Let’s Talk Dialogue: Mass Effect vs. Deus Ex

Comparing the two of the most talkative games to see which has the most charm.

The Mass Effects are great games. Years from now, we’ll likely look back on them some of the highlights of the PS360 generation. What’s refreshing about the series is that the reasons for it’s popularity are story, settings, and characters. The acting and the writing make them not just some of my favourite games, but my current favourite sci-fi of any medium. It’s leading the charge for story driven gaming, so it’s necessary – especially considering the influence Bioware has on gaming right now – to give criticism where criticism is due. Otherwise, what will happen if we all keep saying, “Mass Effect is amazing!” when parts of its design are starting to crack?

In gaming, because of the “play” aspect of the medium, once something’s been done better it’s very hard to go back. A third person shooter without a cover system would be hard to deal with. And remember the days when characters made no effort to try and grab ledges, and would fall pitifully to their death? Mass Effect is not immune, and there’s one core mechanic that feels like it’s going rusty: the dialogue system. Yeah, I know, it’s pretty good, and chances are you really like it. But it could be so much better. And the game that’s raised the bar? Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Hands up if you’ve ever spoken to someone? All of you? Great! So you’ll know what it’s like then. You adapt your responses, instinctively, depending on what the other person says. You also adapt on a person-to-person basis. Think of a few people you know, and then think of how you talk to them. There’s variations with each. What we do not do is plough through every conversation we have in the same tone because we’re a “Paragon” on this playthrough. And very, very rarely do we base our responses on arbitrary measures of “good” and “bad”. In fact, I’d argue we never do that.

This is where Deus Ex succeeds, and exceeds Mass Effect. There are, like in Mass Effect, dialogue events through the game where the camera focuses on another person and Adam Jensen (who you play as) has nice little chat with them. The difference in how these function is that you’re reacting, not leading. Each character you deal with has different personality traits, and the labels of the dialogue options are the likes of “Emphasise”, “Inspire”, “Crush”, “Absolve”. There’s no good or bad here, you’ve got to consider the person you’re dealing with, not your avatar’s simplistic moral compass. There’s a flow to the conversations, a back-and-forth – it feels natural. You certainly can’t power-through with one style and expect success. When I encountered a difficult ex-colleague I brought up his unpleasant past for some emotional blackmail to get what I wanted. But when Jensen had an argument with his boss, I had to play it safe and politically, prying what I wanted out of him while making sure not to invoke his quick temper. Like in real life, everyone is different.

It’s not just the relative simplicity of the dialogue options that hinders the Mass Effect design; it’s the wider nature of the game itself. Deus Ex is far more open, not just in dialogue, but in gameplay in general. I’m not suggesting Mass Effect 3 should see you crawling through vents and playing stealthy, but the fairly linear design does have implications when talking to characters. The game can’t let you fail. Even if you’re an ass to everyone you meet, you can play to the conclusion. There’ll be a few more shootouts, but you’ll still save the universe. In Deus Ex, because of the flexibility in gameplay, you can entirely screw up your negotiations with someone; you’ll just have to find a more difficult way around. If choice is going to continue evolving in games, it can’t be limited to one area, or there’s a knock-on effect where one restriction denies further freedoms.

And here’s the third blow to Mass Effect: Shepard is a bit mental. Since I find the whole “red versus blue” side of the dialogue reductive and patronising, my way around is to simply ignore it. I don’t give a damn about what the game thinks is good or bad, I’ll play how I want. What I end up with is a 2:1 split Paragon to Renegade. This would solve many problems, if Sherpard wasn’t two entirely different people. Paragon Shepard is calm and reasoned, Renegade Shepard is aggressive and irrational. The very voice of the character changes; the two sides feel disparate, and it’s jarring. Unless you choose one or the other consitently (and if so, what’s the use of choice?) this saviour of the universe comes across schizophrenic. Adam Jensen on the other hand, is Adam Jensen no matter what. The delivery is consistent, and I felt a sense of freedom because of it. I was safe in the knowledge that when talking to Jensen’s mother-in-law, whether I responded with “Empathetic”, “Sympathetic” or “Detached”, I wouldn’t wince when he says something I never intended.

What frustrates me is that I know Bioware are more than capable. There are situations where the dialogue doesn’t judge the player and tests their social ability instead. Take many of the crew interactions in the second game, a game that had a focus on team-building and managing a crew. The first game has the best example, which you’ll recognise immediately if you played. It’s a highly volatile situation where a member of your team is angered by your actions and gives an ultimatum. This can end with them rejoining your side, or with their death. Paragon won’t mean they live, Renegade won’t mean they die. Morals are given a back seat while you attempt to reach a resolution. It’s a high point of the series for me.

So where now? Well, I’m not expecting Mass Effect 3 to modify their established system. The best thing about the series is your persistent character, but this also means that change will be limited, and it’s been many years since the first game. There’s also signs it goes back further than 2007. A friend of mine made a smart point by saying that the Paragon/Renegade system is Bioware stuck in their ways from KOTOR’s Jedi/Sith divide. Mass Effect’s otherwise phenomenal storytelling is haunted by the ghosts of the morally black and white world of Star Wars. Bioware has to feel the need to compete again and be revolutionary, because as said at the start, games are ruthless in their treatment of archaic mechanics. It’s not just Deus Ex that should be making them nervous, anyone who’s played CD Projekt’s excellent Witcher series can see that the students are overtaking their masters in many respects.

The last thing I want to see is one of my favourite developers go the way of the health pack.

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