Wednesday, May 30, 2012

#23: Why is Alyx Vance Such a Beloved Female Character?

I, very recently, had the pleasure of playing Half-Life 2 and its two episodes (which I will be collectively referring to as “the game”, despite being three different games) for the very first time. While I have a favorable opinion of the game, that is not the subject of this week's article. Instead, I will be talking about one of the most well-loved characters of Half-Life 2: Alyx Vance. Critics and fans praise Alyx for being one of the best female characters in gaming. While being a contender for that title is not very impressive, given the history of females in games, Valve did well when writing her. Many people have tried to analyze her to figure out why she works as a character. This week, I will throw my own hat into the ring and attempt to discern why she is lauded as highly as she is. Like many things in this world, I assert that are several reasons behind this.

The biggest reason that Alyx is praised so highly is that she is not just a good female character, but she is a well-written character independent of her gender. Many other female characters in games are very poorly written and/or clearly meant to cater to the lowest possible demographic. One of the more common mistakes made by game writers is that when they try to create a “strong independent woman,” they usually end up going the wrong way about it and write a cold-hearted, frigid bitch instead. Another mistake when writing a “strong, independent woman” is to make another muscle-bound meat-head who also happens to be a girl. These are both huge mistakes to make when writing any character, let alone a female character. If we were to give either of these sets of traits to a male, that character would easily become an incredibly annoying and irritating character. Why would this not be true for a female as well? My metric for making a good female character is as follows: The role could conceivably be filled by a male character without being annoying. However, the fact that the character is a woman informs the character and makes them that much better.

This is the reason why Alyx is a good female character. Almost everything about her character could be conceivably given to a man. Throughout the game, Alyx is the character who backs up the protagonist, Gordon Freeman, more often than any other. She uses her technical expertise to hack through enemy systems, open up doors, etc. But this is not her only trait. Alyx is shown to be a fairly capable combatant as well. She saved Gordon's life on several occasions throughout Half-Life 2 and the episodes. This does not mean that she is a battle-hardened soldier. Far from it. Alyx demonstrates a good sense of humor and does her best to lighten the mood whenever she can. She also demonstrates a very fragile side to her personality during certain moments of the game. While a man could easily fulfill this archetype, the fact that Alyx is a girl makes her much more fitting for this role. Since she is a girl, it allows for a much more playful banter between her and Freeman (well, I guess with her at Freeman, since Freeman is a silent protagonist). It also adds to her relationship with her father, Eli. Eli is allowed to be much more nurturing and protective of Alyx since she is a girl (Because of stereotypical gender roles/attributes. You can argue about whether or not they are right, but they still are a part of society.), adding to his character and giving him a degree of depth and making their relationship much more poignant.

Another reason people like Alyx is that she the most proactive character in the game, even more-so than Gordon Freeman. Do not be mistaken: While the player, as Freeman, plays a significant role in the war against the Combine, which is central to the game's plot, Alyx is much more of a guiding force than he is. She is less of a companion to Gordon Freeman and more of a co-protagonist. She is usually the one plotting the course for the two of them and figuring out what needs to get done. This is particularly noticeable during the episodes. Even in the main game, where she is not always with Gordon, she is either directing Freeman or helping him with his current objective. That is another thing with Alyx, she is almost always doing something in order to either progress the plot or to make Gordon's (and by extension, the player's) life easier. During one huge battle against a gunship in Episode 2, Alyx is not able to fight with Gordon. To compensate, she looks around the base for items as the battle goes on. She happens to stumble upon a stash of med-kits that she will drop down to Gordon should the player get close enough. There are also moments throughout the episodes where she also will man sniper rifles to give the player cover fire to complete objectives. This extends to non-combat scenes. When Gordon is not fighting and the game is in the middle of having conversation or giving some kind of exposition, Alyx will either be a part of the exposition, telling the player about past events, the next objective, or why they would want to do something, or she will be busy preparing for the next section or set-piece. Unlike many other partners and companions in video games, it would be entirely possible (though I would not recommend it) to make an entirely new video game just by telling the story from Alyx's perspective. She is that busy and that vital to the plot, which is another reason people like her so much.

