Mass (indenting) Effect

I remember blogging ages ago, somewhere else, about Mass Effect but I’m going to do it again here, now that I’ve had some time to think over the trilogy having beaten/been beaten by the last installment last week. I’m now completely spoiled for voice acting and any game that doesn’t have me speaking to NPCs in whatever shade of quip I prefer is like playing half a game. Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Star Wars MMO… it is something Bioware does really very well.

For those unfamiliar with the series only this first point will be of any relevance whatsoever. People who are familiar may get some mileage out of the second point and I’ll try to have no explicit spoilers.

1) Mass Effect would make a great/terrible tabletop RPG. Actually, I’m just going to call pen-and-paper, tabletop RPGs “RPGs”. They were here first.

1a) Mass Effect would make a great RPG because the setting is really good. The alien races are well thought out and interesting, so here is a primer on those races for those who haven’t played the game.

Humans: They’re only a few hundred years in the future, not bonkers-far and they seem more or less like us. If there is any conflict or source of strife on Earth, it certainly is never mentioned, so it looks like we got out shit together at some point. The rest of the galaxy is very, very nervous about us, because there are lots of us and we adapt well. They are also terrified because a splinter group of humans, called Cerberus, funnels vast amounts of technology and money into making sure that humans stay at the tippy-top of the food chain, and really don’t care for aliens. Human integration into the Council is one of the themes of ME1 while Cerberus is background flavour. In ME2 Cerberus takes center stage and in ME3 they play a key role in how everything goes down. Your character in the ME series is human.

Asari: They’re a monogender species, but they self-identify as female and they are hilariously sexy – to everyone. The Asari have the astonishing ability to fuck anything that moves and use their partner’s DNA sequencing to rearrange their own deep well of genes and produce Asari offspring. The offspring aren’t half-Asari, they are entirely Asari. They are the oldest race in the galaxy and possess powerful psychic abilities, not least of which is that gene-sequence copying tantric stuff. Asari are just the right shape for humans, just the right colour for Salarians and have just the right something… pheromones?… ¬†for Turians for them to be found nearly universally attractive.

Salarians: Are funny, I like the Salarians. They’re not particularly imposing or long lived, but they fill their short lives with extraordinary scientific work. I like them in particular because they are a good example of the design steering away from “Humans, but with funny noses and weird hair” (Star Trek) or “Humans, but with some identifiable animalistic trait” (Everything else). There aren’t really any examples of that.

Turians: The McGuffin/villain of ME1 is a Turian but so is your first buddy. They may as well be monogender, because I don’t think we ever meet any Turian females. The Turians are a militaristic society but – and here’s what is great – aren’t dicks about it. They’re all soldiers, but none of them are Klingons. They are calm, confident and talented when it comes to the business of being soldiers so they make up a large part of security forces.

There are other races that aren’t on the council by the start of ME3: The Quarians, galactic refugees who live crammed together in ships and have to wear suits because they have no immune system left; Volus, who are buried inside small rounded pressure suits; Geth, synthetic lifeforms that the Quarians created but who rebelled and drove them into their exile; Elcor, quadrupeds that can’t speak with inflection, so preface each sentence with a descriptor of their emotional state; Hanar, floating jellyfish looking things that are super-religious and pretty annoying; ¬†Batarians, who are jerks; Vorcha, who are slavering-monster jerks; Krogan, embodying all the awesome things about turtles and rhinos, who fulfill the role of Klingons for ass-kicking bluster, but who were rendered effectively sterile by the Salarians when they rebelled against Salarian direction; Rachni, multi-legged insectish menace that the Salarians employed the Krogans to destroy.

My point, I suppose is to use the mallet of how interesting the races in Mass Effect are to crush the walnut of how boring Dragon Age is as a setting. Bioware has, in ME, created a really interesting setting with fascinating people inhabiting it, whereas in Dragon Age you’ve got Elves and Dwarves culled straight from D&D, some pretty generic bad guys because they are made of badness and one interesting non-human race.

The ME setting ins’t as expansive as, say, Star Wars, but I don’t think it suffers in terms of gameplay or the strength of the setting…

1b) This type of game ONLY works as a video game.

1bi) The elaborate technobabble and the physics-crunching that goes into how everything works in ME is all handled by the game’s engine, whereas on paper it’d be a nightmare.

1bii) At the most basic level I think games that involve a lot of shooting are only ever going to work well on a console platform, as opposed to paper and pen. I just don’t think firefights work in RPGs. Even systems that have sacrificed realism for simplicity have a hard time keeping up with the excitement of a firefight in Mass Effect. Either RPGs don’t have the capacity to do the complicated things that video games can (Call of Cthulhu) or they do, but it takes the pace out of the combat (SLA Industries, Star Wars, GURPS).

1biii) The depth and execution of those alien races really only works because you can see it happen on the screen. The more alien the NPC is, the less a GM – even a really awesome one – can get that across. I’m not disparaging the art of GMing an RPG, but that’s kind of knocked into a hat when a character like the Drell pictured above can communicate so much with a slow blink of his nictitating membrane. I don’t think the races in Dragon Age setting are nearly as difficult to replicate at the game table. Not just because they are simpler, but they are same-ier: they all live in the same small corner of a world, fight over the same resources and are understandable to each other. The aliens, meanwhile are…. well, alien to each other.

In summary, Sci-fi works better on consoles than it does on the tabletop, other stuff works better on the tabletop.

