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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