The Story Mechanic Part Seventeen: The Interactive Column

BioWare really achieved something with the Mass Effect series. Let nothing that you read here, or anywhere else, distort that fact. I know they achieved something because, for all my trying, I can’t analyse any of the Mass Effect games on their own. Each individual game is part of something bigger, and together they achieve something masterful.

Wouldn’t we all be so lucky.

Despite that, the game has fallen foul of the fans (just look at the ‘Player’ metacritic score compared to the ‘Critic’ score). The reasons are varied, ranging from “I hate day one DLC” to, bizarrely, “EA want to make money” (can we just agree that publishers and developers are allowed to make a little cash – turning a profit is what gets the sequels to our favourite games commissioned).

The most interesting argument came from one of the GodisaGeek.com readers, Yukon, who felt that Mass Effect 3 was a weaker game than its forebears because “the amount of actual interaction removed from the series [by Mass Effect 3] is appalling”. I think that this an interesting issue. I think it is interesting because I respectfully disagree with Yukon.

What I hope is most interesting is why I disagree with Yukon.

I might as well start off by conceding a few points. Mass Effect 3 is the culmination of a slide from RPG to action game that began with Mass Effect 2. Doubtless, removal of character development will feel like a loss of interaction. Certainly one can point to decision for Shepherd to always be the good guy, regardless of player choices, and say that BioWare might have gone too far in terms of letting the player define the tone of the game. BioWare updating it in a patch is evidence that they probably agree with me. On the technical side, the game engine strains under the weight of BioWare’s ambition, though this has only fleeting bearing on interaction and immersion.

Let’s start at the end. Mass Effect 3’s binary ending, the simple choice of Paragon or Renegade ending has garnered much criticism. Certainly one could make a strong argument that it flies in the face of the game; that the player’s choices matter. If a player has played as a virtuous paragon throughout the game, why would Shepherd even be given the option to choose the evil ending. At the end, shouldn’t the player be the sum of their choices and be made to bear witness to what they have wrought? Does this demean the player’s earlier interactions with the game, somehow rendering their choices null and void because, whatever they have done in the past, they will end up at this point. Probably, yes, yes it does. However, if we discard the confusing plotting and poor execution (which are nothing to do with interaction) how does this really differ from Mass Effect 1 or 2. All the Mass Effect games, as it turns out, offer the player a binary choice at the end of the game, irrespective of what they player has done. In Mass Effect 2, a Paragon player could concede the Collector ship to the Illusive Man (the Renegade ending). Mass Effect has always provided the player with control over meaningful choices, and the one at the end of the game is no different from any other. It just feels different because it is at the end of the game. I am not saying it is good or bad game design, I’m just saying it is no different from the other games in the series.

It just feels different.

Here we are at the crux of my argument.

The Mass Effect series comes down to moments of meaningful, narrative choice. However, the thing about choice, is that it is impossible to immediately feel their effects. When a player decides to align with a particular race at a key plot point in Mass Effect 3, it is impossible to know how that turns out. The player is fundamentally interacting with the story, affecting the variables in BioWare’s incredible story-matrix like any other choice, but the ramifications aren’t felt in the same way. For example, think of Mordin Solus. Through the player’s actions in Mass Effect 2, Mordin can live or he can die. That is made abundantly clear in the way that Mass Effect 2 ends. In Mass Effect 3, the player wields the same power over Mordin. In many ways, much more powerfully. However, the way that the player experiences this is very different. In Mass Effect 2, it is made clear that player action causes characters to live or die. In Mass Effect 3 it is the result of a cutscene, which might make the action feel pre-determined. However, the mechanisms that get the player to the point of Solus’ death (or survival) are the same: Choices. In fact, in Mass Effect 3 it is even more complex, with decisions from across the series impacting what happens to Solus (and many of the other secondary characters).

