Avatar Resurrected

I started playing Mass Effect 2 this afternoon, which has been an overall pleasant experience. I’ve put in a bit under 3 hours in my first foray and, true to the first game, the time just kind of melted away all too easily.

One of the more interesting features of starting the second game is that you have the chance to load your Shepard (the avatar) from the previous game. While the interface for doing so is surprisingly shitty, I was extremely pleased to be able to have that continuity between games, seems to make a pretty big difference. So, I imported and, after a couple of hiccups, had my FemShep all loaded in (FemShep being the prevailing term for playing the main avatar as a woman – a popular choice).

And so it has been that my most striking experience with the game so far has been my almost startling pleasure in seeing my old Shepard resurrected and under my control in a new adventure. I wasn’t entirely prepared for how glad I was to see her rather dour, corpse-like face and to hear her dishing out lightly abusive, no-nonsense remarks to all around her. It’s a bit like a friend Jess coming back to your home-town after being overseas and realising, “oh, it’s the same old Jess!” And the relief and strange gratitude that goes along with that.

I’m still trying to establish what my “relationship” to the Mass Effect avatar is (mine’s called Jess Shepard, for the record). It’s definitely not a “that’s me” kind of affair – she’s her own person with her own personality (as guided by me). In some ways playing the game feels like watching an (actually good) episode of something like Battlestar Galactica, perhaps. Except that I’m directing the main character.

Hmm, this feels convoluted. It’s as if I like the character (like I like, say, Omar from The Wire), but I’m simultaneously pushing that character along through the world, so there’s also a sort of “proprietary” air involved (though I think that exists with TV shows too, ownership over the characters). Most of that applies to moving around in the world and particularly conversing… in combat situations it’s more straightforwardly “avatar as tool” as I fixate on shooting things efficiently, and that’s much less interesting.

Maybe this is all just to say that the relationship we have to an avatar can be pretty complex. I feel like it can be quite tempting to either brush it aside and not address it, or to just say “blah blah, it’s you”. It seems much more nuanced than that, and I’m sure it varies from game to game, too. I know Jonas Linderoth writes about avatars as “roles”, “tools”, and “props”, but that still doesn’t quite get there for me. My FemShep, Jess Shepard, is perhaps mostly a prop in a broader fantasy world, but the concept of “prop” feels a bit too cold for how I feel about playing with/as/for her.

Geeze, I just don’t know – why’s it all got to be so complicated?

23 October 2010
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