Mass Effect:

By Shamus Posted Sunday Jan 11, 2009

Filed under: Game Reviews 34 comments

Sometimes knowing (or thinking you know) how a game operates can work against you.

Early in my first Mass Effect play-through, I noticed the codex. There were only a couple of entries in it at that point, and they were things I’d already heard about. Now, a lot of games have this sort of journal feature that stores facts given to you by NPCs. This is a nice courtesy feature for absent-minded players, for players who might have overlooked or misunderstood something said to them, or for players who return to a game after a long absence. It’s a great feature, but you usually don’t need it. And that’s what I thought the Mass Effect codex was.

It wasn’t until someone in the comments of my first impressions post mentioned how rewarding the codex entries were that I went back for another look. While a couple of them are just a re-hash of things said to you in the game, most of them are a gold mine of details that bring the setting to life and address some (would-be) holes in the setting. Bonus: Most of them are read to you, and have nice pictures to go with them. (Yes, it may be childish to like “pictures” with your prose, but audio and visual does make the ingestion of information more fun.) Double bonus: The voice of the codex is the voice of the narrator from the Leisure Suit Larry games. As I play the entries I keep listening for the double entendre that never comes. Particularly during the Asari entry.

Anyway, an example of a seeming plot-hole which is covered in the codex: I thought it was stupid that the Krogen “didn’t have any scientists” to work on the genophage. If you guys don’t have any scientists, then how did you make it into space? But the codex reveals that the Salarians discovered the tribal and warlike Krogens, and brought them into space. Krogens don’t really have the disposition to try and invent things, but they’re smart and cunning in their own way, and can learn to use technology as well as anyone else.

Suddenly the Krogens went from being Klingon rip-offs to a fascinating race with a proud history but a tragic yet inevitable downfall.

Now that I know how useful it is, the codex is having the intended effect: I’m foraging for data by exhausting the dialog tree of every NPC that will consent to conversation.

I wouldn’t have ignored the codex if I hadn’t thought I already knew what it was. Funny how that works.


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34 thoughts on “Mass Effect:

  1. Stargazer says:

    When you say exhausting the dialog tree, do you thereby say that Mass Effect is one of those games, where it doesn’t matter what questions you ask the Npc?

    I think a great many rpgs have this problem, and it irritates me that I can ask all kind of nonsense and not be punished held accountable by the npc for asking those questions

  2. You can blame other RPGs for making the journal system boring and annoying. So many of them spam information, and so few make that information well-organized, or relevant (especially Elder Scrolls games). Even in games like KOTOR, the journal has almost felt like a vestigial limb to me.

    As hackneyed as the old “talk to your party to find where you need to go next” mechanic is, I think it’s a better way to implement the main function of the journal without breaking the flow of the game. Plus, it has the added bonus of letting you interact with characters in your party, something KOTOR did especially well. There’s an opportunity for good character writing to come through, and much the same way as a good exposition scene in a movie has layers of action, good expository dialogue in an RPG tells you about the character relaying the info as much as the info itself (i.e. Planescape: Torment)

    The Mass Effect codex sounds like a decent revision on the journal idea, though, so you just convinced me to try it out. Or I should say, once it goes down to $20 on Steam. ;)

  3. Heather says:

    Stargazer: Most dialog options in Mass Effect do have a significant game effect, but that’s less true of the options where you’re just asking questions (Tell me about your race/world/etc). There are usually several different good/evil/inclusionist/xenophobe/jerk dialog options, and they have significant impact on plot and future dialog options with characters. I found myself saving before every conversation to find out what the different possible results would be.

  4. qrter says:

    I could never muster the patience to listen to Codex entries myself, but it’s a nice feature to have there.

  5. Maiven7 says:

    I devoured the Codex from the word ‘go’, but I’ve always been something of a fiend for background information. To the point that I’ll often go back and read more generic ‘journal entries’ just to see if and how the reminder notes for a quest differ from the initial delivery of the information.

