Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The Best Story in Mass Effect 2

Major spoilers for Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age follow. Bonus spoiler:  Baldur's Gate.

There's no shortage of fights to pick over Mass Effect 2. Minigames supplant grinding, character quests largely replace a traditional second act, and greater ease of use means fewer stats. Shepard's decisions scale down: she may choose to let a friend commit murder in ME2, but in ME she saved or exterminated an entire species. But none of these changes, however awful/great, had much effect on the game's writing, which remains the reason I play every game Bioware releases. 

The fight I want to start is about character and consequence. To me, the game nearly sabotages a compelling narrative by allowing players to cruise through conversations with little fear of hard negative outcomes. (You have to try hard to screw up in ME2.) It undermines fine characterization by granting the player too much control over others. (Most people do whatever Shepard wants.) Its greatest moments -- and it's a good game -- come when it revisits older RPG traditions, sets limits on the player's influence, and suggests more than it shows.   

For my money, no section of the game can match Samara's loyalty mission for ambition, wit, or style. I'll try to show, first, where I'm coming from when I talk about Mass Effect, then explain why the Samara sequence expresses the parts of ME2 I like the most, and, finally, the ways it represents a missed opportunity.    
I. How Mass Effect Works

At its core, Mass Effect is a power fantasy. Shepard has a tyrant's gift for shaping the individuals and situations she encounters; by ME2, it's hard to find a corner of the universe that hasn't been touched by the player's influence. Both Paragons and Renegades find themselves in a position of power whenever a significant decision must be made. Naturally, the Normandy's captain will call the shots when it comes to the mission. the interesting part is that (almost) everyone in ME2 invites or allows you to make personal decisions for them. And they respect your judgment no matter how little you care about theirs. 

Once characters join your party in ME2, they mostly stay there. You can be as cruel as you want, and they won't leave or respond with violence, though they may stop responding to sexual advances. Some of these characters, especially the old faces from ME1, are clearly friends; but to her crew Shepard is a very controlling sort of friend. Who they kill or spare, how they get along with each other, the difference in the clothes they wear, the way they talk when spoken to, they're under your thumb, etc.

Not every RPG works like this, especially within the Bioware canon. Dragon Age took its supporting cast more seriously than any game in recent memory. Every character had his or her own opinions, secrets, and agendas. Morrigan, in the end, was always looking out for number one; Sten aggressively challenged your authority; most of the cast might desert you or fight you to the death if your choices provoked them. Their banter scripts were more than 2009's most hilarious video game dialogue. They made us feel like our party had really lived and traveled together, argued with each other, leered at or despised one another. The writers included so many of these that you'd be hard-pressed to hear them all after beating the game twice. The game didn't match BGII's dialogue in pure volume, but the presentation was so much stronger, and the voice acting (generally) better, that the party dialogues felt like a new device.

Player conversations in DA:O were not just a break from dungeon crawling: they were actually their own game. The game was about balancing the message you wanted to send to someone against what they wanted to hear. Characters in DA:O didn't always (or even usually) like flattery; sometimes they wanted to be teased or even yelled at. The player was even scored, via the approval system, on their performance in this game, and the score translated into combat bonuses. Some desirable outcomes later in the story required the player to take a hit to approval in the present, to tell Alistair, Leliana, or Morrigan things they might not want to hear. Sadly, too many in-game gifts let everyone abuse the system. Nevertheless, conversations were a rich, fantastic refinement of the innovations of Baldur's Gate 2 and even games like Persona 3 and 4.

I mention this to qualify my claim that characters in Mass Effect 2 are easy. Not easy in the sense that you need to give them fewer pieces of cheap junk to get them in bed (though this is surely true). Your party in DA:O was moderately complex/difficult to predict, while the crew in ME2 responds to your choices mostly as expected. If there was a "Conversation Difficulty" option available in the menus for these games, ME2 would be set a few notches lower. The tension between what you want from others and what they want to hear is gone. Listening is not an essential skill for players of this game; your words are simply more important than whatever was said while you waited to speak.

As long as a Paragon or Renegade blue/red dialogue choice is available, you know you can override whatever concern another party has. In two playthroughs, I always had enough alignment juice to use one of the two override options, for nearly every decision I can remember, and I never go pure Paragon or Renegade. Players don't have to choose between building a socially adept character or a masterful combatant any longer; the game makes Shepard deeply influential by default, so you breeze through conversations as easily as the game's combat sections on default difficulty. (Why is the game so much easier than Gears of War, its major combat/level design inspiration?) Some of the game's more emotional choices rang hollow for me when I knew, as soon as I saw that blue or red text, that I couldn't screw them up.

