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Morality, Maturity, Treading Water, and Missed Opportunities: A Mass Effect 2 Review [Game Overview]
February 23rd, 2010 by Dan

It's not this bad, but we've still got a long way to go.

…like many mechanisms of this kind your choices tend to come down to being an omnibenevolent supercherub or the Goddamned devil.

-Jerry “Tycho” Holkins

WARNING: SPOILERS

A member of your crew was double-crossed before he joined you. Eleven of his friends died as a result of that treachery and he wants revenge on the killer. Do you: A) Indulge his obsession and allow him to murder in cold blood when his target least expects it or, B) Convince him that his obsessive revenge will not bring him the closure he desires by obstructing his revenge attempt.

Why don't you just William Tell the shot?

Here's another question: if you weren't gonna let him go through with it, why would you wait until he's got crosshairs on the both of you to confront him on it?

Later on a member of your crew who has been hunting a serial killer for hundreds of years asks you to help her bring said criminal to justice. The killer is a genetic aberration in her species who kills everyone she mates with (her species can mate with any species) and derives both power and an almost narcotic effect from her murders. There’s also the extra angle that this killer is the daughter of your party member, a woman who birthed three such monsters and had the other two locked away in isolation for the simple crime of their genes. Do you A) side with your crew and murder this killer to end her spree or B) side with the killer and kill your crewmate, ultimately gaining this serial killer as a party member and allowing her to escape free after your mission.

Before I decide, Samara, if I were an ice cream flavor, what flavor would I be?

Kind of reminds me of Dragonball

One of these two represents an actual moral choice worth thinking about while the other is noticeably less complex and, consequently, far less interesting. It may not be as obvious a choice as mass murder a crowd or buy them all ice cream, but it’s still pretty basic when you look at it. Will revenge really give Garrus closure? Does letting Sidonis live with his guilt represent a greater punishment? These are things we’ve confronted plenty of times before in these games. “Murder or mercy” is the bread and butter of the morality system, but it’s been seven years since Knights of the Old Republic and we need to up the ante here a little (Yes, I’m aware that morality systems have existed long before KoTOR. Giant Bomb lists 168 of them). In fact, Dragon Age: Origins, another Bioware game that came out in 2009, featured a system that puts this game’s choices to shame.

Perhaps it’s because DA:O was in development since 2004 (that’s five years to its release in 2009) while Mass Effect 2 has only a scant three years under its belt, but almost everything about the “morality system” in Dragon Age far exceeds what’s available to the player in ME2. To start with, Dragon Age dispenses with the notion of good/evil points. Your actions don’t move a light side/dark side meter up or down, they simply have consequences. More importantly, those consequences are pretty brutal no matter which outcome you select. Not to digress too far, but my character in DA:O was a Casteless Dwarf, something akin to the burakumin of Japan, and her sister was a concubine for one of the noble families elevated in status because she produced a son (dwarves in this universe inherit caste from the same-sex parent). When I returned to the dwarf homeland, there was a bitter power struggle going on and it was up to me to choose to help who I thought should continue the disputed royal line. The obvious heir was a brutal man rumored to be the one who poisoned the his brother (and rightful heir to the throne) in the first place, but he was in favor of reform of the caste system and contact with the outside world. He was also my sister’s husband. The other candidate was in favor of a strong assembly (the legislative body) and, while he was a traditionalist, he was well-respected and, more importantly, not rumored to be a murderer. It then became a question of supporting a despotic butcher who would work to improve equality at the expense of representation (and also keep my family at a higher status) or a more traditional ruler who would rule without bloodshed, but keep my caste down and stay isolationist (not to mention assure that my sister’s place in society would be compromised). In the end I chose to side with my family, but I almost immediately regretted it when the man I chose ordered the execution of his rival immediately following his appointment. Not long after, the assembly was also dissolved. I made a hard choice that had no real good results for everyone and that’s ultimately what real life is about: grey areas.

It's called legal emancipation. You're probably also a legal adult after a few hundred years in Asari space.

Nothing like a little matricide/filicide to get the crew loyal to you

Back to the question of whether or not to kill Morinth or Samara, here is another interesting moral decision. Samara made irresponsible choices and had not one Ardat-Yakshi (that’s what it’s called) offspring, but three. Morinth’s crimes, at this point, were many, but her only choices in life were to live as a prisoner or to run and live as a hunted criminal. Even then, if you’re like me you’re thinking that this really isn’t that much of a decision. It amounts to supporting a serial killer or supporting an irresponsible mother looking to bring her daughter to justice. No matter how bad I feel for Morinth’s predicament, I, personally, couldn’t support her because she’s a sociopath and a murderer. That’s the real rub with the Mass Effect universe. Despite how good it is, despite how great the narrative is, and despite how much I love the games, its decisions are a constant disappointment boiling down to, in most cases, “murder or mercy”. Dragon Age constantly forced me to choose between “murder and murder”. Kill one person who had good and bad qualities or kill another with the same qualities. I’m not saying that all real decisions in games have to revolve around murder, there were some legitimately tough choices to make in the first Mass Effect (that still ultimately boiled down to “m or m” on a grand scale), like whether or not to kill a terrorist or let him walk free (his hostages will die if you kill him) or whether or not to spare the Racchni or commit xenocide, but even they skirted around the much more important decision of whether or not to utilize the cure for the Krogan genophage. Your only option is to destroy it. (SIDEBAR: The Krogan people were forcibly infected with a genetic rewrite that causes 0.999 of all Krogran pregnancies to end in stillbirth (SIDEBAR: The Krogan reproduce very rapidly and are quite aggressive)).

