The Mass Effect 2 Post

July 19th, 2011 input via mattcolville

 

I know a lot of people who tried out ME1 and gave up. I was one of them. I got stuck on what seemed an insoluble mission in which I was continually dumped out of a cutscene and instantly killed before I even had a chance to switch weapons. This was a frustrating experience. A shelf-moment. The moment where you eject the disc, put it back in it’s case, and put it on the shelf and forget about it. I ditched the game and didn’t come back to it for two years.

That’s too bad, because ME1 was a good game, flaws and all. And ME2 is one of the best I’ve ever played, in spite of many flaws.

There are serious problems with ME1. The run-and-gun isn’t very good, there’s some driving and exploring which is as painful as any vehicle experience I’ve ever had in any game, and you can easily fuck yourself if you don’t realize that some missions are just too tough and you need to retreat and level up some more and come back.

They expect you to make decisions about weapons and gear with no context for these decisions. You get a Mark III rifle. Is that good? Is there a Mark IV? A Mark X? UNKNOWN. There’s no way to determine where you’ve been before, which makes exploring a colossal pain in the ass without writing it all down.

So if you absolutely couldn’t bear to go back and finish it, I understand. But gosh you should give it a try. Because ME1, if you haven’t played ME2, is a great game. The dialog is typically overwritten, but not constantly overwritten and some of it is pretty good. It also holds up, visually. It looks pretty good. Good enough, certainly.

ME1 is also very different in tone from ME2. ME1 is a thoughtful, atmospheric science fiction game, while ME2 is an over the top action movie set in a science fiction universe. This shift in tone, I feel, only works in one direction. It’s fine to go from moody, atmospheric, exploration and discovery, to nail-biting action. Not so much fun the other way around.

If you play ME2, you wont be able to go back and play ME1. I mean, it’s technically possible. But the gameplay in ME2 is so much better, the experience so much more thrilling, than ME1, you won’t be able to stand it.

Lastly and maybe most importantly, the experience of finishing ME1 and then loading up ME2 is pretty amazing and promises to get more amazing with ME3. You are literally continuing the story of your character. Lots of things you did or didn’t do in the first game pay off in the second game.

So when I praise ME2 and get this sort of sour-look reaction from people who’ve heard ME2 is awesome but don’t relish the idea of going back and playing ME1, I completely fucking understand. ME1 is crufty as shit. It’s buried under so much RPG cruft I find I have to ignore most of it. There were stats and, as I recall, feats and tons of gear and ridiculous levels of customization of your loadout that I found a complete waste of time. These are not the things that make an RPG.

An RPG?

I’m speaking here as an inveterate D&D-player, an old school D&D player who, deep down, feels a player should be lucky to have a character survive to 5th level, and will always think it should matter whether your 1st level character takes a bunch of candles, a lantern, a brass lantern, a bullseye lantern, or a ‘hooded lanthorn,’ whatever that is. Keep this in mind when I level my next criticism.

One of Mass Effect’s great failings, though the second one is way better in this regard, is its slavish devotion to the completely outmoded concept of what an RPG is. The guys at Bioware seem convinced that an RPG is fundamentally about your character’s stats and skills and equipment. They love managing inventory. They love spending points when you level up.

I find this incredibly frustrating. When we were all teens in the 1980s, imagining the promise of RPGs on the computer, we all thought the computer would hide all this stuff from us! We thought the ultimate RPG would be one where you just went out and did things, and got better at them through action. Doing things, interacting with the world, playing your character and then seeing him improve based on what you did, seemed like the holy grail to us.

So you understand how weird it is to me that, now that this is possible, a company like Bioware spends so much time focusing on stats and skills and levels and gear and inventory management and feats. Those things, those design elements, were in RPG rulebooks because we didn’t have computers!

Mass Effect 2 is better, in this regard, than its predecessor, but it’s still pretty bad. I think all the designers at Bioware should have gone out and played GTA: San Andreas which is, for my money, the ultimate RPG. You want your character to be big and buff? You go to the gym and workout. If working out is boring, it needs a better design.

It’s time, I feel, for RPGs like Mass Effect and Dragon’s Age and Elder Scrolls to quit fucking around with simulating systems from 30 year old tabletop games and get in the business of making characters who change through choices you make in game. Not decisions you make in a character interface designed like an AD&D character sheet. I don’t want to level up and spend points, that just reminds me I’m playing a video game. Leave it for games like WoW and WoT and LoL that don’t have any narrative.

In a video game RPG, I have the chance to play a character. Let me play him. Don’t pull me out of the experience and ask me to make choices about things like Lockpicking or Strength and Dexterity. I make those choices when I do things, when my character does them. My character doesn’t know he has stats!

I know, this is a heresy for hard-core fans of the genre. Fuck them. Don’t let them dictate your gameplay. We got stories to tell and aliens to kill. I want to be Matt Shepard, I don’t want to manage him.

The Myth of Character Agency

There’s a common attitude among game designers that the more personality you give a character, the less the player will identify with him and the less the player will feel like it’s them, the player, doing things.

I call this Character Agency. The belief that in order for me to feel like it’s really me doing these things, having these experiences, my character can’t ever do anything I wouldn’t do and that includes saying a line of dialog I wouldn’t say. My character and I must be as close to the same person as possible. I am the agent of my character’s actions and thoughts. This is why Gordon Freeman never speaks, Chell never speaks. Valve very strongly believes in Character Agency and I think it’s a complete myth. Mass Effect 1 is my evidence.

