Opinion – The Characters That Make The Game

Seeing Mass Effect 3 pop up on a number of GOTY lists, despite the vocal group who still speak of that game through gnashing teeth, reminded me of my feelings about that game and the Mass Effect franchise as whole. I am seemingly one of the few people at peace with Mass Effect 3’s original ending. Not because I thought it was a well executed and fitting conclusion to the trilogy, but because I didn’t really care about the main narrative. The game could have ‘Sopranos’ its ending and I would not have been the least bit concerned.

What I really liked about the Mass Effect franchise was the characters.

A lot of people, including many on the NG+ crew, believe that the first Mass Effect game was the best. As you can probably guess, I disagree somewhat. Apart from the gameplay being borderline broken, the game was too busy setting up its universe which, lets be honest, wasn’t exactly breaking any new ground in the sci-fi genre. As for the characters, you had Space Racist Ashley and Bland Whathisface (sure you also had Garrus and Wrex, but I’ll get to them later).

Instead, I consider Mass Effect 2 the series’ peak and, indeed, one of the better games of this generation. The combat was refined, the menus didn’t look like an EVE Online/DOTA fusion and all of the first game’s set-up was beginning to pay off. But most of all, the game had a varied, interesting cast. You had the highlights from the first game return (i.e. Garrus), but you also had new characters that were just as, if not more, compelling. You had the spiritual Thane, you had the logical Legion, you had Mordin. Oh Mordin. I would play a whole game based around his all-singing, all-scientific space adventures.

Not only did the game introduce this interesting group of people, it also fleshed them out though its loyalty missions. These vignettes are another example of the argument I previously made about the qualities of an episodic structure. And sure, the Mass Effect lore plays a major part of these missions, but it’s the characters and their stances on the game’s major and minor conflicts that makes them interesting.

This is the case with any story from any medium. It’s often said that there are only seven basic plots in storytelling — and let’s face it, this number is probably lower when we’re talking about  video game stories. It’s the universe that makes these stories distinguishable from each other, but it’s the characters that populate these universes that make them distinguished. It’s the characters that gives you something familiar to attach to while you explore their otherwise undiscovered world. It’s the characters that give you a reason to continue with any story.

What I’m coming to realise more and more is this: Well written characters can make an otherwise decent game great. Portal was a solid puzzle game made memorable by the sarcastic, menacing GLaDOS. The recently released Far Cry 3 was flavoured by the intriguing, borderline-psychopathic Vaas.

On the other hand, we have Halo 4. The game started off so well, promising to develop the symbiotic (and platonic) relationship between Master Chief and Cortana; perhaps it might’ve even given them some place in the universe other than Player Avatar and Lady Exposition, respectively. It was shame, then, to see the game abandon this potentially interesting angle, instead focussing on furthering the franchise’s dumb, dense, incredibly dumb lore. It didn’t even bother to characterise its prime antagonist, The Didact, relegating him to the role of Alien MacGuffin. In dropping character development in favour of fleshing out the events contained in the seventeenth Halo novel, they also lowered the stakes. Why would I want to save a universe I do not care about? Let me put it this way: Even though I played through to the end, I can barely recall anything between chapters five through seven.

Aside from this blemish, it’s heartening to see more developers pay attention to characters. We are seeing less and less games pumping out one-dimensional archetypes who only exist to fulfil focus-tested criteria. Even ostensibly meat-headed games like Black Ops II are going out of their way to implement rounded, interesting characters.

Which brings us back to Mass Effect 3. Sure, the conclusion was a bit too convenient, but everything leading up to the final decision was as good as anything else in the Mass Effect franchise. Once again, I speak of the characters. Every character had their Moment as their series-long arcs reached their conclusions, particularly Mordin. And then you had Javik, the Promethean that was sold as day-one DLC. It was so great to have him along to provide a different perspective to the game’s lore, to see him interact and clash with the rest of the cast.

As my Mass Effect experiences become piled underneath new ones, the element that will stuck out for years to come will not be the narrative or the foil-hat community or Shepard and the Amazing Technicolor Ending. It will be Mordin, it will be Javik, it will be Liara, it will be Mass Effect’s cast that will remain with me. I have a feeling, however, that they will have to compete with many other characters. This is not at all a bad thing.


Come back on Thursdays for more thoughts and views from the NG+ cast and crew.

[Image credits: BiowareGiant Bomb, 343 Industries Community Forum (user ‘adamj004’)]