The “Mass Effect” Effect: Emergent Storytelling in Games

The Apple fiasco of the past few weeks has been the subject of much discussion, and I have some thoughts I’d like to publish on Apple’s response (which was a fair to middling handling of the crisis, though it still doesn’t entirely make up for their abysmal handling of the issue up until that point).  But I realize that this is intended to be a gaming blog, and I may have gotten a bit off message.

So instead, I want to talk a little bit about the game(s) that have had me so excited these past few weeks: The Mass Effect series.

Warning: Some Mass Effect spoilers may follow.  I think I do a fair job of keeping them to a minimum, but if you’re strict about spoiling yourself for games like this, think twice before continuing.

There’s been enough press about the Mass Effect series already that I don’t need to tell you why it’s an awesome game.  The gameplay is solid, the story is compelling, and the world they’ve created is very intricately crafted.  BioWare is rapidly becoming one of my favorite game developers (Dragon Age was another one of my favorites), and while the first game had a few threadbare patches, the second (so far) has resolved all those issues admirably.

What I want to talk about, though, is a particular experience I had playing the game.  One of the core mechanics of the Mass Effect series is the “Paragon” vs. “Renegade” dichotomy.  Basically, as the game progresses, you are offered the opportunity to make decisions which set you up as a “Paragon”, or a hero—a noble, honorable man out to do right not just by himself, or even by his own species, but by his entire galactic community.  The alternative is the “Renegade” path—a Han Solo-esque anti-hero, who’s looking out for number one, and who wants to get in, get the job done, and get out—no matter the cost.  I think both of these paths offer compelling stories and ways of progressing through the game, but I am a natural people-pleaser, so most of my choices fell naturally in line with the “Paragon” path.

The result of this is that in the climactic finale of the first game, I made a choice that sent a huge number of human soldiers to their deaths, precisely because I viewed the lives of aliens to be of equal value to the lives of humans.  As a result, at terrible cost to the human species, the Council—a governing board which up until this point had pointedly not included a human representative—would survive.  This was a difficult choice, because the Council had not exhibited any particular faith in me or my cause, but I ultimately decided that the upheaval and civil war that would follow the attempted creation of a new, human-oriented governing body would cause more terror and bloodshed than the sacrifices we made.

Mass Effect 2 showed a darker side to my accomplishment.  Early in the game, my character goes missing and is presumed dead.  The Council—they very one I saved from destruction—takes advantage of this eventuality to discredit my concern over the true danger (which still lurks out there) as the ravings of a madman.  I have been abandoned by the Alliance Military to serve the Council, and now the Council has abandoned me as well.  No one understands the true danger facing the galaxy except for me.

And apparently a creepy, paramilitary/terrorist organization known as Cerberus, which has (through a feat of medical science) rescued me from death, and provided me with a new ship and a new crew.

This puts my “Paragon” character in an awkward position. In any other situation, he would turn away Cerberus’ help in a second.  He hates what they stand for and wants to push himself as far away from their goals as possible…except that they’re the only organization in the galaxy that believes in his mission, and has the clout to do anything about it.  My new squad offers a similar conundrum.  The most affable among them are Cerberus operatives sent to spy on me, and the least affable are a genetically engineered super-soldier and a paranoid sociopath.  Even my old comrades have changed—they’re more ruthless, less concerned with the welfare of the people around them—and slowly but surely, my character is starting to become harder, darker, and more grim.

Here’s where it gets interesting.  The game does not force me into this situation.  Players who choose the “Renegade” path have the option of approaching this new team as a refreshing change from the restrictive, bureaucratic influence of the Council and the Alliance Military.  It was my choice to feel alone and disenfranchised from my new teammates, and there were no cinematic sequences or plot points that relied on it.  So when I run into an old military buddy—an old crewmate who I had painted up in my head as a close friend of my character, even though there was no actual requirement in the first game that this should be so—he called me out.  He was angry with me, shouting that I had betrayed everything they stood for, and as I stood there talking with him, I couldn’t help but feel that maybe he was right.