This is a tremendous missed opportunity. Sure, the genophage is addressed in ME2 since it’s a central part of the Krogan species’ identity, but even then the decisions you make are irrelevant. If you destroy the work done to correct the genophage (again), the scientist in your team claims that it doesn’t matter anyway, since he could easily duplicate all of the results if he had to. Saving it or destroying it seems to have no real impact on the world of the game. Granted, I don’t need to control my destiny to such a fine level in the games I play, but when Bioware goes out of its way to explicitly claim that my decisions have a large, direct impact on the world, I begin to expect my decisions to make a difference. Even the major choices I made in the first game seem to only have cosmetic effects on the second. I might get a non-story-relevant message from a character stunned to learn that I was still alive or thanking me for saving them back then, but then there’s this one side quest that played out the exact same way no matter what I decided in Mass Effect, except that the character model talking to me and the spoken dialog were slightly different.

Yes, I realize that decisions having a real effect make the world exponentially more complicated, but you shouldn’t promise what you can’t deliver.

“[Mature] really has two meanings when we apply it to media. One is ‘not appropriate for children’ and the other is ‘exploring subject matter in a sophisticated fashion. Ironically, the word mature when applied to games tends to have a very childish connotation.”

In late September of 2009 a Mass Effect 2 trailer highlighting Subject Zero was put out as part of the ME2 hype machine.

Needless to say, I became very concerned. It definitely did not fit in with the Bioware aesthetic and it felt like it was trying too hard to be edgy. This was the “maturity” that I’m always up in arms about and I was pretty worried that Bioware was going to take a serious misstep with their “dark second chapter”. After playing the whole game through, I’m confident in saying that Subject Zero and the characters in this “edgy” game were more or less about what you’d expect from Bioware in that they are decidedly not two-dimensional and are actually interesting. That’s not to say that Bioware didn’t make a few mistakes with its decision to go darker for this second game (they even redid their logo in blood red…it’s almost funny).

She likes to throw around plenty of hardcore language too.

Nothing screams combat-ready like minimal chest support.

Subject Zero (AKA Jack) may have a “seriously abused child” story that fleshes her out and makes her character actually make sense, but that doesn’t mean that they made no mistakes with Jack. Her outfit, if you could even call it that, is absolutely ridiculous. It feels like a grab for the adolescent attention span by making her dress in what amounts to a pair of pants, some belts, and tattoos (if it wasn’t so blatantly sexual, it could be a Nomura design). When will game designers learn that dressing women in this way is not cool or interesting? All they’re doing is enforcing the stereotype and furthering the divide between gamer and non-gamer. Who could possibly see the way that Jack is dressed and think it was designed for anyone older than a 13-year-old male?

The dress code is pretty informal

Actually, yes...Cerberus has a pretty liberal dress code.

The other Bioware attempts at making the game more dark, serious, and mature seem to have been carried out much better than Subject Zero. Every planet or space station that is explored is appropriately seedy and grimy. Gone are the sterile, clean blues of the Mass Effect Citadel. In its place we have reds-orange slums, planets so dominated by commerce that slavery is legal, prison ships, and war-torn wastelands. Running into the formerly naïve and innocent Liara T’Soni from the first game is jarring and depressing when you see how she has become ruthless, cold, and calculated in her efforts to bring down the Shadow Broker. Even Shepard has changed in the eyes of the galactic community thanks to his involvement with the shady Cerberus terrorist organization.

I think it's the hexagons that really get me goin...

Male gaze does not equal maturity

Mass Effect 2 also benefits from the complex social situations set up by the lore itself. Credit is definitely well deserved for those responsible for the universe’s depth and background. Alien cultures are fleshed out and the interaction between them, humanity, and themselves feels genuine and interesting. In fact, aside from the fact that humanity seems like a brilliant race able to work wonders that others cannot (no doubt an extension of that same “white is might” mentality that is subconsciously behind Avatar, Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves, etc.), I find that we’re treated appropriately for an up-and-coming species that is rapidly stepping on so many toes. Actually, let’s take my parenthetical a little further: why is humanity a special species here? Why are we the only ones to accurately see the threat of Saren and The Collectors? in a galactic community featuring multiple sentient species, it hardly seems probable that the only one that is like the current Western world is humanity. Then again, why would aliens be anything like us, culturally? Why would future humanity continue to be so dominated by white men? These questions are kind of wandering around, so let me just say that having a token non-western cast that ensured inclusiveness might have seemed pander-y anyway. Next paragraph!

