Medium and Mass Effect: A Response to Popbioethics

Hello everyone! Last week I mentioned that I would be responding to this article today, but instead of trying to wrangle everything into one huge (unreadably long) post, I’m going to go ahead and make this a multi-parter.

The article in question makes a rather audacious statement right in its title:

Why Mass Effect is the Most Important Science Fiction Universe of our Generation

As a science fiction fan and literature buff, I bristled upon reading this. I, like many 18-25 males in my demographic, love video games. I have talked about the merits of video games as a medium and lessons we can learn about storytelling and writing from them on multiple occasions. However, this title seems to be placing Mass Effect up next to works like 1984, Ender’s Game, Dune, Neuromancer, and other universally acclaimed science fiction literature, and then exults it higher than all of them at once. I saw this article pop up on tech websites, gaming news sites, and various other places, and each time the title caught my eye.

So, I read the article, thinking to myself “Maybe it’s not as bad as I think.” Fortunately, it wasn’t. The article does not go as far off the deep end as I feared, however, it struck me that there is a fundamental misunderstanding represented in the text, a misunderstanding that could lead many people to expect from games like Mass Effect something they are unequiped to produce. So, in this mini-series, I will break down each point and explain why Mass Effect, while a very impressive start, falls short of the genre-defining masterpiece that Kyle Munkittrick claims it to be.

The Medium: Strengths and Weaknesses Abound

Reading is often a solitary experience. It’s easy to become so immersed in the world of the story that you can’t see anything else. Characters engage us with their personalities, strengths, and flaws. Settings overwhelm us with sensations not our own, and stories fill our imaginations with questions that keep us hunched over our books way into the early hours.

In many ways, video games can offer a similar experience. There are just as many “good games” as there are “good books”, ones deep enough and meaningful enough to merit the attention and time invested in them. There are, however, many differences in how one consumes both forms of media. One of the strengths of video games is that they are interactive, and often very dynamic, rather than static and linear as books are.

Munkittrick’s argument for why Mass Effect is so important to the science fiction genre begins with a discussion of such differences, focusing on three main advantages of video games as a medium: setting, casting, and emotional involvement. Here is a breakdown of Munkittrick’s main points:

  • Setting: The scale of Mass Effect’s game world allows it to contain a huge diversity of races and species, allowing it to sidestep a common problem of science fiction: the over abundance of supposedly minority humans. This creates a proper sense of humanity’s smallness, and allows the world the feel as big as it needs to.
  • Casting: The diversity of the world is reflected in the diversity of important characters, who can be any combination of male and female, alien and human that the player chooses. The main character is also completely customizeable, allowing the player to choose gender, ethnicity, facial structure, and even sexuality. This combination of factors allows the game to cover a wide variety of themes that would otherwise be impossible, and makes the characters deeply immersive and meaningful.
  • Emotional Involvement: Decisions made by the player during the course of the game have far-reaching, story-altering consequences that follow him through the entire overarching storyline spanning three games. These decisions are usually made with little information through emotion-based dialog options that allow the player to express his desired tone. All of these options for interaction directly with the story increases the immersion of the player in the game, and creates an effective channel for the game’s themes and setting.

In most of these cases, the so-called advantages of video games (and thus Mass Effect) over traditional mediums are either matched by equally important traits of the novel, or are in fact disadvantages that serve to make Mass Effect less effective in telling its story.

In the case of its setting, while the impressive diversity of characters in Mass Effect may be important to later points in the article (I’ll get to that next week), there is little that could not be pulled off in a book as well. You do not have an actual crowd of diverse aliens and humans to show that there is diversity in your story world. Subtle cues and control of information can paint such a picture without spoiling the imagination’s own rendering.

mass effect on stack of books neuromancer ender's game perelandra

Does it truly stand above the rest?

Characters, whether in supporting roles or as the main character himself, must have a story for them to feel real. The supporting characters in Mass Effect have wonderfully written, deep stories full of motivations, strengths, and weaknesses that would make them equally appealing in a novel. However, the main character, Shepherd (the player sets the first name, but not the last so that other characters have something to call him by), is nothing but an empty shell, a puppet that dances to the jerky hands of the player.

The customization only serves as a filter to the experience of the world, as there is no difference what Shepherd looks like, and little difference if it is male or female, or even homosexual. In the end, these customizations boil down to a mere basket of variables for the game to warp itself around, and do not meaningfully add to Shepherd’s sense of realness. In this case, the more traditional model of a novel’s protagonist would likely perform better.

Finally, the emotional involvement of the player is stiffled by the vague nature of the dialog system. When making choices about what Shepherd will say during a conversation, the player is made to choose based on a very short description of three different tones (angry, charming, sarcastic, etc.). In reality, the player really has no idea what words will come out of his character’s mouth, and will often be pulled out of the experience by unexpected results. Simply put, Shepherd has no real character because too much of him is so variable. Even as the player is discovering new things about the side characters and reveling in their interesting stories, he does not feel any real connection with his own character. This is a far cry from the sort of immersive characters possible in a novel, and it is important to note that the characters that feel most real in Mass Effect are the ones who are stable and defined.

Many of these points are addressed more fully in the article’s next section: message, which explains the reason why these aspects are important to Munkittrick’s assertion that Mass Effect is the most important universe of this generation. Want to try out the latest installment of Mass Effect yourself? There’s a free demo available through Electronic Arts’ Origin Network! Just follow this link, and you can catch a glimpse of this game first hand. Until next week, what do you think it takes for a book, movie, video game, or whatever, to be considered “the most important of this generation”? Let me know in the comments below!

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About erikthereddest

I'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.

Posted on February 29, 2012, in Erik Marsh, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Literary Criticism, Mass Effect, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, Universes and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. “There are just as many ‘good games’ as there are ‘good books.’”

    We have been writing good books for at least three millennia. We have been making good games for, what, three decades? I very much doubt this statement is true!

    • Obviously I am speaking relatively. I mean only to point out that the ratios are similar, and that there exist many “bad books” (poorly executed, meaningless, etc.) relative to “good books” (the kind we find to be worthy of study centuries after their writing) as there are “bad games” and “good games”. There is a stereotype that all games are meaningless dross, whereas I would argue that video games are beginning to come into their own as a meaningful art form. That’s why I even bring these things up, because it is useful to learn from how certain video games handle themes and ideas from the perspective of new medium.

      You’re a Star Trek fan, Dr. Williams. Any thoughts on how the series handles racial diversity (alien and human)?

  1. Pingback: Message in Mass Effect: A Response to Popbioethics | Lantern Hollow Press

  2. Pingback: Philosophy and Mass Effect: A Response to Popbioethics | Lantern Hollow Press

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