Friday, February 12, 2010

In the Interests of Full Disclosure...

THIS has been dominating my life for the last couple of weeks...

Yes. I am that big of a geek. I ordered my copy in advance, and played through the first game to be sure that my character's choices and flavor would be fresh in my mind in advance of the game dropping into my hot little lap, and I will freely admit that sleep did not come for better than 38 hours after it hit my hands.  There was actual work involved, so it wasn't entirely a frenzy of button pushing, gasping at cut scenes, and being drawn into this new form of narrative.

BioWare has created something new. A lot of reviewers are still trying to decide what that thing is.  BioWare has made its mark creating some of the great RPGs of the decade.  They are still at work at that, but with Mass Effect they've warped their formula a bit in throwing in game play that is distinct and different than their usual fare.  Though, if anyone is familiar with their games, there are all the elements right there in Mass Effect from the collection of goodies, the acquiring of team mates, the management of team mates' stuff and abilities, but where BioWare excels is the player's management of the relationships.

A lot was made of the sexy time scenes from the first Mass Effect--which turned out to be a little less steamy than an episode of NYPD Blue.  Yes, there was a partial nekkid touchis, and there was some side boob action, but the scene itself was the culmination of a loooooong portion of storytelling process.  As opposed to being a Hot Coffee Mod-esque bit of  naughtiness, or the gratuitous nudity that God of War tossed in to hearken back to the heady days of fantasy films that made stars out of athletes and body builders and models. A lot was made of the scene, and what all the hue and cry from folks who saw it and got themselves into a wroth, was that they lacked the context for the scenes in the story.  Mass Effect is very much about that story.

That is what BioWare is really doing nowadays. It builds structures of story.  They are building a new way to build narrative--not just BioWare as Indigo Prophesy proved handily, and what Heavy Rain is shaping up to be.  Their hybrid shooter/RPG is a platform for telling a story, and giving the player a hand at the controls of the ride.  While the studio is firmly in control of the shape of that narrative, the ride is very much in the hands of the player.

Perhaps the best comic to distill down that experience is right  here.  The game comes down to a lot of choices, and there is certainly fan service galore in the game. Not just in flirtations with side characters, but scads of references to your choices and snippets of conversations that span both these games, and promise to span the entire trilogy. There is something satisfying to be able to recall these tiny pieces of conversation in the 40+ hours that you spend in these experiences, and that carry through to the next 40+ hours of experience.  That your choices affect and shape not just one, but will reverberate through three games, that is the seductive nature of the narrative that BioWare is attempting. 

Easter Eggs and bits and pieces of story elements that arc through games is nothing new. But, BioWare brings something to the table that really changes the game a bit.  It brings not just these structures of narrative, but it then executes them with verve and aplomb. And with top notch voice acting that brings these sprites alive.

Keith David is no stranger to video games or voice work. But he strides into these gigs with weight. All of the performances have a depth that the folks who point to pieces of scenes taken out of context prefer to ignore. Or rather, they aren't even really aware, because the experience and narrative are foreign, and they are looking to latch onto something popular to advance their own agenda. We see this with Avatar and the folks projecting their own biases onto the screen, we see it with the Conservative bloggers who simultaneously loved and hated The Hurt Locker for ideological reasons that sort of blinded them to the actual film. This is a cast that demands a bit more than button mashing.  Which will be lost in much of the discussion about this game. Which is sad, because this is a game that deserves to be talked about, not because of the "mature" storyline--which seems to be code in the industry that it isn't necessarily for 13 year olds with ADD--but because of what amounts to a new narrative structure that is shaping itself. 

RPGs have evolved quite a bit, and Mass Effect is very much about evolving that structure and game play more.  Not just with the stripped down mechanics, and the layered characters and reveals into their psyche, but how they impact your own character, and the player. It's a game that when you talk to others who played through the dang thing, you compare your experience and choices with theirs, and the impact it had.  Without spoilers, the game is chock full of moments when you want to take back choices--you DO have that ability thanks the savable nature of the medium--but that doesn't change the moment of surprise when a scene turns out entirely different than you'd been thinking it would. Or ends with horrible consequence because of your actions.  The investment in the characters, lent that gravity thanks to the performances, gives your choices a weight that you bring out of the experience. 

That investment is why those who want to piggy back their own issues onto this vehicle make me sad, because there IS plenty of room for discussion about the choices that the BioWare team made. And without the context of the actual game play and story, those choices are lost.  And the opportunities to explore this new narrative structure are likewise clouded. For those who are hip deep in that structure, it is a place where you share an experience that is a bit longer than the involvement that you have with a film, and it's easy to get lost in that narrative. With the choices presented. To explore not just a world, but impact that world. To push and prod a narrative in swirls of ethical choice that are not necessarily good, or bad, but rather about exploring those choices, and their consequence. 


  1. This review deserves to be in a gaming magazine and/or on a gaming site. It is certainly going to make me look at the game in a different way when or if I play it.

  2. Thanks. The game is a LOT of fun. This didn't really have a place over at The Moose, but I did want to give it a few lines.