Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Mass Effect

I know I'm behind the times - Mass Effect has been out almost TWO MONTHS, and here I am just starting to play it! The horror of a slow reviewer!

The game seems okay, save for the fact that I spend half my time on elevators. It's definitely KotOR in space... I mean, KotOR in... um... other space... but at least the combat doesn't suck as bad.

My big problem with KotOR wasn't the combat, but the dialog. As I mentioned before, your choices are to talk like a spoiled fourteen year old boy or a naive fourteen year old girl, with an occasional "go away" tossed in for kicks.

In Mass Effect, the dialog is a bit (a tiny bit) less idiotic, and I've discovered something. Because the dialog is better, I actually suffer from an uncanny valley problem with dialog. In KotOR, the conversational dialog was SO BAD that it didn't really come off as inhuman, it just came off as bad. But in Mass Effect, the dialog is unsettling in its failure to be human.

Because it's a static dialog tree, a given line of questioning will result in a given sound bite. Unfortunately, while this sound byte is always in character, it doesn't often follow conversationally. I frequently find myself giving a curt goodbye to people I was having a fun conversation with, or taking freakishly wide tangents at random moments. If you talked like that in real life, people would definitely think you were a bit... off the meds, yeah?

I understand the limitations, of course. I'm not saying they could have done a better job on any kind of reasonable budget. But it's an interesting side effect: improve the quality of the dialog, and suddenly it's uncanny.

The graphics, too, suffer from the uncanny valley.



Jojo said...

Interesting comment re: the uncanny valley and dialog. Your parallels to the visual uncanny valley made me immediately try to draw a parallel solution. Many people have realized in the past couple of years that a strong artistic style that's not built around realism manages to sidestep the visual valley; this in turn made me wonder if something like that is possible with dialog too. Then I realized it already exists, somewhat. Hook at the aliens in Mass Effect... the ones that speak the most outlandishly manage to sound less 'wrong' (at least, to my ears they do). The Hanar (the purple/pink floating blob merchants) and the aliens you meet at the end of the plotline-required corporate world (trying to avoid spoilers here) both manage to avoid this somewhat by establishing a communication 'style' different enough from conversational English that the strange shifts in topic and attitude seem more like idiosyncrasies of their communication. I wonder if further 'stylizing' the languages would sidestep this issue more completely. Either way there seem to be as many parallels in applying this approach to audio vs visual as their are in their respective uncanny valleys.

Again, interesting point!

Craig Perko said...

That seems like it would work, but it's a hell of a sacrifice...

Ryan said...

I work as a designer and usability specialist and have done some work on speech applications recently. It was phone based and allowed the user to search for and get a person or business telephone number. What was interesting was how the users reacted to the speech of the application as it confirmed data and asked questions. Common phrases were recorded by the voice actor but uncommon words (like street names or suburbs) were constructed in grammar by the system and then pronounced after the relevant syllables were strung together (the process is quite complex and takes into account using the right inflection at the start, middle and end of each word) - even so the users immediately recognised the constructed words and often reacted poorly to them. At the same time they commented that they found the voice pleasant and easy to listen to.

Humans are great at detecting these kind of differences. Research has shown that most people have formed a firm opinion of the gender of an unseen speaker within half a second of first hearing the voice. They will also form a mental image of the speaker in their mind within a very short space of time afterwards.

Craig Perko said...

That's it exactly.

I don't think the solution lies in more realistic VOICES, in this case... but I'm not sure what a good solution is.

Olick said...

Its the fact that you can go from uptight "by the book" cop to insulting asshole just by moving your selection. Not to mention I find that, at least the main character, is pretty.. mannequin? He doesn't have much of a personality, aside from the 'nice guy' or 'jerk' you choose yourself. I play paragon, maybe the renegade side is better.

I haven't personally had much problem with the other character's dialog, however it IS all placed into this framework that is unrealistic. Noone notices if you take up way too much time, or keep re asking questions, and all the information you need is easily harvested. Everybody, even people who dislike you or otherwise seem like they would not be talkative turn into chatterboxes when you talk to them. This is very interesting, and means you can go around talking for hours. But its not really.. realistic.

Craig Perko said...

Yeah, I think it's the way that nobody actually reacts to you - they just answer the questions you ask.

I can say with certainty that the renegade side is worse. The problem with KotOR was that evil was just boring, so this time they don't make you evil, they make you "above the law".

The problem is that, for reasons unknown to me, "above the law" just means "asshole".

I mean, if you're going to have a universe that's so carefully factioned, why not use a proper faction-based renown system?

Peter Bessman said...

I get this feeling about gameplay also. I like to shoot stuff, both on and offline. You might think that means that I'm into the hyper-realistic variety of shooters, but that's actually pretty far from the truth. Making an homage to reality is about as far as you can get with me before I start getting pissed off. And the underlying reason is the same as what you're describing: the closer you get to reality, the more it seems unrealistic.

I think this is because, with current tech, any game which tries to emulate reality must, by definition, fail. To me, then, it comes off as a crap imitation. But, the other variety of game, which maybe alludes to reality at the most, seems more like a parallel dimension (one governed by a set of natural laws which are, in the best case, exceedingly fun).

Take health systems, for instance. The most realistic games of today say that, if you're shot, you bleed, so you need to patch yourself up. Well, ok. So apparently I only carry bandages? And I have an unlimited supply? What about clotting agents, like TraumaDex? And suppose I get a sucking chest wound and suffer tension pneumothorax? In a real blow out kit, I'd carry, at the very least, some saran wrap, duct tape, and a needle, which I'd use to create an impromptu valve between my second and third rib over the hyper-inflated lung (preferably before it starts crushing my heart). And the list goes on.

But, no, in a "realistic" game, it's just an endless supply of bandages. Blargh. Totally understandable, since implementing total reality is, today, impossible. But blargh nonetheless.

Of course, it might seem like I'm being ridiculous. And I have a good friend who's opinion is diametrically opposed to my own: in his book, the closer it gets to reality, the better. So based on this sample set of 2, it's not obvious which pattern is dominant, making it hard to discern what your targetable audiences are (one? the other? both?).

Ultimately, I think it's obvious that the market demands a range of products over the realism continuum. But, the upper end of that continuum won't get much exploration unless production costs go down and/or the immersive capabilites of technology go up. (As an aside, this has happened a bit; not greatly, but perhaps enough to explain why, say, quake/unreal type games aren't the golden children anymore.) So if I had to guess, I'd say that the average guy isn't as picky as you or I, but there is some degree of realism beyond which, with current technology, the quality of the experience diminishes for him. In that sense, we have enough technology to make games that are more realistic than usually seen, but insufficient technology to actually make such games fun.

Somebody should solve this problem. They would make ten million dollars.

Craig Perko said...

Inherently, game systems are a simplification. The idea is that we simplify the complicated, distracting stuff to allow the player to focus on the meat of the situation.

Unfortunately, a lot of games either have no meat or think that the complex, distracting stuff is the meat.