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Mass Effect 2: A Narratological Review

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Mass Effect 2: A Narratological Review

Editorial - posted by DarkUnderlord on Fri 11 June 2010, 04:47:57

Tags: Mass Effect 2

The story of Mass effect 2 is a titanic missed opportunity. Many of its elements are superlative, and represent a great leap beyond its predecessor. Yet these excellently crafted pieces must hang off a ramshackle and non-sensical story. The result is a whole considerably less than the sum of its parts.

The good bits.

Who you talk to, and what they say

ME2 benefits from some exceptional writing. Perhaps first place should go to the characters. From Mordin, the “Think too fast. Must talk quickly. Prepositions, conjunctions? Unnecessary!” Salarian professor, to Jack the profanity-spewing biotic psychopath, your team is well written and convincing. This is partly due to some of the party having weird and wonderful species backgrounds (e.g. Legion and the ‘true Geth’, Thane, dualism and the Hanar), partly due to excellent voice acting, but mostly due to developing a consistent behaviour and attitudes for each: Miranda will have an undercurrent of over-critical bitchiness, Mordin will accept ‘end-justifies-means’ consequentialism, and so on.


Interestingly, the blandest characters are probably the two Cerberus operatives you get at the start: Jacob and Miranda, but even they have some interesting wrinkles, especially Miranda and ownership of her engineered qualities (even if the writers can't work out if Jacob 'happens to be black' or is an ebonics-spouting brotha, and Miranda gets some of the most arrant and gratuitous fanservice BioWare have ever managed with her skin-tight butt-hugging outfit and high-heels).

Helping this is that BioWare have abandoned the ‘angel and demon on your shoulder’ where one party member invariably offers a renegade opinion and the other a paragon one at a set episode. Instead, there are certain ‘nodes’ which prompt (in character) interjections from your party.

Another boon is that each character has a ‘module’ of story (generally consisting of recruitment and loyalty mission) assigned to them. These paint out a mini plot arc with these characters, and are done well. They could be done better – there’s very little sense of development after the character has answered their own inner demons, either in their behaviour or interactions with Shepard. It would be nice if whether I support or criticise what Mordin did with the Genophage, or whether I egg on or dissuade Jack from killing a mentally disturbed biotic has more of an effect on the future than just flavour text. Yet, so long as you ‘succeed’ in the loyalty mission, the party member gets ‘loyalty’ and treats you with positive regard, whether or not you were broadly supportive or sharply critical.

This quality doesn’t just apply to the party. Although like all RPGs that have the usual medley of random quest givers and villain-of-the-sidequest, ME2 manages to give little touches of flavour and flair: Aria, the woman in charge of the asteroid-cum-crime-den Omega, the Asari Matriarch who works behind a bar, and the maybe-reluctantly-maybe-not corrupt C-Sec captain on the Citadel would be three examples. Even the previously insufferable Liara is much better on her second outing thanks to having picked up more than a few renegade points since you last met.

The dialogue is orders of magnitude better this time around as well. BioWare still can’t do epic speeches or anything too heavily emotional without descending into navel-gazing and angst. However, what it has managed is saleable, lively dialogue. Take this from the last confrontation between Shepard and the Illusive Man (skip to 3:30).

It ain’t perfect (I would say responding to ‘Don’t turn your back on me!’ by silently walking away would have been cooler) but the hardball back-and-forth is at least ‘written prettily’. A lower-key example: See particularly the ending “Thane’s unusual for an assassin, he may surprise you.” “Yeah, and he may not.” Little flourishes like these (another one. EDI: Are you okay, Mr. Moreau? Joker: No, I'm not. But thanks for asking) work well: you might criticise that this Joss Wheldon-esque neat and pithy dialogue isn’t how anyone talks in the real world, but that’s just a criticism of the genre. The dialogue in ME2 is, broadly, good for what it is.

Look, sound and feel

Another strength of ME2 is the setting and environments. The art direction remains fairly uninspiring, but the work put into making the settings novel and interesting pays off. I far prefer the sprawl and squalor of Omega to the spaceport generica of the citadel. There are other neat settings too. A maximum security prison in space is one good example, the migrant fleet another. Again, there’s a pleasing attention to detail and lots of attractive little touches. One particular favourite was the shock jock on Omega who took glee in human suffering (‘A message to those raiders who destroyed the colony: Well done’) and all the incidental conversations on Illium of Asari gossiping about each other. The ‘jungle planet’, ‘ice planet’ etc. tropes are happily confined to the (eminently skippable) side-missions.

