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Avatar & Identity – Mass Effect (2)

Banner Avatar & Identity - Mass Effect (2)

I’m not sure if you remember, but aaages ago, when the year was still called 2012 and before iRez broke down and was renewed… I wrote an article called Avatar & Identity – Mass Effect (1), and promised to write the sequel soon (fail!). Either way, here you go! Be sure to read post nr. 1 first, or it will probably look as if I’m just talking nonsense (that is, more than usual).

Avatar & Identity – Introduction

Avatar & Identity – Mass Effect (1 & 2)

Avatar & Identity – Star Wars

Avatar & Identity – Lord of the Rings Online

Avatar & Identity – Conclusion

Following a story vs playing together

Indeed it felt a bit strange for me to start an article about virtual identity while talking about a single-player game. I thought about why this was, and I think the answer is that playing together with other people in a virtual world forces you to think about how those people will perceive you. And by thinking about that, you will – whether consciously or unconsciously – create some sort of identity of yourself. So often I’ve heard MMO-players say something along the lines of “The game is okay, although I’ve seen most of it by now. It’s the people that make me return over and over again.” And this is of course what game makers want: people need to get attached to a game, so they will continue to play it.

Now Mass Effect clearly is designed as a game to play on your own, so as a substitute they built a story to attach the player. And along to the story, there are characters that you develop relationships with. (It might look all tough with the guns and stuff, but this part is pretty soapy, really.) I got so attached to one of them myself that I almost didn’t want to continue playing when he didn’t return as a companion in Mass Effect 2.

Picture of krogan Wrex taken from the right
Mass Effect isn’t Mass Effect without my favorite krogan


Actually, it seems to me that story almost literally is a substitute, as there does seem to be some sort of correlation between story and social interaction in the virtual worlds I know: the more story a world contains, the less interaction between people there seems to be (and the other way around).

Story vs Interaction

much story,
no interaction
Mass Effect Lord of the Rings Online,
Star Wars: The Old Republic,
Other MMOs
Second Life no story,
much interaction


As you can see, MMOs float somewhere in between the two extremes. Often they want to facilitate both group-players by offering challenges that can only be bested by working together, and solo players, who can follow a storyline and complete most content on their own. Most players I know follow a combination of both playstyles to their liking. On the other side, far away from Mass Effect, is Second Life, which has no story. As an effect, SL encircles around social interaction and creating your own adventures, as there simply ‘isn’t much else to do’. People may invent their own stories and background to spend their time doing what they like most, but if there wouldn’t be anyone else around to share that with, many would loose their interest.

Garrus (left), Shepard (mid) and Kasumi (right)

Identity in single-player games

So if nobody is going to see what you do in-game anyway, does it still matter how you behave and what you do?

Well, strictly seen, no. If what others think is all that matters to you, that is. However, I don’t think there are many people who just do things at random. The storyline and the intriguing amount of influence you have on it, will make you want to make up an identity for you avatar. Remember, you are getting confronted with difficult decisions all the time, and a consistent way of thinking makes it a lot easier to deal with those. “What would Shepard do?” is the question you ask yourself repeatedly. This way, you are actually constantly role-playing.

I say role-playing, because you can’t really play as yourself in Mass Effect (unless if you’re employed by the army, I guess). While you may choose what to do yourself, there are some limitations to your character: you are a soldier and you are no pussy (here is where I fail on both accounts!). Let’s check the facts:

Lupine Shepard The Human behind the keyboard
Hair Short, black Long, blonde
Dress-code Armour Hippie clothing
Equipment Rifle Pencil / shovel
Job Killing evil aliens, saving the galaxy Studying life and culture of the past

Not, uhm, very compatible I’d say, but it’s great fun to imagine you’re that hero with all the responsibilities that come with it.

