Comments on

Mass Effect and Romance: A Tragedy in Four Parts

Original entry posted: Tue Sep 16 17:42:25 2008

Chris @ Tue Sep 16 14:17:16 2008 EST

I agree with your assessment here; it's nice the romantic side plots are there, but it feels tacked on - and it could have been integral to the experience.

Still, including a romantic element at all is a step forward of some kind.

Best wishes!

That Fuzzy Bastard @ Wed Sep 17 11:36:19 2008 EST

On the subject of the Uncanny Valley, one of the really sad things about Mass Effect was the degree to which they gutted the cutscene engine before release. At UGO, I edited a promo for Mass Effect about six months before it was released, and the lip-syncing was astonishing. I raved to everyone who would listen that you don't realize how bad most game lip-syncing is until you see it done well, and the effect on believability is tremendous. So imagine my surprise when I got the game, and saw the same HL2-y lip-syncing as everything else. I don't know if they'd done something special for video they released to the press, or if there was a last-minute scaling-back, but the difference was incredibly pronounced.

As for the love story---as Daniel Floyd notes, a number of game designers are getting more ambitious in their narrative aspirations, but most have never read much beyond Star Trek novelizations, and they sure as hell haven't seen His Girl Friday,and probably haven't even seen Casablanca (or even When Harry Met Sally). Hence, I think, a lot of the quality of Mass Effect's dialogue and story, which is pretty high compared to, say, the Star Wars movies, but pretty low compared to actual good writing.

The idea of the character's reactions to you being altered based on your behavior around them, and your relationship in the cutscenes, really is a coulda-shoulda-woulda---even if you couldn't do a lot of different line readings, they certainly could've implemented some sliders for how helpful characters will be based on how much they like you. And different line readings would've made the ponderous dialogue a lot more fun.

My feeling about Mass Effect was that in terms of storytelling, it was kind of a bust---a neat idea with dreadful execution. But the combat engine is one of my favorites in this generation---a great combination of real-time and strategic elements.

Thomas @ Wed Sep 17 11:59:40 2008 EST

That's interesting about the lipsyncing. Do you have a link to the video you edited? As a half-assed audio/coding nerd, I'm kind of curious how they do that kind of thing--something with the formants, I guess.

Maybe that Floyd comment hits on the wasted potential as well as anything, since Mass Effect is nothing if not lavishly-produced, gorgeous, interactive... bottom-rung genre fiction. It's clearly thought-out genre fiction, in a kind of hard sci-fi style that you don't see as much anymore. But it's still the kind of disposable material you'd expect from, say, Larry Niven's off-days. The novel tie-in, which sad to say I have read, makes this abundantly clear.

On a related note, Corvus linked this morning to someone at one of the Austin GDC sessions who was speaking about Prince of Persia's storytelling, which (despite the scorn that the post author seems to have for the approach) really is something special, I think.

That Fuzzy Bastard @ Wed Sep 17 14:51:57 2008 EST

Sadly, the trailer I did is now off UGO's site, but the video I pulled heavily from is still at (with old HUD, too!). As for lip-syncing---they probably have some kind of phonemization software, that listens to the dialogue and translates phonemes to lip movements, with allowances made for different character models. So my guess would be that at some point they decided that the complex phonemization was too processor-intensive, and reduced its sensitivity (or even abandoned realtime phonemization entirely in favor of preset puppeteering).

And yeah, the storytelling in PoP:tSoT is a real high-water mark. And of course, there's Bioshock, which did wonders with level-design-as-storytelling (in my view, the most promising realm for exploration).

Of course, all the storytelling approaches in the world won't help if your story is basically dumb, which is definitely much of Mass Effect's problem. And I fear that as long as games are designed by people who think Lord of the Rings is the greatest story ever told, we may be stuck there for a while.

Thomas @ Wed Sep 17 15:22:45 2008 EST

That trailer has the better-lipsyncing? It looks clumsier than the final process to me--like they just opened the mouth in direct proportion to the waveform's amplitude.

It's the process of extracting phonemes from the raw sound that fascinates me. Consider that the mechanics of the mouth--the shape of the lips, position of the tongue, voiced or unvoiced syllables--can be basically compared to the functions of a synthesizer, such as a resonant filter. The difference between the vowels is basically the same waveform from the vocal cords, but with different filter values of Q and frequency. But as to how the analysis reverse-engineers those sounds into lip movements, particularly when generalized across different voices (and the alien voicebox effects)... I haven't seen that really explained.

And of course, since my DSP background is minimal, I probably wouldn't understand it when they did. But I'd like to read it, regardless.

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