Sunday, 5 January 2014

Mass Effect 3 revisited

This isn't a proper review of the game: instead I want to look at my reaction to it two years ago and to re-analyse the ending from a more... rational point of view. There will be spoilers for all three games.

I was devastated when I finished the game for the first time, as I'm pretty sure anyone who read my previous post on the matter would realise. I've seen this type of reaction described as "entitled" in the past. I both agree and disagree with this.

I agree because so many of us were neither rational nor moderate in our discussion of the ending at the time, and Bioware were pretty much forced to release an extended ending to address some of the complaints that were made. From a writer's point of view, this is pretty awful. It was their story. They should have been able to tell it the way they wanted to. I mean, I hate the Star Wars prequels, but I absolutely agree it was George Lucas' right to do what he wanted with his own intellectual property.

The basic criticisms of the original ending still stand though. It was a pretty arbitrary deus ex machina which was not foreshadowed well except in DLCs (Javik's and, later, Leviathan) which not everyone had access to at the time; it was poorly presented with a lot of things happening that the viewer was unaware of the context of; and it was a very emotionally abrupt way to finish the player's relationship with the characters. I think that criticising the game on these points is not being "entitled", it's just being critical.

I would love to know how the writers came to make their decisions about the ending, but I'm never likely to find out - whilst Bioware were willing to address the issue by giving us more exposition, they've closed ranks about any discussion over whether they consider themselves to have done a sloppy job on it or not. In lieu of ever actually knowing, I have formed my own theories about it.

Mass Effect was a very different game to Mass Effects 2 and 3. It was much more like the Knights of the Old Republic games, with a considerably improved combat system. So, a role-playing game. Shepard talked a lot. There were a lot of pissant plots which required you to make moral judgements. There was a lot of emphasis on the choices and personality of Shepard, and the game encouraged you to become emotionally involved with the characters.

Mass Effect 2 had a very different engine, and the emphasis in the game was much more on combat and much less on character. From being an RPG with shooting elements, it became a third-person shooter with role-playing elements. This changed the nature of the plots available. By necessity, the action became more important, and you-as-Shepard spent little time talking to anyone other than your team just for the sake of it. The moral choices are left to big decisions in the important story missions, and any choices you make outside of them are pretty arbitrary and unimportant, basically just whether or not you wanted to be a dick.

There was also very little investigation done in the game. The Collector plot revolves around it, sure, but there's not much else in there which encourages the player to consider a wider, older galaxy. This was crucial in determining the plot of Mass Effect 3. The game is all about the action, even removing the hacking mini-games (which I personally enjoyed because I'm a nerd like that). The pace of the plot is relentless. There is no mission which does not feel urgent or necessary. No more pissing about on crashed spaceships or crashing your Hammerhead into a wall: Shepard was on the go all the time.

(It's worth noting that of the three DLCs released after the game, two of them directly address the gameplay mechanics I've mentioned here: Leviathan is all about the investigation and logic puzzling, and Citadel (whilst the plot itself clearly has a purpose) gives the player a constant facility to piss about. You can even play Find The Lady with a pair of Vorcha card sharps. I presume that the DLC writers realised there was an audience for these aspects of the game and specifically added them in to address that.)

Obviously, that relentless focus served an important purpose in making the player appreciate the importance of the plot. But it also meant that the plot could only ever go the way that it did. As soon as the writers decided to start the game with the invasion of Earth, they had to make the rest of the game about the war. So, instead of spending several missions trying to come up with a plan or investigating the historical battles with the Reapers, you're just handed the plans for the Crucible and told to get on with it. That again was a deus ex machina, albeit not the literal one seen at the end.

The reason why the writers misjudged the fanbase with the ending was that by the time 3 rolled round there were essentially two separate fanbases. There were the people who approached it as a role-playing game who generally invested much more heavily in the characters, and there were the people who approached it as a combat game, who were more interested in the action. (This is a massive generalisation, I know, but I think the basic idea is a valid one.) I make no value judgements here: the games lent themselves to both types of player, and we all play games in our own ways, that's one of the reasons why we game after all.

The thing is. if you're playing it for the combat, you pretty much expect the plot to lead you, rather than you dictating the plot. So when the game ended the way it did, your reaction was probably much more "why is the Normandy there? Oh bugger it, I'm having a beer and playing Halo" rather than the bereft confusion and sense of being cheated that the RPG fan was left with. I didn't mention Halo casually there either: Halo 3 also ends with the presumed death of the main characters, but I was fine with that, because I hadn't made a single decision in the game that wasn't about shooting the shit out of Covenant or Flood.

I'm convinced that the reason why Indoctrination Theory became so popular so quickly was because it was the one way that a Paragon Shepard (and a Paragon player) could keep Shepard alive and still feel good about themselves. The Destroy option kills an entire race of people, and the one member of your crew who is utterly loyal and has never fucked you over (even BFF Garrus has caused you hassle over the course of the games). That's obviously not the Paragon choice. But it's the only choice you can make which allows you to get your happily-ever-after. That was a terrible choice made by the writers, frankly, and they should have realised it.

The kind of heroic quest that Shepard was on by the end pretty much requires Shepard to die. Heroes don't get to live if they're saving the world from certain destruction. HOWEVER. There is a workaround. An appropriately important and heroic secondary character can sacrifice themselves to save the hero. This is a well established trope. It would have been easy to do that in Mass Effect 3. You even actually shoot Anderson, who one assumes then dies, so he would have been the ideal choice. Failing that, you have a squad full of people you didn't shag who would be appropriate. As would Hackett. Hell, even the Normandy herself could conceivably fulfil this criteria.

Even with the limitations imposed on the plot by the nature of the game, the writers still deliberately chose to have Shepard die in two of the three original endings, and only allowed Shepard to survive with the Destroy option if they played the multiplayer game - a game which, purely coincidentally I'm sure, encourages micro-transactions to get better gear. I've been playing it on and off for nearly two years now, and I'm still missing guns, characters, and equipment: very little is maxed out other than the really basic packs. (This does not bode well for me ever actually managing to solo a Gold match. Gear really makes a difference at the higher levels.) This was clearly done to promote the new cash cow, and should be treated with a lot more scorn than I've seen directed at it.

Regardless of the confusion of the ending, Destroy/Control/Synthesis ending was essentially identical to the ending of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which at least had the decency to foreshadow the nature of the ending in the name of the fucking game. Mass Effect 3 came out considerably after DE:HR did, and even if the writers did have the idea beforehand, I'm really surprised they stuck to it.

I've completed the game a couple of times since my original playthrough, and it elicits a brutal emotional toll on me when I do. I normally just stop playing after you sync the Mako to the Normandy, and avoid the worst of the trauma. I still don't have a completed playthrough on the X-box though, and I want those achievement points so I'm going to do it again soon. I'm really not looking forward to it; I might leave off having the party until after I get the respawn point when the game is over, just so I have a reason to finish it.

No game should make me have to bribe myself to finish it. Especially not one I loved so much. I'm capable of having a rational discussion about it now, but I'm still hurt by it, and I don't think that'll ever change.

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