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The “Problem” with Mass Effect 3’s Multiplayer

It’s the authorial voice, stupid

I’ll try to be brief on this one, especially since I haven’t played nearly as much of the campaign as I probably should before making a post like this. But I wanted to talk about how the multiplayer experience almost soured the game for me until I was capable of mentally separating it from my reading of the single player campaign.

The problem is this: Mass Effect 3 single is (at least so far) a bleak, bleak game where the authorial voice clearly and explicitly communicates the dire need to work together for something as urgent and emotive as basic survival in the face of inevitable death. And by authorial voice I mean everything from the campaign mechanics and reward systems to the narrative and character interaction.

Consider the scene (minor early spoiler) with Khalisah Bint Sinan al-Jilani. A lot of us remember her as something of a recurring joke, but the way she is handled in the latest encounter (particularly the Paragon outcome) is masterful and full of poignancy. The scene manages to invert expectations, give some real depth to Khalisah, and truly drive home the desperation and humanity’s ability to rise above it.

That’s the narrative side. This is then immediately followed (if the player takes the Paragon path) by a supremely satisfactory “War Asset Acquired” mechanical outcome which elegantly reinforces that narrative. It’s a case where mechanics, player assets, and narrative all work in concert to deliver a concentrated and tightly knit message of the need to cooperate, or at the very least, overlook personal and petty issues for the sake of the greater good.

This message comes apart in the multiplayer, mainly as a result of the way it measures player performance. Immediately, the fact that it measures performance at all with respect to other players makes its goals clear: it’s about competition. And in this case, it’s not only performance competition, but also competition for limited resources, which tends to cause selfish play—exactly the kind of experience that is the direct opposite of the authorial message of the singleplayer game.

The multiplayer game’s system of rewards and measurements, taking on too many cues from multiplayer FPS’s whose goals are blatantly and singularly competitive, grants points to those that deal the most damage and make the most kills. This ends up reducing the game to a frantic search for more targets to kill before other teammates do, and this fraught competition destroys the authorial voice of the singleplayer game.

The problem is mitigated if the player manages to have a full team of relatively even players (similar skill levels, N7 ratings, etc.), but it’s difficult to come across a team in which players don’t go off by themselves in attempts to score more points. Instead of being about working together to reach a common and desperate goal, it becomes about getting as much personal and selfish input as possible before someone else can get their edge in.

That’s actually all fine, and I personally enjoy the multiplayer game for itself (it really does scratch that arena play itch that’s been bothering me since ME1 [remember the somewhat miserable Pinnacle Station?]). But again, the structure of the multiplayer game necessitates a mental compartmentalization process of disassociating that experience from the singleplayer one if the player is to avoid feelings of dissonance from conflicting authorial messages.

Which is honestly too bad in that it didn’t have to be that way—changes as (relatively) minor as distributing scoring more evenly (that is, it becomes more important to reach common goals than execute kills) or removing scoreboard-driven player measurements altogether (I've had people leave games because my Level 20 Engineer with utterly overpowered Falcon was outscoring other players by 30-40k points--that's just no fun for anyone [except me]) would have gone a long way towards a multiplayer experience that would actually have enhanced and worked seamlessly with the singleplayer’s message. (Imagine the desperate cooperation which L4D often manages to invoke working in tandem with the singleplayer game.)

I want to say before I finish, though, that the situations and character presentations in Mass Effect 3 single have so far continually blown me away, scene after scene. Just that moment with Khalisah alone had me feeling all weepy, and I don’t think I’ve played a game with this much gravitas in a long, long time.

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