(Archived video available here).
In this part, we will explore the Presidium, pick up some side-quests, and meet Barla Von.
We only need to take a few steps to unlock our first side-quest; Chorban is a Salarian scientist interested in the Keepers, a race of insectile beings that was already on the Citadel when it was found by the Asari; nobody really knows much about them, except that they seem to be in charge of repairing and maintaining the Citadel, and that’s where the interest of people seems to stop. There are certain similarities between the Citadel and Sigil, the city of doors at the center of the multiverse in the Dungeon & Dragons Planescape setting: both cities function as seats of power, both are at the center of a web of portals that enables transportation to other sites of interest, both are only accessible through said portals, both are divided in wards; both are maintained by a mysterious and peculiarly unique race – in Sigil, it is the Dabus, which, while humanoid in shape, have many unique traits (floating, speaking in rebuses) that separate them from the other denizes inhabiting their setting; both species are considered little more than an extension of the spaces they inhabit; SPOILERS both species are subservient to a higher power SPOILERS. Bioware had earlier developed Planescape: Torment, a dialogue-heavy game in which the action centers around Sigil; that experience might have contributed to creating these parallels between the two locations. Of course there are differences as well; SPOILERS notably, the figure of the Lady of Pain is distinctly subverted in this setting, in the form of Sovereign: an entity trapped outside of the Citadel, wanting to use it for its own purposes, actively seeking adoration (to the point of manipulating other beings into it), attempting to destabilize the established order, until it will eventually break down; for reference, the Lady of Pain is unable to leave Sigil, refuses to be the object of adoration, and generally strives to maintain the status quo, that is to say she is an agent of stability. SPOILERS
Many of the similarities become apparent early on, and might help lulling players into believing they know more than they actually do about the setting (which, in a way, is exactly what is happening on the Citadel); this is not to say that writers consciously modeled the Citadel after Sigil: there are enough similarities between the two settings, particularly in the way travel is achieved (portals with fixed points of entrance and exit), that plot structures will draw from similar archetypes without conscious effort by the authors – one of the main points highlighted by the concept of intertextuality: works of art are inextricably interconnected with each other below the surface, they talk not only of each other, but also to each other, and often without the author even realizing it.
Getting back to the game, Chordan wants to scan the keepers because he “wants to know what makes them tick.” This is a quest designed to motivate players into exploring the Citadel: there are 21 keepers that have to be scanned, spread throughout the Tower, Presidium and the Wards; the game is in quite a bind on the hook for this quest though; it would make more sense for Shepard to do something that is apparently frowned upon a little later in the game, but that would make the quest lose its introductory function for the player. The writers solve the issue by having Shepard blurt:
After all, it’s not like we are already in a partially compromised position, having botched our assignment, getting a spectre killed in the process, and finally not managing to convince the Council it was all Saren’s fault. An answer sitting firmly on the Renegade end of the spectrum.
The first four keepers are in the Tower – two squirreled away in corners away from any meaningful content. We will take the elevator to leave this time, as we will for the first time we reach a new location on the Citadel, but we will make use of the Rapid Transport System in the future, and so avoid the long elevator rides (we will still take the occasional elevator, as there are a few quest hooks and squadmate conversations unlocked there). There are eight keepers on the Presidium, and we will find them all in this video while we explore the area, talk to persons of interest, and pick up some quests. The first such will put us in charge of resolving an issue between a C-Sec officer and a Hanar preacher.
This quest’s main purpose is to present how multifaceted quest resolutions can be in the game. With enough charm/intimidate points it is possible to influence either party in the dispute; failing that, paying for a permit will also resolve the quest. The “big, stupid, jellyfish” line (see here for example), as uttered by a male Shepard, has become somewhat infamous for its delivery, to the point of earning a reference in the third game.
We make our way back to the Embassies, and share a word with the asari receptionist; from now on, I will skip some of the dialogue that is available, as much of it is reduntant and bogs the flow of the game down. I will attempt to highlight the most interesting lines available to a character. Case in point, when we meet Executor Pallin (last seen chastising Garrus) in his office, we pursue three lines of conversation: his feelings on humans, his evaluation of Garrus, and his thoughts on Spectres. Pallin is somewhat of a typical Turian, steadfast and believing in following orders; he does not like Humans much. He also functions as a reminder that this game is not about black-and-white morality, but that there are nuances: Pallin is a good guy – especially for a paragon, law-abiding Shepard such as Hamletic; much of his distrust for spectres resonates well with how law-enforcement is organized in our real world. When called out by Ashley on corruption within his own organization, his answer is one that makes sense both for a Turian and a human.
