Mass Effect 2 A Case Study in the Design of Game Narrative

this post was originally published
on Jim Bizzocchi and Joshua Tanenbaum

Abstract. Digital games have matured substantially as a narrative medium in the last decade. However, there is still much work to be done to more fully understand the poetics of story-based-games. Game narrative remains an important issue with significant cultural, economic and scholarly implications. In this article, we undertake a critical analysis of the design of narrative within Mass Effect 2: a game whose narrative is highly regarded in both scholarly and vernacular communities. We follow the classic humanities methodology of “close-reading”: the detailed observation, deconstruction, and analysis of a text. Our close-reading employs a critical framework from our previous work to isolate and highlight the central narrative design parameters within digital games. This framework is grounded in the scholarly discourse around games and narrative, and has been tested and revised in the process of close-reading and analyzing contemporary games. The narrative design parameters we examine are character, storyworld, narrativized interface, emotion, and plot coherence. Our analysis uses these parameters to explicate a series of design decisions for the effective creation of narrative experience in Mass Effect 2, and by extension, for game narratives in general. We also expand our previous methodology through a focused “edge-case” strategy for exploring the limits of character, action, and story in the game. Finally, we position our analysis of Mass Effect 2 within contemporary discourses of “bounded agency”, and explore how the game negotiates the tension between player-expression, and narrative inevitability to create opportunities for sophisticated narrative poetics including tragedy and sacrifice.