Challenging Conventions 8: The Transparency 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.

Mass Effect 2 has been praised across all corners of the interweb for its marvelous cast of characters, rousing combat, engaging storyline, and innovative streamlining of RPG elements. That being said, it’s not perfect. While it fixes many of the first game’s prominent niggles, several questionable design choices remain in a game that doesn’t follow through on all its promises. Ultimately, Mass Effect 2 makes several of its interactions too transparent, taking the player out of the game.

First and foremost, I found the dialogue and morality system in Mass Effect particularly transparent. Paragon i.e. good options are always on the top part of the dialogue branch while the Renegade i.e. evil options are at the bottom. As such, I always knew what options would give which points. As a result, I never felt like I was actually conversing with people whose reactions could vary across the board, but rather that I was manipulating AIs. Furthermore, the game rewards you for leaning towards either extreme. While Renegade points don’t take away from Paragon ones and vice versa, you’re always aware what points you’ll be given for what options, giving the player an ulterior motive behind their dialogue choices. As such, seeing this continued in Mass Effect 2 served to constantly remind me that I was playing a game, the last thing I want to be reminded of when conversing with such an interesting cast.

A better option would be to mix the dialogue trees up so that you wouldn’t know what options have positive and negative outcomes. For example, there’s a scene where a recently awakened, genetically engineered super-soldier Krogan attacks you, ready to kill you unless you can talk your way out of it. Convincing him to not only spare your life, but also risk his own in joining your crew, is done easily by always hitting the option in the upper left corner. A negotiation as tense as that should take a greater pedigree of thought as you try to determine what he’d want to hear based on his reactions. The same thing goes for acquiring a romantic partner; just tell them what they want to hear because it’s so clearly spelled out what that is. Getting a character to fall in love with you is so easy it feels like cheating. You should feel nervous about courtship, not mindlessly tapping the “keep on flirting” option.

Romance comes naturally to Commander Shephard… too naturally.

I’d even go so far as to recommend nixing Paragon and Renegade points altogether. They could still operate under the hood, but not be so transparent that you can see exactly how good and evil you are at any given moment. This is especially disappointing given that BioWare already employed a similar system in its last game, Dragon Age: Origins. I can’t help but wonder if they took this step backwards to stay true to the first Mass Effect or if there’s some reason they think players want a meter to gauge their evilness by.

What’s more disappointing is how hard Mass Effect 2 fails at managing your crew. The game was promoted around getting players to recruit a group of specialists for a suicide mission and somehow keep them all loyal to you.

Okay, great, that does sounds interesting. Maybe some of them will be jerks and you’ll have to get your hands dirty to appease them, giving you an incentive to play evil. Maybe other crew members will be very moral and require a Renegade character to play nice. Maybe there would be fights among the crew and you’d be forced into choosing sides out of self-preservation.

I wanted team management to be a fully fledged social sim. Sadly, it didn’t work out that way.

Instead, you gain your crew’s loyalty by doing explicitly spelled out “loyalty missions”. What this means is that it doesn’t matter how you treat your crew, because as long as you help solve their problems you’re okay in their book. This is very disappointing because it means you can be a total boyscout (or girlscout) and gain the respect of everyone, or you can be a jerk and still gain the respect of everyone.

Wouldn’t it be so much better if your crew reacted to you based on your actions throughout the game? I picked a rare Renegade option early on and pissed off Tali, your engineer friend and former teammate from the first game. When I ran into her later on in the game, all was well. When Garrus, a crime-fighting vigilante, wants you to assist him in his quest for vengeance at the hands of a rat, he applauds your decision to either aid him in the assassination or talk him out of it. These win/win situations cheapen the decisions. Shouldn’t your character be judged by their actions throughout rather than if you agree to help with personal matters when the fate of the galaxy is at stake?

It’s also disappointing that there’s little to no camaraderie between your individual crew members. I would frequently bring characters on missions if I felt like they’d have some unique perspective on the matter, but they very seldom comment on the task at hand. And rarely do they ever speak with each other. One would think the Justicar, an Asari who believes that all who don’t obey the law should be subject to capital punishment, would have an issue with Jack, one of the angriest, most violent criminals in the galaxy. Yet they never make any mention of one another. For shame.

The juggling act of keeping every crew member happy doesn’t require much juggling.

One final thing: what’s with the lack of female aliens? Aside from Asari and Quarians, all other aliens we see are male, despite references to females of their species. Seriously BioWare, what gives?

Don’t get me wrong – I still like Mass Effect 2. Quite a lot, actually. The story and setting are fascinating, the combat’s fun, and the characters are neat. But BioWare still has a long way to go before delivering on the promise of an open-ended, morally ambiguous RPG with characters who feel as if they’re living their lives when you’re not around. Maybe once the developer stops making dialogue choices and morality so incredibly transparent, players can momentarily forget they’re playing a game. Until then, what they have is a good game, but not a revolutionary one.

Author: Jeffrey Matulef