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Ted Brown, Blogger

April 4, 2012

4 Min Read

The Onion’s AV Club just opened a new site called The Gameological Society. One of their first posts was a video discussion about Mass Effect 3, asking: Where does the heart of BioWare’s sci-fi series lie—conversation or annihilation? They raise two points I’ve been thinking about, and want to get your opinions on.

Sad Boy: The Cinematic Trope

One thing they bring up immediately is Sad Boy, the face of human loss on Earth. They argue that his scenes are a poor fit with the rest of the game, and while I agree, my reasons are different: Sad Boy is a cinematic trope that has no business being in a thoroughly modern game.

You meet Sad Boy during the invasion of Earth, and witness his escape shuttle being blown from the sky. Sad Boy haunts Shepard’s dreams, each dream serving as a capstone to a story arc. Predictably, the dream’s outcome does not change, except at the very end, where I imagine they use the final seconds to foreshadow the results of your attempt to defeat the Reapers.

It’s a cinematic trope because there is no interaction with the scene. You inhabit it, you are “there” and control the “camera,” but the only thing you can do is 1) turn and 2) move forward. It’s basically you holding down the “play” button on a movie. When you let go, the movie pauses, and waits for you.

A game with this much sense of agency, a game so far ahead of the field in terms of interactive storytelling, needs this turgid setpiece like an Olympic runner needs a old man’s walker.

How could they have done it better? I think Shepard finding “Sad Boy” in other places, and having his sanity questioned if he tried to chase after him, would more effectively convey Shepard’s deeply-seated grief, without violating the player’s “contract of agency” with the game.

This is me being a back-seat designer, of course: there’s obviously a better solution out there. But the take-away is that game’s weakest narrative moment is when it copies another medium. That’s heartening news for advocates of games as their own medium.

Egg Hunting: The Game Trope

In Mass Effect 2, you were punished for acting according to the story’s sense of urgency (“you have to go as quickly as possible”), instead of acting according to the game’s meta-design (“take time to earn loyalty”). This, combined with the “hidden kill-switch” that triggered the end-game sequence, was a frustrating lesson in how to thoroughly violate a player’s trust in the narrative.

Mass Effect 3 is more accommodating: most missions have a direct impact on the “war effort,” and your goal is to increase the galaxy’s readiness. Urgency is less of a byword than Thoroughness, but the sense of potentially lost opportunities is always made clear.

However, forcing the player to go “egg hunting” on various planets for old relics, secret technology, and active battle cruisers (???) completely derails whatever narrative pressure is pushing the player forward. The realization that I’d be “punished” for not ignoring “real missions” and jaunting through the galaxy to find trinkets was deflating. Even the design of the searches belies their triviality: it’s absurdly simple and streamlined.

“Collect ‘em all” is an established game trope, but, as with the cinematic trope of Sad Boy, it’s a terrible fit to a very modern game. Once again, speaking as a “backseat designer,” I think a level of abstraction would have helped immensely, such as an auxiliary ship and crew you are given command over, who search systems of your choosing. It gives a new sense of agency (indirect control instead of direct control), a new outlet for resources (upgrades, etc.), and lets the player focus on the “real” task of putting boots on the ground and kicking ass.

Mass Effect: The End

It speaks volumes that a game would be better for ditching techniques that are considered "classic." It tells me that we're well into a true Modern Age of gaming at the AAA level, and we're all better for it. I’m looking forward to the next series from this team, and hoping they ditch the cliches and really... ahem... reach for the stars.

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