It's not that the game can't surprise you, but that most of the best shocks are delivered by Shepard herself.

The most ingenious effect of the series remains the gap between your succinct plans of action and the methods Shepard uses to enact them. In this case, her "advice" for Jack on Pragia was the message I intended, but the practiced brutality in Shepard's delivery turned it into a stunning and audacious scene. The line above is both baldfaced crazytalk and a perfect extract of vicious pragmatism. As advice for Jack, it works. And Shepard is right: in Mass Effect, a bullet can solve everything.

Bioware knows how to build the illusion of an organic, somewhat dysfunctional group, but they chose not to do it with their latest game (they see ME2 as a film, so did they view DA:O as a TV show?). Party members barely acknowledge each other; they spend their lives calibrating guns or staring at a wall in Engineering. Apparently their conversations with me are entertainment enough! They sometimes pipe up with interchangeable comments on already-obvious background during missions(1). You'll see two big arguments, each between characters whose backgrounds make them natural enemies. (I've seen longtime friends have shouting matches over whose turn it is to do the dishes that were more devastating than these clashes over serious business.) There are a few Easter eggs, particularly if you travel with Legion. That's about it.

As they say in Screenwriting 101, character is action. But in ME2, nobody seems able to make a move without Shepard holding their hand (or slapping it), which makes it hard to take them, or the world, seriously. At its worst moments, the game plays more like a wicked ego trip than a serious effort at world-building. Shepard is the center of the ME universe, and the universe exists to make her look good.

The game's best moments are exceptions to the above trends; they're great scenes that play by their own rules, not Shepard's.

II. Samara's Mission

Parent-child interactions in Mass Effect 2 get a little tense. You may have noticed! Jacob's father disappoints him, Tali's father misleads her about his dangerous research, Thane abandons his son, and Miranda runs away from her controlling father. I don't suggest some elaborate anxiety of influence bullshit about the game's status as a sequel, mainly because ME1 and ME2 were made by the same people, but I think "relationship to your predecessors" is clearly a theme. Samara and Morinth have the most predatory mother-daughter relationship since Flemeth and Morrigan, and their story hit me harder than any of the others.

Samara is the most visible exception to the things I said above about character in ME2. As a member of an ancient monastic order, she has little use for Shepard's judgment, because her inflexible Justicar code governs all of her decisions. (Whether any code of behavior could be wholly unaffected by the prejudices of its interpreter is likely a question Bioware doesn't want us to ask, and we don't meet any other Justicars to compare Samara to.) She symbolically submits to Shepard's authority, but never allows you to make meaningful decisions for her, the way other characters do(2).

Samara also happens to be the only notable female character aboard the Normandy who won't sleep with a male Shepard (besides Chakwas; no charge for that mental image). I can't tell you how heartening it was to discover that the "hit on Samara" option had been included in the game only so she could shoot the player down. I don't want to make too much of this, but the rejection provides some needed ego deflation in a game where half the cast is batting their eyelashes at the protagonist.

Samara's apparent detachment is integral to her personality. Samara's monastic discipline approaches self-effacement, or "self-denial" in Morinth's pointed language (which always hints at an undisclosed but available pleasure). Though Samara calls Shepard a "friend," she mentions casually that had she not taken the Oath of Subsumation, she would have already been forced to kill Shepard(3). Her absolute adherence to a set of precise rules gives her critical distance from other people; she judges them regardless of their feelings toward her and her feelings toward them. She fondly remembers Nihlus, an old enemy, for playing on her Code in order to escape. She maintains her own opinions, in some sort of mental compartment, but (supposedly) never acts on them. It makes for one of the most intriguing portraits of a devout (fanatical, even) individual I've encountered in a game. Sympathetic religious characters are too often simply wise, serious, or impassive.

