I’m a big fan of your private tragedy


Anyone can tell you that ambient dialogue is often a high point of exploring some of these big RPGs out there nowadays. BioWare is habitually the go-to for this, although I find some of the conversations you can listen in on in Obsidian and Bethesda games just as pleasurable. If my finances ever do a 180 and I find myself in a position to pick up Dishonored, I’ll likely say the same about it as well.

But (arguably) stealth games like Dishonored, Alpha Protocol and the like take a rather explicit and perverse pleasure in voyeurism. Listening in on people’s unguarded moments is just what those games are for, inasmuch as they are ‘for’ anything. It’s not quite the case in something like a Mass Effect or Elder Scrolls, where supposedly some manner of upholding social norms ought to be honored. Unless I’m playing as a thief in, say, Skyrim, or I’m going through one of the rare missions in among the whole Dragon Effect pantheon which accommodates and rewards stealth (the “Arrival” DLC for Mass Effect 2 for example, though the chapter’s resolution is otherwise so frustrating I usually just don’t bother installing it), being an eavesdropper tends to make me feel even more morally transgressive than if I just walked right up and knifed the poor chatty bastards.

Yet I can’t help it.

Lately I’ve been replaying Mass Effect 3, my first time in doing so since putting the franchise to bed after the whole tedious ending controversy last year. I’m revisiting it now so that I can be up to speed for the upcoming “Citadel” DLC, which sounds like a gigantic BioWare fanwank if ever it existed, and damned but I’m still a sucker for that anyway. What I’m noticing are principally two things:

1) They foreground the “unacceptable” original downer ending more than I ever remembered. Characters are constantly reminding you that you need to reevaluate what a “positive resolution” looks like. My favorite illustration of this came from an exchange on the Normandy right after you pick up (ahem) Garrus. Lightly paraphrased:

“When turians go to war, if even a single soldier survives, we say that it was worth it. But humans want to save everyone.”

But everyone and their mom has written about the game’s ending at this point, so I won’t launch into another essay on that. I just find it perfectly encapsulates what I’ve felt about the game from the start.

2) The Citadel is like a sandbox of tragedy porn.

Now, this is nothing new for the franchise either: Mass Effect 2 flirted heavily with representations of a post-9/11 security-obsessed society, and also memorably poked fun at its incompetence. But the Citadel of Mass Effect 3 is a bottomless pit of anxiety, grief, and diasporic despair. The relatively privileged folks of the Presidium worry about the ethics of war profiteering, but the refugees of Dock E24 walk around in a daze, huddle around photo-filled walls of the dead and missing, languish on the stretchers of emergency triages.

In some ways it feels like Mass Effect did its 9/11 motif in reverse order: first it described the security theater in a “war on terror” world, then it scaled back to the imagery of tragedy we collectively recall as inspiring all that rhetoric.

Dock E24 is my favorite location on the Citadel. It’s depressing. It’s raw. It feels hopeless. But then you wander around for a bit. You see a batarian wrapping his arm around a sobbing human companion, where just a couple years ago these two species were (and to a large extent still are) at each other’s throats. You find Garrus arranging for supplies for his people’s wounded. And you see a lost human girl who’s wandered up to a C-Sec information desk because she doesn’t know where else to go.


This is my favorite set of ambient interactions in the entire game. I found out yesterday they were written by Ann Lemay, which figures, because she’s brilliant. Here you have a turian C-Sec officer, every grizzled cop archetype in the book, finding himself at a loss trying to help a recently orphaned, and fairly naive, human teenager who has crawled her way into his heart (whether he appreciates it or not).

It’s so tender and sweet, and perfectly sums up what I love about the Citadel writing for Mass Effect 3: even these relationships which exist in the backdrop of this entire cataclysmic event are still developing, precious things. It reminds me how little Shepard actually matters. Oh sure, she’s the one who’s asked to pull the switch at the end, but she’s hardly the only one with a life going on. If anything, I find it tremendously reassuring that other people’s lives in this big squishy sci-fi universe don’t begin and end where the player’s path intersects theirs.

(This is something I adore about Jacob too, by the way. He has adventures of his own; he doesn’t need Shepard to start and stop him like an automaton. But I’ve grown to accept that virtually no one in the universe likes Jacob except me. Siiiigh.)

