(Warning: Spoilers for the first half of Mass Effect 3)
Western role-playing games may have overarching plots that drive their quest structure, but those plots rarely have any sense of urgency until the very end. In Fallout 3 we’re looking for our father but have no sense he’s about to die somewhere such that the main quest line requires our immediate attention. In Dragon Age: Origins we know the evil Darkspawn horde is eventually going to attack the capital city of Denerim, but it takes time for an army to march which leaves us plenty of space for side-questing. Mass Effect 3 breaks the mold by opening with the Reaper attack on Earth.
Mass Effect 1 established the Reapers as Lovecraftian horrors that will snuff out almost all sentient life and civilization in the galaxy upon their return. The opening of Mass Effect 3 manifests that horror and provides motivation for the player to rally the other races of the galaxy to the war effort. The opening also provides a narrative push to get related missions done quickly by establishing a sense of urgency. I bought into that sense of urgency and in doing so completely screwed myself out of a ton of game content.
Shortly after the attack on Earth, Commander Shepard has to broker an alliance between the turian and krogan races. Mass Effect 3 goes out of its way to reinforce the urgency of this quest line: The threat of turian extinction is raised during the conference that establishes the parameters of the alliance, and having seen the turian homeworld of Palaven burning from orbit, the player knows that “extinction” isn’t hyperbole. Commander Shepard overhears intelligence reports that the turians are close to folding even though they have the biggest military in the galaxy. Admiral Andersen sends updates to Shepard about how badly things are progressing on Earth, and by way of reinforcing the horrors on both planets, the Normandy’s Doctor Chakwas can be overheard saying “As we sit here enjoying our coffee, how many souls are in agony this very moment? Millions? Billions?”
During the course of the turian/krogan quests, my Commander Shepard received emails from two major characters from Mass Effect 2, Miranda and Thane, asking Shepard to visit them on the Citadel. Considering I was running missions to prevent the extinction of all life in the galaxy by way of getting the turians and krogan on board with the war effort, stopping by the Citadel to have tea with old friends sounded ridiculous. It felt more in keeping with the story to wait until after the turian/krogan alliance was in place to return to the Citadel.
When I finally got back to the Citadel, it was under attack by Cerberus. After the attack was defeated I found no sign of Miranda in the Normandy docking bay where I was supposed to meet her. I couldn’t find Thane, either – but I did find his name etched into the war memorial on the crew deck of the Normandy which celebrated names of the dead. That’s when I reloaded an old save game just before I had begun the turian/krogan quest line and went straight to the Citadel to see what I’d missed.
My visits with Miranda and Thane were the least of it. I discovered a side quest that reunited me with Kasumi, another character from Mass Effect 2. Other side quests provided War Assets that would factor into getting the “best” ending for Mass Effect 3. Encounters with Normandy crew members in the Citadel lent valuable texture to their characters and the story. It was enough content that I decided to keep going from that old save, even though it meant replaying the entire nine-plus hours of the turian/krogan quest line I had just finished.
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 punchingsnakes.com, or follow his random excitations on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.