Having played through the opening five hours of Mass Effect 2 and No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle, two hot off the presses sequels to relatively popular franchise starters I was alternately in tears and in fits of laughter. Something is wrong here. Something is wrong with the media of games and I am not sure it will be fixed unless we take a critical view followed by a stand. Do we still want to play games? Or watch them, read them listen to them and, possibly masturbate looking at their digital actors? Ironically, the solitary, compulsory nature of playing games has in past earned the medium many comparisons with masturbation. But here and now, in 2010 is where the things are starting to go seriously wrong.
I am not what you would call the world’s biggest advocate of stories in games. Unlike some notable experts on game critique (say, Yahtzee or our own Steerpike) I tend to think that a bad or lousily told story does not make for a bad game. In turn, I love to see a good story in a game but I do not feel that a good story necessarily justifies a bad game. It’s great when you get a good story in a good game. I can think of some examples off the top of my head, and you may laugh at them, but let’s say – Max Payne with its faithful noir tropes… Final Fantasy VII with its uncontrollably epic storyline, yet down to earth storytelling… Half-Life because it does what it does best. Silent Hill 2 because… well you know, it’s a seriously deep story in a seriously deep game. Even Deus Ex with its mixture of everything ‘90s… Psychonauts. Beyond Good and Evil. Shadow of the Colossus. Ico. Torment. Broken Sword. Hell, KOTOR. I can do this all night, but you get the picture.
So I love a good, well told story in a game as much as the next geek but when my games become stories something in my head goes off. I start questioning myself. Should I be here? Spending my time like this?
My problems with the original Mass Effect are well known (at least around these circles). It was an ambitious game let down by inexperience in design in certain areas that accounted for the big part of the game. Driving was shit. Shooting only marginally better. The damned game was half writing, half shooting and half everything else.
Now, Mass Effect 2 is improved by a considerable margin. Driving is kicked out, and shooting is much better. I don’t think you’ll mistake this game for Uncharted 2 or Gears of War 2 or anything, but at least the major part of the action is now comfortable and intuitive.
But, out of my five hour experience, this game is not about shooting at all. It’s about talking.
Do you know how No More Heroes 2 starts? There is a cutscene, stylish and economically directed, of buildings, snow and charismatic people, it lasts for about two minutes and then you fight, with swords, on the roof of a building, like a ninja on metamphetamines. It’s all slashing energy blades, hot bullets and a lot of fuck you’s flying through the snow. It’s extremely cinematic in style but also completely gamey in everything else. You block, you roll, you slash and kick, you fight like a man possessed, trying to force your muscles to remember what they did in the first game. It’s fucked up on adrenaline. There’s another cutscene right in the middle of your swordfight. Another minute of hazy, drugged up narrative and then you’re thrown back into your interrupted swordfight. Kill that guy or it’s game over. Kill him. Cut his fucking head off. Do it.
Do you know how Mass Effect 2 starts? It’s minutes after minutes of very expensive cutscene footage with loads of expository dialogue exchanged between cryptic figures. Then there are ship interiors, Shepard and his gang, digital actors going through the daily motions of looking for the elusive enemy in the lower arse regions of space. Then there is sound and fury, a ship that comes out of nowhere and assaults. There are explosions and panic. You’re in a bloody Jerry Bruckheimer movie, you say to yourself. It’s impressive, you say. When do I get to control the bloody thing?
You get some control. As the ship falls apart at the seams, burning what little oxygen it was storing, you walk around, slowly, in your spacesuit, looking to rescue Joker, that pilot prodigy that looks like a skater. You tread a very narrow path from point A to point B. You can’t get lost because signposting is impeccable (kudos, BioWare) but also because there is no other way to go. Then you die.
Your first instance of control in No More Heroes 2 is a desperate fight for life against a pissed of hitman looking for vengeance, all curses and whizzing bullets, all siderolls and blade hitting flesh.
Your first instance of control in Mass Effect 2 is a trivial walk from A to B where holding one button down will get the job done.
Mass Effect 2 tries to justify this by telling you and showing you that you are supposed to be in danger. But what you are actually doing is holding a key down between points A and B.
OK, let’s look at it this way: people usually say that games are good or bad on account of being fun or un-fun, right? So is Mass Effect 2 fun? I would have to say yes there. Five hours of Mass Effect 2 were fun.
