or: Mass Effect is Hard.
This week’s regularly scheduled program has been interrupted by an essay about systems design, barriers to entry, and accessibility. Here’s why:
You might remember that last winter, we had kind of a snowpocalypse here in the Northeast. It’s already mid-May now, and we know what that means, seasonally (Link contains moderately NSFW audio). It also means I started spring cleaning last week, and during that project I discovered that, sometime during the disastrous winter weather, our attic leaked and we got some lovely mold. Mold which I am deathly allergic to.
Long story short, I had a bad week, and I never got around to finishing all the necessary research for my article on the long tail. Next week, hopefully! For now, fewer citations, more sinking slowly into a vat of warm nostalgia. Bonus: it’s about Mass Effect, RPGs, retro-gaming, and general game design. Something for everyone!
Enough exposition. Essay, begin!
The original Mass Effect is hard to play. At the very least, it’s hard to learn, and not very intuitive – insert obligatory apt Penny-Arcade comic link here. I think this is probably the series’ greatest weakness, even though it’s something I didn’t really notice beyond the first hour or so. I only realized how daunting the game must be when I stumbled upon a handful of “first time player, how do I play this game?” posts on Bioware Social Network. Also, when I bought it as a present for a gamer friend during the recent $5 Mass Effect Steam sale, she immediately texted me with “apparently I suck at Mass Effect.” Hmm.
I kind of wish I’d started blogging about Mass Effect when I first started playing. Isn’t that always the way though? I had a friend who decided to play through all the Final Fantasy games on a lark, and it was only somewhere around four that he thought man, I should really be writing some of this down. Hopefully, at some point in the future, blogging will be like taking the pills that prevent me from going insane: mostly automatic. But, for now, I have to rely on the foggy mists of memory.
The first time I started up Mass Effect, I couldn’t figure out how to go wherever I was supposed to go. I got stuck literally seconds after being dropped onto the first planet, humped a few cliffs, waded through a few marshes, and generally took about twelve minutes to go somewhere that should have taken me two. Petrified of missing something. I searched corners and crevices for hidden paths, when really all I had to do was walk over to that vista and proceed forward to receive my first serving of plot.
After the thing happened in the place, I pulled out my gun and shot the guys (spoiler free!). Others have spoken of the shooting feeling terrible and poorly implemented until you build your accuracy, but as someone whose primary experience with video game guns has been isometric RPGs and games about portals, I didn’t notice. I figured this was how everyone felt playing shooters all the time; it was certainly how I’d always felt. I leveled up my overpowered pistols, used my biotics, and quickly felt productive. Abilities on a hotbar? Simplified MMO interface. Map? Not the best map ever implemented, and the minimap was often grossly misleading, but I learned how to deal with it quickly. Inventory? Not that bad, with its most serious flaws not becoming apparent until much later.
What I didn’t realized was that I was leveraging years of RPG and gaming experience. Not being a shooter fan and being pretty old actually helped me; I could still remember an era when games hated you, and told you nothing. My first real console was a garage-sale NES, with a box of manual-less games. We only ever figured out how to play about half of those, over the five or so pre-internet years when that was our only gaming system. Dying a hundred times before you figure out what the heck you’re supposed to be doing is in my blood, and Mass Effect isn’t nearly that punishing. I also have played a lot of badly designed and deeply inconvenient JRPGs, So when you say “The inventory system is punishing” I can sit back with a smug look on my face and say “really? Have you played Koudelka?”
Another thing that I learned from these early decades of gaming torment was how to blame myself. If a system seemed obtuse, a map confusing, or a boss fight too hard, it was probably my fault, caused by some inherent personal failing rather than some flaw in the game’s design. I took a bit of a journey back to that era recently, and what I found when I stepped out of my time machine was enlightening.
I recently tried to play Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura: a classic, Fallout-style WRPG. Spoiled by the conveniences and tutorials of modern games, I figured I could jump right in and start playing. Of course, my hubris lead to me not knowing how to move, use abilities, or even open and close the map correctly. To even perform these basic functions, I had to read the manual, which takes the form of a beautiful, in-character, 180 page novel. No I’m not exaggerating (well, maybe I am about the novel part – the book does not contain a conventional story structure centered around coming-of-age or anything like that. It is, however, legitimately a hundred and eighty goddamn pages long.) The manual has a preface. I don’t think you could get away with that today, but back then, that was the norm. Heck, a well-written, novel-length instruction manual was a gift, a thing to be treasured and re-read. I remember poring over the manual to the original Fallout. I remember a friend having to show me how to play Everquest, step by step, because if a friend didn’t show you how to do it you were basically screwed. Describing it now, it becomes clear that the good old days weren’t necessarily always all that good.
Gamers, especially RPG gamers, used to have a complex skillset that allowed us to deal with frustrating or poorly-conceived systems. That’s probably why I didn’t see the seams in Mass Effect the first time through. Also, I assumed that, at certain places, the combat felt bad because I was bad, but I’m beginning to suspect that might not be the case. A friend of mine, (the one who recommended Arcanum) tells me she keeps dying in the first five seconds of the final Noveria fight. I remember dying over a dozen times on that fight myself. I had assumed it was because I didn’t understand something important; admitting that it might be because the fight is poorly balanced for that point in the game and the appropriate tactics are insufficiently clear feels like heresy, but I’m starting to think it might be true. Especially when my friend keeps saying “this never happened to me in Fallout 3!” Well if you love Fallout 3 so much, why don’t you marry it? Ahem, sorry. Sorry.
I’m planning on starting a new Mass Effect 1 playthrough again soon, and I may have more design-related notes on the user experience after I have to relearn everything again. It didn’t seem that bad the first time, other than having no idea how to use cover properly and the universal Mako experience, but I do have one memory of frustration that remains sharp, months and months later. Hopefully it is also illustrative.
It was midway through the game, and my inventory was full again. I was standing in front of the dude on your ship you can sell extra items to and I just… exited the game. The next day Cataclysm came out and I just stopped playing Mass Effect and started playing WoW, knowing that the first thing I’d have to do when I came back was deal with that inventory, and I did not want to. It was a month before I came back.
Now, this is partially because I’m a hoarder. Hoarding is in our family, and I will consider it a personal victory if, when I die, my house contains less than a year’s worth of old newspapers. If I’ve got a nice suit of armor I’m using, and you offer me one that it worse, but has some special feature like being immune to toxin or resistant to heat and cold, I’ll keep that suit. I’ll probably never actually remember to use it, but I’ll keep it all right, until I get a better environmental suit, at which point I’ll keep that one forever and never use it. Still, even without my issues, there was too much sorting, too much fiddling, too much hesitation, too much busywork.
Dealing appropriately with that kind of stuff used to be something of a mark of honor. Getting through a badly balanced fight, or managing a punishing inventory, or remapping a hundred badly-designed hotkeys, all that stuff used to be proof that you were a real gamer. But kids today haven’t learned to put up with that kind of crap, so they don’t. And honestly, I can’t say I blame them. I’m not against complex systems, but you need to teach people how to use them. You need to make it easy and fun. And that is the one place where Mass Effect fails, sometimes.
It’s still worth it to muscle through, of course. Best series ever, and all. But Mass Effect’s barriers to entry may be why the series wasn’t spoken of in universally hushed and reverent tones until ME2. And that’s a cautionary tale for the ages, my friends.