I’m not sure, when I compare movies and games and people freak out, if the people freaking out have the same experience at movies as I do. Great stories, regardless of medium, are about people and there are a lot of developers and gamers who find people a strange and alien phenomenon.

Some people go to the movies to see bright lights and explosions and interesting ideas. I see this all the time, people talking after a movie about how cool this was or how cool that was, or what a neat idea this was. And that’s all to the good, I do the same thing.

But there’s a human component to storytelling beyond this and I think a lot of developers and gamers miss it because, don’t hate me, we tend to attract a certain undersocialized element. When I watch Casablanca, I fall in love with Ilsa every time. Part of the reason I do that is because she’s played by Ingrid Bergman, but mostly it’s because I’m identifying with Rick. While I’m watching the movie, I’m projecting myself onto him. When he feels bitter pain and regret and loss seeing her again, I do too. When he falls in love with her again, I do too.

Steven Soderbergh said the close-up was the great invention of 20th century storytelling. Because it allows us, the audience, to stare at the actor’s face, 30 feet high on the screen, completely anonymously, without any fear of what that person on screen–or indeed, the people sitting next to us in the dark–think about our reaction. It’s incredibly private, and therefore personal, and therefore psychologically effective. The barrier between me and this other person onscreen is allowed to dissolve in a way it never can in real life.

Without thinking about it, in other words, I picture myself as Rick. Not only as Rick, as Humphrey Bogart. That’s why it works. That’s why movies work. Because we imagine those people are us.

The most visceral experience like that I’ve had, at least the one I’m willing to talk about, happened in Monster’s Ball, a criminally underrated movie that I didn’t see for two years because it took me that long to forget Halle Berry gets completely naked in it. I couldn’t see the movie thinking about that, I wanted the story.

Very early on in the movie, Heath Ledger’s character confronts his abusive father. Without warning, in the middle of this deeply confessional and vulnerable moment, he pulls out a gun and shoots himself in the chest. Dead. In that moment, I felt like I had shot myself. I felt like I’d been shot in the chest. I think I literally grabbed my chest without thinking.

That’s the secret. That’s storytelling. When you feel like it’s happening to you. When you forget you’re watching a movie or playing a game. I don’t think I ever had that experience playing a game before Mass Effect 1. That was the revelation to me. It was a major leap forward, at least from where I sit, on the storytelling front.

There was a moment, very early on, in ME1, where my character lunges foward to stop a team-mate from being mind-probed by an alien artifact and, before I could react, I was being mind-controlled by the alien artifact. I watched as my character, paralyzed, responded with pain and fear mixed with awe and wonder and confusion as alien thoughts and images ran through his mind and, in that moment, it felt like it was happening to me. I was experiencing those same conflicting emotions. It was powerful and effective.

There’s a lot of moments like that in Mass Effect 2. There was a moment, another powerful moment, where I was watching my character (which is to say, me) talking to Mordin and I had put the controller down. I realized at the last moment he was about to do something awful and I had to stop him. I had to act. I had a brief moment where I could pull the trigger and interrupt him and as I saw the icon flash on the screen I lunged forward to grab the controller literally shouting “NO!” I was too late.

In that moment, there was no difference between me and my character. Matt Shepard wanted to stop him, I wanted to stop him. Same thing. And I completely believed in what was happening, as though it was happening to me. It was painful to watch, and I had to reload, rewind time. Matt Shepard couldn’t stop Mordin from doing something awful, but his User could!

That’s some effective fucking storytelling. There’s no need to subtract personality and dialog from the experience. We should be adding it. It’s what makes the experience. I’m not saying Valve is categorically wrong, I think probably their games appeal to the folks who don’t fall in love at the movies. But I know from experience that creating distinctive characters can and does aid in having a real emotional experience.

The hero of Mass Effect isn’t a silent protagonist. Matt Shepard works because he has personality and motivation and perspective and dialog.

Matt Shepard

So let’s talk about the game, what?

I started Mass Effect 1 shortly after having watched The Black Hole and I fell in love with the idea of this serious, by the book, no swashbuckling, no sarcasm, no irony, Captain. You wouldn’t want to hang out with this dude, but you’d want to serve under him because you’d be certain he’d bring everyone back alive. The idea appealed to me because Robert Forster’s captain in The Black Hole is the antithesis of Captain Kirk and I like subverting expectations. This guy will complete the mission, he will bring everyone back alive. No one’s going to get beamed down and smoked by alien plants or exploding rocks or gorgeous alien women in thigh-high go-go boots.

Matt “No Red Shirts” Shepard was easy to make and easy to play and this is largely because Bioware completely supported my choice. I wanted to play this dude, they let me. Bioware’s options allowed the Matt Shepard in the game to be very faithful to the Matt Shepard I imagined.

Character Fidelity

This is, I feel, the single greatest virtue, the single greatest accomplishment on the part of Bioware and almost everyone I know who played the game mentions it. Lacking any other term for it, let’s call it Character Fidelity. The absence of any discrepancy between the way you want to play your character, and the way you’re allowed to play your character.

Having concieved of Matt Shepard, I found my idea and Bioware’s idea of who he was to be almost entirely aligned. I never knew exactly what Matt was going to say when I picked a dialog option, because their system brilliantly captures something close to the actual process of thinking and speaking.