You discover that Samara became a Justicar in order to kill her daughter Morinth, who has an unusual genetic condition that makes her a brain-leeching serial killer party animal. Unlike some other loyalty quests (Jacob's, for instance) briefly introduced aboard the Normandy, Samara's mission starts building as soon as Shepard meets her. As you learn, Samara only ventured outside Asari space in order to pursue Morinth, whom the Eclipse mercenaries on Illium vaguely mention as some monster they've smuggled offworld. Samara's pursuit of Morinth has gone on for almost half her lifetime, so the player knows the stakes are high.

Samara's task is further distinguished from other missions in that Shepard/the player is uniquely qualified to perform it. In loyalty missions for Zaeed and Thane, Shepard isn't much more than competent hired muscle, or half of a buddy-cop team; for Garrus and Tali, you're a trusted old friend or a captain (and they've got some nerve not starting the game loyal to Shepard, after saving the galaxy with her before); for others, you're half-enforcer, half moral compass. But Samara needs to bait her trap for Morinth with a person who has two very specific skills: force of will and a talent for role playing.

Before I drop the word "self-referential" and horrify everyone, let me go over the mission. After Samara gives you the heads-up about her daughter, you travel to Illium and play amateur detective in the apartment of one of Morinth's victims, Nef. Shepard and Samara talk to Nef's distraught mother, who asks you to kill Morinth to avenge her daughter. This effective stakes-raising scene (which introduces another mother-daughter pair) turns the quest into more than a favor for a friend, and the player begins to feel they have some responsibility for stopping Morinth. Samara warned you that Morinth was destructive by nature, and now you see what she meant -- a corpse couldn't say this as well as the surviving mother and Nef's diaries do.

(It's odd that Samara accompanies you on the visit, as you'd think those who knew Morinth's victims would likely confuse the mother with her identical daughter, which Samara would want to avoid. However, this would ruin the surprise currently in place, when you come face-to-face with Morinth for the first time and see the resemblance yourself.)

Once you find that Morinth frequents the Afterlife VIP area, Samara outlines a series of rules the player must follow to attract her. Trying to pick up a strange girl in a bar is itself an unusual activity in video gaming, and here it's compounded by a host of ironies, not least of which is Samara's coaching. Of course, Samara will approach the problem with a list of guidelines; she views her own life as the performance of a set of rules.

After receiving Samara's directions, players must act the part they've been given. Morinth doesn't want a bully, but she wants a killer; she doesn't want "chivalry," but she wants charisma. In a neat touch, we learn that Morinth preys on creative individuals, and will notice Shepard because she is "an artist in battle." The scenario works as a neat reversal of show-don't-tell storytelling, because it lets you get to know Morinth before you ever meet her. And you don't even realize this has happened, really, because it is so ingrained in you, as a gamer, that you must focus on these rules and follow them to satisfy the game.

Once inside Afterlife, the player completes miniature quests, but only the correct actions bring you closer to Morinth; as Samara suggests, picking a fight with a random jerk on the dancefloor won't get you far. It's a clever game-within-a-game, and it's one of the only times in Mass Effect 2 where your success depends on your understanding of other characters. Although you're given enough information to make the task easy, it still reminds of those DA:O conversations, or the Baldur's Gate 2 romances, where consideration of other individuals counted for something.  

The bar sequence also stands out as just about the only role-playing most players will do in Mass Effect 2. It's a performance, first and foremost, like the low-level acting gamers used to do, in a bygone era, when they consciously affected the personality of their character. It's a bit of a joke, I think, to combine the performative acts of gender at play in a sexy pick-up scene with the hoary, nerd-steeped traditions of role playing. In the past, RPGs sometimes encouraged the latter by giving players a detailed background and many options during character creation. If you play the old Fallout games with an INT below 8, for example, your character will speak like the moron she is. Games can also organically build a sense of character by reminding players of the consequences of their actions, so that the choices they've made will, by the end of the game, clarify a hazy template into something emotionally meaningful. Mass Effect 2 doesn't really do either of these things, but it does present clever scenarios, like these bar mini-quests, that partly make up for it.

Why claim there's no role playing in ME? Some players I know will select all Paragon or all Renegade dialogue options for their entire run, but this activity is brainlessly automated by the conversation wheel, which drains the ambiguity from decision-making. When I play ME games, I tend to balance my desire to achieve best outcomes through pragmatic choices against my drive to screw over characters I dislike as hard as I can. It isn't role-playing, exactly. But it's the pattern I fall into when the narrative of the game isn't built on some bedrock of consequences that would force me to respect the diegesis. The Samara quest stands apart, though, both as a witty reminder of what role-playing is about, and as a sequence that actually leads to a harsh, compelling choice.

