1s and 0s: On Binaries and Experience within BioWare’s MASS EFFECT

In Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s Expressive Processing (2009), he spends some time exploring the dialogue- and quest- trees that constitute much of the gameplay of BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic (2004). One of the things Wardrip-Fruin wants to interrogate about the game is how we might learn from failures in its coding. KotOR is a game that feels like it is part of a fully-formed universe, not just in the spatial or astronomic sense, but also in how it constructs a series of social interactions and quests within the diegesis of the game. These interactions often feel contingent and actionable enough to approach some of the conditions of social life its players encounter out in the “real world,” beyond its textual bounds.

In addition to this, the game is addicting; Wardrip-Fruin, quoting William Huber, refers to the text as a “statistical bildungsroman” because of the particulars within the gameplay that encourage the player to continue playing, particularly how one earns experience points (or “XP”) Like many RPGs, “as characters accumulate experience they increase in ‘level’ and become more capable in the game world,” driving the player to play for “forty, eighty, or more hours,” creating an experience “more akin to a thick German novel of personal development than, for instance, a film (or even a season of television)” (Wardrip-Fruin 62). Beyond this description, KoTOR is a game about choice. As he acknowledges, what this more-basic description of the rules of the game might elide is how freely these threads of development unfurl; one can often choose the order of quests, or what order to visit given planets, or whether to adhere to the dark or light side of the force, in a way that feels somewhat freed from the linearity of some RPGs of yore.

When Wardrip-Fruin moves beyond the basic outline of the gameplay, into the game’s failures, he begins to illustrate that the underlying code of the game, which the player can often feel but not totally perceive, as it proceeds in computational, linear fashion through if/or loops. As it turns out, crafting a game with such a freedom inevitably produces nonsensical leaps within its narrative and diegetic spaces; it is impossible to write a long and complex video game with a nonlinear quest-tree logic without inevitably gumming up its novelistic or televisual qualities along the way.

For his example on the weird narrativity of KotOR, Wardrip-Fruin narrates a play-through of the game in which he completes a quest on Dantooine, proceeding through a dialogue tree with a woman whose lover has been captured by her father, agreeing to use her key to free him, then talking both families’ fathers out of an ambush and battle, through some dialogue-tree finesse. He then takes his character to the male lover’s compound, where the male lover’s father requests, on two separate visits, that the player rescue his son, the one we have already seen being taken back to the compound. Wardrip-Fruin then returns to the female lover’s estate, seeking to report on another, unrelated, quest, a death in that family, only to find that the estate has emptied out, with no unplayable characters with which to speak (63-65). Because of the computational path of the quest tree, one which can be felt but not entirely read or understood, not much makes narrative sense, although it is clear that there was some expectation, among the coders of the game, that the player would visit the male lover’s compound first. Without any intention to do so, Wardrip-Fruin shut down a tree of possibilities within the game, with no recourse to correct himself but load an old save file or play through again, with the coders’ ordering in mind. He has revealed the basic, binary structure of computing present in a game that wants to pretend such formulations do not exist; he can either do things his way, or more-linearly as the programmers intended, though to totally pursue his own path would be to close off the possibility of extra XP or a feeling of completion within the nondiegetic, external rules that a “serious gamer” might try to pursue in order to elicit a feeling of completion out of the text.

I already saved him, bro!

I already saved him, bro!

One of the things I find so interesting about Wardrip-Fruin’s narration of failure is that the if/or logic of the loop is also a logic built into the essential, intended, and basic play within KotOR. This is to say that, regardless of the invisibility of the quest- and dialogue-tree outcomes, an invisibility one might sense if she or he plays without external help, the game still unfurls within a similar if/or logic. Binarism constitutes the basic structure of KoTOR, as games within the Star Wars universe must adhere to gameplay that follows either the dark or light sides, and the future of this universe depends upon its player making a choice between these two sides. Regardless of whether a player encounters the type of glitch that Wardrip-Fruin did in his playthrough of KoTOR, she or he will explicitly understand that, by the end of the game, things will have shifted in one of these two directions, and that the game’s ending will depend entirely on the “good” or “bad” decisions made within its various dialogue-trees. The failure that Wardrip-Fruin experiences actually has much to say about the most-essential narrative structure that can be seen and felt within the game’s diegesis.

Building on Wardrip-Fruin’s work on quest- and dialogue-trees within KoTOR, I was interested in interrogating whether Mass Effect, BioWare’s next “nonlinear” franchise, might contain corrections to the problem of broken quest-trees. I was also interested in whether Mass Effect broke from KoTOR’s binarism, where the gameplay outcomes within individual quests almost always follow one-or-the-other, if/or logic. I learned that Mass Effect, while often having the appearance of nonlinear, free choice, is rather much like its predecessor(s) in the KoTOR franchise. One can feel, see, and predict the “good” or “bad” choices they are making, to the point that certain skills you can earn within the game (“Charm” and “Vagabond,” respectively) will alert you to a moment where you will be forced to make some kind of final, binary choice.

The "good," charm-determined choice in blue, with the "bad" choice underneath

A “good,” charm-determined choice in blue, with the “bad” choice underneath.

At the same time, I find that one of the most-interesting things about this relatively unchanged gameplay is how often the narrative and quests seem to gesture towards it. The narrative of Mass Effect feels obsessed with humanist binarisms, whether between human and alien or between human and machine. This manifests itself in interesting ways within dialogue-trees. Often, if one has neither enough Charm or Vagabond points, the “bad” choice is the humanist one, while the “good” promotes interspecies peace. This plays out in funny ways throughout the game. For example, the central quest of the game eventually reveals that a “species” of machines, the Reapers, exist only to destroy all organic life in the galaxy, but that they must do so through a kind of cyborg binarism:

Saren 1 Saren 2

In the longer, “more-academic” version of this project, I attempt to interrogate not only how Mass Effect fails in similar or different fashion from KotOR, but also how it acknowledges this structure of potential failure through a cyborg narrative that seeks to make its player think seriously about the problems of binary logics or thinking. I want to examine and write through the game’s failures while also explaining how it acknowledges these failures, in a mode of narrative and gameplay-centered self-reference that might force the player to realize just how-guided their path through the game might be; while there are so many choices to be made within its narrative(s), Mass Effect also plays itself, in some ways, creating a cyborg gameplay structure where organic and cybernetic agencies must cooperate to create a meaningful narrative.

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