Mass effect and cinematic interaction design

By Olly Wright, Strategy Director, StrawberryFrog Amsterdam

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With our eyes and minds focussed on the advertising and online industries, it’s easy for us to forget there’s another place where huge strides are being made in engagement, storytelling and interaction design: video games.

Gaming has historically been considered the red-headed stepchild of movies and literature when it comes to delivering compelling stories. But that’s no longer the case: despite the mainstream view that games consist of mindless violence and cardboard cut-out stereotypical macho / bimbo characters, the best of modern games are beginning to deliver unparalleled emotional depth and sophistication.

The best yet is a game called Mass Effect 2. The developers: Bioware, have been making what are called ‘role playing games’ for years. In this genre you play a character in a complex world populated by a range of characters. As a player you have to complete some personal quest, assigned to you at the beginning of the story, all the while ‘living’ in this virtual world, getting involved in the inhabitants politics as your goals co-incide or clash with theirs. Inevitably you become caught up in some epic events, leading to a climactic ending.

With ME2 Bioware have delivered a masterpiece. Aesthetically, at times the game is almost indistinguishable from a movie. With A-grade voice acting from the likes of Martin Sheen, Carrie-Anne Moss, Seth Green, Tricia Helfer and Michael Dorn, and a very strong script, it’s polished sci-fi entertainment as good as the best you’ll see in the Cinema.

But then the magic happens. Rather than having to sit back and passively experience the story (with the ‘real’ gameplay squeezed in between), the dialogue itself is central to the game. During each scene, you have multiple choices of how you’ll react. Make the choice, and your character (Commander John Shepard) starts talking back. Depending on your choices, the conversation and interaction can go any number of ways. The conversations flow naturally, and before you realise it, you have been sucked in to a World where you’re relating to these fictional characters as real people. You start to care deeply about them, and how they feel about you. And when the inevitable conflict occurs, the moral choices thrown up can be agonising. 

Especially remarkable is the complexity of the choices you face. There are no simple black-and-white decisions in this game. Rather: making the ‘right’ choice is something you have to weigh up carefully. In the dark, brutal and corrupt universe of Mass Effect, sometimes the ends do justify the means. Will you lie to win the loyalty of your colleagues? Will you torture a possibly innocent man to save lives with the clock running out? How do you respond to the romantic overtures of a woman who is dangerous and close to deranged by the experiments conducted on her, yet whom you need the help of to achieve your aims? How do you react when you realise the supposedly ‘good guys’ you’ve been working for turn out to have darker motives? 

The intensity of the decisions you have to make, combined with the fact that each decision will leave an impact for the rest of the game (and even into the sequel… your actions carry across), delivers an engagement that no movie, or campaign can touch. The act of personal interaction plus meaningful consequence creates a poignancy that takes immersive entertainment to a new level. Every decision matters.

Time for us to sit up and take note.

After all, in marketing what we seek is meaningful interaction between the brands we represent and their consumers. What Mass Effect 2 (and the best similar games) show us, is that meaningful consequential interaction can deliver impact like nothing else. When the decision really means something, the connection to the decision and the story behind it is an order of magnitude stronger. We are left not entertained, but deeply moved, and connected.

I’m not going to tell you how to do that here. At StrawberryFrog we have our ideas on how these new forms can be worked into what we do. But it’s an embryonic medium: right now there’s no rules. So go discover them, then break them. And play the game while you’re at it ;)

Here’s a few youtube videos that give you a flavour of the game, although nothing can compare to sitting there and facing the decisions and their consequences yourself:

The trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5DL6jFXfhM

An interview with the Lead Cinematic Designer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CDzViwVACs4

Gameplay example:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INKVssjpOZU

And yes… the game has sex in it:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7VuFcTW9N0