You may not have heard any sinews twanging or backbones creaking into an upright position, but a kind of evolution is being seen in America’s family rooms. You don’t need to worry that Fido will start walking on his hind legs and ask you to go fetch the paper—the evolution I’m referring to is taking place in the world of video games. The level of thought-provoking realism in games nowadays is reaching new interactive heights. And there is currently no better example of that than BioWare’s sprawling Mass Effect.
The ambitious storyline of this sci-fi RPG/shooter is a mixture of Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and good ol’ Captain Kirk-era Star Trek. In it, humans have recently gotten up to speed in the realm of deep-space travel and are invited to join an established galactic community. The outspoken earthlings quickly grab the known universe’s attention because of their propensity for both compassion and military aggression. That seemingly at-odds combination leaves some outer space denizens with a bad taste in their green-tinged mouths. But when trouble comes a-knockin’, who ya gonna call?
So Many Choices
Gamers customize a male or female avatar, adding skills in combat, tech and something called biotics (a defensive kind of magic that can manipulate objects in the environment). The resulting warrior is Earth’s primo soldier, Commander Shepard. He or she has to track down a renegade Galactic Council member (think United Nations in space) named Saren who has taken sides with an evil race called the Geth. With them, Saren starts an interspecies war over some ancient alien artifacts that could reveal the deepest and deadliest secrets of the universe.
This grand space drama in video game form puts a unique spin on the chase-the-bad-guy formula by giving you an actual universe to fly around in and the freedom to go about your shooting, fighting and investigative duties as you see fit. That expanded sense of free will is further supported by an innovative dialogue system that allows you to select what your character is thinking during discussions with other people.
Just Like Real Life
Shepard’s cognitive choices (after you decide whether he or she is a he or she—I picked he) reflect the desires of his virtual heart and can push him in a variety of directions. Those thoughts and desires shape not only what he says, but the person he will become. For instance, brain waves guided by reason and generosity will make Shepard a respected leader, and he’ll gain friendships as the game progresses. But opting to lie, cheat and steal, or filling his virtual mind with harsh, aggressive thoughts produces a hated, ironfisted officer who will stop at nothing—even murder—to achieve his objectives.
If you’re getting the idea that Mass Effect deals with emotions and moral questions that a lot of games don’t concern themselves with, you’re right. The characters here are multifaceted and complex, and conversations reveal an intricate melodrama of political intrigue and racial prejudice that demands players make real-life kinds of ethical decisions.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean wise judgment prevails.
A group of blue-skinned telepathic women called the Asari, for instance, are from an “enlightened” race that is very open to casual sexual interaction with any species or gender. When coupling with Shepard, cut scenes show heterosexual or homosexual sex through a montage of silhouetted embraces and dimly lit but very naked curves. (When finished, in one case, the Asari gushes, “By the goddess, that was incredible, Shepard.”)
Blow ‘Em Up and Cuss ‘Em Out
Then there’s the shooter part of the equation. Players pick weaponry, armor and tactical moves for their three-member squad and blast their way through everything from an assault on a fortified enemy base to a breakout firefight in a bar. Blood is spilled in a few cinematic cut scenes, but most enemies fall over bloodlessly or disappear in a flash. Even in the area of gunplay, though, choices can take things from bad to worse. An evil version of Shepard, for example, will knock an ally to the ground and deliver a bullet to his head.
And if things weren’t sounding dicey enough, a large portion of the dialogue is scattered with heated language that won’t sit well in your family room. Words such as “d–n,” “h—,” “a–” and “b–tard” stud military exchanges.
Now, I won’t deny that the Mass Effect design team has crafted a video game masterpiece. Its graphics and detail are spectacular. It offers immense amounts of gameplay with a combination of exploration, plot-twisting intrigue and action-filled adrenaline rushes that only this new generation of games is capable of. Other reviewers have been raving with statements such as, “Sets the course for future thrillers” (USA Today) and “One of the best sci-fi games ever” (Associated Press). The title’s 1 million sales in under three weeks on the shelf backs them up.
But when MSNBC contributor Levi Buchanan gushes, “You’ll want to explore this ‘do anything’ universe over and over,” he unintentionally raises a big problem with video gaming’s latest metamorphosis. It’s no longer just a question of what mass deadening effect mowing down row after row of enemies will have on gamers’ psyches. Now they have hours and hours of ethical dilemmas (including sexual situations) to immerse themselves in as well. And if they don’t find the game’s darkest corners in the first play-through, there’s lots of stuff here that’ll keep ’em coming back for more until they do.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.