Biowary

Fear not, gentle readers. Although the curs├ęd groundhog has predicted six more weeks of winter, and although the frightful weather seems to bear him out, I can promise you that Spring is just around the corner. How do I know this? Because this was the week that I decided to switch back to playing Xbox 360 games on the couch instead of Windows games on the desktop PC.

I don’t know why I have this particular biorhythm, but for the past three years, like clockwork, every winter I switch to playing PC games, and then in nicer weather I switch back to playing console games. Perhaps it has to do with the ambient heat in different parts of the house. Perhaps it’s just an expression of seasonal affective disorder – the only time I’m willing to put up with the hassle of games on Windows is when I’m already depressed! – but now that I’ve switched back to gaming on the Xbox, surely the crocuses will arrive momentarily.

The particular game that lured me back, this time, was Mass Effect 2. I enjoyed the original Mass Effect quite a bit on the couch, and figured I would continue my character’s travels on the same platform.

To be honest, I was reluctant to take the risk, given how objectively terrible Dragon Age: Origins was in nearly every possible way. But, like a dog returns to his vomit (or, more precisely, like Charlie Brown taking another run at Lucy’s football) I was drawn to the prospect of a Bioware RPG that told a good story, and told it well.

And, to my surprise, Mass Effect 2 is pretty damn good. That Mass Effect can be so good and Dragon Age can be so numbingly bad is a vivid demonstration of how thin the edge is on which game design must balance. Get just a few subtle things wrong, and your magical world of mystery and wonder can turn into a whirling nightmare slog of soul-crushingly boring encounters. Both games, after all, have essentially the same core gameplay: explore unknown territory, fight enemies, and try to have interesting conversations to advance the plot. So what’s the difference between these two games?

The Closer To The Bone, The Sweeter Is The Meat

Mass Effect 2 makes some bold departures from the standard Bioware template. This makes a huge difference in playability. Historically, every Bioware RPG that I can recall has a moment that I refer to as “The Packrat Singularity”. It goes like this. When walking through any area in a Bioware RPG, you can riffle through highlighted drawers, garbage cans, and crates, picking up items that are typically useless but are sometimes worth a small amount of gold. The best case is you find a weapon or piece of armor that is a level or two better than what you have at the moment. Each game does this for absolutely no good gameplay reason: the game before had it, and hell, that’s a enough reason for a lazy designer. As you slowly get laden down with small alexandrites, finger bones, and random pieces of scrap metal, you eventually run out of inventory space. At that point, you visit a shop, sell all the crap in return for gold (or, honestly, credit slips, since gold would weigh too much), and then start the process over again.

The Packrat Singularity is that moment in the game when you realize the following things:

After The Packrat Singularity, you continue playing the game and don’t ever pick anything up at all. Gameplay is exactly the same as it was before, only now it’s 80% less annoying.

The original Mass Effect took baby steps in addressing this problem by providing a button that would let you instantly convert items into gold at any time. Mass Effect 2 goes a step further by virtually eliminating the concept of inventory. There are a few exceptions: you carry a battery of weapons and some healing-potion equivalents, but for the most part anything you pick up is either money or an upgrade.

Just like that, the game is 80% less hateful than Dragon Age with its never ending attempts to drown you in “elfroot” and “deep mushrooms” and hundreds of other bits of bric-a-brac that no sensible human being could possibly care about in the slightest.

The Perils of Pen-elf-ope Pitstop

Going back at least to Knights of the Old Republic, Bioware RPGs have given you SUPER! DYNAMIC! CHOICES! where you could be “good” or “bad” in conversations (these choices existed in the Baldur’s Gate games, but it was in KOTOR that they really tried to make them affect the plot in a fundamental way). In every game the “good” path was fairly well developed, and the “bad” path dialogue was lifted straight of a Snidely Whiplash cartoon: they practically had you twirling your handlebar moustache and saying “Mu-hu- hu-hu-hah!” Perhaps you’d like to help this starving family pay their rent, or perhaps you’d like to kill their puppy for no reason. It was that bad. The “evil path” choices in Dragon Age aren’t quite that bad, but they’re pretty close; certainly worse than in Jade Empire.

Mass Effect and its sequels are the only games where Bioware has written “bad guy” choices that are compelling. In fact, I’d say they’re so well written that most people would find it difficult to play through Mass Effect 2 and not take the “renegade” path at least some of the time. The “renegade” choices aren’t just acceptable, they’re sometimes just so damn sensible that you’ve gotta do them. And isn’t that really how tough choices sometimes unfold in real life?

The gap in scripting is compounded by the stylistic choice in Dragon Age to have the standard mute protagonist, while in Mass Effect games your protagonist is voiced. The difference in effect is astounding. I certainly ended up identifying with Commander Shepard more than with my Dragon Age avatar because Shepard, at least, didn’t just stand there and stare at the person he was talking to like an idiot. He talked to them, and did so with voice acting of a uniformly high quality.

If I Let Them Kill Me, Will This End Faster?

Pacing is hard: just ask any film director (except Terry Gilliam, who doesn’t seem to know anything about it). Bad pacing can take a great idea, great writing, great acting, and great art and grind them into a meaningless paste that nobody cares about. Mass Effect 2 has great pacing. Dragon Age: Origins does not have pacing at all, ejecting it in favor of its gibbering idiot cousin, padding.

It’s hard to quantify this, of course, but the missions in Mass Effect 2 are, with so few exceptions that they’re notable, perfectly timed. Just when you’re starting to get bored with shooting robots, you’ll reach a break point, or discover that you’ve in fact reached the end of the mission. Once you accept that the game is not going to constantly ambush you with meaningless battles for hours on end, you learn to start enjoying the combat: “Oh, good, a group of Geth. What tactics can I use to defeat them?” Contrariwise, in Dragon Age each combat is just a single bead in an seemingly unending friendship bracelet of pointless battles against the exact same goddamned group of 2 skeleton archers, 4 skeleton warriors, and a skeleton mage. What makes them so existentially horrific is not the battles themselves, but the knowledge that you’re going to have to endure another 45 of them before you get to the next plot point. And that you’ll have to manage your stupid inventory while you do it.

I should also mention that in Mass Effect 2 my squadmates seem almost as good at killing the enemies as I am, and are reasonably intelligent about finding cover, whereas in Dragon Age my teammates are retards who charge headlong into their own gory deaths. It’s hard to enjoy a game when you despise the people on your own team for their limitless stupidity.

Little Things Mean A Lot

It is not as if Mass Effect 2 is a perfect game. It wears its flaws on its sleeve (the planet prospecting, for example, is an homage to Star Control 2, yet manages to not be as fun as the prospecting in that early 90’s game.)

But it’s better that Dragon Age in so many countless little ways, and those little moments of better are the difference between a game that is fun to play and a game that is a joyless slog. An interesting thought experiment that I’ve been kicking around in my head for the past few days is “What would Mass Effect 2 be like if it had been designed by the Dragon Age team?”

On the flip side of things, the sex scenes in the game would still be about the same level of cringe-inducing. So the games do share at least some similarities.

Boiling this overly-long article down to a single, hopefully cogent point: the design choices in Mass Effect 2 seem to me to indicate a team that took a serious look at the drawbacks of the traditional Bioware RPG and attempted to slice them away. The design choices of Dragon Age, on the other hand, took the same problems and wallowed in them.

And therein lies the difference.