You choose a short phrase that describes your thoughts, then your character says something based on that. You might choose “No” as an option, but your character doesn’t say “no” he says “You’re going to have to do better than that. Give me what I want or you leave empty-handed.”

That’s a little bit of brilliance. Your menu options are really your character’s internal monologue. It would be very easy, in a system like this, for your responses to be nothing like what you wanted and, I suspect, for some players this is what happens.

Not me. Bioware’s Matt Shepard was almost 100% exactly the same as my Matt Shepard. That’s Character Fidelity. Adherence to the player’s notions of who his character is.

Let me tell you how successful Bioware’s design is in this regard. I was live-blogging my playthrough on RPG.net, describing my character and everything he did. I got to a point where a reporter walks up to me and confronts me, goads me. Tries to get a rise out of me for a story.

There’s an option to pull the Red, Renegade Trigger or the Blue, Paragon Trigger and I pulled the blue trigger. People on the forum cried out “She is so awful! How could you NOT pull the red trigger?!”

Someone else, not me, responded with “Matt Shepard’s not a hothead.”

THAT is Character Fidelity. My own idea of who Matt Shepard was, so well-supported by Bioware’s design, that someone else who is not me, and has never seen me play or even met me, could explain to you why he does what he does. And he was exactly right. Matt Shepard is not a hothead and that’s exactly why I chose the Paragon option.

Dark Side/Light Side

This is another feather in Bioware’s cap. In the first game, I found myself always choosing Paragon options because I wanted Matt Shepard to be that guy. The result was sometimes I did things he wouldn’t do. I was metagaming and I find this distasteful.

So in the sequel, I just did whatever felt right and I never once regretted it. I achieved 100% Paragon, no problem and got all the perks and results thereof, very satisfying. But more satisfying was the fact that Matt Shepard was a complex character, he had some Renegade points too. He wasn’t all one thing, he wasn’t a simple character, he experienced conflict and sometimes did things he regretted, but felt he had to do.

And none of that got in the way of him being exactly the character I thought he was. In fact, it made him the character I thought he was. It’s Kirk who’s simple and uncomplicated in the Original Series. Matt Shepard is a man who thinks and feels his way through things and sometimes does the wrong thing, sometimes knows he’s doing the wrong thing in the moment, regretting it. Does it anyway.

Authorial Voice

Alas, Matt isn’t perfect and this is largely Bioware’s fault. He is never allowed to have a moral or ethical or philosophical point of view. He deals with a lot of characters making personal, political, social choices and confronts people he thinks are doing the wrong thing. But while other characters in the game–Mordin specifically–are permitted to have nuanced arguments about ethics, all Matt Shepard is ever able to muster is some variation of “This is wrong!”

That’s unsatisfying. It’s a great flaw, I feel, and reflects the overall problem with the story. It lacks any Authorial Voice. We never find out what the guys at Bioware think and, by association, we’re never allowed to think anything. Why does Matt Shepard think Mordin is wrong? Why do I think it’s wrong, and why isn’t Matt Shepard allowed to express what I feel?

This is not an insurmountable challenge, and Bioware are not the only people committed to never making a story that’s about something. Portal 2 is about something. I’m pretty sure The Last Guardian is about something, although I don’t think it’s going to be easy. Time for Bioware to step up and make a moral or ethical or philosophical statement.

I think, like Character Agency, developers are afraid to put words in their character’s mouths. “What if the player doesn’t agree?!” Well, then it’s time to be a really good writer. I mean, do you think everyone who watched The West Wing agreed with everthing Bartlett said? No. But they projected onto him anyway, because that’s the fantasy. We’re allowed, in drama, to think and be different people and experience different things. Time to grow up, video games, and stop being afraid of your own voice. Mordin’s storyline was the perfect opportunity.

Mordin

This is the main event folks. The characters. And I’m starting with the best. With arguably the single best-written character in all gaming.

Mordin is an alien, and your doctor, and this is where the game allows itself to put down the guns and think a little. Be a real science fiction game. Offer an alien point of view. Because Mordin really is an alien doctor. From an alien culture.

Here on Earth, we’re used to doctors who take the Hipporatic Oath. “First, do no harm.” Mordin’s species, the Salarians have no such oath. Aren’t interested in it, think it’s a needless restriction. That’s interesting. That’s something we don’t often see in games, real points of view that hold up to examination.

Mordin, unlike Shepard, is allowed to have an ethical point of view. In fact, he’s so well-written that he often ends up arguing Shepard’s point of view, playing both sides of the argument. Why not give some of that dialog to ME?

Mordin has a genuine ethical dillemma, the best I’ve ever seen in games. In fact it’s so good, it renders previous attempts cheap by comparison.

Mordin was instrumental in creating a genetic infection known as ‘the genophage’ which acted as a kind of eugenic population control on the warlike Krogan. Mordin’s people’s attitude, an attitude no human doctor would be allowed to have who was not a villain, is that the genophage was morally necessary to stop the Krogan from exploding off their home planet and making constant war against the galaxy causing billions of deaths.

This gives Mordin one of the best scenes in gaming and one of the best speeches as he simultaneously tries to convince Shepard, and himself, that his decision was right. It ends with the single best line I’ve ever heard in a video game.

“Genophage or Genocide? Save the Krogan from the galaxy…save the galaxy from the Krogan.”

