To play or not to play Mass Effect 1.IV – First time on the Citadel, Council Hearing

This is one long bridge

(Archived video available here).

In this part, we will see the Citadel for the first time, meet the human ambassador, then sit at the council hearing regarding Saren’s actions.

On the way to the bridge, we meet Ashley, mourn Jenkins with her, and comment on her assignment on the Normandy. Some dialogue choices here are important for male Shepards, as Ashley can become a romantic interest later in the game. If we were a female character, then Kaidan would have more to say to us; instead he only has a generic reaction scripted at this time for us. Here, in my opinion, is another instance where side plot demands impose upon the flow of the main plot; in this specific case, the break in the action is not too long, and in fact is barely felt, as stopping by and asking Ashley, a fellow soldier who has been through hell and has recently been thrown into a completely new situation, is not such an extraordinary action. What is extraordinary, however, is our current situation: gunning for what is the capital of the civilized galaxy, about to see one of the wonders of the universe in order to go confer with the highest authority in known space, to expose one of their best operatives as a traitor. Here we experience the dissociation of goals that can so easily be created when working with a literary possible world; it is in our interest, as players, to stop and chat with Ashley: in part due to our meta-knowledge (information we possess not through this story, but due to previous exposition to similar stories), we strongly suspect she will play an important part in our adventure; we also know the plot won’t advance while we are here, and so we can take our time. It would be in Shepard’s best interest, however, to not waste time at this critical juncture, but to swiftly move towards the bridge and Joker, as indeed Captain Anderson has ordered us to do – and let us not forget, we are still soldiers of the Alliance, expected to follow orders; plus, would we really risk missing the chance of seeing the Citadel for the first time? Wishes of the player against wishes of the in-world characters, this is a trade-off most games have to deal with, certainly those based on this kind of rich, complex background. There might not be a perfect answer, and leaning towards the player makes the most sense; it could still be possible to minimize the impact by keeping the dialogues short and tight.

After all these nice words from me, of course we decide to go against the grain and  grill Doctor Chakwas a little (in fact, I am trying to stagger the interactions on the Normandy a little, for the sake of the flow of my playthrough). Once we have exhausted all dialogue options, we finally proceed to the bridge; it is possible to further explore the Normandy at this stage, but most spaces are empty of meaningful interactions, and so we opt for postponing the grand tour.

As soon as we arrive, we trigger a cutscene and are introduced to the majesty of the Citadel.

“Joker: I’m just saying you need firepower too.” Notice the size difference between the Citadel in the background, the Destiny Ascension, and the Normandy (under the Destiny Ascension’s wing, slightly to the right of the image’s center).

The Citadel is the hub of the civilized galaxy, the seat of the council and all its embassies. Its construction is of Prothean origin, and strikingly similar to the Mass Relays that connect all the space systems. More information is available through the citadel’s entry on the wiki, though spoiler abound that way, as well as the relevant transcribed codex entries there, spoilers after the first few paragraphs. This scene establishes well the mind-bending size of the citadel. Within the cockpit of the Normandy, it also establishes a few facts: that Joker is poised and in control when he is in the pilot’s seat, that Ashley (especially) and Shepard (to a degree) still have a capability for wonder, and that military discipline is not going to be enforced very harshly in this ship – arguably that’s a pretty long-winded inference, but early scenes are usually very important for setting the tone for the rest of the game.

We are, this time, mercifully spared having to find our way through the Citadel, and are instead immediately transported to our next point of interest, the Human Embassy; Ambassador Udina is having a spirited conversation with the Council members, present in holographic forms. Udina is presented to us as an embittered, loud individual, sarcastic and demeaning. We will later learn that much of his behaviour is due to the constant pressure and disappointments he faces in his position, but as first appearances go, he does not make a very positive one; Udina is supposed to be in line with a renegade Shepard, and as such he displays a very pragmatic and haughty attitude: he is good at what he does, and he knows it. Still, having the first lines uttered by the most important human diplomat in the galaxy be screams is perhaps a bit too ham-fisted. And speaking of ham-fisted, Shepard’s reaction in this dialogue is way over the top, especially for a paragon choice: in an effort to convey just how dangerous Saren is, it makes Shepard sound slightly deranged, a fact even Udina comments on.

Ambassador Udina: Settle down, Commander. You’ve already done more than enough to jeopardize your candidacy for the Spectres

We are now required to head to the Citadel Tower to advance the plot. A few side-quests are already open to us at this stage, but we will tackle them in the next update, when we will explore the Presidium; I do however decrypt the computer in the Embassy to discover a quest lead there (this is a hook that will be used on a couple more occasions). On the way to the Citadel Tower, we stop to listen to Avina, the VI (virtual intelligence) guide to the Citadel; we exhaust most lines of dialogue, and find one the writers have probably put in as a little easter egg:

Avina: I am not programmed to make that kind of qualified judgment. My code is limited to information and simple interactions simulations.

There are a few lines of dialogues that end with Shepard asking Avina what it thinks about something, forgetting that it is not a person he is talking to, but a virtual intelligence, purposefully kept below a treshold for the emergence of intelligence; a jab at the players’ habit of asking any possible question that is available to them?