But so is masturbation, I learned that watching Milos Forman’s Hair (the film, not the thing on his head) before I discovered it myself.
Fun is not enough. Not when it’s a word with such a broad meaning.
This guy, who made the little game series called Penumbra, thankyouverymuch, argues that asking games to be fun all the time to all people is unfair and obscures the potential of games to be much more than fun. He doesn’t put it in these words but he genuinely believes that games can move beyond entertainment and become something, for lack of a better word – deeper. He argues that games can have (more) meaning if they are allowed to not be FUN at all times. He also argues that narrative AND gameplay are obstacles to this goal.
Yes, that’s narrative AND gameplay. And he makes a valid argument there saying that calling these things games is the first problem. Games imply problems and their solving, a situation where you can measure failure and success. He argues that you can make digital interactive experiences that will not be pursuing fun, that will not be offering problems with hidden solutions and that will, as a result be more meaningful to the person interacting with them.
It’s an interesting line of thinking and, since he’s the first to argue that there should be another word for it (not “games”) I am actually inclined to stand up and applaud. I would love to see stuff made along these lines of thinking. I believe that games like The Path or Today I die are paving the way for this idea. Yes, these games still have “goals” and “gameplay” but they are obscured or even hidden in favour of the noble idea of having the player experience these works and find or even create her or his own meaning.
But, what does this, I ask, have to do with Mass Effect 2? Apparently – very little. Mass Effect 2 is fun and in terms of design it’s very old fashioned, with obvious goals, problems and their solutions. Mass Effect 2 is, at its heart a very conservative game design covered with several tons of makeup.
Now, this makeup, this is where the problem for me seems to be lying. I don’t have a problem playing a Role Playing Game based on oldish design. If it’s tight enough, sure, get it over here, I’ll bone it. If it features solid shooting, as Mass Effect 2 happens to, so much for the better. I’m all for shooting things in games.
But Mass Effect 2 is not about shooting. It’s about talking and listening. Lots and lots of talking and listening. Playing Mass Effect 2 has so far to me looked a little bit like this: thirty minutes of talking, then ten minutes of shooting. Then thirty minutes of talking again.
You came here to shoot your mouth or just shoot?
Sure, you can say I’m just a fucking caveman who hates games with no shooting. But, here’s the kicker: is watching people in Mass Effect 2 having conversations actually a good way to spend time?
I said that using the word “fun” is unhelpful, because it’s so broad. And you can have fun by not playing games, yes? Yes, you can. So, what I, personally, am looking for in games is not necessarily fun. Was Shadow of the Colossus fun, with its solemn mood, barren looks and tragic storyline? Was hanging for your dear life from a beard of a creature twenty stories high, then stabbing it to death fun? Was it supposed to be fun? Or was it supposed to have meaning?
Whatever it was supposed to be, it certainly gave me one thing. Not fun, but what we can call meaningful player engagement. I dealt with the game rules by first observing them, then understanding them, then mastering them, then overcoming them. If I was not having fun (and perhaps I was), I was certainly having an experience of meaningful engagement with the game’s systems (ruleset, interface, economy).
In No More Heroes 2 you kill about thirty people within the first hour and slay a boss who is spouting religious banter and shooting you with golden bullets and bass bombs from his ghetto blaster. In Mass Effect 2 you kill some ten robots in the first hour and have conversations filled with literally thousands of words. Killing those robots is… well, OK. As I said, the shooting parts are better than in the first game, yet Mass Effect 2’s first hour is essentially very pedestrian with linear stage design and utterly idiotic enemies. If you’re having fun, that’s not due to very meaningful player engagement. It might have to do with the story actually.
And so it goes. Many dialogues to go through, with people, aliens, VIs and whatnot and then some decent but hardly impressive shooting. Is this how RPGs are? No, not really. Persona is not like this. Oblivion is not like this. Hell, even Dragon Age Origins is not like this. Mass Effect 2 is different in that it insists on keeping you immersed in its world and storyline rather than in the gameplay. This tipping of the balance into the favour of non-game game parts keeps attracting my attention.
If good looks could kill
How much time, effort and expertise was spent creating Mass Effect 2’s visuals, cutscenes and dialogue scenes? Quite a lot, I’d wager. I’d bet that the whole budget of No More Heroes 2 was equal to Mass Effect 2’s sound recording budget alone. It shows. Cutscenes are directed in unprecedented ways in that they look and sound like something from TV or cinema. Digital actors emote and move naturally through the environments while camera angles keep changing to add dynamics to the dialogue. Sure, the forced grittiness of the world is comical rather than convincing – aliens speaking like gang bosses from the ‘80s movies and Martin Sheen’s digital actor who sticks his cigar a good inch beneath his lower lip, but still, generally, this is done pretty well.
