Mass Effect and the Magician's Choice

On February 13, 2008, in Games, by peterb

I’ve written before, disparagingly, of the use of the Magician’s Choice in games. The magician’s choice, reduced to its simplest form is: “Pick a card, any card.” And then, whatever card you pick, you’ve picked the one the magician intended you to pick.

When done poorly, this feels like a clumsy and ham-handed attempt at interaction. When done well, it’s seamless. Mass Effect is a good example of what happens when the choice is forced on you by a really good magician.

The typical branching conversation tree in an RPG works something like this:

Young lady: “Help! Help! My kitten is stuck up this tree!”
Hiro Protagonist: Choose between:

1. “Don’t worry, I’ll save your little kitten!” [You save the kitten.] (+50 cash, +200 experience, +5 alignment points.)
2. “How much will you pay me to get your kitten?” [You shake the girl down for cash, then save the kitten.] (+150 cash, +50 experience, +0 alignment points.)
3. “So, you’re all alone, eh?” [You assault and rob the young lady. Later, you kill and eat the kitten.] (+150 cash, +200 experience, -5 alignment points.)

Mass Effect has some situations like this. But it has far, far more situations like this:

Young lady: “Help! Help! My kitten is stuck up this tree!”
Hiro Protagonist: Choose between:

1. Oh my gosh, that’s terrible. You must be so upset.
2. Maybe you should have watched him more closely.
3. I think people who let their cats run outside are stupid. And I think you’re stupid, too.

[You select an option, and no matter what you choose, your character than says...]

“Don’t you think it was a bad idea to let your cat run around this space station?”

When you read this on paper, it looks pointless. But when you are playing through the game, the psychological effect is that you refer the emotional stance you took in the conversation tree into the spoken “filmed” dialogue. The filmed dialogue is exactly the same, but because you made a choice it is given more color and depth. Even though in terms of pure gameplay “nothing happened.”

I’m sure there are other games that have used this technique before Mass Effect. But I’ve never before seen it used so consistently, and to such great effect.

There are a lot of things I don’t like about Mass Effect. But even while thinking about (and complaining loudly to my friends about) the things I didn’t like, I came home every night for two weeks and played nothing else, because I had to know how the narrative turned out. Given that, I’m not sure that any criticisms I might have about the game are terribly apposite.


1 Response » to “Mass Effect and the Magician's Choice”

  1. J. Prevost says:

    ME was worst when it got away from the story (the exploration missions, especially), and best in the story moments. They’ve definitely elevated the dramatic side of things to a high art. With the magician’s choice you describe, they avoid wasting time implementing changes to the world except in cases where it’s a really big deal choice.

    Another thing that was nice about the moral choices is that they all made sense in some way. There was no situation where you slaughter innocents just for the hell of it—you can always see a motivation for each choice.

    That made the “bad” choices much more interesting than in many games. I felt myself compelled to think about the kind of person who would make these choices, and that drew me in deeper than the KoTOR games did. (Although they had some real gems of “Oh my god, I can’t believe I just did that” that were enjoyable as well.)

    My only complaint about the moral choices would be that the “renegade” choices were not as well focused as they could have been. The feeling alternated at different times between “I’m a badass anti-hero out to save the universe, but I’m not taking no orders from nobody” and “I’m out to save the human race, and I’m not going to let any concern for the other races get in my way, because what have they ever done for us?” I think that if they had focused on one of those two moral threads (preferably the latter), it would have come out stronger.

    Still, I find that I can’t wait for the sequel, even though there really wasn’t much more hook for it than “and then our hero sailed off into the sunset”. Not especially because I want to know what happens next, which is the normal way of things, but because I want to play more games *like* that one, regardless of the universe they’re set in, or who the characters are. (And I certainly wouldn’t mind a fresh set of side characters who actually had some character—the drama was amazingly strong, but the companions were weak.)