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Gaming Evolution
Fact Stranger Than Fiction Rant
Aliens, Mass Effect and Diamond Oceans?

January 31, 2010 - As I write this post, I'm awaiting possible annihilation at the powerful tendrils of an oncoming tornado, while my cat clings desperately to my legs, digging her claws into my flesh under the (probably erroneous) assumption that I'll be sturdy enough to not get sucked up into the sky and flung through a tree. The supposedly violent weather, which actually appears relatively tame from my window, combined with this article on Discovery News, got me thinking.
About aliens.

Well, not really. You see, I recently re-played Mass Effect in anticipation for the upcoming sequel and it was a much different journey my second time around. My favorite aspects of the game actually seemed to shine brighter. However, it's flaws also glared much more harshly.

Right. A little background just in case anyone out there hasn't played the game. If you have, then feel free to skip this paragraph. Mass Effect is sci-fi action RPG. You play as Commander Shepard, a Lieutenant Commander in the Human Alliance Navy and the first human Spectre -- a super special autonomous agent of the galactic government known as the Citadel Council. Your mission is to pursue Saren Arterius -- a rogue Spectre -- across the galaxy and stop him from destroying everything with his army of intelligent robots. That's extremely reductive but I think you get the basic idea: science fiction, space opera, aliens, robots, etc. Along the way you're given command of your very own ship -- the 'Normandy' -- and with it, the freedom to explore the untouched parts of the galaxy. This aspect of the game primarily manifests itself in the form of exploring uncharted planets with your 'Mako' armored vehicle.

From a roleplaying perspective, I adore Mass Effect. My Shepard is a good guy, but he's also practical. He doesn't believe in right and wrong; he believes only in actions and consequences. He is not, however, immune to his own emotions.

Mass Effect's Commander Shepard, unlike the characters of many western RPGs, is not a blank slate. For starters, he/she is, for lack of a better term, a "good guy." A Lieutenant Commander in the Earth Systems Alliance Navy, the first human Spectre working to protect the galaxy -- there are no options to go super evil and start slaughtering children. Shepard, if not necessarily a good guy, will always be against the bad guys. While Mass Effect features the typical binary morality system, it isn't one of traditional "good" and "evil." The morality system in Mass Effect has much more to do with how Shepard gets the job done. Is he a boy scout or the take no prisoners, ends justify the means type? Cold and calculating or passionate and emotional? Does she shoot first or is she a keen diplomat?

The slightly looser-than-average moral compass combines with the subtleties of dialogue options to make Shepard a more complex character. Yeah, Shepard can be the Clark Kent of the universe, all wholesome and goody. However, like anyone else, Shepard can also be capable of acting out of character depending on the situation. My Shepard could justify making some darker choices because of the situation and that didn't change who he was.

Let us investigate, shall we?

Stepping off of his ship at the Citadel, Shepard is faced with an irate superior officer. The angry old man rants at length about his concerns -- and they are many.

"The Normandy is a waste of Alliance resources! You should be answering to the Alliance, not the Citadel Council! New battle tactics should be tested in a lab, not in the field!"

Shepard handles the misplaced berating with respect and understanding.

"Yes, sir; You make a good point, sir; If I may, sir, I think you're underestimating..." Finally, the officer demands to inspect of the ship himself. "Of course, Sir."

"And another thing," the officer continues as he returns to the dock, "I don't like the idea of our most advanced ship being crewed with aliens!"

What?! I just got all these cool new alien characters to back me up. Wrex is a comrade if there ever was one; Garrus and I see eye-to-eye on almost everything; Tali understands The Geth better than anyone; Liara... well, okay. I don't much care for Liara and her childish naivete and doormat personality, but that's not important now.

"Old man! Back off before I go medieval on you!"

Ok, so the in-game Shepard didn't quite go that far, but I still picked the most harshly-worded response available to me at the time. The point is, My Shepard allowed his emotions to interfere with procedure when the old coot decided to go ranting his xenophobic BS about my friends.

My Shepard is not perfect.

Faced with the decision to kill or arrest one of the scientists responsible for unleashing the monsters that killed his entire unit on Akuze, My Shepard was not forgiving.

"Do it," he said to the man pointing the gun at the scientist's head. In truth, it would have been smarter to arrest the scientist. His group's activities would be made public and he'd have to answer for what he did. But once again, My Shepard allowed his emotions to get the better of him.

However, these instances are an exception to the rule. This is not the norm and more often than not, My Shepard makes what I believe the be the more strategically sound decision. Faced with the choice to save or abandon the Council, My Shepard adheres to this policy.

"You can't abandon the Council just to save human lives!" Kaiden pleads, "all the species of the galaxy are in this together!"

