on Jul 23, 2015
Last time I said that Mass Effect 1 missions feel like television episodes. I’m not saying these adventures would work as television scripts as we find them in the game. Some would be far too shortThe plot of Therum barely qualifies as a skit. and others would be far too longEven if you trimmed all the combat down to the essentials, Noveria is probably still movie-sized. but they still fit the overall pattern of American television where a cast of regular characters visit a new location, meet some locals, and have an adventure with one or more complete arcs. This is distinct from (say) something like Witcher 3, where the various arcs are all tangled together, nested, branching, meandering, and criss-crossing, and where the audience is dazzled with an ever-shifting cast of charactersEven the protagonist POV character shifts from time to time!. This is also different from something like Arkham City, where a half dozen (mostly unrelated, or barely related) plot threads are opened in the first hour or so, and then the player gradually closes them one at a time.
I really enjoy the Classic BioWare episodic style, and I’m not sure why it isn’t more popular. It seems like a good way to compartmentalize game development. It must be insane trying to coordinate something interconnected like Witcher 3, but in a game with lots of discrete locations you can probably hand each episode off to its own small team and let them work without worrying the teams will get in each other’s way. And as others have pointed out, it makes for a better safety net if you start to run out of time or budget. It’s easier to cut a location from the game and patch over the hole if the locations aren’t deeply interconnected.
Right off the bat, Mass Effect 1 makes it clear that this is a Details First kind of story, to the point where the opening text crawl is spent not talking about the protagonist or current events, but talking about galactic history and the technology that makes this world possible – a technology so important that the whole series is named after it.
Our first episode gets all of the exposition out of the way. Nilus drives home the point that humans are a small species in a big universe, and we’re fighting to hold our place in it. We also learn that Nilus is here to observe Shepard as a possible candidate for the Spectres.
“I have no idea if the subject is qualified to be a SPECTRE, but if you need to move into a new apartment he’s definitely qualified to handle the transition. Could even be trusted to transport large appliances.”
To be fair, Nilus does say this is supposed to be the first of several missions. One imagines the subsequent missions would be jobs that couldn’t be subcontracted to a couple of burly guys and a dolly.
The flow of this episode isn’t complex, which is good because there’s a lot of exposition that needs to be done and the last thing we need is a complicated plot for the player to worry about. Shepard is sent down to recover the Prothean beacon. He lands on the planet and follows a linear path that tells the story of what’s been happening to the artifact. The path goes through the dig site where it was dug up. Then it passes by some of the colony housing so we can hear what the locals think. Then we reach the train station where the beacon was transported. The mission ends at the platform where the Geth are holding it.
Along the way we see Sovereign, we fight the Geth, we learn that Saren is leading the Geth, and we encounter the body horror of the husks. We get our gameplay tutorials out of the way and Jenkins, son of TraskIn BioWare’s earlier game KOTOR, the player is given a tutorial buddy (Trask) to teach them gameplay mechanics, and then this character is killed to raise the stakes. Here in Mass Effect 1, Jenkins acts as our sacrificial stakes-establishing buddy., dies. We meet Ashley, talk to some of the locals, and get a little of the Geth backstory. Most importantly, the beacon gets blown up. Shepard sees the vision, and we’re left with no further clues. The only choice is to go back to the Citadel and attempt to have Saren brought to justice, so that we can learn what he’s up to. We know he wanted the beacon, but we don’t know why.
That’s a lot of pieces to put on the board at once, and the game manages to pull it off without clogging things up. The codex is a beautiful tool for making this work, and helps us enjoy our light fluffy Drama while giving the Details folks something to bite down on.
Someone at BioWare really enjoyed their stories about monsters that arise from bodily transformation. In KOTOR, there was the Rakghoul sub-plot, where a disease turned people into feral monsters. In Jade Empire, we had the Mother plot where cannibalism turned people into flesh-eating goblins. Here in Mass Effect we have two different flavors of space-zombies: The Geth turn people into husks, and the Thorian on Feros turns people into creepers.
I appreciate the gameplay need for Geth husks – a melee attacker keeps fights interesting, and it would be out of character for the Geth to just run up to you and start punching. Sending your own dead back at you as cannon fodder works great as both a tactical distraction and a shock tactic.
On the other hand, the actual transformation always struck me as a little odd. Okay, so the Geth completely encase the victim in electronic parts, and evidently destroy their mind in the process. The resulting husk looks kinda like a techno skeleton. But what I never understood was what they needed the bodies for. Like, if you just took all the machinery you use to cover the dead body, then it could presumably move and operate on its own, right? I assume you’re not actually using the brain and muscles of the corpse. What is it on the bodies that’s valuable? The skeleton? Nervous system? The muscle mass? Can’t you just make 100% synthetic “husk bots” so you don’t have to gather up bodies and wait for the incubation to complete?
Yes, I fully admit I’m over-thinking this one. If they actually answered any of my questions it would make husks a lot less interesting and scary. And they have the magic wand of “REAPER TECH” to wave at objections like this. But for whatever reason, I wonder about this every time I see a husk. (And not, strangely enough, when I see a Thorian creeper.)
Yeah, this episode drags on. Overall, it’s pretty simple: We go to the Council and accuse Saren of attacking Eden Prime, without offering any evidence to support these accusations. We can’t even personally place him at the crime scene. The Council understandably refuses to act. We meet Garrus, Tali, and Wrex. Tali gives us the proof we need to show the Council that Saren was indeed behind the attack. The Council makes Shepard a Spectre and sends him off to stop Saren.
