Mass Effect Trilogy: From the magic of an interstellar community to the action blockbuster

Mass Effect was a beloved franchise for many. We’re jumping straight into past tense here, as it’s one of many franchises that just got worse every iteration and jumped off a fucking cliff when it was time to end the (planned) trilogy.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Today you’re treated with an guest post from the editor / proofreader, A9. Hello again, it has been a while.

This whole article will assume you’ve played Mass Effect 1, 2 and 3 and various plot details will be spoiled if you still want to play it one of these days. I won’t go into any of the side material such as the comics, or the newest game in the franchise, Andromeda.

I will have to apologise to the reader ahead of time for the ramble that is this post, as this whole post was inspired as it were by the soundtracks of Mass Effect 1, 2 and 3. It’s not meant as an informative post, but more as a critique and my frustrations with the series. Or more informally, a ramble that was created out of endearment for the first game.

Mass Effect: An Introduction

Mass Effect is a third person shooter role playing game set in a semi-hard science fiction setting. What is hard science fiction? Without getting too much into it, a science fiction story that abides to the rules and logic of the world and can explain why certain things work the way they do, for example faster than light travel. Why do I categorise it as semi? It all hinges on the ‘discovery’ of a fake element, element zero.

Throughout the Mass Effect trilogy you follow John or Jane Shepard, commander of the Earth’s Systems Alliance Navy on his quest to stop the Reapers, a highly-advanced machine race of synthetic-organic starships. Why does he want to stop them? Because they want to erase all organic life in the galaxy, and that’s a pretty big deal.

The thing that actually made the series so beloved for many was the world in which this story takes place, with a vast amount of different and unique looking aliens, each with their own cultures, interesting locations to visit and with some nice space politics sprinkled on top. For example, the colossal space station called the Citadel, which houses tons of different aliens and hosts the Citadel Council, which is the ultimate authority of Citadel Space (the space inhabited by all members who recognise the authority of the Council). The galaxy itself worked even if the threat of the Reapers wasn’t there and it’s clear a lot of time and effort went into making this galaxy feel ‘real’.

This combined with the fact that save files could be transferred to the next game, made players quite invested into their character and choices. A decision made in the first game could have repercussions in the next two, or if a quest hadn’t been completed in the first game the quests also won’t pop up in the later games.

The main theme for the Mass Effect games, from which melodies will carry through to the soundtracks of the sequels in diluted form.

Commander Shepard

The most important thing that separates Mass Effect from movies or books is the interactivity with the protagonist. With a selection of three backgrounds (sole survivor, war hero and ruthless) you start your journey. While still limited by a binary good vs evil alignment system (paragon and renegade) which lock some conversation options, from then on you choose most of your dialogue options. Within the confines of the story of the games, you choose who to ally yourself with and who to piss off. You get to know your crew, which consists mainly of humans (you are in a human space navy after all), with a couple of aliens you pick up on your travels, each with their own goals and motivations. They don’t just join because the plot demands it, they all have their own goals and tagging along with Shepard will get them closer to their goals. To top it off, most of these motivations tend to intertwine with other crew members offering different perspective on the problems of others and span over three different games.

Take the character Garrus, an ex-space cop who investigated the top special agent of the Citadel Council but kept being blocked on every corner, despite any evidence he had. After having made no real progress (since everything was classified), the case was ordered closed. Not satisfied with this, he teams up with Shepard to bring this agent to justice. But on this journey, he will have to learn what justice really is when not simply backed up by laws and regulations and he will often lean to the darker side of ‘justice’, to get the job done even if it means killing the suspect. Shepard can influence him, by encouraging this, ignoring it, or reminding him that just killing guilty parties isn’t true justice. This provides the basis of their cooperation and friendship.

The role of humankind

The universe Mass Effect is very comparable to the likes of Star Trek (but not constrained by costume budget). As a video game, the lore and setting had to be established right away, instead of getting the opportunity to create a basis and gradually building upon it episode after episode.

The biggest parallel between Mass Effect and Star Trek is the intergalactic community. You have the Citadel with the Council on one hand, and the United Federation of Planets with the Federation Council on the other. Yet the key difference here is the role humans play, and how we get to those end points. In Star Trek, humankind starts World War III, after which First Contact with the first alien race happens, the Vulcans. With their advice they band together within a hundred years into one United Earth. The humans then play an integral role in the foundation of the Coalition of Planets, which will grow into the Federation.