Okay, I think that was it for point 1.

2) The ending of Mass Effect 3 was fine, you big babies.

......Oh, I get it.

The ME series, starting with a bang in ME1 was a phenomenally successful exercise in coming up with a good story for a game. The story of that game was great. The best? Yeah, I think it probably was the best barring perhaps, Red Dead Redemption, which was superb.

I’m not going to go into the details, but the basic Bioware story structure is in effect: Act 1, you gather up your party, complete some quests and then return to the hub. Act 2, you flesh out your relationship with your party with party specific quests, complete some follow-up quests and then return to the hub. Act 3, your party suffers a setback, you nail one of your party members that you’ve been carefully flirting with and then you leave the hub and move on to complete the finale (in which how well you’ve got to know your party determines how well they perform).

ME1 sees you pursue a bad guy who seems to be selling the galaxy out to some external intruder. You defeat the bad guy and the external intruder and gain humanity some galactic respect, but it is clear that the external intruder was a portent of things to come.

ME2 starts with you dying and being rescued by Cerberus, who put aside their homo sapiens uber alles attitude for a bit and move to address the threat portended to in ME2. The story isn’t as good, although the acting is a bit better and Martin Sheen ACTS THE SHIT OUT OF THE ILLUSIVE MAN ROLE. Seriously great voice acting. The gameplay is also a lot better in ME2, they really sorted a lot of stuff out and made an easy flowing combat engine and much better interface. They also introduced the Paragon/Renegade system which was almost always a choice between being Reasonable/Completely Unreasonable in conversation, but during cutscenes was almost irresistable to avoid hitting the Renegade button, because what you did was always unreasonably badass and fantastic.

ME3 starts with everything portended to in ME1 actually happening and the galaxy erupting in war. You have to act as the glue that binds the various different aliens together so they can combat the thread and ends with you having to make some hard choices about how to end the war. They introduced more options to be a Paragon in cutscenes, some of which turned out to be fairly touching.

It is this final hard choice that riled up a lot of people. As a dialogue driven story, your dialogue and choices tended to make a difference in the outcome of the major story lines. Decide to punch a journalist in ME1 and that same journalist would remember it in ME2 and ME3. But I think people were mistaking those types of choices for freedom, which you can have in a certain extent in a RPG, but not in a video game. The flavour of the meal might change, but it still has 3 courses and you have to finish them all.

So when it came down to the hard choices that players had to choose between at the end of the game, some folks were upset that all their previous choices didn’t matter at all to the game. I’d argue that that isn’t the point of all those choices – your choices should have been mattering to you, the player. If you, having sat through hours and hours of this story and this hero, Commander Shepard, hadn’t somehow been changed by all 0f the previous hard choices he had to make, then YOU aren’t deep enough, not the game. It doesn’t matter what was written in your game save information, what mattered was what the game had done to you.

When you encounter a hard choice in life, they’re hard because they’re not altered for you based on what you did in the past. They’re presented to you by an uncaring and unloving universe devoid of any judgement on what you have done – you make those hard choices by reflecting back on your life’s experience and using that to determine what the course of action should be. YOU are the sum of your experiences, the universe is not.

The Walking Dead series that I was just pimping has the same kind of thing going on. Sure, the other characters remembers the slights and favours and that changes what happens during the game; but holy shit, the look on your adoptive daughter’s face if you let her down is UTTERLY CRUSHING. In game, you can have a conversation with her and try to patch it up, but that gets YOU, the player sitting on the couch, right in the feeling bits.

Mass Effect was always about hope and hopelessness. Your first villain is hopeless; you remain mostly hopeful, despite appalling odds. The other factions represent hope and hopelessness in one way or another. Hope through control (Cerberus), hopelessness through control (Saren), hope through destruction (Anderson and Shepard, most of the time), hopelessness through destruction (the Krogans, watching their children born without hearts), hope through cooperation (EDI and your various love interests, who tend to be supportive at just the right time and in just the right way), hopelessness through cooperation (the Reapers).

The other complaint was that the end was a bit terse. That’s fair enough, but they fixed that for free, so jesus, calm down about it.

I did not, for those of you following from long, long ago, continue the game with my self-created Phil Collins look-alike. Talk about hopelessness…

2 Comments on “Mass (indenting) Effect

  1. you didn’t continue the game with your self-created phil collins look-alike?

    how could you just walk away from him?

    srsly tho I really want to try this game out, and your praise for the game environment is helping to drive that.

  2. It is kind of a nice change from the sandbox style of game that Skyrim represents. My most recent go around of Skyrim involved never pursuing the main storyline. That’s fine, you still get involved in little stories as you pillage your way across Skyrim, but you’re removed from the main questline and really the narrative that informs the setting.

    After the sandbox, Mass Effect can feel a bit limiting, as your world is made up of mini dungeons that suggest (but never deliver) scale. The Citadel, for example, is a vast space station as the heart of the story and setting and you never really get to explore this amazing place that exists primarily as skybox mattes. The pay off, of course, is that the more tightly controlled environment means a more coherent and compelling story.

    We should doff our sombreros for a moment for Red Dead Redemption which managed to give us a small (very small when you think about it), but interesting sandbox AND a coherent and compelling story. I hope we see more Grand Theft Whatevers in the future if they can keep them to that quality. The Star Wars MMO managed the same feat across 8 distinct class-based stories, albeit with level restrictions on certain areas and familiar MMO problems. It is possible, it just isn’t easy.