Mass Effect 2 Disappoints, Part 2

Story is where an RPG should shine – even a hybrid RPG like this one. The RPG player demonstrates a willingness to take things at a slower pace, to invest himself into character and story, and to relish the narrative.

So let’s look at the Mass Effect 2’s plot [Spoilers!]:

  1. Hero is killed by aliens, then resurrected.
  2. Hero finds out the aliens are snatching humans.
  3. Hero investigates derelict alien ship to find out how to get to aliens.
  4. Hero finds out that aliens are boiling humans down to organic soup to make an evil giant. Hero kills evil giant.

That’s the story that takes 20+ hours to deliver? Seriously, we have a volume of content equal to ten feature films, with less plot than something directed by Michael Bay. This is a story that takes (conservative estimate) 100,000 lines of dialogue to tell! Even just in terms of pure cinematic sequences, I hazard that Mass Effect is close to a feature film in length. Why is there so little actual content there?

For fairness, let’s boil down a similar story – another second part of a trilogy:

  1. Hero is wounded by a monster, then rescued.
  2. Enemies attack the home of our hero and his friends. They escape.
  3. Hero goes through training montage.
  4. Hero’s friends are captured. Hero’s best friend is frozen in carbonite.
  5. Hero rescues his friends. Hero finds out the leader of the enemies is his father.

Now that’s a story. And that story has a villain we remember.

It’s Not Personal
The villains of Mass Effect 2? Faceless, anonymous evil. Unknowable menaces. They show up every 50,000 years and kill everyone. They’re like a natural disaster, and just as impersonal. Guess what, guys, villains without faces make terrible opponents. We have to see the villain (and ideally, understand him) before we can get emotionally invested. Before we hate. The Reapers kill plenty of humans, but their goals remain unintelligible. The best villains make their enmity personal, and so the story becomes personal too.

Come to think of it, this story never ended well either.

The funny thing is, Bioware’s writers know this. They knew it in Knights of the Old Republic, during which we discover the primary villains are you… and the sidekicks who betrayed you. They knew it in Mass Effect 1. Remember Saren? The player interacted with that villain repeatedly, and when we weren’t arguing with Saren, we watched cinematics of the evil bastard doing terrible things. Remember also how much we focused on Shepherd becoming the first human Spectre – an accomplishment personal to you. The development staff in Edmonton hasn’t forgotten how to tell a good story in Mass Effect 2. There are good stories, really good stories, embedded in the game: stories of betrayal, loss, and revenge. Stories of self-discovery.

That’s true of every character’s story except for one: yours. You’d think that the player’s story is the one that would matter most, right? Regrettably, the player has been reduced to playing generic action hero fighting generic alien bad guys. The story equivalent of Space Invaders.

And what’s worse? The material to make a personal story is there in the narrative. The aliens killed you! Sure, it would have been better if the possessor/lead villain had appeared to do you in himself. But as it is, Shepard is returned to life before we can blink, and all too quickly the whole thing is forgotten. Your character doesn’t seem to care that he died, and the enemy doesn’t care or even acknowledge that he killed you. If no one in the game cares, why should we? Our character spends more time arguing with sidekicks about why they resurrected him. Really, why was Shepard killed at all? Was this all a marketing stunt?

By the way, the whole alien Harbinger boss employing a possession is a great mechanic, if underused. I love the idea of beating up the master villain repeatedly, though I wish he had more lines of dialogue than “I will hurt you.” The designers appear to be saving the Big Bad for the third in the trilogy, but why not script up a threatening conversation with a possessed Collector? I could kill the creature afterward, feel good about myself, and still know that the war is far from over.

These are cool sidekicks. I wish my story was as good as theirs.

It’s Not You, It’s Me
I’ve circled around this point here and in the last post, but the fundamental failure of Mass Effect is that the game isn’t about the main character and the story isn’t about him either. In terms of polish, effort, and sheer gameplay hours, the game is all about the sidekicks. Recruiting each of the sidekicks, and completing their loyalty missions, composes the bulk of the game’s content. Imagine instead if that effort was expended on dealing with your character, in making your choices and your decisions matter, and producing branching content that actually branched as a result of your actions and conversations. I think I’d like to play that game.

It’s another point worth making: twelve sidekicks and five allies? Really? I know the designers want to encourage replayability, and having over a hundred (12 x 11) different possibilities of sidekicks to bring along would seem to further that cause. And yet not really. A big cast doesn’t mean anything other than a whole lot of characters I won’t spend much time with. There are great little payoffs in each of their stories, but I wonder if we couldn’t go deeper instead of wider. I’d rather have fewer sidekicks, but develop them more. Maybe their side stories could be interwoven and tangled instead of forming totally independent narratives. Couldn’t Mordin have something to do with the Warlord’s genetic program? Maybe Jack was on Samara’s or Garrus’s target list. Why not tie together Tali’s and Legion’s story and advance the story of the geth to some resolution?

We love this genre of game because it offers meaningful choices. Or at least appears to. Embrace that. As far as replayability goes, make this game one in which the player decisions are the most important thing. Make  branching content that affects not just how you get someplace in a linear story (a always leads to b, regardless of how much of a saint or bastard you are along the way). Change what actually happens during gameplay (a could lead to b, c, or d). I know that branching content is expensive, but the bandwidth appears to be there. The focus is just on other characters. The usual argument against branching content is that you’re making a bunch of content that a high percentage of the audience won’t see. I don’t think that argument applies to Mass Effect 2.

The only way your story can really change in Mass Effect? As best I can tell, your choices in doing loyalty missions and assigning roles to sidekicks in the final level can determine if sidekicks die. That’s it. Your little story though, is steadfastly linear, all the way through. Your choices can’t affect you, or any outcome we see during this game – but don’t worry! They promise it will in the next!

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