Some of the next few articles will be adapted from working papers I wrote for a digital media seminar blog. Here is the first:
Mass Effect 2 is a recently released role-playing game for Xbox 360 and PC. The game is set in a futuristic universe with a focus on inter-galactic travel and exploration. More than twenty races are either present or alluded to in the game universe. I want to focus on one of these races, the Elcor, and a particular characteristic that makes a player’s interaction with them unique.
The aspect of the Elcor that presents an interesting situation is the manner in which they converse with the player, in this case, a human spaceship commander named Sheppard. They foreground any statement they make with a descriptive term or phrase of emotion that we would convey orally through tone. Adjectives such as “annoyed” or adverbs such as “matter-of-factly” colour the speech of the Elcor so that non-Elcor can understand the intention of their words. Compared to encounters with other races in the game, with the Elcor a player must pay more attention to the first few words of their speech to grasp the implication of the rest of the sentiment. Sometimes, when dealing with a more hostile race in the game, the tone and inflection of their voice is enough to signal their intention. Thus, when interacting with characters of the Elcor race, a player might need to be more diligent in their reading of and/or listening to the game if they want to enjoy the game, understand the history of the Mass Effect universe, or sway an Elcor towards a particular end.
Why would Bioware insert this type of interaction into the game? Although a seemingly necessary evil, all of the text in the game, be it spoken or written, is in English because the player must be able to interact with the other characters in the game. I suspect that many gamers will ignore this unrealistic flaw for simplicity’s sake, but Bioware compensates them through the Elcor’s interesting quirk. For myself, reading the dialogue of my interactions with the Elcor made me reflect on a potential inadequacy, or at least a space for development in the genre, in that when choosing dialogue options for my character, I cannot insert a particular tone or pattern of inflection so as to alter the meaning of my speech. Sheppard’s tone is pre-determined by Bioware in the dialogue options the player chooses. For example, if I am accusing a corrupt politician of extortion, I might choose a forceful dialogue option that openly vents my frustration towards them, and this option will come preconfigured with an angry and threatening tone of voice.
As evident in this youtube video, the device of Elcor speech can also be used for parody. In this case, one of the many interactive screens that the player can watch in the game advertises an all-Elcor production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Many things come to mind immediately. First, guessing at the tone of voice required for each of Hamlet’s soliloquies is a job I would suggest only the Bard can do. Second, using Hamlet as a type of intertext positions Bioware nearer to the realm of literary criticism in that they suggest Shakespeare will still be considered a great author many, many years from now and in that they try to articulate the feelings of one of the most complex protagonists in all of literature. The end of the clip produces one of the most satirical uses of the Elcor voice: “Insincere Endorsement: You have not experience Shakespeare until you have heard him in the voice of elcor.” In this passage, the game is both poking fun at the nature of advertising in general and at itself. Naturally, listening to a monotone voice is boring and tedious as one can imagine sitting through an all-Elcor performance of any of Shakespeare’s plays. On the other hand, one might gain new and important insight into a play such as Hamlet by listening to the expressions of meaning and emotion made at the outset of the Elcor actor’s (playing Hamlet) speech. These brutally honest creatures serve as an interesting reminder of our dependence on tone in everyday speech. In English, we can substantially alter the meaning of words with a particular tone of voice. The Elcor expressively and poignantly reveal their thoughts through direct speech. Their words situate the player in an environment where reading between the lines takes precedence over listening carefully.