Mass Effect and the Magician's Choice

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. 2. “How much will you pay me to get your kitten?” You shake the girl down for cash, then save the kitten. 3. “So, you’re all alone, eh?” You assault and rob the young lady. Later, you kill and eat the kitten.

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.