When I heard that dialog, I almost fell out of my chair, it’s so well-written and acted and presented. It’s audacious. It’s not normal video game writing. It’s not funny, or glib. We too often think good writing is funny writing because we only trust our reaction when we laugh. Bioware allows us to think and the result is dialog that stabs right into our brains. We’re treated to the compliment that we’re smart, that we’ll get it. That the scene will have meaning for us, and it does. You have to dare a lot to think players will get that, and Bioware doesn’t disappoint.

It’s more than enough to make up for Miranda

Miranda

Miranda is the victim of very writerly writing. Writerly in the sense of, we never see the character, we only ever see the hand of the writer.

She’s supposed to be hard, uncaring, all-business who’s probably really vulnerable underneath but I never gave a shit. She spends a lot of time talking about how her father had her genetically engineered to be the perfect female specimen, and she says this while pointing her ass to the camera. Ok.

We’re expected to believe that being literally as sexy as the modelers could get away with was somehow a burden growing up and the whole thing felt incredibly artificial to me. It felt like the kind of thing that made sense when you wrote it down, but once people start speaking your character, it falls apart.

Happily, the way the game is structured, you rarely need to interact with someone if you don’t like them. I did everyone’s loyalty missions, so I spent about 30 minutes to an hour with each recruit, each team-mate, but eight recruits is a lot and while I didn’t feel like any of the other teammates were as badly designed as Miranda, I did feel like there was one too many.

Thane

Thane isn’t a bad character, he just doesn’t have much of a role. Maybe he just exists so there are more option for GynoShep to romance? But as AndroShep, I already had a whole passel of recruits who filled every possible character archetype and I felt like Thane meant there was just one too many teammates.

This makes me wonder, if I were playing GynoShep, would I feel the same way about one of the female recruits?

Tali

Mass Effect 2 gives you the chance to ‘romance,’ or in one case just bone, one of your recruits.

That’s a little creepy. I mean, it’s not inherently creepy to have a romance in a video game, nothing wrong with it. But these people are my employees. We’re not all pals, this isn’t the Magnificent Seven, I’m their commander. Matt Shepard is not the kind of dude who’s going to sleep with one of his subordinates. It’s not so much that it’s inappropriate, he would consider it a gross abuse of power. I.e. not just impractical, but abusive and morally wrong.

Which is good because something happened between ME1 and ME2, either to me or to Matt Shepard, not sure which. In ME1 I loved Tali. I don’t mean I loved her, I just really liked her character and enjoyed having her on the team. She’s a nice, uncomplicated girl. No hangups. Matt Shepard impressed me as the kind of dude who would like an uncomplicated girl. It turns out, I was catastrophically wrong about that, stay tuned.

I learned that, in ME2, you could hook up with Tali and before I started playing I thought that was cool. Mostly I think I thought it would be neat to find out what she was like when she was attracted to someone, but I also thought she was the kind of girl Matt Shepard would go for.

But when the rubber hit the road, and the actual opportunity arose to romance Tali, I found I could not do it. “She was like a sister to me” is the language we men use when we really want to say “I just liked her a lot, as a friend, and valued that relationship and didn’t want to fuck it up.” We say “She was like a sister to me” because our culture, I think, doesn’t permit straight men to just be friends with women, we don’t have a lot of language supporting the idea.

So two things happened, first I discovered Matt just liked Tali and that was a satisfying enough relationship, and second I thought it was wrong for Matt Shepard to abuse his position of power by sleeping with one of his teammates.

Man was I wrong about that.

Jack

Well, so…it turns out that what Matt Shepard is really attracted to is deeply fucked up women who need to be rescued and if you think that’s revealing and psychological, you’re exactly fucking right.

But what it reveals is, I think, a matter of some debate. That it reveals anything should be considered a triumph of storytelling, character design, and character fidelity.

Jack is a Bad Girl. She’s covered, literally covered in tatoos and this is another little brilliant bit of design because if you’ve ever taken a sociology class you’ve probably been exposed to the notion of the tribal mindset as it relates to civilized life and what tattoos represent in this context. Jack is that person, 100%. She doesn’t fit in, in civilized society, and uses her tattoos to broadcast this fact to anyone receiving. This isn’t the same as being anti-social, it’s more the feeling of belonging to a different kind of society.

It’s natural, therefore, to look at the Jack Romance Option as the Bad Girl option, or the Girl Who Needs Saving option. But I think this is a mistake and, indeed, Bioware puts that language in Jack’s mouth. She literally says she doesn’t want to be “saved,” that she knows that angle, and she can’t be manipulated.

But Matt Shepard doesn’t try to save Jack from anything. He doesn’t do anything except stand there being Matt Shepard and when Jack realizes his moral viewpoint isn’t an act, she starts to trust him and that’s her thesis statement. She doesn’t need to be saved, she’s perfectly capable of taking care of herself, what she lacks is someone she can trust. A good person, a legitimately good person. That’s when I went INSANE with how much I loved this game because Bioware was giving me the opportunity, in a game, to seduce a woman through sheer weight of moral authority.

THAT is revealing. Yeah. That’s some fucking psychological shit there. Don’t mind admitting it. Let’s not dwell on it….

The bottom line is, I had a pretty fucking complex idea of what Matt Shepard would do, and why, and Bioware let me do it, 100%.

Aria

Ok, so Aria isn’t a recruit but holy shit is she an awesome character. She was really pushing Matt Shepard’s buttons. I imagined that, as a younger man, he was one of those hotshot pilot flyboys from The Right Stuff and loves a challenge, and Aria is that in spades. She’s the ultimate challenge and she sees right through Matt Shepard and says exactly the right thing to drive him crazy.

