CAUTION: This post contains potential spoilers for Mass Effect 3 involving a certain mission where you reunite with a certain Krogan from a certain second game in the franchise. If you have not yet reached this point, then prepare to be spoiled.
I confess, I’ve kind of been looking for reasons to dislike Mass Effect 3. The previous game was quite a let down in terms of gameplay and story, and the first two hours of Dragon Age 2 have left such a foul taste in my mouth I haven’t gone back since.
Too bad Mass Effect 3 has been slowly winning me over, much to my chagrin. It’s definitely an improvement over Mass Effect 2, though there are a number of aspects that just smell of “not enough development time”. The exploration, for example, feels like something that was thrown together to try and avoid repeating past mistakes without actually improving the system. It has just been simplified to a point that even calling it “exploration” is a joke (which is pretty much the strategy used with all of Mass Effect 2, so it’s pretty fitting).
The story has been slowly whittling away at my stubborn gaming hipster pride, however, and I recently played through a mission that almost put Mass Effect 3 fully into my favor. Urdnot Wrex, the Krogan from the first game, asks you to search for a missing scout team. It is suspected that there is a race of Rachni on the planet they were investigating. Rachni, in case you’re not familiar, are the insect-like aliens that endangered all life in the galaxy at one point. In the first game you have the option to rescue the last of the species or destroy them and drive them to extinction. I chose to save them.
So I land on this planet and discover Grunt, the genetically engineered Krogan from Mass Effect 2. This happens to be one of my favorite characters of the series, so I found myself excited to see what would happen in this new adventure.
The mission takes Shepard and company into a series of caves where they discover that, yes, the Rachni have returned, but they’ve been modified by the Reapers. They’ve become tools of destruction, and at the center of it all is the Queen Rachni you let loose. Only now she is strapped down and forced to be a prisoner to the Reapers. Basically, she breeds ‘em and they mod ‘em.
At first I thought I was going to have to destroy the Rachni Queen, a twist that had me all giddy. Mass Effect 1 labels the preservation of the Rachni Queen as a Paragon act, a good act, yet here it turns out that action led to the Reapers having yet another powerful weapon to employ against the galaxy. In other words, my first assumption was that my good act had the consequence of being used for evil. A good act had negative consequences.
That wasn’t quite the case, it turned out. The Rachni Queen was still free in mind and spirit, captured and restrained physically. The choice instead was to free the Queen, an act that would take enough time that it threatened the safety of Grunt and his Krogan troops, or leave the Rachni Queen to die so that you might save the Krogan squad.
Okay, still keeps that idea in mind that just because you did good doesn’t mean bad can’t come from it. I was now left with a choice to either allow one of my favorite characters to die so that an entire species may live, or to allow an innocent creature to die and for its kind to go extinct. It was the same choice as the first game, only now the stakes were higher. Now I know the Reapers could use the Rachni against me, even though they were pledging to aid me in my fight. In addition, I’d lose an excellent character.
It was a hard choice, one I had to think on, but I chose to go with what I knew was right. Yes, Grunt and his troops would die, but I’m not about to let an entire sentient species go extinct for that. Grunt yelled in anger and frustration, his men sacrificed for the sake of the Rachni. He led the way out and stayed behind so that Shepard and company might escape. I was sure that I watched his demise, his final moments of glory.
Yet he crawled from the caves drenched in Rachni blood. He had survived, and… I felt hollow.
I was angry at Bioware at first, but I later discovered the event was not scripted. If you succeeded in ensuring loyalty from Grunt in the previous game then he would survive. If not, then he would have dove off a cliff charging a Rachni and never be seen again. I imagine Bioware decided Grunt’s survival would be some sort of reward for speaking to him and performing his loyalty mission, otherwise why would they include such a thing? Yet I don’t think this was the time to reward a player.
Rewarding a player is a necessity to keep them involved. It’s been studied and spoken upon for several years and is an essential part of game design. If a player explores, then they should be rewarded for such an action. Finding a new weapon, money, an extra life, a power-up of sorts, something that lets them know they didn’t waste their time. If you want the player to learn the ins-and-outs of your game, you need to give them incentive. RPG’s have the easiest time of this by providing money or equipment or even a healthy portion of experience. More action-oriented games may be limited, and might even provide rewards based on how good a player is at combat. Capable of achieving a ten hit combo? You gain an item, or perhaps additional points, or suddenly get a temporary damage bonus.
In Mass Effect 2, a player’s reward for getting to know the crew was an increased chance of survival during the climax. The player could still make mistakes and cause characters to die, but having no interaction with the crew meant your characters were likely to die no matter who you chose.
It was a pretty good design choice, truth told. However, carrying that over into Mass Effect 3 in the manner they have is wrecking with another essential component to the franchise: the story.
The story shouldn’t work on the same rewards system as gameplay. It’s a different sort of experience that immerses players in a very different way. Giving the players options that change the game universe is going to draw them to the game. Any other medium is passive, forcing them to play the part of observer. Video games allow the player the option to be a participant, and Mass Effect has made itself a name by offering players choices that aren’t always easy. The choice at the end of the first game, to save the Council or save thousands of human lives, isn’t an easy choice to make.
So Bioware had created themselves a really interesting situation here. A “good” decision suddenly led to bad events. Even a good act could have consequences, and now the player may be forced to think a bit harder when making decisions again. More so, it may actually cause them to think back to the previous games and wonder if they may have inadvertently caused disaster somehow else.
I was angry for five seconds that I had to choose between saving the Rachni or killing Grunt, but the emotional reaction and the thought thereafter would have stuck with me for years to come. It would have been a moment to sit around with my friends talking about, expressing my frustration but at the same time so impressed and even joyous that I had to actually think that hard about a game’s story.
Yet they ruined it. They linked it to gameplay, and now it is possible to look at the entire experience in core gameplay metrics. If you save the Rachni in Mass Effect, then you’ll get a mission in the third game. Talk to Grunt in Mass Effect 2 and complete his loyalty mission, and you ensure his survival in the second game and the Rachni mission in the third. Choose to save the Rachni Queen, get bonus support from the Rachni against the Reapers, and Grunt survives. No consequences except for the lives of a few red-shirt Krogan that only provide an attachment to the player through Grunt. Of course, since Grunt is surviving who cares? They’re NPC’s. Faceless, nameless, no emotional attachment.
The emotion has been torn from the experience. The player isn’t forced to face story consequences for story choices. It goes from being art to being just another game.
As such, I’m actually more disappointed that Grunt survived than if I had chosen for him to die. I’m taken out of the experience. I no longer feel the pain of the tough decision Shepard had to make. It’s all a game, calculations and variables. I play it right, and I’m “rewarded”. This wasn’t a reward. Grunt’s survival in Mass Effect 2 was a reward, sure, but the only choice there was to get attached to the character or not. Now, I’m rewarded for…making choices, I guess.
I wanted a game to deliver me something more. I wanted Mass Effect 3 to give me yet another sort of decision that I’d never expect to encounter in video games or real life.
But it was meaningless, and now I begin to understand what sort of frustration I’m in store for at the end of the game.