Restarting the Cycles: Mass Effect 3, Botanicula, and the nature of people

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September 27, 2012 by Daniel

WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS ABOUND for both Mass Effect 3 and Botanicula.  You’ve been warned.

Let me first get out of the way that Botanicula has probably turned into one of my favourite games ever.  Gameplay-wise, it builds off of Amanita Design’s last game Machinarium, while excising the few things that made that game a slog at some points (momentum-stopping spatial puzzles and the slow movement of your main character). With an extremely well-realized world that encourages constant discovery and some truly fantastic music, it’s the most charming game this side of We ❤ Katamari.  It tells an incredibly simple, yet still engaging, plot through five main characters that are easily-distinguishable from each other both in terms of appearance and personality – and it does all of this storytelling without saying a single word.

But something struck me about the game once I finished it – it has exactly the same plot and basic themes as another game with a well-realized world, personality-laden characters, and a simple but engaging story.  I’m talking about none other than Mass Effect 3, the eagerly-anticipated ending to the Mass Effect trilogy.  Though it may seem odd to compare an indie adventure game with a big-budget sci-fi shooter/RPG, make no mistake – these games are pretty much exactly the same. Though the games are diametrically opposed in the way they tell their stories – Mass Effect being extremely talky while Botanicula explores its story through nothing but pure action – they both deal with a plot involving banding together a bunch of disparate groups in the interest of defeating a common enemy.  In addition to this, they both discuss cycles and how they relate to human nature.

Botanicula is a game about five botanical creatures of different backgrounds trying to save their home tree from an evil parasitic lifeform that looks like a spider; eventually, the heroes learn that this is something the spiders have done countless times in the past to other trees.   They figure out how to defeat the spiders by performing tasks for various other creatures on the tree.  In the endgame, the group is split up and made immobile, save for one character Mr. Lantern, who, considering he’s the first character you play as, can be seen as the “main” character.  Mr. Lantern is able to sneak into the base of the spider creatures and, in what seems to be a self-sacrificial gesture, actually ends up destroying them, ending a cycle of death and beginning to show hope for the future, symbolized in the growing of a new tree.

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From left to right: Mr. Lantern, Mrs. Mushroom, Mr. Feather, Mr. Poppy Head, and Mr. Twig. Buncha Reservoir Dogs right here.

Mass Effect 3 is a game about seven military members of different backgrounds trying to save their galaxy from an evil race of giant robot squids called Reapers; in the past game, the heroes learned that this is something that has happened several times in many different galaxies.  They attempt to destroy the Reapers by performing tasks for various other races so that they can gain their assistance for the final confrontation.  In the endgame, your squad is split up save for the player character, Shepard.  Shepard gets beamed aboard the main Reaper ship, where he/she is able to end the cycle of death and rebirth by destroying the Reapers, becoming their leader, or merging with them, thereby creating a new lifeform of half-sentient, half-organics.  The final shots are of the surviving crew members crash-landing on a new planet, the human/new species’ future uncertain but hopeful.

Ladies and gents, your crewmates.

So: we have a motley crew of individuals from various backgrounds; a mysterious evil race of creatures intent on wiping out the homelands of our heroes; a need to perform tasks for other people so they’ll lend the player assistance; the main group getting split up in the endgame, and the main player character having to forge onward alone; and a self-sacrificial gesture leading to a break in the cycle and a beginning of a new world.

This is all well and good of course, and it illustrates my point of them being basically the same game, but what I actually find interesting is their differences – chiefly the way they both deal with their plots – and the surprising things they end up saying about their primary themes.

Mass Effect 3 is a dour game.  The entire universe is on the brink of being destroyed.  People, and indeed entire races, are dying.  Centuries-old conflicts are reaching the breaking point, and hard choices need to be made.  Philosophical quandaries about the nature of people are rampant and other science fiction-type questions are asked.  Meanwhile, Botanicula is delightfully cheery.  It’s colourful and whimsical, with new creatures to see at every turn.  It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and while it certainly has darker moments, it has a way of making you smile throughout the entire game – I know I certainly did.  And yet, what it says about the nature of people is actually a hell of a lot darker than anything that ME3 does.

See, ME3, despite its depressing atmosphere and ambiguous ending, is an inherently optimistic game.  After you help out the various races with their problems, they’re right there on the frontlines with you, fighting against these intergalactic space squids, risking their own lives for the rest of the universe.  Sure, some of them might kind of hate you, but they’re all still there regardless – people, once they work their own shit out, will be generous, and will help you out when it really comes down to it.  And no matter what ending you pick, even the somewhat darker “control” ending – which ends with Shepard becoming some kind of omnipresent god-like being – the galaxy is moving in a positive direction.  Hell, even if you choose the “no choice” ending, they at least tell you that in the next cycle, the good guys totally win.  The end point is that, even if we can’t necessarily get away from cycles entirely, we can at least break them down together and create newer, more positive cycles.

Even this face-burnt man ends up happy!

Botanicula, meanwhile, says that people are…well…jerks.  Granted, the things you do for these people are a little bit less extreme – you’re mostly just collecting things for them, not solving extremely old and complicated beefs – but at the news that their entire world is going to be destroyed, most of the people involved are just ambivalent.  The other creatures don’t directly help you with the spider threat; oh sure, they help indirectly by letting you  pass into new areas, and some of them will tell you about the spiders and give you hints how to defeat them, but they’re not exactly venturing forth with you, taking a stand against the thing that will undoubtedly murder all of  them. They have their own problems, and they won’t budge from these even after you’ve given them whatever it is they want.  The only people you can depend on, the game says, is yourself and your close group of friends; nobody else really cares.

Oh, no, sorry bro, we can’t help you with that. We need to continue….um….being a circus.

And not only that, but they’ll take credit for your accomplishments too!  They’ll gather around you as you celebrate your victory, as if they also risked their lives for the greater good!  That’s right – all the hard work you put in, saving your homeland and everyone in it?  The only thing it accomplished is letting these lazy, selfish people continue doing what they’ve always done – standing around being useless until someone comes to help them, and then acting passive when there’s a real threat coming around.  All that you’ve done, in the end, is been an enabler, and rather than changing anything, you’ve actually kept things entirely the same.  In its final stages, what Botanicula really says is that no matter how hard you try, even if it seems like you already have, you can never break a cycle – because even if you defeat the external threat, people will never change.

Yay?

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