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Aaamaazing: F*cking Up In MASS EFFECT 2

(This article discusses aspects of MASS EFFECT 2's plot in the vaguest way possible to avoid spoilers, but it inevitably reveals details you might prefer not to know before playing it. It's recommended you've played MASS EFFECT 2 before you read. Actually, it's recommended you play MASS EFFECT 2, period. But I digress.)

It's my assessment that the concept of storytelling in games is now widely accepted as vital, but still stained by general incompetence. KILLZONE 3 seemed eager to craft a compelling narrative but tripped and fell on a ditch full of poo miles short of its goal, as did PROTOTYPE, CRYSIS 2, CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS, PRINCE OF PERSIA and many others. Even MAFIA 2, the sequel to a game that was narratively years ahead of its time, failed to fulfill its potential due to a rushed ending and poor blending between story and gameplay, which mostly consisted of driving around to do mundane things and occasionally, if the game was feeling generous, you'd get to shoot someone.

Few companies in the medium reliably deliver narratives that don't suffer from the "good for games" curse, being good in their own right. In fact, off the top of my head, I can only think of two companies: Rockstar and Bioware. In 2010, both did memorable things with their games RED DEAD REDEMPTION and MASS EFFECT 2, but it was the latter that made the most of the medium's interactivity to instill in the player a genuine fear of fucking everything up.

The characters are brilliantly developed through well-written conversations and, most importantly, the situations you go through with them. They ask you for favours which, if indulged, will increase their loyalty to you. Helping Jacob deal with his father, convincing Tali's people not to ban her, finding a purpose for Grunt's existence, all of these missions are vital in making your mind see your AI partners as people whose fate is worth fighting for.

The game spends its entire duration making you care about all of them until you're about to write down the dates of their birthdays and wonder what gifts to buy them.

And then it puts their lives in your hands.

This is the genius of MASS EFFECT 2: its ending. The perfect blend of story and gameplay. As you and your team are faced with a mission so risky it's considered suicidal, the player is required to decide what role each character will play in that mission, and whoever you choose might die (horribly) or get others killed (also horribly).

The game offers you no help in choosing: all it does is describe each character' specialty, but there's no percentage of success, no recommendations. Even though the upgrades you bought for the characters throughout the campaign and their loyalty to you are important in determining whether they live through the final mission or not, they are still in constant danger and their survival remains subject to your decisions. And to make them, all you have is your instinct.

I found myself torn between picking the characters more suited to the task at hand and preserving the lives of the ones I liked best. I kept Garrus and Tali with me at all times so I could personally guarantee their safety, even though they could have been more useful to the mission that would save the entire galaxy if separated from me. I picked Thane for an escort task not only because I considered him competent enough to protect the people he'd be with, but also because it would lead him back to a safer area where he'd remain until the end of the hugely important mission that could have used the most skilled assassin in the universe.

Which decisions worked and which didn't, I'm not going to reveal. But the feeling of playing that final mission is simply unforgettable.

Blasting through waves of enemies while trying to get to a certain place before your teammates die, expecting to hear someone's demise over the comm chatter at any moment, catching a break and being asked whose life to risk next for the safety of the entire fucking galaxy which is in your hands and oh God I'm going to fuck this up

All of that is relentlessly dumped on your shoulders in a way no other medium is capable of doing, and even within the medium I think MASS EFFECT 2 is unique. And it shouldn't be. Games like the utterly brilliant PORTAL 2 show the many merits of tightly linear gameplay design, but I want to see more games that boast a non-linear story where the decisions you make deeply affect everything you hold dear in that universe to the point of making you feel your stomach go cold with the fear of failure, for it makes the victory all the more satisfying, and the defeat all the more dramatic.
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About Andre Navarroone of us since 9:43 PM on 10.06.2009

I'm a Brazilian bastard who writes and draws a webcomic called PITCH BLACK and other things that you can mostly find on my website.

I love narrative arts: movies, books, comics and games are always involved in every day of my life.