The last reason people like Alyx so much is that she is one of the most competent friendly AIs in video games when she fights with Freeman in the episodes. Valve spent tons of time tuning her AI to avoid many of the pitfalls that plague friendly AIs. In one level of Episode 1 where the player is thrust into a dark area filled with zombies. Unlike other AIs that would just shoot at the enemies regardless of how well they should be able to see them, Alyx was programmed to be more like a human being. She only fires at the zombies when the player shines Gordon's flashlight onto them. This means that the player is able to aim Alyx's shots as well as his/her own. Other tweaks to her programming include keeping her combat taunts to an absolute minimum so that she still feels like a human being and making sure to move out of Gordon's line-of-fire during a fight so that the player is able to aim at his/her target. This is not the most important point, but it definitely helped to keep Alyx's positive reputation amongst the gaming audience.

I have to applaud Valve for what they did with the Alyx Vance character. They could have easily made her another stupid, big-boobed female stereotype to pander to the male demographic. Instead, they spent the time and the effort to make a truly memorable character that players would grow to care for. It speaks to the dedication the people at Valve have to their craft. Game designers and publishers should look to Valve when trying to figure out how to do well in the industry while crafting excellent games.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

#22: Why Games Should Not Be Compared to Other Mediums

As prior articles I have written may have led you to believe, I tend to take story in games seriously. I am heavily critical of plot-lines in games and I expect narratives to be sensible. However, there are some people who are as critical as I am that I take issue with. When discussing the plot lines in video games, some people like to make the argument that “If this was a book/movie, then it would be so stupid!” More often than not, I would agree. However, that statement demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding. The stories of video game should not be compared to the stories of books and/or movies, just as movies should not be compared to books.

One of the big reasons for this is that script-writing in a game works differently than in a book or a movie. This difference is a very crucial and fundamental one. With a book or a movie, one of the primary concerns is the overall storyline. Plot, character development, continuity, conflict: In a book or movie, these are the focus of creative energy. In a game, this is a secondary concern. The primary concern (as it should be) is in the gameplay. Developers are focused on making sure that the level design and game mechanics are top-notch. They test and test to make sure that players are challenged to avoid the game getting boring, but not so much that it gets frustrating. Now, you can argue that some companies do not do this as well as others, but most of them make this the biggest thing on their checklist. The writing takes much more of a backseat. What happens more often than not is that the levels are completed and the writing team has only a rough idea of who the characters are and what the plot is supposed to be. They take these levels and the plot and form a loose story that tells the tale they want while justifying going through the all of the levels that the design team created or are currently creating. Some scenes may often require entire rewrites because of a problem on the designer end of things.

The best examples this style both working and failing can be found in the Uncharted series. The first two games had very well-written and gripping narratives with character the audience would come to love and grow attached to. The third game, while still very good, had a noticeably less-stable plot. Many of the new characters went underdeveloped, certain plot lines went nowhere, and there was an entire section of the game could have easily been cut with no effect on the narrative. The developer commentaries included on the disk gave a very good indication of why. To be fair, Amy Hennig and the Naughty Dog writing team are very talented and the story is still quite good despite its flaws. It still serves as a good example of why narratives in games are not the same as in books or movies. The argument can be made that this process may or may not work and may need to be experimented with, but, for now, it is a fact of life in the industry.

Which brings me to the next point: That gaming as a storytelling medium is still in his infancy. Unlike book, which have had hundreds of years to perfect their craft, and movies, which have also had a long time, though not nearly as long as books, games have only been in the entertainment market since 1972 with the Magnavox Odyssey. Games as a storytelling medium have been around for even less time, since the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) era, when games like the original Final Fantasy were released for the first time. Before then, they were nothing more than small experiences devoid of any real story. While people have written tons of material regarding how best to write a book or make a movie, but games have little in the way of that. The visionaries of the medium are only just now really starting to experiment with how to tell really compelling stories using it to its fullest.

Which again serves as an adequate transition into may last point. Games, by there nature, are interactive. This is the biggest separator between them and other mediums. The audience is an active participant in what is going on. This lends itself to new approaches in telling a good story unheard of in other mediums. Now, I have already discussed how stories in games can benefit from this interactivity several times before, but I nonetheless find this fact is something I need to repeat again and again. The strengths of interactivity are that you are able to use the environment and the situations the player has to deal with to tell the story in much more effective ways than movies or books can with descriptions or dialog, something which Bethesda, despite all of its flaws, is known for doing very well. Also, a game can be used to explore philosophies and concepts by letting the player immerse themselves in a world and discover for themselves the implications behind them, allowing them to learn and make choices in an environment free of any real-life consequences, demonstrated in games like Fallout: New Vegas and Deus Ex. Lastly, since the player is going through the game as the main character, he/she is automatically sympathetic towards the protagonist and/or is allowed a glimpse into the protagonist's beliefs and idiosyncrasies through the mechanics of the game, something that movies and books are completely unable to do. These are storytelling technique completely unique to games. Books and movies cannot utilize this tool-set. Because interactivity makes the story in a video game so completely different than movies and books, it is unfair to compare these mediums.

