Awhile back, I devoted an entire post to Bioshock, a highly anticipated and critically acclaimed game that got me thinking a lot about the medium and our standards for evaluating it. I recently played through one of the other blockbuster games of 2007—perhaps the other blockbuster game, according to some—Bioware’s Mass Effect. Like Bioshock, Mass Effect feels like an attempt to leap forward in how we think about games as a storytelling device.
Again, I’m not really in the business of doing reviews, but this game just gave me too much food for thought to ignore. I’ll remain generally vague here, but still, expect some spoilers to follow (especially in the forum posts I link to).
In it for the Story
Mass Effect is the first part of a science-fiction trilogy designed for people who love the common reference points of geek culture. Scattered throughout the game are subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) references and homages to Aliens, H.P. Lovecraft, and even gaming cult figure/in-joke Leeroy Jenkins, among others.
Most of all, the game world feels a great deal like the world of Star Wars (with a dash of Trek), and several plots points and characters are very reminiscent of Bioware’s previous work on Knights of the Old Republic for the previous generation of consoles. Though the combat system works more like a third-person shooter, the game uses essentially the same system of choosing paths through conversations, giving the player the choice to be a paragon, a renegade, or fairly neutral, offering some different plot points and dialog reactions accordingly. Some choices offer substantially different paths through the game, such as when you must choose whether characters on your own team will live or die.
Many video game scholars and critics maintain that we play games primarily for the feeling of mastery we derive from excelling in their rule sets—for “beating” games, essentially. Some of these individuals have dismissed the narrative aspect of games as dressing for what we really play for. Videogame narrative can’t work, some have argued, because players will subvert narrative expectations to make it easier to win. Mass Effect offers many different routes to “winning,” though, and so it should be no surprise that players make some choices for reasons related to the story more so than the rules.
In one post, for example, I noticed a player saying that s/he allowed one character to live out of great respect for that character—even though killing the character would have meant “renegade points” that the player was going out of the way to accrue elsewhere. Another player allowed one character to die in a certain situation, arguing that it seemed more “heroic” to allow things to play out that way.
Personally, I had a much harder time mistreating other characters than I would in other games, knowing that it could actually lead to awkward (albeit simulated) interpersonal interactions here. I tried to play through once as semi-villainous, and I found I couldn’t bring myself to kill innocent civilians in this game, though it wouldn’t mean much to me to do the same in other games. For me, there’s something very uncomfortable about playing a character who makes other characters cry.
Bioware clearly designed the game to work as a narrative, with great potential for emotional involvement. That’s what makes it all the more disappointing to me that they didn’t take this as far as they could’ve. As others have suggested, I think it is fair to suggest that games offer a couple different kinds of pleasure, in terms of “mastery” and “narrative involvement.” And I think that most story-oriented games today try to offer something for players seeking either kind of involvement; Halo 3, for example, received roughly equally high billing for both its “campaign” (story) mode and its “matchmaking” (sport) mode. Building a game with both of these kinds of engagement in mind, however, necessarily means limiting resources for the other kind of material.
To consider one very simple example, note that we only see one gender of each alien species throughout the entire game. This has spawned a number of “are there female turians?” threads across multiple message boards. The official answer from the developers is yes, there are, but they weren’t included because it would have taken up space on the disc that could be used for other things (see developer comments here and here for examples).
The space that could have gone to more art and character models was instead occupied by other content. Much of that content was likely part of the optional “side missions” on “uncharted worlds”—fighting bands of pirates, recovering alien artifacts, and surveying minerals (basically just “find hidden stuff”). Much of that material is stuff that the “mastery” gamers will want to hunt down for the sake of completion and leveling up characters, potentially unlocking Xbox achievements, though it’s not as if you actually use the minerals for anything once you’ve placed a beacon next to them. The “story” gamers, meanwhile, may resent some of this content for being superfluous. One player commented on a forum, “the part of the game I like LEAST is leveling. It’s true for every other RPG I’ve ever played as well. The plot is the point and getting to alter that plot (where games and movies differ).”
Since releasing the game, the developers have acknowledged that these side quests were pretty repetitive and disconnected from the main plot, and have promised that the sequel will have better quests. I link directly to Digg here because it has a lot of interesting comments about how people reacted to those quests, including gamers who were happy to do whatever they needed to do to level up, and also gamers who got bored of the repetitive elements outside the main plot.
It’s probably not possible to please all gamers equally, and Bioware probably needs to court the story-seeking gamers and the mastery-seeking gamers alike. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that this would have been a superior narrative experience if more resources were devoted to a believable world—including a representative gender distribution, for example—than to bonus material shoved in for the sake of level grinding.
A New Model for the Sci-Fi World/Franchise
That said, the world feels exceptionally fleshed out. It’s clear that Bioware wanted to launch this as an expansive transmedia franchise from day one, maximally capitalizing on its own IP, but I was still shocked to see how much of the world-building background material made it into the game itself. The game features a number of star clusters, each with its own solar systems, and each of those with its own planets, some capable of being visited. Regardless of whether you can land on a planet, however, every planet in the game has a description of its size, atmosphere, makeup, etc.
