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Archive for the ‘Mass Effect’ Category

Yes. Mass Effect 2 may be the greatest RPG I have ever played.

My last post was a now fairly dated investigation of the Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 pre-release review scores on Metacritic. The updated information is that Mass Effect 2 didn’t have its average go down when post-release reviews were taken into account, as I speculated; instead, it actually increased from 95 to 96. Perhaps this disproves the hypothesis that pre-release exclusive reviews are biased in aggregate. A competing explanation would be that Mass Effect 2 so good a game that no inflation was necessary.

I liked the first Mass Effect game. It was buggy and frustrating for the PC, but I still admired it. I liked the Paragon/Renegade system because I was able to largely ignore it and play my character the way I wanted, though I know many people found it distracting. I liked the many choices they included, and some even had sufficiently ambiguous morality that they caused players to deviate from their chosen alignment. I also liked the depth and creativity in some of their lore. When I played Mass Effect, I wanted to see sequels and spinoffs, and explore this universe more. Mass Effect 2 was one of the games I was looking forward to most.

I haven’t been disappointed. Though I crave the opportunity to play the game with a character that saved the council in the first game (I did not, and the ME2’s default history didn’t either), I can’t bear to replay the original when I could just play this one again. The combat in ME2 is more streamlined and satisfying, almost completely abandoning traditional RPG combat in favor of action. It’s still an RPG because you are roleplaying and make meaningful choices about your character and his or her interaction with the world. But, the combat resolution mechanics are now almost pure tactical third person shooter, eschewing traditional RPG strategy mechanics.

I love strategy games very much, but RPG combat systems are often interesting only because you have a stake in the character. This new action combat works and I love it; I restarted the game after beating it in part because I wanted to play through the battles again on a harder difficulty, with new skills. What if I have that cloaking ability and use sniper rifles? What if I start controlling my ally powers? As I discovered, it becomes much more tactical as the difficulty increases. Amazing how the game slides seamlessly between action and tactics.

Many RPGs fall into the trap of having combat be a tool to pace out your consumption of content by slowing you down. Ideally, the fights in a great RPG should be just as interesting as the characters and story. Mass Effect 2 fulfills that goal. I consistently look forward to the combat, and am drawn to play through sequences I’ve already beaten because the battles are just that good. I absolutely love roleplaying. I love it even more when the gameplay that supports it is so enjoyable.

Let me step back from my praise, however. My biggest disappointment is that BioWare continued the pattern established in the first Mass Effect of only allowing same sex relationships for a female Shepherd. I respect that they do at least that much, and I further respect that BioWare designed the game with the intent of including M/M love interests, but this was simply cut for time on grounds that the audience interested in this is small, and I find that very disappointing given that there are no less that three potential F/F love interests. This isn’t just some idle fancy. It is a huge difference in my sense of identification, agency, and ownership of the world.

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Michael Abbott at The Brainy Gamer writes about early exclusive reviews of Mass Effect 2, and questions the integrity of early exclusive reviews in general, since they tend to skew higher than average, and may have (and in this case do have) significant restrictions placed on the content of the review. Spurred by these questions, I pulled up Metacritic and recorded the scores each reviewer so far has given Mass Effect 2, then those reviewers’ corresponding scores for the original Mass Effect, and how those compare to the average reviews among all reviewers, including those who have not yet had the opportunity to review Mass Effect 2.

ME2 Score (ME1 Score) – Reviewer
100 (90) – games(TM)
100 (100) – X360 Magazine UK
96 (94) – IGN
95 (100) – Official Xbox Magazine
93 (n/a) – IGN AU
90 (90) – Xbox World 360 Magazine UK

Metacritic average among critics given an exclusive early review of Mass Effect 2:

ME2: 96
ME1: 95

Metacritic average among ALL critics:

ME2: ??
ME1: 91

Evidence here does not contradict the theory that the reviewers granted early reviews have been filtered to ensure and reward good reviews. On the other hand, those same reviewers gave Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare’s most recent release, an average of 85 for the same console, which is actually one point lower than the final average.

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Batman watching over Gotham City
“Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce. I always feared you’d become that which you fight against. You walk near that abyss every night but haven’t fallen in and I thank heaven for that.”

