'Mass Effect': A Personal Validation Simulation
Its premise is fairly generic sci-fi fare; its defining aspects are a cinematic approach to storytelling and branching dialogue trees. Regarding the former, "Mass Effect" is probably the best example of cinematic gaming -- which is particularly amazing considering everything is rendered using the game engine. It's still a ways from the doorstep of Hollywood, but some of the visuals are intensely beautiful, and the soundtrack, for the genre, is superb. With its merits in this regard, "Mass Effect" really indicates a growing ability for games to carry stories of cinematic weight and to establish emotional connections with equal or greater efficacy than their more linear cousins.
The bigger development the game offers are the branching dialogue trees. These are basically "Choose Your Own Adventure" on steroids. The basic principle of the dialogue trees is that there are always three ways to move a conversation along: a kinder/gentler/more obedient to authority choice, a neutral choice, or a selfish/harsh/more anarchistic choice.
While these choices may seem clear-cut, it is seldom so simple. The game excels in posing difficult questions. Are you the sort that leaks classified information that could save lives to an agent of the press? Do you side with those of influence or those of need? Would you kill off the last remnants of a potentially dangerous species or trust their assurances of reformed behavior?
While a player may be kind in one scenario, another scenario may rub them the wrong way, and elicit a harsh response. And the game does try to push the player's buttons - great voice acting has some characters that are just begging to be told off, and others where a harsh approach results in true guilt. The kicker? While about 15% to 20% of the interactions result in subtle changes to story and the outcome of the ending, the majority of the conversation choices have no impact on the game. In fact, for a number of interactions, all three responses lead to the same branch of dialogue.
What's the big deal? By providing a plethora of dialogue options, even for the inconsequential ones, "Mass Effect" creates a miniature personal validation simulation: there is no wrong answer, so whatever a player's input, it is positively rewarded with an appropriate response. The game itself does very little tracking of the responses made and the overall personality that these many decisions indicate; however, the player's perception of his or her character ends up being extremely detailed and intricate. While the game treats the character rather generically, the player's experience has been personalized to an almost-incomprehensible degree. In an age where "the consumer is in control," "Mass Effect"'s model for interaction with a user is one that marketers, and especially brand marketers, should take a close look at. They might consider a similar structuring of their interactive elements, in order to provide the framework for a high degree of perceived personalization for their products.