Posts Tagged ‘ Mass Effect

On the Other Hand

Two-thirds of Mass Effect drove me crazy. The dull combat mooted the RPG elements and the side quests were a complete waste of time, and I wasn’t much of a fan of the way the characters were developed and revealed. On balance, I’d have to say I didn’t much care for it.

But I’m never balanced in how I assess games. I have an Impressionist’s sensibilities. I play for those moments that arrive like a lightning flash, something so perfectly captured that it seems to exist apart from the rest of the experience. Everything else will fade and be forgotten, but this moment will linger on in the theater room of the mind.

What I’ll carry away from Mass Effect are a few great conversations and a brilliant climax. The scene where Wrex has just discovered that the sterilization afflicting his people has been cured, but that stopping the villain requires destroying that cure, is excellent. Wrex has always been matter-of-fact about his race’s slow slide into extinction, but when he comes face-to-face with the possibility that he could save them, he almost snaps.

Another great moment in inter-species cooperation.

The great part about the scene that follows is that Shepard is ostensibly talking Wrex down, but it would be closer to the truth to say that Wrex just admits what his heart already knows to be true. Wrex, it’s clear from his stories, plays the part of the simple Krogan barbarian, but is actually one of the most insightful characters in the game. He has overcome a genetic and cultural predisposition for aggression and faced up to why the Krogan have always partly been the authors of their own demise. He is an exile from his people because he has told them they must change, and they’re not ready to hear the message.

So even though he snarls at Shepard that the lines are getting blurred, he ultimately knows they aren’t. He knows the Krogan are being rescued to serve as cannon fodder, and when Shepard says to him, “These aren’t your people,” the double-meaning is not lost on him. He agrees to help destroy the facility and the cure.

In the tombs.

The sequence on Ilos culminates brilliantly, and ultimately forms the heart of the game. Shepard and her crew are exploring the last ruins of the Prothean civilization, a race that ruled the galaxy for fifty thousand years earlier but who mysteriously died out. After brushing aside some Geth, Shepard and her compatriots take a long, eerie drive through the canals and canyons below the city. Along the way, Garrus realizes that the canyon walls are actually huge cryogenic storage banks, full of units that had been shut down for millenia, making the entire place an accidental mausoleum. Finally, Shepard comes to a Virtual Intelligence that the Protheans left behind.

I’ve complained a lot about the way conversations work in this game, but this was one case where it felt absolutely natural. I sat, rapt with attention, as the VI told its story.

Beneath Mass Effect’s simple story of a galaxy at peril is a technological fable. “Mass Effect” refers to the technology that has brought every race into the interstellar age, the set of scientific and engineering principles upon which almost every contemporary technology rests.

But of course, mass effect technologies have not been discovered, but found. Mass effect relays, point-to-point transit hubs strung throughout the galaxy, were not built by any of the galaxy’s races. They all credit the Protheans with having invented the technology, but there is growing evidence throughout the game that the Protheans also found the mass effect technology. The relays, and the super space-station that acts as the seat of galactic governance, the Citadel, seem to predate everything. They sit there, scattered around the galaxy, just waiting to be found.

Payment coming due.

An early warning is sounded by an encounter with a salarian scientist aboard the Citadel. He is caught studying the Keepers, the insectoid servitors of the Citadel. They are seen everywhere, plugging away at tasks they’ve assigned themselves. The Citadel’s authorities have made it illegal to impede Keepers in the performance of their duties. But as the salarian points out, “We don’t know anything about them.” The Keepers are taken for granted, assumed to be benign, but are fundamentally a mystery.

The encapsulates the relationship the sentient species of the galaxy have formed with mass effect technology. They found it waiting for them and used it without question, because it was convenient and because it was so far beyond their capacity to understand it that it became nothing more than useful magic. The other races endlessly remind the humans that they are newcomers on the galactic stage, but the irony of their pretensions is that their powers rest on an uncertain foundation. The salarians, asari, and turians pretend that they have created galactic governance, when the truth is that they were merely the first to locate its levers.

Shepard, listening to the VI hologram.

The Prothean messenger explains that the Protheans followed the same development track. They mastered space flight, and then found the mass effect relays waiting for them in the darkness. They never realized, until it was far too late, that the technology had been left behind for a purpose. That the technology could serve the agenda of another power, and that their unquestioning reliance on the technology had effectively lobotomized them.

Clarke reminds us that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Mass Effect is about the danger of building a society and way of life around techno-sorcery. It’s about the hazards of accepting tools and conveniences without knowing where they come from, how they work, and what is their ultimate cost. Mass Effect is about life in an age of miracles, where the costs lurk somewhere out of sight, and the future belongs to technologies that are neither understood nor questioned.

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.

Point and Click

Mass Effect is beginning to bore me.

I realized that yesterday afternoon as I tore through yet another series of missions, blowing away Geth troopers that were unable to so much as pierce my party’s shields. Shepard and her squad have not been in peril since the earliest segments of the Noveria mission. Now we’re in the sky-towers of Feros, single-handedly exterminating a Geth invasion force. If it weren’t for my interest in Mass Effect 2, I think I might have pulled the plug on this by now.

What’s getting to me is the bogus inventory management I have to do and the fact that I have absolutely no meaningful choices in combat. It’s too fiddly and generic to satisfy on the same level as, say, a hack-and-slash loot-fest like Diablo or Torchlight, but it’s too idiot-proofed to match something like Deus Ex’s or System Shock 2′s balance of RPG / shooter mechanics.