The cinematics of ME2 build on those of ME1, and the results are really rather good. Take the intro of the Normandy getting torn apart by the collector ship or (even better) the ending sequences. In terms of competent action scenes, this is surely it.

This extends to the gestures and movement of the characters themselves. Although some of the tools are overdone (depth of field is used far too often, and some characters go up and down like yo-yos from their seats to portentously pace about some issue or another) the effect is generally good. Jack the crazy criminal paces around and leaps on stuff like a barely contained animal, whilst Mordin your techie or Garrus are far more restrained. Here’s an example from the Miranda romance. Now the actual sex scene isn’t great (and we don’t even get any sideboob) but the whole ‘body check, word in your ear, wink’ is both technically well-constructed and narratively plausible. These somatic touches are widespread, and make a welcome change from the ‘talking head plus canned gestures’ common in RPGs. On a similar note, environmental elements are also used well - one example is of Miranda's loyalty mission where Miranda is coming to terms with her only childhood friend betraying her in an elevator.

Finally, it almost goes without saying that the voice work in this game is excellent: I can't think of a duff performance or a bad word to say about it, ditto the music. Likewise, the UE3 graphics engine seems to be even better optimized from its first outing (no more texture pop in I could tell) and scaled nicely to my sub-par machine.

Choice and consequence

The final plus point for ME2 is C&C. This does need one important caveat. The much vaunted ‘choices in ME1 affect ME2’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The choices you make in ME1 are reflected and reported in ME2, but they don’t really do anything to affect the story. You get emails from the various NPCs you helped out in ME1, and sometimes you meet again some NPCs in person on the main hub planets, but they seldom do more than give you an update and perhaps a small side-quest. There’s no real affect on the main arc of the story, or indeed on any of the arcs of the story (one small exception is that the main ME1 choices can determine whether you have the option of being a spectre again, which can be used a couple of times).

But what ME2 deserves great praise for is its ending, which is a veritable orgy of cascading C&C. I’d rather outcomes were more randomized and less dependent on a binary ‘loyalty’ variable, but the breadth and interdependency (someone you got on well with and was uber loyal to you could die because of another disloyal party member) is unprecedented in modern RPGs. Would that it become more common.

So ME2 does a lot right: I’ve lavished praise on the characters, how they talk and act, the settings in which they find themselves, and the general panache of the portrayal of both. Yet I don’t think ME2 actually does good in the story department. What gives?

The bad stuff

ME2 has three main flaws, in ascending order of foul-up: the protagonists, the antagonists, and the plot. Given how central these things are to a good story, BioWare’s failure to get them to work makes all their laudable efforts elsewhere squandered.


Cerberus: from attack dog to pussy cat.

Cerberus, in ME1, was some sort of rogue black ops organization. Although mostly consigned to forgettable side-quests, they seemed to play around with nasty things like AI, random alien life forms, and weren’t above renegade options like feeding marines to thresher maws or murdering high-ranking alliance personnel. Forcing Shepard to work with these people would have been an interesting and fractious relationship.

Instead, BioWare chicken out and do their best to undo and appease what they did in the last outing. Cerberus isn’t really that bad after all. Miranda tells you all the nasty stuff was done by some rogue cells, and it turns out Jack’s experience with Cerberus is, again, a rogue element which was acting outside their orders. Further, it seems pretty out of character: Why wouldn’t the ‘ends justify means incarnate’ Illusive man authorize some morally unpleasant experiments on children to give humanity a biotic edge? This post-hoc whitewashing turns Cerberus into a repeat performance of the Spectres as another 'limitless authority to stop evil by any means necessary' instead of something really morally ambiguous.

The Collectors

The over-arching big bad of the Mass Effect Universe are the Reapers, some sort of artificial life that exterminates all sapient life every few thousand years. However, the antagonists you fight are those trying to bring the Reapers back. Saren and Co weren’t great antagonists in ME1. The Collectors in ME2 are even worse.

