Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Mass Effect 2: Mass Affect Also... Stories of a Gamer Back From the Brink... Real Life Rules. Carry me Back from Tali

Video game players, particularly those of us of a certain age (read: mature.  But not "mature" in the porn sense, like we're a bunch of horny grandmothers looking for ripe, young cocks to satiate our anal proclivities, but mature in the sense that we are grown-ass adults over the age of 18) have a very distinct chip on our shoulder, a burden that comes from a prejudice born of genre discrimination.  Or I suppose it's actually a form of Medium Bias, that is bias based upon conceptualizations of a specific medium (be it cultural or technological) and not some type of half-assed, average bigotry.

In terms of media, video games have, since their inception, been held in relatively low regard, by the "mainstream."  Having been dismissed as a recreational endeavor completely devoid of cultural or societal merit to being out and out blamed for everything from causing childhood obesity to inciting horrendous acts of violence, public perceptions of video games have run the pejorative gambit, from dismissive to outright accusatory.  Most cultural authorities have  constructed and enforced a cultural hierarchy based on the espoused merits (or lack thereof) of various media, that generally goes something like this:
1) Books
2) Opera
3) Live Theatre
4) Movies
5) A Steaming Pile of Horse Shit
6) Video Games

I suppose, in all fairness, out of all the media listed above, video games are by far the newest kid on the block (call me Donnie...) and as such the onus is purely on their culture of authors and consumers to persevere and endure the process of cultural hazing that all new media are required to endure before being allowed into the Great Fraternity.  But sometimes it sucks having your ass paddled and your mouth stuffed with yet another of the frat brother's sweaty cocks on a seemingly daily basis, especially when you've been pledging for so hard for so long.  Even more of a kick in the balls is that video games, while consistently derided by parents and authority figures alike as mere frivolity or triviality of the worst variety, have also become a huge part of mainstream culture.  Video game culture has become a billion dollar industry, a juggernaut in its own right that rivals Hollywood, or whatever metonym is used for the music industry, or those book things.  I'm not saying that money is the only indicator of cultural significance (though certainly sales are indicative of widespread consumption of a product), but when games like Halo 3, Grand Theft Auto IV, or, *insert random Call of Duty title here* can gross more in their opening weekend than most movies will ever make in their entire run in theatres and home video sales combined, that's got to give people some pause to think.

I've long had to live with this cultural baggage surrounding video games, especially as I grew older and still remained devoted to the medium.  I don't feel guilty about playing video games, but what with stereotypical notions of masculinity it's hard not to feel a little out of the loop in certain circles.  For dudes, watching the Superbowl, drinking beers with his buddies down at the local tavern, performing repairs on his house or automobile, having promiscuous sex with random women, surviving in the woods with nothing but a jack knife, and killing all manner of creatures with a variety of firearms and deadly implements like fishhooks, then relaying stories of these glorious conquests in between belts of belching and raucous speculations as to the sexual purity of their mothers is the typical behaviour expected of males in our society.  Unfortunately, this particular breed doesn't put much stock into certain other proclivities.  Surprising as it may seem to me and my ilk, these creatures care little about things like the merits of the Left 4 Dead DLC, my all time high scores on SSX Tricky, or old war stories about camping out with some proximity mines in the bathroom of the Facility map in Goldeneye reigning down precisely planted death upon all those who dared oppose me.

All of this to say that it can be difficult finding an interested outlet or audience with which to discuss or ruminate over some of my favourite texts in one of my favourite media in a significant or satisfying manner.  This happened to me most recently after finishing a little game called Mass Effect 2, Bioware's follow-up to their groundbreaking 2007 RPG Mass Effect.  Since finishing ME2 a couple weeks ago, it has been  at the forefront of my conscious thought, and I've been unable to shake myself awake from this perpetual reverie.  And the thing is, I'm not sure if I really want to.

A couple of years back when I first got my Xbox 360 -a birthday present from my wife who bought it several months ahead of time yet forbade me from opening it until my actual birthday (an edict which, to my credit, I adhered to) thereby forcing me into a downward spiral towards a full psychological breakdown- I received a whole slew of obligatory game recommendations from fellow gamers.  I think I was only a couple years late to the party, but I had a shit-ton of games to catch up on.  I remember talking to my then-soon-to-be-brother-in-law, and he kept mentioning this game called Mass Effect, which he described (quite accurately) as an RPG set in space.  He even tried showing me some game play one time, but taken out of context, a few short minutes of shooting random bad guys from behind a forcefield didn't really make much of an impression.  However, I had heard good things, so as soon as I got my Xbox I ran out and bought The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Mass Effect.

