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Though The Wire does appeal to that part of me that reviewed a few movies in the John Singleton canon a few years back and generally enjoys that odd subgenre of crime dramas, that of the ‘hood film,’ which isn’t as popular as Mafia movies or as prolific as yakuza/triads-thank-you-no-thank-you-Mr. Miike, it’s also important in this trying time where Dreck Fiction attempts to gratefully slide toward mostly science-fiction discussion, because it has what a lot of science-fiction in film and television lacks: great storytelling. I haven’t lived for very long, but The Wire is by this point the best told story I’ve ever experienced. Maybe it isn’t my favorite story, but its storytelling is so complex, so satisfying, that it warrants analysis on this sci-fi site.
There isn’t much to connect The Wire to the genre of science-fiction, but it could have been anything, so long as it was “the best told story I’ve ever experienced.” Again, I was inclined to like it from the start and feel a compulsion to blabla about it on this blog, but figuring what makes The Wire tick and how it comes together to say something real could benefit the critical eye toward any genre.
Christ, if we had anything close to The Wire in science-fiction… I’d be a pretty happy guy.
Check out this awesome video if you need a quick recap of the series’s events…
This show was canceled due to poor ratings. While it started strong, it lost many viewers immediately, and never quite made them up across its thirteen week run. As much as I thought the show didn’t fully live up to its pilot episode, it’s still unfortunate that we won’t have any more. It’s a good thing then, that it ended so strongly.
By the end, Awake worked and didn’t work. It did round out its series premise pretty well, creating a whole narrative that is satisfying as science-fiction drama, but in the moment was clunky and awkward. The show didn’t need to be thirteen hours long, and would’ve worked better as a movie, as the best moments were those pertinent to the over-arching story — those in the first episode and the last two or three.
These moments, especially those in the series finale, are pretty intense and actually unpredictable. It’s good to see Michael Britten take risks and do things we don’t agree with, or put himself into dangerous situations — and lose at times. In this episode, he’s getting closer to the truth we already know, which puts his red reality in jeopardy.
*Spoilers to follow*
The big question throughout the series is ‘which reality is the real reality,’ and I did have a feeling that neither were, but with a title like Awake, I should’ve realized it was all a dream. So by the end the show becomes an interesting meditation on grief; it’s the story of a man grappling with the loss of loved ones and the journey toward acceptance. Accepting that one of his family members is dead runs parallel to accepting one reality, and in the show’s final scene we see that he’s finally awake, and his family is alive.
To reach this happy ending he must do as he always does, investigate, and it’s a great test to a seasoned detective. It’s a good story and when the ending revealed what was what the whole time, my first reaction was “lame,” but then the full weight of the situation caught up to it and the scene became a touching, satisfying moment that left me feeling pretty good about the series.
But then I thought back to those episodes in the middle, and on the whole, Awake was not a great show. It’s a narrative tugged back and forth by the realities of the television industry, which makes it a miracle that the story ended with an ending. There remain some loose threads, but it’s all good. Because when it’s over, we had in fact spent a whole lot of time following Jason Isaacs go around and solve cases by using parallel worlds, and that was pretty good.
And when time came to uncover the truth behind those worlds, we see the truth behind the series, that it was about a man struggling to overcome a fractured mind after a traumatic incident,who could know grief and accept it before everything returned to normal. Now that the show is over, sitcoms continue on, and we’ll wait for the next good, thought-provoking scifi show — just as it always is.
Return to the Awake Episode Guide
The season is winding down as tension and story ramps up in this, penultimate episode. Britten becomes more obsessed with Hawkin, the detective he suspects — or rather, is certain — killed his wife/son by running him off the road, the incident that started everything. Through trial and error between the two worlds, he slowly works his way up the mystery chain, jumping through hoops and endless second guessing (sometimes from those attempting to cover it all up), while getting into dangerous, sometimes deadly situations.
This is like, the perfect season finale’s eve episode, setting up what could be a solid, slam-bang ending. The over-arc of Awake is without a doubt its strongest element, as it uses the dream thing (the show’s premise) to its best effect. Britten learns something in one world and is able to use it in the other, while we keep his status in either in the backs of our minds.