While we’re talking about tropes, I also find myself wondering about the impact that the trilogy structure on the story of ME2. The first game had a story that revolved around mind control, domination, and indoctrination that culminated in a plot twist about the real enemy and the insidious nature of the greatest scientific technologies that sentient life depended on. It had weight and purpose and things happened. ME2 seems to drag along, treading water the whole way. Your crew’s various backgrounds and backstories take center stage, but at the expense of anything that legitimately moves the plot forward save for two things: 1. You learn that The Collectors are genetically modified Protheans being manipulated by the Reapers and 2. You learn that a human-inspired Reaper is in the works (and you destroy it). All that says is that the Reapers have decided that humanity is its only legitimate threat and worthy of being adopted into their strange genetic-mechanical history, but that ultimately means nothing. Not one thing that happens in this chapter of the trilogy can compare to the Reaper bombshell of the first game. In terms of story, ME2 is just ME1.5 (or ME1.125).

Mechanics is where ME2 takes major strides away from ME1, but in a direction that is both welcome and distressing. Mass Effect was a serviceable third-person shooter with a super-clunky inventory and interface and unfun vehicle sections. It sounds harsh, but it really wasn’t all that bad for a freshman effort by an RPG company to make a shooter (notice the caveats!) and it was helped along by its strong narrative and much stronger conversation systems. ME2 brings what some might call a pretty good shooter to the table along with all the baggage that such a thing merits. Gone are many of the RPG elements of the first game (weapon skill, a glut of powers and passive skills, statistic-determined shot accuracy, and ammo types) and in are oversimplified options and a streamlined story structure to go with it. In a sense, Bioware did something right by avoiding pairing the slow, deliberate pace of the first game with the new, frenetic shooter engine, but at the cost of the weight of the narrative.

As I said before, the story is nothing to write home about and I attribute that mostly to the new mission structure that the game is hampered with. Each little action section takes place in an instanced area outside of the normal exploratory zones, lasts 20-30 minutes, finishes up whatever relevant story points are specific to that mission only, and then dumps the player out to a Mission Complete summary of their exploits as presented to the Illusive Man. I’m not sure what it is about the clear separation of action spaces and non-action spaces that peeves me so much, but I imagine it has everything to do with the way that the story parts were just as integrated with the action throughout most of Mass Effect. One sidequest in the original had me engaged in a firefight in the same exact place I’d just bought armor from half an hour ago. ME2 has rooms that the player can only access to start up their missions when said mission is available. There were very few locked doors in the first game. If I see one in ME2, I know a sidequest will take me there later. The zones in ME2 are merely hubs with shops and non-combat quests.

I do like the sun in the background...

Jarring and non-immersive.

Combat quests are bizarrely chosen as the main mode of exposition in the game, which I’d normally be ok with, except that their focus is so laser-focused on whichever crew member’s backstory it is revealing that the third member of your party is often ignored. I couldn’t help but wonder why the game didn’t take advantage of my entire three-man squad in these story interaction moments since it’s always been my favorite part of Bioware games. For example, on Samara’s conversation-heavy loyalty quest, your third companion might as well not be there and he/she/it actually seems to disappear once it begins with no real explanation. He/she/it was there before we went into the apartment to investigate the murder, but then I didn’t see him/her/it again until after the mission. The lack of companion interaction is simply inexcusable after the shining examples set forth in the first game and Dragon Age: Origins. At any given quiet moment in DA:O, two of the companions following the Grey Warden can spontaneously burst into conversation about something. These talks are multi-topic connected affairs that have a complete arc to them throughout your travels. Mass Effect relegated these mostly to elevator rides around different places where they were there to help deal with the dead time in their concealed loading screens. Aside from one moment that I had to trigger in the Citadel by having two specific party members with me, there was not one bit of witty banter or conversation between my companions. I know this is supposed to be the “dark, serious second chapter”, but lighten up guys. We don’t have to spend our entire mission in steely, concentrated silence. A quip here or there would be more than welcome.

We can’t talk about things removed from the game without mentioning the Single Worst Thing About Mass Effect 1, the Mako tank. It handled poorly, was used for boring exploration, and was completely out of place with the rest of the game. It was like it was the 90s again and every game needed a vehicle section (game designer protip: we REALLY don’t need vehicle sections shoehorned into our games). Worst of all, it was associated with planetary exploration, a boring slog through the terrain of each planet to look for mineral resources and other artifacts that existed to provide money and experience. One correct lesson was learned and the Mako was excised from the game. The designers didn’t quite understand that a lot of the Mako hatred stemmed from planet resource mining, so they retained mineral mining in a different form. If you were the commander of an interplanetary space ship and you needed to mine resources from a planet, would you want to manually scan the planets yourself before sending down a probe to retrieve the resources? No, of course not. You’d have your engineering and mining teams handle all of that busy work while you managed other parts of the ship. As the player, I’m ostensibly Commander Shepard. There’s no reason why I have to tell the probes whrere to go. I don’t want to and it bores the hell out of me. If one aspect of your game (upgrades) is inexorably tied to a cripplingly boring aspect of your game (planetary scanning), then I think you need to reevaluate the way that you’re handling that first aspect

For my final nitpick of the game, I’d like to say that a PC version of a game should always have scroll wheel functionality if your interface allows for scrolling. Why do I have to click on a down button to scroll text? When are we living, the stone age?

