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Massively effected: game design in Mass Effect 2 and a conflict of interests

Bronzey April 16, 2010 User blog:Bronzey

There haven't been many blog posts around here lately so I thought I'd weigh in with my irrelevant opinions :)

One thing that I really noticed in Mass Effect 2 was the dichotomy between the mature aspects of the game design - particularly the writing and story - and what I'm going to call the less-mature, 'explosion and boobies' oriented direction of the game's art, character design and marketing. This was somewhat apparent in the original Mass Effect, where (let's be honest) the somewhat repetitive level design was outshone massively by wonderful, brilliant dialogue and a great twist-driven story. I wanted to highlight a few examples in Mass Effect 2 of what appears to be an adult-oriented story and dialogue bumping up awkwardly against the conventions of a clichéd action archetype - the times where the game isn't sure if it wants to be an action romp for the young'uns or a more mature, plot driven experience that offers genuine moral conflicts and treats us (the collective fanbase) as more intelligent than your average earthworm.

A disclaimer: I'm not an idealist that expects all games to be amazing works of art with a deep story. I know Bioware and EA need to pay bills, and I know that the easiest way to make money is to market your product to the biggest audience. Hence the shift to a more shooter-esque feel than the first game, and a subsequent huge jump in both sales and critical reception. This is by no means a bad thing, and I applaud EA/Bioware for expanding their player base while (mostly) keeping the integrity of their game's story and mature, 'darker' elements alive.

This being said, however, there are a few questions in my mind about the game design for Mass Effect 2, and in particular the seeming sacrifice of some of the more mature elements of the first game; and the inclusion of a lot of 'gimmicks' which don't seem to serve any purpose but cliché or to serve as useful marketing tools. While the dialogue is, as ever, excellent, there's a definite gap between the sorts of topics dealt with in the writing - prejudice, genocide, xenophobia - and the gung-ho explosions and action of the game's art, character design (physical appearance and general personality) and general marketing campaign.

Firstly, the good bits. Mass Effect 2's dialogue and writing are uniformly of a very very high standard. The writers managed to outdo Mass Effect's standard in this respect, giving us a grittier universe, engaging character and plot dialogue and some very memorable sequences (for me, the body of the krogan on Mordin's loyalty mission stood out). The story, while somewhat anti-climactic (I defeated Saren for this?!), had some intriguing plot twists and generally worked quite well.

For me, the aspect of the game's design that was most discordant with the story was in the character design - in particular, the excessive number of characters, their general allocation into stereotypes and the lack of any characters (except, perhaps, for Tali and Mordin) that I genuinely warmed to. Unlike in Mass Effect, where squad members were acquired in ways that actually advanced the story (think discovering Saren's guilt via Tali, or having Liara decode the meaning of Shepard's vision), Mass Effect 2 (save for the plot missions that are few and far between) plays as a giant checklist, a procession of action stereotype squad mates who you could all but leave behind and it wouldn't affect the story in the slightest. In contrast with the sharp dialogue and dark themes of the writing, the characters from Mass Effect 2 were a marketing guru's dream. Psychopathic prisoner? Check. Femme fatale with curves and outlandish proportions? Check. Quiet military type with a heart of gold? Check. Assassin with a conflicted past? Somehow, yes, check again. Even the marketing campaign for Mass Effect 2 - based around these characters, not the game's story - treated them as stereotypes rather than people: "the Loyalist", "the Psychopath", "the Savage".

Other aspects of the game design seemed at odds with the futuristic setting and darker elements of the second game's story. The removal of unlimited ammunition for weapons - justified with an outlandish piece of retroactive technobabble - was a blatant concession to shooter enthusiasts and upset the futuristic nature of the game's setting. Members of Bioware have said that the initial design plan for the Normandy SR-2 called for a cheap rip-off, a shoddy remake that wasn't a patch on the original. Such a ship - hurriedly assembled by Cerberus to combat the Collectors - would've perfectly complemented the darker tone of the second game and gave players the feeling that this wasn't a comfortable, easy mission. Instead we were treated to luxury on a vessel that was more cruise liner than military hardware.

Perhaps reacting to the media outrage surrounding the first game, Bioware (or perhaps EA?) toned down many of the mature aspects that were present in Mass Effect. Players had the chance to discuss religion (and their own beliefs or lack thereof) with Ashley in Mass Effect; apart from a few vague references to drell religion there is (as far as I remember) nothing similar in the second game. The sexual encounters were watered down and somewhat opened up, with Jack and Kelly available as partners relatively easily (unlile the so-called 30 hours of gameplay required to do the same in ME). Without reopening old debates, the lack of diversity in sexual partners - specifically the lack of same-sex partners (apart from Kelly, who is willing to explore anything and everything within Citadel space) - was justified in two contradicting ways that sounded like unconvincing PR spin: firstly, that there was no space for same-sex content (and they could fit in 12 squadmates? Go figure.) and secondly that Mass Effect was a more constraining game character-wise than, for example, Dragon Age: Origins because players assumed the role of 'Commander Shepard' instead of a non-defined, completely customisable self-made character. Bioware's Ray Muzyka described it this way: "Sometimes, in some of our games, we are going to have a defined character with a more defined view."

Excuse me while I rant a bit, mostly because this spin is so ridiculous. We can decide Shepard's first name, gender, moral viewpoints, occupation, outfit, background, psychological profile, physical appearance, equip him or her and guide him/her through a huge variety of ethical dilemmas - and yet we can't make our Shepard fall in love with someone of the same gender? Or, more accurately, we can - but only if they're a unisex alien or... whatever Kelly is. The whole point of a game based around morality and customisation - as Mass Effect is - is that there is no 'defined character' and certainly no 'defined view'. That's kinda the idea of an RPG, Ray. If I were playing as Mario, or Dante, or any one of a number of fictional characters with clear backstories and romantic interests, then yes, certainly, the inclusion of other romantic partners would make no sense. But Mass Effect is not an action game (or so I've been told) with a cooke-cutter protagonist. It is, at least in name, an RPG with complex characterisation and a fair degree of customisation.

To my mind, at least, the reluctance of Bioware at a design level to embrace 'full' customisation - and to cover up its absence with ludicrous excuses - is at odds with the mature approach shown by the writers. Dialogue full of moral quagmires, xenophobia, genocide and philosophical inquiry seems mightily at odds with the rest of the game - a cavalcade of explosions, clichéd character design and features that seem more aimed at the desired market (teenage boys) than at being balanced and nuanced parts of the game. On its own as a shooter, Mass Effect 2 is still brilliant. The awesomeness only increases once we add the dialogue and darker story elements. But these two strands often vie for each other for dominance in a game that isn't quite sure what it wants to be. The professed maturity of the game's universe is let down by a game design aimed (perhaps cynically) at an audience unconcerned or even dismissive about challenging and realistic themes.

Finally, I'd like to leave with the immortal words of Casey Hudson, ME2 Project Lead, about the general direction of the game: "We still view it as... if you’re picturing a PG-13 action movie. That’s how we’re trying to design it."


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