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.


SougoXIII said...

No need to sell yourself short, these small fixes sound pretty good and is certainly a step up from what I heard of the actual game.

You last paragraph outline one of the real tragedy of the Mass Effect series. Even if it's too much work for Bioware to make your choices radically change the plot, the least they can do is put in small touches like this that not only effect the story but gameplay as well and that would be perfectly acceptable. But they didn't and the franchise is worst for it.

newdarkcloud said...

Thank you for the kind words.

And part of me wonders how much EA had a hand in screwing with the franchise and how much of is truly Bioware's fault. I get the impression that Mass Effect 3 was a rush job. It doesn't feel as polished as the other two games.

SougoXIII said...

After playing the demo and watching some youtube videos, I can definitely say that ME 3 was a rush job. It's always baffling for me how EA feel the need to rush out one of their biggest franchise.

You can also tell that ME3 was heavily planned for newcomers of the series. The sudden importance of earth, the kid for emotional drama etc... all meant to create 'shock and awe' moments that makes no sense if you have played the other games. ME3 was even more of a sensationism than ME2.

newdarkcloud said...

And I have to question that decision as well. It's not wrong to try to generate a new audience even on the third game. It's just some of their choices were questionable.

The child feels so ham-fisted into the game. Ashley's/Kaiden's death didn't cause nearly that much emotional trauma. Also, the entire squad could have died in Mass Effect 2. And now, only now, after the death of an NPC does Sheppard display ANY emotions beyond stoicism/not caring.

There was also the inclusion of James, but I grew to like his character. I was so scared that he would be nothing more than a dumbass meathead. I'm glad he wasn't. Still, there wasn't a need to include him in the third act.

Really, all they needed was a simple recap like the one that was in the PS3 version of ME2. It wasn't perfect, but it set the scene so that new players could understand the plot.

Phantos said...

I picked Udina for the Councillor position in ME 1. Not out of morbid curiosity, I just didn't want to see Anderson ruined by politics. Udina on the other hand seemed like he was already screwed up, but he was(at the time) on our side. Anderson always seemed more like a hands-on approach kind of guy, while Udina was more of the beurocratic at-arms-length type. Giving him the Councillor role just made sense to me.

My only peeve with Udina is that they never really gave a reason for why he betrayed the Citadel. I mean, it's not unthinkable. Maybe seeing the as-usual pussy-footed Council made him desperate. But I've played through the game twice, and I don't remember anyone bringing up or acknowledging the reason Why.

newdarkcloud said...

If I'm being completely honest here, I just flat out hate Udina. He just annoys the crap out of me. I couldn't possibly write a good way to make him a Councillor because of my own personal biases, not because it isn't possible.

And you are correct about his betrayal. They didn't really do enough foreshadowing in that aspect and as much as I hate Udina, it does feel somewhat forced. I left that concession in because there do have to be some immutable facts so that the story can still work. I couldn't be bothered to give a sufficient reason for Cerberus to be able to infiltrate the Citadel w/o letting that happen.

anaphysik said...

Funnily: I too hated Udina... until the beginning of ME3, when he actually seemed to turn around and start being useful. Instead of being an obstructive asshole, he became an asshole I could work with, and it was amazing how much better that was. Which made his betrayal at the halfway point all the more stupid.

However, I really do believe there's only one reason anyone should ever choose Udina. (When going human supremacist, killing the Council and putting a human dictatorship into effect. You bastard.) In any non-dickish case, Anderson is the only real choice. Anderson himself says it quite well in ME2: Udina is the perfect bureaucrat, knowing all the nitty-gritty details of politics. He's the perfectly wrong person to have making decisions, but the right person to have facilitating those decisions. Udina as Councilor Anderson's lackey works quite well.

newdarkcloud said...

When Udina actually started being useful in ME3, I almost didn't believe it. I though to myself "Is this the same stupid asshole I've had the displeasure of knowing?". I didn't trust it at first. Then, right as I was beginning to warm-up to the idea... the betrayal plotline began and threw a monkey wrench into that whole thing. Ugh.

I do think that Udina being useful showed a bit of depth to his character. He's all about politics and keeping his image up... until Earth get's under attack. Even he knows how pointless politics are when the people you care for and represent are under attack (and as harsh as I am towards Udina, I do believe he cares about humanity). But even out of desperation, working with Cerberus doesn't make sense. He's a Councillor and had to have known (at LEAST from Sheppard's reports) that Cerberus was obviously evil.

Thomas said...

Udina was doing such a good job of turning me around at the beginning of ME3, I had made the decision that on my next playthrough I was going to pick him instead. He'd always been loyal to humans (I think they suggested or hinted Cerberus ties in ME2?) and his political know how seemed to be gettng things done.

