As bad as 2016 was for so many, it was also a nightmare for me on a personal level. I’m still grappling with the deaths of my mom and grandmother. The despair I fell into caused huge setbacks for my mental health. Simply put, there’s been sadness to spare.
But my mom wouldn’t have that. She did not allow hopelessness. That was ironclad with her. Never did she waver from her belief that there was always hope, no matter how bad the situation. Her personal mantra, one I hear her say countless times in my life, was “lean into gratitude”. Clinging to that without her here to help has been my greatest test. I waver constantly. My family helps. My friends help. And, well, so does art.
An odd irony of this year: as grief sapped my will and desire to consume art, especially films, at my usual speed, I did all the more appreciate the art that I did love. I wanted badly to write a summary of my favorite films of this year, as I did last year, but simply put: I haven’t seen enough. Instead, I’m going to write about art across the spectrum that lifted me in my darkest hours, that gave me hope when I was most in need of it. These are the artists and works of art of 2016 that I’m grateful for.
Coloring Book, by Chance the Rapper
Chance the Rapper’s mixtape Coloring Book came out almost exactly two weeks after my mom died. Listening to it gave me the first real sense of joy I’d felt since that day, from Chance breaking into laughter with gratitude for how good his life is in record’s first few seconds to the literal come to Jesus moment in the final track as he sings with a chorus, over and over again “Are you ready for your blessings? Are you ready for your miracle?”
Never had I needed to hear words like that so badly. For a solid month, I listened to Coloring Book in its entirety, every day. It’s one of the most joyful, earnestly spiritual albums I’ve ever heard, and I’m so grateful that Chance the Rapper dropped it when he did.
In June, I did something I hadn’t done in years: I watched the Tony Awards. In my younger, theatre kid days, the Tonys were required viewing. They were an invaluable way of keeping up with the year’s notable Broadway productions. As I got older, I sort of fell out of keeping up with theatre and the Tonys fell to the wayside as well. But last year, I was caught with my whole family in the spell of Hamilton, the megahit musical that needs no more explanation from me. So we were all gathered in the living room to watch the Tonys, to watch a show we loved win awards, and to see the cast perform. I wasn’t at all disappointed. Hamilton swept the night, and their performance of “Yorktown” (one of my favorite tracks from the cast album) lived up to expectations. But the highlight of the evening for me had nothing to do with Hamilton. A tiny woman from London with a voice clear and powerful as a winter wind completely stole the show. Performing “I’m Here” from The Color Purple, Cynthia Erivo completely captivated my living room and, given the huge ovation she received, everyone watching her live. From the first note she sang I was breathless with astonishment and by the end of her performance there were tears falling down my face. God bless live theatre. No other medium so easily allows one person to level crowds with sheer talent and artistry.
The Invitation, dir. by Karyn Kusama
I didn’t see many movies this year. I’m going to go out of my way to see more in 2017, but I simply lacked the energy most days. One thing no one tells you about grief: it completely drains you of energy, physically and emotionally. But I did see one film in 2016 that is going to stay with me for a long time, and that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. It’s no mistake that it’s a movie that understands that point about grief. Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is one of the finest horror films I’ve seen in a long time, a work that shows the emotional scope possible within a genre that is so often unfairly dismissed as trivial. As someone with anxiety and who has spent most of this year grappling with grief, The Invitation was a rare film in any genre to tackle both of those topics head on, with honesty and deftness. It builds to a climax that is genuinely chilling, all the more so because the horror is the logical endgame to this story, and not simply an excuse for wanton bloodletting. The Invitation isn’t simply a scary film, it’s a heartbreaking one.
From a design standpoint, I could endlessly praise Overwatch to high heavens for how thoroughly it eschews everything about the first person shooter genre that I’d grown weary of. It’s so lively, so colorful, so unabashedly goofy and fun. But beyond all that, Overwatch was the perfect distraction for me in a year when I needed one badly. No matter how bad my anxiety would get, no matter how sad I might be on a given day, Overwatch was there to give me a burst of color, a quick endorphin rush, something I could count on to lift my spirits in a year that was so relentlessly trying.
I played all of Inside in one late night rush, finishing at about 5 in the morning. Although there were many points where I thought time to go to sleep, I couldn’t pull away. Developers Playdead took the basic mechanics of their first game, Limbo and refined them beautifully. They also crafted a haunting world in which the game takes place. Inside is a thrilling, disturbing, altogether astonishing experience. Its gameplay is fluid and intuitive; the puzzles are ingeniously designed so that we understand immediately what we need to do without breaking the narrative flow. The story is wordless and captivating, saying all it needs to say with what we can see. Inside is an unforgettable experience, the sort of game that will inspire future developers to continue to seek increasingly creative ways to use games to tell original, beautiful stories.
