Morality Tales – BioWare Versus The Issues

By John Walker on August 26th, 2008 at 11:03 am.

'And so should we kill the children to save the planet?'

I’ve been playing lots of Mass Effect recently, because as a leading games critic it’s essential I stay ahead of the curve and keep my finger on the pulse. A mere nine months after buying it on 360 and then never playing it, and then blagging a PC version only three months after its second release, I’m on the case.

It would probably be controversial to say that BioWare‘s three most recent RPGs, Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, and Mass Effect, are all exactly the same game in a different setting. Because Mass Effect’s setting is quite similar to KotOR’s. But what’s rather fortunate is that they change the combat style in each, so there’s always something unique to complain about on a forum. What’s also important to note is that they’re all three flipping ace, and I love them. They just… they just tend to do this one really silly thing.

Resolve political debates with light sabres.

One thing I really want to do is go and sit down with Dr and Dr BioWare, and be having a regular chat, probably asking questions about Dragon Age or something journalistic like that, and then suddenly in the middle of it all I’d shout, “MY SISTER WANTS TO GET AN ABORTION! WHAT SHOULD SHE DO?”

When they look scared and ask what I’m talking about, I’d only offer them the very slightest pieces of information about the situation, probably saying that the unborn baby might have some sort of horrible disability and she doesn’t want it to be born to suffer, but her husband is currently away at sea and unreachable (because it’s happening in the past or in space or somewhere where radio signals don’t work) and won’t be able to have his say. I’d only give them two possible answers, and their stuttering, unprepared response would decide the fate of this unfortunate foetus. And then I’d ask them about how the Sonic license first caught their attention.

The world's slowest map.

I’m not sure, but I don’t know if RPGs are quite the place to try and resolve the most controversial and devisive subjects of our day. Well no, that’s not true at all. They could be, but perhaps in a setting slightly more dignifiied than as a result of overhearing a conversation on a street, and then immediately being given life or death decisions to make for complete strangers.

It just happened to me in Mass Effect. I’m back in Space City One (I don’t pay much attention to names – if you ask me, I’ll tell you what all the companion characters are called in my head) and trundling about the confusing bridges, popping in to see people who need to know about the contents of crates on distant planets, and I pass an arguing couple. Being a paragon of virtue (seriously, you should see my Paragon status. I haven’t quite matched my immediately being a glowy angel like in KoTOR, but my goodness-o-meter is almost full) I of course stop and ask them what’s up. Oddly they don’t tell me to fuck off, but rather immediately adopt me into their family and confidence, and explain the skeletal nature of their dilemma. They’re brother and sister-in-law, and her kid might have some illness. But she’s heard on the news that the treatment for it is potentially dangerous, and doesn’t want to risk losing her child treating him for a disease he might not have. Her husband just died, and the brother says she’s acting out of grief, and that she should just take the treatment.

'Please, make all our important life decisions, INSTANTLY!'

So we’ve got ourselves a cipher for the MMR debate. You find out the stats, and the chances of having the illness are reasonably high, and the chances of the treatment causing problems are 1 in 300. But she’s heard this news story, and she says what if her kid is the 1 in 300? DECIDE THE CHILD’S FATE!

So, as anyone with a modicum of scientific reason knows, there’s no evidence that the MMR vaccine causes harm. Utterly none. But that’s hard to keep relevant when you’re a mother of a baby, and you have to make this decision without any expertise of your own about whether the evidence is correct and there’s definitely no chance of your kid getting autism… Good grief, this suddenly got a bit heavy. Which would somewhat be my point. This is a completely inappropriate subject to appear in this jokey, silly post. And it’s far too big of a subject to decide on the bridge of a scifi game for a couple of strangers, before I carry on looking for that last bloody Keeper to scan that I cannot find anywhere despite combing the entire place three times.

HK47's approach to situations is a lot simpler.

I really love that BioWare include these tough choices, but I wish they’d include them in a slightly more dignified way. I wish they’d be part of a larger story, a continued struggle of conscience where decisions are made based on multiple conversations, varying expert and inexpert opinion, and a wealth of emotional and emotive situations. I want to be forced to contend my scientific reason against the irrational emotions of those in the throws of a situation. I want to wrestle with the toughest subjects, with data and passion from people on all sides trying to sway me to their way of thinking. I think, in these fleshed out circumstances, an RPG could be the most remarkable place for getting to grips with matters like abortion and euthanasia. I think because they’re the sorts of subjects it’s completely pointless to talk about in the pub, because it inevitably descends into people entrenching themselves in their currently held position and then hurling stones at the other side, that the RPG would be a space in which the emphasis of thought and consideration would be squarely on you.