Yet in Mass Effect, humankind is the new kid on the block. While the early history of the Systems Alliance (the name of the united earth government) isn’t exactly clear, the foundation is: the discovery of a ruined alien research station, which revealed humankind wasn’t alone in the universe. This discovery sent Earth almost into a panic, as there was no telling if the aliens were still out there, or whether were hostile or not. This provided the cornerstone for the nations of Earth to band together, in a “us vs them” kind of way, which took only less than a year since the discovery. The Systems Alliance was formed, and the Mass Relays were discovered allowing interstellar travel, but even then there were no aliens to be found. Only after years of rapid expansion featuring many new colonies did they encounter their first aliens, the Turians. According to the interstellar laws created by the Council (which was all unknown to the Systems Alliance) randomly exploring Mass Relays was forbidden and a battle ensued, with only one human ship surviving and limping towards the closest human colony. It got followed, and subsequently the whole colony got invaded.

Only after a short war (that was lost) did the Systems Alliance get introduced to the galactic community and only then did they realise that other races have been gallivanting around the galaxy for hundreds of years already. Humans were just so insignificant up till that point, that the other races just didn’t bother. During the course of Mass Effect trilogy the humans climb in the ranks (quite quickly) and join or lead the Citadel Council, almost turning it into a Humanity Fuck Yeah story.

Story, lore, codex

The story, which by some accounts should not be the focus of a video game was one of Mass Effect’s defining features. In principle, I am of the opinion that gameplay is the most important aspect of a video game (or computer game as this blog’s owner would say) and that story is complimentary. Yet some video games have a nice synergy between gameplay and story.

The entire Mass Effect universe has an immense amount of lore, filled with many different aliens and technology concepts. The first game makes ample use of that, yet so much stays just in the codex, the in-game encyclopedia. It’s nice supplementary reading for sure, but why wasn’t it tied into the main story? Did they just run out of time?

Rather than making use of the rest of the codex, ME2 supplemented it with extra material and new places. One cannot fault them for that, it’s normal to add new stuff, but so many things are left unexplored and rarely visited again. How do the species govern their own people, their own homeworld? What is really happening in the galaxy outside the reaper threat?

The introduction to the Reapers in general, and the reaper Sovereign. You won’t see this again in ME2 and ME3, unless you count the Catalyst which I hope you won’t.

The promise of a trilogy with a great story was there, as the set-up was very well done, with many story threads being left open and the real mystery of what the Reapers are. Yet main trilogy ends with such a wet fart, that the thing that most people enjoyed the most, utterly failed them. Hey, remember the threat from the first game? Yeah now they’re just everywhere but we’re doing OK. Oh, and by the way, we found an ancient superweapon design on Mars, so let’s build that. And before we forget, here have this utterly forced psychological trauma of seeing a kid die during the invasion of earth. We’re going to show it to you throughout the game, that kid that you saw for about three seconds.

Even the iconic dialogue wheel could be disabled at this point with the cinematic option to just watch cutscenes without any interaction. Let’s not even start the infamous “skip combat” button debacle again.

In Mass Effect 3 everything is action or drama, and the space adventure is only there as a legacy of the previous games. It’s replaced with doing missions for all alien races to unite everyone into building the giant superweapon to defeat the big evil badguys. But these missions feel insignificant and are just time wasters. Oh, thanks for unclogging our toilet Mr Shepard, I guess we’ll help you combat this galactic threat.

Gameplay, along for the ride

Gameplay has always been along for the ride in Mass Effect, yet even that gets worse over time. ME1 kicked things off as a fairly standard third person shooter with many abilities: biotics, tech skills, you name it. Each skill has its own cooldown, and ammo is unlimited. Run around the map, shoot enemies, hide behind cover, ignore your brain-dead teammates, drive a odd low-gravity moon rover, and repeat.

Gunplay is one of the most important aspects in a third person shooter, and my personal weapon of choice is the pistol in ME1. Accurate, fair fire rate and not bad reach.

