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.

6 comments:

SougoXIII said...

I would say that Bioware games (well at least the ME series anyway) are never about choice but the illusion of it. I have only played ME2 but during my first playthrough, I can already see how my choices will have little effect on the story or how they will really turn out. It pretty easy to fall for the illusion due to the sheer magnitude of your choices. I mean, you can choose to save the most influential group in the galaxy, encourage peace or war between to races and make your girlfriend/fan girl into one of the most powerful information broker in the galaxy. That got to count for something. Right? Right!?

I guess my reasons were that I was being cynical: to make the player's choices not only matters but molding the plot of a trilogy requires tremendous effort as well as meticulous planning. The only game that I can think of that come ever close to what Bioware hyping the ME series would be is Alpha Protocal - and that game have its own problems.

Mr. B said...

Alpha Protocol. If the gameplay had been good and the bosses weren't ridiculous, then I would tempted to call it one of my favorite games of all time. I can still applaud the ambition behind it, that makes it worth an occasional replay to me (on Easy mode so that I don't scream very loudly).

That first paragraph is the best way to say the point I was trying to make. The choices in Mass Effect were nothing more than a facade, and that just seems wrong to me. These things should have radical influences on the world, but they become just footnotes. It's kinda sad. Maybe I was just being too optimistic.

Anonymous said...

In a tabletop RPG, it is easy to branch out from the expected story as players make choices. The combinatorial complexity can be handled by the game master after the choice, thus, a kind of "true freedom", unless the game masters insists in railroading the players.

In a computer RPG, everything must be handled before the choice being made. This means that if you choose A instead of B, everything B related, every resources that went into making that choice real is lost. Thus having a full video game RPG would result in resources created for ten or hundreds of RPG of the same size, with only one branch of the resources being effectively seen by the player.

So, after a few rounds in Bioware games, I was not surprised by the railroading, where our choices amounted into little or no real consequences but one dialog phrase.

Still, the choices had little consequences (and I agree with you, I would have liked more different outcomes), and the choices are still here, with the acting that go with them.

How to play Shepard is the real choice offered by Bioware. You can save the council, the Rachni, or not. This is *your* character, and how you played it when you had the choice to do.

In the past (and in most non-Bioware-style games), the story was linear, and the character you were playing was not *your* character. Today, in Bioware-style games, the main character is *your* character, even if the story is quite linear. I do hope in the future Bioware-style games will offer choices with more consequences, and thus, less linear stories.

Bioware put the "Role" back in RPG, when naive players believe that RPGs are about fiddling with character points with an Excel-like sheet. But in the end, there is a desirable evolution there (from the past to the present). Let's hope it will continue to evolve.

newdarkcloud said...

Very well spoken. And that is the big problem. Accounting for all of those variables and writing effective code for it is hard work for not a whole lot of payoff. Still, I think players can appreciate that attention to detail and recognize when developers put in that effort.

pastacat said...

I think that your examples point something else out: Your choices mattered in Mass Effect 2 but not ME3. The Rachni queen, Anderson's position, and the council's opinions WERE different in Mass Effect 2, but for the third game they just didn't care.

newdarkcloud said...

That is a conclusion that could be drawn from the data. Mass Effect 2 did do some things with your choices, that's a fact. However, to me it's not really enough to say that they "mattered." They didn't affect the gameplay and what Shepard did at all really.