Chosen Game: Mass Effect
Chosen Concept: Identity
Essay Title: Method Effect – The Mediated Persona of Commander Shepard
Abstract: This essay will analyse the videogame Mass Effect (2007) and its relationship to existing theories of identity; exploring the synthesis between player interactivity and bespoke character material that acts to create the ‘live experience’ of identifying and thus ‘performing’ as Commander Shepard. Drawing on existing videogame literature and theatrical models of identity, this essay will primarily focus on the interactive drama aspects of the game and how these narrative sequences produce a mediated experience of identification with Shepard vis-à-vis player imagination, intent and interpretation of both choice-based dynamic content as well as bespoke linear content. The essay will seek to draw on relevant models of identification in performance media that can also aptly apply to the psychological experience of identification as a player of a videogame such as Mass Effect. The essay will lastly explore the other aspects of gameplay (such as exploration, combat, levelling & equipment) and how they offer less psychologically expressive agency yet remain aided by player empathy with the protagonist to maintain engagement.
Key terms: identity, theatre, role, persona, player, imagination, intent, interpretation, choice, synthesis, embodiment, agency
Method Effect – The Mediated Identity of Commander Shepard
In the early stages of video game theory Janet Murray predicted the emergence of a concept of cyberdrama. As she defined it, ‘It will not be an interactive this or that, however much it may draw upon tradition, but a reinvention of storytelling itself for the new digital millennium’ (Murray, 1997 p271). She would go on to suggest that over time these story telling experiences would go on to become more nuanced to the extent we would forget any concept of façades of pre-written characters or avatars and purely become engaged directly with the experience itself.
The videogame Mass Effect (2007) appears to offer a contradictory example to Murray’s prophecies. For while it offers interactivity of greater narrative flexibility and nuance than many games that came before, it remains largely locked within existing modes of genre-based game design. The game functions primarily as a third-person shooter with role-playing game (RPG) and squad management elements. Moreover the interactivity between player, avatar and the identity formed is highly dynamic and in many ways aided, rather than hampered by, bespoke story material.
During Mass Effect‘s moments of interactive dialogue/story ‘decision-making’ the player will experience a high level of nuance of decision-making ranging from the personal (does Shepard believe in God?) to the intrapersonal (should Shepard kill this character?). The player operates these choices through a ‘decision wheel’ in which the player selects from brief dialogue prompts which suggest the proceeding dialogue to play out.
This highly streamlined method is meant to keep the player’s sense of cinematic flow uninterrupted. It’s design functionality differs in comparison to older western RPGs such as Baldurs Gate (1998) and Fallout (1997), which Mass Effect shares developer and genre lineage with. These earlier games produced large panels of text, designed with an exclusive PC interface in mind. Within the new multi-platform consolone oriented interface lies one of the fundamental design contradictions of this system – as many players will cite a disconnect between how they interpreted the text prompt on a decision wheel and how their avatar then acts it out. At other times they be surprised by Shepard’s interpretation of the dialogue prompt yet feel less resistant if the decision is more to their satisfaction. Throughout the experience there is a continued awareness that the player is in some ways more a kin to a director of the narrative than a direct participant. Shepard exists as a pre-written character both beyond and yet still within context of the player’s actions.
It is through moments of interactivity with narrative decision-making that the player may form their own interpretation of Shepard as a character in their own right, bringing forth a dynamic and personalised connection to their player character. This could be considered a hybridised form of connection to their avatar (Boudreau, 2012) in which the avatar’s identity becomes more than simply an amalgamation of player and avatar but something beyond the game itself, which exists in the player’s consciousness and wider imaginings – how do they interpret the character of Shepard, how do they form an externalised impression or internalised identity with regards to this character?
Mass Effect (2007) – The Decision Wheel
The concept of defining identity can become extremely contentious and fruitlessly ideologically for any direct application in a concise text such as this. Within the field of game studies there exists a more highly developed concept of the avatar. Avatars, from the original Hindu concept of a material form of a deity on the plane of earth, are often described as thus considered ‘other’ and outside the player’s direct existence. This uncanny experience is echoed in the theory of Antonin Artaud’s digital double (Dixon, 2005). This sense of being and not being both in theatrical studies offers an applicable understanding of identity within games and player’s emotional resonances within them.
