Sunday, April 10, 2011

The William Wordsworth Paradigm in Mass Effect

Yes, this title is for srs. Back in the fall I wrote a paper for my Romanticism class. It was my first bit of academic fandom/gaming/pop culture studies.

Here it is.

Always In Laughter And Tears: The William Wordsworth Paradigm in Mass Effect
“Or is it some more humble lay, 
Familiar matter of to-day?”

“The Romantic Era” denotes a time period in the 18- and 1900s, but the Romantic ideals persist in the way people value emotion and set it up against other values. Thematic similarities between the video game  Mass Effect (developed by the BioWare Corporation and released in 2007), and the Romantic ideals as exemplified by William Wordsworth’s poem The Solitary Reaper serve to illuminate both mediums as well as the way in which non-academic, non-student individuals engaging in story may process Wordsworth’s words without conscious citation. The most surface level of this is a textual homage—one of the missions in Mass Effect is entitled Old, Unhappy, Far-Off Things. 

Mass Effect is classified as a role-playing game. A large portion of its mechanics are devoted to customization of the character that the player has control of; as experience points are gained, new options for abilities and events are made available. Mass Effect also offers a player character who is completely mutable at the onset of the game; while the player is always given control of Commander Shepard, a soldier in the far future, Shepard’s gender, appearance, personal history, combat style, and first name may be individualized. These are chosen by the player at the onset and remain permanent throughout the game, affecting non-critical plot elements of play.  Customizing a character in this way is not unheard of;  appearance and gender options appear for player characters as far back as 1988.  In order to complete the mission entitled Old, Unhappy, Far-Off Things,  the player must have chosen the “Spacer” history for Shepard (who will be referred to in this context as female for convenience of pronouns and personal bias). The Spacer story is the only option in which Shepard’s parents remain alive and present in her life, and Old, Unhappy, Far-Off Things concerns her mother. This mission is not central to the plot, but gains the player some experience points and a voice-only conversation with Shepard’s mother.

The phrase “old, unhappy, far-off things” first appears in William Wordsworth’s poem The Solitary Reaper, part of the 1803 collection Memoirs of a Tour In Scotland. This phrase is cited in other material, but a Google search reveals the phrase in the context of the Mass Effect mission for its first four findings. The fifth entry, Bartleby’s anthologies, presents the full poem alongside Wordsworth’s other work, and the sixth presents two lines from the poem without any context . Mass Effect is by this standard today’s most accessible window to this particular Wordsworth citation, which exists for a purpose entirely separate from him in the minds of its players. 

Mass Effect’s citation of Wordsworth comes, depending on the order in which one plays through the partially open world, after at least one major segment of the game. In this initial segment, the player becomes acquainted with Shepard and the vernacular of her world. It could not be an attempt to attract fans of Wordsworth—it is unheralded. Instead, it is inserted as an homage and a common theme, as well as a way to draw characters together. Poetry appears elsewhere in conversation in the game. Another character quotes part of Alfred Lord Tennyon’s poem Ulysses to Shepard, who has the option of returning the citation. Another point of convergence is found in the language of the titular Wordsworth poem. The Solitary Reaper refers to a woman whom Wordsworth spied or created in his Tour In Scotland; in Mass Effect, ‘Reapers’ are the antagonists, a race of extragalactic sentient machines. Their leader is the only one of their kind seen until the end of the game—a solitary reaper, a herald of import from the distance who reflects that import onto what it views, as does the poem’s narrator.

This paper’s structure will follow that of the Old, Unhappy, Far-Off Things quest’s narrative, in order both to introduce the pacing and subject matter of the game in an organic fashion and to  point out in detail the thematic elements also found in Wordsworth’s The Solitary Reaper.

The mission begins when non-player character Lieutenant Zabaleta calls out to player-as-Shepard as she walks through the Citadel. The Citadel is the hub of the Mass Effect universe, the seat of its government and the place with the widest variety of human and alien character models to indicate a diverse set of occupants. Zabaleta is a middle-aged human who refers to the player character as “that Shepard kid”—a stark contrast to most people calling her “ma’am” or “commander”. The mission advertises its focus on emotion and backstory right from the start. If the player chooses to have Shepard talk to Zabaleta, he reveals that he is looking for Shepard’s mother, Hannah, who used to serve with him aboard the warship SSV Einstein.

It may be productive to note that although this mission requires Shepard to have been born in space, partially bereft of Earth culture, it abounds in references to Earth’s history. Hannah Shepard’s current posting, as revealed later, is aboard the SSV Kilimanjaro.  The writers did not want players to forget that their character existed in the same universe as Earth, unlike in BioWare’s previous, award-winning role-playing game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. The Earth references would have been out of place in “a galaxy far, far away”, but Mass Effect, placed in Earth’s speculative future, uses them to create its own mien. Wordsworth’s The Solitary Reaper is likewise full of references to the land and Earth’s locations—“Highland Lass” (2), “Travelers in some shady haunt/Among Arabian sands” (11-12), “Among the farthest Hebrides” (16). 