If you play your part adequately, Morinth appears. She appears to be wearing the same clothes that Shiala wore on Feros in ME1, probably a coincidental recycling of assets from the first game. Shepard's initial conversation with her is, perhaps intentionally, extremely shallow. You name-drop artists, bands, and TV shows you know Morinth likes, then compare notes about your interest in all things sinister. The scene would have played better if the player had been required to do some guesswork, but sadly it's nothing but regurgitating a few names when prompted.  

One of the loading screens in ME2 claims that each loyalty mission plays to its featured character's strengths. And missions' style, not simply their combat elements, do seem to suit their givers. (Miranda's mission is flashy and shallow, while Jacob's mission seems like half of a good concept.) Again, Samara's quest throws in a twist, in that its style fits both Samara and Morinth, because they each turn out to be a potential crewmember. The mission opens with a request for bloody vengeance from Nef's mother, suggesting that the correct course would be to follow the Justicar example of summary execution for the wicked. As detailed above, Shepard is then given an explicit set of rules to follow, in a rough imitation of Samara's mode of action. But inside Afterlife the focus shifts to emulation of Morinth. You meet Morinth, the game's consummate liar -- the one person who remains gloriously insincere in every conversation with Shepard she ever has -- by deceiving her about your intentions. (At the end of the mission, Morinth reveals that she herself is an actor of no ordinary talent.) And after you leave with Morinth, the conversation turns into an open contest for dominance, which is, again, what she's all about.    

You're taken to Morinth's apartment, which is decorated with a number of trophies from former lovers/victims (oddly Batcave-esque). According to Samara's instructions, you're supposed to pretend to fall under Morinth's influence. It's worth remembering Samara's entire plan: she gives Shepard detailed instructions on how to seduce her rapacious daughter, with the expectation that Samara will burst in at the last minute to cockblock and then kill Morinth. Again, I won't advance a rickety Lacanian theory about the forms of parental prohibition and rebellion going on (it might make a tortuous kind of sense, as Samara is technically neither male or female, Morinth is identical to her mother yet perversely opposite in thinking, "Morinth" is apparently not the original name Samara gave her, etc.) I'm just struck by how odd the Samara-Morinth relationship is by itself. In video games, where narratives tend to be more generic and less creative than in any other major medium, strangeness is next to godliness.

Morinth keeps trophies in her apartment because she's a hunter. Samara calls Morinth a "predator" and tells Shepard that "the hunt interests her as much as the conquest." Morinth isn't the only hunter in ME2; both Thane and Samara are described as such, though Samara's quarry is Morinth herself. Samara and Thane rationalize violent action through religious convictions, but Morinth is an unapologetic "hedonist" addicted to her sexual brain-draining routine and the power over others it gives her. The contrast in their styles of hunting suggests that Samara is the most selfless character in ME2, Morinth the most selfish. While Bioware packed your ME2 crew with Renegade types, Morinth seems the greatest outsider, her actions not driven by revenge or insecurity or whatever, but by a nature deeply contrary to the institutions and social norms of Asari or any galactic society.

Because Morinth's killing routine depends on her dominant position, she and Shepard have a serious disagreement. I said earlier that Samara was one of the only characters not subject to Shepard's decisions; Morinth is the other major exception. As far as Shepard's good judgment goes, Morinth's interested only in overriding it to get what she wants. This naturally conflicts with the fantasy of control that composes most of the game, where events are rarely out of the player's hands(4). In Morinth's apartment, this jockeying for position manifests as a series of alignment checks:

If you pass every check without feigning obedience (which Samara told you to do) Samara will burst in and kick off a Gandalf v. Saruman wizard duel. The final check requires around 75% Paragon or Renegade status, so some players miss it if they play Samara's mission early. If you fail the last check, Samara and Morinth reach a deadlock and Shepard assists Samara, who quickly finishes Morinth. If you pass the last check, Shepard decides who to kill.

