Interactive Storytelling in Games: Mass Effect Series

This post will hopefully start a series of posts which will analyze interactive storytelling aspects of games, and how they can apply to interactive storytelling in general.

I would like to bring something up, which a friend of mine pointed out after reading the first post.  He mentioned that I seemed to be saying that games should be more like interactive stories, and basically become interactive stories.  Well, I’m not.  If I seemed to be saying that, I apologize, because I think that interactive stories and games should be two distinct forms of entertainment.  The idea that games could someday become interactive stories is called “emergence,” and I don’t think it will ever happen to the extent that some want it to happen.  Sure, RPGs are becoming pretty story based, but they’re still RPGs.  Not interactive stories.

Speaking of Roll Playing Games, the first post in this series is about the popular sci-fi RPG, Mass Effect.  Mass Effect is an awesome game, which attempts to make the story a very important part of the game, as well as the player’s choices.  I won’t call Mass Effect an interactive story, because it’s still mainly about collecting things, shooting things, and organizing things in your inventory, but it does put a large emphasis on conversations and building relationships with other characters in the game.  Not as much as would be nice, but they’re trying.  Kind of.

What Should Change?

So, what could the Mass Effect series do to make it more an interactive story and less a game?  Well, first of all, take out a lot of the RPG elements.  The player of an interactive story doesn’t (and shouldn’t) see what their skill levels are in weapons, or their paragon/renegade levels, or their XP, or whatever.  That’s not important to a story.  The player’s character should still have some sort of personality which affects how others treat the character, but this doesn’t need to be shown to the player in some sort of stat sheet.

Another thing is the combat.  For the most part, Mass Effect is very much a shooter.  What makes Mass Effect unique is that you can play for hours just talking to other characters, and not even pull out your gun.  Most other shooters don’t even let you holster your weapon.  But Mass Effect still requires a lot of shooting, and there’s not really any way to avoid it.  For most, if not all, of the levels, you have to fight through waves of enemies, so there’s really only one way through the level.  You can’t go stealthily, or whatever, you just shoot until there’s nothing left moving.

As with most other RPGs, Mass Effect’s characters are pretty heavily scripted.  All their actions, dialogue options, and where they like to hang out, are scripted into the computer, and don’t normally change.  A character could stand in one location and no matter how long you’ve been gone, they’re still standing there when you come back.  If you ask them the same question twice, they give you the same exact answer.  In real life, or even in a book or movie, the other character would say “Why are you asking me that again?”  Your dialogue options also seem somewhat limited.  You can only ask a certain amount of questions, and then that’s all you can say.  You can talk to one character for five minutes, but you can’t go on forever as you could in real life.  I will talk more about these types of things in interactive stories in the future, but for now, I’m just talking about Mass Effect.


I mentioned this at the beginning of the post, but I’d like to talk about it a little more: the idea of Paragon and Renegade in the game.  Paragon is basically being really nice and not killing main characters even though you mowed down a bunch of soldiers to get to them, and Renegade is being rude and killing people because you’re…that way.  However, all the choices you can make in the game are scripted in, so you can only do the Paragon or the Renegade thing to do.  You can’t just do what you want to do, because that would mess up the scripted story of the game.  Now I’m not saying scripted games are bad, I’m just saying they’re not interactive stories.  In an interactive story, you would have full control over your character during an entire conversation: at any time, you could leave, interrupt whoever you’re talking to, punch them to make them shut up, or whatever.  But should you punch them to make them shut up?  That’s your decision.

If I allowed myself to go slightly off topic, which I am, I would bring up the strange morals in the game.  The writers have worked hard to make whatever decision you make the “right” decision.  So whether you talk someone into letting the hostage go, or just shoot them, they were both the right thing to do.  So Sheppard can never make mistakes?  He never has to live with the consequences?  Really, the only mistake your allowed to make in the game is to die by getting shot.  You can’t even fall off a cliff or go down the wrong corridor.  Oh, but there are the doors you have to hack, and if you fail, then you have to reload.  So I guess that’s another mistake.  The point I’m trying to make is that if the only mistake your allowed to make results in a reload of the last save, then it’s not a interactive story.  It isn’t a choice if you can only choose one way, which is not dying, or hacking the door on the first try.

Now, some of you who have played the games might be thinking about the choices you make that get people on your own team killed.  Well, in the first Mass Effect, there was a choice between saving one person or saving the other.  It’s impossible to save both, and whichever choice you make is still seen as the “right one” in Sheppard’s eyes and the eyes of the crew.  If they had made the choice, or the consequences, different each time you played, then that would be different.  If you made the decision to save one person over another because you were mad at that person, then other characters got mad at you for making that decision, then it would be more like an interactive story.  Choices have consequences, and games don’t really show that.

And maybe it’s just me, but not being able to pause the game during cut-scenes is kind of annoying.

What Shouldn’t Change?

Now, saying everything I did may make you think that Mass Effect got it all wrong because it isn’t an interactive story.  Not true.  Mass Effect is probably the most well written game ever made.  I’m not alone in this opinion, just read Extra Lives by Tom Bissell.  I think that if an interactive story is ever made well, it won’t be because it has 60,000 lines of spoken dialogue, or allows the player to talk to any character.  It will be because the dialogue, even if it isn’t very much, will be written well.  The characters will be well developed and interesting, fun, or even scary to talk to.  The things characters say will be able to encourage you, make you laugh, or make you cry.  Interactive stories are about interactivity, but they’re also stories, and stories can change people.  They can teach people things.  They can make people see things that no other form of communication can.  When you play an interactive story and have a decision to make, some will be easy, some will require some thinking, and then there’ll be one you agonize over.  Choices aren’t interesting because of the choice, they’re interesting because of the consequences of that choice.

Well, I’m getting off topic again.  I hope this post has helped you to see the differences between games and interactive stories.  This definitely won’t be the last post in this series.

So anyways, what are your thoughts on interactive storytelling in Mass Effect?  Leave a comment, and maybe someone will agree with you.  I look forward to hearing everyone’s opinion.