Mass Effect 2: Friends like these

The PlayStation 3 version of Mass Effect 2 launches later next month, and I am ruddy looking forward to it. I never picked up any of the extra DLC and it’s all included on the disc along with a comic that has the choice of whether to save Wrex or not. By choice I mean no choice, as anyone who wants to kill Wrex is seriously mentally defunct. Mass Effect 2 for me was a true highlight of this year as it finally pushed interactive storytelling into a new frontier that it had been crying out for; character-driven narrative. I honestly cannot think of another group of characters I was so fully engrossed in knowing than the Mass Effect 2 cast.

Unfortunately, some people like to say that Mass Effect 2 doesn’t have a story at all. Commenting there’s “no story” other than “running around talking to people”, naturally my reply to these people is to shut the fuck up and listen. ‘Story’ is the label we so avidly crave for, in video-games, but you do not know what you’re asking for. Film critics use words like thematics, characters and plot; video-game journalists just use ‘story’. If we’re going to find credibility for this medium, we have to call credit where credit is due. Story does not mean plot, it means narrative. Narrative is the means of which characters, plot and thematics express themselves.

A character driven grand opus space opera is what Mass Effect 2 strives to be; and ultimately succeeds in doing. I was choking up during some of the more emotional scenes and I felt a connection with all of the characters. During the final suicide mission where Jacob perished from my poor choices, I genuinely felt sad. It took me back to the loyalty mission I did for him, and I vowed to finish the mission in his memory. It’s moments like these that makes me proud to be a part of this interactive revolution of storytelling, where most of the narrative is actually constructed in our heads.

The ‘middle-man’ narrative as I so call it, where the player character intrudes on the experience with separate motivations, is nowhere to be seen in Mass Effect 2. Instead, Bioware lets the player choose the dialogue branches he wants to pursue instead of just doing it ‘on their behalf’. I find it remarkably odd when people comment on Grand Theft Auto IV that ‘they want Niko to win’ or ‘Niko’s a really nice guy’. No shit Sherlock, I’m supposedly Niko. It still saddens me that we approve of this ‘middle-man’ narrative, when we’re supposed to be a fledging interactive storytelling medium.

I have one issue with Mass Effect 2 and that is… it’s not brave. It’s not gigantically massively courageous in sacrifice, allowing you to simply sidestep all obstacles at the end with a few choices (barely any effort) to make sure everyone survives. The game rewards you with an achievement for blindingly thinking there would be masses of man tears at the end, and I felt quite cheated by the scenario. I really wanted to see what would happen if sacrifices really had to be made. I wanted to see what it would be like if the game took my two most used squadmates, Garrus and Mordin, and asked me to sacrifice one of them.

That’s my only criticism of Mass Effect 2 really, that it isn’t Mass Effect 3. Although I will say that I wouldn’t be surprised if Bioware lets everyone live, but I would rather a really dark dusk before the dawn. To put it short: I want to cry. I haven’t cried at a video-game since Shadow of the Colossus and after a few tear-jerking moments this year (Bioshock 2’s DLC – Minerva’s Den and Mass Effect 2), I honestly can’t think of a better game to do it. I’ve known some of the characters for over one-hundred hours now, and I’m ready to see them die before my eyes.

I’m not saying sacrifice and death makes any narrative instantly amazingly emotional, it has to have meaning. I am saying that it’s paramount to the character driven story of Mass Effect 2 and probably Mass Effect 3 when you have to recruit the galaxy in fighting giant robot aliens. If Bioware made just a few narrative touches and a few choices of sacrifice, then there would be no doubt in my mind that Mass Effect 3 would complete the series to become the greatest video-game trilogy of all time. I personally can’t name a video-game trilogy that is capable of this, and if there is, it mustn’t happen often enough.

I have another quirk with the game, but specifically the PlayStation 3 version and the choice about Wrex. The interactive comic book thing won’t make players care a damn lot about Wrex, so it’ll be sad to see a lot of them just killing him off. I’m not saying it’s been poorly handled because it’s impossible to handle it well (Microsoft have publishing rights to the first game). What they should do when it comes to character choices is perhaps do short montages of the character’s finest moments. Although, it’s still cheating and side-stepping the whole “spend tens of hours with these characters.”

Now we are in a pickle.

From rumours from within Bioware, they want the whole of Mass Effect 3 to be the suicide mission of Mass Effect 2 and I think that will be awesome. For forty hours or more we’ll be on the edge of our seats just waiting for the next Reaper threat to pop up. I hope it’ll ask us to risk the lives of our friends and I trust Bioware enough to say that the final choices of the game will be some of the finest found anywhere in any game ever. That’s a brave statement to make, but when you have a series of such high calibre, it’s not a stupid one.

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