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The Bachelor: Mass Effect Edition

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Mass Effect 3 has been so horribly marred by the firestorm created by its ambiguous conclusion that it seems like critics have skipped over other aspects of the game. And now that this hurricane has settled (at least until the extended cut is released and everyone finds more reasons to hate it), and also because I’m just plain tired of talking about it, I’d like to talk about something almost as uncomfortable – the space birds and the alien bees of this sci-fi experience.

 

During the first two games, the romantic relationship aspect wasn’t the primary focus, but the subplot was prominently placed in the story. In fact, in Mass Effect 2, the relationship storyline was engulfed by the larger suicide mission plot, infusing it with the feel of desperation. It felt like when someone asks you what you would hypothetically do if you only had one day to live; the characters in this game believe their numbers could be up and so they have no time to take things slow. This main tension gave the subplot a dramatic passion, and these two stories melded together superbly, resulting in a big moment of bittersweet intimacy.

 

But then, in Mass Effect 3, I felt like Bioware (rightfully) threw romance by the wayside, and would’ve considered leaving it out altogether except they knew fans would gripe about that for the rest of their lives and the decision would’ve destroyed a major series subplot. There’s also the alternative that the developers just didn’t execute this plot well, in part because, as far as I’m aware, this was the first Mass Effect game in which Shepard can talk serious relationship with individuals who do not reside on the Normandy. But there’s really no way to know Bioware’s intention for the romance plot at this moment, so I won’t dwell on that.

 

When my Commander Shepard first received word from his lost love, Miranda Lawson, to meet her on the Citadel, I felt almost as excited as I imagined Shepard himself would’ve felt. Here was my chance to continue the saga of this tragic love of an ex-Cerberus officer and an Alliance man. A semi-meaningful conversation ensued, in which Shepard ensured Miranda that he still wanted her in his life, and then she mentioned she was worried about her sister, and they parted ways (also, I’m impressed with how much characters move around in Bioware cut scenes now – this effect livens up these typically static video game scenes). After that, though, the story was mostly downhill. She rarely had any meaningful input into the story, and Shepard spoke with her twice more. During the third rendezvous (technically third, since the second time Shepard spoke with her via hologram), the conversation wheel almost reluctantly gave me the option to put all our cares aside and make out. I chose that option, and the scene felt more funny and awkward than anything else (though this was partly because my girlfriend was in the room and we were making fun of how the camera always seems to find a way to pan over her derriere). Other than the differences in interaction between Shepard and Miranda (hand-holding and concern for each others’ safety and such) nothing was terribly significant about the romance plot, which contrasts with how this was treated in the first two games. This portion of the plot was handled as though the writers were afraid to touch it, which made it somewhat uncomfortable and unfulfilling, but I’m not convinced this is entirely an argument against the game.

 

The first game I remember playing that granted the opportunity to develop non-platonic relationships with other characters was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. This was an interesting experience, because – well, I was a teenager and wished I was could be as smooth with the ladies as my Jedi avatar – but mostly because it made my character and the others feel more alive, like they weren’t simply dolls with voices, but were capable of feeling strong emotions for each other, to the point of infatuation and love. Ever since then, I’ve supported this feature in games because it continues to make characters feel more alive, and continued to do so as I played through the Mass Effect series (and as I said before, this was particularly meaningful in the second game). But sometime during Mass Effect 3, I couldn’t shake the notion that this was sort of silly – Commander Shepard was a heart-breaker whose affection was coveted by all the characters capable of a relationship with him. I reminisced back to Mass Effect when Shepard flirted with both Ashley Williams and Liara T’Soni before the two approached him and made him choose between them in a nearly Jerry Springer moment, and again when Liara confronted Shepard in Mass Effect 3 about his feelings for Miranda; this all felt absurd and slightly sexist (though any combination of male and female NPCs can vie for the love of either gender of Shepard, so the game is not as sexist as it appears from my male heterosexual Shepard’s point of view). Why couldn’t Liara have had a fling with that guy from the Shadow Broker DLC in part because Shepard ran off with Miranda Lawson? What if Ashley met someone (or didn’t meet someone) and decided that her infatuation with Shepard was just a phase? I want these characters to feel more realistic instead of simply biding time while Shepard is away, fawning over him and waiting for the return of their one true space commander lover.

 

Some people likely enjoy the way the game is already set up – it’s nice to feel like the player character is so attractive and confident that he or she can woo anyone on the ship, but this gives the characters a feeling of artificiality, revealing the seams of the game mechanics that dictate their behavior, and can make them come off as needy and dependent. It would be nice to see certain characters even spurn the protagonist’s advances under certain conditions (I’ve heard Samara did this in Mass Effect 2). Maybe some decisions the player makes outside of romantic dialogue could cause a love interest to reevaluate affections for the protagonist and decide that he or she and the protagonist are not kindred spirits, after all. As disappointing as this might be to some players, the feature gives the other characters a new layer of complexity and presents the illusion that they have more emotions and independent thoughts that don’t involve swooning over the player character, battling for affection with everyone else at whom the protagonist bats eyelashes. This is not The Bachelor with aliens; this is a serious space opera with characters that are supposed to convince players of their own authenticity and emotion.