After this I got very depressed.  I began to realize that my (character’s) mission was costing me my (character’s) identity.  And that maybe I would succeed—in fact, I would have to succeed—but I began to understand that when I came out on the other side of this experience, I would not be the same person.  This saddened me.  I liked the “me” I had created, and I didn’t want to see it go.  I missed the feeling that I was working together with a team of people who respected me, and who I respected.  I missed the days when good and evil were clear choices.

Then, two things happened.

Firstly, I went on a quest that came as part of a DLC pack, where the Alliance asked me to visit the crash site of my original ship.  I wandered the wreckage, looking back on all the memories of those days, wallowing in my depression.  I collected the dog tags of all my fallen friends, to make sure they got the honors they deserved.  And I found a journal, written by my former first officer, talking about the effect that my shining example had had on him—and how when he finally did die in battle, he died proudly knowing he was giving his life for the good of his team, just like I would have done.  When the camera gave me a brief cinematic glimpse of my former first officer’s face, frozen eternally in a salute, I nearly cried at how far I had fallen.

Then, I went on a side quest with one of my teammates—a grizzled mercenary captain named Zaeed Massani (who, by the way, is played by Robin Sachs in what may be my favorite piece of video game voice acting of all time).  My brother, who is further along in the game than I, has already informed me that the only way to earn Zaeed’s loyalty in this mission is to be a truly awful person.  The quest did not disappoint—our stated goal was to liberate a fuel refinery from occupation by a mercenary army, but it quickly becomes clear that Zaeed has a personal vendetta against the merc captain—when he sets the refinery on fire in the hopes of smoking out his rival.  I am furious with him, and I order him to abandon his personal quest to bring down the merc captain and come with me to help evacuate the survivors from the refinery.  I know that by doing so, I am losing Zaeed’s loyalty permanently, and that has real in-game consequences—I’ll never be able to unlock his final, most powerful ability.  But also, I can feel my character making a stand—digging in his heels, refusing to become the uncaring, unfeeling mercenary that Cerberus seems to want him to be.  I don’t care if I have to give up Zaeed’s loyalty—or even a powerful in-game reward—I won’t do it at the cost of my soul.

At the end of the quest, the merc captain escapes.  Zaeed is raging furiously at the captain’s ship as it flies away, firing his rifle uselessly into the air.  And in the final conversation, where Zaeed is furious at me for allowing his bounty to escape, I realize something my brother didn’t know.  I have been following the “Paragon” path more closely than he, and as a result I have access to a dialogue option he didn’t have access to.  I tell Zaeed that it doesn’t matter to me what he did before—he’s now part of my team.  And being on a team means trusting one another—no matter what.  He glares at me, but finally relents—acknowledging that maybe, just maybe…my way is better.

I walk out of that mission with his loyalty earned, his final power unlocked, and my faith in my character’s own morality restored.  I walk out thinking, maybe it’s impossible to finish this mission without giving up everything that’s worth fighting for—but I’m damn well going to try.

This is emergent storytelling. Some of the aspects of that story are contained within the game’s writing itself, but a lot of it had to come from me.  The existential crisis was my own.  My depression and disenfranchisement were my own.  And as a result, my character went through a trial by fire and found a new resolve—a trial, and a resolve, that had never been written into the game’s script.

So what’s the best example of emergent storytelling you’ve ever encountered?  Has a game ever told you a story that it’s creators never imagined?

Published by Malgayne

Community Manager at Google. Formerly at Sourcebits, Spark Plug Games, Zynga, and I like chiptunes and hefeweizen.

4 thoughts on “The “Mass Effect” Effect: Emergent Storytelling in Games

  1. I have three particular reactions. (Wall of text incoming)

    1. I’m not sure this is as unintended as you think. Perhaps the stringing together of the events on Horizon, the wreckage of the old normandy and Zaeed’s loyalty mission painted a more poignant picture than it was originally going to be, but you seem to suggest (and maybe this is me reading into it) that it was never intended that you view your character as occupying this new uncomfortable grey area, while I firmly believe that that was intentional. The emergent part, I think, was the clear downward dip prompted by Horizon meeting it’s end on Zaeed’s mission.

