Mass Effect 3 – Saving the RPG (Part 4)

New posts on Wednesday! Not all Wednesdays just…when I have them ready on Wednesdays.

Leaping forward a bit in the story and we reach The Citadel, one of only a few places in the Mass Effect series that truly feels like home. I think being grounded in RPGs with a hub is a really good design to bring to the table. The “board the ship and check every character for new dialog” routine is something so done to death in space RPGs that by this point we have parodies of this process.

But the strength of being able to go to these characters that we do not bring on missions allows players to feel like all characters have some sort of a progress across the game’s story (or some don’t because their emotional attachment to the quest is…minimal). We see these ideas even taken to new expanses in games like Knights of the Old Republic 2 where character interactions don’t entirely involve the player (though they may still surround and regard the player in their character’s absence). Sometimes as you board the ship, characters are talking in secrecy to others about card games, routine maintenance, disagreements that you might settle, or stories from their past that they wish to remain hidden from you in particular. This allows the developers to show players that characters might choose to hide something from their avatar, but restrict the player’s ability to understand what those characters are doing, or what their motivations are. It’s also, altogether, a very interesting social interaction that video games don’t explore often enough in RPGs. So often the hero quest means everyone wants to get to know you, everyone opens up to you, you’re not just this action hero, you’re their developmental hero. The possibility that a person around you loathes you, wants nothing to do with you outside their own self-interest, and even conspires against you and questions you behind your back is…very un-gamey in a party-based RPG.

Regardless the “hub” remains the wonderful go-to grounding zone of the party-based RPGs that BioWare tends to make. And with space RPGs it’s the hub is your ship: The vessel by which you pursue your quest. It’s a wonderful design but I feel like this grounding in a place that’s so important feels even more rewarding when it is earned. And that’s why we talk about the Citadel today instead of the Normandy or the Ebon Hawk.

In Mass Effect 1, the Citadel was what Taris worked as in Knights of the Old Republic. The game starts with a small / short mission that gets the story in motion before you and your party join you on a more non-hostile location where the story develops further and you get to know the characters traveling with you. KotOR 1 did this by crash landing the player and 2 allies on Taris while you hid from a Sith army takeover of the planet. Many quests across Taris work towards rescuing one of your two allies, getting to know other party members that will join you, joining a bounty hunter guild, becoming a fighting champion, a podracer, and then hatching a plan to get off the planet safely. The journey involves getting to know the ins and outs of a planet that has a layered socioeconomic society. The rich live in the beautiful city while the poorer and less privileged live in the lower city and the destitute live in the undercity surrounded daily by the possibility of death, eeking out a way to survive near sewers. The end reward of your long journey is the spaceship that becomes your world hub for the rest of the game. It’s by no stretch of the imagination that BioWare developed Taris as a part of the game players would spend nearly 15-20% of their KotOR experience on. It’s developmental for the story, the characters, and the many different quests and deeper RPG encounters that players will experience across the rest of the game. The same is repeated in KotOR 2 on a mining asteroid. And with Mass Effect 1 BioWare gave players time on a peaceful super space station called “The Citadel”. It functions pretty much the same way Taris does. You uncover more of the plot of what’s going on in the main game, prove it to the Space Council so you can be granted Super Space Agent status, gather a team, meet many people who you’ll remember in years to come while learning a lot about the technology and ancient race that predated human and alien civilizations (where the Citadel comes from), and (lastly) get the awesome space ship that lets you do the rest of the game’s quests.

For players of the series, returning to the Citadel in Mass Effect 3 and hearing its musical motifs will be reminded of the wonder and curiosity of the station while they gape in awe at just how huge this thing is. It almost feels like Taris and the Citadel are even meant to LOOK similar just to plant in the players’ mind the concept of “open” and “big”, or even “sprawling” when the core games actually consist of smaller worlds that they just spend a lot of time on doing many things. A location like this early on in the game would help players feel like the world is bigger than it is. And that’s…a wonderful thing to do to players actually. Half-Life and Half-Life 2 are these phenomenally paced corridor shooters but because of the use of vistas after long amounts of time making progress and carrying the player to new places, the games feel like they span an entire country or an entire facility in a matter of 8-12 hours.

Design decisions like this would be a fault if BioWare didn’t recognize it and support it the ways they have. In Mass Effect 3, the Citadel feels similar. We’ve escaped Earth, done a mission on Mars and now, for the first time, we explore layers/floors of small side quests, have many different conversations and get an idea of where we’ll be going in the game next without being given the urgency to go there NOW. It’s a chance to catch your breath, get your bearings for the absolutely dense stack of quests you’ll get before too long (too dense in Mass Effect 3, but that’s another entry).

The Citadel in Mass Effect 3 practically serves as a secondary hub as we return to it again and again. We watch characters overcome their losses, find ways to mingle and relax during the brief times they get shore leave, meet family members from their past for the first time, and players get to comprehend how the war is progressing. There’s entire floors dedicated to refugees where you overhear conversations about planets being entirely wiped out (poor Batarians), even some of your party members join the refugees to help their own species that have been run off planets. Meanwhile the political-based floors still have espionage and spy work ready for you to pick up. Even some missions that end on other worlds start at the Citadel as everyone knows it’ll be the last great place of defense in the galaxy, so refugees are going there first. People looking to join the war effort are leaving from there, and in many ways it is this gigantic central hub of communication.

I think this morphed hub that we return to across the game is something BioWare consciously decided to focus on in the game. We watch Kaiden as he rests up from his injury and is granted Super Space Spy status or sit next to our dying friend Thane. With Mass Effect 2 and other RPG titles of BioWare’s, the team was always small, elite, and performing a mission that wouldn’t involve an entire army. It fits with the designs of RPGs where parties and small teams are the foundation of the design (it’s an RPG, not an RTS). And so in the past players have always understood or perceived the scope of what they were doing through the lens of the small transport hub, the campfire that the whole party huddles around or the Ebon Hawk’s many comfortable and quiet rooms as it travels through the dark and silent space. Mass Effect 3 though is a mixture of the experiences. All out war is happening across the universe while Shepard continues to gather his private team of fantastic soldiers and act in the shadows of the same fight for the universe.

In simple terms: You, Shepard, and your team, are reminded of what you’re fighting for every time you return here.


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