First Person

First Person
I Shouldn't Have Feared The Reapers

Dennis C. Scimeca | 22 Mar 2012 21:00
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I was furious when I realized having to replay that quest line was going to delay my finishing Mass Effect 3 by another three or four days. I haven't beaten it yet, and I'm dying to understand why people lost their minds over the ending. Then I realized how awesome my mistake was on account of why I made it. The story had gripped me so much that instead of playing Mass Effect 3 "like a role playing game," I went where the game world was leading me.

Intellectually, I know whenever an RPG provides us a quest attached to a major plot point, completing that quest usually leads to permanent changes in the game environment. In Fallout 3 we can destroy Megaton and irrevocably change the landscape. In Dragon Age: Origins if we spare Loghain we lose Alistair. Bioware games are usually pretty good at letting us know we're about to make a major decision that will change everything, and I had no such clue that completing the turian/krogan quest line would lock me out of a bunch of content on the Citadel.

I seem to remember a brief flash of considering running some side quests before the final mission to cure the genophage on Tuchanka and secure the alliance, but that didn't feel right at all. The Secondary Codex entry on Reaper harvesting said that 1.86 million human beings were dying every day under the Reaper invasion. Traipsing around the galaxy to scan planets and collect trinkets would have made the game world feel artificial, which is precisely what happened when I reloaded my old save and went back to play the content I missed. Now the missions on Tuchanka have lost all their emotional weight. Now it's busy work. The side quests on the Citadel felt a little like busy work, too. I bet they wouldn't have if the story had flowed into the side quests naturally.

I have trouble believing that Bioware wanted me to miss those three or four hours of crafted, substantive Citadel content on account of allowing myself to fear the Reapers. I was caught in a disconnect between how Mass Effect 3 wanted me to feel and how Mass Effect 3 needed to be played in order to experience the entire story. I've never had this problem before in an RPG before, and it's exciting! The bind I was in demonstrates the power of directed narrative and urgency in role-playing games to create worlds that feel more alive than traditional RPG worlds where the player meanders around until they run out of side quests and proceed with the main quest lines.

This experience also suggests a potential evolution for role-playing games if they wish to become increasingly cinematic, namely either getting rid of side quests entirely or drawing them so close to the main story that the term side quests begins to lose meaning altogether. Considering how often side quests in RPGs can feel tacked-on or lame maybe this isn't a bad idea. I didn't consider my encounters with Miranda and Thane to be side-quests in Mass Effect 3. They felt more like core content to me. Perhaps cinematic RPGs are better served by removing a modicum of player choice and getting rid of side quests in favor of more higher-quality, mandatory content delivered in smaller episodes.

Some sort of design alteration for RPGs that introduce urgency and driven narrative sounds reasonable. It would have been entirely plausible if the Normandy had to dock at the Citadel during the course of the turian/krogan quest line and resupply, which would have given the player time to encounter all the content I skipped by accident. The player wouldn't have to take on all that content in this scenario, but at least they'd have a concrete prompt to engage with the content or overtly choose to skip it. Without these sorts of considerations anyone who wants the fullest experience of an RPG will have to be on guard against losing themselves in the story, which defies why so many of us love the genre in the first place!

First Person is a weekly column by Boston, MA-based freelancer Dennis Scimeca. You can read some of his other musings on his blog, or follow his random excitations on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.

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