Mass Effect 3 and interactivity in storytelling
March 15, 2012 | 1:14 am
Last week, Mass Effect 3 came out. And it’s been eating into my doing-other-stuff time ever since.
But Mass Effect 3 isn’t just interesting as a video game, and as the conclusion to a trilogy of stories I’ve been following for years. I find it interesting in its overall implications for electronic media and storytelling—including electronic literature.
Mass Effect 3 was built from the ground up to interact with other media. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any other game that has gone quite so far into linking itself across multiple platforms. Apart from the single-player game itself, it also includes a multi-player system that contributes to the success of the single-player campaign, a separate third-person shooter game for iOS—and today EA launched an iOS application, the Mass Effect 3 Datapad, that also contributes as well as providing access to some information resources from within the game itself.
To get the “best” ending from the single-player game, it is necessary to obtain “war resources,” each of which provides a numerical value to your tally. In addition to these resources, there is a “war readiness” modifier, which starts at 50% and can be raised by doing other things, like playing in multiplayer sessions or completing mini-games within the Datapad. (And reportedly social-networking tie-ins, like perhaps a Facebook game, are on the horizon.) The number of resources you earn is multiplied by that percentage for your final readiness score, which has to be above a certain amount to get the best ending.
And for that matter the Datapad does not just have minigames to play. It also includes access to game resources such as Mass Effect 3’s expansive Codex, an in-game encyclopedia about characters, races, equipment, worlds, and other things that make up the game setting. (Some of my friends jokingly refer to the Mass Effect series as “an encyclopedia with a game built around it”.) And there are also “email” messages from game characters, triggered by certain events in the single-player campaign.
All this leads to players being able to cultivate a greater sense of immersion in the game. Instead of necessarily only getting their Mass Effect 3 fix within the game itself, now they can absorb themselves in it at times when the computer is not available to them. (And given how many of the add-ons such as multi-player combat lend themselves to micropayments, it’s a way that Electronic Arts can take in more money, as well.)
When they’ve got this kind of immersion, players will even go to meet the game publisher halfway—witness the “livetweeting” of an alien invasion from the game as, prompted by a series of in-character tweets from the game publisher, Mass Effect fans from all over took to Twitter to talk about what the Reapers were doing in their locality. (Of course, we already knew Mass Effect fans can be passionate about their game, as last month’s controversy over the latest Mass Effect tie-in novel demonstrated.)
All this gets me thinking: why wouldn’t this sort of thing be possible for e-books? People talk about “interactivity” in e-books, though we haven’t seen much of that sort of thing in fiction. It is usually reserved for textbooks and other non-fiction where interactivity can add to the experience, rather than distract from the storytelling.
But who says that the interactivity has to take place within the book itself? There have been a few attempts to promote books or e-books through external games, such as with Max Barry’s Jennifer Government’s “NationStates” game, or the “Bursts” hidden-word guessing game. But these seemed to be concerned more with advertising the book, rather than letting the experience of the book extend into other areas.
What if as you read through an e-book, reaching certain points in the book let you unlock supplemental material on-line, or perhaps caused characters in the book to “e-mail” you the way the Datapad lets Mass Effect’s characters do? There would be privacy issues to work around, of course, and the material would have to be strictly optional—and today’s e-readers may not even incorporate the technology to make such a thing possible. (Though stand-alone e-book apps could certainly be made to do so.) It would also, ideally, be completely invisible while you’re reading the book, so as not to be distracting—you’d only notice it when you closed the book and went to do something else.
On the other hand, there are those who would say that interactivity is not and has never been necessary for a good book. Perhaps the difference is that books, even the plain paper ones, are already “interactive” in a way that most other media are not. We actually have to put forward effort into getting the stories out of books—we run our eyes over the words and interpret what they say, rather than letting moving images and sound wash over our passive selves. Perhaps making fiction books “interactive” would simply be gilding the lily.
Regardless, with its Mass Effect 3 cross-platform linkage, EA seems to be taking to heart the advice Elisabeth Murdoch gave a couple of years back about making the media experience “irreducible to a single file.” To get the whole experience, you don’t just buy a game—you buy into a setting. Perhaps printed book writers and publishers could learn a lesson from this.