This is a boring videogame story: A space marine fights for a besieged but determined human race against a ceaseless tide of alien foes. He saves the galaxy from extinction by killing the alien leader. He wins; is the hero.
This is a good game story: A space marine accepts a suicide mission because he must. The human race is scattered among the stars, but they’re only pinpricks of light; when it comes down to it, he’s fighting for the person next to him, the guy he knows and trusts. He dreads the final confrontation, not because he fears failure, but because he fears the cost of victory.
Example one is Mass Effect, a game praised for having a rich, complex story. Example two is Mass Effect 2, critiqued by some reviewers as having a shallow narrative.
Mass Effect had a wide and complex universe, enriched by intelligent politics and an interesting history. Its story, however, was slapped together from a handful science fiction tropes – the heroic space marine facing impossible odds; the machine enemy, a rogue Artificial Intelligence; the ancient race, long-dead but vital for the secrets contained in its history. Ripping off Halo is a mark of particular shame.
An intricate universe does not a good story make. Any tweed-vested creative writing instructor will say character and stakes are paramount in good fiction – the story must be about people, good people, interesting people, and those people must be somehow imperiled.
Extinction is an empty threat of there’s nobody the player gives a damn about. Juxtaposing Mass Effect with Mass Effect 2 reveals the distinction between a good story and one that’s merely (albeit skillfully) embellished.
Maybe my earlier synopsis of Mass Effect was too reduced. At its core, it deviates little from your standard sci-fi ‘splosion-fest; the true pleasure is in the nuance of an incredibly detailed universe.
Take the Citadel, the governmental hub of ME’s Milky Way. Buzzing with all stripes of sapient life, the galaxy’s biggest space station feels buzzes with commerce, political intrigue and racial tension. Humans stumbled a few millennia late into the galactic scene, and many older, more established species eye the Terrans’ rise to supremacy with suspicion. Rather than serving this up in a briefing, Mass Effect lets it simmer in the background, as chitchat or outright hostility. It threads back story through interactions with similar grace. Should you choose, a codex splays it out encyclopedia-style. To the game’s credit, you won’t need to.
When a character named Wrex joins your squad, it’s hard not to see him as a codex entry. Wrex is a Krogan, a warrior-race of hulking, armored lizards; Krogans are foul-tempered and quick to fight; Krogans were cultivated as a biological weapon by the Salarians, who sterilized their soldiers with a genetic plague when they began reproducing uncontrollably; Krogans have one hell of a grudge. While Wrex’s context is genuinely fascinating, bright and well-crafted, it overwhelms the character. He never advances far beyond an encyclopedia article. It’s an interesting article, certainly, but I wouldn’t die for it.
On the other hand, death is a fixation of Mass Effect 2: as Commander Shepard, you’re tasked with assembling a crew of the galaxy’s best techs, fastest guns and sharpest minds; you must their trust; and then, you must send them on a suicide mission. They can die. They aren’t shielded by narrative invincibility. And neither are you.
The success or failure of your mission depends on the loyalty of your squad, obtained by completing “loyalty quests” unique to each character. Embarking on your mission prematurely means almost certain death for you and your crew; success depends more on building a relationship with your team than it does shooting.
Loyalty quests might feel like design-mandated bonding time, were it not for the characters themselves. Some fall into predictable stereotypes – the damaged-but-talented chick makes an appearance, as does the beat cop with a grudge – but all are more engaging than the cast of Mass Effect. They’re dynamic. They change – you change them.
Cynics will claim hand-holding your cadre of drama queens through their spirit quests doesn’t count as character development. They have a point. But when it came time for me to stamp my one-way ticket, I was terrified. I had just dumped 25 hours into these people, and there was nothing more I could do to protect them. The vague prospect of galactic extinction had crystallized to a very fine, very personal point: if I failed, the people I cared about would die.
Of course, failure isn’t in the execution – death is never permanent, and second chance is just a quick-load away. More insidious, failure can be nested inside a dozen choices made throughout the game. During the final assault, failure can come from the misapplication of your teammates – which stems from an earlier failure to learn their strengths and weaknesses.
Sure, Mass Effect 2 sends your space marine headlong into impossible odds. But unlike Mass Effect, and unlike scores of boneheaded sci-fi games with warmed-over stories, Mass Effect 2 isn’t really about its plot; in fact, the simplicity of its big-picture goals serves to highlight the dozens of small dramas scattered throughout the game.
Like all good stories, Mass Effect 2 is about people. The rest is garnish.