Critical Mass

With this current generation of consoles starting to make arrangements for their wills, all eyes are turning to what the next wave of fancy graphics boxes will be throwing our way. It’s also a good time to look back and take stock of where Xbox 360 and PS3 have brought us.

My first 360 game was The Darkness. A fun, atmospheric shooter with a surprisingly affecting story, it had lots going for it, but what stuck out the most for me when I first booted it up were the graphics – specifically, the faces. Actually, that’s not true, what first stuck out most was the fact that my brand new 360 red-ringed the moment I switched it on but let’s not dwell.

I mention this now because a few years later the facial animation of another game would catch my eye and ultimately lead me to my biggest obsession of this generation: Mass Effect.

There have been some big steps made in gaming over the last few years – the motion capture of LA Noire, the general cinematic quality of the Uncharted series, the explosion of indie gems like Bastion – but for me the Mass Effect series marks the biggest watershed in gaming to have taken place this generation.

And it’s because of story.

I bought the first game on its day of release. It was a little wonky in places, and the choice to apply RPG mechanics to shooting (“Shoot at point-blank range! Oops, dice roll you says you missed!”) was questionable, but the constant lens-flare, sci-fi colour scheme and superb electronic soundtrack, coupled with a genuinely fascinating world, made for a tale I wanted to play through again and again. That in itself would have been enough but the real meat on the Mass Effect bone (a term I would urge you to avoid Googling) was choice.

This is where I think we’ve really moved on. Every other storytelling medium has spun yarns of a far superior nature to those of gaming up until now. The edge gaming has always had lies in its ability to change the story according to what the player does. No other medium can do this. Mass Effect was the first game I’ve played which really felt like it was taking advantage. Multiple playthroughs took genuinely different turns. Of course, it was hardly the first to achieve this, although arguably it was the first to do so in such a spectacularly cinematic manner.

Then came Mass Effect 2.

Initially I was quite disappointed to see that the sequel abandoned many of its forerunner’s characters in favour of a shady bunch of mercenary types. But the real genius of ME2 was in its story choices: your Shephard went from hero of the galaxy to dead man reanimated by a borderline-racist organisation in order to save the human race. It was darker, there were more shades of grey in your actions. And some of your friends from the first game hated what you were doing! ME2 contained so many little links to decisions  made in the first game that the experience felt genuinely connected. This was the same world, you were the same Shephard. You meet minor characters from the first game who are only present because you saved them, who wouldn’t appear in a different playthrough if your experience of the previous game had been different. This was mindblowing.

And that’s before I even mention the fact that in each instalment you can choose to romance one of your companions (introducing the expected romantic subplot) and if you chase someone different in the second game, it is acknowledged within the narrative and in the way other characters react to you.

By the time I hit the climactic suicide mission, I was terrified that members of my crew would die. Because they all could. So could you! No matter that a third game was coming, you could literally screw your chances of taking the narrative forward to the third game with bad decisions in the second. And, like all good stories, this made me care.

Much has been written about the third game. Overall, I think it does a solid job of tying up loose ends and capping the series off. I agree that the ending (even in the recently-released Extended Cut, which does clarify some things) isn’t great. I also missed a lot of my crew mates from the second game, but accept that designing missions around 12 characters who could be dead in any combination is a logistical nightmare. But the real achievement of the Mass Effect series is that I as a player felt Shephard was my Shephard, from first game to last. This was his story, these were the consequences of his actions and when he makes his final decision it is the result of his choices up to that point. And that’s something that no other medium can achieve.

Now, I can’t wait to see what the next generation of consoles does with storytelling. The watershed is upon us.

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