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Mass Effect Post-Mortem

Obviously, this article will contain many spoilers regarding Mass Effect 3 including details regarding its fantastic, divisive ending. So if you do not want to know that the Illusive Man is Shepard’s father, that Shepard was dead and a ghost the whole time, or that FemShep was actually a fully-featured man then I suggest you turn back now. If you’re not sick of hearing about Mass Effect 3 and the ending, which includes the shocking revelation that it’s only a video game, proceed.

I actually wasn’t a big Mass Effect fan until the second game. I played through the first one late in 2009, and I thought it was OK, suffering from some terribly clumsy design elements and of course those god awful Mako sequences. I rushed through to the end and that final, idiotic battle with Saren. I don’t regret avoiding most of the sidequests. I thought the game was OK, but the entire time I felt like I ought to be playing Knights of the Old Republic again.

But Mass Effect 2 hooked me. I loved the story, effectively a “let’s get the band together” yarn filled with specialist characters each with their own unique stories to tell. I loved that the game was episodic, with each mission wrapping up with a debriefing from the Illusive Man. This structure enabled the game to encompass many genres within a science fiction context. There were hard SF, courtroom drama, horror, detective, and political thriller stories. And the sense of fatalistic doom hanging over the inevitable suicide mission at the Omega Relay was delicious. Planet scanning, not so much.

So Mass Effect 3 has come and gone, and sure enough it’s another BioWare game and all that entails. For better or worse. It was a good game. In parts, like the sequence on Rannoch and the events in London, it was great. The scope was huge, and I liked that it was very much a game full of endings. You meet old friends, catch up, and either they die or they go on to better lives depending on the choices you make. There’s tragedy, pathos, hope, and ambiguity abound.

I thought the ending- at least as far as the story material goes- was great. No apology. I’m happy that BioWare went with a more thoughtful honest ending to Shepard’s story rather than the fireworks and medal ceremony. I wiped out the synthetics, which was a tough choice given that I had championed the Geth and spent the entirety of the third game teaching EDI how to be more human. But in the end, I felt responsible for the annihilation of the Quarians and Tali’s death so it seemed to be on balance. I rejected the idea of controlling the Reapers because I viewed Shepard as almost Captain Ahab-like obsessive, constantly pursuing the white whale Reapers.

But still, the entire time I took that long, slow walk to make the ultimate decision of the Mass Effect games, I reflected on everything that had happened up to that point. I thought about Liara, Garrus, the Rachni Queen, and the themes of the game. I thought about how cycles are a very big part of the story- cycles of racism, political discord, evolution, order (paragon) and chaos (renegade). I loved that the writers gave me the time to think before wiping out the Reapers- and presumably killing Shepard in the process.

In retrospect, I liked that the Reapers were a very Lovecraftian antagonist. They were the Great Old Ones, and the Illusive Man was very much like one of the misguided cultists in the Mythos that believes he can control or somehow contain cosmic forces beyond human comprehension. I liked that much of what they did or do is off stage, and there’s a mystery about them. I liked that the only way to beat them was to make an impossibly grim, no-win decision in the face of absolutely catastrophic devastation.

I don’t think the ending was sloppy at all, at least in terms of writing. I didn’t need the Return of the King epilogue, and I didn’t need an extra 20 minutes detailing what everybody did afterwards. Do you really need to be told? The story that matters- Shepard’s- ends with the decision you make. Nothing else matters from a storytelling perspective. What’s up with the jungle planet at the end? Who knows. It’s up for debate. I do have to say that I assumed my squadmates, who were almost always Liara and Garrus through the entire game, died in the run-up to the Citadel. But there they were with Joker at the end. The ending reminded me, rather strangely, of a post-apocalyptic picture called The Quiet Earth, and I think the ending as a whole was very reminiscent of some of the more challenging, thoughtful endings in the science fiction literature and in science fiction films.

What I did think was sloppy was how the concept of marshalling the galaxy’s races, technology, and materiel was largely irrelevant at the end, other than unlocking some other potential options leading up to the proscripted end. I don’t think BioWare really had a handle on how to incorporate that into the endgame at a mechanical level. Which is a shame, because I can imagine a component where you’re assigning resources and moving units around throughout the game to fight the Reapers. Almost a strategy game-within-a-game. But I’m sure budget and time prohibited anything so extensive.

Instead, we got BioWare’s trademark “kill a million bad guys” ending. This has been in the last several titles they’ve released. You and your party have to slog through wave after wave of enemies in a run-up to a final confrontation. It’s tedious. Please don’t do this anymore.

In reflection, I think the series as a whole represents some very good world-building and some frequently great video games writing. I love the look of the game, its hard-edged futurism. I love the music. And there is sometimes some good gameplay, but I can’t say that I’ve ever been completely enthralled by the action, regardless of all the cool guns and Biotic powers. It also seems like every single one of the games has some critical misstep or component that either doesn’t work or I just don’t like. Sidequests and filler content abound, and the insistence on silly romantic subplots and bizarro sex scenes come very close to making the series a joke.

I’ve heard Mass Effect called “this generation’s Star Wars” and I think that’s a little hyperbolic- at least until I recall this generation’s actual Star Wars films, which are bottom-of-the-barrel, cynical trash made by a creator that completely lost touch with his muse. Maybe they are after all. It’s good pop sci-fi no doubt. Definitely not something to get worked up in a tizzy over if you don’t like the way it turned out.

As for your choices- no, they didn’t matter. They never did. It was BioWare’s story all along. You were playing a video game, not writing it. Hats off to BioWare’s writing staff for retaining ownership. I just hope that their employer protects their integrity and artistic judgement by not fouling up the ending to suit the needs of entitled fans.

Now, with that said, I’m putting this series to rest and I never want to hear about it again. Good night, Shep. Garrus, hit the lights on the way out, would you?