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Mass Effect: How to Indoctrinate Users with UX Consistency

How the Mass Effect trilogy makes use of the fourth UX heuristic: consistency and standards

It has been a while since I wrote something; it almost feels like starting from scratch. I was checking my previous stories on heuristics and noticed I have covered three of the heuristics so far:

I will write about the Mass Effect trilogy for the fourth heuristic: maintain consistency and adhere to standards. This entails following external (industry) and internal conventions so that users don’t wonder about the meaning of words, situations, or actions.

In this story, I will talk about external and internal conventions — the consistency between the trilogy, more specifically the dialogue wheel, but also how this heuristic was used to give us one of the hardest decisions a videogame could give.

Source: BioWare.

Consistency and Standards

Systems should follow both platform and industry conventions. Users spend a lot of time using digital products with different goals and tasks but that have in common the same conventions. Each new interaction consolidates the expectation they might have when using a new digital product — consistency not only helps fulfil expectations but also decreases the cognitive load of learning something new.

Why?

Following internal and external standards improves learnability. Failing to follow the most used words, situations or actions might also lead to frustration and inability to use the system.
This consistency is important inside the same family of products, not only for users but also for the people creating the products — it increases not only UX but also code (in the case of digital products) and brand consistency. There is more room for improvement and a better speed of development.
Following established industry conventions also has advantages for both sides. It’s easier to learn a product that follows known patterns and simpler to introduce new ideas with a help of know conventions that accelerate learning.

How?

There are a number of things to do to follow platform and industry conventions. It requires time and money to discover and understand the industry conventions, to adapt solutions to our product, and to create your own product conventions.

External consistency: Follow UX patterns, use known components and copy, visual and graphic rules.

Internal consistency: Create and implement a design system and brand guidelines within your product line.

Examples

Let’s go directly to games to give you three good examples of internal and external consistency: the console controller.

Console controllers follow their own internal conventions, the button's visuals, the placement of buttons, the colours, etc. Without any logo or words, most people can distinguish between a PlayStation, an Xbox, and a Nintendo controller.

Regardless of the console in question, manufacturers have their own internal conventions and players have expectations on how the buttons work, physically and inside the different games depending on the action and genre. The placement of the action buttons to the right, the directional buttons to the left, etc…

Let’s focus on an example: a jump action, common across genres and widely used.

You can see how the same action is located on the middle right side of the controllers. Source: Author.

Some of you might know just after reading the last sentence the most common button on PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo controllers. You might also know that click once, you jump, but in a lot of games if you press it twice in a row you can double jump. For PlayStation the most common is “X”, for Xbox the “A” and for Nintendo most games use “B”, although in some games “A” is used which can cause some confusion. This is because these conventions are learned in such a way that players memorize the location of the button for a specific action and not only the button itself.

Notice how the button most commonly used to jump is located in almost the same spot on the three different consoles controllers.

This muscle memory allows players to use the controllers without looking at them — reinforcing even more the need to follow industry conventions not only for the same console but across consoles. Even if the game teaches players that “Y” is the button that will control jump inside this game, you are not only forcing a bigger learning curve but also going against muscle memory and learned behaviour from previous hours and hours playing other games.

Internal and external conventions are extremely important in games. Not only do they save time and effort to learn the game but they also follow the expectations and habits that players already have.

Mass Effect and how to indoctrinate users with consistency

Mass Effect is a science-fiction franchise created by Casey Hudson, Drew Karpyshyn, and Preston Watamaniu. In this universe, humans and other alien races colonized the Milky Way galaxy when they discovered how to use a technology, known as “Mass Relays” that allows faster than light travel.

The franchise started with a trilogy of third-person action shooter games with role-playing elements, where players control the main character Commander Shepard through their attempts to save the galaxy from an ancient race of machines, the Reapers.

Screenshots from the 3 games of the original trilogy in order: Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3. You can see how even if the HUD changes they keep the consistency of the graphics and most critical information position. If you think of other actions and shooters the HUD elements are in a similar position (e.g.: info of the gun being used and amount of ammo on the bottom left of the screen). Source: Author.

Editor’s note: You can click/tap images to enlarge them.

The game triumphs on its narrative, characters, the relationship built between them, and world-building that completely immerses the player. One of the ways this was achieved was with the introduction of the Dialogue Wheel (it was even patented).

You could talk about different aspects of consistency in the trilogy, even from a non-UX perspective but let’s focus on the Dialogue Wheel. It will also open the discussion about how twisting this consistency can bring something unique.

