Mass Effect and the Silent Protagonist

I’ve finally caught up with the rest of 2007 and played Mass Effect. I’ve long resisted its charms, the mating ritual drawn out and protracted, each individual step of our dance expressed over months and years, until I gave in and whispered, “yes.” Shepard and crew have now raised the veil, kissed me on the cheek, paid the priest, and I find myself their blushing bride. It was a good honeymoon, and I expect our home life to be comfortable and settled.

How come I didn’t play this sooner, you ask? Simple.

Bioware’s games, widely considered the benchmarks of Western RPGs, feature deep storylines, fascinating characters, and game-wide affecting morality choices, all presented through scores and scores of dialog delivered by wooden puppets with glass eyed stares. Wrap this around impressive looking, though hardly innovative, combat (Jade Empire excluded); lush, empty worlds; and endings so rushed, so generic, they feel like cold slaps to baby buttocks. What’s not to love? Bioware, time and again, serves up the same microwaved Salisbury steak for supper, and we gobble it down like Christmas Goose. They’ve fallen into such a rut you could almost mistake them for Nintendo, though no one would dare utter such blasphemy against the makers of Baldur’s Gate 2. I mean, did you play KOTOR?! Don’t you remember the twist?!

Twists don’t make stories, and they certainly don’t make games.

For Mass Effect, it seems Bioware looked back on all their previous work and thought, “How can we make the dialog not a slog? Is there a way to have scripted events and character interactions during gameplay? Do we really need dice-roll combat?” They took a deep breath, raised a foot in the air, and leaped straight through the goddamn cinematic roof. Mass Effect makes dialog feel so interactive it’s shocking. Gone are the days of spelled out, prescribed options after someone speaks while they look at you expectantly and wait for an answer. Instead, you select vague choices off the incredibly clever dialog wheel. In just one conversation, Shepard can walk forward, take something from another character, look at it, glance up at the other character while speaking, shake their hand, then take out a gun and grind the barrel against their temple. All this occurs at a lightning quick pace where you’re never quite sure what Shepard’s going to say next. Compare this to KOTOR or even Final Fantasy XII, where direct character interaction took place only after the screen fades to black, your party members magically appeared out of thin air, and Vaan squealed about how he’s a baron from Dalmasca or something. Mass Effect’s characters still look like clay models, ones where the bug up their ass made friends with the stick, but they no longer just wave a hand through the air from time to time. That’s called progress. It’s a shame Dragon Age: Origins took none of these innovations to heart.

In fact, Dragon Age is indicative of a much larger problem with Western RPGs: the faceless main character. How so much emphasis was placed on the origin of your character that it was even put into the title of the game, yet your background is almost superfluous once you become a Gray Warden, is beyond me. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if, instead of six characters, you could choose, say, only three, each with their own unique voice and overall story? Though it would be at the sacrifice of customization (boo-hoo), a limited number of choices would instantly focus what stories remain by conveying them through more specific eyes. While I can appreciate the larger political story Bioware wanted to tell in Dragon Age, its three races, two genders, and complex caste systems didn’t accomplish the same thematic goals that Mass Effect did with a much tighter, more focused plot with only one human.

Mass Effect’s intricate plot engages largely because your character has a voice. The lightning quick conversations would be totally ineffective if Shepard didn’t participate actively. While you’re given control over the general idea of what Shepard’s going to say, you never know when a finger’s going to get pointed in someone’s face or, better yet, a gun. Little surprises instill conversations with an element of tension and suspense in ways that a silent protagonist would be unable to accomplish. Better yet, Shepard has a name. All too often in RPGs, you choose the character’s name which was a harmless practice in the days of text. But with modern day voice acting, it can be downright obnoxious once you realize that nobody, at any point, ever, refers to Tidus by name. Then his name, one could argue, isn’t Tidus, since the story certainly doesn’t support it. Even in FFX-2, a game almost completely centered on a non-playable Tidus, no one refers to him by name. It can drive men mad. A voice and name, Bioware proves, can work wonders on a character, though they called it a day’s work at this point and almost regrettably left everything else up to the player.

