MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR MASS EFFECT TRILOGY!
Trying to organize this analysis or whatever it is has been . . . unwieldy—especially after all the slashing I’ve done to get all these posts into some kind of sane length (yes, this all has been the result of my slashing a LOT—be grateful you’re not getting saddled with the other half of this monster). So I’m going to use a cheat with which my students are familiar: headings instead of natural transitions. I’m also going to just dive right on in, rhetorical organization be damned. I’m tired. I feel like I’ve been writing about ME practically nonstop for days and days.
Wait. I have been.
The Mass Effect combat mechanic is as complicated as any I’ve played on a console. It makes for a steep learning curve, and I spent a lot of time early on screaming at the television in frustration (I mean that literally—I don’t do emotion in half measures).
I’ve yet to get especially inventive with moving my squad around, other than setting them up before I open a door or the occasional “get the hell over here.” But otherwise I’ve really come to love the complexity of the combat. The enemies in any mission bring diverse attacks and defenses requiring serious strategy and problem-solving. Putting together the right squad and building their skills well is key. No one attack will always work in any situation; you have to plan for cooldowns and stack your attacks according to specific enemies. And some enemies shield others, so you can’t just randomly target oncoming baddies. It helps tremendously to play through more than once and get to know the fights.
It’s a lot like raiding in World of Warcraft, actually. Unless you’re an arcane mage. Silly facerollers. (That was meant in fun, mages of the world. Chill out.)
But the really great thing is that missions are more than opportunities to kill stuff. What you’re accomplishing on a mission matters. The narrative is so intricately woven that even minor missions and assignments feed into it and play out later—and they account for every contingency manifested by the array of choices presented to the player.
Until the Catalyst, anyway. But more on that in a bit.
I am pathologically unable to play a predominantly Renegade character. This is a consistent trait of my play in any game. I can’t be randomly mean or do unwarranted harm. I have a very hard time causing suffering, even for the greater good–even in Pretendland.
The completionist in me would love to experience the things to which a wobblier moral compass (and a firmer grasp on the “pretend” part) would give me access, but alas.
As I’ve mentioned, I’m not above putting some extra hurt on the bad guys or responding to provocation. In fact, I really enjoy that. I admit to visceral pleasure at the results of a clean headshot (i.e., no head). I wish Kai Leng’s death had been a whole lot gorier. That asshat got off easy. But my Shep only goes Renegade when she’s been pushed really far.
I really like the way reputation works in Mass Effect. It’s germane to narrative and character development. You always have the option to make either a Paragon or a Renegade choice (or, often, to waffle, if you feel waffly), but the more you tend in one direction, the stronger your argument gets—so a Paragon becomes adept at appealing to others’ better selves, and a Renegade becomes more intimidating. Makes sense. And there are nearly infinite gradations available in the balance of Shepard’s personality.
I don’t like the glowing scars/eyes thingy that happens with Renegade characters (which I saw when my husband played one)—I’m okay with the idea that the scars could heal with “positive” energy or get worse with “negative” energy (sure, why not), but WTF is the fires of hell stuff? That seems to weaken the narrative integrity of the “Renegade” track. The cultural association for glowing red eyes is “evil.” But if a Renegade Shepard were really “evil,” then the narrative of the whole series would fall completely apart. A Renegade Shepard is not, in fact, evil, so the red glow is just a cheap gimmick.
Relationships and Romance
One of my very favorite features of Bioware games is the team. As much fun as it might be to traipse through the forests of Skyrim or over the ruins of Las Vegas, it can get a little lonely. I like having a team with me. Sure, there’s more to manage, but there’s also more to do. Other games have teams or companions, but only Bioware games offer real companionship from their NPCs.
These aren’t just tanks and damage boosts you’re trailing around. They are richly realized individuals with their own stories, who react to Shepard’s behavior and attitude and to each other. One’s game experience is enriched by taking the time to develop relationships, relationships that can go in several directions.
Kinda like life. Only with more explosions.
I always play out a romance story in any Bioware game, not because I want the (barely PG anyway, though fanfic takes care of that) love scenes but because I want the deeper connection between my character and another. That connection between characters enhances my connection to the game and blurs up the reality line just right. I like how it develops the story, and I don’t like my character being alone.
I don’t always play straight romances, but I did throughout ME, and can’t really imagine not. My Shepard is just straight, I guess.
Speaking of which . . .
My last note about romance and relationships: Seriously, Bioware? All that great flirting, the nice ink, the muscles, the brow, the scars . . . . . . .
. . . . . wait, where was I? Oh—and no Vega romance option? What the hell? My Shep would totally hit that.
