Prepare The Canons

Fear the Reaper

Not much longer now before the Reapers arrive to wipe out galactic civilization.

Mass Effect 3 is almost upon us, and I’m hardly ready. For anticipation is not just a case of checking the calendar and willing the days to advance quicker, there is work to be done before March 6th comes around. Few games in history have featured what is the Mass Effect series’ main selling point: the ability to carry your save forward into the sequels in order to retain your character and the decisions you have made over the course of the games. So fans aren’t just looking forward to playing the last instalment of a trilogy, they’re looking forward to playing the last instalment of their trilogy. Every decision you make defines your Commander Shepard, decides your relationship with other characters - possibly even their fate, and shapes a universe that is unique to your save. Loading up a game with that save will bring a story that recognises you and remembers what you have done. The series has already provided an unprecedented level of player authorship over narrative, and it only remains to be seen whether the final chapter can deliver a satisfying conclusion.

Over the past few weeks leading up to the release, while catching up on my Mass Effect lore and replaying the games, I have been observing the frantic rush of replays by people in various communities. There is definitely a sense of a communal effort; people relating their plans for their ‘perfect’ Commander Shepard and what kind of universe they want to forge with his or her decisions, as well as providing each other with tips on how to tackle certain spots, things to look out for and optimal strategies for keeping companions alive. Moreover, at this level of fandom, there is much at stake, and therefore much speculation and hope that the game lives up to its hype. And boy is there some dedicated speculation out there.

Canon to the Right of Them, Canon to the Left of Them

What fascinates me about this series is how personal the experience becomes, to the point that in theory, no two players’ playthroughs are alike. With the ability to tailor the story to your preferences, every single player’s game spawns a unique ‘canon’. There is no universally accepted retelling of the series of events that make up the ME saga; as such there is no canon in the traditional sense of the word. Of course, you could start up the games without uploading a save; obviously there will always be new players who haven’t played the previous instalments, and with them in mind BioWare provides a clean slate. Indeed, PS3 players had no choice, for the first game was never released on that system. In ME2 for the PS3 is the ability to set a few of the key prerequisite decisions by means of an interactive comic that brings you up to speed on the story. But all the little choices and details are left to the discretion of BioWare, setting in stone things that the player had no say in either way. But BioWare has been careful to point out that even this ‘vanilla’ set of decisions is not canon.

It’s not canon. We have a rule in our franchise that there is no canon. You as a player decide what your story is. But we choose a default path that gives you access to a lot of cool things. It’s like how a character like Jack Bauer has to make some decisions where he feels empathy in one moment or feels particularly brutal in another moment. We weave you through a default path that switches between those.

- Casey Hudson, Executive Producer, BioWare1

On a personal level, having a series-wide persistent character changes the experience in a much more profound way than I had anticipated. I should note before I continue that BioWare’s other current franchise, the Dragon Age series, also features this mechanic. Playing Dragon Age: Origins, I had similar feelings with regards to making choices. When it comes to regular RPGs, I approach the story decision-making with little more attention than the tactical combat decision-making. That is to say, I am forging a path through the game but it’s not so much that I expect to lead the story where I want as I am letting the developers take me on a ride and I enjoy pulling it in the directions that I can with whatever freedom that is provided. The choices in most RPGs span the length of the game, the 20-odd hours adventure, after which they no longer hold meaning. Provided with a choice to kill someone or let them live, for example, I am only thinking as far as a few hours ahead at most, when I’ll see the consequences. The context, the characters involved and my attachment to them all play a part in this decision, but it’s only within this tiny continuum that the decision and the results exist and have significance.

Consequences Will Never be the Same

In a modern BioWare game, however, a decision has the potential to create events spanning multiple games. Results may not manifest in the same adventure, but may in fact surface to haunt you in the sequel. I am no longer thinking about how a cutscene or my route through a level is going to differ as a result of my actions, but what series of events is going to occur and when I am going to witness the aftermath. In this kind of coherent and persistent world, having such an impact makes the experience all the more immersive and personal to me. I don’t expect that the world I have helped shape is very much the same as any other player’s, and this makes it feel like something only I have witnessed and taken part in. Moreover, the decision-making feels more profound, I treat each question as a pivot point; there is more weight and significance to what I do because the world around me will change to reflect it, even after I finish one particular story arc. A character with a favour to ask may return later, and depending on how I treated him he may present reward or revenge. The fact that I’ll stop to think about a decision and what it could mean for the long term is indicative enough to me that we are approaching a point in games where we have to treat the worlds and the characters with reverence.

Sometimes the potential of a particular choice is tantalizing enough that I’ll take a few minutes to think about it whether I expect to see a consequence or not. In DA:O there is a quest deep underground that leads to a summoning of an ancient demon2. You can either let it go free and receive material reward or defeat it and gain experience. Choosing the greedy path will no doubt bring misfortune to others, and even though that plot thread may never return in future games, the thought of what kind of havoc could be wreaked in the long term is too tempting to let this opportunity slide. Out of pure reckless glee I’d rather let it go and have an impact on the world. Similar situations arise in the ME games, where the future of entire species lies in your hands. I’d rather let the destructive Rachni live, for example, in order to see what complications they bring to the fold than remove them from the possibility space.

