Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Story & Mass Effect 2

I have finished my first run through of Mass Effect 2 (review will be up soon) and it has been one hell of a ride. In this post I will be talking about the story, and more importantly, the delivery of the story. I will try to avoid ruining plot turns, but I am with the faction that says good story can't really be spoiled, so consider this a warning if you want everything to be completely fresh. When I wrote this, I hadn't actually finished the story, so don't worry about ending spoilers.

Mass Effect's story is fantastic for a number of reasons. The actual plot isn't actually one of them, it's fine, but it's just standard science fiction stuff. However, Bioware does the other parts so well: the characters are deep and diverse, the setting is complete with really interesting inter-race relationships and the voice acting is stellar (inter-stellar? Ed.).

However, as great and important as all that stuff is, I want to look at how Bioware have handled the dynamic nature of their story. What makes this story so great is that you are emotionally invested in it; that's why I loved Fable 2 despite it having a clich├ęd story.

Some games seem to think that, because books contain good stories, a book is a good model for a game story. There is definitely space for this kind of game, but I don't think that is the way to go if you want story to be central to your game. By making the stories more dynamic, the experience becomes more individual and that, for me, is what made me become emotionally invested in Mass Effect 2. With all this talk about stories, let me tell you a story.

In Mass Effect 2, there are a group of missions called the loyalty missions. You have to complete these to earn the loyalty of a specific crew members. One of your crew is an elite assassin who has a terminal illness. He recently discovered that his son, who he has kept in the dark about his line of work, just discovered what his father does and has now decided to become an assassin. Obviously, his Dad doesn't want this for him and wants to go and stop him. So you find out about what his target is going to be. You then split up, you tailing the target. Unfortunately, I lost the target in a crowd when he went through a door. We then ran to the apartment of the target to try and save him. Just as we get there we see his son shoot the target and run away. You have failed: a politician who may have changed the city for the better lies dead, a son has entered in to a life of crime never to be seen again and the father will die with the weight of that on his head, and it was entirely your fault. There is no restarting or trying again, just responsibility: if I had been better, this could have been avoided

Suddenly the game is personal, you have let down someone on your team and there is nothing you can do. Whenever you talk to him, he is miserably and dejected. You had one shot and you screwed it up. Mass Effect had this to some respect, but with Mass Effect 2 they have really ran with it. Failure and success aren't necessarily linked to restarting and the consequences of failure and cleverly woven in to the story.

The best books are the ones where you find yourself forming an empathy with the fictional characters. And this is what Mass Effect 2 does so well, you feel the pressures and responsibilities as a leader of a team. These are your decisions, your team will stick by them, but you must live with the consequences. And knowing that things can go wrong, like in the case of that loyalty mission, provides that pressure that forces you to care about what you say and do.

Your relationships with the crew also enforce this idea. For example, I accidentally led two of my crew on, hinting (and then out right declaring) that I liked them. The decision there was of course what I said. I could have told one of them we should just be friends, keep stuff professional, but I didn't and now, despite trying to be a positive role model for my team, I may have created a massive divide.

The speech system is another thing I really like about the game. Part of this is again down to the quality of the writing. However, the way what you say can have real consequences and that you can say the wrong thing at the wrong time gives it so much weight.

You won't know the consequences of what you are going to say and while the game does help you a little bit, it isn't always clear which one is going to be the most beneficial. I am sure there are people who will criticize it because sometimes it isn't even clear what you are going to say or the limited options means you can't say what you want to say. However, to me, this makes perfect sense. Frequently in life we are not able to say what we want to say, things go wrong, we mean to comfort someone but we end up antagonising the situation.

Of course, all this isn't just good design that most games ignore, this requires a huge amount of effort. I saw some unreferenced statistic saying that Mass Effect 2 contained 20 000 lines of dialogue, similar to about 20 films. The game didn't cost 20x as much as a cinema ticket, and so it would be unreasonable to expect this standard from every game. And like I said, there is plenty of room for the linear you-can't-make-mistakes stories like Halo's, just don't expect me to write a piece on the story of said game!

1 comment:

  1. I also lost the target in a crowd when he went through a door. We then ran to the apartment of the target to try and save him. Just as we get there we see his son shoot the target and run away. I would like to say Thanks for sharing such a nice article.
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