You start a new game by choosing to either select a pre-made character or creating one for yourself. Should you choose the latter, the game’s ID access system rather cleverly finds that Shepard’s data is “corrupted,” and you must manually recreate the information. It’s slick, subtle, and fits right in with the rest of the sci-fi setting. The Shepard I created was a no-nonsense red headed woman, because (to paraphrase Lara Croft’s creators) if I’m going to tour around the galaxy and have sex with blue aliens, I might as well enjoy the ass I’m staring at and make damn sure it’s lesbian sex. I tinkered around with the sliding scale options until Shepard had pretty blue eyes, a strong jaw line, a scar just tough enough to look cute. My roommate flipped open the manual and held up a picture of a brunette with a pony tail. “Their girl looks hot, what’s your problem?” He was right. My Shepard wasn’t hot. She wasn’t even girl next door cute. She looked like Joan Rivers after her maiden nip: okay, but just a little off. Try as I might, I couldn’t seem to put her duck lips in proportion with Michael Jackson’s nose. I fiddled around until I decided twenty minutes was enough time wasted and resigned to her as my character.

The opening cut-scene was everything I wanted: beautiful art direction with motivated action and a clear mission established. The Human Alliance was under threat, and only Jane Shepard could stop them! I marched up to General Anderson and…was horrified as soon as I opened my overbite mouth. The Shepard I created looked completely alien, like a manga character drawn by some newly pubescent ten year old. The visuals impressed, the voice acting was great, but I could only see the flaws in what I had created. Jane Shepard was a mess, and I couldn’t live with it.

Thank god for the pre-generated character.

In reality, the Jane Shepard Bioware provides didn’t look too different from my own. Both were red heads, shared many of the same facial features, and even the same cute scar. There was one huge difference, though: I didn’t make theirs. Any characteristic flaws or niggling features was their fault, not mine. If their Jane had duck lips (and she does, just a little), it’s because they made her, not me. I could accept those decisions, and move on. Now Jane was her own character, not mine.

The buzz concept of Western RPGs right now is character creation, though I can’t imagine why. This poses no problem for the silent protagonist, who’s essentially a blank slate to begin with; no matter what fond memories people have of Chrono, his was at his most expressive when his shoulders shook while laughing. Perhaps game designers have danced around the silent protagonist long enough that they thought, “Hell, why not just let the player dream up whoever they want if we’re not going to define the character?” The Elder Scrolls and Fallout can get away with the silent types because our character never talks in a world so sprawling it takes precedent over story. But for RPGs that wish to convey a sharper plot and more character development, is customization really necessary? You’re still allowed control over the Witcher’s actions and choices, but he remains an incredibly defined, and therefore more interesting, character with his own morality in an amoral world. Would we feel more attached to Geralt if we could change his face, hair, and skin tone? Like Chrono, Shepard’s not exactly an expressive person. She frowned and raised eyebrows like nobody’s business, but she once attempted to smile in a conversation with Ashley and I thought her mouth was about to fall off her face. When you think about how many mouths and sizes Bioware had to account for, it’s amazing Shepard could move her lips at all.

Bioware almost dropped the ball with Shepard. It’s only through the strength of the voice acting and vague dialog choices that a defined character emerges at all. Given the bulk of their previous work, and how generic Shepard ended up in spite of everywhere, Bioware must have had an internal war over whether to give Shepard a name and voice. The yes-men, number crunchers, and bean counters hemmed and hawed from the corners of their tables, pointing to arcane charts and diagrams that read, “Things We’ve Done Before That Made Much Moolah.” One stalwart stood apart from the rest. He jerked back his Viking helmet, folded powerful arms over a (no doubt) broad chest, and bellowed from massive lungs, “We must be different!” All doubters met the space between the flat blade of his axe and a single concrete wall, soon pasted over with the blood and brains of weaker men. Delegates arrived after several hours of battle, and a treaty was forced between the lone warrior and the frightened masses- frightened of change and the loss of gross profit. They would keep the radical new combat system, and a well defined main character, but the programmers must include character customization and slow moving elevators, lest people fall too much in love with new horizons. Our man should be awarded with medals. Statues should be erected in his name. On his birthday, children should stay home from school, ignorant of his contribution to society but glad for it anyway, a Casmir Pulaski of videogames. His legacy should live.

Instead, Mass Effect’s follow up gave us three races, two genders, a complex caste system, dice-roll combat, and complete main character customization. With no voice.

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