My point is that the effects of choices players made in Mass Effect 1 and 2 have been reverberating around the universe for many hours of gameplay by the time that Mass Effect 3 is nearly finished. These choices feel like they have a larger affect on the game’s story because, as players, we have watched these choices shape the game world for hours and hours. BioWare’s skilful writers bring small choices from earlier games back around to the player so that, in Mass Effect 3, they see ramifications of choices made across two games worth of decisions. Therefore we understand the impact and the repercussions of what we decided. Small choices feel huge The choices in Mass Effect 3 simply don’t have the time to percolate through the system in the same way. That is why choices in Mass Effect 3 often have bombastic results, with secondary characters dying like fish on a dry lake bed, so the player can see the ramifications. Big choices often feel smaller, predetermined and throwaway. These just moments can’t resonate as much because there is simply no time to appreciate the context or the weight of the moment. To my mind, Mass Effect 3 isn’t less interactive, it just has less time to show the player the results of their actions.

This is further reflected in the gameplay systems. After three Mass Effect games, players shouldn’t overlook how good they have got at the games. BioWare probably missed a trick by anchoring Paragon and Renegade conversation options to fixed compass directions on the conversation wheel (north-east and south-east, respectively). This allows players to play the system, rather than read the conversation options and decide how they would want their Shepherd to respond. Again, this isn’t less interactive than previous Mass Effect games. It is the same. It just feels less interactive because it requires less investment from the player to understand it. Want a feel-good cutscene, just press up-right. Gloomy, down-right. It requires more energy to emotionally invest, because the easier option is just game the system and create a Shepherd that is one extreme or the other. BioWare tried to shake this up, but they didn’t do enough. By removing the Paragon and Renegade barometer from reputation, and following from that the unique dialogue choices that came from being “pure Paragon” or “pure Renegade”, BioWare encouraged a more, thoughtful, balanced approach. However, Paragon and Renegade is hard-wired into the Mass Effect experience at this point, so many players will strive to be one or the other. It limits interaction because it limits the thought required to play the game.

Again, the level of interaction is the same. It just feels different because the experience of playing the game has changed over time.

As I said at the beginning, BioWare really achieved something with the Mass Effect series. Don’t misunderstand though, the games aren’t perfect and different moments and creative choices are perfect fodder for debate. The ending of Mass Effect 3 will long live in memory. For me, however, the reaction to the ending has been emblematic of a game and a series that no one wanted to end, that could never do justice to what went before it. Was it perfect? No. The thing is, though, that it was consistent with the endings of the first two games (the player presented with a choice, regardless of everything that lead to that moment) and closed the series out.

I’m not lobbying that Mass Effect 3 be anyone’s favourite game but, with respect to Yukon, I feel that it is every bit the equal of its predecessors in terms of player interactivity. It is just over too quickly to really let you feel it.


  • TerrorK

    Sorry, but I have to strongly disagree with you. Mass Effect 3 was very much devoid of choices and decent consequences compared to the other two games. And on top of it all, the story went from being one you controlled to one controlled almost entirely by BioWare.

    For starters, there are massively reduced dialogue choices as a whole compared to ME1 and ME2. The dialogue wheel pops up nowhere near as often, and on the rare instances it does it’s generally only filled with two options, usually the upper and lower extreme ones. Investigate options are also far less compared to the other games, and throughout the game there are less Charm and Intimidate choices than there were on Noveria alone in ME1. Most of the time you experience overly long cutscenes with no interaction, with your Shepard just running off at the mouth without any input from the player. You select an option now and then finally, and then the next few moments of conversation just go on autoplay with Shepard saying things when the other two games would have given you a wheel each time. A classic case is confronting the Illusive Man for the first time on Mars: if you choose the Renegade option at the start, Shepard just automatically tells him to “go to hell!” at the end of the conversation. If you chose the Paragon one, he/she doesn’t and says something else. In the other games you would have been given the choice of what to say almost every time Shepard was about to speak, whereas now he/she just does it without you.

