I completed my second play-through of Mass Effect 2 this last week (w00t! Insanity!), and once again find myself swimming in thoughts about computer RPGs, their potential, and why I think BioWare is The Shit, problems with Dragon Age notwithstanding.
Back when Mass Effect first came out, I published a long blog post with my thoughts on the game, and much of what I said then still holds. I still think that the folks at BioWare are putting out the best RPGs out there, I still think the quality of the game is uniformly excellent, I still think their storytelling is consistently superior, that their writing is stellar, that the whole package is well-worth the money paid.
And I still have the same issues.
Let me see if I can articulate this properly. And note, please, I recognize that I am a minority voice, that I am, in essence, complaining about the cupholders on the Cadillac. But I’m a storyteller, I live and breathe and sleep and dream stories; I spend far too much time considering the ways in which to tell them, and the pros and cons of those various means.
Basic premise: A storyteller crafts a story to elicit an emotional response. Be this a sense of pleasure or sorrow or longing, the goal is to leave the audience with resonance, and, in the best of all circumstances, catharsis. Entertainment is part and parcel of this package.
To this end: The storyteller is a manipulative bastard, and must be, but with a caveat; whereas the magician is lying to the audience with the audience’s blessing, so too does the storyteller play the audience to the audience’s pleasure. In both instances, deception is practiced upon a willing subject. But the understanding, be it in film, television, novel, comic, theatre, whatnot, is that the teller of the tale is leading the audience down a garden path in an unspoken agreement that the journey, and in particular, the terminus, will be worth the audience’s while.
Third point: This is not me complaining about the game’s story, per se. The story of Mass Effect 2 is wonderfully epic, and beautifully executed. The resolution – or possible resolutions, I should say – are all satisfying, some of them terrifically so.
But they have once again blinked in the face of taking the Good and making it Great; they have balked at the point where they could have taken their beautiful art and made it into exquisite Art. And the failing in the second game is the same as in the first, in Shepard, in – wait for it – you.
As I said about the original Mass Effect, all elegance of the storytelling notwithstanding, Shepard was devoid of any inner emotional life. Yes, you could have survived a horrible Thresher Maw attack on Akuze; you could’ve seen your whole family wiped out as a child on Mindoir, and yes, these backgrounds do come into play in minor encounters, and yes, they are thus referenced, and yes, they can inform your character, yourself, your Shepard-ness. But it is a token nod to characterization, and nowhere does it truly matter unless you, as the player, decide to make it matter.
This would be fine if the game was a true, anything goes, RPG. But it’s not; the nature of these games is that they are directed, despite the best efforts of all those involved to make the guiding hand an invisible one. It’s all well and good to say that you can be who you want to be, but – at least at this point – it’s impossible to execute. Or, to put it more precisely, without the true freedom to do anything, be anyone, say anything, the onus is on the storyteller and not the player to fulfill the demands of the character’s journey.
Look, I understand the resistance, I really do. I have a pencil & paper GM who adamantly refuses to ever tell his players how their characters feel about anything. He argues, persuasively, that to do so would be to overstep his mandate; would be, essentially, telling his players how they should play their characters.
And I can live with that, even if I don’t agree with it.
(Digression the First: for the record, I don’t – we live lives where people do and feel things they cannot explain no matter what, where people act ‘out of character’ all the time, where people are walking studies in contradictions. Where good-hearted people do unreasonably cruel things to their friends, where selfish bastards would die for their kitten, Fluffy. If you’re the GM, you are the Master of All Creation, and you get to throw your weight around. You do it arbitrarily, you abuse the privilege, your players will bite back; but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it if it serves the story you are collectively trying to tell. End Digression the First.)
The problem is that a computer RPG isn’t a tabletop RPG. It isn’t, really, an RPG at all. It’s a different beast. And we still don’t have the vocabulary, we still don’t have the words, for discussing this kind of storytelling, this kind of role-play experience. We use film analogues, yet no film is this interactive. We use novel analogues, and no game – as yet – has a novel’s depth or potential. Even the word “game” is problematic.
The above notwithstanding, I feel, more and more, that Mass Effect has more in common with a novel series than with any other form. Yet it is an interactive form, you do have the freedom to make decisions that can – especially in the second game – radically alter the potential endings, that can truly change the lives of the NPCs you encounter. You have unheard of power to effect the story.
Or, perhaps more precisely, the plot.
And there’s the rub. Because the story – your story – is still stymied.
Case in point:
You die at the start of ME2. You die quite brilliantly. It’s a fan-fucking-tastic sequence, all the more powerful if you’ve played the first and you’ve imported your saved character, if you are truly on Part Two, so to speak. You go out like a viking. You are awesome. You are, quite literally, a shooting star.
Two years later, you’re resurrected.
