Tobold's Blog
Saturday, April 06, 2013
Mass Effect 3 is a series of boring choices

One of my favorite quotes is Sid Meier's "A [good] game is a series of interesting choices", because I very much agree with that definition. I am currently playing Mass Effect 3, which I got for free from EA as compensation for having wasted my money on SimCity. And when I write that phrase, I wonder if "playing" is actually the right verb. I'd need something which is half "playing" and half "watching", because a lot of the time I am either just watching some events, or I am technically in control of my character but whatever choices I make still end up with the same result. Maybe "experience" is the verb I'm looking for.

Now many people will protest and say that Mass Effect 3 is the game that has the biggest number of choices to make during the game, and one of the few games where those choices have an influence on how the story evolves. Which is true, but only to the degree how much you actually care about the details of the story. Do you care whether Ashley lives or dies? Do you care whether the genophage is cured and the Krogan can repopulate and potentially overrun the galaxy some centuries later? If you do care, Mass Effect 3 is the game for you, because you can make decisions that determine those outcomes.

But if you don't care about the details of the story, and just want to play and win the game, you quickly realize that your decisions don't matter. Many, many dialogue choices come down to "Either say something nice, get paragon points, and something happens; or say something intimidating, get renegade points, and exactly the same thing happens". Then of course anybody who ever played any game with an alignment point system knows that it doesn't matter whether you are good or evil, as long as you are consistent and always choose good or always choose evil to maximize the effect of the accumulated good or evil alignment points.

A much smaller number of choices actually effect winning or losing the game. And that ultimately comes down to a single number, your effective military strength, which determines how exactly the game ends. The higher your score, the nicer the end. And so curing the genophage is not just a moral decisions, but also affects that score, because it makes a difference whether you get the support of the Krogans or the Salarians. While the effect on effective military strength is complex (as it depends on what you did in Mass Effect 2, as well as some decisions later), you can "minmax" all your decisions in Mass Effect 3 to get the highest possible score at the end.

Ultimately all dialogue decisions in Mass Effect 3 basically just determine what cut scenes you will get to watch. They don't effect gameplay in the way that the decision "should I wield a shotgun or a sniper rifle?" does. Which ends up being the most interesting choice you can make in Mass Effect 3. The rest of the game plays a lot like Dragon's Lair, you press a button and see what happens in a limited tree of possible outcomes. Overall the course of the main story doesn't change, whatever choices you make, you only get to influence some details and the score for the ending. And doing a lot of side-quests consisting of picking up stuff in missions or doing a boring mini-game of planetary scanning is ultimately having a much bigger effect on your final score than any decisions you can make in this game.

I'll try to "experience" Mass Effect 3 to the end, because it is mildly entertaining, but I'm not a huge fan. Too much passive watching of events, combined with the annoying inability to skip scenes or to save the game when they are running. Not enough interesting choices.

For me the best entry by far in the series was the first one which i even finished twice (finishing a game for me is rare, so twice is eh super rare). Part 1 was heavily critized for lots of thing iirc, the shooting bit was attribute- in stead of twitch based and the inventory could get chaotic and so on..Apparently this was all rectified in part 2, which i thought was a lesser experience, more fps, dumbed down. I did finish it though. I started ME3 but could not bring myself to finish it on account of it being, just like you said, Boring. A movie analogy would be the Matrix trilogy. The original imo was thought provoking and intelligent. The sequels became more and more action based, and well, boring (Neo fighting mr.smith for what seems to be a few hours).

I still ocasionally buy and play these so called triple A titles (mostly out of curiosity), but for Real games my hope is on some KS projects (WL2 etc).
My opinion exactly, unfortunately those games is what the common gamer wants?
Story-based games can be efficiently mass produced (cf. Hollywood). Games with unique and interesting gameplay mechanics? Not so much
Well I agree with you that that's how it's designed, and that's how you play it. But where I disagree is that I think that if the story is good enough (and the gameplay is at least decent) I will most likely like the game. The games that I like the most have almost always had a good story. In my opinion ME1-3 had a pretty good story, although there has a been a lot of people whining about the ending in ME3.

