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: Major Spoilers for all three Mass Effect games ahead.
At this point, I think it’s safe to assume that nearly every single person out there with even a passing interest in video games knows about the whole brouhaha surrounding the end of Mass Effect 3.
The short version is this: many fans of the series expected to get a certain type of ending, one that took into account all their choices, gave them a multitude of ways in which to conclude their story, and gave a satisfying conclusion to the 100+ hour epic.
But Bioware did not do this. Instead, the developers gave us an ending that they felt would challenge the players’ assumptions, wrench the story into a more thematic and philosophical debate regarding the nature of self and predestination, and, in their own words, leave “lots of speculation for everyone!”
Personally, I thought it was a bold choice and I appreciate what they were trying to do. I understand the fans’ anger about the derth of options present, but my issue with all this is that it’s deflecting people from the real issue with Mass Effect 3’s narrative; an issue relating to breaking a promise made at the end of the series’ first installment.
The Broken Promise
No, I don’t mean the real world promises made by Casey Hudson or any other Bioware rep. I’m specifically referring to Commander Sherpard’s final line of dialogue after she stormed out of the council chambers. To paraphrase:
Shepard: “The Reapers are coming. And I’m going to find a way to stop them.”
Read that again: “I (Shepard) am going to (act by using all my resources) find (scour the galaxy with the help of my friends) a way to stop (end the Reaper threat) them.”
The glorious opening chapter to the Mass Effect series sets the table for the Space Opera Campbellian Hero’s Journey to follow. Here’s Shepard, a more or less ordinary (if accomplished) soldier in the ranks of a relatively insignificant part of galactic civilization.
Things change, however, when an ancient artifact imbues her with visions – a move that elevates her above the typical Ashley Williams and Kaiden Alenko’s of the world. Combined with her natural strength and leadership, she rises past the prejudices and hardships, taking charge of the quest to safeguard the galaxy. And in the end, she is the only one with the strength and determination to make her bold promise of “finding a way”.
Here’s the thing, though: she doesn’t. Not really. For majority of the series after the end of ME1, Shepard actually does not follow through with this promise.
Consider Mass Effect 2. Here, Shepard is killed at the beginning of the game and left for dead, only to be resurrected by shadowy organization Cerberus. It’s an interesting twist int he narrative, because now Shepard has to work with a man who clearly has humanity’s intentions at the forefront, but acts upon them in incredibly unscrupulous ways.
But she plays along, and what follows is an enjoyable romp through the galaxy collecting fascinating squadmates, exploring the seedy nooks and crannies untouched by the Alliance, and seeking to save human colonies from the Collector threat.
The narrative then ties back into the main Reaper threat when it’s revealed that the Collectors are serving the Reapers… somehow. In light of the events of Mass Effect 3, I’m actually not all that sure that the Collectors were absolutely necessary.
Nevertheless, it was a fun game with a decent story… except Commander Shepard did nothing to advance her promise. Sure, she made some noises about an invasion coming, sure the Collectors were a threat, and sure she was suspicious of Cerberus and their motives… but, again in light of Mass Effect 3, I wonder why Shepard did not do more to try to actively search for a solution to the Reaper threat.
Remember, a good hero is an active one, especially after the first act in a three act structure. But rather than actively trying to drive the story – looking for a way to stop the Reapers, looking to discredit Cerberus, anything – Shepard spent most of the second game reacting to events. The only time she really made a firm decision to act was at the end.
If I may ask a question: why was the idea of a Prothean super-weapon not introduced in the second game? Narratively, it would have made sense for Shepard, or Liara maybe, to start digging up hints of this “way to stop them” about halfway through ME2. Blueprints? Rumors? Anything. That way, while she’s going about solving the Illusive Man’s issues, she could be secretly helping “find a way to stop them”. As it is, this is already the second act and there’s still no hint or foreshadowing of how to solve the Reaper problem.
The problem continues in Mass Effect 3.
Forgetting about my problems of introducing the very first hint of a solution in the third act, I willed myself to accept that the Crucible existed and would ultimately solve the problem. “Yes,” I said to myself. “Shepard is now going to fly around the galaxy trying to unite the various races by solving their issues and convincing them to fight for humanity. The way she’s going to do this is because each sector she needs to visit may have a piece, software or hardware, of the Crucible and she needs to get them.”
Eh… not quite. Instead, the Crucible is dumped on Hackett and Shepard goes around collecting… assets. Yes, she achieves closure on a lot of character issues set up throughout the series, but as far as the endgame narrative goes, all she’s doing is just building an army.
Now, this is fine if Mass Effect was going to end in a conventional way, with strength of arms and ammount of warriors deciding the result. If so, then Shepard successfully uniting the Geth and the Quarians, successfully ending the genophage, and successfully convincing the other races that humanity is worth fighting for is the right way to go. She found “a way to stop them.”
But… no. Strength of arms was never going to win the war. Right from the get go, it was the Crucible that was going to do so. As such, being the hero of the story, Shepard should have had a greater hand in ensuring the Crucible’s creation and deployment.
At the conclusion of the game, she does end the Reaper threat. But, the way it played out, she did not “find a way to stop them”… she kinda just fell into it.
It may sound like I’m crapping all over Mass Effect 3, but I’m really not. I enjoyed playing every minute of it, even the endings. I’m fine either way if Bioware gives us a new ending, fine of they leave it as is. I’m not going to join the “re-take Mass Effect” movement, because I like the idea behind the ending, but I don’t disparage other people who do.
I do applaud their decision to attempt a more “Idea” based ending, even if I find their execution a bit lacking. I found the game to be the most affecting game I’ve played in terms of character development and making me care for this ragtag band of misfits. The gameplay itself was my favorite of the series. The voice acting was superb, particularly with regards to Jennifer Hale, Keith David, Martin Sheen, Ali Hillis, and Seth Green.
But if Bioware wants to make a series dependent on narrative and storytelling, if the industry as a whole wishes to take gaming to a more cinematic level, then the series needs to be held to the same narrative standards that other media are held to.
Now, if only they stuck to their other promise of making a Space Opera instead of turning it into military sci-fi… but that’s a complaint for another post.