Mars, Kaiden Alenko, and Character Talks
Earth left behind after its sudden invasion, and we get a call from everyone’s side-quest initiator: Admiral Hackett. Boy does everyone love Admiral Hackett. No complaints about him either. In Mass Effect 1 and 2 he heads up the entire Alliance fleet and doles out missions to the Normandy when necessary. Oh, and his voice is really cool.
Hackett says there’s some super important research that has been uncovered on Mars so the game immediately sends us there. Meanwhile we get all huffy and puffy with new human crew member James Vega as he throws a fit that Captain Anderson stayed behind and then we throw ourselves onto the surface of Mars with Kaiden Alenko (from ME1) or Ashley Williams (and James of course).
Okay, before I go any further I suppose I should address this:
How many people actually picked Ashley Williams to survive in Mass Effect 1?
I mean I did, on one of my Mass Effect runs, just to see if anything was any different but jeez if there’s anything anyone seems to universally agree on in Mass Effect, it’s not who is the better OTP for your commander Shepard, it’s that alien-racist-Ashley dies in Mass Effect 1. No one thinks otherwise. I almost want to see an end-of-episode statistic poll on that one.
And no I’m not defending Ashley, literally just curious if anyone has found her character has some redeeming qualities. I guess I’ll find out whenever I play that Shepard again.
Anyhoo, Mars is darn pretty.
The game even has dialog moments in the core missions where characters talk about something and you’re prompted into pressing a button, the camera wheels out, turns, shows you what the topic at hand is referring to. It’s great, it’s this optional thing that lets you focus on what’s being discussed here and it typically points the players at something gorgeous in the game anyway.
And Mars was a wonderful test bed for this that paid off in my opinion. Sure the whole tragic Earth destruction scenes have their share of these moments too but Mars is something we as human beings today see as our current space frontier. So, seeing Mars as this established space base that deals with the storms and something that even has a built-in tram system to move from station to station, and we even walk around it and inside it, yeah the Mars mission are really where I started to get involved in the game a bit more.
Interestingly enough the beautiful Mars mission is something that leans the series more towards a semi-scripted adventure instead of an open world game. I’ll explain more but first I need to explain Kaiden Alenko a little further.
So while the world may have hated Ashley Williams from Mass Effect 1, Kaiden Alenko was one of three romance options in the first game. He’s a decent character, well written and even has enough backstory as he’s a human that has an older-style biotic implant, went to an academy where biotic kids were treated like crap, he wrestles a bit with the rules and…yeah, he’s likable enough to be someone you don’t mind talking to plenty in the first game. But in Mass Effect 2, Shepard is kinda roped into working for a shady company that does really evil twisted stuff (Cerberus), Kaiden Alenko (or Williams I guess if you saved her) finds out and doesn’t want to see you ever again or want to believe that some hero that killed a Reaper could side/work with someone so shady.
Fascinating to me is that someone can believe that their commanding officer was given visions by an antenna / beacon, and that the visions foretold the coming of a sentient race that will wipe out the galaxy every once in a while, follow that commander’s quest for the reapers to the ends of the galaxy, save the day and then immediately give up on that same person who came back from the dead and told you another sentient race is going to wipe out the galaxy. If you ask me, the sudden shift in Alenko/Williams’s loyalty in Mass Effect 2 is odd and a little misplaced.
What felt even more misplaced that Kaiden is constantly complaining about me working for Cerberus in Mass Effect 3 as well. It’s the focal argument of the Mars mission. I should inform you that at some point during Mass Effect 2 Alenko/Williams send Shepard an e-mail trying to be more rational.
“Then I saw you, and everything pulled hard to port. You were standing in front of me, but you were with Cerberus. I guess I really don’t know who either of us is anymore. Do you even remember that night before Ilos? That night meant everything to me… maybe it meant as much to you. But a lot has changed in the last two years and I can’t just put that aside.
But please be careful. I’ve watched too many people close to me die — on Eden Prime, on Virmire, on Horizon, on the Normandy. I couldn’t bear it if I lost you again. If you’re still the woman I remember I know you’ll find a way to stop these Collector attacks. But Cerberus is too dangerous to be trusted. Watch yourself.”
