[ME3] Towards a cinematic experience
I'm keeping this article as spoiler-free as possible.
I have already finished the game, thanks to the kind internet pirates who have uploaded it for us Europeans who were to receive it on the 9th. Don't go all prim and proper on me, my legal copy is on its way.
I would say that the experience was enjoyable, despite the complaints that I might have risen along the journey, the most glaring of which is perhaps of a personal nature. You see, I don't like my games to resemble movies; that's what movies are for. Thus, I tend to feel irritated by an excess of non-interactive scenes. They are inherently more spectacular in that they are being observed, and that is for me a drawback. Direct experience ensures engagement, and since the beginning of the game, with Shepard being moved around the base and told about the situation, I didn't feel immersed in the plot.
Not even with the whole save-the-Earth imperative. Whatever happened in the Earth was shown in the background: the Reapers were destroying stuff, presumably people were dying, bins were on fire; but all of this was happening on the backdrop, and didn't intersect with my path through rooftops and debris-filled buildings. You may stop and look at the sights, but it is hard to disregard that it is a mere moving picture, despite its flashiness and amount of detail. But Shepard is busy jumping between rooftops. Such a background is typical of the moving pictures, whereas games tend (or should tend) to spatial freedom. There was one instance of personal experience of the civilian massacre, when one kid hides in the ducts and Shepard tries to reassure him and get him to safety, but this didn't help setting the mood, quite the contrary, as I thought of it as an over-the-top emotional trick. Much to my dismay, the kid would make further appearances. In her dreams. I tried, but I was unable to take it seriously.
Have you noticed that I have referred to 'Shepard' and not 'the player'? In this third instalment, I've felt more starkly than ever the dissociation between me as a player, and the toon I'm moving around. I still made the no-nonsense renegade choices I would have personally made (probably; minus the punching in the face of some people), but the game didn't let me do the talking. I still directed the general idea behind what I wanted to say, but those choices carried onto full-fledged dialogues in which I had little to choose. I felt like an spectator of Jennifer Hale's amazing voice-acting. This had also been an issue in previous games, at least to me, because of the reason I've mentioned above: I don't like being an spectator.
I acknowledge that voiced protagonists are appealing to a lot of people. I do enjoy Hale's acting, as a matter of fact. But that's what it is: acting. Another layer of the cinematic cake that I've swallowed, which was pretty tasty. Nevertheless, I don't like the concept behind these games. There seems to be a chasm between gameplay and story, which has led to the franchise's nickname 'guns’n'conversation epic'. Oh, and the combat is still terrible. It's functional, but not particularly compelling.
My dissociation from the character went even further when I took a particularly difficult decision, which involved killing a friend, and Shepard was not granted the lines I wanted to say, and instead covered the whole thing up. I would have liked to be honest with my teammates, but Shepard instead kept a shameful silence. I was waiting for a paragon interrupt to speak my mind, but the dialogue went its way without consulting me. I know developers cannot contemplate every possibility, but still this was an important matter that I would have had to be able to get involved in. It felt as if Shepard was a character on her own, not the blank slate I was expecting to project into. Bioware is telling her story, not mine, this much is obvious. Then, why bother with choices at all, if it is their character?
Then we have a colossal amount of cinematics, some of them completely unnecessary (like Shepard dodging falling debris/jumping to the shuttle/any variation thereof - Why can't I do that stuff?). For instance, the kid-situation I referred to before was managed from a cinematic: why couldn't I try to catch him, as a player, instead of seeing Shepard try? The other cinematics, the ones that involve briefing on the war and the Reapers attack, might be useful, although I always advocate for as much in-game action as possible. I don't know how they could have conveyed the engagement in space of the two forces without resorting to a cinematic, though.
In films and literature there is a device called 'focalization', which accounts for the alignment of the camera/text towards a particular character. The text gravitates towards the character that is focalised and highlights her presence using various narrative devices. As we are not inside the narratives, our only way to experience them is through identification with the character which is being focalised. In videogames, this is taken for granted because we are this character, and it is much more easy to relate. The developers can be much bolder and still not risk our dissociation. But I believe that Bioware has gone too far with his voice-acting, cutscenes and cutscene-like dialogues. Sometimes I felt like I was in charge, and sometimes I was just watching a movie, listening to what two actors were saying, or witnessing the heroics Shepard was executing, followed by a general praise.
Also, I was not convinced by the numerous attempts of Bioware to make me feel like a hero, partly because of my dissociation from Shepard, and partly because I'm impervious to (and irritated by) not-too-subtle attempts at emotional attachment. Another thing that irks me: could Bioware please stop telling me how awesome I am? I'm a big hero, it's a big war, I got it the first 10 minutes of cinematics.
This was a Hollywood-like gaming experience. One of those films that are jaw-dropping, and also manage to have a decent story. It shows how much they cared about it in the detail they put into the sceneries, the conversations, the amount of content. They listened to their fans and added much more interaction between teammates, and between teammates and Shepard's interlocutors; they also made the characters move around the ship, and inside the Citadel after you land. Those were highly appreciated treats. I enjoyed the game, let me state it again. I just thought this was a good opportunity for constructive criticism of a factor that I consider detrimental to the game experience: the imitation of the film medium. Games are a medium of its own, with their particular features and assets. Let's not mix them too much.