Thursday, March 6, 2008

Mass Effect and Choice - Opportunity Missed

I have been playing Mass Effect quite a bit as of late, and have enjoyed the experience quite a bit. Growing up as an RPG fan, I enjoy exploring large, expansive games at my own pace (however plodding that may be). Only ten hours into the game, I was given a choice that stopped me in my tracks and made me actually think about what I wanted to do. The choice was to make an entire species extinct, single-handedly, or allow the species to live. If I let them live, they may attack again. I can prevent future harm to my people. If I let them die, I am responsible for the genocide of an entire race. Should my character, Zap Shepard, be responsible for the fate of an entire race?

This was a tough decision. I decided since my character was a Renegade (gets things done by any means necessary) not a Paragon (noble), that I should exterminate the species. I was chastised by my superiors for my decision, but I played the part of a Renegade so I was happy with my choice in the end. I speculated about how the game would change down the road since I made this choice. About how the story would branch or have a plot device that included my previous actions.

Except, apparently, it doesn't. I have not played through the entire game, however I was talking with a friend earlier who has completed the entire game twice. I asked him, "So how significant is the difference in plot depending on your choice?". His response was "There is no difference". There is no difference in the game long-term from making an entire species of alien extinct. The only difference the choice makes is in giving you Renegade or Paragon points, which aligns you to one side (which, I am assuming, does have story ramifications, but not nearly as direct).

I feel that BioWare missed a fantastic opportunity to make more interactive story within their game. Yes, I still have a choice and that choice matters in the immediacy. However, it seems that the choice in the long run won't have any great benefit. What if, later I had to fight the natural enemies of the species I killed off, and as a result they don't come and help me and make the battle easier? Or if I saved the species, they betray my trust later and open up a world inaccessible to those who killed them all off. Mass Effect has given me the illusion of choice that matters, but the end result is that the choice doesn't significantly matter. I sat there for a minute thinking about what I should do, thinking about all the possibilities that my actions will cause down the road. Except, the possibilities aren't endless - they are virtually nonexistent.

This doesn't make Mass Effect a bad game by any means. However, it is a missed opportunity for something more than traditional game storytelling. Mass Effect does a fantastic job with its dialog system and wealth of information available for the player. I just wish the game had upped the ante on the story more. Maybe, as I play the game more, I will realize that they have upped the ante in other ways. I hope that is the case. Right now, I'm disappointed that my decision will not bite me in the ass later in the game.


  1. The problem with choices making a difference is a classic one, and IMO there's no easy answer.

    Every time a choice makes a difference that results in two unavoidable things:

    1) Additional development cost. More options = more time (or a shorter game, which is a different kind of cost).

    2) Potential "waste". In other words every time there's a choice that results in a different game experience, that's a chunk of game that a player might potentially never see. Multiple branches (especially those that never rejoin) increase the problem.

    Unfortunately, with most games/studios, it comes down to "how can we create the illusion of choice without really risking anything."

    I love playing through (good) games multiple times and seeing different things happen. Popular thinking seems to be that the mythical "typical gamer" isn't going to take the time, so why waste dev dollars on it? :(

  2. The problems are clear, without a doubt, but Mass Effect is a game that truly touts meaningful choice.

    Does this create more work? Sure, but how much is left us to the developer. I recall Fallout at the end telling you how all the major factions and characters ended up, depending on your actions in the game. Sure, it wasn't the most amazing method of all time, but it was cheaply done (some VO and static screens) and effective. Made me feel like I changed the game.

    Now games need to do that DURING the game not only at the end. If we don't start taking risks to make choice more meaningful, then we risk becoming stagnant.

    The illusion of choice is better than nothing, but true choice and meaning behind that choice is the holy grail that we as an industry should strive for.

  3. So this is something Fallout tried to do, reasonably bravely - it made sure that as part of the "ending" you got to see the ending for each town/small-game-area. That meant that you could still get a half-decent ending, kill the master, bring joy to many of the towns on the way... even though you committed genocide in Necropolis.

    Obviously, this leads to an ending that feels like a selection of short cut-scenes joined together, rather than something genuinely fluid... but it was a good way of reminding the player of their journey. Meaningful choice had meaningful outcomes.

    I'm enjoying Mass Effect quite a lot, simply because it places so much emphasis on story and genuine role-playing - but it's a shame the sidequests aren't as well developed. Its problem is that it touts meaningful choice: throughout the game, you make choices, hoping all will be meaningful - but only some actually are. I think that's a fate for any game that touts truly open/freeform play: you'll always find the walls eventually. With next-gen, I think that's particularly problematic - as the fidelity of imagery increases, we expect similarly hi-fidelity play mechanics. Mass Effect's beautiful visuals only serve to highlight some of its failings (no matter how forgivable they are).

    Oh, wait, I've just written all this... and seen you've mentioned the Fallout endings.

    Anyhow: I'd be happier with fewer choices, as long as they were all meaningful - and all more meaningful. Everyone I know playing Mass Effect loved the outcomes of some of the really big decisions the game falls into - they would quite happily have had a more emotionally challenging game, I think, if it was on offer.

  4. Tom, I agree with you. Fewer choices, but all being meaningful is a better solution to me. I feel cheated when you offer me a choice that doesn't matter.

  5. Well, apparently you should save your save files for the upcoming sequels. Who knows, maybe the fact that you destroyed the species comes back in Mass Effect 2 or 3? All we can do is hope.

  6. You're being a little short sighted on your rant there.

    This choice will probably come back to you in Mass Effect 2 or 3.

    There were plenty of other big decisions in the game that you got to see the effect of.
    A lot of them you don't even realize you're making.
    In one instance a dialog choice you make during the mid game will result in a slightly different ending.

  7. let me just say that you are a horrible person and obviously did not think about what you were about to post.
    Mass Effect was originally announced as a sci-fi epic trilogy that carried your save files from one game to the next. If you were expecting any ramifications in the first game im sorry but dont go blogging about some shitty choice system bioware has when they havent even finished this amazing trilogy yet. Blog about it after it doesnt have any ramifications in either me2/3.

    You suck.

  8. It is a great game, one of my favorites when it came out, I played for weeks non stop.