Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Love and Friendship in Mass Effect

I've finally gotten around to playing Mass Effect 3. It really is as amazing as everyone says it is. Commander Jane Shepard is busily saving the galaxy. She's marshalling the other races of the Milky Way by diplomacy, bribery, or just plain old bullying. Her state of the art ship, the Normandy, deftly evades the murderous Reapers as they go about their mission to destroy all organic life.

Shepard's got her hands full with all of that, yes, but she's also got personal relationships to manage and those are just as important to the game as saving the galaxy.

Kaiden Alenko - AKA Big Jerk
There are many ways you can go with the story. My Shepard fell in love with Kaiden Alenko, a powerful biotic who served aboard the Normandy, in the first installment of Mass Effect. She's BFF with Garrus Vakarion, a Turian sharpshooter and former member of the Citadel Security (C-Sec) force. Shepard has a stand-offish relationship with Asari scientist Liara T'Soni - she has never quite trusted the Asari. These relationships have persisted and evolved over three episodes of this game, and the characters are real to me in a way no other game has managed.

You can grow closer to the various characters by talking to them, spending time with them, and buying them things. Bioware rewards you for fostering a friendship or a love affair by giving you story interludes. In Mass Effect 2, Kaiden and my Shepard parted ways after Kaiden was a real dick about Shepard going missing for a year. She got with another character, a dying assassin named Thane Krios. It took a lot of convincing to get Thane to come around. He was sick with a disease that sometimes afflicts his race and he didn't want to start a serious relationship with someone under those circumstances. My Shepard is a Paragon (basically, a lawful good sort of gal), and so she wasn't interested in just dallying with him. By the end of Mass Effect 2, they were a solid couple.

I love that Bioware includes such real relationships in Mass Effect. The fact that Kaiden and Shepard had a fight the way they did made me feel deeply resentful toward Kaiden on Shepard's behalf. Without spoiling what happened, there was no way she could have made it back to him, and he wasn't trying to hear that. When Thane was introduced, I knew my Shepard would love him. He was rock solid dependable, capable, soft-spoken, and intense. Sure, he used to murder people for money but he quit that when he got sick, so it's all good. Also, he was pretty hot for a fishman.

In Mass Effect 3, the stakes are higher than ever before. The entire galaxy is under attack and Shepard is responsible for rallying the forces of the galaxy to fend off the invaders. But she still takes time to see Thane in the hospital. She visits Kaiden when he gets hurt and they talk about their issues. She relaxes in the crew area and talks with Garrus while he recalibrates the Normandy's weapons. Even when the galaxy is ending, friendship and love and life go on for Shepard.

Thane Krios - Hot for a Fish Guy
Mass Effect is arguably the best science fiction epic of the last decade. Aside from the aliens and robots and intergalactic war, one of its main attributes is that Commander Shepard is a real person with a real life. Mass Effect doesn't shy away from heartbreak or laughter or any of the 'soft' stuff that science fiction is supposed to sneer at. And yet the main character having feelings doesn't detract one bit from the action. I cried when I read a letter that Shepard got from Thane, because I knew it would crush her. After reading the letter, Shepard went to her cabin, fed her fish, and then dropped down onto the Geth-infested Quarian homeworld to save one of the fleet's admirals. There would be time to mourn when the killing was done, and there was plenty of killing left to do.
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