In fact, looking back, Mass Effect might have actually been my Xbox 360's inaugural game, which I think is fairly respectable, and not a bad way at all to have started my gaming life on Microsoft's state-of-the-art (expect for Blu-Ray playback capabilities) gaming system.  In fact, as a video game RPG fan, it was actually a pretty kick-ass way to start things off.  It's been a while since I played Mass Effect, but I remember two very distinct initial responses as I began delving into Bioware's sci-fi universe.

The first response I remember having went something like this:

The astute observations made in this comic by the kindly folks over at Penny Arcade are (as usual) right on the fucking money.  There wasn't so much a learning curve that one could describe as steep or shallow or chewy (for some reason...) but a total lack of any kind of pedagogical arch whatsoever.  At first the lack of blatant, jarring tutorials which in most games really make a mess of the whole fourth wall, was kind of refreshing.  But then, after achieving total emersion in the narrative and just being kind of dropped (or pushed) into the thick of things, I felt overwhelmed and underprepared for my excursion as the newly-minted Lieutenant Commander Logan Shepard, a strikingly handsome, rugged young man with deep, brown eyes, a buzz cut, and a very stylish goatee (Van Dyke style), who may or may not resemble a certain human being I know (hint: it's me!).  All in all, my Commander Shepard looked pretty badass, if I do say so myself.

Sure, the fucking codex explained every political and social intricacy and the galactic ramifications of the Krogan uprising and the Salarian-developed, Turian-deployed genophage, but I just wanted to know how to Force-push the shit out of a bad guy use my biotic powers to my tactical advantage and just in general do... stuff.  The relief of not being spoon-fed every little fucking detail of game play quickly gave way to the frustration of having no sense of direction whatsoever.  Of course, maybe that feeling was because of the fact that so many games tend to take you by the hand that we've just gotten so used to it over the years.  Whatever the case, playing Mass Effect for the first time, I very quickly became acutely aware of everything I didn't know.

Which kind of leads me to the second sensation I felt when I started playing Mass Effect, and that was another feeling of being completely overwhelmed, but this time because of the awe and majesty of the game world I had been allowed to inhabit.  I mean, you're set up as the Hero of the narrative, but the depth of the background for the Mass Effect universe left me feeling very small.  And it felt fucking incredible.

The original Mass Effect quickly climbed the ranks in my list of favourite video games of all time, and not just because it was an incredible RPG experience.  I'd had those before (followed by the metaphorical cigarette).  It wasn't because of the impressive graphics, or any of the game play mechanics.  It wasn't (just) because you had the opportunity to fuck a hot alien babe.  It wasn't even about the narrative in the traditional sense, though the framed narrative of the game was well-written and compelling.  There was some undefinable alchemy that transformed the game into something far greater than the sum of its parts.  And though I can't define the sorcery used to conjure the Mass Effect experience out of the Ether, I can at least begin to describe the factors that made it so engaging.

1) Emersion

Rarely does one find a narrative so meticulously constructed and intricately fleshed out as the ME universe.  It basically took all the best aspects of STAR WARS and STAR TREK and combined them into some delicious goodness.  It's got the epic feel and urgency of WARS and the exploration, discovery, and moral quandaries of TREK.

But ME "feels" more real and accessible than either of Lucas' or Roddenberry's creations.  Where TREK can sometimes get bogged down in its attempt to "say something" or its own particular brand of cheese and WARS can drift into a zone where substance is sacrificed for the sake of style and big explosions, ME felt like it effectively balanced the ass-kicking and the space explosions with some deeper themes and emotional engagement.

What seems to be at the forefront is that sense of adventure, of the unknown.  The whole conceit of ME is that humanity finally gets its shit together, starts exploring the solar system, finds some alien technology that lets them travel to the far reaches of galaxy... and then we find out that there's already a bunch of alien races out there who have already done the same thing long before us.  That may sound like a kick in humanity's collective nutsack (or clit depending on your point of view (By the way, we really need some cool, pithy slang for female genitals, because after searching the internet, everything was either "meat something-or-other" or stupid shit like hairy goblet.  Once again the ladies get the shaft.  Metaphorically speaking.)), but what it really does is give you that sense of stepping out into a larger world.  By effectively knocking humanity off of its self-constructed pedestal as the greatest sentient species since sliced bread (wait a minute...) with the humbling realization that we may not be the warm, chewy Centre of the Universe we had made ourselves out to be invokes this posthumanist view that we a merely part of a much larger whole.  We thought we had the whole picture, but all we really saw was just a small piece of the puzzle.  And not one of the corner pieces or edges, either.  One of the ones in the middle that's all one fucking colour so you have no idea how it fits. Motherfucker, I hate puzzles.