Instead of polishing the combat options you had in ME1, BioWare decided to limit the player instead of making combat abilities flow better into each other. In ME1, each ability had its own cooldown, but in ME2 it’s an universal cooldown. BioWare thought it would be great to go from a cooldown ammo system to an actual ammo system with an hard cap on the maximum amount of ammo you can carry for a specific weapon. With just a small magazine of ~30 for the pistols, you’re fucked if you run out so have fun with the other weapons! Instead of giving the player an incentive for using the other weapons, they limited the better weapon to force you to use other weapons which were often inferior unless in specific situations. Except for the submachine gun, I hate everything about that popgun. The weapons are oddly distributed among the classes so good luck if you want the assault rifle, since you have to give up every interesting ability to get it.

Equipment was a big deal in ME1, thanks to it’s RPG roots, yet was found in such abundance that it boiled down to Weapon Model 1 to Weapon Model 10. Sure, there are different variants… but good luck with the inventory management system.

“One of the most controversial changes to the combat was probably how ammo works,” Hudson goes on. “It was something that wasn’t part of the main game design but instead was implemented as a test by a gameplay programmer. The Lead Designer was against the idea, but tested the ‘ammo’ version of the game for several weeks in total secrecy before concluding that it made a huge improvement to the tension and pacing of combat.

GamesRadar+ – The Making of Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2 is the perfect middle ground between a game that needed a few more months in development, and a very polished turd that is Mass Effect 3.

New players in an ongoing story

Mass Effect 1 was a great starting point for a trilogy, but they never properly followed that up with anything substantial. ME2 has little to no relevance to the main plot, it only explores a single part of the whole story, and also establishes a minor ending point for ME3 to profit off. The series was constructed as a trilogy, but was this the correct idea in hindsight?

But I think mostly we wanted to create an experience that was less about being a game and more about being an experience. That might be the theme behind everything. I’m not saying make the systems thinner or anything specific like that, but let the game get out of the way of the player having an experience. I think that’s the goal of any artist in any medium, to get out of the way of what the game is trying to be. To make it less mechanical and let people interact with it in a more natural way

JoystiqInterview: BioWare’s Casey Hudson on the making of Mass Effect 2

With the first game being a clear hit, how to approach the sequels? The first game wasn’t perfect by any means but things can be fixed with the sequel. But you still want new players to get into the series. How do you get new players invested in the second game while still understanding the story? In ME2 they used a interactive comic book, that would create a ‘save file’ for the game to import, along with Shepard having to answer a few questions to make sure he’s ‘alright’. The classic approach is giving the player a character that’s unfamiliar with the story at large, such as Jacob Taylor in ME2, and James Vega in ME3. They both serve the same goal, but are handled very differently.

Jacob is a former Systems Alliance marine that defected to the human-survivalist paramilitary group called Cerberus. His reason for joining was seeing an ineffectual bureaucracy in action against systematic attacks against human colonies by an mysterious attacker. Yet, he’s hasn’t disillusioned himself about Cerberus, which is commonly known as a humans-at-the-top group and frequently remarks how he doesn’t always agree with their philosophy and methods. He’s brought into the plot to comment on Shepard’s actions in the previous game, whether or not the player actually played it, and partially serves to introduce Shepard to this new organisation

James got fired from the cast of Geordie Shore and got chucked onto the Normandy since he was near Shepard when Earth got invaded. He’s a marine. And a meathead. Always describing and comparing things right in front of him. He gives stupid nicknames. It’s no secret he’s specifically made to cater to new players that would probably rather play Gears of War. Really, that’s all he serves for.

Original Sound Track

The decline of this series can be seen, or more appropriately heard in the soundtrack. A funky, somewhat slow electronic sound filled with synthesisers gradually transforms to a overly forced dramatic slow piano piece that changes to generic action music. The thing that is missing is the spectacular. The focus isn’t on the spectacle of the galaxy anymore, the focus has shifted to solving the problems in the galaxy. The spectacle is almost taken for granted and takes a back seat, or gets stashed in the trunk.

An example of the main theme being used in other pieces can be heard in The Lazarus Project, in which the deceased Shepard is being rebuilt. It has the uplifting notes of the original theme, but goes downward from there. This is in line with the themes of the game, working for a dark organisation and also turning your back against the people you’ve worked for in the first game.

