Back home from the land of Disney. A good time was had by all, but most importantly, by my sister, for whom the trip was both a celebration and a well-earned reward. My sister is 40, had hip replacement a couple months back, and has Down’s Syndrome. Disneyland was good for her.
As I said a couple posts back, I finished playing through Mass Effect, and I quite liked the game, with a handful of reservations. Spent a lot of time thinking about it over the last week or so. What follows is a somewhat disjointed, and probably poorly-considered, evaluation of the game as held to my admittedly ridiculously high standards. There be spoilers for the game ahead, fair warning, though I did try to keep them to the minimum.
I’m not a games critic, let’s just get that out of the way up front, move the salt cellar to the center of the table, and keep it in easy reach of all who might requiring taking a grain or ten. What I am, for better or for worse, is a writer, and that’s colors how I experience just about every game I play.
Not incidentally, I’m also a long time role-playing gamer, starting way back when I was 10 and D&D came in a pale blue box and a dungeon was eight rooms with a dragon in Room #8 and never the hell you mind how he got there or what he was doing with that big ‘ol pile of treasure. My gaming, I should like to think, has matured significantly since then (now, y’know, the dragon would have a reason to be in Room #8, as well as a detailed history, lineage, and some well-defined personality quirks; and truth be told, the game would likely eschew the dungeon altogether in favor of some desultory conversation with a particularly interesting NPC or three. No, my games are not for everyone. I am honestly less concerned with mechanics than I am with story, and any interest I have in devising devilishly clever ways to screw and/or kill characters are to that end, none other.).
When I play computer RPG, be it on console or desktop, that’s the experience I’m pursuing. Graphics and gameplay matter to me only insofar as they support or hinder my gaming experience. I can still cheerfully play Interplay’s Fallout 2 or BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn and not mind in the slightest that the graphics are, by today’s standards, laughably weak, etc, etc.. What appeals to me about those games today are the same things that appealed to me about them when I played them for the first time – the story, and in particular, the maturity of the story, both in execution and in subject matter.
(As an aside, I’m really hoping that Fallout 3 by Bethesda will embrace this part of the Fallout legacy, rather than backing slowly away from it in the hopes that nobody will notice; given the bullshit regarding sex in Mass Effect, I’m almost certain they will pursue the latter, however, with the perceived need to exercise the better part of valor; but more on this later.)
I’m bouncing about a bit here, but what I’m trying to do is explain why computer RPGs matter to me, why I think they’re of merit, and why I think there’s great promise in them. I honestly believe that computer-slash-console RPGs are a developing art form, an evolving entertainment medium with as much validity as novels or film.
Storytelling is an art. As to why it is that the logical next step seems to give the mainstream so much trouble, I have my suspicions. I suspect that it’s the word “game,” with the inherent implication that such things exist purely for entertainment and recreation, nothing more.
Regardless, I long ago made my piece with the following extrapolation: storytelling is an art; therefore, games that tell stories are also art. And I maintain that role-playing is, yes, an art. I’d even venture to say it’s a form with tangential connection to Comics-as-Art. Both are interactive mediums which require the audience’s participation to execute the narrative, unlike, say, film or television, which, by and large, is a passive medium while in-progress. Whereas comics’ participation comes in the form of the gutter, that unseen element of story which the reader much provide, RPG gamers supply guidance for character, and thus influence, or in the best cases, direct the plot, and thus influence the story itself.
All this comes with the caveat that not all games aspire to be art, but taking a post-modern lit-crit view of such things, I’d argue that the intent is ultimately irrelevant. Whether or not Lawrence Kasdan and Steven Spielberg intended Raiders of the Lost Ark to be the story of two men fighting over the soul of one woman rather than, say, a rollicking homage to serial films doesn’t change the fact that it’s both, and that, frankly, Belloq is the better man. It’s there, and hey, as far as I’m concerned it’s art, but that’s a long-winded analysis for another time, should anyone wish to open that particular can of worms with me.
This is what I’m after, you see. This is the windmill I’m charging at. Because this new medium, this birth of a new art form, the interactive drama, there’s incredible potential here. And what I want from it is what I want from all drama – I want compelling characters, engaging story, depth, maturity, and, most of all, I want emotional reward.
