Why Bioware Matters

Monday, April 2, 2012
Bioware has been enjoying some well deserved success recently. I’ve  been impressed by their work from the first time Imoen and I ventured across Faerun. Since then I have crashed on Coruscant, retrieved Monsters for Lady Aribeth, studied the ways of the Spirit Monks, fought against the Darkspawn, become a trusted agent for the resurgent Sith Empire and most recently defended the galaxy from the Reapers.

What sets Bioware apart from other RPG developers is the way they manipulate the play space. Take any other RPG developer, Bethesda, for example. A game like Skyrim is enormous, deep open and beautiful. But the way it simply exists around your character can be problematic for story-telling. The standard Dovakhiim has almost no restrictions on their behavior. This often leads to outlandish and absurd occurrences that, while entertaining, detract from the main story. I’ve put well over 40 hours into Skyrim and still haven’t completed the main quest line.

The narrative threads are woven a little tighter in most Bioware games. In Mass Effect 3 you can wander the galaxy completing side quests, but even those contribute to the same ultimate goal. The universe in Mass Effect feels meatier as a result and that dissonant chord the absurdities of Skyrim can strike isn’t so easily plucked. You can more easily slip into the confines of this universe because it fits more contours of the world you actually live in.

The unfettered freedom in Skyrim is wonderful. However, allowing a player to be fast and loose with the principle story leads to a fragile narrative. Observe:
    1.  “Dovakhiim, now that you have mastered the Voice, go and bring death to Alduin.” Well first I’m going to see what’s over there, and probably get distracted by ten different shiny things and caves and cairns on the way. Oh, and I should look into the whole dark brotherhood thing, see what that’s about. Then I’ll make a ton of awesome weapons and armor that I’ll probably sell or store in the bottomless trunks and end tables in my house. I might get married too.
      2. “Shepard, the Crucible is nearing completion. Get out there and stop the Reapers.” Okay, well I’ll check out these Cerberus bases because there’s something going on there, oh, and I should see what’s going on with the Rachni, because they could be really helpful at the end. And then I should see about retrieving some other items for assorted people to raise morale and gather the scattered forces around the galaxy. I’ll probably have sex with some of the crew too.
Really the point is this. Many RPG’s want you to be free. Be that to pickpocket entire villages, eat baby chickens, or wander vast wildernesses. These games have stories in them, but it becomes secondary to your experience. Bioware wants to make you a part of the stories they create. Like any good sci-fi or fantasy novel, Bioware’s games mold you into the universe they create. That’s something special.