Three people standing on a beach, looking troubled
I could be swimming at this beach, but no, tough decisions need to be made


Role-playing incentives

There are some additional mechanics that stimulate role-play in Mass Effect:

1) Paragon & Renegade system
Conversation options may offer choices that are well-thought/a bit pussy (paragon) or stern/aggressive (renegade). It’s not a straight black-and-white division between good and bad, but you get the idea. People may react differently if they encounter you depending on the amount of paragon or renegade choices you’ve made in the past. In Mass Effect 3, you can choose special paragon or renegade actions if you have accumulated enough points of one of the two.

2) Importing your character from Mass Effect 1 to 2, from Mass Effect 2 to 3.
There are three different Mass Effect games, and for each game you can import your character from the previous one, including the choices they made. There’s also the option to start a new character instead, but 100% of the Mass Effect players I know import their old characters. I always do so myself: playing another Shepard in the next game simply wouldn’t feel like ‘me’.


Mass Effect is a game in which the story is extremely well developed, but there are no social interactions. I believe that social interactions aren’t necessary in order to speak of a virtual identity. Identity can be formed by feeling a connection with the virtual world and its avatar. In Mass Effect, this mostly happens through the story and the great amount of influence the player has in its development.


Ravanel explores the virtual worlds of Lord of the Rings Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Skyrim, and Mass Effect.

7 thoughts on “Avatar & Identity – Mass Effect (2)

  1. I never considered the amount of story in a MMO to be related to the amount of interactivity between people. But I do think you are on to something there. You see, usually when I hear people talking nostalgically about how people interacted with each other much more in those early MMOs, how much of a sense of community they had, etc. they usually relate it to the difficulty of the game. I.e. since things were so hard they had to stick together to get things done. After reading your article though I wonder if a lot of that feeling people had wasn’t also because things were a lot more freeform. Since a lot of it wasn’t nearly as structured as it is today.

    Anyhoo, yes, I agree that it definitely matters how we behave in a single player too. Even if a person doesn’t care about roleplaying, they will still do things in a certain way based on their preferences, beliefs and even curiosity. For instance, every game I play I always tend to play the knight errant type during my first playthrough. That is simply because I like more the idea of helping people out, even virtual people, without any life of their own, than to cause grief to others. Plus it is a lot easier to help people out when you don’t have to worry about bills, food, clothes, sheltering and the right decisions are a lot more obvious.

    On the second (or further) playthrough then I go through the evil path. But by then it is more a sadistic experiment to see how much my choices the first time around mattered than anything else.

    A good example of that would be with Dragon Age: Origins. I tried to do something different and play an evil guy the first time around. That didn’t work out too well. Although I didn’t have any problem in being a jerk to most people I met, my interactions with my companions always end up being my usual goodie two-shoes one. I wasn’t able to go too long with that before I decided to scrap that game and start again with a good character as usual.

    The problem with that case was that there was too much dissonance between what kind of character I wanted him to be and what his actual actions in-game were. The character was being mean to random people he met because that was what was expected for him. But he was being all nice to his companions because I was curious to know more about them. Plus if you had a good relationship with them they would eventually ask your help with something and that would unlock certain unique abilities (if I am recalling correctly).

    So in the end it started to feel less like I was playing a guy (even an evil one) trying to get out of whatever mess he got himself into and more like a video-game where I was trying to min-max the rewards.

    With my good character I had no such problem. Everything felt natural, I felt immersed in the world, happy to explore it and to get to know is inhabitants. And perhaps because of my first attempt as an evil character, that good character became one of my favorites of every character I ever played.

    1. First of all, sorry that it took me so long to reply to your comment. It was so long that it would actually be worthy of an article of its own!

      I think *you* are on to something there, as well. I recognize the nostalgical talk about how much more fun old, simplistic MMOs used to be and that this was due to that it was so hardcore. Since then, MMOs have indeed become much more ‘regulated’. I’m not an MMO player from the first days, but the impression I get is that the branche has tried to make MMO’s easier accessible for everyone, to attract a broader player base. Each MMO has a tutorial and starts really easy with just a few skills to use, increasing the difficulty and challenges to face. In this sense, it is a clear path you follow. On top of that, quests and instances are carefully monitored for class balance, loot and skill level – in effect, the player experience might be more ‘safe’ than before, even though most will probably not realize this.