The game is full of this kind of secondary characters, whose purpose is to provide a richer background to the game, both by populating the world with non-quest givers, and by presenting a breadth of different characters for each of the species present in the game world. It is a tricky balance to maintain, making them interesting without their voices drowning out the more important characters. For example, there is no plot-related reason for Pallin to still be available to us, except than to grant us with a grain of world-building. Through this exchange, we gain a little more understanding of the world Shepard inhabits (we also pick up another quest-related clue from a nearby terminal).
After checking out the local bar (and being unnecessarily rude to a bartender more interested in facts than drinks), we head over to the Elcor and Volus embassy, another example of world building through dialogue with secondary characters. We do not pick the options that clearly lead to exposition on the culture and history of the two species, not for lack of interest, but rather because all the relevant information can be found on the wiki (Volus, Elcor), without further slowing down an already dialogue-intensive stretch of gameplay. We will talk in more details on both races as the games unfold; for now, I only mention how I find the concept of how the Elcor talk to other species very interesting: having to introduce each sentence with a declaration of its intented tone, because other species are not equipped with the necessary sensory equipment to infer it, is at its core a result of non-aligned modes of multimodality; communication is more than language: around that vocal act, a complex web of interacting modalities cooperate in shaping meaning; from hand gestures, to body posture, to facial expressions (just to name a few), we employ a wide array of resources, in order to maximize the amount of information transfered while minimizing the chance for errors. Is it not perhaps a bit simplistic then to imagine that only the Elcor are experiencing this kind of problems? For the sake of the game flow, we can consider them to be standing in for every other species. We will return to this trade-off between making aliens recognizable and making them truly alien. Finally, there is a keeper to scan in the Embassy, and it is here that we encounter our first bug (pun intended): we need to save and reload for the critter to actually show up.
Next, we proceed to walk over to the financial district, where we meet Barla Von, who gracefully gives us the information we require for free; truth be told, the information itself is not very useful to us, and it is the detail about the freelancer hired to “deal with the situation” which is actually the next breadcrumb in our trail. We have done what we can for the main plot here, but we will remain on the Presidium and finish exploring the last two points of interest here. The first is Delan’s Emporium, run by the eponymous Hanar. We learn about their interesting cultural inhibition when it comes to personal names, and access his shop. In general, it is not worth to buy equipment in the game, as it will rain on us during missions but for a few exceptions, such as grenades and medi-gel capacity, spectre gear, and licences; whether buying those is worth it is debatable, but it will allow us to get equipment off the requisition officer on the Normandy in a pinch; from Delan, we aquire one such licence.
The last place worth visiting is the Consort’s home. A few quests go through here (we already have picked up one from the Elcor at the embassy), but for now all we can do is accept one from the Consort herself; she is, I think, supposed to introduce Asaris as powerful, empathic agents, who prefer to use their wits and their wiles to solve problems. Right away, she seems to be employing both assets to convince us; unfortunately (perhaps because of technical limitations in her animation) it seems quite unconvincing: her rather coquettish behaviour does not mix well with her appeal to our honour; is she trying to plead to our higher nature, or to tease us into accepting her quest? In trying to suggest both path simultaneously (and therefore making her plea relevant to a wider spectrum of players), she appears unsure of herself, rather than the supremely confident person we have come to expect. Nevertheless, we will play knight in shining armour and accept her request.
With everything done on the Presidium, we can now head over to the Wards; however on the way there, Ashley drops this:
Sigh. This is probably one of the most divisive lines in the trilogy; players find themselves either labelling her a space racist (specist would be a more appropriate term, less laden with real-world connotations too), or defend her comment as harmless. I mostly dislike it because it draws such a strong line on the sand, thus precipitating a decision regarding our feelings for Ashley that is not supposed to happen until much later (therefore also removing much pathos from said moment). As for the comment itself, there is no right or wrong reaction to it: this is a work of fiction, and how we react to it says more about us than about the characters themselves – our reactions belonging firmly in our actual world. Personally, I can see what the writers were going for, but I think they grossly overstepped the mark. This is the Presidium, not the stables; we have not seen one single animal here, so what is the second term of the comparison? Uttering such non-sequitur in this particular environment, the house of some of the most powerful personalities in the galaxy, demeans and diminishes Ashley and her values. With friends she might be, but very recent friends they are; using such a line in jest requires a familiarity with the recipients that she does not yet have (neither with Shepard and Kaidan, nor with us). I have seen people defending this comment saying it refers to the Keepers, and even if it were true, it would still be utterly inappropriate, as Keepers are universally seen manipulating technological devices, and have been portrayed as purposeful creatures. The game has been already a lot subtler in defining Ashley for us, both in her negative first impressions of all things alien – “look at that bug thing over there”, with the right intonation to convey her meaning – and her habit of relating novel experiences to safe earthly values – she has a “are those cherry trees?” comment available on the Tower.
With this, we are finally done with this segment. Next, we will head to Chora’s Den and begin exploring the Wards.