Saturday, March 31, 2012

Mass Effect: Future of PC Games

My brother, Lance, is a fan of the Mass Effect series, so he's doing some guest posting for me (also, I'm struggling a tiny bit to say something interesting about the games I've been playing, so his timing is perfect). This first post is a reminder about what makes the Mass Effect games awesome, which is sometimes easy to lose sight of. His post:

Now that Mass Effect 3 has finally come out and the outrage over its ending has subsided a little, this is an excellent time to reflect on what a great game series it has been and why. While Mass Effect has many elements of gameplay that attract a wide and varied audience, I believe the greatest strength of the Mass Effect series is that it captures the epic feel and prepared script of a movie while still giving the player a relatively wide range of narrative power and control over the events in the series.

I have been a fan of the series since I played the first game, and what really grabbed me about it is the story-centered nature of it and the narrative power it gives to the player. Shepard shoots aliens, there's no way around that, but you get to decide when, where, and how he does so. You get to decide what he looks like, who he's attracted to, and whether or not he's actually a she. This level of narrative power is not completely unprecedented, but it is rare in visual media. What's even more rare is that Shepard's lines are fully voice-acted, despite the fact that you get to choose what he says. You get to decide whether certain characters in the game live or die, even including some of your own team members.
Commander Shepard (center) prepares to enter Dantius Towers with Grunt (right) and some incredibly boring human male soldier (left).
One of the big strengths of this series is that we all ended up caring about most of these characters. All right, so I didn't think much about Kaidan Alenko from the first game or Jacob from the second. But then I got to chat with Tali and Wrex, hear Mordin sing, spar with James, and flirt like Captain Kirk. I cared about a lot of these characters, and I was emotionally invested in their well-being... even though I didn't do anything to think them up or bring them about! This gave the player a sense of really being a part of the game, even if you're just the angel and devil on Shepard's shoulders, telling him what to do. Once you're done talking to your crew members, you get to explore the world around you and the game even awards you with experience points and credits for doing so.
Even if he doesn't say so in game, the mercenary on the right definitely thanks you for playing Paragon.
Mass Effect crafted a detailed, unique, and interesting game world. Like Star Wars and Star Trek, Mass Effect includes many pages of details on the planets in its galaxy, the creatures that live in it, and the technologies that have been discovered by its peoples. While some of the races and creatures strain believability and other seem to lack depth, they are consistent much more often than not, and I forsee the Mass Effect universe will have plenty of spin-off merchandise. When you enter, you feel that there is still much more to see in this universe than has yet been seen, and that Shepard's journeys are but the tip of the iceberg. And when you feel you've reached the limit of your desire to explore, there's plenty of alien bad guys to blow up in creative ways.

There are lots of games in which you get to shoot monstrous creatures or save the world. Plenty in which you save humanity, the galaxy, or even the multiverse. None of that is new or particularly innovative. Some of these have rich and well thought-out worlds in which to play, although many don't. Some of these have reasonably well-written dialogue, and some of them have challenging yet engaging gameplay. Very, very few games have player choices that actually alter the flow of the game, or the story events. Most of the time, the player character's actions are effectively determined ahead of time by the game's writers and the game progresses along the only path they provide (and when you don't make progress on that line, you have to load an old game). In some of these games, that's not such a bad thing, but every now and then it's good to have something different. When Bioware made Mass Effect, they were prepared to write some lines, record some dialogue, and craft some missions that you, the player, would never see. And that means you have power, if only a little.

In most games, if the developers make something, they expect you to experience it. You progress through the levels at a predetermined order, and often through a predetermined path. This isn't bad or wrong, but it takes all the power out of the hands of the player, and tells the player that his or her decisions are completely irrelevant to the game itself. A few games break out of this mold completely, and all of these (that I know of) have been recognized as great in some way or another. Star Control 2, Deus Ex, and now Mass Effect all give you the sense that you are stepping into a very real and very large world, and that your actions will have consequences, sometimes far-reaching consequences you can't predict. This was an exhilirating experience for me in all three cases, and all three of these games occupy a very special place in my heart.
This is a loading screen from Mass Effect, cleverly disguised as an elevator. Some of these loading screens would actually give you missions that showed up on your journal via the news.
Personally, I believe that this is the future of computer games, and it is how these games will identify themselves as a unique medium with very special advantages. Games like Mass Effect could be made into movies or television shows, but the experience would be completely different. I believe no medium yet discovered can possibly capture the Mass Effect experience not because of its immersiveness, its rich characters or background, or even because of its action. The reason Mass Effect cannot be perfect duplicated elsewhere is because of its interactivity and player power.