I’m a few loose ends away from wrapping up Mass Effect 2, and that terrifies me.
I know, I know. I shouldn’t be so frightened. I’ve turned the galaxy upside-down, shaking loose its roughest, toughest customers and sweeping them right onto my ship. My crew and I have fought back-to-back time and time again, leaving robots, aliens, and entire mercenary organizations battered and bloody in our wakes. But it’s not my crew I’m worried about. It’s me.
I mean, let’s be honest here: the term “suicide mission” doesn’t inspire much optimism. And here we are, betting the whole space farm on those abysmal odds anyway. But whatever, right? Mass Effect 3’s already been announced. Unless the game’s actually a bouquet of colorful Game Over screens, I’m pretty sure we’ve got this one in the bag. We may as well be running a victory lap at this point.
However, we’ve got one more major factor working against us – one that not even the great, no-longer-late Shepard has taken into account: I, the player, am not reloading a previous save if things go awry.
Oh, sure, if I slip up and take a headlong dive right into a red, pulsating Game Over screen, I’ll restart a combat scenario, but that’s just assumed. No – I’m talking about story-altering consequences here. Crew members can – and depending on my actions, may very well – die permanently during Mass Effect 2’s final hours. It used to be that, when this kind of thing happened in games, I’d simply hit the reload button and roll back the clock a couple of minutes as a quick, clean necromantic ritual. Then I’d do things the “right” way. No unnecessary blood or tears shed.
Now though, I’ve realized something: Undoing my in-game mistakes robs my actions of all meaning. In videogames, we can make mistakes. Sure, other mediums have filled tome-upon-tome, tape-upon-tape with tearful tales of regret and guilt, but only in games can we truly own those feelings. If I accidentally lead my exceedingly loyal teammates right off a bridge, that’s on me. And one of my favorite aspects of Mass Effect 2 – or BioWare’s recent works in general, for that matter – is that it leaves room for those sorts of game-changing mistakes. That, in my opinion, is a big step in the right direction for story-based videogames.
Take Dragon Age, for instance. I’ll try to keep this as vague as possible, so as to minimize spoilers, but here’s how it went: My party could have made it through the game’s final encounter fully intact. It didn’t. It was my fault. And before I knew it, I was saving my own hide at someone else’s expense. As I witnessed one of my companions selflessly charge through death’s gates, warm tears streamed down my face, uncontrolled – partially because I was saddened by my party member’s passing, partially because I was ashamed of my own cowardice, and partially because I could have done something to stop it.
If only I’d known what would happen.
And now, I do know. But I refuse to tarnish that moment with a do-over. Because I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so strongly about a videogame in my entire life.
Mass Effect 2 expands on this by allowing for quick moments of Paragon/Renegade action – or, often more importantly, inaction. Hesitate just long enough on stopping that gung-ho Quarian captain from going out in a blaze of glory and it’s too late. Then your stomach sinks, and you’re hit with the always slobber-knocking one-two combo of guilt and regret. Too many games, I think, subscribe to the idea that there’s a “right” and “wrong” way of experiencing their stories.
Take BioShock, for instance. If you harvested a Little Sister early on – because, let’s face it, Rapture’s a kill-or-be-killed kind of place, and it was either you or her – you were locked out of the “good” ending. But that panicked “I have to harvest her or else I’m fish food” mentality and the mistake that arose from it are what makes the whole encounter so interesting. Your back was against the wall, so you lashed out. Later, once you got your footing (and a Plasmid or three), you decided to repent for your sins by freeing every brittle, barefooted Little Sister you laid eyes on.
In the above hypothetical playthrough, then, your early flirtations with the “wrong” path eventually strengthened your commitment to the “right” path. You made a mistake and you felt awful about it. The game, however, saw things differently. The second the game’s own excellent atmosphere and scene-setting drove you to whip up some delicious, nutritious Little Sister soufflé, you were judged guilty. Your actions after that initial mistake simply didn’t matter. “Bang, bang,” slammed the gavel. And just like that, you were either mostly evil, or mustachio-twirlingly, cape-sportingly evil. No middle ground.
Whereas Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age make these sorts of internal struggles viable, BioShock and many other big-name games brusquely shove them out of the way as they barrel toward the finish line. Videogames are interactive. Our actions within them should mean something. I say it’s time to finally make good on that particular promise.