    Wound up getting the completed Codex achievement on my first playthrough, which probably says something about my approach to these games. “What about the main quest?” “The what? OH, right, save the universe. Just let me finish with this treatise on the history of Frungy…”

    The detailed background is one of the many things Mass Effect had going for it. I honestly enjoyed the game a lot more than I did KOTOR, and the backdrop had a lot to do with that. This isn’t to say Star Wars isn’t a rich universe, Mass Effect just did a better job of getting you into it with no prior knowledge.

    Don’t forget to check for informational terminals, funny looking buttons and neat stuff floating around in asteroid fields.

  6. Annon says:

    They have something like that in the first Xenosaga for PS2. It’s all prose, but it’s really interesting reading about how some of the techno-babble stuff is actually supposed to make sense. That was one of my favorite parts of the game

  7. Lukasa says:

    This is one of the reasons I give bonus points to BioWare for the foray into a brand new IP: the amount of thought that has gone into the world is fantastic. As a physicist, I applaud sci-fi when it takes a very small number of assumptions and sees them through to their conclusion. Reading the Codex entries lets you see how much of this stuff has been thought through from an impressively scientific perspective.

  8. lebkin says:

    The Codex really illustrates how much time and effort Bioware put into fleshing out the world. Not only into cultural things like how the Krogan were brought into space, but also into the science of the universe. While I am no expert, everything reads is if it should work, even if in reality it doesn’t. For example, the emphasis on heat management as a key to battle makes lots of sense. It is a wonderful feature, and I wish more games had similar things (Too Human, with its interesting mythology but thin story presentation, would have been greatly helped by a similar feature). The Codex was a key part of what make Mass Effect so special to me.

  9. MechaCrash says:

    While the narrator for the Codex was nice, my major problem with it is that I could read faster than he could talk. But it’s difficult for me to read something when there’s someone jabbering a sentence behind in my ear. Since there was no button to make him shut up, I had to mute the TV while reading the voiced entries.

    But even with that, I wonder how much of the play time I racked up is just from sitting and reading the codex.

  10. Legal Tender says:

    Hmm. Reminds me a little bit of the books in Morrowind. I spent endless hours searching for books and reading them.

    The details escape now but if I’m not mistaken there were several stories broken into different books which made the book hunt more pleasurable for me.

    My point? Eh, I guess I don’t have one. Oh yeah, thanks for the review and taking the time to dissect the game so we don’t have to.

  11. Leon says:

    Nitpick: it’s spelled “Krogan”.

    Anyway, I found it interesting how much content the game was willing to allow you to ignore. Like you said last post, there’s only about five required stops out of several dozen available planets. And there’s nothing forcing players to read even one codex entry, let alone all of them as I did and you seem to be doing.

  12. gaiaswill says:

    How similar is the Codex to Civipedia? Or is it more like the Starsiege Omni-Web? I really enjoyed browsing through both, as well as the Datalinks in Alpha Centauri.

  13. Jabor says:

    When I first heard about the Codex, I thought “OK, I may just pick up Mass Effect on Steam sometime”.

    I’m a sucker for fluff like that, and this seems to be exceptionally detailed, solid gold fluff.

  14. Factoid says:

    I didn’t know that was the guy from Leisure Suit Larry. I haven’t played one of those games in ages. I first recognized the voice immediately as the narrator from Crackdown.

    I highly recommend checking out the Demo for that on Xbox Live. It’s often referred to as a “GTA clone” but it’s really more about scaling buildings using superhuman powers. Each building is something of a puzzle you need to solve. The story is infantile and not very rewarding, but the gameplay is worth the price of admission. Bonus: In the demo you level up really really fast, so you get to see what it’s like to have a 40 foot vertical leap in short order.

  15. Derek K. says:

    “While the narrator for the Codex was nice, my major problem with it is that I could read faster than he could talk.”

    That’s always my problem. Kinda pisses me off at myself, a lot of times. I typically never hear more than 1/2 the dialogues, because I skip to the next one halfway through each piece. I have to force myself to sit and listen to the whole thing, if I really like the voice acting.