Bizarrely, I told the bridge couple that it was her child, and her choice, and as a consequence he had the emotional breakthrough of recognising his motivations were not as pure as he had claimed, but rather because he wanted to hold onto this last piece of his brother. But that’s not what I think! I would have gone through the statistics of the situation with her, had her talk with doctors, and encouraged her to go with the scientific odds. But I was given two choices and one cop-out. Side with her, side with him, or leave them to it. Really, I think the right answer in that situation should have been to leave them to it, but dammit I’m playing a videogame and I’m going to see what the consequences of my choosing would be. I’m interested that I went against type and chose her. But that was because the situation was so peculiarly binary that I was really deciding: who has a right to make a choice about a baby, the mother or the uncle. Well, the mother then. That I want to clobber people who ignore science and risk their children’s health because of reading idiots misreporting facts in newspapers was suddenly irrelevant. And more, that I think that wasn’t challenged by the situation. In the end, the encounter oddly cheapened a serious topic.

No reason for this pic, other than its tranquility.

It is great that BioWare aspire beyond most other developers when creating their games, and I love that the worlds are rich enough to have space for recognising universal subjects. Occasionally it works – the woman who had transfered her love for her dead husband onto her missing droid in KotOR was especially splendid, but mostly because it played out as a quest, rather than a conversation, and the situation was remarkably complex. You could force the droid to stay with her, leaving her in a perpetually futile relationship and the droid trapped against what he knew was best for his master, but her apparently happy. You could free the droid, and in doing so force her to face her grief, potentially destroying her. You could even kill the droid, and then go back to her and tell her it was still alive and she should keep looking for it. Muah ha ha! But it was a droid, and unique to a science fiction world, and it gave you space to discuss and explore the subject. It wasn’t a morally ambiguous situation on which you’re forced to flick a giant fate-deciding switch before you can quicksave, which unfortunately is the more typical.

I can’t wait for Dragon Age. But I do rather fear I’ll be wandering through some remote village, searching for the missing mystic rune of Grogglefanaar, when a local baker’s wife will ask me to decide whether she should allow her sickly husband to die against her doctor’s wishes.

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150 Comments »

  1. Kevlmess says:

    The funny thing about the Renegade path is that it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re truly evil or amoral or anything. You’re practically as goody-doody and heroic as a Paragon but also quite a cunt.

    Fortunately that doesn’t steal the joy from solving situations by punching people in the face.

    Oh, and every game should let the player get lesbian sex without meaning to.

  2. Maximum Fish says:

    The problem with morality systems in videogames is that you can’t include one that offers the player different avenues to follow without passing judgement on those decisions. The writer’s conception of the outcomes of those choices, how those choices are presented (the “way of the closed fist”, that sounds good, right? Right?), how other moral archtype characters respond to those decisions, etc., all represent judgements of player decisions.

    This all reminds me of the beginning to Neverwinter Nights 2, when the bandit guy tells you if you let him live he’ll hunt you down and kill everyone you know or whatever. I chose the stab him in the throat, quite reasonably i thought, but then the game gave me a handful of evil points, and some handwringing “i don’t know if i support that” whining from my sidekick. At that point i was like, fuck it, i guess i’m going to be evil…

    The interesting thing about real life, as opposed to Star Trek or other famous morality plays, is that situations in real life are infinitely more complex, and cheesy moral truisms (violence is always bad, etc) never actually quite work out as they should. Like any complex system, a coneniently simplified equation will never accurately describe it. There is no universal prescription, and when i’m playing a videogame, i like to pretend i’m not playing a videogame, ie imagine all the real world complexities and so forth play a part. It’s only too bad the game doesn’t play along.

    For example, in Star Trek, the bandit guy would probably, given a chance, come around and later become a productive citizen, or it would be discovered he has an ailing 8 year old daughter or some shit. In real life he’d show up at your quaint Faerun cottage and gut your quibbling bitch ass with a rusted bread knife, all the while saying “I told you”.

  3. Dinger says:

    Come to think of it, that was why I never got into Ultima IV. Ultima III was great, especially when you became powerful enough to wipe out a village, so that only the inaccessible shopkeepers were left. You could turn a lively community into a ghost town and get rich off it. Ultima IV had some sort of morality system that effectively made it difficult to be bad.

    Sometimes we want to be bad guys, and that’s recognized in game design. So successful game formulas have to leave that option. Then they try to throw in moral choices? Well, they can’t have consequences then, can they?

  4. Iain says:

    @Requiem: Mass Effect, oh you’re racing against time to save all organic life in the galaxy, oh please stop and go find these trinkets/bandits/monkeys etc.

