MILD SPOILERS for the MASS EFFECT TRILOGY
With all the controversy surrounding the endings of Mass Effect 3, it’s easy to lose sight of all the wonderful things the game presents us with. In this concluding chapter to the trilogy, we see an improved combat system, the successful culmination of multiple character arcs, the elevation of thematic and psychological debates, technical wizardry in both the visual and sound departments, and many other wonderful things to play with.
But among all the successes on offer, none are more satisfying than the richly drawn characters Bioware has populated the game with. Here, among others, we have a geneticist nobly sacrificing himself to correct a grave error of judgement, a philosophical assassin finally finding peace surrounded by his son and greatest ally, and a loyal and true friend who cheekily sneaks Shepard up to a roof for one final game of “who’s the better shot.”
And yes, finally at Shepard’s side once again, is Liara T’Soni, whom I believe to be the most important character in this game and should serve as a model for the industry for years to come.
I know that is a bold statement, but I make it coming from the perspective of a father-to-be looking at the gaming landscape as it exists now and with an eye towards what kind of future the industry holds for my daughter.
Being the unabashed geek and nerd that I am, one of the joys of parenthood that I absolutely am looking forward to consists of sharing all my passions with my little girl. I want to sit her on my lap as we watch Star Trek marathons together. I want to carefully watch her features as we build up to the exciting and terrible moment where Darth Vader reveals his secret to Luke. I want her to go with me to BC Place, decked out in Vancouver Whitecaps gear as we root against the likes of the Montreal Impact and LA Galaxy.
And yes, I want to play video games with her. I want to share with her the joy of using a controller or a mouse (or an iPad) to guide the fate of one character, one party, one city, or one civilization through the trials and tribulations that the next generation of game developers has to offer.
But what kind of characters will these be, exactly? And, more importantly, what kind of example will they set for my daughter’s impressionable mind?
It’s no secret that big-budget gaming, for so long, has been an arena for men to create games for other men (and boys). Sure, Nancy Drew has her own series of excellent adventure games, but you’d be hard pressed to find the likes of her in HALO or Gears of War. It’s getting better now, but as a result of this fact, it’s been very difficult over the years to find fully realized examples of empowering female characters who do not conform to either a damsel-in-distress mold or an unbeatable Amazon warrior princess paradigm. There is an odd exception here and there, but, on the whole, there are usually more Rinoa Heartillys (Final Fantasy VIII’s teenage fantasy dream girl) than Elena Fishers (Uncharted’s wonderfully realized journalist/adventurer).
But now we have Dr. Liara T’Soni. On the surface, if you have only a passing knowledge ofMass Effect, you might think that she’s your typical video game heroine. She’s pretty, exotic, can blow you away with biotics or sub-machine guns, and, oh yeah, she comes from a race of women who have been often portrayed as hyper-sexualized.
But dig beneath all that, and it’s not too far away mind you, and you find that Liara is so much more than that: the good doctor is a big old fashioned “Science Hero”.
A lot of main characters in video games, especially in epics likeMass Effect, have driving motivations along the lines of “Save the city from the barbarian hordes!”, “Save the world from the evil tyrant!”, or “Save me, Mario!”
If one were to take even just a cursory glance at what drives Liara, the answer becomes obvious right away: a deep, abiding, unrelenting thirst for knowledge.
Yes, she is warm, funny, has a bit of a temper, and she is quite loving and can be quite emotional. But from the moment we meet here in Mass Effect 1, her desire to learn and to know are always at the forefront.
Consider the reason she was brought into the team in the first place. Shepard was zapped by some sort of Prothean beacon and needed an expert to decipher the images locked in her head (yes, I played as FemShep). And since Liara had been playing archaeologist since she was a child, and since she was digging into the Prothean dirt and earning her doctorate while others of her species were stripping in clubs or becoming mercenaries, she was the obvious choice.
Right away, her passion for learning everything about a dead race was evident. The factoids in her brain, the reverence she held for the Prothean legend, even the fact that she was initially attracted to Shepard simply because the commander had knowledge about them… Liara’s enthusiasm was undeniable.
She had a sense of wonder – a desire to learn more than what the world was giving her and to put that knowledge to good use. And even when the story took a dark turn in Mass Effect 2, she never lost sight of the value for knowledge.