Shepard does not remember Zabaleta, but reveals that she does not remember much of her mother either.  One dialogue option prompts “I didn’t see much  of her at the time. She was always out on tour.”  Both Shepards are “solitary in the field”, estranged from one another because of their duty, and the dialogue leaves it up to the player to determine whether Shepard feels regret about that or not. Zabaleta asks Shepard to remember him to her mother, and reveals that he has lost all his money through drinking to try and ease the memory of a certain campaign during his military service, one which he does not yet reveal. Zabaleta is in a dire enough situation that he spends food money on alcohol, and for a brief time the mission becomes a more conventional opportunity to gain experience points by morally upstanding actions when Shepard is given the option to purchase the veteran a credit line at a grocery store. Whether or not this is done, belying the idea that the mission is about progress of game statistics as opposed to the progress of characterization, the player then has the chance to call Shepard’s mother.  

Hannah Shepard is only a voice; the scene is angled toward Shepard, so that the video communication cannot be seen. This follows along with the chance to customize Shepard; the player can also imagine the features of her mother based on their character. Hannah is brusque; her first line of dialogue includes “I don’t have time for personal calls right now.” Since their conversation is civil, this may imply that she and Shepard talk a lot in unseen scenes, and that such a call is not an unusual occurrence. She is formal, but when Shepard tells her about Zabaleta she becomes concerned and wants to make sure that he is doing well.   When Shepard says that Zabaleta “must have been a very sensitive man,” Hannah replies with  “He was. Always in laughter and tears.” Note that she uses and, not or; for a “sensitive man”, all emotion stems from the same source and is intertwined with all others, happiness with sadness, because they are both emotions. 

Zabaleta is a Romantic man—Hannah Shepard is not. There are no endearments when the call ends—she simply says “Kilimanjaro out.” This is military formality, but it is also the departure of the Earthly; the next step of the mission is to return to Zabaleta and the morality options (as well as to learn more about his past).  (Notably, Shepard’s ship is called Normandy—an echo of Earth even though it’s construction was an alien-human collaboration and it is officially owned by the alien-led government.) 

              Nor is Jane Shepard a Romantic character, but this is because she is an attempt at the ultimate expression of fannish immersion, the emotional engagement with a character. This engagement manifests today in the entertainment trade show subculture—con-goers dress up as their favourite characters, including the varied possible avatars of Shepard. (It is ironic in a way that they will clothe themselves in a character designed to be clothed in their own personality and preferences, but the topic of fannish relations to a customizable character would be another study entirely.) Old, Unhappy, Far-Off Things  presents a contrast between emotional Zabaleta, whose self-destructive actions are Wertherian but slower, and the Shepards’ rigid bearing. As in The Solitary Reaper, the contrast is also between recollection of an event (Shepard’s distant relationship with her mother, Zabaleta’s violent past, the poem’s “battles long ago”)  and the present (Shepard following in her mother’s military footsteps, the poem’s narrator, who is placed in time which at first seems to be present tense and concurrent with the events (“Behold her, single in the field”) and then becomes itself a recollection (“The music in my heart I bore,/Long after it was heard no more” (32-33)).   

Shepard returns to Zabaleta and passes on the message from her mother. She learns that Zabaleta is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder due to violence he witnessed in the war. The mission ends with the option of further gifting Zabaleta or of leaving him to go on with his life. Hannah Shepard is accessible in no other part of the game. Old, Forgotten, Far-Off Things is therefore an interlude; Shepard goes back to “reaping and singing by herself”, touched with the sadnesses of “battles long ago”, just as in Wordsworth’s poem the encounter between the narrator and the reaper is a brief one which does not affect the outside world. It is the interior world which is important. Both the poem and the mission are moments of sentiment, and of individuals sensitive to their feelings. They are rebellions against the Neoclassic ideals of dignity and restraint, showing that stoic Shepard has a family and that war—glorified in Mass Effect as much or as little as in any story that has a warrior as its hero—has its ugly side. The game found relevance in Romantic poetry not only as a place to mine words from, but as one to connect themes to. 

The Old, Unhappy, Far-Off Things mission serves as a conversation between the two mediums, a question of whether the Romantic ideals of emotion—what Wordsworth calls “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”(Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1798), such as Zabaleta admitting to Shepard the foundation of his fears. The Romantic ideals stand up in an alien setting even If they are surrounded by either a video game world or the pop culture of today. 


  1. Umm... wow. Nem, why are you so smart? I would never have been able to write a paper about a game and make it sound so... professional. And even if I were familiar with the poem (or writing), I would not have gone into such depth. You amaze me.

    (Master Gang has stupid hair. I just finished the Lotus Assassin Fortress and recorded Zu's death. Now I can watch it whenever I want to and sniffle. D:)

  2. Thanks, Xeph. I'm only now being able to do this stuff with any degree of competence, and I'm in my senior year of college. I'm nowhere near the stuff that people with Ph.D.s do, and that's where I want to get to. So it just takes practice.

    (lol...also that video sounds like good fanfic fodder. Why do the important ones always have to die why?!)

  3. You're welcome. c:
    That may be so, but you're still very smart, and good at using words... yep. Keep practicing, then!

    (Because they are important. And BioWare is mean.)

  4. Thank you. ^_^

    (I think you're on to something there! They want players as emotionally invested as possible...and therefore to hurt as much as possible! I know I've felt that way about killing off characters in fanfic.)

  5. No problem.

    (That's how I feel too! I just... don't want to kill off anyone! D:)