I gave this talk at Videobrains in February 2014.
This talk is about is how Bioware managed to make me cry my eyes out about fictional aliens. And just so you know, when I was writing that sentence my throat got all choked up and I had to pause in the middle before I could continue writing it. But as I have repeatedly said, I’m a fucking professional, so.
Bioware are pretty well-known for their character creation and relationship mechanics; I still haven’t played much Dragon Age, but I hear there’s some guy called Alistair who’s pretty cool. You can tell me all about him later.
My talk is about Mass Effect, and I’m going to try and break down the reasons WHY the romances in Mass Effect seem to get under our collective skin. They don’t just do it with the romance options, either; let me tell you that Captain Anderson telling me he was proud of me and then dying in my arms also resulted in tears. But then I have a soft spot for father figures with a badass side.
In my opinion, the first reason is that all of them have distinct personalities – and let’s be clear here, there are a TON of romanceable characters, so that makes it even more impressive.
Garrus: ex-police sniper dude with a waist-hip ratio to die for
Ashley: traditional and strong-minded soldier that I personally don’t really get on with
Kaiden: cannot take a hint in the slightest
Liara: incredibly sweet and sort of magical archaelogist
Thane: seems a bit high all the time, but in a very sad way
Tali: adorable nerd on her first proper adventure
Steve: grieving his lost husband, but one of the most well-adjusted people on board
Miranda: sarky fucker with an unexpected soft centre
Jack: pretty unstable, but for good reason; also the most fun to take into battle. Reminds me of Faith from Buffy.
Jacob: stalwart and loyal guy who will go far
Morinth: seductive serial killer
Samara: seductive serial killer’s mother with a ruthless sense of justice, which can go badly for both of them
Diana Allers: stubborn and smart journalist
Kelly Chambers: essentially your PA and has an uncanny ability to know who you should be talking to
Samantha Traynor: the British version of Kelly Chambers
Plus, there’s James Vega (Mr I’m-So-Tough-Until-You-Actually-Flirt-Back) and Javik (Mr I’m-The-Last-Of-My-Entire-Species-And-Very-Bitter-About-It), though you only get to have a fling with them in the Citadel DLC. You should all get that DLC if you haven’t already.
In total, that’s 17 characters, and they’re all completely different from each other, with unique dialogue and cut-scenes. Plus, shout out to some excellent voice actors too! They have put a ton of thought into this, and it really shows.
The distinct personalities of each character means you can genuinely pick the one you like best, and that’s an option you don’t usually get if there’s an option at all. Personally I’ve always wished you could romance Wrex but I guess there would be some logistical issues there.
Anyway, in the second game, your knowledge of their different personalities and strengths means life or death – that’s how well Bioware wants you to know them. The last mission of Mass Effect 2 can go TERRIBLY wrong if you’ve just rushed through the game, not done the sidequests, don’t know the characters very well and don’t give them the right things to do.
If you’re not careful, they could die. For. The rest. Of the trilogy. How cruel and awesome is that?! We all know how rare that is, right?
And they make such a point of it. In the third game, the creators repeatedly tell you in various ways “You can’t save everyone” – from Thane to Mordin to that little kid at the beginning. You can’t do anything to stop entire planets getting taken over by the Reapers either.
Even with that and all my in-depth knowledge of foreshadowing, do you realise how long it took me to come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t save Thane?
It took me until he ACTUALLY, LITERALLY died from the disease he told me he had when I first met him to accept that I couldn’t change that – because he was special, not just any NPC, and there’s always a way around these things in games, right? If you just do this quest a bit quicker, or go and talk to someone before someone else, or unlock a conversation option with him, you can do what you want to.
Except that’s not life. That’s not real. And as much as many of us use games for escapism, if they’re not grounded in some sort of reality then it’s not going to have the emotional impact on you that Bioware were clearly going for – and make no mistake, they were going for heartbroken.
And even if you do everything right, and all your friends and your lover survive, and you’ve kitted out the Normandy sparing no expense, and you’ve got all the armies together that you needed…you still probably die at the end of Mass Effect 3, or as close to dying as makes no difference. And this is what really got me: in the last conversation with Garrus, he says – and I quote:
“Come back alive. It’d be an awfully empty galaxy without you.”
Are you fucking kidding me?!
Another way that Bioware builds up your virtual relationship with these characters is through the sheer amount of time that you can spend with them.