That last is key, because, to me, that’s the hallmark of a good story, whatever its medium. It evokes an emotional response, both during and after, and ideally this response is achieved not through gamesmanship or contrivances, but instead through emotionally relevant and emotionally resonant narrative. “Cat scares” and ham-handed music cues are the storytelling equivalent of cheap parlor tricks in and of themselves – they evoke a false result, without substance, and ultimately, without lasting worth. I’m speaking of emotional investment, now, and ultimately, I’m speaking of catharsis in the true Aristotelian sense.
And so, with that long-winded preface, I offer an even longer-winded evaluation of Mass Effect. And note, please, that this is a personal one, at that.
It’s very good. It’s very, very good in many, many parts. There’s a lot to like, and I liked it a lot.
It’s also flawed, and in many places, it’s an experience of “almost…but not quite.”
The universe is beautifully realized one. The effort, thought, and care put into its construction is visible, from the voluminous codex entries (and the touch of having Neil Ross provide the “read-aloud” voice for the Primary Entries was a stroke of genius; having the voice of Nova explain the history of the Rachni Wars added not only gravitas, but also verisimilitude) to the painstaking justification for just about every single person, place, and thing in the game. Mass Effect is a “hard scifi” world, and the thought behind almost all of the world-building choices is impressive as hell. The technology has a logic to it, and that logic, in fact, is integral to the story itself, even if it’s only subtextual (though I wonder if development for the planned sequels will explore the irony in using the mass effect technology on its creators). Alien races, for the most part, are as well-defined as the technology, and a few are even reasonably well-explored, given the confines of the game.
Yes, there are tropes to be found. The blue-skinned, “mono-gendered,” yet decidedly feminine Asari are the fetish race, big surprise. The Krogan are the battle-oriented warrior culture. Yet for all this, it’s clear that effort was made to extrapolate the tropes, to add depth – races have codex entries on religious belief, political systems, cultural mores, and while relegating such information to “encyclopedia” entries renders it less pertinent, it’s to the game’s credit that I felt such exclusion was done for reasons of space, rather than laziness. There are only a few instances where ideas are touched upon and then left behind, so to speak – Liara’s “pureblood” status being a prime example.
The dialogue system is innovative. The idea of providing the player with the gist of a response, selecting it, and then watching their character deliver the appropriate dialogue is quite clever. It freed the writing process considerably, allowed for longer speeches by all characters, and thus longer scenes, which in turn further enhance the story and the role-playing aspects. The additional, obvious, dividend of this is that your character actually speaks, rather than mutely offers selected responses to voiced NPCs.
The voice-acting is excellent, with only a few hiccups, but this comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with BioWare’s track record; they have consistently delivered, in my opinion, the best voice-acting in this kind of game. The “acting” animations for many of the characters, too, is a step forward, often elegant, sometimes even subtle. Sound design as a whole is, in fact, immersive and well-done – ambient noise as well as effects are evocative and have real depth. The score, by Sam Hulick, Richard Jacques, David Kates, and Jack Wall, is fantastic.
These last elements – dialogue, voice acting, character animation – contribute to the cinematic feel of the game, something BioWare quite clearly was pursuing. More than anything else, Mass Effect plays like an interactive movie. Cut-scenes steal cinema verité style from the new Battlestar Galactica, shaky hand-held camera movement is employed during catastrophes, soft light flares just enough during romantic interludes. It’s all there, from jump-cuts to camera blur and lens flares.
The flip-side is that it becomes a juxtaposition of styles, as if the “film” had multiple directors, rather than a unifying, stylistic vision, guiding it. As a result, the camera-work is occasionally distracting and even, once or twice, confusing.
Discussion of FPS, textures, lighting, and so on I’ll leave to someone else – for my purposes, everything served well, and I never noted any clipping or glitches that detracted at all from my gameplay. It’s very pretty. It’s pretty enough that, unlike in past games of this style, I didn’t feel the need to run everywhere, but was content to let my character walk from place to place, simply to enjoy the scenery. That, in and of itself, is a remarkable compliment, as far as I’m concerned.
So the mechanics are all there, and, for the most part, well-executed. My quibbles with the controls are honestly purely that, quibbles – the controls are easy enough to master as one plays through the game, and, in all honesty, I didn’t play Mass Effect for the first-person shooter experience, and anyone who did deserves entirely the disappointment they no doubt suffered. Might I direct such gamers to Call of Duty 4, which I can vouch for personally, or The Orange Box, which I cannot vouch for at all, but am told is quite good, as well. Bitching about Mass Effect’s failings as a first-person shooter is roughly the equivalent of bitching about Scrabble’s failings as an RPG. If that’s why you picked it up, caveat emptor.
