– an analysis of the Mass Effect series from a relatedness perspective
Oh, and there are almost no spoilers in this post. But some.
This post is written from the perspective of creating an understanding of emotional trigger points in the Mass Effect series, starting with Mass Effect, via Mass Effect 2 and wrapping up with Mass Effect 3.
This text was written with another purpose than to end up on my blog, so that’s why. But I liked the text anyway.
In Mass Effect the player has the choice to react to events and dialogue by either a Paragon (good), neutral or Renegade (evil) reaction. All my playthroughs have been skewed toward Paragon, with certain actions going towards Renegade.
Selecting which perspective my Shepard will choose gives me as a player power over how I want my player character to develop. This gives me a strong relationship with my Shepard and a strong connection to him or her.
Paragon and Renegade choices are restricted to dialogue in the first installation of the game. In the second and third installation, the player also has the opportunity to make (or choose not to make) Shepard perform actions when a Paragon/ Renegade symbol is shown on screen. These also contribute to the discovery of Shepard as a player character, and the relatedness felt to this character when playing.
Selecting my perspective when reacting to a situation, both in dialogue and action gives me control over my player character and makes it mine.
Discovery of Shepard
Shepard can be either a man or a woman. The player also have the option to customize Shepard’s face to suit the player. This face is possible to create in the first game and then import to the following games, making for a nice continuity. I always have the option to play with “my” Shepard. This customization of a player character creates an emotional bond to the player character. It’s something that I as a player have control over, something that I’ve created and therefore something of value to me.
BioWare have since the start of the Mass Effect series had a conversation wheel that allows the player to see the core statement of what Shepard will say when speaking. The player does however not know exactly what those words will be, which makes each dialogue choice not only a discovery of the game, but a discovery of Shepard.
It also allows for some very interesting emotional “wins” and “losses” – when Shepard says something that the player did not expect, the emotional value of that dialogue is high. This can be both from a positive and negative perspective. If I usually play as a Paragon and select a Renegade option at some point, I can be pleasantly surprised by the outcome, or perhaps feel that the phrasing was a bit too strong for my tastes.
In the start of Mass Effect 3, just when the Normandy is heading away from Earth for the first time, Shepard’s squad mate James Vega asks Shepard why they had to leave. Selecting a Paragon option states that Shepard didn’t want to leave either, but that if they didn’t there wouldn’t be an Earth left to save. A Renegade option tells Vega to suck it up and deal with it, to follow orders.
In the second and third installment of Mass Effect, the player can also choose to select certain actions to perform as Paragon or Renegade. Usually a Paragon choice is directed towards kindness and helpfulness, such as turning off disquieting monitors for a young and traumatized quarian, hugging a squad mate whose father has been found dead etc. Renegade choices are more forceful, and include shooting mechs, punching reporters in the face etc. This is also a part of discovering who Shepard is in a good way. I may choose, but the game performs an action I have no control or knowledge about – at least not the first time I play.
Selecting gender allows the player to choose grounds of identification – some players identify with men, others with women
Customizing face allows the player to create something that is uniquely his or hers, creating an emotional bond to the player character
Selecting the core statement of the player character’s dialogue allows for discovery of the identity of the player character
Selecting to perform or not perform “evil” and “good” actions in game allows for discovery of the identity of the player character
Not knowing exactly what will happen can reward/ punish the player in interesting ways – there is a certain delight in being surprised
Voice acting and facial animations
The voice acting in Mass Effect is of a very high quality, at least from the perspective of squad mates and the female player character. The emotional content of the voices – hurt, loving, angry etc – also serves to heighten the emotional relatedness to the characters in the game.
Voices help bring life to otherwise fairly flat paper doll cutouts and polygonal people and should not be underestimated. In the first installation of Mass Effect, the faces are fairly rigid and the animation is not very impressive, but the voice acting compensates for the lack of or stiffness of facial animations, and makes the player character and non-player characters people I can care about.
This does not, however, totally discount the facial animations of the non-player characters. There are several occasions in the first game that cements my emotional attachment to non-player characters, a half-smile or a look of innocence, a shrug etc. This emotional connectedness continues through the second installment of the game, or is rekindled in the third installation of the game.
When saving Kaidan Alenko or Ashley Williams from the Prothean Beacon in the first installment of the game series, a romance can be initiated by selecting a “thank you for saving me” dialogue option. This dialogue option will also have Kaidan/ Ashley smile slightly upon hearing it giving the player a cue to the emotional life of the player character.
