Mass Effect and virtual pr0n

January 24th, 2008

Mass Effect

I've come to realize something very sad about myself.

I can't even get laid in a video game.

Apparently, there's sex taking place all over Mass Effect, but I've yet to stumble into it. There's tons of character development, an interesting combat system, and one of the best plots I've ever seen in a videogame (and I've played Bioshock), but I just can't seem to score with any of the nubile females, human or otherwise.

Which is strange, because according to Cooper Lawrence, the whole game is supposed to be a virtual sex simulator. Maybe Cosmo columnists (*) have an uncanny knack for ferreting out such things, while those of us who've actually played the game have yet to encounter them.

According to her comments on a Fox News program,

Here's how they're seeing women. They're seeing them as these objects of desire, as these hot bodies. They don't show women as being valued for anything other than their sexuality. And it's a man in this game deciding how many women he wants to be with. (…) You'll see full digital nudity and the ability for players to engage in graphic sex.

Geoff Keighley rightly pointed out that players can go through the game as a man or woman, and that the only "nudity" is a two-second silhouette of an alien breast. There is romantic content, but any sexuality is implied. I have yet to see anything that wouldn't be safe for daytime television, and apparently, neither has anyone else.

When Keighley asked Lawrence point-blank if she'd even played the game, she snorted and gave a derisive "no." It becomes obvious that she has no familiarity with the title, and that the very mention of videogames is simply a springboard for a generic and misinformed tirade about the dangers they supposedly present to children. Even the "mediator" admits to having looked up media and having found nothing objectionable.

This doesn't deter Lawrence, however. She's on a mission, and she won't be hindered by silly things like facts.

Darling [?], I gotta go with the research (…) the damage is this. We know that all the research shows that violence has a desensitizing effect. Well, sexuality does too.

Actually, there's been no causal link established between videogames and violence, no matter how hard the media tries to make one stick. If you want to find out what's turning our kids into mindless jellyfish, look at the apathetic neglect that passes for parenting these days.

In any case, there is some sexuality in Mass Effect, just not what you're led to believe. I had one conversation in-game with a character where the opportunity came up, and I chose not to pursue it. Why? Because she was my subordinate, and because I quite frankly didn't think of her in that light.

Seem weird? Well, like Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect is a very deep and long game. It drops you in at the beginning of a crisis, and the next thing you know, congratulations: you've been elected everyone's savior. You get a pat on the back, you acquire a crew of humans and aliens, and you're off to save the galaxy from a dickhead who's awakened an ancient shadowy menace to serve his own ends.

I won't go into the branching conversation system or the way the game adapts to your moral choices; plenty of other folks can tell you what a great job Bioware has done on this game. The end result is that you're taking part in a 30-hour movie with almost full control of the outcome. Each choice you make has ramifications on the development of the plot, as well as your relationships with other characters.

And you do have relationships. A title like this allows for far more subtle and believable characterization than a 2-hour movie. You'll come to care about your compatriots, no matter how odd they might be (my favorite is the alien Tali), and you'll despise your enemies with good reason. This may sound like hundreds of other RPGs out there, but the way in which Bioware has written the game makes it feel much more genuine.

In a sense, you earn what happens, and the game helps you do that. There are times it'll break your heart, and there are a few truly gut-wrenching decisions to be made. Near the climax, the wolves are at the door, billions are going to die, and you can only save a few. There's no easy answer, and some of the people you let die will be folks you've cared about, and who've trusted you. Have fun.

Some have compared the emotional effect to Star Wars, but for me, it was more reminiscent of Final Fantasy VII. After 20-odd hours of getting to know the galaxy and the people in it, the sacrifice feels more real, and the loss of friends carries a genuine pang of regret.

So, yeah, I didn't sleep with Williams. It didn't feel right, in the same way it doesn't feel right to turn your back on innocent colonists under fire, or in the way you feel just a bit dirty after helping a criminal as a means to a greater end.

For that reason alone, I don't see this game appealing to kids. It's long, it's brainy, and the saucy bits just aren't as racy as you've been led to believe.

(*) Turns out I'm not the only one incensed by Ms. Lawrence's opportunism. The reviews for her books at Amazon have been spammed, and the average customer rating is one star.

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