The only real control-slash-interface issues I have with the game are in the inventory system, and in the control of the Mako. The inventory limit of 150 items is annoying, but the real problem lies in the inability to effectively sort or stack the inventory. And when you do have 150 items that need culling, the process of doing so becomes rapidly tedious. By the same token, camera-control when driving the Mako – especially up and down the ubiquitous mountain terrain of countless “uncharted” worlds – is bad enough at times to give one fits.
Tycho and Gabe did a strip about the ubiquitous elevators, poking fun at the amount of time one spends waiting in them to move from point A to point B. These are load screens, no question, and they’re mitigated by the occasional “news report” played over the speakers, or the NPC interactions that occur. As far as that goes, I’d have liked more of both, especially the former, and I’d have liked more variety, as well – again, it builds the world, and anything that promotes that is a good thing.
The biggest “gameplay” gripe I have, in fact, is with the sound. While the music is terrific, the voice-acting is great, and the sound effects are dynamite, they’re all competing with one another. By my second hour playing the game, I had to do so with the remote at my side, so I could adjust volume on the fly. In direct conversations, characters were easy enough to hear; outside of that, they’re voices were nearly inaudible, and, in a game where NPC interaction is given such a high priority, that’s unforgivable. I don’t need to hear the rushing waterfall as much as I want to hear what Garrus has to say about it.
A lot good. A lot I liked. And now we come to the almost-but-not-quites.
All the inane punditry aside (and if you’ve not tracked this particular molehill-into-Everest, you’ve no idea what you’re missing – comics fans have nothing on irate console gamers), the sex scene is nothing. Seriously. This earns the game an ‘M’ rating? I’m assuming this is the same standard that the MPAA utilizes, ie, utter bullshit, with the bonus conservatism because there’s the opportunity for homosexuality (though lesbians only – penises need not apply). If this scene ran on network television, no one would blink. The particular irony here is, I’m sure, that BioWare was painfully careful about how they executed the consummation of the romance(s), because they knew they were going to get heat for it no matter what. The trade-off was a love scene that lacked any real frisson, and, guess what? They got hit anyway.
Romance, and yes, sex, are parts of drama, and when executed well, can be incredibly compelling elements of story. This isn’t about titillation; you can get titillation anywhere, hell, you can get that and a Dirty Sanchez in 15 seconds on a search engine. This is about telling stories well, and telling them with a spine. That BioWare even made the attempt is to be applauded.
The lesson I’d take from this? Next time, go for it. Open the field. Het and homosexual romances. Love scenes with real heat, real passion. Make it sexy. Make it a turn on. You’re getting the ‘M’ rating, anyway. Brandish it with pride. Tell Wal-Mart to fuck off.
But the lesson I fear that game developers will take from this is avoidance. No sex at all. Because as much as a game developer might like to tell Wal-Mart they don’t have the right to censor the kind of stories they tell, the bottom line is always the bottom line.
More’s the pity, because, while the romances in Mass Effect are not perfect, they are at least there, and they added significantly to the story, because they add to character – not solely to you-as-Shepard, but to the NPCs you can romance with.
Which brings us to those NPCs and another one of my gripes. While the primary NPCs on your team – Kaiden, Ashley, Garrus, Wrex, Liara, and Tali – are all well-developed, there is, once again, not enough opportunity for unique interaction. As with BioWare’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, there are really only three (how very Chekhovian) opportunities for significant interaction, provided after each of the significant “checkpoints” in the story’s progression, and each of these interactions occur in a static environment, ie, aboard your ship after the checkpoint has been reached. Essentially, you finish the checkpoint, and then trot around your ship talking to everyone, then move on to the next checkpoint. It’s an artificial construct, and it feels like one. This is in contrast with the “in-mission” interactions – ie, Wrex, Ashley, and Kaiden on Virmire, all scenes that, for the most part, shine as a result. The Wrex confrontation, in particular, is very well-crafted.