Batman is an amazing character. He appeals to our craving for justice and order, and our desire for a hero. His strength is his brilliance, his athleticism, his wealth — and he inherited the wealth. He is exceptional, but not superhuman. And he makes his own rules, then lives by them. Part of the compelling darkness of Batman’s mythology is that he forms his own moral judgments, without regard for the views of others. He is sometimes hated by society, sometimes loved, but he does what he believes in, and we are fascinated by it. Games rarely touch on anything like this. Alignment systems discourage players from making their own moral judgments, substituting the game’s. At worst, players choose once what sort of character they are from a selection of two alignment extremes, and every junction, the player reiterates that, without regard for the intricacies of the situation. This undercuts the power of moral choices in games. Are we better off dropping alignment completely?

Before playing Dragon Age: Origins, I perceived many of the arguments in favor of stripping alignment systems from games to be reactionary: Alignment systems as currently implemented are broken, therefore, we should remove alignment from games and allow players to explore morality without them. This didn’t strike me as necessary. The core problems with alignment are in two domains: Mechanical, and psychological.

The mechanical problem comes when a game gives incentives to the player to adhere to a specific alignment. The worst offender that I’ve seen for this was inFAMOUS, which punished the player for inconsistent alignment choices by stripping the player of access to abilities they’ve already paid to unlock. Other games, like Knights of the Old Republic, take a less severe stance, but still give a mechanical effect to your alignment choices that dissuades inconsistent decision making. Why is supporting inconsistency important? Because most of life — and most moral choices — are not black and white. If all moral choices in a game are whether to mug beggars or save children, you’ve not put real moral choices in at all. You’ve put a class selection into the game, and allowed the player to decide whether he or she wants to be good or evil. Good writing will allow believable characters to make choices have inconsistent alignment effects, and if the mechanics discourage that, you’re just punishing the player for exploring the moral space the game creates, which sabotages many of the ideas behind having an alignment system in the first place. I won’t talk too much more about this, since I already have.

The second problem is psychological. Alignment systems typically are linked to immediate and high-profile feedback on alignment changes resulting from your choices. It’s as if you have an angel hovering behind your shoulders and taking notes at all times, butting in to inform you of its judgment. It follows the principle of giving vivid and immediate feedback for player actions, but strips much of the meaning for those actions away. Your own views about an issue tend to become replaced by the game’s, and most players act in accordance with the game’s perspective on morality. Moral choices lose their punch for players. Batman judged his actions by his own moral structure — is it even possible for players to do the same when the game is micromanaging your moral choices like this?

Alignment systems can be done well. Even the much-maligned Dungeons and Dragons alignment system, with a good-evil axis and a law-chaos axis, has been used effectively in Planescape: Torment, where the world was so alien that your choices were boiled down to things like choosing to side with psychic rats, the walking dead, or killing both. Due to the deep writing in the game, and the lack of emphasis on alignment, this worked. But in the ten years since its release, Planescape: Torment remains unique.

Now BioWare has started to explore de-emphasizing alignment. Mass Effect split its “good” and “evil” analogues into separate scales that accumulate points, stepped down their terminology to “paragon” and “renegade” to avoid loading the system with good and evil, brought in more ambiguous choices, and detached alignment from skill development for combat, reserving the effects for determining your persuasion specialization. Mass Effect 2 takes it a step further by merging the two forms of persuasion into a single skill, and simply spinning the character’s dialog based on alignment, and further emphasizing difficult choices. But the most bold and simple implementation they’ve tried so far has been Dragon Age: Origins, which drops the concept of alignment entirely, without removing the moral choices.

The game does give feedback for your actions, but it’s not an angel with a clipboard, it’s not the game itself passing judgment — it’s your party members. Their feelings toward you, and their loyalty, change based on your actions. Many of the party members have strong personality clashes with other party members, giving multiple points of reference. But these are not simply one or two dimensional points on an alignment grid. For example, Zevran, the elf assassin of the game, has a severe deficiency in his respect for life, and may at first point appear to be a classically selfish and evil character in many ways — perhaps a neutral evil or chaotic evil on the D&D alignment grid. He will disapprove of most self-sacrificing choices or unnecessary heroics. But when you encounter people that are enslaving elves, he will be furious if you decline to bring them to justice.