Games have their own set of strengths and weaknesses when it comes to storytelling, as do books and mediums. However, they are in no way similar enough to these other mediums to warrant comparison. We have evidence of this. Whenever the make games based off movies, they are very rarely any good. If they are, the game either takes place in a different time period than the movie or the player is playing as a new character who has previously never been mentioned in the plot. The same can be said of games that are made into movies. That is what makes this particular comparison so egregious. It is possible to argue that video game plots are bad. I do all the time. However, we should not be comparing apples to oranges. Nothing will come out of it. While I am sure many of you already know this, it is such a common misconception that it needed to be addressed.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

#21: The “What Ifs” of Apple's Alleged New Console

As of right now, major gaming has been a competition between the Nintendo Wii, the Sony PlayStation 3, the Microsoft Xbox 360, and the good-old gaming PC. Each of these options have their own pros and cons, and each were vying for supremacy. This is nothing new. It has been this way for a number of years now. This console generation has, for the most part, already been decided. The three consoles and the PC have all gathered their respective audiences (with a high degree of overlap) and most gamers have already passed judgment.

However, what if something major happens? What if, another major corporation decided to throw their hat into the ring and join the competition? It has rumored for quite sometime that Apple, technological innovators they are (despite my personal opinion of them), may be tempted to join the gaming market after a source said that Apple was in talks with Valve Software to make a new console compatible with Steam. While this rumor has since been debunked, this does raise a perfectly valid question: If either Apple or Valve (or both) decided to enter the console market, how would that affect the industry? This week will be dedicated to my own personal musings surrounding that.

First off, what would happen if this theoretical new console should be released and sell well? Perhaps the most obvious outcome of this would be a growth in indie/low-budget game development. Apple and Valve are well-known for their support of indies, Valve in particular is known for hiring indie developers who demonstrate potential. (This is how Portal became as well-known and loved as it is.) The Steam library and Apple App Store have tons of games developed by people in their basements/garages and available for very low prices. Should they make it into console space, this would expand beyond the PC and iPod markets and into the console space as well. Other console manufacturers would be forced in turn to expand their own efforts in the indie field. The focus would be on unique and interesting gameplay experiences, broadening the creativity of the industry. Like the Kickstarter campaigns, this would have the potential to bring back games that require a bigger budget than most indies do, but not the super-high budgets that AAA gaming has forced upon us. These side-effects would be generally positive for the gaming industry. The types of innovation that are only possible when games do not cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make would be commonplace once again. There would be no reason to constantly make safe games and sequels galore.

The other positive of another company entering the console market is the competition that would inspire. Although Apple and Valve are big corporations themselves, the sheer notion of another force going up against the behemoths of Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo would provoke other firms into trying their hand at it as well. Having several companies compete against each other in this space is good news for consumers. We would benefit from the technologies and ideas in introduced during such times. Furthermore, the competition would drive down prices, as each company would need to compete even more with all of its rivals for the consumers' collective interest. This would be similar to the time when Sony entered the market previously dominated by Nintendo and Sega. As many gamers are aware of already, this is often considered to be a “Golden Age” in gaming as each company was aiming to get all the game developers on their side. Competition and innovation were both at a high, with the consumers coming out on top. Many of the games from this era are still lauded as classics. This, combined with what Apple and Valve bring with them from the indie space, could do much good for gaming. I am not saying that they would control the industry as well as Sony did, but it would certainly be a much needed kick-in-the-pants for the big three.

But this would not come without a price, of course. Game publishers are notorious for refusing to change until they have no other choice but to do so. They believe that the business practices they use will always work no matter what. Because of this, some of them will be unable to adjust. This means that in this hypothetical console war, there would be casualties. Many publishers, and the studios that they own by proxy, would have to shut down, leaving many employees in the industry jobless. This is not necessarily all bad. In the competitive spirit bred by this console war, those who demonstrate great talent in this industry would most likely be rehired by the studios that can survive and thrive in this environment, allowing the true innovators to continue bringing us great gaming experiences.