Return to the Awake Episode Guide
Looks like they’re headed for a season ender, a nice three episode arc. General consenus is that this is the best episode since the pilot, and that’s true, without a doubt. It kind of reminds me of Dexter – if Dexter was a network TV show. It’d still have that ramp-up at the end that hooks you, but since Awake is a little watered down in terms of drama and most things, the hook doesn’t penetrate that deeply. I’ll hope for a second season, unless the conclusion is something real dumb, but this didn’t become the major science-fiction show I hoped it might.
Still, it is entertaining, and the areas it does explore offer some interesting dialogues. In this episode Michael’s fallen out of one of his reality, and must finally grieve the loss of his son. He’s also haunted by hallucinations, and this leads him on a spiraling journey of seeming self-destruction that ends with a discovery — the accident that created two worlds was no accident.
Now he’s thinking the Lord of the Rings fan from Clerks II is responsible, and we’ll see where that goes. I really liked that guy (Mr. Blonde, according to Wikipedia), he did a good job acting out Michael’s self-talk.
What starts out as intriguing, reopening the question of which world is true, and pushing BD Wong to affirm his theory with more aggression, follows through with healthy human drama. At the center is a man grappling with the confusing loss of a loved one — the dream worlds shattering becomes an interesting expression of his loneliness and frustration. It’s a good episode, and a good show.
Return to the Awake Episode Guide
So they end this episode with the new gang watching The X-Files. Funny, because that’s like what this show’s like.
Anyway I’ve been realizing that I really like Jason Isaacs. He’s been one of those false-ubiquitous faces, like Colin Salmon or Ron Perlman, maybe Danny Trejo — people who show up in genre fare as secondary characters but you’re always like… damn I like that guy. Hard to explain. Talented actors, but rarely do they have their day in the sun. Hellboy was good, but that was like, one time. One time*.
This episode was okay but the next one looks better — glad I could see the preview — looks like they’re going to mess around with the mythology, or better… begin the mythology. But they introduce a new dramatic element, and it’ll be interesting to see where that goes. As these reviews grow progressively lazy and less enthusiastic, the show begins to pick up speed…
*Hellboy II was bad. Only good part was Trollcart, a half-troll half-cart character rolling along in the third act
Return to the Awake Episode Guide
I know these last few reviews have felt negative, and that’s because Awake‘s started to fall into a formula, one where the twists are predictable — not necessarily like I can call the murderer in Act I (though usually it’s the other guy), but in a post-Signs M. Night Shyamalan way. We know the twists are coming, and we wish the unpredictable nature of the show and its universe were offering the surprises, not an old tradition of police procedural structure.
Possibly it tries to do too much, balancing the week to week plot line, which is complex but doesn’t feel complex, and the over-arching family drama (both with that key twist, and by-the-numbers). Characters develop around the plot, not in it, which I’ve seen before in network, broad-appeal television shows. Not much is known about Michael Britten other than he seems to be a pretty pleasant guy.
The episode ends strongly though, which says a lot because it somewhat cliffhangers you. It did what I had hoped it’d do from the start, which is introduce a universe-specific what-if idea, and explore what effects that would have on the cast of [established] characters. I’m excited to see the next episode, which I don’t think I’ve been since the pilot.
Return to the Awake Episode Guide
David Simon recently apologized for some comments he made about the current state of Wire fandom, where he criticized the general attitude of current viewers. Note that The Wire‘s been off the air for four years now, but DVD sales have been better than ever. This is my general experience — I bought the first season a while back and watched the first few episodes before taking a long break. In college I finished it, somewhat reluctant to return to something with too many characters to keep track off and a headaching mix of street talk and police jargon, but I was so moved by the ending, and one scene in particular, that I had to watch the rest as fast as possible. So I can’t help but feel like I fall under this umbrella of those who “[walked] sideways into the thing and act like they were there all along,” and that a future endeavor to offer what so many have already, a fan’s analytical perspective, would be “picking it apart now like it’s a deck of cards or like [I've been] there the whole time or … understood it the whole time.”
Well, I’m no stranger to coming into series sideways. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Dexter, and Breaking Bad are my only favorite shows on right now, but I don’t get Showtime up in this dorm, and I only watch It’s Always Sunny when it’s on, not when it’s new. They’re rare — I found Firefly, Arrested Development, and Party Down after they’d been cancel, and I felt that guilt of ‘I should have been there to ‘support’ it,’ because they all ended before their time. Mitchell Hurwitz doesn’t harbor any resentment (publicly) that nobody saw Arrested Development despite all those Emmys, but I think Simon’s got more reason for his statements (which he’s seen apologized for).
