Friday, May 13, 2011

The rest is just details.

In which I muse about my opinions on game writing with some sizeable spoilers about what I've been up to in Mass Effect 2 and some choices I made in the climactic scene of Mass Effect.  More so even than my other posts on the topic.  If you want to go into either of these games open-minded, now would be a good time to go somewhere else for a while.

(And yes, I know that BioWare ate my brain and that it's been nearly all Mass Effect, all the time over here, but this too shall pass in short order.  I'm mostly not sorry.)

Okay, y'all.  I can't help it.  They were made for each other.

Shepard and Garrus have been friends for years, they've been through hell and back together, and frankly I the player just really like Garrus the character.  He's got a dry and funny sense of humor, where nearly everyone else on the Normandy takes themselves so seriously it's a miracle they don't all implode.  He keeps to himself a lot but when you draw him out he's great.

And of course, my values carry through to my Shepard, because of my big gamer ego, and my values are such that I married someone I'd been friends with for years, with a dry sense of humor, who keeps to himself a lot but is great when you draw him out.  Sometimes your critic can't help herself, you know?  ;)  And this being the 21st century and all, and I being the sort of person I am, I have no greater issue with two consenting future adults of any species hooking up than I have with any two consenting present human adults of any race or gender hooking up.  What matters is their personalities.  The rest is just details, right?

I stand by that, but all I'm sayin' is: with a turian / human pairing, those are some pretty important (and perplexing) details.  I'm glad the game has a fade to black written in and I NEVER EVER WANT TO KNOW what the fanficcers out there have filled in the spaces with.

Anyway.  I kind of love this pairing, and it's added a new dimension to the game for me.  I have an emotional connection now, to the story, that I really didn't get at all in the first game -- even while I did pursue the Liara romance.

BioWare clearly wants us, the players, to develop these emotional connections.  Mass Effect is at once an enormous, sweeping story (save the galaxy, yo!  Eternal immortal horrific danger!) and also a very personal one.  With the Collector threat in the background, Shepard spends all of ME2 gathering a crew around her, talking to them, earning their loyalty, and perhaps spending some time on a more intimate one-on-one relationship to boot. 

In the first game, though, I felt deeply and transparently manipulated by the script and by the mechanics.  Here is Ashley or Kaidan for you to have a romance with (depending on if you're a male or female Shep), and oh by the way, now you have to assign either Ashley or Kaidan to get killed on this critical mission.  Oh, AND, once you made that decision, surprise!  We're going to make you make it again in the middle of this critical mission.  Your heartstrings: let us pull them for you.

Of course, I personally developed all the attachment to Kaidan that I develop for wet leaves on the sidewalk in November, and so I felt that this structure was intentionally, structurally, transparent and manipulative.  Someone who felt that her Shepard and Kaidan were a perfect pair, or that his Shepard and Ashley were same, would probably buy into the emotional pull of the story more.  (And in fact, I know such a someone, and she did.)

But that's just the problem: they give you the story and the rest is just details, right?  Fade to black, let the player fill it in?

Where the writing in Mass Effect and its sequel has frustrated me is when it doesn't fit into the character framework I've been given the tools to build.  Because here's the thing: although you only get two or three options to choose from each time your Shepard says something, over the course of an entire game all of those little choices have put a very different person inside that N7 armor.  And it may not be the person either BioWare or the player at first expected to find.

The rest is just details... and we fill in those details like nobody's business.  I felt, without at first knowing it, that not only did my Shep bear the burden of proving humanity through her Spectre assignment, but also that she bore the continued burden of proving women through her Spectre assignment.  I brought that in with me, and a whole lot more.  In ME2, I brought in a pragmatic caution: I think Cerberus can go pound sand and that the Illusive Man can bite me, but they have an awful lot of tech, and money, and they did sort of rebuild me (better, faster, stronger!) and now I'm surrounded with their crew and their spies.  So I don't actually tell the Illusive Man to his face that he can get bent, because I have a vested interest in continuing to live, and in not drawing the attention of those spies.  (Though this changes, over time, now that my Shep is surrounded by people that are loyal to her.)

But there are a lot of different ways a player can choose to approach that situation.  My husband said that his Shepard was pretty pissed off about it all, and about being used that way, and had no difficulty in venting that anger.  And that's a valid choice.  I strongly suspect other players had other outlooks and opinions.  (And I expect to hear about them in the comments.)

BioWare is treading a very, very difficult line here, and I don't envy the position in which it puts their writers.  Each player who comes to the table is really defining her own Shepard -- and not just the character's looks, but the character's motivations and desires.  We're all bringing something to the table that comes from outside the game, and we're all defining stories told and actions taken within the game differently.

