I recently started replaying the Mass Effect series – made me a MaleShep by the name of Hal (i.e. 2001: A Space Odyssey, not Malcolm in the Middle, though who am I kidding, really), he’s a redhead and a Renegade — and I realized something as I was meandering through ME1’s many sidequests. Almost every active space I traveled to looked the same. Like precisely the same except for environmental debris and, maybe, the locations or accessibility of doors. Every mine I visited looked the same as the mines before it. Every science station and gang hideout and derelict ship had nearly the same layout as the science stations, gang hideouts, and derelict ships before them. I was in awe that I hadn’t noticed this before. And I was embarrassed that my once giddy addiction to the first Mass Effect was so overwhelming that I didn’t take notice of the, well…lazy reuse of level designs.
And then, I started feeling guilty. Like really guilty over my own outbursts about uninspired level designs in games and the over-re-using of scenic elements. And that made me think about Dragon Age II, a game that I lambasted as dull, boring, and lazy in terms of environmental design. Indeed, by the time I was deep into the second act of DAII I was fully sick and tired of traveling through the same spaces with the same décors fighting the same groups of enemies. This constant repetition made DAII’s Kirkwall – the game’s main stage, save for a couple outlying areas — feel remarkably insipid. Over and over I traveled back and forth between the same dozen areas across Kirkwall only to hate each one a little more every time I came back. The fact that a new quest opened a new door along a path traveled dozens of times before did little to make things better. I was altogether taken in by DAII’s complex and intriguing story, but the general sense of “smallness” within the game undermined that wholeheartedly.
Back in Mass Effect, I continued working on various “Assignments,” traveling to different planets, taking out rogue scientists and bands of scavengers and mercenaries, and loving/hating the janky MAKO. And I continued to mull over this issue of sameness in game level design. And I wondered why it stuck out so badly to me in Dragon Age II and had only just revealed itself in Mass Effect, and, as well, why I didn’t seem to mind it as much. Aha…there’s the crux of the matter! Because when we’re playing our favorite games, we’re willing to forgive their sins much more readily (see: A Red Dead Rant). I didn’t quite realize the extent of my comfort and confidence with Mass Effect until this new playthrough. I’ve felt so contented while playing that I’ve been more than okay with the game’s flaws. It’s also apparent that Mass Effect’s setting as “an entire galaxy” over Dragon Age II’s single city simply feels more vast, even if we’re just talking semantics. So traveling to a new planet that’s different from the one you just came, even if it contains the exact same playable areas – mine, station, hideout, whatever – naturally feels “new,” even though it’s not. Not even a little.
I guess my rose-tinted Mass Effect glass have been a shade or two lighter, particularly since I’ve learned a thing or seven about the game industry and game development since first playing Mass Effect many moons ago. Back then, I was blindly in love. Mass Effect could do no wrong, no way, no how. Because it was Mass Effect. Now, though the fire’s rekindled, it casts a more critical, a more aware shadow. Fact is, I pay more attention to game now than I did back then. And attention must be paid if I am to keep this gaming thing going.
Bottom line: I’m sorry, Dragon Age II. I’m sorry about all the mean things I said about you being a dull, lazy, and boring game. You had your problems, but Mass Effect has its problems too, as do any games. All games. Every. Single. Game. I almost wish I could replay them all, all the ones that I didn’t seem to like for whatever reason. But I wish I could replay you, DAII, the most right now. But I can’t. Not yet anyway. I’ve got lots more Mass Effect ahead of me, and…well, there’s stuff I gotta do. Big stuff. Universe-saving shit and all that. But when I’m ready to come back round to Kirkwall again, I promise you’ll be the first to know.