The Fall of BioWare

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BioWare is, perhaps more than any other game developer, famed for fantastic writing and storytelling. Games like 2003's Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) and 2007's Mass Effect (ME1) cemented that status. Those were nearly legendary games that, while perhaps falling short in the combat/gameplay departments, told such great stories, and gave us such richly-developed characters, that we simply didn't care. That reputation was cemented by other games, such as Baldur's Gate and Jade Empire. So, BioWare has this great storytelling reputation. Or, at least, the studio was known for great stories and writing. That doesn't appear to be true any more, and has been less and less true as time has passed. You can almost follow the downfall of BioWare's ability to write stories well by looking at their releases since Mass Effect. Their storytelling ability seems to be getting progressively worse.

Let's start with ME1's successor game, Mass Effect 2.

Mass Effect

Mass Effect 2 (2010)

The overall story arc of the Mass Effect series is that an ancient race of intelligent machines, the Reapers, have returned to the galaxy every 50,000 years to destroy all advanced organic life, then retreated to the intergalactic "dark space" between these cycles of extinction. We are told that this cycle has repeated for millions upon millions of years. Indeed, in ME2, one mission takes us the husk of a Reaper ship that is 37 million years old.

In ME2, we are led to believe that there is a mysterious alien race, the Collectors, who are kidnapping entire human settlements on colony worlds, and that they are allied with the Reapers. The kidnappings, therefore, are tied to some unknown Reaper plot to return and end this cycle with yet another genocide of all technologically advanced species.

ME2 is perhaps the most popular installment in the ME trilogy, but the main story has a number of significant weaknesses.

ME2, despite the silliness, retcons, and inconsistencies of the main story, was saved by a much-improved combat system compared to ME1, as well as brilliant characterizations, and some great side missions. All of the various characters on the team seemed like real people, and, moreover, were people you wanted to know, to converse with, and ultimately, romance. There were some downsides to the gameplay, like the boring scanning missions to collect resources, but overall the game was fun, the characters lovable, and mission and level design were generally outstanding. It's certainly the most fun of the ME series to play, but the overall story had problems. Happily, there was enough good writing and characterization elsewhere to make the game engaging.

Finally, in ME2, we are introduced to the idea that there is some troubling problem arising from dark energy in the galaxy. One of our missions to recruit a squad member takes place on the planet Haestrom, whose sun has dramatically increased its output and is frying the planet. Why? Dark energy. We have some conversations about this dark energy problem in another mission, and, in other parts of the game, overhear some conversations about corporations and governments looking into dark energy for mysterious reasons. Foreshadowing? Well, we'll see.

Mass Effect 3

There's only one thing you need to talk about with ME3. We could talk about a lot, but one thing overshadows everything else that might be wrong. ME3's ending was bad that people still reference it, seven years later. It's not just bad, then, it's famously bad.

ME3 had fundamental writing problems with an ending that completely subverted the entire narrative of the entire Mass Effect series. What is the point of the long series of extinction cycles the Reapers have imposed on the galaxy for millions of years? The ending of ME3 explained that Reapers created the cycle because "Synthetics will always destroy their creators." According to the Reapers, organic races will inevitably create synthetic, artifically-intelligent beings. It will then follow, as the night follows the day, that the synthetic beings will kill their creators. It is, according to the Reapers, an immutable and eternal proposition.

This is seriously problematic. We know it's problematic, because the story tells us so.

We were introduced to a synthetic species in ME1 called the Geth, an advanced AI species created by an alien race known as the Quarians. The Quarians attempted to kill the Geth when it became obvious that the Geth had developed true intelligence. This started a civil war that the Quarians lost, resulting in their permanent exile from their home planet. The Geth then retreated into region of the galaxy known as "the Veil", and more than 300 years passed without anyone hearing from them, until they show up in ME1 as an opponent. Slowly, through all three games, you trace the history of the Geth. The Geth were the victims, not the aggressors, in the war with the Quarians. You learn that they were mainly peaceful, and that the hostile Geth you've encountered have been subverted by the Reapers. Ultimately, in ME3, you have the chance to end the hostilities between the Geth and Quarians, and re-unite them on Rannoch, the Quarian home world, after which the Geth help the Quarians resettle their home planet.

