While talking with Director Tann, he gives you a task: Go out and fix the golden worlds to make them habitable. I guess he’s read the script and knows that you’ll discover that the alien structures are climate-control devices that will make this possible. The more reasonable thing a person would do in this situation is suggest looking for some new worlds. He ought to ask you to go out into uncharted space and see if you can find anything livable.
You can call him out on this by pointing out that making planets habitable is impossible, and he responds by saying a “true” Pathfinder would enjoy the challenge. Given what he knowsHe doesn’t even know about the alien tower on Habitat 7., this is not a rational point of view for him to adopt.
Worse, this takes away Ryder’s agency within the story. She’s the main character and yet she’s just following orders from other characters. (Who are, incidentally, all proven failures.) We just went through that ridiculous train-wreck of a scene on Habitat 7 to put Sara in charge, and now the writer is going to keep having other characters make decisions for her.
Mass Effect 1 knew that the protagonist should drive the story, and so the writer worked hard to make it seem like Shepard was the person making decisions. In the Classic BioWare games, the dialog was framed such that your character was the one making decisions and driving the action, even if they theoretically reported to some distant leadership. In KOTOR you were working for the Jedi Council. In Mass Effect you worked for the Galactic Council. In Jade Empire you served your martial arts master, until spoiler happened and you ended up working for a god. The player character was always part of a larger whole, because peasants and working-class types are more relatable for the audience. At the same time, the dialog made it clear that the player character was making the big decisions. We need our main character to be an agent of change, because making decisions is how you reveal their values and personality and how you signal their growth. If the protagonist has no agency, then they might not even feel like the protagonist. They’re just a walking gun.
In more recent BioWare games, the story has inverted all of this. The writer has adopted a parent / child relationship with the player character. The protagonist gets bossed around and you’re obliged to do what NPCs tell you to do, and the writer doesn’t even make much of an effort to get buy-in from the player. You can’t ask probing questions and the dialog doesn’t waste time justifying things to the player. At the same time the game patronizingly pretends like the player character is in charge. You’re the Inquisitor. You’re the Pathfinder. You’re the famous Messianic Commander Shepard. You’re so great. People look up to you. People love you. You’re special. You’re important. Now go do these missions and don’t ask any questions.
Like I said so many times during Mass Effect 3: This is backwards.
How I’d have done it:
Tann would task Ryder with locating new golden worlds. Ryder could then say that charting beyond the Heleus cluster could take months or years, and that the Initiative doesn’t have that kind of time. She thinks the existing golden worlds can be fixed using the technology she saw on Habitat 7We’d need to add a bit more exposition and discovery to the earlier scenes to make this work so it didn’t seem like Ryder was the one reading the script..
Tann would find the notion absurd. Ryder would want to follow through on her father’s discovery. The two of them disagree. The main character strikes out on their own. This will raise the stakes and also make them more personal, because now if she fails it’s all on her. Everyone is counting on her and she’s betting everything on her father’s hunch. This is how you create drama.
In the end, Sara’s efforts bring about a positive change. Tann resists Ryder until she proves her course of action correct. This causes him to change his opinion. He realizes his conservative ass-covering style of leadership has been holding the Initiative back, and that they need a daring trailblazer like Ryder. Addison realizes Ryder is delivering on the promises her father made, and stops being an obstacle to her.
If we do things this way, then our protagonist gets to be the one in the driver’s seat, the player gets to feel like they’re responsible for the fate of the Initiative and not just dumb muscle following someone else’s orders, we get some good short-term drama, nobody needs to behave like they’ve read the script, and everyone gets a little character arc.
Before we go running off to terraform alien planets with space magic, let’s take a look around…
Obviously this place is designed to replicate the function of the Citadel in the original trilogy. Except, we don’t actually need this place and its very existence strains credulity.
The Nexus is 15Km long and the central wheel has a circumference of over 16Km. That’s gargantuan. This place could hold millions.
Take a look at the inside of the central ring:
Given the stated size, that expanse of greenery and buildings goes on for 16.6Km. It’s got things growing on it. What are those buildings? Who lives there? According to the codex, the Nexus is a home for the leadership and a processing point for people disembarking the arks to colonize worlds. It’s basically a giant airport terminal / embassy / immigration building. There’s no reason for it to be this enormous.
When you finally get out there and start creating outposts, you’ll create these little four-acre villages of prefab buildings and a few dozen people. The first one is on a patch of dead ground on a desert world. The second is on a planet that – aside from the hulking predatory monsters that attack you on sight – is indistinguishable from Antarctica. The third is on a furnace planet with no visible water that’s tidally locked and therefore is always daytime. Everyone acts like these tiny outposts are a huge step for the Initiative. Meanwhile I just want to point out the window and ask Director Tann, “WHY DON’T WE COLONIZE THE SIXTEEN KILOMETERS OF FARMLAND WE BROUGHT WITH US?”
The only thing more absurd than the idea that people built a spaceworthy ship to rival the Citadel in just 9 years is the idea that it serves no apparent purpose and nobody uses it for anything.
