Tag Archives: Spoilers

Excellence in Characterization – Dr. Chakwas: Mass Effect

This is the first part of what I hope to make a reoccurring series on excellence in characterization. Be warned. This edition contains minor spoilers on Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2.

One part Bones, One part Hollywood Rebel.

Take one part Helen Mirren, one part Bones of Star Trek fame and you will come up with one Dr. Chakwas of Mass Effect. Dr. Chakwas has become one of my favourite female, minor characters in gaming.

I have loved the way she was written from day one. She represents the best in what I feel minor characters should do; she adds flavour to the series, she further adds layers and nuance to other main characters and to the universe in which they all coexist. She also leaves you wanting to know a little bit more.

First: the facts. Dr. Chakwas is the Chief Medical Officer on board the Normandy, and thus is under the main protagonist, Commander Shepard’s, command.  She is a veteran military doctor, I’ll put her around 50 or older. When tragedy strikes the Normandy, she ends up once again under Commander Shepard’s command, this time with Cerberus.

Pretty standard “the good doctor” fare. Nothing new so far.

Where things get interesting is when you speak with the doctor about her motives for being on board the Normandy.  Her answer is simple yet nuanced. She talks about how she wanted to save the lives of brave soldiers with steely eyes and deep, sensitive souls (le sigh). The writing could have been hokey, and perhaps a bit insulting, however she comes across as poking gentle fun at her much younger, naive self. Yes, that is what she thought then, and how silly. Yet, there is a twinkle in her eye. You see that she had an adventurous streak in her, and you can see that still as the game progresses.

Later, Commander Shepard basically has a chance to ask Dr. Chakwas this question again. After Normandy v1.0 got blown to bits, she had the opportunity to go anywhere. Shepard also makes  a point of stating that it’s a suicide mission, they probably aren’t coming back. Once again, is she SURE she wants to be here? 

Again, it’s not a simple answer.  She says how she has gone through hell and high water with the Alliance Military, suicide missions don’t bother her. What this shows is that she is not the same bleeding heart romantic that she once was. She ditched the romantic, but kept that sense of adventure and duty. She could not be herself anywhere else but in a military type outfit. Damn what she is “supposed” to do or want. She is doing what is good for HER. Even if it means a not so comfortable life.

I stated in the opener that Dr. Chakwas is one part Helen Mirren. I said this for a reason. although there is a physical resemblance, the similarities are deeper. I once read somewhere that Helen got a tattoo ages ago: before it became the norm. It was a *statement* back then. Something you did if you prided yourself on doing and being the unexpected. There would have been consequences. Women DIDN’T do things like that. And I suspect that Dr. Chakwas has many such stories of her past, ones that she may not shout on the tallest mountain (like Jack) but that she quietly keeps close to her self.

When further pressed, Dr. Chakwas does what a minor character’s role is to do. She provides insight into the other characters. In general, we come to know characters not just through their own words and actions, but from the words and actions of those around them. Dr. Chakwas performs this role perfectly. She speaks about how she would basically follow Shepard to hell and back. Now we already established that Dr. Chawas is no one’s fool. She does her own thing, she has her own mind. If this strong woman is willing to follow Shepard, what kind of person must Shepard be?

She also provides layers to the universe. She says that another reason why she is on the Normandy is that she feels the need for family. She can patch up soldiers, and they will go do their job, but Joker- the ship’s pilot-  has special needs. His brittle bones mean that he will always need medical care, and she has come to care for him. She needs him, as much as he needs her. There is a real caring and empathy. 

In the middle of a dire, dangerous mission for the very survival of humanity,  Dr. Chakwas gives us reasons why humanity is worth saving: we love each other. This is a distinct counter balance to some of the terrifying and shocking things that the universe of Mass Effect shows us. It gives us hope for better and this hope was written as a realistic interplay between two people and it didn’t hit us over the head in some ham-fisted manner.

When we look at the overall picture we see a distinctly feminine character, but one that is different from what we are used to seeing. She is strong, caring but there is steel and humour. She has a naive history, but grew up fast. She provided insight to other characters and to the universe of the game itself.  Although she is a minor character she is extremely important to the game and her part is played with perfection. I want more.

Spoilers Abound! End Games – Do Gamers Crave The Sure Thing?

In case you couldn’t tell from the headline, this post contains many spoilers about games and movies. Proceed with caution! But please have fun in the comments section: let’s talk about game vs movie endings! 

My husband and I love movies with a twist, and, as is to be excepted, we found Inception a great flick. We both enjoyed The Prestige more, and Momento is still one of my favorite movies EVAH, but that’s just us. Upon dissecting the movie over wings and nachos, my husband asked me if video games had the same type of ending as Inception. 

Please Can I Haz Games Like This?

Now, for those of you who haven’t seen the movie, Inception doesn’t really end. The big payoff .. isn’t. It would be like if a hero entered into the room with the final boss fight and then… nothing. That’s that. End of scene. No payoff. In fact, when you think about it, you just get more confused. The entire narrative is brought into question. Did the hero ever make it to the castle, or did something else happen?

The straight narrative that you have been following hasn’t been straight at all. Now you really don’t know the fate of our hero, not to mention the fate of the mission at hand. Everything is called into question. What exactly is going on? What WENT on?

The Wrestler ended with a big boss fight, that you don’t see. Does he die at the end? Does he reclaim his past glory? Dunno. No one does. The Prestige had a final ending, but again, one that made you question what went on the entire movie.   The Sixth Sense was one of the first big movies to have this type of switch up. M. Night Shyamalan’s followup The Village tried to capture lighting in a bottle for the second time, and while I liked it fine, the ending (everyone is actually living in modern times) I felt was projected too easily.  Momento, Vanilla Sky, Mulholland Drive, Pan’s Labyrinth are more movies where you weren’t really sure of the outcome or the narrative. And these are just the ones that I have seen: and I am not a moviephile.

Offhand, I don’t think we see these types of endings in games to the extent that we see them in movies. Offhand I have Bioshock and Killer 7.  Yes, we do see cliffhangers…  The End. OR IS IT!???  Excellent way to set up a sequel and all. We also have games where the good guy actually turns out to be the bad guy. But that is a straight double cross. That’s not anything close to finding out that Lenny actually set himself up to kill John G (see… I told you there would be spoilers). 

Why is this? Why aren’t there more games with unknown narratives and endings?

One reason why games have definite endings is to encourage replayability. One run through and the top spins forever, the other playthrough and your top falls over. One play through and you rescue the princess, another play through and you kill her. All definite endings, but different ones to explore.

Another reason could be that gamers couldn’t “handle” an uncertain ending after 12+ hours invested in the game. We need that payoff. I don’t buy this for a second. Gamers are smart adults, the same adults that are going to see Inception. We are not so small-minded that we cry if things are not how we imagined. Everyone loved Bioshock. But why aren’t there more?

Is it just easier to write and churn out Space Operas? Maybe we have something here. I have mentioned many, many great movies that are of this “major twist that makes you question the narrative” genre, but I could mention triple the number that are simple, but excellent, action films with a straight “good guy saves the day” narratives.

I have never claimed to be an end all and be all expert on games and gaming. I am a fan of gaming, just like you. So tell me: do I have this right? What games have a twist in the whole narrative a la Inception and The Sixth Sense? What have been your favourite twist endings in movies and games? Do you think that games would benefit from a less defined narrative?