In ME2, we were introduced to an AI on the rebuilt Normandy, EDI, and over the course of ME2 and ME3, EDI learns how organics think, develops a moral code, and eventually acquires a humanoid body so she can work more closely with the organic beings who surround her. She tries to develop a sense of humor, and asks you how to become a better person. Eventually she develops a romantic attachment to the Normandy's pilot, Joker. She has no interest in killing organics, and, indeed, is as fully committed to fighting the Reaper threat as any other member of the Normandy's crew.

Yet, the reason we're given that the Reapers have imposed recurring genocides on the galaxy is that synthetic life will always destroy organic life. The cycles are the solution for a problem the Reapers say is insoluble. Really? Well, then, BioWare, you probably shouldn't have spent two whole games with EDI and the Geth demonstrating exactly the opposite. Our entire learned experience of the game is that organics and synthetics can, in fact, coexist quite peacefully, and—with the optimal gameplay route—quite cooperatively. We're given an ending in ME3 that refutes the entire narrative of the series in the last 20 minutes. Indeed, the only evidence we have in the entire series that synthetics will always destroy organics is that the Reapers, a synthetic race, ultimately destroy all intelligent organic species in one cycle or another. The irony of the Reapers' self-fulfilling prophecy aside, we are given no reason at all to believe that this organics vs. synthetics problem is true. We are just expected to take it on faith, despite the series' narrative teaching us the opposite lesson.

The final antagonist of ME3 is the Catalyst, the collective intelligence of the Reaper race. We are told by the the Catalyst that it resides on, and is an integral part of, the Citadel, a massive space station that is the central nexus for the system of mass relays that make galactic civilization possible. For this reason, the Citadel has, for thousands of cycles, become the natural seat of galactic government to the advanced races who discover it each cycle. The Catalyst is an entirely new and previously unknown character to whom we are introduced in the final scene of the game. The ending scene is generally not where major antagonists are introduced. Again, bad writing.

It is the Catalyst who fully explains the organics vs. synthetics "reasoning" behind the cycles, and the recurring genocide that constitutes the Reapers' solution. Prior to this, much of ME3's story revolved around building a device called the Crucible. Organic races have been working on the Crucible for, we are told, many cycles, passing its design plans from one cycle to the next, presumably via hidden data caches that the Reapers couldn't find. In this cycle, we found the Crucible plans that were hidden in that fashion on Mars by the main galactic race of the previous cycle, the Protheans. When the Crucible is finished, our attempt to use it against the Reapers leads us to our final scene with the Catalyst. The Catalyst tells us that creating and using the Crucible has now created an entirely new situation. "Our solution will no longer work," the Catalyst says.

Why the Crucible has made the Reapers' solution ineffective is unclear. In fact, the entire nature and purpose of the Crucible is completely nebulous. We literally have no idea what it does or how to activate it. Seriously. We spent the resources of every race in the Galaxy to create a weapon we know literally nothing about. Not even how to pull it's trigger. Or if it has a trigger. All we know is that we have to dock it with the Citadel. And when we finally dock it with the Citadel...nothing happens besides the Catalyst revealing itself. But for whatever reason, the Crucible has now changed the game, and the Catalyst tells us that his old solution is worthless.

Oh? Then fine, fly the Reapers into the sun, and let us come up with our own solution. If you know your solution no longer works, then why are you not immediately stopping it? Any more input from the Catalyst should be unnecessary. The Reapers' job is now over. All we need from them is to get lost, preferably permanently.

That doesn't happen of course. Instead, the Catalyst tells us that, thanks to mystery of the Crucible, it can now graciously give us three variably unpalatable choices to end the game, or, if you have the extended cut version, not end the cycles at all, meaning that the old solution will continue uninterrupted, despite the Catalyst just telling us that it won't work any more. The Catalyst may be an artificial intelligence, but it certainly isn't a real one.

