Do we play videogames so we can live out our greatest fantasies in a secure virtual world achieving our every desire in an electronic , or so we can experience stories which surprise us, scare us, excite us, move us, and affect us in the same way other art forms do? If you're at all familiar with other articles I've written, you've heard this question before -- and you're likely sick and tired of hearing my views on it.
If that's the case, I apologize in advance for the following article.
After finishing Mass Effect, I have to say I enjoyed myself. Not necessarily because of the combat, graphics, or plot, but because of the characters. BioWare's latest offering includes some of the most well written personalities I've seen within the realm of videogaming: they fall into established archetypes, but many of the characters are still remarkably three-dimensional in their characterization.
One scene in particular stands out in my mind: Wrex, a krogan mercenary and ally to the protagonist, draws his gun on the player during an argument. After he does so, one of three things will happen, depending on what the player's actions. The outcomes themselves are pretty interesting, but even more interesting than the actual events are how they come about -- that is, the logic behind which player choice contributes to which outcome. Do you reward your player for caring about a character by letting him live, or do you take advantage of that empathy and kill the character just to elicit an emotional response?
I can't say anymore without getting into mild spoilers, so just hit the jump. We'll continue the discussion there.
Basically, the situation is as follows:
Wrex is a krogan, a race of warriors who were chemically sterilized after a particularly nasty war. He is one of the last of his kind. Upon visiting the planet Virmire, your team discovers that Saren (the bad guy) has found a cure for the krogan infertility genophage, and is using it to breed his own race of violent, loyal krogan with which he will take over the galaxy.
The player's initial reaction matches that of most of his or her comrades': the base has to be destroyed, or else Saren's krogen will take over the entire universe. Wrex's feelings, however, are not so cut and dry. He (rightfully) feels the cure could save his entire species, and, as such, is worth saving. After a very short discussion, Wrex drifts away from the team and spends some time on his own.
In order to progress to the next mission, the player must follow and speak to Wrex. No matter what you initially say to Wrex, he'll draw his gun on the player (understandably irritated that the player wants to destroy the only hope for his people), who will then draw his own in self-defense.
This is where it gets interesting.
My first time through the game, I saved Wrex's particular sidequest (namely, recovering his family's armor) for later, near the end of the game. The specific reasons for this escape me at the moment. Still, though, I really, really liked Wrex; I appreciated how he embodied the angry mercenary archetype, but also had an incredibly sad quality to him as the last of a dying species. When he pulled his gun on me, I was surprised, and taken aback.
At this point, the player has five conversation options. You can:
-Ask him to calm down and wait a second
-Tell him he's not making any sense
The dialogue options change slightly depending on your stats and whether you've completed Wrex's sidequests, but more on that later.
As I don't want to hurt Wrex, I choose the charm option. I move the analog stick up, hit A, and -- crap. I hit the wrong dialogue choice. My fault, stupid mistake. Still, though, I end up asking him to calm down and wait a second; I didn't charm him, but I pretty much did the next best thing.
So, my character asks Wrex to calm the hell down. Wrex just gets angrier. His voice raises, he begins to threaten the player, and
Wrex falls to the ground, dead. His collapse reveals Ashley, her outstretched arm holding a smoking gun. Ashley and the player exchange some post-murder conversation, and the game continues...sans one krogan.
It's important to understand that when Wrex died, I actually shouted "NO!" Wrex was my single favorite character and, despite (or perhaps because of) his flaws, he meant a great deal to me. I'd wanted to talk my way out of the situation and Ashley, that huge bitch, had cold-bloodedly shot him in the back. Now, I've enjoyed many emotional moments in many games, but never before had I experienced a scene so shocking that I actually yelled out loud in shock and horror. That was the power of Wrex's murder.
But still, it only happened by accident; I felt compelled to load my last save and redo the conversation.
The second time around, I actually succeeded in choosing the charm option. Rather than raising his voice, Wrex paused for a moment, considered what I said, and peacefully put his gun away. The game continued. He was still alive. I was bored.
Essentially, Mass Effect determines Wrex's fate by one main factor -- how much you care about him. If you liked Wrex enough to charm him into complacency, he lives: if you don't really give a rat's ass about him and can't muster anything more than a halfhearted, Willy Wonka-esque "No, wait, stop," the game ganks him.