    This is basically my biggest gripe with the post-KotOR BioWare model. OMG, we’re in this big race against time to save the entire galaxy from destriuction, but the world and his droid still want you to sort out every single last problem for them on their behalf, even though they could conceivably just get off their arse and do it for themselves. Let the Big Bad wait. I’m sure he’ll wait for us to get there to foil his plans before he destroys all known civilisation. He’s nice like that…

    My second biggest problem is that they give you these moral choices, but then don’t show you the consequences. How are you meant to know if you made the “right” decision or not? All Mass Effect does is pop a few Paragon or Renegade points into your character stats and that’s it. You don’t get to find out if she has a natural birth, or goes for the treatment or not, nor do you find out what ultimately happens to the child either way. So what was the point of getting involved? Other than the stat boost?

    This is one of the reasons I really liked The Witcher – you got to make the tough moral choices, and you had to face the consequences later in the game. The whole thing was so far away from being black and white or clear cut that the choices you thought were “right” often turned out to have negative effects later on; choosing the lesser evil still turned out to be evil (a recurrent theme from the original books, I might add).

    I see people have been referencing Deus Ex with regards to freedom and choice. Was I the only one person who thought that they missed a trick? Where was the option to stay with UNATCO? I thought the game forced you into jumping ship over to the NSF way too soon. I wanted to be the bad guy, dammit!

    And finally: Sexy Blue Girl is *SOOO* dull. Hateful Racist Fundamentalist Girl is far more interesting. And her ass looks terrific in a combat hardsuit…

  5. Chaz says:

    Well Ashley may have been a hateful racist, but I didn’t kick her out of bed for it. Oh yeah baby!

  6. dhex says:

    the witcher did seem to get inter-cultural conflict well enough – at least enough so that it didn’t stick out like the whole trading cards thing.

  7. Maximum Fish says:

    @lain

    I agree entirely. The rush-rush nonsense was a huge problem in both Mass Effect and Jade Empire. They give you a “what are you waiting for?!” urgent quest to save all of eternity or whatever, and then on the way out the door some poor bastard asks you to look for his friend in bumfuck outer space and fly back to the station if you get word.

    Oblivion did the same thing. No Sean Bean, I DON’T want to go to motherfucking Cloud Ruler Temple, so ease the hell off. Seriously. What’s this about Lovecraftian menaces ravaging the countryside? And why is this more important than my nirnroot potions and… or fine, whatever. Save the planet. Save the planet, and then indulge in the anal retentive completist trap you so maliciously laid for me.

  8. Sucram says:

    When your moral choices are boiled down to a screen with three dialogue options, which you read while sipping a cup of tea and wondering how many XP each will give you, it’s rarely going to be particularly good.

    At best you might get a witty comeback which leaves you wondering if the other responses are as witty. Hmm better quickload to check ‘em out.

    Either these things need to played out over a longer period, though often that ends up feeling contrived, or the fact that you are making these choices need to be obfuscated.
    the most impressive moments are when you act on instinct in a game, only to be told later ‘Hey, do you realise what you did?’. Like when you flee your brothers apartment in Deus Ex.

  9. Sum0 says:

    Two things that niggled me about Mass Effect:
    1) The fact that in these moral dilemmas, everyone folds so quickly when you pull out your Charm or Intimidate or even just talk a bit more. It’s as no one holds any actual opinions. It didn’t feel like I was talking these people round to my viewpoint, more like I was just flicking a big switch to OPTION A or OPTION B.
    2) Scans reveal a derelict space station in orbit around the second moon of an enormous gas giant. The Normandy pulls in close, matching its rotation, and docks. The intrepid boarding party enters and discovers mysterious artifact X. Great fun to play, right? Except we don’t get to play it. We just read a little text box. Not even a cinematic?

  10. Maximum Fish says:

    @Sumo

    Yeah, the “you found platinum on this floating wreck” bits were sort of a letdown, but then judging from their planet base interiors, all one of them, and how tired i got of trudging through rocky corridors and shooting biotic krogans or whatever, i’m not sure i wouldn’t have just gotten shit-tired of the spaceship interior too. A cinematic would have been cool probably.

  11. Requiem says:

    @Iain I’d call it the BioWare model fullstop, you can see it in their progression from BG to ME, KotOR is the odd one out as the model actually fits the Jedi character and the story line isn’t one of imminent doom, well not until you reach the end of the game that is.

    The one excuse I’ve seen for the lack of consequences in ME is that it’s the start of a trilogy, but until episode 2 or 3 show my character get court-martialed for punching someone out, leaking info to the press, disobeying orders and stealing the ship, or the effects of releasing the queen bug or destroying the colonists then it’s not much of an rpg. A great adventure game and fun third person shooter, but just not an rpg.

    Deus Ex is big on tactical choices but there’s only really one ethical choice, saving your brother, and yeah I spent ages telling him I wasn’t going to destroy the transmitter and trying to arrest him but the damn game just wouldn’t let me stay in UNATCO.

