There are a number of ways RPGs can tell a story but for convenience's sake, we'll polarize them in a graduating scale with Elder Scrolls or Fallout style characters on one end and Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest on the other. Bethesda's RPGs feature a faceless set of eyes airdropped into a strange new world; in this world the player is free to wander and change the landscape and politics however they wish. The player and the protagonist are one, they share the same motivations and are driven by the same interests, they have the same knowledge and they are guided by the same morals. Opposite are the Square-Enix heroes that are fully written in a strict narrative. The player and the characters are separate entities experiencing a plot from very different perspective. No matter how convincing the cosplay, there is only one Cecil, and he is not the same person as the player that guides him.
|Tifa on the other hand...|
One is not better than the other (even if the latter is decidedly out of vogue in contemporary design philosophy) and in the hands of a good developer, either extreme can make for a damn fine game. What Dragon Age and especially Mass Effect do with this is find a magical sweet spot in between that differentiate Biowares properties. Shepard starts out as a name in a file, if the player chooses her to be a man from Earth that made his name as a war hero, so it will be. The player decides he will be polite to her crew and will develop a flirtatious relationship with Sgt. Ashley Williams. But over the course of the games, Shepard becomes his own person. The player sparks an initial reaction in his conscience, but he speaks for himself and everybody around him holds him completely responsible for what he says and does. Even the warden, who doesn't vocalize herself, there is a necessary development of a distinct personality.
Perhaps an anecdote may be useful here. During my first playthrough of Dragon Age: Origins, as the noble human warrior, Virginia Cousland, I aimed to get one of the romance achievements. Alistair was too soft-willed for Virgina, who was not above brutality but Zeveran was too libertine for one who valued order and propriety. When Leliana began flirting with my character to my complete surprise, I was caught so off guard that I rejected her outright. Later reflections had me realize that Leliana's violent history and redemption made her a foil of Virginia. It made perfect sense for the two to be together. However, Virginia missed her only chance to find love with the reformed bard. The men of the game did not suit her and by the time that she realized she was falling for another woman, the subject of her affection had accepted rejection and moved on.
I could have restored an earlier save state, but the development explained so much of a character I realized I was no longer in total control of that doing so would be a disservice to the narrative Bioware created (whether intentionally or not). I, as a straight man in a long-term relationship--a feminist with queer sympathies, but nonetheless an alien to the experience--got a taste of what it might be like for a powerful woman to discover her sexuality too late to enjoy it with the person that helped her find it. It was a powerful experience I hadn't experienced in any other game.
Just about everyone that's played through either Mass Effect or Dragon Age has had some similar experience. They've entered the game intending it to play out one way but they have their expectations abducted and the character grows in a delightfully unpredictable way. No matter how ruthless a badass some have resolved to be, they just couldn't bring themselves to exterminate the rachni, or no matter how principled they behaved, they were too tempted by the collector base to let it go to waste.
The power in these games is how they open the plot up to the player and then immediately close off the path when the choice is made. It allows players to engage with a story they think they have a handle on and then take over when the stakes get higher. And the formula makes for extraordinary games.
Dragon Age 2 tweaked Bioware's method. Instead of giving the player initial control of the character and letting Hawke come into his own, the game forces him into a role without the player's initial consent. It isn't necessarily a bad thing--were it not for the unforgivable mechanical blunders, the game had enough elements to be one of the best ever released--but it shows the unfamiliarity the developers have with leaving their comfort zone. Considering how well Bioware have that zone staked, one hopes they'll return to it for the eventual releases of Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age 3.
Bioware have earned the right to be one of the good guys. Even if they are working on franchises and even if their parent company appears at times to be misusing their credibility. They make good games. They've created a unique form of storytelling that is both linear and based on player choice; they tell a story and leave plenty of blanks for the player to fill. It won't last forever, but while the getting is good they're responsible for some of the best stories a person can engage with a controller in their hands.