The inverse of this all is, well, why am I so enthusiastic to discover other characters have their own arcs, the bulk of which I will never get to see? Why should I cheer for the C-Sec officer and the lost girl, instead of feeling ashamed that I’m continually racing my Shepard back and forth behind them to hear more snippets of their conversation? The poor girl lost her parents, and my heart can only swell for the beautiful friendship I’m seeing (rather, hearing) develop. If these talking heads were cognizant of their surroundings they’d start yelling at Shepard for being some kind of a weird pervert.

But that’s the particular cognitive dissonance of these games, I suppose. (Not ludonarrative dissonance, I should add, which is a term so many critics get so desperately wrong I’ve all but banned its inclusion in TWIVGB– but more on that in another post.) These are games where engaging in social systems (dialogue, diplomacy, compromise) are at least as significant a series feature as all the runny-shooty stuff, but transgressing some of those unspoken systems –namely, what not to ask, and where not to listen in– largely gets a free pass. These are games about interacting with people, but we’re never exactly punished if our interactions are more in line with those of a sociopath. (See also: Kim Moss’s post on BioWare’s romantic Nice Guy syndrome.)

So I feel left in this awkward moral limbo, as a consumer who eats up the private melodramas these incidental dialogues shoot forth into the ether, but also as someone interested in seeing how games can reflect or deconstruct real-world systems. It didn’t take me more than a half-second to lavish some excited praise for Ann’s work over Twitter, and I do not believe this praise is anything but well-deserved –these little moments can often be what really sells a fan on a game, and rightly so, I think– but it strikes me as a little funny that I should latch onto this set of ambient dialogue, of everything in Ann’s considerable portfolio. Thank you for writing a great moment of private loss and desperation! I loved eavesdropping on it!


Yeah. Well, it could be argued this is what a lot entertainment boils down to: looking in on the lives of others. But games are unique in the way they make us an active participant in that process. Or another way of putting it is: linear media assumes our curiosity, while interactive media invites it, and (generally, but not always) rewards it. The interesting thing is when you map that invitation to curiosity onto social structures that are designed to discourage too much interest– like what we learn or don’t learn about other people.

It’s definitely not a situation unique to BioWare’s games in any way –hell, this probably goes back to Night Trap, if not much, much earlier– but certainly something that’s been turning around in my head recently, what with replaying ME3 as well as Dragon Age: Origins earlier this month. It’s also something I’ve been thinking about with respect to the game I’ve been writing, Stargazer Pavilion… but more on that another time.

Anyway, it should be said I am definitely looking forward to the “Citadel” DLC on March 5th, and inasmuch as I don’t believe AAA games are the be-all and end-all of what games can be or are, I adore the richness of Mass Effect‘s world, and I admire all the work that has gone into making it that rich. Especially the little things. I daresay it’s always been about them.

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  • Dan Cox  On 02.24.13 at 12:50 pm

    It’s interesting (to me) how much that voyeurism is codified in the Mass Effect series. Others have written much on it, but it often boils down into a paradoxical Cinderella complex. Despite being given great power to go off and see the galaxy, Shepard spends her time doing all the chores: sweeping the corridors, finding lost items, and cleaning up after others. “Never mind the Ball, I have three more widgets to find!”

    I agree with you about “interactive media [rewarding curiosity]” too, but it’s often positioned very strangely in the Mass Effect games. We’ve normalized watching and overhearing conversations in games as something that will help /us/. We expect to get something out of helping others, some type of reward for our effort. If we map that into real life, it becomes… questionable.

    There is certainly a visual pleasure in these games, but there is also an expectation that no one else is watching *back* at us too. There is safety in our explorations of other’s tragedy. I’m sure you could write — and probably have — about the tension between empathy and disconnection from those we “watch” on our screens, Kris, but it’s always struck me as weird in connection to the instant and eidetic memory Shepard has.

    “Hello friend. You don’t know me, but I was off saving the galaxy just now and found this locket. Having overheard your conversation with this other stranger here three weeks ago, I thought I might return it to you now. I’ll wait as you search your pockets for money or rare minerals to repay me for this heroic deed.”

    • Kris Ligman  On 02.24.13 at 1:06 pm

      See, and that last bit is what strikes me as most peculiar in ME3, because generally they DON’T repay your character with some sort of material wealth. You’re paid in Reputation points or war assets, and while the latter is pretty close to being transactional in the explicit sense, it really seems to relate more to being transactional in the social sense. Rarely does Shepard say “gee, I could use a squadron or six on the battlefield,” but the notion of supporting the war effort goes unspoken and understood.