The flip-side is that in the unlikely event that Valve or Apple decide to release a game console, it could just as easily fail. Something like that would also have its own list of consequences. At the foremost would be the message it would send to other companies looking to expand into gaming. Having Apple or Valve fail at such a major undertaking, despite their resources and expertise, would show that it is impossible, or at least incredibly difficult, for other companies to compete with the big three companies. Nobody else would want to compete in this area, at least not for the short-term. Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft would continue their current lines of thinking and strengthen their holds on the industry, emboldened by the fall of the new guy. Major publishers also would probably continue their current paths as well. Budgets will remain high until they are no longer capable of sustaining the industry, at which point they will be forced to change or fail anyway. Games will keep on as they will.

Valve and/or Apple could radically change the gaming landscape. If one of them were to release a new console, it would mean big things for the industry. I remain unconvinced that it will happen, nonetheless it is an interesting subject. Because there is not much information to go on, a lot of this is speculative, without much in the way of fact supporting it. Honestly, I am much more interested in discussing this with my viewers than having them read my opinion. Let me know in the comments below what you think would happen if Valve or Apple were to become a force in the console war. I want to see what other people have to say on this one.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

#20: The Mass Effect Conundrum: Part 2: Small Fixes

(Warning: Mass Effect Series Spoilers, especially Mass Effect 3. You have been warned.)

When I proofread the column from last week, I had realized something. While I did much to outline the problems in the Mass Effect series and its choices, specifically how they did not significantly influence events in Mass Effect 3, I only outlined the problem. I did not spend time demonstrating possible solutions. This week's article will be dedicated to that. I am going to assume that you read the previous article, or at least have familiarity with the three Mass Effect games and the outcomes depicted in the second and third game of the player's decisions. As such, I will not be explaining the decisions, the backstory, or the consequences (or lack thereof) of any of them in any significant detail. Fixing this problem might seem like a grand undertaking, but the reality is that Bioware already laid down a great framework to work with. Truthfully, the problem with choices having no influence on the plot only needs a series of small, minor fixes in order to work. While this does not do much since the game is already released, it will serve as a good lesson to those who are writing their own tales in the gaming industry.

First off, let us talk about the decision to save or kill the Rachni Queen is the first game. Here is how I would have written the outcomes to those decisions: I would keep the consequences for sparing the Rachni Queen the exact same. The side-quest is already pretty well-written for this choice. However, once the player has made the decision of whether or not to save the Rachni Queen a second time, there should be an aftermath to that decision reflected in the gameplay. Choosing to save her a second time should result in not only a slight drop in Ravager enemies (indoctrinated Rachni), but there should be some places (only one or two) where the player has the option of having Rachni soldiers fight with them, beyond the increase in war assets. This would make sense as the Reapers would have access to the Rachni still under their command and would still have the capability to indoctrinate Rachni, albeit to a significantly lower degree. Also, since the player saved the Queen twice now, she should be grateful enough to lend a hand in as many ways as she is able. She is no fool and knows that the galaxy is at stake.

Choosing to leave her to die if you spared her before should have an even more dramatic drop in Ravager enemies than if you choose to save her again. The reasoning behind this is that the Reapers would still have access to the Ravagers they already possess. However, with the death of the Queen, they are unable to make more Rachni to add to their forces. Not doing this quest would leave the game as, because the Reapers will still have control of the Rachni Queen and her hoards.

If the player chose to kill the Rachni Queen in the original game, then that should have dramatic effects on the world. Since the Rachni would have been unable to make any more of themselves, the race would have died out or come very close to it by the beginning of the third game. This means that there would be no Ravagers in Mass Effect 3. However, it would also mean that there would be no chance of adding the Rachni to the player's war assets. This way, the player's choice takes effect and it feels like they changed the world. Furthermore, it means that neither choice was “incorrect” as both have their pros and cons. Players who replay the game continue to agonize over which choice they will make, determining whether an easier time playing through the levels is worth having a harder time in getting a strong enough fleet.

