). I’m not totally convinced by Koster’s argument, but Mass Effect 2 is a pretty strong example of what he’s talking about.
All of which is to say that Mass Effect 2 is a picaresque (and a good one) and not a novel. It’s a convincing illusion of a world in which the player has agency and choices have persistent effects, even though the overarching story does its best to undo those effects. None of these observations are meant to be criticisms of the quality of the game. In fact, most of them could be addressed if BioWare were designing individual, standalone games rather than franchises. It’s not the mechanic/narrative interface that defeats the possibility of player choices from having a significant and lasting impact on the narrative world, it’s the lack of a clear and specific endpoint.
The world doesn’t end, and because the world continues, the game has to account for all the choices the player didn’t make.
So do enjoy Mass Effect 2 — I did — but don’t feel bad if you take your time about it. The world will wait for you.
1. In Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. It feels like kind of a pretentious reference, but this can sometimes be a pretentious column.
Gavin Craig is co-editor of The Idler. You can follow him on Twitter at @craiggav.