    2. I have two Mass Effect characters. When I played the first one, the fairly straight paragon one, I had a really difficult time getting a handle on my motivations in Mass Effect 2. I clearly didn’t want to work for Cerberus, but I had a really hard time deciding if I was just completely blowing them off or figuring that I could work with them as long as I was in charge and no one tried to go over my head. The party line of “save as many innocent lives as possible, regardless of race, gender, or opinion about me” which had served me so well in Mass Effect 1 started to break down, since it seemed to govern fewer and fewer of my decisions. Am I willing to torture a thug to save a few innocent lives? Do I have any business getting involved in smuggling issues? I found myself reeling a little from a lot of these decisions, and it felt like my motivations were becoming less and less clear. I clearly want to do the right thing, but with the extermination of all living things in the galaxy looming on the horizon, do I care that much about a police officer engaging in racial profiling?

    So, when I reached the end of the game, I was a little disillusioned with my paragon character. The ending was amazing, but I didn’t feel like my character knew what she was doing exactly, and maybe that represented her confusion, or maybe it was just my confusion. And yet, when I was presented (in BioWare style) with the final choice of the game, it was crystal clear to me that I had to choose the Paragon one, and without giving anything away, she rebuffed those around her, saying (as exactly as I can remember) “No. I won’t let fear compromise who I am.”

    I didn’t even know that was what she was going to say, the shorthand basically defaulted to “Yes” and “No”, and I picked “No”. But this one little phrase, combined with the context in which it was delivered, suddenly crystallized the opinion that I realized I had been operating under all along, without the game ever giving me a clear chance to demonstrate it. More than just believing in the important of saving innocent life, Rachel Shepard believed in the power and determination of sentience life to overcome any and all challenges set before it, and endure meaningfully no matter the adversity.

    This is, no doubt, part of what the designers were thinking, but there are a lot of OTHER ways to interpret the paragon choice at the end of the Mass Effect 2. Despite the fact that there were virtually no other opportunities to demonstrate this opinion on behalf of my Commander Shepard, it nevertheless persisted throughout all of my actions in subtle ways and in the end, even kind of surprised me.

    3. (Don’t worry, this one is shorter) In my second playthrough of Mass Effect 1 (I rushed through the first one, and haven’t finished the second one yet with my renegade character), I created another female character (not nearly as much of a fan of the male Shepard voice), who probably would have been considered pretty, except for the perpetual scowl and the huge scar across the bridge of her nose. In the second Mass Effect, since you are more or less brought back to life by Cerberus, you have a number of facial scars which (KotOR style) either get worse or better depending on your renegade/paragon choices, but your original facial scars from ME1 are removed.

    This is a cool idea, but can be seen as a little excessive if you’re a real hard ass, so the game gives you the option to buy a ship upgrade that can complete your facial reconstruction surgery, thereby removing the scars completely, regardless of what how you act for the rest of the game. I didn’t particularly care to do this, but I kind of wanted to see the interface for it. I saved, bought the upgrade, and used it. After I did, and took a look at my character, two things immediately occurred to me. First, she was actually fairly pretty by the standards of the game (uncanny valley aside), and second, there’s no possible way she could have been older than 23 or 24. I had been trying to play a fairly badass character, and in spite of myself, even after I reloaded my game and the facial scars reappeared, I could not help but see her as a tragic figure: thrown into a stressful position of authority and forced to kill to survive more times than she could count until she was more or less emotionally dead.

    I’m not sure that it counts as storytelling in a strict sense, since nothing actually happened in the game to occasion this change (especially since I reloaded my game), but it definitely counts as an emergent aspect of the game that I doubt the creators counted on.

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