I’ve already written a lot about the narrative over the course of these five way-too-long posts. I think I’ve made it clear that the story is the most amazing and wonderful element of this amazing and wonderful game series. Here, then, I want to focus on the craft. Because this is a damn well-written story.
The trilogy works seamlessly as a single story, but I do think ME3 is especially strong. Perhaps I’m just dazzled by the emotional impact. My god, I cried so damn much. My husband, who watched a lot of my gameplay, and I uttered a refrain at the end of just about every mission, once I regained the capacity for speech: “This fucking game, man. This fucking game.” So much death and sacrifice. Mordin. The Primarch’s son. Thane (golly, what a scene). Legion. Grunt (almost). Samara (almost) and Rila. And Shepard. I practically needed an IV bolus to rehydrate.
Overall, though, the story is so powerful, I think, because it’s written with a taut focus and fine attention to detail, but always with a comprehensive sense of the metanarrative and the endgame itself (well, almost all the way to the endgame). Tiny moments in ME1 trigger important moments in ME3; big events in ME1 develop into critical elements of the ME3 endgame. Small, seemingly throwaway assignments (like scanning the Keepers) turn out to be key to developing the mainline narrative.
Characterizations stay true. Characters evolve naturally, their personalities familiar yet changing subtly as they are affected by the people they encounter and the events transpiring around them.
A deep history and culture has been drawn for every key race and species. We don’t know much about the volus or elchor races–or the vorcha or batarians, really. But we understand a lot about the turians, quarians, salarians, krogan, asari, and geth. Even the rachni get their moment. Their worlds make sense, and their interrelationships make sense, too. More than that, we care about those interrelationships. It’s not just backstory, stuff you can skim over to find out what you need to kill. It’s story, and it’s integral to everything you work for in the game.
All that might not be especially noteworthy for a multi-tome series of fantasy novels. But for a video game? It’s spectacular. WoW’s lore is very deep, too (as an MMO, I’m not sure it’s a good comparison, but in terms of depth it’s the closest analogue I can think of)—but you can play the game for years at a very high level and not have any idea why the Horde and Alliance are fighting, what happened to the Lich King, or why Deathwing is so very, very pissed.
My husband can attest that it’s possible to play ME and miss a lot of the cultural information—not to know, for instance, that the asari are an exclusively female race or that quarians and turians can’t eat human food—but I don’t know how it would be possible to play and not understand the genophage. Or the Protheans. Or what the quarians did to the geth, and vice versa. Or what a husk is.
It’s like they have psychologists, philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists and a whole slew of really talented fiction writers (and a couple of poets to boot) on the writing staff, all working in perfect synergy. And a couple of really good multi-taskers keeping all the threads unsnarled.
From the beginning of gameplay on ME1, details emerge organically and become an epic, ranging narrative chock full of complicated questions. Even though we’re clear about who we’re fighting, we’re not quite so clear about who the enemy really is or whether victory will actually mean salvation.
Which brings me to the next section.
Integrity, Ethics, and Choice
“But sometimes the way a thing goes down does matter, Shepard. Later, when you have to live with yourself. Knowing that you acted with integrity—then it matters.” Kaidan, ME3
The Mass Effect series—and Bioware games in general—gets well-deserved acclaim for allowing so much player choice. Players make a lot of key decisions that can powerfully affect the direction the narrative takes from each decision point. Dan Bethel (see link downpage a bit) is right, though, that we’re mainly fooling ourselves—the narrative, of course, has been entirely plotted out, and our actual “choices” are limited to two or three options, any of which feeds us generally in the same direction.
It’s not like any choice you make is going to allow you to defeat the Reapers before they close the Citadel and move it to London. It’s not like you’re going to reason with Saren and he’s going to slap himself on the forehead and cry, “What was I thinking? Tell you what, let’s go get a Peruvian whisky instead. On me.” No. Every one of us is going to kick his ass twice on the Citadel.
We’re all going to lose to Kai Leng on Thessia and then beat him on Cronos. Apparently, we’re all going to kill the Illusive Man, too. (Not that I’m complaining about that.)
From a gaming standpoint, the number of choices and the consequent narrative complexity is truly remarkable, but we’re not actually living a life on the Normandy–no matter how much we wish we were. (Actually, why do we wish that? Shepard’s life kinda sucks, when you think about it. Still . . .) The Mass Effect galaxy and its inhabitants are much more predictable than we in the real world are.
Though we’re all going to get to the same place on the Citadel at the end of ME3, how we get there and whom we get there with is very much in play. That’s determined by the complex and meaningful decisions we’ve confronted throughout the game.
