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Mass Effect Has Reminded Me Why I Hate Dialogue Wheels

Dialogue wheels are a topic of contention in the RPG sphere given their overt simplicity by nature. Utilizing them means that you’ll either get a gist of what you’re going to say, without fully knowing just what you’re dedicating yourself to, or you’ll get something completely different from what you expected. They’re an unintuitive design, and Mass Effect Legendary Edition has brought my hatred of this system to the forefront once more.

It’s something that a lot of games have toyed with for whatever reason – it’s streamlined, prettier, fits on a joy-stick better given that you swivel around it in a circular motion to select your choice of speech. Yet, it quantifies dialogue into small little boxes with arbitrary tones – do you want to be sarcastic, friendly, or neutral? Rather than selecting what you’re going to say based on the contents of the line of dialogue, you immediately begin to pick the same option because of color or an indication set outright. It eliminates an element of nuance and depth, leading to safe bets. Pavlov would be proud.

What you say may very well offend the person you’re speaking to but if the dialogue is presented outright, it’s up to you to pick based on its contents and wager how they’ll respond, dealing with the consequences whatever they may be. Having a dialogue wheel often falls back on immediately letting you know how a conversation will flow depending on your choice, eliminating that risk and roleplay. Conversations become a game of picking evil or good, Renegade or Paragon, rather than actually conversing. It’s one of the biggest flaws of Mass Effect, yet so many titles even today have tried to emulate it – they shouldn’t.

Fallout 4 was the epitome of this problem, leaping from the lines of text in a neat little box format that you could scroll up and down or click with a mouse – perfect for both platforms – to a wheel. Not only is it unintuitive for PC users, losing that stricken balance where it works perfectly for either, but it also narrowed down dialogue to those aforementioned arbitrary parameters. The game gets a lot of flack for its transformation of ‘evil’ into sarcastic, with what’s said by the voiced protagonist often not even remotely matching what you click.

The number of times I’ve selected something already in Mass Effect that resembles ‘go to Hell’ or some other inflammatory statement only to see it spoken in a much calmer manner or not even encompassing the general sentiment of ‘fuck off’ is upsetting. Unless it’s directly labelled as Paragon or Renegade, it’s unlikely to actually do what it is that you expect it to, and why should dialog boil down to something so formulaic and rigid? More info, good, and bad.

It narrows the pool of potential that comes with conversations and it’s part of what put me off Mass Effect’s romances and interactions. It became a bland game of dancing around the wheel to get the desired ending. Given that BioWare created Dragon Age: Origins which used lines of text as opposed to a wheel, this was a disappointing shift in gear, even more so when it bled into Dragon Age with Inquisition. It was the perfect system and the first Dragon Age did wonders with it. If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it, and it wasn’t. Dragon Age’s system is something that worked so well, something that other RPGs like the earlier Elder Scrolls: Oblivion utilized, giving a clear indication of what you were saying and what your character’s true thoughts were, but then Mass Effect came along and tried to be ‘hip’ with its sparkly new approach. It just didn’t land, yet it took off. It’s a dire fad that is in need of shutting down.

While slicker, it also pushes dialogue to be comically two-dimensional, like having an angel and a devil on your shoulder, egging you on to say what it is that they want you to say. Mass Effect’s next entry can do a lot to improve on the faults of Andromeda and the outdated politics of the original games, but hopefully, like with many of those problems, it leaves the dialogue wheel behind too as a relic representative of one of the RPG genre’s biggest mistakes, its undercutting of a fundamental in this space – conversation.

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