After I played Dragon Age: Origins, I reflected on its lack of alignment system. As promised, I felt liberated. I chose to do what my character thought was right, what fit him. I felt torn between my characters, but not between mechanics. I liked it. Perhaps this was better.

Some people were more ambivalent about it. When these choices were not enforced, they felt less meaningful. These are games, after all: Nobody really dies in games, nobody is robbed, nobody is victimized, at least not in single player experiences. They’re all pixel colors and bit flips. If the game doesn’t tell you something was immoral, is it really immoral? If the player doesn’t feel a sense of reality in the world, then the weight of choices can easily become insignificant. To some extent, it’s a matter of immersion.

There are challenges developing a game that gives the player freedom and customization, and still brings a compelling experience. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile. As a player, I want the freedom to decide what the rules are for myself. I want the freedom to be a dark knight. As a designer, I want to give players that freedom.

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Adam, my best friend growing up, was always really into video games. He enters and wins tournaments, masters games, studies strategies and cheat codes to maximize his play, and reflects philosophically on how gaming affected him growing up. It was a truly rare thing when I beat him in a video game. He and I always thought he’d be a game designer, or a game programmer, and I thought I’d be a writer or a lawyer or something. Turns out it’s the other way around: He went into accountancy, and I went into game development.

Only in hindsight does it make sense. Adam loves playing games, and enjoys working with stories, but some of the more hands-on work isn’t as interesting to him. Looking back, it was usually me who was crafting new games. I made board games, I had Klick & Play on the computer and would explore many half-formed ideas. Even when we’d have long walks in the park away from our TVs, and we would play imagination games, we were telling stories and he would say what his character does, while I would tell him what happens next. Yes, in hindsight, it’s not surprising that Adam became a well-adjusted hardcore gamer in his twenties who comes home from his well-paying white collar job with a paycheck big enough to provide for those he loves, then goes to load up the latest MMORPG and relax, while I became the overworked game designer who spends most of his time trying to help other people to play games.

So that’s Adam. Adam’s a smart guy, as you can probably guess from the fact that he’s an accountant. Like most gamers, he has a pretty good idea of what he likes or doesn’t like in a game, and what’s cool and not cool in games. We tend to play a bit differently though, Adam and I — I’m almost always siding with the good guys, whoever I perceive those to be, while he’ll just as often play evil characters. We both like games that let us make those choices, though.

Chaotic Stupid in Knights of the Old Republic

Of course, sometimes those choices are pretty weak. I was talking to Adam about BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic, and he complained that his dialogue for a dark side character was just stupid. It’s all well and good to play an evil character who is into random killing, but corny lines no self-respecting evil warlord would ever utter seemed far too common. He had some particularly incisive examples that I can’t do justice to, but from my personal experience with the game, I seem to remember such absurdities as chasing off some loan shark thugs only to extort the poor old man yourself, or shooting a prisoner for no apparent reason, after a lame off-hand remark.

Adam and I aren’t the only ones who think this kind of “evil” path in games is ridiculous. It’s a pretty common sentiment. Chaotic stupid — for when your main character has no apparent motivation except to do dumb antisocial things that make other people’s lives miserable, while hamming it up for the camera. And only when the level designers scripted in situations that let you do so.

I take the complaints a bit further, though. Bad writing for evil characters is bad enough, but these “moral choices” are presented throughout the game, and yet almost nobody actually chooses when they come up. Instead, they start the game, conceive of their character as a light side Jedi, and then proceed to make good choices throughout the game. While such black and white good and evil might seem to be in the theme of Star Wars, making the choice so simple and easy to carry out isn’t. Star Wars has characters’ internal struggles with light and dark — you can choose to always be good, but the dark side is easier, faster, and the light is harder to walk. Not really so in the KOTOR games.