"What has the council ever done for humans?" Wrex makes an interesting point. This whole time, the Council only served to block me at every turn. They never listened to my warnings. A Spectre is supposed to act autonomously, yet they scolded me for almost every call I made. And to cap it off, they arrested me when I was most needed elsewhere.

Still, they were only doing their job. They acted as I did, not doing what was 'right' or 'wrong,' but weighing the consequences of decisions and acting accordingly. And now, they, unfortunately, were going to die.

Still, I'm only doing my job. This isn't about human lives or diplomacy or revenge. Sovereign is about to destroy us all and I need all available firepower to take him down fast and hard. Sacrificing ships and risking the whole galaxy to save three politicians simply doesn't seem worth it. Too bad.

All of this is quite a tangent, but I wanted to get my little love-letter to the game out of the way before I get to the heart of this piece: that fact is stranger than fiction, and it shouldn't be.

Allow me to take you by the hand as I give you a tour of every optional planet you have the opportunity to "explore" in Mass Effect.

The Normandy swoops down low in the atmosphere, jettisoning your Mako APC so you and your two best squad mates can explore the frontier below.

This is your first time doing this.

And wow, what a place! A completely untouched, alien world! Did you ever imagine you'd get to see this? It's so, so, so... barren... but hey, that's why it's unsettled, right? Hazardous environment and all that hooplah. This is just the landing zone, on one world; surely, there's so much more to see out there! So you drive around, navigating your way through ridges and canyons. You find an abandoned prospector camp and grab some neat goodies from their crates, lockers and corpses. Continuing your road trip, you make more little discoveries -- a crashed space probe here, a deposit of minerals there; maybe you find a pirate base and raid it for experience points and more knick-knacks.

Wowie, that was neat, but now it's time to pack up and get back to woik.

Fast forward a bit. This is your third or fourth time exploring an uncharted planet.

The Normandy flies in low and jettisons your Mako APC, so you and your two best squad mates can explore the frontier below. It's so, so, so... barren... but in a completely different way! The last planet was covered in rocks and sand. But this planet -- oh, this planet -- is covered in rocks and snow! So, you drive around, this time just going over the ridges and canyons because the sketchy game physics of the Mako allow you to drive up and over almost everything (though it is often frustrating). You drive in straight lines to the four corners of the area map because this the most efficient way to find stuff. Another abandoned camp, another cashed space thing, a slaver base, maybe complete some side quests.

Yep, that was great.

Fast forward a bit. You're exploring your dozenth or so uncharted planet.

The Normandy flies in low and blah blah blah. The planet is barren and volcanic. You drive over pointy rocks, find some stuff, and kill some dudes.

"Ohh, look! A lake of molten lava!" That's the coolest thing you've seen exploring these optional worlds, and, let's be honest, it's actually just a pool of red water that kills you if you touch it. Well, I guess it's time to pack up and go home.

Sand world, lava world, ice world, grass world -- welcome to the final frontier. Occasionally there are heavy winds. Every so-often you'll find an alien lifeform; giant bugs, monkey-lizards, the giant Thresher Maw monsters. The first time I saw a Thresher Maw -- the horrible abomination of teeth and tendrils that slaughtered my entire unit on Akuze -- I nearly jumped out of my seat. It plunges out from the ground with a horrible wailing shriek. One look at the behemoth and I knew that if the Mako were caught in those jaws, it would mean instant death. Luckily, driving in circles confuses the creatures easily and pelting them with explosive shells makes quick work of them. Fighting them soon became a routine, just another part of the bigger routine of exploring uncharted planets.

"Exploration" becomes a pretty loose term after coming to this realization. I've accepted that I'm never going to see anything truly interesting or strange on these worlds. After number three or four (hey, I'm an optimist), I'm only bothering with them for the sake of finding more stuff, fighting more bad guys, and completing more quests. Here I am, exploring the unexplored far-ends of outer space. I'm out in the wild, away from advanced research stations, alien metropolises, claustrophobic spaceships, and ancient technologically advanced ruins, and what am I doing? Picking up scraps left behind by those who came before or killing those who are currently there.

It's so nauseatingly cynical. This isn't "exploration." This is just seeking more loot, experience and objectives. All I'm doing is extending the length game that's already there; I'm finding space bad guys and shooting them. I'm not doing it for the journey, I'm doing it for the slight competitive edge that it gives me in the main game. This is the best artists and writers could come up with, while scientists pump out a constant stream of the bizarre and awe-inspiring visual landscapes that exist out there beyond the stars? Don't these game developers check out Digg every once in a while? And what's worse is the realization that I doubt I could do any better. Hell, "desert moon" is the best I could come up with for the setting of my own comic book. Maybe from now on, I'll a keep a closer eye on the Sci than the Fi. Fact truly is stranger than fiction, so why can't we get more of it?

I want my strizange. I want to see something that would be a reward in and of itself. I want my diamond oceans.

Written By: CHristian H.

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