Interrupting Characters, Ethical Choices, and Story Pacing in Mass Effect 2

BioWare's Xbox 360 and Windows interactive space opera Mass Effect 2 is still half a year away, but for lead producer Casey Hudson it's happening right now. Busy as he is, I managed to grab him away from dotting i's and crossing t's as his team moves into the sequel's final feature beats to make its planned early 2010 debut.

In part two (part one, part three, part four) we cover Mass Effect 2's revamped dialogue system, getting 'physical' in conversations, ethical nuances, and maintaining emotional intensity.

Game On: Mass Effect originally touted the option to interrupt conversations with other characters, but the feature was dropped and instead resurrected for Mass Effect 2. Is interrupting really dynamic though? Or is it for all intents and purpose just another "off-camera" dialogue option?

Casey Hudson: Interruptible dialogue was meant to be a feature in the original Mass Effect, and in a sense it actually was a feature. This is where you can hit the X button to interrupt someone and talk over them, but the thing that happened was, it was one of the things that in the context of developing an incredibly ambitious game we weren't able to fully support.

So you can interrupt people, but to fully support it, we would've had to build the content that was different for every time you interrupt. Likewise, we would've had to do more to tell the player when that variable content was available. Take the reporter that accosts Shepard on the Citadel. There's a line you can choose to actually punch her out. It's the interrupt option, and if you elect to, it's satisfying because Shepard cuts her off and literally knocks her out. But because you don't know that particular option is going to be any more satisfying than the others where you could also cut her off, you know, yeah, interrupting just wasn't fully supported and didn't come through as much.

In Mass Effect 2, we're able to look at partially realized features like this and say, how do you perfect what we were trying to do there? We've put the time into really getting it right this time and into establishing the kind of content that fully supports it. At certain points in the game, not every conversation necessarily, because conversation is not just conversation, it happens in dynamic situations now, and you're ducking under gunfire or you're flying in a car or whatever it may be and there just happens to be conversation going on. So it's more dynamic to begin with. But there are situations or moments where we've given the player the opportunity to be physical in a particular situation. When it happens, you'll see an icon, either for the right-trigger, where it's blue and it's a paragon interrupt, or it's the left trigger and red for a renegade interrupt. That signifies a moment where you can take action. You can allow the dialogue to continue uninterrupted, of course, but you'll know that if you want to, you can physically seize control and change the course of events.

We pepper the game with moments like these. They're in every level, so it's a system that's fully supported. It's also something that maintains the dynamism of conversation or dialogue situations. It's not even really an interrupt system, it's more of a "take action" system. In Mass Effect it was more about dialogue and could you interrupt somebody verbally. Now it's more like you're talking to somebody because you think they're in danger and you see they're about to get shot by a sniper and for a moment you have the ability to push them out of the way. That'd be an example of a paragon interrupt. Or like we showed at E3, there's a guy that's hassling you, and you have a moment where you can push him over a ledge. That moment can pass, and if it does, you have to deal with the situation in other ways.

So it's about more physical elements, with the dialogue being more physical and dynamic to make it blend better with the rest of the action in the game.

GO: Speaking of ethical actions, in Knights of the Old Republic your morality system was scalar with "light side" versus "dark side" points distributed along a single axis. In Mass Effect it was represented by paragon, i.e. "balanced/systemic" versus renegade, i.e. "anarchic" actions, and you could see both separately at the same time. How does it work in Mass Effect 2?

CH: It works similarly in terms of accumulating paragon and renegade points separately. That said, we're always working on improving the decisions that feed the system so they're less about being good or evil and more about the agonizing choice between sacrifices. For example, sacrifices that are personal or selfless versus more brutal choices that might accomplish something more quickly but at significant cost to someone else.

Part of it's that people will play these games multiple times, the first time generally making the choices they think they'd personally make, the second time maybe taking strictly paragon choices, a third time just to see all the renegade permutations. We're always trying to make the decisions a little more sophisticated and agonizing so there's never a right choice. It comes down to your personal values. The trick is that, when you have a meter that shows all of your accumulated decisions, that's where it ultimately seems gamier than the actual decisions are. At the same time, it's helpful to give player something to look at to gauge what their tendencies have been over the course of the game.

GO: At Leipzig GCDC 2007, I hit a session with Ken Rolston and Bob Bates about storytelling in games. Ralston said he hated the way some game stories tease deep subtext, then fall apart when you call their bluff. At one point he actually rose to physically illustrate the way dialogue currently works in games, waving his arms up and down rapidly to suggest sawtooth-style input/output during action sequences that switches to a flat line when dialogue interrupts. That was part of what didn't work as well for me in Mass Effect, those long periods of wandering and talking, snapping to non-dialogic action sequence, back to wandering and talking again, etc. Does Mass Effect 2 approach that interplay differently?

CH: I think it's about tuning the pacing so it all feels like one experience. Obviously in good storytelling, you need some alternation between action and times for reflection. Star Wars opens with what's probably still the most intense space battles in movies, and then a few minutes later, you're watching Luke Skywalker as a farm boy gazing at those two suns and think about his life. The movie calms way down before it turns back to creating more action.

I think the issue is, when games are telling a story that alternates in the way Rolston's describing, sometimes games end up descending too low into something where the drama leaks out of it. Whereas in a movie, in a well done movie, when it's time for reflection, there's an emotional intensity to it. There's still drama and really great complementary aspects like camera and lighting effects.

That's where in Mass Effect 2, we've tried to ensure we're maintaining the emotional intensity, even during the more reflective moments that play out between more intensely active ones. In terms of pacing, if you have conversations inside an action scene or story development or something cinematic inside an action scene, and then it's framed by action, i.e. it's not actually meant to be a point of reflection, then the dialogue itself needs to maintain that intensity. That's definitely something we're doing in Mass Effect 2, because frankly we've built the systems to support it this time. These are systems we just didn't have before.

Before, you'd have characters talking with over the shoulder cameras, or interrupting the middle of combat if that's where you wanted it. Now we can have them ducking behind cover and you're interactively having a conversation about what you're going to do, but you're yelling over gunfire and you see tracers going over your head. You move up to the next position of cover, and you're yelling and interacting dialogically. There are scenes that we have in this really crazy bar, for instance, where the music is so loud you actually can't hear the conversation and it's all subtitled. It's like in a John Woo movie, where you've got the intensity of the bar and this crazy futuristic rave that's going on, and the conversation simply becomes a fluid means to express this amazing location.

Continued in Part Three. Check out twitter.com/game_on for even more game-related news and opinion.

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