Monday, February 11, 2013

Shepard, Master Chief, and How Their New Games MAKE NO SENSE

Mass Effect and Halo: two series of video game franchises that have defined their genres.  When a person talks about video games (and have no idea what they’re talking about), it’s almost always Halo, despite that being one game inside a massive subgenre, and not even the highest selling game at that.  When people who know games talk about games, Mass Effect is often mentioned as one of the most influential role-playing action shooters ever.

But I don’t really care about that.  I care about how awesome it was to be a super soldier fighting against, literally, galactic sized odds.  For the few people who have been living behind a rock for the last 10 years, I’m going to give some background on the two characters of two of my favorite science fiction series.  First, I’ll describe Shepard.

John Shepard (as he is in my game, since my originality machine was broken at the time, and I stuck with the first name offered to me in the beginning) is the main playable character in the Mass Effect series of video games.  Unless you chose the “Soldier” class (and if you did, I think you’re boring,) then your Shepard was one of the most kick-ass biotics in the known galaxy.  My character was a Vanguard, and had the ability to what essentially boiled down to punching people really hard.  Apparently my subtlety machine was broken as well, but I didn’t care, because it felt awesome.  Easily one of greatest moments in the game is when I charged up my biotic fists for the first time and slammed into a computer generated bad guy with the force of fat man through a crowd of unwary office workers when someone brought free donuts.  After I had pummeled enough alien grunts, the SECOND greatest moment is when the game first allowed me the freedom to explore the stars.

You see, I have always had a desire to travel throughout the galaxy, but bonus points if I don’t have to leave the comfort of my home.  Hey, space is dangerous, and it takes FOREVER to get anywhere.  Seriously, who has time for that?  Being in space also takes chutzpah, which is why I’m writing about it instead of actually, you know, flying around in it.  Anyway, almost immediately after the first mission in Mass Effect you are given command of a ship, and then sent on various errands throughout the galaxy to promote justice (or something, since I was normally too busy hitting the “smash” button to notice a lot of the boring…what were we talking about?)

Wait…what was the mission again?  Diplomacy?

Just the idea of looking at a star map and choosing which system to travel to was enough for my nerd brain to implode into a supermassive black hole.  I was boldly going where no one had gone before.  I was a hitchhiking galactic traveler.  Or, wait…maybe something more grand and romantic.  I was a god.  A demigod.  I was the hero in a galactic opera, imposing my will where I saw fit, which was normally as just as I could make it, since you didn’t get points for being neutral.  In Mass Effect, you overcome enslavement and evil with skill and wit, or in my case, my right army and my left army.

No, I don't need tickets.  I brought my own gun show.

(Now granted, there was this whole “love interest” thing, which I admittedly got more emotionally involved in than my dignity likes to admit, but it wasn’t the central theme.) 

Based on the astronomical sales of this sci-fi action RPG, it can be assumed that people like being a god.  We want obstacles to overcome, and we want them to be heavy, important ones that put the weight of the galaxy on our shoulders…and which we can solve during the weekend or after work.  And this is an inherent trait in every person ever born, save one perhaps.  We don’t just want to solve problems, we want our problem solving to mean something.  Doctors don’t go to school for 10 years because they just love looking at naked dead people.  They do it because there is inherent worth in saving someone’s life (well…that and the money, but my argument will break down if I scrutinize too much.)  The risk is worth the reward, and the reward is being a savior.

[Spoiler Alert]

The main antagonist in the first game is a giant ship, referred to as Sovereign.  It broadcasts a signal that “indoctrinates” any organic life form that attempts to control it, essentially brainwashing them.  This is the problem.  Nobody wants their brains scrubbed!  Solving this problem saves billions of sentient lives.  Demigod status has been established for the entire trilogy.  One of the best scenes in the game is when you first learn that the ship, though a machine, is completely self-aware and hell bent on controlling and/or wiping out all other sentient life.  From this moment on, you learn the incredible dangers of acquiring power for the sake of power itself.  For every ounce of power gained from Sovereign, you lose a pound of will.  In the end, even the strongest succumb to the onslaught of Indoctrination (and the reason I’m holding out for Mass Effect to redeem itself.) 