Naturally, there's no resolution where both Samara and Morinth can live. As characters, they both have extreme -- nearly absolute -- needs that pit them against each other and prevent Shepard from influencing them. In another story their stark opposition might become ridiculous, but in ME2 they stand out for acting, violently, on their personal animosity. It's an unfortunate byproduct of ME2's structure that most other characters' needs appear to be one mission deep. You accompany someone on one crucial personal mission, more or less solve their issues with some advice, and then, unless they're romanceable, they're pretty much done playing an active role in the story. But the conflict between Samara and Morinth shaped both their lives, and talking them out of a violent resolution is impossible. It seems entirely right that you must kill one of them, because they are each immovable.

Why save Morinth? No sane person could imagine she'd be more useful on a galaxy-saving mission than Samara. Yet to me, Morinth was a welcome throwback, a return to a venerable RPG tradition that has fallen into disrepair -- the Truly Evil party member. They were a dime-a-dozen in Black Isle and Bioware classics, but where are your Edwins, Xzars, Korgans, Ignuses, and Viconias today(5)? Everybody loved those characters. Even playing Neutral or Good, evil people were a blast to have around. But for some reason, as production values went up, the sociopaths and lunatics began to drop out of gaming. Some claim that a convincing evil character is hard to write, what with fully voiced roles and today's greater focus on characters' backgrounds and motivations. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Centuries of literature have shown that evil people have more fun; just ask Milton or Dickens or Chaucer. And given the number of weak or unconvincing do-gooders who constantly appear in games, we could do with some over-the-top nasty individuals. With the occasional concession of a literally inhuman figure like HK-47 or Shale -- again, among the most fondly remembered characters from their games -- modern RPGs are sorely lacking in Vitamin E.

There's my extra-textual reason for killing Samara: I'd rather play an interesting game than a nice one. My goal is to experience not the happiest but the best story the game has to offer. I hoped a willfully bad person like Morinth would create further problems to deal with, and even shake up the static social space aboard the Normandy. She appeals exactly because of her lack of deference toward Shepard, and her air of false intimacy more insidious than outright hostility. As I said before, Morinth is the one ME2 character who will always lie and never stop playing head games. Samara joined your crew because her Code apparently has a "must accept impossible missions" clause -- which may explain why you don't see many Justicars around -- and because of her previous knowledge of the Collectors. Morinth will join the crew because she wants to give Shepard a fatal brain hemorrhage. ("Romance" has rarely seemed so euphemistic as on the wiki page that includes Morinth.)

The hilarious bit is that you actually can agree to sleep with Morinth after beating the Collectors, and she will kill Shepard. I cannot really imagine the mentality of a player who lacks the basic grasp of pattern recognition to see this coming, but apparently they exist, judging from outraged forum posts on the subject. Their delicious tears remind of those shed by people who ran sidequests before going through Omega-4, and were shocked, shocked! when they arrived late and saw their captured crewmen liquidated by nefarious insects. Bioware has mentioned that they're probably too sensitive to criticism from vocal members of their fan base, and it would kill me if they eliminated the few consequences their game has. The only people who encountered these slight punishments were those who missed every hint, who had been so coddled by an easy game that they really thought they could do no wrong. A better game would give players many more opportunities to fail, not fewer.

To find the most poignant detail of Samara's mission, you need to listen to both Samara and Morinth afterward (in separate saves) when they talk about each other. Morinth gloats, remembering her defiance of her "terrible mother" and the discipline she represented:


For Morinth it's a triumph because she loves upsetting expectations, particularly her mother's, and she would like to consider herself the complete victor. But she's entirely wrong, and Samara was never disappointed. Samara remembers the "bravest and smartest" of her children:


These conclusions are simply right for this pair of characters. Samara's emotions remain separate from her actions, and she continues to judge Morinth by her ability and intelligence, rather than the way she treats others. Morinth does the opposite, recalling nothing but the injustices done to herself. Part of what I like about this contrast is the way it wouldn't come naturally to another medium: you only get the full story, and the character note about Morinth, if you've played the game both ways. Outright gimmickry in other media, in Run Lola Run structures, would be needed to compete with the elegant multiple narratives that separate playthroughs in games can provide.        

III. A Brief Story About Baldur's Gate

The original Baldur's Gate had a funny quest that reminds me more than a little of Morinth's kiss of death. Anyone remember Shoal the Nereid?

In 1998, I was 12 and this was awesome.

Travel West of High Hedge, and you'll find Shoal in the middle of a forest. When you talk to her, as any good adventurer will talk to all strangers encountered in the woods, she insists on kissing you. If you try to get out of it, she'll go ahead anyway. When she kisses you, you die. Your head will sometimes explode in a gory mess. There's no saving roll. And when your main character dies in BG, it's game over. All because you said you'd help her out.

