When better is worse

Digital feelies

Planetfall1   Mass-effect-2-box-art 

Back before the dawn of time - before HD, virtual lens flares, and 14-button gamepads - text adventures lured us into their virtual worlds with smart storytelling, clever writing ... and feelies. If you're too young to remember feelies, well, I feel for ya because feelies were something special.

Feelies were physical items included in the boxed versions of Infocom games from 1984-1989. These small artifacts, most of them nuggets of sly inventiveness, were far more than window sill collectibles. They often functioned as indispensable tools to the player, providing contextual backstory, clues, unlock codes, and other data enabling progress through the game. Feelies weren't toss-in extras; they extended the game experience, literally, right into the player's hands.

Sniffnscratch If you're lucky enough to have played the original Leather Goddesses of Phobos (my mother's family hails from Upper Sandusky, Ohio, for those in the know), you will surely recall the scratch and sniff card required when the game instructed you to scratch a number and report the corresponding odor; the Adventures of Lane Mastodon 3D comic book (and 3D glasses) containing vital hints; and a catacombs map warmly welcomed by IF gamers accustomed to creating our own on graph paper.

Of course, feelies also served as a clever form of copy protection at a time when asking the player to type the 4th word from the 3rd paragraph on page 27 of the manual was the best safeguard anybody could think of.

If you'd like to see .jpg scans of every Infocom feelie, including game manuals and box art, I highly recommend The Infocom Gallery. This is why we have the internet.

To my surprise, I've been thinking about feelies since I started playing Mass Effect 2. It seems to me that Bioware is attempting - and one can see this evolving from its prior games - to embed content in and around ME2 that looks a lot like a digital version of feelies. It's not a perfect analogue (nothing compares to holding an artifact in your hands), but it seems to me they're tapping into the spirit of what Infocom tried to do 25 years ago.

It's important to note that I'm not talking about the ME2 collector's edition swag. An art book, a comic book, and a making-of DVD are nice souvenirs for Mass Effect fans, but they're commemorative items that don't deepen or extend the game. A bonus weapon may impact the player's experience, but it's superfluous by design. 


ME2 delivers its digital feelies via an extraordinarily rich in-game codex and by a decidedly un-extraordinary online service called the Cerberus Network. When first announced, I mistook Bioware's press release description of Cerberus ("a direct channel for our players to dive deeper into the intriguing lore of Mass Effect") to mean an online hub for players to gather and extend their experiences with the game. Silly me. Cerberus is Bioware's DLC channel that doubles as a disincentive system for players who prefer to rent or purchase a used copy of the game. 

But, ah, the codex. Reviewers have understandably focused on ME2's improvements to the original Mass Effect: upgraded shooter mechanics, streamlined RPG elements, polished cinematics; but precious little has been written about the powerful storytelling dimension of ME2's in-game codex. Slightly modified with a cleaner interface, it's the same gloriously overstuffed lore device that appeared in ME1, but its utility in the middle of a sprawling 3-part epic is greater than ever.

Dakota2 Like the fake "Dakota Magazine" feelie (dated 'April 2031') included in Steve Meretzky's masterful A MInd Forever Voyaging, ME2's codex enriches the storytelling by contextualizing it within a dynamic, self-contained world. It serves the practical function of helping players new to the Mass Effect universe get up to speed, but it also satisfies lore-hungry players who want to immerse themselves in a rich role-playing experience. Given Bioware's decision to simplify some of the game's traditional RPG elements, the codex plays an even more important role in this regard than in ME1

RPG scoffers may smirk, but to a devoted player it actually matters that the Asari reproduce through a form of parthenogenesis. That information, explained and archived in the Primary Codex, will impact a player's perceptions and choices. It's pertinent, not disposable lore. It also matters that these primary entries are delivered in spot-on 70s-era Disney-Tomorrowland narration by VO vet Neil Ross.

I miss the Infocom feelies and all the other fun stuff game companies once stuffed into boxes along with their discs. Mass Effect 2's terrific media-rich codex imparts a bit of that old flavor to me, even if it can't match the charm or tactile feel of, say, an actual letter to shareholders from John D. Flathead IX, printed on genuine FrobozzCo letterhead. 

Come to think of it, maybe a wee bit of humor would liven up the ol' Mass Effect codex. Hmm.

Note: The Mass Effect 2 cover art shown above was replaced by another design prior to release, but this one looks nicer next to the Planetfall cover.