And here is where the science fiction epic begins to break down.  If you’re sharp, you might notice a bit of irony here.  Remember, you’re supposed to be the good guy (even if you filled out the Rebel bar completely,) but you can’t be a good guy without indoctrinating some people yourself.  But I’ll discuss Mass Effect’s fatal hypocrisy later.

I’ll come back to this after I bring up my other favorite sci-fi epic trilogy.  Halo.


Bungie doesn’t bother to disguise their Biblical references.  The Flood, the Covenant, the Ark, and even the Haloes themselves are all pointing to a central theme.  Master chief is a hero of Biblical proportions.  A demigod.  You are a hero, and you lay the smack down on a bunch of sentient zealots hell bent on converting and/or destroying all life in the universe.  You survive countless waves of enemies due to your skill and wit, or your guns (if you know what I mean.)  You’ll notice a theme building.  It’s almost as if this desire is written into the fabric of humanity.  Think back to some of the earliest myths; Gilgamesh, Moses, Hercules, Achilles, Beowulf, and King Arthur, to barely scratch the surface.  We want demigods to be real.  We want them to be a little out of the realm of our reality.  And we want to watch them blow their space loads all over some stupid, alien heads.  Why?

Previously an alien head

Because ka-boom.  That’s why.  The most basic human need of taking evil's lunch money.

So along comes Halo 4 to throw that shit right out the window.  Master Chief is a silent sentinel, capable of demolishing armies with nothing more than a little luck and Cortana’s sarcasm.  But in the new game [more spoilers!], during an intense conversation with a character called the Librarian, we learn this; “Reclaimer, when I indexed mankind for repopulation, I hid seeds from the Didact. Seeds which would lead to an eventuality. Your physical evolution. Your combat skin. Even your ancilla, Cortana. You are the culmination of a thousand lifetimes of planning.”  The culmination of a thousand lifetimes of planning.  What?!  In their desperate bid to make John 117 more human, 343 Studios recreated him to be nothing more than a really expensive, complex robot.  Because that’s all you are.  A really smart robot with the ability to shoot things.  (I realize that, in some ways, this might be their point, but...did they not play the previous 3 Halo games?)

I have a total lack of understanding of how the real world works, because I live in a computer.

So never mind that the Forerunners were supposed to be humans that greeded themselves into extinction.  (I mean seriously, was I the only one who wanted the Reclaimer to mean that humanity was approaching a technological zenith again, and that Guilty Spark was actually there to warn the humans about the abuses of power?  That the irony of the Covenant’s zeal was due to their mistaken assumption that the ancient Haloes did not, in fact, originate from a superior race promoting a “Great Journey,” but were human in construction.  That the Flood was a metaphor for mankind tinkering too deeply into its own DNA, in attempts to become gods themselves?!!!  I refuse to believe I am, but obviously not among the writers of Halo 4.)

What happened to this quote?  “They let me pick, did I ever tell you that?  Choose whichever Spartan I wanted.  You know me. I did my research.  Watched as you became the soldier we needed you to be. Like the others, you were strong and swift and brave.  A natural leader.  But you had something they didn't.  Something no one saw... but me.  Can you guess?  Luck.”

