Warning: Spoilers, etc.
Much has been made over the years of Bioware’s talent for weaving meaningful relationships into their games; not only relationships in the romantic sense, but a broader sense of the connection between the protagonist and his/femhis friends and foes.
Before Bioware was Bioware, the main plotlines of their games depended on the discovery (or rediscovery) of the relationships between the leads. The Baldur’s Gate series is, at its heart, a family feud; Planescape’s Nameless One progesses by teasing out the strands of his past relationships.
But these are all very protagonist-centric, aren’t they? The player sits at the heart of the web, the fulcrum on which the plots and subplots hinge. They make choices. Set events in motion.
Is Mass Effect 3 different?
As with many of Bioware’s progeny, the romances of Mass Effect are well-told, and in most cases, believable. The brothers-in-arms banter and badassery likewise have that nourishing sense of hyperreal movie-truth that draws the player in. But is any of this really difficult to achieve, when a developer pays any attention whatsoever to story and character development?
In my view, no. Mass Effect is hardly the first series to attempt such lofty goals as ‘lines a real person might say’ or ‘characters with more than a one-word backstory’.
Where Mass Effect 3 is able to take plot/characterisation/world-building to the next level, however, lies in how the content of the save file is leveraged; the player’s decisions in ME1, ME2 and those daft iOS fripperies.
Note that I’m not suggesting there’s anything clever about measuring so many plot and character-related variables. That is interesting, and forethoughtful, but not revolutionary in of itself. It’s just a tool to tell a better story.
This is particularly evident when you wake from your fractal fever-dream and recall that choice isn’t the point of choice. Choices tailor the plot to better match your preferences, and hence your ideal plot. Assuming you don’t obsessively replay every conversation in search of some illusionary optimal path, you will experience one full ‘story’ per Shepard, seeing the branches, but not where they lead.
But for all that, isn’t ME3 still Shepard’s story, told from Shepard’s viewpoint?
I thought so, until ME3 revealed threads only peripherally tied to those of my Shepard’s web.
Yes, Conrad Verner’s progression is bound to Shepard’s choices in ME1, but his fate in ME3 is determined by an entirely different plot thread; in my Shepard’s universe, Jenna and Conrad wander off into the sunset to make hero-worshipping moon babies. What is potent about this resolution is the degree to which Shepard has become merely a spectator by this point.
Conrad is a bit-part in Shepard: The Musical, but at that moment, I felt that my Shepard was also just a supporting character in Conrad: A play in three acts. Conrad’s life (or death) unfolds not in the explosive, check-out-this-cool-guy-doing-cool-things manner that many of the true supporting characters’ plot lines do, such as Grunt or Jack. He’s just a guy, livin’ his space life.
Does this lack of control herald a backward step, away from choice and toward a more auteur-like experience? No. This is a significant evolutionary leap, one beyond even the popular ‘unintended consequences’ shtick oft employed in choice-centric games (of which gamers live in increasing and justified fear). This isn’t a bait-and-switch choice design to frustrate/shock/show off the designers’ ingenuity. This also does not represent any species of emergent gameplay, such as dangling unconscious bodies off roofs in Deus Ex: Human Revolution and growling “Swear to me” – it’s not gameplay, for one.
In my view, this represents an approach to conversation trees, save files, choices etc, that is not driven by the need to tailor the plot to a schizophrenic player, nor deliver a platter of infinite delicacies to a choice-fetishist. Mass Effect 3 employs these tools to grow something like mimesis*.
It’s a subtle shift; from a plot which develops based on your decisions, to a world which develops, seemingly, with your decisions, among a context of those made by many other NPCs. Shepard is one actor, one protagonist, among many.
This philosophy lies at the heart of ME3. Those seeking to emulate Bioware would do well to focus not on how this has been accomplished technically, but why. Watching Conrad sidle off with Jenna was satisfying not because Shepard’s choices caused it to happen directly, but because his choices wove some of the context in which the event took place.
*For clarity, pedants, I use the term loosely, after Auerbach.