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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?

All Good Things… Ending Mass Effect

NOTE: There are some inferred “spoilers” throughout this post, but they are largely non-specific. The comments section is likely to be loaded with heavy spoilers. If you have to know nothing about how this series concludes, skip this post. If you just don’t want to know specific outcomes and events, you should be fine, but avoid the comments section. Any obviously spoilery text in the main post has to be highlighted to be read.

The one thing that’s stuck out to me most about the ending of Mass Effect 3 isn’t even about the game itself, but how it’s brought out the absolute ugliest in a whole lot of people – both those who hated it and those who didn’t. This feeling’s been compounded in the last 24 hours since Bioware revealed they might be changing the game’s resolution in some form or fashion. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve closed Twitter so as to not have to read a flood of the same bile-tastic comments over and over again. March 21st, and the media pundit Twitter snark-fest that ensued, enters the record as one of those days.

I finished Mass Effect last Friday. The first three words that came to mind: That was fucked. At the time I wasn’t even sure if it was in a good or bad way. These things aren’t entirely clear sometimes and certainly what I saw in those final minutes was so unexpected as to require some reflection before dreaming up anything resembling a well-formed opinion. I’ll go back ’round to that, in a minute. First, a few words about the tempest in a teacup surrounding how Bioware chose to wrap this up…

Do I think it’s kind of silly that people need to be motivated by a video game’s lackluster conclusion in order to find charity money in their pockets? Yeah, I do. I’m all for Child’s Play racking up tens of thousands of dollars, but if you want to give, then give. Don’t make it about Mass Effect’s ending. Or do, I guess. What do I care? Filing FTC complaints and whatnot is so ridiculous it requires no further comment. Bad endings have been a part of story telling since the dawn of time. Go ahead and feel let down. Get mad even. Then, move on to the next thing – you were going to anyway.

At the same time, the level of derision I see aimed at this crowd, forcefully pumped into my consciousness from places like Twitter, may irritate me even more. Mostly I’m talking about people who consider themselves professional critics. The comments I’ve seen from a few individuals have gone beyond expression of contrary opinions and instead cross the line into outright contempt and hostility mixed with a healthy dose of holier than thou cynicism. One thing I’ve noticed about this business is there are critics in it who have no reservation whatsoever about using a legion of angry gamers as a cudgel to savage a developer when agendas align, but a heartbeat later will act like they’re above such mob mentality when said mob trucks on by them without their “leadership” to guide it. Such is the nature of people, I suppose.

I’m not sure if it’s shame or futility I feel at adding my own contribution to the barrels chock full of useless diatribes about Mass Effect 3 and The Epic Ending Debacle of 2012. It’s probably both, but I’ve never shied from a quixotic jousting of a windmill or two, so why start now? Let’s talk about how this trilogy in the Mass Effect canon reached its conclusion…

The short version is this: The ending is bad. Bioware swung hard for the fences with having the “big” idea and they whiffed in equal proportion. This does not mean I’m about to lobby the FTC. Like I said above, bad endings are a part of storytelling. Bioware didn’t set out to implement an ending that wholly misunderstands what made the effort of getting their worthwhile in the first place. I actually rather admire how it runs full speed into a brick wall of stunning illogic. Wile E. Coyote would be proud. Whatever the result, it’s obvious they tried. They even hit on some interesting ideas in terms of the Reapers and what they represent. They managed to make The Crucible MacGuffin palatable, which I would not have expected after the first few hours of play. And along the way they gave several memorable characters some worthwhile send-offs.

So, why doesn’t this ending work? Is it because it supplants individuals for a view of the big picture so expanded that it tells you almost nothing about what’s happened to anybody or any group you might actually care about? Is it because the options at your disposal aren’t satisfying? Is it because there’s really no option or outcome you can point to and say it feels like a universal declaration of victory?

Form your own answer about that. I think it doesn’t work because it has nothing at all to do with everything you’ve been doing for three games, least of all Mass Effect 3. The bulk of Mass 3 is a game that is about accumulation of assets. Sometimes those assets are in the form of a ship or artifact. Sometimes in the form of an army. Sometimes it’s a squad or individual. They’re all weighted for an overall effect. The problem is that the number, relative to the end game options it unlocks (or locks away), is entirely arbitrary. If it’s under threshold X then you have these two choices. If it’s over said threshold you have these three, but then this thing happens. If it reaches the next threshold you’re back down to two options, but then this other thing also happens. It’s not, in any way, a coherent cause and effect. That is bad writing, bad planning, bad everything.

