Tuesday, August 25, 2009

ZA Critique: Mass Effect

My work with the ZA series is slowly moving away from linear single-player games into two different categories: emergent narratives and multiplayer games. The driving goal behind this work has always been establishing a strong criteria for a critical discourse on video games. I'm satisfied with my ability to generate a complex statement about the nature of a linear game design, but there is still a lot left to be done.

As Samuel Johnson once noted with this kind of work, it comes in tiny steps. You don't just sit down and write a great essay in one burst, you have to build each angle and understanding of the work by constantly engaging with new approaches. Over time, as you build up experience, you gradually master the subject.

The emergent narrative is an interesting design because it is essentially about giving the player authority over how they play the game. You don't have a sniper rifle or bazooka section of the level, you let them choose what they want to do however they want. A lot of Jesper Juul's emergent gameplay principles come into play with this but I liked Steve Gaynor's adaption of those ideas into a scale of choices which corresponds to a basic design stratification of short goals, medium goals, and long goals. That is, I need ammo vs I need to beat the level vs I need to save the Princess. Emergent choices are structured into, what gun do I use vs how do I resolve this level vs I need to save/kill the princess. These are all linked together in an elaborate spider web of clusters that overlap and sometimes do not.

For this essay, I opted to study the construction of the medium range choice. The short-range design wasn't bad but I get the impression the sequel is vastly improving on it. I never got much out of biotics in the game, I played like I always do in an RPG and just created a walking death machine. I also felt like Far Cry 2 was a better example of a game composed of short-range choice. Where I think Bioware has always been successful in their games is creating a good, narratively coherent mid-range choice. How these are established through linear and emergent structures and why sometimes it's okay to not have everything be an elaborate philosophical discourse.

It's an ongoing process and this is just another step in it.

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