10 Good Ideas: Mass Effect 2 and Interrupts

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Image from Kyle Foster’s Youtube Channel

Let’s be real: if you played Mass Effect 3 through to the end, you took the Renegade interrupt and stabbed Kai Leng. If you didn’t, you should have. Kai Leng is my most hated character in the entirety of Mass Effect (disclaimer: have not played Andromeda yet), and getting the chance to shatter his stupid goddamn DeviantArt-ass katana and stab him in the gut like the bitch he is felt so good SCREW YOU KAI LENG YOU KILLED CHARACTERS THAT WERE SO MUCH BETTER WRITTEN THAN YOU.

Ahem. Excuse me.

Interrupts, a mechanism introduced to the Mass Effect series in the second installment, are pretty simple: while a character is talking, you occasionally get the opportunity to, well, interrupt them, usually with a line of dialogue but occasionally with something kickass like stabbing somebody’s fanfiction in the chest.

Interruption as a concept is technically a concept that’s existed in game writing presumably for as long as games have had writing (I don’t know that there’s an easy way to see the first time a game character interrupted another, but I’d be interested to know!), but it typically they’re pre-written into the dialogue. For games with heavy dialogue or subtitles, this usually results in a line of dialogue being displayed with a dash or ellipses at the end, basically screaming “something is going to interrupt this”. Hopefully the dialogue is timed right such that the interrupting sentence begins while the first speaker is still talking, or else the whole thing sounds terribly stilted. There’s even a whole TVTropes page about it.

Mass Effect 2 attempted to alleviate this problem by mechanizing the concept of interrupts. When you see the button prompt during a conversation, you can mash it it have Shepard interrupt the current speaker. Sure, the execution isn’t always perfect, and the timing can occasionally feel wonky, but it’s certainly better than having a subtitle just awkwardly cut off halfway through, or having someone politely stop mid-word so that someone else can interrupt.

Here’s the thing: human beings interrupt each other, a lot. The concept of interruption is actually an extremely meaningful tool when it comes to analyzing human interaction. Interruption is indicative of certain personality types (specifically assertive or controlling people), as well as moods (discomfort, excitement, or anger). An interruption is a sign that the topic being discussed is one of importance to the interrupter. It’s also a sign of comfort with one another. I know, much to my friends’ irritation, I pretty consistently attempt to complete my friends’ sentences. In the same way, it can be used to mark the power dynamic in a conversation, as one person gets less and less of a chance to get a word in edge-wise.

We’re in a design space right now where people are interested in building complex dialogue systems. The Walking Dead has a timer on dialogue, forcing players to formulate a response in a given amount of time. Deus Ex: Human Revolution lets players spec into augmentations giving them complete personality readouts of conversation partners. LA Noire pioneered hyper-realistic facial mo-cap so that people could actually read the faces of their conversation partners. And yet, relatively few games, at least to my knowledge, have tried to harness the power of interruption to add depth to dialogue.

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Deus Ex: Human Revolution gave you entire psychological readouts of key conversational characters

Of course, some have, most notably in 2016’s Oxenfree, which allowed players to choose dialogue options at any time, allowing for interruptions, polite conversation, or silence. Giving players more granular control over the timing of the conversation like this is excellent, and can be used to create more interesting relationships between characters. But, to my knowledge, the mainstream introduction of mechanized interruption occurred in Mass Effect 2, and because it allows for more natural and human dialogue, it’s most definitely a Good Idea.



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