 

It’s possible the whole paramour experience in Mass Effect 3 would’ve differed and felt more substantial if my Shepard stuck it out with Liara or chose to romance anyone on the ship with whom he could frequently interact. Still, save some moments where this aspect of the series locks perfectly into place with the rest of the narrative, romance dialogues in Mass Effect seldom appear to be more than a kind of fan service. And fan service isn’t Bioware’s selling point – story is the bread and butter of every single Bioware advertising campaign and the reputation upon which the company has established itself. And to salvage the story and characters while leaving the romance system in the game, I need to feel less like the Normandy is the set of a reality show featuring contestants who duke it out to date the suave Shepard, and more like I’m interacting with people who must actively decide whether or not to pursue a relationship. Video gamers demand the ability to make meaningful choices in games, but I’m taking this a bit in the other direction – give other characters the ability to make meaningful choices, even if this causes some sociopathic Shepards to meticulously browse Match.com between missions.

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The Maker of 2019’s Must-Have Interstellar RPG Within the Cosmos Talks Gameplay, Lore, and the Future

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Within the Cosmos

Some indie games look impressive enough to match anything coming out of the AAA studios. Within the Cosmos fits that bill to a tee. Every screenshot from the project shines with ethereal beauty, and the description makes it sound like a marvellous mash-up of Deus Ex, Mass Effect, and Halo

This RPG casts players as a would-be colonist intended to seed human life away from what seems to be an apocalyptic interstellar war.

To find out more about the promising project, OnlySP reached out to developer Francis Debois, who went into great depth about the gameplay, structure, and the processes involved in production across the last five years. 

OnlySP: I wanted to start by asking about the gameplay. In the marketing you’ve mentioned that objectives can be completed through stealth, combat, or diplomacy, which is always a plus for an RPG. Is that multi-path approach available for every mission, and how free-form are the player’s options?

Debois: The missions in the game generally give you multiple ways to affect how the mission unfolds, whether it’s through dialogue or how the player approaches the mission. Also, the options available to you are governed by the type of character you create. If you have a character that’s high in Intelligence, you might be able to hack a control panel that opens a door to a room that you’d otherwise have to fight through to get to, or if your Charisma isn’t high enough, and you try to convince them to leave the area, they might not listen to what you have to say, and they’ll become hostile, or you can simply avoid all of that and find a way to sneak inside!

OnlySP: From what I understand, the RPG levelling mechanics are tied to modules on the character’s suit. Can you tell us more about how this system works and maybe provide examples of some of those modules and upgrades?

Debois: Modules are essentially “perk points” that you can use to upgrade your character. Every time you level up your character, you will get a module you can use to enhance/alter your character. The perks available to you are tied to your attribute points. So, if your Agility is high enough, you can “spend” a module and get the “Light Steps” perk, which makes your footsteps much lighter, therefore harder for the enemies to hear.

OnlySP: The game also has a stat system, which sounds a little like S.P.E.C.I.A.L. from Fallout. Is that an apt comparison? Will players be able to improve and modify those stats through gameplay and, if so, how?

Debois: Yeah, it’s a similar idea to how S.P.E.C.I.A.L. works in Fallout or similar games. When the player starts the game, they will be given a fixed amount of points that they can assign to their attributes. So, if you decide to max out your Constitution and Agility, you’ll have a character who’s agile, sneaky, and strong, but that would come at the cost of not having much Intelligence, Charisma, or Perception. So, you’re really gonna have to think about what attributes you favour, or you could put a roughly equal amount into all of them and have a character that can do a little bit of everything but not a master of everything. It’s up to you. I feel like that system will really create the desire for players to have multiple playthroughs of the game, and still have each playthrough feel like a different experience.

As far as improving and modifying those stats… I’m still trying to get the balance right. There might be one or two instances where you can upgrade them, or get temporary boosts to them, but whether you can improve or modify them beyond that is still being determined.

OnlySP: While upgrading, will players be able to respec their character’s abilities at all or are they locked into the upgrades they use?

Debois: No, they won’t be able to respec. Once you select an upgrade/perk, that’s what you’re locked into.

OnlySP: If I recall correctly, I’ve read somewhere that Within the Cosmos has a linear structure. Does that mean players won’t be able to revisit previous locations? 

