Hello everyone, and welcome to this week’s Sunday Sidebar. As I mentioned last week, and as you may have begun to notice, a lot of people are playing Mass Effect 3 this weekend. I, myself, have managed to sink 17 hours into it so far, quite to my shock as I checked my playtime before sitting down to work on this article. The most striking thing about this is that I didn’t actually find myself to be enjoying it for most of those first ten hours or so. The Sunday Sidebar isn’t a place for game reviews, and I am not about to sit you down and tell you what I think about Mass Effect 3 on a whole, but it has brought one particular aspect of itself to light, and there are a few others who seem to have picked up on it, too.
The topic of discussion here concerns the relationship between story and gameplay. Not all games have to have a story, or at least anything more than a rudimentary ‘You own this bat, and must use it to return the puck from whence it came’. But when a game has a story, it’s mostly taken as understood that the story is in some way going to be implicated in the actions of the game.
Whether that amounts to something as personal as getting out of somewhere alive, or to rallying a galaxy-wide army to defend against an onslaught of synthetic organisms, is held somewhere between the designer and the player, depending on player willingness to indulge in cutscenes, and so forth. Most players like to know the reason why they’re doing what they’re doing. What sparked this topic is the interaction between what’s happening in the over-arching events of Mass Effect 3, and what is happening in the player experience, or at least throughout my 17 hours up until now.
Warning – mild early-game spoilers follow
It doesn’t require me to delve deep into the rich tapestry of spoilers to inform you that Mass Effect 3 asks you to rally up troops for an impending battle against the Reapers, and it opens with the invasion of Earth. Shortly after, you will find yourself near Palaven, where a Turian soldier informs you that, during their own current invasion, they have lost “3 million the first day, and 5 million the next”. That’s a lot of people in two days, so suffice it to say that the pressure is on. What then follows is Shepard being persistently labored with a multitude of fetch-quest tasks alongside a quite important galaxy-wide recruitment initiative. The disconnect that this causes serves to pull me out of the game. It ruins immersion in the world when we are asked to believe that things like this would happen in such a situation. Yet they do, and it’s ridiculous. It ruins it because I feel like we should be feeling rushed and at pressure to finish the story in due time to succeed, and yet, in my own playthrough the game is currently asking me, among other things, to go and hunt out a fixture for the Normandy. Surely there is someone else who can be doing these sorts of things. Surely that is why I already have an engineering team, no?
I understand that Mass Effect as a series is billed as an RPG and that it is not the first of its kind to feature fetch-quests, nor to receive such similar criticisms as I am laying upon it here (RE: being who you are in Skyrim, and doing the monotonous things you do there, too). It would just be great if player exploration and interaction in the world didn’t seem expressly composed to have both the look and feel of wasting not just our own, but the whole galaxy’s, time.