The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin
I wanted to keep this post to things released in 2016, but I’m making an exception for this extraordinary book, which was published in August 2015. It’s rare to find a fantasy novel as original as this one, which takes place in one of the most extraordinarily realized worlds that I’ve read in fiction. The Stillness (the planet the novel takes place in) is a chaotic wilderness dotted with cities of astonishing architectural detail that Jenisin describes vividly while never slowing down its propulsive narrative. Once every few centuries, the world is struck by apocalyptic events called Seasons, which are prevented by beings called Orogenes, who have the power to control the earth at a tectonic level. The Fifth Season is inspiring reading, and I can’t wait to begin on its sequel, The Obelisk Gate, which came out this August.
“8 (circle)”, by Bon Iver
22, A Million is a splendid album, but sometimes the power of one song is worth highlighting. Bon Iver has long been one of my go to musicians for meditation and calm. No matter the period of my life, there seems to be something in their music that reaches into my soul and connects at a level that is almost spiritual. This plaintive, gorgeous song aches with uncertainty, sadness, and a desire of hope. It is the most simply beautiful song I heard this year.
As I said, I didn’t see many films this year. But I felt like I couldn’t miss this one. There is something still pure and healing about the animated musical to me. The way it transports me back to my childhood, when nothing could be more enchanting than a darkened theatre and a Disney movie. Moana delivered as much as I hoped it would, which is to say that its music made me cheerful, its story made me smile, and I got easily caught up in the sweep of it. Its simplicity was a welcome relief from the more madcap plotting of recent Disney films, whose plots often seem to be playing catchup to their worldbuilding. Moana didn’t reinvent the Disney musical, but as the holidays approached and I prepared for a series of firsts without my mom and grandmother, watching something simple and joyful with my siblings was what I needed. For that, I think I’ll always be particularly grateful for this film.
I love Undertale. I love that it has gotten a lot of praise in the press and a significant word of mouth following. And as the game has picked up a wider and wider audience, there was bound to be pushback against the near universal praise it has received. Kill Screen, a site I admire very much, recently published a mixed review of the game. The comments are already filling with readers telling the reviewer, Jake Muncy, that the game went over his head. I don’t see it that way. The review is a fair account of his experience. I don’t agree with his take, per se, but it’s absurd to tell him he was wrong in not enjoying himself. If the gameplay and structure frustrated him, that’s entirely fair criticism.
That’s all beside the point, however. What bothers me isn’t Muncy’s review, but the culture surrounding gaming criticism that sort of demands that games have universal appeal to be great. How did I get here from there? Here’s what I mean: Muncy gave Undertale a middling review because he found it largely inaccessible. Responses have insisted “no, you are wrong, you missed obvious points that would have pointed you in the right direction”. In other words, critics of Muncy’s criticism are largely defensive of the idea that Undertale is not for everyone.
The thing is, it’s not. Muncy has done no wrong here; he is simply recording his experience with the game, which is a critic’s job. It doesn’t negate anyone else’s experience, positive or negative.
On the other hand, to Muncy and critics of Undertale, I would say this: Perhaps it’s a good thing that Undertale was hard for you to get into. I don’t mean that pretentiously. I mean that if a second and third set of hands at the development wheel other than Toby Fox’s had fine-tuned the difficult and muddled aspects of the game, that it might have diluted Fox’s voice. And it’s the potency of Fox’s voice that people who love the game are responding to. In just about every other art form, we accept the pratfalls of great artists for the heights of their visions. If you tell Terrence Malick to find a plot and knock it off with sunbeams already, it wouldn’t be a Terrence Malick movie. It’s time for gaming to get on that boat.
Gaming is the one medium where we expect something that is an unqualified masterpiece to also have a sort of universal appeal to it. We obsess over Metacritic scores. When a game scores more than 90, we pick it apart, either justifying the grade or decrying it. We expect games made largely by huge teams of people to both move us like poetry and entertain us like a wild dream. I’m guilty of participating in this cycle. We rarely see this “praise/backlash/backlash to the backlash” cycle in other mediums to this level, especially with independently developed titles. And it’s sort of silly. It sort of goes without saying that in film, music, painting, even comic books, important works will also be challenging in ways that limit their overall appeal. We accept “well, this movie didn’t do it for me” more easily than “this game isn’t quite the masterpiece you say it is”. Yes, part of that is how personal our favorite games feel to us, but I think it’s something more. We want games that are universally beloved. We want games that do everything for everyone, that satisfy twitch gaming impulses as well as our desire for a rich, interactive story. And I think that universal desire for the universal “great game” is holding gaming back. Rich storytelling is rarely designed to appeal to everyone.
