Posts Tagged ‘ Jordan Mechner

Making Conventional Conversation

There is a lot of talking in Mass Effect. One could say an eye-glazing amount of talking. People just love to talk to Commander Shepard, and Commander Shepard loves to ask people detailed sets of questions to which the answers are mostly redundant. But nobody ever gets bored or annoyed by the conversation. Everyone just loves all this chit-chat.

Except me. I’m rummaging around my desk for reading material while Shepard does the conversational circuit of the Normandy or Citadel Station. There has to be a better way of revealing character.

"Hey Liara, just thought I'd stop by to have the exact same conversation about your health we've had three times before."

The dialogue tree itself is a pointless device if developers don’t use it to enforce conversational choices. No matter who Shepard is talking to, the conversation will just go on and on, covering every conceivable topic of interest, before you finally hit the “end conversation” option. This means the choices on offer are entire illusory: we’re going to have this whole conversation no matter what I ask or how I ask it. Worse, I can ask questions out of order. You are clearly supposed to proceed clockwise through the “conversation wheel”, and there are times when skipping to a more interesting line of inquiry leads to an answer that refers back to a question you haven’t asked yet.

It’s this kind of phony nod to interactivity that drives me crazy about the medium sometimes. These characters are not having the conversation I want to have, we’re having the conversation the developer wants them to have. And I have no problem with that, none whatsoever, but why not embrace the fact that your characters won’t, and can’t, respond dynamically to the player’s choices? Why not use that lack of freedom to turn your writers loose and create wholly scripted conversational encounters that have better pacing and more natural dialogue?

Look back at games like Wing Commander 3 or The Last Express. Wing Commander 3 planted forks in each conversation that had an impact on your character’s relationship with his shipmates, but outside of those choice moments, each encounter moved swiftly along a predetermined path. It gave freedom to the writers, the actors, and the director.

"Would you like to hear why people call me 'Joker' again while you stand there woodenly, Commander?"

Did I care that I wasn’t in charge? Please, in what game are we ever in charge? Until the day comes that a game can provide us with a virtual Game Master who can respond to our every idea, someone is going to have to plot and script these damn things. And honestly, I don’t ever want a virtual GM, because it will arrive approximately five minutes before the machines rise up and kill us all.

Or take a page from Jordan Mechner, the hands-down master of character development in a videogame. The Last Express hardly offers any choices, but you get to know the characters in a far more natural setting. You listen to them interacting with each other and occasionally a conversation opportunity arises, which always plays out in a brief cutscene. If the writing is sharp enough, nobody will care that they didn’t get to click on a, “Tell me more about…” button.

"Don't be fooled by my blank visage, Alenko. This lighting is as intense as my feelings for you. Now tell me more about how hard your life has been. I love self-absorption."

But NPCs interacting with one another is another crucial element to character development, and it’s one that Mass Effect completely ignores. The only way you get to know anyone in this game is if you actually walk up to them and spend ten minutes talking to them. Not only is that boring, because it’s always the same two characters talking to one another, but it also forces the player to turn Shepard into Chatty Kathy. My Shepard started the game as a tough-as-nails, ruthless martinet. But I ended up discarding that idea of the character, because it was unsupportable in the face of her endless interest in her crew. “No, tell me more about you childhood, Kaiden. Please, I would love to hear about the school you went to. Oh, you had a mean teacher? Tell me all about it.”

It’s telling that my favorite piece of dialogue in the game was an incidental, throwaway exchange between Tali and Wrex in an elevator. Wrex, trying is trying to bait her.

“So, do the Quarians ever talk about the creation of the Geth which resulted in the exile of your people?”

Tali fires back, “Do the Krogan ever talk about the war with the Turians which resulted in the sterilization of your entire species?”

“All the time.”

"Let's just admit it, Shepard. I'm the only person you really talk to."

There is so much to love about this exchange. It brings out Wrex’s terminal lack of of subtlety but also his artless literalism. It also tells you a lot about how these two doomed races confront their extinction: with a combination of schadenfreude, anger, and gallows humor. It’s not something that comes out in Shepard’s one-on-one interrogations, it’s something that can only arise when these characters’ personalities can play off one another, without having to make room for meaningless button-presses and stilted answers.