By now I’ve realized that it looks like I really don’t like this game. I’ve got a lot of negative things to say about it precisely because I feel like it missed so many opportunities to be really great instead of just great. I wasn’t kidding when I said that the shooter mechanics were a leap forward. Everything from shooting enemies to throwing around biotic powers just feels crunchier. There’s no sweeter feeling than launching a ball of biotic push energy at a curve and watching it impact with a target and launch him off a platform. No. Sweeter. Feeling.

The game also offers just enough variety in its loyalty missions to keep them from becoming too stale. Most of them are combat affairs, but some, like Thane and Samara’s, feature no combat at all while others, like Jack or Tali, have combat interrupted by long conversations of narrative sequences which connect the player with the characters a bit more. Even Grunt’s straight arena setting is punctuated by a battle with a thresher maw whose mechanics are not seen again anywhere else in the game.

Despite the lack of real story, the game does also feature the best characterization I’ve seen in a while for a “dirty dozen”-style narrative structure. Team member depth varies widely (Zaeed has no dialog tree associated with him at all while Jack, Miranda, and Thane all feature long backstories and conversation trees), but each member does have a defined arc that is sometimes unique, funny, or tragic (or all three). Even non-party member crewmates have dialog allotted to them in more meaningful ways that the prior crew of the Normandy. This is all in the service of motivating the player to save them, which is another great narrative choice by Bioware.

SHORT DIGRESSION WHOSE PURPOSE WILL BE APPARENT SOON…

Whenever we want to talk about ludonarrative dissonance, Final Fantasy VII will inevitably come up. In the late game there is a meteor set to strike the earth after a fixed time period…except it isn’t. The player can spend millions of hours racing and breeding chocobos while staying in inns (which should technically be advancing time by a full day) instead of progressing the story. There is no point where the meteor strikes because Cloud was too busy hanging out at the Golden Saucer playing a stupid snowboarding game. The narrative is at the player’s mercy.

Every person who plays Mass Effect 2 will have his crew (minus combat party members) abducted by The Collectors in the endgame. Most players probably think they can continue to fool around and expect to save the crew before they are killed. I completed all the sidequests expecting that I wouldn’t be able to return to them and in the interest of boosting my level higher. When I finally reached my crew in the endgame, all but one (or two…it’s not many) had been murdered. Granted, that one will always survive no matter how long you take breeding chocobos (aka: scanning minerals), but the rest of your crew is permadead, leaving your ship empty in the open-ended postgame.

There’s not enough of this in video games. If you’re telling me to hurry and do something, I’d better damn well have to hurry, because otherwise I feel cheated when I see the man behind the curtain. JRPGs may be the biggest offender in this dissonance, but it’s not alone. Consider the heavily scripted shooter where I can spot the “actors” up ahead standing stationary until I get close enough to trigger the event that kills them. I can stand for an eternity watching my comrades stand in an exposed corridor with shooters at the end, but they’ll never die until I get close. Counter that with Dead Rising and its brutal time system. If you wait until 1600 on Day 2 to save this one person, guess what? He won’t be there. The zombies killed him. If you don’t complete the next story objective before the timer runs out, the rest of the game is closed off to you. Events will no longer transpire in that way and you’d better reload your save. That makes perfect sense for a game where haste and time management are issues. When someone tells you to do something quickly, they mean it. I don’t like to be blatantly lied to. Mass Effect 2 is honest in that respect.

I guess that’s really all I have to say about Mass Effect 2. It’s a fine game that you should own, but it also brings up a lot of issues about game design that I hope Bioware confronts for the concluding chapter of the saga.

Evil Shepard can look pretty rough by the end of the game...

Evil Shepard will put the screws to you too if you don't play ME2


45 Responses  
  • Eric Mesa writes:
    February 23rd, 201010:39at

    Before I get to the substance of the post, in future you may want to slightly reduce the size of your images so people with square monitors (as I have at work where I read this during lunch or a snack) don’t have to scroll left and right so much.

    • Dan writes:
      February 23rd, 201010:41at

      If I do that with these screenshots they become almost illegible. It was a hard choice I had to make because I wanted the subtitles to be legible.

      • Eric Mesa writes:
        February 23rd, 201011:00at

        It’s like a microcosm of the issue they were having with non-HD TVs. Look at that. Did you take these screenshots?

        • Dan writes:
          February 23rd, 201011:05at

          Yeah. Like before I put the game in windowed mode, but I found that they had a non-bordered mode so that I could take full 1920×1080 screenshots. What you see is actually still smaller than the actual screens.

          • Eric Mesa writes:
            February 23rd, 201011:08at

            That’s awesome. I thought you were relying on others (with how nice it looked) and I thought your nice-looking post could be ruined by someone removing them from his/her account. I also was wondering how you got exactly the screens that represented what you were talking about. But if you’re doing it on your own, it makes sense.

            • Dan writes:
              February 23rd, 201011:51at

              PC games are great for precisely this reason. These are all privately uploaded to my flickr account.

