I finally went back and played through Mass Effect. I was originally turned off by the interminable elevator rides and dialog. It turns out you can skip through the dialog (sometimes it pays to read manuals, I guess) but there’s no avoiding the elevator rides. (Perhaps even more annoying than their duration is the way that you and your two buddies put away your weapons and stand around looking like dorks every time you climb in an elevator — not what I’d be doing in the middle of a 50,000 year old alien ruin infested by hostile zombies.)
Mass Effect is interesting in many ways as — until Mass Effect 2 ships — it represents the most evolved playable form of Bioware’s thinking on RPG design, and its gameplay bears a pretty striking resemblance to the videos I’ve seen of their upcoming Star Wars MMO. It’s particularly interesting to consider it side-by-side with Fallout 3, which is built on Bethesda’s platform, but is itself a sequel to Bioware’s original RPG.
One of the most annoying constraints in Mass Effect — perhaps a holdover from Knights of the Old Republic — is its hardwired dualism. You’re either a “paragon” (light side) or “renegade” (dark side) and all of your meaningful decisions are framed in that light. Except, of course, that whether you’re a paragon or a renegade, you’re actually going to save the Galaxy, so you really don’t get to be nearly as evil as I’d like. In fact, you don’t even get to be as rude as I’d like. (It’s quite annoying to pick a dialog option such as “So what?” or “This is meaningless” and discover that you in fact say something (a) quite polite, and (b) verbose.)
In the Fallout series (even in Fallout 3) there are sometimes multiple outcomes, and it’s not necessarily clear which is the “good” outcome. What’s worse, is that some morally ambiguous outcomes in Mass Effect are shoehorned into the paragon/renegade dualism. For example, there’s a “quest” involving the grieving husband of a dead soldier who is trying to get her body for burial — and you have two completion options: convince the guy responsible to release the body, even though it’s being held for research that might ultimately save the lives of other soldiers, or go to the husband and tell him why the body isn’t being released, and to deal with it. If you do the first, you get “paragon” points, and if you do the second you get “renegade” points.
More interestingly, Bethesda treats quests as being far more organic than Bioware currently does. Fallout 3’s quests have the ability to branch, fork, and adapt to external events. You can achieve degrees of success or discover that the quest has become impossible as originally conceived but still complete it in a different way. Bioware’s quests appear to simply allow you to aim for a “nice” or “nasty” outcome. It’s also possible that you might be able to fail them or make them impossible to complete, but I haven’t bothered to try to — for example — assassinate quest NPCs just to see what the engine does. I suspect nothing interesting.
Admittedly, paragon and renegade points are chiefly of interest to people trying to get “achievements”, but they do highlight an underlying needlessly simplistic and linear story structure. This is a pity, as Mass Effect is a very fine game. Its lack of moral complexity and actual plot variation prevents it from being as great a game as Fallout and Fallout 2 (which were not without their flaws).
Fallout 3’s character creation system may be only a shadow of the quite interesting system in its predecessors, but it’s also much more interesting and sophisticated than Mass Effect’s — suffice it to say that Mass Effect has character classes, and I doubt that you’d any interesting differences between any two characters of a given class at level 20.
Taking a step back, Mass Effect is actually a pretty amazing achievement. It’s a fairly hard science fiction space opera set in a quite detailed and original setting with a pretty decent story line that makes sense, has some genuine twists in it, and even manages to be pretty non-sexist. While in places it is decidedly overwritten, it is by and large well-written. It’s even pretty non-sexist, and the characters are almost not two-dimensional. (Well, the character you play is pretty one-dimensional…) I like the fact that, for example, the tough female marine NPC has a pretty convincing back story, including being a bit xenophobic and a conservative Christian, and yet remains plausible and sympathetic. It does all this and managed to be a commercial and critical success.
I also finally read the latest (?) Iain Banks Culture novel (it’s actually explicitly labelled “A Culture Novel” — I’m guessing that after The Algebraist, which I thoroughly enjoyed but apparently many others did not, his publishers are anxious to reassure potential buyers that they won’t have to digest a new setting or something).
I won’t say much about it, but it’s not his best work. It seemed about halfway through that it would be another Excession in the sense that it would reveal another “surface” of the Culture. We’ve seen how the Culture deals with slightly inferior enemies it wants to spank (Consider Phlebas), annoying empires it wants to mess with (Player of Games), primitive societies it wants to mess with (Use of Weapons), and stuff it’s actually scared of (Excession). These are, in my opinion, the best Culture novels — the others are simply fun to read.
Matter introduces a new peer-level involved civilization — dominated by elastic sea anemone-ish blobs — that the Culture cannot simply bully or manipulate or ignore, and an intriguing and extravagantly bizarre new object of interest — the Shell World — each a set of concentric spheres, each with its own environment, atmosphere, and collection of artifical stars, held apart and joined by elevator shafts. Its plot trajectory appears to be heading towards the intriguing question of how the Culture might settle its differences and/or merge with a civilization of similar power and scope. Instead, it peters out into a more-or-less trivial shootout, and manages to exhibit almost all of Iain Banks’s worst traits as a plotter.
Almost every Culture novel (and most of his other SF novels) feature a long, often arduous, urgent journey from A to B by a central character who’s not really clear on why the heck they’re supposed to be doing this in the first place. (If it was ever his intention to satirize fantasy novels with this kind of plot — which is hardly necessary given Terry Pratchett’s body of work — it’s long past that now.) This journey essentially serves to do little more than hold the front and back parts of the book apart and provide a sense of scale that could be achieved far more economically. It may, in fact, simply be the best way Banks has of padding out his ideas to an acceptable length for modern “novels”. It’s more palatable in some of the earlier books because Banks is introducing a lot of entertaining Culture “stuff” (ridiculously huge Culture spaceships with entertaining personalities, wonderfully crazy societies, and so on) — but as the series has grown, we get more repetition and less invention. Matter has pretty much (aside from the pretty ridiculous and contrived Sphere World) nothing to offer aside from not especially vivid new alien races. Even the Culture spaceship names are both few and weak.
(It’s probably worth mentioning that Use of Weapons (the best — in my opinion of course — of the Culture novels) is also the only one that isn’t essentially built around a really long journey.)
The Wikipedia description of Matter, which is far more sympathetic (and spoiler-ridden) than mine, asserts that the themes of Matter are the mentoring of lesser civilizations and simulated versus actual battle (this is where the title comes from — in naming the book, Banks is quoting himself rather than — as has been more usual — T. S. Eliot). The former is certainly described (but not in detail, and very little actual mentoring takes place) while the latter is merely touched on.
So the best that I can say for Matter is that it suggests that at least one more good Culture novel is possible (i.e. one that actually answers the question Matter poses but never addresses — how might the Culture attempt to mess with a peer civilization?). I think Matter might even have been saved — i.e. rate a B rather than a C, say — by a nice epilogue, but in fact its epilogue is quite weak. (My favorite is at the end of Consider Phlebas, and it pretty much does lift that book from a B- to an A- simply by putting the events of that story into a larger context.)
I wonder if perhaps Banks meant to write the novel I was hoping for when I got halfway through, but he just didn’t get there.