The Tree and the Wheel
The Mass Effect series is part-shooter, part-RPG, and part-space opera. While the series has brought the first two game mechanics together, it's not as though we haven't seen them done just as well or better. Still, from the cover-based shooter gameplay and RPG character growth, the series (which can now be label a trilogy) offers a unique experience in and of itself.
However, if there's one aspect the game has reinvented, it's conversing with other characters. Strangely enough, as much as I loved the game's combat (and I'm a sucker for covered-based gameplay), when ME2 was announced, hiding behind a wall while peeking out to blast enemy soldiers with my rifle wasn't the first thing that came to my mind. No, it was getting to see all my virtual galactic friends once again -- to see what they'd been up to and to tie up loose ends.
Mass Effect has delivered such a significant difference in the cinematic department. When the third and final chapter was announced, I was overcome with feelings of both joy and trepidation when I learned Ashley could be returning to the Normandy and the drama Shepard would go through if she'd found out he'd done the horizontal dance with Miranda. While the rest of the world would be fearing the Reapers, I'd probably be having my own problems in the captain's quarters ...
In my book, Mass Effect has become the Star Wars of the video game industry, but it hasn't earned that kind of fame just through excellent storytelling alone. It excels in giving the player a cinematic experience and a choice of what to say and do, something I haven't seen too many Star Wars games offer. We've all played plenty of games before that do this, but the choices we had available back then were a little more, well, limited.
As games matured, our choices have become much more elaborate. Games became more cinematic with the coming of voice actors, for better or worse -- unfortunately, not all games can be devoid of lockpicking masters or Jill sandwiches. But then came another problem that I didn't really notice until Mass Effect appeared: pacing.
Before voices, dialogue trees were the video game equivalent of Choose Your Own Adventure books, just with, well, actual gameplay in between. With full voice acting, it's not uncommon to call these games "almost like a movie." Almost being the key word here because any hint of a cinematic experience drops when all the characters pause silently with bated breath while the player looks at his long list of responses, like an actor in the middle of a play who's forgotten his next line.
Mass Effect changed the dialogue tree dramatically by implementing the dialogue wheel, a mechanic that doesn't get enough credit. There's no denying how much enjoyment I've gotten out of conversing with characters because of it. The wheel is structured in a way to minimize that awkward delay before your character's next line. Responses can be read quickly and, hopefully, accurately. The wheel helps immerse the player into the game world, doing away with that devil-and-angel-on-the-shoulder aspect.
"He just keeps talking to his shoulders. It's creeping me out."
Character responses tend to be placed on the right side of the wheel. Positive or diplomatic responses appear on the top, neutral responses in the middle, while negative or rash responses are on the bottom. The left side of the wheel offers an investigative option, which branches out more questions that Shepard can ask about the topic at hand. The player is then presented once again with the top and bottom responses in these branches.
But perhaps the most dramatic effect the dialogue wheel brings to the table is the speed of which the dialogue is chosen, and what's amazing is how subtle the changes made to the selection method are that creates this effect. To keep the cinematic experience going, choices are paraphrased, which can be read in less than a few seconds, and the organized structure of the wheel makes the player confident that the response is of the personality they're going for. The spoken dialogue is then actually more elaborate then what was actually chosen.
The other subtle change is just when exactly the dialogue wheel appears. Usually, when it's time for the protagonist to respond, the choice is then shown, giving an awkward silence for a brief moment, or longer, depending on how many options there are or how long the player debates with himself. Unlike other games that wait until the entire set of dialogue is finished, Mass Effect shows the wheel just a few seconds before it's Shepard's time to speak. This simple timing alteration gives the player a chance to respond in sync. When the dialogue option is chosen, the answer is actually queued up, in which Shepard will say it at the appropriate time.
In a way, the dialogue wheel turns conversation into a fast-paced reflex game. Respond quickly, and your reward is seeing the Shepard you've known for three games carrying out his or her words of wisdom with no awkward pauses. No delay creates the illusion you're watching a movie, making script changes on the fly with no one the wiser. It may be easier taking your time, but it can also be more fun going for your first instincts -- after all, real life doesn't wait either.
Many people would call this immersion, but as much as the wheel gives, it also takes away. The wheel offers magnificent pacing, but the changes to the selection method also take away variety. The difference can be seen in Dragon Age, which utilized the old tried-and-true dialogue tree, with lengthy choices. Nothing is paraphrased; what's chosen is exactly what the character will say. (That is if the main character even has a voice.)
When you compare the two conversation methods, the pros and cons become clear. Dialogue trees provide concise and clear options. What you see is what you get at the cost of pausing conversation every few seconds while characters wait and stare.
It's best not to keep Jack waiting......
Bioware's dialogue wheel turns conversation into a never-ending quick time event that becomes second nature once you memorize the input patterns. But the wheel's paraphrased choices sometimes don't exactly turn out the way you'd expect, and expanding the wheel's number of choices contradicts the point of its seamless dialogue input, and thus, most choices become purely black and white. (Something Mass Effect 3 suffers from, as there aren't any neutral responses. I guess by now it's too late to flesh out Shepard's personality -- you're either an ass or not.)
Ultimately it comes down to what gamers value more -- immersion or variety? Maybe it depends on the game. The Mass Effect universe is no doubt more action-packed than any typical fantasy RPG. Fantasy games tend to stretch out more, both in the ways players traverse and the sense of urgency, so more choices and longer dialogue options aren't so bad.
Games are slowly becoming interactive movies, but is it for the better? I'd be lying if I said I didn't want future games to adapt Bioware's dialogue wheel, but is the lack of variety worth it? It's hard to tell for sure. Perhaps Bioware will influence developers, or perhaps this will stay a Bioware exclusive. It may be a while before we find a balance between the two, so we'll have to see what the future holds.
Editor's Note: Screenshots of Mass Effect 3 are via Gamespot.