It is in the sequel where Liara showed her propensity to grow as a character. She new that her naivety and innocence could only get her so far when the world was gunning for her, so she decided to grow up and face her troubles head on with the greatest skill she had at her disposal: gathering knowledge. Setting herself up as the foremost dealer in secrets on Illium, and later as the illusive “Shadow Broker”, Liara managed to find a way to use her intellect and reason to put her in an even better position to help Shepard and the universe at large.
The world turned dark, and she had to follow. But she never lost sight of the value of using your brain ahead of your brawn (and biotics).
Her growth would continue intoMass Effect 3, where her skills would come full circle as she would use her knowledge both as a scientist and as the Shadow Broker to help Shepard end the Reaper threat. In fact, she would would prove instrumental in uncovering, through archaeology, the one secret Prothen weapon that could save the galaxy.
And there would be one final bit of growth that solidified how important Liara would become to me. At a time when the galaxy looked like it was going to fall, each character spent every free moment they had attempting to make peace with either themselves or each other.
Liara would do the same, to a certain degree, but she again showed her love of knowledge in a touching scene where she revealed to Shepard that she constructed a time capsule. She filled this capsule with memories, data, and information… everything a future archaeologist would need 50,000 years down the line to learn about Liara’s galaxy.
She began the series looking back with wonder at an ancient race and ended it looking forward with hope at a future where knowledge would never die.
Part of the success of Liara as a character must fall on the shoulders of the team of brought her to life – the animators, the writers, the directors. A particular standout is the impressive Ali Hillis, whose voice work brings a tender but firm strength, tinged with a hopeful sense of wonder to Liara.
Together, all of those elements form a character who embodies something I wish I could see more of in gaming: a heroic scientist who is not defined by her obsession with science, but whose warmth and personality are enhanced by it.
This is the type of character I want my daughter to grow up getting to know through games. The interactive nature of gaming gives the player a unique way to experience a world, and it is dangerous to understate just how much that can form a person’s character.
In a world where it’s so easy to just receive and receive stimulus after stimulus, it’s just as easy to get so caught up in the chaos that you miss the importance of understanding, theorizing, and applying. It’s so easy to forget that in order to grow – fully grow as a rational, thinking human being – you must always be asking questions. “Why did that happen?” “How can I make that happen again?” “When can I go to the stars?”
The creation of our favorite Asari information broker gives me hope that gaming is moving in the direction where we could see more female characters who prioritize the right things; characters who look to the stars, look into history, look into the future and ask “What if?”
I would love it if my daughter grows up idolizing Mr. Spock. But I would certainly love it just as much if she wants to be like Dr. Liara T’Soni as well.
Warning: Spoilers ahead. This is not a review; it’s an analysis. Therefore, I highly recommend that you finish UNCHARTED 3: Drake’s Deception before proceeding.
There is a moment in UNCHARTED 3: Drake’s Deception, the third installment of developer Naughty Dog’s highly successful UNCHARTED franchise, where I had to put the controller down and stop… really stop… and realize the magnitude of what I had just witnessed.
After an (amazing) action set-piece which saw Nathan Drake (portrayed by Nolan North) fight his way through a sinking cruise-ship full of pirates, the game shifts over to a quiet scene of Drake’s estranged love interest Elena Fisher (Emily Rose) in her apartment. As she goes over her plans to rescue a kidnapped Victor Sullivan (Richard McGonagle), Nate bursts in, and all the tension that had existed between them evaporated.
And as she invited him to rest for a few hours, he lay his head on her lap, took her hand in his, stared at her wedding ring (he wasn’t wearing his) and whispered “I’m sorry.”
She, in turn, patted him affectionately, and said “I know.” In her eyes, in her voice, the weight of months—if not years—of regrets and ghosts filtered out from the screen.
My mind flashed to prior scenes involving the two. I remembered their reunion scene where Drake’s shock at her still wearing her ring raised questions. I thought back to a revealing scene in a dusty chamber where she implies that she has grown and is no longer the desperate adrenaline thrill-seeker she once was… and in her expression lies the hope that he would do the same.
That led me to harken back to the first game, where, given an opportunity to escape, Elena actually dove deeper into trouble and Drake had to rescue her. And I thought back to the end of UNCHARTED 2, where Elena actually came so close to death that it spurred Drake to finally admit his love for her.