Each game can take up to 30 hours to complete, depending on how completionist you are, and there’s three of them. These are looooong games. You meet your core team in the first game, round them and some extra cool people up in the second, and in the third you meet most of them again after their lives have moved on a bit. You can get your core team back, but many of the others stay on other planets and colonies. That is a lot of time to get to know people in a game.
Plus, depending on who it is, each person has at least one sidequest that progresses their character – and sometimes the way they develop afterwards is different, depending on how you act with them.
For example, in Mass Effect 2 Garrus has a sidequest where he wants to track down and shoot the guy who betrayed him. At first I was like “SHOOT HIM, SHOOT HIM GOOD” because I do not tolerate disloyalty, but it felt hollow afterwards. So I reloaded and stopped him, which I KNOW is against the whole point of the game but I felt so much better when he thanked me for it. I personally would still have shot him, but it wouldn’t have been good for Garrus to have done that.
Anyway, the point is you can have a real effect on their decisions, their future, and whether they survive; and that is a sense of responsibility that I have very, very rarely felt.
I honestly think that that’s what it comes down to: you end up feeling like an actual leader of these people. You feel the weight of your decisions just like you would in real life – though, full disclosure, I have never been the commander of a spaceship.
I think I’m just going to quickly talk about the endings to each of these games. In Mass Effect 1, you can lose Wrex if you don’t have enough Paragon/Renegade points, and you HAVE to lose Ashley or Kaidan.
I picked Ashley and then regretted it because Kaidan still couldn’t take a hint. Otherwise, it ends sort of positively – you take down Saren and walk away with this smile on your face that says “yeah, fuck you.” The Reapers are still coming and possibly the end of the world, but you proved that you’re Awesome with a capital A.
Mass Effect 2 is basically the opposite of that. You can get your entire crew killed – not just from making bad decisions, but from a lack of preparation. If you haven’t upgraded the Normandy as much as is possible, then people will die on the ship. If you haven’t done the loyalty missions of your crew, they will die on the Collector base. If you don’t know what people are good at – i.e. that Garrus is good at defending, Legion is good at tech, Samara is good at biotics – then yet more people will die en route to the creepy Reaper baby.
If you are shit at all of those things, then literally everyone dies — including you, because you have to have someone other than Joker to help you onto the ship. So if you’re only playing this for the first time and don’t realise how important loyalty and side quests are, you can unwittingly lose the lover you’ve been flirting with for the whole game. If someone else dies, you get a sense of “oh shit why did that happen what did I do what if another person dies” and if it’s your first time you have NO WAY TO TELL.
In Mass Effect 3, there’s a mechanic where you have to acquire war assets to prepare for the final attack, and you do a last goodbye with the characters who have survived all three games so far. As each one stacks up, and you remember the ending of the previous game, you get an increasing sense of “uh oh shit is really going to go down in the finale”. Even I got that sense, and I am a relentlessly optimistic person.
So you go into the ending of Mass Effect 3 fully expecting there will be some cutscenes of your friends dying due to some fuck-up you made earlier on – or I did, anyway. Instead, you die. And yes, I’m aware that you can achieve the perfect ending where Shephard takes one breath at the end with a lot of work – but that’s not what happened to me, and I don’t think it happened to many other people first time round either.
So you see your own dead body, and it’s like…oh shit. Who the fuck is going to look after everyone?! Your mileage may vary, but I think that hurts worse than one of the others dying; because even though you’ve saved the galaxy, you feel like you’ve still failed your loved ones by not coming back to them.
So I sat there, just sort of staring at my laptop screen at 2AM in the morning with tears that I am NOT ASHAMED OF running down my face, and I thought: Garrus is going to be devastated.
Do you see what they did!? Because of the necessity of getting to know my crewmembers at least a bit, because of how aware I was of how my choices would affect them, because of my understanding that oh shit they could die, there is such a sense of responsibility built up that you feel that the consequences of this game are REAL.
This is how to write characters, friends.
Just so we don’t end on a really sad note, I just want to mention the Citadel DLC and what it adds. To be blunt, what it adds is basically a ton of fun, injokes for the fans, little intimate moments with each of your friends, and a party. And it’s little touches like this, even if they are in DLC, that shows me that Bioware really cares about its characters in this game and it cares how you feel about them.
That’s what you need. That’s what the whole industry needs when it wants to do a story-driven game on this scale: it needs this level of commitment, this level of depth, this level of thought put into the characters and your relationships with them.
And, er, that’s it from me I think.