I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing BioWare’s games and its approach to storytelling. My retrospective on the Mass Effect series is literally the length of a novel. I’ve watched the company evolve from indie developers making role-playing games to its current incarnation making tentpole shooters for EA. I’ve been frustrated with how the company has changed, but I keep coming back because I’m always curious what’s going to happen next. At this point, the story of what’s happening to the team at BioWare is more interesting to me than the stories put into the company’s games.
Despite its reputation as a story-first developer, BioWare is sometimes criticized because its stories tend to be formulaic and predictable. This was particularly true in the period that ran from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic to the first Mass Effect game. Its work was very much focused on a classic hero’s journey against an obvious villain in a world of black and white morality. Unlike rival studio Obsidian Entertainment, BioWare didn’t do deconstructive or subversive plots, and its stories didn’t explore shades of grey. Critics said this simplicity made BioWare games shallow.
I don’t think that criticism is fair because it reduces the entire narrative experience of a game down to the plot summary: “Hero defeats villain and saves the world.” But narrative is more than the plot, and BioWare’s writers were less interested in the plot and more invested in worldbuilding and supporting characters. They made big, complex worlds that were bursting at the seams with details. Those worlds were full of factions with long histories, strong rivalries, and vibrant leaders. Cultural attitudes and assumptions were revealed and explored through your characters’ friends and allies. A lot of titles will jam all their worldbuilding into a clumsy lore dump as soon as you launch a new game. For contrast, BioWare would take that information and turn it into personal stories so getting to know your allies also let you learn about the world.
In the original Mass Effect, your buddy Wrex would tell you a tangled story that involved the cagey Salarians, the militaristic Turians, the bug-like Rachni invaders, and how all of them connected to his people. These events shaped his entire worldview, which subsequently tied into missions where those views could be expressed through conflict. The game’s overall story might have been a simplistic yarn about stopping space-Cthulhu, but the worldbuilding was closer to the level of complexity in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
Recent BioWare games have a lot less detailed worldbuilding. The characters you meet no longer reveal the world through their backstories. Instead they tell you about the melodrama in their past. That’s not an inherently bad storytelling choice, but it is a departure from how their earlier games were constructed.
This brings us to Anthem, which has a story the game doesn’t care about and characters who have very little to say about the world they inhabit. It’s a story completely lacking in player agency where the dialogue choices don’t matter. This is probably the best game about robot suits ever made, but if you’re looking for a classic BioWare story in a complex world full of vibrant characters and interesting choices, then you are going to be disappointed.
This is the first BioWare game where you can’t skip individual dialogue lines by slapping the spacebar. The game doesn’t tell you, but you can skip them with the escape key. (I have not tried using a controller.) If you want to skip a cutscene, then you need to hold escape for a couple of seconds. In terms of presentation, the designers take their story very seriously, and they really don’t want you skipping any of it.
This makes sense, since the developers clearly spent a lot of money on this story. The important conversations don’t use the standard BioWare system of shot reverse shot and canned animations layered together. Those techniques have the advantage of being incredibly cost effective, which is really important in a game with dozens of hours of branching dialogue. In Anthem the big scenes use techniques normally associated with strictly linear games and fixed cutscenes. Every conversation uses unique facial expressions and motion capture. This means Anthem‘s cutscenes show a lot of polish in a technical sense, but they are being used to convey a rigidly linear story that the rest of the game doesn’t care about.
The game is intended to be played with others, and the matchmaking is designed to put you into a four-person squad for every mission. This matchmaking is so important to the designers that they added a popup to discourage you from attempting to play solo. The combat systems are designed so that players can synergize with each other and multiply their damage, and the enemy encounters are designed with squads of players in mind. On the gameplay side, this is fundamentally a four-person co-op game.
And yet, the story makes no allowance for this. The matchmaking is happy to drop you into a group of randos that are halfway through a mission, which means you’ll miss out on half the dialogue. What did you miss? How much did you miss? Was it important to the plot? There’s no way to know from within the game. You’ll have to watch the mission on YouTube later to find out.
