Last month I played Bioware's flawed-but-cool Sci-Fi/Roleplaying epic Mass Effect, and I cannot say that I didn't enjoy the experience. However, as with essentially any game, the longer I spent thinking about, the more potential improvements (both for the game itself and for games in general) came to mind. A great many of these ideas are likely infeasible with present game technology, and as a non-programmer (until such a time as I decide that I have the time and ambition to learn), it's likely that I don't know the half of it. What I do know is that there are some ostensibly easy ways that general gameplay could be improved in a lot of titles. I am certain that there are a lot of ways that this could be done, in fact, but for the sake of brevity and focus I will here discuss the one that I have given the most thought since playing Mass Effect: in-game dialogue.
Dialogue hasn't come very far in games, really. Even in terms of the writing, I expect you'll find legions of Lucasarts fans to tell you that games ain't written like they used to be, citing the Monkey Island franchise and so forth (sheepish admission: all the Monkey Island games are still on my “to-play” list). In any given modern title with interactive dialogue (we'll leave out the Sims for now, but it will make an appearance), the player gets to chose from a set number of pre-worded responses. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R, there tends to be about one option, except for the odd occasion where you can chose whether or not to give a dude a medkit, or whether or not to accept a quest. In games with actual choices, the dialogue options tend to be as follows:
NPC: “I have lost my, um, glasses...in that, um, dungeo—I mean, my basement which happens to have a...er...slight....goblin....problem.”
A)“Good sir, I will be happy to purge your basement of those foul beasts and recover your spectacles. Also, may I shine your shoes?”
B)“Uh, sure. I guess I could do that. Depending on the amount of work done I might or might not accept some recompense”
C)“Seriously, what the fuck kind of peasant farmer is enough of a tool to let GOBLINS stage a coup of his basement?!?!? NO. If you want your glasses so damn much, just park your heavy ass on the door until the goblins (or you) starve to death!”
Which can really be boiled down to an unequivocal “yes”, a conditional or apprehensive “yes”, or a rather petulant “no”. In terms of non yes-or-no conversations, the general pattern of chosing to sound optimistic and altruistic to the point of naïvité, like a rational but otherwise boring human being, or an incredible misanthrope holds. There tend not to be dialogue options along the lines of “wait, how the hell did you get a basement-dungeon under your farmhouse?*” “what in hell do the orcs/goblins/whatever think is so valuable down there?*” “why is everything in this universe pre-fab, and why is it mostly interstellar camper vans and bunkers?**”. Mass Effect actually fixes one huge problem with this system, which is that you don't have to read every single word that your character is about to say. Instead, you choose from a set of short phrases which encapsulate the spirit of what you are about to hear. In many ways this is joyous on a first play-through, as you have all kinds of fun when you click on “you can't take me” and discover gems like “you won't look so smug with a hole in your head” in the dialogue (notable: “you can't bludgeon your way through bureaucracy” “I can bludgeon pretty hard”). Still, some problems, such as the ability to have the same exchange occur twice if you accidentally click before you mean to, persist. While it's nice to have the option to re-listen to something you missed, accidental invocations of this “feature” really do tend to break immersion. Especially frustrating is when a conversation loops when you expect there to be more to say on a topic, but there is not. I would propose a dedicated “replay” button be placed somewhere else in the user interface in case the player misses something, such that conversations could all play out in a non-repeating fashion.
Another problem I have with in-game conversations is that you are forced to choose from available wording, which tends to limit the scope of characters you can play in a game, unless you count various gradations of schizophrenics and/or bipolar characters. While socially-challenged characters probably fit more with the incredibly violent, gamist style of the munchkin, it's no consolation to those people who want to be able to create a character defined by more than one of two ideological extremes. I played Mass Effect in conjunction with a cousin who wanted to play renegade, and the result was a character who would chose to grant life or death arbitrarily, and inconsistently. The alternative to alternating between extremes would have granted us no points in either direction, thereby removing any sort of feedback from the Paragon/Renegade system. The limitations of a purely good-evil ranking system are akin to that of the linear political spectrum, which cannot really denote positions such as libertarianism, or anarcho-socialism because it does not accept the possibility of non-tyrannical government systems outside the centrist mainstream. A multi-axis moral rating system would provide a more fully realized expression of character, and also hopefully remove from the game the possibility of a dialogue option or decision that does not in some way help to define the character. At its most basic, the game could offer dialogue responses and morality ratings based loosely upon the alignments of Dungeons and Dragons. One axis could be a measure of good-evil, and the other a measure of lawfulness. On this chart could be found all the D&D alignments, but also any various gradation thereof. One could roleplay an ostensibly upstanding Lawful Good warrior or paladin who has a singular, crippling vice (illicit gambling, we'll say), or perhaps a nominally Chaotic Lord of Destruction who just cannot help but abide by the city building codes when creating his or her den of ultimate nefariousness. I dunno if these are the most plausible of characters, but I would appreciate the greater variety in dialogue options that would accompany this sort of system.
