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On Reapers, Collectors, and being called Shepard

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.

17 Responses to On Reapers, Collectors, and being called Shepard

  1. Tweets that mention On Reapers, Collectors, and being called Shepard | Greg Rucka --

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Karl Kerschl and Quinton Miles, Greg Rucka. Greg Rucka said: New blog post. Thoughts on #masseffect2, #BioWare, why I love them, and computer rpgs as Art. Or something like it. [...]

  2. Ken Lowery

    Some interesting thoughts that’ve made me consider how I play these kinds of games.

    I can see where your frustration comes from — you see a lot of potential in the story of Shepard’s resurrection and how it’d inform everything else, and it’s not like BioWare lacked for talent or the ability to write that stuff out. I can only assume they saw that stuff as less fruitful than you did, which is probably their error.

    But I also find have no real problem with the relatively thin characterization of the protagonist. Maybe it’s just I’ve been “trained” for a long time — from GTA3 and Neverwinter Nights up till now — but I tend to do a lot of the work when it comes to what the character is really like. It’s a gestalt effort that informs what choices I make, how characters react to things and so on. It’s a gestalt work, where my mind is filling in the blanks that the game does not address.

    And I don’t consider that a necessarily inferior experience; to me, it’s more like a collaborative effort, where room is left for me to decide for myself what Shepard is doing and (most importantly) WHY, rather than have the game tell me, or hammer it down to 2-3 options. I find this to be an IMMENSELY satisfying storytelling/audience experience, one that cannot be adequately duplicated in movies, novels, or what have you.

    That’s also a reason I like Fallout 3 a great deal. It’s way more sandboxy, true, but it nails its central premise and theme — consequence, “fallout” — better than any game I’ve ever played. It allows you to build up a story of action and consequence that rewrites itself every time you play it. It’s a sandbox game like I like them: a setting rich in design and theme with a strong spine of a central story that lets you create whatever the hell you want. Again, a collaborative effort between storyteller and audience. There is immense value in that to me.

  3. James Sparkman

    I hope someone from BioWare reads this.

  4. Nunzio DeFilippis

    As the pen and paper GM in question, I will first speak to the issue of RPGs. Yes, we as people do crazy shit even we ourselves can’t explain. But we choose it, and we’ll never get further from explaining it than if we assume it is somehow out of our hands. Our minds (or even our souls, if you will) may be impossible to truly know, but they are, in the end, ours. Not a cosmic GMs. So in role-playing, I try to replicate that. I can’t tell you how you feel because in real life, no one can either. You can choose to only do the things with your character that you can explain, or you can do crazy stuff that you yourself don’t understand – just like in life. But, just like in life, those actions are yours. It may not feel like a choice, but it is one, so that’s why I leave emotion and response to the players in an RPG.

    Now, that aside, I agree with you on Mass Effect 2. I think exploring the character’s inner life is missing. And I think specifically what it means that you died, and what it means to be brought back by a former enemy, and what it means to know that part of you is distinctly not human after all that repair… those all need to be explored.

    But not because roleplaying requires we be told how Shepard feels. In fact, for the opposite reason. I think it needed to be done the way you discussed. Let the player choose the response, then give them conversations to explore that response and even to change it over time, if they see fit, leaving certain dialogues or cut scenes to have variable responses based on the choices the player made when asked how (s)he feels.

    That would be letting them truly be Shepard. The failing isn’t in Bioware not taking more control. It’s in them removing a level of both exploration of and control over Shepard’s emotional life.

    Still, like you, I loved that game. So we both may be picking at nits. But, hey, we’re like that, right?

  5. greg

    Ken -

    All fair points, and not necessarily any that I would outright argue against; though my experience of Fallout 3 was radically different than yours, you’re not the first person I’ve spoken to who’s praised the game for precisely the reasons you supply. My desire – and I admit, it’s a narrow market, I imagine – is that I want a story, not an environment that allows for story. To me, Fallout 3 is like the old Forgotten Realms Boxed Set – a campaign setting, full of story potential, but without the lightning bolt required to get the primordial soup churning. Thus, the onus is passed to the player to create the story. That’s fine for many (heck, it’s fine for me a lot of the time), but it isn’t a story in and of itself.

