The “Mass Effect” effect: over-complicated video game narratives are a bad idea

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Mass Effect is a franchise that prides itself on giving the player a huge amount of control over the outcome of the game. While the original Mass Effect had only two really big decisions that could impact the future of the series, the second game spawned so many possible permutations of the story that most people will never experience all of the content that BioWare created. I’m not so convinced that’s a good thing.

Warning! As is often the case with my recent posts, I’m going to be spoiling all three Mass Effect games here. If you haven’t played them and would prefer not to have everything ruined, don’t read this.

OK, we’re past the break, which means you ignored my spoiler warning, so I’m just going to start spoiling stuff right now. Here’s a list of the choices in the original Mass Effect that can have a major impact on the rest of the series:

  • Do you save Ashley or Kaidan?
  • Does Wrex die?

That’s about it. The second game will feature a small appearance by Ashely or Kaidan, depending on which one you save. If you let Wrex live during the beach scene, he will play a large role in the story mission on his homeworld. If you shoot Wrex (or if a crew member shoots him to save you), his brother Wreav will take his place in Mass Effect 2. Of course, none of these characters actually rejoin your party in the second game, so it’s fairly easy to accommodate the previous choices you made. If Wrex is dead, you’ll miss out on some dialogue about the events of the first game, but nothing really substantial will change.

The end of Mass Effect 2, however, features a ‘suicide mission’ that can dramatically alter the events of Mass Effect 3. This is where things get the most complicated. Mass Effect 2 has fourteen possible party members (eleven in the main game and three DLC characters). Every single one of them can live or die during the final mission. The outcome for each character changes the events of the third game in some way. You can also finish the entire game without ever adding some of the main characters to your party.

  • You can choose to leave Grunt in the pod
  • You can choose to turn Legion over to Cerberus instead of activating him
  • You can reach a point where you are asked to choose between Samara or her daughter Morinth (Samara is the default choice, but there’s a version where Morinth kills Samara and replaces her on your party; she passes herself off as her mother to the rest of the crew, who continue to refer to her as Samara)

All of those choices must be reflected in Mass Effect 3. Grunt makes an appearance, but only if you took him out of the pod. Legion can appear as a friend if you activated him (and he survived the Suicide Mission), or he can appear as an enemy if you turned him over to Cerberus. If he dies during the Suicide Mission, you later meet a recreation of him. If Samara is in your party and survives the end of the game, she appears in a monastery looking for her daughters during one of your missions in the third game. If she died, she doesn’t. If you chose Morinth instead of Samara, you will encounter her as a Banshee during a fight near the end of the game. And the list goes on.

That’s not even half of the changes that can be made in Mass Effect 3 based on your choices. Here are even more:

  • Ashely or Kaidan can (but may or may not) join your party in the third game. This means that not only does BioWare have to create content in the second game for both characters–one of which you won’t see because you let them die–they also have to create more content for both characters in the third game, including all party member interactions with all possible combinations of party members and responses to all of the possible choices in this list (and more)
  • The survivors of Mass Effect 2 all make an appearance. If someone died (or you never put them in your party to begin with), you’ll miss out on their content. I lost four party members during my run through Mass Effect 2. I would have to replay all three games again to see the content I missed out on.
  • Did you turn the Collector base over to Cerberus? Dialogue and some scenery can change depending on this.
  • Which characters did you romance during both of the previous games? This makes a difference not only to Shepard, but to other crew members who get together (for example, there’s a scenario in which Tali and Garrus are together that you may never see).
  • If certain characters are alive, did you complete their loyalty mission in the second game?
  • Was Tali banished from the Quarian fleet?
  • Did you destroy the Geth heretics or let them live?

These are just a few of the variables pulled into Mass Effect 3 from the previous games. According to one of the developers in an interview with Joystiq, the last game pulls “probably over a thousand” different variables into the story. Each of those 1,000+ choices changes the story a bit. Each change of the story leads to additional changes later down the line, until you end up with a 7 GB game that consists mostly of dialogue, locations, cutscenes, and characters that any given player may never see. That’s a lot of content being created for only a fraction of the audience.

What we have in this case is a bunch of developers working their butts off to account for every possible decision they allowed you to make in their game, only to realize that each time they do so, they must account for even more variations on the story. You also have players who will never experience a large portion of the content that so much work was put into.

This is bad for players and developers. When I play a game like Mass Effect, I like having choices, but I also like experiencing as much content as I can. I would have to play all the way through the entire series several times, making slightly different choices at each turn just to play most of the content. Even after two or three playthroughs, it’s unlikely that I will have played every bit of story there is to play. That’s disappointing to me.

What’s even more interesting is that the big finale to the entire series only has seven possible outcomes. Each ending simply combines a few common elements to determine the end of the story. (This doesn’t account for the “extended cut” ending, which I haven’t played yet).

  • Does Shepard destroy, control, or synergize the Reapers? (Not all of these options are available depending on how low your “galactic readiness” is)
  • Is Earth vaporized in the resulting energy release, or does the planet survive?
  • What happens to the members of the Normandy?
  • Does Shepard survive? (Almost always no, except in two or three rare outcomes determined by your level of “galactic readiness” and other factors)

There is also an eighth possible ending where Shepard just shoots the Crucible-child and the Reapers continue killing everyone.

Think about that. After thousands of permutations of the story, you come to one of eight outcomes every single time. Why design thousands of possible branches? I can understand wanting to make the player feel like this is their story, but I think that can easily be accomplished without bogging the player down with so much content that they can’t play all of it.

In short, complex stories are great in games, but over-complicating things to the point that the player can’t possibly experience all of the content leaves both the player and the developer in a less-than-ideal spot.

That said, Mass Effect is a very fun series and I definitely recommend playing it if you haven’t.