In any event, our choices are:

No matter what choice we pick from the above, the exact same scene plays out, as the game ends, with the major difference being the colors of the pretty explosions. "Choose the color of your destructor!" We are given no epilogue, no knowledge of what becomes of our compnanions, or any other story closure. We just get red, blue, or green explosions, all across the galaxy. Did galactic civilization survive? I dunno. Did Commander Shepard die? Maybe. Maybe not. The game is just over, and you can take any remaining questions and stuff them. The extended cut DLC partially fixes some of these problems, but only at the cost of making other story problems worse.

Frankly, at this point, I just don't have the strength to go any further. Suffice it to say that this is just a tiny part of the critique one could make about ME3's ending. You could probably write an entire book analyzing how bad the ending is. Or make a lengthy video critique. But, in the interests of time, I'll move on.

Oh, by the way, remember all the foreshadowing about dark energy in ME2? Yeah. We're never gonna hear about that again. Ever. This is a bit of bad writing that violates the principle of Checkhov's gun.

Dragon Age: Inquisition (2015)

DA:I was the third installment of the Dragon Age Series. The original, Dragon Age: Origins, was released in 2009, and has the same golden haze of reputation that KOTOR and ME1 share. 2011's Dragon Age II was less well-received by players. The problem with DA:I wasn't that the story was bad but that there just wasn't much of it. The story line constitutes a surprisingly small portion of the game. The vast majority of the game is endless fetch questing. There was, however, still a major story issue.

In Dragon Age II, the mystical mineral Red Lyrium was insanely powerful, and exposure to just a small piece of it drove one crazy. But it was, fortunately, extremely rare. In DA:I, the stuff is just everywhere. You walk through tunnels of it. Huge boulders of it sprout out of the ground. The bad guys are actively mining it. You spend a decent part of the game encountering it, destroying it, being surrounded by it, and it does...nothing. Small bits of it appear in DA2, and those small pieces drive the plot, but in DA:I it's everywhere, everyone's terrified of it, and it does...well...nothing much, except power some second-tier bosses. Indeed, if you follow one of the two possible story mission paths of DA:I, NPC characters have it literally growing out of their bodies, like tumors. You do "destroy" a few pieces of it for one companion mission by just bashing them with a hammer or shield. That seems less like destroying it than it does turning one big piece of Red Lyrium into a bunch of little pieces, each of which has the power to cause violent insanity in anyone who comes into contact with it. Ah, well, no matter. Also no matter: the mountains of the stuff you don't destroy that's just randomly littering the landscape. It's an extremely strange retcon for a material you're supposed to hate and fear.

The fundamental issue with DA:I is the lack of a major story. The traditional BioWare formula of working through a long story via conversations interspersed by action sequences was changed to hours upon hours of MMO-like grinding in the various open-world maps, and occasionally inturrupting the grind with some brief conversations. There are a lot of these maps, and each one is filled with endless fetch questing. Collect 19 shards. Close 5 rifts. Set up 6 camps, find 3 Venatori never ends. The open-world gameplay was grindy and largely unnecessarily boring.

The actual story missions take up maybe 25 hours of gameplay. So, you might think, I'll just skip all the grindy bits and play the story. Not so fast. You see, you can't do a story mission unless you have enough Inquisition points to start it. You don't have enough influence, you see. You want to go to Orlais and stop a plot on the empress' life? That'll be 30 inquisition points, please. How do I get 30 Inquisition points? Complete grindy fetch quest missions.

And, of course, you have to be properly leveled up for each map to do the grindy fetch quests, and have good armor and weapons. How do you level up these characters, weapons, and armors? By completing fetch quest missions. Go gather 10 pieces of shimmering samite. Collect a white dragonling's scales. Get 6 pieces of blue viridion. And so on. And once you've collected all those bits, craft a new weapon. Also, you have 10 companions, so you'll need to craft weapons and armor for them, too. Get busy, Grindy!

