MASS EFFECT 3 SPOILERS AHEAD
This article is only kind of about Mass Effect 3:
- First of all, I really LIKED Mass Effect 3, including the ending!
- Second of all, it appears that many people didn't (check out the user ratings): http://www.metacritic.com/game/pc/mass-effect-3
Why didn't they like it? My principle theory: The ending was too grim. People felt like they put all this hard work into their character and made all the "right" choices only to end up having to sacrifice Shepard in the end. Essentially, the ending was too sad and there's a perception that if you can change a bunch of other parts of the story, why shouldn't you be able to achieve an ideal happy ending?
This got me thinking about how there are certain kinds of computer/video games "choices" that kind of don't work. Or rather they don't work for me or, I imagine, most people I know:
- If a game has a "sad" ending or choice that could be avoided, and I can reload to prevent that sad ending, 90% of the time I will do so. The only time I won't do so is if neither ending is "correct"; i.e. maybe I have a choice between sacrificing myself or others, for example. Neither choice is obviously correct, so I will go with the one that feels best to me.
- If a game has a "sad" ending or choice that could be avoided, and I can't reload BUT I can look up a guide to preventing the sad ending on the internet, I will do so, providing I have warning ahead of time, such as by reading a review or talking to a friend. Or at least I imagine I will; I've never really played a game that has those kinds of choices and doesn't give you the opportunity to reload.
Essentially, when it comes to storytelling in a computer game/video game format, I can't stand a sad ending or outcome IF I HAVE A CHOICE to change it. Basically, I feel like a failure in those situations. I'm playing a game after all, and I will choose the ending or course of action that feels most like winning to me, reloading or checking the internet if necessary. I use this kind of thought process in most tabletop RPGs too (the exception being some indie rpgs); however, in those cases I do not have the luxury of reloading or checking the internet for the correct course of action.
To return to Mass Effect 3, I think it was okay that the endings were so grim no matter what actions you took. That is the ONLY real way to craft a narrative in a computer/video game if you want the vast majority of players to experience a less than perfect ending.
Why not just offer a perfect happy ending if that's what everyone wants? Short answer: it's bad storytelling. Sometimes a story, even one presented through a game that gives you choices to affect the events of the story, works best if it ends on a bittersweet or downright depressing note. For an obvious example, look at the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex; he has already killed his father and married his mother at the beginning of the story, and so there is no way for it to end happily!
I felt like that was the case with Mass Effect 3, which is incredibly dark from the beginning, a desperate struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds; while not Greek tragedy level inevitable, ending the story with the sacrifice of the main character (in all but one of the endings) seems quite appropriate.
So what's the take-away from all of this? Craft computer games with nuanced endings and consequences! Instead of having an obvious success or failure (you save the peasant's life or let him die) make the consequences cool and interesting (the peasant dies but he stops the fire from spreading across the village or he lives but many more homes in the village burn down, leaving villagers without homes). If you don't, then keep in mind that most people will just reload to get the happy ending.
I feel like Mass Effect 3 achieved this with its endings. Even the so called "perfect" ending where Shepard lives has her (I played a female Shepard) destroying all synthetic life in the galaxy! Not exactly a happy ending. Mass Effect 3 also achieved this dynamic with some of the choices you are presented with. For example, since I played with a new character my first time around, I was presented with the choice to to cure the genophage and risk the Krogans being the next big threat when the war dies down or pretend to cure it and curse the Krogans to eventually die off as a species. For me the choice was obvious, but this was a legitimate ethical choice with pros and cons! In contrast, some of the Mass Effect 3 outcomes felt more like rewards or punishments based on your paragon score, which were definitely not as interesting and left me disappointed that I didn't import my character fully Paragon character from Mass Effect 2 so I could succeed.
Maybe I am not giving people enough credit, and a lot of people play games without reloading often and without checking on the internet for hints when presented with choices that could dramatically alter the flow of the game or result in less than perfect outcomes. In some ways, I kind of wish I played games that way, but I don't! I'd kind of like to be forced to play a game that way, and in fact, that is one of the things I like about traditional table-top rpgs, that there is someone running the game ensuring that choices have permanent consequences. However, in the world we live in, I think creating computer games that present cool nuanced choices and outcomes without incredibly obvious "right" answers is the way to go.