Where the soundtrack begins to decline in the second game for me, is the more frequent use of the piano. Just as the same main theme gets reused around the rest of the soundtrack, so does this piano theme. It’s not an overly emotional theme though, it does sound a little sad, but for me this captures mystery and having questions.

And then we have the main theme of Mass Effect 3, a theme that just uses the fucking piano while tooting a harsh horn throughout the theme. It’s forced, there is no subtlety. Hell, is this even science fiction anymore? ARE YOU FEELING SAD YET? I’m struggling to make clear how much I absolutely detest this theme.

For me, it comes down to the following: While the first game does has its dramatic themes, they’re better built up to.

The past and future of Mass Effect

As Aalt wrote in this post:

The worst decision that franchises like this do is writing prequels. By doing that, the staff is essentially tied to defined future of the story. If they break the future, the overall story and canon makes less and less sense with each little breakage. One drop doesn’t break a damn, but enough drops turn into a tidal whale. For long time fans of any franchise, they know how prequels often turn out. Not all that great, sometimes even sullying the story they’re based on.

Yet I cannot help but wonder, if you have a legitimate starting point for such a prequel, can you fault them? The biggest event in the Mass Effect universe is the discovery of the effects of element zero, the mass drives, the Prothean beacon and then the Turian war.

But what about the future in-game? The way ME3 ended the trilogy was a real letdown, can you follow it up with anything good? The rebuilding of the citadel was already done in ME2 and 3. Do you just want to skip ahead a hundred years and introduce a new bigbad evil guy? Or will all the mass relays be rebuilt? As faster than light travel is gone from the galaxy, the story would have to be a very contained one that’s restricted to one solar system.

Finally, the future of the franchise. With the disaster that was Andromeda, it will be a while before we will get a new game. Won’t this be the perfect moment to translate the games to TV or a movie? This way, the ‘cumbersome’ gameplay won’t get it the way of the story. I’m only being semi-sarcastic here. With a bit of luck, they’ll pull a Witcher success story (yes, I know that’s also based on a book) and they can even diverge from the ME2 and ME3 script and take a look back at their original plans for the trilogy.

I might just come back to this post to clean it up some more and include elements I dropped in the end. A lot of development stuff, gameplay changes and stupid corporate decisions.

 

A franchise chilled

This and the two previous posts would’ve formed good ol’ fashioned Monthly Three I put into indefinite hiatus, though this time it’s more or less on an accident of sorts. All in all, these should’ve been one long post.

A franchise has to have quality that is expected of it or higher. A fluke here and there is expected, but overall speaking a title in a series has to deliver at least to its core fans. When it comes to games, each and every title seem to be important and a drop in sales will be taken seriously. Seeing how the game industry barely understands how to hit the Blue Ocean market (making games easy or dumbing them down for “accessibility” is laughably weak method,) it is understandable how a franchise can fail miserably when its quality is weakened by newly added elements that are supposedly aiming to expand some aspects of the franchise.

I’m not really sure how Mass Effect got where it is now. As a franchise it was hailed as one of the stronger new franchise introduced during the Seventh Console Generation. Overall, it had a good balance between hitting the census of the consumers of the era (economics have changed quite a bit during the last decade) to the extent of Mass Effect being considered as one of the bigger franchises in the industry on par of the likes of Metal Gear. These are of course up to contention, to my knowledge no Mass Effect game has not been perfect enough to be considered for pachislot conversion.

However, as things tend to be in the industry, game sequels seem to get more attention from those who put the money down on these things. Mass Effect 3‘s colour coded ending has become infamous, but if the rumours are to be believed, EA was the one that put their boot down with the deadlines and BioWare had to relocate the “real ending” to DLC. Whatever the case is, Mass Effect 3‘s ending (and some argue the whole game) is below the average quality the consumers expected from the franchise. The ending is just one of the examples why Mass Effect 3 was panned by the core fans, mostly regarding contradictions in the setting, and inconsistencies regarding BioWare’s statements during development and how the game ended up being.

And a franchise it really is. While here up North we barely get anything relating to the spin-offs or licensed products, Mass Effect 2 and 3 had a huge ad campaign in magazines, television and in stores. Comparatively speaking, game ads have all but dried out from the general media, telling more about how they’re marketed and what the targeted consumers are than about their success. However, pretty much all fans of the franchise I’ve known have talked me about the mobile games, books, comics and whatnot. Even a movie based on the franchise has been under works since 2010, but very little has come of it.

