How many times have you, as a gamer, saved the world or the universe? It could be ten, twenty or even fifty times but the story is generally the same, especially when it boils down to the standard “aliens have invaded, fight back,” or various riffs on such a theme. I’m getting a little tired of the grandiose nature of the current gaming landscape due to this focus on the “epic” scale of things. It feels as if a developer doesn’t have a fist-pumping narrative to really show off in trailers and interview then the game won’t sell, which is quite possibly true but as we increase the scale we lose a lot of personality leading to faceless scale and boring characters.
The game that has stuck in my mind as an example of such a large scale game that fatigues me to an incredible degree is Mass Effect 3. An enjoyable game, of course, but one that really loses much of its charm by focussing on one singular universe shaking prospect which is taking down the Reapers. The entirety of the game all ties into the idea that we’re going to defeat these huge enemies by gathering support, rallying troops and rekindling old friendships which is all fantastic, but these encounters feel sullied by the need for an overarching plot line. It gets the blood pumping, of course, with the feeling of creating an army really letting you feel like a force to be reckoned with but it never really beats the feeling I received when playing through loyalty missions in Mass Effect 2. The dilemmas and struggles of my fellow squad mates felt real, so fixing them before they truly felt they could lay their life on the line for a cause was something I honestly couldn’t skip even ignoring the gameplay mechanic clearly at work.
This was simply due to the personal nature of each mission. They inhabited a small scale world within the Mass Effect universe and felt much weightier due to this. The fact that every move you made within each individual story changed the outcome and the feelings of your squad mates was huge leaving me with a connection to characters. Saving the universe was nice and all, but the connection I made with various characters will stay with me far longer than the outcome of the series. The fact I also utterly hated some characters was something quite fantastic too, as I didn’t hate them through repeated dialogue or terrible AI, I hated them due to their simulated personalities and these feelings only came to light during Mass Effect 2 due to the time being spent largely on forging connections.
Catherine essentially showcases my viewpoint in much better ways than I ever could, reducing the entirety of the gameplay while the main character, Vincent, is awake to a bar which is a singular entity that sees many people from all walks of life entering its doors. Without delving too much into the story, we know that all the men in the bar are suffering through the same problem and, despite the fact it’s generally caused by their own actions, there is a great sense of camaraderie between everyone as you slowly forge bonds and learn their stories. Of course, and I can’t avoid spoilers here so I apologise, when everything begins to go wrong and you begin to find out that people start dying if you haven’t supported them enough or discussed their problems with them you begin to feel incredibly guilty. In my first playthrough all but one man was left which made me feel massively guilty, but saving this one life meant more to me than saving a world or a universe ever has before. Vincent’s friends also create a believable group who rip on each other, drink together and sometimes even help each other, which is another facet that makes the bar such an integral aspect of the connection felt between Vincent and other Patrons. Other cutscenes take place and help to build the world along with the nightmare sequences but nothing quite beats simply asking some people about their day to really draw you into the world.
Saving the world will always be one of the more popular scenarios in videogaming. It’s such an obscenely easy trope to fall back on when you’re discussing the story and one that many will never tire of simply due to many not caring for the scenario so long as they are allowed to murder anything, speed through the story and jump into the multiplayer. However, as we start to push back the epic scale developers begin to explore much more interesting aspects of a story and even begin to weave themes into such a small space leading to much richer story experiences. As gaming grows and grows into an industry of gargantuan proportions perhaps the true path to the creation of fresh scenarios is to simply scale back the space in which the player is allowed to experience.