Thursday, March 15, 2012

Massive Mass Effect Week: Nerding Out

As much as I love Mass Effect, there are some serious flaws with it. Sexism, racism, thematic inconsistencies, grinding, and the morality system all periodically mar my enjoyment of just gettin' missions, shootin' dudes, and leaving Ash Williams to die.

In some respects, it's intellectually difficult to bring up The Asari as an example of sexism. With only one gender, you can't really call them "female," but they' can see...

Granted, there are fewer questions to be raised about Asari gender roles than about the evolution of a race designed to breed with species from other planets. A species which is completely hairless, but still mammalian enough that most of their members possess what I can only describe with my limited experience as "rockin' tits." Even though few to no Asari are ever portrayed as victims, many of them work in the contextually respectable fields of table-dancing-as-implied-stripping and consorting-as-implied-prostitution.

And do we have to talk about Jack tattos-as-a-shirt Naught? Jack does a pretty good job of being a tough, independent female character. One could make a case that her revealing clothing is no more effeminate than her shaved head, which is to say it's more an expression of her desire to be herself and violate social norms than it is to excite heterosexual male players. Howevercomma when you consider that her only path to fully realizing her character is to get fucked by male Shepard[1], the context crystallizes into a clear indication of the worst options available.

As much as it has racial outliers like a scientist Krogan and Salarian commandos, the standard is Krogan warriors, scientist Salarians, and laughable Volus. The less said of barely-intelligent, aggressive, disposable races like the Batarians and Vorcha, the better. While humans are often xenophobic and entitled, they're still the focus of The Reapers and somehow end up in control of The Council in Mass Effect 2 (depending on the options you choose in ME1), almost like they're the thirty-something handsome white guy who's the main character by default in the ensemble cast despite being a complete douche.

Yes, humanity in Mass Effect is Greg House.

Of course, it's not surprising, since Mass Effect is basically fantasy game set in space. The platonic form of the hero's journey across an idealistic East European wilderness that never-was, facing barely-understood foes that must fall away as the fates align behind the protagonist for the protagonist's sake. From the space magic of biotics to the naval battles that seem to be less relevant to the plot than the gun-toting, spell-slinging human with his two token character bullet sponges. I'm not saying that Normandy is simply a place to manage your team while you travel between cities to stop the return of the ancient horrors foretold in prophecy, but what I am saying is that you should've found some space eagles to drop the Reaper Ring into the fires of the sun of Mordor without all that space walking.

Yes, in ME2, your ship isn't irrelevant. You can upgrade Normandy to keep NPCs from dying in the final cinematics. However, you pay for those upgrades via the time consuming process of scanning the surface of a planet for useful minerals and shooting probes at the planet to collect them. You have to buy probes (and while we're talking about it, fuel too). No one liked buying fuel in Ghostbusters for the NES and no one likes it now. Managing supplies does provide a measure of dimension and people would joke about your ship's never ending supply of probes if you had them. Even if a quick scan and catalog was sufficient, bypassing the need for probes, finding these locations would still be a boring, time-consuming process. All that probing and paying for fuel do is draw on your assets and provide artificial obstacles to exploration and resource collection.

I could continue bitching, going on about thermal clips, side missions, and the quality of romances, but my biggest bitch is the morality system. I wasn't kidding on Tuesday when I mentioned 'drunk' Shepard being a reasonable substitute for 'renegade' Shepard.

Renegade Shep should achieve more things, or the same things more quickly, than Paragon Shep because he doesn't worry about what other people think. Paragon Shep should be objectively good person who believes in the equality of all sentient life and does no harm unless forced to, but he has to deal with the problems that creates.

In practice, Renegade Shep is prone to violence, xenophobic space racist, and worst of all...he's Worf. Let me explain; I spent most of Mass Effect 1 only being mostly Renegade. As with most morality systems in video games, there's no benefit to going with the middle ground in Mass Effect, but I constantly buckled on that because I was afraid that telling people "I won't do that mission" would somehow result in me not doing that mission. I was playing Mass Effect so I Mass Effect, so there's no point in skipping missions to gain a few Renegade points. 

In Mass Effect 2, when I began drinking to get into character, I started taking those dialog options and learned that I wasn't losing out on mission options. That was nice until I realized that Shepard--the savior and chief bad ass of the galaxy--stood there and proclaimed he wouldn't do a thing, then an NPC would proclaim why it should happen, and Shepard would end up doing that thing anyway.


It's inexcusable. The choices I make should result largely in the choices I want. In these morality systems, there's always the time you choose "Don't drop the puppies in a blender," so your character dutifully empties a clip into the whole litter. I don't like it when the logic of the game tends to just be one moral octave off of my intent; I get that. What I don't think is fair is for my character to make a choice that changes nothing, results in the exact opposite of what they say, and only gives me a few ephemeral points that largely exist for their own sake.
[1] "The Sexism of Mass Effect 2" by Ryan Winterhalter

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