It’s no wonder Mass Effect would go to a small hiatus. The trilogy had come to its more or less natural conclusion and the final part didn’t exactly match up what was expected. At times like this companies tend to take a small break and return when there is renewed interest. However, it would seem the franchise has now been put in ice for the time being due to the lacklustre success of the latest game, Mass Effect: Andromeda. While we can debate the finer details why the game performed worse than expected, the first bit that sounded alarms bells with yours truly when with the announcement of the game running on a new engine, which means you will see, hear and feel Mass Effect like never before. That’s a direct quote too. Clearly they missed the part that games need to play better than any of these.

Andromeda took five years and forty million dollars to develop. That sort of money and time is expected to deliver higher profits and far better reception. Alas, they the developers couldn’t even put a gun the right way in. Then you have issues of gameplay being worse than its ten years older progenitor and animations being absolutely all over the place and the plot’s not all that good either. Effectively, pretty much everything that should make a game great is sub-par. Andromeda overall shows how lack of quality control and professionalism, opting for making whatever brew you think would work the best.

It’s no wonder after an abysmal entry, the games went under hiatus. Sadly, Andromeda is probably the best example of current Tripple A games in the industry. One has to wonder where did the money go during the development. It doesn’t show up in the final production. When a franchise’s fame has taken a hit two times in a row, with the second making pretty much everyone who was involved a laughingstock, it is a good idea to take a step back and put the things on hold.

To use an example with Godzilla, Toho has put the franchise into ice three times over. First one was after the second movie when they had no idea how to continue properly onwards, though I still want to see Bride of Godzilla? realised in some form. The second time was in the 1970’s when the movies stopped bringing in enough profits, though the quality had dropped a lot since then. 1995’s Godzilla VS Destoroyah was supposed to end the franchise in Japan and have Hollywood continue it, but alas that was not to be. Godzilla was brought back fast in 1999, after the American attempt failed, and then was put back into ice after Godzilla: Final Wars. 2014 saw a new American Godzilla, and 2016 showcased us what I’m going to call a the bets modern Godzilla made in form of Shin Godzilla.

When a notable franchise like Godzilla returns after a significant hiatus, it is usually with a new take that is intended to make an impact. If a new Mass Effect game would be done right now, it would carry the baggage of Andromeda for the worse. As much as fans would like to see a game made right away to remedy the situation, sometimes it’s better just to wait for things to settle down and let time give more perspective on things. Whatever was done, be it due to corporate or personal interests from the developers’, the game took a sledgehammer to the franchise and damaged it. A hiatus also allows the developers and publishers to look into other options and possibly put resources into new IPs, though my personal trust in EA or BioWare has never been worth mentioning.

What is apparent that whatever happened during production of Mass Effect: Andromeda, it’s clear that the no research was done on what the consumers really wanted or needed, and that’s probably the worst offence a provider can do; not giving a jack shit about the consumer.

Bioware, we’re the gods to listen

Bioware has proudly again that the industry, and they themselves especially, need to change. According to them the fans want Day 1 DLC.

So. Bioware ignores what the whole possible customer base says and concentrates either on their own opinion, or towards their own small customer base. Do people want Day 1 DLC? No, people want content to be on the disc that the game should already have. In Mass Effect’s case I have to question who the hell was stupid enough to say Let’s put the real ending into DLC format? Why would have they wanted to remove this from their game? They were selling an incomplete game to a full price, because if the game doesn’t its ending, then it’s incomplete. Nobody buys a book, then buy an extra magazine that has the last chapter of the book.

“In our case, when we look at completion rates for our games, consistently less than half of our players actually finish even once.”

Why should it matter to Bioware if the players finish the game? When you’ve made a sale, you’ve got their money. There’s no reason to follow how your product is used afterwards. If players do not finish the game, then it’s their matter, not the company’s. Is the ego of Bioware so huge that every player has to finish their game on their watch?

What Bioware is essentially doing here is that they’re telling their customers’ what they want. Bioware, you’re the peasant. We, the customers, are the gods. If you want your fields to give food, then worship us. Otherwise we’re going to nothing by harsh sun and sandstorms, ravaging your wineyards and killing your stock. We’re the one’s that have the power to say what we want and what we do not want.

