In Mass Effect 2, your space-faring hero can wear a helmet. It's not mandatory. I choose to have my character not wear a helmet. What's that signify?
Wearing a helmet provides statistical advantages which can make a tough fight easier or a resistant conversationalist pliable. Should Commander Shepard don the Breather Helmet, she'll enjoy 5% improvement to her health. Wearing the Death Mask, she has a 10% boost in negotiating power.
But wearing any helmet obscures Shepard's face. This leaves her incapable of visibly emoting during Mass Effect 2's many close-up interactive conversation scenes. It also makes her look over-armored and as coolly detached as someone who talks to you indoors without removing their sunglasses. With her helmet on, I can't see Shepard frown or smile. I just see her metal-encased cranium nod or shake, her voice muffled.
When I started Mass Effect 2, I had Shepard wear a helmet. I wanted the statistical advantages that came with any one of them. That's a choice of math over aesthetics, of course, my standard priorities while playing a game. That's a sound strategy for success in a virtual world: Be better at something; don't care how you look doing it.
But not seeing Shepard's face bothered me more with each muffled conversation. I realized that I valued emotional expression in Mass Effect 2 over a 5% health bonus.
By Mass Effect 2's third hour I removed Shepard's helmet. I haven't put it on her in the 26 hours I've played of the game since then.
Some games don't bother you with these choices. The creators of Gears of War have already made the functionally illogical decision for us. They portray their games' heroic super-soldiers in heavy armor suits that have no accompanying helmets. The Gears people must know it makes no sense for Marcus Fenix to fight a war with his head shielded only by a do-rag. But they must also know that a helmet-free Fenix is a character with whom I can better empathize. Leave the stoic coolness to the eternally strange Master Chief, whose Halo helmet disguises any and all emotion. As a friend of mine recently observed, there's a reason Iron Man movies tend to include shots of Robert Downey, Jr. in his suit but without his helmet.
Mass Effect 2 is, like many Bioware games, celebrated for the choices it offers its players. Those choices reveal something about those who play the game, illuminating a gamer's decision to plumb their darkest desires or walk a path of virtue.
I had not expected this game to also test whether I cared about numbers more than I do faces, about survival advantages more than I do facial expressions.
I've learned where I stand. More importantly, I've learned that I stand without a helmet on my space-hero's head.