    Also, Crackdown is *nothing* like GTA, except that it is in a big city. It’s fun, crazy superheroism.

  16. Epikunean says:

    There’s actually a Krogan scientist (of sorts) who shows up briefly later in the game.

    But yes, the Codex is one of the things that make Mass Effect awesome.

  17. skizelo says:

    “Mass Effect Apendix: Codex” surely

  18. I found the Codex entries tedious in the extreme, especially since there is at least one point in the game when they make your character look like a dolt. Early on (when you’re first on the Citadel, in fact) you can obtain a codex entry on the Rachni, including a picture. Well, apparently the codex is player-only, because the first time you *encounter* the rachni, your character’s response to “what are those?!” is, essentially, “I dunno”.

    To me, the codex in Mass Effect represents the absolute worst case of World-building for the Sake of World-building I’ve ever seen in a computer RPG. They went to all this trouble to include this rich, detailed setting–and then they completely ignore most of it in the game.

    Good works of art are *integrated*, with story, setting, characterization and plot woven together in such a fluid and seamless fashion that it’s difficult to pick apart the individual threads. Most CRPG’s don’t do this so the game never reaches its full potential. Mass Effect does it so badly that it actually *detracts* from the game.

  19. Luvian says:

    There’s also an achievement for unlocking codex entries, if you’re into that.

    Talking about achievements. This game ruined achievements for me. In other games achievements are pointless, but in Mass Effect they give you ingame bonuses. Some achievements gives you access to more skills for the characters classes, some gives a damage or xp bonus, etc. You actually WANT to get them for once.

    @ Jennifer Snow:

    Think of the codex as the player’s guide of a pen and paper RPG. Just because the information is there doesn’t mean your character knows it all yet.

  20. Sheer_FALACY says:

    Speaking of the narrator being slower than I can read, I actually had that issue with basically all of the dialogue in the game – I read it, I was done reading it, but they were still talking. I could skip it, but the key for skipping dialogue is the same as the key for selecting one of the options, so when I try to skip stuff I always end up picking the middle options. That was very annoying.

  21. Justin says:

    Slow narration + captions = frustration. In order to enjoy the ME dialogue, I disabled captions entirely. I tend to do that in most games, as it allows me the luxury of enjoying the scenery and intended pacing of the speech.

    As for the codex, I have a difficult time ingesting that amount of info if I don’t need it to navigate my surroundings. In PnP RPG’s I read extensively, but in games I tend to read only enough to understand my surroundings and then move on.

  22. Legal Tender says:

    Did anybody read the Mass Effect novel? It’s not going to win any awards anytime soon but I found it decently entertaining.

    If I remember correctly, the plot takes place a few years before the game. There’s a lot there about Krogan (one battlemaster in particular) and the Spectres.

    Like I said, it’s not brilliant but it really got me to want to play the game (then DRM killed the mood and lack of console didn’t help. Bleh).

  23. SimeSublime says:

    Giving achievements a meaning ruined them for you? I’m the opposite. As a PC gamer, when they showed up in Bioshock I was utterly baffled by them. What the hell was the point? OK, I got a reward for doing something. Cool. Let’s do some more of them, get more rewards and be generally awesome. Oh, by the way, just what is it? It’s…it’s something saying I did something. I know I did it. I did it, I was there. Why do I need something saying that I did it. What the hell is the point to this?
    Sure, I know on some level that playing video games is pointless. The only gain I get is the enjoyment I have in playing them, but I don’t like to be reminded of the fact. It makes me feel like I wasted my time. Hunting achievements is fun, until the moment I realise there’s no reason to. From that moment on, the illusion is shattered and I’m constantly reminded of the fact that I’m not immersed in an interesting world, but sitting in my room on my own.
    Giving the achievements purpose suddenly removed that pointlessness to them. Now they were goals worth pursuing. It’s like running Facility on 007 mode again and again to unlock the invincibility mode. Sure, I’m hardly going to use it as it sucks the fun out of Golden Eye, but by damn I’m going to hit that target.
    I would like to congratulate Mass Effect on finally making achievements a positive addition to the playing experience.