Day 1 DLC, or on-disc DLC, is clearly something that the gods do not want.

DLC has always been publisher and developer friendly, and hostile to customers. I have to ask this once more; what makes you get STEAM or Origin, where you have no power over your games? Why would you screw yourself?

Some time ago I got in a debate with a friend about whether or not it was right that STEAM was in complete control of its users’ games. Ultimately he said that he didn’t care. A PC gamer didn’t care. What have we come to when a PC gamer didn’t care whether or not he could access his games tomorrow?

When customer loses his will to care about the product, shit’s going down and in the good way. It’s a downhill road that moment onwards.

If Bioware fans want the DLC so hard, why not putting it in the game and make it complete? DLC nowadays is completely stupid anyway, they don’t add anything to games, the give parts that should already be there. It’s like a puzzle to which you need to buy the missing parts just because.

I’ve bought DLC once and I regret it.

Right now, the problem is multi-fold and extremely complex.

But, it isn’t. Why are used games sales so high? Because people want to get rid of their games. If they would make games that have higher value to the customer, they would stay on their shelves. And to be honest, the used games sales do not cut their revenues, as the product in question has been already sold. The best way to ensure that people buy your product new is to make it worth the purchase by making it a good damn game.

I ask you this; do you want the game industry to take the turn for the better, or for the worse. If you want it to get better, start voting with your wallet and stop purchasing their products until the industry manages to get their heads for their assess.

 

 

 

Continuity of sequels

Game sequels usually follow the same strict continuing structure as books and films. Sometimes they don’t have anything to do with each other except the names and general overall idea. The only continuity as such is just there, not really doing anything. In most cases plot is the thread that connects everything together, even in video games for better or worse. As games are a generally an interactive form of entertainment as opposed to more traditional mediums, they can, could and should convey continuing playing of one series from instalment to instalment.

How this continuing game then could be made? Before memory cards it was downright impossible to do on consoles and arcades machines. With the invention of memory cards the same method can be done on consoles, and to some extent with arcade machines as well; the save in one game carries some significance to the other. This is a balancing act, as putting too much emphasize on the saved data will always push out new players.

The Second Super Robot Wars Z; Chapter of Rebirth, or SRWZ2.2 Saisei Hen, puts it so that some already obtained skills carry over from the previous game, but nothing that truly makes a large difference. It mostly rewards returning players with continuity so that their effort in previous game does not go to waste. Similar thing was done in an earlier SRW game, Super Robot Wars F and F Final, where character levels and skills would directly jump from the previous game to other.

This is good kind of continuity. It rewards the player to start from the first one because it has impact on the later game. It’s not too overt that it would push new players away and keeps its doors open.

Mass Effect, while looks really good on paper with player selection carrying over, does things a bit wrong. The selections, player’s own character and all that carries over and that’s good. However, nothing else really does. The player still starts basically from naught. He might as well start a new game, because the ending in Mass Effect 3 doesn’t really fetch will to play the first two parts. Then again, the amount of game play and story in Mass Effect games is completely bonkers and some mechanics are more or less completely horrible and broken. Well, PC games and their emphasize on story…

Game saves could always play a bigger role. I’m not talking about story elements because those don’t matter. I’m speaking of affecting mechanics and gameplay. While truly either, the way Metal Gear Solid digs up save data and displays certain deviations according to that shows that this gimmick could be more. For example, imagine if you had all of the Mario Sports games saves on your memory card. Every game could read what saves you’ve got there and open some interesting hidden options etc and add player outfits or the like. Still not really gameplay effecting stuff, but it would show a link between the games.

RPGs are the biggest genre that would benefit from save continuity. For example, player’s characters would carry their experience, weapons and so on from a game to another. At least Legend of Heroes; Trails in the Sky is known to do this. This would affect how the game is played initially, as well as giving a complete continuity between the games rather than doing Metroid’s way and making the player start from the scratch, even if this doesn’t make sense in the story’s narrative or setting. It’s keeps the continuation cohesive from game to game, and adds some content and credibility.

