Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Greatest Story Ever Told

The tale has a tragic element to it. I am constantly surrounding myself with some of the best video games ever: Bastion, Need for Speed, Little Big Planet 2, Little Big Planet Karting, Journey, Borderlands 2 - you name it. I play the games, I enjoy them, but then I [generally] put them to the side. Why? Because ultimately, I much prefer to play Mass Effect yet again than play any of these other titles. It is clear Sinéad O'Connor knew what she was singing about: Nothing compares to you, Mass Effect.
I tried to answer the question of why this specific game is as good as it is before (see here and here for examples). I realize by now that the answer is complicated, but I will still try and address the question further.
I will start with that test I recently put Chuck, currently my favorite TV series, through. The test of chauvinism, if you would like to put a name to it. To remind you, Chuck failed the test - and rather miserably so: its female characters were single dimensional, there to act as ornaments to the male character at the center. Not so for Mass Effect!
Mass Effect cruises through this test in flying colors. Not only does it have numerous female characters, each of these female characters a well developed independent person with her own stories and agendas. It's not all cutie-cutie either: With one character, Liara, the story starts with you having to deal with her now turned evil mother; with another, Ashleigh, you have to deal with xenophobia. Regardless, your character is not the only thing in these female characters' lives.
Being closer to the cutting edge of progressiveness is a sign that there is something more to Mass Effect; Mass Effect could be better than the rest. But what is it, then, that gives it the edge?
The first hint of that comes with the games' interactiveness. To take the discussion on gaming feminism further, players can choose to establish relationships with both female and male characters. Human to human gay and lesbian options are perfectly fine (in Mass Effect 3; the previous 2 titles do not offer this option), but then again there is always the option for inter-species relationships. With sex, too, albeit clumsily handled sex.
Even more further reaching is the ability of the player to play a female character in the first place. As I have argued before, I find playing Femshep (the fans' term for Female Commander Shepard) a much more rewarding experience, starting from what I consider superior voice acting and moving on to the innovative feeling of being a woman. Let's face it, it's the closest I ever got to being one... The point is, Mass Effect does not only tell a story; it actively puts the player (you!) inside the story. It does not tell a linear story where your role is, in essence, fixed; its story varies depending on your actions, thus allowing you to enjoy being a goodie (a Paragon, in the game's own terms) or a nasty piece of work (a Renegade).
While interactions with other characters in the plot department do have their simplistic limitations, other types of interactions work at the instinctive level. For example, when cooperating in battle with Garrus as he is covering your advances with well aimed sniper shots; or when syncing biotic attacks with Liara to create devastating biotic explosions (sorry for using game terminology; hope you catch the drift). These things work in the sense that I have found myself developing genuine feelings towards these fictional characters, similar to that team spirit feeling one gets when working hard on a joint project with work colleagues. Garrus, Liara and I have been through many adventures together, even if they were all entirely fictional. In my house these are now household names even with the members who never played the games; surely this counts for something.
The same, by the way, applies to the less friendlier characters. The varying qualities that make certain characters appealing in my eyes make others potentially appeal to other players (the words "Miranda" and "bitch" come to my mind in the game's specific context). Beauty, or whatever other subjective trait you can think of, are in the eye of the beholder playing the game.
This brings me to my final conclusion. The Mass Effect trilogy of games is, in my view, the greatest video game there is because of the way its story is told. That delicate way in which the story weaves itself around the player's preference acts as a beacon to all other forms of story telling. As good as it is, Mass Effect's may not be the greatest story ever told; not by a long shot (although, to my mind, it is far superior to both Star Wars and Star Trek). However, never in the history of human civilization has a story been better told than Mass Effect's.
Story telling is thus the real revolution brought by this video game. With all due respect to books and movies, I have seen the light. Behold the future of story telling in the online/interactive age: Play Mass Effect.

Image rights: io9. I recommend you to read io9's views on Mass Effect here.

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