    This extends to the Normandy too, where companions and conversations there are treated like Zaeed and Kasumi were in ME2 about 90% of the time, with Shepard either just observing as a non-participant or standing there and automatically chiming in with no input from the player. In ME1 and ME2 Shepard never said a word on the Normandy when dealing with squadmates and other characters without the player choosing what that was.

    On top of it all, Shepard is more emotional now, but at the cost of being automatically so. Players asked for the ability to express their Shepards more in ME3 after feeling he/she was too much of a wooden soldier in ME1 and ME2. The moment at the end of Lair of the Shadow Broker where Liara asks Shepard how he/she feels about the whole Reaper thing was almost universally praised for the fact it gave players the chance to finally express their Shepard more emotionally via three responses. In ME3 instead of being able to express our Shepards like we asked we got a Shepard that automatically expressed themselves. They felt sad when the kid was killed, they commented on “missing Kaidan/Ashley” after not sleeping well, they yelled “this is for Thane!” when finally downing Kai Leng, etc. This is another example of how Shepard stopped being ours and the story stopped being ours and just became BioWare’s. Players should have been able to choose how to feel, not have their feelings automatically chosen for them. I had a Shepard who didn’t care about Kaidan or Thane expressing sadness and anger at their deaths, and a Shepard who was supposed to be an emotionless hardass feeling sad about a kid getting wasted by a Reaper when he’s lost his whole unit before and dealt with death all the time.

    The game was also linear as all hell. In ME1 I got my ship and could do Therum, Feros and Noveria whenever I wanted and however I wanted. Port Hanshan also had at least 7 ways to get the garage pass to get to Peak 15. In ME2 I got the Normandy back and could recruit Mordin, Garrus, Jack, Grunt, Zaeed or Kasumi in any order I wanted, and then later on do loyalty missions and recruit the rest of the squad whenever I wanted after Horizon. In ME3 what happens when I get the ship? I HAVE to do Menae first, then HAVE to do Sur’Kesh, then HAVE to do Tuchanka, then HAVE to do Rannoch, etc. The game just puts be on the rails when before I had the freedom of the entire galaxy. On top of it all, every mission is exactly the same every playthrough. I do the same objectives for the same reasons in the same way and the only thing that changes is a choice at the end. Compare this to Noveria where, again, I had several ways to get the garage pass, some of which allowed me to avoid combat entirely. And the same was true for getting to Benezia at Peak 15 itself: I could either blast my way through, or do several missions for different people to progress there the long, but less violent way.

    The consequences in ME3 were awful and lazy too, and that was one of the biggest disappointments after all these claims of “your choices matter” from BioWare. If somebody died in ME1 or ME2, all that it changed was that somebody else would come in and replace them and just do the same exact thing with some minor dialogue choices. Mordin dies and Padok just comes in and basically is Mordin 2. Wreav just steps into be a more aggressive Wrex who suddenly wants the same thing despite them differing greatly in ME2. Shala’Raan just steps up to be Tali aside from the fact she doesn’t also come with you. Legion replaces… himself, by just showing up anyway with some minor dialogue changes. Miranda is replaced by Oriana who just does the same thing. The list goes on. And then there’s Kaidan and Ashley who are basically male and female clones of each other after being rather different in ME1 and then conveniently taken out of half the game after an injury so BioWare don’t have to deal with them as individuals too much. The Rachni Queen is the biggest cop-out of all, as one of the biggest decisions comes down to the weak outcome of a clone just taking her place so she shows up anyway. The Council if killed in ME1 are also replaced by others who are barely different from them and have no major differences or contributions. Saving or keeping The Collector Base also changes almost nothing. Gianna Parasini and Shiala were so built up in ME2 as being romantically interested in Shepard and then… didn’t even appear in ME3. Telling the quarians to go to war or not with The Geth was meaningless too.

    On top of it all, the game just resorted to turning things into a stupid number known as “War Assets” rather than giving us anything meaningful. We couldn’t even use them somehow by sending quarians, krogan, turians, asari, etc. to fight the Reapers in a gameplay mechanic. The whole system just felt like a massive cop-out and lazy solution to “dealing” with consequences: by reducing them to an arbitrary number when they should have been reflected in the story and game.