Take for example the experience of dieing in Mass Effect. These moments can occur whilst exploring any of the combat environments (planets, labs, research stations) and due to the traditional balancing of the game, whereby some areas vastly overpower the player’s numerical stat progression, death can happen suddenly, violently or even comedically. This experience can be jarring and dislocating should the player consider themselves as a direct embodiment of their avatar. Yet with a strong awareness of the separation between digital spaces and reality the player will likely be well aware or soon familiarise themselves with the experience of resuming after death. The experiences of death in combat (in the field of a traditional action based digital game) are entirely separate to those framed within the cinematic narrative (in the field of a more theatrical based gameplay – or cyberdrama).
Additional drawing from nascent game studies from the 1990s can also provide further weight to this contradictory relationship for the player between their partially dynamic and otherwise bespoke avatar. Brenda Laurel wrote in Computer As Theatre of human-computer interaction as a mediated collaboration (Laurel, 2014). Laurel focused on the interactive element present within human connectivity with digital devices and thus was drawn to the model of theatre. The element of a live performance overlaps between games and theatre, both of which are to a certain degree ‘performed’ by player/actor and require direct action/engagement to function and exist as a medium.
This mediated element means that both bespoke pre-programmed content and dynamic user behaviour shape the live outcome of the experience of computer usage, comparable to an actor’s interpretation of a pre-written script, itself a dynamic engagement with existing material. This model offers more understanding than simply as a metaphor, as to play Mass Effect the player is constantly pushing against these contradictory tendencies between what they wish to express and interpret from the interactive narrative sequences and what context is prescribed for them. There is thus a very direct theatrical experience of live performance that is engaged with when the player interprets and ‘acts’ out as their Shepard. This process forms a shared identity with a pre-existing character who exists as a bespoke range of possibilities along a spectrum of chaotic (renegade) to legalistic (paragon). The fact that the developers attempted to eschew traditional ‘good vs evil’ in the design of their player decisions also furthers the extent to which players must interpret and engage with their decisions. The game will then dynamically log the results of these decisions and reproduce them to the player (seen notably in the recurring character Khalisah al-Jilani who appears in each game questioning the validity of Shepard’s wider actions and those with her specifically). This further enhances the sense of connectivity between player actions and the shaping of their character – consisting both of bespoke avatar and hybridised identity through the build up of narrative actions. This model itself suggests a triangulation between player, avatar and identity through the process of mediated characterisation of Shepard through dynamic interpterion of narrative acts.
This fundamentally means players ‘perform’ their version of Shepard and thus form a connectivity based on this live experience. Yet there is a contradiction here central to this understanding. Can this process be truly considered ‘live’ when the player is simply pursuing a pre-digitised series of cut-scene prompts? This controversy is echoed in the film industry when considering the artistic role and comparable sense of ‘live’ performance to the role of characters performed by Andy Serkis (Burril, 2005). The dynamic exists beyond the merely performed actions of the player and in the player’s interpretation. The Kuleshov effect pioneered evidence of the montage theory of editing in the Russian cinema of the 1920s, demonstrating viewer’s natural inclination to imagine and interpret information when processing two images of stimuli and the face of a human being expressing ambiguous emotion. There are thus times then when Shepard merely ‘acts’ in a Kuleshov fashion, expressing visually an ambiguous emotion within the context of their animation as a digital avatar, that the player can interpret in a number of ways.
Likewise identical dialogue between other party members may reflect in the player’s mind their unique relationships formed with them. The player does not witness all of the different branches of narrative in a single play through meaning there is a degree of suspension of disbelief in Mass Effect (as in most interactive dramas) whereby the connectivity between choice and content made exists through not knowing which of the players action’s will be received and processed by the game dynamically but also in not knowing which decisions will be reflected later and to what extent. This wider ambiguity leaves every action the player makes as feeling part of a wider chain of events than may actually be the case. The hiding away of the crude mechanics or hard limitations of the branching story gives the player a wider possibility space to think within.
Rehak defines the avatar aptly as ‘… presented as a human player’s double, [which] merges spectatorship and participation in ways that fundamentally transform both activities.’ (Rehak, 2003). This is extremely helpful in understanding the role of identity and identification with a dynamic character agent in an interactive ‘cyber’ drama such as Mass Effect.
All gameplay features within Mass Effect point to a personalisation aspect to draw players through cosmetics, performance, expression, ethics and a process of mediated characterisation of a avatar through narrative performance – all of which shape the identity of Shepard and the player’s relationship toward them as a key aspect of the engagement, immersion and experience of playing Mass Effect. In many ways Murray’s prophecy appears to have come to fruition but in a far more dynamic, fractious and complex way than, she understandably, had means to predict.
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