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Mass Effect: A Narratological Review
Editorial - posted by DarkUnderlord on Mon 5 April 2010, 09:11:26Tags: Mass Effect
Mass Effect has drawn much ire on the Codex. I'm going to look at the story side of things, and point to the good stuff (yes, there was some) as well as the bad stuff. It will also touch on the 'bioware formula' for RPGs. I'll talk about the plot, the characters, the dialogue, the setting, and the C&C and other aspects of immersion.
Obviously, spoilers abound.
The Mass effect universe is unashamedly space opera. It is much shorter to list how it doesn't wholly follow the tropes - sans these, assume a star trek analogue and you're there: all the main alien races are humanoid (wholly unnecessary as you don't need human actors), space ships (full sound in a vacuum, naturally), and, of course, magic substance (element zero) that lets you break those pesky laws of physics and give you force powers.
Two major exceptions. Instead of mankind running the galaxy with the other species as bit-parts, Humans are still asserting themselves. Secondly, the game bluffs on the 'mysterious lost alien race' whom you inherited all the useful tech - mid game, you find out the believed history is false. That alien race was wiped about by the machine intelligences that actually made the tech, and they come back every few dozen millennia to gank sapient life (and now it's your turn).
These are good subversions, but they aren't pulled off properly. Humans are still 'special', and one of the endings of the game lets you put them wholly in charge. Whatever choice you make humans become the top dog, as all of the other species get mauled by the terminators. The reveal of the real big bad (the 'Reapers') does set them up as nasty villains ("slaughtering all life in the galaxy? peh. We've done that repeatedly for millions of years.") But no explanation is ever offered for why they bother doing this - Bioware hides behind alien inscrutability (you can't possibly understand, beyond your comprehension etc. etc.) Maybe sequels will satisfy this, but I don't hold my breath for this explanation being any good.
On the bright side, the world-building is good at giving a vaguely plausible veneer to the universe.
One thing that deserves a rant are the SPECTREs (Special whatever and Tactical Reconassaince, or whatever the backronym was.) Another part of Bioware's formula is having a leet crew of kewl people who have absolute power to protect the established order by any means necessary (see the Grey Wardens). This trope is rammed into the game with barely any justification. Intelligence services? Sure. Black ops? Fine. But mankind has never done this 'special dudes who are cool and answer to no one' as the best way of doing these things. Why would wider alien community (of multiple species) agree to this sort of thing? What if one of them discovers a plot device of doom and goes crazy?
They could (and should) be excised painlessly from the plot. Make Saren (the main bad guy) some other sort of rogue agent, and let Shepherd pursue him in a non-spectre capacity (perhaps the Human alliance just disobeys the council and lets Shepherd hunt him down 'off the record', or the council co-opts them into their intelligence apparatus). The only purpose of the SPECTREs seems to be being cool, but on close inspection implausible.
The Bioware formula is well known. There's an intro scenario, a hub with a series of fetch quests, and a dramatic finale.
On the bright side, Bioware have passed beyond the flagrant plot coupon stage of the 'hub portion' (cf. Star maps in KOTOR). Sadly, they do little better: this time, it's people with titbits of information you're after. Also, this 'info coupon' is tacked on to an otherwise unrelated story about the world you're going to.
One example: you go to Feros to investigate a colony being attacked by Geth (another machine race which serve as enemy cannon fodder) so you save the colony, find out they are getting mind controlled by some plant, kill the plant, and one of its thralls happened to be able to give you the 'cipher', which means your brain can now read what the extinct alien race implanted into your skull in the opening section. But this latter bit you had no idea about until you landed. Similar problems apply to Noveria - Benezia's (the bad guy's number 2.) only use to the players quest is she just happens to have some useful coordinates. Therum and Virmire aren't so bad, because there seems a good reason why plot relevant info would reside in the bad guys base or a scientist specializing in the ancient alien race.
The more telling criticism is that the entire idea just seems a bit contrived. Finding out the location of the finale segment means you need the co-ordinates of the Mu relay (Noveria), and a pretty star-mappy interpreting your dreams idea which needs a another beacon (Virmire) and your two alien chicks (Feros, Therum) to understand where you need to take the relay to. Yet how you come to these bits of information is serendipitous at best, contrived at worst. Couldn't Bioware have given a slightly more interesting puzzle to solve? Maybe a couple of false leads here and there, or hub planets which aren't "thanks for sorting out this wholly unrelated issue, here's another coupon for your main quest"?
Bioware can't plot urgency. They've filled Mass effect with pretty pointless side quests despite repeatedly emphasizing how 'every second counts or all life will die etc. etc.' Maybe you might be tempted to take a few moments to stop an asteroid hitting a planet, but running fed-ex, doing odd jobs for the human military? No chance. It isn't the case you need to go around hunting for leads: the game (and meta-game) lead you by the nose through the plot: go to the four plot-vital worlds to hit the finale segment. It's like if fallout said: "the water-chip is in Necropolis, go fetch" - it deprives the character of any motive to investigate the side-material (not that it's worth it - it's almost wholly going into one of three internal environments - mine, bunker, building or ship) and killing all the bad guys to grab a plot coupon or frob a plot device). Mass Effect seems to want to play sandbox, but gives the player entirely inappropriate objectives.
