You’re Wrong, but that’s OK: Mass Effect 3
I often find myself in conversations with people who seem to think that a particular game really ought to be played and enjoyed by everybody. These people are wrong, but in spite of being wrong they allow me to bring up a better point: some games just aren’t meant for some people.
Before we start, let’s all just agree that it’s okay to have different goals and different emphases and it’s okay to be someone who enjoys some parts of a game and not others. Still, what I’d eventually like to say is that it’s not okay to misinterpret that dislike for some kind of fundamental error in design logic and subsequently disregard the quality of the game as a whole, because what that does is shut your mind off to the possibility that you might actually enjoy something that doesn’t meet your expectations. Case in point: Mass Effect 3.
It’s no coincidence that I’m using Mass Effect 3 as an example here. This article is directly piggybacking off of Our Dear Leader’s treatise on it and while it treads similar ground, I don’t really agree with him on a number of points (I don’t often agree with him generally, but that’s what makes our relationship SO INTERESTING). This is largely due to matters of taste, but even in the darker corners of our ideologies we’re often at odds: he’s a tabletop veteran and I’m a console baby-turned-PC diehard, he likes stories and I prefer mechanics, he has a job and I loaf around all day. We do, however, share one great kinship: philosophizing.
I’m convinced that if we ever met in person and shared a drink, we’d have a conversation that would inevitably result in the acquisition of henchmen scrounged from bar patrons loaded up on peanuts and scotch whom we would then pit against each other as surrogates in mortal combat. We would never cross fists personally, of course, but we’d both relish in the spectacle of lesser men dying for beliefs that are ultimately just the strawest of straw men.
On second thought, maybe I’m the only one who’d enjoy that.
It’s here then that I take my turn on the page to philosophize in the complete opposite direction of my colleague and say that I find Mass Effect 3 to be a supremely satisfying game with a pinpoint focus: action. For all the marketing hype that surrounded the conclusion to what I consider to be the most ambitious fantasy space opera since Paul Eres’s Immortal Defense, Mass Effect is and always was fundamentally an action game, which is something that Bioware (and most of popular game design) has increasingly shifted their focus towards. I’m not so foolish to argue that Mass Effect’s story was not also a large part of its intention (and success), but I am ready and completely capable to give a defense of my belief that Mass Effect is primarily about doing some really satisfying shit and then just sitting back and watching the aftermath.
OKAY BUT FIRST, THIS
I feel compelled to address the fact that yes, there is some kind of disequilibrium that exists in Mass Effect, and yes, it does result in some kind of ineffable dissatisfaction. All the common arguments have been made so I won’t retread them, but what I will say is that if you feel in any way slighted by what happened at the end of the Mass Effect Trilogy, you’re probably not likely to be convinced by a discourse of any length that tries to prove otherwise. This discussion isn’t for you. What I’ll also say is that in any story where you are a participant but not its director, you implicitly relinquish a substantial amount of control over the story’s outcome. This isn’t to say that your dissatisfaction at its outcome is unjustified, it’s just that it’s categorically worthless (that is, unless it makes you go and make something better).
MOVING ON, THEN
The key to my point lies in the past, as so many keys often do. Not unlike how Andy had to reach back into her troubled childhood to unlock the ability to play that horrifically awesome skeleton organ to open the entrance to One-Eyed Willy’s gem-filled treasure cove, so too am I asking you to dig deep into your past and relive an ambivalent multi-hour experience so as to find the key to unlock a metaphorical treasure cove of logical epiphanies. In other words, let’s go back to Mass Effect 1.
Although it was billed as an RPG, the most compelling thing about Mass Effect was that it came breathtakingly close to playing like a native third-person-shooter. Recall that up to this point Bioware is best known for its RPG-heavy action titles (Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire); games that were the gold standard for compelling story-driven gameplay saddled with some pretty okay combat animations. It’s also no coincidence that up until this point all these titles had been developed with an in-house engine based on the one used to replicate tabletop games (Baldur’s Gate I & II, Planescape: Torment), only in 3D and with slightly fancier rendering and lighting techniques. At their heart, these games were intended to be RPGs. It can be said then that the satisfaction derived from these games (or rather the design intent of them) was founded in their being competent RPGs. And really, they were. No argument there. But what about Mass Effect?