On top of that, the dialogue triggers at the same time for everyone, whether it makes sense for them or not. On more than one occasion I had conversations playing where my character was commenting on things I hadn’t seen yet because the dialogue was triggered by one of the other players. And this is assuming you can hear the characters talking. Very often their chatter would play in the middle of a pitched battle and I wouldn’t be able to pay attention to it because I was busy doing my robot-powered murders.
Worse, even though you’re supposed to play in a group, the dialogue never makes allowances for this. All conversations make it sound like you’re the only freelancer on the job and nobody makes any reference to the team you’re on.
Everyone in the squad is being treated like the main character, and the story is pretending the rest of the squad doesn’t exist. Everyone hears the conversation at the same time, but we’re not all hearing the same dialogue because the male and female protagonists have slightly different lines. The whole thing is really weird.
Occasionally there are little environmental details sprinkled around the world. Sometimes you can learn something new if you’re willing to stop and examine the details. Except, if you’re playing as intended then the game will punish you for attempting to do so. The moment a battle ends, all the other players launch themselves towards the next waypoint. The moment they move out of brick-throwing distance, the game warns that you’ve strayed too far from the group and it’s going to forcibly teleport you to them. If you’re not quick enough to catch up, you’ll be dragged through a load screen when the game relocates you, even if it only moves you a short distance.
When you’re in town, you’re meant to walk around the city and be immersed as if you were part of the world. To enforce this, designers took away your ability to sprint and jump. Instead you have to mosey around the place glued to the ground like you’re playing The Witness.
In earlier BioWare games, the designers attempted to weave the story and gameplay together. In Anthem, it feels like the writer and the gameplay designer lived in different cities and never spoke to each other. You can hear the gears grind as the game shifts from story mode to gameplay mode without a clutch.
In Knights of the Old Republic, the largest block of dialogue and cutscenes is dedicated to the moment where the main character unlocks their force powers. In Mass Effect, it’s a big emotional moment when Shepard is given command of the Normandy. In Dragon Age: Origins, a lot of time is spent establishing how the main character joins the Grey Wardens and what that means. In Anthem, the story has nothing to say when the player unlocks a new javelin. The player is given a pop-up telling them they have a new robo-suit to play with, but this is never explained or explored within the story. Where did this javelin come from? Who paid for it and why? It’s not that the story glosses over this, it’s that the story doesn’t even acknowledge that it happens.
Outside of missions, the game takes the story very seriously and discourages you from skipping any of it. During missions, the story is treated like an afterthought and the matchmaking will casually have you skipping sections of it without warning. The gameplay tramples on the story and the story ignores what happens in gameplay.
At the start of the game, you’re allowed to customize your face, but then that face never shows up in cutscenes because the game takes place entirely in a first person view. It feels less like I’m controlling the protagonist of an epic story and more like I’m viewing the world through a GoPro strapped to the forehead of a supporting character. Earlier I said it feels like the writer and gameplay designer never spoke, but often I got the feeling that they did sometimes speak and that they also bitterly resented each other.
I’m not saying that the lack of narrative content makes Anthem a bad game. I’m saying it feels like a very confused, un-BioWare game. While we have no way of knowing for sure, this feels like the result of meddling from the suits at EA. It seems like they saw the microtransaction gold mine of the original Destiny and thought, “Hey! This shooter is profitable and BioWare makes shooters, so let’s have BioWare make us one of these.” It’s the kind of decision that makes perfect sense if you only understand games through marketing and sales charts and never actually play any games.
I’m not surprised that Anthem is off to a rough launch. A developer focused on single-player narrative content is trying to compete in the online shooter market against Bungie, a company that specializes in multiplayer systems and solid game feel. BioWare is operating outside of its core competency to challenge a rival in a genre where gameplay is king. Despite all the glaring flaws in Anthem, I think BioWare has done surprisingly well. Considering how firmly the deck was stacked against the company, this could have gone a lot worse.
Sadly, I doubt EA will see things this way. Rather than acknowledging that Anthem works well as a first attempt in a difficult market, EA will probably be disappointed that it’s not a magical billion dollar smash hit.
Having said that, I doubt EA will be as disappointed as I am.