It’s not just that the writing isn’t built to support real moral choices, but that the game mechanics penalize any sort of roleplaying beyond the simplest good or evil choice. I don’t want to choose a fallen Jedi, because all those skill points I’ve put into light side force skills are squandered due to the increasing cost of those skills as I fall from the light. Good grief! It’s like they’re actively sabotaging their own good and evil system.

inFAMOUS karmic moments

I figured this was just an early attempt at simulating morality and choice in games, and the wisdom of game developers had advanced since then, but inFAMOUS proved me wrong. Mechanically, the game penalizes grayscale even stronger than KOTOR does, locking out whole skills if you don’t have enough (or later lose) bias in your alignment. A neutral character will not only have the weakest abilities of all, but will have their lightnight powers flitter back and forth between Evil Red and Heroic Blue as their alignment dances across the midline between good and evil. Fable already demonstrated gradient appearance changes — why didn’t Sucker Punch even bother with gradient color changes for your abilities?

Changing alignments mid-game in inFAMOUS, while not absolutely prohibited, will lock out a huge proportion of the abilities you’ve spent experience on, thereby making it a nearly untenable character development option. It’s the same problem experienced in KOTOR, only worse, because it’s literally impossible to do that move anymore.

To make matters worse, alignment shifts in inFAMOUS come primarily from contrived Karma Moments, that actually letterbox the screen and display an icon to advertise “You now have an alignment choice! Choose good or evil!” It’s like if every time a moral situation came up, a little devil and a little angel popped up on your shoulders, and reminded you that your soul is riding on this next choice. Except that would be slightly cooler than inFAMOUS’s Karma Moments. Sometimes these choices aren’t even representative — one choice has a guy offering a relative pittance of a reward for a side quest, and you can either murder him and take his stuff, or accept it with humility. How about the non-murderous and quite pragmatic approach of just saying “I just saved your lame ass, you’re standing in front of a bunch of goodies, I’m a superhero who can actually use them, how about offering me some?” Well, that doesn’t fit — their Karma Moments are always binary. There’s nothing but saints and monsters in this world.

With that said, that was, to my knowledge, Sucker Punch’s first alignment system. I’m disappointed they didn’t improve on previous designs, but it’s understandable. What about BioWare, though? Shouldn’t they be doing better now, taking Mass Effect, for example?

Mass Effect’s renegade approach

Apparently not, according to most I’ve talked to. As with previous games, they pick one alignment — Paragon or Renegade — and play accordingly, always picking choices that support that alignment, always knowing the “right” choice at any juncture. It’s made super easy, because Mass Effect organizes paragon choices at the top of the dialogue wheel, and renegade choices at the bottom! How lame was that! Mass Effect becomes just another example of bad alignment systems. And it ends there, possibly with some additional comments about how the moral choices don’t matter because no in-game effects are felt for some of them.

I disagree.

I think Mass Effect is a paragon of an alignment system, at least as far as alignment systems have gone so far in games. There’s just a disconnect between what the game enables, and what players think the game enables.

Mass Effect’s Paragon is someone who follows the rules, watches out for friends, solves situations diplomatically, and sees things from the perspective of other galactic species. Mass Effect’s Renegade is someone who bucks regulations, gets the job done, solves situations by force, and sees things from the perspective of humanity first. Paragon is Princess Leia and Renegade is Han Solo. Both are heroes. They kiss in the movies. They get married and have kids in the extended universe. But they and the princess and the smuggler, and they take opposite approaches to life, to conversations, to concepts of loyalty and justice, and to conflict resolution. Many people don’t see this, and are quick to assume these represent “good” and “bad”, and that they’re mutually exclusive to the point that a character can’t be both. Not so. One is virtuous, one is viceful, and most people are a mixture of both.

In Mass Effect, alignment points to each of these go to separate pools, which only increase, never decrease. To reduce the temptation to compare their bars and see which is higher, they’re aligned in different directions and with significant space between them on the character sheet. They are orthogonal alignments in their effects on game mechanics — Paragon unlocks higher levels of charm, while Renegade unlocks higher levels of intimidate. Higher levels of Charm and Intimidate then unlock new dialogue options for getting through tough situations, but they aren’t mutually exclusive, and both are useful in different situations. These points are given out like candy, and need not be scavenged for in a metagame fashion: nearly every dialogue in the game, in addition to the usual scripted plot events, gives you the opportunity to choose Paragon and Renegade options, and it’s very easy to “keep up” with the amount of Paragon and Renegade points needed to unlock high levels of Charm and Intimidate without even trying.