  12. Iain says:

    @Sucram: The thing with Paul’s apartment in Deus Ex was handled a bit too randomly, though. You could kill all the MIBs, but if you left via the window instead of the front door, Paul would still die.

    A better example of a tough (im)moral choice is one from early in The Witcher: a village is persecuting the local witch, Abigail. She’s utterly innocent of the crimes they accuse her of, but they’re intent on blood, because they’re ignorant enough to believe that killing her will solve the real problem (which it won’t, incidentally).

    Now, do you let the baying mob tear apart a completely innocent woman, or do you save her, having to slaughter the entire village in the process, on the principle that she’s innocent?

    The payoff being either you still get to use all the amenities of the village for the rest of that chapter of the game, but you’ve let an entirely innocent woman be killed, or Abigail helps you later on in the game, but you’ve wiped out an entire village in her defense. They’re two utterly morally untenable decisions. But you still have to make a choice…

    I’d like to see more games that reflect shades of grey, rather than blandly predictable right and wrong choices.

  13. Maximum Fish says:

    I’m still waiting for the Enhanced Edition Witcher, still waiting…

  14. Andrew says:

    Interestingly, I think Baldur’s Gate II works against the tropes in the article. There’s a lot of typical fantasy, but also a few odd ones which really don’t turn out to be a standard affair. One quest I recall actually has a bad outcome even if you replay it and try ever option. Really interesting that one.

    I admit that the two-option response is pretty pathetic. Culling down a situation to a few responses, with no general ability to reason or debate, discuss or act apart from choose one of a few options is rather sad. Oh well, it is progress, just could be written a bit better – but couldn’t everything be a bit better? :)

  15. Okami says:

    Now that was one decision that wasn’t hard to make – kill the village of course. I hated every one of them anyway.

  16. Maximum Fish says:

    Being that games are increasingly well-defined worlds (in a mechanical sense) with rules and predefined interactions well established, “emergent gameplay” is possible, and creative solutions to developer defined problems are occasionally possible. But in a broader sense, because games are essentially a series of predefined responses to predefined inputs, the prospects of games recognizing player creativity in any meaningful way is extremely slim.

    You may be able to board an NPC up in his house so he can’t get outside and activate some quest, but you aren’t going to hear about it from other NPC’s. So i predict a lot more of the “press one for the path of righteousness, 2 for villainy, 3 to speak to an customer service representative” in the near future.

    “I see you stacked crates in front of wizard Dorthoks house. Very Clever. He’ll have fun trying to path through that shit…” The closest i ever got was when i shot Anne Navarre in the face on Juan Lebadev’s plane, and got chewed out by Alex Jacobson about it shortly thereafter.

  17. Iain says:

    @Okami: Yeah, I murdered them all, too. Bloody inbred ignoramuses.

  18. Bananaphone says:

    Morals and choice and consequences are all very well, but how about Bioware make team mates who are able to get behind cover and shoot at the enemy, instead of STANDING BEHIND YOU AND SHOOTING THE PLAYER, or at least STAY OUT OF THE WAY WHEN THEY ARE TOLD INSTEAD OF MOVING AND STANDING RIGHT BEHIND YOU AGAIN AND JUST BLASTING THE FUCK OUT OF YOUR OWN SHIELDS.

    Sorry.

  19. James says:

    Iain: did you have to murder the villagers to save Abigail? If I recall correctly, you can scare them off (even the holy man) and then go fight the ridiculously hard-to-kill demon dog. That sort of deals with both issues. Maybe I’m misremembering.

  20. Requiem says:

    BGII still falls into the BioWare model of having your friend and companion from the first game get kidnapped at the start. You still have lots and lots of unconnected things you can do if not need to do, for the experience points, before you can find her.

  21. Citizen Parker says:

    I agree with this completely. It’s mind numbing that there are always two solutions to a problem, one “good” and one “bad.” I want shades of gray, and I want to be done with the stupid morality slider.

    I’m also looking at you, Fable.

  22. Iain says:

    @James: I wasn’t able to scare them off the first time I played through. Perhaps I hadn’t done enough of the side quests in the village to be able to persuade them. I ended up having to butcher the lot of them. Which was okay. More XP that way, and the vendors were only selling rotten fish…

    I might try a different tack when I replay it with the Enhanced Edition.

  23. JonFitt says:

    Did anyone else think Carth (or whatever that copy/paste dude in Mass Effect was called) seemed to be hitting on you when you played as a male?
    I was thinking “Whoa, Bioware have gone all out and given people *all* the options”. But as it turned out it was just shared Male/Female dialogue which should have been redone for the males.

