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April 1, 2012

Mass Effect: Of Games and Combat



If there’s one thing I've learned from my brother, it’s how to beat a dead horse so much that it starts trailing me as a pus-spewing, shambling skeleton of an undead equestrian.  So while people (I hope) are starting to move away from their anger at Mass Effect, I want to keep talking about it for a little while longer.  Bear with me here, I haven’t beaten it yet.

I guess I have no one to blame but myself.  I peck away at it every now and then when my brother isn’t using the Xbox (and when I can tear myself away from Devil Survivor 2), but I’ve been spending a lot of time in a sort of black hole within the Citadel.  I headed there after I got a message from Ashley, thinking to myself “Oh, I got a message from Thane, too.  Guess I’ll check on him while I’m there.”  I met with both of them, but ended up having some lengthy conversations with Bailey and Joker and EDI in her improbably sexual android body.  And before I know it, I’ve triggered a sidequest with a guy looking for his MIA son.  And then I’m working with a Salarian soldier, trying to uncover some shady dealings.   And then, I’m trying to recruit the mercenary groups for the war effort -- a motion which involves me running all over the place, acting as a negotiator and mediator between parties, getting weapons from the black market for a C-Sec officer, and heading to another damn galaxy just to get an artifact for a dealer.  And then when I finally -- FINALLY -- get back to my ship, a conversation with Traynor reveals that there’s a military academy under attack.  Maybe Bioware figured that nobody would even reach the ending; in my experience, I can’t complete one mission without eight more cropping up.


But that little experience in the Citadel got me thinking.  I had to have spent more than an hour going from one corner of the place to another, running errands like a fusion between an unloved Dickensian orphan and the average intern.  I was supposed to be saving the galaxy; I was supposed to be throwing myself into firefights and ducking behind walls before sniping Husks and Cerberus operatives between the eyes (at least I would be if I could aim).  And yet, I hardly missed the shooty-shooty-bang-bang aspects of the game.  I had just as much fun, if not more, walking around and talking to people.  Groovin’ in Purgatory and chatting it up with James.  Overhearing stories at the gift shop and talk of a Turian’s daughters taking dance lessons.    Telling people in distress that they could support the war effort besides shooting at robo-zombies; they could lend a hand in kitchens or medical bays.

It’s thanks to moments like that where I asked myself a question: why do so many games need fighting to establish themselves?


Now I know what you’re thinking -- isn’t it a little hypocritical for someone who wrote over-the-top poetry about fighting games to be asking about fighting in games?  Yeah, probably.  But hear me out.  If Mass Effect didn’t have those action-based segments, would you really be missing out on that much?  You’d lose your frontline Shepard, of course, but think about how much time you spend fighting in relation to talking, exploring, settling disputes, preparing for battle, and more.  I might be a little biased, being one of the few people who enjoy the planet-scanning, but I see the gunplay as a minigame than the actual game. 

It’d be problematic to just remove the gunplay entirely from Mass Effect -- not without some serious redistribution and restructuring.  But I don’t think it’d be impossible; Bioware’s a competent company, and whatever they remove they can replace with something as viable and entertaining.  These are the guys that made Blasto: Partners in Crime.  There is no room for dissent.


Regardless, the concept makes me wonder about the place of combat.  On one hand, you can’t have a LOT of games without combat.  Fighting games thrive on them, of course.  Some of Zelda’s greatest moments are in its boss battles.  Call of Duty’s toast without its ironsight action.  Final Fantasy XIII would just be running down tubes and triggering cutscenes (which is probably some yet-undiscovered level of Hell).  From a writing perspective, conflict can be internal or external; video games typically opt for the latter to engage the players.  And while opinions may differ, I’d say they’re better at the latter than the former.

On the other hand, there are a lot of games out there that don’t require fightin’ and/or shootin’.  The Ace Attorney games rely on verbal battles to entertain, and they’re quite good at it.  999 delivered action through puzzles, dialogue, and that unpleasant “oh my god we’re trapped in a Saw movie” business.  Katawa Shoujo is making the rounds across the internet as a glorious experience in spite of its unusual premise.  Harvest Moon has been kicking around for years -- and likewise, there’s news of a new SimCity coming out in the near future.  Adventure games of the past and present have delighted us gaming gourmets for years.  Games like that, I think, offer at least one of three things: a meaty, entertaining story; content that compels and distracts you from the fact that you’re doing something that sounds boring on paper; a world that engrosses you, regardless of its particulars or faults.