But as for the player engagement – you’re sitting there, reading, pressing a button here, a button there. Yes, Mass Effect 2 has the radial menu system for the dialogues that helps keep the flow of the conversation feel natural, but what it also does is make the game look like a movie and reduce the player’s input to almost pure mechanical activity. Yes, there are a lot of dialogue options to choose from but save for the paragon/ renegade stuff that is helpfully colour-coded there is really no difference in the outputs the game gives you after speaking. You usually click on all the available options anyway because that’s the only way to get the needed info and picking a mild, neutral or strong reply/ line is very often resulting in the same outcome.
In other words, it’s a lot of menial work with trivial input actions for very little output that is meaningful in gaming terms. You sometimes do get XP for some things you say or do during dialogues, but most of the time, your reward is not in-game, it’s in-story. You invest into the story to get more of the story. Meanwhile the game stands in place.
It’s not that I hate this game for narrating so much (although I don’t read the fucking Codex entries. If I wanted to read static text for prolonged periods of time I’d pick a better medium than television screen), because it’s not just narrating, it’s showing a movie as well and in terms of gaming standards, it’s very well done. But what this movie does is preventing me, for long periods of time, to actually play the game.
Two things. One: do not tell me I’m in the wrong hobby, because I am obviously complaining about wanting to play and being allowed to only distantly participate in storytelling. Obviously. Two: Mass Effect 2 obviously thinks its story is so good that it deserves to take precedence over gameplay. Sure, I’m only five hours in, I might yet be proven totally and utterly wrong but Mass Effect 2 didn’t rectify the first game’s mistakes (bad shooting, awful driving, tedious side missions) by making these parts better. It actually removed the driving completely, simplified the shooting notably (recharging health and ammo clips in place of HP bars and heat gauges) and made side missions (what I have seen of them) smaller and better integrated into the storyline. So, Mass Effect 2 seems to be very much about the story.
Now, the Penumbra guy says that it’s OK to break the rules in order to achieve the next step in evolution (is it a step up or a sidestep is not really the issue here) and in theory I could appreciate Mass Effect 2’s ambition to simplify the gameplay (they would call it streamlining) in order to tell a story that will have, you know, meaning. But the problem with this is that Mass Effect 2’s story, while perhaps good by what we think of as the usual videogame standards, is simply not very good by standards that it invokes itself through trying to ape cinema/ TV so hard.
Seriously, look at it. It’s strictly B-Movie territory. It’s Science Fiction clichés told with a disgusting helping of forced gravitas. It’s a universe in mortal danger, you guys, but what you really do is shoot robots in narrow corridors.
Knights of the Old Republic, another BioWare game written by Drew Karpyshyn used the same trick. It told you about all the awesome battles from the past, orbital drop troops and burning cities, while you were playing silly little skirmishes with up to five troopers on mud-covered hills. I didn’t mind it then because KOTOR actually had some awesome combat systems (trusty old AD&D 3.5 ruleset, innit) and also because the sense of divorce between cutscenes and action was not so huge. In Mass Effect 2 I feel it’s becoming intolerably huge. We see all those digital actors (their words, not mine) making convincingly natural gestures during cutscenes, with all those camera pans and smart cuts, but when it comes to the action, after all the improvements that I have recognised about combat, I still feel like I am playing a game vastly inferior to its own idea of what it should be.
That, and, frankly, the quality of writing is simply not on the same level as direction and editing.
Being fashionably late
No More Heroes 2 is a game where the first words its protagonist utters are “It’s called fashionably late, fucker”. What are Shepard’s first words in Mass Effect 2? I have no idea, and I played the opening twice.
It’s just a bland procession of clichés, all the characters speaking almost strictly exposition, very little humour, style or, you know, life. Shepard is supposed to have at least two sides to his character what with all those paragon/ renegade dialogue choices but he always speaks like a third grade teacher. I appreciate that BioWare are trying to make the direction of the game’s storyline clear to everyone but I just feel I am falling asleep through most of it due to a total lack of blood.
