Mass(ively) Effect(ive)

This Tuesday sees the release of the latest entry to the Mass Effect franchise, Mass Effect: Andromeda; a game where players get to explore the Andromeda galaxy. Given that Andromeda begins following the conclusion of Mass Effect 2, I wanted to offer an overview of the series in order to add context.

In 2007, Bioware – opting for their own take on sci-fi after making Star Wars: Knight of the Old Republic –  released Mass Effect, their take on a third-person shooter/RPG hybrid. What’s very notable, is that not only were they creating their own mythology and universe, but actively envisioned a trilogy of games from the very beginning. Additionally, Bioware focused on creating a system for player choice to be a vibrant component to facilitate true impact from these choices. The player assumes the role of Commander Shepard, being able to determine how the character looks, acts, his/her background and specialty, all based on user preference.

Personally, I am a huge science fiction fan and Mass Effect seemed to be an experience I couldn’t pass up once I heard about it. As I began to explore the Mass Effect games, I was quick to realize that childhood sci-fi favorites like Star Trek had nothing on the lifeforms created for this franchise.

Mass Effect‘s alien species feel very alive and most of that comes from the shipmates you encounter on your journey. Through characters like the weapons specialist Turian Garrus Vakarian, the Asari Dr. Liara T’Soni, the Quarian engineer Tali’Zorah nar Rayya, and the Krogan warrior Urdnot Wrex, each of the major races you encounter feels more fleshed out, allowing the player a more personal connection to some of the large scale conflicts happening in the game.

One of the larger aspects of the game is the in-game character-to-character dialogue one can choose to engage in. Speaking to your shipmates will reveal conflicts and point you in directions to solve them. Black Market trades, war atrocities, and issues stemming from belief and religion rear their heads during play. It was common in my own playthrough to have my morals challenged knowing full well it would affect not only the characters in the vicinity, but would undoubtedly create unforeseen circumstances later in the game(s).

With Mass Effect giving the player a way to control their own future, it gives true weight to the decisions you make as Commander Shepard by having them be reflected and recounted by NPCs. The story of the game does traverse along a path, but the player has the ability to add variances to the story and in this way make it their own. Before Mass Effect, I had not experienced a video game that accomplished such a branching story to such a successful degree. During my own playthroughs, it felt like I was getting closer to these characters and doing my own self-discovery. It ended up being that much more rewarding since I had to bide my time and ask these characters questions in order to dig a little deeper and learn more about them, their motivations, and what makes them tick.

Mass Effect is truly a fantastic introduction of a living and breathing sci-fi world that isn’t perfect. That imperfection drives a lot of the drama, and from there arises an interaction and experience that blew me away. Coming up on the 10th anniversary of the release of the game and given that no game is without flaws, I would say that it is one of the best RPGs to have come out for the last generation of gaming consoles. Since release, Mass Effect has earned 12 awards including RPG of the Year (2007, TeamXbox), Best Original Score (2007, IGN), and Best Story on PC (2008, IGN).

If you are interested in trying Mass Effect out for yourself, here are some links to get you started:

Steam on Windows for $20

EA’s Origin Service for $15

PlayStation 3 for $15

On Xbox 360 and Xbox One for $20

In addition, a box set of Mass Effect is available for $16.95 – $29.99, depending on your preferred platform on Amazon. Or, as always, check with your local used game shop!

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Choices and Games as Art

So, the other day I had what could be described as an emotional experience brought on by a game. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does I have to stand up and take notice. Now, fair warning to everyone, I will be describing events in the game by TellTale Games, The Walking Dead: Season One. There will be spoilers as I try to describe the events.

Anyone still here? Good! Let’s move on.

Early on in the game, you meet up with a family from Florida that gets caught in Georgia due to the dead rising up. This family consists of Kenny, a fisherman from Ft. Lauderdale; Katjaa, his wife and a veterinarian and pacifist; and their son, Kenny Jr., who is nicknamed Duck since nothing seems to bother him.

kenny

Now, you spend a few months with these folks (split up as episodes to the player) as you try to keep them alive, and you’ll choose whether to side with Kenny on issues or with other members of your band. The problem with siding with Kenny though, is that he always puts his family ahead of other survivors. It’s what makes the events of episode 3, Long Road Ahead, that much harder to bear.

