Disclaimer: These are my thoughts and opinions from my experiences only – I’m not saying they’re right or that you should agree with me, I’m just sharing my reactions.
I think we’re all familiar with the uproar, petitions, Extended Cut DLC and tri-colour decisions but I’d like to think a little but about what the Mass Effect controversy means for videogame creators and bring some reason to the chaos- if not for everyone, then just for myself. This is my post ME3 catharsis.
If we are to see videogames as a serious medium of storytelling and a piece of art, we have to accept that they belong to their creators who choose the final destination, if we’re lucky we just choose the route there.
Videogames are as much expressions of the creators thoughts and wishes as books or films – a story being told. Our experiences are all pre-programmed and our control over the world is not limitless. There are not infinite end scenarios and the creators themselves may wish to focus on particular themes or send a certain message using major plot events, just like in a book or film.
Mass Effect has writers and creators who have given us their world to play in (for a fee) and whilst we control the character and have influence on variables within the timeline we do not control the overall direction. In the end, the ‘Take back Mass Effect’ campaign was irrelevant because it was never really ours in the first place…or was it?
The thoughts and reactions of gamers are not unjustified.
Videogames – especially RPGs – are about input and feedback. I invest my time, my money, heck often some serious emotion and in return I expect to get a story and experience that is reflective of that input. It’s something you just don’t get in other forms of media. You’re watching the story unfold but you’re also in the story driving it forward – swimming with the current but creating ripples and waves as you go – for me, it’s an incredibly powerful and addictive experience.
Art needs an audience and whilst television, novels and films are to some extent passive mediums, videogames are based entirely on having an active audience who brings the world to life through control of the game.
It is this incredibly sensitive balance between artistic integrity & player criticism that Mass Effect has been managing throughout the trilogy. BioWare have done an excellent job of maintaining the artistic potency of a movie/novel and the depth of interaction and control offered by videogames to give us a truly wonderful experience.
Then what happened to the ending?
It is obvious that in the final months leading to release date the team suffered massively from the pressure to finish on time. The strong themes surrounding death, cycles of life and the relationship between synthetics and organics that had been developed through the three games seemed to become confused and unclear the closer I got to the final push.
“We must destroy the Reapers…Wait no, what about EDI and the Geth, let’s change the whole plan”
The concept of the technological singularity, where synthetic intelligence surpasses organics isn’t new and has been referenced since 1958 with roots in discussions as far back as 1847. As we hurtle toward the future, the rights of A.I is likely to be one of the most hotly debated topics. Mass Effect presents a few different scenarios; we see synthetics who have risen against their creators and pushed them from their planet, we see A.I struggle with self-actualisation when freed, hell we even see that A.I develop a romantic relationship with a human – Does this unit have a soul? – and we as Shepard begin to question our stance on these matters.
This comes to a head in those moments on board the crucible – the ruthless calculus of war, ten billion people over there die so twenty billion over there can live – whilst this final test on the value of synthetic life is placed for the most dramatic impact the presentation of the option of synthesis felt cheap and obvious and I don’t like it. The sudden change of purpose ruined the narrative pacing and the obvious question seemed so out of character in the game compared to the subtle development of Shepard’s views previously.
Destroying the Reapers seemed to be the main goal above all else – I was completely ready to blow them to hell and it felt really jarring to suddenly entertain the idea of not doing what it felt the whole game had been leading to.
In the end I chose Synthesis simply because I couldn’t bare to see the things I’d worked so hard for lead to such an unsatisfying ending. I evaluated my input and decided Synthesis would give me the most satisfying feedback from a series I love so much. I stopped role-playing as Shepard and played for me – I think that’s a bad sign.
Survival and the cycle of life – what we do with the time given to us and how that might affect others in the future. Legacy and heritage and the preservation of life are all common throughout the series.
Shepard & co’s dialogue was also very focused on coming through this war together and seeing each other on the other side. Even when shit was seriously going down we stayed strong & determined to kick butt. Then you reach the Catalyst and… you can die, die or die…or in the secret ending…reject everything and die. Ok yes, you choose what world you pass onto the rest of the galaxy which is in keeping with themes of legacy and preservation but as a player I was screaming C’MON! is that it?