Other games that had really good story are for example Planescape Torment (probably the best story I've experienced in a game), the Assassin's Creed series(what a cliffhanger in AC3...), Bioshock Infinite (yeah I actually saw the twist coming a bit but it was good nonetheless).

Now of course if you like a story or not comes down to personal taste so I can understand if you don't like some stories. And often it can kill replayability since even if you make different choices you still play it through the same way, and if it's just different endings you can usually just watch them on Youtube later. But in the end many of my most memorable games have been games with good story even though choices just influence what cutscenes you will see.
I actually enjoyed all three ME games. I think the last one is the most streamlined but still gave me a wide number of "choices". The toughest "choices" were at the end of ME2, in the super-long finale which I played twice so not to lose the beloved Doc character who died in my first try.
I agree, from a true choice perspective, ME3 is not meaningful - BUT the final choice impacts (in my mind, it does) how the Galaxy will look like. You will enjoy that final choice, which, alas, is at the end of the gameplay, so you can't suffer any consequences from it.
Still, I enjoyed the trilogy like no other SF game before and am glad to have played it from the start and help it become mainstream by buying it.
Thanks, Bioware!
"Vanity choices" could be the new term for them.

Players want choices but they don't want negative consequences. The only way to provide them is giving irrelevant choices. What color your warlock fire should be? Do you want your druid bear form to look like a polar bear?

Oh my. I don't even know how to respond to this:

Which is true, but only to the degree how much you actually care about the details of the story.

Yeah... Mass Effect is a story-driven RPG. If you don't care about the story, the characters, and immersing yourself in the setting, then of course it will be boring to you. It would be like not caring about roleplaying in D&D and just wanting to roll dice. May as well play Yahtzee.
I suspect that ME3 can only be boring if it's your first ME series game.

Imagine that you started to read "The Return of a King" without reading "Fellowship" or "Two Towers" beforehand. Would the Frodo's decision to spare Gollum be interesting to you? I don't think so, you simply wouldn't understand the story enough.

You wrote, "Do you care whether Ashley lives or dies?" That shows that you have no idea why Shepard - Virmire survivor confrontation is important for the story. You simply don't understand the story enough.

Hint: The point of confrontation is not whether Virmire survivor lives or dies, but whether Shepard can regain their confidence and trust. This is a culmination of the whole subplot and it's interesting on its own merit, not because you can convert Virmire survivor into War Asset.
My point is that this is supposed to be a GAME, and not just some interactive story. Choices that only affect the story, but change nothing in gameplay shouldn't be in a game. Otherwise I might as well wait for "Mass Effect - The Movie", and not bother playing at all.
I have to agree with Azuriel. It is absurd to declare that you don't care about the story, and use that as the reason your story choices don't matter to you. You can claim the game doesn't pull you into the story, but that isn't a problem with the choice system.

I do agree with the general message of the post, but I think you just picked an odd game to make your point with. The Mass Effect series might have the best choice system I can think of.
The Mass Effect series might have the best choice system I can think of.

The best choice system I can think of would be something like the Civilization series, where the choices you make at the start of the game have a large impact on how the game goes from there.
My point is that this is supposed to be a GAME, and not just some interactive story.

Here we disagree. How would you describe an RPG if not an interactive story?

What if the players of your D&D game started complaining that the story was getting in the way of "the real game?" The story is not separate from the game, it is central to it.

It's not that I am saying your point is invalid, but you seem to be complaining about an RPG for being an RPG.
I played ME3 for the story, so I am quite happy that the story was the biggest part.
Choices that only affect the story, but change nothing in gameplay shouldn't be in a game

Please correct me if I'm wrong. In your "Champions of Selune" campaign, players decided to help rebels against Iron Circle. This didn't affect gameplay at all (didn't give them new powers/abilities, they remained the same level 2 adventurers), it only affected the story.

Have they chosen to side with Iron Circle, or not interfere at all, their gameplay would also remain the same. All that would change is the story.