Arrested Development may be extremely funny, but The Wire, especially from a creator’s statement, is important on a social level. David Simon was a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun before making it on TV through his books Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, and experienced the collapse of relevance in his beloved medium — the Internet was running papers out of town, but didn’t itself maintain the same journalistic integrity. He moved to fiction with The Wire, where a message or two could be brought across in a powerful medium, that of popular entertainment.
It got across to many, but not that many. The Wire was at the time and now widely hailed by critics, some of which considered it to be among the greatest shows ever made, but it got no Emmy attention, and consistently pulled poor ratings. It seems a pattern was showing, and for a man with a lot to say, this is frustrating.
Flash-forward to 2012, and like all cult hits, The Wire‘s popular. On every Breaking Bad video I’ve seen on YouTube the top comments are typically “breaking Bad > The Wire” or “Breaking Bad and the wire are best shows evar” — it’s unsettling the difference four years can make, but for whatever reason there’s a better audience now than there was back then, but how can one know that?
I suppose The Wire didn’t have a high concept story premise, or a lauded lead performance (I mean Christ, Dominic West wasn’t even around for Season 4 — that doesn’t happen), and like Arrested Development, actually required watching, so it was perhaps doomed from the start. But now people can go back and pick up all the DVDs and appreciate it as I’ve done, but that’s obviously not the way it should be. We should’ve been there from the start, but we weren’t. The team struggled through five seasons — it’s a miracle they even got that far.
So after David Simon’s acknowledged this reality, it’s become a little uncomfortable to be a fan, even after rationalizing his issue. Everyone needs to bitch after a while, and Simon’s got a reason.
But it’s hard to watch The Wire and not want to talk about it. Because it’s not a show I can easily recommend to people (another problem with ratings I’d imagine), whether because it’s not as fun as Dexter (my roommate), or it’s too grim and violent (my mom), or it’s too police procedural and not straight gangsta shoot em up (my buddy), I’ll use this site to examine it in a range of ‘fannish fan’ to ‘aspirationally literary,’ which isn’t too far off the subject matter of Dreck Fiction. This may be a predominantly science-fiction-related site, it’s also discussed movies like Menace II Society and Baby Boy, because universal themes and ideas exist there, and in the case of The Wire it’s taught me a lot about effective longform storytelling, which will be the overarching theme of this Dreck Feature.
But in the Prelude segments, I figure I’ll try to exorcise all the fannish impulses first…
Expanding on what I was talking about last time, Awake almost seems more concerned with its special guest characters than secondary or even main. We spend 90% of the episode on the accountant’s wife and the accountant, and a little bit with Michael, his CI, and then his wife, which were the best moments. I don’t watch a lot of police shows, but this one feels more character-driven and personal, which makes me wonder why it feels like those episodes of SVU I have seen.
It’s almost like it’s already in a later season — early on its established who the characters are and a little of what they do, but doesn’t care too much to investigate or drive them in any direction. They still feel like archetypes, and I’m starting to feel the show settle on a formula. The formula is fine, the show’s entertaining enough, and Jason Isaacs is always awesome, but good performances and a good premise may not be enough in this case.
I’d imagine this season is a 13-episode run, so we should start building towards an end. We’ve been getting hints at a larger story-arc, so hopefully this will be one of the last ‘stand alone’ or ‘case of the week’ episodes.
Return to the Awake Episode Guide
Awake would benefit from fleshing out its secondary characters. This show in particular is at a disadvantage because it’s science-fiction, or science-fictiony-feeling fantasy, so there’s an obligation to world-building that when neglected leaves viewers in the lurch, but all shows create worlds, and therefore all must populate them reasonably. Some shows that’s sort of the premise, like with The Wire. Every minor character has depth, even this hardcore killer Chris — it’s all in the eyes, and the dramatic looks — is more than an archetype, and the show’s lead can take pretty much an entire season off. I think Dexter is a better example because, well that show’s called Dexter, it’s about this guy Dexter. And yet it’s filled with memorable characters who are all given their due.
