Mid-20th Century Conservative Platonist Richard Weaver once made the following seemingly reductive yet entirely accurate statement about the affective power of language: “It can move us toward what is good; it can move us toward what is evil; or it can, in a hypothetical third place, fail to move us at all.” Weaver extrapolates this (brilliantly, I think) from Plato’s Phaedrus, in which we’re presented with three types of love that correspond to the above three types of speech: the noble lover, the base lover, and the non-lover. The noble and the base are fairly straight-forward – one dehumanizes his beloved, the other seeks to uplift. It’s the non-lover that I continue to be fascinated with; writing in the 1950s, Weaver compared the non-lover to the semanticists of the 1930s who sought to “purify” language, to seeks linguistic practices that were characterized by “sober fidelity” and “serviceable objectivity.” Yet that tendency towards what I call an “idealized neutrality,” linguistic or social or political, has its roots in the history of science as well (the origins of objectivity), and continues in the kind of thing that Jon Stewart does when he snickers at the excesses of the news.
I could keep going with that – it’s the subject of my on-going research. Richard Weaver would probably be pretty surprised to find himself in an article about video games, but his thinking here aligns so perfectly with Mass Effect and its deceptively simple conversation wheel. Standard non-interactive video games have yet to figure out a way to do dialogue naturally, and most of the time translation makes it merely awful. To wit:
Other than interactive fiction, if you wanted to have a conversation while playing a video game, it was going to be limited to, “Sorry Mario, But Our Princess is Another Castle.” Even advanced games would operate more like a film script that you unlock by completing the actions of the game. Final Fantasy III for the SNES was typical in its monological interactions, and the only variations were in moments that were almost like mini-games. For instance, at one point you had to sing the right notes of an aria in order to lure an amorous airship owner. In another, diplomatic responses to an enemy emperor gave you points that would win you items and gold.
Fifteen years later, Mass Effect was able to work with a much more complex gaming engine that allowed dialogue to weigh heavier even than the action. It doesn’t matter how many times you were killed by a Krogan Battlemaster, the memory of your saved-game only recalls the successful runs. You can cower behind a crate and let your squad take out your enemies, and no one will call you yellow when you return to the Normandy. But if you tell your talkative paraplegic pilot to “Cut the Chatter,” you’re walking the road to be a renegade, man.
As the above screenshot indicates, Mass Effect gives you three dialogue options (and sometimes more; more on that in a minute): From top to bottom Paragon, Neutral, and Renegade. I was delighted how well this matches up to Weaver’s tripartite schema. And as in Plato, these choices for speaking are connected to the soul itself. If I answer “Convince me” to the above question, I’m setting up myself up as a paragon, as someone who will be trusted by the high and mighty “Council.” Saying “Too bad” might earn me the respect of some of the dissident members of my crew, but not playing well with others has its disadvantages. Yet there are advantages to both, as you can complete the game on any of the paths or ideally on all three by playing it through three times. So far as I can tell, based on reading through some walkthroughs, the neutral path is boring; in fact, if you click the X button, it will automatically choose that middle road. Basically, you’re choosing course of action, but you’re doing it through dialogue.
In that sense, the game enacts the overt message of Weaver’s linguistic and rhetorical theory in showing that by rejecting affective and affecting options, we limit the experience that the game offers. That’s not to say that Weaver would have been really into naming his Shepherd avatar. He felt that the arhetorical speech of the “non-lover” was itself a fantasy, an aspiration for “unqualified medium of transmission of meanings from mind to mind, and by virtue of its minds can remain in an unprejudiced relationship to the world and also to other minds.” But then, the technology is probably not there to make a game with 100 different choices of varying rhetorical nuance.
Where the game most uses rhetoric, is in its smart deployment of the traditional leveling up system that’s a staple of Role-Playing Games. As you become more experienced, you gain points for attributes such as “Assault Training,” “Fitness” and “Electronics.” However, you can also gain points for “Charm” and “Intimidate” skills. By mastering these, you get more conversational options, some that change the course of a particular mission. For instance:
If you have a high enough Charm or Intimidate level, the options on the left are open to you; if not, “You can’t keep me out!” is your only choice. In this case, you’ve been sent to deal with a cult leader and his violent cultists. If you force your way in, you can expect a gunfight. If you charm or intimidate your way in, you might be able to get a peaceful resolution. Sometimes intimidation is necessary on those immune to charm, and vice-versa, so the way you build you character is dependent on whether or not you can unlock these dialogue choices. Here, Mass Effect is smart in showing the way skilled rhetoricians make choices based on the rhetorical situation. But it also shows the way that an ethos is necessary to make certain kinds of statements effectively: this is more of a Ciceronian perspective than Aristotlelian, as in Cicero the character of the speaker is more important the speech itself. If you’re a renegade, you can only get some many charm points.
In doing some Google work about the game, I found this brilliant teaching exercise that allows students to use Mass Effect to ” judge the consequences of Shepard’s rhetorical decisions.” I’ve really only skimmed the surface, but I’m delighted with the implications.