The MASS EFFECT of the Writer’s Strike…

Unless you’ve been living in a cage, you know that the scribes are holding the entertainment world hostage. The Writer’s Guild of America Strike that began on November 5th continues to this date, and all we’ve felt so far are the ripple impacts that precede the vacuum. Many television shows will likely have incomplete seasons. 2009 films are being pushed back to 2010. Late night talk show hosts are revealing just how reliant they are on someone else’s words with varying degrees of improv. It’s enough to drive a viewer to drink… or, perhaps, to video games.

From the viewers’ perspective, this stalemate between the writers and the powers-that-be is only beginning to be felt. Soon, great shows like Lost will exhaust the scripts they have in the can, and will truly be “lost” without new episodes, leaving everyone dangling on a cliffhanger (okay, nothing new there). Unscripted reality shows are on the rise to fill the void, which is like putting out an entertainment fire with gasoline. Instead of reruns, we get the entertainment equivalent of Chinese water torture that is American Gladiators or Dance War. Thankfully, I found a good script in an unlikely place, that my wife and I are presently enjoying as much as television and movies. With the ever-growing black hole of the strike sucking the life out of cinema and the tube, this surrogate is filling the void nicely, with the added benefit of controlling aspects of the story ourselves.

Let’s be clear; I don’t play video games. I own Frogger and Ms. Pac Man, but save for classic 80s arcade games I am a gaming ignoramus. My two best friends work in the gaming industry testing games for their paycheck and spending it on World of Warcraft subscriptions and Guitar Hero 3. I was recently meeting with an aspiring film and theology teacher who commended my ability to “keep my finger on the pulse of culture”, but culture – like an XBox controller – just has too many buttons for me to keep my fingers on. Thanks to a friend with a GameCube, I did venture into zombie territory with my wife to play Resident Evil 4. It worked out well that we played together, passing the control back and forth; turns out she was sharp with the sniper rifle, but I was classier in close quarters. This also facilitated fun time together with my wife, instead of being a video zombie transfixed on individual play.

So, with nothing more on television than the grimace and scowl of Simon Cowell, my wife Kat and I borrowed a copy of Mass Effectfrom a friend who actually worked on the production of the game itself. It’s been a rollicking adventure that plays on our similarities and differences, wrapped in a vast science fantasy story as rich and vast as anything Star Trek or Star Wars has to offer. Mix in a story impacted by your choices and the obvious gunplay and you’ve got a tantalizing experience that might make television less interesting to return to.

Mass Effect’s plot comes straight from the stuff of intergalactic cinema; in the year 2183, human society has spread beyond the borders of Earth, maintaining a fragile alliance with alien species. Amid this galactic turmoil, an alien gains control of an ancient technology which he plans on using to subjugate the galaxy. Scarred veteran Commander Shepard and the crew of the SSV Normandy must thwart the overarching plot by Saren while also juggling promotion, politics, skirmishes in other solar systems, emergency calls from remote locations, and conspiracies at the galactic citadel. Shepard experiences a nightmarish vision of impending doom, and the return of an ancient race. The narrative has a wider scope than many film trilogies, and will likely result in about 30-40 hours of play.

Let’s talk visuals; in a world that loves computer animated films like Shrek, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, this game plays in a lavish landscape that looks more like these films than its pixelated arcade ancestors. You almost forget it’s animation, or a video game. Just check out the trailer. The voice-work is compelling with some known acting talent, from Robot Chicken’s Seth Green to Aliens Lance Henrickson and beyond.

I confess, the game controls are beyond me… but this actually comes in handy. Turns out my lovely bride likes the shooting portion of the game, but not the RPG sections where there is a lot of talking and fact-finding. Me? I like the story, so we hand the controller back and forth between conversation and combat. The truly astounding thing is the malleability of the story; you can respond in multiple ways during every conversation, with friend and foe – these often range between a soft, nice-guy answer, a matter-of fact statement, or harsh and provocative words. This can impact the flow of the story (from your relationships with the authorities, the ladies, your compatriots and your enemies). You can select different members of your crew to take on away missions, which also affects the story flow. You can choose to let enemies live, or sanction them without mercy.

