Mass Effect 3 and Movie Games

My first blog post, so please excuse if it meanders. It may not be the most cogent argument but I hope it will stimulate some debate.


Mass Effect 3 defines itself on choice. The entire series, in fact, has predicated its sell on how your choices have tangible impact. Characters appear or don't; entire chunks of content may be locked or revealed depending on your actions.

Nate's Choice: Press X or Die
Nate's Choice: Press X or Die

For the most part, it seems, the series has delivered. Yet the tragedy is, at least in my humble opinion, is that the series still doesn't REALLY give you choice. It is still, in the end, a movie-game.

What do I mean by that?

if you would indulge me, I have a theory that big-budget triple-A gaming has diverged these days, following two distinct but entirely commercial paths.

First is the movie-game. Often aping its stylings, camera angles, and cutscenes from the art of film, these games are rush EXPERIENCES, boiling down in its deepest essence to "press A to proceed" encounters. The single-player components of Call of Duty, Uncharted--most action games in fact, lie on this path. I have nothing against these games. They are fun. I like them.

The second are playground games. This is Skyrim. This is Red Dead Redemption. World of Warcraft. Games where, despite a thin veneer of story, ultimately define themselves by letting you muck around in a giant sandbox. If not, the story still adheres to the movie-game format: set-pieces or storylines that play out in a preset predetermined manner. And that's where it messes up for me, because I think this isn't truly choice. I would like something more.

Cloud Computing and Content "Chunks"

The Cloud
The Cloud

There's a second part to this argument, and that's about how companies monetize their product. In this day and age of cloud distribution, where updates are delivered seamlessly through content platforms such as Steam or Xbox Live, there is no need for either producers or gamers to adhere to the expensive (and occasionally inhibiting) $60-a-pop system.

Valve, for example, is experimenting with precisely that. I have to think that Gabe Newell must be semi-prescient when he directed Valve to develop Source. A modular, iterative engine linked with Steam, able to deliver pieces of content as they arrive.

My ultimate point is that games don't HAVE to be presented in long-gestating chunks, where everything is decided but split along various discrete choices. We're reaching the point where content is becoming more continuous, and where we can pay for things as they come along, not in giant packages.

The interesting part comes here: the developers can use this too.

This is precisely where The Old Republic missed the mark, I think. They created a story-driven MMO, but that story was the same for everyone in the same class. And at least with the class I played, Jedi Sentinel, the story wasn't very good at all. It felt completely disconnected from the world I was supposed to inhabit--so much so, that it didn't even really feel like a world at all. Yet why did they bother with this, when they could have instead come up with something a lot more interactive and interesting?

Womp womp
Womp womp

This is a time when gamers feel more linked to their product than ever. The backlash against the Mass Effect 3 ending shows precisely that. We CARE about OUR games, OUR stories. By enabling us with Choice, game companies have essentially surrendered the concept of game ownership to the player.

In Conclusion

The time has come (the walrus said) for true innovation. Let's have a game where our choices truly make an impact, where they respond dynamically to what we really do. Pit the players against the developer, and challenge those developers to react in ways that truly define our own epic narratives. Change the payment system so we don't have $60 and $15 increments just to access large chunks of content. Allow for more communication, more context, more customization.

The Future? (this is Guild Wars II btw)
The Future? (this is Guild Wars II btw)

I am aware that games like EVE online (and, from what I have read, the upcoming Guild Wars II) have attempted something along these lines. Yet I feel EVE, at least, has still missed the mark. By leaving the players in a world and saying, "go to it!" developers have nixed stories from those who want to see it woven around us. And while it might seem an impossible dream, I would like a game where the story isn't ending isn't picked for me, like Mass Effect or the Old Republic, or any movie-game; nor a game where there is no ending at all, like EVE. I want a story with an ending I can help write along.


Mass Effect offers choice. But it's just ticking off A or B on a multiple choice grid, and if you wanted you could go on youtube and see ALL the endings. And in the end, it all boils down to nudging the story along in particular ways.

I guess we could all choose to ignore that. But that'd be kind of lame, don't you think?