To the tune of: The Element’s Song by Tom Lehrer
It’s 2010 and my jaw is hanging like it’s been wired open. I can’t believe what I’m watching on screen. The wise-talking pensive scientist / special operative who’s been fighting robots and aliens and stuff at my side, is… singing. And, in the deep darkness of the far future, in the lab of my one-of-a-kind spaceship in uber science-fiction action-game Mass Effect 2 what he’s singing is… Gilbert & Sullivan? Particularly a parody of a Modern Major General.
It’s 2007 and I’m munching on a buffet at Bioware’s offices in Edmonton, Alberta. Their headquarters are a great solid block of a building, enclosing a wide covered plaza, and along one side of it are tables and a buffet. Opposite me, chewing lugubriously, is Drew Karpyshyn, chief writer for Bioware, and author of numerous pulp sci-fi novels and script. Like the rest of the guys here, he’s something of a shtarker – if, as I naively imagine must happen all the time in Canada, the whole building gets routinely buried under a mile of snow, these guys would survive on built-up buffet-generated body-fat for weeks before they had to start eating the QA team.
I look around at these guys and, while they seem smart, I’m, as always, a little disappointed with the atmosphere. Like all their compadres I’ve visited, the location of this group of North American developers is clinical and dull – 3D Realms had a bunker that was tedious cubicles inside, Blizzard’s base could have been in a Reading business park, Monolith and 2K are buried in silent office blocks in the suburbs… only EA (the campus in San Fran, or their recently-abandoned UK riverside headquarters) seem to have had a sense of the grand scale of what they’re building; these are the people building the future of the mind and they’re doing it from cubicle farms and bedrooms, enlivened only by merchandised cartoon dolls on their desks and the same sort of pop-culture posters on their walls their grandfathers would have stuck up during the war. Drew seems pleasant and bright, but not the image of wild-eyed writer I’d have expected.
Yet Drew, or one of his colleagues, wrote that scene. Someone in that company is aware of 19th Century British comic opera, well enough to write a parody of it (even including references to “patter” and the traditional updating of the song to current cultural events). That same person is also confident enough of their audience, confident enough of their own abilities and has enough confidence from their team, that they’ll put it into a wildly-inappropriate genre video game, but in a perfectly appropriate context. The moment doesn’t just work in the context of the character as an arbitrary grab at giving him depth – it works within the internal history of the game, with the character’s development from a simple doctor to something halfway between Mengeles and Einstein, and within the character’s motivations and especially his dark secret. It’s up there with Andrew Ryan’s Teetime and Modern Warfare’s helicopter crash – but better executed, less po-faced and completely tangential to the plot.
Internet culture talks often about the moment some piece of media “jumped the shark”; I’d say that Mordin moment, is the inversion of this, the moment when games stepped up from being puerile, simplistic and arbitrary constructs of a moment’s pleasure, to fully-fledged self-sustaining, confident and internally coherent worlds of their own.