RSS

Paper vs. Pixels. Part 2: Mass Effect is a Dirty Whore

May 23, 2011 | | Comments 1

This is a bizarre time we live in, where gamers praise if not outright command open world settings in which to explore. It’s one aspect of digital gaming that paper gaming often does better. With the right GM, a group can go anywhere and do pretty much anything and still encounter an interesting story when they got there. A good GM doesn’t have to worry about players going rogue and doing something unpredictable. A good GM can lace together a story that may seem based on player decision but is in actuality written on the assumption that a hero will act heroically.

Most often, digital games have to force you down path, even one you don’t like or that makes little sense. By having players act heroicly, a GM can make assumptions and direct a group down a linear path, all the while offering the illusion that they’re making this by choice. This is dependent on a GM knowing his players and having the experience to understand their motivations. Console/PC game designers don’t have that luxury, forcing many of them to create a linear path players can’t work around. One company legendary for breaking this trend is Rockstar, makers of many games I don’t own (not one). Check my previous editorial as to why (I like being a good guy). However, I have to give them credit for designing worlds with complete player liberation in mind. I would only rate one other company as having a greater mastery of the open world concept, a company offering you the chance to truly be a hero, my boys up north, Bioware.

I never played any of their Star Wars games. I ran through Dragon Age and although I enjoyed the experience, the clichéd setting and convoluted conversations left me a little cold. Then came Mass Effect. The first entry was a thoroughly enjoyable experience with interesting characters and an expansive setting that could take you 40+ hours to complete. The game had a linear plotline concealed in an open-ended universe where you traveled across deep space, doing missions, upgrading characters, and generally making life annoying for the galactic baddies. There were three romantic options and the possible deaths for up to two characters. By the end of the game, you left a distinct impression on the setting with certain choices that could affect your life and the lives of others in potential sequels…but they would never do that, would they?

I mean when did a game ever give you THAT much freedom? Grand Theft Auto had linear adventures you could take at leisure, but the ending was generally fixed. Silent Hill had multiple endings though only one was actually good. One exception to this was Westood’s Blade Runner. Here was an audacious undertaking where a game randomized certain elements of its story each time you started it, greatly affecting how your character acted. These random elements included whether or not your character was a replicant. This led to over a dozen diverse endings, each well structured and sensible. I remember one involved you killing the last few replicants you’d been assigned to retire in the ruins of the old city, moments after your partner had been taken out by an explosive device. On a later run, the game ended with you and a teenage girl driving out of town after killing that same partner whom was convinced you were a replicant (in one play through, she was right, in another, she wasn’t), your original assignment being completed off screen by Gaff. This was as close as I’ve seen to a game that shared the freedom of a pen and paper RPG. But Blade Runner had one thing on its side—it was self enclosed. There was no sequel. When you make a sequel, most games are forced to acknowledge a “canon” story. Speaking about one of my favorite underrated games, Drakengard, you were presented with five different endings. The only way to unlock one was to play to the conclusion of another. Each ending revealed more of the story, introducing more characters, and concluding in a different ending. This culminated in the fourth ending which exposed the most and resolved the most, the side effect being the death of every character in the game including your own (the fifth ending is just weird, and I won’t get into it). When Drakengard 2 was made, the designers had to acknowledge one of the endings of the prequel as their canon ending (they chose the first). Drakengard 2 also had three endings, each different, but since Cavia recently folded, we’re unlikely to see a third entry.

The Wing Commander games were another example, notorious for their branching plotlines and diverse endings. I had decided at the end of Wing Commander 3 which ending I preferred. By the 4th installment, I discovered that certain characters that lived had actually died, those that died had lived, and I ended up with another love interest, only for her to dump my character before the start of the game. Pen and paper RPGs don’t have to do this. No matter how many months or years a game runs for, players can affect the setting and know that their decisions won’t be erased by the vengeful hand of retroactive continuity.

This brings me back to Mass Effect. By the end of the first game, you had options to affect the leadership role of the human race, as well as who shared your bed at night. The fates of several of the characters were decided by you. You would expect the game designers to acknowledge one sequence of events for the sequel, but instead, they decided to create a game that remembered your choices from the previous installment (with help by some skillfully inserted questions) and permitted you to continue with your personalized experience. Not only could you import your love interest and all the people you saved, but every sub plot you affected came back as well. To pile it on further, the sequel introduced ten new characters, any of which could be killed by the ending. Of these new characters, eight were potential love interests, should you be single going into this game or elect to abandon the previous love interest.

By the end of Mass Effect 2, there are so many different variables present; it makes you doubt the capacity of its final installment. ME2 skillfully had you hire a new group of characters. Your love interest from the first game only appears as a minor role in the second. The characters you could have killed barely show up at all. This allowed the designers to create continuity with your personalized game without the need to include hundreds of hours of superfluous content. But how could they get away with that in part 3? Do they expect us to reset the switch again, make all new friends and select yet another love interest? I look forward to seeing how ME3 plays out. It may be the first game that creates a nonlinear personalized experience over many installments, something Bioware appears to be attempting with Dragon Age 2 as well.

I love this. I can safely without a doubt that Mass Effect 2 was the most enjoyable game I ever played. Bioware has raised a bar so high, most other games suck now in comparison. When I play a new RPG or shooter, I wonder why they couldn’t do what Mass Effect did. What a shame.

In comparison, my personal Amethyst game has been running with few interruptions since 2001. The game has been broken up into three arcs, separated by 500 and 5000 years respectfully. Events from the first game affect new characters in the second and third. Through it all, only one player has remained since day one, having created a character for each game, seeing his decisions resonate for millennia in game time.

Beat that, Bioware.

Filed Under: campaignsrantRole-PlayingRPGvideo games

Tags:

About the Author: Chris Tavares Dias is the literary equivalent of that crusty burnt cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot. Some people claim he looks like Mathew Perry. He would like that to be true. It's not. In 2010, Chris co-wrote and created Amethyst Foundations, a 4th Edition setting based on the previous version under 3.5. It has received critical acclaim for integrating science fiction into classical fantasy. In August of this year, Chris was last seen staring at a dead raven that had fallen beside his car. Two months later, his watch and notepad were found in the stomach of a basking shark that had washed ashore off the coast of Florida.

Optimization WordPress Plugins & Solutions by W3 EDGE