In the following Mass Effect games, the facial animations get increasingly better and also better at conveying the emotional state of both Shepard and the non-player characters. Research has suggested that between 60 and 70 percent of all meaning is derived from nonverbal behavior, which makes facial animations and body animations a large part of the emotional connectedness.
Voice acting can bring life to cardboard and polygons. Good voice acting can make all the difference
Facial animations and body animations can give player clear cues to the emotional life of the player character and the non-player characters
Conversation with the player character
When the player character goes to talk to the non-player characters, there is always some form of conversation to be had. Usually the crew members of the Normandy get an updated set of dialogue after each major mission.
Conversations range from mission debriefs to family talk, and the player him or herself choose how to respond to the discussions.
This gives the player a sense of who the non-player character is, whether he or she likes him or her or not. It also gives the player a way of “getting to know” the non-player character better and getting a sense of the relationship forming between the player character and the non-player character.
Talking to Ashley Williams aboard the Normandy in the first installation of the game will give the player an idea of who she is, that she hails from a military family, that she has a number of sisters and that her grandfather was disgraced in the First Contact War, a war between humans and Turians. This in turn gives an insight into Williams lack of trust towards aliens.
Allowing the player character to talk to the non-player characters between missions builds a relationship between the player character and non-player character
Allowing the non-player character to talk about other things than strictly mission related issues will give the player an insight into who the non-player character is and what motivates him or her.
Conversations not directed at the player character
In the game, there are several occasions when non-player characters discuss subjects that are not related to the player character, and not even involving the player character. In the first installation of the series, these occasions were limited to the elevators of the different locations where the player character went. These conversations gives an insight into the emotional life, political views and backstory of the non-player characters.
Giving the non-player characters an opportunity to talk also creates the sense of them being more alive. As a player I understand that they have an emotional life and a life of their own. They don’t always need me to discuss certain things, they like or dislike each other and they talk about it in the player character’s presence but not necessarily directed at the player character.
Another game series from BioWare really shine when it comes to these types of companion discussions – Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II have non-player characters that are very outspoken and very amusing to listen to.
In Mass Effect 2 and 3 the conversations are developed further. In Mass Effect 2 the conversations take place mainly on the citadel, in the stairs moving from one floor to another. In Mass Effect 3, the conversations take place mainly on the Normandy and they establish relationships between the non-player characters to a higher degree than in the previous two games.
Garrus Vakarian and James Vega can in Mass Effect 3 be seen and heard having a pissing contest (more or less) about their martial prowess in the Normandy’s mess. They talk about their achievements in different military situations and it is obvious that even though it’s a contest, they’re still impressed by each other’s feats. Similarly, Joker and Garrus can be seen making jokes about humans and Turians in the cockpit, lending them both life and a sense of humor.
If the non-player characters have a life of their own, they become more alive to the player as well
Discovering the “secrets” or “secret lives” of non-player characters creates a sense of relatedness in the player
Hearing and seeing non-player characters relate to each other also creates a sense of camaraderie and/ or rivalry between the non-player characters
To some extent in the first, and to a higher extent in the second installation of the game series, the player can choose to perform loyalty missions for each of the non-player characters in the game. (The third installation does away with this completely.) In the first installation of the game series, the loyalty missions consist of small things that are not really noticeable in the game – fetch Wrex family armor, find and punish Dr. Solus – an organ merchant fleeing justice – for Garrus, find Geth data for Tali etc. I’ve always done these missions so I’m not sure if not doing them will have any implications for the outcome of the game.
In the second installation, the loyalty missions are imperative for the player to get out of the game with his or her Shepard intact, as well as the survival of his or her crew. The loyalty missions also serve as an additional insight into the crew members and their personal lives – a getting to know them process that pays off in a spectacular way in the third installation of the series.
Jack, Subject Zero, was raised in an experimental ward for biotic children. Her biggest wish is to blow up the lab that caused her so much pain, and – in effect – caused her to become who she is. Performing Jack’s loyalty mission provides an insight into Jack’s life and psychology that a normal mission or dialogue will not, with the added plus that Jack will become loyal to Shepard after the mission has been played. In a way, creating an emotional bond from the non-player character towards the player character.
Loyalty missions create a greater bond between non-player character and player character – and the bond goes both ways
Loyalty missions can be used to get to know the non-player character and the player feels that he or she has “done something” for the non-player character.
