Beowulf: The video game-movie-video game
Mass Effect: The game that wanted to be a movie

Face time with Mass Effect

Masseffect1 The big brown truck will deliver my copy of Mass Effect tomorrow, and my curiosity is fully piqued. I've purposely avoided reading reviews or articles on the game, which hasn't been easy given all the attention it's receiving. For once, I want to have a "pure" gaming experience with as little prior knowledge rattling around my brain as possible. Adding to my anticipation is the fact that my friend Angela (from ThumbBandits and Lesbian Gamers) has been playing the game for a week in Australia and tossing around phrases like "astounding."

What especially interests me about Mass Effect--aside from the fact that it's a BioWare game--is its focus on characters and narrative. My training is in the theater, so I come to video games with a strong predilection for vivid characters and well-told stories. And of course, we thespians have been role-playing since the 5th century BC., so a good RPG always gets my attention.

BioWare knows how to tell compelling stories--as Baldur's Gate and Knights of the Old Republic proved--and its ability to populate games with memorable characters has set it apart from its competitors. BioWare NPCs have a knack for sharp dialogue and motivated action, and its gallery of memorable women--from Jaheira in Baldur's Gate to Bastila Shan in KOTOR--is unrivaled by any other game developer.

Where BioWare runs into trouble (and it is hardly alone) is conveying genuine pathos through its characters. Limited technology has restricted the emotional expression of virtual characters to the voice actor. We hear the suffering in a character's voice, for example, but we don't see that emotion convincingly rendered in her face or body.

Mass Effect means to change that, according to its project director Casey Hudson. In an interview with the New York Times (okay, I allowed myself ONE article on the game) Hudson says Mass Effect will live or die on its ability to engage the players' emotions. The vehicle for that engagement is a visual storytelling style that features what old-time directors used to call "face acting" and plenty of close-ups.

If the action in our game is exciting, it’s because you care about the story situation. And what makes the story exciting is emotion. And what makes emotion is wrinkles. When you take the wrinkles away, you just have parts of the face moving around like a cartoon, and it really takes away a lot of the subtlety we intuit in human emotion.

The Times calls this "digital acting"--which both intrigues and unnerves me--but I'm willing to suspend my disbelief long enough to see (and feel, I hope) what BioWare is trying to achieve. I hope they know it's going to take a lot more than wrinkles to get the job done.

So I will await the brown truck. Meanwhile, I'm having the time of my life gallivanting across galaxies with Mario, whom I notice has no wrinkles at all.