Early into the episode, the player needs to fend off a bandit attack on the group’s base at an old motel. During the fight the player will successfully repel the bandits, but the noise and commotion attracts a few walkers (what the walking dead universe calls it’s zombies). At the very end of all the commotion, Katjaa and Duck become trapped under a walker. Either the player must take the shot and kill the walker, or Kenny will come in and save the day. Then everyone jumps in an RV and leaves the motel.

After a stop that has some grand consequences for the group, Katjaa will reveal to the player that Duck was bit by that walker. In classic zombie lore, a bite will mean that that person will soon die and then turn. All they can do now is try to make him comfortable. But right away Katjaa asks that you tell Clementine. Clementine is a girl no older than Duck is. I started freaking out at that point because personally, I’m no good with kids, but how in the world do you tell a kid “Hey, that kid you were playing with earlier today? Yea, he won’t make it through the night.” But remarkably, the game does give some great options for talking to her and after all she has already seen, it doesn’t faze her like it might other kids.

It gets worse for the family though. Since the discovery of Duck’s bite, Kenny immediately goes into a state of denial. Insisting that he will get better and pull through. The player has to convince Kenny by show of kindness or force that this is his last chance to say goodbye to his son. But what follows during the goodbye is unexpected.

Kenny and Katjaa pick up their son, wheezing and skin turning gray, and walk into the forest to do the unfortunate act of putting their own son out of his misery and making sure he can’t come back and harm anyone after they leave. The player has a choice here too, and can allow Kenny and Katjaa to carry that burden or the player can volunteer and do the sad deed instead. Talk about heavy stuff.

Now, as they go alone to say their goodbyes, a shot rings out and Kenny screams NOOOOOOOOO through the forest. What was expected to be one death becomes two. Katjaa, having seen plenty of death and, (I assume), unable to bear the weight of saying goodbye to her son, commits suicide in front of her dying son and husband. The sadness coming from Kenny, however crafted it might be rang true. The man tries everything to put his family first in the most dire of circumstances and ends up losing it all anyway. Then the moment of truth comes.

The player now has to either watch the grief-stricken Kenny shoot a bullet through his son’s head, or the player has to aim and shoot. I lost it about then. I had been expecting to do the family a service of killing Duck so that they wouldn’t have to, and instead two people go down and one becomes terminally depressed. For the remainder of the episode, you can try to have a conversation with Kenny but he won’t be very responsive. Even when trying to solve a problem, he looks and sounds like a shell of his former self.

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The choices I mention in this recap is just a fraction of the choices you make in a single episode. But these decisions can drastically alter events and make the game more of a tailored experience. This game along with others are the biggest reason I believe games to be a new art form.

Take that last scene for example, in a TV show or movie, most people will have an emotional response to the event, and they should. But I believe my reaction was stronger and more pronounced because of the interactive qualities of the medium. I’m not just an audience member inactively watching events unfold and being unable to say “LOOK OUT!” to someone about to die in a film. No, here I can shape the events, choose who lives and who dies, and how Clementine sees the world. Oh yes, think about it, if I were to choose to kill a man out of revenge in front of her, she remembers in and could possibly grow up in this zombie apocalypse believing that is how people should be treated. And therein lies one of the best reasons I can think of to play these choice-based games.

They force you to think in ways you normally wouldn’t. The Walking Dead in particular challenges your morals and forces you to make decisions with limited time to think on it. We’ve come a long way from the first time my mind was blown as a kid, and Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II asked if I wanted light side or dark side abilities in 1997. Choices are very much the future of games and I cannot wait to see what developers have me choose between next.

If I have peaked your interest and you want to buy The Walking Dead’s first season, here are some links! Just pick your favorite platform and enjoy! Or, head to your nearest retailer.