Narrative’s Mass Effect: What We Should Talk About When We Talk About Talking

by Robert Gordon

The author writes about what dialogue really means in role playing games — and what it should mean in the future.

The survivor is panicking under the pulse of the pistol, her pistol, set against her own temple. A second ago it was trained on you, but the mission is to talk this woman down, so you can’t get too comfortable — yet. A shared childhood trauma has let you get this close but your aggressive demeanor demands solutions. This woman needs to stand up. She can’t let what happened on Mindoir control her for the rest of her life. You say,

“My whole family fought, and got hit by an artillery strike for their trouble. I got buried under rubble. If they saw me, they left me for dead.”

But you kept fighting. So she takes the sedative. You talked her down.

“Thank you, Commander.”

Shaping a universe is hard; the same is true for galactic empires, ensorcelled kingdoms and dystopic megacities. It’s hard because humans/elfs/cyborgs are social creatures, and because sometimes guilt or passion or legislation gets in the way of smiting evil and seducing crew members. We can’t throw fireballs at some problems, and so we lay down our arms and just…talk.

But, do we save suicidal orphans with PTSD on the docks of the Citadel? Do we slay the Archdemon after boinking Morrigan? Do we even have the necessary memories to connect with that suicidal woman? Or the charm to seduce a forest witch? If the game is good enough we may never ask ourselves.

Limitless Choices?

In the case of Mass Effect, are we Commander Shepard? In the most immediate sense no, the character in the game world is different than me in many ways, baldness notwithstanding. The funny thing is that most of the differences- military training, physical prowess, pseudo-magical abilities, all the traits which enable him to live out his (SIDEBAR: role as protagonist- are traits we take as non-essential: we could still be ourselves even endowed with the protagonist’s talents. (I refer to Commander Shepard as “he” only for simplicity’s sake, as this article discusses identification of player (me, male) with the protagonist. For academic purposes, and in terms of voice acting, long live FemShep.)

Why, then, when we select a dialogue option for Shepard, which is supposed to be reflective of our own attitude, are we presented only with only suggestions (“Tell me more”, “I’m sorry”) which we’re forced to intuit the full extent of? Can we still be such a person, choosing only impulse and not execution?

Shifting gears from Spectres to Wardens, Dragon Age presents players with full lines of dialogue to select from, and the silence of our avatar seems to imply that we are saying them. Yet I, the player, might wish to say something completely different. Perhaps as a dwarf in Orzammar I would like to play competing noble factions against one another so that I might claim the throne to which I am so rightly entitled. However, with no such option available, I am forced to choose between one of the two feuding houses. The situation is a fantastical rendition of American politics: Having no choices which represent my interests, I am forced to select the lesser of two evils. But ultimately it is not my authentic choice, which does not exist within the given system.

Why aren’t role playing games advanced enough to offer a player an array of choices, choices closer to real life conundrums? One enormous hurdle lies in implementing a dialogue system effectively. What a dialogue system represents is agency within a social structure, how we assert ourselves in relation to the social world of the game. However, this social world has been defined with specific aims and functions, a way in which it must “play out” (for further example note, in many open world RPGs, the “you can kill any person in the game” selling point: the limitation being those characters which actually matter…). Here we find the crux of the problem: In a role-playing game, the world, social or otherwise, is structured toward an end, and so our speech is merely an attempt to achieve pre-determined goals. In our own lives we experience reality, for all its causal laws, as indeterminate, under at least the appearance of personal freedom. We cannot fully be our character because, having to choose from pre-determined options, we cannot fully realize our own thoughts and intentions. While we may be free from certain influences, we cannot be totally free to affect our will.

I Remember Me

Certainly in 2013, it would be absurd to expect RPGs to provide us with the ability to completely realize our will within the game, which would require not only direct speech input but hordes of completely realized artificial intelligences with “perfect” social intuitions. In addition to being technologically unfeasible, doing so while providing a structured narrative would prove a near-impossibility for designers.