Undertale is an important work in gaming, because it is such an uncommonly singular expression, a story told by one person how they wanted to tell it. It is unvarnished, ambitious vision, the likes of which we rarely get in this medium. It’s almost impossible in AAA games. Even when a developer with a strong voice controls the story of a AAA title, like Ken Levine and Bioshock Infinite, too many concessions end up being made to make the game as widely accessible as possible. The story becomes watered down, reliant on cliche, and unsatisfying. But it’s rare even in indie game development for a game to be so focused in its expression and intent as Undertale. That makes it special, even if Toby Fox’s design choices make the game inaccessible for many. Fox is telling this story how he wants to tell it. That flies in the face of how we are used to playing games. It’s no surprise that much of the backlash aimed at Undertale has focused on the gameplay muddling the story. And it’s unfortunate that the response to that backlash seems to be insistence that people who did not enjoy the game are wrong. If you loved Undertale like I did, its value is in how it moved you, not in making sure everyone else has your exact experience.
As much as I love this game, I understand those who find the cries of “Play it twice!” from its fans maddening, who dislike the bullet hell aspects of the gameplay or who find its storytelling muddy and vague. It’s like with Terrence Malick movies: I get why you don’t respond to it even if I love it, but the movies need visionaries, whose works have the potential to inspire epiphanies in those they do connect with, even if half the audience finds it impenetrable. That’s the tradeoff that keeps art moving forward. We need more games like Undertale. And we need to start getting used to the reality that for gaming to advance as a medium for artistic expression, we need more titles that don’t please everyone.
In my efforts to get as many people to play Undertale (one of the best games I have ever played) as possible, I have tried to avoid spoilers in this piece. However, for a truly fresh Undertale experience, you might want to avoid reading this until you’ve played it.
As a child, I didn’t comprehend death until a whole bunch of it hit my family all at once. When I was five years old, over a six month span aunt died at 23 of bone cancer, my grandfather died at 62 of pancreatic cancer, and my uncle died at 30 after he was struck in his car by a drunk driver. I learned then, before I knew much else about anything, that death was permanent, that death disabled entire families (some temporarily, some permanently), that death presented a wall of grief that simply has to be endured until every individual affected has the strength to move on, on their own terms.
As I grew older, the stories I consumed pretty much ignored all that.
In stories, death is typically a device. It is an obstacle for a hero to avoid. It is a convenient way of setting stakes. It is a means of taking large numbers of enemies out of the equation and assuring that they will not bother you again. It is a way of showing how much a character has changed, for the good (in how and why they face death) or for the bad (usually in inflicting it). This is not inherently a bad thing. Storytelling relies on tension. To create tension, characters need to have something to worry about. Death is hard to beat in that regard. Of the greatest TV dramas of all-time, how many didn’t rely on the possibility of death to provide impetus for the plot? Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood- all had death and killing around every corner. The same for Lost, The-X-Files, 24, and Game of Thrones.
Or what about films? Of the AFI’s top 50 films, by my count 35 feature death as a major plot point. Citizen Kane opens with the protagonist’s final breath. The Godfather is about a man’s descent into cold-blooded killing. Shane is about a man’s inability to escape a life of killing. Some Like it Hot is about two men who witness a murder and go on the run. Death moves stories forward. It’s natural to use to it to that effect. But sometimes, I wish more stories reflected on the aftermath. Sometimes, I wish more stories were about what happens when it feels like everything is crashing down at once, because someone you know and love has died. The way death affects the living is different for everyone. Stories are rarely about this.
That video games feature killing and death goes without saying. Ludonarrative dissonance permanently entered the gaming thinkpiece lexicon a few years ago as it became harder and harder to sympathize with a protagonist who commits mass slaughter simply to move the plot forward. I remember checking the stats while playing Uncharted 2 and seeing that I had amassed more than 900 kills and wasn’t close to finishing the game. The sheer absurdity of the number made it impossible not to imagine Nathan Drake- the game’s jovial and good-hearted protagonist- as a harbinger of death, wiping out entire bloodlines. It’s easier to make no attempt to reconcile the dissonance. It’s easier to accept it and get back to having fun.
My favorite work of literature about death is James Joyce’s short story The Dead. It’s title is up front about its theme, no? And yet the story itself meanders through a day in a man’s life, not broaching its titular subject until the very end. You’ve probably read it. If you haven’t, please do so now. It won’t take that long. The plot isn’t really about death. It’s about a man named Gabriel who builds his ego up a bit too much over a speech at a Christmas party. He hears someone singing “The Lass of Aughrim” in another room. He gives the speech. He is proud of himself. He is flushed with affection for his wife, Gretta. On the way to their hotel for the night, he asks her how she feels. Gretta reflects sadly on a boy she’d loved when she was young. He sang “The Lass of Aughrim” to her. Got caught in the rain. Died. Snow falls. Gabriel reflects on how this young man whose life was so short, who accomplished so little during it, could still so deeply affect his wife. They are all still bound together. The dead never really abandon the living. Humanity is in a perpetual state of overlap, those who knew the dead keep living, passing on their memories to others who never knew them. Joyce writes: His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
We never leave Gabriel’s point of view. Somehow, by the story’s end, we know Michael Furey. Time stopped for Gretta when he died. Sometimes, it still does.
