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It is a universally accepted fact (at least according to this columnist) that the whole of human storytelling can be divided into two categories: those works of fiction that are as good as the original Star Wars trilogy and everything else. One end of the spectrum includes the works of Shakespeare, Kubrick, and Welles. The other end includes books like Animorphs and movies like the Star Wars prequels.
Video games are no exception to this categorization. Game designers the world over have spent years desperately attempting to re-create the magic of the original Star Wars trilogy in a virtual space. Gamers have cried out, time and time again, waiting decades for a game in which the player does not merely watch Han Solo, but actively becomes his virtual equivalent. Mass Effect 2 is that game. The second installment in BioWare's epic space opera doesn't just reach the lofty dramatic heights of the original trilogy: it frequently surpasses them. With that in mind, hit the jump to find out why Mass Effect 2 is measurably superior to Return of the Jedi. Admit it, you're curious.
Unparalleled Narrative Momentum
As great as Return of the Jedi's climax is, the majority of the movie suffers from a total lack of dramatic tension. The Rebel Alliance is more powerful than it's ever been by the time the flick starts, and the Empire is essentially on the ropes. For much of the movie, in fact, our heroes behave like they're in no danger whatsoever. Compare that to Mass Effect 2, which is structured almost entirely around preparing the player for a suicide mission at game's end. Nearly any time the player completes a mission, he or she is constantly reminded that everyone onboard the USS Normandy (the player included) will die at the end of the game if the player makes a few poor choices. Sure, the player can have fun hanging out with his crewmates and getting drunk in space cantinas, but he or she does so with the knowledge that, sooner or later, Shepard and his crew will have to embark on a mission from which they may well never return.
The Element of Human Tragedy
Rumor has it that during Return of the Jedi's production, Harrison Ford begged George Lucas to kill off Han Solo at the film's end. Though we'll never know whether Ford was worrying about the quality of the story or if he simply hated playing the character, his suggestion would have greatly improved Return of the Jedi. As it stands, the Rebels defeat the Empire pretty handily: nobody has to sacrifice anything, none of the good guys die (apart from Darth Vader and a few nameless X-wing pilots, anyway), and everyone lives happily ever after. Bor-ing.
Meanwhile, two of my Mass Effect 2 crew members are dead. Irreversibly dead. When Mass Effect 3 comes along, I won't be able to use Thane Krios or Samara on my team, because I made some stupid decisions and got them killed. Mass Effect 2, as good fiction does, made me experience legitimate tragedy: I felt sorrow over the loss of Thane, guilty that my actions have done them in. The story became much more nuanced, thanks to the tragedies I endured. My victory is a bittersweet one, but also significantly more meaningful than it would have been otherwise. I'd take Thane's funeral over the big, silly Endor party that concludes ROTJ any day.
There are no cute, cuddly characters in Mass Effect 2. If there were any, they wouldn't be capable of bringing down heavily-armed space marines. That fact on its own is enough to justify this article's title.
Characters in Conflict
In addition to having an unconvincing antagonist, Return of the Jedi also ignores any opportunity to develop its heroes. In A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, we learned about Luke, Han, and Leia through the way they argued, bickered, and disagreed. By the time Return of the Jedi rolls around, they're all best friends. Apart from a brief misunderstanding between Leia and Han about the former's family ties, everyone makes nice and the audience gets bored.
Contrast that to the numerous occasions in Mass Effect 2 where your crew members actually attempt to kill one another, for totally plausible reasons! The cast of characters don't get along like a big, boring, happy family: they argue and fight and refuse to back down. When certain members of your crew argue with each other, they feel more like individuals with their own motivations and biases, rather than the personality-devoid robots who populate Return of the Jedi's cast. Ironically, it now occurs to me that one of the characters in Mass Effect 2 actually is a personality-devoid robot, and he's still more fun to watch than Princess Leia.
Not convinced? Hit the comments below. I'm sure we missed a few significant reasons why Mass Effect 2 is better than ROTJ (or vice versa). What do you think?