I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire: Love in Mass Effect
Mass Effect 3 is a compelling ride so far. I haven’t finished it, but I love it. There are some things that just don’t quite come together, and while this is not surprising, it’s unusually disappointing to be hit with awkward dialog and non-sequitor character reactions when so much is so beautifully executed. I’m so invested in these characters, cliched and housed in Sci-fi channel level plot as they may be. As with almost all Bioware games I’ve played, the core of each character is superbly captured in the line-by-line writing and the relationships between characters (romantic ones with the PC aside) are also superbly realized and nuanced (and the plot is bonkers as shit). Characters in Mass Effect are visually compelling and voice acted superbly, too, which helps to no end. The zany, crappy plot I can forgive here more than elsewhere because I’m used to Sci-fi this unbelievable; the emotional ups and downs are delivered well once you allow for the rules of this haphazard fiction, because I care that the characters care–I don’t need any other excuse to care, really, unless something as fictionally awful as the final boss fight in ME2 happens. That about sums up where I’m approaching Mass Effect from overall and now onwards to the heart of the matter: love in mass effect and how it’s worked out so far.
Some of the “romantic” interaction in the trilogy is surprisingly flat in my thus far limited experience.* The characters and their relationships with Shepard are so finely tuned except where love, romance, and what-ever-else in that general direction is involved. There are some exceptions, moments of clarity (or beautifully rendered awkwardness) in the writing. But I’m left very disappointed by how little effort was put into really fleshing out what makes (at least one of) the romantic relationships special. I felt like Shepard’s freindship and overall connection to these characters was incredibly well explained, established and written. In particular Shepard’s relations with Garrus and Tali and his non-romantic relations with Liara. But, for example, as a fan of all these characters, and as a player who’s head-canon is pointed at Liara and Shepard, I found the chemistry down that road rather lacking.
The characters found themselves together through interactions that felt right at the time. I never had an adgenda to accomplish this or that rommance or even to accomplish any–Liara made the first move, not Shepard. But something’s missing. There’s a really interesting connection between the characters that’s explored in some really touching moments between them. Unfortunately most of the moments specific to their being in a relationship abandon that unusual, interesting connection for a more vanilla romance which ends up feeling flat and out of character for Liara at least–Shepard’s mileage varies. I ended up doing a mental ret-con of Shepard and Liara’s attempt at romance, and gave them a short but important conversation a ways back in the game. I wasn’t frustrated becasue I wanted to see them do this or say that … but because I wanted to feel like they were being themselves and caught up together.
I wouldn’t have minded conflict in their relationship–it would have fit. They’re both obsessively working themselves to death and taking barely enough time to breath let alone be romantic partners. Just ANYTHING other than the bizarre dance between an incredibly well writen and compelling freindship, and what felt like a comparitively poorly written and shoe-horned romance. This is highlighted for me by a moment on the Citadel when Liara and Shepard get to talk for a bit. I felt like I had many more meaninful conversations with Garrus than Tali by this point in the game–if I’m allowed to count the shortish ones where it doesn’t go into conversation mode. And when they finally take some time to talk … I did what felt right. Liara talked about her childhood, we laughed, and she said how nice it would be to do this more often, to just sit and “[elipsis] as freinds.” I concured and we had this delightfully acted and animated exchange:
Shepard: “And who knows, maybe you’ll settle down after this”.
Liara: “C’mon, you don’t see me going into civilian life do you?”
Shepard: “No, but I figure all the more reason to stay in touch.”
Liara: “Someone to share a few secrets with?”
Damn did that feel well done. There was a sense of some extra communication beneath that. It felt like two ancient friends who have known each other for decades, speaking as much with the silence as with the words. Romantic or not, they have some sort of solemn soul-mate thing going on and this scene played that note for all it was worth. Out of a sort of morbid curiosity I decided to see how the other half lives, though I was damn happy what I’d seen as a mere observer. But not as a player. I had picked the other option the “right” way, out of instinct, but the meta-player in me wanted to give these two a happy, loving relationship as romantic partners … and even though I wanted it more, taking the conversation down it’s alternate route not only failed to match up to the high standard of the first but it felt really badly done. When I selected “I want to be more than friends” instead of “I’d like that, too,” every thing from the writing that followed, to the actors’ delivery to the animation feels off. They feel transported into Bizzaro Liara talks with not-too-Bizzarro Shepard as they tell each other that they want to spend the rest of their lives together. The kicker is that, as I said, I sort of wanted them to say that to each other. It’s not that I can’t see the characters as a happy couple somewhere down the line (if they survive, and I have my doubts at this point). It’s that this option was one of the more unintentionally awkward and wince-inducing conversations in the whole game.
