I loved Mass Effect 3. I thought it was a great way to end a wonderful story and I spent as much time as possible savouring the final journey of Shepard and the crew of the Normandy, completing every side quest, every conversational strand and following every interpersonal relationship to its ultimate limit.
Likewise I loved Skyrim, albeit for other reasons. The story wasn’t particularly great but the sense of place was superb, with the rewards for exploration being constantly surprising and tangible. Over 180 or so hours I explored every inch of the world, investigating every cave, climbing every mountain and opening every door, portcullis and chest I came across.
The thing is, however, that I have had absolutely no impetus to play any of the DLC for either title, though admittedly for quite different reasons.
Mass Effect 3 was a self-contained ending for me, a culmination of Shepard’s epic fight against the Reapers and something of a eulogy for the series as a whole. The game was essentially made up of a series of vignettes of characters the player had met over the course of the first two games in which Shepard did right by someone from his or her life and said goodbye to that companion, wrapping up their story thread and allowing them to go on with their lives in some fashion. More than any other game in the series, Mass Effect 3 is self contained – it’s all about endings, and even though there is a post-script that I suppose is meant to leave the story a little open ended allowing for DLC, the story, at least to me, felt finite. Over. Finished.
I was initially excited to have the prospect of more Mass Effect 3 on the horizon, but the closer it came to the first batch of DLC being released the less interested I became. In some ways the idea of new stories being slipped into the canon after it had been finished felt a little off, even a little disrespectful. It began to feel to me like (and I usually hate how casually this term is thrown about) a clumsy retcon of the story to fit in some extra chapters/money.
A lot of this comes from the fact that I played the game as soon as it was released, and so had very much finished everything the game had to offer before the first batch of DLC even dropped. If I hadn’t finished the game before the DLC was released I would almost certainly feel different, but that brings me neatly to Skyrim.
The narrative of Skyrim is no great shakes, so additions to the story have no real impact on its effectiveness. The joy of the modern Elder Scrolls games for me is in exploring the world and discovering the new. The problem I have with the Skyrim expansions isn’t so much the content — although I personally have absolutely no interest in building and furnishing an in-game house — but rather with the system into which they integrate. It’s easy to level in Skyrim, to gain extra skills and abilities, strength in combat and the tools required to survive.
It may not have been a problem for everyone — as a matter of fact I’m sure I’m in the minority — but the time I spent exploring the world of Skyrim levelled my character an extraordinary amount, to the point at which all of the combat content seemed trivial. I didn’t set out to game the system, but by sheer dint of the actual mechanics that was the end result, I was playing such an extremely powerful character that it actually removed much of the fun from the game.
My problems seem to boil down to two things; context and timing. In the case of Mass Effect 3 I feel that the context of the DLC is off, that it’s shoe-horning content back into a story that has already finished and thereby somehow lessening the experience, much in the way Walter Hill weakened his masterpiece The Warriors when he cut in some terrible comic book style scene transitions for the BD special edition, or, as a more contemporary example, the publishing of the Before Watchmen prequel comics. In the case of Skyrim it feels like a case of bad timing, as the more time you spend in the main game the less interesting the DLC becomes.
Is there a middle ground? I’m not sure. Borderlands 2 has done pretty well so far with their two DLC drops so far (and the third on the way this week), with a mixture of funny, expansive content and some great narrative choices, all released with impeccable timing, coming fairly soon after release and at regular intervals to ensure continued interest. But there are problems there as well. The lack of a level cap raise in any of the expansions so far makes the content, no matter how entertaining, feel somewhat like filler due to the lack of any actual character progress being made.
Is it possible to balance timing, context and content with DLC, or am I just being overly picky?