Mass Effect and the Problem of Narrative in Video Games

Narrative is tricky thing even in the complete freedom of a short story or other written medium. It needs to be streamlined enough to allow a fluent story but also show the characters making choices that seem real within the structure of the narrative. Writing a continuation to a short story means taking these choices into account, how they influence the character’s psychological state and his future actions. It constrains the subsequent narrative. The benefits of a written story are that at least these choices are clearly written down on a page. Narrative becomes a different story when we look at a medium where this is not always true: video games.

The Mass Effect trilogy is an ambitious attempt at game storytelling. More than most other games the series makes the decision of players relevant to the narrative of the game itself. This has been done in other games, usually involving different endings based on taking a certain actions from a limited set of choices during the last act of the game, kind of like the “I should have done that earlier” realisation at the end of certain horror movies. The Mass Effect games are different, the player is aware that all actions have consequences. Write your own story. The problem: Every decision creates a new strand of the narrative which has to be represented in the rest of the game and all its successors.

Part One uses the decisions to its full advantage: choice of which major character to kill off? Sure! Fate of the galactic government? Be my guest! Kill of another major character with the wrong dialogue choice? Sounds dandy! It is of course streamlined, the narrative is still mostly linear in a messy multi-strand kind of way. But you can imagine the game designers having a blast. As a consequence the restrictions put on Part Two and Part Three are very substantial from both a narrative and an economical point of view. As either one of the major characters could have survived, both characters have to be presented in the next narrative. Which for a video game means twice the graphic art and voice acting. Subsequent, neither character is much present in Part Two and pretty restrained in Part Three. Too simplify things, the characters do and say very much the same things. Instead of well formed separate characters they became a single story device.

Which of course brings us to the ending controversy of Mass Effect 3. A lot of fans criticised it for a lack of true choice. While it is of course regrettable that the ending had to be streamlined and the final post decision scenes (pre-DLC) lacked a proper epilogue, there was not much choice for the game designer. From a game point of view, you are constrained by economics: it’s hard to justify that much extra development work for disparate endings.¬†From a storytelling point I can understand it as well, you want to finish an epic allowing all gamers to experience a similar conclusion instead of dealing with story strands drifting apart.

Long story short, games allow storytellers the choice to give choices but it might dramatically restrain the story itself in the long run.

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A drop, not the sink, too far away, uninteresting.
Car in the distance, not slow or fast, just moving, boring.
Pipes creaking, for no reason, not even old, pointless.
Teeth grinding, just a bit, noise in my skull, annoying.

The silence, it’s broken, almost constantly, by the tiniest things.
Why wait, for it to end, if it hasn’t really started, why wait?
My breath, it can’t stop, how should I rest, with it?
My thought, it won’t stop, I’m waiting, for the silence.

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five haikus in motion

Events in the middle
of the flow
set in motion.

Past climbing
up my throath
being done waiting.

Decision made
in a possible hurry
of the regrets.

Burning flickers
with a long shadow
in serenity.

Can’t stop now
the movement
without want.

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Worldmap Update

Haven’t renewed that in a while:

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Moscow in the clouds. And I don’t mean the good kind. I mean the nasty wildfire smoke clouds. We arrived early afternoon, but the smoke made it look very dark, like very very late afternoon. The streets were mostly empty, as the people were told to stay inside and all the foreign personnel of companies/embassies had already been evacuated. Our taxi driver use the opportunity to race around town to our hotel, as there were no other cars on the streets. Definitely fun. Looked all like some 80s version of a depressing future.

We got some mask the next day which made breathing in the smoke filled streets a bit easier. But even this way, Amy didn’t deal with the smoke very well, she felt pretty bad at the end of the stay. At least in the hotel the A/C cleared out the smoke, so sleeping was ok. It was good we didn’t stayed more than 3 days.

Moscow reminded me most of Paris, with it’s big alleys and the 19th century buildings. I liked the architecture a lot. We went to the Kremlin, Lenin museum (Lenin looked like a wax figure to me) and St. Basil’s Cathedral. Looked all very surreal in the smoky sunshine and the grey background. Like a bad version of communism from an old American movie. Nevertheless, pretty impressive overall, I definitely want to go back, when there is more life in the city … and more sunshine.

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Novosibirsk and Onward

Next train ride, another overnight, to Novosibirsk, but the first one without a border crossing. Train was nice, but nothing special. We only had one compartment companion, a very quite man, who didn’t speak English and was also not very interested in hand signal communication. He did share his food with us (He had boiled eggs, very nice). As this time it was a long overnight, I tried to actually find the mysterious train shower. Every train of the fast class is suppose to have one, but nobody really knows where it is. Russians don’t use it, backpackers don’t want to pay the fee. I first learned the word for shower (pronounced Dusch, like in German). After asking around in three successive train cars, I found a train attendant that was genuinely surprised, brought me to the shower room and immediately started taking her stuff out it. Didn’t figure out if she slept in it or just stored random stuff. As nobody ever seems to use it, it kinda made sense for her. Anyway, the shower wasn’t bad, except that the floor is actually a metal grid and you stare directly at the tracks. Fun.

Novosibirsk wasn’t our first choice, we wanted to go to Tomsk. Unfortunately we didn’t have much time until the next train and Tomsk was pretty far away (like 6h). The relatively fancy hotel was for business people, it had free WiFi, a steak restaurant and a strip club. Otherwise Novosibirsk didn’t look much different than Irkutsk/Europe. A funny thing was the railroad museum. When we told the security guy we wanted to visit it, he almost fell over backwards. He had to get the museum curator to unlock the door. It was freshly renovated, but had no English guide or signs. So we just look at the pictures and models while the curator followed us three steps behind, switching stuff on and off as we passed it. One of the weirdest museums ever.