Going back to Mass Effect, all three of those qualifiers are met and exceeded.  Its entertaining story is a given.  It’s got content in spades, and while talking to people sounds boring in theory, in practice it’s pretty intriguing at times.  And of course, the fact that wikis and fan sites and EU materials exist should signal just how deep and affecting its world can be.  Given that, does it really need gunplay?  My brother and I have discussed at length that its gunplay is -- at least according to us non-shooter zealots -- nothing special.  It’s functional and serviceable, and I LOVE freezing people with Cryo Ammo, but when I think Mass Effect I don’t think about shooting aliens that disagree with me.  I think about all the myriad conversations, and the sprawling worlds around me.


I can’t help but wonder what things would be like if we had more of these “non-combative games.”  Well, maybe not more of them, since there are already a lot.  Maybe popular is the word I’m looking for.  I mean, can you imagine what it would be like if the Ace Attorney games got all the attention and resources Resident Evil did?  Can you imagine what it would be like if Ace Attorney 5 was on consoles, with a budget equal to RE6’s, with all the hype therein?  Can you imagine what our gaming world would be like if a game’s merit was based not on the violence within its action, but the factors surrounding it?

It’s a thought that’s tantalizing, scary, and maybe even ruinous.  If Ace Attorney and games like it were the norm, I think it’d only be a matter of time before they became commonplace.  Oversaturated.  More prone to slip-ups and a decline in quality.  If a game that’s based on its writing has bad writing, then it’s a bad game.  Likewise, I’d assume that it takes a lot of effort to do some good world-building, and even more effort to translate that into an exploration-worthy video game.  So in a nutshell, games without combat would have their share of problems too.

Still, I think it presents some opportunities.    Going back to Mass Effect (yeah, again), we all know you play as gun-toting Commander (insert name here) Shepard.  A leader.  A champion of the universe.  A space marine, if there ever was one.  But there are other jobs out there in the universe that need tending to; we who’ve experienced the ME universe know that there are a lot of different jobs that have to be done.  Teachers, doctors, politicians…running a universe is a lot of work.  So my question -- and proof of a possible concept -- is this: why do we have to play as a space marine?  Why not play as a scientist, searching the universe for an artifact or a new species or a cure for a disease?


Imagine this, for example.  While Shepard is gallivanting around the universe with his pals, you play as…oh, let’s call him “Sheeper” for now.  He (or she, but I’ll use “he” for now) is a researcher -- not the best or most famous in the universe, but extremely talented.    His story could offer any number of alternatives to saving the universe with some dakka-dakka.  He could search the universe for a scientific breakthrough with a variable amount of importance to everyone’s safety; it could be something on a personal level just as easily as it could be about savin’ the universe.  Just as Shepard needs resources for a war effort, Sheeper could need money for an expedition.  He’d need a crew too, which would preserve the conversation bits that Bioware loves so much.  So with a few minor tweaks, something like that would work.

But where would that leave the gameplay?  Sheeper would probably still explore planets himself, but that wouldn’t mean he’d have to start running and gunning.  He’d look for evidence and valuable items a la L.A.Noire or the Ace Attorney games, scanning and gathering data as you would in Metroid Prime; as the evidence is collected, he’d have to put the pieces together and prove he’s on the cusp of a breakthrough (and earn continued funding) from his superiors, colleagues, and even rivals.  You’d be able to build a home base of sorts in the form of a laboratory (think the factory construction from RogueGalaxy) and run some experiments…or have your lackeys do it for you, assuming you have them.  But just because you’re a man -- or woman -- of science doesn’t mean you won’t be getting in some hairy situations.  Whereas with Shepard you could gun down an opponent and move on with your business, Sheeper’s got some work to do.  You’d have to use cunning and traps to escape danger, along with a few assists from the environment.  See a plant that reacts strongly to stimuli?  Trigger a reaction, and it’ll spray irritant pollen all over your pursuers.  Maybe there’s a control panel in the facility you’ve spotted?  Hack it remotely, and suddenly you’ve got a distraction.  If you insist on having set-pieces, there could be moments where you have to run from a mad beast, or a wall of rushing water, or find a way out of a facility before it explodes…for some reason.  Just because you’re not fighting doesn’t mean that there’s no threat.  More to the point, you’d gain an enhanced perception of a threat -- and with it, an appreciation of the world you’re exploring.