I believe that if we still wish to engage in such narratives, then perhaps what we want is not total freedom, because a structured narrative will inherently limit that freedom. Perhaps we want designers to act as intermediaries in speech so that we can be more fully immersed in the world. For this reason that I find Mass Effect’s dialogue wheel thoroughly ingenious; the space of uncertainty between the player’s selection and Shepard’s dialogue fits the relationship of player to protagonist like a glove. Though the player influences the game-world through dialogue, it is ultimately the entity he controls (but is not identical to) that executes his will, and that execution is always mediated by the laws (rules) of the game. In not selecting literal lines of dialogue, a la Dragon Age, the player’s part in the choice becomes more authentic to the game itself.

Returning to Mass Effect’s Talitha, the suicidal orphan on the Citadel, the process of talking her down from shooting herself engages us because it is Shepard doing the talking. What’s so interesting about this quest is that it relies upon Shepard as a character (with a troubled past of the player’s choosing) independent of the player to succeed artistically. The emotional connection between the protagonist and the NPC is facilitated by a memory that the player does not have. This is a radical role playing device: the player must act as though they possessed not only their protagonist’s talents, but their history and psychology as well. In this instance Shepard’s actions alone are not enough to contrive the story. They require the player to adopt a past to contextualize them.

Ye Olde Schoole

The frontrunners RPGs in the moderate to hardcore western camp allow us to barter prices, find love, arrange inter-species three-ways and even destroy galaxies. In the eastern camp heroes may refuse their glorious destiny infinitely many times before accepting their glorious destiny. Actually, though Japanese RPGs get plenty of criticism for linearity, “social” systems (rather than direct speech systems) have developed well in series like Persona. While dialogue options in Persona are simple and straightforward, the player still navigates the social structure according to who they show affection towards or spend their time with, allowing for significant divergences in narrative. Frequently catching coffee with a kendo club member will not only grant access to high-level personas, but also serves to bring some of the game’s NPCs to the foreground by endowing them with backstory. Credit for this lies in part with the Japanese erotic/romantic dating sim culture, that features similar mechanics, which some modern RPGs have now riffed upon.

Paradoxically, dialogue systems have a history of being among the oldest tropes (voiced with seemingly limitless options depending upon your Dungeon Master) as well as being one of the most underdeveloped for much of gaming’s history. As Persona can trace the lineage of its social gameplay to dating sims, so too can western games trace their dialogue systems back to Dungeons and Dragons, the original RPG (with due respect to GURPS and other pen-and-paper peers). While it’s difficult to pin down exactly when dialogue systems as such emerged, it can be placed at around the time that the first cRPGs were published, such as Pool of Radiance, which drew heavily from or were directly inspired by D&D. Pool of Radiance allowed for parley with certain enemies or characters, unlike the eponymous 1975 release of DND, though these had minimal effect on the outcome of the story or the characters themselves (which were randomly generated).

To make a lengthy, nuanced history short, Baldur’s Gate would be the first mainstream western RPG to feature highly affective dialogue systems as we know them (as in affective upon the plot and game world.) Though the nascent Elder Scrolls series featured politicking and faction choices, a universal dialogue system for individual encounters was pioneered by BioWare. Interestingly, the system present in Baldur’s Gate is implemented in Dragon Age almost verbatim. One line of dialogue from among several is chosen by the player, leading them down differing paths in the dialogue tree as Non Playable Characters offer appropriate responses. However, within this system, not every choice is equal, as many are augmented by that too-familiar staple of the genre: [Persuade].