Just in time, no matter the time
But if you decide to dick around and let the galaxy fend for itself while you go mail some fed-ex, no ill results happen. This gets pretty fishy after a while.
The very start of the game is good timing (you just happen to arrive to the first planet just after Saren so are in time to foil his nefarious plans). And this continues. No matter how much time you piss away, you always arrive just in time to snatch affairs from the jaws of disaster. You arrive on Feros just as the colony is on it's last legs to save it, on Virmire just in time to help the team there, on Therum just in time to help Liara. Even after you have done all the hub material and you now know the Saren is now racing off to Ilos to start the doom-Mcguffin and end life as we know it, you can still bugger around the galaxy map for as long as you like. No matter how long you take, you always arrive planetside few moments after Saren. When chasing after him, you can take 10 minutes to chat to a Prothean exposition bot, and still when you come back you have a 40 second timer to drive into a mass relay. It's just taking the mick.
The usual formulas apply as per bioware games. The gritty mercenary whose race has fallen on hard times, the pretty boy, the strong female, the wierd culture one, and the naive blue girl. If you've played KOTOR, you'll see little new here.
Again, Bioware does try and prod the envelope. Garrus is functional and works, and Ashley almost works out as a less-than-wholly sympathetic character given her bigotry towards alien species ('I can't tell the aliens and the animals apart, here' is a nice line.) Making the female romance character significantly flawed and even unpleasant would be a brave move, as well as riffing off the a not-trivial theme as whether humans should consider other sentient life that isn't them as worthy of equal moral consideration.
But Bioware chickens out on both counts. The alien vs. human issue amounts to the council being idiots and making the alien-friendly choice stupid (should you risk your only chance of stopping the doomsday mcguffin to save the alien councillors?) And they chicken out of making Ashley properly bigoted - she gets on fine with your alien crew-members, and she distances herself from the galactic human equivalent of the KKK - and besides, she's only like that because of daddy issues. This post-hoc airbrushing squandered a good opportunity.
Outside the party members, Bioware manages to write some good characters, generally when they aren't trying too hard. One of my favourites was Matsuo, the security chief on Noveria - an ex-marine who went private, she's straightforward, jaded, and entirely convincing. More central to the plot: Anderson and Udina also work (although the latter is a little too much unnecessary jackass as opposed to slick politico).
However, Bioware horribly fails at the villains. The reapers have been covered, but the actual bad guys who are trying to bring them back are Saren (a rogue SPECTRE) and Benezia. Bioware just aborts on actually characterising these two - they are simply introduced as the villains of the story in the first act, and they don't progress beyond that. Bioware tries to add depth later, but they don't do so plausibly. They try to paint Saren as a reluctant villain to give him a motivation, but then he just looks stupid (the reapers will need people like us given their self-sufficient omnipotence. I for one, welcome our genocidal machine overlords!) Turns out Benezia was under mind control so isn't really to blame. Big deal. I felt far more emotionally invested when Udina stabbed me in the back for the sake of humanity than anything the villains did to try and destroy it.
You simply never feel anything towards Saren. He never does anything to screw you over. He never earns your respect by plausibly outwitting or outgunning you. Sure, the plot might make him slip through your fingers, but he is always more an obstacle than an antagonist. He sets up a scheme, and you take it down - never does he ever take the initiative against you, and, despite the vast forces at his command, he never seems to be in control. Even Darth Malak sent some trash jedi and a bounty hunter after you. This is partly pacing, but it doesn't help he never gets beyond villain generica.
Love is in the vacuum
As this is a Bioware game, you get to date some of your party members. This doesn't really gel with the fact you are a military commander with a no-fraternization rule. Shouldn't Kaiden be reporting me if I start coming on to him, as opposed to playing along?
But ignore that - combat stress or something. The issue is a perennial one. The 'give me banal platitudes and I will give you sex' NPCs. Striking up a romance with someone remains too complicated to be done properly via. dialogue wheel, and it always seems ham-handed. Of course, if Bioware had some guts they could try their hand at other relationships besides the 'one true love' version. But no. Their writing out of the same-sex romances is either good (not everyone is bisexual, y'know) or bad (alien screwing, yes, but no queers here) so it's probably a wash overall. For a mature look at human relationships and sexuality, though, look elsewhere.
Bioware tries to 'write pretty', but it fails. It avoids naturalistic or hyper-real dialogue (unsurprising, for a space opera) and goes for a canned Joss Wheldon-esque pithiness and epic fare. Unfortunately, it can't do this. The dialogue is almost uniformly dire, with rare diamonds in the rough.