It’s about the time you touch down on Horizon that the Collectors become another trash mob as opposed to an engaging antagonist. There’s loads of interesting riffs you could take with a bunch of interplanetary ex-prothean intergalactic abductors, yet none of these are taken. The Collectors throw themselves against you in the same not very clever way everyone else does, and instead of using some sort of Protean discovery to better understand their MO and behaviour, you get the ‘McGuffin and plot coupon’ approach. Most excreble is Harbinger, the Reaper who can possess Collectors into a miniboss-like Uber Collector, and spends his time taunting you with “Your form is fragile! The rules of the universe bend to me! If I have to tear you apart, Shepard, I will!” etc. etc. Cthulu? Counter-strike Greifer, more like.

It’s the plot, stupid

The real problem is the titanic catastrophe of the plot itself. There are lots of little niggles with ME2 (“Why do I start looking like the terminator if I pick nasty options in dialogue?” “If the Collectors go through the O4 relay, why don’t people notice this/why not just blockade it or blow up the relay?”) but these are sufficiently minor that you assume some semi-plausible explanation can be fan-wanked in. The main plot of ME2 careens from the simply sloppy (reliance on plot coupons and McGuffins), to the irredeemably bad ‘oh-god-I-hope-this-gets-retconned’ stupid (the human Reaper).

Let's start at the start. The high powered action scene of the Normandy getting destroyed and Shepard getting killed counts for remarkably little. Shepard gets brought back to life, a carbon-copy Normandy is made for him to command, and no one seems to mind. The real reason for this, of course, is some sequel slate-wiping. Yet surely there could be a better way of doing this than blowing up the Normandy only to find out Cerberus made one earlier?

That’s fairly minor, but the continuity between that and the middle third of ‘finding out how to get the Collector base and nuke them’ is frankly poor. Like how there’s a special McGuffin to let you go through the special relay to the Collector base which is just lying around a derelict Reaper waiting to be picked up. Or how you and your party get forced onto a shuttle to leave the Normandy to get you out of the way so the Collectors can abduct the crew (and not, instead, simply destroy the Normandy and the only copy of the McGuffin you have).

This is compounded that all the neat character vignettes are poorly integrated by the rest of the story. It just so happens that the characters have some long lying issue exposed just when they happen to be aboard, and for some reason they need your help even though it seems something that, often, the character could do themselves (why couldn't Thane the master assassin go it alone to rescue his son the newbie assassin? Why couldn't Garrus the grizzled vigilante hunt down his betrayer on his own). Jetting off half-way across the galaxy to lift emotional baggage for the party made them less a crack team of elite specialists and more an angst battalion. These substories deserved a less contrived integration with the plot as a whole.

The ending deserves the most ire. It turns out the grand plan of the Collectors is to turn the Humans into some ‘genetic slurpee’. This genetic slurpee is what Reapers are made out of, so there is a Human-Reaper larva in progress. Such a trope is space fantasy red in tooth and claw (we suck out the souls of an entire race to form this creature, MUHAHA!), but it is just ridiculous and jars with the 'fairly commonsensical + plotinium' sci-fi background.

The final straw is the big moral choice. Paragons can blow up the Collector base, renegades can sterilize it and let it be used by Cerberus. Unfortunately, the paragon choice makes no sense: The only reason is just to pettily annoy the Illusive Man (and, actually, why can't I just pick up the phone to Captain Anderson instead?) Destroying the resource not only deprives you of all that juicy Reaper tech and knowledge, but also destroys the remains of those killed by the Collectors and a site for their memorial. The party members cite concerns like how it's a betrayal to use the base, but why? Surely, much like the experimental data at Auschwitz, at least using it allows the deaths of these people to be used for some greater good: The paragon-esque 'this is the wrong way, I won't be ruled by fear, etc.' are groping around without any real concern behind them besides BioWare's desire. What's worse is this could be easily rectified. Instead of making the Human Reaper the end-boss, make it the McGuffin: Because there are obvious ethical concerns with using (or handing over to Cerberus) a machine made directly from the slaughter of thousands.

We have built a consensus.

ME2 manages to be a bad story well written. It improves on its predecessor (and the genre as a whole) in a number of ways. The individual elements like the characters or the dialogue are truly superlative: Comparisons with 'leading lights' like PS:T or VtmB would not be hyperbole. ME2 could have been one of the best story-driven games ever.

But it's not, and the reason why it's not is because the actual story is a poorly hashed together pretence to hang off a number of set pieces against an unnecessarily uninspiring antagonist. Given the mismatch by the painstaking efforts put into these elements and the shambolic nature of the central plot arc, I wonder if BioWare started making the central elements or party member plot arcs before really hammering out the central storyline. Because of this, ME2 is an opportunity squandered.

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