“Why don’t you find a nice girl to keep you warm in the meantime?”

GRRRR.

Great performance by Carrie Ann Moss here, by the way.

Jake

Jake is a great character and the one place I really felt Bioware let me down. It’s not a failing of the character design, or character fidelity, I think it’s a failure of story design and a pretty big one.

Very early on, Jake looks at Matt Shepard and asks straight out, “do you trust me?” It was so spontaneous and real a thing to do, I was taken off guard. It honestly felt like a deliberately calculated moment of vulnerability on Jake’s part, something that’s hard to acheive in a game. You can only do something like that if you’re committed to spending millions of dollars on writing and models, and animation and dialog. In a Bioware game, story is gameplay.

With that “do you trust me” moment, I liked Jake. He’s got something to prove, he’s got a chip on his shoulder, and I believed it. He’s not a simple character, and that makes me happy. I crave complex characters. Folks with at least two dimensions. With more than just a list of character traits.

At the end of the game, you’re forced to make decisions about who to assign to certain tasks. Who’s going to lead the Beta Team, who’s going to go hack into the alien computer system and, as it turns out, there are Right Choices and Wrong Choices.

I picked Jake to lead the Beta Team and in that moment I felt this palpable sense that I had done the right thing. I don’t mean, made the right gameplay choice, I mean done the right thing, ethically. I saw Jake straighten up, I saw him have pride–not that I picked him–but, more subtly, pride that I finally recognized he was the right dude for the job. Jake knew he was the right dude for the job, and the only question in his mind was whether or not I knew it.

But Bioware didn’t think he was the right dude for the job, and so killed him.

That doesn’t bother me so much, there should be consequences for your actions and I don’t mind having a right and wrong answer in a situation like this but IF you’re going to have a wrong answer then you have to tell me WHY it’s the wrong answer and this is where Bioware critically failed.

Because Jake succeeds. He makes it. Whoever you pick makes it. Then if you’ve picked the wrong person, the person Bioware has decided is the wrong person, the person dies in a completely unrelated sequence and entirely randomly. Blast doors are closing too slowly, Jake–having already succeeded at his mission some moments before–runs forward to pull them closed, gets shot.

We just sat through a thousand bullets, and this one shot kills Jake. Why? Stupid. If Jake is the wrong person to lead the Beta Team, then you need to show me why. What failing Jake has. Then you can kill him off, because of that failing. To have him die, randomly, for no reason related to your decision, is exceedingly bad design.

Of course, Matt “No Red Shirts” Shepard wasn’t going to let Jake die. Though Shepard couldn’t save him, his User could, and I restarted at an earlier save point and made the ‘right’ choice.

Samara

This is a great character, although at first, I didn’t get it.

Mass Effect 2 has a stunning opening which features Matt Shepard walking in space, exposed to vacuum, with no sound except his rebreather, moving through the wreck of his dying ship. If you pull the camera down and look up, you’re treated to an amazing shot of the stars, of Earth looming and turning slowly above you, all while Shepard–the camera now down by his feet–besrides the world like a titan.

It’s an amazing little piece of cinematic gameplay–you are in control of your character in this shot–and I often wished during these rare moments that Mass Effect 2 was a swashbuckling space fantasy drawn by Boris Vallejo so Matt Shepard could stand on the bridge, bare-chested, with a blaster in one hand and Tali in a skimpy space-bikini hanging off his arm. That would be fucking amazing, I need that game like I need to breathe.

Well that game would be about Samara. She is that character. She’s like someone teleported in from an E.E. Doc Smith novel. At first I thought of her like a sort of brain damaged version of Miranda. She’s impossibly built, with this ethereal quality to her speech and this thousand-yard stare that made it hard to identify with her as a person.

But there’s a reason she looks like she’s always looking through you, or beyond you, or in spite of you and that is, she’s a 1,000 year old Space Paladin who’s already seen and done more incredible shit than Matt Shepard will ever do even in five Mass Effect games and my whole struggle to save the galaxy is like a fucking footnote to this woman.

I would LOVE to see the game with Samara as a young, smoking hot, Boris Vallejo-drawn Space Paladin in a Lenseman-esque science fantasy saving the universe. That would be fucking incredible and when I realized this is the life this woman led, I suddenly liked her a whole lot more. You need to talk to her a lot to find this out though, but it’s a good payoff.

Garrus

Garrus is, arguably, Shepard’s best friend in this game and he’s a well-written and subtle dude. He’s an example of how far you can take the Team idea, but then no farther. He fills a very thin niche. He’s the cool, laconic amoral pragmatist who’s always standing behind Shepard to offer a different perspective, one focusing on getting the job done and not worrying too much.

That’s a cool character, and in spite of his amoral attitude, his charisma makes him a natural leader and that’s all cool. But having exhausted those ideas in this character, it left no room for Thane.

I ended up not taking Garrus on many missions. There’s a lot of nuance in Garrus’ writing and his performance but, alas, he couldn’t compete with Tali and Jack or Mordin or…the 8th one.

The 8th One

Not going to name him, not going to describe him. Just going to say, there’s an eighth recruit and I guessed, when I first met him, that I’d be able to recruit him. When it turned out he could speak I thought “Holy shit he can talk! I bet I can recruit him!”

You can. You can recruit him and the scene where you interrogate him is one of the best scenes, one of the best little bits of storytelling, I’ve experienced in games.

