About a year after it came out, Mass Effect blew my mind. When I picked it up, I didn’t know much about the game. Just that the reviews were good. It seemed to involve running around doing some science-fiction oriented shooting. I’d heard there were some RPG elements. And the second-hand copy I saw at Gamestop was cheap.
I still remember buying it. The store, the situation. That’s how much that game came to mean to me.
Because I had no idea. I thought I was just buying a game. Run, gun, la dee da. Except that wasn’t what I’d bought. I’d bought a story. A brilliant, beautiful, epic story that took me, and involved me, and made me care. I have cared for the characters in Mass Effect as I have never cared for characters in any other work of fiction. Not a book. Not a movie. Not any other game. My relationships with those characters meant something to me.
There is a moment in that first Mass Effect game when you must choose which of two characters must live or die. There is no good solution to the moment. You have to pick which life to save. It was a harrowing moment for me. Two people who I cared for and one had to die. I made my decision, and after a while I learned to live with it.
As much as I hate to admit it, though, Mass Effect is not a perfect game. The storytelling is strong, but limited by technology. Subplots, especially character relationships, go on pause for long periods of time while they wait for the main plot to progress. Dialogue is oft repeated. There is zero connection between the action gameplay and the more story-oriented sections of the game.
And the gameplay — that running and gunning? Well, to be honest, it’s bad. It just about works, but that’s really all that can be said for it. But there is one very important thing to note about this lackluster gameplay — it doesn’t matter. When Mass Effect came out nobody cared that the gameplay was wooden. Everyone was saying, “this game is awesome,” despite the shooting. It won game of the year awards, despite the shooting.
Not only do I think that it’s vitally important game makers remember this fact, I think that BioWare, the makers of Mass Effect, have forgotten it.
While we all sat around and waited for Mass Effect 2, BioWare put out another big story-driven RPG, the game Dragon Age. Instead of a sci-fi setting, this game had a high fantasy vibe. In many ways it followed the same tenets as Mass Effect — you made choices, you battled your way through an epic plot to save the world, and you forged strong bonds with characters.
Personally, I never bonded as strongly with Dragon Age as I did with Mass Effect. The central protagonist — a voiceless puppet, as opposed to the semi-autonomous Commander Shepard of the Mass Effect games — was, I found, weaker and harder to identify with. However, the game did make some notable storytelling strides past Mass Effect. Character romances, for example, did not simply stop once coitus had been achieved. Instead that became just one step in your deepening relationship — a much more realistic step, and one which heightened the poignancy of the choices I made at the end of the game. I tend to always choose the moral high ground in these sorts of games, but I seriously compromised those morals in Dragon Age because of the quandaries it posed. That’s some serious storytelling chops in my book.
And then, finally, joyously came Mass Effect 2. It is hard to overemphasize how psyched I was for this game. I played to the point of serious sleep deprivation. Three to four hours of sleep a night for four weeks in a row is just not healthy.
But then, at the end of Mass Effect 2, something felt a little off. In many ways the game was a huge step forward. The gameplay shone especially brightly. This was no longer the awkward, clunky shooter I played, but a slick triple-A production where I slid between cover and directed my ragtag group of space adventurers to wreak maximal mayhem.
The story, though… Instead of a single epic tale, BioWare had opted for a more episodic tale. Something resembling a TV show, in fact. You would deal with one character’s issue, then another’s, and then another’s. The big plot sat in the background for ninety percent of the game. And those characters — they were all new. Not that any of them were badly done. Not at all. They were fully fleshed out. Except I had been looking forward to that moment I’d had in Dragon Age, when the relationship I’d forged with characters in the first game was taken to the next level. And it just wasn’t there.
It was a good game, a great game even. Just not as great.
At this point, Mass Effect had few contenders in the storytelling department. The only game that really came close in my books was Fallout 3. An open-world post-apocalyptic game that also wrapped up when it came to awards. The stories told were far more non-linear and frequently stumbled upon, but all tended to center around tough moral choices. Did you do what was right for you, or did you help someone at your own expense? Did you side with this jerk or that jerk? Over and over again you made tough decisions, in a dirty, grown-up world.
Again, it is worth noting the gameplay in Fallout 3 was not all that good either. It was OK, but certainly nowhere near the top tier of shooters. But the storytelling was great, and the game excelled because of that, in spite of the gameplay.
Next out from BioWare was Dragon Age 2, which I think most people regard as a major misstep. It some ways it took the games closer to the Mass Effect model. The protagonist was named and voiced (something I loved), and the character conversations followed the more cinematic flavor.
But other things went very wrong. At a basic level the game was clearly underfunded, and you ended up traversing the same areas over, and over, and over, and over, and over again. The combat was at best mediocre (actually a step up from the first game, but still lacking).