Every character has the full complement of weapons: pistol, shotgun, machine gun, and sniper rifle. Now most character are good with one, maybe two of these weapons. They will never use anything else, because it wouldn’t make sense for them to try. On the other hand, none of these weapons have any real disadvantages. Not when you have a squad of three people helping each other out. So the sniper rifle might be slow-firing, but a trained sniper only needs one or two shots to kill a healthy target. The shotgun is slow-firing and short ranged, but it is also a one-hit kill weapon at times. The assault rifle is kind of inaccurate, but it shoots so fast and puts out such high damage that it doesn’t need to hit reliably. It wears its targets down. The pistol… well, it’s not too good but the characters who rely on the pistol tend to have other powers to make up for it.

And since engagement ranges always tend toward short or intermediate, every single weapon I named above manages to be useful in every situation. Under attack from snipers? Run twenty feet and murder them with your shotgun. Is a big space lizard charging you? Step aside and tag him with the sniper rifle as he comes. Just make sure to max out your chosen weapon, and you’ll never need another.

That doesn’t mean I wont have to go into my inventory and tediously upgrade from one gun to the next. It won’t change anything, since all the weapons look the same and shoot essentially the same, but I have to do it to make sure I’m doing all the damage I can. It provides a nice little illusion of progress. But I have never really noticed much change.

Boxes. Identical weapons. People standing in the open and shooting. Back in the day, this could have given Doom a real run for its money.

What Bioware missed, I think, is that good shooters are really about improvisation and opportunity. Having the right tools can make a job boring. It’s more fun to take down a squad of enemies when the right weapon is down to its last dozen rounds, and the only other thing you’ve got on hand is a pistol and a couple hand grenades, than it is to simply machine-gun them. Those are the moments that let us invent strategies on the fly and play efficiently with inefficient tools.

Opportunity comes during what Lange calls “Fuck Yeah Levels”, when the game gives you a period of super-empowered grace and the incentives to enjoy it.  The amazing weapons for which ammo has been scarce in previous levels are suddenly stocked. The most interesting enemies in the game are present in droves. The level design keeps the action fast and dynamic. It’s the lobby scene in The Matrix. Think of the climactic sequences in every act of a Max Payne title, or the street battle in Japan in Kane and Lynch, the church in Uncharted, or the scene where Sander Cohen tries to kill you in Bioshock.

In the same way a story uses the dramatic structure to vary the tension as it builds toward the climax, a shooter must vary encounter structure. If it doesn’t, the tension ultimately flatlines no matter the intensity of action. Whether I’m fighting three guys or 300 won’t really matter if my actions never change. That’s where I’m at with Mass Effect. Approximately 1/3 of the game fluctuates between dull and pointless.

Quick Hits from Mass Effect

The Paragon / Renegade meters drive me crazy. It’s not that I object to the game’s binary choice moments, since Bioware did a decent job of making either option credible for Commander Shepard. I just wish the game did not turn this aspect of character into an overt scoring system. I really wanted to create a consistent, believable Shepard, but any time a stat appears in a game, I start trying to manipulate it.

So when I face choices in handling a confrontation, I’m as likely to be thinking about my P / R scores as I am about what Shepard would do. The other evening I had to rescue some official from biotic terrorists and I made my decision on the grounds that the game was starting to think I was a goody two-shoes. “I’ve been too nice lately. Better throw in some renegade.”

Besides which, the whole dialogue tree (more of a dialogue-T) seems to be irrelevant. Whether or nor Shepard plays it tough or plays it like a counselor, my antagonists seem equally moved: “I guess you’re right.” I want something more like the tense, timed negotiations of Heavy Rain, where you’d navigate a series of conversation options and use a combination of cajolery and firmness to get what you wanted. Consequences did not directly flow from a single choice, but the steady accretion of small decisions.

I did face one dilemma that left me a bit conflicted. When given the choice between releasing or killing the last Rachni queen, a race that had terrorized the galaxy millennia earlier, I was completely at a loss. My Shepard is generally a tough, unsentimental martinet and ordinarily would have incinerated the thing without a second thought. But I’ve read Ender’s Game, and the situation was too similar. The fact is that the first war ended in a genocide and no communication ever took place with the Rachni, but now I was speaking to a Rachni queen who seemed regretful and even tragic. Morally, she was not culpable for the actions of her race, nor did I feel Shepard was bound by the genocidal decisions made earlier. Shepard might be one of the galactic Council’s special enforcers, but I did not feel that she was obligated to support some of its most heavy-handed decisions.

The benevolent Citadel Council: where the right solution is always the Final Solution.

So I let it go and for the first time had an action roundly condemned by my officers and the Council. It was an isolating moment. For once, nobody said, “I think you handled this right.” The most I got was, “I’m not sure that was our decision.”  But I must also say that Mass Effect did not make the Rachni seem like a real threat. According the game’s lore the Rachni were terrifying and dangerous in their day, but my experience ran counter to that. They were large pests that were easy enough to mow down once you expected them. It seemed unlikely that this race would ever pose much of a threat. The gravity of decision was not real to me.

But perhaps that’s just clever evocation of the game’s theme. Humanity is a young and brash actor on the galactic stage, while the older races seem exhausted under the weight of historical experience. Shepard is a young hero, and her experience has taught her that almost anything is possible and there is no problem that she can’t solve. So she’ll do as she damn well pleases, certain that she can always handle the consequences if it comes to that.