I’ve been talking a lot of story continuity and all that even thou they do not matter in the end. However, it has to be taken into account, as even the simplest stories have to have credible cohesion. Mega Man Zero and Zero 2 have nice cohesion and neat tricks linking the two games. Initially the in-game menu screen resembles the first game’s screen, but battered and broken with unfunctioning weapons. After the intro stage the game updates the menu screen with a new sleek look and the doctor fixes the weapons, as well as modifies one. Neat and done without save transferring. It wouldn’t be hard to do this in any sequel, but it’s never made. It adds to the game world those little things you notice and like.

Another game series that uses extensive save unlocking is Xenosaga. It mostly unlocks swimsuits to the characters or the like, but it adds to the game. Sometimes the swimsuits are actual items that can be worn in-game and have decent stats for a new game, or are just for fanservice. Most likely for both.


Perfect reason to post gynoids in their swimsuits

Now the question is why to do this kind of thing at all? First of all, it adds to the game’s world and content, even if little. Players with completed save data are rewarded of their loyalty and efforts for the game, and new players most likely will get interested in the previous game as well, thus gaining a new, perhaps even loyal customer to the company. A customer is more important to a company than anything else, at least it should be. While the method how the game recognizes a previous save is easy, but what it does and balancing the effects is always a bit harder, but that’s what the game designers and programmers are paid for to do. To deliver us a good game that we, the customers, want.

Get rid of story, replace it with gameplay

People are talking about stories within video games thanks to Skyrim and Mass Effect 3. Some people I’m communing with praise Skyrim for its storytelling and options the game gives the player. They’re mainly computer game players, so let’s give them a little bit of credit.

But video games are games. In their inherent nature they do not need a story. In Mass Effect the first three hours I spent more time trying to skip through the story because I wanted to play the game, and then I ended up with horrible driving sequences. Sure, Mass Effect gives immersion and player is the main character and all that, but why does this come into gameplay’s way?

Video games have their own way of storytelling. It’s a combination of show-do-not-tell and interactivity. What most games use is traditional narration via walls of text and videos, which is sad. It’s easier to use traditional narrative as you have books upon books how to write a story and make a film. How to tell a story through games’ own methods is still an undiscovered country. I can’t really think any good examples, and tells something particular.

However, I’ll give you an example of three games that do not have a story, but then showcase certain level of video game storytelling outside traditional narrative. These three games are Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Sonic the Hedgehog 3. But Aalto, Sonic does have story! Just take a look at the manual! you tell me now. Now, take a look at Sonic 1 again. In what portion of the game you see a story being told? No story seen.

Sonic 1 is an incredible game even now. It’s balanced, gives the player multiple options to choose from and storytelling doesn’t get into the way. Most likely you’ve played the game without knowing anything of the story, either through your siblings or via an emulator the cheeky bastard you are, where manuals usually are non-existant. When you play the game, you notice the simple and intuitive controls, and animals popping out from defeated enemies. In the end of Act 3 you see this fat Roosevelt-esque man with his own theme trying to maul your with a wrecking ball. After that, you pop a capsule open and release bunch of animals to the wilderness for wolfs to hunt. You don’t need any text or videos to tell what’s going on; the Roosevelt knock-off seems to be trapping animals into robots and Sonic’s there to stop him. It’s all how the game shows it to you.

Similarly Sonic 2 just goes with it. However, there’s more cinematic of sorts to showcase clone-Roosevelt’s mighty array of weaponry in the later levels. Sonic 3 then adds more traditional cutscenes where the player is unable to control Sonic, and we can safely say that from that moment on Sonic series took a dive. However, Sonic 3 keep the story progression extremely coherent, stringing every Act and Zone together in a logical manner. And yes; every stage in the game is part of the story.

I’ve hammered this point before; in games where there is a story, every second on-screen is part of the story. The gameplay is an integral part of the story, if there’s a story given within the game itself.

It would actually be nice to get a mod to Mass Effect where it removes every portion of the story so that it’d string all the proper gameplay portions together. Of course they wouldn’t do that, as it would cut 2/3 from the game. Most people who grew up solely on computer games will always want to see more traditional narrative in their game, as the most revered computer games are text heavy, like Monkey Island and Ultima series. Arcade players value more direct gameplay, whereas console players can really got the bets of both worlds.

Angry Birds is a rare example of a computer game, which doesn’t hold story in its game. This is partially the reason why it has sold so well.

