Sunday, September 7, 2014

6 days of...Mass Effect 2!

Everyone told me it would be great..

And in many ways it was. Mass Effect 2 by Bioware takes after it's predecessors that I've played. Since I picked up the game on a Steam sale and it's brethren were not so lucky to be discounted, I haven't played ME1 or ME3. So I don't have the save file that transfers the consequences of your actions or anywhere to go after I beat the game. But I have played previous Bioware games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and more recently Dragon Age. I like Bioware's formula for games and especially the depth of story that they establish to create an all encompassing world that seems complete and detailed. 

Everything about Mass Effect 2 was great to experience.
Mass Effect 2 is no exception. Bioware put their heart and soul into this game and it shines through nearly every game play element. I thoroughly enjoyed playing it. What else is there to say about how good Mass Effect 2? It's pretty much been summed up in so many written and recorded reviews that there isn't much a single person could say that hasn't been said. 

That in mind, I think that there is something to be explored about the mechanic of choice as portrayed in the Mass Effect universe. This is something that has been touted as one of the accomplishments that Bioware is known for. Creating choice and consequence in a space opera that not only affects you and your team but an entire universe. How real is this choice though? Is it strong enough to break free of pre-determined course? Or just strong enough to create the illusion of choice? 

Free Will: Illusion vs. Reality

I will try to deny plot spoilers in this discussion, and instead focus on generalities. Strictly speaking you begin Mass Effect 2 as Commander Shepard and due to some circumstances are bound to the illusive man to help save humanity and the universe by revealing and exploring ways to defeat the Reapers. Starting out you are immediately tied to the destiny of a group of individuals and are made responsible for the survival of the universe. 

Of course it's implied multiple times that Shepard is the only one that can unite and save everyone. And so the responsibility is solely placed on your character. This is just the first choice that is denied you, the choice of responsibility. However that choice was made before even loading up the game, as you the player are already taking into your hands and putting on your screen a universe that you are taking responsibility for. Consent to become a savior is implicit in installing the game. It is your choice to play and when you play you are bound by the rules of the world you inhabit, the first one being that you must save the universe or doom it. That is your burden. 

Do we choose this path? Or is it chosen for us?
This non-choice at the beginning then is a real choice that was made by the player prior to playing the game. One might argue that you cannot choose to stop and do nothing in the game, and so it is illusion instead. However, this game is a STORY with a PLOT. It is not a simulator, as universal and ultimate choice would create. The parameters of the story are established and the choices after that are given to you are part of those parameters. One consideration is that in a story there can only be so much deviation before it loses its plot. 

Plot devices can change in minor ways but they cannot change in any way you decide to choose. Certain choices lead to consequences, but there must be some continuity in the main plot line along the way. Playing through the game multiple times, you end up in the same fights, with the same people. Often the only difference is replacing one character with another. In some scenes you are given a choice to magnanimously let people live or exercise wrath and cold calculation as you watch people die. This life and death scenario brings with it a deep sense of consequence to the choices presented. It is a part of our psyche to be impacted by death, especially of characters we are invested in. Is this choice real though?

The characters have minor plot devices in their backgrounds, and you can act on those plots to help them. You may even establish a friendship or relationship with some of them. The bond that Sheperd forms with these characters seems real and plays out with emotion and drama on the screen. So in choosing to let them live or die you break or strengthen that bond. Is that choice an illusion though? even though it has such an impact? 

I personally believe it is because of one train of thought. Implicit consent to become a savior of the universe puts you on a single path that must reach culmination to respect the boundaries of the universe you inhabit. By this I mean that beginning the game and accepting its terms implies that you will eventually finish the STORY that you have begun. Otherwise the initial choice is pointless, as the journey to the end of the story is the point of beginning it in the first place.

Once begun, the journey you are on places you in situations and gives you choices to develop the outcomes of lives around you. However regardless of your choice the fate of the universe will still be on your character, and the situations and missions you take on will continue to be very similar to what they would be regardless of choice. For example: a world may die because you did not cure a disease, however you will still fight that giant robot guardian on the next world with all or some of your friends. This robot is a plot device and an obstacle that needs to be cleared to satisfy the code requirements to continue the story. Are you affected by your choice? Possibly, but ultimately the choice does not matter as you continue on meeting these plot requirements. They are like domino pieces, and beginning the game pushes the first domino without any way to stop them from falling without just walking away.  

Final Questions

When does the illusion disappear and we believe this could be us?
This realization may be normal. Everyone might have it when they play games similar to this. What other devices are mere illusions in games? Using the same logic and exploring other devices we can show that everything is illusion in games. The improvement of skill in games is illusion because you are not actually improving, just increasing a number in a memory byte. The improvement of quality in graphics only improves as far as you can continue to create an illusion for the player, and the subjective opinion of graphics is relative to previous experience. So when does the illusion become reality then? When we cannot recognize the illusion? When does the change from illusion to reality occur? The difference is so subtle that we may not know until it is done, and then games will not only be a part of our lives, but may become our entire lives. If you experience something that is so real that you believe it to be reality, does that not constitute the definition of reality itself? The reality is that the thinking part of ourselves is only experiencing electrical pulses from the rest of our senses. If those electrical pulses can be manipulated and changed to suit a game, where does the boundary of illusion and reality exist? 

Going too far, bringing it back

These are some of the things I think about when a game gives me something that resembles "choice". Believe me, I think it's amazing that I can feel for digital bytes in the way that games like Mass Effect makes me do. I enjoy the choices and playing god, it's one of the reasons I play games in the first place. Being powerful is intoxicating, and playing games is the one of the best ways to do that. Mass Effect 2 definitely does that for me, and then some. It also has some great powers that are flashy to show off! You can even shoot a black hole at people! Don't tell me that's not awesome.

You'll like this game if: You enjoy space opera science fiction and like light bloom effects on literally everything. You may also enjoy the illusion of choice without having it or shooting black holes at people.

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