Contains minor spoilers for the Baldur's Gate, Mass Effect and Dragon Age series.
The title of this article is a bit of an aggressive statement, so before we go any further let me make it clear that I am a massive fan of Bioware. I love each and every one in their own way and they are easily some of my favorite games. For anyone who has yet to try a Bioware RPG I highly recommend all of them.
It's not my intention to bash Bioware with this article. Not at all. Instead, I just want to take a look at one element of their recent work that I think they've never really been able to stick the landing with, and that's the Save File Transfer. The promise of a persistent world state that lasts between games, and with it the promise that player choice will have some kind of significant pay-off.
The origins of the Save File Transfer goes back, way back, to the dawn of pen-and-paper role-playing.
While tabletop games were destined to be self-contained stories, even from its early days, Dungeons and Dragons always gave dungeon masters the opportunity to have players deal with the consequences of their actions. Even long term if they so choose. For example, If players killed an innocent character instead of using stealth or diplomacy then the DM could always, at their discretion, bring up this action several campaigns down the line as a blot on the player's reputation.
Likewise, players would always keep hold of their character sheets between games, enabling them to carry forward their experience and loot from one campaign to another. Down the line players could regale new groups with tales of their former exploits.
Essentially, pen-and-paper always had persistent worlds; it was just really up to those playing how hard they wanted to lean into it.
Come the dawn of the first Bioware era, it was clear that many compromises would have to be made when adapting from tabletop to digital. Baldur's Gate was Bioware’s first success at creating a virtual recreation of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. The game came complete with twists and turns, multiple solutions to problems, and the freedom to play good, evil or somewhere in between.
Baldur’s Gate, however, could only recreate so much of its tabletop inspiration. The compromise came, of course, with the campaign now being limited by technology rather than imagination. Baldur's Gate could never hope to accommodate the myriad ways a tabletop player might approach a problem, and likewise it could never hope to offer the scope of options that a dungeon master might bring. Indeed, even today there is only so much freedom a video game can allow without limiting it elsewhere.
As such, the first form of Bioware's Save File Transfer, if you could consider it that, was the character Import/Export System. While Baldur's Gate 2 gave players the option to import their characters from the first game, carrying over skills, experience and potentially some loot, that is the be all and end all of what would be carried over, and the plot would remain unaffected.
While Baldur's Gate gave players the choice in who lives and who dies, which factions succeed and which fail, Bioware didn't have the resources to tailor its sequel to take all these choices into account. Instead they opted to create a 'canon' version of events somewhat influenced by popular choices, and moved the plot to another part of the world. Any discrepancy was written off as a side effect of your character's torture by series' villain Irenicus. Black Isle's Fallout 2 took a similar approach, as would most other choice-and-consequence stories.
As the first Bioware age rolled by, most developers sidestepped the issue entirely. Both entries in the Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights duologies were separated by significant time-skips, rendering the need for a save-file transfer pointless, while Knights of the Old Republic 2 kept the events of the first game at significant arm’s length.
All in all, the popular RPGs of the day managed to get by without feeling the need to acknowledge player choices over multiple games, and there didn't seem much of a desire by developers to experiment any further.
All this changed with the arrival of Mass Effect, the game that heralded Bioware’s golden age. Mass Effect was a much more cinematic, grander experience than previous games, and upon release Bioware made a statement advising players to keep hold of their save files, as the choices they made in the first game would be important in the second. Given that Mass Effect was a game where players had to make many difficult and morally debatable choices, it was a given that players were left believing these choices to be more significant than they actually were.
Likewise, its sister game, Dragon Age: Origins was released with the same caveat, making the persistent world state a signature feature of Bioware games going forward.
Once launch day had arrived, however, many were somewhat perplexed with the degree Mass Effect 2 acknowledged the choices of the first game. Many big choices, like whether the council lived or died, got little more than a mention in a handful of scenes. Often when choices you made during the first game were brought up, it felt little more than fan service. How the game chooses to treat characters that have the potential to be alive or dead, like companions Ashley and Kaiden, is a good example of this.
By choosing to acknowledge player choice, Bioware had also sacrificed the opportunity to tell certain stories. If it was possible for a character to live or die in the first game, then that meant said character’s importance in the plot would have to be reduced, as Bioware didn’t have the resources to essentially make several completely different stories that only some players would experience.
As a result, the main plot of Mass Effect 2, and player’s relationship with its characters, remains generally unchanged regardless of player choices. Had Bioware chose to make Mass Effect 2 without instituting the safe file transfer the main game probably wouldn’t have looked all that different.
Still Mass Effect 2 ended with significantly raised stakes and the possibility of multiple dead characters, leading many to believe that Bioware were saving their big consequences for the third game. Pre-release interviews seemed to suggest as much.
