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“Nothing that is vast enters into the life of mortals without a curse,” Sophocles wrote. In Timothy Ferrisʼ Coming of Age in the Milky Way, he recounts how humans have come to know their role in the universe, where we stand and for how long we can likely hope to continue. The most uncomfortable realization of the last few centuries is that we exist on an incomprehensible scale, one bigger than we could imagine and built with blocks smaller than we might ever perceive. The curse of this knowledge is the desire to argue against it, to search for a larger meaning, one where our role matters more. In that light, I wonder whatʼs the point of calling a game a “role playing game”. In what video game do you not play a role? When we enter into a system of rules, we agree to be the protagonist––itʼs implicit in our participation, and the core tenet of protagonism is that they are necessary; their role will change something or accomplish another thing. Even in abstract, plotless games like Everyday Shooter, Electroplankton, or Inside A Star Filled Sky, thereʼs a role to be played as survivalist, creator, and progenitor. What do we mean when we say role playing game (RPG)? Who knows, but misappropriation or not, it hasnʼt stopped us from exploring what we mean by it, and Mass Effect 2 is a worthwhile exploration of the term. A good rule of thumb might be that RPG implies a latitude in the way story can unfold––depending on what choices the player makes. This isnʼt always true, but itʼs true in Mass Effect 2: youʼll always save the world in the end, but which of your friends are left standing beside you is the real variable. Video games are nothing without mechanics, and Mass Effect games can be divided into two sets: conversation and combat. You can talk and you can kill. Talking includes dynamic, close up camera angles; paced conversation; and the option to investigate peopleʼs backstories and react emotionally and morally. Killing includes shooting all manner of guns and using all manner of super powers to outwit interstellar goons. Mass Effect 2 contextualizes these core mechanics of conversation and combat around helping other people, and it goes a long way in making hokey space plots into something genuinely engrossing. Hereʼs a good structure for a video game: as Commander Shepard, youʼre tasked with saving the world from an impending, mysterious doom. You canʼt do it alone, so, chop chop, better pony up a cast of super-friends to help fend off the stinky evilness. Itʼs contrived in the way science fiction can satisfyingly be, and assembling your cast and gaining their loyalty is an opportunity to become emotionally intimate with other people, which, in hindsight, really ought to be a prerequisite for “save the world” stories. No one saves the world alone. The RPGs I grew up playing were always an exercise in imagination: the best examples are the Chrono Triggers and Final Fantasyʼs, games whose epic ambition was always clearly at loggerheads with their little SNES cartridges. The ambiguous pixel sprites were an abstraction of something much bigger than could be visually communicated: “Hereʼs a story about saving the world, and weʼll tell it in cave paintings.” It worked though, mostly by my part to imagine beyond the blocky limitations. I could give boss battles the proper grandeur in my mind while the screen was more a pantomime than the literal interpretation. Believe me, I appreciate the opportunity to participate in a modern, sci-fi epic, but some parts of this effort can be harder to swallow than others. The mentality behind modernizing the RPG seems to have been to make the screen more literal. The designer has done the imagining for you: the sheen is onscreen now. Itʼs all realized! And arenʼt you glad? Look at all this, itʼs just for you. Part of me is cynical about the fight to realize an ever-growing scale, mostly because itʼs not a fight I think we can win. The amplification of technology will always be momentarily impressive, but the reflexive qualities of technology are timelessly surprising and delightful. I think Mass Effect wants to impress me through its scope, but I find myself more swept away with the technology that lets me look closely at others and watch them react to my decisions. All these graphics look the prettiest they ever have, but Iʼm most impacted by the way they make me feel about myself. Thereʼs no better vessel for that in Mass Effect than the conversation system. The game feels most alive when youʼre talking to others––due in large part to the close framing of your conversation partnerʼs face. Technology here lets us render our characters in high graphical fidelity, but it only matters insomuch as we can interact with each other. It amplifies something that could have been achievable with less. The parts of older RPG games that inevitably have mattered most to me were never things inhibited by their technology. RPGs promised characters and story, an inherent capability of any proper medium, regardless of technology. What older RPGs lacked most to me was a compelling way to interact with the game beyond killing things––these games speak through their combat systems and contextualize them with surrounding plot and characters. Technology wasnʼt keeping that from changing, but in Mass Effect, it happened to change as a consequence of new technology. In other words, we should have been more creative with our gameplay back then, and sometimes new technology can be the thing to wake us up to that. Itʼs the space drama and conversation why I enjoyed Mass Effect 2. Itʼs like playing Greyʼs Anatomy with aliens: who really gives a damn about the plot, but the chance to interact with other creatures and people, to learn about them and express yourself against them? Itʼs a welcome change from conversation thatʼs nothing more than a sidelong way of pointing the player towards the next combat scenario. And while dialogue is a forefront of video games now, seeing facial reactions as a visual representations to my button presses feels a little magical. Sometimes this simply results in learning some static backstory, but itʼs nice to be able to learn more about others if I want to, for whatever reason. Still, itʼs the opportunity to actually interact with others that makes me care. Mass Effect 2ʼs conversation system works best when it accounts for the emotional impulses to be angry, sad, benevolent, selfish, or whatever. Other times, it conforms every option under the “renegade”, “paragon”, and “neutral” responses, and then I get bored having to think in those terms. Combat and killing things is still very much a part of Mass Effect 2, but itʼs at least more satisfying on a subconscious, narrative level, and so I can swallow the hours and hours of shooting more easily. My stance on shooting in video games has always been that it had better be in service of something bigger––shooting just to shoot is a hard sell for me––but Mass Effect 2ʼs shooting reinforces its sense of scale and camaraderie. Any combat is bookended with soap opera theatrics, conversations and scenarios where I must recruit and befriend an intergalactic super team. The action between that is an expression of those people as friends. For talking to these people about their problems, theyʼll help you solve your own problems, and while that just happens to include convoluted shootouts with other alien races, I always got the sense that theyʼd all be just as willing to housesit or lend me a cup of sugar had I asked. As expressive and interdependent as the conversation system in Mass Effect 2 can be, none of it translates to the combat. I like fighting by my friends, but the way I treat them and relate to them while fighting has no bearing on our relationship. If a teammate goes down and I fail to revive them or attend to them quickly, why arenʼt they frustrated later? Why donʼt I have to pick up the pieces caused by my inattentiveness? If my team makes it through unscathed, shouldnʼt we like each other more for it? None of the morality in conversation makes it to combat, either. If in conversation I believe in a hierarchy of goodness, why donʼt I carry that to my life on the battlefield? I donʼt believe that someone who is pedantically nice would murder so readily, nor that the needlessly mean person would be so attentive to his or her teammates. Perhaps Iʼm asking for too lifelike a system, but playing Mass Effect 2, I want to believe in it as though it were that lively. For all the effort BioWare has made to literalize, modernize, and redefine the RPG, Iʼm still expecting more from the system, imagining it more than it really is. I want to see more of myself in it, for it respond more and revolve more around me. Even in a sci- fi world where we have begun to come of age beyond our own galaxy, I still want to know that I matter, to see my imprint on the universe and the indelible imprint it has left on me. A refute to the sky-wide evidence that I could be gone in an instant, and it would not matter. Of all our expressions of a role playing game, this might be the most haunting. We will always be playing it. This is the role implicit in our humanity. We will always be playing it. This is the role we can never not play. This is the role we will always be playing.


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