December 9, 2007

Mass Effect: Am I the Player Character?

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 11:05 pm
Mass Effect dialogue choices

Recently I’ve been playing Mass Effect. As I expected, so far the story and characters shine. As for NPC interaction, while underneath it looks to be pretty much the same old dialogue trees, there’s the potential for much better performance with the new system. I mean that in the acting sense, rather than the computational sense.

For those who haven’t been playing (or reading about) Mass Effect, during each exchange with NPCs there is a set of options presented for types of things to say (rather than, in games like Knights of the Old Republic, things we assume the player character will literally say). A selection can be made while the NPC is still talking, and then triggered when appropriate. After the trigger, the player character animates and voice acts through a response that expresses the basic idea of the chosen option, but perhaps performed in a surprising or clever way (or sometimes, an unintended one). Apparently this went through 10-12 iterations before the version we see in the game. The result can feel like a nicely-scripted conversation between two characters, and somewhat less like the navigation of an option tree.

On the other hand, it also makes conversation feel a bit less first person — sometimes more as though we’re influencing Shepard (the player character) than playing as Shepard. It’s made me think of Nick’s “Fretting the Player Character” piece in Second Person, which talks about a variety of ways we might conceive the relationship between the player and player character. Overall, I’m glad to see this alternative approach explored, and interested to hear it may have a future at other EA studios. Though I do agree it’s disappointing that conversations don’t seem to happen “in the field” (and it appears, as I play further, I may find other things disappointing).

That said, so far the changes in the combat system feel like a mistake. Unlike KotOR, combat in Mass Effect is real-time and (when zoomed in to target) sometimes first person. As opposed to the changes in the dialogue system, there’s no experiment going on here. And it just doesn’t do combat as well as a combat-centric game. Neither the enemy NPCs nor my squadmates seem to perform well at pathfinding, the enemies do repetitive shooting-gallery types of moves, I have a hard time telling what kinds of visual gaps in the environment I can actually shoot through, sometimes on uneven terrain my vehicle seems to block its own fire (and I can’t predict when this is going to happen), etc. During most combat sequences I feel like a game with good, innovative elements — that I really want to get back to — is being interrupted by a game that’s okay, but not nearly as good as that other one.

I can see the motivation. The turn-based combat of KotOR would feel pretty dated in Mass Effect, and yet they wanted to innovate elsewhere, so couldn’t exactly put the effort into combat of something like Halo 3. Plus, it does make the combat feel more under my control — like I’m playing as Shepard, rather than just making high-level choices that the character will enact.

In other words, the dialogue and combat systems have moved in opposite directions, in terms of the relationship between player and character. In fact, relative KotOR, they’ve switched. It’s almost like they were trying to set up some perfect comparison for game scholars…

15 Responses to “Mass Effect: Am I the Player Character?”


  1. Max Battcher Says:

    It’s a nice little “trend” right now moving away from “exact controls” to subtler “character influencing controls”. I noticed it a lot in Assassin’s Creed. The so-called “puppeteering” interface of Assassin’s Creed is similar to Mass Effect’s conversation system here (and also designed to attempt to yield a smoother more cinematic experience to game play) and because of it I found myself in Assassin’s Creed more often blaming the character (rather than myself) for faults than I do in other games. It’s good to see some experimentation and it will be interesting to see how these mechanics continue to evolve. If they were more common I don’t believe we would see as much of an immersion break from them.

  2. Darius K. Says:

    Reminds me of the conversation system in Sam & Max Hit the Road. You’d be given three options during conversation: ?, !, and [Max, a "wildcard"]. It wasn’t real-time, but the basic idea was the same, and it really helped with the game’s humor that the punchlines your character delivered would actually a a surprise.

  3. Patrick Says:

    I’m actually designing a web-game right now that moves along these lines, where the N,S,E,W options have a consistent archetype or tenor to them, kind of similar to the: ?,!, Wildcard concept Darius referenced, but with more depth.

    http://www.thewildwest.org/native_american/religion/Directions.html

  4. noah Says:

    Max, I think it’s an intriguing trend. And I’m also interested in the fact that KotOR’s combat system could be seen as more along the “influencing” line than Mass Effect’s. Frankly, I think ME would probably feel like a more completely successful game — to me — if they’d found a way to update the influencing combat mode to go along with the new influencing conversation mode.

    Darius, nice connection. I don’t think I’ve seen that one made before.

    Patrick, do you mean the cardinal directions are used in conversation, other kinds of action, or both?

  5. Mark Says:

    In a completely different way and different genre, I’ve had less than stellar experiences with games that try to move the player from direct-interaction to influence-a-computational-system interaction, since it ends up feeling like a weird exercise in herding AI. That was basically Master of Orion 3‘s answer to micromanagement problems in increasingly complex 4X games: have a set of “governors” that do play the game in the player’s stead, and have the player influence them with high-level goals instead of actually doing the nitty-gritty things like constructing buildings and allocating planetary resources.

    It does make for an interesting conceptual gray area between games and fully automatic non-interactive simulations, though.

