After Mass Effect: Companionship on the Silversun Strip
“There a lot of problems we have that are not solved. And these problems are usually basic things like, ‘I want to be feeling comfortable. I want to somehow be feeling that my family loves me.’ These are real problems.
“The idea of having more technology solving this idea of hyperactive lifestyle is not really the mainstream problem. I think the real innovation that’s going to be rewarded will be on things like, let’s convert our computers from being tools to being companions. Let’s convert our computers from being utilitarian to being enlightening. These are human needs.”
– Horace Dediu, on This Week in Tech episode 395
We’re going to start with the end. That’s important to note. The end teaches us the most about the Mass Effect series, gives us the most useful perspective. There will be spoilers throughout this series, and when we’re done we’ll be at the beginning more or less.
‘Let us sit a while’
Near the end of Mass Effect 3: Citadel, I got a chance to sit down with Samara, a nearly millennia old asari Justicar. Samara had been part of my crew for most of my mission against the Collectors during Mass Effect 2, and she briefly joined me in my harrowing last ditch efforts to stop the Reapers during Mass Effect 3.
She may or may not have joined you on your adventures as Commander Shepard. You may or may not have bonded with her over long conversations on the Normandy’s observation deck, sharing tumultuous feelings about family and trying to provide the galaxy some justice. I think that’s why your final visit with her in your apartment on the Citadel is such a fitting summary of the Citadel DLC as a whole.
Citadel, the final piece of single player DLC (named after the galaxy’s primary hub space station), feels like an emotional send off from the Bioware crew. It’s a five or six hour long nod to the series, and proof that your decisions did matter. It’s proof because when you spend time with your crew, they feel like your friends, specifically because you chose them and how you chose to interact with them has forged your relationships. And relating to these characters is really what the series was all about.
The plot of the Citadel is outlandish, trite, and rousing nonetheless. It hits all the right nostalgic notes and if you’re a fan you’ll giggle, squee, and sigh longingly throughout. It’s the last ride and it feels like it. It’s a team that, in some cases, we have been with for years (Mass Effect released in 2007, six years ago if you can believe it).
In this final mission, you aren’t actually saving the galaxy. You’re just running around, getting into adventures and stuff. You shoot at some bad guys, you get into some tight spots, but it’s nothing you can’t crack with the help of your friends. It’s almost enough to garner a cliche “awww” response from a sympathetic sitcom studio audience.
But it works. It works especially for fans, but I think even for non-fans there’s an important angle about how we play, experience characters, and forge relationships in games.
After the party with all your friends from the Normandy, you get a chance to meet with Samara, as I mentioned earlier. You can apologize for not getting a chance to talk more at the party. And then she does it — Samara drops my second favorite line of Citadel, and the one that sums up the experience best.
“I am content as we are, Shepard,” she tells you. “Let us sit a while longer, even if there is nothing to say.”
Friendship and Bonding, with a six-sided die
The scores of decisions made in dealing with your companions over three games, and the decisions you can make in the DLC, provide a unique and personal interaction with characters that aren’t real. It’s a simulation that, for many people, has proven successful in inspiring real feelings of camaraderie.
This is achieved specifically because the myriad of decisions players have made over three games branch out to become so intricate that the line between designed interaction and natural interaction has become blurred. Without the help of a game walkthrough, I can’t specifically tell you which of my actions led to which conversations, lines of dialogue, or meetings with my crewmates. I just know everytime I check the Bioware Social Network forums I read about someone else’s experience playing Citadel that is different from mine.
This is a mechanic, a design element, that is aimed at replicating naturally forming relationships. It’s designed to make us feel, and perceive that we’re responsible for those feelings, not simply having them stirred in us by a writer or designer. When you listen to Bioware game testers talk about the system they use to verify integrity amidst all these branching paths across three games, it’s clear this is a technical achievement as much as it is an artistic one.
When considering the challenges in taking the idea of choice, and expanding it inside of a simulation so that eventually it doesn’t feel manufactured, I thought of something from a story by comic book scribe, Grant Morrison.
In Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, Arkham doctors are trying to rehabilitate Two-Face by weaning him off of the coin he uses as a representation of his split personality. Instead of only allowing himself to make decisions based on the flip of the coin, he’s given a six-sided die to expand his options. Then he’s given a deck of tarot cards, giving him up to 78 ways to choose. They reference introducing him to the I-Ching, and that by gradually increasing the level of complexity in his decision making process, eventually he’d be cured.
Throughout the Mass Effect series the number of decisions that continually branch out from each other lead us to a similarly increasing, albeit artificial, level of complexity.
First, one game has multiple decisions that affect not only the ending, but the beginning and middle of the game as well. Not just the plot, but the cast is affected. Whole characters are either present or absent, and that affects the story.
Then the second game transfers over all the decisions from the first, and branches out further still from that unique starting point. Again, whole characters can be skipped entirely, and almost every member of your crew can potentially be killed in the final mission.
Then a third game takes all the outcomes from both, and branches out further still. In Citadel we’re not simply experiencing one piece of DLC, we’re living the outcome of six years spent playing a series and forging alliances.
This level of artificial complexity around relationships primarily leads to two reactions. The first is skepticism; the eerily similar to real life simulation of human interaction comes off campy and weird even for some fans of the series. In Citadel you can literally throw a party for all your crewmates, and while most of it is heartwarming and funny, it can come off corny if you’re not in the right mindset for it.
What leads to the second primary reaction is the quality of immersion. When we’re successfully immersed, we adapt to the close but slightly off simulation of interaction. Mass Effect as a series is well written, often well acted, and in some cases exceptionally well scored. The combination of these leads us to be accepting of the fiction, but moreover to feel at ease with that fiction producing real emotions.
Anything that is inauthentic can come off as silly, especially the stuff that’s most endearing when it is genuine. The quality of the production, along with the myriad of choices that make up each player’s personal canon, are what endears us to Mass Effect so much.
‘These are human needs’
The procedure of gradually increasing complexity used for Two-Face is to overcome that his decisions are limited by the mechanics of a device he’s locked into — a coin. In Grant Morrison’s story, it ultimately fails because Two-Face sees the die and deck of cards as just more limitations; he’s boggled by them. Immersion, as we discussed, can help solve the problem of feeling more natural around an artificial system of decision making and relationships. But that’s not why I bring it up.
Thinking about limitations, there are a few that arise around hardware and software in gaming. Those things can limit what we’re able to experience in a game technically.
But moreover, many people are limited in how they can interact with others by emotional and psychological barriers. That’s a problem many are working on, but seldom do we try to address that with technology as Horace Dediu, a technology analyst, suggests in the quote at the top of this article.
Someone tweeted the day that Citadel released:
“I queued up two campaigns specifically for the Citadel DLC and my life is otherwise empty and not worth living, so I am impatient.”
I took their tweet as being more tongue-in-cheek than anything, but it made me reflect personally about some of my feelings on the series, especially after I played Citadel.
In a way I’m writing this because I’ve recently been in a self-imposed kind of isolation. Maybe it’s work, maybe I’m just too tired to go out more, maybe I’m too quickly becoming an old codger, or maybe I’m just making excuses. Regardless, right now, I’m the kind of person failing to make personal connections. That’s a human need, and Citadel, in a strange way, helped fill it.
For some people, reading that might be alarming. The fear of forgoing face to face interactions with real people in favor of artificial intelligence (no matter how convincing), isn’t a new one. And really, that’s not what I’m suggesting at all.
Citadel, essentially a piece of software, helped me to feel something good, emotional, and personal, but not specifically dramatic, when I was unlikely to feel that otherwise. The closing sequence when you host a party for the Normandy is actually terrible drama, with no conflict or real plot. But it’s an excellent experience because of how it simulates companionship.
Playing Citadel made me value my own relationships more. In an overt display towards the end of the primary plot line in Citadel, the game makes it clear the winners in life are the ones who have people there to help them. Your friends are what make the difference. It’s on the nose, and for some people probably more so than they can stomach. But for others, maybe those struggling with making the connections a lot of people take for granted, it can be a stirring reminder.