*These first two things I would have loved to ask the farmers in Dungeon Siege
** This is a question I want to ask the developers of Mass Effect.
Taking the problem of limited responses, and applying a different sort of thinking, I arrived at another response: bring back the text parsers that adventure games used to use. Let the player write whatever they please, and respond based on key words. Of course, this doesn't really increase the number of possible conversations available in game if the responses are still sorted by whether you put a “yes”, a “maybe”, or a “no” in your answer (and there is only one reply to each of those three answers), but supposing the parser looks for more than just one or two or three keywords, and responses are pieced together from a number of optional snippets, depending on whether the player used correct grammar/spelling, or based upon the politeness of their language (harder to do, but the idea is to add functionality and depth that was not present before)? I'm not exactly sure how well computers can be said to extract meaning from written text (I believe the answer is still “not very well”), but the system I propose does not have to be perfect. It just has to be better (even just incrementally), it has to offer more freedom to the player, and it should offer a greater range of potential characters to the gamer. If you want a best guess on the mechanics of such a system, I guess you could make up huge lists of words which sort them based on what they say about the speaker's intent (ie.”Beseech” is more formal and respectful than say, “ask for”). It would be ridiculously hard to get irony to work in any case, and I don't really see a way around that. For bonus points, though, include a speech-to-text converter in the game code so a player can talk to the game. While early implementations would be primitive at best, I think the very experience of talking to a character in a game and having him or her respond to your words in any way at all would be a revolutionary experience for gamers. Well, ok; it would only be a positive experience if there was a useful correlation between what the gamer said and how the NPC(s) responded, but I guess it's kind of assumed that such a feature would be extensively beta-tested before it was allowed onto the market?
There is one more problem that is not quite resolved, even if a greater granularity of roleplaying options is introduced to a game: non-violent problem solving, particularly but not exclusively in Mass Effect can generally be accomplished by dumping points into the “Charm” bar. My cousin and I went the route of intimidation, which offers what can only loosely be called “nonviolent” solutions, because when you don't fight someone, it's because you've made them too afraid to engage you in combat. I digress; basically all one must do to solve a problem without violence (where it is possible, and it isn't always – a good thing) is poke the blue conversation option. PRESTO! Supposing your charm stat is high enough to use the response, the would-be adversary presumably sees the light of reason and backs down (I'm guessing, based on the success of every intimidate line my cousin and I used...). While all gaming is pushing buttons, it seems a little sad that while the combat sections of the game seem to be of escalating difficulty (the insta-kill-everyone-and-everything gun on the Mako makes it hard to tell in the vehicle sections), I can only remember one occasion on which there was some information that we would have had to gather in order to persuade a character to do a certain something. For that matter, it could have been that we hadn't enough persuasion points to do it, I'm not sure. It seems to me that in a game such as Mass Effect - where there has clearly been a great investiture of time and thought into composing the backstory – the developers could have made learning the lore and politics of Citadel space*** more a part of the game than simply flavour. A great many of the conversations you can have with aliens involves asking about their culture, biology, place in galactic society, and so on...and yet a) you'd expect the captain of humanity's flagship to know something about the aliens he or she is liable to be dealing with, no? And b) you're never challenged – as far as I recall – to put the knowledge you acquire to use. You don't have to consider what you would say to, for example, a Turian**** to motivate him. Actually, when you DO have to motivate a Turian in-game, it's an entirely accessible problem, and he responds to you as a warrior. You don't have to understand his culture to solve the problem, and on the part of Bioware that's pretty fuckin' lazy. A game should respect the path of the diplomat, the Star-Trek captain style (“force if necessary, but not necessarily force”, if you will accept my perversion of the timeless Mackenzie-King-ism). Games in which stealth is an option or an imperative count for a bit, but it's really just another weapon in your arsenal. True non-violent solutions are about going beyond avoiding combat by hiding in shadows; they're about addressing the root causes of the violence, eliminating those things which give rise to hate and malice and arms races. Mass Effect presents you with an opportunity to charm your way out of a fight, but the chief antagonistic force is presented as being rather...shall we say...not really the sort to be negotiated with? In light of this, the diplomatic path seems almost tacked-on to the game, which is meant to be fundamentally about fighting things. It seems like an opportunity was lost here: Mass Effect is set in a galaxy with a rather thoroughly flawed form of government (oh man don't get me started on this, I could probably write paragraphs more), hence the potential for a central struggle based on internal political strife is present. Such a central conflict could have lent itself to solutions based on either combat or diplomacy. Granted, it would have been less epic and (as I have been told by both Etarran and the PC Gamer review of Jade Empire) subtlety is hardly Bioware's strong suit, but the overall challenge of the game could have been evened out for both styles of gameplay if a diplomatic character were ever forced to think about anything other than the colour of the dialogue options while attempting diplomacy!
*** Citadel station is the hub of galactic government in Mass Effect, and the regions of space that participate or respect the authority of that government are known as “Citadel space”
**** “Aliens” in Mass Effect. They look like people of a slightly not-human fleshtone and with funky masks on. A warrior race, but not the most warlike of the fightin' types.
That's that for this particular entry. An entry of more general interest on Halifax life and whatnot is forthcoming.