  24. Geno says:

    The first ME book is about Captain Anderson (although not a captain yet in the book) and Saren on how he didn’t became a spectre.

  25. Robyrt says:

    What are some other examples of things you wrote off because you’d seen it done poorly elsewhere?

    I remember skipping the “visions of the future” in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, convinced that I didn’t need their help to solve the upcoming puzzles – that is, until they started showing me future plot developments! Suddenly I was watching very carefully.

  26. Mike says:

    I think the point was that Mass Effect ruined achievements for Luvian (and I have somewhat the same feeling) because in Mass Effect they actually do mean something whereas in other games they are mostly meaningless… so now when I go play another game and achievements are back to being useless I’ll be let down :-)

  27. krellen says:

    I realised the Codex wasn’t just some re-hashing of stuff I knew journal because there was also a “Journal”. Also, one of the first entries you get in the Codex is your personal history, which tells you what your “War Hero” or “Survivor” background actually means, in terms of personal history.

    The fact that unlocking a new Codex entry also grants XP is an added bonus of awesome. You can practically gain a level on the Normandy before you ever land on Eden Prime because of Codex entries.

  28. Magnus says:

    The only problem I have with the Codex is that it’s used in place of decent conversation depth in a few places. I’d prefer to be able to learn about things by asking people I meet at the time, and while ME does have better dialogue than many current gen titles, I think I’m one of those people that will always want more.

    The multiple ways that Fallout 1+2 supply you with information is a good case in point, as you get conversation info, as well as stuff from computers and data disks.

  29. krellen says:

    Magnus: One problem with that is that in Fallout, you’re supposed to be a clueless berk that knows nothing, while in Mass Effect, you’re a high-ranking military officer who should have some basic knowledge on things. That’s what the Codex is for.

  30. Magnus says:

    @Krellen: Fair point! I guess I’m used to the usual RPG standard of the PC being clueless and weak at the start!

  31. @Magnus and Krellen:

    The fact that your character really *ought* to know this stuff just makes the way they handle the codex *worse*–because at many places you get codex entries because of dialog like “tell me about this” or “I’ve never heard of that before”.

    A competent dialog writer could have shortened many of the dialogs in the game by half simply by having the exposition take place on both halves of the dialog. So instead of a dialog that looks like this:

    NPC: “My people do Y.”
    PC: “Tell me more about that.”
    NPC: “My people also do C.”
    PC: “That’s interesting. Tell me even more.”

    You get a dialog that looks like this:

    PC: “Your people do Y, correct?”
    NPC: “Yes, but sometimes my people also do C.”

    Half as long, conveys the same information. Due to the way conversation works in Mass Effect (your character doesn’t say exactly what you picked), this could have been done really well–and in the process made your character look knowledgeable and competent. Only it wasn’t.

  32. krellen says:

    I’m not sure I ran into a situation where I was reasonably expecting Shepherd to know something like that before it was explained. Sure, Shepherd knew things, but they were mostly about human things, not alien things. The most clueless questions from Shepherd were to aliens.

    Humanity’s only been out there for twenty-six years. That’s a field I expected them not to know.

  33. Luvian says:

    What Mike said; the Mass Effect achievements made me realize how hollow they were in other games. I hope more games follow in Mass Effect’s footsteps.

    I read the Mass Effect novel. I thought it was average. The writing itself was nothing special and it felt like it was only going through the paces to flesh out a checklist of background information we were given in the game, as opposed to a real story growing organically. It was basically just one long Codex entry.

    That said I’m looking forward to reading the second novel when it comes out, because I liked the Mass Effect world.

  34. Epikunean says:

    The second novel’s been out for a while (at least, in most places – I bought it in Brussels). Have it standing on my bookshelf right now, though I haven’t gotten to it yet.

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