When you had your whole party selected in BG, as you did while traveling, clicking on a neutral NPC made your main character speak to them by default. Bioware knew that pretty much every person who traveled West of High Hedge would get a Game Over the first time they met Shoal, unless they were deeply paranoid. The only way to complete the quest is to have someone else in your party talk to Shoal first, and then defeat her with your living characters, then go kill an ogre for her.

Minsc takes one for the team.

BG's raw weirdness is often surprising, and people who played it on release remain delighted with stuff like this. I'm not implying that BG is a better game than ME2; the former requires the patience of a saint to beat. But in a way it had much more respect for its players than ME2 does. BG required persistence, and even some ingenuity, to complete this single random quest. It risked outraging players because it wanted to put them into a unique situation and get them thinking differently. It killed the player from within the RPG's most secure space, the sheltering branches of the dialogue tree, and not even for saying the wrong thing, but for talking to the wrong person. But it wasn't a frustrating, game-killing moment. I'd guess that when Shoal killed them, most BG players did not seethe with rage at the unfairness of it all. They probably laughed, like I did.

Morinth can kill Shepard in a similar way, but there are so many warnings beforehand that the player would need to be the world's champion idiot to miss them. In BG, a strange character kills you without warning, for a reason you won't understand until you do her quest; ME2 all but asks you to sign a waiver before risking your life. Are gamers really that delicate? ME2 is so concerned with being fair to the player that it becomes less interesting. I'm not sure why Morinth, unlike Shoal, needs consent; I expected to face a maze of tricky dialogue, at least, to survive a conversation with her. The absence of a serious threat from this supposedly lethal personality damages the narrative's credibility.  

Mention difficulty in games and you invite a casual vs. hardcore shouting match. But there's really no question that some of the events that most enliven a game's setting and story are by nature unfair, odd, or cruel. A surprise is, by definition, something the player isn't prepared for; if set in a harsh world, a game's surprises should sometimes kill. Nobody wants to play Demon's Souls every day, but they like to find a world stranger than their expectations.

IV. Issues

The Samara/Morinth mission is a great piece of game writing and design. If the rest of ME2 was entirely planet scanning and hacking, I would still tell my friends to play it for that sequence alone. As it is, many other sections of the game are great in their own right, particularly the conclusion.

I was tempted to go with a more grandiose title, "The Best Story Bioware Ever Told," to describe this excellent segment of the game. But the mission is really too contained, too out-of-step with the rest of the game, to rate a comparison to the best moments in BG2 or DA:O. I can't mention Morinth without bitching about the game's lame follow-up to this quest. Unless the player tries to have sex with her, recruiting Morinth has no effect on the game's narrative. What was the point of introducing a great character if she never does anything?

There's a problem that begins with the structure of the Samara mission itself. Isn't it missing its proper ending? It seems like Nef's mother should confront you again, before you're whisked back to your ship for a mission summary screen. She played an important role in the story's setup, then she disappears. In another RPG, you might talk to her again to collect your quest XP, but ME2 awards experience automatically. Nef's mother wants Morinth dead more than anything, so she would want to know about your progress.

I went back to Nef's apartment with Morinth in tow to see what would happen. Could she impersonate Samara in front of Nef's mother? Would Morinth feel any remorse at all? Would the game succeed in guilt-tripping me about saving Morinth's life? Unfortunately, nothing happened; you can't open the door to Nef's apartment, or ever speak to Nef's mother, after recruiting Morinth. She's just a loose end.

When you pick Morinth, Samara says "you will regret this." I wish the game had made me regret it. Morinth did promise not to hurt the Normandy's crew, but her promises don't mean much. She's been hunting, deceiving, and killing others for kicks for hundreds of years; why take a break now? I expected to return to the Normandy one day to find that she'd popped Jacob's head open like a juice-box, and the rest of the crew was preparing to vent her into space. (That would take one hell of a Renegade speech to prevent.) Of course, nothing like that occurs, and crew interactions remain mostly nonexistent.