Undertale. What does that title evoke? Graves, perhaps. A vague sense of the unknown. It takes place in a world of monsters. You are thrown into this world with no preparation. Early on, one monster asks you very kindly, to please have mercy when you get into a fight. This is easier said than done. You play the game as you are accustomed to doing with these games. Fight monsters, defeat them, level up. Progress through the story. But this game gives you options. You don’t have to fight. And if you do, you don’t have to fight to the death. Granted, it can be hard. But you don’t have to. You are reminded of this regularly. A character you kill might be referenced by someone else later on in the game. Characters you speak to might mention a frightening entity who has come down from above, killing innocents. But this isn’t new. You move on. You reach the end, beat the game. There’s much, much more to it than that, but I’m trying leave this experience as fresh as possible. The first playthrough of Undertale took me about six hours, and I enjoyed every minute.
After winning, the game does something that was surprising when it happened and, in hindsight, is sort of remarkable.
It asks you to play again. With absolutely no killing.
Is this a gimmick? It might look to be. It’s not. It’s where Undertale becomes something truly remarkable.
One of my favorite films about death is The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Have you seen it? There’s a good chance you haven’t. It was directed by and stars Tommy Lee Jones, and written by Guillermo Arriaga. It generated some buzz at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, where Jones won best actor and Arriaga won best screenplay. It came and went in February 2006, earned mostly strong reviews, grossed less than $10 million. I believe it’s one of the best films ever made about the living and the dead.
Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cellido) is a rancher in southern Texas. Pete Perkins (Jones) is his work partner and closest friend. Estrada (this isn’t a spoiler, look at the title) is killed senselessly by a border patrol agent (Barry Pepper) who, as men in positions of power and holding weapons that kill often do, fires without regard. The agent attempts to cover up the killing. Pete digs deep, finds out what happened, and exacts justice. A normal telling of this story would involve revenge. Eye for an eye. A killing for a killing. Death as a device. Jones and Arriaga have a better story to tell than that. Pete wants the agent to see what he has done. To honor the life he stole. Pete kidnaps the agent and takes him on a journey to Melquiades’s home town in Mexico. To say any more would be to spoil the quiet richness of this film. In refusing the easier path, it finds truth and beauty. Revenge makes for shallow stories. Pete’s method of justice accomplishes something deeper. He makes sure his friend is not forgotten. He ensures that Melquiades will survive for unforgiving march of time.
On my second playthrough of Undertale, I noticed a detail in one of the first locations. A diary. Its contents were amusing at first. Knowing their full context is impossible without beating the game once. Seeing it again, I felt my spirits lift with a sort of happy recognition, its meaning coming full circle., before falling back down with sadness, knowing its full context.
I found myself being more careful. Not just refusing to fight. Getting to know characters I hadn’t talked to before. Talking my way out of conflicts that I thought could only be resolved through violence. I found myself unlocking new relationships, new stories, and even new places in the game. I was more than happy with the novelty of this experience, of how different the game was with this approach. Then I neared the end.
A character who’d been my adversary in both playthroughs found themselves changed by my actions. They wanted to change. But time was running out for them. I hadn’t fought them. As in life, death comes to all, one way or another. I was given the chance to reach out to them, to forgive them for our differences. They reached out physically and embraced me. I don’t want to let go, they said.
They were the first character to die in this playthrough. I was moved to tears. Screw that. I was sobbing. Games are so often rife with death. Undertale, more than any I’ve ever played, is about the dead, as well as the living. It’s a game where the dead are meant to be remembered. And for the living in their wake, time stops.
Where I rank my favorite Mass Effect missions. Spoilers abound.
#1. Mass Effect 2: Lair of the Shadow Broker
If we were to single out superlatives- “the Most ____ mission in Mass Effect” just about any single one would apply to one of the missions I’ve already listed. Best combat? The Suicide Mission. Most thrilling story moment? Rannoch. Most references to sushi? Citadel.
But what makes Mass Effect so special is how it sustains its space opera format for more than 90 hours, long past the point such a story should be exhausted. And it does this by spinning a world replete with possibility. Our interest in the plot often takes a backseat to our curiosity in what’s going on around the edges. It’s the same appeal that has kept Star Wars fresh for nearly 40 years. It’s why Harry Potter will remain beloved for generations. The world is not simply the plotline. It’s full and robust. We never want to stop learning more about it.
Filling your story with strong characters is the best way to take advantage of a world like this. Give us an interesting character who knows this world. Let them take us on an adventure.
