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Elzam avatar 5:21 PM on 01.28.2010  (server time)
The Wrex Paradox: Impetus to Exploration or Minmaxer Exploitation?

Recently Mr. Burch (I hope that's a formal enough title for the gentleman) composed a Rev Rant video based upon what he considers the "Wrex Paradox." For those of you playing the home game, here's a [url=]link.[/u]

Essentially, from what I understand, Mr. Burch is attempting to evoke the concept that there exists a situation in which there's a split between what he feels is necessary for the story and what is necessary for the player's game enjoyment.

While I would agree that these Wrex Paradoxes (hereafter 'WPs') when used in situations that force you as a player to choose A or B, most often in a life-or-death situation are generally negative, I'd like to offer a few thoughts on why I differ from Mr. Burch's apparent apprehension to the concept.

The problem that I have, generally, is that I don't think that the 'original' WP is such a detriment to the story based upon the concept that modern games (especially Bioware which repeatedly astounds me with character development and narrative) allow the character to be skewed and shifted beyond the Paragon/Renegade system in Mass Effect.

While some games are more straightforward and their narratives are very transparent and I can liken them to moving through a finished building, However, Bioware is pioneering a concept that is closer to construction. Mass Effect and its cousin Dragon Age offer the opportunity to move beyond mere Light/Dark decisions through conversation trees and a host of decisions that can be made. Think that your character's concept of what it is to be a Spectre includes clandestine operations? Perhaps you may choose to refuse to help the reporter on the Citadel. Or maybe you envision your character as someone humbled to be in a situation, therefore causing you to choose more authority-friendly solutions to problems. But the choice given in these games is simultaneously one of their largest detriments.

Like I'm sure a lot of the people who are attracted to Mass Effect, I spent much of my wasted youth on role-playing games. Before the "open" RPGs became to invade, players learned of minmaxing, a term pioneered by Dungeons and Dragons for players who maximized their strengths and diminished their weaknesses typically through exploitation of game systems or by using nearly total knowledge of the game to their advantage. Whereas 15 years ago choices were more limited to what party member to take (largely based on their skills and potential for exploitation), today this still exists, instead this time making us choose between a character that we dislike and that which we adore. I'll admit that it's probably better for the player to choose a character that he or she resonates with rather than one with the most advantageous techniques, but I believe the situation still exists.

If you're still reading through my horrible tangents, more power to you. I'd like to address consistency in players. I've always had issues with games in which before you fight the imminent final boss, you spend 30 additional hours gaining the power to defeat him handily (which cheapens the journey itself, but that's another issue). Mass Effect has the extreme potential for this abuse as apparently individuals have found that you can retain Wrex with virtually no decisions being made in his favor in the past. And why would you get rid of Wrex when there is no real impact upon the gameplay experience and no apparent universal influence?

And therein lies, to me, the flaw of the Wrex Paradox scene: as gamers the vast majority of our decisions are black and white or we're forced to choose between our favorite character and some schmo who is still wearing his starting equipment and is only marginally advanced based on the "experience-share" that most games have.

There is potential to correct such a problem, however. The impact of the Wrex situation should have been far more profound upon the universe, and I think that such a decision should (if it hasn't; I'm currently waiting on some PC upgrades to dive into Mass Effect 2) influence the sequel dramatically.

And finally after circling the wagons for what seems like pages, I come to the idea of what's good for the story vs what's good for the player. The benefit of "open" games like Mass Effect/Dragon Age is that it offers the opportunity for a player to dive in and hopefully shuck off the minmaxer persona. What is proper for the story, I feel, is based largely upon what is proper for your character, and there's a sufficient level of development in Mass Effect that allows a character to be lovingly crafted down to his likes and dislikes, passions, and prejudices.

So to me, what is good for the story is based largely upon the self-control and discipline that a player can exert in being consistent with his perception of a character. I can see another player having no attraction whatsoever to Wrex and being willing to sacrifice him for progression with little mourning, but for me, that just wasn't in the cards.

That being said (and I think my point could have been about 2 pages more succinct), I think there are a variety of strategies that I hope we'll see in the future from great RPG companies such as Bioware:

1) Overall Impact of Decisions; I've mentioned it in the Wrex example, but I want to know when I'm weighing possibly just one species against the remainder of the universe what the impact of such a decision is. In a Mr. A-or-Ms. B situation it's easy to see: one person dies/leaves and the other stays. But Mass effect has the potential in its incredibly well-developed IP to let such decisions be seen far more profoundly in sequels. Would it add development time and possibly shorten adventures? Perhaps.

2) Suggestions; A lot of people I've talked to about this have been disturbed by the amount of autonomy I'm willing to give up in expense for a story, but I'd like to see a developer who tracks decisions actively through an adventure and offers conversational options after a certain "threshold" in a personality direction solely for that character. Inevitably I think it's fine for the same gameplay to result from the decision (or at least similar gameplay) and maybe these decisions wouldn't lock you into conversation choices, but instead steer you in the right direction. This would allow for dynamic decision-making while at the same time coercing a player to choose conversations more in line with what he has previously set as being characteristic of the character.

And honestly I think some of these approaches are beginning the bloom. For example, I think that the recent DS "Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume" approaches such decisions magnificently. In order to overcome extremely difficult missions or to acquire unique abilities, the main character is given the potential to "sacrifice" a character which implements a cutscene afterward where you are subjected to viewing the results of your action (including watching a daughter weep over her father). Such an approach could be highly advantageous in Bioware games and emotionally compelling at the same time, it's just a shame that aside from 30-60 minutes of development, once a Covenant character is introduced they become transparent fantasy archetype characters.

That being said, I'm sure this is largely unintelligible and has eaten up far more of my evening that I had originally planned. Here's hoping that there are some pleasant surprises waiting for me when I finally get to play Mass Effect 2: a man can dream about a universe beset by the potentially devastating resurgence of Krogans, can't he?

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