Sunday, March 11, 2012

"A nonrepresentative Mass Effect experience"

Those are the words with which Mass Effect 3's description of "Narrative" difficulty closes, in the game's options-menu.

When one of my students, already tens of hours into the game on Thursday (when I was perhaps an hour in on career paths 1 and 2), told me about the two "Narrative" settings--which I hadn't seen, and hadn't read about since I have such a hard time distinguishing hype from actual news that I no longer read about games ahead of time unless (see HALO) I'm critically invested in the hype itself--I wanted to cancel class and drive home instantly to set my game on these settings and see how it made me feel.

I still haven't used the "No Decisions" dialogue option, located under a section of Options labelled "Narrative," which, if I understand correctly, turns conversations into cutscenes, but I played for an hour yesterday with the "Narrative" combat option.

I loved it. When a homeric bard sang a battle-lay, the spears went straight through the warriors' hearts, unless the battle were a very distinctive one--you know, a boss-fight. The bards knew that their practomimes made their audiences feel more heroic that way, just as makers of westerns and war-movies know that enemies always die quickly.

I suspect, by the same token, that I'll hate "No Decisions" dialogue, which, at least according to my initial reaction to the idea of the mechanic, would have the opposite effect on my feeling about the performance-materials of the game. I plan to save one of my careers, turn that option on today for half an hour or so, then load the save and say goodbye to "No Decisions" dialogue forever. I can't imagine that BioWare isn't tracking how many people are using which options, so I'll be very curious as to whether we either hear anything about the statistics or, maybe more importantly, "No Decisions" dialogue returns in future games.

"Narrative" combat is not new; both BioWare and Bethesda games have always had ways to make things easier on older players' aging reflexes. What is new is calling the lowest setting "Narrative," and characterizing that setting as "nonrepresentative." I can't wait to unpack this mechanic further, but one wonders whether the first bard to sing about Achilles' withdrawal from battle, and the first bard to sing about Odysseus lying, cheating, and stealing his way home, were similarly characterized as "nonrepresentative."