It’s not that I particularly minded the idea of Shepard dying. Artistically, I can appreciate this narrative element as something very powerful but as a gamer, role-playing as Shepard I did not want to be the hero. It’s this shutting down of all other options and lack of choice of your fate that upset me so much.
Two months before the release of Mass Effect 3, BioWare executive producer Casey Hudson said the following in an interview with Game Informer:
- “This story arc is coming to an end with this game. That means the endings can be a lot more different. At this point we’re taking into account so many decisions that you’ve made as a player and reflecting a lot of that stuff. It’s not even in any way like the traditional game endings, where you can say how many endings there are or whether you got ending A, B, or C.”
Well I think we can safely say there are only a few endings right? Yes, the epilogue will show different things depending on your journey but these don’t vary massively in terms of content and closure offered. There are not greater rewards for those who in-putted a substantial amount and no penalties for those who rushed to the end. Paragon, renegade, the allies you schmoozed and the diplomats you insulted all shaped the choices you had available but in the end, none of it seemed to matter.
When you think about the ending scenarios of Mass Effect 3 compared to Dragon Age: Origins (another BioWare game) you can clearly see the huge difference in variables. DA:O offers a whole number of different epilogue scenarios in which the hero can live or die and choose the path onwards (and although we can play as the Warden in DA: Awakening we won’t be revisiting that character again). Key to this is that we also learn specifically what our squadmates chose to do after the ending and what our choices throughout the game caused, offering more closure for players.
What about Shepard’s breath?
Honestly, I think it’s superficial garbage. We know we won’t be playing as Shepard in future games so this kind of teaser breath just seems silly to me. It’s often referred to as the “good ending” but honestly, whilst I respect the creators’ rights to control the material I wanted BioWare to wrap it up properly with either a post-war cutscene of Shepard alive or Shepard’s funeral. Whilst the Extended Cut DLC made some fixes I still feel ripped off when I compare it to DA:O’s ending possibilities.
As fans, we want – nay need – the feedback we feel is relative to our input and the better games creators can supply this, the more immersive a story they have created (and the more likely I am to throw cash their way).
I worked hard when I played Mass Effect 3. I explored every corner of the galaxy, mined planets far and wide for damned Iridium and I truly deliberated hard over my Paragon and Renegade actions. I wanted to fight this war and win, save as many people as possible and come out the other side a little battered and bruised but okay.
I am Shepard – just as thousands of people out there are also Shepard and each of us has given a little of ourselves to the character.
Time, money and emotion have all been poured into this series and the feedback I needed was one of satisfaction, one that justified all I had in putted to the game and one that reflected my Shepard. I’ve thought long and hard about this and I have to admit, I didn’t get the feedback I needed. I’ve reasoned with my Shepard: In life, sometimes you make all the right decisions but things go wrong, or don’t work out but I’m still pretty pissed that I spent hours scanning every planet to build a galactic force to challenge the Reapers only for it to come down to what I consider as matyrdom. Throwing yourself into the flames for the good of the galaxy. That wasn’t my Shepard and it didn’t seem in keeping with the games themes of survival and preservation.
I’m not keen on self-sacrifice, I think it’s too golden and heroic. I loved the ending of Mass Effect (1) and the transition of Shepard’s character to ME2 because you weren’t THE INFALLIIBLE HERO OF THE GALAXY *cue trumpets & confetti* – you were just someone who played their part in stopping Sovereign. When you land back on the Citadel in ME2 you receive not a hero’s shining welcome but suspicion, doubt and even a few insults. The thought of the hero jumping into the beams to save the galaxy from the terrible evil just seemed really cliché and unimaginative – the choice to do that however is far more interesting.
Final thought: “A bad ending does not make a bad series”
Mass Effect 1, 2 & 3 make for an incredible adventure with the most consistently excellent characters & NPCs I’ve ever encountered. The worlds are beautifully crafted and the lore woven into every corner of the galaxy is so wonderfully connected.
If anything, the varying opinions on the ending of Mass Effect 3 shows videogames are most certainly an art form in their own right. Art is entirely subjective and means different things to different people – whilst the ending of Mass Effect 3 might not have been what you or I wanted we definitely want more games like it in the world.