Many players — even some designers I’ve talked to — don’t realize this. They build a cardboard character in their mind, push one type of point or the other to meet that preconceived character, reduce their options in dialogues to one because that’s the “right” choice, learn to charm the pants off of (or intimidate the piss out of) anyone in the galaxy, and then blame the game for this simplistic approach they’re taking. They don’t even realize it’s not the game that’s doing this; they don’t notice that the designers of the system bent over backwards to ensure that’s not how people felt compelled to play the game. BioWare thought about this and made sure you have true freedom, and the game even rewards flexible characters by offering them both skills instead of just one, and therefore the ability to get through more situations using dialogue.

But even while I don’t blame the designers of Mass Effect for people playing this way, I don’t actually blame the players either. These are people who have played BioWare’s own KOTOR, and other games with black and white, zero sum alignment systems. They don’t realize that Mass Effect’s alignment system is actively designed to not shoehorn them. Even after playing, some people don’t really understand what the Paragon-Renegade alignment system really represents — I’ve seen several people argue that Wrex is a Paragon character, despite his mercenary, shoot first and intimidate attitude, simply because he’s willing to sacrifice his life for his own people (exactly as Renegade Shepherd is unblinkingly willing to sacrifice his/her life for humanity). That’s a problem, but it’s not madness. Given how poor alignment systems have been up until now, it’s up to the game to prove that it’s different — not the player.

I think BioWare realizes this. With Mass Effect 2, they’ve talked of a story involving a suicide mission, the necessity of gathering the toughest thugs and assassins to join you, and multiple endings, potentially resulting in the permanent death of the main character and the entire party (complete with the need to roll up a new Shepherd after you import your save into Mass Effect 3). I hope — and I feel pretty good about this — that they fully intend to challenge your character to be ruthless and face true moral challenges that will force players to decide what they really want to do. They want to shake people out of their default stride, to make them stop thinking the choice is Luke Skywalker or Chaotic Stupid, and start thinking about the choice between Princess Leia and Han Solo.

I played a character with a roughly 3:2 Paragon to Renegade ratio, never metagaming, going only by gut feelings and roleplaying in every dialogue; I regretted some of my Paragon choices on big moral questions (not exterminating the alien mother), and I ordered the human fleet hold back and let the council be killed in the final battle. I did this because I approached the game by giving it blind faith that it would support me playing the game by however my gut said to go at any given time — and not only were the options sensible enough to support that, but the mechanics were too, and I left feeling that my character (female Shepherd, incidentally), and my story, was deeply personal and unique to me.

The rush to brush off

One of the big challenges in game design is to remember that you are not your audience. I don’t like alignment systems that present a sort of one dimensional zero-sum problem, with heavy gameplay effects that encourage metagaming your roleplaying. Adam’s not the same way, and he isn’t so worried about those things — he’s happy to play a fully evil character most of the time, and making abilities more experience because you betrayed your existing alignment is just a tradeoff to him. But he still wants that freedom to tell his story in the game, and to have degrees of alignment. He wants the option to play a good guy for half the game and turn evil. inFAMOUS essentially prohibits that. He wants the option to play the guy who wants to conquer the world — but is quick to save it from destruction.

It’s good that alignment systems and morality in games are such a popular subject for designers, then. It’s a field with a lot of untapped potential. But in the rush to point out the many valid flaws of existing efforts, I feel that many people — most that I’ve talked to, even — are too quick to overlook Mass Effect’s tremendous advances in this area. BioWare is pushing the envelope on moral choice and alignment in games, and getting precious little recognition for it. They present an alignment system that supports the freedom to play all Paragon, all Renegade, or anything in between. I want them to communicate that better so that players realize they really have the mechanical freedom to roleplay their hearts out in every dialogue, but even if that’s clear, not all players will use the opportunity, as some want a strong good or evil character that fulfills one of these alignments to the maximum.

In the end, one of the goals of alignment systems — a major selling point — is the freedom to play how you want to play, to make the character you want to make. Mass Effect gives you the freedom to do that. In our criticisms and rush to brush off the bad approaches, I want to take this moment to respect one of the often overlooked and underrated good ones.

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