Appareance and Reality: Mass Effect

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

– Romans 8

Is Mass Effect worth playing in 2015?

That’s an interesting question to ask for a noted BioWare critic like myself. I often find their games clunky, un-engaging, and boring (I mean, what greater crime can a game commit, right?), but I wasn’t always that way. When I finally obtained a Xbox 360, I played Gear of War obsessively – yet, BioWare promised the same in an RPG context. “Stop and pop”, as we used to call it, made everyone quite excited, since first person shooters seemed unsuited for consoles; how would BioWare shove such mechanics into a grand space opera that takes equal credit from Star Trek and Star Wars? In some ways, a lot of people imagined Mass Effect as the “dream game” – and let me tell you, I played the heck out of it.

mass effect creation

Also, my guy looks like the one on the box.

At some point in my journey, probably around the time when Wrex decided he was an idiot because I didn’t want to do a silly side quest, I asked myself “do I really want to play this any more?” Typically, most of your time in Mass Effect actually involves little more than two people talking, with the most visually uninteresting “shot/reverse shot” cinematography I’ve ever seen. BioWare probably made this choice out of technical necessity and game-related efficiency (good thing I can see all these dialogue options!), but that style does not aid the longevity of the game at all. Most of Jack Shepard’s choices involve being a nice person, being slightly mean, or being completely neutral – I remember first seeing this in Knights of the Old Republic, another game I played for quite a while and then suddenly lost interest. Dialogue trees were “the future” for a time, and Mass Effect shows the crippling inadequacies of that system; with each choice being so profoundly obvious to the player, becoming a Paragon or Renegade or a big huge pile of blah takes zero effort at all (and you get where you’re going!).

Apparently, I could not take the crazy Krogan out of his rage, so I had to kill him. You might call that an “unintended consequence”, exactly the sort of result BioWare’s system creates, but I remember thinking “wow, glad I lost all that awesome equipment because of events I could not forsee!” Honestly, I didn’t care about the character so much, but I had traveled through so many sterile, lifeless planets at that point (very close to the end of the game, as I found out later) that I couldn’t take the drudgery. One amazing moment does not a game make, especially a thirty hour experience. Most people stop at the Citadel, which is literally two hours of running around listening to exposition with the occasional gun fight to break up the pacing. BioWare really likes to tell incessantly, rather than show much of anything.

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Further, your means to interact in that thirty hours (besides conversations that seem nigh-endless) often derives from the “combat”. At least in the original title of the series, the combat almost feels like a crime against nature. Sure, there’s the typical notion of “gaining cover” as Mass Effect tries to masquerade as a macho action game, but it’s also a real-time combat system that you can pause at any time. Using your controller (or mouse/keyboard, depending), you select various abilities that your crew obtained as they leveled up. Man, is Overkill ever exciting – I can do more damage to enemies for a limited time!? I could NOT be more excited right now! Most encounters, contrary to first appearance, require at least a modicum of planning, along with the skill of placing your idiot party members in spots where they won’t get themselves killed. Not surprisingly for 2008, they decide they don’t want to take cover in a fire fight a little too often even when commanded to do so; Rainbow Six: Vegas did this a heck of a lot better. The unholy combination of RPG and action tries to obtain the worst parts of both and shove them into your face. It just doesn’t work, and the system especially doesn’t work 7 years after release.

And here I am, despite all these complaints, attempting to play Mass Effect again after nearly a decade of hating it.

Part of this venture seems an attempt to justify these complaints I had a long time ago. On the other hand, I’m inspired to play something I truly didn’t enjoy to see whether time, experience, and a lack of hype might actually make Mass Effect more enjoyable. You see, the modern video game marketing machine often creates a psychological trip. It enhances a game’s good qualities in your mind to the point where the actual game never matches your expectations. This explains, just for example, my Assassin’s Creed III vitriol, which still seems entirely justified. I am sure, dear reader, you can imagine a similar case in your own gaming history where things never quite lined up. Mass Effect was that game for me in many ways, one of the first true disappointments I’ve had with a video game.

I like to think a similar case applies to that of modern Christianity. Every where you look, many church leaders convey that “God wants what’s best for you” and “there’s good stuff waiting for you if you give me all your money”; God turns from holy Creator to vending machine. Our expectations of the situation are molded by what we hear, and those expectations often fail to live up to the reality of pain, suffering, and death. Paul knew this full well as he embarked on his missionaries journeys, beset with prison, beatings, personal hardships (the “thorn in his side”), and we assume eventual execution (though that’s hard to confirm). Even through all this, Paul and his traveling companion Silas understood that being a Christian was not easy – and yet, they still worshipped God in the most dire of circumstances:

22 The crowd rose up together against them, and the chief magistrates tore their [j]robes off them and proceeded to order them to be beaten with rods.23 When they had struck them with many blows, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to guard them securely; 24 and he, having received such a command, threw them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25 But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them…

Acts 16

It is quite beside the point that an angel of the Lord rescues them; rather, time and again, we find the right attitude in all situations of the Bible directs towards glory to God, in good times and bad. Whatever God chose to do in that particular situation would, in fact, be the right decision. This is something we must expect; if we truly believe God works all things for good, that includes the bad things. We must expect God employs the long game strategy, and must put our faith in Him, that He knows the end game.

We are only disappointed when we have the wrong expectations, when our biased perceptions and understanding fail to demonstrate the true reality. And with any luck, I might actually finish the game this time!

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.