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ZA Critique: Mass Effect

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Tuesday, Aug 25, 2009
A closer look at the narrative devices used in Mass Effect that better support its game design. Spoilers abound.

A Bioware RPG is a combination of RPG power accumulation and ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ decisions through a fairly vast narrative structure. Everything from your choice of gender, how you grew up, and what military background you have will lead to unique combinations of missions and encounters. Each player experience, while having common elements, is tailored to fit the user. What has always been compelling about these games is their sprawling narrative and the select moments that the player is allowed to make distinct moral choices during it. I’m going to make the same distinction between types of choices that Daniel Floyd makes in his excellent Youtube videos. If the decision in the game has a clear benefit in the game design, it is not really a moral choice. Being an asshole and refusing a quest which gives you tons of experience and items is not a decision that questions a person’s values, only their ability to evaluate cost/benefit. The following is a closer look at some of the most affecting choices in Mass Effect and how those are created.


An interesting distinction about games from other media is that the scenes in a book or film that a passive audience will take for granted often do not work in video games. Anthony Burch, from Destructoid, makes this point in one of his Rev Rants. You can’t just tell me that an NPC is my best friend and suddenly expect me to care about them. You can’t presume that the player, as the active participant, accepts the burdens of their friendship in the same way that they will watching two people on a screen interact. You have to get the player to like the person. Half-Life 2 has us spend hours upon hours with characters before we are expected to care about one being at risk, The Darkness engages us with our girlfriend through its infamous couch interaction. The key to Mass Effect’s success is by instilling the player with a real sense that their choices in the game matter. It does this by having the player work with characters and establishing their role in the game from the start.


The game starts with people discussing if you are able to become an elite government agent. Your first mission is to rescue a colony under attack while another agent, a Specter, observes you. Failing this mission is linear, but it sets the stage for the player wanting to prove themselves. Your first task is to show that the incident was not your fault and that you should become a Specter. A player review in a forum post by Kateri comments, “This game really makes you feel like a commander, with all the associated baggage. I demanded respect, because I felt like I deserved it. I honestly wanted to prove myself, I really identified with the goals and ideals that were presented to me, in terms of the paragon-type ideals. I wanted to set a good example, and be admired as a leader.” This motivation is established through numerous tiny details and encounters. Humanity has not yet proven itself to the other alien races and is not yet allowed on the Intergalactic Council. While we are on board the Citadel we encounter jealous aliens who do not believe we deserve such privileged status. We encounter others, like the Turians, who do not think we are ready to join them. When your character is finally given Specter status, they are the first human being to gain this rank. Between the diplomats and rival species, the game’s narrative makes sure to establish a feeling that this new rank is important through missions and character interactions.


The choices remain valid because choosing philosophically conflicting decision will not negate your character stats, only which missions you can go on. One of the problems in the KOTOR games is that an evil decision subtracts points from your good powers and vice-versa. These negate combat and other perks, tying the player into behaving in a way that is always dictated by the game design rather than any personal choice. Nick Dinicola expands on this point, “The karma system is a narrative shortcut: Instead of writing consequences into the story, a player is given points and measures consequence by how full the “good” or “bad” meter is.” Praising Mass Effect later in the piece, he points out that its morality system frees players up to actually make a decision rather than just calculate which one boosts their abilities the most. 


The game also takes efforts to simplify moral decisions by clearly designating which dialogue options are ‘Paragon’ and which are ‘Renegade’. It creates a sort of built-in conscience for the player because it makes sure they know which choice is being rude in the game’s context and which is being noble. Rather than just accidentally saying something offensive, the decision is deliberate. Normally the problem with most morality choices, even game design neutral ones, is that when you’re asking someone to choose between doing something awful and something nice they are generally going to pick the nice choice. In a rant on moral choices, Anthony Burch points out that in field tests of Fable they discovered about 95% of players choose the good path. 4% will try to be evil but become so disgusted with the constant feedback that they quit and go back to the game telling them that they’re a good person. Very few actually pursue choices when the game constantly tells them that what they chose was evil. Mass Effect’s morality system circumvents this problem because it’s a decision about how things should be done. Being a paragon just means being nice, being a renegade just means being blunt and a bit sarcastic. There are even quests in the game that can only be solved by being a Renegade to validate both philosophies. One of the first quests in the Citadel involves a man who has lost his wife and wants her body from the military. Only by being an insensitive Renegade will he finally understand that they need to study the weapons that were used on her to save more lives.


One of the largest moral choices is who you wish to engage with romantically. Depending on your choice of gender, you can either flirt with a male or female human who is fairly complex if you talk to them. The human female, Ashely Williams, comes from a military background and is ideologically conservative. She is defensive about her family, believes in God, and criticizes you for trusting aliens excessively. Kaiden, whose resemblance to Carth from KOTOR is hard to not notice, can be described as Kateri puts it a “32 year old telekinetic virgin”. For the player uninterested in either of these people, the blue alien Liara (whose species can have sex with anyone) will be propositioning you from the moment you meet her. This choice of lovers is given extra weight by the game’s play on both gender and duty during the Virmir mission. You must choose between Kaiden or Williams to go on a suicide mission. When you reach the final leg, you must pick which to save. Since you’ll probably have been flirting with one of them by this point in the game, the decision has extra weight for any player. Choose the one you like and you are playing favorites. Abandon them, and you’re losing a romantic option.


That’s easily the most powerful choice in the game and it achieves this state because of the personal investment of the player. You have spent time developing a relationship with these characters and your choice impacts them. Other, minor and less deep choices, revolve around mostly personal views and impressions. A drug addict begs you to get him some mental stimulants that he is clearly overdosing on. You can persuade him to get treatment or bully him into giving it up. Towards the end choosing to save the alien Council or order the Human Fleet to focus on the enemy forces has some merit, but tends to suffer from that same problem of one choice obviously being more reasonable. My personal favorite was the decision of whether or not to spare the Rachni Queen. The Rachni are a deadly race of aliens who appear during one mission in a direct homage to the film Aliens. After hours of fighting through the deadly creatures, we encounter the Queen and finally get a chance to speak with her. She explains that the corporation corrupted her young and that she will not harm humanity. The Rachni almost wiped out civilization centuries ago and she is the last of her kind. Choosing between killing her and letting her live stumped me for more than a few minutes.


The game is not without its missed opportunities. Almost all of the villains you face are under mind control and thus not really trying to justify their behavior. The ultimate villain, an ancient robot, explains that it wants to exterminate all organic life because it just wants to. When you ask an informed computer near the end of the game why the evil robots bother to kill all life every 50,000 years it responds, “What does it matter?” It’s a surprisingly uninteresting villain for the precise reasons that the other moral choices in the game are so powerful. You invest time and energy into engaging with these characters, then find out there isn’t really much logic to their actions. The potential quandary of an interesting villain, and thus a more interesting conflict, is abandoned and the result is that the player has no issue with shooting robot after robot. Still, for a game that wants people to think about their conduct, particularly one that involves shooting so much, perhaps Mass Effect holds together by not having us mull over everything.

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