    As a whole, player agency and interaction was reduced massively, and the consequences for prior choices were handled sloppily. And on top of that the writing was quite frankly abysmal a lot of the time. First there’s The Crucible just popping up about 20 minutes into the game: a giant deus-ex machina that is essentially a “Reaper off button” despite BioWare’s promise that the game wouldn’t revolve around such a cheap storytelling device. There’s no foreshadowing in the prior games at all either, it just pops up when you mean Liara on Mars and she just does, “Oh. Found anti-Reaper weapon schematics, btw. Just FYI.” Then there’s Cerberus, who were are supposed to believe have better soldiers than the turians, better covert intelligence than the salarians and The Shadow Broker, and better tech, more resources and more funding and power than the rest of the galaxy combined, despite being a small human splinter cell group only around for about 20 years or so. And we’re supposed to buy that they could take over The Citadel and have so many spies without being caught. That they can infiltrate Sur’Kesh despite the fact that the salarians have been doing their covert intelligence, spying and espionage for thousands of years now. We’re supposed to believe that Kai Leng is a badass when he gets his ass handed to him on a platter in every encounter, and then cutscenes just retcon the fact that he’s a wimp and manufacture victory. And that’s not even going into the ending and all the cop-outs such as clone Rachni, Ashley and Kaidan being kept out half the damn game, the sudden pro-Cerberus Udina and Din Korlak, etc. (which I’m sure has nothing to do with Mac Walters having too much of a chubby for The Illusive Man and Cerberus).

    As for the ending itself, as one poster put it on the BioWare Social Network, all the endings are “thematically revolting.” Not only do they not reflect our prior choices at all when BioWare originally claimed the endings would be determined by prior actions and choices, and not only are they all unsatisfying and pretentious, but they seem to go against everything the games up until then were about. The style and feel of them is not only completely off, and the logic and explanation behind The Reapers not only completely neuters them as a threat and makes no logical sense, but they are so mean-spirited and counter-intuitive to the overall feel and message of Mass Effect until then. From the get go the series seemed to be about the differences between all these races and about acceptance and how these differences are what makes them all strong and unique. It was about embracing the idea of acceptance, diversity and understanding. It was about unity.

    Instead, what do we get at the end? We get a choice to enslave the big bad, making it do what we want. We get the choice to destroy the big bad, because they are evil and don’t like us, but this also destroys a species that we very well could have recently brokered peace with (proving the moronic kid at the end WRONG about the theory of synthetics vs. organics). And finally, we have the choice of forced homogenization, where we play God and force every race to become a hybrid mix.

    Not only are NONE of these choices based on prior decisions and outcomes, but NONE of these choices are about these themes that the game once preached, and NONE of them are even remotely acceptable or good. They’re all bad, evil choices. Acceptance and difference are all considered bad in all of them, in favour of forced control, forced destruction or forced homogenization.

    The other fact is that while ME1 and ME2 had a final choice at the end (Council Choice for ME1 and Collector Base for ME2), they needed to still have a certain degree of linearity and restriction to them because there was more to come. ME3 doesn’t have that excuse because it’s the end. It SHOULD have been the most diverse one, and should have reflected prior choices and consequences more… but instead it was the MOST restrictive and MOST linear. ME1 and ME2′s choices also may have tied into Paragon and Renegade stereotypes on the surface, but they also had logical reasons for a character of the opposite type to be able to choose them. In ME1 sacrificing The Council as a Paragon can be seen as your Shepard considering taking down Sovereign as being a greater priority. We all know that you can have your cake and eat it too here, but when roleplaying a character one should consider that they don’t have this foreknowledge. Heck, ME1 even has a middle option that is similar to the Renegade one, but represents a more reluctant stance on the choice… something that ME3 seemed to disregard and forget entirely since the middle-ground option was almost NEVER present. It also has an epilogue that reflects your Shepard in different ways, and actually has Udina and Anderson commenting on your choice in relation to your character (for example, if you sacrifice The Council and your Paragon score is high you can claim it was necessary and Anderson and Udina will believe you, while if your Renegade score is really high Udina will call you out as a liar and comment on knowing your true motives). ME2 has a similar circumstance where a Paragon Shepard may consider the base being saved a crucial step in defeating The Reapers, despite the fact it goes to The Illusive Man. Why there was never a neutral option of “keep the base, but give it to The Council or Alliance” I’m not sure, but the point stands. Despite the nature of the choices, there was a logical reason behind a choice for both extremes. And when roleplaying a character, one should always have that ability to choose. Again, remember the fact that Shepard in ME3 just says too much without player input and just doesn’t have the choices they once did.

