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Where Mass Effect 3 Stumbled
by Ted Brown on 04/04/12 01:28:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


The Onion’s AV Club just opened a new site called The Gameological Society. One of their first posts was a video discussion about Mass Effect 3, asking: Where does the heart of BioWare’s sci-fi series lie—conversation or annihilation? They raise two points I’ve been thinking about, and want to get your opinions on.

Sad Boy: The Cinematic Trope

One thing they bring up immediately is Sad Boy, the face of human loss on Earth. They argue that his scenes are a poor fit with the rest of the game, and while I agree, my reasons are different: Sad Boy is a cinematic trope that has no business being in a thoroughly modern game.

You meet Sad Boy during the invasion of Earth, and witness his escape shuttle being blown from the sky. Sad Boy haunts Shepard’s dreams, each dream serving as a capstone to a story arc. Predictably, the dream’s outcome does not change, except at the very end, where I imagine they use the final seconds to foreshadow the results of your attempt to defeat the Reapers.

It’s a cinematic trope because there is no interaction with the scene. You inhabit it, you are “there” and control the “camera,” but the only thing you can do is 1) turn and 2) move forward. It’s basically you holding down the “play” button on a movie. When you let go, the movie pauses, and waits for you.

A game with this much sense of agency, a game so far ahead of the field in terms of interactive storytelling, needs this turgid setpiece like an Olympic runner needs a old man’s walker.

How could they have done it better? I think Shepard finding “Sad Boy” in other places, and having his sanity questioned if he tried to chase after him, would more effectively convey Shepard’s deeply-seated grief, without violating the player’s “contract of agency” with the game.

This is me being a back-seat designer, of course: there’s obviously a better solution out there. But the take-away is that game’s weakest narrative moment is when it copies another medium. That’s heartening news for advocates of games as their own medium.

Egg Hunting: The Game Trope

In Mass Effect 2, you were punished for acting according to the story’s sense of urgency (“you have to go as quickly as possible”), instead of acting according to the game’s meta-design (“take time to earn loyalty”). This, combined with the “hidden kill-switch” that triggered the end-game sequence, was a frustrating lesson in how to thoroughly violate a player’s trust in the narrative.

Mass Effect 3 is more accommodating: most missions have a direct impact on the “war effort,” and your goal is to increase the galaxy’s readiness. Urgency is less of a byword than Thoroughness, but the sense of potentially lost opportunities is always made clear.

However, forcing the player to go “egg hunting” on various planets for old relics, secret technology, and active battle cruisers (???) completely derails whatever narrative pressure is pushing the player forward. The realization that I’d be “punished” for not ignoring “real missions” and jaunting through the galaxy to find trinkets was deflating. Even the design of the searches belies their triviality: it’s absurdly simple and streamlined.

“Collect ‘em all” is an established game trope, but, as with the cinematic trope of Sad Boy, it’s a terrible fit to a very modern game. Once again, speaking as a “backseat designer,” I think a level of abstraction would have helped immensely, such as an auxiliary ship and crew you are given command over, who search systems of your choosing. It gives a new sense of agency (indirect control instead of direct control), a new outlet for resources (upgrades, etc.), and lets the player focus on the “real” task of putting boots on the ground and kicking ass.

Mass Effect: The End

It speaks volumes that a game would be better for ditching techniques that are considered "classic." It tells me that we're well into a true Modern Age of gaming at the AAA level, and we're all better for it. I’m looking forward to the next series from this team, and hoping they ditch the cliches and really... ahem... reach for the stars.

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Eric Schwarz
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While the ending has received a lot of negative attention, truth be told, it's one of many problems with the game. I felt that the War Assets could have been handled much, much better, like a sort of mini strategy game, where different classes of assets serve different purposes and they could be used to hold off the Reaper invasion of various systems, in turn affecting your final readiness rating. Of course, that would have required messing with the established formula, something I don't think BioWare were willing to do, or (as the rest of the game suggests) didn't have the time to implement properly. Instead it was just turned into a completion bar - finish all the boring, repetitive side-quests there to pad out the gameplay? 100%!

As for Sad Boy, the big problem is that Shepard is shown to clearly be traumatized and has a sense of guilt about Earth and the boy, but the player doesn't really have any time to make that connection. BioWare have never been able to decide whether Mass Effect is about Shepard or the player, and this jarring distance that shows up *sometimes* in Mass Effect 3 is both confusing and awkward. Another issue is that Sad Boy is a quasi-spiritual character in a game which, frankly, has had almost no spiritual side up until this point. If that sort of thing had been better established in the previous games, some parts of the ending (the "pillar of light", ascending, dreamlike states, etc.), and Sad Boy himself would have been easier to swallow.

James Hofmann
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w/r to "collection" problems - it's been a trope of AAA gaming for a while to let the player bumble around without pressure, and to implore them to search every nook and cranny to find everything and finish every quest.

This causes a dilemma players really shouldn't be burdened with in a game where the narrative encourages forward progress - if they ignore the quests and don't go out of their way to look for secret items, they resume the main story arc possibly underprepared and about to have a frustrating experience. But if they slave away looking for stuff, they may come up "empty" with no side content of real interest, and not particularly more powerful or prepared than previously; their time has been wasted. They could look at a walkthrough for guidance, but that's a kind of failure in itself. The player doesn't get a second chance in a narrative-driven experience, so short of treating "second guess the designers" as the gameplay, it's hard to feel comfortable with this situation.

Additionally, if completion numbers (the x% complete often included by saves) are a singular grand sum including side quests and item collection, then the player has implicitly failed if they reach the end of the narrative and they aren't at 100%. This idea started with item collection in 90's platform games, but it's morphed into the more general "achievement" concept; plenty has been written about the downsides of achievements, and I think sidequest completion ties well into those discussions.

These games would be more streamlined and replayable if, instead of saying "these are all optional sidequests and you can(should) do every one," the player gets a fun/difficult choice: "you only have enough time to do one." It requires some effort to reassure the player that they aren't making a "wrong" choice, but the game structure benefits - it still allows indefinite playtime during each quest and free roaming, the same total amount of content is available and the methods of accessing it are clarified into dialogue choices, and as a bonus, the player is kept in a much more focused state at each point, rather than booting the game after a month and wondering what they were doing, or fearing they overlooked something crucial.

Of course, if the game is very deliberately open-world and systems-driven like a GTA or Skyrim, there's less of a need to streamline; the "no second chances" factor isn't there anymore, but the pacing can still feel clunky when the player is able to run around for hours seeing and doing a lot, but accomplishing nothing in particular.

Joshua Darlington
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I think the side quest/main quest urgency problem is a player independant simulation problem. Which is one reason that better narrative design tools are needed. There's a huge void in this area.

Re: Sad Boy, How could they have done it better?

If I remember right, the talking cricket in Pinocchio is a ghost. Pinocchio kills him and the cricket comes back to haunt him and functions as his conscience.