But Dexter is nearly an hour long, ten to fifteen minutes longer than Awake, and without worrying about commercial breaks and content. But it’s similarly high-premise, and both shows are good. So why aren’t Britten’s wife or various detective partners as interesting as Mesuka, Angel, and even LaGuerta? Awake is also similarly plot-heavy, and it doesn’t have the time to breathe.
I guess it’s all about structure. And… networks. I give credit to a station like AMC, who evidently (well, clearly) has more balls than something like TNT: We Know Drama. Vince Gilligan’ll tell you that he had a great pitch with the folks at TNT for Breaking Bad, and the execs loved it, but knew they’d be fired if they greenlit this show about a man’s spiral into the drug trade. It’s not the direction the network’s going, and as long as there are other networks around, it’s not a big deal.
But NBC? They gotta keep moving, because all eyes are watching.
Return to the Awake Episode Guide
How does one go about ending a ninety-hour narrative with hundreds of permutations along the way, and maintain workable canon for a triple-A franchise whose potential has just expanded into film? Not without a thousand cries of fans across the Internet, who lament the cliché and out-of-the-blue resolution, the stumble at the end of a triathlon that was building and building with increasing ferocity.
The ending was not as climactic or satisfying as it could have been, but Mass Effect 3 itself was the perfect ending to one of the industry’s finest trilogies, and one of science-fiction’s earliest moments in great, interactive art. While story-wise the ending was out of place, and theme-wise the ending was pretty nauseating, Mass Effect 3 is about the journey, and in this phase of the epic series, we say good-bye to old faces we’ve come to care about before facing down an enemy with the weight of two video-games and a fully fleshed out mythology.
Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy has had the good fortune of being a one-generation series, like Gears of War, and unlike Halo. One can go back and play Mass Effect on the PC or Xbox 360 and not feel behind at all. The graphics are maximized by opulent art design, the dialogue is sharp, and the story ranks high with gaming’s greatest. The RPG elements may take turns feeling shallow and overdone in places, the combat pales in comparison to contemporary third-person shooters, and the graphical artifacts and texture pop-in are so frequent as to settle into perceived normalcy, but the overall experience is one of a kind, and memorable on so many levels. For anyone interested in Mass Effect 3, there’s no question: start from the beginning.
The transition into Act II becomes a necessary step, and as most fans have it, the most necessary. Gameplay-wise, Mass Effect 2 is a moon-landing’s leap over the original’s endearing but clumsy system, augmenting the fun-to-use power and teammate abilities with better geography and cover mechanics. They nailed shooting in 2, where the composition of gunfights in a game like Gears of War is heightened by endless options, which affect not only combat but also art direction. The Gears of War games, while fun (the first is a co-op classic), have become a cliché in this Killzone/Resistance world. There’s a limited sense of creativity in what’s being shown, and what the players can actually look at. Mass Effect and its sequel vary enemy types and give us plenty of exciting ways to dispose of them, whether through ice bullets or Force-powers, and they all look cool.
It must be known though that Mass Effect at times, can be pretty ‘uncool;’ pretty lame in fact, mostly in spots of dialogue that are too histrionic or on-the-nose. The thing is, there’s so much dialogue in these games that little problems every four hours or so are rendered absolutely nil. Like Skyrim, which often features floating elephants and guys who return to talking about arrows in the knee after killing dragons with you, it’s easy, nay second nature, to overlook these shortcomings.
The biggest issue with Mass Effect 2 though was the story, which wasn’t as strong as the original’s. There was mystery and build-up and dramatic beats in Mass Effect’s storyline, where Mass Effect 2 is more ‘video-game.’ Your task is to go around and collect the roughest, toughest killers and soldiers in the galaxy to assist you in a suicide mission. And you know it’s a suicide mission because that term is used not just constantly, but consistently. That’s one way to build suspense, I guess. The problem here was that while these characters were great — Thane and Legion to me were standouts — and offered short stories in the form of side missions, the story was not predictable, let’s say, but not unpredictable like the original or Mass Effect 3.
