Mar 162012
 

We should have known the conclusion would be trouble. Ending a game like Mass Effect 3 poses a special set of problems, because a central attraction of Western RPGs is that their systems respond to player choice. Mass Effect and its like are the classic case of games that generate stories through collaboration between designer and player. Drawing things to a close, however, requires the hand of the developer to show, often in ways that seem unattractive. This famously happened in the case of Fallout 3, which had an ending so widely disliked that the developers ultimately retconned it with DLC. As I write this, there are petitions to see the same happen with Mass Effect 3. This effort exists because the game’s ending does not respect the player’s investment in the universe or creative force in the game.

The Mass Effect series has always presented itself to players as a vehicle for them to make important, if difficult, decisions. From the first game, the player’s choices as Commander Shepard have dictated who lives and dies, with results that ultimately define the fate of entire species in the trilogy’s finale.

The end of ME 3 disregards the player’s choices on both galactic and personal scales. In contrast to the exquisite, if occasionally opaque, ways the player’s decisions dictated the outcome of Shepard’s suicide mission in Mass Effect 2, ME 3′s finale is essentially a railroad. Provided a player has gathered enough military force, all three possibilities for dealing with the series-long villains, the Reapers, are available. The player can opt to control them, destroy them, or join with them in an organic-AI synthesis of some kind. The choice only determines the primary color and some other minor details of an ensuing cutscene. This denies the player any meaningful feedback about this decision, and the game’s refusal to elaborate in any serious way on what happens to the galaxy undercuts the importance of choices made in this and previous ME games.

However, these scenes also destroy the galaxy that the games spent so much time developing. No matter what the player chooses, the mass relays detonate spectacularly, releasing massive shockwaves. In the world of the game these relays are the lynchpin of galactic travel and commerce, and their removal separates its the various worlds by voyages that take years, rather than moments. Demolishing the paths of commercial and cultural exchange that defined the galaxy, however, is a minor problem compared to what the game itself states will be the result of the exploding relays.

Although it has recently been demonstrated that mass relays can be destroyed, a ruptured relay liberates enough energy to ruin any terrestrial world in the relay’s solar system.

Mass Effect 3 Secondary Codex, “The Reaper War – Desperate Measures”

Did you choose to cure the genophage, or do what the Dalatrass asked? It doesn’t matter. Tuchanka and Sur’Kesh were destroyed.

Did you save the Geth, or the Quarians? Who cares? The fleet is wrecked and Rannoch has been obliterated.

Did you take back Earth, as the game’s ad campaign promised you would? Not in any meaningful way: the world you fought to save is gone.

Was your Shepard a paragon? Too bad, buddy; now she’s the galaxy’s worst war criminal.

Destroying the relays nullifies not only the major decisions Shepard has made, but even the mission she undertook. The Reapers did not harvest all life, Shepard murdered it instead, eradicating not only all the principal civilized worlds of her time but also any primitive cultures unlucky enough to live near a mass relay.

Even the more personal choices were ignored, at least for my renegade Shepard. As the conduit exploded around her, she flashed back to images of her pilot, Joker, her mentor, Anderson, and… Liara? Well, Shepard had a fling with her once, but that was years in the past. They’re just friends now. My Shepard had finally fallen for Garrus, even made love to him not long before the final battle. Yet she saw no vision of her lover in her final moments, nor even of her best friend outside the crew (Wrex, obviously). Instead, my Shepard’s thoughts were apparently with the pilot she thought was an irresponsible cut-up.

At least Joker manages to save a few lives. Although almost all of Shepard’s crew was with her on Earth for the final push against the Reapers, they somehow end up on Shepard’s vessel, the Normandy, racing at lightspeed to escape the shockwave. The ship crash-lands on some hitherto unknown garden world, dooming Garrus and Tali to a horrific death by starvation. As organisms built on D-amino acids, they find L-amino life indigestible. Tali will likely have the worst of it, as when she inevitably tries to eat something it will certainly cause a painful allergic reaction on top of being non-nourishing.

This absurd sequence, which ignores not only the details of the game’s universe but even obvious aspects of the immediate plot, points to the ending’s failure to adequately mesh even with its own fiction. This also shows through in the explanation given for the Reapers themselves, which is that each Reaper is used to store an organic civilization so that all organic life will not be wiped out by synthetic lifeforms. In one sense, this is troubling because it implies that killing a Reaper is an act of genocide. The larger problem for the ending, though, is that it leans on the series’ least interesting theme, and even then disregards everything that the games have conveyed on the subject.

After all, the genuine synthetic intelligences present throughout the series have generally not been inimical to organic life. The robotic Geth, although initially presented as aggressive foes, are later shown to have been the victims of pre-emptive attacks by the Quarians. Even the ones that joined the Reapers in the first game did so out of a desire for self-advancement, not out of intrinsic malice towards organics. The other true AI the series presents is EDI, whose voluntary aid repeatedly proves crucial in helping Shepard’s missions succeed, and who might even be in love with Joker. Though the game undercuts itself by almost always placing synthetic lifeforms on the business end of Shepard’s gun, in dialogue and plot the synthetics are neutral, or even allies.

