Thursday, July 7, 2011

Things That Should Be In Mass Effect 3, But Probably Won't Be (Part Four)

I love Mass Effect. The third and final installment--with little more than one teaser trailer and one gameplay trailer released so far--already has me grabbed by the wrinklies, and I'm certain it's going to be a truly epic end to a great saga of heroism and hard choices. But there are a few things that I'd really love to see--that I think are very possible for the Bioware team to make--that I'm fairly certain won't make the cut. These are things that should be in Mass Effect 3, but probably won't be:

I want a time-management dynamic.
Why I want it: This one is very straight-forward and easy to implement. Mass Effect 3 begins with the Reapers Abyss-slapping earth. We're looking at cities being wiped out and continents being overrun. I don't think Shepard should feel the luxury of hunting down that lost wallet on the Presidium, or talking down a hanar from proselytizing. He should be panicked, rushing from system to system gathering support or assembling a super device or whatever Bioware decides we should do to nuke the ferrite-Cthulhu fleet. A simple time mechanic would be great for this. ME 3 could set this in concrete or conceptual units. Maybe rather than saying traveling to this system takes 24 hours, they could receive an emergency message from earth that London has been completely wiped out, or that the northwestern territories are in ashes, or something similar. In any case, nothing makes you appreciate your choice to save the Migrant Fleet quite as much as knowning that the Reapers turned Polynesia into crumb-cake while you dawdled. This could also be used to make certain decisions tougher--do you help the quarians against the geth, which takes as long as three other missions, or do you run to other systems getting help from less needy people?

Time management isn't just a new resource or a dynamic story-telling element, either. It could be a challenging hook to ensure players do the game again. If I was playing and had only enough time to experience  say half the content of the game in a single play-through, I'd play it again to manage time differently. But, given Bioware's narrative choice dynamic, I'd probably feel like going back and playing at least two more times so I could experience the alternate choices for all that content as well.

This would make for a compelling way of making a content-rich RPG that doesn't hinder the tension of its story by giving the player too much time to explore every nook and cranny of the galaxy while their homeworld is supposed to be going up in smoke. Virtually every mainstream game of the past few years suffers from this, and I think a lot of the plots, themes, and tones of the games' narratives degenerate terribly from it.

Why I won't get it: I'd like to think Bioware has thought of this, and that if they don't incorporate this element it's because of a really good, compelling reason from a dramatic perspective. I doubt it, though. I'm sure that the real reason not to do this is because it might be seen as limiting the 'freedom' of players to explore the game. Which would be appropriate if it weren't for the critical distinction that most of the Mass Effect series' beloved exploration is in terms of going through and reveling in the choices they get to make and the revelations about the universe and character motivations that come to light in the process. Having time-management incorporated into the game would just ensure that those revelations are endeared all the more as being painfully bought at the cost of other choices, experiences, and discoveries.

I want more mutually exclusive choices.
Why I want it: Tying in with my dreams of time-management above, Mass Effect 3 needs to have more decisions that preclude other story-telling options. For much the same reasons as above, increasing the number of mutually exclusive choices would help to make players feel even more attached to the decisions that they do make.

An early commercial for the first Mass Effect game actually alluded to this dilemma, clearly evincing an early awareness amongst the Bioware marketing department that this was a powerful dramatic promise to make: There's a hologram of a planet, with flashing red indicators around its globe as a stream of radio transmissions plead for help. In the half-light of the Normandy's command deck, Shepard scowls, arms crossed as he hears the human colony's resistance being swept aside. Closing his eyes in grief, he waves away the hologram, and the computer chimes in that the ship is heading to Noveria instead. As a wide-eyed and sober-looking Shepard stares out the window of the Mako as they drop into Noveria's atmosphere, a narration sums up the moment: "To save the galaxy, there are many choices to make--none of them easy."

Cue dramatic music, fade to logo.

Buy me that game.

Why I won't get it: Video game RPGs--even Bioware's--seem to have an urgent compulsion to give players as much opportunity to experience their content in one play-through as possible, even when they incorporate other elements that try to encourage replay value. I suppose the prevailing reasoning is that you can't guarantee players will give a game a second run-through, so you should make sure they get to experience all of the detailed, high-quality content they can the first time through. If so, it's a reasonable assumption, but I don't subscribe to it. I think that's probably why this particular choice dynamic will not become a developer's focus anytime soon. It's just a shame that Bioware has the wherewithal to highlight it in promoting the first game without giving it the full treatment they could have in that game or its sequel. But for now I can hope for Mass Effect 3 at least.

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