On The Ball: A Little More Conversation, A Little Less Action

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I’m no iconoclast. Unlike a certain other Escapist editor, I barely managed to go a full week before caving to the hype and trudging off to GameStop for my copy of Mass Effect 2. That’s somewhat unusual for me: Like monsieur Funk, I tend toward games that can be experienced in bite-sized chunks, and while I see the appeal of sprawling, 60-plus-hour roleplaying epics, they don’t slot very easily into my 10-hour a week habit. But after watching Escapist server admin Kross play through the first hour or so, something about the game spoke to me – quite literally, in fact.

Simply put, I love talking. Not to people, of course – there are far too many pitfalls to navigate in real-world conversation to make it worth the (considerable) effort – but to an unfeeling artificial intelligence with a veneer of personality that won’t judge me for invoking the specter of the Third Reich at the first sign of disagreement. As I watched my coworker introduce himself to the game’s supporting cast, lingering over each dialogue option as if the fate of the universe depended on how much information he could glean about Miranda Lawson’s mother, I felt a pang of jealousy. Here I was, playing games where the only meaningful choice was whether to whip someone into submission or swiftly dismember them, and he was making actual decisions.

And then something bizarre happened. I started harassing Kross to hand me the controller (not a particularly unusual occurrence in itself), and, in what can only be described as a complete inversion of the natural order, he informed me that he’d let me play the “shooting parts” as long as I handed the controller back to him when it came time to talk to people. For any other game it would be an incredibly generous offer, but in this instance it was a slap in the face. I politely informed him that I would be taking my ball and going home.

Why was I so obsessed with making my own small talk with my crewmates? In a way, it’s an easy question: because it’s a BioWare game, silly. You don’t play them for the exceptionally fluid combat or the endlessly entertaining mini-games (Scanning … Scanning … Scanning … Probe launched.); you play them for the story and the characters. When both plot and player freedom matter as much as they do in Mass Effect 2, the rest of the game can’t help but feel like filler in comparison. After all, you can replay an action sequence as many times as you like until you get it right, but once you decide to ignore your former squadmate‘s protests and hold her countryman captive, you’re pretty much going to feel like a jerk until your next play through.

But it’s more than that. Conversation in games is an incredibly delicate and resource-intensive proposition, as our own John Scott Tynes has discussed. All it takes is one stilted voiceover, one awkward pause or one poorly phrased retort to remind you that you’re not really talking to someone – you’re making your way through a flowchart. And for every branch of dialogue you pursue, there’s writing, voice work and motion capture that you won’t experience. The energy it took to painstakingly realize all the choices you won’t make probably exceeds the entire budgets of smaller games.

I guess that’s why even with their flaws, I find something to cherish in Mass Effect 2‘s interactions. It likely took BioWare thousands of hours and millions of dollars to produce what amounts to an hour or two of a 20-hour experience, and even then, there’s nothing stopping players from skimming through the subtitles and hitting the “skip” button. In a climate where game developers from all corners of the industry are cutting costs, the crew at BioWare are doubling down and effectively claiming ownership of an entire genre of gameplay. For anyone else it would be an incredible risk, but for them – and for us – it’s already paid off.

Jordan Deam’s favorite action game is running down his coworkers in the parking lot at high speed.

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