Aside from the occasional mission thrown at you by the Illusive Man, like Horizon or the Collector base before the Omega Relay, you knew what had to be done, and did it. And aside from one or two surprise squadmates, you knew who you were picking up along the way. While Samara and Zaeed can die on their side missions, it becomes evident that they’ll all last to either die off or succeed when endgame strikes. In the original, you can actually turn Garrus down (out of racism), kill Wrex, and of course, leave Ashley or Kaiden to die. The squad was more dynamic, but that’s taken to new heights in the third installment.
In Mass Effect 3, a character is actually taken out of your squad and then returned. Some old squadmates from Mass Effect 2 return to the squad, and some only return to fight alongside you. There are two new characters, though we’re already associated with one through the second game. The only two squadmates that persist throughout the trilogy are Garrus and Tali, which leads to an interesting moment in the end, though not interesting to me, because I was romancing Garrus before the new secretary pushed herself on me.
While Mass Effect 2 was a big advancement, Mass Effect 3 feels like further refinement, which is perfectly acceptable, because Mass Effect 2 was extremely fun. The refinement however was thorough, spreading through many layers of the game and creating a better experience. Of course, this was nothing new to the franchise.
Even though Shepard carries over from game-to-game, the player must still build him/her up with skill trees and Paragon/Renegade points. There are also new systems to learn with each new game, because in the Age of the Internet, a company like Bioware can and will respond to fan criticism. Mass Effect has terrible inventory management? Mass Effect 2 has none. Mass Effect 2 has no items? Mass Effect 3 strikes a happy balance. There were even subtle changes to gradually streamline the experience, for example by Mass Effect 3 the player doesn’t have to engage an NPC in a conversation wheel if that NPC has nothing new to say.
In the original, a character would have a comment on the mission or something new to talk about after every major story mission. This could be accessed by an option that went something like “Let’s Talk,” which while sort of awkward, always yielded interesting results, and made Garrus, Wrex, Ashley, Kaiden, Tali, and Liara early favorites because it was you initiating these talks. But sometimes they wouldn’t have anything to say so the conversation would go like this:
Garrus: Need me for something?
Shepard: … [Let’s Talk] Do you have time to talk?
Shepard: … [Sees No Options, Selects ‘Back’, ‘Good-bye’]: I should go.
Garrus: I’ll be here.
In Mass Effect 2, Garrus or whoever would just say “I’m in the middle of something, can we talk later?” Garrus alone would say “I’m in the middle of some calibrations,” which became not only an in-joke for Mass Effect 3, much like the elevators in Mass Effect 2, but a brief Internet meme. It grew because so many people heard it, as they’d always prompt their favorite turian for some chit-chat, and he wouldn’t have refreshed between missions. So in Mass Effect 3 characters on the Normandy enter into conversation wheels less frequently, because when selected, they talk, and Shepard responds without player interaction, without going into medium-shot mode.
The quality of voice acting during these interactions hasn’t changed, as old Mass Effect talents return, and some new names lend their voices and sometimes likenesses. The list includes voice-actress superstar Jennifer Hale, and big TV and movie names like Martin Sheen, Seth Green, Yvonne Strahovski, Tricia Helfer, Michael Hogan, Claudia Black, Freddie Prinze, Jr., and genre veterans like Keith David, Lance Henrikson, and Carrie Ann Moss. Sadly, Adam Baldwin didn’t show up, but his character was mentioned once, in an email…
They get equal time to shine in the instances where characters will talk one-on-one with player input, but in this game, lengthy conversations are typically based on plot, keeping the action moving forward, and maintaining Mass Effect 3’s brisk momentum.
For a story of this length, it’s hard to believe that Mass Effect 3 could be so fast-paced and frantic. The sense of movement is bolstered by the dreadful weight of what’s going on in the galaxy, and at the scale the weight operates on. The Reaper invasion was in the books from the start, but now we get to see the things in action, which is a one-two. Early on we get their attack on Earth, and shortly after we fight on the turian homeworld Palaven, which is what Earth could, and does, become by the end. The towering Reapers looming in the distance under the neighboring planet are dazzling and powerful sights, as tiny ships buzz around them in a laser show while Shepard wards off husks on the planet’s rocky, war-battered surface.
The franchise itself may not be the most original in terms of art style or premise, but by Mass Effect 3 it’s come to its own by being fully realized. The team has gone all the way with what they want to show and how they show it. Every planet is stunning, from the crumbling Earth to the lush salarian homeworld, from the temples of Tuchanka to the grand, barren vistas of Mars itself.