The next train, to Moscow, was long (2 nights), otherwise boring. I got used to the metal grid in the shower. We were really good at getting the nice foods from the stations. Only really cool think was when we crossed the Europe/Asia border in the Ural mountains.

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Irkutsk looks like Berlin! Here we were in the middle of Asia, but I was feeling like walking around in a typical European city build in the 19th century. Wide streets, Jugendstil buildings together with Plattenbauten. So very different than China or Mongolia. Our hostel was actually just an apartment with kitchen/living room and 3 bedrooms run by a couple of young Russians. Very cool, was just like staying in a friend’s apartment. Otherwise, walking around in Irkutsk was quite fun, especially the Volkonsky museum. We also hung out with Wilm again, drinking vodka in a beer garden until later that night.

On the second day, we went to Lake Baikal. Why the nature and views were great, there wasn’t a lot to do and the boardwalk was quite uninteresting. Especially the Baikal Hotel was bad, looking like an Eastern German hotel ca. 1987. What was great was the Omul fish (a species unique to the lake) they sell everywhere. You essentially buy it fried and eat it just like that. Delicious. We spend the evening hanging out with people from the hostel with a lot of vodka. ;)

A big problem was actually getting our train tickets for the next leg. On the first day, we walked up the train station asking around, but everybody pointed us in a different direction and nobody understood English or the Russian phrases we tried. We gave up. Second day, we actually figured out that the train station has three separate buildings that are not connected. After that, getting the tickets wasn’t so hard. A station map would have been nice.

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Border #2

Oh my, no wonder this train right is so long. We first sat for several hours on the Mongolian side of the border without much happening at all. A Mongolian woman and her son asked us if they could hang some jackets in out cabin. Took us a while to figure out they were smuggling. ;) I was already dawn when we moved and crossed into Russia. Weird feeling actually (growing up in Eastern Germany gave me a certain “caution” about Russia), the big crowd of guards with machine guns certainly didn’t help. Wilm, our Dutch train companion, told me there would be showers on the other side, but only one. So, as soon as we stopped at the Russian border station, I jumped out and ran for it. Really nice shower, big with all extras. After I was done, only in a t-shirt and a towel, I walked our. Unfortunately the train was gone (for several hours)! I was pissed, but Amy got me a chess board from a market and I played chess to pass the time. Even after train was back, the Russian guards searched the train several times and confiscated our passport for a while. You need patience for the Russian borders!

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Train #2

Second train, Ulan Bator to Irkutsk, actually a shorter trip by distance then Beijing – but there is a Russian border and crossing takes a lot of time apparently. The Russian portion of the train (aka the part actually allowed to cross the border) was only two wagons with own Russian staff. The train was a weird combination out of old and new style, completely sealed windows and some form of air-condition based on the movement of the train. There was also carpet and it looked much more nice than the Chinese train before. The Russian staff were two old ladies, unfriendly, but helpful. I felt almost home. ;)
For companionship this time we had a guy from Tuva (looked Mongolian, but was actually Russian) and a very cool old guy from Holland (yes, Dutch again): Wim. He was a Doctor of Anthropology on a research trip. We must have had hours and hours of conversation about all kinds of topics …

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It was only two and a half days in Mongolia, but it was quite an impressive stop. Ulan Bator (UB) is a mix out of modern city (main city square, parliament and surrounding buildings), run down communist buildings (2nd circle of the city) and shanty town (where we stayed, yes I’m cheap ;) ). Apart from the novelty, I can’t quite find it interesting as a town. It’s was missing the “big city” feeling. We did sleep in a ten in the middle of the city at Gana’s Guest House, which was really cool. I mean a tent in the middle of the capital, that’s nifty …

The second day we got ourselves on a road trip into the nomadic part of Mongolia (which is everything outside of UB) with bunch of backpackers from the hostels. I learned two things right away. The French and the Germans love Mongolia. Our road trip was with a bunch of German students and a couple from France. Most of the hostel was actually German, including an old lady who has come to Mongolia for years (and had some interesting knowledge about literature). Germans love it here, because everybody speaks German (due to the virtue of having studied in the communist brotherland DDR). And I mean fluently and everything.

The road trip was a bit weirdly organized. They first shipped us to Hotel Mongolia, a resort hotel build by a German apparently. It looked cool, trying to imitate an ancient Mongolian capital of the Khan era. But it was still a touristic re-imagination, not historic. Afterwards they drove us far into the country side which was cool, because there were no streets once were of the main road. They would just drive the jeeps randomly though the countryside forming new ways. I guess that’s the nomadic culture. After a brief stop at an abandoned Russian military base (I was ask if I heard about communism and the end of the USSR – they must have though I was American. ;) ), we got to a family living in a Ger serving us Mongolian food. The food in general consist mostly of milk and lamb, which is a nice contrast to China. We got butter, cheese, lamb in milk tea soup and fried noodles with lamb.

The Mongolian countryside was absolutely stunning, a combination of hills and flat land with few trees. I wish we would have stayed the whole time outside of UB, maybe sleeping in a tent, but we didn’t know better. We ate multiple other combinations of milk and lamb in Ulan Bator the following day, plus a museums and scaring of pick pockets (almost got me once). And then we were already on our way to Russia.

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