To say that audience expectations of Mass Effect 3 were huge would be an understatement.
One pundit claimed that the Mass Effect trilogy of games is “the most important science fiction universe of our generation.” It was created by BioWare, a game studio with a long record of producing games whose narratives not only engaged players in the stories of its worlds but also invited them to influence how those stories played out, games like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights and the seminal Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
The Mass Effect games are the next iteration of these concepts. Rather than using existing intellectual properties (Dungeons & Dragons for Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, the Star Wars galaxy for Knights of the Old Republic), the creative team behind Mass Effect built a new fictional universe out of their love of science fiction, from books to movies and TV series.
The series’ technical execution, stunning presentation and epic tale of an unwitting galaxy under threat of annihilation and the human commander fighting to save it gained the series not only a massive fan base (including yours truly) but overwhelming critical acclaim. Both MetaCritic and GameRankings aggregate the professional review scores of Mass Effect for Xbox 360 at 91%; Mass Effect 2 averages out at around 94% across 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.
I got my copy of Mass Effect 3 about a month after its launch date. In that time, it had once again racked up an impressive set of reviews… but something surprising happened.
The fans hated it.
When a group of people with a deep emotional investment in a thing turn so drastically, their outpouring of anguish and rage can make it hard to filter content from noise; attempting to avoid spoilers doesn’t help either. But in this case, almost every howl of protest was the same:
BioWare had screwed Mass Effect 3’s ending up, big time. After two games of incredible quality, after a third game that up until that point was just as incredible, the ending committed an unforgivable sin: It was bad.
Fans demanded BioWare correct the ending, fix it. One group even went as far as starting a fundraising drive for Child’s Play, a gaming related charity, to draw attention to the depth of their desire to get the ending that they believed the Mass Effect trilogy and its hero / player avatar, Commander Shepard, deserved.
I decided to play the game through with an open mind before before joining the debate, and when the ending did roll around, I couldn’t understand what upset the fans so much. Mass Effect 3 had an ending apporporiate for a game whose core story idea was a cycle of galactic apocalypse. It reminded me of the things I’d invested in so that the sacrifice at the end had the right amount of emotional impact. I simply couldn’t see the reason for the fans’ rabid upset.
So I hit the review sites, opinion blogs, forums and YouTube channels and discovered that the most common objections were the denial of player choice and the rejection of themes that had run throughout the game.
I thought about it for a few days, about the universe as the game presented it, about the rather odd nature of the game’s ending. Eventually, I realised the fans were right; there was something fundamentally wrong with it.
But I also realised that they were wrong, too. The fault in Mass Effect 3’s ending is actually bigger, much bigger, than they think; it’s a fault so big that ‘fixing’ the ending alone will not, cannot repair it.
Why? Because the fault goes back through the whole of Mass Effect 3; even, perhaps, as far as Mass Effect 2.
The fault is this: For the sheer volume of influence that BioWare has allowed players to have over Mass Effect 3’s engaging, complex stories within its overall story, BioWare has never let the players have any influence over the one critical area that shapes the whole story from beginning to end.
NOTE: This post contains plot spoilers for all three video games in the Mass Effect trilogy. If you haven’t played Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 or Mass Effect 3 and are interested in doing so, I strongly recommend you play them before reading further.
Player Choice and The Ending
The Mass Effect trilogy is a complex beast. It has been even from the first game. Combining the core concepts of the roleplaying and shooter genres allowed players to customise the abilities and arsenal of not just their avatar, Commander Shepard, but also Shepard’s loyal squadmates, then let them loose in real time against various enemies. Mass Effect has quite a lot of complexity at its play level alone.
But atop that complexity BioWare layered a new science fiction universe rich in not only diverse detail but also history, then let you, the player, choose how Commander Shepard would approach the present-day (in the far-future game universe, of course) legacies of that history. It was a hell of a feat that had been set up by BioWare’s previous games, but hadn’t been done with the amount of depth and character that the first Mass Effect game featured.
If that wasn’t enough, Mass Effect 2 was capable of mining your Mass Effect saved game for data on how you approached each situation Commander Shepard faced, major or minor, and customising future interactions based on those decisions.
If, for example, you chose to commit humanity’s space fleets to saving the ship carrying the aliens of the ruling Citadel Council away from the final battle at the end of the Mass Effect, not only would the councillors would appear in Mass Effect 2 and thank you for your decision, but a human reporter would question you about the loss of life and ambient radio broadcasts in certain locations would mention how an alien race is now more willing to make reparations for a decades-old conflict with humanity.
Mass Effect 3, then, not only had to up the stakes for the trilogy’s grand finale, it had to ensure that a whole two games’ worth of prior interactions had to be taken into account when presenting its galaxy at war with an ancient, seemingly-invincible threat whilst still letting you resolve the issues that it presented.
Yet for all of that choice, Internet-savvy players, who often chose to find out about the options they missed via other’s play-through reports on gaming web sites or video recordings of play on YouTube, were surprised to find that the very ending of Mass Effect 3 was surprisingly uniform.
No matter what you chose to do in any of the play previous, you were shown Commander Shepard having a fairly static conversation with an entity who hadn’t appeared in the game at all until then, followed by a choice of three options which would determine the fate of the galaxy – which was, itself, mostly the same no matter what you picked.
On top of that, the conversation with the entity seemed to disregard choices you made about the very topic you were discussing: Whether artificial life and organic life can co-exist. The entity seemed to consider the results of a particular choice you’d made about the worth of synthetic life earlier in that very game – one that a squadmate sacrificed its life to let you make – largely irrelevant to the situation at hand.
Many players felt that they’d been robbed, that a game that was marketed on letting players choose how to resolve an outcome had in the end rendered that choice meaningless, not worth the investment of play time and emotion that made the choice happen.
Myself, I kept finding justifications in the internal logic of the game world, reasons why the entity didn’t address the choices I’d made about that big deal stuff.
Then I realised – the reason the entity had unassailable grounds was because for all the changes I’d had Shepard make throughout three games, there was one core theme that had slipped under the radar. BioWare, for all its promises of letting the players’ actions shape the galaxy, had let one huge part of its galactic lore go un-questioned, un-challenged, in a way that plays against the story themes that players had interacted with throughout the entire trilogy.
In The Next Post…
I look at two major story threads within Mass Effect that BioWare successfully engaged its players in and let them influence, and how even in those the player’s ability to influence those situations based on their own reactions is limited.
But What About You?
Are you right about Mass Effect 3’s ending? How so?
Which other beloved stories / fictional properties have left you with a sour feeling at the end? How did the creator(s) mange to screw it up?
Featured image sourced from BioWare’s website.