Unfortunately, the voice actor playing Matt Shepard is really flat. Flat all throughout the game. This is something I got used to, and I think is a choice on the part of the actor. He’s trying to subtract personality from his performance to enable Character Agency, but I don’t believe in Character Agency, I don’t think you need to remove personality to create identification. I’d rather have a good performance.

The actor’s flat performance makes Shepard too much hard boiled detective, but that actually aided a little bit in believing he’d walk around asking all these people such stupid questions. “SO ARE YOU FROM AROUND HERE?!” reminds me a lot of Spenser’s modus operandi which is just ask everyone everything you can think of until someone gets pissed at you and tries to kill you. But that was me projecting onto the character, it really is a bad performance.

When the 8th Recruit stands on the other side of the force field allowing me to interrogate him, Matt Shepard should be asking questions with a combination of awe and fear. He’s should be afraid of this thing, about what he’s about to find out, about the answers he’s going to get, and also needing those answers. That’s subtle, but not more subtle than Jack or Mordin or Garrus’ performance. Indeed, I think GynoShep’s actress, Jennifer Hale, does a much better job than AndroShep’s voice actor.

In spite of the actor’s staid delivery, it’s still a brilliant fucking scene. It ranks up there with the best such scenes in fiction, including my own personal favorite from The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever.

“Amok…what are you?”

“I am the Seventh Ward of High Lord Kevin’s lore.”

Mass Effect 2, just as good. High praise.

Girlfriend Voice

There is one place where AndroShep’s actor did something interesting and that’s when he deploys his Girlfriend Voice.

I was talking about this to a friend of mine and I mentioned it was funny and annoying that AndroShep does the thing where he’s all macho when talking to men, then as soon as he’s alone with a women he goes into this faux-sensitive, quieter register which is always a sign to me that you’re a douchebag.

“YES!” she said, and we then spent about 20 minutes talking about how real guys do this all the time, and how annoying we find it.

That we spent so much time talking about this character is pretty amazing. Not “this video game character” it’s a triumph of character design regardless of medium.

The Good Bits

If you’ve made it this far…for one thing, congratulations. If you made it this far you already know I love a lot about these characters and this story, but there’s a whole ton of great stuff in here I don’t want to give short shrift. Don’t freak out that there’s only a couple of good bits, and a lot of bad bits. I just spent 5,000 words talking about the good bits.

The Minigames

These are great! Hacking feels sort of like hacking! Exploring planets for elements is…well, a lot of people think of it as tedious, but I didn’t. To me, it was a nice meditative break from the run-and-gun. I never really got how people would enjoy fishing in WoW, now I get it. If you hate the planet exploration stuff, I completely understand why. But I loved it.

The only thing I didn’t love was that I never had any idea how much of anything I needed. So I spent WAY too much time sitting around scanning planets when I didn’t need to. That, I think, is something they could easily fix.

The Run & Gun

At a fundamental level, it’s fun to run around in Mass Effect 2 and shoot people and that’s good enough. It’s not as fun as the moment-to-moment in games like Halo or even Mercenaries, but it’s fun enough. It’s plenty fun. It way more fun than you’d expect from an RPG company. I know that sounds like I’m damning with faint praise, but there you are.

It’s tempting to call the Run & Gun ‘the core gameplay,’ but it’s not really. The core gameplay is walking around and talking to people. That’s where the majority of design and production goes, and it’s what you spend most of your time doing, and it’s the best part of the game. So we have to concede, therefore, that Talking To People is the core gameplay and in this, it’s the best there is.

The Bad Bits

Lots of praise, all glory to Bioware, but there’s still a lot of bits that let me down.

When you recruit Jack, she’s this uber powerful dark jedi master who can tear apart an entire space station with her mind. Then she joins the team and instantly becomes exactly as effective as everyone else. I feel like there was probably a way to handle this better and yeah, maybe that means she can’t be capable of ripping apart a space station when we meet her. Them’s the breaks.

She also joins your team because, apparently, she read the script and knows she should. Matt Shepard makes no argument, has no position other than “work for me” and someone who, under no circumstance would say yes, says yes. That didn’t work for me.

Artless

The best dialog in this game is the best dialog I’ve ever seen in any game. But there’s a lot of dialog and a bunch of it is really artless and painful. Probably nothing you can do about this, you’ve got 30 people all writing for the game, it can’t all be “Couldn’t some of us, or all of us get in trouble?”

There are many offensively artless moments in the game but the one that comes to mind right now is a moment where Shepard, confronted by the aforementioned reporter, lists off every ship destroyed in the battle with the Reapers and then, after having very clearly made the point that he memorized them because it was meaningful to him, he literally says “and yes, I memorized all of them.”

I don’t know what that is, but it’s the opposite of writing. It’s like the GM got tired of roleplaying and just says “He memorized all of them” to the players. Nils points.

Classes

Classes are obviously an outmoded idea and even Bioware thinks so as is evidenced by the fact that everyone in the game treats you like a Soldier. Only once or twice in 30 hours does anyone reference the fact that you’re a biotic, if you’re a biotic.

So why not just let Shepard be a soldier? Free the player up to concentrate on what kind of soldier he is.

Bioware released some stats a while ago on who was playing what. More people played the game as a soldier than all the other classes combined. This means someone up there needs to do some serious thinking. Either find a way to make those other choices more interesting, so enough people choose them to justify spending thousands of man hours balancing content, or just bite the bullet and say “Everyone in the game treats Shepard like a Soldier, most people play him as a soldier…he is a soldier. You tell us what kind.”