Should you save the rachni queen on Noveria? She and her spawn are historically responsible for massive destruction, and they’ve made a mess on Noveria itself. Saren/Sovereign have plans to indoctrinate her for their dark purposes. Also, she’s a big, ugly bug. But her plea is persuasive, and she promises to disappear to sing her songs far, far away. What right do we have to destroy an entire species on the merits of what we fear it might do in the future? Is it because she looks like something we’d squash if we had a big enough shoe? Well, Garrus might be a biped, but he looks pretty buggy himself.
The same question comes up again in ME3, where the queen has again been captured by the Reapers and looks, but does not sound, decidedly indoctrinated. Now she promises to help you fight.
Should you cure the genophage? In addition to being totally hilarious and awesome, the krogan are really, um, bellicose, and, left to breed naturally, they spawn like fish on fertility drugs. What might you be setting loose on the world when the kill-first-ask-questions-never krogan can breed freely? Their leaders like and trust Shepard, but they’re not all that enthusiastic about any other non-krogan. Again, though, is it right to genetically cripple a species on the speculation that doing so would improve the lot of other species? What’s the greater good? Do your relationships with a few specific krogan even matter in this decision?
Should you save David Archer? He’s clearly suffering horribly, but a lot of potentially extremely important information, information which might well help fight the Reapers, is being acquired through his assimilation with the VI. Should you save him even if doing so ends any chance of saving the galaxy?
What if you have to choose between the geth and the quarians? The geth have been decimating the quarians for centuries. But it was the quarians who created the geth and then tried to wipe them out when they developed consciousness. When, on my first playthrough, I didn’t have access to the Charm or Intimidate options, I had to choose either to upgrade the geth, which would likely have turned them loose on the quarians and wiped Tali and her people off the map, or to allow the quarians to eradicate the geth. With not-Legion and Tali standing next to me, I chose my friend, despite the quarians’ murky past. It was a painful choice, and probably the wrong one.
In most of these examples, your mission team is standing with you, but they can be relied on each to take an opposing side, so they’re no help. These choices are truly wrenching, and subsequent conversations with crew members—about the “ruthless calculus” of war, say—serve to underscore the emotional impact of the ethical quandary you just faced.
And, of course, there’s the final decision, which is as ethically murky as all those which came before. Since my mission was to destroy the Reapers, and since Anderson represents making that choice, I was spun when it was presented as the red/Renegade option. How, I ask you—how can the Illusive Man’s choice be the blue/Paragon option? It made me rethink everything. Ultimately, on my first playthrough, I just could not go against orders, I could not let Anderson down, and I could not do what the Illusive Man wanted. So I blew every damn thing up.
Well, that sucked.
But I love that the game threw that last wrench in there. After so many hours of gameplay, it can get easy simply to select the topmost, or bottommost, option, because you’re a “Paragon,” or you’re a “Renegade.” The world should be a little topsy-turvy when it’s facing its end.
Huh. That’s a pretty good segue . . .
The ME3 Endings
First, about the original endings. Yeah, suckage–at least the Destroy ending, which is the only original ending I played. It didn’t suck because of a lack of closure—I prefer that—but because there was too much closure, and what was explained compromised the narrative of the whole series. It would have been so much better if it had been left entirely open-ended. I came to hate my original Destroy ending more and more as I thought about it. The extended endings are much better because they fixed a lot of the logic problems, but the real problem remains–the Catalyst.
I want to kick that creepy little twerp right in his perky, transparent nose.
Instead of adding my voice to the cacophony of rabid complaints, I’ll link you to a couple of very good sources for explanation about why the original endings were a huge letdown for this epic series (and I’m not using the word “epic” lightly).
Here, a thoughtful blog post on Kotaku, by Sparky Carlson.
Here, a good 20 min. vid, from the Angry Joe Show (he’s angry about a lot more than I am—but his reasons 8-10, at least, are spot on).
My friend Dan Bethel, though, has written a very smart and thoughtful defense of the original endings over at Known Griefers, and it’s a great read, whether you agree or not.
But let’s talk about the ending with the DLC.
There’s so much I love about the last couple of hours of ME3. The squad farewells are well done and provide a sense of closure with these friends who can’t join you on the final push. Shep’s “St. Crispin’s Day” speech is tightly written and moving. The final battle on the streets of London is challenging and complex–and exhausting. I love the rush to the beam and, in the extended ending, the moment Shepard takes to get her team to safety. I love the last moment between Shepard and that team, especially with a romanced Kaidan. Adrenaline and tears all the way to the Citadel.
