23 March, 2012
Like a lot of other people, I've been playing a lot of Mass Effect. The difference is that I've been playing the first game in the series, rather than the third and most recent installment. Yeah, I'm a bit behind the times.
But, there's enough interesting stuff to post about even if I'm two games behind.
The big question...
So, I went with male Shepard. No particular reason for not choosing femShep; I play a lot of female characters in MMOs, so I'm certainly not afraid to choose a female avatar. I know some people are ardent fans of the female version; Liz Danforth mentioned to me that the game didn't gel for her until she played the female character.
I'm mostly taking the Paragon route in this playthrough. Figured if I wanted to play another time through and try the Renegade path, I'd go with a female character.
Why I'm late
So, why am I so late to the party? Well, as I've mentioned before, I'm cheap. I picked up ME1 on Steam sale last Christmas to give it a spin. Dave Toulouse is a huge fan of ME2, so he gifted me a copy of that game as well since it was on sale. Sadly, I haven't had a lot of time to play given how busy (in a good way!) I have been with Storybricks. After getting the flu GDC, I was able to play the game even if I couldn't do useful work. So, I started and have been sneaking in time in between getting Storybricks work done.
The second reason is that I hate waiting on a story. I read a lot and play a lot of games. A story I read last year will have been followed by dozens of other stories, so it's easy for me to lose track and potentially lose interest. I waited until the next to the last book in the Harry Potter series before starting to read those (wonderful) books. But, I watched the Harry Potter movies as they came out and I haven't even seen the last three or four movies since there was a long wait between the releases. Waiting until a series is almost finished is better for me so that I can choose to keep playing (or reading) if I want to keep experiencing the story rather than getting distracted.
So, the good news is I get away with spending less money and I don't spent time waiting for the ending of a story (or forgetting the early parts). The bad news is I can't necessarily chat about the latest topics. (What? Reavers attack in ME3? I haven't even met them in ME1!) Luckily for me....
I am (mostly) immune to spoilers
For some reason, spoilers don't "ruin" stories for me. Okay, I do prefer not to know the "twist" in a story; seeing The Sixth Sense without outside knowledge almost certainly made it a better experience, and always looking for the "twist" in subsequent M. Night Shyamalan movies did tend to diminish some of them. But, as a game designer, my tendency is to analyze a game heavily anyway. I can often quiet that part of my mind when I just want to enjoy something, although it comes back with a vengeance later and I often spend a lot of time doing post-game analysis and review. I can do the same to the part of my mind that knows the story.
I think part of this is that I often enjoy the structure of a story in addition to the content. For example, the plot of the book Banewreaker and its sequel Godslayer are pretty predictable as it follows the "dark" side of a LotR-like story. Even though I knew were it was going, I really enjoyed the way the story was told. Unlike Richard Bartle, who only read the first book and gave the second a pass as he could see where it was going to go.
Trying to do it all
One thing that stands out about ME1, which it sounds like they addressed in the subsequent games, is that it tries to do a bit of everything. It's got shooter-like mechanics, RPG stats and gear, action-focused driving sections, a heavy emphasis on storytelling, a mini-game, and probably a crossword puzzle hidden in there somewhere.
Now, I'm enjoying most of the game because I'm a fan of most of these parts. I'm a big RPG fan, a (rather causal) FPS player, and enjoy stories. One part I don't like is the driving sections. From reading a few sites online, I'm not alone in that area. The controls for the vehicle feel sloppy, built for a controller rather than a keyboard. The physics leave a lot to be desired, where the vehicle tends to bounce all around the planet surface. This makes things like driving around trying to find hidden stuff on planet surfaces feel more an exercise in frustration than a fun bout of exploration.
I think the gameplay also suffers a bit. At the beginning, playing on "normal" setting, I got struck by a lot of "one shot kills" despite playing what I hoped was a sturdy class (the Vanguard). As I gained levels, however, I noticed that my survivability increased significantly. A few enemies, particularly those that bypass shields easily, still can put the hurt on me. But, in general I noticed that I reload a lot less later in the game.
In addition, the RPG parts are a pain to deal with. Buying upgrades is hard because it only shows the gear of party members with you. When buying from a seller without your companions, you have no way to check if the item is better than what they already have. Selling off stuff is also a pain because all your gear is one huge list ordered by quality rank and then by name. It requires a lot of UI hopping around to figure out if a given item you could buy is really an upgrade for someone else, or if that equipment enhancement is obsolete or not. The UI is worse than what I had to deal with in Skyrim, which is accepted to be a poor UI design.