What happened between then and now? Did Drake walk out on her because she grew up and he didn’t? Or did he do it because he knew that his journey wasn’t finished, that if she stuck with him he could potentially lose her forever? Did he even know why?
As Elena closed her eyes, Drake’s head gently resting on her lap, I put the controller down and realized just what Naughty Dog had achieved with this game, and indeed with the series as a whole.
Across the internet, the game is getting perfect score after perfect score with reviewers praising just about everything that deserves praise. But there is a small segment of the online community wondering if this game is just giving us more of the same; content to rest on its laurels and not innovate.
We can question the validity of the complaints from a gameplay point of view, but I’m not interested in doing so. In my opinion, rather than just stay stuck in a rut, UNCHARTED 3 marks the moment where Naughty Dog has finally given us the missing key ingredient in furthering the advancement of storytelling in gaming.
One could also argue over the quality of the specifics of the plot itself. Was it too episodic? Were the villains well developed enough? Were there too many plot holes? Were the plot holes even plot holes, or subtle implied storytelling that asked players to apply a bit of thought to clue presented to them?
I have my own opinions on the plot of the game, and I do have some problems with certain plot elements, but they are not the point of this analysis. Suffice it to say, I applaud Naughty Dog and creative director Amy Hennig for doing something a lot of games don’t: not spoon-feeding the players and actually asking them to apply a bit of rudimentary literary thinking and analysis without slapping them in the face with melodrama.
No, the overriding element that stuck with me about this game was the strength and depth of the characters.
Here, before me, were two of the three most fully realized characters in the medium. At the end of the game, the pair is rejoined by the third, Drake’s mentor and father figure Victor Sullivan.
Through this trio, UNCHARTED 3 gave us a video game that examined the core of humanity that exists in the relationships we have with one another. In that, it borrows from its celluloid and prose brethren extremely well and gives videogames a new way of dealing with that subject matter.
The best stories connect with us, the readers or the viewers, by presenting characters distinct from us undergoing transformation in the context of a story that utilize themes and relationships we can relate to. UNCHARTED 3, indeed the series as a whole, does this in a way few games can.
Now, I don’t want to turn this into a “this game versus that” juvenile slugfest, but when examining growth in a medium, comparisons are inevitable.
Mind, storytelling in videogames is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, many a great story has been told throughout gaming’s history, including such gems as Gabriel Knight and The Longest Journey.
This latest generation has seen some incredible stories told as well, from Bioshock to Mass Effect. I am a fan of both franchises; I’m looking forward to Bioshock Infinite and have already pre-ordered my copy of Mass Effect 3. I’m going to be one of the first people in line to buy the third chapter in Bioware’s magnum opus and am excited to see where it leads my Commander Shepherd.
The storytelling in both franchises differ completely from one another, and indeed from UNCHARTED as well. Mass Effect is an epic sci-fi RPG that invites you to create a character of your own imprint while adhering to some strict choices made available to you. Whether you are an earth-born lone survivor or an all conquering space-born hero, you are Commander Shepherd, a human tasked with defending the galaxy from evil. The stakes are big, with the survival of several alien races directly in your control.
In addition, Bioware gives you a chance to make a direct impact on conversations, which then affect the relationships Shepherd has with those around him (or her). Are you a jackass when dealing with Turians? Do you have similar racist tendencies to Ashley Williams? Are you a paragon? A renegade?
Choices. That is what most of the character gameplay in Mass Effect boils down to. At the end of each game, you end up with a Commander Shepherd of your own making, ready to take on whatever the galaxy throws your way.
But your Shepherd isn’t my Shepherd. And my Shepherd isn’t anybody else’s either.
The illusion of choice that wide-open RPG’s like Mass Effect, Fallout, and Elder Scrolls gives players is a core conceit of their design and makes them excellent games. But the end result of having so many personal decisions effect so many different outcomes is that you never once feel like the characters in those games are real. Oh, your Shepherd is real to you and mine is to me, sure, but that reality doesn’t extend past the boundaries of your own consciousness and your save game file.
Similarly, the same condition exists in the cases of the supporting characters in these games, as the choices you make affect them too. One of the brilliant gameplay conceits Mass Effect employs in its second installment is the loyalty system. Basically, if you manage to fully make your party members loyal to you, they survive the massive end battle. This means that if you want so-and-so to live, better make sure you finished their loyalty mission. If you didn’t, just reload a previous save file and do it.