It's like a reverse Alice.  (Actually, I think I saw that in a porn once...)  Instead of going deeper down the rabbit hole, we expand outward through the mass relays.  What this particular trope does is expand the frontier and the borders of what we thought we knew about ourselves and our place in the universe.  This narrative device also sets up humanity as the new kids on the block (Joey...) and essentially as the galactic underdogs having to prove themselves to the other established alien races.  What the framed narrative of ME does is make the player feel small and relatively inconsequential, but also just big enough to think that maybe there's a small hope that he could make it out there in the universe.  It basically dares you to prove yourself.

Of course the other element that contributes to the sense of emersion in ME is the very nature of its video game genre.  As an RPG, a large aspect of the game play and game mechanics are designed to let you play a role, to take on an alternate identity, and customize that identity as much as possible within the confines of the game world.  As such, ME has many of the hallmarks of the genre: there's the upgradable weapons and armour, a levelling system, and a whole host of stats that allows players to build their character according the game play style to which they have grown accustomed.  All of this is well and good, but then Bioware really took it to the next level in Mass Effect with a game mechanic that, both literally and metaphorically, changed the game.

For me, the real role playing aspect of Mass Effect, the thing really took things to a whole new level, was its unique dialogue system.  Any ME veteran will immediately recognize the ME conversation wheel, which looks something like this:
Now, when I first started playing, I remember choosing a dialogue option, but then that fuck Shepard would go off script and just start making up his own stuff, like he was fucking Joe Pesci in GOODFELLAS or some shit.  It took me a while to get the feel of it and realize that the dialogue wheel is to Shepard's dialogue what my thoughts are to the words that tumble out of my mouth.  That is, I would pick a general direction for my character to go, but I really wouldn't know exactly how it would sound until he actually said it, which is a really clever codification or gamification of how we communicate, and there's not always a one to one correlation between thought and speech.

The other thing the conversation wheel did was allow a sense of choice.  It gave me a sense of agency that I hadn't really felt in other games before, because it allowed me to interact with other characters, which is a large part of what RPGs are supposed to be about, but mostly got lost in the translation of tabletop RPGs to the virtual realm of video games.  I could choose to be a totally awesome dude (or Paragon in ME-speak) or a complete ass-hat (Renegade), and not only would NPCs in the game react accordingly, but there were potential repercussions in the narrative itself, which brings me to my second item which is:

2) Consequence

After playing Mass Effect for a while this peculiar sensation started to creep over me.  I slowly began to realize that I was having an effect on the world around me.  In short, I felt that what I did mattered.  And I began to play very differently.  For most games with a supposed morality system, there's no real consequences for being a complete douchebag or the saviour of humanity.  And, arguably, there's not that much of a consequence for playing on either side of the morality system in ME either because no matter which way you go -Paragon or Renegade- you can still finish the game and achieve the same ultimate goal of saving the universe.  But it feels like there could be positive or negative consequences, both personally (for the character you inhabit) and for the game world at large (in this case, the entire Milky Way galaxy).

In large part this is due to the phenomenal job Bioware did of crafting not only a believable universe, but also of populating it with a cast of fully-realized, three dimensional characters, which is really one of ME's greatest strengths.  No matter how you play the game, you will get more or less the same ending (depending on a few big choices at the end), but the journey before you reach that final destination can be drastically different.  Because characters might react differently towards you based on your previous decisions, and because depending on how you upgraded your character you could even unlock Paragon- or Renegade-specific dialogue options in certain situations, I began to really think about the decisions I made.  This role-playing system provided me with a sense of motivation, and helped me to engage more intimately with the narrative experience.  And, like usual, I tended to choose the Paragon route, because even though it's a virtual world with virtual consequences, I still feel bad about unnecessarily fucking with other people's shit just for the sheer malevolent joy of it.