Following Mass Effect 2 was the sequel to Bioware's second flagship title, Dragon Age 2. While sharing many similarities to Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins was a very different game with a lot of nostalgia for the past in comparison to Mass Effect looking forward.
While Origins was well received by RPG veterans and had a much more self-contained story, few were surprised to hear that it would be following in Mass Effect's footsteps with a Save File Transfer system.
What did surprise many was how different Dragon Age 2 turned out to be. It was a smaller, more focused story that involved a brand new character in a different part of the world. The few loose plot threads that were left from Origins remained untouched. In retrospect there was even less justification for a persistent world state to feature in Dragon Age 2.
Indeed, most references back to the first game were little more than that. References. Alistair would appear as a King or a drunk depending on your choices, but this was in a simple cameo, separate from the main plot. Even worse, some choices you could make in Origins were even outright ignored in 2, such as Leliana appearing at the climax despite her death being possible in the previous game.
Like Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age 2 was a game that could have survived without a persistent world state, but also like Mass Effect 2, its ending hinted towards the Save File Transfer having a greater importance in the following game. Upon completion Dragon Age 2 is revealed to be a glorified prologue to the third game in the series, suggesting that player choices would be noted upon more thoroughly next time around.
A year later, Mass Effect 3 would finally arrive and the worth of the Save File Transfer would really be put to the test. In the run up, multiple interviews said that there would be serious consequences to certain choices from other games, and one even suggested that the ending would have over a hundred possible combinations, leading most to assume that the multiple endings would be modular, rather than limited to a choice of two or three.
Of course, the ending would go on to become Mass Effects 3's most controversial element, and while I don't have time to discuss it here, I think the reason for that controversy comes from the same failure to aptly implement the choice-and-consequence system that was promised.
To Bioware's credit, the execution of Mass Effect 3's Save File Transfer was much better than it had been in Mass Effect 2 or Dragon Age 2. Certain elements would result in actual gameplay consequences, such as having to fight Legion as a reprogrammed mini-boss had you handed him over to Cerberus, or saving the Salarian councillor becoming impossible if both Thane and Captain Kirrhae died in previous games.
While it has its disappointments, Mass Effect 3 does have one sequence that manages to live up to the promise of a persistent world and this is during the Krogan Genophage portion of Act 2. Here multiple choices from the previous games can pull the plot in a variety of different directions, and while it doesn't affect the gameplay or the layout of the missions, the story does feel otherwise dynamic.
Not only can multiple characters live or die depending on seemingly innocuous decisions from Mass Effect 2, it can also influence the player's final choice on whether to keep the Krogan sterilised or not. Should Wrex survive Mass Effect 1, he begins to lead the Krogan in a more peaceable direction, yet if he died he is replaced by Wreav, a much more viscous warlord. A paragon player could be more easily lead down one route under Wreav, than they would be under Wrex, and I think it's really cool that these choices can make such a thematic difference.
Likewise, should Dr Mordin Solus have survived Mass Effect 2, this sub plot becomes the story of his redemption, yet should he die he is replaced by Padok Wiks, an equally interesting and fully formed character who has their own agenda and even some fresh info on Mordin himself.
Had Mass Effect 3 managed to deal with its climax in the same way it did with the Krogan plot then the promise of the Safe File Transfer system would have been fulfilled, but unfortunately, the rest of the game mostly squanders the potential. Other character deaths are either squeezed to the sidelines (Tali, Miranda, Garrus,) not mentioned at all (Samara, Grunt, Jack,) or even worse, badly covered over with a nondescript character performing their role (Jacob).
Whoever out of Kaiden and Ashley survived, they rejoin the game as a squad-member this time around, but are relegated to a hospital bed for the first two acts. Should the council die in the first game they are replaced by non-identical copies with the same lines and personalities. Should the Rachni queen have died in the first game she is replaced by an identical clone. A pro-Cerberus Shepard is treated no different to an anti-Cerberus Shepard.
As the game goes on it becomes abundantly clear that most of the player’s choices had very little meaning, and most of the consequences manifest not as plot or gameplay but as part of the player’s 'Galactic Readiness Score', a generic number that locks off some of the endings if it is too low, though the game easily offers enough side-quests to build it up to a sufficient level regardless of any penalties your previous choices may have brought.
While Mass Effect 3 may have showcased the very best of what a persistent world state could offer with the Krogan subplot, it mostly revealed that it could never live up to the promises made in the previews. Now this is understandable, Bioware only has so many resources and couldn't exactly make a thousand different games for a thousand different choices, but after three games of hype, it's also understandable that players were starting to feel misled when it came to the importance of save files.
“Surely,” some began to argue, “a simple set of tick boxes at the start of the game and a modular plot based only around the biggest choices would be a more reasonable idea?”
With Dragon Age: Inquisition, Bioware disagreed, and ultimately sealed the Save File Transfer's fate.