    My suspicion is that BioWare considered the option, and decided against “pushing” the player to any specific story. This was more forgivable in the first game, but in the second, given the nature of you death and rebirth, it’s a glaring lack. And if, in fact, this is the case – that they considered it but discarded the idea – I believe that does the player a disservice. The story itself is more than strong enough to allow for specific Shepard “beats,” and providing options, even limited ones (I am ambivalent about coming back from the dead; I am happy to be alive; Who the Hell are you people to bring me back), would’ve married plot and story together into an incredibly powerful – and even unique – tale.

  6. greg

    Well, we’ve gone around on this before, and we’ll have to agree to disagree. The point of (tabletop) gaming, as you and I approach it, at least, is to create a collaborative experience. Nothing is done without the consent of the player, nor without the blessing of the GM. Inherent in that is the right of refusal. But we’ve all met people we’ve taken an immediate dislike to and not known why they rubbed us the wrong way, in the same way that we’ve all met people we’ve been drawn to and couldn’t explain the attraction. I see no flaw in putting that to the player; that takes nothing out of their hands, just puts a thought in their head. What the player then chooses to do with it is their own. Unless I’m mind-controlling someone in a game I run, I do not, to quote Harbinger, “assume control.”

    And yes, this is nit-picking in extremis. And I am grateful that BioWare gave me a game that I can spend this much time pondering.

  7. Oomu

    Did you try Japanese rpg ?
    they do what you explain about characters (in final fantasy for example, the characters have family problems, anxiety, fears and so on, yes people, it’s still a game with fights, action and stuff to choose quickly :) )

    The game mechanics are very different, sometimes more linear, maybe you will hate. But you should try.

  8. Dan

    Nice post.

    Whilst it has it’s flaws it’d be interesting to hear your views on Alpha Protocol if you should ever play it.

    There’s a similar mechanic whereby you choose your characters background and so on. Dodgy enemy AI and frustrating bosses aside, I felt the choices you make and your background had a much more noticeable effect on the narrative here than in ME2. Another example of a game on the cusp of something great with other elements preventing it from fulfilling that potential.

  9. Greg

    I’ve stayed away from Alpha Protocol mostly because I was warned off it for gameplay issues. That said, I suspect I’ll get to it within the next month or so, simply because it’s 1) espionage, and 2) my faith in Obsidian is second only to my faith in BioWare.

  10. // story, games, together

    [...] Box WordPress PluginGreg Rucka—he of the comic books Queen & Country and Whiteout—has a new post up on his blog about the gameplay and story of Mass Effect 2. In it, Rucka looks not only at Mass Effect 2 and the storytelling techniques of [...]

  11. mark coale

    I have to ask:

    greg, since you known as someone who writes people like Tara and Renee and Kate, do you play ME as a female Shepard?

  12. Greg

    I’m an equal-opportunity Shepard, frankly. Played the game as both male and female, paragon and renegade.

    As to your next question, my femShep was the paragon. She was the carry-over character from the first game.

  13. Chris Gardiner

    That was a great read, and really crystalised my own rocky relationship with Bioware games. Partly, the issue is that some aspects of their storytelling are *so* strong that the weaker elements really stand out.

    Goodness knows that the issue of the game’s plot vs the player’s story is at the cause of much debate when we’re writing content for our casual online game Echo Bazaar ( Rather than try to tell a single, pre-determined story, we try to present the player with enticing or provoking narrative elements, to suggest connections but leave their exact shape open, in an attempt to encourage them to make their own story. They have to tell that story, not us, but we can give them tools that make it easier.