So you were wrong to put that decision into the game.
This didn't affect gameplay at all

That is where you are wrong. By making that decision, the players not only changed some cutscenes. They completely changed which enemies they would fight next and under what circumstances.

Compare that to Shephard soloing the Reaper in the second half of Mass Effect 3: There is not a single decision in the game, neither a dialogue choice, nor a choice of weapon / talent or other that has ANY effect on that fight. The fight is EXACTLY the same for everybody who does the game, because it is basically a quicktime event. Whatever choice you make in the two-and-a-half Mass Effects before, you never ever get any choice which would allow you to avoid that fight. And it is predetermined, with no influence of yourself that you will win the fight against the Reaper, and lose the fight against Kai Leng on the next mission.

In a pen & paper game you would have the possibility of not fighting that Reaper. You would have at least an off-chance of beating Kai Leng on Thessia. Your choices actually matter and can completely change the direction of the campaign. In Mass Effect 3 your choices only affect a few cutscenes in a completely linear and predetermined story.
Interesting take, although not one I share. I play games for story first, gameplay second (and will overlook bad gameplay for a fantastic story...i.e Deadly Premonition). The deal with the Krogan genophage and Salarians are one of countless story points and decisions that were important to me. The choice of weapon was of very minor significance. If the devs managed to give me the illusion of choice on a play-through (they did) then I'm happy. Without the story ME3 is just an awkward generic cover-based shooter in a sea of the same.

I'm not disputing that paper and pencil RPGs can and will do it better (they do, for obvious reasons). Rather, that in terms of a great story experience ME1-3 have that down about as well as the medium allows for these days.
If I want a series of interesting choices that have a long and varied ranged of effects, yeah, I'll play a game like Civilization, or StarCraft, or some other strategy game. I view RPGs like Mass Effect or Final Fantasy as movies/books with some combat between scenes, and personally I'm pretty damned satisfied with it. I think there's plenty of room in the market for both experiences. It's fine if it's not your cup of tea, though, but I think one can like both.
Honest question here: can you list 3 games you really loved/enjoyed lately (I mean in the last 12 months)?

My feeling is that you simply grown out the gaming "phase" and you easily get tired/annoyed by almost every kind of title/genre.

If not 3 titles, let's say one or two at least. Something that you would absolutely suggest to buy to a friend.
Only 3? I could list a lot more, but if you want 3, here they are:

Ni No Kuni (as a great example how you can have great gameplay IN SPITE OF a story)
Anno Online (much better city building game than Sim City)
Deux Ex Human Revolution
I'm sorry but I totally disagree with your opinions on ME3.

1. I care if Ashley dies because it's a character I've known from ME1. Also Ashley only dies if you save Kaiden in ME1. Kaiden dies in ME1 and Ashley is alive. A choice which does effect the game. I created a bond with these characters in the past and if I was not given the choices I had for them then I would feel like it was a waste of time with the work I put into the previous games.

2. At the beginning of ME3 you get to pick how to play the game. The three choices are Role-Play, Story driven or Action. You can't slate the game for it's attempts to cater to a larger audience but if you're not happy with how the game was presented to you then you possibly picked the wrong play style?

3. If you don't understand the impact of some of the choices have on the STORY then you either haven't played ME1+2 or really understand that the game is not about killing reapers but about the bond of the other species and how if everyone set aside their differences then the universe could be saved from themselves. After-all, the reapers aren't there to kill for the sake of killing. They are there to stop chaos and bring order to the universe. So curing the genophage (Or not) is a big decision as you could potentially lose one of the additional races from the story. To hell with the game play, The story is what drives RPG games.

If you don't care about story in games then I can suggest plenty of linear games for you. The Mass Effect series is a work of art, even with all it's flaws. A great example of how a game should be structured. Story first followed by action/adventure/whatever.
The Mass Effect series is a work of art

It is *because* it tries to be art that it is not a very good game.

