December 9, 2007

Mass Effect: Am I the Player Character?

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 11:05 pm
Mass Effect dialogue choices

Recently I’ve been playing Mass Effect. As I expected, so far the story and characters shine. As for NPC interaction, while underneath it looks to be pretty much the same old dialogue trees, there’s the potential for much better performance with the new system. I mean that in the acting sense, rather than the computational sense.

For those who haven’t been playing (or reading about) Mass Effect, during each exchange with NPCs there is a set of options presented for types of things to say (rather than, in games like Knights of the Old Republic, things we assume the player character will literally say). A selection can be made while the NPC is still talking, and then triggered when appropriate. After the trigger, the player character animates and voice acts through a response that expresses the basic idea of the chosen option, but perhaps performed in a surprising or clever way (or sometimes, an unintended one). Apparently this went through 10-12 iterations before the version we see in the game. The result can feel like a nicely-scripted conversation between two characters, and somewhat less like the navigation of an option tree.

On the other hand, it also makes conversation feel a bit less first person — sometimes more as though we’re influencing Shepard (the player character) than playing as Shepard. It’s made me think of Nick’s “Fretting the Player Character” piece in Second Person, which talks about a variety of ways we might conceive the relationship between the player and player character. Overall, I’m glad to see this alternative approach explored, and interested to hear it may have a future at other EA studios. Though I do agree it’s disappointing that conversations don’t seem to happen “in the field” (and it appears, as I play further, I may find other things disappointing).

That said, so far the changes in the combat system feel like a mistake. Unlike KotOR, combat in Mass Effect is real-time and (when zoomed in to target) sometimes first person. As opposed to the changes in the dialogue system, there’s no experiment going on here. And it just doesn’t do combat as well as a combat-centric game. Neither the enemy NPCs nor my squadmates seem to perform well at pathfinding, the enemies do repetitive shooting-gallery types of moves, I have a hard time telling what kinds of visual gaps in the environment I can actually shoot through, sometimes on uneven terrain my vehicle seems to block its own fire (and I can’t predict when this is going to happen), etc. During most combat sequences I feel like a game with good, innovative elements — that I really want to get back to — is being interrupted by a game that’s okay, but not nearly as good as that other one.

I can see the motivation. The turn-based combat of KotOR would feel pretty dated in Mass Effect, and yet they wanted to innovate elsewhere, so couldn’t exactly put the effort into combat of something like Halo 3. Plus, it does make the combat feel more under my control — like I’m playing as Shepard, rather than just making high-level choices that the character will enact.

In other words, the dialogue and combat systems have moved in opposite directions, in terms of the relationship between player and character. In fact, relative KotOR, they’ve switched. It’s almost like they were trying to set up some perfect comparison for game scholars…