This bland, lifeless writing is what kept me from enjoying the first game’s storyline as well. Mass Effect is all about saving the universe and being true to your nature and stuff, but it’s very forced in putting its meaning through. Apparently, it took paying Chris Avellone to write KOTOR 2 to infuse the franchise with some actual meaning, some philosophical dilemmas and some actual choices that had depth and meaningful consequences to them. Mass Effect 2 is, by comparison a spreadsheet of concepts read aloud by expensive voice actors.
In No More Heroes 2, Travis is convinced to start killing for fame yet again by the aggressively sexy UAA agent Sylvia Christel. It’s done through a cutscene where Sylvia dances seductively around Travis, stroking his beam katana’s handle in a very suggestive way and Travis having a nosebleed (the frequent manga/ anime sign of hornyness). It’s funny, it’s satirical, it’s fan service and fan subversion at the same time and it’s all done through smart filmmaking.
On the other hand, in Mass Effect 2, Miranda, the femme fatale du jour literally tells Shepard that she is engineered to be irresistible to men.
In both cases sexuality is used to establish a sort of a power relationship between characters. In No More Heroes 2 it’s a smart, funny, multilayered scene of bodies in motion, facial expressions and some choice words with double meanings. In Mass Effect 2 it’s one character telling another that she is seductive.
That’s what I mean when I say bad storytelling.
Almost done, scout’s honor
Now, in another game I’d just skip the cutscenes and click through dialogues without listening to any of it. On my second run through Bayonetta that’s exactly what I did and I still ended up with an awesome ten hour action game. In Mass Effect 2 I would end up with an average five hour shooter totally devoid of context. Because you can’t. You can’t take the storytelling out of Mass Effect 2 and still have the meaning. It’s designed around it. Not around shooting, not around levelling up, not around gameplay. It’s designed around its storyline and its storyline is frankly not very good.
Do you see where the problem is? Mass Effect 2 is getting stellar grades across the gaming media and it will sell shitloads of fucktons of copies. This will be deemed not just a success but also a model for future successful games in the AAA range. Where we once had awesome ambient storytelling of Half-Life or subdued, deceptive storytelling of Shadow of the Colossus we will now have clumsy, shitty exposition and expensive cutscenes and “digital actors” stumbling into the uncanny valley every few steps (although you can still masturbate to some of them. Just not Miranda. She is hideous. Her superb seduction skills must be about pheromones because, seriously, she is not hot.). It’s like, Mass Effect 2 tries so hard to be realistic that it ends up being bland, while No More Heroes 2 tries to be funny and over the top and unrealistic because it’s a fucking game and goddamnit you guys, the second bossfight is a fight where a football champ and his band of cheerleaders form together into a giant robot and Travis’ bike is a totally badass Transformers ripoff!!!1!!!1
I find it funny that as everyone and Steerpike noticed how Modern Warfare 2’s story was hilariously over the top and illogical and politically wrong and shit, it should also be noted that Modern Warfare 2 allowed you to fucking play and its story unfolded as you did. In Mass Effect 2, the game trying to be smart and sensitive and assertive, just like Shepard, you are routinely prevented from playing (at least in the “meaningful player interaction” sense) for prolonged periods of time so you can be fed more of its not-so-great story. If Mass Effect 2 is evolution and Modern Warfare 2 is just same old same old packed into the new engine and sold to jocks, then by all means colour me conservative.
Because, seriously, I am almost forty years old. It’s high time I started being conservative.
But look at it this way: I have no problems in media trying to break out of its mould and breaking the rules. I believe atonal music and non-figurative painting are great. They do away with higher layers (harmony, figuration) to expose the core values of their respective media: sound and composition. Colour and shape. Tone and mood. Colour and composition. They strip away the presentation to get to the meaning.
That’s what No More Heroes 2 does not really do, because it has its own storyline and characters, but that’s what Mass Effect 2 most certainly doesn’t do, instead pouring most of its efforts into presentation and as a result suffering in the area of meaningful player interaction but also delivering a substandard storytelling experience.
I believe that ultimately No More Heroes 2 says “I am a game and I like it. And I will poke fun at games because I love games.” But Mass Effect 2 says “I am not really a game. I am more like a movie. And I will distance myself from games not because I can offer something more meaningful, but because I lack trust in games’ capacity to have meaning.”
