I love it when a game defies my expectations sufficiently to make me
uncomfortable. If a game can make me feel discomfort, there's
something worth considering there--something that merits deeper
understanding. There are things that a game can say about the player
that couldn't be said in any other medium, and sometimes the message
is all the more effective when I'm caught vulnerably by my own
My first experience with this kind of discomfort came during my first
playthrough of Mass Effect 2. Near the end of the game Shepard--the
protagonist and player character--has accumulated a band of
compatriots toward a final mission to stop the Reapers; but just
before that final mission, the ship's crew is abducted by the
Mass Effect is a role-playing game, and understanding genre tropes is
an important aspect of interpreting a work and its impact. Many
fantasy role-playing games have a similar plot point: the hero has
completed his preparations. He is near the end of his journey. The
stakes have never been higher, and the situation is urgent: Meteor is
about to crash into Midgar; Gannon is about to destroy Hyrule; or, as
is the case in Mass Effect 2, the Reapers are preparing to consume all
life in the galaxy.
But role-playing games have another trope: the side quest. These are
typically available throughout the game; but the moment before the
final climactic mission is the last chance in most RPGs to finish up
any side-quests that have been left undone. In Mass Effect 2, side
quests take the form of "loyalty missions"--character-specific
missions that provide additional backstory and inter-personal context
for the members of your cohort. Completing these missions also
improves an invisible but important loyalty stat which affects how
team members respond to Shepard.
I'm a bit of a completionist, so I took this opportunity before the
final mission to complete all of these loyalty missions. I did this
all while I poked fun at the video game tropes on display: the big
bad, poised and ready to attack; we, the player character, traipsing
about the galaxy on unrelated menial missions. After all: Meteor won't
crash into Midgar until the plot is ready for it; Gannon never will
destroy Hyrule; and the Collectors will wait around until Shepard is
good and ready to face them.
But that's not what happens. When I finally did embark on the final
mission to stop the Collectors and rescue the crew, we found only
Dr. Chakwas alive.
They're gone. All of them. I'm the only one left.
I watched them die. They were... processed--rendered down into
some kind of raw genetic paste and pumped through these tubes.
What took you so long, Shepard? You could have saved them if you'd
gotten here sooner!
Dr. Chakwas' words are true. While I was taking my time maximizing a
gamified loyalty stat, the game was monitoring my activities after the
abduction of the crew. Leave immediately, and you may save them all;
but the longer you wait, the more of them die.
With this, the game defies trope, and punishes the player for
approaching the work as a simple genre piece. In reality, Shephard
would never meander about, but would prioritize the mission and the
retrieval of the crew. But it's just a game, right?
But it is the fact that it is a game that enables this experience. A
character in a book won't die because you waited a week to read the
last chapter; but in my Mass Effect, we lost the entire crew: named
characters with backstories and interactions that had developed
throughout the game. And the consequences don't end there, either:
Mass Effect is a three-part series, and the death of these characters
carries on even into the next game.
Mass Effect 2 expects you to care about its characters; and, if you
don't--if you just play it like a video game, expecting it to behave
like other video games--it punishes you for it by taking those
But even then, I never would have expected to feel this same defiance
of expectation from Epic Mickey.
Epic Mickey could hardly be more different from Mass Effect. It's a
third-person platforming character action game with light adventure
elements. It's a children's game, contrasted with media hysteria
regarding Mass Effect's "mature" content. More immediately, Mass
Effect is a good game; and I definitely wasn't enjoying Epic Mickey.
But I have kids, and those kids were excited about Mickey, so I was
playing through it as a social activity with them. I really wasn't
taking it seriously: jump on the platforms; paint the environment with
the magic paintbrush; mash "A" when characters talk to you; make
Not too far into the game, I ran into a character called "Small Pete,"
a rendition of a classic Disney character, "Pete," who often serves as
the antagonist of a Mickey Mouse story.
I spent years getting' along with gremlins. Only had to knock 'em
around on occasion. Then, the ONE TIME I crash my boat into their
village, they seem to think I'm some kinda villain.
Not that I give two hoots what they think, but it WAS an
accident. And my ship's log will prove it.
Those little monsters won't let me near the wreck to get it,
though. Hmm... I'll bet they'd let you.
I was immediately suspicious of Small Pete's story (assuming I paid it
any mind at all, beyond just mashing "A"); but we got a quest
objective and moved on.
I continued jumping between platforms, tagging the environment, and
mashing "A," until we met Gremlin Shaky.
I smell treasure! You found it!
How's about you trade me that ship's log for a flashy new pin?
I still wasn't paying attention. Why would I? The platforming was
mediocre. The characters were either flat or carbon-copies of each
other. Each gremlin looks the same as all the others. So I interpreted
this interaction with the same level of attention that I would pay to
most collect-a-thon games:
"Oh, right. The ship's log. I guess I picked it up along the way. Pete
wanted us to get that for him, right? What was that for, again? This
must be the guy I'm supposed to give it to. And when I do I'll get a
pin as a reward, eh? Ok, I guess it's a collectible, so I guess I'll
Thank you very much. This will make excellent reading. Here's your
But that wasn't all there was to it. Immediately after finishing the
interaction I received a "quest failed" notification.
I kept playing, just accepting that I had failed the quest, and
probably missed out on some minimal benefit. But something about the
interaction bothered me. Small Pete seemed to be a character teetering
on the edge of villany. He was willing to "knock 'em around on
occasion"; but he seemed genuinely (if covertly) concerned with
clearning his name. He wasn't a villain yet. He was a bully.
So you left my ship's log with those grubby gremlins, eh? Well,
here's a little taste of what happens to those who cross me!
I had betrayed Small Pete. I hadn't done it out of malice. Worse: I
had paid him no mind. He asked for help, and I ignored
him. Eventually, I traded his name for a collectible pin I didn't even
care about. In a literal sense, I had turned him into a villain: Small
Pete had become a video-game boss, generating a combat encounter to
punctuate the chapter.
I found myself considering what it would take to correct this mistaken
path through the game's narrative. I had overwritten my save several
times since I had given Pete's ship's log to Gremlin Shaky. I would
have to start the game over from the beginning.
The very fact that I was considering it made me uncomfortable. I did
not enjoy playing this game. But, for the sake of a fictional
character as absurd as Small Pete, I was considering sacrificing some
portion of my time in pursuit of his redemption.
I tell my kids that it's part of a parent's job to give them
consequences that they can learn from and grow through, while
protecting them from consequences that they can't recover from, if
only for a time. In a small, but very real, way, Epic Mickey was that
for me. I ignored a call for help. I was careless. A character was
treated unjustly, and that injustice led him to embrace his own darker
I never did go back and do right by Small Pete. In fact, I don't think
I played the game again after that. I'm sure we were called down for
dinner, and then distracted by another game I enjoyed playing
more. But I still think about Small Pete, about the time I didn't pay
enough attention, and about the consequences that might develop when I
allow myself to become just a little bit more callous to the world