Alpha Protocol, Mass Effect, and the failure of scale

Yup, still on the scale kick.

Today let's consider two similar but separate games.

Mass Effect

The start of something
The start of something

Bioware's loosely disguised Star Wars universe comes into being with several hundred thousands of words of backstory in the Codex, and a stats-based RPG combat system that looks deceptively like an action-based third-person shooter. The game is pitched from the start as an integral part of a trilogy, with the concept of choices that will carry over from one game to the next being undoubtedly the core of the pitch. It's an ambitious project to announce all at once, a project of a scale the videogame industry has not heard of before, and hasn't heard the equal of since. The game releases to critical acclaim on strong world-building, characters, and a memorable climax, despite gameplay that is considered unrefined by both RPG enthusiasts and shooter enthusiasts.

Alpha Protocol

PC box art (cropped)
PC box art (cropped)

Continuing their recent trend of iterating and refining on formulas pioneered by RPG powerhouses, Obsidian Entertainment comes through shortly after the release of Mass Effect with a game that sounds strikingly similar to Mass Effect. A third-person espionage RPG with a stat-based action combat system of the type that looks like a typical third-person shooter but plays disturbingly unlike what you might expect, a focus on dialogue and character, and a promise that the actions of the player character will return to them in meaningful ways. Unlike Mass Effect, Alpha Protocol's game designers are contained to a single game to execute this vision. Alpha Protocol releases to middling reviews and little commercial success, and is widely considered a missed opportunity.

Sound Seriously Similar

So we've got two very similar products, designed and developed with similar mindset and ethos. The typesetting on the logos even looks similar. And yet, as we know, Alpha Protocol languished in obscurity while Mass Effect has launched a hundred-million dollar franchise that extends far beyond the reaches of our own personal medium, into toys and comics and anime and iPhones and on and on. But as any forum will tell you now, post-Mass Effect 3, Bioware didn't deliver on the initial promise and premise of the original game. In a wide swath of the gaming population festers a sense of being duped, or lied to.

There's some solid writing throughout the Mass Effect trilogy, no doubt, and even in the (recently) rather reviled third game, climactic moments such as Rannoch and Tuchanka stand out. But it's all rather pointless, as we know the story arc in its entirety now, and it's easy to see where the idealism behind Mass Effect was abandoned and the realities of modern game development encroached. Mass Effect succeeds in many areas, including "visceral" combat and interesting companions, but the soul of the project at its genesis- the core creative idea of the project- never really survived, because the scale of the project was such that it would simply be uneconomical to implement it. It's interesting that Rannoch and Tuchanka are the spots people tend to be brightest about that game, because those are the two spots where your decisions from previous games can actually affect the available outcomes. The soul of the original game peeks through at these points. The idea of choices with consequences comes through only twice in Mass Effect 3. In other areas people slot in and out if they are dead or alive, but that is not a consequence. The plot continues almost the same regardless. That is window dressing, and it's not what you were sold when you bought Mass Effect. Those are soulless changes.

Alpha Protocol has a soul. Alpha Protocol has a soul precisely because its developers were held accountable and forced to prove themselves first. Obsidian gave its developers one game. One nice tight package, any ideas or concepts they wanted in the game had to get in the game or go forever. Obsidian didn't have half a decade of releases to fill out. They had a game, and they delivered on the promise in a way Bioware never could. By limiting scale they were able to execute successfully on the core idea of their game.

No Caption Provided

Alpha Protocol packs so many systems into such a short, solid game; it's actually kind of shocking how much variance there is in it. The heart of Alpha Protocol is the dialogue system: giving the dialogue system the teeth to actually affect things. The dialogue system in Mass Effect never gives you much of a chance to change anything beyond your paragon and renegade meters, with the exception of a few pre-set story beats. Alpha Protocol has no meters. Your actions result in consequences, sometimes immediate and sometimes considerably later. Think something is wrong with someone? Shoot them, blow your cover in the city, and miss that mission. Make a choice your handler doesn't like? Lose bonuses and find them less helpful in the future. Don't want to rescue the bitch who sold you out? Leave her alone and ride off into the sunset with your psychopathic buddy. Unable to make a decision quickly? It gets made for you, and you have to live with the results. Actually read the codex? Be able to use information from the dossiers in conversations. Accept the company line or toe it by asking questions? Alpha Protocol fractures out in some fantastic ways, and delivers on the initial premise of Mass Effect in a way that the trilogy never did.

Scale and business crippled Bioware almost from the start, but because of the very nature of Bioware's original idea, it was impossible to see how things would play out until we had the third game in our hands, by which point it would be too late. A clever model that was sold well, but not the best for delivering a quality piece of art or entertainment. Alpha Protocol failed commercially because it got messy, and it looked too much shooter and played too much RPG. Mass Effect always looked shooter, but as the scale widened the RPG elements narrowed, and they found massive commercial success, and critical too. But their million dollar juggernaut was sold on a false premise.

And Alpha Protocol delivers on that premise. So maybe next time you're looking forward to a huge ambitious project, consider if there isn't a smaller game that has already done it best.