Yet even though the story of the Mass Effect games refutes the necessity of war between AI and organics at every turn, the finale presents their conflict as inevitable. The ending does not even give Shepard the option to use the truth about the Geth to argue against the Catalyst that controls the Reapers.

In this and other ways, the ending doesn’t reward the player for paying attention to the world the games have presented. Indeed, the more the player understands about the Mass Effect universe, the worse the ending seems. For a game series that had a rich backstory conveyed through dialogue, detailed factsheets, and miles of text, disregarding the lore is a significant act of disrespect towards the invested player. It argues that their interest in the world does not matter, not even to the world’s originators.

Shrinking the possible outcomes of Shepard’s final confrontation down to a few options allows the developers to exert the maximum amount of control over those moments, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, by ignoring the series’ lore and discarding the effects of the player’s choices, ME 3′s ending disrespects the player’s investment and engagement in the game’s world. Handled that way, the conclusion argues that the player’s time and emotional attachment have been wasted.

This transforms the developer-player relationship from creative collaboration to adversarial dictation. That transformation is exacerbated by decisions – the day-one “From Ashes” DLC released alongside a game-ruining face-import bug, Ashley’s new look, and Jessica Chobot’s cameo – that seem openly contemptuous of the series’ core fans. Destroying the universe on their way out the door is the developers’ ultimate attempt at seizing control of the creation, an exclamation that “This is mine, and you can’t have it!”

This explains some fan reactions to the ending. A petition to alter the ending through a patch or DLC may seem unrelated to a forum post reinterpreting the existing conclusion as a hallucination. Both responses, however, represent players’ attempts to seize control of the narrative back from the developers, by choosing a new series of events, or by choosing a new lens through which the existing events will be viewed.

Upset as these players are, a poor ending does not undo a wonderful game. Up until its last 15 minutes, Mass Effect 3 is excellent, a remarkable and moving culmination to an extended saga. The game’s conlusion does not undo the excellent cooperative storymaking that went on in the previous 60-odd hours, or the player’s investment in the universe. It does, however, disrespect them.

  9 Responses to “Requiem for the ME Universe”

  1. You’ve managed to articulate the concerns I’ve been struggling to voice for a few days, so thank you for that.

    I agree with everything you wrote, which is rare for me to do with anybody, though for me the impact was much more pronounced that I sense it was for you. Personally the negative impact of the ending is proportional to the emotional high points throughout the game.

    Mordin’s sacrifice to cure the Genophage was downbeat, to say the least, but handled with a deftness and attention to character that impressed me greatly. The acceptance and quiet dignity with which Mordin went to his death, knowing (After Mass Effect 2) how much he hand struggled with his work on the genophage, was emotionally draining.

    That was only one of many moments that made this game memorable: choosing to keep a promise to the Rachini queen and sacrifice Grunt, only to have him emerge bloodied but alive; racing to catch up with Ashley and the Council, fearing I’d have to shoot Ashley to stop her, only to have her trust me implicitly; the minutes I spent agonising over the decision between the Quarians and the Geth, and then to realise I could save them both; the final confrontation with the Illusive Man when I managed to convince him to act, and where like Saren before him, he chose to take his own life in order to prevent the Reapers from winning. All of these moments and many other little ones, character beats and call backs and reveals, compounded together to bring me to a point where Shepard battered, burnt, but breathing collapsed next to Anderson, her friend, her mentor. I’d been forced to shot him moments earlier but he harboured no resentment, he was proud of me…

    I accept I’m in a minority but at that point I didn’t feel like I needed a choice, I’d made my decisions I’d saved everybody I could, I’d got Shepard to the Citadel and opened it’s arms, now she could rest. If the game had faded to black there I’d have hailed it as one of my favourite games. Instead it didn’t, it went somewhere illogical and thematically dubious that rendered every decision I’d made meaningless. The emotional peaks I’d felt almost instantly became troughs, everything was meaningless. In an act of authorial decree that would put even George Lucas to shame BioWare remade the experience I’d had over three games into whatever they wanted it to be and there was nothing I could do about it. I was being told that I was silly to have become invested in something like this because after all it had never really been “mine” to be invested in in the first place.

    I feel almost stupid admitting how much of an emotional impact a series like Mass Effect had on me, but there we go. I was invested, and what I got for that investment was a kick in the gut that has left me angry and confused for days. That a game can do that, is in and of itself noteworthy, but I doubt I’ll be able to become emotionally invested in anything in that fictional universe ever again.

  2. Well written.

    You manage to bring across why the whole controversity about the ending doesn’t stem from subjective dislike of the particular endings chosen by the writers, but in fact from a feeling of betrayal – not only towards their most emotionally invested and loyal fans, but also towards their own – or in a way, their “shared” creation.

    Thank you

  3. About relay destruction:
    The Codex is an in-universe source. The only known instance of the destruction of a relay thus far was the one in Arrival, which indeed caused the obliteration of the system. However, that was a completely uncontrolled release of the relay’s energy – the Crucible, on the other hand, is supposed to release that energy in a specific, controlled way. It’s even the point of one of the conversations with admiral Hackett in the game, where he basically says they need to find a way for the Crucible to affect the Reapers without destroying anything else. Also, the ending variations also suggest this interpretation: with very low Effective Military Strength (and thus a shoddily constructed Crucible), the blastwave from the Destroy ending is actually shown scorching the entire Earth, while with high EMS it’s shown only affecting the Reapers.

