Sep 102009

I wonder if science fiction is really so easy to misunderstand. If sci-fi is just men in tight outfits scrambling across fake plaster rocks until the one in a red shirt gets killed, then of course the whole enterprise is ludicrous. But that’s never been the draw. It’s not “new stars, new gas giants” that the Enterprise seeks, but “new life, new civilizations”. Kids might tune in for the guy in a plastic lizard suit, but adults stayed for the idea of a man without emotions. Could you really live like that? What would it be like? These are the real voyages of the Enterprise in particular and sci-fi in general: not out into space, but inward into the lives of the people out there. Nobody cares that Tatooine is an arid terrestrial with a surface rich in silicon oxides that suffers from persistent dust storms; they care about Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and what they do in that vast desert. Surely the talented writers at BioWare understand this. Yet, though they set up an intriguing story about people in their sci-fi epic Mass Effect, they inexplicably delivered a game about the rocks.

Mass Effect, in its fiction and its science, clearly belongs to the same genre of space opera as Star Trek and Star Wars. Although the game gives somewhat more consideration to real physics than the other titles, its handling of biology rests at the same level. Most alien species, with the exception of the agreeably freaky hanar, look more or less like us, right down to the mammae, with various kinds of funky head designs to disguise the fact that they have relatably human faces and bodies. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Although it is true that the medium of videogames frees the developer from the practical limitations that make such “aliens” necessary in live-action, actually implementing a radical design in a believable way (for instance, constructing a set of conversational mannerisms) would be incredibly difficult and would not be guaranteed to yield a creature human players could relate to. Anyway, an exploration of biological possibilities is every bit as much beside the point as the exploration of rocks. What the best sci-fi really explores is ideas about other ways of being — exploring people.

Mass Effect grabs hold of this possibility early on when we are introduced to the Citadel, an enormous space station of mysterious origin that serves as the seat of galactic politics and culture. Here dozens of races butt up against one another, and we are offered glimpses of intriguing new cultures: the libertarian militarism of the turians, the intensely political salarians, the religious hanar, and the slow-speaking elcor who preface every statement with a description of its emotional underpinning. Not all of these races are so interesting (the plight of the quarians quotes far too literally from Battlestar Galactica), but I found the possibilities exciting, especially given the relatively weak position of humanity in this milieu. I thought that the powerful conversation system and the generally well-written characters could be leveraged into an exploration of this rich society. Instead, I was given the 2183 equivalent of an ill-handling dune buggy and sent on the Johnny Shepard Good-Times Tour of the galaxy’s most desolate shitholes. Bouncing across the tenth absurdly craggy moonscape to the fifteenth identical base, I wondered why I was still playing.

The answer should be the story, which is a very standard space opera, delivered with just enough cleverness and originality to stay interesting despite its scenery-chewing villains and reliance on played-out fantasy tropes. The player must track down the turncoat galactic agent Saren, who has forged an alliance with the Reapers, an serially-genocidal machine race from the depths of space. He and most of his organic allies have had their minds corrupted by Sovereign, an enormous ship which at first seems to be merely connected to the Reapers. At least in the order I played its missions, the game seemed to time its revelations well and develop them properly.

Yet I came to have three main problems with this tale. The first, a minor point, is that the Conduit spits its passengers out inside the Citadel structure. We are told that a mass relay works by nullifying the mass in a corridor between it and its terminus. The troubling implications of this process for the intervening matter — station, spaceships, and lovely Asari maidens — are not discussed, but I presume the sentient components of that matter would object. The second problem, more concerning, is that the Reapers’ behavior is fundamentally inexplicable. The writers eventually give up on explaining their motivation, dismissing the question by telling us that evil metal gods work in mysterious ways.

The final problem, which might be fatal, is that there is no logical reason anything in the story should happen at all. Consider that Mass Effect carefully demonstrates that (1) the Citadel Council trusts Saren completely (Citadel mission), and (2) it is possible to sneak geth soldiers, tanks, and artillery emplacements past the galaxy’s most advanced weapons scanners (Noveria mission). Would it not have been considerably easier for Saren to just import a couple thousand geth to the Citadel, walk into the control chamber, and let Sovereign in, relying on the Council’s trust for the element of surprise? The only thing that prevents him from doing this is that he showed his hand in the player’s first mission on Eden Prime — that is, Saren only needs the Conduit because he was trying to find the Conduit. Hiding the terminus in plain sight on the Citadel was a clever move by the writers, but it ends up being too clever by half, because it only delivers Saren to a place he could have easily reached anyway, were he and Sovereign even half as intelligent as the game wants us to believe.

Nonetheless, the writers managed to hold my interest up until this last, unsatisfying reveal, thanks in large part to solid characters underpinned by excellent voice acting. While some of them have one-note personalities, that single note is played very well, and others show unexpected depth. Codex entries and his own early actions prepared me to see Wrex portrayed as a low-rent Klingon clone, so the elaboration of his backstory as a thoughtful civic leader really worked. Sadly, the ultimate payoff for exploring these stories always seems to be yet another trip to yet another prefab base on yet another hunk of lifeless rock.

The strength of Mass Effect is not its larger plot or barren worlds but its characters and societies. The problem is that although the game’s best mechanic is ideally suited to explore that angle, it’s left hanging in the wind in favor of a standard power fantasy reliant on wobbly systems. As a shooter the game is merely passable, and the mechanics only get worse from there. The exploration and vehicular combat are irritating, the inventory and party management is trash, and the AI seems only marginally better than that used in DOOM. The hacking / surveying / finding artifacts minigame is a boring, mindless chore. In contrast, the conversation system and the cinematic presentation shine almost every time they appear, making for the most satisfying in-game discussions I’ve ever seen. Why not take that system and run with it? Why should the most interesting parts of the game be trapped in the completely non-interactive Codex?

