About a month ago I started to get reacquainted with the Mass Effect series. I played the first game about a week before it came out, thanks to some lax street date enforcement at Large Almost-Defunct Retail Establishment, but I was never able to get into it the way that I did with other BioWare titles. It wasn’t until the release of Mass Effect 2 that I finished the first Mass Effect, in order to have a character to import into the new game; bringing an existing character into a sequel was (and still is, as far as I know) a unique approach to building a series, and I was eager to see what they did with it.
Playing through Mass Effect 2 with an original Mass Effect character was rewarding, but there was still something absent from the experience; I missed the role-playing elements from the first game that had been toned down or completely removed for Mass Effect 2, and the lack of feedback in combat brought the game much closer towards the actiony-shootery side of the border than I like. I prefer to be bombarded with information as I play a game with role-playing tendencies: experience points gained, damage indicators, status effects, you name it. Basically, if it’s got a floating number attached to it, or it turns my dwarf green, I’m all over it.
As much as there was something missing from Mass Effects Uno y Dos, there was something elusively compelling about them as well. Even with my recent sojourn into Mass Effect 3, I couldn’t have told you what it was that kept me coming back again and again, trying to love a series with which I previously only had a respectful, nodding acquaintance; I played Mass Effect 3 from beginning to end with my imported character, and still couldn’t explain the series’ allure. Then, in a fit of misguided trust for aggregate review sites, I played a a fairly new game that has been universally praised (which shall remain nameless); in the process of discovering just how much I hated this darling of the mainstream gaming media, I also discovered the slippery appeal of Mass Effect.
As I’ve said before, destruction is easy. Any asswipe can pick up a jackhammer and criticize someone else’s work; just surf for fifteen minutes in any direction on the Internet and you’ll see what I’m talking about. But what happens when people who hold destruction as their highest value are capable of much more than commentary? What happens when they’re talented and creative and fully subscribe to a Romanticist’s view of art, that is: recreating the world “as it might be and ought to be”? What happens then is that you get games like the one I played last week, games set against the same kind of background of destruction and decay that has become all too popular over the last 10 or so years.
I am sick to death of crawling through the rubble of civilization in games like Fallout 3, which I enjoyed a great deal, but which also displayed the worst premises of any game I’ve ever played. (It’s been two hundred years since the bombs fell, but not a single new building has been built? Not a single thing has been done by the survivors to pick themselves up out of the shit and walk upright again?) Civilization doesn’t work that way, but then I must remind myself that Fallout 3 is not naturalism; Romanticism necessarily plays fast and loose with reality in order to depict the background that’s required for telling a specific story. In the case of Fallout 3, the only setting that could possibly serve as a background for the story’s theme (self-sacrifice as the only path to virtue) is one of widespread, complete, and irreparable destruction.
What is it that motivates the aforementioned talented and creative people to set their games among corruption and ruin? What is it about the background of “destroyed beauty” that appeals to guys like Cliff Bleszinski in creating a game like Gears of War? What is it that motivated the people in creative control of the game that I played last week (which shall still remain nameless because, quite unlike Fallout 3, I really hated that bastard) to depict scenes of squalor and desolation on a scale heretofore unseen in a contemporary urban setting? Please note that with the exception of Fallout 3, which offered destruction without prejudice, it is always humanity and its creations that get the thermonuclear shaft, while nature picks up a Get Out of Armageddon Free card. The reasoning goes something like this: If you’re a tree, or a bush, or a cute cuddly little animal, you’re fine; if you’re a building, or a car, or a human, you’re fucked.
It’s not difficult to pick out the Romanticism in games (and even books) like The Stand and That Game I Played Last Week; in using a background of destruction, it’s humanity’s right to exist as humanity that is questioned. It’s humanity’s right to exist within a technological civilization that is maligned, as in such fiction it is almost always technology that ushers humanity to the open cabin door, places its foot squarely against humanity’s undeserving posterior and, before informing it that its parachute is a knapsack, gives it a hearty David Beckham kick. Out you go, dillhole, and don’t stop for Twinkies on the way down.
What causes this pervasive disdain for technology and civilization? (And pervasive it is; look around and see for yourself how many games, movies, books, and TV shows are set against a background of destruction.) Apologists would no doubt say that it’s because technology is the cause of all the world’s problems — after all, it’s never some fifth-world village that courts annihilation at the hands of a guilt-ridden novelist or game designer — but apologists of any variety are reliably full of shit, and apologists for the apocalypse are even worse. I don’t know the exact cause, but if you closely examine these games/movies/books, there’s a common thematic element that winds its way throughout each; the destruction of the individual in favor of the group. Fallout 3 goes so far as to demand (in terms of the game’s morality system) the needless death of the player character in order to retain the game’s karmic approval. This is the naked essence of altruism, the inevitable product of which is destruction, decay, and corruption.
The Mass Effect series takes place largely in clean, sterile, man-made environments, and it does not hold humanity’s rise to the stars as the greatest justification for its destruction. Sure, there are locations in all three games that are crumbled and rubbly, but they are comparatively few and far between. There is the notion (without spoilers) that reaching too far and achieving too much is grounds for a solid walloping, but this idea is not held up as the games’ theme. Instead, this is an idea to be fought at every opportunity and at every turn of the story.
And that is what kept me coming back. Regardless of the controversy surrounding the end of Mass Effect 3, whether you love it or hate it, it can never be said that the games exist to justify someone’s misanthropic vision of humanity’s proper place in the galaxy. Today, at a time when far too many creators regard humanity’s proper place as the delightfully downtrodden rabble of a dead or dying world, it’s refreshing to play an entire series of games that depicts humans soaring among the stars — not as slaves or villains or ignorant savages — but as optimistic newcomers, redeemers, and equals in apparent magnitude with the galaxy’s brightest civilizations.