Much of the development of videogames passed me by, despite my early and continuing interest, thanks to my long voluntary exile in the Apple Mac gaming ghetto. Since I finally bought myself a console about three years ago I’ve been catching up, with a particular focus on the last ten years, which has been something of a golden age for videogames. Actually, let’s be clear about that: it’s always a golden age for videogames, predicated as they are on the performance and affordances of a technological base that has been in a state of rapid progression for the last fifty-odd years. At any given moment, what you can do in a game is jaw-dropping to anyone whose expectations were formed at any point prior. Occasionally something would drift across the near-hermetic barrier between the Mac and PC worlds, usually years after the event, but sometimes shortly behind release. One example was BioWare’s fantasy Dragon Age series, which was one of the successful action role-playing games they developed starting with Jade Empire (which also got a Mac port, a year before Dragon Age: Origins). Starting in 2007 they also developed an extremely successful science fiction RPG franchise called Mass Effect. This I did not get to play at the time, and I didn’t investigate until the original trilogy was re-mastered and sold as a bundle this year, as the Mass Effect: Legendary Edition. What I knew about BioWare RPGs from playing the Dragon Age series was that they placed a heavy emphasis on the relationships between a large cast of companion characters that accompany the player on their adventures, with menu-driven dialogue constituting not just an adjunct to the fighting and exploring gameplay, but directly shaping the narrative, and determining the outcomes of the game.
Mass Effect and its sequels are situated squarely within BioWare’s established practice, but as with all big-budget games they were cutting edge when they came out, and took this kind of game to places that had been previously inaccessible. Their release was interleaved with the Dragon Age games, and the formula is pretty similar, although elements of gameplay are specific to each series. Both series have been extremely influential, and series like The Witcher can be seen as refinements of the BioWare method, culminating in the widespread shift to free-roam open worlds, as seen in Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Mass Effect 3 is not an open world game, however, for graspable reasons: when the player is roaming some kind of roughly medieval landscape from village to village and castle to castle it’s relatively straightforward to work out what size of map you can afford to populate, but when the game is set across the entire Milky Way galaxy you’re always going to have to pick a few places and say ‘the game happens here’. Notwithstanding ‘open-galaxy’ games like Elite Dangerous and No Man’s Sky, there has to be a limit. In fact, this world size difficulty seems to be aligned here with a generational shift in RPG design, and Mass Effect 3 feels quite old-fashioned in comparison to more recent games, in a way that Dragon Age: Inquisition doesn’t.
All three games are exemplary essays in ludic storytelling, however, with a great deal of effort dedicated to writing, voice acting, and narrative pacing. There’s quite a trick to telling the story in such a way that the player thinks they’ve been inventing it themselves, and central to this trick is the multiple-ending technique, in which potentially radically different outcomes are determined by player choice at various moments within the game. This approach is also important to later games like The Witcher 3 or Read Dead Redemption 2, but such games also embody a lot of subsequent progression in RPG design, in terms of making narrative arcs and character interactions flow more smoothly, and feel less separated from the gameplay. I remember when I first played Dragon Age: Origins finding it pretty hilarious how all the player character’s friends just stood around the campsite staring into space while they waited for them to come and speak to them, but it was much easier to suspend disbelief back then, when that was as good as it got. Returning to that model for the Mass Effect games, I have to admit I found the whole thing pretty wooden and stilted. Perhaps the hardest thing for me though was the basic premise—heroic special-forces operative saves the universe. I find it quite easy to buy into the whole schtick of fantasy stories like the Dragon Age ones, simply because they’re so far removed from reality, and I’m an enormous fan of science-fiction generally, but I find it extremely hard to identify with a professional soldier as the central character, with all of their honour and saluting and associated bullshit (just to be clear, I don’t read that kind of book or watch that kind of film). For this reason I played these games from something of a distance, without ever getting too invested in the outcomes. Which is a shame, because there’s a lot of excellent work in them. There’s some thoughtful design of alien psychology and culture, some fabulous artistic assets, some awesome third-person shooter gameplay, and an intricate web of interacting character arcs. Only in Mass Effect 3 did I feel that the range of equipment and customisation was too large for me to stay interested (I hate the bean-counting aspect of RPGs), and perhaps because of the way later games tend to sprawl haphazardly, I enjoyed their concision. The Mass Effect trilogy wasn’t my most enjoyable gaming experience, but it was enjoyable, and it feels good to have joined some of the dots connecting Jade Empire (which was wonderful) to the cutting edge as it stands today.