      The ambient conversations like the one I’ve described above have only one interactive element, though, and that’s spatial proximity. Shepard doesn’t gain XP or Reputation by listening to a war orphan latch onto a policeman– it really is there just as flavor text (or flavor sound, I suppose). Which I think complicates the idea of “eavesdropping for player benefit” even further, because it does seem ENTIRELY voyeuristic, rather than the sort of Machiavellian “well sure, I’m watching this couple argue about their messy relationship, but then I can swoop in for points” system we see in a lot of other places (including other BioWare games).

      Short version is, I wouldn’t go so far as to say ME3’s voyeurism isn’t motivated by player self-interest but it seems to do so in a very funny and socially roundabout way.

      • Dan Cox  On 02.24.13 at 1:33 pm

        I agree with you, but also found many of those same interactions at first highly effective in grounding me in the tragedy of the world and then horrifying once they failed to resolve or continue beyond a certain point. In one particular, the PTSD Asari in the hospital was, for me, excellent at showing the personal effects of just one encounter spread out over all my visits to check on members of my team. Each time I entered, I would spend some time waiting to get the next part of the story — perpetually the voyeur to her pain.

        However, I eventually realized the end of the story and came to the conclusion I so often do in games like this: *I* can leave but they can’t. They are forever locked in that quantum state of waiting for /me/ to come along. Not only was the Asari never going to get better, the lost girl you wrote about can’t leave either.

        The feeling of characterizing Shepard as a “weird pervert” then came crashing down on me as I realized the even greater ‘truth’ to all the voyeurism: it was /placed/ there for me to see. I didn’t discover some secret pain, it was always going to happen and the trigger was my very presence. “Congratulations, player! You found 2 out of 7 sad people on the Citadel!”

      • Kris Ligman  On 02.24.13 at 1:44 pm

        Hmm. I see your point, and yeah, it’s undeniable that THE ENTIRE GAME exists for our discovery. But it isn’t actually beset by some sort of tracked achievement or reward, outside of whatever mental tally or personal interest the player has.

        And, perhaps this is reaching a bit, but I also think of what Shane Liesegang wrote recently about Skyrim as impressionist gameplay (http://blog.shaneliesegang.com/2013/02/impressionist-gameplay/). I choose to feel the ambients in ME3 go on after I’m gone; that these are stories which continue when I’m not there. It might be as simple as the fact that since we only catch snippets, and we’re not privy to the depths of these characters’ psyches the way we often are with the conversation trees of major speaking roles, they seem to imply an off-screen continuity.

        I suppose it comes down to: I know consciously that this is a constructed scenario, but I choose to embrace it as an organic one. I still think the way players are asked to interact with social systems is rather scattershot, but I appreciate the worldbuilding nevertheless. :P

  • zeppyprime  On 03.01.13 at 10:11 pm

    Great article. I’ve been a fan of bioware, the way they tell story’s and the depth of there characters ever since SWTOR and for me the mass effect series was the pinnacle of all the games that they had produced.
    That was until the last 20 minutes of ME3 which was a great game and experience but I haven’t played it since I finished it after release because of the disappointment of the ending.
    But after reading your article you reminded me of how great the mass effect universe is to take part in how entertaining its inhabitants are and now I’m off to start fresh with a new character.


  • Nik  On 04.12.13 at 4:11 pm

    As far as the difference between feeling as though you’re truly eavesdropping on a conversation, and recognizing it’s just something placed there for your benefit, that’s something common to all forms of fiction.

    Sometimes, creative people come up with backstory that never makes it into the final product. I’m thinking here of George R.R. Martin’s appendix listing Walder Frey’s 2,718 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in Game of Thrones, or the post-script to the Idiran/Culture war in Iain M. Banks’ “Consider Phlebas.” (Which, like Ringworld and Revelation Space, served as inspiration for some major parts of the ME universe.)

    But more often, the zoom function only works on the main cast, either because of time, resources and budget constraints, or out of recognition that the people we pass on the street are just God’s Extras. That’s life.

    And when it comes to AAA games, filling out those minor backstories is a lot more expensive than a novelist spending three paragraphs on a passerby.

    As for that hallway with all the photos of the missing, it reminded me of Battlestar Galactica — the hallway even looked the same as that Galactica corridor with photos of missing and dead colonials. And BSG, of course, was using post-9/11 New York as inspiration, so in that sense we’re getting into meta territory.

    Anyway, good post, and I also enjoyed listening in on the human girl and the Turian. In my opinion, it’s not such a bad thing if we have to use our imaginations when wondering what became of them.

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