Collaborative Conflict in 'Mass Effect'

by Nick Dinicola

15 July 2011

Gaming is a process of collaborative storytelling, and as I tried to write conflict into the story of Mass Effect, I ran into conflict with my writing partner, Bioware.

Conflict is key to a good story. That’s something I kept in mind as I played through Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 again. Because this time I wasn’t playing as a Player, I was merely seeking to enjoy some futuristic role-play or even as a Character, an idealized version of myself tasked with saving the galaxy. This time, I played as a Writer. It seemed as easy task at first since, as a fan of the franchise, I knew what choices get carried through to the sequel and what actions have what consequences. Over the course of the game, I purposely let bad things happen because that would lead to more conflict, which makes for a more interesting story. But gaming is a process of collaborative storytelling, and as I tried to write conflict into the story, I ran into conflict with my writing partner, Bioware.
In Mass Effect I killed the rachni queen and let the council die with the hope that these choices would make life harder for Shepard and result in a not-so-happy ending. The decisions paid off: Anderson gave his speech at the end of the game about how it’s time for humanity to rise up to meet its destiny, but within the context of a dead council, there was a sense of foreboding to his speech, like this was more of a coup than anything else. These renegade choices already led to more drama, leaving me intrigued to see what happens next—even though I know what happens next.

However, things didn’t work out as planned in Mass Effect 2. I planned for Zaeed to die, figuring that would be sufficient motivation for Shepard to free Grunt, the potentially dangerous krogan that had been brought aboard her ship. After all, she would need another teammate to replace the one that had died. I had my Shepard’s character arc all planned out, even going so far as to find reasons to justify her actions. But as a collaborative storytelling medium, between the player and developer, the more control that one party exerts, the more the other pushes back. When Zaeed was trapped under a beam in a burning building, I was faced with a dialogue choice that I knew would determine whether he lived or died. I chose the option that sounded most like a stern rebuke of his actions, and I was right. But to my surprise, Zaeed agreed. He admitted his actions were wrong. He accepted Shepard’s command, he lived, and he even became loyal, which meant he would also likely survive the final suicide mission despite my attempt to kill him. Since I’m not in total control of the story, there can still be surprising plot twists even if I’m playing as a Writer. It’s this collaboration that ensures that a game can still be surprising even after multiple playthroughs.

But the player isn’t just forced to collaborate with the developer; we’re also forced to collaborate with ourselves and our often conflicting motivations depending on how we choose to approach a game. With Zaeed alive, my Shepard’s motivations for releasing Grunt were no longer applicable, but I still wanted to release the frozen krogan. He was too valuable a team member to pass up. Like a script writer under deadline, I scrambled to come up with some reason that would justify Shepard releasing a potential danger on her ship. I couldn’t, and I fought with myself over whether that was enough of a reason not to release Grunt, my desires as a Player fighting my desires as a Writer.

Going through Mass Effect I was able to play the Writer without much incident, but going through Mass Effect 2, a game that is far more genuinely fun to play moment to moment, my desires as Player started to grow stronger. This was a game that I wanted to keep playing, regardless of narrative consistency or coherent characterization. 

Granted, not everyone plays games like this, consciously trying to play Writer. But we do write our own stories as we play, even if it’s just “I turned left instead of right” or “I killed with a pistol instead of rifle.” It’s these minor details that we create, and it’s these minor details that flesh out a character in any story, whether we’re aware of it happening or not. It’s only after going through these games again, purposely trying to disassociate myself from old Player-oriented motivations that I can see firsthand just how many hands are in the storytelling pie and how quickly the plot can be lost in favor of gameplay. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing; I’m glad to have Grunt on my team.


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