Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Maxwell Shepard is Dead

I've now had a little over 4 hours with Mass Effect 2 and I think I can reliably say this about it: Bioware is worthy of all the praise and acclaim they will certainly receive from reviewers and fans in the next while. ME2 is glorious. The story grips from the onset, gives you control, and the galaxy is far more alive than it was in ME1. I could probably gush about it for a several paragraphs talking about graphics, combat, interactive conversations, "Wow!" moments, and everything else. And that's just in the first couple of missions and some exploration of Omega Station. Perhaps in another post, after some of the glare has dimmed and I can clearly see again.

I will say that my only real complaint is the same one I have with 90% of modern gaming: I can't see it properly on my Standard Definition TV. This is less to do with the game and more to do with the unwritten convention that Next Gen Gamers all own HDTVs. An option to print your text at twice the size would make most of the games available right now that much easier to play. But I'm digressing again. I wanted to talk about a (minor) disappointment and a missed opportunity.

A Tale of Loss
I bought my first Xbox 360 a little over a year ago; partly because I'd been wanting one for a while (to play Mass Effect on), and partly because the Boxing Day sale was just too good to pass up. I never regretted it. ME1 was one of the first games bought. It took me a while to finally get into it and through it, but I managed. I struggled and fought against the Geth and the Reapers and I (Maxwell Shepard) prevailed. I was a Spacer, a War Hero, a Spectre, a Paragon, a Savior of Humanity, and Champion of the Galaxy.

And then I was robbed; my Xbox taken. Insurance replace the stolen hardware, but Maxwell Sheppard was lost.

Which means that I can't take advantage of the much touted character import feature in ME2. I can start a new character in ME1 and replay the game, trying to make the same decisions I made the first time, and then import it. I might. After I finish playing my Renegade run. But that either means I have to wait (as much as a month or more depending on how much I play), or start a new character to play ME2 now. This is a disappointing set of options, because I felt attached to Maxwell.

And I wonder if Bioware couldn't have made a way for me to resurrect my lost character.

A Post Unfinished
I have a post sitting in draft format talking about how Dragon Age: Origins allows players the freedom to imagine their characters' motivations and personalities. I really should finish it, because I believe that the principles of that are the foundation to allowing players the agency to tell their own stories within a larger narrative. It all boils down to the Improv principle of "Yes, and".

In improv you are taught to never say "No" to an idea. No is a blocking word; it kills a scene by denying the input of the other actors and forcing them to guess or do only what you want. It wrests control away from people and shutters creativity. Instead, you are taught to accept the idea and build upon it. Yes, we are eating raw snails, and we only have these very long sticks to do it with.

In the same way games can proffer an idea and allow the player to add to it via gameplay input. Bioware did this in Dragon Age by giving you dialog choices that let you complain or elate about situations. Your character was then built up in your own mind by how you chose to react. Then the game would build again by responding to your choice and providing you more. In one origin story you are a City Elf about to get married. The marriage is an arranged one and you can be happy about it or sour. Your choices during the whole arc could tell a tale about how you dreaded the day, but were won over when you met your mate to be; only to see them killed and be on the run from the law soon after. Or it could be something else entirely.

The point is that Bioware has realized that your choices in dialog not only act as switches for the dialog tree, but also as input about how your character acts, who he is, and how you see them. And they can be used to collect all sorts of information.

Here There Be Spoilers
In a game that starts of with your death and resurrection, ME2 does nothing to try and ascertain your past. The game opens with the destruction of your ship, the Normandy, and your death in the cold harsh emptiness of space. Then you are painstakingly recovered and rejuvenated. If you start fresh it is only at this point, after the semi-interactive intro movie (read: movement tutorial), that you get to select your looks, origin, and class. However, by this point at least one major plot choice from ME1 has already been made for you.

As Maxwell Shepard, I romanced Liara T'Soni (the Asari), and subsequently felt a distance between me and Ashley Williams (the other possible romantic option). Later, I was forced to choose which of my Alliance crew members would sacrifice themselves. In a weak moment, I let Ashley die to save Kaiden Alenko. We had parted ways and I couldn't bring myself to save her. It was my choice, but not the default choice as a Male Shepard starting fresh in ME2. Ashley is a alive and well, and from the couple of line of dialog it seemed that she and Shepard were close. This is a universe where Maxwell Shepard could not exist without being imported.

Why not let me choose who lived? Instead of choosing for me, hide the face and let me address the character by name before showing them. Then the choice I made in dialog (Ashley or Kaiden) could inform the game about who I saved and who I sacrificed. The player could be allowed to inform all (or a lot) of the major plot decisions from ME1 by providing them (subtle) choices via dialog or other means. Some of them could be while talking with other crew members about past exploits. Maybe some could be choices offered when reviewing old reports. There are lots of ways that the game could have gathered the information about me (with me hardly even knowing) that would allow a veteran player to craft his character (or ever rebuild one) and yet allow a novice character to simply experience the story and the backstory more fully. An imported character wouldn't have to jump through the same hoops and might get slightly different dialog, skipping lines or allowing characters to have more dramatic entrances.

The Pitch
If anyone at Bioware thinks that this is a particularly good idea, then please use it. Or you could hire me and I'll do everything in my power to help you work it into ME3. Let the player build their character, not only visually or in the game world, but in their own minds. Allow them to graft intention and meaning onto actions, and then glean that information back into the world of the game. This can transform a simple narrative delivery system into an engaging, creative, and participatory experience.

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