Tuesday, August 16, 2011

6 Things I Learned From Mass Effect

Mass Effect (2007), by BioWare, is an exploration of a traditional role-playing-game mechanics into less traditional RPG spaces. It takes risks, explores customary RPG tropes, and comes out a mixed bag. I would not say it's better than Knights of the Old Republic (well the combat, maybe) because it lacks several things that KoTOR just did so excellently: the proper sense of adventure (replaced in Mass Effect by a lawman investigation), a galactic conflict (replaced by a mostly solitary manhunt), or the endearing cast of characters whom you pick up in the most varied of ways (replaced by a small cast of characters mostly all picked up at the beginning, who really want to talk about their unique position in the universal socio-political space drama affecting everybody it seems).

The game explores character customization, loads of backstory, a fusion of RPG and FPS elements, and the ever-popular moral choice scheme. However, at the same time, it felt like BioWare was holding back - that they were keeping the best on reserve for use in coming sequels. Here are six things that I discovered while playing it, concerning both RPGs and storytelling as a whole in games.

1. Player Customization Only Occurs Out of Necessity

Like in so many other role-playing games, in Mass Effect, you are allowed to customize your character's armor and weaponry on the fly. The sentiment behind this is that you want to adjust your character's attributes for your style of play and the enemies you will encounter. For instance, when fighting organic life forms, you want the "organic-life-killing" type of bullet.

However, I totally ignored these options - whether out of boredom or plain negligence - until I finally started dying - a lot. Which made me realize in this case that dying was actually a good thing. It forced me to re-evaluate my stance on how I was playing the game. It forced me to actually strategize and make use of the game's features (granted, I still didn't know about biotics and I was six hours in). Once I kept getting killed by the same three Krogan mercenaries, I finally customized my armor and weapons in order to be able to survive the next battle. Dying is not necessarily a bad thing. It can actually enrich a player's experience, when used correctly. You want your game to be hard enough that it forces players to actively engage the features in front of them, and to make choices that thereby enrich the game's experience.

2. Backstory is Interesting Only When it Matters

An unfortunate incident that occurred in Mass Effect was the introduction. Unlike Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare's previous foray, Mass Effect begins with a lengthy dialog sequence on our ship's helm, explaining who we are about to fight, where, and for what reasons.

Does this matter to me as a player right at the beginning? No, not really. When KoTOR began, we understood that the Sith were evil and were trying to kill us. The game doesn't need to explain every detail of our mission (we're here to escort Bastilla, a Jedi - good enough). We just need to know the immediate situation. But in Mass Effect, we are encouraged to listen to something about a human colony, Prothean artifacts, intergalactic racial tension, and more all before we even have any actual gameplay. Since I have no emotional stake in this world or in these characters, why should I care about these things? Only when I have actually started playing the game, or experienced the world, or can connect these facts to a sympathetic character would these things start to matter to me.

Not to say that all exposition is bad - it works when it is presented at the right time and in the right place. But in Mass Effect, there's just so much of it - you can learn about the Citadel, dozens of alien races, countless planets and moons - that it becomes hard to realize what is important and what is just "filler", so to speak. Which led me to realize that the only time I cared about backstory was when it had a direct influence on my character and my main goal: to stop Saren. If it was important about the main goal, about the Protheans, or about understanding what I was doing, then it was important to me. Anything else presented was at a disadvantage of "Why?" Why is this useful to me as a player? Does it give me a better understanding of why I'm doing what I'm doing? If not, then that backstory information holds little value.

3. RPG Elements Only Succeed When We Have Enough Time to Act

Mass Effect is unique among many RPGs in that it is really an FPS-RPG: a First-Person-Shooter with Role-Playing-Game elements. This means that there exists both real-time, skill-based gameplay (aiming/combat), and turn-based, strategy-type gameplay (powers/customization). Mass Effect is not the first game to try this - the BioShock series also did something similar with its own assortment of weapons and Plasmids. However, Mass Effect's execution succeeds far more than BioShock due to one critical element: time.

In Mass Effect, players have a sufficient amount of time to strategize with their powers due to the fact that they can pause the game mid-battle, set up their next attack, and then resume. Contrast this to BioShock, in which when you want to use the appropriate plasmids on the correct enemies and environmental objects, the game can at many times be so chaotic that you don't really have a chance to make informed, strategic decisions, which defeats the purpose of having so many powers in the first place. On the other hand, because Mass Effect gives players sufficient time to pick and choose their powers of attack, it successfully melds both skill and strategy-based gaming elements.

4. Planning and Progression is What Makes Players Come Back

Why are RPGs (including Mass Effect) often so addicting? One way Mass Effect accomplishes this is through setting up goals only achievable in the future. For example, when you bring your two best buddy squad mates with you on a mission, you probably level up several times, and then realize that the other squad mates you left on the ship also leveled up. After this, you want to keep playing to get back to your other squad mates and level them up. You want to play and finally regain access to that reward - it's the idea of planning your next actions and playing in hopes of fulfilling that plan.

So many games today are about instant gratification and action that it's refreshing to play games that offer long term rewards. It also comes back to Flow Theory - you want the player to be engaged at the micro and the macro levels. Mass Effect contains both immediate goals (kill the enemies in the level) and long term goals (upgrade your squad mates with the loot you got, sell this weapon you found, complete this quest you discovered). Engaging the player both in the immediate and the long term encourages players to keep playing the game, enhancing its longevity.