DA:I was certainly no Witcher III.

This game didn't play to BioWare's supposed storytelling strength. Instead, it catered to the open-world, MMO aspects to hinder your ability to progress the story line. It's almost as if all the grindiness was specifically put into the game the hide the fact that the main story is actually quite short, in terms of the percentage it occupies in a game that's supposed to be built around player choice and relationships. Writing and storytelling in DA:I is more often noted by its absence, than by any of its qualities.

Mass Effect: Andromeda

ME:A was just a disaster. On release, the game was buggy, and much hilarity ensued with the creepiness of the facial animations, and the near impossibility of creating an attractive avatar in the character creator. The game was instantly meme-able, and not in a good way. But, forget the bugginess. The story itself was contrived, formulaic, and much of the writing was just plain bad.

ME:A contains some of the most laughable lines of dialog ever presented in an entertainment medium. "My face is tired from dealing with...everything." My face is tired? Who has ever said that as a metaphor for frustration? In one scene, you are talking to a romanceable character, and begin babbling like an idiot, ending with, "I'm just gonna go back to...the piloting thingy." There are many, many more examples of this, but bad dialog isn't the real problem, which is a fundamentally bad story.

The story is bad in innumerable ways, but I'll just present a smattering.

The premise of ME:A is that one year before the events of ME:3, a group of lusty, gusty adventurers create the Andromeda Initiative to set off for the Andromeda galaxy, 2 million light-years away. Never mind that this retcons the lore of Mass Effect, which is that journeys of more than 10 or so light years are impossible without mass relays. This limitation means that 99% of the Milky Way galaxy is unexplored, because there are no available mass relays to reach most of the galaxy. Apparently, even the Reapers can't reach those unexplored areas, and need to use mass relays as well. But in ME:A we can just naff off to a destination 2 million light-years away, no probs. Also, we can now travel those 2 million light-years in just 640 years, requiring an FTL speed of 3,125C. Jim Kirk could only do 512C on a good day. So, we've pretty much destroyed the lore that forms the whole basis for the Mass Effect universe. If we have the ability to go to Andromeda, that means we also have the ability to explore the 99% of our own galaxy that remains unexplored, and do it in far less time than going to Andromeda. If we already have a galaxy that is 99% unexplored, what, then, is the reason for the Andromeda Initiative?

From this faulty premise the story begins.

At the start of the game, you are a junior member of the Pathfinder team that is led by your father, who is the actual Pathfinder. On your first mission, you go to a planet that has too little oxygen, so you'll suffocate without an air supply. Unfortunately, you have an accident that cracks your face mask. Your father, an experienced soldier, takes off his helmet and gives it you you, as well as the computer codes that make you the Pathfinder. He does this even though he has an experienced soldier as his second in command, who should be the next Pathfinder.

It apparently never occurs to your father to use the buddy system on the helmet until the shuttle arrives, nor is it possible to fix your face mask, even though you did just that earlier in the mission. Nope, he just gives you the helmet and makes you the Pathfinder. Later, when you get back to the ship, everyone is like, "You're the Pathfinder now!" Your father's second, Cora, seemingly accepts it as well, even though she is the designated successor, and has the training needed to do the job. Oh, well.

Also, for some reason, though your father gave you the codes to become Pathfinder, you can't give them to Cora. So, I guess if you die, everyone's screwed, now.

They're screwed because of the next story problem that comes to mind, which is that you are supposed to be some savior figure. Before your arrival in Andromeda, the advance team, consisting of several thousand people, has already arrived and begun construction of a massive space station called the Nexus. They failed at setting up outposts due to hostile aliens, have no resources for unfreezing most of their people in cryo, and are on the ragged edge of survival. But you are the Pathfinder, so they do have an exploration ship they can let you have, along with a crew for it, and you can start settling outposts and the like. I mean, after all, they certainly aren't using it. They're waiting for you, Space Jesus, to redeem them all. "You're the magical pathfinder! No one can do anything until you arrive and fix it all!" So you set off to fix everything, except that you don't do any of the fixing. Remember those computer codes your dad gave you before he committed his completely unnecessary suicide? Those are codes that give you control over SAM, the AI your father created. SAM wants to kill his organic creators.