I just finished and uninstalled Mass Effect 3. I didn't get a "perfect ending". Why? Because I didn't play the multiplayer or iOS version of the game. You can only get to a flawed ending with you dying if you "only" play the single-player game. You call that art, I call that shitty game design.
I suspect budgets are the culprit here. Game content is expensive to design, and so designers make it so that no matter what the choice players experience basically the same content. Otherwise they would have to make that much more content per game.

And choices that effect characters' power are, in practice, not true choices. Players will look up on the internet what the best choices are. Blizzard figured this out with the talent trees, which is why they scrapped them. The only real choice was to do research or be a moron.
In Mass Effect 3 your choices only affect a few cutscenes in a completely linear and predetermined story

Well, that is true. But the same is true for Deus Ex HR which you listed in the games you did like. You can not prevent any boss fight, or change the type of enemies you fight etc.

You can only get to a flawed ending with you dying if you "only" play the single-player game

You are wrong. You can get breathing Shepard ending (I don't know why you consider it perfect; why synthesis is not perfect?) only by playing single-player with Shepard imported from Mass Effect 1-2. (Standard ME3 starting Shepard has a few flawed decisions coded in, which prevent him, for example, from having both quarians and the geth).
You can not prevent any boss fight, or change the type of enemies you fight etc.

In Deus Ex I can decide *not* to kill the enemy, and just sneak past them. In ME3 the bloody doors don't open until I killed the enemies.
I've yet to play ME3 as I stopped ME2 due to pure boredom.

I don't know if it is an aging thing or what, but I just cannot stand Bioware games anymore. I loved KOTOR, just loved it to death, but the dialogue wheel games just annoy me now.

I think the biggest think is that they feel like 2 games mashed together. One is a Dragon's Lair style interactive cut scene game, and the other is the combat game (Hack-y Slash-y or Shootie McShoot Town). I recall the big drama flair of the Bioware designer wanting the combat part of the game skippable, and my issue with the statement was, "Why does the game have 2 parts that are so segregated that you can easily cut out one and just play the other?"

"In Deus Ex I can decide *not* to kill the enemy, and just sneak past them."

This suffers your same complaint, though. If you pass a mission through stealth without killing, absolutely nothing will be different. It is no different than choosing sniper rifle for long range killing versus shotgun for up close action. Your choice has no affect on the progression of the story/game.

If this choice really affected the game the way you're advocating, non-killing stealth completions would lead to more stealthy mission types, with Sarif saying, "I know you don't like killing." Whereas your standard murderous rampages would lead to more assassination type missions, with Sarif saying something like "I know you don't have a problem getting your hands dirty."
May want to stay away from Metal Gear Solid 2 as well then. Seriously, I think I was getting a cutscene when just attempting to save the game! ;P
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I don't think Tobold's complaint is that the story doesn't change substantialy with choices. It is a game after all and it is bound to have programmed set pieces and cutscenes; you will get one or the other.

I believe his main gripe here is that the choices that are present don't affect the gameplay whatsover, which is a valid complaint because a Role Playing GAME should focus on gameplay first and foremost.

Take a look at the classic Black Isle RPGs... The choices you made and the way you built your main character actually influenced both story and game mechanics in the end. Did you know, for instance, that with specifc stats you can skip the end boss fight of Planescape Torment altogether?
"Choices that only affect the story, but change nothing in gameplay shouldn't be in a game."

There are different sorts of game. If you want, you can treat it as a strategy game in which the object is to get the best ending. If you want, you can treat it as a pure RPG in which you do as best you can what your character would do and see how things pan out. There are many intermediate cases (which is what you seem to prefer). Some games just happen to play more naturally at one extreme or the other.

Because of the difficulty of writing story / location / balancing for multiple outcomes, the more the game is story-orientated, the more the consequences will be channelled through common sequences. If you can't get involved with the 'off-screen' consequences, then maybe this sort of game isn't for you.

By contrast, Civilisation doesn't really have the ability to tell a human story. You can watch your empire rise and fall, but it might as well be an amoeba simulation as far as human interest is concerned.

With current technology, there's no perfect game. Some games do manage to supply something of both worlds, but they could probably do either world better if they devoted fewer resources to the other.

