Surprisingly, the most consistently effective part of this game has no violence and very simple gameplay: inbetween missions, the player can wander around the Normandy and talk to their companions. I’m not someone who cares much for small talk in real life – it’s something to be endured to get to the things I actually care about – but this game manages to make it really appealing, starting with the fact that we’re talking to people who live inherently interesting lives, filled as they are with robots and spaceships. From a plotting perspective, it’s a literary effect, where more ideas are being introduced and allowed to swirl around each other – Kaiden’s description of his biotic training as a teenager bounces off the biotics you meet, like the biotics that kidnapped a politician to protest lack of reparations. And, of course, they’re individual character studies in themselves, as details build up and contradict each other. Emotionally, though, I like it for bringing this strange, incredible world down to a mundane level. The name of this series comes from something Kaiden says:
“It was Vyrnnus who made me see how human aliens are. They’re not different or special. They’re jerks and saints, just like us.”
It’s something that’s stuck with me. Generally speaking, ‘realism’ is associated with blood and murder and sexual assault; for me, ‘realism’ means monotony and meaninglessness. Small talk, in my experience, zooms in on the least interesting parts of being alive (and, worse, requires me to zoom in on it). By filtering something I dearly love – scifi – through one of everyday life’s most tedious elements, it makes it easier to see what the point of the exercise is, and it brings a little magic into my everyday life. When I’m engaging in small talk now, I’m drawing on the image of Commander Shepard. Bringing the magic down to the mundane also serves to inject magic into the mundane. Being human means dealing with jerks and jerk-like activities, even when you’re a space hero.
As always, the other side of all this is that you get to characterise your Shepard further in how she reacts to these various characters. It’s hard for me to write about the various characters because my notes are just so scattered, but Shepard’s single-minded Iconic status lends a true centre of gravity to the whole thing – Garrus will wander around various topics, but his relationship with Shep is a mentor/mentee one, where she constantly evaluates his stories based on morality and he keeps thinking over what she says. Garrus is really the personification of a basic ethical question: is it more important to save the innocent or punish the wicked? Paragon Shepard says the former, Renegade Shepard says the latter, and Garrus finds Shepard convincing whichever way she goes.
From this relationship-based perspective, Wrex is the crusty asshole Shep slowly wins over out of sheer persistence (sort of a less mean variation on JD and Cox from Scrubs, where Wrex becomes much more openly friendly than Perry). Wrex doesn’t so much reveal vulnerability as he does emotional states – he’s incredibly bitter about what happened to the krogan, as if his whole species is Al Bundy and he’s the self-loathing part, which generally leaves him in a pissy mood. In this context, Paragon Shepard is really the fantasy that being kind to people all the time will have definite, constant, and most of all immediate rewards, and Wrex in the first game is a big example of that (Renegade Shepard, on the other hand, badasses him into friendship).
As I said before, Kaiden tends to get lost in fannish appreciation for the game, but I found myself really liking him. He doesn’t just supply the quote summarising the way this game explores Ordinariness, he is Ordinary. He’s the part of humanity that gets up and goes to work every day, that follows the rules, that keeps the trains running on time. He’s less extraordinary than someone like Shepard (though he’s definitely lead an interesting life), but he’s dependable, which is the most positive quality of Ordinariness. Next to him is Ash, who is much harder to summarise; Kaiden is a kind of passive variation on Order, while Ash is very much an active exemplar of Order. Like Kaiden, she also tends to get lost in fannish appreciation, but it’s because she’s a very abrasive person. I think the majority of hate for her comes from the fact that she’s racist against aliens – disliking the Council on general principle and arguing against allowing your alien crew members from wandering around the ship.
Honestly, I never really got the point of the ‘racist against aliens’ trope. It feels to me like white people looking for an excuse to act like bigots – not necessarily because they’re hiding real bigotry, although sometimes I wonder, but out of some compulsion to act as devil’s advocate and prove there’s a situation where it’s okay to be a bigot just because popular consensus says it’s wrong. But it always seemed weird to me, in a game where the whole point is to be awed and delighted by aliens, to have a fantasy of hating them; I choose to believe the hatred for Ash proves my point. But I also find her quite charming in general – she’s willing to drop her arguments in the face of chain of command, because she’s a firm Traditionalist above everything else, someone who believes in the Military and Family (she’s initially suspicious of Liara claiming she doesn’t talk to her mother because she doesn’t understand how family could turn on each other).
And again, it’s her relationship with Shepard that I really like, especially against Paragon Shepard. She essentially represents the Renegade point of view, which inspires friendly conflict between her and Shep; this means our hero gets to spout a lot of cool-sounding declarations of her morality (“Standing up for ourselves doesn’t mean standing alone.”), and it feels really nice when both concede the other’s point of view and fall back on chain of command and mutual respect (“You tell me to jump, I ask how high. You tell me to kiss a turian, I ask which cheek.” / “I don’t think kissing turians will be necessary.” / “You never know, Commander!”).