Mass Effect. I’ve tried so hard to like this game and have always been thoroughly rejected by it. After my first failed attempt, my friend Jeff (shameless plug for his blog here), who is a huge fan of the series, suggested I give the game a try with one of the 5 non-default classes. I made it a little further, but still wound up stalling out before getting anywhere near some plot. In an effort to progress, I actually bought a second copy, this time for PC, with the hope that “maybe I just didn’t like it on Xbox.” As you can guess by my tone the PC copy didn’t turn out too much better – changes to the HUD and streamlining the user interface were great improvements, but the low resolution and resistance to modding made my bile ducts flare. It’s a great port, but the content was tailored to the XBox’s limitations. I’m not sure why this highly reviewed game (I’m beginning to see a trend here) waved such a red flag in front of me. Maybe it’s Mark Meer’s monotonic John Shepard delivery, having to re-watch pre-boss cinematics again and again, or just getting swamped by whatever joker wants me to take a golden butternut squash from one side of The Citadel to the other – I wasn’t having a good time, no matter what I tried. As a result, for 6 years and 3 games, I’ve been strongly against the Mass Effect series.
Kristin recently asked if I thought she would enjoy breaking out the XBox 360 to play some Mass Effect. She’s well aware of my opinion of the game, so I took a little bit of perverse enjoyment when she decided to give it a try. She went with XBox due to its controller support (another issue with the PC port). To my surprise, rather than having the miserable experience I was hoping expecting her to have, she did a lot of things differently from the get go. First off she made herself a female Shepard. This single decision saved her from hours of the kindergarten teacher patronizing scolds that the male Shepard brings to the galactic party, which also has the unfortunate side effect of making it nearly impossible to play as a renegade. But Jane Shepard’s got herself some range (coincidentally Jennifer Hale has quite the voice acting resume) so whether you select Paragon or Renegade you actually get distinct and cognitively palatable conversation options.
Secondly, Kristin doesn’t get bogged down in the completionist mindset that years of being a “hardcore gamer” has beat/hazed into me. This compulsion, preventing me from ignoring every tiny quest that crops up along the way, also prevents me from enjoying the actual game. My personal breaking point was when you scanned the Citadel’s Keepers. There are 50 of them scattered around the central space town and a curious individual asks you to scan them all in the name of science. There’s no log book, map, or Keeper dowsing rod to help you with your endeavor. I broke at 48/50. Kristin just avoided the quest all together. She easily blew by my past progress, and actually got to the point where the game actually looks kind of fun. Well, until she ran into trying to get the moon buggy around the geologically ridiculous planets that litter the Milky Way. After a couple of those missions, those got the axe too.I tried to pull my weight a bit at first, so I wasn’t just the casual observer watching her fly through the plot. Originally I got to do the hacking mini game as I was more familiar with the controller. Turns out being unfamiliar with the controller is actually an advantage, because rather than interpreting the colors and letters displayed, she can just react to the directions. But, I am really good at fighting in the Mako! But Kristin just figured out how to incorporate the cannon into her vehicle based combat and is making Geth goo with increasing frequency. I do get to manage the equipment and inventory, but I think she let’s me do that because she finds it boring.
All these ways of making the game at all palatable don’t erase some of the more niggling issues that take you out of the game. Female characters are rigged like men, giving them bad posture and belly pudge. Conversations veer from deep emotional connection to Shep bellowing “wanna fuck?” in the midst of a fairly enclosed spaceship. I don’t think anybody likes the Mako’s physics or the planetary excavation missions. All that aside, Kristin’s choices sidestepped most of the annoying aspects of the game and her playstyle actually let me do things like see parts of the plot. So with that being said, I’ve rolled up a Female Infiltrator and am trying to use the things I’ve learned to have an enjoyable play experience.
Now to the heart of the matter. I’m not a person who has a tendency to like a lot of things – people, design decisions, what have you. One of the great challenges I face, in order to avoid being a bitter old curmudgeon who can’t interact with the world, is finding a way to enjoy all of these things that I don’t like. And the remarkable thing was that a person playing a game that they wouldn’t necessarily gravitate toward, with someone else backstopping them (or trying to), I think gave both Kristin and myself a better experience than either of us would have had on our own.