Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mass Effect 2's Loss of Atmosphere

I've always had a soft spot for well-made science fiction space epics, things like Star Wars (not counting the newer trilogy) and Star Trek (not counting...well, half of it). I love the thrill of alien worlds and their infinite possibility, the ideas of intergalactic governments and alliances working together or at war, the endless possibilities that are presented, the creativity of alien species and cultures, and the way it can all relate back to humanity, providing lessons about ourselves that are really no less applicable to us in this day and age than they are to these fictional space farers of the distant future. Or the long ago in a place far, far away.

This is part of why Mass Effect 1 had such a hold over me. It was just such a perfect space epic. It really had everything one could ask for--adventure, excitement, high technology, space battles, human nature, exploration, aliens, and so on. And the other part of why I loved ME1 so much was that it did it all so very well, with a very good cast, a great plot, neat ideas, and thorough explanation of its universe's setting. My enthusiasm for the space opera aside in general, ME1 is a great RPG in its own right.

Mass Effect 2 never held the same power over me, much though I hoped it would. It's not for lack of quality, to be sure--the plot of ME2 is decent (although admittedly not nearly as good as its predecessor), and the characters are very good, some even excellent. And as a science fiction game, it's terrific, filled with creativity and effort in all the many facets of its genre. The aliens are still interesting and diverse, the technologies are still eye-catching and awesome, and everything is still defined with great depth via the game's codex listings.

Yet as I played ME2, I found that there was something missing from it, some crucial part that had given the original its magic. ME2 had more polish, more involved settings, better action, and even a generally superior cast of characters...yet its atmosphere, its soul, simply lacks something its original had, and this missing component will always prevent it from being truly great, as ME1 is.

I've wondered why this is since I finished playing ME2, and I've had a few ideas about why it is, most of which I've discarded. At first I thought it was perhaps because Mass Effect 2 is just plain a lot darker than its predecessor, both in tone and in the story's events. I've mostly discarded this idea, though, as there are other science fiction stories of a darker nature that retain their spellbinding qualities.* I also considered the possibility that the further exploration and definition of the ME universe in ME2 could have done it, adding too much realism and detail to what before was a creative universe far more imagined than actively seen and defined. But I don't really think it's that, either. ME2 doesn't really show you that much more of its galaxy than ME1 did, even most of the game's settings are harsher than the original's tended to be. And I really don't think that fleshing out your created universe can ever be detrimental to telling its stories, unless you're just doing it poorly in general, which is not the case with this game at all.

I think, however, that I've figured it out, what the sequel to Mass Effect is lacking that keeps it less than a true space epic for me. It's the mysticism. You see, to me, I think a big, epic space science fiction series needs a hint of the wondrous, the inexplicable, the supernatural.

To explain what I mean, let's look at my favorite space epic, Star Wars.** With Star Wars, you get all kinds of really awesome science fiction ideas all meshing together beautifully--you get huge, interstellar conflicts, tons of aliens (both sentient and not), neat futuristic technology, epic clashes of good and evil, equally epic clashes of the human spirit against itself, countless interesting worlds and astral locations you can visit and explore, big space battles, good have it ALL, and it almost always is fun and interesting to watch. Yet there is more than that, one grand, all-encompassing thing that ties the hundreds of stories of the Star Wars universe together with more than simple continuity: The Force.

I'm going to assume that you don't need an explanation of The Force. I mean, is there anyone old enough to read these rants who hasn't seen enough of Star Wars to have a general idea of it? I hope not.

The Force adds a huge dose of mysticism to Star Wars, and by its effects, the true character and distinguishing feel of Star Wars is formed. Oh, sure, lovable rogues, hotshot space pilots, amusing droids, grand space battles, and many other parts of the series are essential aspects that also give it its character. But it's the mystical essence that binds all life, that guides the fates of all beings, and that gives rise to the Jedi that truly defines this series. It's through The Force that Star Wars delivers its best insights on human nature, creates its most memorable warriors and villains, allows for its greatest feats and contrivances, and provides moral and even religious foundation for its great struggles. The Force gives we, the audience, a greater feeling that the events we view or read are immense and far-reaching, and a better sense of how deep and limitless the Star Wars galaxy is. Anything and everything can be waiting to be discovered in Star Wars's locations and its history, and no matter what it is, it will be or will have been of great importance to The Force and thus the fate of everything, even if it has been forgotten by (or was never known to) the galaxy's records.

Some space epics have mysticism more than others. Star Wars obviously has a huge dose of it. But I think that, for it to truly draw one in and entrance an audience as grand and amazing, there does have to be SOME element of the unknown and fantastical. Star Trek has many times had its crews encounter various mysterious occurrences in their travels that they have no explanation for, such as the Guardian of Forever time portal thingy. That there could be such objects and beings of mysterious origins, of great power impossible to understand fully, that there could be objects and places left behind mysteriously, waiting to be rediscovered but perhaps never fully accounted for, gives the series a sense of wonder at times, and a mysterious grandness to the exploratory cause of the Star Trek crews. Without these elements of mysticism, Star Trek would still have most of its other aspects and their worth intact, but it WOULD have a lack of something intangibly desirable to it.

Mass Effect 1 had this hint of mysticism, mainly in the Protheans, and the cycle of destruction of the Reapers. Spoilers ahead, naturally; it's best you be familiar with Mass Effect before reading this. The Protheans, as the most recent species destroyed by the Reapers in their recurring extermination of all life, left behind traces of their civilization that are surrounded by mystery for most of the game. Trying to understand the mysteries of the Protheans, most prominently the reason they disappeared, is the touch of mysticism that helps ME1 draw us in, the promise of something old and awesome to be discovered in the past of outer space. And once the answer is found, and the Reapers' cycle of destruction revealed, the mysticism remains, becoming now the questions of how many times over the galaxy has witnessed this occur, what species there might have once been, what the lost history of the Keepers might be, what the Reapers are, where they come from, whether their purpose is one that we even COULD understand if they were willing to say. Although I'd say that Mass Effect 1 is a sci-fi epic primarily of adventure, action, aliens, and astronomical awe and advances,*** that touch of the unknown and mysterious gives it a nice tone and backs up the grand scope of its story.

Mass Effect 2 just...well, it just doesn't really have this. The fate of the Protheans, their legacy, it's no longer in focus. You can't explore planets for pieces of lost cultural history for the older races of the galaxy any longer. The motivations, the origins, the nature of the Reapers...these are no longer questioned, no longer even put forth as significant. The here and now, the tangible, the thought of what's happening and not the why or how of it, these are what Mass Effect 2 focuses on overall. And hey, it's all pretty damn cool, it makes for a good story, and there are many terrific aspects, like several of the new characters, that really satisfy a player eager for intellectual quality. But there IS something lost in ME2's narrow focus on a tougher, faster, more no-nonsense setting and storytelling style that ME1 had, something mystic and spellbinding, and I do mourn it, because that was truly what took a good game, and made it a science fiction classic.

* Although, for the record, I do wish ME2 hadn't set such a darker, more gritty tone than ME1 had. It seems unnecessary at times, and as a player I often feel displaced by it when seeing characters and locations that seem significantly altered from the their incarnations in the first game by this darker tone. I have my suspicions that this shift in plot atmosphere was done at least as much for marketing purposes as it was for any related to creative direction.

** To be more precise, the original trilogy and the extended universe created by many terrific authors like Timothy Zahn, as well as the extended universe created by many worthy published comics and great games like the Knights of the Old Republic series. I mostly don't think about Episodes 1 - 3 in this consideration, as well as most of the stuff associated with them. It's too painful.

*** I like alliteration.

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