What this does is that it, as well as other small choices such as whom to have a relationship with, adds a certain replayability factor to the game which allows you to have other paths to explore.
What it also does is reduce the NPC’s to elements of gameplay mechanics, rather than full realized characters in their own right.
UNCHARTED makes a different choice. Rather than providing players with a way to affect the characters’ destinies, Naughty Dog ensures that Nathan Drake always chose Elena Fisher over Chloe Frazier… and always proceeded to leave her behind when his obsession with adventure got the better of him.
And, once he found the answer he was looking for, he always went back to her, enabled by the sentimentality of Victor Sullivan.
Some players may be frustrated by the lack of impactful choice in the UNCHARTED series, but I’m not one of them. I think that by limiting the player’s impact to “playing” Drake through the story rather than shaping the story in some other way, it allows Naughty Dog to tell a narrative in a way that permits literary analysis in a way other games do not.
Through the hard work of the animators, designers, Amy Hennig (creative director at Naughty Dog), the actors, and many more dedicated individuals, Nathan Drake, Elena Fisher, and Victor Sullivan leap off the screen as fully realized persisting characters who exist in the general public’s collective consciousness. Like Indiana Jones or Eddard Stark in George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones on HBO) series, these characters are stuck with the choices they made and can be judged and analyzed endlessly for having done them.
In Martin’s epic fantasy masterpiece, Eddard Stark is a man caught between doing right by his king and by his family. When his king asks too much of him, Stark is sent into this introspective choice of choosing between what is right as a family man, and what is right as the loyal servant of the king. The story presents him as a man who knows exactly what kind of harm will befall him once he makes that choice, but his honor will not allow him to do otherwise.
The lessons we learn about him because of who he is and what was done to him allows us to vicariously live through the circumstances surrounding him and then examine ourselves and how we feel about his actions. Would we do the same things he did? Would we choose another way? His exact set of circumstances trapped him, and although we feel we might choose differently, we cannot help but respect him for what he chose.
The themes and lessons presented in literature and films are mirrors for us and our society. They present us with people making irreversible choices and cajole us into judging or sympathizing with them, into analyzing and learning from them. The irrevocable nature of choices such as Thelma and Louise’s liberating fall or Indiana Jones’ decision to let the Holy Grail go drive home the lessons they teach and remain poignant and memorable because they cannot be undone.
UNCHARTED is the first game franchise that allows us to apply a literary or cinematic analysis to the medium in that way because of its rigid structure and real characters. Through Drake’s actions, we can ask questions like “What makes a man so obsessed with finding answers that he would risk his only father figure and the best relationship that could ever happen to him?”
The mileage of the effectiveness of the answer, as with people’s preferences with movies, may vary per player. But what is impressive is that the question is asked at all.
In Mass Effect or Fallout, I can cheat on my girlfriend who thinks I’m dead (or not) and destroy a small community by detonating a dormant nuclear bomb (or not). And if I don’t like the outcome, I can always reload or do another playthrough and change all of my decisions until I find the outcome I like.
Again, that makes for valid and interesting gameplay. But because the power of the choices is negated by the fact that I can change anything I don’t agree with, I posit that it limits the power of the storytelling in a way that UNCHARTED doesn’t.
This is why you see in message boards post after post talking about whether Sully should have died or whether Chloe and Cutter should have featured more or whether Elena left Drake or the other way around.
By giving us limited choice, Naughty Dog made these characters real. By giving us thrilling gameplay mixed with a fast-paced plot, Naughty Dog made these characters vibrant. And by casting actors at the top of their craft and directing them with passion, Naughty Dog made our collective consciousness care for these characters in a way that Mass Effect or Fallout can’t do with their player-generated ciphers.
The UNCHARTED series makes you feel like you’re playing a movie populated with real characters whereas RPG’s or shooters never let you forget you’re playing a game. In a similar way, the series has an advantage over other genres that restrict player choice like point-and-click adventures. Those games have well realized characters and strict plotlines, but because of the segmented nature of its gameplay, you never forget you’re playing a game.
Naughty Dog has mastered the art of blending gameplay and cinematics in a way those games never did. Add to that the technical brilliance they employ (Nathan Drake physically reacts to the environment in subtle realistic ways), the wonderful performances by the cast, and the superb job by the animators.