Dude, bro, buddy, come on man, don't do me like this
There's an example of this sense of consequence near the end of the game.  The game narrative eventually puts you at odds with Wrex, your krogan team member, and all of the sudden you're in a situation where, unless you have the necessary level of Renegade points, you're basically put in a position where you have to kill your teammate who's been with you the whole game.

For me, this decision was made even worse for two reasons.  One, Wrex was one of my main men who I'd taken with me on almost every single mission and who I'd augmented to a point of badassery that basically made him goddamn-near indestructible and hence indispensable for the combat portions of my missions.  Second, I didn't have the requisite Renegade points to talk my way out of the situation, so I had to watch in horror as Shepard or Garrus or whoever shot Wrex dead in the sand.

Shit got real, real fast.

Fans of the Mass Effect games quickly came to understand something that set the series apart from other video games: the idea of permanence.  Or, at least, limited permanence.  If I had just continued on from there, Wrex would have stayed dead in both ME 2 and ME 3.  This was something I had never really encountered before in a game, or at least not to this level.  But since Wrex was such a big part of my team, and because his character was so fleshed out that the boundary between virtual and real became increasingly blurry and I had developed an emotional attachment to this entity, I pulled a SUPERMAN and basically reset the world to a point where I would be able to save the people that needed to be saved.  I replayed a couple hours of the game, got my Renegade skill pumped up, went back and saved my buddy.  Fuck yeah!

And then not five minutes later I have to make a life or death choice.  For realsies this time.  No stupid fucking Superman trick was going to work here.  In a mission critical situation I had to send two people on two different assignments, knowing that one of those assignments was basically a death sentence.  And one of those characters was definitely going to die and definitely not going to be around any more.  Ever.  Kind of like real life.  Holy shit.  All of the sudden I realized I had an emotional stake in what happened.  These weren't characters; these were members of my crew and as their commanding officer and as their friend I had a responsibility to try and bring them home safe and sound.  But I couldn't.  What the hell was Bioware trying to do to me?  For the record, I totally saved Ashley, but that means that I will never see Kaidan ever again, except apparently as a name on a memorial plaque in ME 3.

Even though I hadn't really played with Kaidan that much (uhhhhhh, er, I mean...) it was still a huge fucking bummer, and it overlapped conceptually just enough with "real life" rules of mortality that it felt like there were some serious consequences to my mission.  It was a rude awakening and a narrative experience I will never forget.  Which leads me to item number three, which I will get to in just a moment.

Fast forward to September 2012.  I finally got around to playing Mass Effect 2, even though I played the original Mass Effect roughly three or four years ago, and Mass Effect 3 has been out since March 2012.  I've been asking myself why, after having such a positive experience with ME, it took me so long to pick up ME 2.  To be honest, I have no fucking clue.  As far as my gaming life goes, I went on a huge Bethesda kick with some Elder Scrolls and Fallout 3 action, then got went through my Left 4 Dead phase.  Plus there were some kids that kept coming out of my wife and a bunch of other shit that took away valuable gaming time.  There was no one thing.  ME just kind of got lost in the shuffle.  But now, after finally playing Mass Effect 2, I'm kicking myself for not playing it sooner, like as soon as it became available on store shelves.

The thing about Mass Effect 2 is that not only did it provide me with one of the best narrative experiences I've ever had, but it also enhanced my enjoyment of the first Mass Effect.  With ME 2, there was a lot of discussion about its classification, genre-wise.  With Bioware's "streamlining" of the traditional RPG aspects like levelling and skill trees and upgradable gear and enhancement of the combat system, there was a lot of talk about whether ME 2 was an RPG with shooter/actioner elements, or a shooter with remnants of its RPG genetics.  And yes, a lot of the traditional RPG elements were pared back, but because of Bioware's unique conversation wheel mechanic and multi-linear narrative construction and impeccably crafted character interaction, ME 2 was most definitely a role playing game, because it allowed the player to play a role (ie. create a virtual alter-ego).  Even with less focus on inventory management and skill trees, ME 2 was still more of an RPG than most RPGs that clung to traditional mechanics like a monkey to a crate of bananas in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  Or whatever.

