Thursday, March 4, 2010

Dynamic Storytelling in Mass Effect

I've recently been playing Mass Effect, the sci-fi RPG from BioWare (and yes, I know Mass Effect 2 has already been out for a while.  I tend to retro-game, even when playing recent releases.)  I've completed it twice, and I am pleased to say that the experience was very different each time.

One of the early goals of "interactive fiction" was to present the player with an interesting world, a compelling plot, and some freedom to explore and experience it.  The dream has never been fully realized -- there are always compromises involved.  Budgets (more than technology) still prohibit creation of fully-detailed, fully-interactive environments -- see Sega's Shenmue as a noble experiment -- and early ideas like AI-driven characters have proven artistically inferior to simpler rule-driven and scripted interactions.  But Mass Effect comes as close to the ideal as anything I've seen, and the design team's choices point toward the future of dynamic narrative in games.

As Mass Effect gets underway, the player has considerable freedom in choosing character class and gender, and can select from several possible background stories -- while the stubbly male career soldier John Shepard is the standard seen in promotional images, it's far from the only way to go.  This is nothing new in RPGs, but the dialogue-heavy gameplay and side plots take the player's options into account in complex and surprising ways.  There are still limitations -- the player character's first name can be anything one enters, but the last name is always locked down as "Shepard," because it allows voiced dialogue to refer to "Commander Shepard" consistently, without having to mention his or her first name.  Dialogue is modified to use appropriate gender pronouns, although at least one "he" appeared to have slipped by QA when I was playing as a female adept.

More interesting is that some characters and situations react differently to male and female Commanders, and some situations develop differently for characters with different classes and backgrounds.  Many do not; the game is set in a future world where equality and cross-species interaction is taken for granted, after all.  And the seams where specific interactions are inserted or modified are sometimes apparent.  But the care the designers took in this area is appreciated, especially considering that it's impossible to see everything in a single playthrough, and most players will never see all the variations available.

Mass Effect's overall story structure is particularly impressive, given that it's the first of a three-game series.  The primary plot is constrained for the sake of dramatic storytelling, but there are some subtle variations in its development, and many subplots and side stories can be opened up.  The main story arc is developed in the core Missions, but there are also many incidental Assignments that can be discovered and pursued (or ignored) along the way.  When the player has finished the central story, the game ends on a satisfying note.  But prior to wrapping up the plot, the player has freedom to wander around the galaxy and take on minor tasks as he/she chooses.  These extra Assignments necessarily provide only small rewards, and are not nearly as fleshed-out as the Missions; most take place on non-descript planets with generic, repeated building structures, and the objectives are similar -- clear out this base, find this object, meet this person.  Many of the resulting events are described in text popups, without spoken dialogue or animated cut-scenes.  But taken as a whole, these sub-stories provide a broader variety of player experience than most games aspire to, and players who hope to earn all of the achievements and see all of the content will spend plenty of time on these incidental storylines.

The game's ambitious scope extends to its Paragon/Renegade morality scoring system, based on the player's actions and dialogue choices.  If the player chooses to be a hero who always does the right thing, Paragon points are scored; the player can choose to take on illegal tasks and get paid under the table, or cause civilian and animal casualties, earning Renegade points. 

This has been done before, but Bioware's designers have ensured that some painful choices are hard to avoid, and it's likely that players who are trying to do the right thing will still rack up points on both sides of the board.  Backed into a corner, sometimes cold-blooded gunplay is the best of poor options.  And it's not a trivial matter of siding with good or evil in the cartoonish sense -- political and personal beliefs can often be expressed in dialogue choices, even when the net effect is the same within the story.  I was pleased to discover better solutions on my second playthrough -- one loyal squad member survived a potentially fatal disagreement on my second try, and the villain Saren allowed a glimmer of his better side to emerge on the brink of the galaxy's destruction, providing a more sympathetic perspective on the character than I had seen earlier.  The game's approach really gives the player ownership of the character, and ensures that one gamer's experience is likely to be different from another's.

Everything in Mass Effect's plotline is handled with richness and depth; there are romance subplots based on conversation and affinity, and the player's own preferences will influence these deeper relationships in surprising ways.  To be sure, there are moments when the stitching shows through -- some dialogue can be repeated, and certain scripted events are beyond the player's ability to influence -- but those moments are surprisingly rare. 

What intrigues me most is that some of the choices made in Mass Effect have far-reaching implications that manifest in Mass Effect 2 and the future third installment.  I've played through the first one a couple of times now, with different characters and attitudes, and have thoroughly enjoyed both experiences.  I'm looking forward to seeing what fresh hell my well-meaning decisions may have inadvertently created in the next phase of the story.

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