    Also, on the Deus Ex-brother-apartment thing: that amazed me. The first time I tried to fight and got exploded, so I thought “damn this is un-winnable” and ran away. It was only later I read that I could have saved him. It was great that they made it so hard that you probably should flee, but if you stuck it out and beat the enemies it didn’t break the game or they didn’t resort to infinite/unkillable baddies.

  24. maxmcg says:

    I just played & finished ME recently too. Super game but for two things.

    1. Stupid APC thingy. Where is the Vorsprung Durch Tecnik in the future. Idiots. How did Bioware think that actually worked.

    2. Lifts. Stupid lifts are just too damn slow. And there’s too many of them.

  25. Schadenfreude says:

    @JonFitt: Bioware pretty much gave you all the options in Jade Empire. Lots of bicurious NPCs in that one. You can go Boy/Girl, Boy/Boy, Girl/Girl and Boy/Girl/Girl.

  26. Okami says:

    @James: Well, you scare them off, then kill the ridiculously strong dog and then butcher the villagers, because they want to kill you anyway, eventhough you just saved their sorry asses.

  27. Nimic says:

    “Mr Full-of-himself Guy” is Carth, right? I mean.. Kaidan. I mean..

    I found that “choose between Kaidan and Ashley” part really hard. Not because I wanted to keep both, heavens no, but because I couldn’t decide who I wanted to see dead more.

  28. elias says:

    Let the baker die. : )

  29. Iain says:

    I didn’t find the Ashley vs Carth (I’m not even going to pretend that was a mistake) decision very hard, myself. Ashley has all the best lines, therfore Ashley stays, Boring Guy gets nuked…

  30. Requiem says:

    Ah the nuke, another missed opportunity, you should of been able to choose between any of your companions at that point, or all of them.

    Though one day I hope someone will make a game where I can choose to make a heroic last stand and detonate the bomb myself. As a proper ending with outcomes and credits etc.

  31. Jaxtrasi says:

    > “With no direct connection, it just felt like the designers were going out of their way to offer their audience (who could never possibly have experienced sex in real life) to enjoy SOME SEX! SEXY SEX!”

    I hear it worked on Gillen. He loves the tail.

  32. phil says:

    The Drow seem to bring the best out of Bioware’s writers – in both Baldur’s Gate and the last Neverwinter Nights expansion, providing you skipped the slaughter everything moving option and got to the politics, you had a range of nice ethical situations.

    To get the ‘best’ solution you had to out evil them, even if you were going for a lawful good playthrough. The dragon’s egg treble cross in BGII and mock seduction, then betrayal in Neverwinter Nights, were really quite satisfying

    The open palm/closed fist approach from Jade Empire was a bit disappointing. The open palm hardly ever allowed you to side step the violence whilst closed fist was just crude cackling evil. I suppose it allowed you access to the Zombie Darth Vader character, but frankly he was arse.

  33. Bas says:

    I liked Ashley. She’s not racist, just uninformed. So I used my superior intellect to make her see the light, and then sex her up.

  34. matte_k says:

    Yeah, bit of a waste of the voice actor in ME, I quite liked Carth in KoToR.

    Obsidian have played with this good/bad thing quite a bit in KoToR 2, i’m thinking specifically of the side quest involving the beggar asking for money. Because regardless of what you do, you get a bollocking from Kreia, and a cutscene showing the consequences of your actions. Then, in dialogue with Kreia post-cutscene, you can lose influence by disagreeing with her viewpoint, as she is trying to teach you the lesson that running around helping everyone is not necessarily being the good guy- you can potentially weaken these people by making them dependent on someone else to sort out their problems for them.

    Actually, now that I think about it, quite a few of the gang of companions in that game make comments about you helping people all the time…

    So looking forward to the Sith Lords Restoration Project being finished- proper endings at last! :D

  35. James G says:

    I’m waiting for the Sith Lord’s restoration project to be completed before I try KOTORII, its meant to restore some of the content which made the latter parts of the game so disjointed.

  36. phil says:

    @Max
    I agree the cementary was annoying, trapping you in the least visually interesting section of the game with an Morrowind style list of minor quests to complete.

    From memory it also arrived on the heels of the utterly fantastic John Cleese cameo, making it a huge down shift.

  37. tmp says:

    Plus, it would be nice if occasionally being neutral didn’t suck, the games always reward being a saint or a total douchebag.

    (..)

    I’m still mustering up the courage to give KotOR II a try, courage as I have heard some passing comment that the ending is not in all respects as impressive as one might wish…

    KotOR 2 is perhaps one game where going the middle route feels the most rewarding. Not in the getting tangible rewards sense, but rather it’s like the story was made with such character in mind, and the ending makes the most sense with it.