Clearly you’re not supposed to think about this as much as I have. The designer obviously wasn’t thinking about this in terms of science or immersion. They were just trying to clumsily reverse-engineer the setting of Mass Effect and they started by copying details without understanding what purpose those details served. The writer felt that a Mass Effect game needed a massive Citadel-style station, so they put one in the game. It’s silly, but I guess this is another detail we can hand-wave as part of establishing this new setting.
How I’d have done it:
Getting a Ship
Once you’re done talking to all the losers on the Nexus, you’re granted a ship so you can begin your adventure. Well, first Addison tries to stop you from leaving with red tape, even though everyone is doomed unless you can find someplace to live and you can’t begin doing that until you leave. And again, you can’t storm into her office and ask why she would put petty bureaucracy above basic survival, particularly in light of the one-way conversation the two of you just had. Instead, Vetra (a female Turian) steps in and smooths things out by bribing a port official. In the process, she joins the crew. (I’ll talk more about our crew a little later in the series.)
The designers felt the need to include the Krogan, even though that didn’t make a lot of sense. They felt the need to include a surrogate Citadel, even though that doesn’t make a ton of sense. So it’s not much of a surprise that the ship they give the player looks and feels a lot like the Normandy.
I like the Tempest. It’s easily the most convenient player ship in the series. This is the fourth game, and we’re still flying around in a ship with loading screens disguised as transport. But this is the least obtrusive the loading has ever been. The only impediment to getting around is the short ladder between the upper and lower deck. I’ll take that over the slow-ass Normandy 1 elevator any day.
Part of the trick here is that if a companion has a cutscene / conversation pending, they wait for you in one of the side-rooms with the door closed. This means the door itself can act as a loading screen for all the conversation data. If everyone was standing in the open, then the game would need to have the data for everyone ready, just in case you talked to them. In ME1 the game needed to load up all the Kaiden conversation data when you visited the second deck, even if you weren’t planning on talking to Kaiden. But here on the Tempest, you usually don’t need to wait for Vetra’s data to load unless you deliberately go into the room where Vetra hangs out.
The companion conversations are a little more sophisticated this time around. In the previous games, Garrus and Shepard would stand facing one another and we’d have the conversation in simple shot / reverse shot style. But here on the Tempest our conversations feel more like cutscenes. Vetra will be using her computer or tinkering with some gear. Cora will be taking care of her plants. Jaal will be emoting for the people in the cheap seats. (There are also simpler conversations in the style of the earlier games. This usually happens with characters hanging out in the common area rather than hiding behind loading doors.)
While this step up in quality is nice, I’m not convinced it serves the series. I imagine these cutscenes are significantly more expensive to produce, since they involve custom animations and hand-crafted (rather than procedural) camera framing. And yet I never saw anyone list this feature as a point in the game’s favor. I don’t think most people noticed.
I still miss the spatial continuity of the Normandy-1. In the original game, you could look out the window and see where you’d landed. Then you could exit the bridge, walk through the airlock, and find yourself standing in the area you were looking at through the windows. It was completely seamless. Here in the later games that sense of continuity is gone. When you arrive somewhere, you watch an unskippable cutscene of the ship entering the atmosphere, and when the cutscene ends you’ll find yourself outside the ship. When you return to the ship, you’ll get a cutscene of the takeoff, and then you’ll find yourself on the bridge. It’s literally impossible to land without disembarking or to embark without taking off.
Which means your first visit to the Tempest is a unique one. It’s the only time in the entire game where you can run around the ship while you’re docked. After this point, you’ll never again be able to be aboard the ship while the ship is on the ground. Which is a shame, since it’s cool to look out the windows and see where you are.
Speaking of windows… they’re strange. The outside of the ship is totally windowless, and yet inside you’ve got these huge panoramic views. When you’re at the navigation controls on the bridge, you’re completely enveloped in windows. You’ve got a similar setup in your quarters. The meeting room at the back of the ship is this spacious multi-level thing with skylights that looks like an upscale shopping mall. (It really is gorgeous.)
I guess we’re supposed to assume these “windows” are actually display screensLater we discover they are indeed screens when we use them to chat with aliens.. There’s a shimmering hex pattern on the surface that supports this notion. On the other hand, these things don’t work like display screens. The stuff outside has parallaxYou see different stuff depending on where you’re standing. as you move around, which is more like the Looking Glass technology in Prey 2017. In the Mass Effect trilogy the 3D displays are shimmering monocolor holograms, and they’ve never had anything like these magic VR-windows. I guess this is another detail we have to hand-wave for the sake of the new setting.
That’s fine, although I still miss the spatial continuity of the original. I think I’m the only one who cared, but I enjoyed the feeling that my ship was a physical object and not a pocket dimension with loading screens.
 He doesn’t even know about the alien tower on Habitat 7.
 We’d need to add a bit more exposition and discovery to the earlier scenes to make this work so it didn’t seem like Ryder was the one reading the script.
 Later we discover they are indeed screens when we use them to chat with aliens.
 You see different stuff depending on where you’re standing.
The Best of 2017
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2017.
Good Robot Dev Blog
An ongoing series where I work on making a 2D action game from scratch.
Dear Hollywood: Do a Mash Reboot
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Trusting the System
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WAY back in 2005, I wrote about a D&D campaign I was running. The campaign is still there, in the bottom-most strata of the archives.