Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"Mass"-ive Storytelling

In my last post I gave a couple of highlights from a podcast featuring author Dick Staub and film producer Ralph Winter. They talked about a world shown in film (but applicable to novels) that draws in the viewer so much that they would want to live in and explore it. That was a quality of a great movie.

Storytelling has evolved from fire-side epics, to the written word, to immersive 3-D visual films. But what if you could watch AND interact in the story?

An example of a new possibility in storytelling is in the world of video games. I don't think Pong had much of a backstory, but all games nowadays do. However, few offer the type of experience that comes from Mass Effect 2, from BioWare.

Obviously video games have an aspect of interactivity, since the gamer controls the main character. There are also limitations, as the gamer can only do things that are within the parameters of programming.

BioWare has been known for producing some of the highest quality role-playing games (RPG's) in the last decade, including the award-winning Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR). They have been able to evolve the storytelling mechanism to new heights with Mass Effect 2.

The game is a science fiction story where humanity has just recently joined the galactic community by discovering old technology called Mass Relays created by an ancient race. You control Commander Shepard, a human (either male or female) who is Earth's finest soldier, and the first human inductee into the special unit of Spectres, a group that is the Galactic Council's personal force to deal with situations.

The storyline through the first two games is epic, and isn't necessarily the scope of this post. I also don't intend this as a review. The game is listed as Mature, and it definitely has areas that people need to use discernment concerning violence, morality, and how it is played.

My point is the excellent use of storytelling to elevate the game from an exciting action-based shooter (which it is) or a standard RPG where one builds a character up throughout the game (which it is as well, perhaps more so in ME1 compared to the second). The point is that the developers have enabled the gamer to feel like they fully own what Shepard does throughout the series.

BioWare has long tried to explore choices and their consequences, back to KotOR where a player's choices would push the main Jedi character either to the Light or Dark Side of the Force. They've managed a new level in Mass Effect. The gamer can choose to have their Shepard to be a Paragon of virtue, a Renegade willing to do whatever it takes to achieve a goal, or somewhere in between.

In the midst of these choices, it drives how the story unfolds. The supporting characters, especially in ME2, are well-written and rounded personalities with their own strengths and hang-ups. Shepard's interactions drive how they respond, whether they are loyal to the player or not. If a character dies, there are consequences. If you were kind or mean to a secondary character, that can come back to haunt or help. The plot of the game can be altered, up to a certain framework, depending on choices made.

Overall, the settings, missions, and characters make it a unique universe that is immersive and very enjoyable. The alien scientist Mordin became my favorite. He was involved with a very questionable moral decision in his past, and Shepard has to work with him to deal with it. As Shepard I can support it or condemn it, and Mordin wrestles with his decision in such a way that I felt it. He didn't make a giant, easy flip to my point of view, but there was nuance in how he reacted.

The biggest development can be in how Shepard develops, if the player so chooses (definitely players can be calloused and just be in it for the blasting). It makes the story immersive. It creates an intriguing world. I have always been a Star Wars fan, since my childhood. I think the Mass Effect universe has actually supplanted the galaxy far, far away as my favorite sci-fi destination.

I'm not trying to just blow sunshine and rainbows at BioWare. I have a few issues with how some things are handled. Still, the game is an example of what quality writing can do for any medium, be it film, novels, television, or games.


  1. I think BioWare is top of their game when it comes to RPG games. I'm on my second play-through of ME2 and I'm, admittedly, being as bad as I can be. It's making me profoundly uncomfortable at some of the things that Shepherd and, by extension, the crew are doing. But I appreciate the breadth of choices that BioWare included.

  2. I hear you John. I plan on posting a little follow up on the renegade part. I'd definitely be interested in your feedback. I'm starting my second play-through, and this time I'll be more renegade, but I just have a hard time being very bad.

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