Note: Discussions about profanity require using profanity, at least in quotation. Just so you know.
Space operas might have gone out of style in the SF community, but they’re all the rage among gamers, and few have garnered as much critical and popular acclaim as Mass Effect 2. With over four million copies sold, this second installment in the venerable shooter/RPG series avoided the sophomore slump by getting grim from the outset. The game opens with the player character, Commander Shepard, perishing from deep-space decompression as the Normandy, the ship he or she was captaining, gets blasted to bits by an insectoid species called the Collectors. (FYI, you can select Shepard’s sex at the onset.) Good night, sweet prince or princess? Not quite. Shepard wakes up two years later on an operating table. A shadowy organization named Cerberus has brought Shepard back from the dead using cutting-edge technology. But Shepard’s new life comes with strings attached, namely finding out why the Collectors are abducting entire human colonies and then destroying the marauders. It’s a suicide mission, no doubt about it, and to succeed Shepard will need to recruit some of the deadliest talent the galaxy has to offer. A scientist responsible for the nigh extermination of an entire species. A grudge-bound, amoral biotic (think of the psychic hijinks in Stephen King’s Firestarter or Paul McGuigan’s Push). A lethal hitman who’s devoutly religious. Still, Shepard doesn’t need such death dealers to figure out who’s being the Collectors. It’s the Reapers, a race of sentiment machines who appear every fifty-thousand years to obliterate all organic life.
While a dour tone dominates, Mass Effect 2 wisely includes some comic relief in the form of Jeff “Joker” Moreau, a hotshot pilot who suffers from Lobstein syndrome and is as quick to crack a joke as he is a bone. His banter with the rechristened Normandy’s cold-as-Arctic-ice artificial intelligence EDI never failed to bring a smile to my face. I wish the same could be said for the single mission in which you, the player, get to control Joker. Some background: Commander Shepard and the Normandy’s fighting forces have absconded on a shuttle when a group of Collectors surprise the ship and start taking out its skeleton crew. Their only hope is for limping, brittle Joker to remove EDI’s protocol restraints and give it control of the Normandy.
“Shit, shit, shit,” Joker exclaims, lurching down the Normandy’s bridge as a chitinous, multi-limbed monstrosity with an anvil-shaped head lit by lambent eyes rends his friends apart. A second such horror scuttles up a nearby laboratory window as Joker ducks into a maintenance tunnel, muttering, “Shit, shit, shit, shit.” A brawny security guard gets hurled into a bulkhead moments after proclaiming, “Stay close. I’ll protect you.” Meanwhile, a comely yeoman is dragged shrieking into an elevator by a malformed humanoid horror. “Shit, shit, shit,” Joker states. Then EDI dispassionately informs him that the main reactor is offline. “What the shit?” Joker opines. After Joker gets to engineering and discovers that the rest of the crew is either dead or abducted, he huffs, “Shit.”
Quick quiz: Is this section supposed to be humorous or dire? I played it several times and still can’t tell. It isn’t devoid of chuckles. When EDI tells Joker he has to reactivate the primary drive, Joker says, “You want me to go crawling through the ducts again.” EDI sweetly responds, “I enjoy the sight of humans on their knees. That is a joke.” Neither does it lack terror. Watching the Collectors dispatch characters you’ve come to know by name is chilling. Sadly, Joker’s dialogue doesn’t cater to either tone, a consequence (I’d argue) of it being composed almost entirely of a single, oft-repeated profanity. Yes, yes, I know it’s possible to wring pathos and drama out of a lone obscenity by repeating it with different inflections (content warning). But you can count such examples on one hand, and you know why? Profanities and obscenities are intensifiers, ways of adding emotional and rhetorical impact. Repeat an intensifier enough, though, and it stops, er, intensifying. It becomes dialect or patois—commonplace, in other words. And while we can argue the various merits and demerits of that, it does nothing to make our art more impactful.
(Picture: CC 2012 by Midhras)