This isn't just a special point about my favorite character in ME2. It's also true of your favorite character. Like all of the game's supporting cast, they never did much. They are each kept in their own sealed box, and almost never give a hint that they interact organically with their surroundings or other characters. They get let of their boxes once, for their moment in the sun, in a loyalty mission. It's deeply formulaic, as if the designers were uncomfortable devoting resources to specific characters, as was done in DA:O. They passed up many of the conflicts, rivalries, and mysteries that television and film writers would develop if given a scenario where all these insane people lived together in the same ship.

The conceit that Morinth can imitate Samara is nice, or it would be, if it wasn't a thin excuse for recycling Samara's appearance, voice, and dialogue instead of creating unique content for Morinth. The concept could be great if they let a writer run with it. A perverse hedonist trapped in a perpetual charade as a severe, highly disciplined monk? That is black comedy gold. Won't she get bored? Won't she slip up sometimes, and say sinister, inappropriate things? Won't she be closer at times to a grotesque parody of Samara than a note-perfect imitator? Isn't she just going to invent rules off the top of her head when somebody asks about that thousand-sutra Code, which she hasn't actually memorized? Aren't other asari going to ask her, as a Justicar, for help (and won't she be compelled to help them, as part of the act)? Couldn't an old acquaintance of Samara's run into her? Morinth should really have her own loyalty mission, as she currently isn't "loyal" to Shepard at all, in the conventional sense of loyal as "not interested in murdering."  

I hoped she would kill Joker at least.

Contrary to popular belief/marketing, consequences for decisions made in ME2 are few and far between. You might save a NPC's life in a loyalty mission, but you won't see them again. I've rarely encountered a narrative payoff as slight as the emails those ingrates sent me. Most decisions are dangling threads that later games may or may not address. If you claim, say, that telling Mordin to cure the Krogan genophage was a meaningful decision, you're simply imagining that there might be some satisfying effect represented in ME3. Who knows? The designers could give you another reminder about it (as they teased the results of your ME1 choices with random NPCs on Illium in ME2) but never really resolve it until Mass Effect Side Story Sigma or whatever game they're planning to make after they finish the trilogy.

All relevant dialogue and narrative sense in ME2 told me that bad shit would go down if I saved Morinth. But nothing happens! She will even hold the biotic shield for you on the Collector mothership, a task requiring dedication to the safety of others over one's own safety, and this noted psychopath will do it just as well as her noble, self-sacrificing mother. (Nobody dies.) It makes a joke of the game's ending, which depends entirely on the player's belief that their choices of certain characters for certain tasks actually mattered. Never promise consequences if you cannot deliver them.  

At this point, Bioware/EA must realize that carrying over details from a save file, however superficial, are excellent bait for gamers, and they could string people along forever. We're taking it on faith that our Big Decisions will someday manifest in a form greater than a few lines of dialogue, as the aftermath of most ME1 decisions appeared in ME2. Consequences for our actions in these games have been a hope so deferred that the finale of ME3 carries an air of millennial expectation, wherein all our Shepards' sins must be tallied against her good deeds in a great Judgment, the sum of which will be Happy or Bad End. At this point I demand to see the Thorian returned in Shiala fighting the Reapers alongside a Rachni horde accompanied by a rejuvenated Krogan population riding to battle on the backs of all the bastards who thanked me via email. And there should also be griffins, because every good story has them.

(1) On Horizon, Miranda: "The Illusive Man was correct. Collectors are agents of the Reapers." Repeat mission with Jack. Jack: "Shit! The Illusive Man was right! The Collectors answer to the Reapers." Do you really give a fuck about Reapers, Jack? I asked before what you thought of the mission, and you didn't seem to care at all about the particulars.

(2) You don't need to ask Grunt to join Clan Urdnot, you can just tell him to. You can convince party members like Jacob, Miranda, Mordin and Garrus not to kill their targets. In Thane's mission, there's no real dilemma for the player to solve. Zaeed is a half-implemented paperweight on the Normandy, so I don't consider him a real member of the crew.

(3) This seems to be alignment-sensitive, but the ME2 wiki claims she will tell Paragons that she still "might" have to kill them later if they get out of line during the mission.

(4) The player's inability to force some party members from ME1 to rejoin their group is another commendable "it's not all about you" moment.

(5) Some stickler may point out that Ignus was Chaotic Neutral, but he was a black-hearted bastard and everyone knows it. Also, some might claim that Loghain was a recruitable evil character in DA:O, but he was a pretty reasonable guy once you got to know him.

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