“Lair of the Shadow Broker”, more than any other mission in the game, puts Shepard on the periphery. You are watching someone else’s story play out. That someone is Liara T’Soni, one of the core crew from Mass Effect 1. In that game, she was fairly two-dimensional, lacking the satisfying arcs of some of the other characters. But in “Lair of the Shadow Broker” Liara was written with purpose. She is now a powerful information broker. The two years since Shepard’s initial demise have changed her considerably. She is more pragmatic now, and more capable of violence.
There is perhaps just one person who wields more influence than she: the mysterious “Shadow Broker”, an unknown entity who has been holding a friend of hers- a Drell named Feron- hostage for two years. “Lair of the Shadow Broker” takes you on Liara’s mission to rescue him.
This is a compelling enough plot for a mission, but it’s the richness of this story that sets it atop every other mission in the franchise. Nary a moment goes by that doesn’t add to the game’s greater world.
Lair of the Shadow Broker opens with something of a whodunit. Liara has asked Shepard to visit her apartment to talk about tracking down the Shadow Broker. You arrive to find her apartment empty, riddled with bullet holes, and an asari Spectre named Tela Vasir leading the investigation into the attempted assassination.
That Tela Vasir was the assassin, and that you need to team up with Liara to take her down before moving on to the Shadow Broker is not a surprise. But as always, good execution trumps all. The opening half of “Lair of the Shadow Broker” features a terrific series of fights, first through a bombed out business building, then a flying-car chase (!), and finally a showdown outside a fancy hotel. Sometimes good combat simply comes down to good use of space, and “Lair of the Shadow Broker” excels throughout, providing locations that require more thought and strategizing than simply hopping behind a crate and shooting. The fight against Tela is particularly fun; she proves to be a worthy adversary, and the game does an excellent job of conveying her combat skills by more than simply giving her impenetrable shields.
The moments after the fight with Tela, where you get your first real chance to talk with Liara, begin to set “Lair of the Shadow Broker’s” storytelling apart. If “Mass Effect 2” falters at all, it’s that most of your conversations with your ME1 crew don’t thoroughly address the fact that Shepard has been gone and presumed dead for 2 years. There are perfunctory moments of shock, and some dismay about Shepard’s decision to work for Cerberus, but for the most part the game just continues down its road
“Lair of the Shadow Broker” gives Shepard and Liara the chance to actually catch up. Shepard gets the chance to pick her brain, to see how much she really has changed. And the dialogue isn’t always pleasant. It can be terse, even combative. We get to know Liara, and how she ticks, more in a few conversations in this game than we do in almost the entirety of ME1.
After a short bit of quiet, it’s time to go after the Shadow Broker on his turf. The Shadow Broker base is a masterpiece of art design. It’s a hulking behemoth encased within a thunderstorm. That’s a fairly accurate description of the Shadow Broker himself, who turns out to be a fearsome character, massive, toadlike except for a tricorn mouth overflowing with teeth. There is no cooler location in Mass Effect, and the final fight to take it is all the more exciting because of it.
Defeating the Shadow Broker is one of the most satisfying moments in Mass Effect. Liara is given a moment to revel in just how vast this accomplishment is, and what it means for the direction of the entire galaxy. It’s a moment both grand and intimate. Camaraderie is what Mass Effect does better than just about anything. Putting Shepard as the supporting player, helping Liara to her goal, was a terrific way to explore that side of the game.
“Lair of the Shadow Broker” is as ambitious as it is polished. It moves in grand gestures and quiet conversations. It is everything Mass Effect aspires to be. Games rarely aim this high. And those that do rarely succeed so spectacularly.
Where I rank my favorite Mass Effect missions. Spoilers abound.
#3. Mass Effect 3: Priority: Rannoch
Who do you want Shepard to be? That is driving force of the Mass Effect franchise. The choices presented are never a “win/loss” proposition. They add layers to a character whose story is unfolding in front of us. Usually, the consequences of those choices are clear; what’s at stake is simply how we desire to see the story play out. But Mass Effect is at its absolute best when there is at least some ambiguity to the consequences your choices, and when those consequences are massive for the story no matter what you choose. Never do those elements come together as beautifully as they do on the Quarian homeworld of Rannoch.
“Priority: Rannoch” is a marvelous payoff to the years of exposition building up to it. We first learn of the plight of the Quarians when we meet Tali in the first game. They were driven off of Rannoch when the AI species they developed, called the Geth, rebelled. The Geth were antagonists in ME1, and our sympathies are naturally on the Quarians’ side from the outset.
Then slowly, over the course of the next two games, we begin empathize with the Geth. In ME2, we meet one who isn’t hostile, a Geth sniper who goes by the name Legion. Shepard’s talks with Legion shed vast swaths of new light on how the Geth operate, and how they are not necessarily hostile. Then in ME3, we learn that the Geth were actually quite sympathetic, that the Quarians tried to wipe them out as soon as they gained sapience, and they fought back simply to survive. By the time we get to Rannoch, it’s impossible to see the Geth/Quarian conflict in purely binary terms, or the Geth as simple machines.