The speeches are the best exhibit, from the ridiculous (Kirrahe's 'hold the line' one on Virmire) to chunderous (Shepherd's rallying the troops before they go on the hub) to the frankly embarrassing (Spectre admission). It verges on bathos to have the cinematography and the 'epic hush' music (the soundtrack is all pulsing synth ostinatos, surging strings and leitmotif - very well done) going all out behind this banal dialogue. It says a lot when the best cinematic moments are those in which no one is speaking.
Best example is the climatic confrontation at the end of the game when the primary protagonist and primary antagonist clash with the fate of the galaxy at stake. Luke vs. Vader this ain't: link
Seriously, what on earth is that?
The speech actors deserve purple hearts for carrying dialogue so bad. Particular props to Jennifer Hale and (to a lesser extent) Mark Meer, as some of the rubbish they had to spout would have overloaded any sane person's cringe gland.
fake C&C: even worse than tone
Mass effect is already infamous for dialogue wheel options which all say the same thing ("Yes" "Okay then" "If you insist"). These have been defended under the pretence of tone which, providing you aren't a rabid anti-larper, is fine.
However, it is worse than that. Often, the three options on the wheel will lead you to say exactly the same thing. You can usually tell if what your character says just so happens to incorporate elements of all three responses. One example in the first council audience is the 'You've already made your decision - I'm not going to waste my breath' - you get that no matter what option you pick.) This is just inexcusable.
It isn't only shepherd which suffers from redundancy. Your party interjections and party banter are the same. No matter which two party members you have with you, there are the same interjections and the same banter (sometimes word for word copies). So you don't really have Ashley, Kaidan, Tali, Wrex, Liara and Garrus. You have party member 1 and party member 2. The illusion of interactivity and depth here is tissue thin.
Bizarrely, Bioware often flirts with plausible choices you could make only to deny them to you. If you decide to be an ass and blame Ashley for her performance. Your CO wants her on the crew, but later you are the CO. Why can't you kick her out? Likewise, why will Udina force me to take Tali with me? This seems especially bizarre given you can leave Wrex or Garrus at home.
Game conceits: breaking too many crutches
The hamster wheel effect of level scaling is a case of two wrongs making a right - I'm already an accomplished military officer, I shouldn't be going up in power by orders of magnitude. What is harder to swallow is why the merchants stuff upgrades by vast amount for no good reason.
There's many other oversights and mistakes. Like how the Mako can only take three people (which usually crutches for Bioware's party size limitation) cept once when it is needed to ferry an NPC back to base when it takes four. Or how the Mako makes all enemy armour obsolete by having hitscan weapons while all their significant anti tank projectiles go at a snails pace allowing you to dodge them in flight (!!!!). Or how it takes dozens of bullets to kill anyone (even without shields) unless it's a cutscene.
The good side of the new stuff
One of the benefits of next gen graphics is people can ramp up the cinematics of the game. The camera work in Mass Effect is pretty damn good. It also allows little somatic touches. See this:
This illustrates several things before (observe how the functional dialogue nosedives later on, the fake dialogue choice 'the Geth believe the Reapers are Gods etc.' line gets played whatever option you pick, etc.) But look at 3:00 onwards: Anderson and Shepherd look towards each other, he nods with a little smile, she nods in turn and takes a step forward. It's a little touch that suggests a lot, and it simply couldn't be done effectively with last gen engines.
Another example: link
This also works. See Kaiden's barely perceptible shake of the head and turning towards the wreckage when Anderson asks 'where's the commander?' Now, the dialogue is still a bit chunderous and it's shamelessly operatic and overblown, but that it's now possible to have in-engine cinematic set-pieces like this is incredible. We can make videogame characters act.
Conclusions, Kontra Kodex Konsensus
You could make a lot of complaints about the gameplay, how it co-opts skinner-box esque MMO mechanics, how the Mako and planet sections are ridiculous, how it plays like a bad TPS. It got sold on being a story driven RPG. So what, in sum, is the story about the story?
It's a mix. It does more than a few things right: the setting is competently put together and at times genuinely interesting, whoever did the cutscenes has a flair for telling touches, and some of the characterization works.
But for every highpoint there are more than a few bum notes, and a lot of time the story is just treading water. For every telling somatic touch there's a lot of silly collar-grabbing and fist-into-palm for emphasis. For every functional character there's a lot of caricature and frankly appalling dialogue to wade through. For every interesting plot element there's oceans of sci-fi generica to drown in.
There are three reasons for this: the first is blockbuster conservativism, which is reasonable even if I don't like it. The second is that they are still making a computer game, and so they have to hammer the story around it.
The third is amateurishness. Whether there's an artform (or entertainment) peculiar to computer games I'm unsure, but Bioware is definitely driving their stories to ape Hollywood cinema. If they're serious about it, then they should look to getting proper scriptwriters and cinematographers in to do it. Given the vast budgets of games like this, money spent on writers with real sci-fi or cinema credits or similar 'creative types' seems money well spent. I can't imagine a script of an average mass effect cutscene surviving a director or publisher's scrutiny. I definitely can't imagine the plot surviving it either. If you want to do interactive fiction, get people who can write.