These accruing decisions give your character… well, character, ranging from boy scout to renegade. It’s like deciding if you’re Luke Skywalker or Han Solo, Superman or The Punisher. For instance, you can help an enterprising alien at a casino cheat the machines, or offer to “help” and then turn his device into the authorities. You even earn personality points in either direction which enable you to alternately “charm” or “intimidate” people you encounter. Do you want to be loved, or feared, or play your character in the muddled middle? Depending on what sequence you embark on certain missions, folks you rescue may be thankful, helpful allies or starved, crazed liabilities. I suppose die-hard gamers will play the game multiple times to find all the variations. I’m just pleased with the ability to inject a bit of myself into the protagonist, an extra way of relating to – even shaping – the hero, which you don’t experience in film.

Gaming is a powerhouse force in entertainment. Statistically, there are more women over the age of 18 that play video games than there are male gamers under the age of 17. There are millions of game players, from kids to mature adults. Naive christians can’t just assume all gamers are geeks with their pants down and tell people to grow up and quit playing video games; humor aside (which most gamers can appreciate) saying things like that just means we don’t know our culture. I don’t know that I’ll ever be into online games and XBox like some of my peers, but it’s an illuminating experience to see what it’s all about. Games that engender interaction like Guitar Hero, or playing games with my wife as described above, so that it is a communal experience, can make for even more relationship building than a darkened movie theater… but I digress, look for more on intentional, “entertainment community” in my next post.

Heck, if Hollywood and the writers can’t mend their relationship, I can always switch from Netflix to Gamefly.

  1. Becky

    I hope they are able to give more attention to those that work behind screen such as those writers and others and things will be fine again.

  2. Pastor James Harleman

    I certainly hope an equitable arrangement can be found as well Becky. Although I’m hardly the one to determine what’s best in this situation, I hope the story behind these storytellers and the industry has a happy ending.

  3. Aaron Webb

    And as software is largely un-unionised, they can still ignore the writers strike because there is no guild calling any shots. Thus computer game writers are on a completely planet and thus the effects of the strike are nil. If this keeps up, video games will gain an even larger share of the entertainment dollar.

  4. Brian Holt

    I think that if you like Mass Effect you should try Fable or Halo both are science fantasy action games and Fable has the adaptive story line that gives you several options in scenarios.

  5. Pastor James Harleman

    Just finished MASS today, 35.5 hours. I think I’m taking March off of the VGs. Overall good, I thought the ending could have been stronger. The wife wants me to play “Bioshock” and I’m sizing up a few possibilities but I don’t want it to overwhelm. That’s a day and a half, all told, on rest and cultural exploration, just for Mass Effect. I’ve had my fill for a while. Besides, the Strike’s over!

  6. Bruce

    Video games *are* part of mainstream media now, and a rather significant one at that. For a few years now, I think, video games’ annual revenue has exceeded that of the movie box office (not including DVD sales). Even recently, some bigwigs in the film industry have been blaming video games for poor sales performances at the box office. Within the gaming community the debate about whether video games can be considered “art” rages as the medium is trying to innovate itself out of its infancy and find a unique space within entertainment media. The interactive nature is what separates video games from other media, and maybe before too long we might see a “video-game-agogue” that explores the truisms found within the choices the player makes throughout the course of a game. One thing is for sure: there are many more compelling experiences like Mass Effect in the future for video games.

  7. Charlie

    Hey all,

    Cool story, I’m actually a student at Digipen Institute of tech(A school who’s foot is set deep in the Video game industry) and I must say for 1, Bravo for giving Mass Effect and Resident Evil 4 a shot, both 2 great games.

    Yes, the Video Game industry is the next great form of entertainment, Sales are projected to crush the Film industry.

    I’ll say it now, I LOVE games, great form of entertainment. I saw that the industry was becomming bigger and bigger when I was in High school, and I love games so I said “Hey, god gave me the gift of Art, lets take it this way!” and Im happy to say in another 2 years I should be setting foot into the industry with my BFA in hand 🙂

    But my story aside, I think it’s incredibly important that people realize that games aren’t just for kids anymore, there are amazing stories and adventures, Romances and other great experiences out there for adults, and I think that it’s really sad how hard people work on these games (I’m learning how they do it, I KNOW IT FIRST HAND!) and all they get in return is a deaf ear to thier projects because of rediculous studies on Violent behavior, or depression ECT…

    I just wanted to say thank you for giving my industry a chance before making an opinion. I hope one day you can play a game I worked on and have nice things to say as well.

    Cool story, I like that your Wife was the Combat specialist haha sounds fun.

    -Charlie Van Liew

  8. Charlie

    oh! and play the metal gear solid series, Amazing storytelling through a very cinematic experience, the conclusion to (My favorite franchise) is comming out in June for the Playstation 3. Good stuff 🙂

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