Massive Effect

Having completed Torchlight, I decided to move onward to Mass Effect. Why not Skyrim, which is literally burning a hole through my Steam library? As Liam O’Brian might say, the status of my preparations is in doubt. I prefer one meaty title with a helping of indie garnish along the side – with something like Skyrim, I’m getting the impression that I’ll still be eating turkey sandwiches for months later.

About 5 hours into Mass Effect, all I can say is holy shit.

One of the most groundbreaking things occurred in the city after the first “dungeon.” In talking with a receptionist to the Consort, she winked at me.

The Winking Lady of Mass Effect

She also said that, but nevermind.

My incredulity may sound facetious, but I am actually very, very impressed.

See, I have been thinking about the problems with storytelling in videogames for quite some time. How is one supposed to convey subtle nuance in a game? In purely written works, it is somewhat easy to evoke the emotion you want to get across, provided you massage the language a bit. For example, consider the following:

‘Look, I can explain,’ he said.

Lord Vetinari lifted an eyebrow with the care of one who, having found a piece of caterpillar in his salad, raises the rest of the lettuce.

How could someone ever translate that in game form? Nevermind Vetinari’s specific sentiment here, think generally: there is an entire genus of expression that the format is preventing designers from expressing.

Games have some pretty unique qualities that cannot be replicated by other mediums too – Far Cry 2’s plot wouldn’t work without player interaction – but many times it feels as though designers simply give up. Game narratives are written in the language of action because of these restrictions on expression. Why are we always killing 10 [%local_wildlife]? Or killing everything, period? Well, how else are you supposed to convey conflict when reduced to crude avatars with clubs? Even though all games have access to written dialog, at some level we do expect everything to be translated into the language of action. And until the last few years, it was functionally impossible to express more than a rudimentary emotional gesture anyway.

There are pitfalls too, of course. Blink during the wink, and you’ll have missed it. Or, hell, focus on the subtitles and miss it too. It is also arguable about whether games should try and be more like the other mediums, instead of focusing on its own unique strengths.

To that last charge, I say “Watch that scene in FF7 again.” Pay close attention at 1:19. More than the murder itself, it was Sephiroth’s smirk that drove home how irredeemably evil the man was. Without the CG movie we would never have saw it; calling attention to smirk in-game via text would have ruined its subtle gravity. While story can certainly be a crutch to prop up forgettable gameplay, story can also be a pole that vaults a game into the classics.

So, Mass Effect, you have my full attention. I just hope you do a little more winking a little less of this:

Decisions, decisions.

Posted on January 17, 2012, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. “Why not Skyrim, which is literally burning a hole through my Steam library?”

    Should probably get that fixed.


  2. “So, Mass Effect, you have my full attention. I just hope you do a little more winking a little less of this:”

    There will be lots of that in ME and ME2. It is used to set your good/bad disposition. But I’ve enjoyed the ME series and have 6 complete ME2 endgames to port into ME3 so I can see most of the various endings.


  3. Goodmongo: Haven’t you heard of Youtube?


  4. Let me rephrase it for James.

    So I can EXPERIENCE most of the various endings.


  5. This is an interesting post. When playing Mass Effect I remember noticing the expressiveness of NPC faces, but most of the details slid right by me. I guess that means that they did their job well. Some of Shepard’s facial expressions, like sneering, were a bit noticeable. that is probably, however, because I was screencapping her scenes, and thus saw those moment more than once – both in and out of game.


  6. Goodmongo: Not sure the endings are the crux of the matter.

    I think that when it comes to games like Mass Effect, I would replay it not for the different endings, which would probably be a yearlong endeavour, but for the different complete stories. All of those bits in-between the beginning and the ending which could be different if you make alternative choices. The internet can give you a summary of the rest and, using your experience of the game’s story, you can extrapolate and imagine.

    Of course, there’s only so much variation within that which is interesting, and, while I played through the first two as both a paragon and then a renegade, I think experiencing every iteration within those two core paradigms (in the name of completionism- a poor rationalisation for the sunk cost fallacy) isn’t nearly as interesting as experiencing them by playing consistent characterisations and immersing yourself in a more personal story.

    But, to each their own. I prefer a variety of experience over a variety of Mass Effect experience. Two playthroughs is enough for me, after that it’s repetition with minor differences; time I could have saved by going to Youtube.


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