Ostensibly, Shepard goes to Rannoch to destroy a Reaper base located there. And the mission to do that is a thrilling one, culminating in one of the most absurd and entertaining moments in the games: Shepard using a laser targeting system to single-handedly take out a Reaper. Moments like this don’t exactly jibe with the idea that Reapers are a borderline-Godlike in their invincibility, but it’s still a tremendously exciting moment.
After killing the Reaper, Legion sees an opportunity to rewrite all Geth, giving them true individual autonomy and sapience. The Quarian admirals seize the period Legion spends reprogramming the Geth as a chance to destroy the Geth fleet. Once Legion finishes the reprogram, the Geth will come back online and destroy the entire Quarian flotilla, wiping their race entirely.
Ticking time bomb scenarios are hard to make plausible. This one works, because it stems from every character making spur of the moment decisions. It doesn’t feel planned and arbitrary. And all the potential payoffs carry extraordinary consequences with them. No matter your choice or the outcome, it’s a culmination of some superb world building over the course of three games. No single choice in these carries quite as much weight as the one you make on Rannoch. Never is Mass Effect more thrilling.
#2. Mass Effect 2: The Suicide Mission
I have already written at length about how good the final mission of Mass Effect 2 is. That won’t stop me from writing about it some more.
The Suicide Mission is as exhilarating a sustained climax as I’ve ever played through in a video game. Mass Effect 2 eschewed the moral dilemmas that the first game featured. Instead, the choices you make over the games are integrated more subtly. A simple upgrade to your ship’s armor earlier in the game might end up saving someone’s life. Simply waiting too long to start the mission can cost someone their life. It adds up to a unique sense of chaos and even helplessness. Characters can be killed and there’s nothing you can do about it. That chance has passed you buy. You can’t help but get a bit weak in the knees at the scale of this undertaking.
There is a narrative freedom here that the other two games lack, almost by design. The first game had the get the gears of this vast story churning. The third game buckles somewhat under the pressure of wrapping it up. But Mass Effect 2 had a story with its mythology, world, and protagonist already well-developed, and the freedom to steer the plot in a satisfying direction without having to finish it. Bioware was free to give Mass Effect 2 the sort of epic final set piece that the first game hadn’t yet built to and that the third game couldn’t squeeze in between all the story’s threads being knotted.
I’ve mentioned before that art direction was not always a strong suit of Mass Effect 1. Mass Effect 2 was a huge overhaul in that regard, and never is it more evident than the final battle. The opening cinematic sets the tone beautifully, as the Normandy plows through many centuries of debris, from ships that made this one-way journey before. The collector base feels bigger inside than it looks on the outside, giving it the feel of an unholy cathedral.
The battles are also beautifully structured and paced. There’s the opening race, as you fight from checkpoint to checkpoint to make sure a crewmember whom you have sent crawling through a ventilation system has clear passage to their destination. There’s “The Long Walk”, a terrific set piece in which you remain under a massive biotic bubble, moving inexorably through a sea of hostiles. The use of cutscenes makes sure that the entire team feels involved, rather than waiting off-screen as character unselected for missions usually do. All the while, you are forced to make on the fly decisions that have a real effect on which characters live or die: for example, your choice of tech and biotic specialists can backfire if you don’t weight your options carefully.
“The Suicide Mission” showcases everything that makes Mass Effect great. Terrific action, quickfire interactive storytelling with hard-hitting consequences, and a sense of scale and scope that space operas often aspire to and rarely achieve. It is the best mission in the core Mass Effect games, and it’s not particularly close.
Tomorrow: The very best that Mass Effect has to offer
Where I rank my favorite Mass Effect missions. Spoilers abound.
#5. Mass Effect 2: Archangel
One of the delights of Mass Effect 2 is how it works in nostalgia from the first game so deftly. Early in the game, you are assigned a group of people specially chosen by the Illusive Man to recruit for your team. One of them is a mysterious Turian vigilante known only as Archangel. Almost right away, it seems pretty obvious who this Turian is, but getting to that reveal is still a ton of fun.
To find Archangel, you join a mission on Omega, which is like the Citadel only basted in grime. The mission is the joint effort of the three primary criminal gangs Archangel has been screwing with plan to finally take him out. This is a terrific storytelling device. For starters, it introduces us to the criminal underbelly of Omega, which the gangs- called Blood Pack, Blue Suns, and Eclipse- typically battle for control over. That they’ve joined to fight Archangel tells you all you need to know about why you want him on your team. Of course, you also know that you will soon have to join Archangel in fighting all three of these gangs, making that eventual betrayal of them that much more memorable and intense a moment.