But when I look to the game’s major flaw, I look to its story. Dragon Age 2 was divided into 3 acts. Each one told a story of a conflict. Each one involved the same set of characters. But aside from letting you see familiar faces, there was almost no connection between the three acts. It all felt disconnected, loose, and awkward. The character relationships suffered along with the overall plot. There was never a sense of things hanging together. Everything just felt a little rushed. All that said, there were some cool moments in the story. Some cool character moments too. Some cool dramatic ‘splodey moments. They just never all hung together in a cohesive whole.
So it was with this sense of slight disappointment that I waited for Mass Effect 3.
It arrived with a blitz of media madness. It was slicker, and glossier, and more exciting than ever. And, I do have to say, the gameplay was sweet as hell. I remember the first time I opened up with the game’s assault rifle. I’m no gun enthusiast, but it just felt good. The polish from Mass Effect 2 had been taken and tweaked, and refined, a honed until it could etch diamonds. It’s just a class act.
As for the story, well, it was good. When it comes to the overarching plot, in fact, it’s very good. Mass Effect 3 went back to the epic mode of the first game. It tied together the loose ends of the first two game in some very convincing, even impressive ways. There was a big internet brouhaha over the ending, which, to be fair, was poorly foreshadowed, but for the most part the effort on the game’s big plot is solid.
But in between those big explosions and the little character moments which really sold me on the Mass Effect franchise… something had gone awry again. It was as if everything was set back to square one. There was no sense of progression in the relationships. It was the same moments again. The same beats, the same style. And all the same storytelling flaws.
Between each Mass Effect game, BioWare has clearly invested massive amounts of time in refining the shooting experience. And I have no doubt they have spent similar amounts of time coming up with new stories for each game. But it has not refined the ways in which it tells the story. With each game it has done exactly the same job as it did the last time. And it’s got to the point where that doesn’t cut it any more. What was cutting edge in 2007 is beginning to look tired.
I want to go back to the point I made at the beginning of this essay — nobody loved the original Mass Effect for the gameplay. They loved it for the story. But the storytelling technology has not received the love the gameplay has. And as storytellers, BioWare is just losing ground.
Take the game Binary Domain. It’s another sci-fi shooter with a focus on story. However, in many ways it feels like an amateurish effort. The shooting is clunky. The story is hokey. But it’s still interesting, and it’s still fun, in large part because when it comes to storytelling, it innovates. It tries — very ambitiously, and not entirely successfully — to tie together gameplay and story. How you perform during the gameplay sections affects the character relationships, which in turns affects the shooting sections. It’s a great idea, and it helps create a more realistic, involving story. It helps me care about the — quite honestly, silly — story.
But the game that really shows how far BioWare has fallen behind the curve is The Walking Dead. This game was made by a company called Telltale Games that specializes in media tie-ins. Not often the place you look to for great storytelling. But The Walking Dead has swept through the best-of award like a hungry forest fire. It’s cleaning house.
At a core gameplay level, games don’t get much more basic than The Walking Dead. It is, essentially, a dressed up point-and-click game. The sort of games that went out of fashion in the mid-’90s. You put your mouse over something, you click, you interact with it. There are some action sequences, but they are few and far between and are don’t really offer much in the way of a challenge.
But none of that matters. Because The Walking Dead game isn’t about action. It’s about story. It’s about relationships between characters. It’s about drama. And it’s freaking amazing.
Earlier, I wrote about the moment in Mass Effect when I had to choose to save just one of two lives I cared about. Five years later, that’s still one of the most poignant moments in that game. The Walking Dead achieved that intensity twice in its first episode alone. And over the next four episodes the choices became harder and more intense. I honestly had tears in my eyes as I made my final decisions playing that game.
Could The Walking Dead be a better game? Yes. Could the gameplay be better? Yes. Hell, yes. But the thing is, it doesn’t need to be. The Walking Dead does that thing that any work of art strives for — it makes us feel. There’s still room for improvement in the story. There’s still room to innovate, to do a better job. But Telltale Games told a better, more meaningful story than BioWare has managed in years.
BioWare has rested on its laurels. It’s made hella money, but I feel the moment may be over for it. Someone else is on the block and they’ve drunk BioWare’s milkshake. They’ve taken the reputation for best storyteller in the business.
A second Walking Dead game is now in the works. The creative leads for Mass Effect 4 are online tweeting for suggestions from the fans. I don’t know what the future holds for either game. Maybe both will fall into the trap of repetition and stagnation. Maybe they will wait for someone else to come along and steal the storytelling crown. I hope not. I honestly believe that videogames could eventually sit at the forefront of storytelling. Their ability to involve the audience directly in a story, its action, its consequences — that’s a staggering advantage, and some people are on the cusp of truly owning it. I want BioWare and Telltale Games to be at that bleeding edge when it comes. I’m a fan. I want them to succeed.
I just hope they remember what their games are really all about.