Trouble Thinking

March 1, 2010

Mass Effect and Mini-games

Filed under: Game Reviews — Tags: , , — Durandal @ 1:44 pm

So in the interest of not becoming Mr. Ill News, and because we just had a Mass Effect review, I’m going to subject readers to an examination of mini-games in Mass Effect.

First, the basics. What is a “mini”-game, you ask? A minigame is what happens when a developer realizes that they want you to pick a lock or hack into a computer but oh no they basically made the entire other 95% of the game based entirely around shooting guns at things and they don’t have time to integrate a fully formed system for bread baking or hopskotch or whatnot. So instead, you get kicked to a screen and play a game that’s designed to be a quick and mostly metaphorical representation of the event. I find these interesting, because they fit into games in a really complex manner that I assume very few people understand, since they’re almost always terrible.

The most basic method of making one is to just crib from another source that kind of sort of makes sense and is already a full-fledged game. Or was, back when games were worse. So hacking in the game Bioshock? Pipe Dream. Hacking/everything in Mass Effect? Bad Simon Says. The idea being that if you’re going to interrupt game-play every so often, it makes sense to interrupt it with something that will appeal to the player. Sure, breaking a lock with Tetris doesn’t make sense, but it’s easier than crafting a fully realized lock-picking system that the majority of players will never bother with.

This has downsides, however. It’s incredibly difficult to get these mini-games to actually make sense in the context of the game-world, which makes for a jarring transition every time you engage in one breaking whatever immersion you had, and generally feeling cheaper than the rest of the game. In addition, you know the player didn’t buy the mini-game. They weren’t going into Mass Effect frothing for more chances to play Simon Says. So you make it a bit easier, because you don’t want to punish people for not honing their skills at an entirely separate game

So, in the first Mass Effect, absolutely every non-shooting action involved playing a really easy version of Simon Says, or smearing “Omni-Gel” on something. I understand where they were coming from. They couldn’t make a separate fully-featured system for all 10 or so optional tasks they allowed, so they figured they would just make one generic system and apply it liberally. They didn’t quite realize the consequences. For one, it meant that on a first play-through, a thorough player could be playing easy-mode Simon Says four to five hundred times, which is several hundreds more times than any sane person wanted to play. For another, it meant that in their effort to create a generic Optional Task that could fit any situation or player, they created a task that couldn’t fit any situation or player. It was challenging to no one, interesting to no one, and fit nowhere.

They learned their lesson, mostly. Mass Effect 2 does something very simple to the system that manages to make it work without actually altering much. You still get popped to a mini-game when you want to crack a safe or bypass a door or hack a terminal. What changes is that avilable actions are pared down and split into two categories: Bypass and Hack. Bypass is a quick timed “match two” game, almost always 4 sets, but sometimes fewer if they want to make a necessary one easier. The other is a scrolling series of “code segments”, which must be matched to the one displayed at the top of the screen in a short time, with penalties for incorrect answers. This rather minor division of optional tasks allows for an environment that makes sense. “Right” you think to yourself “If I can bypass that door, I should be able to get those people out. Then maybe I can hack that terminal and see what was going on here…” And really, that’s what these tasks need to be, for all that they remain separate from the core of the game, they need to feel like something your character would actually do in order for them to become something you care a little bit about.

Now, scanning, that was some low-class bullshit.


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