Cover

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cover system I liked. I’m perfectly capable, on my own, of hiding behind something, popping up and shooting, I don’t need or want a system for it. I died several times in Mass Effect 2 because ‘A’ on the 360 controller is both take cover, and leap over cover, and the computer failed to determine which I was trying to do.

This alone was pretty frustrating, but had it been the only problem, I’d probably have forgotten about it by the end of the game. Alas, it is not the only problem.

The Clock

Oh god, this pissed me off so much. I came so close to taking one of the best games I’ve ever played and throwing it against the wall and giving up.

There are several times in the game, the Recruit Garrus mission for instance, when you’re told something must be done immediately. But this is almost never true. You can leave Garrus for hours or days, and he’s always there waiting, no penalty. The clock is never running.

The Omega Relay

Then there’s a point where you’re told it’s time to activate the Omega Relay and, if you delay at all including something that normally does nothing to advance the time line, like go to a shop and buy some gear, you discover that all the people you’re trying to save get brutally juiced, frappéd, and drunk right in front of you. Because from that moment, the clock is running.

Since there was no real way for me to know this, I had to go find a saved game, a very old saved game, and I ended up playing through like another 6 hours of the game. All because of Bioware’s arbitrary notions of when the clock is running. This was so painful, so awful, it genuinely ruined my enjoyment of the game and caused me almost to not finish, which would have been a shame.

Here’s the thing guys, there’s no amount of telegraphing you can do in this regard. You can’t say “this time you REALLY REALLY NEED to act when we say so!” Because that reads like just a rhetorical trick, a way of creating false drama. You just spent 20 hours teaching me that I never really need to act, and I always have all the time in the world.

I know you think, “we’ll just make it EVEN CLEARER next time.” Won’t work. No amount of clarity is enough. The only thing that will work is establishing rules, give us a chance to learn them, then obey them.

Freedom From Choice

Most people wrongly believe that the ability to choose, freedom of choice, is the best way to achieve happiness, when this is demonstrably not the case. In fact, the opposite is true.

BioWare, like a lot of games including ones I’ve worked on, busts their ass to allow you to do things “in any order you like.” Because they accept as an axiom that this will make players happy.

But what neither they nor the players realize is that this is not the case. In Mass Effect’s case, the ability to choose often harms the narrative because you can very easily end up with hours between Act One of some little narrative chunk, and Act Two. Or have one narrative throughline interrupted by another.

So often when I’m playing, I know what’s going on, but I don’t know the import of it. It wasn’t until I went online that I really understood Mordin’s pupil was performing horrendous experiments. All I knew was; he’s trying to cure the Genophage. Seemed like a good idea to me. Shepard’s objections were all so feeble. Amounting to little except “This wrong!” Without any reasoning or ethics.

Part of this is the presentation. We never see the pupil do anything bad, and I think we need to. Don’t just tell me he did awful things, so me. And frankly, walking around a bombed out husk of a structure with dead people all over the place is de rigueur for Mass Effect.

There’s a lot of really good storytelling in Mass Effect 2 but spreading it out and muddying it with too much choice weakens the impact of it. I’m not sure I really understood what the Genophage was, other than “Some disease all Krogan have, but that doesn’t seem to affect them in any visible way,” until I went and looked it up.

Better, I think, to lock the player into a subplot until it’s done. Don’t be afraid the player will get bored, he signed up for your storytelling, give it to him.

Reading

Holy shit am I tired of reading in video games. Stop it. Stop putting huge chunks of text in your game. I read for an hour every night before I go to sleep, I don’t need to read for the two hours before that, too.

I can sort of sympathize with the fact that the Encyclopedia Galactica is all text. That would just be a lot of work to make voice and video, I get that.

But the emails? We’re in the whatever-century and I’m reading fucking emails? THAT is awful. Let me hear a character’s voice, let me see their face. If the best you can do is emails, cut. Cut them, forget it.

I’m tempted to say, cut the Encyclopedia as well. Go check out The Elements app on the iPad. Or Wired magazine. If you can’t find a way to make your info as interesting as that, don’t even bother. Leave it on the cutting room floor. Snicker-snack!

My Mass Effect would be very different than Bioware’s and while I have no idea if anyone would like it, I am certain no one would say “It sucked, but would have been awesome if only there was a whole shitload of text to read!”

Arbitrary Consequences

Bioware does a terrible job telegraphing which decisions you make will cause which consequences later. Which upgrades to your ship will cause a crewperson to die? Why? This is something they have to hammer on for the next game.

I was dedicated to keeping everyone alive, but I wouldn’t minded some people getting smoked if I understood why. If they were informed by decisions I made that felt real, that had clear consequences. Not arbitrary ones.

I wasted several more hours at the end of the game reloading old saves and, through trial and error, figuring out what did what. This was excruciating. It was one of the worst parts of the game, and I hated it.

The Ending

I know a lot of people who didn’t like the end boss and I sympathize with them. It is a little goofy. But to me it felt like a Heavy Metal album cover coming alive and attacking me and in that spirit, I thought it was awesome.

EDI

One character not mentioned thusfar is the shipboard computer who explicitly instructs you to come talk to her if you ever get stuck. But she never gives you any indication what you’re supposed to be doing, all she ever does is talk about the various functions of the ship. Both grossly misleading, and a huge wasted opportunity.

