Challenging Conventions 7: Taking Stock of Mass Effect 2

Challenging Conventions is a biweekly column by Jeffrey Matulef that discusses the conventions of games design, whether regards the games that subscribe to these conventions or those that try to overcome them.

With praise lavished upon BioWare’s recent cosmic opus, Mass Effect 2, from all corners of the web (including our Editor-in-Chief John Laster), there’s clearly a lot of nice things to say about it. Much of this praise, however, is based on elements that were already successful in its predecessor or extra layers of polish that no one would object to, like improved frame rate and texture loading. There is one unique design decision, however, that is vastly different from its predecessor and any role-playing game I’ve played for that matter: its complete lack on an inventory screen.

What’s the basis behind this decision? Initially, it would appear to give the game a more realistic tone. It’s always been nonsensical how in most games the protagonist could hold several duffel bags full of supplies, all somehow invisibly attached to their person.

I loved when this trope was mocked in The Secret of Monkey Island, when Guybrush is tethered to a heavy idol half his size and thrown into a lake. Surrounding him on all side, but just out of reach, were sharp instruments that could free him from his (slowly) impending doom. The solution? He picked up the idol and put it in his pocket. There was even a hilarious custom animation of it disappearing into his pants. Brilliant!

Mass Effect 2 is a RPG set in space which wants to be more realistic…

While Monkey Island is content to mock itself for being a game, Mass Effect 2 wants the player take it more seriously by allowing you to carry a reasonable amount of stuff. Dig deeper, however, and it becomes apparent that this design decision presents something just as unrealistic.

As you collect items you no longer have room for, they get exchanged instantaneously into currency. From a gameplay point of view this is remarkable as it successfully cuts down the laborious process of selling your surplus goods to a merchant. From a fiction point of view, however, it never makes much sense. It’s just as arcadey as something like Borderlands where enemies leave money and ammo behind for no apparent reason. It’s still no worse than the old trope of a protagonist with an army surplus store in his pants, but let’s not kid ourselves that this is any more realistic.

But I don’t see realism as being the goal. Instead, I see it as progress towards a goal of no more busywork. Not mucking about in your inventory in search for an elusive item helps the game flow much more, as does no longer having to clean house when you reach the limit.

RPGs have always been about making tough, tactical decisions. That was always the primary reasons inventories existed; to give the player more options. Really though, once you get a better version of a gun, why would you ever go back to the prior version? The inventory proves advantageous when you have different versions of similar items with different properties, like one set of armor that is is weak but heals the character over time versus another that is stronger, but has no additional benefit.

So, Mass Effect 2’s selection is slimmer than most RPGs, but what of it? There’s still plenty of variation regards what weapons to specialize in, what powers to build up, and what party members to bring along. Any more complexity and it might risk bogging down the whole saving the universe thing.

I’m not saying all games should be more economical with their options. An RPG like Demon’s Souls, for example, is predicated upon riffling through one’s inventory, methodically planning what resources to use. The Final Fantasy series certainly fits this bill as well with a mind-blogging myriad of options for weapons, armor, and skill point allocations. While there’s nothing wrong per se with this sort of design, RPGs have always been known for their stories, and spending time organizing one’s gear often detracts from the drama.

Final Fantasy is known – and loved by some – for its complicated submechanics

Mass Effect 2 changes that. It proves that RPGs can be every bit as involving without cluttering the interface. Other sequels would do best to learn from this amendment. I’ve already made clear my desire to see the Zelda series nix rupees in favor of finding power-ups through discovery and completing side-missions. I’d argue Okami did a good job combining all items into one go-to item with the celestial brush, moving away from Zelda’s cumbersome item switching via a menu. Scavenging for loot in Oblivion was akin to rummaging through a Goodwill for clothing. Sometimes you find a diamond in the rough, but there’s a lot of lost time spent examining junk.

When I’m role-playing as an adventurer, gallivanting around the galaxy fighting aliens and solving mysteries, I want to feel like a nimble wanderer. Not a mobile storage unit.

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