    • Dan writes:
      February 24th, 201017:05at

      Don’t forget that the sidebar on this site is collapsible using the button at the top left (below the website title)

      • Eric Mesa writes:
        February 25th, 20109:03at

        On a square monitor it’s still an issue.

        • Dan writes:
          February 25th, 20109:12at

          Not on my square monitor here at work, but that’s fine. It’s a resolution problem.

          • Eric Mesa writes:
            February 25th, 20109:15at

            Yeah, it’s not worth tailoring to this piece of junk. Interestingly, everyone’s all – we need to tailor stuff to the iphone’s screen. But why should computer users suffer?

            • Dan writes:
              February 25th, 20109:22at

              I’m for having separate mobile domains, but I don’t want my experience to suffer as a PC user thanks to iPhones and iPads.

  • Eric Mesa writes:
    February 23rd, 201011:00at

    I think I was very surprised as I read the review. From what we’d discussed in person, you appeared to really like this game. Did you come to your negative opinion as you wrote the blog post, or did it come to you as you prepared for it? It’s an interesting phenomenon that I’ve often been enthusiastic about something until I sat and tried to explain my elation while trying to anticipate criticisms. Sometimes I end up realizing that it’s actually not that great after all. What was I thinking? That’s why I find blog posts to be very enlightening when I happen to be in an expository mood (as opposed to feeling compelled to write to make sure the blog doesn’t stay silent).

    I think I will, as in one of your other posts, make different posts on my different issues so that the discussion threads make the most sense.

    • Dan writes:
      February 23rd, 201011:13at

      To be fair to Mass Effect 2, it’s a victim of two things:

      1. Dragon Age: Origins, a game by the same company, is a lot better at doing the Bioware thing (conversations, RPG stuff, and moral choice)

      2. Its marketing campaign really annoyed me

      If the campaign hadn’t gone out of its way to point out how edgy this new game was gonna be, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have cared so much. As it was presented, yeah, I had a lot of issues that I thought needed addressing that are technically criticizing the story of the game rather than the game parts of the game.

      The tone is pretty negative, but I do want to emphasize that I did enjoy playing it. I enjoyed it so much that most of this is just frustration that this game fell just short of greatness by failing to properly capitalize on what made ME great and by not maturing in tone as much as Dragon Age did.

      • Eric Mesa writes:
        February 23rd, 201011:21at

        That is true. Some famous guy once remarked that art cannot be evaluated in a vacuum. The game may have been awesome at the time of its inception or programming, but other games, especially from the same company, undermine it. It’s part of how we cannot decide what movies, games, etc were amazing until decades later. Many of the books we consider classics and films we must watch were flops when they first came out – both commercially and critically.

  • Eric Mesa writes:
    February 23rd, 201011:06at

    An interesting thing as concerns time in games is that the phenomenon is not even so new that they should still be making such sophomoric mistakes in shoots and JRPGs. After all, King’s Quest IV in the 1988 (for goodness sake!) had time-based consequences. You couldn’t just wander around forever or you might end up unable to save the King.

    The problem we have right now is that we’re in a transition phase in video games where they’re mostly choosing to either be cartoony (Fat Princess) or realistic (Mass Effect). If the game is cartoony then all bets are off. But if it’s realistic, it should be realistic. And since we are still in this transition period, you don’t know if the realistic games have become realistic enough to have time limits when the story says they do. So you don’t want to think you can take your time and then end up with your crew all murdered. But you don’t want to be needlessly rushing through a game either. Perhaps the best way for games to represent which they are would be to have a timer somewhere on the HUD or represented in some manner (becomes night-time) if it means something. Otherwise, things remain static.

    • Dan writes:
      February 23rd, 201011:58at

      I think that games need to evaluate how much freedom they want to offer and impose consequences. A lot of the time in more modern games you have the “point of no return” after which you cannot just wander around the world chilling out. From that point forward it makes sense to have a frantic pace and rushed feeling since the narrative has become more guided.

      On the other hand, it’s extremely difficult to motivate a player with a “Well maybe you should get there eventually” instead of a “OH GOD WE’RE GONNA DIE IF YOU DON’T DO IT NOW!” For now I’m happy to know that when they say “We’d better hurry or they’ll kill the crew” they mean “Do another side mission and your crew will be dead when you get there”. I’d also be happy if when an RPG tells me that the world will end in 3 days, I get a game over if I use an inn 3 times. Persona 3 and 4 are pretty good at this, except that if you complete your missions too fast you’ll often find that your party members don’t change up what they have to say until after the date that you’re waiting for.

      • Eric Mesa writes:
        February 23rd, 201012:42at

        I feel, and I think (although it is quite presumptuous of me to put words into the man’s mouth) Tim Rogers would agree, there is no reason why a game cannot exist in which they simply say “Hey, just get here when you get around to it. We created this huge world and we wouldn’t be insulted (in fact we’d be delighted) if you wanted to roam around a bit.”

        • Dan writes:
          February 23rd, 201012:49at

          There’s no reason why it couldn’t exist, sure, but I’m just not sure how well players might respond to a more laid back imperative. Perhaps well? Maybe we’re tired of being ordered around? Maybe we’re not?