And this is why in Mass Effect 2, importing the save file from the first game only has very little effect on the gameplay but much more obvious effects on the storytelling (redundant, I might add, but perhaps that’s just me being mean). While at the same time in No More Heroes 2 Travis asks Sylvia to turn to the screen and tell the player the backstory from the first game. And Sylvia dismisses his request by explaining that no one gives a shit anyway, they just want to play. Yes. Suda 51 knows his shit. We’re here to play. Not watch, not read, not listen. This is a game and we want meaningful interaction with it, not just a one-sided stream of visuals and sounds.
Because let’s face it, if you think the game itself can not have meaning, it’s you who’s in the wrong hobby. Surely, you never told anyone that chess would be so much better with more cutscenes and voice acting. Then why are you doing this?
Hey Meho, I haven’t read your article yet but I noticed the Penumbra reference. I’ve been reading the ‘In the Games of Madness’ blog as well, last night actually, and it’s fascinating. Incidentally, look what got posted up 2 minutes before this article… spooky.
Meho is kind of a genius, when you think about it. Hey, I may be a great defender of story in games, but he’s right – there is a problem when the thrilling opening of a game is a five-minute cutscene followed by a slow walk through a hallway. I’m greatly enjoying Mass Effect 2, but what happened to a game having me at hello? It sounds like the opening of No More Heroes 2 gets it.
It’s like Crackdown, in a way. Why was its demo considered one of the greatest demos ever? Because it was absolutely exhilarating. I must have played it ten times. And you know what? The game was exactly the same way, exhilarating, except for 14 hours instead of 30 minutes.
I do love story, and dialogue, and all that good stuff, but Meho has a point. They can fit that in and have a breathtaking game as well. Bioware may have wandered off the reservation, to be honest.
Also: Miranda Lawson. I might not go so far as “hideous,” but she’s not remotely attractive. Her face is shaped funny and her head is too square, her boobs don’t seem attached correctly, and her…
…well, let’s just say she brings whole new meaning to the concept of camel toe.
I see your point Meho, but that is one reason why I am so fascinated with the experiences that games can bring. There are products that run the gamut from doing not much else but looking pretty and telling a decent story to experiences that give your fingers a workout with all the action going on. Different strokes for different folks. Even in the RPG genre, you got lots of good RPG action to be had from twitch games like Torchlight to thinker games like the Avernum series. Mass Effect 2 will not appeal to all, and that is a great reason for everybody to check out a review or two before buying a game. I never played the original Mass Effect but just purchased it from the latest GoGamer sale that is happening right now. 🙂
I’m trying to think of the last time a game had me at hello. I can’t. Immediate action scenes put me off. So does lots of farting around with info download. I always have to wait for several hours in before I get very interested. If I’m 4 hours in and I got nothing I usually quit. I wouldn’t play games if I had to feel the buzz immediately.
Also a great article, Meho. Fun read as always.
Yeah, so just to reiterate, I am not complaining about the opening only. It is one example of how the game states its intention from the word go: this will be a predominantly narrative/ cinematic experience, rather than a gameplay one. And I tried very hard to argue that I am not against this by default (hence the lengthy digression about the Penumbra guy article) but that I am disappointed in Mass Effect 2 for actually delivering a slightly unsatisfactory narative/ cinematic experience. No More Heros 2 comparison is used to point out that ME2 essentially comes across as pretentious by trying to be a movie and not being such a groundbreaking movie at that.
Haha, Gregg, yeah, we posted at almost the same time and I actually had to press the “publish” utton twice because the first time round WordPress was busy publishing your post… Daymn!!!
Meho, I love you. Fantastic read.
I’ve been playing a lot of games recently where the actual gameplay structure gives way to meaning or at least a message without non-interactive exposition filling the gaps. Every Day the Same Dream (perhaps the shining example for me), Braid to some extent, in some cases World of Goo, Dan Benmergui‘s Today I Die and I Wish I Were The Moon, Increpare’s Home, Jason Rohrer‘s Passage and Gravitation, Rod Humble’s The Marriage… there are a lot of these titles coming from the indie scene at the moment, and I love them.
Commercial titles are somewhat restrained by the familiar, tried and tested gameplay mechanics and tropes of previous titles and while No More Heroes uses every cliched gamey trick in the cool book, it does so knowingly and with a sly wink to the player. It knows it’s a game and just relishes that. However I think this self-awareness can only go so far before it in itself becomes familiar.