That’s just what can be done with Mass Effect.  Would it be awesome, and better than its current form?  Who knows?  What’s important is that it’s different, but it’s possible.  We don’t have to limit ourselves to the same gaming tropes we’ve had for years.  There are alternatives.  They could be amazing, or they could be -- for lack of a better word -- shit.  What’s important is being able to appreciate games that embrace differentiation -- to be able to think of games as more than just high-end combat simulators, but as something more.  Something that’ll give our medium even more credibility. 

But for what it’s worth, I can’t say we’re doing poorly right now.  We still get to blow stuff up at our leisure.  And for the time being, that’s…that’s pretty cooooooooooool.  

5 comments:

  1. I'm disappointed that a blog called 'Cross-Up: Jumping Roundhouse of Glory" would marginalize the fine art of gameplay.

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    1. I wouldn't call it "marginalizing" per se; the gameplay is still there, but different. I'll (grudgingly) admit that there's still a place for shooters and such, since I assume that those who bought/play Call of Duty are extremely happy with Call of Duty. I'm just providing an alternative. A "what-if." Nothing more, nothing less.

      Or you could think of it this way: imagine if all games were paintings. Imagine that shooters and other action games were paintings of sailboats. We'd have a lot of sailboats on our hands, wouldn't we? Enough to make you go, "I'm sick of all these damn sailboats!" And then you find a picture of a non-action game (like Sheeper's game, for example) and it's a monster truck. Is it perfect? No,. Is it a suitable replacement? Probably not. But the fact that it's trying something different and unexpected has to have some merit, right?

      tl;dr: think of it as more of a "redistribution" than a "marginalization." Whatever the case, thanks for the comment, and I hope you keep hanging around my blog for a while.

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  2. I have always thought that Mass Effect would be a better game without the combat, the gunplay adds nothing to the game since the conversations are the funnest part. The combat is just filler. Other games without combat that have succeeded are Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Dear Esther. It's no surprise that the developers of those two games are now teaming up for their next endeavor.

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  3. The main reasons I wanted to play the Mass Effect games were for the story and characters as well as the fact that it's an RPG. When I saw the shooter-based combat, I sighed grudgingly and told myself to suck it up and give the games a try. To this day, I still bash shooters for the sake of complaining. But I digress.

    Once I got used to it, the combat of Mass Effect never bothered me much. Some fights were pretty engaging (i.e. the suicide mission), but most of them were just necessary to progress. I had no problem with scanning planets in ME2 or spending hours completing side missions and fetch quests in ME3. I always felt like I was accomplishing a task or a job. Sometimes that assurance is all I need when playing video games: I completed something that improves my overall performance.

    It's sad that some games nowadays seem to focus on making you feel accomplished ONLY by blowing shit up or shooting up a horde of mindless zombies. Mass Effect has showed me that debating questionable "gray-area" topics with one of your friends can be a billion times more stressful. Or gathering enough small tasks to prevent anyone important from kicking the bucket.

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  4. Whoa, I wasn't expecting anyone to dive back this far into the past...I'd almost forgotten I'd written this.

    Well, whatever. You know, it's funny; I can think back to a time when all the best games were from Japan, and the most the west could put out was BioFreaks and Gex 64 (which I lovingly call "The Dark Days of Midway"). That's obviously changed in recent years; honestly, I wouldn't mind a bit if more developers -- eastern or western -- followed Bioware's example. A part of me suspects that they're not only aware of the allure and caliber of their talky-talky bits, but more eager to work on that than the shooty-shooty bits. There's nothing wrong with shooting aliens (implications of galactic racism aside), but you can do that in plenty of games. Bioware gets it right by offering a healthy and engrossing alternative.



    It'll be interesting to see where games go next generation, especially if this one is supposedly coming to its end. Just like with any creative outlet, there's an infinite range of stories and adventures to be had and told -- and I'm more than eager to see games branch out in ways that have hardly been tapped until now. I mean, turn on the History or Discovery Channel and you can see lots of people doing crazy-but-cool jobs. Why can't games do the same?


    Then again, my brother affectionately calls Dirty Jobs "Poop Jobs", so maybe not every alternative concept is a winner.

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