  • Eric Mesa writes:
    February 23rd, 201011:18at

    I’ve watched you play a few morality games like KoTOR and some cop game. I’ve also heard people on Three Guys 1 Up (and its previous incarnations) and Giant Bombcast lament over how this aspect of games seems to have failed to mature over time. These games are generally not my cup of tea (although they are fun to watch others play), but I certainly understand the complaints. Life is rarely as black and white as the games often are. However, given your background, you understand as well as I that this is the simplest way to program. 0/1, off/on/, bad/good, jedi,sith lord. It takes a lot more effort to program for shades of gray. And then to program all those consequences it can become exponentially more complicated. I guess that’s why Bioware “cheated” with Dragon Age: Origins. The choices themselves are not moral absolutes. But the consequences are still 0/1. This guy dies or that one dies. BUT it does appear more complex. And entertainment is about convincing appearances. So they win, even if they “cheat”.

    As far as your complaint about the choice that has no consequences, I think it depends exactly on how it occurred. Because, there is something realistic about thinking you have a choice because of your incomplete knowledge. But your choice ends up not mattering because of other things you then find out. Think of, for example, murdering the guy who knew the formula, but he set up his computer to send out the data if he died. You didn’t know ahead of time or you would have destroyed the computer first. Really, I think for the game to have satisfied you, you should have had the option to kill him after he mouthed off to you and told you he could recreated it from a formula in his head. Then again, it may have just been some fridge logic in order to keep a plot point for Mass Effect 3. That’s part of the problem of having an “open world” within a trilogy. I always thought the two should be mutually exclusive because the results always seem to be a bit kludgey.

    • Dan writes:
      February 23rd, 201012:03at

      It is a fridge logic thing. They want certain things to remain possible and relevant in the third game so certain people can’t die and certain events cannot happen.

      As far as shades of gray…well I don’t mind if the outcomes are binary, but I loved that the outcomes were not moral absolutes. It wasn’t you spared this guy or he’s dead where one is blatantly good and the other bad. One choice that handles this well takes place during Samara’s recruitment. There is a merc that you meet who claims it’s her first day and that she wants to quit because she’s in way over her head. You can spare her or kill her. Later on you learn that the feigned innocence was a ruse and that she was a way ruthless murderer responsible for (and proud of) the very murder that you were investigating. If you spared her, your party members will lament that the killer went free. Killing her makes them glad that you brought her to justice. Good ol’ Bioware likes to mix it up and trick you every so often, I suppose.

      • Eric Mesa writes:
        February 23rd, 201012:44at

        Interesting, although is your character such a deranged psychopath that such a dichotomy would even make sense? I mean, you just met her and one of your choices is to kill her? Either I’m missing some context or that is a jarring way to bring someone out of the game.

        • Dan writes:
          February 23rd, 201012:48at

          Your character is a military operative type who has been shot at by many members of the same mercenary group that this woman belongs to. She has a gun and is pointing it at you at the time while trying to convince you to let her live. You’re allowed to be a psychopath (renegade) or merciful (paragon).

          • Eric Mesa writes:
            February 23rd, 201013:05at

            Well, it makes more sense in that context. I thought he just ran into her and the game asks, “wanna kill her?”

  • Eric Mesa writes:
    February 23rd, 201011:25at

    Finally, on maturity. I often find myself struggling for another word to use when I am describing something that’s complex enough that probably only adults (or very sharp kids) will be able to appreciate it. Whenever I say it’s mature they automatically assume sex. And maybe violence. And I have to qualify and say, there’s actually none of that here. It’s just very, very dark and kids might find it a bit disturbing.

    And, with video games they often end up putting their integrity on the line when they make something that’s supposed to be complex and for adults when they have gratuitous butt shots. Not that adults don’t like that too, but it just doesn’t need to be there. That’s why I’m a fan of Quentin Tarrantino and of Valve. I like games with strong women. Sure, there’s a time and a place for even strong women to wear mini-skirts and revealing clothing. Battle is not that time.

    • Dan writes:
      February 23rd, 201012:11at

      You know, it makes me laugh that I didn’t tie this together:

      Nintendo didn’t release Mother 3 in the states because they felt it was too mature for its cute art style. I wonder what the ESRB would rate a game like Mother 3. Actually, I don’t, I’m sure it would get a T rating, but for the animated violence or something like that.

      Mass Effect 1 did a much better job in terms of its battle-ready player models*. Subject Zero may have been attired in the same way on the ship, but when out in combat, every character wore battle armor that covered the whole body. In fact, the whole belt outfit thing becomes completely ridiculous when in conditions without atmosphere (or low atmospheres). Grunt has a full helmet on top of his protective armor. Jack or Miranda have piddly little gas masks over their mouths.

      *To be fair, the female character armor in ME still had emphasized breasts and emphasized buttocks even though the male armor did not emphasize the buttocks.

      • Eric Mesa writes:
        February 23rd, 201012:47at

        Yeah, don’t break the game by having her survive in space without a suit just so we can see her mammaries. (Unless there’s a story reason why the coldness of space doesn’t affect her) Obviously, breast plates make sense for armor because the breasts are there and you have to protect them. But a tight fitting posterior is a bit much.

