Monday 1 February 2010

A life without cause is a life without effect.

Yes, it’s true, I too have been sucked into the universe of Bioware’s Mass Effect once again, where I generally run around enjoying the effects of various projectile weapons on the body mass of various alien species.

‘We come in peace’? Oh please. Allow me to introduce you to my heavily armoured gunship. Pile of charred smoking meat remains this is my gunship, gunship this is… oh, you’ve already met?

So yes, I’m missing the release of Star Trek Online at the moment but feel that, should I want to, I can happily simulate the experience by yanking the power cable out of the back of my PC at random intervals and not allowing myself to plug it back in for three or four hours. ‘Missing’ is probably the wrong word, and ‘avoiding’ is probably more appropriate, possibly with the words ‘like the Phage’ concatenated on to the end.

I imported my previous Mass Effect character into the game, and as I watched the introduction movie I looked forward to seeing the ol’ girl again, and I am willing to admit that I got a little bit emotional in those last few moments of the introduction sequence when you see them out in the silent blackness of space, and all you hear are those breaths…

Sexy breaths.

The character generation screen loaded and I waited those last few moments for my imported character to appear, thinking back with that fondness one often has for one of their virtual partners. I remembered being quite pleased with myself when I created her — I do pride myself on my ability to create a good looking avatar against all the obstacles that some of these Uncanny Valley models seem to throw in the way, and Bioware’s games do allow for some really freaky looking characters, especially when contrasted against the painstakingly and lovingly sculpted avatars of your companion NPCs. I remembered that Aria Shepard was a real looker though, and she was once again going to bring sexy death to the enemies of humanity. Or Uoomanity, if you want to believe the pronunciation of the otherwise splendidly dulcet tones of Martin Sheen’s character, the Invisible Man.

“Commander Shepard, Uoomanity is still in desperate danger.”



“Sorry, one moment, I’m looking for the “Who the fracking frell are the Uoomanity” chat option, but it doesn’t seem to be here”

The character screen loaded.

I’m not quite sure how to convey the horror. Imagine walking up behind a cute little dog of one of the toy breeds, one of those fluffy little things, you know the ones — a cross between Lassie and Winne the Pooh. Now imagine that as you pick it up it turns towards you and you see that it has the face of Margaret Thatcher. And then she/it licks you enthusiastically all over your face.

I quickly rushed back to my old post to confirm that this was indeed an error in the way that Bioware were importing old characters into the new game. But no, she really was the freaky-looking wax sculpture with melted liquorice for hair that was being presented to me now. Fie cruel memory and the tricks that you play! Thankfully Bioware allows you to change the face of your imported character, for reasons that are obvious to anyone who has played the first few minutes of the game, and so I set about creating a character who didn’t look as though they’d be more at home swinging around the rooftops of Notre Dame.

The funny thing was that, no matter how much I tried not to, I eventually came back to something that looked pretty much the same as my original Shepard. Yes the eyes were slightly tweaked so that they both at least pointed in the same direction, and the nose was toned down somewhat so that it was less likely that Joker would try to accidentally dock the starship Normandy up there, but she had the same overall look as the original. Because this was the virtual woman who I’d shared so many adventures with previously.

The more I looked at her the more attractive she became in my eyes, even though she wasn’t really any different to the Margaret Thatcher Pomeranian cross-breed of earlier. Because, I realised, I liked this person regardless of how they looked, as long as they looked like themself.

“Person”, I thought.

I think this is what Bioware does so well: they create virtual people. Not characters. The reason that the conversation and story is so compelling is that, as with a truly exceptional movie, you forget that the lives you are witnessing aren’t real, that the people who you’re getting emotionally invested in aren’t real. The genius of Bioware, however, is that they manage this by coordinating several people to bring to life one person. Whereas a movie director has to direct just the one actor to bring a person to life on the big screen, Bioware has to direct voice actors and animation artists in order to create life. It’s a fantastic feat, and it helps to lift their RPG games above most other contenders.

Not only that, but they are able to create convincing worlds and even, in the case of Mass Effect, universes that are both familiar and yet at the same time differ wildly from our expectations in many ways. Take the much vaunted Agent Zero of Mass effect 2, a ball-busting no-nonsense lady of no mean combat ability who, with shaven head, a body covered in tattoos, dungarees and overtly aggressive make-up turns out not to be a raging bra-burning feminist lesbian. Honestly, the moment I saw her I thought that, with the right conversation options about how all men are bastards and the liberating empowerment of armpit hair, it was a sure bet that there would be some cravat-exploding interaction between my character and her. “Ah ha!” cries Bioware, “not in this future universe. You’ll never know where you stand with us. Things are different here. Lesbians aren’t what they appear to be”. It’s a strange and confusing place, to be sure; I’ll have to talk it over with Yeoman Kelly Tokenlesbian the newly appointed ship’s counsellor at some point, maybe she can clue me in on how to spot them.

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