Mass Effect was built using Unreal Engine 3. Ostensibly, any game based on an engine most commonly used for action and twitch shooters implies that the designers intend to make something that is essentially this, with some of their own tweaks. This isn’t to say that you can’t make an actual, factual tabletop RPG with Unreal Engine 3, it’s just that the choice to use middleware (which is only ever used to streamline development) implies that what you intend to make already exists out there, and you just want to play with that a little. In Mass Effect’s case, it’s safe to assume that, by choice of engine, Bioware wanted to play with making a shooter.
WAIT, KEEP YOUR SHIRT ON, NERDS
I know that a game engine doesn’t predestine a game’s fate, so don’t misinterpret what I’m saying here. I also know that middleware is often used simply to leverage the ability to provide a game with awesome graphics and cool-looking shit. But another thing I know is that when developers are in a position to choose how they want their game to feel — how a character’s feet walk along the ground, how the bullets chip off pieces of scenery, or how it feels when a character slams into the ground following a special attack — the choice to offload the bulk of those sensations onto a pre-written piece of middleware means that they are mostly content with the way they see it operate in other games that use that same engine. So what I’m saying is choosing an engine that is made for a certain type of game is going to make it play a lot like those games.
OKAY, BACK TO THE POINT
The point in bringing up the engine behind Mass Effect is that Unreal Engine 3 is the defining point between it and all of Bioware’s preceding outings. While Mass Effect undoubtedly contains exquisite storytelling, quantitative character growth, and a substantial inventory system, what made Mass Effect capable of breaking out of popularity amongst RPG fans and into popularity with gamers in general was the fact that it played very much like a decent third-person shooter. I still go back often and play through the entire game just because of the undeniable quality of its mechanics. The way the screen bobbed frantically when you sprinted, the fluid camera glide that followed you when you snapped to cover, and even something as simple as believable recoil-induced screen shake added a sense of gravity to the entire experience.
Even compared to a dedicated third-person action game like Red Faction: Guerilla, with its seismic bombast and ludicrous physics, Mass Effect felt more, well, real. Combine this realness with a kick-ass telekinesis mechanic and you basically tap into every sci-fi power fantasy ever created. Even Stephen Hawking probably creamed his pants on his first playthrough.
It wasn’t perfect, though. For all its pants-creaming goodness, it had quite a few bugs and it lacked some of the shinier bits that other shooters had (like accurate location damage and authentic battle scarring). It also still felt a lot like a traditional RPG with its heavy focus on branching dialogue trees and unwieldy inventory management. These criticisms were of course addressed in Mass Effect 2.
ODDS AND ENDS, MODS AND TRENDS
If time were a book and God turned to the page where Mass Effect 2 was written, he’d probably say, “Jesus Christ did I see that one coming.” (and Jesus would say, “Sorry dad” and God would be all like, “Shut up, I wasn’t talking to you, you dimwit! JESUS CHRIST” fin) because Mass Effect 2 was basically the inevitable chest-bursting neonatal xenomorph first implanted into everyone’s gaping mouths by Mass Effect. It carried an updated sense of style, an edgy, rugged look that made sense considering the hell that Shepard went through, and it expanded on every single mechanic, save one. You know the one I’m talking about.
Still, that particular change can’t really be considered a limitation as much as it was a delineation: the decision to implement thermal clips as a replacement for weapon overheating was a line drawn in the sand. It’s not just that thermal clips are reminiscent of shooters or are a common shooter element, it’s that this small change took away the last vestige of meaningful RPG game design: taking turns.
The first time a player runs out of thermal clips in the game there is a palpable sense that “HEY, THIS IS NOT THE GAME I WAS PLAYING FOR THE LAST 30 HOURS. NOT EVEN A LITTLE BIT.” That’s because in Mass Effect, hitting the overheating point was like finishing a turn: you posted up by cover, spewed any number of attacks until they topped out, and went back into cover waiting for them to refresh.
Of course, Mass Effect was still part action game so you could, if you chose, move from cover to cover while your skills were cooling down. You could issue commands in real-time and decide to try and dodge attacks as they came at you. But you could also choose to play it (mechanistically) like a turn-based RPG, where you select an advantageous position and trade blow after blow with your enemy, never really needing to employ any kind of skill-based action. Thermal clips make this tactic impossible.