And by avoiding mini-games, broken mechanics, customization, and other “game-y” devices, UNCHARTED keeps the focus firmly on story and character. This is an important factor in this argument. For example, Assassin’s Creed, another big budget franchise doing interesting things with storytelling, has a main overarching plot and it’s an interesting one. But, while they blaze their own trail, their story is nowhere near as focused because it does shoehorn in some distracting sidequests. Fun times, for sure, but it still reminds you that you are in very much a gaming milieu.
Harking back to the story criticisms alluded to earlier in this piece, I would actually argue that they are a sign that UNCHARTED and Naughty Dog are doing something right. For too long, we have seen reviews constantly speaking of stories in games as “well written… for a video game”. We don’t, for example, dock review points from a game like Mass Effect 2 for giving us an epic story fraught with pressure… and then allowing us to essentially meander around the galaxy mining for minerals or resolving familial frictions for your henchmen.
And we’ve also seen so many reviews speaking of the characters in as “well crafted… for a video game”, and thinking there’s nothing wrong with that. Fair enough, considering that the point of those games is to offer players more choices rather than focusing on a story.
But UNCHARTED has shown that one can critique a video game for its story and characters without having to add the cautionary “…for a video game” label. The polish that Naughty Dog applies to its franchise, and the fact that we’re arguing over whether or not certain heroes should have done certain things, or about the meanings behind iconic symbolisms or, something rare in video games, subtext, shows that we can analyze game narratives the way we do for film, television, comics, and novels.
Now, some would argue: “Why play a movie when I can watch it?”
The answer lies in the brilliance of the central conceit behind UNCHARTED. By allowing you agency over Drake without making you ever BE Drake, the games give you a connection to the character different from that you when you watch a movie. The silver screen acts as a barrier… putting a controller in your hand bridges that gap, thereby giving a completely different experience.
To that end, I’d also like to address some gamers’ harping on its replayability. For me, gaming is an experience, whether the game in question is a 60-hour open ended game with billions of choices or a tight 10-hour narrative that gives you the exact same thing everytime. So for me, the question is always, “Do I want to relive that experience?” rather than “Do I want to replay that?”
In the case of, say Mass Effect or Elder Scrolls games, I want to relive the experience of either beating the system or customizing my character in different ways. I want to relive the thrill of making choices and seeing what they lead to.
In the case of UNCHARTED games, I look at it like books or movies. I own hundreds of DVD’s, Blu-Ray’s and thousands of books. I own them, rather than rent them, because they are experiences I want to re-live over and over again.
Sometimes it’s a simple matter of wanting to experience the story again. Sometimes I want to delve deeper, to see if I learn anything new from a craft or literary perspective. And sometimes, I just want to experience that cathartic burst of emotion when Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman finally meet again as free men, free friends, at the end of The Shawshank Redemption.
With UNCHARTED, it’s all of the above. I like the stories enough to relive them, I love hanging out with the characters and want to hear their jokes again, and I love that wonderful feeling at the end of UNCHARTED 2 when Elena tries to convince Drake that the scariest moment in his life was when he thought she was dead. And he counters with clowns.
The series is eminently replayable, for me, because I can relive those experiences over and over again. This is why I find it odd that some people complain about it considering these same people probably have DVD’s they watch over and over again sitting on their shelves.
These games are just as replayable as those 100-hour epic games that offer infinite choices.
I’m not promoting one style of gaming over the other or saying that two styles cannot coexist. In fact, I’m saying that gamers should rejoice that we even have the choice between playing open-world RPG’s, first person shooters, or cinematic adventures that create living breathing characters. After all, at the cinemas you’re given a choice between Spielbergian adventure romps and Tarantino-inspired indie flicks, right?
In that sense, I believe that the otherwise valid review by Eurogamer, suggesting that UNCHARTED 3 isn’t innovative or different enough is not looking deep enough. By giving us characters we care for, characters that exist independent of the choices we make, the UNCHARTED series gives gaming an evolutionary jolt that I hope more developers pick up on.
In my case, as I pick up the controller again to play through the first UNCHARTED game for the 5th time, I prepare myself to look for the clues to Drake’s character in this first installment and determine if Elena could have seen what was coming a mile away. And I hope that, wherever they are, Nate and Elena have resolved their issues once and for all and will name their first kid after Sully.