On Mass Effect, Part 2: Collaborative storytelling and the end. (SPOILERS)

Yes, this post contains spoilers for the Mass Effect series. All titles are fair game. You have been warned.

Mass Effect 3

In part one of this reflection on the Mass Effect series, I retold the games’ plot as I saw it: an epic love story set against a galaxy’s struggle for survival. It’s not a prerequisite for reading part 2, but it does serve as the basis for much of my argument presented here.

Let’s cut to the chase: there is no possible ending BioWare could have devised for Mass Effect 3 that would have pleased everyone. The beauty of that series — something that has been reaffirmed by the outrage surrounding the finale — is the unique narrative each player builds throughout their 90-hour experience. It’s all thanks to collaborative storytelling, with both the player and developer working to build each Shepard’s story.

But that’s only true to a degree. The greatest trick BioWare ever played was making you think you were somehow writing this story. While there are near infinite combinations of story beats and outcomes across the entirety of the series, each momentary decision is just as trivially presented as the final one: you stand at a crossroad with two, three or maybe, if your lucky, four possible paths. Take your pick.

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On Mass Effect, Part 1: A hopeless romantic (SPOILERS)

Yes, this post contains spoilers for the Mass Effect series. All titles are fair game. You have been warned.

I’ve been thinking about Mass Effect a lot; about what the series means to me, why its ending has been so controversial and what separates it from similar games. I’ve come to a couple of conclusions and this is my attempt to lay them out.

I’m starting with a reflection on my Mass Effect experience. This is the story of Commander Shepard as I saw it. All of that surface level stuff — the battles with Saren and the Reapers, Cerberus’ constant meddling, the siege of Earth — is ultimately unimportant. This series is great because it allows the player to inject their own humanity into Shepard. You determine which losses are the most painful. You choose Shepard’s motivations. The choices you make within the game aren’t nearly as interesting or important to crafting your Commander Shepard as those you make outside it.

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Musings: On the State of the RPG

Bioware co-founder Dr. Greg Zeschuk and his opinion on haters

One of the biggest trends in the video game industry for the last several years has been the melding of traditional role-playing mechanics — experience points, leveling up, skills/perks, classes — into other genres. I think we really have Call of Duty 4 to thank for this, as it spawned (pun not intended…but if I caught it and left it in is it now intended?) the modern multiplayer-shooter framework of persistent character progression. On the single-player side it’s a little harder to say wear the launching point was, but it certainly exists in the modern era — Borderlands is a good example.

Similarly we’ve seen mechanics from other genres creeping their way into RPGs. The easiest example to point to (and the one I’ll deal with most in this post) is the Mass Effect series. Bioware’s sprawling space opera has at this point become a cover-based third-person shooter (a la Gears of War) glazed with a fine coating of traditional RPG systems. There are a lot of people out there who will argue that because of this Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 in particular, is not a role-playing game.

This is a preposterous conclusion.

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