With the current Mass Effect trilogy finally and truly concluded with the release of the very last DLC, a couple of news outlets (Kotaku in particular) have been doing a lot of looking back at the series this week.

It got me thinking about the series, and in particular, the famous “dialogue wheel” that, when it came out, I thought was so darn nifty. “I actually get to choose what my character says!” Of course… the more you used it the more you noticed how completely formulaic it was. There was always a good, neutral and asshole response, and they were always in the same places on the wheel. And this carried over to The Old Republic and Dragon Age 2 as well. In the end, you would pick your response based on the type of good/evil points you were trying to earn, and not based on what you think your actual response would be.

It always kind of bugged me a bit, but I never put a lot of consideration into it. I’d never seen it done particularly better. At least not until after I was done playing Mass Effect games.

Having wandered into involuntary reflection on the matter this week, I realized that I think Telltale’s The Walking Dead is the game that has done dialogue options the best so far, and in a way I think future Mass Effect games could really benefit from. I’ll tell you why.

First of all, there was rarely a clear case of “good, nuetral, and evil” options. It happened, but the choices were generally a lot more subtle than that, and always really fit the tone of the current conversation. There were degrees of emotion instead of just “I’m going to be a jerk to you for no reason.”

And these choices were never in predictable places on the conversation diagram. Additionally, I think it helped that your choice in dialogue strictly affected the outcome of the conversation, and in some cases, the path the game itself took. There were no arbitrary “points” assigned to your choices. Since your choice of response could really alter where the game went, and you weren’t pressured into maintaining your good guy/bad guy preconception, you really took into consideration what you said before you said it.

The other big aspect was that you had a limited time to choose your dialogue options. If you timed out before choosing something, your character simply said nothing… and this was factored into the conversation. That you chose to not answer a question, or just remain quiet while others spoke.

But the timer put a sense of urgency on the dialogue. You couldn’t just sit there in silence in the middle of a conversation, deciding what you wanted to say. You had to make a quick decision, and I feel like, more often than not, this caused your ultimate decision of response to come more from the gut, from instinct, over a purely cerebral decision.

This did a couple of things for the game: First of all, it made things more tense and more exciting, and made your choices feel more genuine to your personal character. It also opened up a whole new world of “oh shit, did I really say that? That’s how I reacted?” in times of crisis or danger. You often had to make snap decisions in the heat of the moment that could have serious ripple effects for your character and the characters you traveled with. You didn’t have ten minutes to sit and consider all the outcomes, just like you wouldn’t have in real life.

It seems likely that we’re going to get another Mass Effect game at some point… Commander Shepherd’s story is finished, but they’ve got a pretty nifty universe there, with a boatload of backstory. It would be a shame not to construct a new tale within that rich sandbox. However I’d like to see Bioware be a little more dynamic with their dialogue. Perhaps even completely do away with the entire “paragon/renegade” thing if it ends up compromising compelling conversations by requiring the token “goodie two shoes/raving dickface” responses to be thrown in there for points. 

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