The main issue with this arises when the words that are left to come out of Shep's mouth no longer suit the kind of character she is.  And bringing us around full circle, that was the issue I had instigating the Garrus romance.  In fact the words were so wrong that I actually skipped them the first time, thinking there had to be a more subtle option available later, because Shepard was far too diplomatic, far too tactful, and respected her friend far too much to say those words.

But no.  It turns out that really, she does get aggressive, and basically has to say, "So.  You, me, my quarters, kink now?" in order to progress the conversation.  I had to go back to an earlier save and choose those lines.

And all I'm saying to you, BioWare, is that the rest of this had better be worth that writhingly awkward embarrassing conversation.  Because I've done some fairly aggressive flirting in my time but lordy, not like that!  All it took was a handful of words to take something genuinely emotional and that felt plausible and organic and punt it right back out into the "this is really wrong for my Shepard" space.

When the players make up all the details, the designers can't be sure they're giving us the right game anymore.  That's risky.  But I'm glad at least they're taking the chance.


  1.  "it took was a handful of words to take something genuinely emotional and that felt plausible and organic and punt it right back out into the "this is really wrong for my Shepard" space."

    it's worth noting that one thing Bioware doesn't seem to do well at is giving multiple ways of saying the same thing.  Planescape: Torment or Vampire: Bloodlines both leave you a variety of ways of telling people not only to eff off, but also to accept them, or lie about accepting them, or wedge yourself somewhere in the middle and letting the other person make the choice. Most of the time this doesn't even have a gameplay effect, but it encourages nuance. Bioware thinks that it's too expensive to record additional audio, and they moved over to this tiny wheel for dialouge where half the space is used for morality, and as a result they have no room for nuance.

    Of course I'm not ever really able to get into romancing my shipmates in the first place - it seems weird and creepy to basically pull rank on people (by using aggression, etc) in order to get them to sleep with you. The fact that they're literally incapable of turning you down also makes it seem really forced to me. That's all my problem, though, I'm interested that other people are able to accept the romances.

  2. What I think I've seen other games do in the past - and what I really wish they'd done - is, for these really nuanced moments - just have you select the attitude of the behavior, and then SHOW the scene (maybe record 4-6 variants).  No dialogue.  My mind can fill it in just fine, thank you.  Too much can be too much.

  3.  I'm playing Batman: Arkham Asylum and while it's beautiful I really miss the relative freedom of ME (or the total chaos of FO). Even BioShock had more choose your own adventure than this. I understand that I'm playing someone's interpretation of a very defined character, but even so I'd have liked the option to not intentionally antagonize Poison Ivy because are you kidding me?

  4. Figured it was going to be Garrus after reading you wooting about Garrus in the trailer. Successfully resisted the urge to spoil!

    As far as dealing with the Illusive Man, I was more pissed off about being jerked around and kept in the dark. Thankful to be given the Million Dollar Man treatment? Of course. Convinced of the threat? Yeah, duh, what did I just spend the last game fighting against? So why pull the "oh, by the way, we knew all along that's what you were going to find there" bull? You've got info? Great. Give me the damn info already and I'll use those abilities you're so fond of to try and actually help. You brought me back from the dead because I'm a superhero, so why exactly are you treating me like I'm useless? As a result I kind of vacillated between helpful (when I wasn't being blatantly lied or pandered to) and more and more untrusting and in the Illusive Man's face (when I was). And I say I, because I tend to, at least on first playthrough, play "me" in these RPGs, and then go through later to see the routes I didn't take. Even though the "me" in this case was not exactly the same gender.

  5. I had figured out who Archangel was before we got to the reveal.  They drop more than enough hints, if you're looking for them.  So that was a happy moment.

    I honestly didn't think my Shepard liked-liked him until ME2 was well underway, though.  Having Jacob to compare against was very helpful in that sense; I could tell that he was pretty meh and wrong for her, and then that made me think about what was right for her...

    As a result I kind of vacillated between helpful (when I wasn't being
    blatantly lied or pandered to) and more and more untrusting and in the
    Illusive Man's face (when I was).

    Yeah, that's kind of how I've been playing it now, too.  That mission on the "empty" Collector ship got a big ol' "fuck you" from me to him after it was over.  Ass.

    And I say I, because I tend to, at least on first playthrough, play "me"
    in these RPGs, and then go through later to see the routes I didn't
    take. Even though the "me" in this case was not exactly the same gender.

    I do, too.  At least, that's very much how I played the Fallout games etc.  But what's interesting to me about the ME franchise so far is that I feel like my decisions are the only decisions.  Not in the sense that other players can't choose differently -- but that my choices, once made, must remain made and cannot be unmade.  The only reason I let myself have a do-over at the Garrus romance is because I fully intended to do it to start with, and it was a misunderstanding of mechanics that prevented it.