It’s something special when every ingredient in a rare formula comes together this well, where we have customizable guns that shoot all colors of lasers, walkways suspended over cavernous laboratories filled with explosions and hellfire, and the characters we’ve come to learn about and care for in the middle of all of it, throwing down powers when we say, while the invincible Commander Shepard does damage of his or her own, deejaying abilities and upgrades collected over missions that are more like scenes in a real story than objectives on a quest-list.
There’s an incredible balance of focused storytelling and player choice, a constant throughout the trilogy. While the Paragon/Renegade point system might work to counteract or outright contradict player choice, reducing conversations to means to the same goal rather than unique resolutions, the options’ mere existence was a monumental thing in the original, and a much-appreciated hallmark by Mass Effect 3. Conflict resolution is also a significant theme in the series, making conversation wheels logically connected and gameplay-wise highly immersive and satisfying.
The premise of the series is as follows: Like in 2001, there is a device, this time on Mars, that jumps our civilization ahead thousands of years, as we begin to conquer the stars with FTL travel and advanced military technology. As all of humanity is uniting as they reach across the sky, we quickly discover that there are aliens out there, including the ‘sexy’ asari, the bird-like turian, the warmonger krogan, fast-talking salarian, nomadic quarian, and ‘evil’ geth. The twist is that all of them, except for the geth I suppose, met up with each other through the same FTL technology — that of the ancient Prothean race. That’s interesting, but it means that we’re the new kids on the block. We’re the ones who have something to prove, and we don’t start well — the first thing humanity does is go to war with the turians.
Mass Effect jumps ahead of this when we pick up the controller, but all this information is gathered in the in-game codex, as well as canonical multimedia fiction, if you’re so inclined. The universe also slowly trickles in throughout the first game. Describing the Mass Effect games in a word is silly, but if I had to, I’d use “balance.” Truly the first one had a lot to juggle, like the first Transformers (2007) movie. In Michael Bay’s most powerful film, the prolific screenwriting team Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman had to keep so many things in mind: the fan base, the theoretical fan base, an international audience, kids, adults, an original storyline, canon, call-backs, and balancing the audience proxy character with what we really came to see, the titular truckbots. An enormous undertaking that maybe didn’t yield the best product (considering the source material, I’ll give it to them), but a creative undertaking nonetheless. In the case of Mass Effect, barring for a moment gameplay and genre, so much had to be invented and revolutionized and perfected — and the product was a damn good one, a game that stood out in a year of game-of-the-years, sharing lists with the likes of Halo 3, Bioshock, and Call of Duty 4, some of the most influential games ever.
As we see from Mass Effect 2, story isn’t the only thing that sets the series apart, but it is significant. It’s a rare thing to see game creators care this much about the story, which by Mass Effect 3, is undoubtedly what comes first — a further anomaly. People want to know what’s going to happen to… Joker, for Christ’s sake, never mind what the Reapers are all about and what’s going down on Earth. After two great games, players have become invested in something like they’ve never known. Games may have had good stories in the past, but here we’ve been following something, and shaping it ourselves.
The pressure was on for Mass Effect 3.
The game takes place a little while after the events of Mass Effect 2, when the Collector hive, and the Reaper technology it housed, was destroyed in a suicide mission. The suicide mission’s aftermath left Shepard grounded on Earth, with her/his ship taken away. The first human spectre, eh? Well the thing about Shepard is nobody, except for Admiral Anderson, listens to him/her. It’s sort of like when people say “there can’t possibly be aliens out there… in the endless universe,” which seems ignorant because there’s nothing that special about the Earth’s composition and distance from its system’s star. In this universe, aliens are aware of aliens, but the principle remains. Nobody believes that Shepard went to Ilos and saw things about sentient warships, because… there can’t possibly be sentient warships out there.
Anything’s possible, you ‘norant Councilmembers.