It's pretty simple, really. Some people play these games to build a character and play as that character. They choose a personality, and they want to see how things play out. It doesn't matter if the choices ultimately end up with the same results, because the way they get there is different. The exploration and growth of the character is more important to them than what powers or enemies they get to fight in the next battle.

You might not consider that gameplay, but I think that's a rather limited view on things. To many of the fans of Mass Effect, creating a character and watching that character grow and build relationships with others via the choices you make *is* the gameplay.
I somewhat agree with you, in that ME3 was too much watching, not enough choosing. even in games where your minor choices don't ultimately affect the outcome of the game significantly - one of the fun parts was chosing what your character will say or do at any given time. one of the biggest complaints that fans had about ME3 (other then the ending) was the fact that they didn't even get to chose how their Shepard behaved. in ME1 - you got that choice. in ME2 you got that choice. in ME3? bioware gave you their own 2 versions of Shepard. and you barely get any input. auto dialogue galore. and its the same when it comes to interactions with npc's. no more interesting conversations. you either overhear stuff, or you chose between "I will end you" and "I will end you painfully" with occasional detour to "who are you, so i could end you"

ME3 is not a bad game. but IMO, its a shallow and inconsistent one. it great, if you look at it as a shooter with occasional dialogue choice, ala farcry 3 for example. but it fails as an rpg, especially compared to its predecessors. at least IMO.
@ Soudrinker. your information is way out of date. with extended cut, you only need EMS of 3100 to get "shepard breathing" destroy variant - and its very easily achievable with non import Shepard. but back on release, it was impossible to achieve even with perfect import. you needed to either play multiplayer, or raises your galactic readiness though other methods in order to get that scene - from single player alone, it was mathematically impossible.

I believe I shall keep my thoughts about "perfection" of synthesis to myself, though it certainly seems to be bioware's prefered ending, considering how it was glorified in extended cut.
If every choice becomes an important one then all too soon you get into gaming the system to get the best possible outcome. The "unimportant" choices might have little game-play impact but they allow much greater depth with character development and engagement.

It is like the Peter Jackson version of LotR where Bill is released on the grounds they could not take him into the Mines of Moria. Did that have any impact on destroying the ring? No, but it did help humanise the characters.
This reminds me of the time when I tried to explain a certain tabletop game to an acquaintance from an older generation.

His first question was about how much money could one win in an average game. He became rather confused when I told him that not only D&D is not played for money, but there are no winners or losers in it.
Interesting comments. I enjoyed the Mass Effect series more in its totality then its specific elements in the sense it is an interactive story of sorts. Game play is less of a factor for me - to make a game great it needs something more than simply game play - it needs context, story, memorability. I can only hope that other games come along with the same breadth or greater breadth of vision as the ME series. Perhaps learn from the mistakes as well!

Those who found ME3 boring...well what can I say..nothing, its your personal decision.Interestingly, you don't get to choose what happens in other forms of media (novels, movies, plays etc.) except what you might create yourself. What games give you satisfying choices? Is it best for the satisfaction to be intellectual or emotional or both at the same time? Skyrim and its forerunners gave you choice but...the choices have no context or depth, I find that dull personally.

I hear/read the term "common gamer" and equivalent terms regularly. What is the other type of gamer?The "extremely fussy" gamer? "The overly-invested" gamer" "The "jaded" gamer? I am pretty fussy myself - only play PC games, largely RPG or strategy genres (since the late 80s), I'm glad I'm not too fussy though!

If I was a game developer I would work on the assumption that whatever I was to create and x% of people (%x being inversely proportional to quality) will inevitably not like it for a whole host of reasons. So why bother with "fussy" desires, they need to suit themselves or find what they really like,


I can't stand the game and I've only played 3 hours of it.

It's alot of running around from Point A - B - A again, over and over. The worst is running (or jogging in slow motion) throughout the citadel. It just takes way too long to accomplish a simple task.

I doubt I'll bother continuing. The combat is also lackluster.
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