Dialogue wheel

The dialogue wheel on the Mass Effect trilogy follows a long tradition of role-playing games to present the choices available through the story. It’s a way to develop characters, relationships and give some depth to the world story. This interaction is rooted in text choices from selected dialogues that give the player a unique perspective on the game story.

The Mass Effect trilogy allows players to make dialogue choices as Commander Shepard. The effects are plenty: gather information, progress the story, build relationships, make moral decisions.

The dialogue wheel does not provide the full text of the dialogue or option — it gives a small text description of the tone and possible dialogue option (or action) and after selection, the character will deliver the full dialogue (with awesome voice acting!) and/or action.

The dialogue wheel has a small description of the intention and tone of the dialogue on the image on the left. On the right, you can see the result if you select the “This ship’s special” option. Source: Author.

The choices are, in general, simple questions and answers. But in some cases, they also provide extra choices that influence the story and even the next choices that will be available on the dialogue wheel. Most importantly, they can influence the morality of Commander Shepard, the main character.

He can go along two main roads — the diplomatic and peaceful Paragon or the hostile and aggressive Renegade. Long story short, they are measured separately and every choice will add to their own scale. A kind answer adds points to Paragon, an insult adds points to Renegade. Depending on the one that has the most points, the story and future options can be affected.

A Paragon choice gave Shepard +8 Paragon points. Source: Author.

In the three games, the dialogue wheel provides the choices for the two different paths in a very clear way.

Blue and/or position on the top of the wheel — Paragon

Red and/or position on the bottom of the wheel — Renegade.

In the second and third games, a new mechanic appears outside the dialogue wheel: it’s possible to select a paragon or a renegade option during an NPC dialogue without any text hint. Just with the blue paragon icon on the left and the red renegade icon on the right. These choices outside the dialogue wheel have a great impact on the story and the game.

Back to the dialogue wheel.

It works in a very intuitive way, and the composition of the wheel follows the same main structure in all three games:

You can see how the top is for friendly/paragon, the middle for neutral choices and the bottom for hostile/Renegade. Source: Author.

The actual workings of the system are similar across the trilogy, though with some changes from Mass Effect to Mass Effect 2 and 3.

Mass Effect. Source: Author.

Mass Effect

In Mass Effect (the first game) the left side has options that will lead to deeper dialogue and the right provides Paragon options. To be diplomatic and selfless is in the middle the neutral option and on the bottom are Renegade options, to be hostile and aggressive. On the left side, you can see Blue on top (to Charm, use peace), a neutral option to Investigate further in the middle, and a red option on the bottom (to Intimidate, use insults, or threats).

Just like I’ve talked about the two levels of Paragon and Renegade, in Mass Effect you have other two scores, for Charm and Intimidate. In this screenshot, the red is disabled because my character has reached a point in the game that did not have enough Intimidate points to be able to Intimidate. On the other hand, I invested in a diplomatic approach most of the time and that allow me to use Charm in a tough situation.

Mass Effect 2. Source: Author.
Mass Effect 3. Source: Author.

Mass Effect 2 and 3

The main differences from the first game are at a mechanical level and also as a result of the introduction of Interrupts. As you can see from the screenshots, the dialogue wheel is basically the same — colours and placement of options based on morality.

On Mass Effect 2 and 3, the Charm/Intimidate is connected to your morality level (your Paragon or Renegade level). Charm is tied to Paragon and Intimidate to Renegade. The level of each one will determine if you can use Charm or Intimidate, they are no longer two separate scales like in Mass Effect.

An example of a Renegade interrupt. Source: Author.

Interrupts are what I call a blind dialogue wheel. Instead of using the dialogue wheel, the interrupts are button prompts that show up during dialogue that requires a quick reaction. It can trigger a Paragon or Renegade option but you can also choose not to select one. This happens without warning during dialogue scenes. A choice for Paragon or Renegade will add points to their levels and will have different impacts on the dialogue and game story.

Consistency

The visual element that represents the dialogue wheel, the position of the moral choices, and the colours keep consistency through the games.

You don’t need to teach players how morality works, the options that are friendly or not. This allowed the creation of interrupts, a blind selection of dialogue — players know the colour code and icon of the morality they want and the benefits of each morality. They just need to follow the colour of their path in a quick and mindless way.

Players can build a Commander Shepard that makes sense to them in every game. The consistency of the way the choices are presented also allows players to keep the consistency of the moral choices and the character… or not. But consistency on a path does have more advantages.

Mass Effect spoilers ahead.