  • Eric Mesa writes:
    February 23rd, 201013:06at

    Where’s Min? Perhaps he’s avoiding the spoilers?

    • Dan writes:
      February 23rd, 201013:33at

      Likely.

      • Eric Mesa writes:
        February 23rd, 201013:38at

        I look forward to his trebling of the comments.

        • Dan writes:
          February 23rd, 201013:53at

          It’ll probably be a while. Last I heard he was still playing through the first game.

  • Min writes:
    March 1st, 201021:48at

    Okay, played through the game!

    I kind of felt like you cherry picked the “moral choice” scenarios to helped make your point. The two you showcased were, in my mind, probably the easiest choice to make in the game. I mean really… kill the serial killer you just met 20 minutes ago? Or kill your squad mate, who’s probably saved your life on more than one occasion? Not really a choice, regardless of the mother/daughter dynamic.

    I thought the much harder choices in the game were the ones where you had to decide between either giving up your moral integrity to increase your chances against the Reapers or standing by your beliefs and weakening your side in the process.

    For example:

    Do you sacrifice a bunch of civilians in a burning oil refinery in order to pursue a mob boss that your teammate has been tracking for 20 years? Or do you give up his loyalty(which you will need later) in order to put out the fire?

    Do you rewrite the minds of the rebelling Geth(effectively enslaving them) in order to strengthen your side to fight the Reapers? Or do you destroy them on the off chance that the Geth might turn on you in the future?

    If two missiles are going towards the planet and you can only stop one. Do you stop the one going towards the residential area(and saving thousands of lives) or do you stop the one going towards the industrial/spaceport district? Letting the industrial/spaceport district blow up also meant that the entire colony had to be evacuated since they would have no means to maintain their economy, and in addition, you would lose military presence in the system.

    And the biggest(and IMO hardest) choice of all, which showed up literally after every mission: Do you trust Cerberus?

    These are guys with a past of terrorism, kidnapping, horrible experimentation on aliens and children, and have an overall racist(speciest?) agenda. But they did spend 2 years and countless resources to bring you back from the dead, and they’re also the only ones willing to help you fight the Reapers.

    So in the end, do you hand over to them a treasure trove of advance alien technology or do you blow it up? On one hand they might find something you can use to save the galaxy, on the other hand, how do you know they wouldn’t abuse this technology for their own evil agenda?

    Also, I don’t know if your persuasion skill just wasn’t high enough or something, but I barely had to make any hard choices in DA:O. There was a compromise option for almost everything. Half the time it was like 1.)Sacrifice the son 2.)Sacrifice the mother 3.)Find some lithium. Or 1.)Side with the elves 2.)Side with the werewolves 3.)Bring peace between the two races.

    Overall, I thought ME2 was a vastly superior game over ME1 in terms of combat mechanics and character development. I agree though that ME1 had much stronger overall story, but I think being a second in a trilogy is partly to blame for that. (I.e. We know how it began, and we have a good idea how it’s going to end, so what can you really add in between?)

    Personally, I thought the whole, abducting colonies to liquefy them into a human reaper was pretty good as far as plot goes. It wasn’t predictable at least. Also, the discovery about the Geth, and Collectors/Protheans were interesting.

    P.S. I don’t know if it’s because of the lighting or what.. but your character looks like a zombie in every one of those screenshots.

    • Eric Mesa writes:
      March 1st, 201022:11at

      Hey,

      I almost like Min’s review better than yours. q;op Can’t wait to see your response.

      • Min writes:
        March 1st, 201023:35at

        Oh oh, them be fighting words.

        • Dan writes:
          March 2nd, 20108:46at

          This is why I had my column idea “Why Dan is Wrong”

    • Dan writes:
      March 2nd, 20108:45at

      To be fair, I was debating whether or not to use the Geth example for my more interesting choice, but I honestly found Samara/Morinth far more interesting. I didn’t want to just kill Morinth because of her affliction at all, regardless of how soon it was that I’d met her. I mean, I might have met her 20 mins ago, but, at least in my playthrough, I’d only met Samara maybe 40 before. It’s not like we were best friends and I found Samara’s moral absolutism to be a turn-off and a bit obnoxious and realistic.

      I guess the oil refinery (and most of the loyalty missions, really) wasn’t all that big a deal for me because I had high negotiation skill. Even if you force Zaeed to save the civilians, guess what? He’ll still be loyal to you. Doesn’t matter which choice you choose so long as your negotiation is high enough.

      I think that you’re overcomplicating the Geth scenario. If you were to destroy the Heretics, you’d only be weakening yourself because you’re weakening the Geth who would oppose the Reapers with you. There is no fear of retaliation from the non-Heretic Geth, they want to destroy the Heretics. Reprogramming them them with the virus is morally interesting, but Legion never even considers it to be all that reprehensible. They are software, after all, they are clearly the enemy of organic life, and they have no interest in negotiation.