I even like what happens on the Citadel, for the most part. I think the confrontation with the Illusive Man works really well. (Question: does he make Shepard shoot Anderson–make her actually squeeze the trigger–or does he just make the gun go off in her hand?) I’m a little confused that killing the Illusive Man is both a Renegade interrupt and required to complete the game, but whatever. He needs killing. I suppressed my strong urge to kill him, and let the interrupt pass, on my last playthrough only in case killing him might be why I hadn’t been getting the Synthesis option. That was clearly not the problem.
What really sells me on the ending is Shepard herself. She’s sitting next to Anderson, her dear friend and mentor, the one and only person who has always had her back, as he dies. She herself is grievously wounded and sags against him, probably also dying.
Then Hackett hails her. She is needed. Again. Still she cannot rest.
Without hesitation she asks, “What do you want me to do?” She struggles up and tries to do what’s asked.
Geez, I’m crying as I write this, dammit. It almost doesn’t matter what happens next.
Almost. But that’s when we meet the Catalyst. He seems to me completely unnecessary, and he muddles the narrative of the whole series, even in the extended cut (which does fix his most egregious logic breaks). Do we even need to understand the Reapers? Do we really understand them any better after the Catalyst quits monologuing? I’m unconvinced. I think that trying to wrap up the trilogy forcibly with a long-winded and ludicrous explanation of the Reapers’ “purpose” shoved about 100 hours of very dynamic narrative into one teensy little box—a box into which it could not possibly fit.
It’s an especially astounding lapse because the narrative to this point has been so philosophically deep and astute.
The choices themselves are sound, or could be. By the time we meet the Catalyst, we’ve already been presented with the Control choice, by the Illusive Man, and the Destroy choice, by the Alliance. They have been inverted in Paragon/Renegade terms by their color and situation. Agreeing with the lllusive Man over the Alliance has never been a Paragon choice until the very last decision, so we have that twist to add to our deliberations. The only choice that isn’t presented to us before we even encounter the Catalyst is the Synthesis choice. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting and coherent—more personal and, ultimately, less creepy—if EDI had sussed that out and presented it to us?
I think so.
I try to ignore the Catalyst’s bullshit.
I like sad endings generally, and Mass Effect needed one. I don’t mind at all that Shepard doesn’t survive the end of the trilogy. That’s as it should be. If you can play through ME3 and watch so many friends and comrades sacrifice themselves for the greater good, if you can watch a Shepard mortally wounded on the Citadel squeeze up her last ounce of strength to stand and do what’s asked of her, and still think that she will somehow come out of this alive, then I wonder whether you’ve really been paying much attention at all.
Which is why I hate those last few seconds of my original Destroy ending, after the credits, after the Stargazer, when you see the chest plate of her N7 armor, and it rises with one breath. No. No. No. Must the game muddy up her sacrifice, too?
The creepy kid tells us Synthesis is the “ideal” choice (that right there is reason not to believe it), but I found it too visually silly (glowy green eyes and circuits? Really?)—not to mention ethically bizarre. That served to distance me from the emotional impact. As I mentioned earlier, though, EDI saved the emotional impact at the last second with a particularly powerful final line.
Of the three possibilities (apparently there are 4 more takes on the ending, but they all fall into the three categories of Control, Synthesis, and Destroy), Control is my favorite. It has the most emotional weight, and it allows Shepard’s consciousness to continue. Yes, it makes her something of a god figure, but, you know, she deserves that.
Bioware and Electronic Arts
I don’t think anyone really reads this who doesn’t know me, so I don’t have to worry much about getting flamed. Thus, as a last little gasp, here are my two bits about the “EA is evil and has killed Bioware” refrain ringing out across the internet (the gaming forums, anyway).
To my knowledge, no one is making games as deeply immersive and complex, with such precise and sophisticated attention to narrative and gameplay, as Bioware. Their work is unparalleled, no matter their business partner. As long as that’s the case, I could not care less how much profit they try to turn with concurrent-release DLCs or any other product. And as far as I can tell, this controversy is kept aloft by gamers whingeing about the cost of Bioware/EA games. (The ME3 endings didn’t calm things down any, of course.)
A game company is not a utility. It is not a public service. It is not a charity. Their products are entirely, in every conceivable situation, optional. Yes, by the time you purchase the game and the key DLCs, you’ve probably spent at least $80 per game, and you could spend well over $100 if you want to fill the characters’ closets and get extra fancy weapons. The N7 armor and the Viper V work fine for me, personally.
Bioware/EA doesn’t owe anyone, and has no moral obligation to offer anyone, a cheap game. If you don’t want to, or can’t, spend that kind of money, don’t. And this is me, just a hairsbreadth from a socialist.
Frankly, I would gladly pay more.
And with that I have said all I’m going to say about Mass Effect.
For now, anyway.