Saturday, 24 May 2014

Camaraderie in Space: My Adventures in Mass Effect

Thanks for the inspiration Andy, you too Connor.

After years of Andrew's irrelevant reviews about Star Trek, Lost and Whovian Lore, I shall write the magnum opus of this website and my own writing (which isn't saying much as this is limited to 3 crap reviews and GCSE English coursework). I, however, should probably introduce myself first. I'm Tanju, 17 years old and autistic. Despite what a lot of people think, autistic people feel emotion and have a sense of humour, even if they appear neutral and monotonous. What makes me so different from so-called "neurotypicals" is my difficultly understanding social norms and having deep and very specific special interests like science, maths, politics and video games. This means I often straddle and frequently cross the line between loud and obnoxious and quiet and reserved. I've always managed to fit in with groups of people, but I rarely ever find myself as anything other than an outsider with more than two or three people. All my life I've felt I was shunned and misunderstood and I've never had a long-term romantic relationship with anyone (or short-term really). My behaviour has made people I care about any connection I made with people has been undermined by my autism, even if it doesn't affect their opinion of me and vice versa.

Then came Mass Effect. I've been using the trilogy as a coping mechanism for my autism since ME2 came out in 2010. I then played through the original and finally the third the day it came out. I didn't realise this at the time though. I just thought I was playing a set of really good sci-fi RPGs. It only dawned on me today, on the final day of sixth form, after probably saying a final goodbye to a lot of people I know and a long talk with close friends. But anyway, enough about me, you want to know about Mass Effect don't you?

The greatest innovation in RPGs this generation.
The games in the Mass Effect trilogy are science-fiction action-RPGs with a focus on having strong story and narrative, which meant a complex and interesting backstory for the universe, tough choices that affect the game and personal relationships with characters in the game. Those personal relationships are what made me fall in love with the game. You are Commander Shepard, celebrated war hero and captain of the spaceship Normandy. Inbetween missions, you could explore the Normandy and talk to your crew, which was diverse and consisted of people from different species and within the humans, different ethnicities, nationalities, etc.  They all have their own story to tell, they're all interesting. Even one of the more disliked crewmembers, Ashley, wasn't just some dumb bimbo. She was religious in a society that near-universally secular, she had a sister she cared about and she loved poetry. Then there was fan favourites like Tali, a skilled young Quarian engineer who was eager to prove herself and deeply patriotic, prioritising her fleet over anything else, and Wrex, a disillusioned Krogan warrior who hates how his people have lost their sense of tradition after a weaponised fertility plague dooms them to extinction. These characters were deeply written and if you immersed yourself into the game, you cared about them. The way you talked to them was the dialogue wheel, shown above. Through this wheel, you could advance or end a conversion seamlessly, ask questions, make moral choices or persuade someone to do something or side with you. It towed the line between choice and cinematic immersion and it worked. I felt like I was Shepard by using this to controlling the flow and general direction of his (or her) actions and dialogue. This helped me develop as a person by allowing me to have something I didn't have in real life, people I felt comfortable sharing experiences with. I was respected by the people who followed me to hell and back. I definitely didn't have autism in-game. I was confident and a good leader, without having an extreme amount of choice that would cause my autism to get in the way.

At this point I'd just like to point out that Mass Effect was not about having a power trip, but an experience where I connected with the characters on a personal level. They weren't pixels on a screen. They were friends, as much and maybe more so than my non-fictional ones. And I know that this wasn't a unique experience for me. The games are clearly designed with this in mind. You completed "loyalty missions" in Mass Effect 2, in order to gain the trust of your new crew. You saw their personal struggles and saw them on a deeper level. Then you have the Citadel DLC, basically a touching, hilariously fun 7-hour final goodbye to the crew of Normandy. Seriously, you have a fucking party at the end. Name one franchise where you would pay £15 for a story about having a party with the main characters.

