Look! It Moves! by Adi Tantimedh: Adieu, COMMANDER SHEPHERD

This is Adi Tantimedh’s 200th Look! It Moves! column for Bleeding Cool;

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So last week, the final DLC for MASS EFFECT 3 was released.

It contains what you would expect: a new plot about Commander Shepherd hunting some baddie that involves combat, but it goes beyond that to provide nearly two hours of non-thriller interactive character interactions, culminating in the characters throwing a party.

Let’s ignore all the knee-jerkers who will automatically jump in and scream “The ending sucked! I don’t care!” the moment anyone mentions the game. I get it. I didn’t like the ending either, but it doesn’t invalidate how good the game and series in general had been up until the ending.

You might wonder who would want to spend about $12 for what’s a huge downloadable chunk of game? Well, fans, of course. Diehard fans that keep a franchise alive, the same types of fans who love BUFFY, FIREFLY and any other genre series that gathers a large following. Fanservice is, after all, escapism with your favourite fictional friends.

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What makes MASS EFFECT 3: CITADEL interesting to me is its commitment to being an overt unashamed piece of fan service. Most games’ DLC can be bland combat-based gameplay with rudimentary plots, including some of the Mass Effect series’. What sets CITADEL apart is the extent to which Bioware has come to understand the real appeal of their series, which is not the fairly-decent combat decent but the characters and their interactions. Fans are invested in MASS EFFECT because they love the characters: they get to mold the personality of the Shepherd they play and how she interacts with the members of her team. Where companies that produce Role-Playing Games are concerned, Bioware is now considered the gold standard for making games whose stories feature characters that grab the players’ imagination and have them endlessly thinking about and talking about them. When you have a cast of interesting characters an audience can love, you’re pretty much guaranteed a following and, hopefully, success. That’s what the makers of popular genre TV series and comics have come to understand and so has Bioware. MASS EFFECT is only one of a tiny handful of popular Science Fiction series in videogames, the others being HALO and GEARS OF WAR, and is the only one that invites the players to actively choose who gets to fight on their team, then influence their heroes’ relationships with the other cast members rather than passively watch pre-scripted cutscenes, resulting in deeper emotional involvement rather than just more shooty-shooty. There’s a reason not many games do this, which is that it is hugely complicated to script the various branches difference choices and dialogue branches can go throughout not one but three whole games. You also need good writers and storytellers since the game can’t go by on merely adequate story and good combat. Nobody buys a Bioware game just to play the combat. MASS EFFECT is a milestone in videogames for having a story that actually reacts to and retains your decisions throughout three whole games that last about 100 hours, lasting nearly six years.
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So with MASS EFFECT: CITADEL, once you’re done playing the thriller plot and killing all the bad guys, the rest of the DLC is at least two hours’ worth of not shooting things but just having Shepherd meet up with and hanging out with every single supporting character that was ever part of her team throughout the three games. You could say it’s indulgent, but it’s a welcome one to anyone who likes the series. This is like the Avengers on downtime at Avengers Mansion and talking about nothing. This is Buffy and the Scooby gang hanging out in the school library when not out vampire-hunting. This is Captain Reynolds and his crew whiling away the time on the Serenity when they don’t have to fight for their lives in another job gone bad. This is a love letter by fans for fans, an acknowledgement of what everyone loves about the series.

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Where games like CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS release DLC that consist of new multiplayer maps, CITADEL is about giving you more facetime with your favourite characters for one last time. It’s full of easter eggs and in-jokes. It comes out and throws a party where everyone gets more drunk and silly as the night goes on. Considering MASS EFFECT 3 was originally released a year ago, CITADEL marks the final piece of game Bioware makes for it before closing the book and moving onto a new MASS EFFECT game with new designs, characters and plot for next-generation consoles, that won’t be due for a few years. In a way, it’s like an apology for the disappointment the ending generated and if you think about it, CITADEL is like a corrective, the proper ending made well after the main game. It may take place mid-way through the main plot but it’s really like a light-hearted episode of a TV series.

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Considering that everyone who cares about the game has already played it to the ending in the main plot, CITADEL is like a desired afterthought, the ending everyone prefers, and in practical terms it is the ending for Bioware, since it’s the last piece of game the writing and programming team made,. It’s as much their farewell to the series as much as it is to the players. The feelings players experienced in the main game ending are already a year away, and this is the ending where they get to really say goodbye, not with serious final speeches and pomp, but with jokes and a raucous party. This kind of extra is actually common in popular manga and anime, where the creators frequently created extra scenes outside of the main story to have popular characters hang out, even break the fourth wall and respond to fan mail, even take part in comedy skits while still acting totally in character, even the villains. This is just the first time a big AAA game has created such a big piece of unabashed fanservice as part of the game.

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Is it any surprise, then, that CITADEL is the most critically-acclaimed of all the DLC ever released for the MASS EFFECT games? And given the praise fans have been heaping on it, this means it’s an interesting direction that popular games might be taking: a level that emphasises story more than combat. Unlike THE WALKING DEAD game, the other title that has set a new precedent in story-as-gameplay rather than combat, CITADEL’s real draw is in the hour-long party-sim that takes up the latter part of the DLC that offers no suspense or danger at all, just the replication of a party atmosphere and the silly, funny behaviour you expect from a party where everyone you like is having fun. It’s Bioware’s declaration to their fanbase that they know how important their support is for the success of a series. It’s not a cynical cash-in or piece of hackwork, but a labour of love, and ultimately good business.

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Look! It Moves! © Adisakdi Tantimedh

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