Comeuppance could have been enjoyed had it not been for the whole ‘Reaper invasion of Earth’ that undoubtedly left a few billion humans dead. Now it’s on Shepard again to unite races, mend fences, and show the galaxy that their dickishness has gone too far. An army of genocide machines from beyond space is one hell of a wake-up call to such things, but the krogan continue to cause trouble with turians and salarians, the geth and quarian just started fighting, and the asari? I suppose ‘dicks’ would be incorrect here, but you get the picture. All of these conflicts were built up over the course of the trilogy, and while it’s a little absurd, its delivery makes it easily digestible.
Shepard’s new suicide mission, to leave a devastated Earth and gather armies, bring the fight back home, is helped along by a squad filled out by friendly faces and new, but welcomed ones.
I thought one of the more interesting characters new to Mass Effect was the shuttle pilot, Cortez. Not because he was gay — my Shepard’s gay, I guess — but because of all the things you could do with that guy (though he was, I assume, a romance option for males). It was high time we got to talk ad nauseum with non-squadmates, though that never ended well for those characters in the past. RIP Pressly. Adams made it out okay; it was a surprise to see him back. I always wondered what happened to the guy who marveled at Tali and shut up forever.
It doesn’t add a new dimension to the game but enhances a preexisting one, the seeming suicide mission statement of Mass Effect 3. They realized that more conversations led to more opportunities for memorable moments of drama, and Cortez had his share. That’s the beautiful thing about a narrative that can take its time with a running time of hours and hours — we can explore. In a movie, you’d never talk to Cortez, not when there’s a birdman doing calibrations and a killer robot housing thousands of AI — right over there!
Opportunities for genuine, sometimes shocking, character moments open up, as does the path we stalk down further and further on our journey — that of discovering just what the hell Mass Effect has been about the whole time.
Does the Mass Effect trilogy embody, also like 2001, a glaring self-contradiction? It speaks to galactic (international) unity, a unity of races no matter what skin-color or creed, but it’s a human who’s speaking. Shepard is at the epicenter — and if it weren’t for humanity, the Reapers would have had their day and eaten it too.
But what’s being said then, that humanity only got to this point because of Prothean technology? There’s a great sense of history here, one that stretches back years and years — the themes of development over time and evolution are prevalent but never really addressed — and we get the idea that something about cycles and society was meant to be said.
Here’s a list of the themes in Mass Effect, before the ending of Mass Effect 3:
- Peace and Unity
Shepard is a true hero because he/she betrays everyone in Mass Effect 2 to do the right thing — he/she joins Cerberus. While this doesn’t go down well with Alliance brass, the Collectors are dead as fried chicken, and Shepard keeps soldiering on, despite the Council’s dedicated efforts against him/her. This is perhaps a manifestation of the power of enlightenment — Shepard isn’t great and inspirational because he/she is the player’s avatar and goes ‘ooh-rah let’s kick some Covenant ass (the Master Chief… never said that)’ but because he/she makes choices, and almost all the choices in the game relate to solving people’s problems and bringing them together.
So let’s look at Commander Shepard as an enlightened and commanding shepherd of people in an archetypical, mythological way. He/she isn’t a deep character — by fault of design — but he/she holds great significance on a higher thematic level. Stopping the Reapers will be his/her greatest measure, whether or not he/she can end interplanetary kerfuffle after generations and generations of hate. Could we one day start over, not because we were all wiped out by machine-gods, but because one person was enlightened enough to unite us?
But shouldn’t the best ending then become an alliance with the Reapers, a sort of ‘let’s just get along with everyone, while we’re at it?’ Why do the Reapers either get destroyed or mind-controlled? Because they make more sense from a figurative rather than literal standpoint; their existence is in service of this uniting of races, but they cannot take part, despite being a race themselves. They also represent, let’s say, traditional values — they’re driven by that age old belief that wiping out advanced civilizations when they’ve reached Level 10 on the Advanced Meter is good for the heart, which makes them the opposite of Shepard, and the opposite of true galactic peace.
Obviously, I mean have you seen those lasers?
So that’s all fine and acceptable, but then two huge wrenches are thrown — hucked, even. The first one wasn’t really thrown, because Mass Effect would be much different without it.
In fact, Mass Effect takes its namesake from this very piece of its universe — the whole Prothean thing. We discover a Mass Relay, which allows us to teleport ships — and gunships — to any corner of the galaxy, so long as it’s outside Dark Space and batarian territory. And whatever the Perseus Veil is. Also don’t touch the Omega 4 Relay; you’re not ready.
