Part One of Critical Mass Effect

Welcome to the first real entry in Critical Mass Effect, a compendium of articles that will poke and prod at all the design decisions that make up the Mass Effect trilogy.This will not be comprehensive; as much as anything, I hope that this can start a conversation about Bioware and the choices they make.

In this entry, I’ll be covering everything about the first Mass Effect that significantly hurt my experience. The next entry will cover what it does well.

Without further adieu…

The Denial of Roleplaying

From the beginning, Mass Effect sold itself on choice. Character customization was played up in the previews, as was the new dialog wheel; a big deal was made about the fact that your decisions would carry over to the game’s sequel (a topic we’ll cover in the entry on Mass Effect 2).

But even in the first game, this doesn’t really pan out. In the game’s opening, Shepard (the fixed surname of the player character) receives a vision of a race of sentient machines that once destroyed all life in the galaxy. Shortly thereafter, Shepard comes across a recording of antagonist Saren referring to something called the “Reapers.”

So when Shepard reports to the Council—basically the galaxy’s governing body—the conversation goes something like this:

Shepard: “I had this vision, and it showed all these evil machines wiping out this ancient race. Then I heard Saren talked about Reapers, which is obviously what these machines are, and they’re coming back to wipe out all life in the galaxy. You have to mobilize ALL THE MILITARY to go after this guy and stop all life from being extinguished.”

Council: “Uh…what? Do you have any evidence for this story?”

Me: “No, but I had a vision!”

Council: “Uh…yeah, that’s not good enough for us. Let’s just deal with the known threat and not worry about these creatures you’ve dreamed up.”


"Why are we giving a total loon a license to kill, again?"

It’s pretty silly, but the problem is that this isn’t a cutscene; it’s a dialog segment. Bioware forces the player to play Shepard as a maniac. The only reason this isn’t ridiculous on its face is that the player knows that they are playing a video game, knows the generic “save the world” story that Bioware is telling, and knows that this threat must be real. It’s metanarrative at its worst; the writer saying “I wrote the script! I know what’s going to happen!”

At other times, the writers set up a moral quandry, only to deny the hero agency in resolving it. Late in the game, you learn that Saren is working on a cure for the Krogran, a race of beings who have been afflicted by a genetic virus that has decimated their reproductive rate. This could be a bad thing, because in exchange this race is going to form an army for use in his EVIL PLANS.

It’s a classic, genuinely difficult moral dillema: do you try to prevent the cure, and reinforce genocide in order to save countless lives? Do the ends justify the means?

Up to this point, Bioware has trained the player to resolve moral dilemmas as they see fit; but here, the player’s only course is to stop the cure. What’s worse, one of the player’s party members, Urdnot Wrex, is staunchly opposed to this. The player has only one option: convince Wrex, through words or force, that genocide is the lesser evil. If—like me—you’d been role-playing Shepard as someone who would never make a decision, then this is as frustrating as the game gets.

Ludonarrative Dissonance

Compounding the issue of “forced roleplaying” is the game’s surfeit of ludonarrative dissonance—that is, the world Bioware shows us in the mechanics and the world Bioware tells us about in the writing are not the same place. Yes, this is present in pretty much all video games, and plenty of people are sick of hearing about it, but it afflicts some games worse than others, and it’s particularly problematic in Mass Effect.

The reason is that Bioware goes to great lengths to build a fleshed-out universe that we are asked to invest in. There’s an entire encyclopedia dedicated to this purpose. But the more a story asks us to take it seriously, the more scrutiny it invites. Its construction must supports its intentions.

In Mass Effect, there are too many holes. Why are there a small handful of people on the Citadel when its supposed to have a population of 200 million? Why can any code or lock in the game be broken in 60 seconds by a process of trial and error? Why does every Tom, Dick and Harry carry a sniper rifle, shotgun, assault rifle, AND pistol simultaneously even if they have no idea how to wield them? Why do quest instructions appear in my journal that my character would have no way of knowing? I stopped writing down these questions 5% of the way into the game, as they infected every system and every quest.

Sadly, the galaxy's largest space station contains no bathrooms.

Bioware knows what world they want to create, but either for the sake of fun, or because of technological limitations, their implementation directly violates what we’ve been lead to believe about the universe. If they’d been willing to curb their ambition, we could have had a story shaped by the reality (say, a relatively depopulated Citadel) but they want to have their cake and eat it too. This obviously didn’t bother many players, but for me it made it difficult to invest in the fiction.