Few firefights in the Mass Effect games are as entertaining as this one, as you make a run for the apartment where Archangel is holed up in, before making use of every space within it to fight off the hordes of attackers. Mass Effect battles are rarely this breathless. You scarcely have time to notice how rapidly the action ratchets upward, and before long you are gunning down mechs and gunships as attackers rappel through the windows.
Of course, the climax of the mission is the revelation that Archangel is actually Garrus. It’s not a surprising revelation, but it’s a deeply satisfying one. Of course, the mission ends with Garrus taking a rocket to the face, but it only leaves him scarred and more motivated to join your team. Archangel finds the perfect balance of nostalgia, exciting combat, and the sort of incredible forward momentum that RPGs all too often lack in their early stages. Mass Effect 2’s propulsive narrative never looks back from this terrific mission.
#4. Mass Effect 3: Priority: Tuchanka
Try to describe “Priority: Tuchanka” in one word. My choice would be “unrelenting”. This level goes for every part of the jugular. Shepard heads to the Krogan homeworld to finally put an end to the Krogan genophage, and a moment so huge in the game’s mythology gets a mission to match. Not that it simply turns the volume to 11 and leaves it there. A journey through a long-forgotten underground Krogan temple provides a nice respite from the action, and a hint of possibility that the Krogan might just succeed at revitalizing their war-torn planet.
No mission packs quite so many cinematic moments into such a short amount of time. There’s the aforementioned trip through the underground Temple. There’s a speech by Urdnot Wrex (if he survives the first game) and Eve, a female Krogan who becomes a beacon of hope for the entire species, urging the clans to finally put an end to their endless warring. There’s a desperate run through an ancient religious site as reaper Brutes descend on you in droves as you attempt to summon a titanic thresher maw. Said thresher maw kills a damned Reaper.
A giant thresher maw kills a damned Reaper!
And amazingly, that’s just when it starts getting good. The true climax of the mission involves Shepard’s decision of whether or not to end the Krogan genophage. And it’s not necessarily an easy choice. If Wrex survives ME1, he takes up leading the Krogan by ME3, and his plans call for peace with the other species once the war the with Reapers is over. It’s a no brainer to end the genophage and let the Krogan have Krogan babies again.
But if he dies in the first game, his brother Wreav- a warmonger with none of Wrex’s wisdom- is the dominant clan leader. And he plans all-out war with the other species once the genophage is cured. Additionally, Eve, another voice of wisdom and a powerful figure among the Krogan, can die during the mission. A future with Wrex and Eve leading the Krogan is a vastly different one than one with Wreav alone.
If that’s not enough to chew on, there’s also the matter of Mordin Solus. The brilliant, Gilbert and Sullivan-loving scientist Salarian was beloved fan favorite from Mass Effect 2. By Mass Effect 3, he has become guilt-ridden about the genophage, and will do anything to cure it, including heading to the top of the crumbling tower that will be its delivery system, where he will certainly die. You can try to talk him out of it, ending the hope for the genophage being cured. If you are a truly evil Shepard, you can kill him to prevent the genophage from being cured. Or you can bid him a final farewell and let him carry out the mission. It’s a lot to grapple with in a short amount of time, and the sheer variety of choices and the reach of their implications is what Mass Effect provides at its very best.
Tomorrow: #3 and #2.
Where I rank my favorite Mass Effect missions. Spoilers abound.
10. Mass Effect 3: Priority- Earth
What’s this? The infamous ending of Mass Effect 3 makes my top ten?
I don’t care much for anything involving the star ghost child. I’m talking, instead, about everything before you end up on the Citadel again.
Because honestly, until the anti-climax to end all anti-climaxes, the final mission of Mass Effect 3 hits all the emotional notes I want and need from a Bioware RPG.
I’m talking about the final farewells you have with your crew. Every time I play this game, at least one goodbye gets to me. The first time, it was Samantha Traynor’s tearful, heartbreaking soliloquy about the life she wants with Shepard when the war is over. The second time, I was moved by Liara’s farewell gift for Shepard, one-last Asari mind meld before almost certain death. Most recently, it was Garrus who got to me, waxing about meeting Shepard in heaven should they both perish in the final battle. It’s a showcase for some of the best character writing in the games, and the characters are why I return to Mass Effect again and again. And as I’ve made peace with the ending, Shepard’s final moments with the Normandy crew are what I remember most.
#9. Mass Effect 2: Stealing Memory DLC
The best DLC are those that make the game feel even more complete. Weak DLC feel like an add on. Great DLC provide us with something new, something fresh, and make the game feel more complete.