    We write some more about this here:

    An occasional technique we use is to straight up ask what the player wants their character to feel in response to a situation, and have the response modify their in-game qualities. Are you remorseful over what you’ve done? You’re now more Melancholy than before. Are you unrepentant? Then you’re Heartless. Those changes open new, appropriate options and content. The player then gets to make an explicit statement about their character’s internal story, and to have the game respect it.

    Any game with story has to walk that line between fairly representing the game’s events, and denying the player agency. It’s a thin line. And a wiggly one. And someone keeps shaking it. But the view’s good from up there.

    (Oh, and incidentally, I’ve been loving Stumptown. Excited for Dex’s next case!)

  14. greg

    Chris –

    Thanks for the reply and the links. More than a little intrigued by what you posted on the blog. I like the direct approach to emotional intent. Admit I’m a little curious as to what the response has been.

  15. Adam

    Great post–it hit on a lot of things I’ve been trying to work through myself.

    I think that the “filling in the gaps yourself” approach, while valid and longstanding (and sharing many similarities with novel-reading), doesn’t take advantage of what’s there in the medium. Granted, doing so would be tricky; if the mechanics or action of the game doesn’t give you a chance to participate, it’s constraining, but if those options don’t reflect your personal interpretation of the story, it’s hollow. Still, the designers have an ace up their sleeve by now: tracking decisions. We know that they’re datamining the Xbox-Live data for knowledge on what classes were played and choices made, what lines were skipped, etc. I think there’s a lot of potential in actually getting information on how people interpret your work–imagine if novelists had a record of how readers responded to their creative choices.

    Imagine if, early on in ME3 when you’re trying to rejoin the Alliance Navy or get full clearance as a Spectre (assuming you didn’t do it in the 2nd game), you have to go in for psych analysis, one that may challenge who you think you are. With all the flags and decisions from the past two games, there’s grist for some really amazing dialog and introspection. Granted, they’d have to be careful about which of Shepard’s decisions the profiler actually had access to, but there’s potential there. I guess I’m just waiting for a game to surpass Planescape:Torment in open-but-strong-characterization.

  16. Commander Shepard Must Die – Again! « Video Game Theory & Language

    [...] read a blog by Greg Rucka the other week and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.  As much as I love [...]

  17. Zooroos

    Hi! As a GM of tabletop RPGs, I feel your position on dictating (or at least suggesting) emotional responses for the player characters in your game. I’ve seen different takes on the subjects, from people who barely give an emotional subtext to the world they’re describing (“…and a dragon sweeps in and burns the village and all the villagers, whatcha gonna do?”) to people who likes to describe even the body language and thoughts of the players’ characters (“…you feel revulsed by the guy, and your hands begin to shake at the sight of his most recent victim, laying on the floor like a discarded doll…”).

    I don’t think either approach is correct, I think it’s a matter of choosing the proper tools for the job. Many RPG game sessions have an involving, often personal, story, but there are also many of them that don’t require any particular “narrative trick” to deliver a rewarding gaming experience.

    And there is also the subject of setting a specific mood or atmosphere in the game. Videogames can use music, light and other FX to establish a horror atmosphere, or a frenzy mood, but tabletop RPGs often need to rely on some emotional subtext from part of the characters, whether the player in charge come up with some of it or not (mainly because mood is all about provoking and emotional response rather than present an intellectual or physical challenge).

    Now, in cRPGs the trick is to provide with meaningful choices that don’t feel forced or harried to the player. That is, the-GM-in-the-Machine has to put his weight over the player’s response by throwing the world on their shoulders. Forced circumstances are not really forced if they come from previous, informed decisions of the player, IF they can also provide with a meaningful, story-rich dilemma. Free will is only apparent in stories, characters are unwittingly led through the narrative to a conflictive and dramatically meaningful personal crisis, and game players can perfectly and knowingly play along with the illusion if they can achieve their prize: either/both gameplay ‘win’ and/or the ineffable emotional response. Either prize is a form of payoff, equally rewarding.

    Well, I hope my rambling makes any sense to you.



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