In concept it’s short and easy, but in practice it feels alternately plodding and rushed. We get bogged down in some organized crime stuff between Fist and the Shadow Broker, and while all of that was interesting, it felt a little too much like the “sub-sub-sub-subquest” problem I mentioned last time. I wouldn’t blame the player if they shot their way to the back room of the dance club to capture the local crime lord and found themselves thinking, “Wait. How is this related to the attack on Eden Prime?”
During this adventure, we learn that the Citadel is a massive place, and critical to how the galaxy is governed. It also drives home the point that even though our protagonist is human, humans are a small part of a big galaxy. Humans are new here, and they’re very much sitting at the kid’s tableIs this an American idiom? I’ve always understood it to originate with the practice of putting all the kids at the same table during a family gathering like Thanksgiving, so the adults can socialize in peace. from a political perspective. They’ve only participated in one war, which they lost. This is one of the things that draws me to the game: You just don’t see videogames frame humanity this way.
It loses me when we put Saren on trial with no evidence, and the player dialog indicates we’re supposed to be indignant that this doesn’t work. Then later we manage to convict Saren not just in absentina, but without letting him know he’s being accused or allowing him to defend himself at all. Worse, we do so using a tiny voice sample provided by a Quarian teenager, supposedly taken from a dead Geth. That has to be the sketchiest trail of evidence I’ve ever seen, and that’s ignoring the fact that faking a voice sample that short would be do-able even in today’s worldBy re-cutting other conversations, or hiring an impressionist., much less in a world with super-technology like this one.
On one hand, this investigation wasn’t particularly fun or interesting and anecdotally I get the impression most players were chafing to escape the Citadel and get on with the adventure already. So I’m not saying the story would have been improved if we spent another hour gathering up even more evidence. I know this is a sci-fi and not a procedural crime drama, but having the will of the entire galactic council turn against their most prized agent on this 10 second sound file feels embarrassingly weak. I think if nothing else, making it a video file would have helped.
The Citadel really shows that BioWare’s vision was a little too ambitious for the engine they were using. The shape and scale of the Citadel is spectacular, but also marred by loading-screen elevators, long empty box corridors, and (now brief) hard loading screen hotspots. This part of the game is just crying for an engine that can handle open-world content.
The “Statue” of the Mass Relay is supposed to be a setup for the finale. Plot Twist! It’s not a statue, it’s the receiver for a real relay! It’s the receiving end of the conduit everyone was looking for! That’s a fun twist, but for my first play-through it didn’t have a lot of payoff because the statue is a bit out-of-the-way and I never really noticed itI can’t recall for sure, but I’m reasonably sure I thought it was unreachable background decoration in my first play-through.. It’s on the far end of the playable area, and there’s no reason for the player to approach it except for curiosity. The player has to deliberately eschew the fast travel system in favor crossing all that open space on foot. I’m sure a lot of people missed the relay, and thus the payoff at the end. Ideally I think it could have been moved a little closer to the center of the zone, or perhaps a quest-relevant NPC could have been placed beside it.
The Spectres are clearly a system designed to facilitate RPG style stories: You’re given an overall goal from the council, but they don’t control you directly. This is ideal for that open-world feel that keeps games free and exploratory. Shepard’s status as a Spectre gives the writers lots of wiggle room: Being a Spectre can bestow access to crime scenes, battlefields, and research areas where normal people aren’t allowed to go, but it’s not supreme power. The writers can give the player as much or as little power needed to justify the current quest, and it nicely sidesteps the, “If I’m working for the king then why do I have to put up with this pissant obstructionist guard?” problem that plagues so many quest-driven games.
Obviously the player can’t actually be autonomous in a story-driven game like this. You need to go to the given planets and do the scripted quests to get to the scripted ending. But the game tries to create an illusion of freedom. The Council doesn’t order you around; they offer “suggestions” and “intel”. If you reply, “I’ll get on it right now!” they even make a point of saying they’re just making you aware of your options. Anderson does the same thing. If you jump on one of his suggestions, he backpedals and insists it’s up to you. The game is constantly trying to bolster the notion that the player is in charge.
It helps that this is a quest for knowledge. In a story where you’re after (say) a super-weapon, the player loses a little bit of agency. It creates the feeling that you didn’t beat the bad guy, someone else beat the bad guy when they made the weapon, and you just acted as the delivery mechanism for the solution. That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s not nearly as satisfying as a situation where it feels like you’re forging your own victory. In a knowledge quest, both the player and the player character learn new things together, and it feels like you’re creating the road to victory instead of just following the in-game GPS to victory.
Once they’re free of the Citadel, the player is allowed to tackle the next three major locations in any orderOr even fly off and do sidequest stuff.. I prefer them in this order: Therum, Feros, then Noveria. I usually start with Therum so I can get Liara, and do Noveria last because some of the dialog checks are pretty high and I enjoy being able to hit them all. For my own convenience, I’m going to discuss them in this order.
 The plot of Therum barely qualifies as a skit.
 Even if you trimmed all the combat down to the essentials, Noveria is probably still movie-sized.
 Even the protagonist POV character shifts from time to time!
 In BioWare’s earlier game KOTOR, the player is given a tutorial buddy (Trask) to teach them gameplay mechanics, and then this character is killed to raise the stakes. Here in Mass Effect 1, Jenkins acts as our sacrificial stakes-establishing buddy.
 Is this an American idiom? I’ve always understood it to originate with the practice of putting all the kids at the same table during a family gathering like Thanksgiving, so the adults can socialize in peace.
 By re-cutting other conversations, or hiring an impressionist.
 I can’t recall for sure, but I’m reasonably sure I thought it was unreachable background decoration in my first play-through.
 Or even fly off and do sidequest stuff.