In addition, the game includes a “codex” of optional reading material you accrue as you go, including additional information about alien races, futuristic technology, and the physics behind “mass effect” itself (the science-magic behind just about everything in the game). For the sake of the nit-picky, the codex offers diegetic explanations for anything that might seem arbitrary or out of place in such a game, such as why it is that you never need to collect ammo for your weapons (answer: guns work by making computers chip away at a block of metal and accelerate tiny bits through mass effect technology). Some of this material also gets explained and expanded upon in Mass Effect: Revelation, a prequel novel released prior to the game
As such, this world came almost fully into being pretty much upon the release of its main “text”—unlike something like Star Wars, which I believe was more slowly developed over a number of years (though correct me if I’m wrong there). What I find particularly interesting is that, despite this level of detail, the “canon” of the game is still very flexible. Your actions really do determine some major developments in the course of the plot, and from what I’ve read, the next game should pick up where you left off, potentially by making use of your save file(s).
In a sense, this is a world that puts the canonic storyline and characters in the hands of the audience to a much greater degree than traditional franchises. To a great extent, of course, Mass Effect still locates control of the plot among the developers, who have predetermined the entire range of actions players can take. Even so, crafting a story whose canon is flexible by design opens up new possibilities and concerns. I found some players still debating whether “we” (i.e., humans) should commit to this or that diplomatic/military strategy in the future, as if they were debating the future of the story world itself; others, on the other hand, got annoyed at one forum newcomer’s question of what the audience should consider the “canonic” version of the protagonist.
Indeed, since you can craft your own version of the protagonist from either gender and a range of facial features, Mass Effect fanfic featuring a female protagonist in an implied romantic relationship with a non-player character isn’t even really stretching the bounds of believability in the way, say, Kirk/Spock slash fic might for many. (I’d like to follow up with another post sometime, I think, on how I felt playing through a second time with a female protagonist initiating a romantic relationship with a male character…)
The flexibility of the core storyline and characters leads me to wonder how on earth the second novel will work, as it’s supposed to take place between the first and second games. At this point, player/audience input—or at least a convincing illusion thereof—is built into the franchise, and giving that up would feel like losing something. One blog comment I read, concerned about this issue, noted, “I would rather any story important stuff happen in game, rather than in a linear book.” Given how meticulously everything else seems to have been planned, though, I imagine the writers and developers have taken this into consideration. The writer behind the books happens to also be the lead writer of the game.
But does Mass Effect presage the future of transmedia narrative—interactive and flexible in its canon from the very outset? I’m doubtful, due mostly to this particular game’s potential lack of accessibility.
You see, the game is a combination third person shooter/video roleplaying game. From the first genre we have a system of pointing, shooting, seeking cover, and moving in real-time combat much like other contemporary games; the controls reminded me at times of Kane & Lynch. From the RPG genre we have elements of gaining experience points to “level up” characters, and then customizing how those characters’ skills develop by assigning bonus points to attribute scores. Another major RPG convention is in its inventory management—what one friend of mine, a Digipen student at the time, described as the defining characteristic of videogame RPGs. You’re constantly finding, buying, sorting through, and selling weapons, armor, and upgrades. The RPG elements can probably get a little tedious for players used to the simple “pick it up and use it” approach of most shooters, but to Bioware’s credit, some elements can be customized to take some of the nit-picky management out of players’ hands (e.g., by allowing the game to assign points for you as you level up).
Between all of these different videogame genre conventions and functions, you have a great deal of control over how you handle any situation—and a great deal of buttons to keep track of. This game actually makes use of every single button on the Xbox controller at one time or another, sometimes doubling up uses on a single button depending on context. And heck, I even found myself wishing I had more buttons sometimes—I wanted to queue up more than just one “quick access” preset for certain functions I used a lot, reducing the amount of time I spent navigating menus to choose what abilities my characters would make use of in the heat of combat. Moreover, this is decidedly a single-player game, which cuts down significantly on broader/mainstream appeal. As we see from Halo, the Wii, and Guitar Hero, reaching bigger audiences with gaming is currently a matter of exploiting social play.
Is the hardcore gamer market big enough to sustain Mass Effect‘s approach as the format for “blockbuster” fiction? Well, it’ll probably work wonders for Bioware, which was previously just making the more or less same kind of game off someone else’s intellectual property. If they’re going to make big-budget games with epic narrative scope one way or another, might as well do it with content they own themselves. It’s hard to imagine this franchise taking off much beyond gaming subcultures the way that Star Wars is a moneymaker far beyond the hardcore geek audience, though. The level of involvement to familiarize oneself with the core of the series is just too high for most audiences to bother with.
Maybe the “interactive canon” implied by Mass Effect is beyond what we’ll see in the future of “blockbuster” fiction more broadly, then, though I do wonder if this will have major implications in videogame fiction in the future. After all, the hardcore audience is still nothing to sneeze at, and Bioware knew who it was shooting for when it threw in a Leeroy Jenkins joke and happily adopted a “Mature” rating. I suppose the future of the “flexible canon” in gaming may depend in part on how well Mass Effect 2 does.
[Updated April 7th to include a couple links I forgot to include the first time through.]