She gets some fun lines though, and is  competently-acted by Tricia Helfer. But it’s not a demanding role, and certainly not a role a hundred, cheaper, actors couldn’t have done just as well.

Stunt Casting

I have no idea how much money Mass Effect 2 cost to make, or how much money it made…well, I have some idea obviously, but whatever those numbers they would have been better, cashflow healthier, if the folks running the show at Bioware didn’t have a hard-on for Trinity from the Matrix and Six from Battlestar Galactica.

That’s how you get Carrie Ann Moss and Tricia Helfer in your game. They cost literally ten to twenty time as much as the best voice actors in the business, but it’s considered a perk of making video games. You get to meet all the geek actors you love and masturbate to. Someone’s a fan of Firefly? Let’s have the cast all come in and record for HALO: ODST. They come in and pretend like they’re normal people and pretend like they know what you’re talking about, and you get a picture with them for Facebook. That Facebook photo is not, I submit, worth the cost.

Don’t get me wrong. I think the performance of some of the actors is fantastic. Tricia Helfer did a great job, so did Carrie Ann Moss. But any one of a hundred, a thousand actresses you’ve never heard of could have done precisely as good a job. The producers pissed away several employees’ salaries worth of money on actors that contribute nothing a cheaper actor couldn’t have done just as well.

There are always exceptions. Every once in a while you get a guy who brings something to the performance you can’t get anywhere else: character. I was skeptical when we cast Carl Weathers in a role. He wasn’t super-expensive, but I thought it a needless expense, until I heard his performance and I was sold. He brought something intangible to the part, not just his voice, but the character of his performance.

Michael Hogan is like that in Mass Effect 2. He’s the guy who played Colonel Tigh in BSG. He gives a unique performance that I think was probably worth whatever they paid him, and he probably isn’t that expensive. But these are the exceptions.

I find stunt casting to be a perfect microcosm of everything that’s wrong with game development. It’s paying for a handshake and a photo, instead of acting.

Performing, Not Acting

And I’m not convinced it’s really acting.

At least half, I think more, of acting is reacting. I don’t think you can begin to act until first you’ve memorized your lines. Committed them to memory so you can forget them and trick yourself into thinking they just showed up in your head in that moment. That’s not easy, takes a lot of work and some actors never really get there. They use all sorts of tricks to work around it. And some jobs–working on a TV show–make this part hard, but that’s why the actors show up at 6am. They’ve got pages to read.

Memorizing your lines to the point where you no longer need to think about them frees you up, as an actor, to do the heavy lifting of acting, which is reacting to the other person in the scene.

Hold that process in your head for a moment. Memorizing your lines, at least for the next scene, then standing around with the other actors reacting to each other. Trying to find the truth in the moment.

Contrast that–the entirely mundane process a working actor goes through–with how lines are recorded for a video game.

First of all, there’s no screenplay. A screenplay has a certain format, they all have basically the same layout. On purpose. So the layout becomes invisible and the actor just see the lines and direction. You know what a movie script looks like. It’s got conversations between characters, direction to the actors, scene set-ups.

Video game ‘scripts’ have none of this. They’re often text dumps from Excel. The other actors in the scene aren’t there when you’re recording, you’re all by yourself. And you’ve got 400 lines to do this session.

400 lines. And that’s just one session. You might have 3 or 5 sessions for this game. Compare that with a half-hour cartoon like Futurama where someone like Dr. Zoidberg might have as many as TEN LINES OMG! And you know what? The actors get paid the same for both four hours.

So you’re alone in the booth. You’ve never seen these lines before. You have no idea in what context you’re saying these lines (the director might know, but he probably doesn’t work for the game company, and if there is someone representing the developers, it’s as likely to be a producer who’s also never seen the lines before, as a writer), you’ve got 400 of them to get through and it’s just this 40-page long list of dialog.

I don’t know how Bioware records. I know Naughty Dog takes it all very seriously and treats the whole thing like a movie shoot. But the horror stories I’ve heard from actors–walking into a recording session with no character references. Forget being able to look at the game, there’s not even any concept art. No one from the developer is there, no one with any clue what any of this dialog means, and by the way you’re doing three different characters today–makes me wonder why anyone expects to get anything like acting.

Rather, I think we have good performances. The actors stand there in the booth and declaim their lines. They don’t even have time to look up from their pages. They treat each line like a little mini-speech. A micro-monologue. That’s why video game dialog sounds like Video Game Dialog and why it sounds crap compared to actual acting.

Some actors, the best, Phil LaMarr and Jennifer Hale, have done it so much and are so good, they can make it sound natural. They know video games so well, when they see a line, they get it. Sans context, they get it. There aren’t a lot of those guys.

So when people ask why stories in video games are so bad, I wonder what they expected. What do you think this process is going to produce?

Mass Effect 3

The experience of playing through ME1 and then immediately jumping into ME2 is amazing. There’s going to be a third game, and the people who died in the previous games won’t be in it, and the ones who lived will. The choices you make in each will pay off in the next.

I can think of no more ambitious project in all of gaming. It’s stunning. 

That, therefore, is the best way to end this post. The first game is good, the second game is amazing, the process of playing through both and seeing your character evolve is even more amazing, and unless they somehow critically drop the ball on the third game, the process of playing through all three is going to be more amazing than the most amazing motherfucker on Planet Amazing.

I think I need to invest in a thesaurus.