To illustrate this point I have to enter some spoiler territory. Highlight the text to see it…

The options at your disposal -control the Reapers, destroy the Reapers, synthesis of man and machine- don’t have anything to do with your War Assets in a logical way. The War Assets are just a number to slot you into which combination of these items are at your disposal. If you failed to assemble many galactic fleets it’s not going to affect whether or not the Crucible reaches Earth. Failing to round up an adequate ground force doesn’t mean Shepard won’t make it to the Reaper transport beam back to the Citadel or that he’ll be in a different kind of shape when he gets there. No matter what you do throughout the game you will get the same rush through the climax that everyone else got. For a game that is all about coalition-building, for the strength of the coalition not to actually affect the final battle sequence at all is dodgy at best. By the time Shepard is busy making his choice on behalf of galactic civilization, how big your fleet is or how strong your ground forces are should make no difference whatsoever. Look at this way: If you don’t broker peace between the Quarians and Geth, maybe you fall short of the war assets needed to choose synthesis. But then what does brokering peace between Quarians and Geth have to do with synthesis? Oh, right. Nothing.

Compare this to the ending for Mass Effect 2, which, boss fight aside, I regard as one of the better final few hours of any game I’ve ever played. Everything about how that game closes out, from the moment you enter the Omega Relay, is about the decisions you made throughout the game. If you don’t outfit the Normandy properly, you take more damage and risk more of your crew. If you haven’t ensured everyone’s loyalty they are unlikely to survive any mission to which you assign them. Even the ones that are loyal to you are at risk if you make poor decisions about how to utilize them. Mass Effect 2’s final act is a culmination of everything you do in that game.

The problem with Mass Effect 3’s ending isn’t whether I like the tone of it or whether I think it’s too happy or too miserable or too vague or too devoid of digital tits. The problem with it is that the first 99% of what you do in the game is in no meaningful or logical way connected to the final minutes. As disappointing as that is, it’s also freeing in a way. When I sit down to replay the game with my Renegade Shepard, which I am sure to do, I am not going to obsess over War Assets and Galactic Readiness and how all that will determine my ending. The ending, no matter what I do, is awful, but the experience of getting there is still meaningful. I still…

…changed the course of Jack’s future. I still broke Ashley’s heart. I still helped Tali return home and find peace. No, I don’t know what becomes of her when the end comes. I don’t know if Garrus goes on to be a leader to his people or if he’s stranded on Earth. I don’t know if Miranda grieved for my death. Or am I even dead? Perhaps I’m like Kirk describes Dekker in Star Trek: The Motion Picture – missing…

…These are all things I’d like to know in some way, even if it were a bunch of text epilogues like in Origins. (I know many people hated those. I was fine with them.) But even though I think the game’s ending fails on so many levels it’s hard to know which one to focus on for the purposes of criticism, what it does not do is invalidate the journey and I think that’s where a lot of fanbase ire misses the forest for the trees.

Theirs is an understandable reaction, however. They feel let down. Betrayed. And they want to go somewhere with all that anger. Some of them are doing it in more productive ways (Child’s Play drives) than others (forum ranting and FTC threats). But that’s always the result when you have an enormous group of people reacting to something they’re passionate about. I’m less understanding of people who seem unable to let them have, and come to terms with, their anger. It will ebb and they’ll move on. Leave them to their grief about the game’s culmination, melodramatic or inappropriate as it may come out in places, and simply stick to owning your own ideas. The mud slinging is embarrassing to everyone involved and, with yesterday’s announcment, officially has come to overshadow what’s most important about Mass Effect 3:

It’s a damn good game, no matter how it ends.

Ray Muzyka Addresses Mass Effect 3 Ending Debacle 2012

Today Bioware co-founder Ray Muzyka took to the Internets to drop the official Bioware position on fan and critical reaction to Mass Effect 3’s ending. The whole comment is worth reading, but this is the part, I presume, that made my Twitter feed explode this morning:

Building on their research, Exec Producer Casey Hudson and the team are hard at work on a number of game content initiatives that will help answer the questions, providing more clarity for those seeking further closure to their journey. You’ll hear more on this in April. We’re working hard to maintain the right balance between the artistic integrity of the original story while addressing the fan feedback we’ve received. This is in addition to our existing plan to continue providing new Mass Effect content and new full games, so rest assured that your journey in the Mass Effect universe can, and will, continue.

Most every critic I follow has absolutely skewered Bioware for supposedly caving to fan entitlement and changing the ending for the game. I actually feel for Bioware here. It’s the classic damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario. Personally, I’ve read the full statement three times and it’s not at all clear what they actually intend to do so I think the more prudent move here is to withhold judgment.

Incidentally, I have my full thoughts on the game’s ending, and the surrounding silliness, going up first thing tomorrow. You know, just in case the 1,463,352 other stories about it on the web weren’t enough for you.

This is fast-becoming one of the damndest scenarios I’ve seen unfold in this business.