Magic Words Make Magic Thoughts

I’ve already noted that, by taking on Commander Shepard’s talents which allow him to act as a protagonist, we could imagine ourselves to possess such abilities while still being ourselves, which opens the possibility of role-play. What happens, then, when social interaction is a talent? This is a consistently irksome point of the modern RPGs: by rendering social interaction dependent upon the statistical “personality” of our character, we increase ludonarrative dissonance, that ongoing war between narrative and gameplay. Any veteran RPG player knows to stack their points in charisma (or the equivalent speech-related skill) to open up all the “best” dialogue options; I believe creates the greatest narrative limitation because it stanches the player’s influence upon the social sphere of the game by providing a “best” narrative option. In Mass Effect 2, the player must deal with a confrontation between two crew members (and potential love interests) Jack and Miranda. The player is forced to tell one of the two to back off unless they can select the special Paragon/Renegade dialogue option which ends the conflict peacefully. The crew member told to back off will have her status toward Shepard drop from Loyal to Normal, meaning that in the game’s much-touted suicide mission the character in question will likely not make it.

Why do we need a “best” option here? Is it more important that ME2 provides the opportunity for a perfect run or an engaging one? ME2’s themes of sacrifice and fatalism all rest upon the ultimate mission’s suicidal nature, and yet any Shepard with access to the appropriate Paragon/Renegade options can save the whole of his crew with little difficulty. Why, in a game about a suicide mission, do we have the option to save our whole crew? Would the altercation between Jack and Miranda not be so much more powerful if we had to choose to kill one, regardless of whether or not we liked it?

This is the problem with persuasion: It both increases, artificially, our distance from the character’s decision even as it limits the most interesting narrative choices. The blue/red option on the dialogue wheel is not merely one of many, it is ALWAYS the best option, either in that it garners the most resources, saves the crew member or provides some other boon. In real life, sometimes we do have a best option, one that suits our needs and will achieve the desired effect, but this is evident in the option itself and not because it is the result of some special characteristic within us. Furthermore, we can’t be certain about our words’ effects in reality; they aren’t highlighted, they just make sense.

Considering Talent

Earlier, when I said Baldur’s Gate pioneered dialogue systems as we know them, it was a half-truth. In 1997, a year before BG, Fallout was published by Interplay. The successor to Wasteland featured a fleshed-out dialogue system of its own. One of the quirks of the system was that particularly low-intelligence characters found their dialogue options limited, often to grunts or gestures, a fact so overbearing that it prevented such characters from completing the lion’s share of side quests. This quirk was an extension of the system as a whole, which would offer special dialogue options depending upon player’s “perks” or general competencies. Though Fallout does itself possess a speech skill, it is the inclusion of these dialogue options, prompted by skills (such as sex, demolitions, repair, etc.) which periodically flesh out conversations and, as seen in New Vegas, this became a more standardized tool as the series progressed.

I believe that this mechanic breaches the gap between the option to persuade and the player’s agency. Any of the choices that rely on the relevant skill are “persuasion” options in a sense, but they draw on the character’s traits as a character rather than affixing them with some transcendent social competence that robs agency from the player. Just as the selection of intention for Shepard was best carried out by the character himself, so too here is the social intention left up to the player. But it’s mediated by the character he or she controls, which possesses relevant talents that they do not. In this way, the choice, again, becomes more authentic to the game itself.

In a game in which role-play plays a central role, affixing the protagonist with a “speech” statistic would be like burdening a Call of Duty character with an “aim” stat. The content of role-playing is speech; when we are actively navigating a social interaction, our choices should accomplish all that [Persuade] is meant to imply.

Wouldn’t our talking down Talitha be so much more poignant if it felt as though we hadn’t spoken magic words? If her safety relied upon our actually listening to her and responding in kind? The scene, so emotionally pregnant, so happily intimate in a game about grandeur and glory, deflates just before its climax as those red and blue letters pop up, because they suddenly don’t feel like our own. They’re easy answers; they leave no space for uncertainty.

If we want that much-touted “emotional engagement” from the games we love, then we have to leave behind the idea that it rests upon mastery and satisfaction. Engagement springs from uncertainty, from those educated guesses that save, but could just as easily destroy, the lives of those around us. We have to be willing to fail. We have to be willing to be unsure. And, as we play these roles, we must look at who’s really doing the talking.

Robert Gordon is a writer of short fiction, essays and plays. He lives in Brooklyn and enjoys critiquing endless RPGs, endlessly.

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