Thursday, January 21, 2010

More Thinking About Mass Effect 2 (What I Want to See)

It’s very possible I’ll get my review copy of Mass Effect 2 today –-I’m guessing I’ll be under NDA for details until Tuesday, however-- and after this post earlier in the week regarding how repetitive Bioware’s story structure has become, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’d like to see in Mass Effect 2.

It’s time for Bioware to retire the particular three-act structure they’ve been using for their last three big RPGs (Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age). That structure being:

- Act 1: Start you out with a couple of introductory “levels,” where your character achieves some sort of personal status update (Jedi, Greywarden, Spectre)

- Act 2: Open the world up for the character to explore, but have four specific and self-contained points that must be completed to advance the story.

- Act 3: Once those four key points are completed, close the world back up again for the big climax and denouement (the Star Forge planet and station in KOTOR, the Conduit and return to the Citadel in ME1, and the Landsmeet and battle with the Old God in Dragon Age)

This is a very workable and successful model, don’t get me wrong, but at some point you have to do something new. Taking what we already know about ME2, here’s at least one possibility that I think would be intriguing.

At this point we know that your character, Shepard, is tasked with building a team and gathering enough intelligence to successfully deal with the game’s ultimate threat (the Reapers, presumably). There’s going to be a focused starting point that will take a good three to six hours to complete, as there has to be, but I’d like for that to be as short as possible. Open up the game world to the player as quickly as you can.

When it does open up, instead of there being three or four or five crucial plot points you have to check off to reach the third act --points A through D we’ll call them-- give us a galaxy with the full alphabet (so to speak). Give us a dozen or two different places to travel. Make each of them important in their own way, but also make each of the completely optional. Make some more impactful than others in terms of giving you what you need to succeed, but don’t tell us explicitly which locations offer the most bang for the buck. Give us clues and hints through the narrative, but make the player prioritize where to go with the time they have (my next point).

With this format in mind, the player should only have time to visit a certain number of points before venturing off to deal with the Big Bad. Not a countdown timer. I despise those. But say there’s 20 places to visit; only allow us to visit 10-15 of them before we have to go deal with the uber threat. From there, how successful you were at picking your spots over the course of the game, gathering allies and acquiring crucial intelligence, affects how easy it is to survive the finale (as Bioware has already discussed).

I would love this kind of format. Freedom and consequence, plenty of replayability, and everything you do matters without their being needless handholding. Some things may matter more than others, of course, but nothing is throw-away as was the case with most of the explorable star systems in ME1.

Will that be what we see in Mass Effect 2? Most assuredly not. Hopefully we’ll get something better than an idea I mulled over during my commute. Just so long as we get something a little different. It’s time for story structure in Bioware RPGs to take that next step.