So we get this advanced technology and use it, use it to boost ourselves ahead and oh damn we’re already fighting the first aliens we see. They call the turian war, smartly, the First Contact War. A brilliant term. We weren’t, evidently, ready to have the First Contact Bake Sale.
We have to grow, we need Shepard to show us the way. But first he/she’s gotta scan keepers…?
I just don’t get it at this point. Everything I’ve just said seems to break down in that same sort of 2001 way. In A Space Odyssey, more explicitly in the book than in the movie, humanity rocks because we went to space! Look how far our civilization has come this is not just NASA propaganda by the near-future year 2001! But we didn’t do that much, did we? Sure, we went to Japetus, which took a whole hell of a lot of time and pages, but only because alien gods (Reapers) told us to.
The Reapers are like the alien gods or the Overlords’ overlords in Childhood’s End — what is their purpose? To play with civilizations. Until, I suppose, those civilizations don’t want to be played with anymore. But that’s… nonsense. This part of the universe doesn’t mesh nicely with that stuff about unity and heroism, because it’s all predestined… but it’s not.
What’s the point of breaking the Reapers’ cycle? What does that mean? I suppose it’s a break from those aforementioned traditional values, which keep civilizations in the caves and at each other’s throats, but that operates on a purely abstract level. No NPC has ever said those words, but they have noted that humanity was jump-started by Prothean technology, and the two are related.
And then there’s the issue of Mass Effect 3’s ending, much as I loathe to admit it. The main reason why the ending disappoints is because it takes all that stuff about uniting civilizations and shoves it. The whole time, guys, it wasn’t about aliens getting along, even though that mirrors player choice and has been the whole reason for everything so far, it was about organics versus synthetics.
I’m a bit shady on the details, but I remember that the ending felt out of nowhere on so many levels, ‘thematically’ being one of them. I suppose you could make the argument that ‘synthetics’ is just a metaphor for ignorance, but what the hell the geth, right? Legion sacrificing himself and that geth prime marching down the hill saying “we cool,” was an amazing moment, but those guys are still synths, right?
The inconsistency is the problem, not so much any sense of anti-climax, because resolutions were constant throughout the game — we say good-bye to all these characters and plotlines, and do it with panache.
That being said, there are problems outside the ending and the tangle of science-fiction ideas and themes, namely dialogue and storytelling spots. Of course, those two are that which I praise Mass Effect most on, because I like video-games, but I love science-fiction and stories. Otherwise Mass Effect would be pretty fun, but I’d just play Vanquish.
A lot of dramatic moments are deflated by on-the-nose dialogue, in instances where silence would have been more appropriate. I just referenced Legion’s sacrifice (which you may or may not have experienced), where the geth prime tumbles down the hill to inform the quarian admiral that peace will be had by all. A bittersweet moment, but damn is that geth prime’s dialogue straightforward. As you’d expect from a robot, but he pretty much repeats the situation in word-form, which is unnecessary, a dangerous thing to be in such a context.
There are a few moments like that, as well as instances of dreadful cliché, like Shepard’s verbal battle with Kai Leng amidst a fight — they’re dueling, as in Shepard takes cover and Kai Leng dances around the Illusive Man’s office, and Shepard goes “You’re good… at running!” and Kai Leng shouts, “Shut up!” as if that was actually getting to this hardened killer/displaced character from Deus Ex. It felt like an 80s action movie moment, where Kai Leng would in a second be like “I’m gonna KILL YOU NAAOOOWWW!” and charge forward.
But in terms of negativity, that’s all I have. Mass Effect 3 transcends its medium and has shown me just what storytelling — not just interactive storytelling — can do.
While Mass Effect 3 rounds out a trilogy, it’s a sign of things to come in this young but quickly growing industry. Beyond graphics or technology, in a little over a decade enemies in video-games have gone from thoughtlessly killed in Doom or Quake to mercilessly killed in Call of Duty to thought about in Halo 2 and 3 to finally sympathized with and cared about in Mass Effect 2 and 3. It’s story and characters that video-games are getting the hang of now, with titles like Uncharted and Bioshock always making headlines. They do new things, taking advantage of their long-form narratives, the player element, and the fact that stories aren’t what get games greenlit, so run free.
Mass Effect was the first.