Thomas said...

There are places in the game where they've done what you suggested (most notably in the characters who survived ME2) but there there is a flaw, that if something goes right, you don't know it could go wrong. I bet most people don't know that if Jack dies some of the pupils in Grissom end up dying too. The game would need to tell you that there were more or less Rachni on a level, because otherwise the player wouldn't notice. (although naturally the positive Rachni troops helping would be cool and obvious :D)

So in some ways, it might have come up against budget issues, since they did include some of this stuff, but the changes you suggest seem cheap and effective. As a codex reader I didn't mind reading this stuff in the codex, about the mad rachni queen killing the engineers, but I can see that feels underwhelming.

Your stuff about bad and good choices is the crux of one of the fundamental problems I feel about this series, that because everyone's aiming for the same goal, a lot of the choices feel like choosing to have everything turn out well, or to have it suck. I'm not sure to the extent they can make both choices feel good if both suceed though, that would make the choices feel meaningless in a different way. It's why I feel like they should have centred around a pro-human universe and a pro-alien universe, so both choices have impact but can feel satisfying

newdarkcloud said...

I know it they do it often with the side characters (and I love it), but they rarely ever do it with main plot points and choices where you'd think they would matter. It seems like Bioware is trying hard, yet holding itself back from true greatness, which is very frustrating.

Thank you. That was the goal. I tried to make this as cheap and simple as I could. There would be possible issues regarding additional writing and voice acting among others, but I didn't want this to just be an completely impossible restructuring of the plot on a fundamental level. Some facts simply can't change in order for coherence.

And indeed. It was a huge problem with doing this. I'm not entirely convinced these edits solved the problem. I like the idea of a pro-human/pro-alien agenda, but that goes into the problems with a moral choice system and the lack of moral nuance and ambiguity that would create.

Thomas said...

As Spec Op tells us, in some respects we're screwed when we choose to make a game. If they did a moral system like I suggested, it'd probably make it a lot more gamey. Choosing evil in KotoR was always a bit goofy because people know it's not really as wholesome to do those things

Aldowyn said...

James was included for gameplay reasons, I'm pretty sure, to add a straight fighter/tank in your party since otherwise you won't get one save at best Ashley. He's not important to any other character save the pilot, Cortez (who is also a good new character)

That said, although there's no real reason to add him to the game (what reason is there ever other than more diversity? It just feels off in the VERY last game and with literally NO introduction...), they did a good job of it if they HAD to do it. He even had a decent character arc!

Aldowyn said...

See, Star Wars is the ONLY place I've ever seen a binary moral system work, and that's because it's canon. Something is required to corrupt you to make you TRULY evil, and thus doing evil acts encourages more evil acts and vice versa.

Aldowyn said...

For the most part, sound ideas, except for one part. The REASON this sounds like 'bad fan fiction' is that your Shepard is running around like even more of a hero sue (look up mary sue) than s/he already is. Someone asks a question, and automatically obeys Shepard no matter what.

That's just as damaging to a plot as totally ignoring Shepard. What you need to do is tone it down. Sure, maybe they take your choice into account with anderson/udina, but if you pick anderson eventually he'll quit and udina will take up the position, but he'll be forever biased against you because you picked anderson. Say it plays out the same way but if you pick Udina he never betrays you - you can have someone else do the betraying. Kai Leng infiltrating and attacking the councilors by himself actually sounds reasonable, even - no straight out attacking the citadel, though.

Same thing with the Quarian wars. The way I'd do it is that if you council against war, several of the admirals have doubts but admiral dumbass (I forget his name) still convinced him to go to war, but it's relatively easy to get the rest of the Quarians to stop supporting the warhawk dude, at which point he will be forced to retreat or die.

If you propose war, it's MUCH harder if not impossible (Tali loyalty, super high influence) to convince them to break it off, and if Legion was with you when you counciled war, the Geth refuse to break off attacking when the Quarians do without passing an even HARDER check, and maybe swimming through some dialogue trees (ME needs more swimming through dialogue trees).

It's all about subleties. Don't hit it with a hammer, tap it with a chisel until it's in the right spot. Just the right amount of influence, of control, no more no less.

That said.. yeah, adding choice wouldn't have been hard. ME3 does feel rushed, although the gameplay mostly doesn't suffer (shows where their priorities were I guess(

newdarkcloud said...

I know you missed it, but this was a major theme with the Mass Effect 3 season of Spoiler Warning.

"X plot element COULD have worked, but the way Bioware chose to handle it made it suck."

The Citadel Invasion
The Confrontation at the End with TIM
Some Kidd

All of this might have worked if not for a couple of really dumb decisions.

Of course, there are other things that flat out needed to be scraped (you know what I'm referring to).