The biggest problem is when you’ve got a blatantly silly plot, not only being serious and po-faced, but being at the forefront of the experience. If the plot/narrative is shit, the gameplay needs to come up with the goods. If the gameplay is shit, then you better hope the plot/narrative is strong enough to hold people’s attention.
Anyway, brilliant article!
Haha, love you too, Gregg, we gotta get a room!!!
Yeah, those games you mention are an example of “pure” indie aesthetic at work (in my humble opinion, at least) where modest (or non-existent) production budgets dictate that the end product has to become something essentially different from the big budget games. A lot of these games have very little in the way of straightforward storytelling, if they have narration at all and they try to convey their meaning using symbols and abstract content. But that really creates a problem when trying to compare them to blockbuster titles like mass Effect 2 or Modern Warfare 2. Like trying to compare Maya Deren and Michael Bay you end up realising that even though these products (or works) share the same media and comparable techniques, they essentially speak in different languages, have different goals and different ambitions. That’s why I only mentioned The Path and Today I Die. TID is a shining example for me because unlike I Wish I Were The Moon it actually requires you to demonstrate some skill and does not remove your input almost completely out of the equation. IWIWTM merely requires you to make choices, and whether you understand the rules or not, you will be able to reach most of the endings through random inputs alone, whereas Today I Die challenges you to understand the ruleset and then actually work towards the goal by applying logic as well as twitch skills. In the words of the article here, it has meaningful player interaction. That game is a total gem but it’s on a totally different planet from Mass Effect 2 and I felt that No More Heroes 2 would be a better point of comparison because despite its extravagance it’s still a conventional game.
Definitely. Those indie games mentioned have relatively straight forward messages or meanings which of course lend themselves to discovery-through-interaction, abstract forms and symbolism. Just look at The Marriage.
Today I Die was a lot easier to understand purely because of the accompanying prose and text. Your actions were more deliberate because they had some sort of context. IWIWTM was a lot more vague though and involved more discovery but once I sussed out what was happening my actions were more deliberate. Nevertheless, they’re both brilliant, I’m glad you’ve played them!
Do you have any suggestions for making ME2 better as a game though without sacrificing its emphasis on plot/narrative? Even if it is B-movie material! What would make it ‘Meho Proof’? 😉
[…] Negative Effects […]
Meho what an absolutely fabulous article. I could kiss you! I really enjoyed reading it.
I feel the same about Metal Gear Solid as you do Mass Effect 2. <3
Wow, intense article, Meho!
That’s a pretty indisputable way of summing up the Mass Effect 1/2 universe … there sure is lots of talking. I’m mostly glad that the combat is improved in the second game and that driving through retarded alien terrains is gone. You’re definitely right, the constant cutscenes are intrusive and occur far too often in Mass Effect 2. I wish there was less hand-holding, but nonetheless I am enjoying it for what it is. As Steerpike mentioned in his impressions article, there’s more meat in the actual themes beneath the surface than the actual story itself, which is totally amateurish (I actually read the first Mass Effect novel a couple years back … such bad writing, this Karpyshn guy).
p.s. I think you are the second person (myself being the first) I have ever known that thinks KOTOR 2 > KOTOR 1 !!! I was honestly hoping BioWare would hand Mass Effect over to Obsidian so it would be helmed by some excellent storytellers. Oh well.
Chris Avellone: all hail!
“Do you have any suggestions for making ME2 better as a game though without sacrificing its emphasis on plot/narrative? Even if it is B-movie material! What would make it ‘Meho Proof’?”
Well, sure. Hire Chris Avellone to write it. I mean, I even mentioned it in the article itself. KOTOR was a decently written game and, of course it had THAT twist, but KOTOR 2 was just so much deeper in terms of narrative and characters. It did not have to rely on shocking plot twists to feel meaningful. That was one game where having a conversation actually made me feel like I am participating in a heated philosophical discussion at a school lead by Socrates or somesuch.
That or, at least make it funny. The way ME2 is written is just so formulaic: we’ll have heroic characters, we’ll have sassy characters, we’ll have tough aliens, funny aliens, eccentric aliens etc. Again, good for a B-movie crowd but if you’re going to take 20 hours of my life (plus potential repeated plays) then by all means make it deeper and more engaging and funnier.
“I feel the same about Metal Gear Solid as you do Mass Effect 2”
But with an important difference> Metal gear Solid’s design is much more imaginative and readuer to challenge you with new and unexpected things at every turn. ME2 is streamlined so much that you basically sleepwalk through it. You feel good, but are rarely surprised, excited or agitated.