Finally, I'm also not a big fan of the mini-game they use for hacking into terminals and retrieving artifacts. It feels too twitchy and imprecise to me. I'd prefer a version where your limit was number of mistakes rather than a time limit. That would make some of the encounters feel a bit better, I think, with the player feeling in control rather than frustrated especially when time runs out right as you were about to "solve" the mini-game.
I think the lesson here is that when a game tries to do too much, usually something suffers. It seems to me that some parts didn't come together very well in the end; there was a lot of room for improvement all around.
Quality of the story
As I play the game, I find myself drawn to the world developed in Mass Effect: I love the setting, in particular the alien races. They seem varied, a bit more than the old Star Trek standard of "humans with different wrinkly foreheads" that plague a lot of games.
The one thing that does leave me cold is that the story is still told from a very human-centric point of view. For example, there seems to be a contradiction with the asari, the mono-gendered race that "breeds" with other races to diversify their genetic makeup. Since the asari have incredibly long lifespans compared to most other races, they will outlive their partners. So, you would think their relationships would tend to feel transitory. Nope, they tend to fixate on a partner, falling back on current cultural assumptions about monogamy. The game even says that other races see the asari as promiscuous, when the asari NPC you can recruit assures you this is certainly not the case. I understand that science fiction stories are really tales about our modern society, but it's a bit disappointing to see such obvious compromises made to satisfy cultural assumptions.
As for the specific story in the game, it feels like the typical "you are the badass chosen one that will save reality as we know it." Smacks a bit of adolescent power fantasy, but I can live with that given that it's not worse than pretty much every other game story out there. The part the really irks me is how little control really feel like I have when the game touts how much my decisions are supposed to influence the story.
(Mild spoilers in the next paragraph, but we're talking about a 5 year old game here....)
One one planet where I'm going to defeat a mind-controlling alien, I have to go through a colony that is under the control of said alien. Being the Paragon, I choose to knock out the colonists rather than kill them. After I use different techniques to knock out all the colonists, there's essentially a cut-scene that shows the former leader coming out. The mind-controlling alien wants him to fight me, but he realizes he is not under his own control and works to fight against it. His solution? Shoot himself in the head. It's a struggle, so it takes a few second for him to do the deed. But, all the while I'm frozen there, pointing my gun at him (which I can't do normally) just watching him get ready to blow his brains out. Frustrating that the game specifically takes control away from me, and that there was even an in-game way I could have saved him: rush up to him and melee attack him to knock him out, as I did with a bunch of other colonists in the battle right before this scene. As a designer, I understand that the writer probably wanted the scene to feel dramatic, showing the struggle and sacrifice that the leader had to endure to not fight me. But what it really did was remind me that the story was not truly my own.
This is one reason why Storybricks is very exciting to me. We're working hard to blend authorial control with the player's experience in shaping the story together into something meaningful. Hopefully we'll find something exciting as a result, otherwise I'm sure quote from this post will haunt me for a while.
OMG the end of it all!
Speaking of spoilers....
I pretty much couldn't avoid spoilers given the big furor du jour: the ending of Mass Effect 3. Now, I haven't read in-depth or watched the actual ending, but I know enough to have an idea.
Daniel Rachels, a friend of mine who studies game design, is of the opinion that the ending is intended to be non-literal. He believes that the story may use the unreliable narrator technique to make the ending more open-ended. He accuses some people of being too literal with the ending, and this explains the disappointment people feel about the ending. Other people have put forward theories (oh, yeah, spoileriffic link there) that the game is indeed intended to be taken non-literally, showing a lot of areas where the game specifically shows the true meaning of the ending.
The goal of an open ending that doesn't wrap everything up neatly is that it gets people talking and potentially allows people to put their own individual spin on it as in that previous link. But, the need for a clear-cut "happy" ending seems to reinforce a stereotype about American audiences, and the stereotype that game players aren't as sophisticated as audiences of other storytelling media. Other people have hinted that this demonstrates the entitlement some people feel when it comes to games they play.
I can appreciate that other people think that a three part game with a huge story arc deserves more closure for the player. A lot of people feel very invested into the story, and after following the ups and downs of the game for nearly 5 years. I think it shows that a lot of people feel very personally about the story, how involved they felt, to the point that they are unwilling to accept the authoritative end from the story author. Some have even argued that this reeks of a "we're making it up as we go along" attitude that hurt some TV series like Heroes or the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. However, bioware founder Ray Muzyka has said they are going to re-do the ending based on player dissatisfaction.
As someone who regularly waits for a series to near the end, I won't have quite so much invested, so I suspect I might not react so negatively to the end. We'll see how I feel, I still have the formidable ME2 to play through before I get to ME3.
What do you think? Is the furor over the ending meaningful? Should people accept the ending? Is Bioware right to change the story, or should they have stuck with their guns? Or is John Carmack right that story is a superfluous part of the game experience?