The terrific “Stealing Memory” DLC is worth every penny of the purchase. For starters, it adds the delightful Kasumi Goto to your crew. Kasumi is a thief and a charmer at that. Her stories and observations about the rest of the crew are quite entertaining. Simply adding her to the mix is worth it. But her loyalty mission is a blast as well. It starts off as a heist at a fancy party, hosted by a notorious criminal, and ends with a thrilling firefight as Shepard and Kasumi blast their way out of a criminal’s hideout. There are a lot of fun details along the way, like the criminal’s art collection, featuring artifacts from both Earth and, uh, Thedas (see: Dragon Age: Origins; also, play Dragon Age: Origins, it’s fantastic). “Stealing Memory” is some of the purest entertainment the Mass Effect games have to offer.
#8. Mass Effect: Virmire
Virmire is where we all learned just what Mass Effect was made of, and how far it would be willing to go. It is a terrific firefight bookended by two heartstopping moments that helped define Mass Effect’s style.
The first moment is a showdown between Shepard and the Krogan, Wrex. The mission on Virmire involves stopping a doctor who is working on a potential cure for the Krogan Genophage- a genetic mutation inflicted on the Krogan that prevents them from conceiving- and Wrex isn’t happy. He pulls a gun on Shepard. If you can’t talk him down, you will have to kill him (or otherwise let Ashley do so for you). It’s a thrilling moment, and a brutal one if you fail to calm Wrex.
After that messy piece of business, the mission begins. A long and entertaining firefight later, Shepard is once again forced into a nightmarish decision: Ashley and Kaiden are both pinned down. You can save one, and let the other die. Many people prefer one or neither of these characters, making it an easy choice. But after three playthroughs, I’m damned attached to both Ashley and Kaiden. The choice is extraordinarily difficult for me every single time. And while the “ethical dilemma with no outs” is not the most elegant form of interactive storytelling, but it’s well-placed at the climax of the best and most sustained action sequence of the first game.
Virmire is where Mass Effect became Mass Effect. It’s not my single favorite mission from the first game, but in many ways it’s the most memorable.
7. Mass Effect 2: Eye for an Eye
Mass Effect 2 stands out for its characters. New characters, like Thane, Kasumi, Miranda, Samara and Jack, are terrific and fascinating in their own right. But it’s what the game does with the original cast that sends it to its greatest heights. I’ve already mentioned Tali’s loyalty mission. Garrus’s loyalty mission is much more spare. Earlier in the game, we find that Garrus has spent the two years in between ME1 and ME2 working as a vigilante, targeting the galaxy’s most violent criminal organizations. He once had a crew helping him, but they were wiped out when Sidonis, a member of the crew, ratted on them. Now Garrus wants to find Sidonis and kill him.
This is a two-parter: the first involves a firefight in a warehouse as you track down the person who has Sidonis’s location. It’s the second part of the mission, once Garrus has Sidonis’s location, that sets it apart.
The second part of “Eye for an Eye” is a fascinating test for the player. Do you simply let Garrus shoot Sidonis? Or do you sabotage the assassination? I’ve seen some people argue that any true friend of Garrus would always let him get his revenge. But once you talk to Sidonis, things get more complicated. He is a broken man, consumed with guilt for his betrayal. What good would killing him do? Do you truly want to end his life for Garrus’s base satisfaction? And is letting Garrus walk this path what a true friend would do?
Revenge is all too commonly accepted on its face as motive enough to kill someone. “Eye for an Eye” forces you to reckon with the consequences of a single potential revenge killing, and it is one of the best storytelling moments in the game for it.
6. Mass Effect: Ilos
This is how you do exposition, Bioware.
My biggest issue with the ending of Mass Effect 3 is less a matter of agency than storytelling. It is a suffocating anti-climax. You have done all that has been asked of you, and suddenly you are presented with a full-sized buffet of new mythology, presented by a deeply irritating tiny space-ghost.
“Ilos” gets it right. It presents the information- in this case, the fate of the Protheans and the nature of Reaper indoctrination- as a prize. It is what you are seeking, so hearing it is gratifying, not stultifying. And everything else about the level is pretty damn great as well.
It begins with a terrific cutscene, as Joker, the ever-present and ever-wiseass pilot- pulls off a daring drop to get you and your crew into a tiny landing zone. Ilos itself is one of the finest works of art direction in the franchise. It’s peaceful, eerie, and brimming with age and character. It’s hard to make something feel ancient in a video game, but “Ilos” succeeds. The silence is broken with a series of terrific firefights, far more varied and fun than most of the combat in ME1.
The conversation with Vigil, the VI program that tells you what you need to know about the coming Reaper invasion, is a welcome break in the action. The music that plays during the scene, by Jack Wall, is some of the best in all of the games. The “Vigil” theme is sort of the unofficial theme of the entire franchise. It plays over the opening menu of ME1, and the way it plays in ME3 during conversations with the original crew is one of my favorite touches in that game.
The level’s ending- a desperate race to a closing portal that takes you to the Citadel and the game’s finale- is the most delightfully cinematic moment in ME1. It’s a terrific climax to the best mission in the game.