Break the wheel

Choice appears simple; it’s almost an instinct as soon as you set your mind on a path. Blue is peaceful and diplomatic, Red is hostile and violent. Select the blue/top option so many times that when a blue logo with Paragon appears you automatically choose that one. If it’s red you hold your controller carefully not to select it. You don’t need to know the outcome. The same goes for a Renegade path.

This example of an interrupt from Mass Effect 3:

A NPC is about to commit suicide and a Paragon prompt shows up to save her. If you do, you save the character, and everyone lives. If you don’t select the Paragon option she kills herself.
A dialogue wheel appears with a Paragon (top) and a Renegade (bottom) option to interact with a second character.
No matter the previous choice on the dialogue wheel, a new choice will appear on the screen but this time is a Renegade one. If you select it, you will kill the second character, if not she will live.

The interrupts made the decision almost mechanical for players and the colour code of the morality of the game becomes natural and the decisions, quicker to make.

In the Mass Effect the ending tone changes depending on the morality with higher level. If Paragon, the lighting is bright, if Renegade the lighting is darker. The closing shot will show Shepard with no weapon with a background dominated by blue/white or Shepard with an assault rifle with a predominant red/orange background.

In the Mass Effect 2 ending, the last dialogue will have a star as a background, the colour also changes from blue/white to red/orange, if Paragon or Renegade choice was made in a crucial decision of this game.

In Mass Effect 3 ending, this consistency of colours plays an important part but is different from the previous two. I will talk about the extended cut since it was the one I played, and there the colour loses its straightforward meaning.

You have 4 completely different options:

  • Red to the right: Destruction — destroy the enemy;
  • Blue to the left: Control — control the enemy;
  • White in the middle: Synthesis — synthesis organics and synthetics; together
  • Dialogue: Refusal to make a decision.

And the consequences are explained to Shepard in a clear way:

  • Destruction: destroy the enemy and also all synthetic life in the galaxy (including an entire race, companions and cybernetics). Intergalactic travel will be destroyed until is developed again. The other races in the galaxy survive and organic life is preserved;
  • Control: Merge with the enemy sacrificing the humanity Shepard has (connection with organic races), only memories and thoughts remain. Takes control of the enemy;
  • Synthesis: Shepard sacrifices themselves (the essence of who and what they are) to merge all organic and synthetic life in the galaxy into new forms of life;
  • Refusal (not directly): refusing will risk continuing the enemy’s work of destroying all life in the galaxy.
Source: Reddit.

Automatically, you associate the decisions with the colour code that indicates a path. But it’s no longer the case, there are no clear Paragon or Renegade answers. They are forcing you to stop your mechanical answer to colours and positioning, and think.

Blue is in Control but you will lose your connection to organic life and the humanity you had, the thing that made you seek common ground. Red is Destroy but you will save organic life (that might be able to create synthetics again) and stop the cycle of destruction. The middle ground is peace but you will sacrifice the essence of all life forms on the galaxy.
And we could continue the debate…

Remember, that some decisions were previously made without knowing almost anything about their impact — just the colour and icon. You have this learned behaviour from hours and hours of dialogue options and crucial interrupts that force quick decisions on players.

On the other hand, you have the story of the game itself. In the previous games, the people that became your enemy by falling under the control of the Reapers wanted synthesis or control and you actively acted against that.

There is also your personal preference, your own story, your moral compass, and even your view on the game story and the themes behind it.

I will not argue about the best ending but about how the usage of colours could play a part in the ability of players to stop and think. You feel the need to make this decision quickly with all the pressure that comes with it. And this is an extremely clever use of consistency that still amazes me to this day.

The quickest way to get all three games in one. Source: MP1st.

Final thoughts

Looking back, the Dialogue Wheel created a simple element of interaction. It gave room for voice acting and dialogue writing to shine by simplifying the choices to make the players wait for the result. In the end, even with all the discussion we could have about this simplification, it brought a system that opened possibilities of interaction outside text-based or RPG-based games.

The Mass Effect franchise uses consistency in a good way both on an external and internal level, not only on the trilogy but through the different mediums. It broke and twisted its consistency to give one last final decision but it also delivered a new standard for the industry.

Next time you start a new game think about all the things it’s not teaching you that you already know, or the things you are finding hard to learn because they don’t feel natural to you. You will see how this heuristic is crucial to immerse yourself in the game.

Consistency and standards and important to decrease the learning curve and make the usage of your system quicker and simpler. It also helps speed up development and to create a unique force of communication for your products.

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Maria Meireles

Maria Meireles

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