      I chose to ignore the missile sidequest thing because it’s just that, a throwaway sidequest. I guarantee you that saving one or the other will probably have close to zero effect on ME3. Maybe you’ll get an e-mail from someone saying “Boy, I sure am glad you didn’t let a missile hit my house”. It’s an interesting choice, no doubt, but one that has no impact with the way the story is being told.

      The problem with this central conflict of yours of whether or not to trust Cerberus every mission is that it’s unimportant throughout the whole game. You have no real choice until the finale, but before that you can’t just quit Cerberus and try to go it alone. From the getgo you could decide that you don’t want to work with Cerberus, but the only way to ensure that you don’t work with them is to turn off the power. You can’t escape the decision that the game makes for you. Shepard will work for Cerberus.

      You’re right in that the final decision of whether or not to use the Reaper tech is a worthwhile choice, but why does it have to be a choice between blowing it up or giving it to Cerberus. I guess other ships can’t make the trip out there, but why can’t Shepard decide to use his ship to grab the Alliance and bring them out there? I dunno…Plus, if the decision is as incidental to ME3 as saving the council was, what’s the point? Not a real argument on my part, I guess, but I just wasn’t all that blown away by that final decision.

      As for DA:O, I guess you’re right, my negotiation skill was pretty low (as a Dwarf Warrior I chose to do most of my talking with my sword), so the only happy ending I was able to get was the demon-possessed boy (and that’s only because the option is available to everyone, regardless of negotiation level. You’ve just got to ignore the “Hurry!” and you’re eventually able to save everyone). The elf/werewolf story was not resolvable without conflict. I had to murder the elf leader because he refused to lift the curse and bury the hatchet. Sure, the werewolves were back to normal, but the elves certainly weren’t happy to see me. Maybe if I had higher negotiation this would happen less, but there was no easy way out for me 99% of the time.

      The Human Reaper was a pretty slick twist, but it was the only thing remotely interesting about the plot considering that ME1 was building toward its twist involving mind control and indoctrination the entire game. I feel like the only real message being conveyed in a lot of ME2’s missions and storyline was “humans r speshul”, which is kind of annoying to me.

      Collectors as Protheans was pretty cool too as was learning the cultural history of the Geth. Even cooler was that it’s completely optional. You can just turn Legion over to Cerberus and miss out on his entire character. You can totally miss out on Grunt too, which would be a shame since he’s pretty awesome (Bioware is great at making Krogan characters).

      PS: It’s because she’s a full Renegade and I chose screens with low lighting so that you could see the glowing red eyes that come with it.

      • Min writes:
        March 2nd, 201018:11at

        I think it’s somewhat of a fallacy to judge how interesting a choice is by using posteriori knowledge of all the consequences. Just because something turns out okay, doesn’t retrospectively make the choice any less difficult. I think anytime a game can make you stop playing and go “Hum.. I really want to do this to gain X, but I don’t agree with it morally” then the developers did a pretty good job in that regard. Whether or not you end up losing/gaining X is irrelevant at the time of the choice.

        With that said, I do agree with you though, about the limited amount of impact you’re decisions seem to end up having on the game. Particularly, the choices that got carried over from the first game. I think the problem is that the results are too symmetric. If you chose A, then A shows up here, if you chose B then B shows up instead. In the end you experience the same content, which makes it feel like your choice didn’t really matter.

        I would’ve much preferred it if they had started blocking contents depending on your choice. I.e. You don’t get to do quest X if you chose A, but you get to do Y instead. It wouldn’t have cost them too much extra development time, since they’d effectively be cutting off existing content, but it would’ve added re-playability, and the perception that you’re on a different path than other players who made another choice.

        • Dan writes:
          March 2nd, 201018:46at

          I wholeheartedly agree with all of what you said.

        • Eric Mesa writes:
          March 2nd, 201021:15at

          I thnk the problem there is that you then have some very angry completionist gamers who become angry that they cannot access content that is on the disc.

          • Dan writes:
            December 7th, 201016:52at

            I think the way that development has encouraged these tendencies has done a disservice to the mental state of gamers.

            • Min writes:
              December 7th, 201016:59at

              Thread necro!

              • Dan writes:
                September 13th, 201115:58at

                You’re a thread necro.

                • Min writes:
                  September 13th, 201116:06at

                  Slow day at work, eh?

                  • Dan writes:
                    September 13th, 201116:10at

                    Someone hit the thread today and I reread a lot of the comments thinking about if I’d feel the same way today. I think that I still find ME2 to be inferior to DA:O, moral choice-wise, but I actually think it’s better than DA2’s choices.

                    More than anything I’d like to see how my bold predictions carry out in ME3 and what Eric/David think when they’re done with ME2

  • I Bring Nothing to the Table » Blog Archive » Daniel Floyd Returns! [Embedded Reporter/GO] writes:
    May 10th, 20100:04at

    […] argument in the video is pretty sound and it makes me wish I touched more on morality meters in my Mass Effect 2 review. Oh […]

  • I Bring Nothing to the Table » Blog Archive » 2010 in Video Games [GO] writes:
    January 5th, 201112:42at

    […] Effect 2: The first AAA game of the year. My review trended toward disappointing, mostly due to the way that story was handled in this iteration […]


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