Building on this theme of choice and consequences, the decision to save or abandon the Council in the original Mass Effect needed to have more weigh in the overall plot. If the player saved the Council in the first game, then they should be much more receptive to him/her. While they dismiss Sheppard's claim that the Reapers are coming in Mass Effect 2, the fact that Sheppard believes this should cast doubt in their minds. (Anderson even implies that they are scared and unsure in the second game if he becomes Councilor.) Anxious, they begin to order their respective peoples to prepare defenses, expand research on weapons/defense systems, boost military recruitment and training, etc.. When the Reapers invade, these advances should not be enough to repel the Reapers, but the races will be able to hold there against the Reaper forces long enough to evacuate non-combatants and world leaders to safer nebulae of space because of them. When Sheppard approaches the Council for aid, they would be more receptive to Sheppard's call for assistance. They would send preliminary forces to aid Earth, but still need Sheppard to assist them with the problems on their worlds before they could mobilize their entire armadas against the Reaper forces. When doing missions on the council race's home-worlds, there should be slightly fewer enemies because they would have been better prepared to thwart attacks from both the Reapers and Cerberus. However, abandoning the council should have the same ramifications that it does already. The new council should not trust Sheppard since he/she left the previous council to die, making it more difficult to sway them. Doing it this way allows the player to once again give meaning to his/her choice without making that choice wipe out hours of gameplay.

The next re-write that I would do would be to the effects of the choice of who gets to be the human Councilor: Anderson or Udina. The biggest problem with this choice is that the game negates it and makes Udina councilor regardless, but that is not the only flaw. Still, the groundwork here is solid, and only requires a few tweaks to have meaningful consequences. First off, I do not think that the scenes in Mass Effect 2 need changing. They are pretty well written and diversified depending on who is Councilor and whether or not the Council was saved. However, they should have more effects in the game. For example, if Anderson is Councilor, then it should be possible to abandon Cerberus altogether and join up with the Alliance in Mass Effect 2. The missions do not change, except the player receives Alliance funding and the mission briefings/dossiers can be given to Sheppard through Admiral Hackett or Anderson. (We can explain this away by saying that there are Alliance spies in Cerberus.) In the third game, Anderson (like the other Councilors) divides his attention between politics and saving Earth. He will slowly spend more time focusing on Earth and begin to leave the political bureaucracy to Udina. Udina can still betray everyone for Cerberus, but with Anderson as councilor, he will have significantly less influence and as such, Cerberus will not be as strong of a force as it is in the current game. Furthermore, once Sheppard arrives on the scene and reveals that Udina is a traitor, Anderson will be there to either make Udina answer to these accusations or order Kaiden/Ashley to stand down. Anderson will then move to Earth to help lead the fight against the Reapers in the end game. Making Udina councilor should leave all the events in Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 the same, since the sheer scale of Udina's betrayal would be highly dependent on his position. I would try to write a way to make the choice of Udina as Councilor be equivalent in terms of pros and cons, but Udina is clearly shown to be the “wrong” choice to make. Seriously, no one would choose Udina for any reason besides that they wanted to see what would happen. This guy is a complete jerk and in no way was he ever to be trusted. I am trying to be impartial, but it is harder than you would think.

Lastly, I would probably make some major changes to the Geth-Quarian conflict depending on the choices the player makes in the second game regarding advising the Quarians and the Geth decision. This is further compounded by the fact that it is possible for the player to completely skip these decisions. To facilitate this, I will make the current scene with the war being fought as the default scene for skipping these choices, leaving room for variation with the death of Tali or Legion. If the player advocated peace with the Geth, then I would dramatically change the scene. I would have the Quarians and the Geth be in the middle of peace negotiations when the Reaper invasion begins. When the Reapers attack, then the two sides agree to at least a temporary truce. However, the Reapers have set up a barricade at the Mass Relay to prevent their fleets from leaving the cluster. (The Normandy would be able to escape using its stealth drive.) The fight would then be about defeating the Reaper forces in the area so that the two forces can escape and provide support on the fight for Earth. The missions do not change, except that the player will now be going up against Reaper hoards instead of the Geth. However, if the player did not take part in Legion's side-quest, then Heretic Geth would also be mixed in with the hoard. If the player blew up the Heretic Base, then there would be fewer Heretic Geth because not all the Heretics would be blown up at the base. If the player re-wrote the Heretics, then the Geth who are on the players side will be strong enough to aid the player (at his/her behest) and will contribute more to the fight to reclaim Earth.

