I chose my eyes and my hair and my face. I chose where I’m from and what I’ve done. I chose my name.
Despite its cinematic presentation (and what cinematic presentation it is!), Mass Effect is rooted in the Western RPG tradition (whether or not it actually is a Western RPG first and not a third-person action game with elements of western RPGs ala Deus Ex), which means players have a significant influence on how their character acts within the game–after all, the game was developed by Bioware, best known for Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Knights of the Old Republic, the epitome of Western RPG tradition. Mass Effect begins with a player choosing their name, physical appearance, and history. Before the opening cutscene finishes the player is already presented with their first choice: will they chastise a sarcastic crew member or listen to their concerns?
Those who have played Bioware’s other games know the drill. The first two-thirds of Mass Effect play like a better, Star Wars-less version of Knights of the Old Republic. The plot is authored, and so are the menu of your character’s responses, but you do have a menu of responses. You always have the choice: fight or negotiate. Kill or don’t. Or, of course, don’t do anything at all, for the myriad side quests. It may not be much of a choice, but combined with the custom appearance and custom “talents” (AKA skills, spells, whatever you level up when you level up in an RPG), most players come to feel a sense of authorship over their character, a sense that they are their character. That’s (generally) the point of Western RPGs, in the way it is absolutely not in their Japanese counterparts.
At the conclusion of the introductory mission, the player’s character is affected by an alien “beacon” and experiences a vision. A player only sees quick cuts of unintelligible images, but when approached by party members, the character starts talking about killer robots and mass extinction. It’s a startling disconnect between player and character, but digestable: alright, so that’s what it was, what now? But the disconnect doesn’t go away; it grows. As the player continues through the game, the character expresses more and more certainty that the killer robots from the vision are the real threat, not the renegade special forces operative the character has been persuing, going so far as to demand action from the Council that rules most of the galaxy. The Council’s response is predictable: you had a vision. We’ll wait for a bit more evidence before starting a war.
The problem with this was that I thought the same thing. Following the “paragon” path (the “good” way, which also emphasizes cooperation), I wanted to agree with the Council, agree to look for further evidence first, agree to continue searching for the rogue operative. But the options presented to me were: demand the Council take action against the killer robot threat, or demand it nicely.
I understand why the character could have such conviction–direct visual experiences (even if illusionary) can obviously inspire certainty that seems ridiculous to others. But I didn’t see what the character saw, and I don’t have that conviction. And everything up to this point has told me that I’m the character. I get to decide what my character thinks and says. Suddenly what control I had (and certainly it wasn’t much) has been ripped from my hands, and all that’s left is a decision on the tone of the character’s statement.
It could have been an interesting device. Lead the player to identify with this character, become immersed in it. You choose what your character looks like, where they’re from and what they’ve done, how they act, what they say, who they travel with. Let the first disconnect, the narration of a vision the player never saw, hang in the air. Lead players to ignore it, to dismiss it as an aberration and continue as before. Slowly introduce the certainty of the character into conversations, slowly build up other characters’ growing fear and distrust of the character’s certainty. Introduce a few moments like the above, wherein the player has no choice, wherein the character demonstrates absolute certainty and righteousness. And then, in some climatic moment, the character acts without regard for the player, following this certainty–perhaps does something terrible, though it needn’t be, and perhaps shouldn’t be, in order to emphasize only the loss of control. Force the player to suddenly confront the illusion of immersion they have been experiencing all this time and reevaluate their relationship to the character and the game.
The Bioshock moment, more-or-less. Of course, it wouldn’t even have to be that. It could simply be the Knights of the Old Republic moment, wherein a sudden revelation about the player character forces a massive shift in the player’s perception (assuming they didn’t see it coming). But that’s not what this is. It isn’t even Bioware stepping in to railroad the plot in the right direction: the confrontion with the Council doesn’t impact the plot. A later, similar confrontation does, but by that point the player has encountered one of the killer robots in reality and can be reasonably expected to argue for action; I certainly was. It seems, simply, to be sloppiness.
Authorship is–or should be–a central issue of video games. A medium has the most to say about itself: prose can best talk about words, film can best talk about cameras. Video games, a medium defined by interactivity, can talk about choice better than any other medium yet invented. That was the genius of Bioshock, targeting itself directly at the problem of choice–even if it was only about the lack thereof.
I wasn’t expecting Mass Effect to do the same, and I quite enjoyed the game despite this hiccup. Yet even in a game that’s not about authorship and interactivity and choice–or perhaps especially in a game that’s not about those things–developers need to be careful. Because if you just want to make a game where the player is the character (within certain predefined boundaries) and don’t want to call attention to these issues, you’d better damn well make sure you don’t accidentally call attention to them and then leave them hanging. Broken immersion in Bioshock was the point; broken immersion in Mass Effect is a mistake.