There are a few small things you have to get out of the way before you can get to the really serious business of Mass Effect 3′s Citadel DLC. You get shot at over lunch in a fancy restaurant. There’s a dapper casino heist. You have to make a trip to the library and stop a vehicle theft with a toothbrush. Once all of that side business is taken care of, you can finally use that swanky new apartment of yours to throw a party for your friends.
It takes a great deal of confidence for a sci-fi military shooter about a last-ditch campaign to prevent a galaxy spanning genocide to focus its last new batch of original content on an opportunity for social interaction with non-player characters, and it’s difficult to imagine any series but Mass Effect pulling it off. After all, it’s not really just about the quality of the characters or the writing in themselves so much as the investment the player has made over the course of series in their in-game relationships with those characters.
If you’re the sort of player who skipped past as many conversation options as possible, I can imagine that discovering that the much hyped new content that just cost you $15 to play involves very little combat, no significant choices, but instead demands conversation after conversation with NPCs would be nothing less than infuriating. (Even that dapper casino heist is really more chatty than intense. About two thirds of the mission can be roughly described as trying your hardest to “act casual.”) In fairness, if you’ve been skipping the conversations, I’m not entirely sure what you’re doing playing Mass Effect 3, anyway. As the attempts at original novels demonstrated, Mass Effect’s strength was never its plot — Dead Space probably does the H.P. Lovecraft in space thing every bit as well if not better — and the series never really could settle on its combat mechanics from game to game. The romance mechanic may have gotten some press and moved a few copies, but for me the truest moment came towards the end of Mass Effect 2 when all my potential partners asked me to stop creating drama and make up my damn mind already.
The real strength of the Mass Effect series has come from the depth of imagination devoted to its universe, races, and characters, and the fact that it allows players to choose the extent to which they want to explore those characters and the stories that they consider important. By comparison, I’d argue that the extent to which the player choses to perform Shepard as a paragon or renegade has less effect on the experience of the game than how much the player chooses to play Shepard as the sort of person who talks to their crew or who simply flies to the next place where something needs to be shot. To Mass Effect’s credit, a lot of the choices which have a lasting impact on game events don’t really line up neatly with their sometimes imposed good/bad paragon/renegade categories. (Mass Effect 3 even goes to some effort to reverse these categories at the very end, showing the “bad” Illusive Man performing the blue “paragon” choice to control the reapers and the “good” Admiral Anderson performing the red “renegade” choice to destroy the reapers.)
By allowing players to chose which characters (if any) to interact with in depth, Mass Effect makes the relationship an act of investment on the part of the player. The player can at any time decide that continuing optional interactions with an NPC isn’t worth the time and energy required, but the greatest rewards that come from playing multiple games in the series result from the way that these interactions build and continue from game to game, even (or especially) when they don’t go exactly the way the player intends.
My own Shepard spent a lot of time in Mass Effect 2 reassuring Liara of her interest, but in my most recent Mass Effect 3 playthough, a moment of selfishness locked me into a relationship with the Communications Specialist Samantha Traynor. (In Mass Effect 2, flirting with the yeoman didn’t have any impact on other romantic options. Mass Effect 3 asks the player to at least take ownership of the relationship. In terms of pure game mechanics, I had the impulse to complain about the change in rules before I thought better of arguing for the ability to exploit junior officers with impunity.) Traynor, as a newer character and non-combatant, is absent for most of the Citadel DLC, but I felt particularly rewarded when my combat team ran into her storming off the Normandy and she ended up saving the day. It’s an amusing moment regardless (perhaps especially for Doctor Who fans), but the additional recognition of the relationship between my Shepard and Traynor reaffirmed the choice to not simply reload an older save when it became clear that I’d gone down a different path than I had planned.
With the possible exception of the opening chapter of Heavy Rain, the Citadel DLC’s party might be single most extended scene of mundanity ever included in a big-budget, blockbuster, AAA video game. You buy supplies, send invitations, and mingle. There are no minigames, no conversational choices, nothing to do but listen and decide whether to turn the music up or down. It’s also almost entirely successful. If you’ve had all the conversations, completed all the side quests, and accepted all your choices, then it feels like a gathering of interesting people from different places who do incredible and unpredictable things. Some of them are old friends, and some of them are new, but you’re the thing they all have in common, and since they have good reason to trust your taste in comrades, they’re all willing to give each other a chance. Some of them are insecure and earnest, some of them are funny, and they’re all good company.
It really made me miss my friends.
About the Author:
Gavin Craig is a freelance writer and critic. His work has appeared in The Idler, Kill Screen, Snarkmarket, and Comicosity.
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