Inquisition would see a slightly different approach to the persistent world state. Instead of having to keep your save games on file, Bioware instead would log your choices on an online database called Dragon Age Keep that you could check and tweak at your leisure.
This system came with an upside, and a downside. The upside was that players would have at-will access to the details of their world state and have the freedom to change those details should they so choose. The downside, possibly unforeseen by Bioware, was that access to these details would lead player to an unrealistic expectation on how significant their choices would be.
After all, why give players a log of all these choices if they weren't going to mean something further down the line?
Already hyped after the cliffhanger ending of Dragon Age 2, Bioware had put themselves in an even more impossible position with the fan-base.
Like Dragon Age 2, Inquisition benefited from featuring a brand new character in a brand new part of the world, but it also suffered from having to deal with the previous game’s plot threads. Just like with Mass Effect, Inquisition sidestepped most of the significant choices of the previous games. In particular, the Mage vs Templar plot that dominated the climax of Dragon Age 2 was rather unceremoniously concluded at the end of Act 1, and previous player character Hawke would appear in an entirely separate subplot.
It wasn't all disappointments though, while Inquisition’s use of choice-and-consequence would never reach the heights of the Krogan subplot from Mass Effect 3, it still managed to do some interesting things with its Save File Transfer. Hawke's personality and history would be referenced often and it was fun to see a previous character return in the way they did.
Perhaps the most interesting use of the Save File Transfer was the identity of the Wardern ally, which depending on the player’s choices at the end of Dragon Age: Origins. Should Alistair, a fan favourite of the series, remain in the Warderns he would appear as a returning veteran, the image of the man he always hoped he would be. Should Logain, villain of the first game, have been conscripted into the Warderns instead, he appears as a pariah, longing for redemption. Both of these are really cool character developments that are influenced heavily by the player's previous actions.
Unfortunately, most players will meet neither Alistair nor Logain, as a popular choice by players in Origins was putting one on the throne and executing the other. In this instance, their ally is Stroud, a Wardern who played a minor role in Dragon Age 2's DLC. While Stroud is by no means a bad character, he certainly isn't as interesting as Alistair or Logain, and it's a shame he's the Warden most players ended up interacting with.
Likewise, there are other interesting outcomes for choices most players didn’t make, like refusing Morrigon's dark pact or failing Sabastain's personal quest, so the consequences are experienced by fewer players.
Like Mass Effect 3, most of the player’s choices are relegated to offhand mentions or included in the War Table missions, similar to Mass Effect's Galactic Readiness score. There's no special items or bonus bosses based on past choices, and as with all the other games, the plot unfolds the same regardless of anything carried forward in your save file.
Like Dragon Age 2 before it, Inquisition ends on a cliffhanger and hints at things to come. Dragon Age Keep has all of the player choices logged, but it remains to be seen to what degree they will manifest in future games. Will we see a story arc like Mass Effect 3's Krogan sub-plot? Or will we simply be treated to numerous variations of 'Hey, remember when you chose to do this in a previous game?'
There's a glimmer of hope, of course, that Bioware will be able to pull off a Rube-goldberg of consequences that finally lives up to the promise of true choice-and-consequence gameplay, but after four games of mostly squandered potential, it's not hard to look forward with a more skeptical eye.
Indeed, it seems Bioware, to some degree, agrees, with its most recent game, Mass Effect: Andromeda dropping the save file system and persistent world state entirely. Now Andromeda justifies this due to it taking place billions of years apart from the prior games, but I think it's still a decent hint that Bioware is becoming less interested in trying to accommodate a billion different choices in place of making a decent game.
Looking back, it’s my opinion that most of Bioware's games would have been just as good without the Save File Transfer. Mass Effect 2 could have started with a simple checklist of “Did the council die?”, “Who became the earth delegate,” and “Who survived Virmire,” and left it at that. Dragon Age 2 and Inquisition both could have been kept as their own distinct stories without the need to reference previous player choices. Sure we'd be missing out on cool little cameos and moments, but if that means the resources otherwise going into getting a better game out there, I'm happy to let it go.
Where Bioware goes next remains to be seen. I anticipate Dragon Age 4 will incorporate Keep pretty heavily given that the Inquisitor has unfinished business with antagonist Solus at the end of the DLC, but beyond that, who knows? Andromeda's lacklustre reception has put that series on hiatus, and should future games decide to explore new characters in new parts of the world I think it's highly possible that Bioware will phase out the persistent world states and focus on more self-contained installments.
And do you know what? That's okay. While there'll always be a part of me that would like to play an RPG where every last choice the player makes has a knock on effect that develops through several games and creates an ending with thousands of differing variables, I know it's unlikely that such an RPG is ever going to happen.
For now I’m happy to wait and see what Bioware does next, whether they choose to continue the Save File experiment or not.
Jack Harvey 2018. Mass Effect and Dragon Age are (c) Bioware/EA