Wednesday, April 6, 2011

On Mass Effect 2

One of the aspects of gaming I am most interested in, from a historical and ongoing perspective, is the development of interactive storytelling.  It's a real challenge to balance gameplay and story -- a game that's too linear doesn't feel interactive enough, but a game that's totally open or abstract doesn't lend itself to compelling experiences of the sort we associate with books, theatre and movies.  (Note that a playable game can survive just fine without an interesting story, even sans plot and characters per se -- see, for example, Tetris -- but I'm interested in the tension between these two elements when attempts are made to do both well.)

One of the most visible and successful recent implementations of truly dynamic storytelling is in Bioware's Mass Effect series.  I've recently finished playing through Mass Effect 2, and while it feels a bit like a placeholder between the dramatic ramp-up of the first game and the presumably exciting climax to come in the third and final chapter due later this year, and it doesn't raise the bar the way the series did when it first burst onto the scene, it still does many things well.

There are, of course, ramifications echoed here of decisions our character made in the first game, and foreshadowing of more substantial impacts in the third installment.  In my own experience's case, we now have a human at the head of the Alliance council, and he's not a well-loved leader; there is as a result growing tension between the spacefaring species, and I had to work harder to earn the trust of non-humans as a result.  And I admit that I'm not entirely happy with some of my decisions in my first trip through Mass Effect 2  -- I won't spoil the ending with the details, but I damaged a potentially important friendship and lost some good friends and teammates more permanently along the way.  So I will probably play it once more before Mass Effect 3 arrives, to try to remedy those issues, or at least see how they might play out with a little more finesse and insight applied.

This level of branching complexity is what makes the Mass Effect series so interesting -- the developers have invested considerable effort in alternate storylines and events that any one player is unlikely to see.  It's not unusual to play through these games a few times to try different things, but the ripple effects of our decisions are not immediately visible, and I expect that by the time we all get to the third game, there will be quite a few different scenarios available based on our individual decisions in the first two chapters.  I'm not about to go back and play through the whole story from the first game on, at least not any time soon, but the temptation is there.

Moreover, there are genuine emotional engagements within Mass Effect's storytelling -- surprisingly so in some cases.  I was very glad to see a couple of "old friends" from the first game re-up for this very different mission, in a very different context.  And there's a little more humor in the writing of this second episode -- when we get to know a character well, we often discover personality quirks that are very real and very funny at the same time.  Plotwise, we are assembling a team of intergalactic badasses to take on a serious threat to the future of all known civilizations -- but they are also credible sentient creatures with personalities and flaws that make them interesting and "human," for lack of a better word.

Bioware's technology has improved for this second outing, with a more consistent frame rate (I played on the XBox 360), fewer of the strange physics glitches seen in the first game, and better-disguised loading time.  There are, of course, still a few notable bugs -- my Shepard character is a female space commander, and at least one gender-inappropriate pronoun slipped through in the dialogue.  I also managed to get Shepard stuck in a mass of cables in one subterranean level, making her unable to leave the area to continue the mission, and forcing a reload from the nearest checkpoint.  Fortunately the autosaves are fairly generous -- almost any time we open a door we're able to restart from that point.

I waited to play Mass Effect 2 until it had been out long enough to drop to the $19.99 price point, and I will likely do the same with Mass Effect 3.  But I'm ready to sink my teeth into it and see how this all plays out when the time comes.

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