Oh, wait. No, he doesn't. SAM wants to help you colonize the Andromeda galaxy. Thus, at every step along the way, you do exactly what SAM, who is neurally linked to your mind, tells you to do. Sam says you need to fix some ancient alien structures. He tells you how to fix them. Every time you run into a problem that can't simply be shot, SAM solves it for you. SAM isn't the ghost in the machine, he is the whole machine and you are just his meat puppet. Seriously, SAM can even stop your fucking heart and kill you. And he will. Not, however, because he hates organics. Ultimately, SAM is the hero of the story. You are just his obedient avatar.

Thank you BioWare, for yet another AI narrative proving that the Catalyst's explanation in ME3 is stupid.

Oh, also, it turns out that before your ship arrived, there was a rebellion on the Nexus, after which the rebels left the station. The Krogan rebels created their own colony on one planet, and a bunch of rebel humans created a different colony on another. So why didn't the people left on the Nexus start creating colonies? That's a good question. I mean, they had an exploration ship, a crew, senior personnel available, and everything else they needed, but they just sat on their asses while their faces got tired, waiting for you. But it turns out they didn't need you. They just needed someone to run SAM's errands. Any reasonably fit, moderately dull character would've served. You just happened to be that character.

Oh, there's so, so much more to talk about, like more MMO-style grinding, and SJW virtue-signaling that was so over the top that BioWare had to apologize to the trans community, but suffice it to say that ME:A was such a disaster, and so poorly received, that all planned DLC releases were scrapped, and no support other than bug fixes and multiplayer improvements are available for the game.

ME:A got a Metacritic score of 72, the worst Metacritic score for any BioWare game.

Up to that time.

Anthem (2019)

BioWare clearly saw the Metacritic score for ME:A and said, "Hold my beer", because Anthem is currently sitting at 58.

Whatever else Anthem is, it isn't a traditional BioWare game, which is to say, it's not an RPG at all. To the extent that it has a story, the entire story mission path takes about 12-14 hours to play. The remainder is straight-up looter shooter. There are no NPC squadmates like BioWare's previous games. Instead, you can group with other human players—or go solo, though it's not recommended—to complete free-play world events, play through the story, and then endlessly grind the same story or fortress missions over and over and over, hoping for a loot drop that's marginally better than what you have equipped.

The story, such as it is, is not decision-driven in any way. To the extent there is dialog, you have two, and only two, dialog choices, and neither of them has any effect on the conversation, other than the tone of your responses. You can be kind and professional, or snarky and sarcastic. It doesn't mater which you choose, really, because it doesn't change the conversation or outcome at all.

It's hard to critique a story that hardly exists, except in the most linear sense, i.e., you have done a thing, and now it is time for you to do another thing. Now, when I say the story hardly exists, you may think I'm exaggerating for effect. So, let me respond this way. The story is so short that BioWare stuffed a series of fetch quests into it to artificially lengthen it. They admitted to doing this. Even BioWare knows the story is thin at best.

Anthem is a game with a big, open world that you can fly through, but how many players can be placed into the open world at any given time? Four. That's right. Four players on one massive map. The world, therefore, seems empty and dead, with little to do unless you're lucky enough to happen across one of the "world events" that aren't, by the way, publicized or visible on the game's map in any way. You also can't set waypoints on the map. If you kill an enemy and get a loot drop of some sort, you can't access your inventory in-game to see what it is. You literally have to end the mission to access your inventory. There are a couple standing missions that you can grind over and over for—hopefully—marginally better gear each time you grind it. Once you've finished the brief "story", there is literally nothing else to do in the game other than repetitive grinding. Which seems fun.

