Choice, multiculturalism, and irrevocability in Mass Effect, part 1 (rules of the text 7)

This post contains spoilers about the endings of the three Mass Effect games.

We still don’t know what, if anything, will change either in superficial or in substantive ways, about the ending of the Mass Effect saga. But Mass Effect as it stands demands analysis. Perhaps the practomime is as complete as it will ever be, because any materials added in a revision won’t in fact amount to a substantive change. Perhaps readings of the current version will be of importance in a history of interpretation and critique that shifts with the shifting of the practomime itself.

It does seem clear that the modifications to come in a few months’ time will not in fact make changes that greatly affect our understanding of the trilogy, and thus it seems a good moment to begin what I hope and think will be a very long process of critical engagement with Mass Effect as a deeply inflected (meaning that we can identify an “ending”), through-constructed (meaning that that ending has a relation to a “beginning”) practomime.

This project of a fine-grained critique of the saga as a gamespace dovetails magnificently, in my opinion, with my goal for the “Rules of the Text” series: to argue for the usefulness of the theoretical construct of the Great Chain of Practomime. If that argument has merit, then Mass Effect, as almost certainly the largest through-composed set of performance materials marketed as an example of the medium “digital game,” with perhaps the most obvious transformation of a textual ruleset (call it “key works of science fiction” for now) into what is more recognizably a gamespace, and with a transmedia presence that extends to multiple ludic experiences on multiple platforms, should on the one hand serve as a perfect laboratory for experimenting with and developing the sort of ruleset-critique that the Great Chain of Practomime allows, and on the other demonstrate the usefulness of the construct.

To put it another way, if the ruleset-critique invited by the Great Chain of Practomime works anywhere, it should work here.

Choice is the hallmark of the kind of practomimetic ruleset generally called “game,” as I have discussed previously in this series. Mass Effect has been marketed as the game of choice par excellence–that is, as the game in which “your choices matter.” “Experience the beginning, middle, and end of an emotional story unlike any other, where the decisions you make completely shape your experience and outcome,” proclaims the “Interactive Story” page of BioWare’s Mass Effect materials.

There’s no point in quibbling about the exact valence of the word “completely”: either it’s a throwaway word or it’s a thoughtless one; probably it’s both. It is, however, extraordinarily revealing, because the real trouble with “completely” is that when we remove it, this declaration describes every game, indeed every practomime, including the works of Homer, Austen, GRR Martin, and Cocteau. The choices I make as an audience-member of Game of Thrones, like whether to get up and make popcorn while some bit of eroticism is unfolding on the screen (or, perhaps better, whether I choose to understand Westeros as being like America, or like Europe, in some way), shape my experience and outcome of Game of Thrones as much as the choice of whether to kill the Rachni queen in Mass Effect changes my experience and outcome of Mass Effect.

This is not a small problem, and I want to argue that the cultural effect of Mass Effect–what it means, what it’s about–actually depends on the ambiguity inherent in this problem, an ambiguity Mass Effect exploits really in spite of itself. From the very beginning of a player’s performance, he or she is trapped between the panoply of available choices for his or her Shepard’s background and the limitation of that panoply. To put it very simply: you can play a huge variety of Shepards, but they’re all named Shepard.

This is of course what games do, just as, when we remove the word “completely,” the notorious BioWare marketing formulation describes every game. But I want to suggest as the beginning of this analysis of Mass Effect as a link in the Great Chain of Practomime that this game is at least thus far unique in the way it foregrounds this “trap of choice.” I have argued that BioShock is unique along similar lines, and the contrast between that game and Mass Effect is in my opinion very revealing: whereas BioShock exposes the illusion of choice, Mass Effect insists, and bases its legibility, upon choice not being an illusion despite (paradox coming) all appearances to the contrary.

For this reason, I have come to think that the controversy about the ending of the trilogy is precisely commensurate to the gamespace created by the choices presented in the game’s performance-materials: the apparent lack of choice, the game seeks to persuade its players, is an illusion, and behind that illusion is a kind of choice in which the player must have, yes, faith.

Do you believe in choice, players? Clap your hands!

I write this with a great deal of affection for Mass Effect, but truly the way the game produces its effect is little different than JM Barrie’s famous ludic moment in Peter Pan: choice matters because the player convinces him or herself that it matters; the story can’t proceed unless choice matters, because the story proceeds when the player makes choices.

Shepard is a kind of choice-making machine, just as we ourselves are, and because s/he can make no choices that don’t end in the galaxy uniting behind him, his/her multiculturalism–our multiculturalism–becomes just as irrevocable as his/her appearance and origin-story, which are set in stone, as the game sternly warns the player, at the moment when the player’s performance truly begins. Whether the player destroys the Rachni, whether the player destroys the Geth: the extent to which these choices shape the player’s experience and outcome will always be precisely the same extent as the extent to which the player subjects him or herself to the trap of choice, consciously or unconsciously. To repeat: this machinery of choice works on the same principles as the mechanics of any other game; the difference in Mass Effect is the way the irrevocability of those mechanics is thematized into a multiculturalism that is, I’ll try to demonstrate over the course of this mini-series, messianic and very, very Western.

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