(On the subject of SW: KOTOR, Mass Effect is almost structurally identical. Seriously. The game begins with a “tutorial mission”; it then progresses to a set location where the objective is, essentially, to be able to leave (in KOTOR it’s Taris, in Mass Effect, it’s the Citadel); once free from this locale, the player has a limited set of locations to visit which, ultimately, unlock another destination to lead to the story’s denouement. Mass Effect mitigates this significantly with the addition of the “uncharted world” missions that can be picked up. I’m not actually certain this is a bad thing, because the stories are different enough there’s no sense of repetition at all, but I find it interesting that the structure is so similar.)
Getting back to character. This is where, for me, the game fails, specifically in two places.
The first is with your apparent nemesis, Saren. When first encountered, he’s given an agenda as a racist and a sociopath, supported in backstory provided by Captain Anderson. And in the first four cut-scenes where we see Saren – three of them on Eden Prime, the fourth on Sovereign – this is sustained. Yet, as the game progresses and you, as Shepard, discover more of what is “really going on,” Saren’s agenda shifts to, in my opinion, a far more compelling one. But this new agenda is in direct opposition to what’s been established, and the “indoctrination” argument doesn’t mitigate the change. If he’s honestly seeking to spare the galaxy a new culling from the Reapers, why make him so morally bankrupt at the start? I’d have been more engaged, and have found Saren more compelling as a result, if he’d honestly been a good guy at the start, warts and all. It’s a significant enough disconnect that it detracts from the final stages of the story.
But even this is a small issue when compared to, what I feel, is a much more significant one, and one that I’m frankly at a loss to explain, because BioWare has shown they know how to do this right.
As Shepard, you have plot, you have a mission, but you have, honestly, no growth. Yes, you can level-up from 1 to 60, but that’s not what I mean. All of your conflict is plot-conflict – expose Saren, become a Spectre, save the galaxy. All worthwhile, all great, but ultimately, nothing specific to you. No personal conflict. Nothing you have to overcome internally, or emotionally. The backstory you give yourself during character creation is relevant only for a side-quest, and in a handful of dialogues. You have no conflict. Even the sacrificing of one of your soldiers on Virmire is a false Sophie’s Choice. (I’m playing a career military officer. My conflict is to either, 1) rescue the soldier under fire who I’ve sent specifically to engage the enemy or 2) rescue the soldier under fire who I’ve ordered to place and prepare the bomb that will win the battle and secure our objective. If I’m in character, I’m always going to take option 2, and it doesn’t matter if I’m romantically interested in the soldier taking fire at option 1.)
What surprised me most about this is, as I’ve said, BioWare knows how to do this. They did it in SW:KOTOR, and they did it brilliantly. They made the whole game about you, and thus, you became the most important person in the game both for plot and for story.
In Mass Effect, while there are hints that you’re “special” (ie, “Spectres are born, not made.”), there’s no exploration of why. There’s no sense of internal struggle.
There is, as I said, no emotional engagement. And without that, there can be no catharsis.
What there is is false engagement, achieved via dramatic sleight-of-hand: the opening “tracking shot,” where you’re introduced to yourself-as-Shepard, making your way to the bridge of Normandy, while Seth Green’s fantastic voicing of Joker rattles technobabble; the music swells, the camera pans around, and you, for the first time, see yourself-as-Shepard, nobly raising your chin to look out at the Mass Relay in all of its glory. A great cinematic moment. Gives you goose bumps. We’re in space! Fantastic! Knock on that, and it’s still hollow, but damn if it doesn’t work.
Similarly, when the Citadel Council makes you a Spectre, and again, the music swells, the bystanders suddenly turn and take notice, and you proudly step forward to accept your honor. You’ve accomplished something! And dammit, but it feels like an Important Moment!
But why it matters to you, as Shepard, is entirely missing.
All right, that’s more than enough out of me, I’m sure. For those who give a damn what I think, I think Mass Effect is an excellent game, and the good certainly far outweighs the bad. It is a step forward in the medium, and it is an important step, even if it is not nearly as great a one as I’d hoped. Development on the sequel is, I’m sure, well underway, and I’m looking forward to what comes next. They’ve hooked me.
Yes, I wanted a quantum leap in the medium, perhaps unreasonably. I got baby steps. That’s not bad. Anyone who’s ever raised a child knows that the baby steps are important ones. We’re walking, now.
I’m looking forward to the day we can run.
Good game. A step in the right direction. I highly recommend it.