It was near the end of my ME 2 playthrough with the determined and battle-hardened Logan Shepard that the final piece of the puzzle came to me.  That final factor that made both Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect so engaging and that I had been unable to put into words some four years earlier:

3) Emotional Affect

After going through the Omega 4 relay and embarking on the Suicide Mission (ie. final mission) in ME 2 I kind of sat in quiet disbelief for a few minutes as I watched the credits roll by.  Then I slowly got up and turned off my Xbox 360, and just kind of wandered through the house in a daze.  There was this feeling right in the middle of my chest that stuck with me for over a week, and it still hasn't completely faded yet.  I felt simultaneously like I was filled to the brim and ready to burst but also as if there was something, some void inside me that could never really be filled.  As one unaccustomed to human emotions, it was a bizarre feeling.  It was some unnameable, bittersweet sensation comprised of equal parts joy and sadness.

While ME is rife with emotionally affective elements, ME 2 is basically nothing but emotional affect as it is centred around recruiting your team and building their loyalty towards you.  ME2 takes a lot of narrative cues from the classic heist movie, namely the team-building archetype.  There's basically two missions for each team member: a mission to recruit them in the first place, and then a so-called loyalty mission whereby you help them out with some personal shit and they either love you for it if you succeed or are mildly indifferent towards you if you fail.  In between missions when you're not chilling in your pimped out space-bachelor pad on board the Normandy, you can talk with each of the team members.  The thing is, you keep finding out more and more about each character, and they're so well fleshed out and their back stories are so detailed that they begin to seem less and less like detached characters in a story and more and more like three-dimensional, living, breathing beings.

The point is,  by the end of the game/narrative, you have a huge emotional stake in the fate of your team, and the tactical decisions you make in the Suicide Mission (assuming you didn't Google the shit out of it beforehand) truly are gut wrenching.  All of the sudden you're not just making Choose Your Own Adventure-type decisions (which is basically what the narrative structure boils down to on the back end), you're trying to determine the course of action that's going to ensure the safety of your team, and not just for the achievement points (or whatever the fuck the PS3 equivalent is), but because you feel like you're actively involved in saving the lives of people you've grown to care about.  Or at least, I did.  Whatever spark of life Bioware managed to ignite in these characters made their potential demise that much more potent and meaningful.

So when I did my run through of the Suicide Mission I lost both Thane and Mordin, which totally sucked balls, and I experienced the initial knee-jerk reaction to go back and SUPERMAN the whole thing and keep retrying the mission until everyone survived, and I could get my super happy ending.  But I didn't do this.  If I had gone back to an earlier save file and replayed that portion of the game to get the happy ending (oh yeah!) it would have cheapened their deaths both narratively and emotionally.  After losing two of my trusted teammates, I felt frustrated that I had been unable to protect them, and, yeah, a little sad that I would never be able to interact with them ever again.  And as shitty as I felt after losing these dudes, it occurred to me that the fact that I felt anything about their deaths at all that was the point.  I felt a sense of loss because I had become emotionally invested in these characters to the point that I actually cared whether they lived or died.  I had reached a point of emotional saturation and though it may have eased my grieving process, it also would have diluted the emotional affect and the significance of the experience would have been lessened considerably.            

To be clear, I was not in the midst of some psychotic episode where I was unable to determine the real from the virtual.  I was (and am) fully aware that these are virtual characters in a virtual world.  But the emotions were real.  You can't experience a fake emotion.  You either feel something or you don't.  You can fake having emotions, but you can't fake feeling them.

I know Thane and Mordin were virtual characters who existed only within the confines of the Mass Effect universe, but I wanted to honour their memory.  They sacrificed themselves on a mission to save not only their friends but (potentially) billions of other people who meant absolutely fucking nothing to them.  The fact that they were willing to give their lives for the greater good meant something.  It had to.  If only to me for a few short weeks until the feeling inevitably faded, or at least decreased in intensity leaving me somewhere in the spectrum of emotional normalcy in which I existed before playing ME 2.  Rest in peace you glorious bastards.

There was another instance of emotional affect that I would be remiss not to mention, both because it seems to be one of Bioware's signatures in their games, and because of its effectiveness in engaging me as a player.  As I'm sure any player of the Mass Effect series will attest to, one of the biggest narrative draws is the ability to romance any number of characters in each game.  The strange thing is that even though it's not really imperative to the overarching narrative of saving the galaxy (again), in the larger sense of player engagement it is incredibly significant.