From a gameplay, continuing-story, we-made-Mass-Effect-and-two-years-later-we’ve-got-the-second-game-out-and-hey-some-of-you-are-continuing-your-characters-and-some-of-you-out-there-didn’t-play-the-first-and-therefore-are-coming-to-this-fresh, this was a stroke of genius. Seriously, kudos are deserved. This neatly solves several gameplay issues (it quite deftly handles the matter of why your Shepard from the first game suddenly can’t do any of the neat tricks he or she had learned to do as you won your way to level 60); it neatly solves several storytelling issues (the world resets and changes, allowing for new exploration and new growth, as well as the ability to reconnect with characters from the first game while introducing a whole new cast); and it immediately lays down the plot of the new game (your ship was destroyed, you died, and if you don’t want someone to answer for that or, at the very least, an explanation as to who did it and why, check yourself (again) for a pulse). The fact that it takes two years to bring you back from the dead is a nice nod to the real-time delay, as well.
Very, very clever decision in my opinion.
Now, consider. You are Commander First-Name-Is-Your-Choice Shepard. You saved galactic civilization from Sovereign. You fought the Geth, you became the first human Spectre, you have a history and a life and, quite possibly, a love, as well.
And you died.
And were brought back to life.
In any other narrative form, this would demand to be answered. This would have a profound effect on the protagonist. It would inform and effect almost everything the protagonist did to follow. The fact that you’re brought back to life by Cerberus, a super-secretive Humans First terrorist organization that you spend a fair amount of the first game’s side-missions shooting the living shit out of, only compounds this.
This is the heart of what I’m talking about here (and yes, I know, it’s taken me forever to get here). This is the difference between a plot and a story. The plot requires you to go fight and defeat the collectors. The story here – Shepard’s story, your story – is about being given a second chance at life.
But nowhere does the game address this. The best you get are two options to marvel at how long your were “dead” (“Two years?”) and an opportunity to thank Miranda Lawson – the woman who ran the project that brought you back from the dead – and even this comes far too early in the story to actually matter.
And nowhere do you have the chance to say anything other than thank you. No opportunity to feel anything about what’s been done to you. And no one, not one person, asks you the obvious question. “What was it like being dead?”
You can play all of ME2 and none of this matters, certainly none of it effects the possible outcomes. But consider: your mission in the game is described, from the very start, as a “suicide mission.” You’re living your second life. Imagine what would’ve happened if you could’ve gone into that mission with a commitment to live, grappling with the fear of dying a second time; imagine what would’ve happened if you went into the mission believing that you were dead already, looking at it as an opportunity to correct Cerberus’ mistake.
It truly wouldn’t have taken much to breathe this into the game, to have given Shepard’s story heart. One conversation string near the beginning of the game to set the flag – how does Shepard feel about what’s happened? A second flag conversation later in the game, ideally with a “previous ally” like Garrus – how you holding up? What was it like? (Or – if you’ve played the game, think on this – Jack asking you what it was like. That would’ve been a hell of a conversation.)
But doing so would’ve required taking control in a way that, thus far, I’ve seen no company dare. Certainly, Bethesda, with its mealy-mouthed and weak-kneed approach to story, would never have tried it. (Do NOT get me started on Fallout 3 – I’m hoping that New Vegas, in the hands of Feargus Urquhart, will fare better when it comes to true story and not just sandbox wandering.) It would’ve required committing to the idea that the character – regardless of the player’s intent – has an inner life, and in so doing, would’ve drawn the player into that life.
I’ve been around programmers and game companies enough to know some of the why’s they didn’t do this, in the same way I know exactly why ME2 only allows for opposite-gender romance (ironically, you can get it on with a whole new plethora of species, but it’s all hetero (I do not include the Shadowbroker DLC in this, for obvious reasons) – the memory of the Fox Freakout lingers, it seems; further irony – DragonAge suffers from no such restriction, which seems to indicate that BioWare was both aware of, and frustrated by, the double-standard imposed upon itself). It was evident in the pre-release ME2 press, where BioWare spent hours touting the upgraded fight mechanics, the new weapons, trying to appeal to the shooter crowd. I know the tension between the designers and the storytellers, trust me; I know the argument, that people “don’t care about story,” that they “just want gameplay.”
(Digression Two: I think that’s patent bullshit, too. Gameplay means nothing if I don’t have a reason to play the game. Bioshock works not solely on the basis of design, but on the world that necessitated that design, and that, baby, comes from story. Gameplay exists to facilitate – the best engine in the world means dick all if it’s not coupled with a damn reason to keep playing the game. End Digression Two.)
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Mass Effect 2 is a terrific game. It is, without question, the best of its kind I’ve ever played. I am quibbling, I know it. But I want it to be more, I want them to take the next step. I want an RPG that will elevate the form to a new level, that will give as much attention and commitment to story and, specifically, character, as it does to gameplay and world building.
And it can be done, we’re so close – BioWare knows it, they’re reaching for it. But the problem is, the ladder, it’s not tall enough. It’s going to require a leap, with all the fear and risk that entails. But dammit all, if anyone can do it, I know they can.
Here endeth the ramble.