5. Quests are Cumbersome Once Loot Becomes a Burden Rather Than a Reward

At a certain point in Mass Effect, side quests become very repetitive, becoming a chore rather than a fun activity. Part of this comes from the fact that the reward from the quests start to become a burden rather than a reward. How does this happen? Once loot from enemies starts to become useless (meaning you would have to sell or discard it to gain any real value), then the quests associated with that loot become a chore, since the reward from the quest is not worth getting at all. Therefore, it doesn't make any sense to go through the quest if your time is not justified by the ends.

What would have worked is A) Removing many of the side-quests; many of them are simply repetitions of each other and have no real intrinsic value. Just imagine if in KoTOR there were random side quests in-between planet-hopping to kill a Sith outpost resulting in useless loot - it doesn't add anything to the game - rather it just distracts from the main storyline. B) A second solution is to lessen the amount of "useless" loot and assign one specific item of value to the completion of each side quest. This way, players know that the completion of each side quest results in something particular gained, not just a repetition of the last quest's rewards. C) Or, simplify the process of discarding "useless" loot, so that the burden to sell it or break it down is removed from the player. Much of the hassle from these side quests and their loot comes with the monotony of performing the same item-discarding after the quest is over. When the rewards in a quest don't justify the means, then that quest no longer is fun for the player.

6. Choices Without Emotional Investment Aren't Meaningful Choices.

***Spoiler Alert*** One of the main emotional cruxes of Mass Effect takes place during an infiltration mission in which your team gets split up into two branches. With you are your immediate two squad members, and with each separate branch is another of your squad mates. One branch contains Kaidan, a biotic soldier; the other contains Ashley, a gunnery soldier. At a certain point in the mission, you are separated from both groups, each under attack by Geth soldiers. At this point, you only have the option to save one group and its squad member, leaving the other to die.

Admittedly this is a great set up. It forces you to make an actual decision which has severe repercussions - a character you have been playing with for 10-20 hours will die because of your actions. However, this didn't work for me because I wasn't emotionally invested in both characters enough to have to make a difficult decision. What I thought was going to happen was that the game would force you to choose between one of the members in your immediate squad. If one of these squad members had died, then I certainly would have been more emotionally invested, since I liked them enough to take them by my side in the first place. However, certain characters like Kaidan I almost never interacted with or shared any sentiment for. This could have been alleviated had the game forced me to use different characters at different sections of the game, becoming more attached to them emotionally. But because I never really used Kaidan anyway, a choice that was supposed to be emotionally difficult ended up not really being a difficult choice at all.

Part of that is understandable, for if the game let any character die, then it wouldn't make any sense, production-wise, to record so much dialog and gameplay in the sequels for characters that could have died. So, by limiting it to only one of two characters, Mass Effect restricts wasted production costs in the next games.


Mass Effect is a game that tries to do many things: meld FPS and RPG combat, create a living universe, have vehicle sections and many explorable planets, but it seems to fall prey to a recurrent trend in open-world gaming: the more freedom a player has, the less interesting the choices become. That is, the more options you give a player, the more generic they must become in order to be produced. It's the same in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion - the world is huge and filled with so many things, yet the more you explore, the more everything seems to remain the same. Mass Effect appears to fall susceptible to the same error, for in trying to accomplish so many things, the game becomes more and more cumbersome and less generally interesting. There are so many repetitive side-quests, identical worlds, useless dialog sequences, endless backstory, and unintuitive customization options that Mass Effect becomes redundant rather than immersive. Had BioWare focused less on sheer quantity and crafting a tighter player experience, then Mass Effect would have been a much more enjoyable game.

Maybe in Mass Effect 2.

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At 9/18/2011 9:01 AM, Blogger Winstons said...

Really good point there about the larger, open world games actually becoming more generic because they try to achieve too much - I was thinking 'That's just what happened to Oblivion' a few seconds before I read your quote on that game.

Have you had a chance to try Mass Effect 2 yet? I think it addresses quite a few of the issues you mention here - the flow of the game is certainly more streamlined and drives you forward - and the decisions and repercussions of those right at the very end of the game (giving away no spoilers) answer your point about Kaiden/Ashley as well.

At 9/18/2011 6:33 PM, Blogger TheJBurger said...

I am playing Mass Effect 2 (and will complete it - someday) and it really is a much tighter game. You can feel how the designers basically removed everything that distracts you from the main action of the game, from the lack of customizable armor, to the lack of a 'collection' menu, to many other things.

To that end, it is a much more intuitive game. I hope to post my thoughts on it some time in the future. :)

At 12/03/2012 2:49 AM, Blogger magic-conch-studios said...

Regarding point 2 (backstory): I also hate these endless cutscenes, bringing me out of the game, wanting to play and not to watch the game...
One movie that delivers backstory quite well is Terminator 1, the whole explanaition comes while the action takes place, there are very few moments with just talking people.
I think a full backstory covering all races and all planets etc. is very enriching BUT as you said, I don't need all the details. I just want to get a glimpse of the deepness that lies beyond. Therefore I think ist is a great design decision to flesh out the world with details so you can provide little pieces here and there later in the actual game, that create the deep atmosphere. A great example is Lord Of The Rings (the book!). Everywhere you gat small references to the Silmarillion.
Oh and regarding loot: yes, in RPG it is so important. In Gothic 2 I think it was, I found myself exploring for hours the island and every now and then I found a special item, this pushes you through "boring" footwork very well. And it also provides a GREAT oportunity to provide backstory as well...just think of a situation where you find a rusty sword named "Andriels Watersword"...who was Andriel? What is this sword? Why is it here? Then in other parts of the games you find a book perhaps telling the tale of a fire demon which was defeated by a special sword...and then in the end of the game you find out that your ancestor was named Andriel...
Ok I digress :D

p.s. thanks for Gemini Rue, I liked it a lot!

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