My care for these characters allowed me to have an emotional stake in the outcome of the game. My rationale for my choices in the game wasn't based on the common good or some other bullshit, but on how they would affect my crew. Without Wrex in my crew, the Krogan would be generic alien enemies. I wouldn't give a shit about them and they wouldn't mean anything to me. We base our choices in real life on how they affect people and if you can't visualise these people, you ignore their troubles. The "starving children in Africa" are an abstract concept until you see their faces on charity adverts. My worldview in-game was based on talking to the dozen or so comrades who helped me save the galaxy. They were people who were immersed in a culture I would never understand. If we have wildly different and contradictory traditions on our own planet, how can we ever comprehend as the Volus' finance-based or the Turian's militaristic culture? Well, a good start would be to talk a Volus or Turian.

Mass Effect isn't some happy Skyrim-esque space adventure, where you can just explore wherever you want to and absorb the beauty and complexity of the open world. It has a linear-ish story and it has to progress to mean anything. You're trying to achieve a single goal along the way. Destroy the Reapers, giant robotic space cuttlefish hell-bent on fucking up the galaxy. This enemy doesn't any nuance to it. They're evil and incomprehensible (at least until that ending...). They exist merely as an obstacle for the protagonist, i.e. me and the awesome crew of the Normandy, to overcome. An equivalent in real life would be A-Level exams, like the ones I should be revising for right now instead of writing essays on video games (by the way I study Further Maths and Physics, not English Literature). We experience stress, sadness, turmoil. The stakes are high and there is little room for error. You can't talk to an exam paper, or persuade it to go easy on you. You finish the paper on the day the best you can. But exams aren't the only thing you do, you have banter with friends, parties, drama, relationships. These are the interesting things in student life, not exams and the same goes for Mass Effect, the Reapers exist as a plot device, but it allows us to overcome hardship to show us our true character. Without situations that require us to do so, we will never need to adapt. That's allowed Mass Effect to have contrast and variety. Dark moments were offset by the humour and joy and camaraderie.  For every comrade dead, for every memorial in Mass Effect 3, there was the good times on the Normandy, there was the sheer and utter fun that the Citadel DLC. It was real and even with autism I could feel that. A goal to overcome and an ideal to reach, the future free from the Reapers or the 4 years in university, made me love every moment, good or bad.

You may ask me, "why a video game?" Hundreds of films, books and TV shows have dealt with struggles of people and their personal relationships, some are even about the struggles of the autistic. If sci-fi escapism is part of the equation, shows like Firefly include the tight-knit crew you mentioned. What makes a video game like Mass Effect so special? The answer to that is long-winded and difficult to put into words, but there is one aspect I can confirm. I'm in control. When I watch Firefly, I empathise with the crew, but I'm not Nathan Fillion, however awesome that would be. No matter how much I become part of that community, the story of Firefly isn't mine. Its the story of Captain Reynolds and his crew trying to make it in a world that is indifferent to him, no matter how many fan-fics I write to rectify that. Mass Effect is my story, through and through. Every aspect of Shepard is customisable. My own Shepard I identify with the most is basically a carbon copy of me, friendly whenever possible, with choices which favoured liberal ideology and multiculturalism (that meant mostly Paragon choices) and a straight male who romanced Tali. Another Shepard I'm fond of is a bi female who romanced Liara in ME1 and Garrus in ME2 & 3 and was mostly Paragon, but sarcastic and a no-bullshit kind of girl. This makes Mass Effect good for replaying, but also gave me a way to express myself. The choice I had in the game was mostly an illusion, but it was a good one. With good writing and a little movie video game magic, playthroughs felt completely different from one another. I was writing a new 100+ hour story for the universe every time I replayed the trilogy. Was Shepard someone who tried to be fair and bring peace to everyone he could or did he sometimes make the questionable choice because the ends justify the means? Was he into girls or guys? Was he even a "he"? We will never know and frankly Bioware, I don't want to know.

I didn't write this for any reason other than needing to express myself. These are my thoughts unfiltered by rational argument, or even proof-reading. I am not a creative writer and if you are, you can probably tell I had no plan for this other than chucking all my ideas onto one post. I just hope that you can relate to my story and maybe appreciate autism a little bit. All it takes is some open-mindedness. But if I had to ask for something, an early copy of Mass Effect 4 wouldn't go amiss. Think about it Bioware.

Once last thing, I'd recommend the film Ben X as the themes in that film reflect the ones shown in this essay. Its also an awesome film, check it out.

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