  6. Nearly all games are on rails to some extent, but Arkham Asylum is, like, the far extreme end of that spectrum.  It's still fun, especially for those of us who think The Animated Series was the best Batman (hint: it was), but I can definitely see where that would be frustrating.

    Though wouldn't a Batman game where you could, say, recruit Harley to your side be fun?

  7.  Bioware thinks that it's too expensive to record additional audio, and they moved over to this tiny wheel for dialouge where half the space is used for morality, and as a result they have no room for nuance.

    As someone with a brother that's done voice work (but not in games yet) Bioware doesn't just think it's expensive, it really is. Everything is at an hourly rate (and the hourly rate is big, even for new talent), the scripts are huge, and it can sometimes take a lot of time to get the right take, even with the best voice talent you can find. Sure, one or two extra lines at any particular point wouldn't be a strain on the budget, but if you expand that to the entire game, that's a lot of extra time.

    And, on top of that, as someone who's dealt with projects (not games) containing a lot of small audio files, it starts to become a significant space issue as well, and that's with crappy quality audio. Yes, we can blame the Xbox for that, and to an extent you'd be right, but a full install of Mass Effect 2 to the 360 HD is, iirc, at least 12gb, maybe more, and that's a big download even for a PC game in the age of ever more metered broadband. I mean, I've got business class Comcast, but most people can't even get them to sell it, much less afford the serious extra cost. Blu-Ray drives aren't exactly cheap, either. Any kind of serious expansion for more nuance, even if you don't include extra nuanced replies, is going to pump that up by probably 2gb at least, maybe more.

    I certainly agree that the dialogue choices aren't perfect, but if you want more, you're going to need to go more Dragon Age 1, with unvoiced PC and voiced NPC, or you're going to bloat yourself out of anything but the PS3 market.

  8. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't agree about Bioshock giving you more choice. Sure, you can choose to harvest Little Sisters, but it's such a blatantly stupid choice, that I don't really count it as one, when the greedy choice is the same choice as the generous choice, you set up your choices wrong.

    Perhaps it was because I spent hours and hours hunting down all the extras in Arkham Asylum, and playing through the story multiple times, so I was seeing every side route there was, but I didn't particularly feel that constrained, at least in comparison to other games. Of course, my poster child for rail shooters is Rebel Assault, which was so railed calling it interactive was probably false advertising, so I may have a different perspective.

  9. For me I feel that way far more in the Fallout games than in Mass Effect. In Fallout 3 I felt physically ill when I did the evil run for the last few achievements, and blew up Megaton. I had to put the controller down and do something else for awhile. Selling out the escaped slaves at the Temple of the Union also made me feel sick. I really didn't want to do any of that, but I didn't want to miss out on seeing the hard work that the Bethesda people had put into making the possibility to be evil, so I had to keep reminding myself the whole way that it was just a game, not real.

    Sure, you can hang the Council out to dry in the battle against Sovereign, but that just doesn't have the moral weight of your actions in Fallout.

  10.  Yeah, I think the choices in New Vegas are more plausible and palatable than the choices in 3.  I couldn't ever be the bad guy in Fallout 3, but in New Vegas you have like a hundred factions either to work with or to piss off, and you also have four ultimate resolutions to the game: the NCR ascendant, Mr. House ascendant, you ascendant with intentional anarchy ruling, or the Legion ascendant.  The first three of those choices could all be looked at as "good" for different reasons.  (There is nothing good about the Legion.  They're the true evil option.)

    I couldn't help playing New Vegas in such a way that I wanted everyone (except the Legion) at least to tolerate me, if not to like me, and so I put a lot of time and effort (and the occasional looking-up of how to navigate those tricky waters) into that.  But I still could have chosen a different outcome for the city of New Vegas, and if I ever manage to finish the Dead Money DLC (there's a rant there, with extra swearing) I plan to.

  11. I definitely bought into the Kaidan romance. I didn't like Ashley at all (still don't), but I still felt a pang when the game asked me to make the decision to sacrifice one of them. Of course, I saved Kaidan, arguing that it was the practical choice anyway since he was with the bomb, but I found myself crying and apologizing to Ashley even as I ran back to save Kaidan (yes, I get a little too into my games), so I definitely bought into the role of Shep in that scene.