I remember discussing the romance option in the first Mass Effect with Ryebone.  In the first game if you were playing as a male Shepard you essentially had two options for romance.  You could go with Ashley Williams:

Or you could get to know Liara T'Soni:

 Or, I guess technically, you could also go with option number three:
How you doin'?
Rybone, ever the xenophobe, adamantly clung to Ashley Williams despite the promise of extra-terrestrial poon tang on league with the late, great Captain James T. Kirk.  As soon as I found out about the romance subplot, I immediately started talking up Liara.  She was hot, she was young, and she was a fucking alien.  An alien!  She was exotic.  She represented the infinite possibilities that existed in the universe.  I mean, I could (theoretically) fuck human women right now.  But the chance to fuck an alien babe with blue skin?  How often does a chance like that come around?  Not very often, let me tell you.

Looking back at Mass Effect the main reason I became interested in the romantic involvement was the novelty of it.  I'd never before witnessed such a mechanic in a game before, and not one to this extent.  There was also the sexual titillation that accompanied any potential forays into voyeurism (read: I might get to see some boobies).  Because of the perceived novelty of this particular narrative aspect, there was still a sort of proto-adolescent attitude of "Tee, hee, hee, I get to tap some virtual ass" that acted as an immature yin to the yang of narrative gravitas that accompanied the encounter.

Then I started playing Mass Effect 2, fully aware of the ability to foster romantic relationships with several of the main characters, but a funny thing happened along the way.  Because of my increased emotional engagement with the game than that of its predecessor, I began to become extremely conscious of the choices I was making in that respect.  I even began to consider the "feelings" of my potential virtual love interests.  Crazy?  Maybe.

First, let me run down the space babes that my Commander Shepard had the option of getting to know better.  So, you've got the genetically-engineered-to-be-perfect Miranda Lawson:

Then you've got the badass ex-con, Jack (AKA Subject Zero):

There's Samara the asari milf:

Your space secretary:

If you bought the Shadow Broker DLC (and you fucking should) then archaeologist turned semi-gangster Liara T'Soni is back on the table (so to speak):

And finally returning for the sequel, everyone's favourite quarian engineer, Tali'Zorah:

So, basically, throughout Mass Effect 2 you have the opportunity to talk up any and all of these characters, and as you progress through the game, depending on earlier conversations, they may or may not open up to you more and more.  The potential culmination of this romantic subplot is a cut scene involving a sexual encounter between your Commander Shepard and whatever lucky lady you took the most time and effort to woo, which occurs right before the final Suicide Mission for added narrative and emotional impact.

This sounds simple enough, but love in a video game turns out to be no less complicated than love out here in the real world.  Allow me to break down my thought process as I embarked on a quest to find digital love.

As I started Mass Effect 2, shit quickly hit the fan and my poor Commander Shepard underwent some serious trauma (ie. He dead) and it turns out that he's been posthumously made out to be some kind of intergalactic Chicken Little and tales of a possible Reaper invasion have been officially dismissed by the leading political bodies of the galaxy.  So, I figured after all that bullshit, I'd play Shepard as a Renegade, basically a cold-hearted son of a bitch who would shoot first, ask questions later, intimidate and/or murder his way through the galaxy to get what he wanted, and not play by anybody's rules, not even his own.  So in keeping with that spirit of badassery/assholery/douchebaggery, my first inclination was to begin a romance with the baddest baddass woman I could find: Jack.

Jack seemed the perfect fit for my newly reminted Renegade Shepard.  When given the choice in these kinds of games, I tend to play the "good" side, so I was looking forward to mixing things up a bit.  It started out well.  I was doing all kinds of Renegade shit.  Even my own teammates who were mercenaries and assassins and murderers were questioning some of my actions.  I was one bad motherfucker.  It was pretty early on in the romance, and all of the sudden Jack asks me if I wanted to fuck her.  And I thought about it for a second, then I figured that A) From what I know the sex scene happens just before the final mission, so if I happened to change my mind there'd still be a chance to romance someone else (Hey, I was a fucking Renegade) and B) My new badass Shepard would definitely say yes to any sexual invitation from a heavily-tattooed, totally hot, murderous ex-con, wearing only a leather belt to cover her nipples.

I was happy.