In some cases you may get away with it, but eventually most combat scenarios require you to abandon your cover and move to another, just so you can keep attacking. The quest for thermal clips forces action and as a result increases the pace and skill-necessity of every single encounter. Nevermind that Bioware even further tweaked the sensations of running and recoil to make them closer to a native shooter and designed all the levels as linearly as possible, the mechanic of thermal clips firmly roots the game in the realm of action. Also, making experience and cash a per-mission reward as opposed to something earned from the de facto act of killing dudes was just…uncool, man.
WHICH LEADS ME TO MY NEXT POINT
It becomes increasingly clear then, in retrospect, that Mass Effect 3 wasn’t going to shift any paradigms or blow any minds. While people might argue that that’s exactly what Mass Effect did when it came out, and thus it’s what Mass Effect 3 should have done because of arguments about pedigree (not the dog food, people) and ancestry (not the website, people), the facts prove otherwise. Mass Effect was always about providing people with a well-told action game, not a by-the-numbers RPG. And I firmly believe that Bioware even tried, really hard, to make that clear to people through devlogs and Youtube previews. But it really didn’t matter at that point.
By the time Mass Effect 3 had come out, too many opinions about too many things had been rolling around in too many people’s heads to really take the game as it stood: an action game. Mass Effect 3 had (and still has, to an extent) too much baggage. A lot of that baggage is emotional, what with gamers who have invested hundreds of hours in the first two games now hoping for a satisfying conclusion, but a lot of it is also developmental. The burden of making a second sequel to an already popular game is probably too much for anyone to handle, much less in only 2 years. I mean, even Christopher Nolan took 4 years between The Dark Knight and Rises, and those are movies, things that don’t even have to take into account the physical sensation of experiencing them.
So Mass Effect 3 had to choose. Gamers didn’t have a say in this choice, which is really the key to the whole mess surrounding the game. Mass Effect 3 chose to be an action game. Against any desires or hopes that popular opinion may have had, Mass Effect 3 chose to create an experience where shooting a Cerberus patrol in the face would cause his head to explode like a turgid watermelon as opposed to an experience where saying, “If you take one more step I’ll blow your FUCKING brains out” meant that if you literally clicked anywhere else besides his head or his gun you’d die a peasant’s death. Personally, I enjoy the former.
I MAY HAVE WASTED YOUR TIME, BUT
As a final thought I’d really like to address the glaring issue of “player motivation” behind Mass Effect 3 and how it has been said that the lack thereof really ruins the game. Up to this point, I’ve basically built the argument that Mass Effect 3 is fundamentally an action game, so when the argument that the game’s story doesn’t provide me with adequate impetus to play, I can only reasonable reply, “I guess. I just played through the game because I loved slamming dudes in the face with a biotic charge followed by a skull-bursting shotgun shell to the face.” I played through Mass Effect 3 because it was satisfying to play. This is what makes Mass Effect 3 great: it’s an action game and all of its actions are fucking brilliant.
It’s brilliant the way firing an M6 Carnifex pushes the camera up and back with each shot, adding a satisfying punch to each impact it delivers. It’s intoxicating the way a fully upgraded biotic charge/nova combo is an impeccably timed ballet of button presses that results in body after body being lifted into the air and then curbstomped into oblivion. And the way Incinerate detonates with a crisp “pop” as it curves elegantly around a corner into a poor unarmored soul is like, quite possibly the coolest thing ever, man. These are the moments that define what Mass Effect 3 is to me. I don’t mind that someone said Earth is in imminent danger, that somehow there’s some arbitrary time constraint which actually doesn’t exist, or that maybe someone is supposed to die while I’m out trying to save a drowning space-puppy. All I want to do is keep playing the game. And Mass Effect 3 lets me do that. I’m happy. I’m also really happy that this is basically what the multiplayer is and that they’ve continually added free content to it ever since release.
IT’S PRETTY MUCH ALL EX POST FACTO
What makes Mass Effect worth playing isn’t the fact that it’s a decent RPG. To play it under the assumption that it’s an RPG is like going to watch a Transformers movie under the assumption it’s a serious thriller: you’ll be so caught up in trying to substantiate motivations and logic that you’ll miss the fact that a giant robot spider thing just ate 10 bulldozers for fun. And even if you don’t miss it, you won’t be able to enjoy that fact because you’ll be so wrapped up in how improbable it is that such a thing could happen.
So yes, some games aren’t meant for some people. That’s okay. And yes, that also means that Mass Effect is basically a shitty DM. But let’s face it: he sure as hell knows how to make being shitty look and feel really fucking awesome.