Debois: You WILL be able to revisit previous locations. It’s linear in the sense that you can’t visit a new region, or planet that you have no narrative reason to visit yet. For example, the first planet you go to in the game is Alios, the second planet you visit is Berith II. If you’re right in the beginning of the game and you just got to Alios, you won’t be able to just go straight to Berith II until you’ve reached the point in the story where it makes sense to go there, but once you go there, you can go back and forth between those planets as often as you’d like. Also, I used the term “linear” as a way to get the point across that it’s not a huge open sandbox or anything. The game is very story-driven.

OnlySP: Speaking of locations, the game has the character visiting a number of planets. How many planets are there, and how have you differentiated each of them?

Debois: There are three planets in the game. Each one is aesthetically different, with different fauna, different factions, and the architecture of each planet reflects the dominant faction or factions on that planet. Aside from those locations, there are other places you’ll visit for a mission or a series of missions.

OnlySP: Looking at the Steam Greenlight page, there’s mention of vehicles and survival mechanics, but those seem not to have made it to the final version. Can you maybe explain how the development process has resulted in changes from the game you initially set out to make?

Debois: The direction the game was headed when I created the Greenlight page was completely different to what it ended up being! Initially, I intended to make an FPS with survival mechanics, but as the game progressed, and I started writing more of the story, I realised that survival mechanics didn’t really make sense, and it negatively impacted the experience. There were many things that were added and cut out in the end, so vehicles, and the survival mechanics were just two of the many things that simply didn’t end up feeling right as the game really began to take shape. As I wrote more and more, I felt like an RPG would be the best way for players to experience the game and the story.

OnlySP: You’ve mentioned that the game should take between eight and ten hours to complete. Does that factor in all the content available in the game or just the main missions?

Debois: 8-10 hours is a rough estimate of what I would say an “average” playthrough would be. Which is someone who has completed the main story, and did a few side missions. If you decide to do everything possible in the game, it will certainly take longer than that, but if you decide to strictly follow the main story, it will be shorter than that.

OnlySP: As I’ve been following Within the Cosmos, I’ve felt that it looks a bit like Halo and sounds a lot like Deus Ex. It’s got me wondering what you feel as though it’s most similar to and what sort of inspirations have shaped the look, feel, and overall tone?

Debois: Oh, there have been so many inspirations! I love the FPS RPG genre, so Deus Ex was a massive inspiration, as was Fallout: New Vegas. Those are two top tier FPS RPG games that I absolutely love. Space-based games have had an influence as well, such as Halo and Mass Effect. They helped shape the game in one way or another. I’d say the biggest inspiration behind it all has been Star Trek, I think the story and lore will reflect that to some degree.

OnlySP: Within the Cosmos is set against the backdrop of an interstellar war. How much of that background lore will players be privy to as the experience goes on?

Debois: The interstellar war is the reason that the player, and the factions are there in the first place. You will be exposed to the history of the war by reading some of the logs in the game, and through some characters you meet, etc. The war is what ties everything together. As you play through the game, you will see that even though you’ve escaped to this region of space, which is far away from the war itself, you still feel the effects of it. What you decide to do can really influence how the war plays out.

OnlySP: Meanwhile, the main story follows an individual sent to safety to preserve the human race. We’ve seen similar ideas of species protection and propagation in the likes of Fallout and Mass Effect: Andromeda. How is Within the Cosmos distinct from those earlier games?

Debois: Well, I really don’t like to compare Within the Cosmos to other games, but Fallout is more of a sandbox, and Mass Effect is more of a story-driven action RPG. Within the Cosmos falls somewhere in the middle of that.

OnlySP: As I understand it, Within the Cosmos, is entirely self-funded, self-developed, and self-published. Did you ever consider crowdfunding or partnering with a publisher to help get the game across the line sooner? Why or why not?

Debois: Not really, no. Some people suggested that I should try crowdfunding but that was something I was never interested in for Within the Cosmos. This was really a game that I wanted to make myself, so funding it and publishing it myself felt the most natural to me.

OnlySP: I know there’s still a little while before Within the Cosmos launches, but what’s next for debdev?

Debois: Once Within the Cosmos is out, I’m going to listen to the feedback from the community, and just work on updating the game with more content as time goes on. I really want to give this game all the support I can give it. Anything after that, we’ll have to see what happens! I would love to work on some of the other ideas I have, some more RPGs. There are other games that I really want to make, but after dedicating nearly five years of my life to this game, I’m not sure I will have the financial means to be able to do this again! 

OnlySP: Finally, do you have any final comments that you’d like to leave with our readers?

Debois: I’d really like to thank those who have been giving the game compliments, and those who have been providing feedback! It all really means a lot to me, and proves that all the years of hard work that I have inputted into the game, has been all worth it!

Thank you all for reading this, and for having an interest in Within the Cosmos! I really hope you check it out on Steam, wishlist it, and play it when it releases on 1 August!


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