“I think you are the second person (myself being the first) I have ever known that thinks KOTOR 2 > KOTOR 1 !!! ”
In terms of writing there is no dispute. Avellone is far better writer than Karpyshyn.
Apparently, Penny Arcade’s Tycho has opinion worth quoting on the design side of things, something I tried to also underline in my article:
“Short of a franchise “reboots” years after the fact (along the lines of a Fallout 3) or weird spinoffs (with the disambiguating suffix firmly attached) I’ve never seen a franchise rejiggered as fundamentally as Mass Effect. Deus Ex: Invisible War might fit the bill, and might even be a profitable avenue of inquiry.
Both games – ME2 and DE2, which are moving us dangerously close to astromech naming conventions – delivered second chapters which sought to “streamline” their gameplay loop, diminishing their mechanical complexity. In the case of the second Deus Ex, this was generally seen as a gruesome affront to thinking creatures and by extention the entire human race. In the case of Mass Effect 2, it’s regarded as something between refinement and alchemy. I’m not entirely sure why this is, but I suspect that Mass Effect is benefiting from seven years of retreat from RPG orthodoxy.
There’s also the fact that the original Mass Effect didn’t wear its mechanical depth especially well, and its depth wasn’t especially deep. It had the outward appearance of depth, as a hologram does; tantalizing peeks at hidden contours which never and could never wholly materialize. Another developer – even another team at Bioware itself – might have worked those underpinnings until they manifested broad systemic peaks, but they went exactly the opposite way, trading the genre’s customary numerical twiddling for an orderly schedule of player directed unlocks. Firmly demarcated “missions” culminate in Doom style breakdowns of what occurred, what was earned, rendering the epic into discrete meals which offer a progress a la carte.
Outside of the Normandy itself, which is brilliant and real, environments in Mass Effect 2 tend to be a little too designed, too obvious in their purpose – decidedly unlike places in which people might live or work or even be. That doesn’t keep the game from being fun, or interesting; this is simply something that is true. I defy anyone to experience the game’s introduction, though – especially with a legacy character – and not whirl inwardly, prepared to haul the narrative on your back if necessary, coursing with a terrible momentum.
“If I wanted to read static text for prolonged periods of time I’d pick a better medium than television screen”
It’s interesting you should mention Chris Avellone as a means of enhancing the writing because I remember spending most of Planescape: Torment reading static text and not once did it even slightly bother me. Why? Because the writing was fucking unbelievable. It made you laugh, it made you cry but man, did it make you think. The conversations were often mesmerising and truly compelling. Good call Meho 😉
Shit, I just realised I’ve been spelling his name with a single “l” all this time. Now I gotta go back and edit it all to fit the truth!!! Anyway, I have cautiously optimistic hopes for Alpha Protocol, Chris’ and Obsidian’s next game. It could, in theory, rock hard, especially with what looks like an interesting evolution of Mass Effect’s radial conversation menu.
(Shhh… I checked the spelling because I wasn’t sure.)
Ahh, I’d not heard of Alpha Protocol. Will keep a close eye on it.
Did anybody ever play Neverwinter Nights? Chris was involved with the sequel and I wondered how it compared because I didn’t really enjoy what I played of the original. Again, quite hackneyed and po-faced it was.
NWN2 is quite different from NWN. The first game was essentially a slow Diablo. NWN2 is notably deeper.
I agree about reading all the text in Torment. It was the only game I’ve ever played where the writing was consistently, in every instance, better than the gameplay. And the gameplay was amazing. I’m still waiting for the game that tops PT in over all quality. It’s sort of odd that no one has ever stepped up since. Depressing actually.
Well, that’s business for ya. I mean, it really sold only modestly. Black Isle made all those Icewind Dale and BG Dark Aliance games later that sold well because they were more traditional in tone, but even that was not good enough to keep them afloat. That’s why I am really in two minds about Alpha Protocol. On one hand, it’s high time somebody made a serious RPG in modern setting and with Chris Avellone writing it it might actually be thought provoking on the storty level. On the other hand, nobody would pay for a game that won’t sell, so they are forced to make it sexy… We’ll see. SEGA as a publisher can be amazing but let’s wait and see.