Imagine my surprise when Shepard and Jack got down and dirty right then and there on the floor of the engine room.  This chain of events completely contradicted my narrative expectations set by the first game and I left the encounter kind of stunned.  Despite my intention to play as a Renegade and the fascination that comes with depictions of sex, I felt kind of bummed.  As a heterosexual male, the urge to fuck an attractive member of the opposite sex was natural, but I had expected some sort of build up.  Some sort of prelude.  Instead we had just fucked.  Just because.  This was not part of my normative life experience.  Plus, the backstory for Jack was that she had been abused and betrayed and used by practically everybody she had ever known, and I had basically just done the same thing.  Unintentionally, of course, but I suppose that's the point.  The decisions we make can have unforeseen or unintended consequences.

My intention had been to woo Jack throughout the game, proving to her that I wasn't like everybody else she had known, and that it was possible to trust other people despite all of the shit she'd gone through.  I was going to try and give her something to believe in, and then I realized two things.  One, my dream of being a purely Renegade badass was officially over before I had even completed a quarter of the game.  And two, I was a complete jackass.  By trying to romance Jack in an effort to prove that she could trust again, I was really feeding into the Hero Paradigm, whereby I felt it necessary to save everybody. This meant that the real reason I was trying to get into Jack's already pretty loose pants was out of some misplaced sense of nobility, which was really kind of arrogant and conceited and sort of insulting.  Then I felt guilty because I was using my relationship with Jack as a way to feed my own ego, and that wouldn't be fair to either of us.

I was sad.

So I dropped the romance with Jack, and as I feared, I was unable to keep up my Renegade ways when confronted with other decisions in the game, and fell back on my old Paragon roots.  For the most part, anyway.  Then as I started rounding out my team, and low and behold Tali -one of the characters from the first game- finally joins up with me again.  And so I start chatting her up, to keep my options open, because my forlorn Commander Shepard was still looking for love in the galaxy.

And as I'm flirting with Tali, I start leaning more and more towards her as a romantic interest, and then the thought occurs.  I have a history with this girl.  In the first Mass Effect my go to squad mates were Wrex and Tali.  I took them along in practically every mission; Wrex for his fighting ability and Tali for her engineering prowess.  Then my mind started filling in these narrative gaps.  Tali always stuck by my side.  She was the first to volunteer for missions.  She had saved my (virtual) life on several occasions.  She was out there mixing it up with krogan battlemasters, but she also had this really vulnerable side when I talked to her in private.  She was intelligent, possessing both a technical proficiency and expertise in engineering, passionate in her quest to aid her people, and had grown from a naive girl into someone who was capable of occupying a leadership role, leading teams of her own on dangerous missions across the galaxy.  Plus, I was really curious as to what quarians looked like under their suits.

I was happy.

Then I happened to be at a bar.  Totally on a mission... to get wasted, bitches!  And also helping out Liara, who had been my love interest in ME, but without the appropriate DLC ("Lair of the Shadow Broker," totally awesome) she just makes a brief cameo in ME2, and I couldn't actively continue the romance, besides which she had changed a lot in two years.  But anyway.  I was at this bar, and I overheard this conversation between this quarian and a turian who was trying to get into her proverbial pants, and during the course of this exchange she mentioned how people were trying to sleep with quarians just to see what they looked like under their masks.

And it occurred to me that perhaps my eagerness to see Tali without her gear on was a sort of fetishization of her and her people, and actually quite insensitive, and a rather unhealthy foundation for any kind of romantic relationship.  I actually began to consider how Tali would feel if she knew that was one of the reasons I was pursuing our relationship, even though I was conscious of the fact that technically she was still a character in a narrative and not a flesh and blood person who actually couldn't feel anything in the traditional sense.  But the emotional affect was real to me.  I realized that despite my best efforts, my intentions had not been as pure as I had first thought.

I was sad.

Then I did Tali's loyalty mission, and I won't get into details, but it came down to a choice between having Tali exiled from her people for crimes she didn't commit or having her father's memory dishonoured for crimes he actually did commit and having Tali hate me for it.  Both of these options sucked total balls, and I was really fucking frustrated because I couldn't help Tali.  My Tali.  The real kick of it was, there were actually three ways I could have helped her.  Had either my Paragon or Renegade level been sufficiently high enough, I would have had more speech options and could have avoided either negative outcome, or if I had saved two characters earlier in the game (I had failed to save one), they would come to her aid and again save both her future and her father's reputation.

I was really fucking sad.