The player choosing to encourage the Quarians to fight the Geth should also result in a similar scenario to the one that is already in the main game. The only exception I would throw is that Legion and the Geth will be more hesitant to trust Sheppard, since Sheppard helped incite this war. The player would need to do additional tasks in order to re-gain Legion's trust. Until they do so, it would be impossible to side with the Geth or arrange peace with the two races. Furthermore, it will also lock the player out of the Geth Consensus side-quest until he/she achieves a good reputation with the Geth. Re-writing the Heretics should add to the Geth forces fought during missions and destroying the Base should result in a reduced number of enemies to kill. It should not be impossible to side with the Geth after advocating war, but it should be much more difficult than it would be if the player either advocated peace or did not do anything.

I am not saying that these solutions are perfect. Far from it. Admittedly, these re-writes approach bad fan fiction at times. This is more to prove a point. The point is that it is entirely possible to take player choices into account when making the game beyond simply referencing previous events in dialogue. Those choices could have been used to alter the experience in a series of small ways that, when combined, add to the total replay value of the game and make the player feel like they truly had an influence on the world and its inhabitants. Implementing systems like this would, no doubt, require much effort on the part of Bioware. However, if they were unwilling or unable to put this effort into the game, then they should have though about that before marketing the game based on choice and consequence. But again, I am being too harsh on the game. There is much to be lauded about the Mass Effect franchise. The characters, world, and lore are all very detailed, deep, and well-written. Bioware has nearly perfected the gameplay of the franchise as the series went on. Lastly, they did what many developers fail to do and made the players feel attached to world and truly care about the people in it. That is no small accomplishment by any means. That why writing things like this hurts. It saddens me to think about all of the wasted potential of the franchise. I love so many things about it, but it is at its core, deeply flawed.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

#19: The Mass Effect Conundrum: Linearity vs. Choice

(Warning: Mass Effect Series Spoilers, especially Mass Effect 3. You have been warned.)

The other day, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about the Mass Effect series. In it, the following point came up: Where exactly does the series fall on the Sliding Scale of Linearity vs. Choice? It is a good question to ask because the very nature of the series. Mass Effect has billed itself as a game about choice, making key decisions and seeing how they would play out as the series progressed. It was definitely an ambitious undertaking and one that must not be taken lightly. This week, I theorize that despite the marketing, Mass Effect is not about choice and I will show you the evidence supporting my claim. However, before I begin, I have to make one thing perfectly clear: This is not a post complaining about Mass Effect 3 or its ending. I have already said my piece about that in an earlier post. This is a critique of one the series's central mechanics. Now that we have gotten that out of the way...
Mass Effect is a Science-Fiction RPG created by Bioware. The game has the player take the role of Commander Sheppard, a highly trained elite soldier in the human military. The series focuses on Commander Sheppard's adventures across space to defeat a race of organic machines called the Reapers who come into the galaxy every fifty-thousand years to cull all space-faring species and turn them into Reapers. Throughout the series, the player, as Commander Sheppard, is asked to make significant choices that impact the lives of those around him/her. These choices are fairly diverse and encompass many situations, like whether or not to give an old race that once terrorized the galaxy a second chance by saving its last queen, saving the galactic council at the risk of human lives or focusing human fleets towards killing the main villain, choosing who will represent humanity going forward, advising a whole race on whether or not to go to war to reclaim their home-world, deciding whether to re-write a hostile AI collective to accept organics or just kill them off outright, etc.. All of these choices are major, critical choices for the world at large, or at least they appear to be. Let us go through these choices to see how they play out.