In Mass Effect, the meaningful choices are imperative to the story and to the player. Choosing is a part of what the game is. See Perspective and Discovery of Shepard
Zaaed Massani, Blue Suns founder and mercenary is out to get revenge on Vido Santiago, co founder of the Blue Suns and the man that shot him in the face 20 years ago. While on Zaaeds loyalty mission, Santiago is within reach, but Zaaed manages to overload the factory where Santiago is holed up, and the player has to choose between saving the factory workers and getting Zaaeds loyalty.
In another example, a group of Batarian terrorists have decided to nuke a planets industrial center and the largest city. The player will have to choose between the industrial area or the city. The choice will have implications in play.
The choices all mean something, not just on an emotional, a moral or ethical level for the player, but they also have consequences for the outcome and the player experience of the game. In the Mass Effect universe, you as a player will get different rewards based on different behaviors, making the value of playing “all good” or “all evil” completely different from each other.
With motivation I refer to the may deep motivations that lie underneath the surface of the most unexpected encounters. This is mostly true for the second installation of the game, where incredible stories can be unearthed by simple interactions. The people I as a player meet in passing all have a reason for being evil or perceived as evil by others.
In the first installation of the game, Shepard helps a colony on Feros called Zhu’s Hope. Zhu’s Hope is controlled by a plant being called the Thorian. After dispatching the Thorian, the player character can choose to spare an asari who has been taken prisoner by the Thorian. In the second installation of the game, the same asari can be met on Ilium. She – and the colony – are still suffering from the effects of the Thorian indoctrination. As a result they have gotten medical help from Baria Frontiers. In the contract between Baria Frontiers and Zhu’s Hope there is a paragraph stating that invasive medical procedures can be performed on the colonists, or they can choose to pay for their treatment. The asari says the colony is barely on it’s feet and they have no way of paying. This leads to a confrontation with a Baria Frontiers asari. She is hateful of all other aliens. A little digging shows that her mate was killed by Geth on the quarian home world, and her daughters were both killed when Sovereign attacked the Citadel – good reasons for hatred.
Give the NPCs their own motives for acting the way they do, even if they are perceived as “evil”.
Romance and Sex
No mentioning the Mass Effect series without also mentioning the close personal ties that can be made between Shepard and different members of the crew.
In the first installation, the squad mates that are possible to get into a romantic relationship with are relatively few. Male Shepard can pursue a relationship with Ashley Williams or Liara T’soni, an asari scientist. Female Shepard can pursue a relationship with Liara and Kaidan Alenko. This is expanded in the second installation, where there are three options each for male and female Shepard. The relationships in the second installation are still heteronormative, with exception to Liara who is an asari and therefore mono-gendered. Although she looks like a woman, which basically means that a lesbian relationship is allowed both in the first and the second installation (Liara appears in the DLC Lair of the Shadow Broker, where the player can continue to pursue the relationship with her from the first Mass Effect). In the third game, all bets are off and both a male and a female Shepard can enter a homosexual relationship.
These relationships are rewarded with dialogue and cinematics that are not available for someone who has chosen not to pursue the relationship. From an emotional perspective, this invests the player in concluding the game, not in the least in order to see what will happen.
In the relationship matrix that the player can build there is also the option of jealousy from the romanced parties. They will most certainly force the player to choose one of them, and a lack of choice will see the player without love interest at all.
As the player invests in time in the game, the game also rewards the player with a development in the relationship between Shepard and his or her love interest. Finale is usually in the form of a sexual or implied sexual encounter between Shepard and NPC. The formula for the Mass Effect series is to build up the relationship until “the night before battle” when the NPC usually visits Shepard in his or her cabin to consummate the relationship.
Remembering the past
In all three installations of the game, there is a “memory” of what has happened in previous installations of the game. For instance, in the first game you as a player can choose whether to kill or save the Rachni, an arachnid species that waged war on the Galaxy for a long time. The Rachni Queen claim innocence and that others affected her people to the extent that they went to war. If Shepard chooses to spare the Rachni, she will meet an envoy on Illium in the second installation of the game, bringing a message from the Rachni Queen. In the third installation of the game, the Rachni are once again a threat, and the player comes face to face with an earlier decision.
Throughout the game series, the player is always reminded of choices made, relationships forged and actions perpetrated. This, of course, creates a sense of connectedness through familiarity at least.