The Paragon/Renegade System

One of the few regular points of criticism of the celebrated Knights of the Old Republic was its application of a moral binary. Any decisions you made were rated as “light side” or “dark side.” While it worked within the Star Wars setting, it also left the developers dictating the morality of the player’s actions. This becomes an issue if the developer and player disagreed on what constituted “good” or “evil”; it’s frustrating when a game’s mechanics to tell you that your moral code is wrong. As a result, KOTOR’s moral binaries were grossly exaggerated, along the lines of “give the beggar money” or “kill the beggar for no good reason,” so that few would disagree with the developer’s take. Unfortunately, this also meant they simply weren’t interesting decisions.

 Just another binary.

Bioware tried to correct this in Mass Effect with the “Paragon/Renegade” system. This system recognizes that Shepard is a hero, and will play the role of the hero, so role-playing a truly evil character is out of the question. Instead, the player gets “paragon points” for acting as a generous, inspirational leader, and “renegade” points for taking ends-justify-the-means paths to save the galaxy, muscling their way through the galaxy, or just generally being an ass.

I respect Bioware for trying to make the system more complex, but all it does is highlight how unnecessary a karma meter is. I want my actions to have consequences, but the game should keep track of my actual actions and what effects they might have, rather than giving me points on a scale. The only thing these points are used for is for the “Charm” and “Intimidate” skills, which can be used to persuade others during dialog. The function identically, making the choice between them purely an aesthetic one.

Yet the great failing of the system is that, by attaching *any* mechanics to the karma scores, it lets the power of gamification dictate your role-playing rather than the other way around. The more “paragon points” you get, the better your charm skill gets, and because it’s impossible to max out both Paragon and Renegade points, you’re strongly incentivised to choose one binary parth and stick to it, rather than having your Shepard be flexible or nuanced. It privileges one form of role-playing over another, and it does so in an arbitrary fashion. I’m fine with games having an agenda, or making some choices more difficult than others, but that difficulty has to be reflected in the world the player occupies, not in a single number on the game’s backend.

Tired Regurgitation of the Hero’s Journey

I could write a whole big thing here about how Mass Effect’s narrative construction is as uninspired as a game could get, but Film Crit Hulk already did it for me far, far better than I could. This entry is long, but well worth your time:

The Fat Middle

But while I’m passing the buck to our friend Hulk for the larger plot structure issues, I do want to pile on with him on one issue: the fat middle. Here’s how every game since Neverwinter Nights has gone:

  1. You’re in a fixed starting area (city/planet/whatever). Shit goes down. You are sent out into the world to pursue the villain.
  1. You have many choices where to go! In fact, there are exactly four places where you can go, each of which is a quest hub with a bunch of sidequests as well as a “main quest” that gives you a piece of the puzzle to defeating the villain.
  1. Once you’ve gone through these four places, you’re ready for the FINAL SHOWDOWN at a fixed, sixth location.

The problem with this structure is that the player spends 67% of the game without any real narrative impetus. Because the player can go to any of these locations at any time, and because there are (probably) more locations after a given location you’re visiting, there isn’t a sense of urgency; in theory, the world is in peril, but everything kind of stops so you can dork around in these unrelated areas. Because they’re isolated, events in one area don’t tend to speak to events in another. It creates a developmental nightmare. To do this right, Bioware would have to do constant checks on where the player has been and what they have done; but that’s a lot of trouble, so they generally don’t bother.

The result? You can’t have substantial character development during these sections, or substantial changes to the state of the world. For instance, a character couldn’t take a hit to the throat and lose his voice on the planet Questius, because he needs to deliver his dialog on planet Shootington. It restricts what the writers can do, leaves the majority of the game static, and shoots pacing all to hell.

And for what? So I can have some tiny, insignificant sense of choice—the same choice I have every time I find a plate of food with more than one thing on it. “Do I start with apples or carrots? Oh, this is so exciting!” That’s the pitch, anyway; I think Bioware does it because they can’t accept that they’re telling a fundamentally linear story, and want to pretend that the player is dictating where it goes. It’s a ruse, and it makes the linear story they’re telling considerably worse. Everybody loses.

