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How Mass Effect Transforms Repetition Into Emotion Through Storytelling. - The Watchtower of Destruction: The Ferrett's Journal
April 11th, 2017
09:50 am


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How Mass Effect Transforms Repetition Into Emotion Through Storytelling.

From a gameplay perspective, every one of Mass Effect’s missions is cut-and-copied:

  • You travel to a location where:
  • You fight a group of alien beings, OR:
  • You search for a place where you can press a button.

If you’re super-lucky, sometimes you combine the two!  You press a button, and then fight people!  Or when the fighting is done, you get to look for a button!

The excitement never ends in Mass Effect.

The only thing that stops Mass Effect from being endlessly repetitive is the narrative wrapper.  Quite literally, “story” is the sole difference between missions – and, largely, it works.   Because let’s say the three missions are:

  • An innocent girl has wandered out into the desert and been kidnapped by slavers.
  • An evil scientist is formulating a new plague, and you must track him down to his lab to stop him.
  • Mysterious monsters have awakened and are threatening a small frontier town.

All three of those missions are perfectly identical gamewise – you go to a set location and kill alien beings.  Yet the feel for each of them is subtly different solely because of who you talked to in order to get the mission!

Furthermore, your emotional reward is often skewed by the mission.  Let’s say that you chose “an innocent girl has been kidnapped by slavers” mission.  You find out when you get there that the slavers have turned her into a monstrous techno-beast, and you must kill her.  From a gameplay perspective, hey, you fought another monster and got your XP for finishing the mission.  It’s the exact same procedure as every other mission.  But chances are you now feel bad.  Maybe you’re more willing to take on missions destroying these slavers.

What fascinates me is that how these games become pure storytelling.  They are literally the most inexpensive way of making the game better!  I mean, BioWare could have spent money on setpiece battles – places where you’re battling on a plummeting airbase, or the rain makes visibility dim and the ground slippery, or created unique enemies for each location.

Yet instead, they resorted to a trick literally as old as cavemen.  We used to sit around fires and, with nothing more than a voice, tell crazy stories about the gods.  Story is the cheapest entertainment we have, because our imaginations will fill in so many details.

And BioWare, in a cost-saving mechanism, uses story to make the same “go here, kill things” quest into a hundred different emotional shades.  Because sometimes you’re going there to kill things because your friend is in trouble.  Sometimes you’re going there to kill things to get to the treasure.  Sometimes you’re going there to kill things for revenge against those evil slavers.

Without that story, nobody would play Mass Effect.  Other games that focus more on gameplay do the actual gaming better – I’m told that Overwatch has practically no story, but Blizzard has focused on making the game deep and rewarding for those who invest hours into it.  Not so with Mass Effect, alas; I’m now a 57th-level tech, and I’ve been using the same three powers to sleepwalk my way through battles for at least 30 levels.  (Overload, Incinerate, Remnant VI.)  There is zero need to change up my tactics, or indeed, to learn any new ones.

And let’s be honest: Mass Effect Andromeda is one of the weakest BioWare games because you don’t even get to make any choices that matter to the story.  In previous Dragon Age and Mass Effect games, you could make decisions that alienated your teammates to the point where some of them would no longer work with you.  Your decisions determined who among your companions lived or died, and who ruled which empire, and which species survived.  ME:A, alas, has minimized that influence to the point where literally everything you say to your companions will make them love you more – if you’re snarky, they love snark!  If you’re a romantic adventurer, they love adventuring!  There’s now no decisions that will lead to you being unloved by all (which is, I think, why Mass Effect 2 is BioWare’s high point).

But even stripped of choice within the larger story setting, I play these repetitive missions because, well, BioWare’s always got a new story twist to make me go, “Okay, what happens?”  As does Bethesda.  I think the reason I’m drawn to these games is because essentially, you take away the story and there is no game worth playing.

Every mission has me as a writer going, “Oh.  That’s another spin you can put on an identical set of events.”  Mass Effect is all about shading, all about nuance, all about that wrapper we put on the same old grind to liven it up.

Stripped bare, Mass Effect: Andromeda might not be a good game.  But it’s a good example of the power of storytelling.  And while I wish we had a new BioWare game that combined the two effectively, it’s proof that tons of people will prioritize storytelling over game play any day.


Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

This entry has also been posted at http://theferrett.dreamwidth.org/579492.html. You can comment here, or comment there; makes no never-mind by me.

(4 shouts of denial | Tell me I'm full of it)

[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2017 03:43 pm (UTC)
Have you read Shamus Young's (Hugo-nominated) series on Mass Effect? It's all about the story. I've never played the games, but I learned a lot and found it so interesting: http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=27792
[User Picture]
Date:April 12th, 2017 04:39 am (UTC)
I just finished ME3 for the first time on the weekend.

I agree with a lot of what he says there. I actually think ME2 is quite weak as a part of the Commander Shepard trilogy, but would've been a great standalone with a different protagonist and a few small changes. It's just too sharp a contrast--military hero to terrorist to military hero--without enough narrative grind to make it worthwhile. But the characters (especially Mordin) are some of Bioware's best.
[User Picture]
From:Douglas Scheinberg
Date:April 13th, 2017 12:20 am (UTC)
Seriously, Ferrett, you need to play Alpha Protocol. Twice. Do a nice guy play through, and then a "kill every named character" playthrough.
[User Picture]
Date:April 13th, 2017 03:22 am (UTC)
I've been binge-ing a whole bunch of games with the same kind of analytical eye to what makes them tolerable or intolerable. Story is certainly big.

One thing I noticed that distinguishes fun from not fun (for me anyway) is walking distances - if you have to walk the same route for more than about 20-30 seconds more than a couple of times, it's really annoying. I played two very similar games in the "survival" genre, but one had short walks and [effectively] teleports to where you had been before, and the other made you walk back to base every time (still not all that far), and the difference in how willing I am to play again is *huge* for such a small difference in gameplay.

Another, where I suspect it's mostly just me, is crafting. Crafting where you have to collect all the stupid garbage you find in the hope that at some point vast quantities of it will combine into something useful is just awful. Crafting where you get a few rare things and smash them together in a prescribed fashion is okay. Not crafting at all is also okay.

The worst is "huge pile of garbage" crafting combined with an inventory size limit.

Permadeath in a non-randomized or insufficiently-randomized game is similar to the "walk the same path again" problem, as is not enough save-points in the kind of games that have save-points.

But I think maybe some players crave repetition just as much as I hate it.
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