On Mass Effect and worldbuilding

OK, this is late, sorry about that. I wanted to try to beat this damn thing – I’m playing Mass Effect. Yes, the first one. No, I haven’t played it before (if you don’t count an abortive weekend trying the Xbox version that went so poorly I sold the game back to Gamestop). I am at the end, actually in the last mission, but I thought probably I should write this up before it’s Thursday in my time zone, at least… So SF and gaming? Right?

This isn’t really a review, but before I start enthusing about the good things I felt like I should at least acknowledge the bad stuff, so you know I haven’t missed it. Well, unless I miss something you think is bad then I guess I did? Anyway, the combat… It’s not bad, actually, but it assumes you’re going to build your character a certain way. I made my Shepherd a bad-ass black dude with a big shotgun, so I poured points into defense. I still died a lot. Basically, the game sort-of forgot it had a “pistol and shotgun” option, so until the shotgun is very high level, the cover-based combat punishes the player for choosing it. But it’s great now, no problems, I kill dudes in one hit a lot of the time.

Also the writing. Well, not all of it. It’s pretty clear when writers leave and start dialogue trees: some of them are good, few are great, and some are really awful. Thekittymeister was nearby and overheard the first “Liara is interested in Shepherd” conversation and was flabbergasted by how awful the dialogue is in that scene. She’s right, it is awful. But on the other hand, I think the Salarian infiltration team captain’s war speech was really good – it was clichéd in a particular way that a war speech would almost have to be, while making the point that these people think of themselves as spies, and everyone else certainly does, but they, too, have a proud tradition of warfare. I could probably get a whole new post out of the struggles that the co-dependence of Council-based racial specialization causes in the setting of Mass Effect, but never mind now.

So what do I want to talk about, if it’s not any of that? Predictably, the setting and how the player interacts with it. Some of the ways the player does so are awful – the Mako tank should, honestly, never have been let out the door with those controls. On the other hand, I’ve heard it’s gone entirely from the second game, and that’s disappointing. The tank, when it wasn’t bouncing around like a boat cresting ten foot waves, allowed me to find stuff lying around all over pockmarked planets, long abandoned or never settled at all. It made me an actual explorer of space, and that was clearly the intention. It succeeded pretty well.

And that’s the key here. You may be familiar with a term, “worldbuilding.” It has two pretty distinct definitions. I think the way most people use it is “the construction of a new fictional world through such elements as people, culture, geography, etc.” However, there’s another definition I learned through an essay by M. John Harrison, and there he defined “worldbuilding” as all the stuff in a book that shows the reader the world but does nothing to advance the plot. So, for instance, chapters on the history of a city or the patterns of dress in an alien culture, those would be worldbuilding. That sort of worldbuilding is nearly always bad – I can think of some examples that are good, but when you dig into them really they do more for the plot or the characters than they appear to at first glance (Left Hand of Darkness is what I’m thinking of, where the anthropological sections actually serve to either say something about Genly Ai or something about his companion in his hardship).

So, Mass Effect. Shortcomings of writing or gameplay mechanics aside (and you’ll notice I’m nearly finished with the game, so those problems aren’t game-breaking), Mass Effect does not really engage in the sort of world-building Harrison decried. That stuff is there, in the journals and codexes, but entirely optional and unnecessary. A bit like an author publishing a book that’s just a guide to the world he or she created. There is no plot there to derail, no characters to develop. I didn’t read a single codex, though I went in once to see if I could learn anything about an enemy I was fighting – specifically, how to kill it better. I couldn’t find an entry on it, so I gave up and just shot it a lot.

If you just play the game you encounter the setting rather than have it explained to you. For instance, if you take the archaeologist onto the Citadel, the ancient city that currently houses the council chambers and the security forces, so on, then you can get her to say a few things about the way it’s designed and what that says about the long-lost race that made it. But if you don’t, or you don’t click on her as you walk around, that doesn’t happen. You still could infer things from the design, but if you don’t really pay attention to architecture you’ll never come across that thought, really.

That’s something necessary in games, just as it is in books. “Worldbuilding” should be behind-the-scenes, to allow the reader or player to experience the things they are there for – story, plot, characters, setting.

What about that last one? How could one experience setting without worldbuilding? Well, setting is about mood as much as description – honestly, mood is more important.

What about if the reason I want to play such a game, or read such a book, is to experience new fictional worlds? Doesn’t “worldbuilding” suit me? Actually, no, not really. Because the setting will feel more authentic if it is experience by you and by characters, instead of put together like a dossier or a postcard. Mass Effect, for all its teething problems, lets the player experience the things that make the setting so good. If I never went to certain planets I’d miss out on experiences, sure, but on the other hand I’d be experiencing the few things I did do. I wouldn’t be drawn along an endless hallway looking at setpieces that show what the setting’s like, or reading endless pages of text telling me about the place. I’d be in the place. That’s an advantage games have over books, though books can approximate the experience.

If you look carefully at Tolkien, most of his worldbuilding is behind the scenes. It doesn’t emerge unless a character talks about it, like when Strider or Frodo sing songs that relate stories from the past, or Gandalf explains the history of Moria as they step down into it. Mass Effect uses the same sort of description – it only comes up when asked for, basically.

Oh yeah, if you comment, I haven’t even beaten the first game, never mind played the others. Play  nice.


4 thoughts on “On Mass Effect and worldbuilding

  1. Jonathan Sikora

    I rather enjoyed the Mass Effect series as a whole. I thought the setting and aliens were interesting and well thought out, and I rather enjoyed a lot of the little, sort of ancillary interactions you can have. From what you are describing, a lot of those ancillary interactions are how Mass Effect does its worldbuilding, but I was almost more interested in the setting and cultures as I was in the actual plots of the games. I felt with the aliens in particular they started out in a sort of cliched Star Trek manner of having each alien species be sort of one dimensional and stereotypical, but then through the story they made an effort to show you that there’s a lot of variety among the aliens. Just because a character is from a “scholarly” or “espionage-y” species doesn’t necessarily make them a scientist or a spy, and I rather enjoyed that. I also kind of enjoyed the way the aliens largely distrust and dismiss humanity, at least in the first game. Its a little cliched, but I thought played well.

    1. cuchlann Post author

      Thekittymeister has started to re-watch Voyager and sometimes I get confused as to where the dialogue is coming from, even in the second ME game. So I definitely think they were going for an homage to Star Trek at times. Including all the alien sex of course, haha.

      But yes, a lot of the worldbuilding comes in conversation, and the player can dig into it or get the essentials and move on. I think that was a great choice on their part.

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