The Frivolity of Character Progression

The core mechanic of the RPG is character progression, and it’s the only thing making Mass Effect’s combat different from a generic third-person shooter. But while Mass Effect has leveling and loot, they’re both superfluous; the game experience doesn’t change in time.

In a traditional, fleshed-out RPG, there are two real thrusts to leveling up:

  1. Becoming stronger in an absolute sense—better stats means you can tackle things you couldn’t before. In a pen and paper RPG, this is the progression from avoiding an orc when you’re low level, to taking on an army of them when you’re high level. It’s immensely satisfying and never really gets old, which is why games keep doing it.

  2. More options. You start out with a limited set of abilities, and as you learn the game’s systems and get more comfortable with them, new abilities are introduced at a regular rate to keep things fresh.

ME1 level up

Neither really apply here. In Mass Effect, enemies scale to your level in any given quest, and the enemies types repeat—so instead of getting strong and mopping up the Geth that once threatened you, you’re just shooting Higher Level Geth. In terms of abilities, there are a few that unlock, but you’re able to get them all in the first quarter of the game; after that it’s just stat boosts which, as noted above, simply aren’t relevant.

Money for Nothing

The other progression system universal to almost all RPGs is gear. As you complete challenges, you get loot that you can use to change your character and improve them.

Mass Effect opts to keep the loot consistent with the universe; there are no Magical Guns of Burning +17, just different weapons from different manufacturers. Sadly, these don’t differ much from one another; they just modify the refire rate, damage, and accuracy of weapons. One sniper rifle will fire pretty much like another, and there are no unique variants.

So you end up with a ton of loot you don’t need, which you can sell. But after you buy the few gear upgrades available (like more grenade slots) then your money is useless; you get more than enough weapons and armor from looting missions. Every once in a while I was able to buy a slightly-higher-level bit of gear from a store, but it was didn’t offer any noticeable change to my play experience.

To put this in perspective: there is an achievement, Rich, that you get for have one million credits. Before the end of the game, I had 9,999,999 credits (which maxes out the counter!) and nothing to spend them on.

The Failed Promise of Exploration

The planetary exploration sidequests in this game are so bad, I wrote a separate entry breaking one down. It’s a real shame, because I really liked the idea of exploring planets.

Jedi Mind Tricks

Persuasion checks are really hard to write. For believability, you can’t just press a charm button; you need to have a “charm path” through your dialog tree that makes sense. But Mass Effect isn’t interested in that, and I haven’t seen dialog checks used as poorly as this outside of Bethesda games.

Essentially, you can instantly persuade people to do what you want with a single sentence. Want a guy to let a hostage go? Say “Shooting the hostage is wrong!” with charm, and all of a sudden the guy goes “You’re right! I don’t know what I was thinking!” It’s too overtly mechanical, and compromises our belief that we’re dealing with real people and not just walking skill checks.

Stop Repeating Yourself

This is a nitpick, but I mention it because a LOT of developers (not just Bioware) don’t know how to use barks. Now, as the linked article notes, barks are very hard to code—you’re basically having AI control the dialog, and if they don’t use it in the exact right instance, it’s going to sound wonky.

Sadly, Bioware gave each NPC all of two or three things to say, which means they repeat their lines incessantly. There isn’t even a cooldown timer. I remember one sidequest where I held off a horde of enemies with three Alliance marines. The marines yelled “I’LL KILL YOU!” at the enemies over and over and over, like some sort of insane battle chant. It’s far from a dealbreaker, but it’s yet another design failing that compromises the immersion the game tries to foster.

 In Conclusion…

Mass Effect displays Bioware at their most amateurish. It was the studio’s first attempt at making the sort of sprawling adventure allowed by circa-2005 technology, and they cut a lot of corners in the process. It was also their first original IP since Shattered Steel (a game pretty much no one remembers), and while that blank slate gave them more creative freedom then they’d ever had, it also meant they were wandering in the wilderness. On one hand, this led them to try some noble experiments that just didn’t work (like the looting and paragon/renegade systems); on the other, this caused them to fall back on their worst narrative habits, unable or unwilling to mature their storytelling rubric.

But the fact that I’ve now played the game twice says it also has much to recommend it, and in the next entry I’ll cover just what it is that makes the game compelling, and that offers a good platform for the inevitable sequel.