What I've oddly found difficult is expressing why I feel the way I do about certain brands or developers. Whenever I try to translate my thoughts into coherent statements I usually lose my grip; the inexplicable adoration of mine always eludes my attempts of grasping it. Such was the case with my love of Bioware. After hours of Mass Effect and Dragon Age I neither had the desire nor ability to specify what it was about the Bioware template that clicked with me. However, I felt the need to tackle this challenge after completing KOTOR, yet another successful game in the developer's resume. After much musing and analyzing, I think I have found my answer in a simple yet potent recurring quality of Bioware's games: variety.
When we usually think of variety we recall minigames and diversions from core mechanics of a game, but Bioware's subtle use of variety is much less confined. In fact, one simply must look at the Bioware template as a whole. In each game, a hero is given a task that spans the main arc, which is often rather simplistic in order to make room for more minute differences. To complete the overarching objective of the storyline, the hero must perform minor tasks in any order they wish. In KOTOR, this comes in the form of finding the Star Maps on each world; in Mass Effect 2 it manifests in the recruitment missions. Oftentimes these mandatory minor missions have their own narrative arc that brings you into a more minute conflict. It is here where the variety is found. By letting you diverge from the main storyline while simultaneously adhering to it, Bioware creates an interesting dynamic: you are constantly being introduced to new stories, and are thus not fatigued by one central narrative. If you magnify these minor objectives, you will see that they too have their own distractions, such as sidequests in the setting of that mission, or the numerous NPCs you can interact with. In this way, Bioware's template-which can be likened to a path that splits into multiple roads but inevitably converges again- in and of itself makes the game incredibly fresh to the player.
It is surprising how much focus goes into this, and even more surprising that we care.
It is from our ability to explore the worlds of these minor and major tasks that we are given access to a key gratifying staple of Bioware games: lore. Through our constant interactions with local cultures, our involvement in political drama, and the mandatory storyline we are given copious amounts of exposition. This would not matter had the worlds crafted been bland or uninteresting. Bioware never fails in this aspect; it is from their attention to detail and successful world-building that we are wholly immersed in the world. This transforms what could be a simple backdrop into a keystone of the experience. I do not know many games in which I am able to and willing to read paragraphs upon paragraphs of sheer mythos and exposition, but in every Bioware game it is available, and appealing. More importantly, it diverts our attention from other mechanics and thus provides variety.
The other odd successful feature of Bioware's games is dialogue. Like the absorbing mythos, what seems so mundane at the surface Bioware effortlessly makes into an interesting balancing act. Not only do your responses to other characters have extreme significance in the way events play out, but the way you speak to people can form a legitimate impression. As such, your political involvement in local affairs are relegated mostly to dialogue, but the organic way conversations flow creates a real tension that makes you pick your responses carefully. Furthermore, the feature's capabilities can also help the player engage in interpersonal relationships with his/her party members; some may even become romantically involved with the hero. While most games simply rely on combat to derive enjoyment from, Bioware games are special in their inclusion of communicative challenges and satisfaction.
This is not to say Bioware doesn't utilize combat as a core mechanic. In fact, they always provide strategic systems that are substantial and functional enough to never get stale. Their games always involve party-based combat, in that the player-character and his/her companions must work together and use their individual strengths to achieve victory in battle. This type of battle system's allowance of switching party members in and out provides opportunities to tinker with new teams and strategies; this experimentation is exactly what keeps the gameplay fresher than a single unit type of combat.
The foundation upon which the combat is built is the building process. To properly prepare your party members for battle, you must equip them, micro-manage supplies for future battles, shop, attend to their attributes and skills that they gain with every new level, etc. These features are often criticized for their monotony; however they add a fundamental value to Bioware games that cannot be avoided: they give us the ability to build. Just as we find a sense of achievement in building a monument in Minecraft, the player derives a similar complacency from crafting their team of fighters. By controlling the set of skills, attributes, equipment and people that comprise our party we are hand-creating our own unique combat unit.
There are no hammers or stone to build; there are only skill points.
Variety on its own does not a good game make. It is Bioware's ability to not only competently create these individual facets of their games, but their effective interweaving of these aspects that accentuates each feature's strengths. Whereas a game like Skyrim has massive variety but segregates its different sources of entertainment, Bioware unites them to build upon each other. Romances escalate along with the story; mythology provides the groundwork for dialogue balancing acts; the characters are built up alongside the central story's rising action. Bioware, in managing to synchronize different human desires- social, violent, communicative, constructive, curious- with the ever-present feeling that the player is consequential, makes potent games that are wholly engrossing and gratifying.
What do you love about Bioware games? Tell me in the comments!