Behind this seemingly simple design choice lies the complex, medium-defining question I posed before the jump: should games like Mass Effect work solely as wish fulfillment, or as dramatically potent (but not necessarily happy and enjoyable) stories?
Because while I was happy that Wrex was still alive after I charmed him, I didn't feel that happiness with anywhere near the degree to which I felt shocked, saddened, and betrayed by Ashley's decision to murder Wrex. On the one hand, I was kind of happy but bored by the ho-hum nature of Wrex's survival, while on the other I was shocked and emotionally moved, yet saddened, by his death.
Here, we have a paradox: if I hadn't cared about Wrex and had intentionally chosen the quasi-indifferent dialogue option, then his death would have meant absolutely nothing to me. If I did care about Wrex, and if I'd have successfully chosen the charm option the first time around, then I would have been robbed of that heart-wrenchingly sudden death scene and all the subsequent shock and horror which came with it. Through killing Wrex if the player doesn't care about him and letting him live if the player does, BioWare made absolutely sure that the player, no matter how he felt, would receive a uniformly positive-but-underwhelming consequence to his actions. In every aspect of the conversation, BioWare sought to make things easy for the player. The plot refuses to step on any toes; it seeks to act as nothing more than a vessel of wish fulfillment for the player.
In fact, the more you've shown the game how much you care about Wrex, the less likely he is to be killed. If you've proven your dedication to the character by completing his lost armor sidequest, then all but one of the dialogue options during the showdown will cause Wrex to peacefully lower his gun. Only by acting like an outright jerk to him -- threatening him, refusing to explain yourself -- will Wrex come to any harm. Of course, this makes little sense in and of itself: if you liked him enough to help him reclaim his family's battle armor, why would you bother treating him like a piece of crap afterward?
In a sense, I can understand this wish fulfillment attitude. To reverse the parameters for Wrex's fate, killing him if the player cared about him and vice versa, would be -- and there's no nice way to put this -- a dick move. It'd be emotionally satisfying and shocking and memorable, yes, but the player would no longer trust the storytellers: I can imagine players refusing to show affection toward any other characters from that point on, for fear that the all-powerful developer might kill their next favorite NPC. The gamer might even come to despise the storyteller, resenting every future plot development or story turn.
Of course, the player would only hate the storyteller if the player knows the game intentionally killed Wrex just 'cause the player cared about him. In other words, if the player's initial reaction to Wrex's death is powerful, but does not feel like a cheat, then the player would have no reason to reload an older save and experiment with other dialogue options (only then understanding the criteria for determining Wrex's fate). I'll stop myself before I go too far, as this gets into another area of discussion -- whether unlimited saves ruin plot development -- but suffice to say that so long as the player doesn't feel like the storytellers are acting like assholes just for the sake of acting like assholes, then Wrex's death could be permanent and meaningful without feeling like a cheat.
Personally, I'd prefer to see more NPC's the player cares about dying in games. Not because I'm a nihilistic killjoy, but because when character death is done well, it adds an infinitely greater weight and scope to the story. You're not just fighting to Save The Universe And Kill The Bad Guy, you're also avenging the death of someone you cared for (see: Serenity, Call of Duty 4). The story, like life, becomes unpredictable; the events become much heavier as the player worries whether he or the characters he cares about will make it out alive.
But then, that's the kind of gamer I am: I like my epic RPGs to tell me an interesting, unpredictable story of loss and triumph. Other gamers demand that RPGs should serve only to empower the player, allowing us to exert force and influence over a virtual world that we could only dream of in reality. These sorts of players probably love Mass Effect: every NPC death occurs as a result of player choice, and the developers make sure that the story, and the fates of the characters, are never quite out of the player's control. The whole story is catered so the player experiences only enjoyment, only satisfaction.
Having read all this, I propose the following question to you: would you rather play an unpredictable, dramatic, but potentially unsatisfying and depressing game where the player does not hold complete control over his surroundings? Or would you prefer a game like Mass Effect, where every consequence is more or less designed to satisfy the player, the plot and gameplay mechanics always serving as wish fulfillment?
You already know my answer -- what's yours?