    Personal experience aside, I definitely agree with you regarding dialogue, although I feel like this happened to me more in Dragon Age: Origins than it did in Mass Effect. I constantly found myself puzzling over how to say something that wasn't even really important because I didn't like any of the choices. I think it's especially hard because, as you said, we sometimes feel that certain dialogue choices are not fitting for our characters. Still, I obviously love BioWare games, so I'll keep playing no matter what. ;)

  12.  I knew who he was before the reveal too. LoL I was exceptionally angry the whole time I played ME2, though I reined it in for the purpose of game morality. The part that made me most angry (not surprisingly) was the confrontation with Kaidan on Horizon. I was angry that my two choices were basically to be a dick back to him or take the high road and act like I no longer cared about our relationship. I really wanted a grab him and shake him and tell him I still loved him option. :/ I was gratified that I did get to yell at the Illusive Man about the whole damn mission, though.

    I think it goes a lot toward the idea of free agency in games. We have this sort of illusion of choice, but when it comes down to it, we really don't have as many choices as we think, because every choice has a predetermined path to follow, so it may end in you having to say something that's not exactly what you want to say or do something you don't necessarily want to do.

  13. I've been expressing repeatedly to my husband (as we play through ME2 together) that I just really, really hope that when I do next encounter Liara, the game doesn't make me be a dick about it, heh.  It's cool to have to move on sometimes (especially when it wasn't quite right in the first place and also you've been dead for two years) but all I really want from the game is to let me break it gently, be nice about it, and maintain the friendship.  She'll live like 10 times longer than Shepard anyway so she'll have had to move on someday regardless.  ;)

    I think it goes a lot toward the idea of free agency in games. We have
    this sort of illusion of choice, but when it comes down to it, we really
    don't have as many choices as we think, because every choice has a
    predetermined path to follow, so it may end in you having to say
    something that's not exactly what you want to say or do something you
    don't necessarily want to do.

    There is that... I guess it grates the most badly in games like this that do give you so much choice and input, though.  Even though some of the choice and input is not necessarily where they meant it to be.  Hell, almost everyone seems to know what Shep's favorite color is (and weirdly, about 70% of the time, it's green).

    I guess the thing that hits hard is that you get so many choices, but then in some senses the game carries on as if "A" was the answer for everyone.

  14. I feel bad knocking Harley around, not because I'm chivalrous but because she reminds me of certain students of mine!

  15.  Garrus has eagle eyes and a sniper rifle.Garrus can take care of himself.

  16.  Red Jenny Shepard hanged the Council in ME1, and she's my Paragon. Then I had to find a download of a renegade dude who'd saved the council to play ME2. I may or may not play ME1 with him again.

    I am going to play FO3 through again as evil and I am dreading working with slavers. I feel like blowing up Megaton will be "cartoonish super villainy" that won't bother me as much. I hope.

  17. Caesar's Legion is fascinating to me. It is, undoubtedly, the evil option, but even with that it is the studied reconstruction of the moral, military, and social landscape of pre-Civil War Rome. The society that Fallout's Caesar creates would have been seen as moral and right 2100 years ago. A kind of in veritas, malus.

  18.  When I started New Vegas I had that run in with the Powder Grangers and the dog got shot in the fight. So I blasted my way through their fort and killed them wherever I could find them. Then I moved on to Legion bashing but still picked off Grangers wherever I saw them. Everyone else I tried to maintain good terms with.

  19. Hey Robin, are you on Steam? 

  20. In BioShock you could save or harvest the Little Sisters. Maybe the incentives are grossly unbalanced, but if I have the stomach it'll at least mean the game is a little different when I play again, and I can think of a few scenes which I know must be different including the ending.   You could also hugely customize your arsenal including plasmids. And it is still extremely on rails, which is annoying - until the big reveal which explains why you're acting in a pre-programmed manner. 

    I'm playing B:AA for the second time, and it's fantastic, but I can't think of anything I've done differently (I even got stuck searching for Dr. Young's notes a-freaking-gain.)

  21. R. Jenny Shepard loved Liara in the first game. Since I'd decided she was a lesbian, she just did without romance in ME2. I was annoyed that they wouldn't let me be true to my character without skipping part of the story. If she were straight or bi I'd probably hook her up with Thane. I'd have felt like she and Garrus were "brothers in arms" and not romance material.

    Jackson Shepard fucked Miranda and he'd do it again and neither of us are apologizing for it.

  22.  I have to say, choosing Garrus for romance has led to some of the most excruciatingly awkward and also hilarious conversations with both him and Mordin.

    (Mordin's growing on me, as a character.  I didn't care for him at first but over the course of completing his loyalty mission, and since, he's really opened up.)

  23. Have you seen these posts?   Kind of covers some points you've brought up in your posts about ME, but I thought you might be interested given it's coming from one of the writers.

  24. I'd read the first one, but I hadn't seen the follow-up.  Thanks for that!

    I've got a post brewing right now on how two-way fan interaction is changing marketing, particularly around the movement to get some FemShep love into the pre-game materials for Mass Effect 3.  I'll have to add that follow-up to it.