In keeping with the spirit of the game, I was going to let it slide because in life you don't have foreknowledge so you have to live with the consequences, good or bad.  But this was Tali.  My Tali.  So I SUPERMANed the shit out of Tali's loyalty mission, replaying nearly three hours of the game so I had accumulated what I hoped were enough Paragon points to be able to clear both her name and her father's.  So, finally, the moment of truth came and I wasn't quite sure if I could pull it off, and I really wasn't willing to replay that section of the game a third time, so this was it.  I had given it my all.  And the dialogue option came up, and sure enough the blue text of the Paragon dialogue choice was highlighted.

And no word of a lie, I actually stood up out of my chair, possessed of some mad energy, and performed the infamous Fist Pump of Victory.  Alone.  By myself.  In the basement of my house.  I can't remember the last time any artistic endeavor actually physically made me get up out of my seat either in joy or consternation.  (Well, I can recall specific instances, they are just few and far between.)  I had difficulty understanding it myself.  But I had saved my Tali.

I was happy.

Then later I talked to her again, and she let slip that she totally had feelings for me, and the option came up and I was able to reciprocate.  Finally!  And then we started talking about the practicalities of pursuing a physical relationship.  The deal with the quarians and why they always wear their suits is because their immune systems are much weaker than most other races, and they get sicker a lot easier, so casual sex was kind of out of the question right now.  No, we needed serious prep.  She had to take antibiotics and herbal supplements and shit just so when we finally did the deed (Kif, inform the men I have made it with a woman) and exchanged bodily fluids she wouldn't die from snoo-snoo.  Once again, she was willing to risk her well-being and perhaps even her life to be with me.

I was really happy.

The time finally came before the last mission and sure enough I had my romantic encounter with Tali.  And there was no nudity, and though it showed her removing her mask, I never actually saw her face.  And I was totally cool with that.  By that point all the bullshit adolescent obsession with the voyeurism aspect had kind of melted away as I had evolved alongside my character.  It was no longer just about sex (although Shepard totally got laid, yo).  It was about the culmination of an emotionally engaging narrative arc where I felt like I had actually engaged with this character in a meaningful, significant way.

I was stoked.

Then we went on the Suicide Mission, and I kept having to make potentially life and death choices, and assigning different team members to different missions.  And it was then I realized I could never be an effective military commander, because I was totally unable to make objective decisions totally divorced from my emotions and personal connections.  I kept assigning Tali mission objectives to try and make sure she was in the least danger because I couldn't stand the thought of losing her.

I was fucking stressed as all hell.

In the end, though, Tali totally made it through.

I was happy again!

To many people, this entire description of my virtual romance might sound crazy.  It might sound as though I had suffered some kind of mental break and had reached some level of psychosis where I could not distinguish between fantasy and reality, and that it was sheer escapism in the worst sense of the word, a Charlie Sheen-sized detachment from reality.  While I can't reasonably argue that I'm not insane (as any true madman would not be aware of his madness and insist with increasing volume and intensity that he was indeed completely sane), I can say with absolute certainty that at no point was I not conscious on some level that I was playing a video game.  Just like when I'm watching a movie I know I'm watching a movie or when I'm reading a book, I know I'm reading a book.  And though I know that Tali does not exist as a self-actualized being with a physical body occupying real sense and time, I still became totally infatuated with her.

This is because of the emotional affect I experienced while engaging with the narrative.  And though the narrative may be fictional, emotions can't be.  The physical experiences of travelling through space fighting the forces of evil, saving the galaxy, kicking ass, and getting the girl were virtual, but the emotions I felt as I interacted and took part in these events were real.  And it's kind of a mind-fuck when you stop to think about it.  Virtual experiences can produce real emotions, so the question then becomes where the line is drawn between the real and the virtual.  And for anyone who has ever been moved by a piece of art, and yes I include video games in that category, the answer is not so cut and dry.

Some would question my inclusion of video games under the umbrella of Art, but for me it's a pretty large canopy.  Movies, and books, and video games to me are all examples of art.  The question usually boils down to the quality and the relative cultural significance of each individual piece of art.  As for Mass Effect 2, though there were some elements I would have changed, to me represents a huge step forward in legitimizing video games in the main stream as it is part of a trilogy which can truly be described as epic, both in the modern, bloated sense of the word and the classic literary definition.  Mass Effect 2, like its predecessor, is an easy 10/10.  I am now reached the level of "total stokage" on the Stoked-o-Meter to play Mass Effect 3, and if all the whiny internet bitches are wrong about the problems in number 3 (especially with the ending apparently) then this is shaping up to be one of my favourite trilogies of anything ever.              


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