This exchange also serves to highlight another issue the game is prone to fall for: needlessly interrupting the flow of the plot or the action, in order to deliver a long-winded explanation of something. Umberto Eco in the postscript of his “The name of the Rose” calls this excessive Salgarism:

“When the character in Emilio Salgari’s adventures escape through the forest, pursued by enemies, and stumble over a baobab root, the narrator suspends the action to give us a botany lesson on the baobab. Now this has become topos, charming, like the defects of those we loved; but it should not be done”

The game is aware of this danger, and stashes much of the lore in the codex, but, as if it were afraid players might miss too much context, still litters its landscape with characters whose only purpose is to provide exposition; when this happens during a more action-oriented sequence, it severely breaks the flow of the game and feels jarring. Overall, this results in a lot of information redundancy, especially for players who enjoy exploring the game to its full extent. The subsequent games will recognize this problem and in general attempt to streamline the way lore and background information is offered to the player, by reducing this redundancy of information, and by severely shortening both the amount of information available to any one character, and the way in which it is presented to the player.

As we enter the Tower, Ashley gives a seemingly harmless comment, meant to reinforce the fact she is a soldier:

Ashley: I bet all these staircases aren’t just for show. They make for good defensive positions if this place is ever attacked.

and while it certainly fulfills that function, it also contains an element of foreshadowing, cleverly hidden behind a completely optional dialogue prompt.

Before we can reach the hearing, we stumble upon an interesting discussion between two Turians. It sounds as if we should prepare for the worst when it comes to the investigation on Saren…

Garrus: Commander Shepard? Garrus Vakarian. I was the officer in charge of the C-Sec investigation into Saren.

Garrus will become a very important character throughout the trilogy, and yet he gets a rather underwhelming introduction: begging his superior for the impossible, reporting failure; we can even call him out on that, though no paragon Shepard would rub that much salt into his wounds. There is growth ahead for Garrus, at least that much we can expect from his low-key impression, and there will be growth over this game; most of his growth however will usually happen off-screen in between games; from the second game onwards, Garrus assumes the role of pillar for Shepard, the trustworthy friend who is there no matter what; that’s a role that demands stability from a character. We are however getting ahead of ourselves now.

Upon reaching the last flight of stairs we are met by Captain Anderson and, thus trigger a very important scene; the first thing that bears mention is how efficient C-Sec is: unless we have spent a considerable amount of time on the Citadel between docking and meeting Udina (and nothing in the game hints at this possibility, plus it would diminish the poignancy of us actually discovering the Citadel later), less than a day has passed since the events on Eden Prime. Yet C-Sec has amassed a dossier complete enough to be presented to the Council. The Council itself serves a double function in this scene: to present itself as a fairly useless, playing-it-safe entity, and as an introduction to the species it represents. Regarding the first point, which will be a key representative feature of this institution, we must remember that this game is grounded into military sci-fi; in this literary tradition, civilian, especially political bodies, are often portrayed as ineffectual, inefficient, and unwilling to act; both Anderson and Ashley have already made disparaging comments on the political arena and politician themselves. Rather than acting as a socio-cultural commentary, I believe this type of stereotyping is instead functional, at least within the confines of this game: in a narrative where the heroes are part of a rigidly structured army, where it is the products of such an institution that will inevitably save the day and prevail, the value of more civilian, democratic institutions must be downplayed, to ensure the player will better identify with the values of the heroes it is presented with within this possible world. The point then is to ease less militaristic-minded, more liberal thinking individuals into accepting premises they might be uncomfortable sharing in their real, actual world. As for their second function, introducing their respective races to the player, in this brief series of exchanges, we can already establish that the Salarians are inquisitive, scepticals, and driven by facts, the Turians are bold and outspoken, and the Asaris are the mediators and spokepersons.

It is however Saren that dominates this scene, something aptly symbolized by the overwhelming size of his hologram.

Saren: I’m glad to see justice was served.

He is calm and in control, shrewdly rebuffing Shepard’s accusations twice, each time gaining the upper hand over him, using his charismatic confidence to turn the tables on his human accusers. We had already been shown how dangerously competent he is in the field: commanding an army, possessing an impressive ship, wily enough to dispose of a fellow spectre. We now get to see his other qualities: a highly intelligent and resourceful individual, capable of leveraging every advantage he can find. Even his obvious disdain for humans is framed in a much less subjective tone than the accusations levelled at him by Shepard and the other humans, which in contrast appear as ad hominem attacks, therefore weakening their impact. The game does a good job at presenting its main villain as a larger-than-life threat, someone that for now remains outside of our reach and above our capabilities. Udina’s dejected reaction at the verdict, his image alone on the podium, shoulders slumped, head turned downwards, symbolizes well this current state of affairs.

Fortunately, not all is lost. Immediately following the verdict, Shepard, Anderson, and Udina discuss how to proceed; there is no intention to let the matter rest, for Saren seems to threaten all of humanity – a claim I find a bit ham-fisted in its attempt to further convince the player that action against Saren is necessary. We discover Anderson had a previous experience running a mission with Saren (just why he did so is something we will discover in the future), and realize we have two paths open to us: attempting to track Garrus through the services of the unsavoury, suspended C-Sec officer Harkin, or going to have a talk with finance wizard extraordinaire Barla Von, a known contact for the mysterious Shadow Broker, someone (or something) that deals with information. We go through all the dialogue options with Anderson here – something I will soon stop doing, as information is often redundant in this game – and besides the little bits of lore we gain, it is interesting how even Anderson, who is the paragon counterpart to the renegade Udina as our superior, chides a too-paragon Shepard as being a bit naive; perhaps an attempt at validating other forms of role-playing than that of goody two-shoes, while also injecting a bit of realism into the setting, preventing it from turning into black-and-white idealism.

And with that, we now have more freedom to explore the Citadel; the first thing we will do is have a look around the Presidium and go talk with Barla Von.







One thought on “To play or not to play Mass Effect 1.IV – First time on the Citadel, Council Hearing

  1. Pingback: To play or not to play Mass Effect 1.IV – First time on the Citadel, Council Hearing – Hamletic Tortoise

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