Face time with Mass Effect
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Mass Effect: The game that wanted to be a movie

Masseffect201 I am thoroughly enjoying Mass Effect: The Game. Its futuristic story is richly imagined, chock-full of lore, and populated by characters with layers of backstory. Its RPG elements work beautifully, striking a nice balance between complexity and accessibility. Despite some frame-rate issues, the game looks fabulous, and I'm head-over-heels about its retro-inspired art design.

If you're old enough to remember Disneyland's Tomorrowland before its recent makeover, Mass Effect will bring a smile to your face. Star Trek fans will even recognize a few homage logos and uniform insignias.

And there's the music. Mass Effect's soundtrack may be one of the finest scores ever composed for a video game, and situation-specific music is fully integrated from menu screens to action sequences. A whole lot of love went into the making of this game, and it shows.

Mass Effect: The Movie is a different story.

From its inception, the designers of Mass Effect conceived of the game as a cinematic experience. In the booklet "A Future Imagined," included in the collector's edition, Project Director Casey Hudson clearly states his view of the game:

MASS EFFECT is not a space opera or a space western. It is a serious and artful cinematic experience, rendered with a unique combination of starkly realistic visuals and hauntingly powerful musical scores.

Art Director Derek Watts echoes Hudson's sentiments on the same page:

When we began, we knew we wanted MASS EFFECT to be unlike any other game: clean and realistic, with a true cinematic feel.

BioWare clearly wants Mass Effect to be a cinematic RPG, and they half-succeed. Mass Effect is a terrific RPG, but it is, unfortunately, an awful movie. As interactive storytelling, the experience is rich and varied, but as interactive cinema it often feels awkward and aesthetically shallow.

Unquestionably, BioWare makes great RPGs. Since Baldur's Gate, it has specialized in coupling remarkably deep role-playing with immersive storytelling. As the years have passed, BioWare designers (unlike their counterparts at Blizzard or Bethesda) have increasingly relied on the language of film to communicate content to the player. The Aurora toolset for Neverwinter Nights allowed players to create their own in-game "movies." Knights of the Old Republic added narrative cutscenes and POV conversations. Jade Empire ramped up the cutscenes and attempted to depict interactions between the player and NPCs in more film-like ways. It should come as no surprise that with Mass Effect, Bioware is attempting to complete the transformation.

At times, the game delivers the "artful cinematic experience" promised. The opening establishing shot reveals a planet observed from orbit, then slowly pulls back to reveal Shepard gazing wistfully out a window as we overhear a conversation assessing Shepard's prowess as a soldier. The virtual camera then holds on Shepard's expressionless face. We cut to a hand-held sequence tracking Shepard from behind as he walks among officers who respectfully acknowledge him, finally arriving on deck as the camera swings around and pans up to reveal Shepard's face. The star of the movie has arrived...and gets a close-up. And since you're the casting director, you get to decide what Shepard looks like, as well as whether Shepard is a man or a woman.

The big things in Mass Effect look great. The problems emerge with the little things. Basically, Mass Effect fails Filmmaking 101. Dialogue scenes are a recurring series of over-the-shoulder shots intercut with close-ups. Conversations occur in static space with no movement or camera blocking. Scenes tend to have no more than 3 camera setups, so they inevitably lack variety and visual interest.

While there is nothing specifically "wrong" with these techniques, major portions of Mass Effect look like they were shot and edited by film school freshmen. They lack imagination, expressiveness and point of view. The game offers itself to the player as a rich cinematic experience, but too often it looks like a generic B-movie.

Click here to play an example scene - Quicktime required

We generally overlook such awkwardness because video games that employ filmic techniques are usually borrowing the language of film rather than appropriating it as a core design aesthetic. When a Final Fantasy game looks like a movie, it tends to look like a very well-produced movie. When it looks like an RPG, it drops nearly all its cinematic pretensions.

Somewhere along the line, game designers have become convinced that realism means cinematic. Players understand the language of film, so it makes sense that designers would wish to leverage this powerful and highly evolved semiotic. The irony, of course, is that film manipulates time, space, and image to achieve its so-called reality. This construction relies on a combination of tools borrowed from its predecessor (Theater) and tools it developed on its own (continuity editing, montage, etc.).

A video game can clearly make good use of film language--as Mass Effect often does--but if it over-relies on those tools--if it fails to develop and exploit its own expressive toolset--it inevitably risks looking like a thin man wearing a fat man's suit.

The other issue that crops up in Mass Effect is the faces of the characters. Close-ups and new-tech facial animations get us closer to film acting--and the voice actors are mostly excellent--but striving for such photorealism means that every bit of failure is magnified. Lips don't match words, shadows arbitrarily appear and disappear, and certain animations are repeated too often. BioWare is getting very interesting results with its facial expression algorithms, but it has a long way to go if we are to accept what we are seeing as "real." Mass Effect is truly a trip to Uncanny Valley. (For more on this, I recommend Clive Thompson's essay, The Undead Zone: Why realistic graphics make humans look creepy).

I plan to continue playing Mass Effect to the end, and I may even roll another character and try it again. BioWare has lavished its trademark loving attention on this game, and my complaints should not dissuade you from giving it a go. There's much I could have written about the moral choices presented or the compelling side quests offered. Mass Effect is a fascinating and admirably ambitious RPG that every serious gamer should play.

Still, I can't help wondering how far we're going to go with cinematic games. Most players and reviewers equate highly cinematic with highly effective:

The cinematic design is nothing short of masterful. This is a game that takes the aspects of film that make cinema so compelling and crosses it with the interactivity of games with unprecedented success. [IGN review of Mass Effect]

So I know I'm swimming upstream. My guess is that if BioWare decided to address the issues I'm raising, their solution would be to improve the facial animation algorithms or upgrade their virtual camera technique. In other words, try harder and apply better technology to make it look more like a movie.

Have you heard the one about a fellow named Sisyphus?