On release, the game had a number of game-breaking bugs, including one that presented you with an eternal loading screen. And speaking of loading screens, there are many of them, and they are long. Leaving your base, a place called Fort Tarsis, requires both a startup animation and a lengthy loading screen. Entering a fortress in the "open" world requires a loading screen. Going to a different area of the fortress requires a loading screen. Leaving the fortress requires a loading screen. If you don't get to a checkpoint close behind your teammates, you meet a barrier that won't allow you pass and participate in the rest of the mission. Leaving the mission requires a loading screen. Until recently, accessing your inventory—which you can do only in Fort Tarsis, of course—required a loading screen, but they got rid of that one via patch. I actually timed a mission while playing on Twitch, and I found that 1/3 of an entire mission's time was waiting for loading screens.

So, an extremely brief story, no endgame content, game-breaking bugs, and tons of loading screens. By the way, do want to know how long this game was in development? Seven years. BioWare started on it right after they released ME3 in 2012, but they didn't have a single playable mission, apparently, until some time in 2017. BioWare pawned off ME:A from the main team in Edmonton to the smaller, less-experienced team in Montreal, so that Edmonton could concentrate on Anthem. Montreal built all of ME:A before Edmonton, after five years of development, produced a single, playable mission, if the Kotaku article by Jason Schrier is to be believed.

So, Where Does That Leave Us?

BioWare was a great storytelling studio. Until about 2010, where we began to see a long, slow decline into what we have today. Based on the experience of the last several years, BioWare seems increasingly incapable of telling a good story, or, frankly, producing a good game. Looking at each successive BioWare game after Mass Effect, you can chart the decline in BioWare's quality and ability, bit by bit, until we got to Anthem. The Montreal studio was jettisoned after the ME:A embarrassment. The development of Anthem was apparently so chaotic and directionless that a lot of old BioWare employees left. All of those people who made KOTOR, ME1, and DA:O so great are, mainly, gone. The studio may have the same name, but it clearly isn't the same place it was in 2007.

A lot of people who love BioWare try to blame others for its issues. Now, if you want to blame BioWare's parent company, EA, for pushing games out the door of their child studios before they're fully baked, making them buggy, and requiring major patches to fix rendering and gameplay issues, then fine. You can blame EA for stuffing microtransactions of the worst sort into games. You can blame them for forcing Frostbite on all their studios, even though Frostbite was manifestly not capable of doing third-person RPG systems well, because it wasn't designed to do it, which caused a lot of extra development effort.

But let's not pretend that today's BioWare is the same studio that made KOTOR and ME1 more than a decade ago. Whatever BioWare might have been in 2007 in terms of creative story-telling, their talent has been diminishing, and that's been increasingly obvious with every succeeding game. For years, it has increasingly looked like BioWare is growing less capable of delivering the same kind of story experience it became famed for. I find that sad, because in the modern environment of gaming, where EA and Activision seem to care only about multiplayer, microtransactions, and games as a service, in order to monetize their games as much as is humanly possible, we need someone who cares about the player. We need someone who can write great single-player stories, immerse us in new worlds and experiences, and give us that sense of adventure that made ME1 so great.

I cared about Shepard and Garrus. I wanted to cure the genophage. I wanted Tali to have her beach house on Rannoch. I played and replayed the Mass Effect games, just to commune with characters I came to love as much as any character in a good book or TV show. They felt real in a way that most fictional characters don't. But, when I played ME:A, I remember getting about halfway through a playthrough when I thought to myself, "I don't care about any of these people. I don't like any of my squad mates. I don't care if the Andromeda Initiative is a success." I found that I just wasn't interested in flying around in the not-Normandy with not-Garrus and not-Wrex, and I didn't care if all the corpsicles stored on the not-Citadel ever got unfrozen. So, I just stopped playing.

That told me a lot.

UPDATE: This has been produced as a video essay here.

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