Money.  Money money money.  Money.
(Transcript of Microsoft's executives discussing another Halo sequel) 

What makes a true hero?  Is it strength or speed?  Is it because they are "broken?"  (A reference to the beginning of Halo 4, when the higher ups are trying to figure out if Master Chief succeeded because he had feelings.)  Or could it be the most ambiguous and reputably arbitrary of traits, luck?  Do you know how many times my fists let me down in Mass Effect?  Or my rifle in Halo?  Well a lot, actually.  If the game actually ended the first time I died, I never would have finished the fight.  Within the story’s universe, the only possible way Shepard ever made it through the hordes of husks thrown at him is if he was, in some ways, lucky.  He made the right choices, sure.  But unless you are Dr. Manhattan, your skill with a rifle is not going to save you during the impending zombie uprising.  Luck will.  You will be one of the few immune to the virus.  Someone will warn you ahead of time that the government is “containing the situation,” which we all know is code for “there’s about to be a bunch of hungry zombie soldiers.”  This person might even sacrifice their own life in the process.  It is here that the new Halo and Mass Effect conjoin to create an abomination of fandom duplicity.

Throughout the entire game, Mass Effect promotes diversity of choice, and the appeal is that your choices have an effect on the universe.  But the main antagonists, the Reapers, are the antagonists solely because they are heartless machines that simply want you to become a slave to their will (and at least they want this for the greater good of the galaxy.)  Shepard represents freedom of choice, but if every choice has a consequence, and not all the consequences allow for freedom of choice, but your goal was to ensure they do (imagine if he simply walked into every scenario and said something to the effect of “do what you want.  I believe in your freedom to do it,”) it would make for a really boring game.  In order for him to be the hero, he has to ensure that some people DO NOT have freedom of will, and others do.  This is the central conflict in the genophage (a virus that restricts a warlike civilization’s ability to reproduce.)  So essentially, Shepard is working against his own belief system.  The irony being that he wouldn’t be a hero unless he worked against his own belief system, (“the only thing necessary for evil to triumph, is for good men to do nothing.”)  The Reapers are evil, but we don’t know why.  We are given freedom of choice, but no explanation as to why we should ever cheer for Shepard in the first place.

At the end of the game, you are given a measly three options, all of which are equally depressing.  Some say that this is Shepard fighting indoctrination, which I’m hoping is still true, but seriously…he never would have even made it to that point unless there was something on his side.  Cerberus even thought he was valuable enough for a second game.  But why?  Like Jesus, Shepard dies and comes back stronger than ever, frightening the bejeezus out of his friends, who thought him dead.  How did that happen?  Why does the universe unite to ensure one man’s survival?

"I guess you could say survival is relative."

Master Chief, Shepard, and probably all other video game characters including Mario, are appealing because they have beaten the odds by the end of the story.  But they have beaten the odds because their survival intersected with their fortune.  Not everyone wants to know all the answers.  I know we clamor against stories that don’t tell us everything, but the truth is we want our heroes to have some sort of mystery.  I don’t need to see Master Chief’s humanity to know that I like him.  Leave that to the Sergeant Johnsons and Amanda Keyeses of the universe.  I like him because he’s mysterious.  Because he doesn’t represent all the answers.  I like him because he’s lucky.  Which means I could be lucky. 

People want to believe that they are the lucky ones.  People want to believe that at some point in the future, the world will need them, and the universe will somehow come together with just the right circumstances to give them the edge to destroy a common enemy.  But the truth is sadder, isn’t it?  The truth is that not everyone can be lucky.  For every John Shepard, there are a billion computer technicians just waiting to become cannon fodder to Reaper drones.  For every Will Smith, there are a million Harry Connick, Jr.’s (Independence Day, for people that don’t immediately get my movie references.) 

I think one easily forgotten fact of life is that the odds are stacked against you.  Just ask someone who has been buying lottery tickets their entire life.  It is far more likely that you will be a zombie.  It is far more likely that you will get squashed by an alien spaceship during the initial invasion.  It is far more likely that you will never be a god.  Or even the friend to a god. 

Unless there was a god already, powerful enough to invite everyone who wanted to join him to a battle of truly epic proportions.  The question is: what would that god look like?  Could he ever overcome the laws of thermodynamics and create a situation where there could be many heroes, and one great enemy.  Would he even want us on his team?

You’re damn right, he would.  Give me my assault rifle.  Time to show those sissies whose boss.

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