And yet when Kaiden and Shepard are working together in the Mars mission, he just constantly brings it up to argue with Shepard. Cerberus was right: Collectors were a problem, now they’re gone, Shepard’s left Cerberus, and yet that’s not enough from where Kaiden is siting. Weird, right?
As offputting as it is, it adds drama and tension. Less “Kaiden doesn’t understand me” drama and more “wow Kaiden’s being a real a-hle about this for no apparent reason.”
Across the mission players are reunited with Liara (yup, Liara was my first Shepard pairing and I wanted to do at least one plotline where my pairing never shifts or changes, Liara is that pairing). Some plot-things happen but every pause for talk, it’s either kinda setting the mood for Liara and Shepard (whether or not the relationship should be continued sorta thing, or plot details) and Kaiden v. Shepard’s arguments.
Then something really cool happens.
Mass Effect 3 gets a pretty decent chase sequence. It controls well, the character you’re chasing is in decent sight the whole way, explosions happen, you’re forced to take other routes, and beef-head James shows up and crashes a shuttle to stop the chase. All the parts leading up to this chase are still pretty linear by design, we’re not choosing where next to go on the galaxy map, the corridors are pretty straightforward and the fights are nice and open for tactical design. The chase is the most linear part of the Mars mission and then this cyborg lady beats the crap out of Kaiden oh no!
We manage to shoot / knock out cyborg lady (though the sequence where we’re expected to shoot her several times is awful and I had to replay it twice because the margin for error is stupid slim) and rush Kaiden off to the Citadel’s hospital.
In retrospect and thinking on the Mars mission, I realize that Telltale games released The Walking Dead, their conversation adventure game magnum opus, in the same year that Mass Effect 3 came out.
And this just throws us into the discussion of story, presentation, player agency, and this weird design:
Yeah, this post is actually about story and how EA mucked around in Mass Effect 3. See I think this design here, splitting up how players control the game was a failure. Story mode makes the combat easier apparently, action mode removes the custom characters models you can build and plays out the conversations without your input, and role playing mode gives you everything. It was a mass market appeal design that I think ultimately no one cared about. People probably were up in arms about this when ME3 launched, which is funny because people who played Mass Effect 3 still got what they wanted. What’s wrong with other people being able to play the thing? There is something wrong I’d say in taking a product that clearly has a dedicated playerbase and trying to make it appeal to so much more than that dedicated market. Growth is fine, trying to be as big as Call of Duty or Minecraft is…unrealistic. And yet with this horrible thing that EA did to BioWare in ME3’s development I feel like…Telltale and BioWare would be able to make something cool together. I think Telltale need some real lessons about writing, their writing in games is most of the time just kind of run of the mill (save for a few outstanding games) and their engine is crap by this point, but there’s something there that might be really interesting in a video game.
A non-Mass Effect BioWare / Telltale game is something that might be pretty awesome if done right. Consider the dialog wheel, having to live with consequences. I feel like one of the greatest challenges the Mass Effect games face is that players have save slots and entire wikis that tell you how not to mess up your run that is meant to save certain characters, romance others, and have X certain ending. And sure, people do this because they’re going to invest 30-60 hours in this one BioWare RPG and don’t want to waste a second of it (that’s what I do). But approaching games these ways avoids the real concepts of consequences. Jeez remember the pride people had for not killing Wrex back when Mass Effect 1 was newer? Or if you’ve been playing games for longer than me, remember how awesome it was that you could save your brother in Deus Ex if you did things right? And in the context of the Mars mission, think about the chase sequence, before that the arguments with Kaiden, it’s oh-so very Telltale done right. I was having too much difficulty arguing with Kenny to agree with me in the moments of The Walking Dead (S1) to the point that I just kinda resented the guy for it. I didn’t want to hear more from him. That’s real emotion, backed with real thinking processes that are there in that Mars mission. Kaiden was being a pain, for very little good reason from where I sat, and even my best efforts at keeping him on my good side didn’t magically change the way he thought about my character. He just kept being a jerk.
Telltale games, like Souls games, in their autosaves and constant movement, prevent players from being able to sub-play the game’s systems. It keeps them in the moments. And when it comes to narrative or story, the very thing that should be engaging the player so well into the experience, wouldn’t that be better to keep the players in the moment? Just imagine going through Mass Effect without multiple save banks…