Video Game Analysis: A Mass of Effects

Editor’s note: The following blog was written by a Opinion-blogger. The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the individual writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of NordicGameBits or the other writers and authors of the community. 

Finally: my promised analysis example of how rules can be a formal element telling the player something not about the narrative but about gameplay. Remember, this is to illustrate how the narrativity model can be used to talk about messages that are not related to story or narrative.

And if you want a game where narrative is not in focus, what else could you pick than:

I’m going to go with a negative example for this.

The equipment and inventory system in Mass Effect is one of the central rules complexes, since it is an RPG game. The inventory divided into categories delineated along types of weapon, armor, upgrades, biotic focus items and engineering focus items.

You pick up and purchase various of these items during your travels. Pick-ups are automatic as you defeat enemies, and semi-automatic when looting containers through a “get all” button. Meanwhile you must select purchases from vendors, having ready access to comparing your equipped items to the ones you are window shopping for. Your inventory has a large, but not unlimited capacity – 150 items other than your equipped ones and you have to drop, melt down or sell something.

The problem with these rules is that they tell the player three different things at once:

  • You have many different categories of equipment for all your characters. It is important that you choose the right equipment and switch around for different situations.
  • You pick up equipment basically without looking at it. The equipment is interchangeable.
  • You can carry more items than your will pick up in one or two missions. You don’t have to think about what equipment you can use as you get it.

This leaves the player unsure of how to actually weigh her or his decisions when it comes to equipment. Crucially, the final decision on each piece of equipment is usually postponed until the inventory is full – giving the player in excess of 150 objects to sort through, necessitating a lot of reading and comparing in one, large block.

The rules are having the effect of communicating opposed objectives and instructions to the player.


Mixed messages

While Mass Effect is one of my favorite games, the frankly weird communication embodied in the rules – this is one small example – ensures that I never had any real interest in mastering Mass Effect as a system.

I have played that game all the way through maybe seven times – being a student and later unemployed for most of the playing – but not to master the fluttering systems. The narrative is strong enough for me to want to explore it, and especially with the addition of Mass Effect 2, the connection to the characters deepen to a degree that I can simply log in to chat with my NPC-friends.

However, the first rule mentioned above implies that demanding a mastery of the systems has been one of the design ambitions for the development team. The inclusion of the ultra-hard difficulty setting Hardcore that needs to be unlocked to be accessed – a classic way of telling the players that mastery of the system will be rewarded. The message is muddled by the existence of other, contradictory rules and should be re-thought.

This happened in Mass Effect 2, which significantly overhauled the inventory system, and in Mass Effect 3, which introduced the Story Mode, which allowed for players to choose between mastery of a system and experiencing the story as their main motivation for playing.



Right, this is going to be the last blog for a while on the narrativity model. I hope I’ve made my points about it clear enough for it to be useful in practice. I’m going to keep tinkering with it over the summer and maybe let you people in on an updated version.

For now, though, I’m going to put some opinion into this opinion blog. Taking my cue from last week, I’ll start making this into more of a “I’ve recently been thinking about”-place rather than a “please read a small lecture”-place. It was a lovely blog to write last week and some of you liked it a lot, so why not?

Stay tuned for more ramblings!


PS: Check out Krystian Majewski’s lovely critique of Mass Effect’s interface design and the problems with it. For a game with so many flaws, it’s really weird that I love it so much.


I’m an associate professor at the Dania Academy of Higher Education in Grenaa, Denmark. We offer two AP level educations focused on game development, one for programmers and one for designers. I teach a flurry of different analytical disciplines, and I will be blogging about various forms of analysis from gameplay and narrative analysis of games to marketing analysis and even occasionally object oriented analysis in relation to game development. My focus is on making analysis a practical skill. I hope to produce insights and lessons for use in further design, rather than analysing for pure fun and knowledge – though that certainly also has its place. Oh, and a warning: I have a weird background for games – philosophy and the study of religion – which may bleed through from time to time. I will try to blog at least once a week – always on Thursdays, occasionally also on Mondays.

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