I believe BioWare can get this right; they are halfway there already. They have created a universe which, like the best science fiction, is ripe for the exploration of new ideas and new ways of living. Unfortunately, all Mass Effect let us explore was the plaster rocks.

  5 Responses to “We didn’t come for the rocks”

  1. Funny, I thought with your biologist background you would be more critical towards the lame alien stereotypes. I had the same thoughts: why do they all have to look like humans? This isn't a movie anymore, they could have been more radical. In this context the Hanars are the black guy of the citadel: only there to fill a quota. But what I found especially insulting is the whole Ansari sex thing. I get rage blackouts thinking how impossible this is. Not even from a technical point of view, there is just no evolutionary setup that could make such mode of reproduction appear in the first place.

    I wouldn't be so critical of rocks. Rocks can be awesome. They are the main objective of space exploration today. Exploring different, alien environments can be a very exciting activity. Yes, movies always had the guy in the rubber suit but that's mainly a limitation of a medium that is best tailored to show interactions between actors. Games aren't like that. There are plenty of instances where exploring things has been made into an exciting activity.

    That being said, I agree with you that the exploration part is terribly boring in mass effect. At first, I was delighted to fly around the galaxy. But that wore off quickly as I realized that each planet looks alike and offers almost no activities at all. They hired some astronomer to do the descriptions of planets and they sound all very intriguing. But when you land on them, you are served the same crap all over again. And it's not even some advanced mechanics, the game fails at the most fundamentals things. For example: why aren't there any variations in gravity?

    So I wouldn't consider the side missions as part of the game. They are an unfinished area. Just pretend they don't exist. I prefer judging the game just by the main mission.

  2. The diversity of aliens is something that points out the great advantage of books over high-resolution media when it comes to sci-fi. In a book you can have whatever bizarre kind of alien you want interact with the characters, and the reader can buy it. If you're doing a game like this, though, that alien has to move in a way that at least seems believable. You'll notice the hanar and elcor don't show up in action sequences, and have limited conversation animations. So the medium of games is not as freeing as you might think. A less photorealistic game, however, could have gotten away with freakier aliens. All that notwithstanding, I was very disappointed that the developers didn't at least do something more interesting with the bipedal humanoid body plan. There's no reason at all Tali should have tits, unless she's male, in which case that design would be awesome. Instead the most radical biology they suggest is that the turians are composed of D- amino acids, but they don't even handle that particularly well.

    As for Asari sex, I agree that it's implausible, but you should be more careful what you say about evolution. Just because you can't imagine a setup in which this mode of reproduction is adaptive doesn't mean it wouldn't arise. Natural selection isn't the only mechanism of evolution. Better to criticize the ridiculous hash of an explanation they offer for how the reproduction works.

    Speaking of fundamental problems, were you bothered by the disunity of inputs? I mean, on some screens A means to accept something and Y means to turn it into omni-gel, and on others X means accept something, and on yet another X means turn something into omni-gel. It's not a major thing that ruins the game, but the fact that the meaning of the inputs changes constantly between screens makes it seem like the systems were all made by different teams that never talked to each other.

  3. I don't buy the photorealism argument. That's just laziness OR they simply couldn't free themselves of a certain conventions we grew accustomed to. Spore showed quite nicely that you can do all sorts of crazy characters which don't only animate well but do so procedurally.

    In the end I think as far as aliens go Mass Effect repeats a very dogmatic formula. It doesn't even try to draw outside the lines. This can be seen as a virtue or as a flaw, depending on what one thinks about the formula.

    As far as biology goes I yield to the professional. But the awkward explanations sealed the deal for me. It's all an obvious setup for kinky alien sex. Was intended from day one, judging by the concept art. If you ask me, alien sex is as sexy as bestiality. Wouldn't be so sweet if the Elcor were the omni-sexual ones. ^_^

    But then all this puritan "melding of the minds" bullshit… and waiting for the right moment… "I want it to be special"… Ironic that the game received such heavy critique because of the sex scenes considering how prude and conservative they really are.

    Discontinuity of Inputs: BINGO! It is actually a major point in an upcoming reviews. It's not only the inputs but the whole interface is FUBAR. Worst thing is that it didn't seem to have changed much in Mass Effect 2 judging from the demo I played. I expect the worst.

  4. Spore proved implementing bizarre aliens is possible, with a ton of investment and years of dedicated effort. That its animations are procedural is the only reason it was possible at all, and Mass Effect doesn't have the same engine or goals. It would have been possible to make every alien on Star Trek be an incredibly detailed animatronic creation, but it wouldn't have been economical or necessarily served what the show was trying to do. There are enough more fundamental problems with Mass Effect that criticizing it for not doing something that's quite difficult and probably wouldn't much benefit the narrative seems excessive.

  5. Actually, animating non-humanoid characters isn't so much different from humanoid ones. It can be even easier because we have very precise expectations towards humanoid characters. Of course, it depends on the character. But working with animators (and having made one animated short film myself) I noticed a certain fondness of dealing with unusual creatures that have weird features to "play" with. I suspect you might have applied real-world logic where it doesn't quite translate.

    Making that animation procedural is a whole different beast and challenge indeed.

    And yeah, Mass Effect has a lot of more fundamental problems, so nevermind. ^_^

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