Story is also intimidating. It’s far more difficult to get into a video game when you have Lord of the Rings or Sinuhe level amount of text in there to read from the get-go. When you got simple gameplay as the main dish, it’s much easier to attract customers. Vast majority of customers do not get into games to read and experience vast and complex stories; they get into games they can play. The people who are into games for the stories are small minority, a loud minority to boot.

This is one key for a successful game, a part of the silver bullet into making a hit video game; less traditional narrative, let the players play through the story… or don’t include a story at all. It’ll probably suck anyway. Put more gameplay there, it’s much easier and more rewarding to everybody.

The saying “If I want a story, I’d read a book” hits the mark. Video games are not there to give you a story or drama. It’s films’ and books’ job. Games are not there to make you experience wonders or the like. Games are there to be played and to be enjoyed through that. This is what all players really want from their games, even if there are bunch of them wanting a good story; ultimately these people will also skip the scenes they find boring.

If you look through the video game history, you’ll see that the best games, the most valued, have little to do with stories within them, like such a small game called Super Mario Brothers.

The Unfolding Story

To continue my theme of the weekend I’ll discuss a bit about plot’s role in both films and video games.
As discussed previously the visuals have been taking a lot place in both medium. HD graphics do not convey the story, but the actors do. In films’ case it’s the literal actors, may it be either robotic dinosaurs or humans. In games the actor is the player. If the actor in a film can’t convey the story with his acting, the story suffers. However, if the control in a game prevent the player from “acting” the game’s story (ie. game’s play) suffers. What I’m saying that even if films need a story, the reason why it exists, games do not. Video Games do not need a story to be good games, but they do need to answer the most core question on ‘why.’ Pac-man’s reason is the pills it eats, in Galaga the player has to defeat the enemies and in Mario the player has to save the princess. These are not stories. They are reasons. A film can’t become a proper film without a story that act’s as the answer, because the viewer has to invest his own feelings to the actor. In video games the actor is already there and investment has been made the moment player starts to play.

Usually games that are heralded as great examples of video game storytelling are decent at best. Mass Effect might have a vast and complex story, but I couldn’t care less how and why because the gameplay was boring and unintuitive. All the vehicles felt like floating balloons with no mass or effect to their surroundings. In all, the game didn’t fair well as a game. Because I wasn’t invested in the game enough I stopped playing rather early on. But it gets better later on, yells somebody in the distance. I’d ask how, but I know the answer; the story gets better. Why would I give a rat’s ass about the story of a game if the gameplay doesn’t convey it?
Super Mario Bros. has only one or two points of story told in the manual. The rest of the “story” is told my the actions of the player.
But Aalt, the player can change the storyline in Mass Effect as well! Oh shut up you, the player has illusion of affecting the story. You can save people in places only after you’ve killed all the Geths. You can run most of Super Mario levels without killing a simple Goomba. Things like this matter more than developers think.

How would a film fare if the viewer has no investment to the characters? It wouldn’t fare at all. However, nowadays film studios seem to invest more on the big name actor and visuals than the core. If a viewer is already invested in a particular actor, then he has no reason to get invested to the character. The answer already is there. The second way is to get the viewer invested whatever happens on the screen rather than what is beneath it. People who enjoy films simply due to the pretty visuals are increasing, similarly how people who enjoy dull gameplay have grown in numbers. These two crowds usually go hand in hand.
I’m not putting off these people who enjoy visuals. I too enjoy the visuals but they should not be the main aspect.

It all boils to the simple point that games are not films. Using the exact same way storytelling doesn’t work. Games are a young medium that was not allowed to have a healthy growth. Because of prejudice and outright fear of games people demanded them to convey intellectual content. They should have a story, they should be more realistic, they should have more moral values, they should teach and so on. Films got a lot of same flak when the invention of motion picture was young, but it grew and became one of the biggest entertainment industries. Electronic games have grown in a different kind of environment which basically suffocated their growth. When people in the game industry finally realize that they need to something that is inherently unique to games rather than just taking from elsewhere.

I’m afraid that this will never come to fruition because of the industry refuses to do so. Films ultimately have found their own way of telling a story. To endorse unhealthy growth of games even further will only result in unhealthy games like Mass Effect, games that people will regard as masterpieces because the effects given by the other industries.