In the original Mass Effect, the player encounters a race called the Rachni. Before humans became a space-faring species, the other races once opened a gateway to Rachni space. This resulted in the Rachni Wars that had lasting repercussions amongst many of the races in the game. When the player, as Commander Sheppard, arrives on the scene, (s)he sees that the Rachni are being controlled by Saren, the main villain of the game who is later revealed to be controlled by the Reapers. The player encounters the last Rachni Queen, who promises to never again terrorize the galaxy if Sheppard lets her go. The player is then forced to make a choice. Does (s)he just release the Rachni Queen and hope that she is true to her word or does (s)he turn on the acid bath and kill off the Rachni Queen and avoid risking another galactic conflict? I think the best way to illustrate my point is to explain what happens with each branching path:
  • If the player saves the Rachni Queen, they have a pleasant chat (via proxy) in Mass Effect 2. In the third game, they become mind-controlled once again by the Reapers. In an optional side-quest, the player has the choice to either save them again at the expense of the krogan soldiers there or leave them to die. Saving them adds to the player's war assets in the fight against the Reapers.
  • If the player kills the Rachni Queen, she does not appear in Mass Effect 2 (obviously). In the third game, the Reapers have found a way to clone the Rachni Queen and mind-control the race once again. In an optional side-quest, the player has the choice to either save them again at the expense of the krogan soldiers there or kill them off once and for all. Saving them leads to them removing war assets in the fight against the Reapers.
Okay. These two branching paths look suspiciously similar. Perhaps that is just one isolated incident. Maybe analyzing other choices will yield different outcomes.

Towards the very end of the original Mass Effect, the player is fighting to stop a Reaper, Sovereign, with the aid of Saren and his indoctrinated forces, from taking the galactic capital, the Citadel, and summoning the rest of the Reaper forces to the galaxy. During the invasion, the Council, the highest authority in the galaxy, is evacuated to their flagship, the Destiny Ascension. After besting Saren (either through a boss fight or one of the best speech checks in the series), Sheppard reaches the heart of the Citadel and is forced to make a choice. The Destiny Ascension, Council aboard, is under attack, but Sovereign is still fighting as well. Sheppard can immediately summon the human forces to the battle or keep them at bay, leaving the other races to suffer high loses. Furthermore, if Sheppard summons the human military, (s)he can advise them to either focus exclusively on Sovereign and abandon the Council, or save the Council before joining the fight against Sovereign. The net impact is that either the Council lives or dies, with Sovereign stopped regardless. Let us analyze the repercussions of both options.
  • If the player decides to abandon the Council, the new Council refuses to even speak with him/her in Mass Effect 2. They ignore the warnings of Reaper attacks until the war with the Reapers actually begins in Mass Effect 3. In the third game, they initially refuse to help the human forces because each of the three council races are also being attacked by the Reapers. After doing his/her best to deal with their problems, Sheppard begins to gain sway with the council.
  • If the player decides to save the Council, they will agree to meet with Sheppard and listen to his viewpoint in Mass Effect 2. However, they ignore the warnings of Reaper attacks until the war with the Reapers actually begins in Mass Effect 3 and actively taunt Sheppard, referring to the Reapers in finger-quotes. In the third game, they initially refuse to help the human forces because each of the three council races are also being attacked by the Reapers. After doing his/her best to deal with their problems, Sheppard begins to gain sway with the council. The Destiny Ascension is added to the player's war assets and is shown in the final battle.
These two outcomes also seem too similar. Are you starting to see the pattern? Let us keep going with this and see if this pattern holds up.

The next choice we will go through is also from the original game. After the battle against Sovereign is over and the Reapers have been driven back, humanity is given a seat on the Council. The player, as Sheppard, is given the authority to make the choice of who becomes the Councilor. (S)He can choose between Captain David Anderson, the humble, career soldier who never compromise his values and is a good friend to Sheppard, or Ambassador Donnel Udina, a career politician who knows how best to navigate political minefields and who is willing to use dirty tactics to advance the cause of humanity. And now, the outcomes of both choices.
  • Should the player make Udina the human Councilor, then Udina will refuse to help Sheppard in Mass Effect 2 and will not allow him to meet the Council (assuming the Council does not already hate Sheppard). In the third game, Anderson becomes an Admiral and a key figure in the fight against the Reapers. He gives Sheppard the mission to get help for humanity while he holds off the Reapers. Udina will advise the player to help the Councilors and get the other races to assist. Later on, he betrays Sheppard and decides to work with the human-centric terrorist organization, Cerberus, desperate to get aid for humanity's fight against the Reapers. The player can, and probably will, choose to kill him for this.
  • Should the player make Anderson the human Councilor, then Anderson will agree to meet with Sheppard in Mass Effect 2 (the Council will spur his offer if Sheppard killed the old one, but Anderson will still talk with the player). Anderson offers to make Sheppard a Spectre, an elite council agent who is above the law out of respect of their friendship, which the player can refuse. (This decision makes no impact in Mass Effect 2 and Sheppard becomes a Specter in the third game anyway.) In between the second and third games, Anderson gets fed up with the Council and quits, giving the position to Udina. In the third game, Anderson becomes an Admiral and a key figure in the fight against the Reapers. He gives Sheppard the mission to get help for humanity while he holds off the Reapers. Udina will advise the player to help the Councilors and get the other races to assist. Later on, he betrays Sheppard and decides to work with the human-centric terrorist organization, Cerberus, desperate to get aid for humanity's fight against the Reapers. The player can, and probably will, choose to kill him for this.
Another decision from the first game rendered completely meaningless in later installments. Maybe it is just the first game. Perhaps decisions in Mass Effect 2 had an impact on the third game. Let us find out.