  6. andrew Says:

    Working within the limitations of dialog menus, it seems like a nice innovation. It’s like communicating in discourse acts, such as “agree”, “tell me more”, “insult”, “ask about the sword” — overlapping with IF a bit now, no?

    The distancing of the player from the character helps alleviate the “I would never say that” problem with dialog menus, since the player is now not literally choosing what to say.

    It also allows for more efficient, fluid gameplay, since the player can quickly read short-worded choices, and the scene can continue without pausing. In Max’s opinion above, a lack of pauses in the enactment of the scene increases immersion (edit: at least I think that’s what Max means!). I’d agree with that.

    Yet I’d argue that the distancing that dialog menus (in general) force upon the player — now furthered by these more abstract menu choices — decreases immersion in a broader sense, as Noah alludes to. When multiple-choice menus are used in choosing dialog or events, IMO, the player herself “isn’t there” in a natural sense (forced to choose from a limited menu), and is instead somewhat above the action, like a puppeteer.

    Noah, the Gamasutra article you link to about the writing process for Mass Effect was really interesting, thanks for that.

  7. Ash Says:

    I didn’t play Mass Effect, but from the article conversation mechanic looks a bit like what we saw in Fahrenheit – is that true?

  8. Justin Gibbs Says:

    I’m not a fan of canned dialogue although I understand it’s almost a requirement with consoles and their audience – which is worried more about game play then story in the end. As pointed out in the post and comments, canned dialogue doesn’t allow the player to embody the character.

    Interestingly one PC World review thought Mass Effect was paramount to slogging through an old-school adventure game:
    http://blogs.pcworld.com/gameon/archives/005095.html

    Could have been the game play itself, or maybe it was that the canned dialogue got old.

  9. The Plush Apocalypse » Blog Archive » This is why we can’t have nice things. Says:

    [...] Mass Effect does some interesting exploration into how the player’s role interacts with their character (such as how your chosen backstory [...]

  10. noah Says:

    Ash, yes, that’s a good connection. Mass Effect is somewhat like Fahrenheit / Indigo Prophecy in choosing between short types of things to say, which are then performed. But as gameplay it also feels pretty different. Part of this is due to the fact that this is also F/IP’s interface for choosing physical actions. But more significant is the time-sensitive element of dialogue choices in F/IP, which makes you choose one before a timer runs out. ME, on the other hand, while it allows you to choose the next thing to say before the NPC finishes talking, is also willing to wait indefinitely (you could go get a snack, and the characters act like you answered normally). Of course, ME also won’t let you pause the game during an NPC conversation (don’t remember if this was true of F/IP)…

  11. Chris Lewis Says:

    I heartily enjoyed the Mass Effect puppeteering, particularly in contrast to the other post-choose-exactly-what-I’m-going-to-say technique of “The Silent Protagonist” (funny in Half-Life 1. No longer.)

    As Andrew pointed out: when you can’t say exactly what you want to, the option is distracting and frustrating. Mass Effect doesn’t entirely avoid this, but it does better. It tends to fall down on the Renegade path. When the player is trying to go the route of “break fingers until he talks!” it’s all too easy to accidentally end the conversation and have a shoot-out, denying the player any opportunity to hear any more of the dialogue. That’s frustrating, and I personally began to avoid those options just in case (coupled with a terribly poor checkpoint system, I didn’t want to take the risk).

    Quick braindump: You could add further subtlety by having an emotional reaction to what is being said, controlled by the stick. Pushing forward would lean the character forward, silently indicating your interest in the current topic. Lean back or look around and you are becoming tired of the conversation, and the topic moves to something else. A button for an aggressive action and one for a comforting action and you’d be all set. Of course, having the manpower to write all the variations for that is an entirely different matter!

  12. Nat Says:

    Wondering if you saw the review/’words’ in Play mag about Mass Effect.

    I loved the game and found it very emotionally engaging. HOpe you’re enjoying it too.

  13. LinkoGRAfia (3) « Altergranie Says:

    [...] Mass Effect: Am I the Player Character. Tym razem grze, której być może ostatnio poświęcam zbyt dużo uwagi, przygląda się Noah Wardrip-Fruin, specjalista od komunikacji i literatury cyfrowej z Uniwersytetu w San Diego. Warto przeczytać również komentarze do tekstu. Sporo ciekawych spostrzeżeń m.in. na temat systemów dialogowych w grach. [...]

  14. Brianwh Says:

    A similar method was used in Tex Murphy: The Pandora Directive.(1996?)
    You choose the attitude of what Tex will say, then he speaks the lines that express that attitude. Eg, “ATTEMPT AN APOLOGY/PRETEND NOTHING IS WRONG/LIGHTEN THE MOOD”.

    It didn’t work as fluidly as Mass Effect’s system, though.

  15. Grand Text Auto » New AI Links: Books, Code Releases, Articles and a TV Show Says:

    [...] month’s Culture Clash column has a good critique of dialog in games, paralleling Noah’s discussion of Mass Effect from last [...]

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