Take a look around for a few seconds. It doesn’t matter where you are – just go for it. I’ll wait here.
Did you see that stack of papers on the edge of your desk? What the hell are those still doing there? And those books next to your monitor – yeah, you haven’t touched those in weeks. That blob in the bottom of your coffee mug is larger than it was last time you peeked inside. You should give it a name.
Not in an office? Fine. Look at the guy next to you on the bus/train/plane. He looks a little unkempt, no? His appearance might be indicative of stress, sickness, or possibly sleep deprivation. Don’t be alarmed when he nods off and falls asleep on your shoulder.
You might be walking down the street. Maybe you’re shopping or working out or waiting for that man behind the counter to hand over your sandwich. It doesn’t really matter. Unless you’re currently performing surgery – in which case, you’re a horrible doctor – your environment isn’t sterile. Why is this?
Because people are dirty, fallible creatures. We get emotional, we make messes, and the woes of life can and do take tolls on us, both visible and otherwise.
“Awesome – I suck. Good to know. Why isn’t this guy talking about videogames?”
Okay, I’ll get right out with it, then: I want to talk about Mass Effect 2 (minor spoilers ahead). And before I do, please note that I absolutely adore this game. In my humble opinion, no other developer has come close to what BioWare achieved in Shepard’s latest adventure. It’s got characters with convincing motives and interesting histories, choices with real consequences, sleek RPG elements, smooth combat, beautiful graphics and sound design – the list could go on.
But the game could be better. It could be alive.
Shepard and his crew could be dirty, fallible creatures who show emotion, make messes, and display the woes of life. Just like all humans – and Asari, and Krogan, and Quarians, and Drell, and Turians, and Salarians – do in the real world. Notice that I left out Geth. Those guys are fucking clean.
Instead, the Normandy is so sterile that Shepard could pursue a relationship with a toilet and he’d be okay. Stop imagining how that love scene would play out. (Spoilers: there’s a lot of flushing involved.)
When you visit your squad members, what do you see? Well, Miranda is always sitting at her table. Same for Thane. Legion is always standing next to EDI’s main processing core. Grunt is always standing next to his growth pod. Zaeed is always standing around, being as unlikable as ever. Samara is sitting. Garrus is standing. Kasumi is sitting. Jacob is standing.
Your friends are remarkably static. They’ll open up some in conversation, yes, but, externally, they’ll never change. They are plastic.
Imagine this scenario I’ve crafted: after letting Vido Santiago escape during Zaeed’s loyalty mission, you approach his quarters to have a chat. As you get near the door, you hear him stomping about, cursing Shepard’s name in that crazy accent of his. You walk in to find the room in ruins. His gun collection is strewn about. Papers are scattered. It’s a mess. Then Zaeed broodingly walks out from the back room, weapon gripped tightly in his shaking hands. You honestly think he might try to shoot you.
But in the game, you walk in to find him just standing there. He tries to impress you by talking about how many men he’s shot and how many gallons of chocolate syrup he can drink (or something like that).
Grunt’s turn. Remember when he goes through the Krogan equivalent of puberty, and he just wants to kill everything and resents being pent up inside a ship? How neat would it be if, during his conversation with the player, Shepard could say something to royally piss off Grunt? In response, the Krogan slams his fist down on a nearby table, leaving a massive dent on the surface. From then on, whenever you enter his room and see that dent, you remember why it’s there. A small detail, sure, but in a game where you’re building relationships and earning loyalty, the small things count.
Maybe as you walk by Mordin’s lab you could hear him singing or cheerfully whistling to himself. Then, after a stressful event occurs, you walk in and find him slouched over his uncharacteristically disorderly equipment. He’s growing a space beard and drinking space coffee. Instead of him greeting you in his usual, ecstatic manner, he wearily looks up at you, rubs his elongated neck, and drearily utters, “Hello, Shepard.” He then looks down and returns to work with admirable Salarian determination.
Maybe Garrus is pacing back and forth, unsure about the team’s chances of success against the Collectors. He had a similar conversation with Shepard in the first game about potentially not stopping Saren, so displaying that anxiety again would show a different side of one of the calmest and most respected individuals aboard the Normandy.
Maybe Miranda is standing at her window and looking out at the blackness of space. She’s wearing her Batman pajamas, which ironically could be loose-fitting and actually suitable for combat. Her bed is unmade, and you conclude that she was having trouble sleeping. As you approach her, she turns to you with tears in her eyes. She asks you how long it will be until you can check up on her sister.
See what I mean?
The best characters in fiction aren’t one-sided. They aren’t purely evil or purely good. They aren’t always elated or always angry. People (and aliens) are complex creatures with a wide variety of emotions and attitudes. Even the bravest of the brave will have moments of doubt and fear. They get sloppy and lose determination.
BioWare, let me live these moments with your characters. You have the cast in place. The plot has reached a boiling point.
Now bring Mass Effect to life.