      Just being thrown into a world and having to seek out how everything works yourself, silly respawn times, balance issues or mechanics force you to think of creative solutions. The same freedom might still be there in modern MMOs, but the need and incenstives to do so aren’t there. Still, the most fun memories of playing are of occasions that I went beyond those boundaries. I cherish the memory of 6-manning Ost Dunhoth T2 Challenge on level (a raid meant for 12) in LotRO. There were no in-game incentives to do so – there was the same loot as always, and it just took a *lot* longer – apart from the challenge itself. This reminds me: great freedom might be fun and is good for nostalgic story-telling, but it is not for everyone. It is only logical to see how things have developed in this light.

      That said, I’m not as old as to have seen the very first MMOs, and I would love to someday hear the opinion on this from a person who has experienced the first MMOs themselves!

      On your “good guy, bad guy” experience, I’m very much the same as you. My first character of a playthrough has to resemble my own thoughts a bit (just the philosophy, I do like to experiement with different looks and classes now and then), otherwise I won’t feel happy playing. DragonAge: Origins is a great example where the storytelling is (unintentionally?) locked in a way. I would also experience it as very immersion-breaking if I would play an evil character that would suck up to their companions all the time, just to find out how they develop. Even though the character/companion development in DragonAge is pretty well developed with complicated results, it would be even better if the insentive to be nice to your characters would be removed. If that is realistic though, is another question. Perhaps it’s the question in the first place how realistic a fantasy game like that is realism, but apparently we players yearn for a sense of realism in virtual games.

      1. No worries. Since it was so big I assumed it would take some time to reply to it. And yes, this is one of the cases, I hit the submit button, realize it would be big enough to make a blog post on itself then face palm.

        I didn’t play those early MMOs either for a lot of reasons. The main one being that pretty much all of them required acquiring a physical box and importing to me, back then was too complicated for my tastes (still is to some degree). So my first MMOs were korean ones and I don’t know how much similarities they had with those first generation western MMOs.

        In any case, I do agree MMOs may be more “regulated” as you put it, nowadays but it is definitely more accessible. I also agree that great freedom is not for everyone. Both points though kinda make me sad that is just not more variety in the MMOs we have available. But that is a topic for another discussion. @_@

        I also like to experiment with different classes and races I usually wouldn’t play. Albeit it is usually after the first playthrough. On my first one I usually go with “guy that uses sword” and whatever race feels cool/appropriate at the time.

        As for Dragon Age: Origins, yes, the story is pretty linear. Just to be clear, I have nothing against that type of game as long as the story is good and it doesn’t make any bad assumptions about my characters motivations or mine as a player.

        Surprisingly enough, Dragon Age: Origins is pretty flexible in terms of player choices and motivations, even compared to more recent Bioware games. For instance, you don’t *need* to be nice to the companions. Or even accept them joining you. Although almost all (if not all) will end up leaving your group if you are mean to them or you keep acting in a way they don’t agree with. So it might come to a point where you end up going to the last boss fight completely alone. I didn’t get that far but got pretty close on my second playthrough.

        So I’d say even a game with linear storytelling *does* need to take into account the motives of the player/character or at least give them a convincing reason for things to go as they do. Otherwise the player will feel (rightfully so) resentful of what the game is making the character do and there will be a dissonance between both.

    1. Rakuno! Thanks so much for coming back, so sorry for your gobbled up comment and, uh, you know, like, a big thank you for helping us fix our flippin website! 😛

      iRez would like to officially thank Rakuno, Rowan & Ravanel — the great R**3 of blog beta testing for your patience and perseverance in like fixing our “somewhat aggressive” spam blocker. Honest *we* don’t believe any of the mean things *it* said about *you.*


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