To any of you that frequent GameCritics.com, you're probably well aware that I was completely under the spell of BioWare's Mass Effect for the 360 from the moment I started it up until the final credits rolled. I thought it was such a great game, I even gave it the second perfect score of my career. (The other? Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.)
There are tons of things I could discuss about Mass Effect, but the thing buzzing around my head today and for the last few days is that every time I see a picture or screenshot of the game, I wonder: "Who the hell's that?".
Because the game lets you customize your character's race, gender, and facial features, it always takes me a second to realize that the often-seen pug-ugly generic-looking dude in the space suit is actually the same Commander Shepard who's a red-headed Goth chick hottie in my own personal alternate universe.
I'm actually insanely thrilled that the developers have said that the character I've created in this first installment will carry over or at least affect the game in the next two sequels (it was announced as a trilogy from the start), but I have to say that I find it disconcerting that the experience I had is going to be unavoidably different from the one everyone else did.
In general, when you get together with a friend to talk about games, it's easy to say "Man, do you remember getting killed a million times by those damn birds in Ninja Gaiden*?" or "That line about horse wang in Disgaea was classic!" and have the person you're talking to know exactly what you're referencing. There's a near-infinite number of experiences that are common to people who play games; a sort of virtual shared history.
In Mass Effect, if I try to mention the well-done lesbian scene at the end of the game, I could very likely be talking to someone who completed the game just like I did, but experienced a hetero scene or no scene at all in their version. (...And by the way, the idea of some random spaceman getting busy with Liara totally creeps me out.) I think it's fantastic that players can customize things to suit their tastes. I can't imagine what it must be like to be a female gamer and have to constantly be forced into a male protagonist, or to be a non-white ethnicity and play 99% of games as an anglo-saxon, or whatever fictional race those spiky-haired anime characters are.
At the same time, I wonder what effect this will have on the "shared history" of gamers. Without a doubt, anyone who plays through a quality game like Mass Effect, Oblivion or any other title that allows personalization to any degree will be able to discuss it and appreciate its finer points. But instead of revisiting commonalities, maybe we'll be contrasting our own individual strategies, difficulties, and experiences that highlight ourselves as individuals.
*The NES version, not the overhyped, underdeveloped and retardedly difficult Itagaki reincarnation.