  38. Patrick Weekes says:

    Howdy. I’m the writer responsible for the widow and her brother-in-law mysteriously having no trouble with you intruding yourself into a deeply personal discussion about gene therapy. This article had me laughing out loud, and it also raised some excellent points that reflect what we’re thinking in the office.

    That plot coming down the way it did was the result of a lot of factors.

    We needed to fill up some space on the Citadel with a ton of little quests. The Citadel is beautiful and marvelous and epic in its proportions, and also really flipping huge and empty. This meant that fairly late in development, the writing team hunkered down to fill up an area the size of one of the major story worlds with a ton of small roleplaying encounters.

    Also, the fact that the Citadel is so big means that if you try to have combat, the 360 emits a high-pitched whine and then explodes. Even without combat, the Citadel pushes the 360 to the edge of its memory constraints pretty hard, and at one point in playtesting, we were playing in a special game mode, “Get from one end of the Presidium to the other without crashing,” using our FPS indicators as sonar to try to figure out which way to go without our memory going splat. As a result, our plot designs for the roleplaying plots had to include not a whole lot of combat and limits to the number of characters and the size of their dialog files. (Note that combat that does take place on the Citadel as part of the critpath tends to happen in small hallway areas with doors nearby as level-load areas.)

    Add to THAT the fact that the tech guys are swamped by putting together a game in a new engine, with the arrival of new combat functionality like cover and tech beacons requiring last-minute changes to every fighting area in the game, and you’ve got tech guys who don’t have a whole lot of time to do complex scripting on the plots you wrote in about a day apiece. The plot with the grieving widower, for example, is generally considered to be stronger than the not-at-all-about-MMR plot. It’s also more complex, with two conversations and multiple options for who says what and goes where and when they do it. (It’s not very complex as plots go, but it’s more complex than “These guys fire one conversation, then despawn after you’re done talking to them.”) That complexity extends to QA as well. Given that QA found bugs on these plots that ranged from people not appearing to people appearing too early to people despawning but still firing their ambient “Hey, Spectre, come talk to me!” lines despite, you know, not being there, the simpler we could make those plots, the better. (Note: Not a knock on our tech guys. Our tech guys were awesome. Also, they were learning a new engine and scripting system. The writers made their share of fun mistakes, and our conversation system didn’t change as much as their scripting system.)

    None of which means that you’re wrong and I’m right. What it means is that at the time, we looked at that plot and said, “Okay, we’ve got some that have several conversations already. Let’s try to do this one as a one-and-out.” It was my call, I made it, and when I looked at it in the final game, I knew that I’d been wrong, since, as you correctly noted, it feels way too weird to have these people just include you in the conversation. In the more complex widower plot, there’s at least a plausible reason that the widower needs you to be involved.

    What bums me out about that plot is that it really isn’t one the writers just tossed out casually. We argued about what the issue would be. After I wrote it, I passed it to our editor, and she came back with some tough criticism. Where she will often just correct my spelling or grammar, this time she told me that my initial take was turning the widow into the stereotypical weeping woman, with the uncle as the voice of reason. We wanted it to be more complex than that, with both sides bringing their own baggage to one of those “Neither of these choices are exactly right” issues; the wife is grieving and afraid to lose the baby, the brother is grieving and desperate to give the baby the chance his brother didn’t have. The editor and I actually stayed late working on revisions to that one, and we were proud of how it turned out.

    Then we heard it voiced over and realized that I hadn’t been specific enough in my VO comments (which the writers place on every line), and when I’d written “angry and frustrated”, I’d been thinking of a West Wing kind of way, and what I got was an actor yelling “My BAAAAAAABEEEEE!!!” because she thought she was supposed to be more overwrought than I’d intended. It came out like bad soap opera, but it wasn’t a major enough plot to do a retake on the voicework, so in it went. That’s also on me: I’m a newb writer, and I didn’t make my VO comments detailed enough. With better delivery, I think the plot would have felt stronger.

    Finally, Mass Effect is the first BioWare CRPG to take place in a setting that includes the real world in its history. It’s not the real world, because it’s the future, but it’s a heck of a lot closer to the real world than Jade Empire or KotOR was. The fact that we can actually reference real-world history and events (except for Hitler, because, you know, we want to sell in Germany) gave us an opportunity to hit real-world problems in new ways, and we were excited about that.

    That new cool opportunity also screwed some things up. People talk about the Uncanny Valley as it applies to character design, but it’s equally true for plot design. Your elven ranger can walk up and interrupt the baker and his wife as they argue about whether to use garden crystals to keep the bugs out of their garden, even though garden crystals attract skeletal rats in the long run, and even if some part of the player’s mind realizes that these people are awfully eager to include you in their thinly veiled pesticide metaphor, the player is generally thinking about magic crystals and undead rats and just doesn’t care that much about being invited into a deeply personal conversation between a husband and wife, or is congratulating him- or herself for seeing that incredibly complex pesticide metaphor and doesn’t care how gamey the plot structure is.