So now we come to two, very related, key decisions in Mass Effect 2. But first, the usual backstory. Throughout the original game, Sheppard is pit up against the Geth, an race of sentient AIs that support Saren and Sovereign. We know that they were created by the Quarians, a race known for having to live in bio-suits due to their weak immune systems, and rebelled against their creators, forcing the Quarians to abandon their home-world and travel as the galaxy's closest equivalent to Gypsies. In Mass Effect 2, we learn through a Geth companion, Legion, (Spoiler Alert: You get a Geth companion, named Legion.) that these Geth that are fighting Sheppard are actually a splinter faction who worship the Reapers. Furthermore, we learn that the Quarians were the actual aggressors in the conflict between both groups and that the Geth are isolationists who just want to live and let live. The player, through optional, yet story-critical, side-quests, can make two choices. In Legion's side-quest, the player can choose between re-writing the Geth splinter faction, forcing them to accept the other Geth's logic, or just outright destroy them. Furthermore, after resolving a problem revolving around the player's Quarian companion, Tali, Sheppard can chose to either advise the Quarian race to avoid fighting the Geth to retake their homeland, or incite them into continuing their planned course of action and fighting the Geth in a war to reclaim their home. And now, the consequences of these choices.
  • If Sheppard sent the Quarians after the Geth, the Quarians, emboldened by the inciting words of Commander Sheppard, being their attack on the Geth. The Geth, losing programs rapidly and scared out of their collective mind, broker a deal with the Reapers to gain upgrades and safety in exchange for servitude. Sheppard must now find a way to break the Reaper influence on the Geth. Afterward, (s)he must choose to side with one of the conflict's two factions (but with a sufficient Reputation, he can arrange for peace between them). The war assets that both factions can give are determined by the decision to re-write/kill the evil Geth. (Re-writing will cause the Quarians to lose forces and the Geth to gain forces.)
  • If Sheppard advocated a stop to the war, the Quarians, refusing the advice and council of the galaxy's biggest hero, begin war with the Geth. The Geth, losing programs rapidly and scared out of their collective mind, broker a deal with the Reapers to gain upgrades and safety in exchange for servitude. Sheppard must now find a way to break the Reaper influence on the Geth. Afterward, (s)he must choose to side with one of the conflict's two factions (but with a sufficient Reputation, he can arrange for peace between them). The war assets that both factions can give are determined by the decision to re-write/kill the evil Geth. (Re-writing will cause the Quarians to lose forces and the Geth to gain forces.)
I really wish I was kidding with this. This is exactly how each choice plays out. This really does grow old after awhile.

We have gone through several major choices and it seems like none of them had any real consequence on the narrative. While there is one glowing, beautiful exception to the rule, (The Krogan/Genophage quest-line of Mass Effect 3 radically changes depending on choices the player has made in the first two games and is perhaps the best sequence in the entire series.) for the most part, the series seems to be trying its very hardest to disregard the choices the player makes. This is not an argument regarding how realistic it is. This is not an argument about whether or not it makes sense for one man to have tons of influence (even if it does not, Sheppard unites a galaxy almost single-handedly anyway, so that is a moot point). This is an observation that the game advocates choice and then does nothing with it. This is either a complete disregard for choice and free-will as a central theme, a silent affirmation that the game was never about choice and that marketing was wrong, or just plain lazy writing on Bioware's part. No matter which way this is analyzed, it is an issue that needs to be addressed. This is not to say that Mass Effect 3 is a bad game. It is not. While it is much more linear than I desire, it is a game I could easily recommend to RPG fans. But just because something is good does not mean that we, as consumers, cannot demand better. If games are to shape up as a medium, we need to make sure that everything is up to snuff, especially the story.