As far as character creation and development goes, I know many gamers prefer to place themselves in the role of the protagonist, as for myself, it’s not me saving the galaxy. I subscribe to Martyn’s Avataritis critique of role-playing video games as yourself, hence a character I create in an RPG is not me, but an avatar that upholds my values and represents the virtuous ideal. And with the arguably superior voiceover chops of Jennifer Hale (with no disrespect meant to the talented Mark Meer), I’ve chosen to go with femshep. My Commander Jane Shepard is the most badass space marine ever to headbutt a Krogan and take down a Thresher Maw. Before breakfast.

I’m Commander Shepard and This is my Favourite Series on the Citadel

The character development is just as important to me as the world-building. This Shepard is growing and forming connections with characters in the way that I prefer, becoming the kind of hero I want there to exist, saving the world in the way I envision. Accompanying Shepard on her arduous quest, it’s easy to form an attachment to her and her companions, a bond that raises the stakes and gives weight to their mortality. Interestingly enough, I have observed that in treating the main character in this way, it’s easier to make choices that I wouldn’t necessarily choose myself in the given situation. The ME series lets you approach your tasks with two different attitudes, pretty much Light side/Dark side equivalents: Paragon and Renegade respectively. To take the Paragon path is, as one would expect, to be the good cop, the nice guy. The Renegade path is interesting in that it allows you to be a jerk, while still being the hero. Jack Bauer in space, you could say: ruthlessly efficient, less concerned with the means as with the ends. Back to my point, the Renegade choices aren’t always easy to make, being as they are the less than friendly route. But by playing a third-person avatar, that one level of separation possibly allows for a kind of distancing from that discomfort; Shepard can take that tough road I would never be able to.

At this point, I have high expectations, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous. So much is riding on this final release, and as enamoured of the series as I am, BioWare’s record hasn’t been impeccable. As great a sequel as ME2 was, it wasn’t without its flaws. Putting aside the various mechanical changes from its predecessor, some of which were successful improvements and others which were not, it was BioWare’s first chance to demonstrate the persistent save feature. While in theory it’s a fantastic idea, in practice it hasn’t proven itself fully just yet. For a start, a number of limitations arise when it comes to the middle episode in a trilogy: it needs to bridge the gap between the first and last parts, and therefore it can’t branch off wildly lest it become impossible to carry forward. The more variations in the story that there are, the more complicated it will be to manage all the different plot threads. As it is, the developers have 700 or so variables to keep track of3. So while the narratives of the first two games must stay convergent in order to retain a manageable end state to continue the story from, ME3 can be as divergent and open-ended as the writers want it to be, ending in however many different ways they can dream up. Indeed, it has been hinted that there will be “degrees of success” in the endings that you can achieve4.

It’s understandable for a developer to want to avoid making drastic variations that cause the player to miss out on whole avenues of content, due to the sheer resources required for work that may not even be seen. Characters who could have died in ME1 are given tiny cameos in 2, with minimal involvement in the plot, since they won’t even be appearing in some players’ stories. It is worth pointing out that there are studios that have taken this kind of risk with branching, CD Projekt being one of them with The Witcher 2, in which there is a segment where you can play either one level or the other, and the only way to see what you missed is to replay the whole game. So ME2 was already limited in its ability to reflect all the changes in your save. And being the bridging story, it also did a lot of delaying on much of the payoffs; most of the big choices thus far are still unacknowledged let alone effective, and we’ll have to wait a bit longer to see where they lead. The fate of the Rachni, for instance, is still unclear, and the most that we find out is a little hint that sets up yet more anticipation for later. In this way the story has very much been back-loaded with all the setups and hooks in place to make ME3 one hell of a bottled up enigma. Even after having seen a few of the trailers and media fluff pieces, I have no idea how all these elements are going to play out and vary the outcomes. One interesting side note here is that apparently players would be well-advised to keep their ME3 saves as well!5 For what nefarious purpose, only BioWare knows.

I’ve mentioned the hurdles that BioWare has to overcome in order to deliver satisfactory payoffs, but that’s not even considering how difficult it is to please everyone. Some plot threads that seemed important before are given but a mention, an email in sent in gratitude by a person you saved, for example, or an overheard news report chronicling your previous actions. Personally I like all the little ways those details form the unique whole, but I know there are players still not satisfied. Given how much attention BioWare has paid to their community’s feedback in the past6, I would not be surprised if they have gauged the interest in the various plot threads and characters and focused their efforts on those that are most popular. With the depth of player statistics they have at their disposal, they would be short-sighted not to.

So with the final chapter right around the corner, I am rushing to prepare the perfect save for my Renegade femshep who will spare no cost and pull no punches in order to gather the galactic armies to face the Reaper onslaught. Without even having played ME3, every decision has been weighed carefully, the mere potential of every choice illustrating the disquieting responsibility of the fate of the world on her shoulders.

Mass Effect 3 launches for the XBox 360, Playstation 3 and PC on March 6th in North America and March 9th in Europe.

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