That’s the most concise moment I can find that encapsulates how I feel about Shepard and Liara’s relationship in the game as a whole. I feel like it, more than any other relationship with Shepard in the game, has a canon arc. There are other canon elements in the game. Aspects of a character’s arc that cannot be thwarted by the PC short of killing the character if that’s even possible. But here was a more solid, natural seeming arc did not involve the PC as an arbiter or an opponent, but still demanded the player have agency. I think Bioware really struggled to with that. I think there are a number of relationships between Liara and the PC that “work.” But for her to be the one that slaves simplemindedly to save Shepard when all others have given up hope, and then to run away from Shepard to carry out a tangential mission of revenge while figuring out what on Earth Shepard not being dead after actually means to her, and then to dedicate herself to Shepard and the mission so completely no matter what choices you make as Shepard? That severely limits the kind of character she can be, and the arcs she can follow. And I don’t think Bioware fully wrapped their heads around the implications of that for her potential romantic entanglements with Shepard.
Not too long after Shepard and Liara came to terms with their relationship as a non-romantic one, I ran into someone I thought Shepard thought he wouldn’t see again. Tali. They had grown close in Mass Effect 2, something I felt bad about until I remembered that I was playing a role and spending at least some time with my Passenger hat on–it was ok to have Soap Opera entanglements drama; it’s the next most essential element of a Space Opera after “space” and “aliens.” It’s pretty much synonymous with “ensemble cast.” Anywho, my Shepard done goofed over the course of his descent into likely death, but came out of that goof feeling romantically attached to not ONE high-frequency-end-of-the-rainbow colored alien, but TWO. Fast-forward to the bit where I run into Tali, tell her there’s still something kinda there, almost get shot down while inside a Geth dreadnaught, profess my desire to be with her, and get cursed out by Liara. This I felt two ways about. On the one hand, if intended as an irrational response borne of the pace of my relationship with Tali coming back into the picture and still-present upset that it happened without a formal ending of my relationship with Liara during ME2 … that’s fine. Makes sense. Or even a betrayal of some unspoken vow to love no other though we would love each other in a strange, mostly separate sort of way. But I have the sinking suspicion that it was more a matter of numbers in the background being sufficiently high for Liara and the game not recognizing our discussion on the Citadel for the defining relationship moment that it was.
I could go on to detail how even being in a relationship with Liara during ME3 despite my clear, let’s keep in touch but I’m happy where I’m at message at the end of Lair of the Shadow Broker was itself a result of one of the conversation options feeling too out of character in the way it played out. But mentioning it should suffice becasue I want to wrap up so that I can move on to part two and assess some moments that I feel work well and what’s different about them. To be clear, I’m ok with conflict. In fact I wish relationships, romantic and otherwise, had more surprises and conflicts in Bioware games. They consistently lean towards giving players the outcomes they want rather than the decisions they want. When it comes to the larger plot, I appreciate clear consequences except in special circumstances that make sense; it feels really shitty to be told by the game that every decision you made was crappier than the decision you didn’t make becasue of all this stuff you couldn’t possibly have predicted.** It feels like bait and switch. It feels unfair. It feels, crucially, like you played wrong rather than like you chose wrong. It’s a very fine line to draw when dealing with things like what characters live and die and other big picture, failure state type stuff. But when dealing with relationships that are not central to victory and failure as conceived by the plot or the mechanical systems, there’s room for unfairness. For surprise. For conflict. For traps. Relationships certainly have the same sorts of unexpected complications, straightforward or not, that make up the entirety of the essential plot arcs. And yet, relationships in these games are so often afraid to really allow the players choice other than “Pursue, don’t pursue.” And with characters this rich? That’s a real shame.
Next time I’ll invert this post and focus on relationships at their best in Mass Effect and what makes the good moments work so much better.
*I haven’t finished my second (female) character’s play-through of Mass Effect 1. It’s hard to come up with a compelling character becasue Shepard is already on a limited spectrum–I can make different decisions but finding a motivation point from which to make ALL decisions that isn’t just “What would Gwathdring do?” is more difficult in this game than in a more typical RPG scenario. I can take on a prescribed role and write my own role, but this hybrid is more difficult to wrap my head around cohesively.
**This is distinct from the game telling you every decision was crappier than it seemed because of stuff you couldn’t predict, but some were crappier than others in ways you COULD predict.