    You put that same plot in the real world, or something where people have names like Ashley “Boom-stick” Williams instead of Alustria Swiftarrow, and people aren’t thinking about crystals and rats, and that plot design that wouldn’t have bothered the player in a fantasy game sticks out like a sore thumb… a sore thumb who is JUST THINKING ABOUT THE BABY!

    Overall, I’m really proud of the small part I had on Mass Effect. There are some plots I’d love to take back and get the chance to do again, knowing what I know now about how they’d play once they were actually in the game, and there are some that came together just wonderfully. In the offices, designers on all the projects are playing the game, making a lot of the same observations you just did, and looking for ways to improve what we do. I hope that you’ll see us improve in the next game.

  39. Justin Fletcher says:

    RE: Side quests and the timeline

    The problem with optional side quests in RPGs is that they’re optional. Developers have a harder time creating a sense of narrative urgency when the expectation is that players should be able to go anywhere and do anything at any time. So they sacrifice immersion for variety. And this leads to you being told that you only have a few hours to prevent a cosmic catastrophe, one that then fails to occur when you decide to go treasure hunting instead.

    What’s to be done? Here are a few options:

    1) Lessen the story’s emphasis on the timeline. This frees you from watching the clock, but it also decreases the urgency and drama of the main story. On the plus side, it might encourage plot lines beyond “Save the town/world/galaxy/universe!”

    2) Institute consequences. If you prioritize chasing down your last rare metal on Planet Whatzis instead of chasing after Saren, then your reward is a flood of Reapers at your door and a Game Over screen. However, consequences would have to be communicated and implemented very carefully or they could be huge turn-offs to players.

    3) Make some side quests mandatory. For example, advancing through sections of the game would require completing a certain number of quests to gain X, with X being something you would need to survive the next big story mission. However, you would have a choice in which quests you choose out of a large selection. That means that you couldn’t just zip through the main story, but why have side quests in the first place if you expect players to just zip through the main story?

    Variations on these have been done in the past, but they seem old fashioned in today’s climate where open worlds are in vogue and linearity is the devil. But I wouldn’t mind a bit more structure being imposed by RPG developers.

  40. simonkaye says:

    I think that making the good/evil scales unlinked was a really important step. Yes, the raising of the moral question was sometimes pretty ugly, but the innovation here is that this isn’t simply one sliding scale, as in KOTOR. You can comfortably be a badass at the same time as making nuanced judgments about the rachni etc. My main complaint is that there wasn’t really enough STUFF in the game to properly develop both metres, but I can understand why such a design decision would be made in an RPG.

    Patrick, your specific baby encounter actually prompted me to reload and experiment with the options. I thought it was clever that the game would adapt to justify each line of decision-making without over-informing the player before the actual point of decision. So the decision would be committed from an actual point of view or belief, and the game would not isolate that or pigeonhole that in discourse terms as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or even ‘paragon’ or whatever.

    Maybe I’ve been playing games too long, but I don’t think I really jump anymore when total strangers want me involved in their problems…

  41. perilisk says:

    That’s damn weird, I just played through the same bit last night, made the same choice, thought roughly the same thing.

    It’s substantially worse in Mass Effect than other Bioware games, as in many cases the little blip they give you doesn’t convey all the subtleties of the line, so Shepard ends up saying something completely different from what you expected. Also, the two options aren’t always available or equally obvious, or have different skill checks, so you end up with only one option that you don’t agree with.

    Besides, the fact that Paragon/Renegade choices are roughly always the same place means that you get lazy and just say “just say the good guy thing” without actually worrying about it. And it boils down to yet another game with a simplistic good/evil meter as a stand-in for character building.

  42. subedii says:

    Thanks a lot for your comments Patrick, it’s always interesting to hear from the devs about what was going through their minds and what was happening in the background when they made certain parts of a game.

    Having said that, you’ve made an awesome first game with the engine, and now unfortunately you’ve raised the bar for yourselves and we shall be expecting even better things of you all in future.

    No hard feelings.

    - The fan community

  43. Sören Höglund says:

    subedii’s take on Ashley is exactly right. She’s easily the best-written of the npcs, and one of the few where you feel like you’re having an argument with an actual person. With a personality and everything! As opposed to Liara, who’s just there to have blue boobs and go “oh I’m so shy and awkward but you’re so awesome that I want you to take my virginity now”.

    Oh, and it clearly it can’t be an analogy for the MMR thing, because if it were, it’d boil down a choice between being a sensible, responsible adult, or endangering your child and everyone else because you take advice on medical science from Jenny McCarthy.

