It has been interesting to observe how the gameplay of Bioware’s Mass Effect continues to pop up in discussions about narrative in contemporary gaming. The 2007 Xbox 360 and Windows title seems to have entrenched itself as a benchmark for immersive storytelling. For those unfamiliar with the premise of the game, Mass Effect is a sci-fi action RPG that places the protagonist – a recently deputized intelligence agent – in the midst of an escalating intergalactic crisis. The most distinguishing feature of the game is a relatively nuanced conversation system that allows for interactions which can be steered in multiple directions. This extended dialogue scheme has potential implications for the story-arc. Noah Wardrip-Fruin has posted some thoughtful commentary on narrative in Mass Effect; rather than traverse that same territory, here are a few observations surrounding the design of the game.
The conversation interface (or conversation wheel) is a distinct example of tentative space. This interface, as shown in the screen capture above, allows the protagonist to navigate a range of possible responses when talking to a non-player character. As the player advances, they have the opportunity to develop specific characteristics that will allow them to intimidate or charm certain characters. The conversation wheel is one of the primary interfaces in Mass Effect; given the stiffness of the “action” portion of the game, it is definitely the most memorable feature. Gameplay in Mass Effect is essentially a long chain of conversations and “play” is characterized by deciding what to say next while the characters onscreen linger and cycle through their personal inventory of ambient gestures. Constraining and charming at the same time, a lull in conversation is a strange locus to find at the heart of a game.
Earlier this fall Variety announced that producer Avi Arad had optioned the movie rights for Mass Effect. This is interesting news considering that while the storyline defines the Mass Effect game, the player both designs and directs the identity of their character. The first task a player must complete in Mass Effect is “building” an avatar by defining their gender, appearance, history and disposition. In porting this franchise over to another medium, the protagonist is a blank slate for character development – even more so than is usually the case in game to film translations. One can’t help but wonder: will the development of the screenplay be nearly as interesting as the writing process that yielded the script(s) for the game?