What concerns me most is the leak and delay. I actually sat on a panel with Chris Avellone last spring and later asked him about what happened – he said that Alpha Protocol was finished and essentially no more work was being done on it; the team had moved on to another project. So it’s unclear why the delay occurred at all, except for some asshole in SEGA QA writing and then leaking an obnoxious memo.
He seemed pretty cheerful about the whole thing, to be honest. He said morale was fine and they weren’t worried about it. Alpha Protocol is definitely a must-buy for me. You can’t go wrong with Chris Avellone’s work.
Amen to that. I’m just worried about there being no official date on it. The interview I’ve seen with Avellone on the last E3 was pretty reassuring but having SEGA not announce a date is… a bad signal. I hope it’s not the case of the game being good in mechanical terms but unimpressive in presentation so that this is the stumbling block…
I haven’t been paying attention to all things Alpha Protocol lately but I have to say I’m a bit surprised there’s still no new release date. I really do want to play this game.
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Surely, everyone noticed that Alpha Protocol has been graced with a release date in the meantime. But in other news, the Contrarian Corner on IGN written by Michael Thomsen (http://pc.ign.com/articles/106/1067516p1.html) makes some points on mass Efect 2 I’d like to quote here:
“The worst outcome in dialogue trees is that they become static, in which button presses in conversation cease being interactions and just trigger another packet of exposition. To wit, whenever the “Investigate” option appears in a dialogue tree, as it does with almost every exchange, the play element turns into a three-minute encounter with an audio book. I realize, in many respects, that’s an unfair thing to write, mostly because the audio book is much more interesting than it could have been. But what about listening qualifies as gameplay?
The argument is that it builds empathy with all the characters you’ll eventually expose to deep space death. To fully appreciate the complex personas of all your squad members you’ll need a rich understanding of the worlds and species that affect them. I would argue this is a wholly unnecessary, a relic of writing which only bogs down games. Books are, by nature, an information-poor medium. Complex emotions, ideas, and characters are hard to communicate directly in writing, so books tend towards figurative language that evokes, makes metaphors, and spins interwoven yarns that mirror the complexities an author might want to capture.
Film contains an order of magnitude more information than writing. It carries music, image, color, shadow, performance, inflection, and human expression on top of the words written in the script. In a few seconds of film, the longing of a character can be instantly communicated in a way that would take Hemingway five pages to fully lay out. Games arrive next in the evolutionary daisy chain bearing even more information than film. Stories act on our intellects and imagination, but games act first on our senses and secondarily on our intellects. That’s why games are so much easier with the sound off, and it’s also why it feels like such a frustrating waste of art and voice acting to peck through Wiki-explanations using a dialogue wheel. ”
Oh, yeah, baby. I’d like to buy this guy a drink. Anyone knows if he’s coming to Serbia any time soon?
It’s odd, Meho, I am really enjoying Mass Effect 2 but I definitely recognize this guy’s arguments. Mass Effect 2 feels very… compartmentalized to me. You talk for a while, then you shoot stuff. Then you talk. Then you shoot. And that’s about it.
That they really drastically improved the shooting part is saving their bacon, because the plot (and much of the dialogue) is mediocre at best.
Now arguably any game can be described as talk, shoot, repeat. So the secret to making a good one is to make it not FEEL like that. Mass Effect 2 doesn’t succeed in that, which is kind of a pity.
@ Meho, that guy is absolutely on the money. I completely agree with everything he said.
I really doubt now after this lengthy (and brilliant post), that I will invest in ME2.
I’ve heard that argument before, comparing books, film and games on a scale of density of information. I always think, “yeah true, but the quality of information can easily be on an inverse scale”, with books imparting the finest grained information, film more crude and games very very crude or large grained. Maybe the fact of a character having longing can be transmitted faster, but the depth of that longing not so much. Film and games often tend toward a pantomime of emotions which can leave the audience oddly unsatisfied. Writing is brought in to remedy that and so we tend to think the writing is the problem when it’s really just poor all around execution. Great films and great games don’t have this problem obviously. Their creators understand the medium enough that they can use it without bringing in lots of text and exposition.
That “Investigate” choice in the first Mass Effect was maddening. I was always thinking, “Oh no. I thought we were done here.”
The weakness of this in Mass Effect at least is that we are being forced to hear this stuff cause we really don’t care, we just want to get back to shooting stuff but the devs want us to know, so we pretend to care by reading it all. At the end I was just hitting the handy “all read” button.
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