Bioware’s Open Environments Have Failed (Pt.1)

Bioware is one of those game companies that I’ve tried to write about in the past, but have never been able to fully capture either the brilliance or the short-sightedness I believe have been the hallmarks of this video gaming company for years.  In this nine-part series, hopefully I’ll be able to do justice the behemoth that we’ve come to love/hate. Articles 01-03 will focus mostly on Mass Effect, Articles 04-06 on Dragon Age, and lastly Articles 07-09 will round things out with the KotOR franchise.  Enjoy.

Remember that music?

When All Was Good and Right

Our beloved Mass Effect first came to us in the year of our lord two-thousand and seven to the Xbox 360.  Seems like ages ago now, yet I’ll never forget the trailers and obvious promise of having real choices, effects and intimate understanding of a whole new galaxy of content.  In that way, Mass Effect did not disappoint.  Sure, the combat made little to no sense compared to equivalent chronological shooters Halo 3 and Gears of War.  The cover system was funky as all hell and no matter how many times I play through the game, I’ll always end up defaulting to the pistol for my main damage dealer.  Marksman + high level pistol makes for headshots all day.

From the opening scene to closing cinematic, Mass Effect is an unstoppable roller coaster of emotion, action, and hard-boiled choices to make.  Ever-so-deftly the planets, people and villains of this space-faring universe were unveiled.  From Eden Prime to Virmire to The Citadel, the scope, immediacy and love that Bioware wanted to show us of their new world was easy to see.

This world was delivered to us in chunk installments with mostly linear pathways and a series of light/dark (paragon/renegade) options that while they are constraining in their own right; when taken in entirety you get a much different picture.  Much like a book: smaller vignettes of scenes make up the overall story line. Mass Effect understood that when characters are off-screen, they will do things and be people and that we don’t fucking need to be there for every step of their journey to understand who or what they are as Human or Krogan alike.

Damn the Geth.

Mass Effect Does “Less is More”

If you really boil it down to its barest parts, we only really see precious little of the ME galaxy in Mass Effect.  As time spent in the Mako affords very small amounts of story development or world-building, only the interior scenes with Shepard + crew can really reliably be used.  Take Feros for example.  You arrive at the spaceport only to be ambushed by Geth and then are introduced to what appear to be severely traumatized citizens in a very dingy atmosphere.  You can run around the campsite, but there’s very little freedom there.  Venturing out the side pathways will lead to a few Varren fights, and quite a few other Geth incidents.  Only through dialogue and story progression are we then able to head to the corporate building across several Mako pathways.  You’ll meet a few hotheaded corporate officers and one lady who wants you to rescue her daughter from the Geth.  After finishing up the corporate area, it’s right back to the traumatized colony and what lurks beneath.  There isn’t much freedom to explore the rest of Feros, but that’s alright.

All of this is to say, the scope is actually very, very narrow in terms of what Shepard actually sees him or herself. Philosophically speaking, planets and worlds are made up of 99% boring humdrum everyday bullshit and 1% action-packed interesting compelling stories.  Take the Citadel for example.  There are dozens of NPCs to speak to and hundreds in total.  Most don’t have anything meaningful to say to Shepard, but the select few with human interest stories or prophetic visions to offer are on tap for any player to experience.  Much of it is still optional, but Bioware felt that side-quests were the best way to build a world.  That, and codex entries.  One of these days, take the time to read all the codex entries and nodes laying around.  There’s so much peripheral goodness to enjoy in this massive and colorful universe.

Saren pontificating as per usual.

What Does ME1 Infer About Its Universe?

Through hundreds of conversations with this world’s NPCs and your companions, the entirety of Mass Effect world is only barely revealed.  The one thing that can be safely inferred after Saren falls and Sovereign is in shambles, is that Mass Effect is huge.  It’s monumental.  It’s amazing.  That being said, if you look entirely literally at just the main quest, and only the necessary conversations, Mass Effect is just another hero vs. villain space opera.  It’s only once you talk to your companions and form lasting bonds with them, that you’ll find out that Ashley is a racist because of her father’s treatment during the First Contact War where Humans met the…others. You’ll understand what Krogan doctrines are like and how to get away with saying one-liners with just the right inflection.  You’ll understand what it’s like to only talk about C-Sec and more C-Sec if you’re a Turian named Garrus.  Thank all the Gods that they revamped his personality in ME2.

It’s those little reactions by people you come upon that don’t actually care about this whole Shepard-Saren drama.  They’re just people doing people things.  They have wants and desires just like you do.  Talk to them, try to understand them, and let this world pull you in.

Why Mass Effect Didn’t Need an Open World

Mass Effect could have been left as a one-off for Bioware.  They could have never delved any further and this game would have been seen as a masterpiece. Instead, it’s oft-remembered by shallow gamers as the “one without proper combat” or the “one with all that Mako nonsense.”  I know a few players who religiously start at the beginning of ME2 because they couldn’t stand the pacing in the first game.  Obviously I don’t share that sentiment, but I can understand it. 

ME1 didn’t need an open world because it wasn’t trying to show us every topographical inch of a planet and its inhabitants.  It’s clear that they wanted to, ergo Mako, but thankfully someone realized that it was just fine to leave most of that as optional.  Yet, optional or not, Mako was a sign of things to come in Andromeda.  Hopefully you’ll make it to my Andromeda article to see just how empty and superficial it is.

Lastly, while ME1 isn’t often hailed as the best Mass Effect, or the most polished experience..to me, Mass Effect is the “one that got it right.”

Onwards to Mass Effect 2 and 3.

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