    ME3 failed this in many ways, be it Shepard auto-talking too much, a complete lack of wheel options, a complete lack of Charm/Intimidate ones, Shepard automatically feeling ways about stuff, or the fact the ending seemed so far removed from what preceded it and seemed to contradict it, while also not being a result of your choices at all. ME1 and ME2′s endings were a natural conclusion to what preceded it, while ME3′s ending and choices were not. They were awful, stupid and non-sensical, and even though you could see the faults, plot-holes and issues, you couldn’t actually DO anything about them.

    Overall, the final Mass Effect game went from being an RPG where choices mattered and just became a story-driven action game with an ending that contradicted everything that preceded it and our choices had no real bearing on. It went from being a story we got to tell ourselves in our way with our character to a game that featured BioWare’s story told their way with their character. In ME1 and ME2 all my Shepard’s were mine and all varied and different. In ME3 every one of them felt the same, and they were all doing the same thing in the same way and getting the same outcome. The game should have been very diverse depending on what I did before, via missions, characters, choices and consequences. It simply was not, as BioWare just jammed me on the rails of their story and wouldn’t let me leave, while stuff just happened even if it contradicted what I’d done before and made no sense.

    And overall it’s pretty damn clear that BioWare just wanted to throw out another story-driven action game catered for the mainstream masses and CoD fans when the series started out as a rich sci-fi RPG for geeks who loved 80′s era sci-fi. The game was so misfocused and lacking, with almost all the things that once made the series great either watered down or culled for the sake of combat, bombastic over-the-top nonsense not out of place in a Michael Bay film and oversimplification. Player agency and control took a massive hit just for the sake of combat finally being decent, multiplayer, Kinect support and other features such as the ability to turn off dialogue choices entirely. At the end of the day, Mass Effect 3 was almost nothing that it should have been and almost everything that it shouldn’t have been. It should have been epic, with the most variations, choices, consequences, endings and variety. Instead, it was the least satisfying of the trilogy.

  • Yukon

    Ok, when I read your part 14 article you were both insightful and presented a very well thought out critique of Heavy Rain/Mass Effect. Because your article focused on “The Story Mechanic” I thought it was prudent to mention that the “actual interaction” between ME2 and ME3 was worth you time as both the “story” in Mass Effect 3 and the interactive player agency was incredibly miss managed.

    Sadly it seems you are so blinded by both the ending and the “improved” game play that you can’t see how BioWare ruined Mass Effect 3.

    This used to be BioWare’s approach to interactive narrative design (Its what we thought we were getting with Mass Effect 3):

    BioWare’s process to interactive narrative design parts 1-4 by Armando Troisi, Lead Cinematic Designer for Mass Effect’s 1-2 (Now Lead Cinematic Designer for 343′s Halo).

    http://youtu.be/-opEshcecMY

    http://youtu.be/1RhXAgq00Qg

    http://youtu.be/7SNbZlZdcDE

    http://youtu.be/jKWGULZsnJg

    The heart of Mass Effect was in the player agency, you may think they made a mistake in giving us so much, but I truly thought we were on the verge of something really special.

  • Yukon

    At least someone gets it. Thanks.

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