  44. subedii says:

    Man I am so glad at least someone agrees with me. I was beginning to think I was crazy being the only person who saw Ashley’s character in that light. :mrgreen:

    I do also think she was one of the better written characters in the game. I think that people tend to get more emotive about Ashley’s viewpoints because she’s more well written.

  45. Someone says:

    I actually played only with Wrex and lizard head guy, because the other companions were pretty boring.

  46. Requiem says:

    It’s interesting about the technical problems, I didn’t realise the citadel was so big (as compared to the planets) though I suppose it’s more detailed. One thing about that situation that I thought would have made it less jarring is if you had met previously or were connected to at least one of the characters involved. Perhaps the mother was formally part of the Normandy crew or you’d saved the uncle during the shootout in the medical centre, it would of taken away the total strangers tell you their most intimate problems feeling.

    @Justin Fletcher the game really needs restructuring many of the side quests, at least those on other planets tied into or gave clues to happenings in the main story line it’s just a pity most of them were unlocked after you’d completed the story section they hinted at. You didn’t need to work for anything in the main story, except finding Sexy Blue Girl, it was all handed to you on a platter. If more of the game had you searching for clues and stumbling over the main plot it would of made the optional side quests feel less out of place.

  47. BrokenSymmetry says:

    Another Ashley fan here: I think her the best developed character I’ve encountered in a Bioware game.

    On the sidequests: The poor sidequests in Mass Effect were the more surprising to me, as Bioware’s previous game, Jade Empire, has such excellent side quests. Quests in that game, like “Aishi the Mournful Blade”, “The Drowned Orphans”, etc. had great story and emotional content.

  48. Simon Jones says:

    Crikey – I didn’t realise so many people shared this general opinion of Mass Effects/Bioware’s storytelling.

    The stuff John talks about is very similar to my main gripe, which I mentioned in my equally belated review recently.

    I think Bioware’s greatest storytelling flaw is that they don’t tie their themes to their story. So we have themes cropping up all over the place – racism, lesbianism (sort of), the vaccine John mentions, the whole organic-vs-mechanoid thing, divided loyalties, etc etc etc – but they never get properly interwoven into what actually happens. Even the organic-vs-mechanoid thing isn’t really explored properly – Sovereign happens to be a giant robot thing, but it might as well be a giant space cat. There’s some interesting machine backstory to do with the Geth and Facemask Girl’s race, but that’s never explored properly outside of the Codex. Ash’s racism is handled really well at first, sneaking in under the radar…but it never really becomes an actual issue.

    The story, in the end, culminates in a fight between a giant space robot and a load of spaceships. None of the themes you happen to have encountered along the way (usually in side quests) have any bearing at all. Which is a problem, as a story without themes is really very disposable and a bit pointless.

    The Witcher, while by no means perfect, at least went to great effort to tie its themes directly into the story and setting. Bioshock wove its themes into the set design and storytelling and gameplay, even if it was a bit clunky at times. Even Half Life 2 manages to portray themes of fear, intimidation, propaganda, liberation, loss, love and hero worship, despite being far less overtly focused on ‘themes’ than any of the previously mentioned games.

    This is partially why Bioware’s last few games feel rather samey. It’s not just the gameplay and structure, but the fact that none of theme are really about anything. There’s lots of themes nibbling away at the edges, but they seem to have forgotten to use the story to really say anything about anything.

    I appear to have rambled.

  49. Xander77 says:

    I’d have to say that Space Control 2 and Baldur’s Gate 2 handled the sidequest issue better than most “Go anywhere before moving on in the plot” games. BG2 went with the easy path – you have a reason to do all the side quests because NEED to get your hands on some cash to save your sis/pursue the big bad.

    SC2 choice was frustrating to some players who were intent on messing around without paying attention to the main plot, but it made sense in the context and the overall effect was awesome. I wish more people would take that path…

  50. Justin Fletcher says:

    @ Requiem
    “If more of the game had you searching for clues and stumbling over the main plot it would of made the optional side quests feel less out of place.”

    Exactly. The reason that many RPG side quests have such a jarring effect on the primary timeline is that they are completely unattached to the main story. Therefore, you wonder why your character would bother dealing with them when much more important and time-sensitive matters await.

    But tying the quests more into the main story doesn’t fix the issue all by itself. If the world is hours from its end and you are able to advance to the next critical event in your attempt to save humanity, why would you stop to do something else unless you had to, no matter how much it was related to your goal? And if you *did* have to stop to do that something else, then it wouldn’t be a side quest, would it?

    (ASIDE) In fact, “side quest” has become a misnomer. In recent RPGs like Mass Effect and Oblivion, missions that don’t directly tie into the overarching story make up 50-75% of the game. It’s the main story that’s become the side quest, so it’s no wonder that you can get around to saving the universe on your own schedule.

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