  4. Well, that’s a reasonable take on it, but there are some problems. The shockwave that hits Earth in the cinematic comes from the Crucible itself, not the Mass Relay, and the “controlled” explosions of the good endings don’t look any different from the “uncontrolled” explosions of the bad ones. The Crucible’s function is never actually explained in any coherent way, and so we are left to puzzle out what happens here from fragments of conversations with characters who also don’t understand the Crucible and by weighing what to believe from the reference text. I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m just saying that the interpretation isn’t as obvious as it might seem to you. At any rate, even if true, this doesn’t address the other, numerous problems in the ending, and if a straightforward reading of events (as opposed to revisionist interpretations like the Indoctrination theory) hinges on whether the Codex is diegetic or not, the writing has already failed in a pretty spectacular way.

  5. I like this human! He understands!

  6. all I have to say is – thank you! you summed it all up perfectly, and in such a way that even someone who has never played the game (ie my mom) understands exactly how I felt at the conclusion.

    and just to follow up, I don’t think we can understate just how crippling the destruction of the relays is. it basically throws the galaxy into a relative stone age. horrible.

    anyway thanks.

  7. It is repeatedly demonstrated that the shockwaves oh higher ems do not destroy life in the galaxy. It could be clearer, but it IS demonstrated beyond a doubt. On the higher ems ending for destroy, shepard lives. This means he survived both the crucible wave and the charon relay wave.

    On lower ems runs the catalyst states much of civilisation/tech will be destroyed. On higher ems it is removed.

    The effects in each ending of crucible wave on earth are given as representative of the effects of the waves that follow. Remember, the citadel itself is a massive mass relay that was meant to bring the reapers into our galaxy from dark space, so any wave from it would be more powerful/destructive not less powerful/destructive that the waves from relay.

    Could it have been clearer yes. But even with time to study what happened people are still insisting the relays wiped out all life. This is wrong. I can even had a tweet back and forth i had with a bioware staff member where they state they never intended people to think the relay waves were wiping out life.

  8. Well articulated. I agree with everything you said except for one thing. The ending does not necessarily have to spoil the whole thing, but in this case, for me, it does.

    An example. You have a wonderful 10 year marriage. It ends in divorce. Does that take anything away? Does it neutralize the marriage’s high points? Of course not. You might still rate the marriage an 8 out of 10.

    But if during the divorce, it is revealed that your wife never loved you, in fact she was an alien studying you and by the way, she killed your parents–something you never found out till the divorce. Oh and she gave you a terminal disease…then it is not an 8 out of 10 situation.

    The latter is what Mass Effect 3 did for my entire experience with the franchise. It turned out to be all just the prettiest bait for the ultimate bait and switch. I thought they were enabling me to tell a story about how hope may not prevail completely, but it prevails, dammit, somehow–at least somewhat. They made me tell a story about a man compelled to participate in the greatest genocide (of a galaxy I came to love by the way) I could imagine.

    I have had people who hated me treat me better than Bioware treated me. And then to enjoy the continuing game of blame-the-victim by Bioware, the critics…

    I have collectors editions of everything they made since Baldur’s Gate. I won’t go back to an abuser, no matter how beautiful the bouquet of flowers or sincere the apology.

  9. Here’s how it went wrong right from the start: The primary gameplay systems are dull third person shooter and choose ABCD or E simulation.

    We didn’t need a third game, the first one wasn’t good and neither was the second. Mass Effect games aren’t games for intelligent players, they’re games for people who enjoy red green or blue. The ending isn’t a simple meaningless choice, every choice across all three games is. Your choices at the end don’t matter because nearly all of your choices leading up to it didn’t matter. The game lets you progress no matter what you choose, it’s impossible to choose wrong. If I choose to shoryuken on wakeup and my opponent baits it out by blocking at the last second so they can retaliate with a punish combo, then that is a choice that matters. That is a choice that actually has some relation to my success or failure. If I chance an anti-air on an opponent in the first second of a match and read correctly, then that is a choice that matters.

    Almost None of the text in any of the Mass Effect games has to be read to actually play them (perhaps 1-5%). You need to read the text in Phoenix Wright to progress more than Mass Effect. In Phoenix Wright, your choice of evidence to present matters.

    Mass Effect, in every way identical to Bioshock Infinite, is about making a bunch of ultimately meaningless choices. Bioshock Infinite made a deliberate show of the player knowing how meaningless their choices were, but ultimately neither game is any better for it. Even if the writers of mass effect had a different less disappointing ending, it would still be a meaningless ending unreflective of any level of thought or intelligence on the part of the player, unlike getting SSS rank in DMC3 on Dante Must Die.

    Mass Effect could have gone right by being Vanquish or Infamous (not literally copying them, but a similar model of design). It went wrong by being something I could watch on youtube and not miss out on anything significant (seriously, the cover shooting is not worth playing the game for).

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