Due to a PS3 malfunction, this past year I have played basically 2 games (besides League of Legends ughguhguh) — Skyrim and Mass Effect 2. I talked a bit about the demo of the latter, but other than that have remained silent. To cut to the chase, they were both really good games. Fantastic. Out of this world. They differ in many ways, but I just want to touch upon one in particular: Narration and Player Control.
Looking back, I feel I have wrongly accused ME2 of having problems which when compared to another single-player western RPG giant, seem a lot less like problems and a lot more like intentional design.
Last time, I complained about the split between me as a player, and the already established character of Shepard, and how these two forces are often at odds. I will admit now, I was doing it wrong. In Mass Effect, you are actually asked to role-play, in a Role-Playing Game. Which caught me by surprise. I had to learn this the hard way: Shepard is not a manifestation of you. Shepard is Shepard. Sure, you can change their personality to a slight degree, yet their tone and character will never be blank enough to satisfy being called an avatar.
In Skyrim, you do get a completely blank, silent, character to mold and shape. This is great in some circumstances, like when exploring the massive open world, when my avatar acts as my eyes. There is no barrier between what is happening in the game, and how I feel as a player. “Man, that cave looks cool.”, “I wonder what’s over there!”, “Ugh, this shopkeep is a dickhead.”– you are exploring, not some other guy.
Seeing Skyrim through a coloured filter of a personality would be completely different. Your warrior persona could make fun of wizards, even if you think wizards are pretty neat. Your stormcloak persona could say that Solitude was a shithole, even if you thought it was a charming town. So a neutral viewpoint allows the player to experience this world as if they themselves were in it. Yet this blank persona can be limiting at times too.
Player expression is mainly allowed through physical actions. If you disagree with a preacher, you can’t ask him to stop, your only option is to plant an arrow in his face. Your love of cheese wheels will never be acknowledged by others. When you’ve been raised to “Archmage SuperThief of the Brotherhood of Bards”, you start to feel like you should have more of an impact in the political world than jumping on tables and knocking over vases.
Yet Skyrim can get away with this to a certain extent, because there is no room for nuance in Tamriel. Skyrim’s old King was dethroned by shouting him to death. It makes sense in a weird way that your avatar, and by extension you, would be more likely to stab a child than tell them to stop throwing rocks.
Mass Effect is a different ballgame. You are already “CommanderGhost Spectre of the Council of Allied Citadels”. ME is a lot more focused of a world, there’s only so many actions you can take. Last time, I called Femshep a cunt, for which I apologise. Femshep is simply a badass, unlike myself. Trying to play her as an avatar was frustrating as I kept thinking ‘I wouldn’t say that, that isn’t me.’.
Finally giving in and accepting that I have to play as this badass completely changed how I felt about the game. If I’m gonna be a Commander, this is how it should be. Shepard is not mute, she does not jump while running to move faster, she does not teabag dead enemies. Players are given control via dialogue and character interaction, which better reflects the world of Mass Effect.
Of course, both techniques can be used effectively in gaming, but I for one am now glad that Shepard is not a blank slate.
This may be my Shepard, but this is Shepard’s story.