Mass Effect 3 and the plight of the Information Age

April 13th, 2012 by Rory
Mass Effect 3

My Shepard was female AND an infiltrator!

MASS EFFECT 3 SPOILERS AHEAD

This article is only kind of about 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.

4 Responses to “Mass Effect 3 and the plight of the Information Age”

  1. Aarne says:

    I think the main reason people dislike ME3′s ending is not because it is grim (though that is part of the reason, granted), but the fact that it comes out of nowhere, doesn’t make any sense and eliminates all of your choices up until to that point.

    None of the choices make any sense and are not actually choices at all. If you pick to combine the synthetic and organic lifeforms, what the fuck does that even mean? Are people with implants considered partly synthetic? Shepard is, apparently.

    There’s a fan made mod that skips the nonsensical star child part and goes straight to the worst ending. Would this exist if all the fans cared about was a happy ending?

  2. Rory Rory says:

    There’s actually a lot to unpack when it comes to what people didn’t like about the ending. The grimness was a big part of it, I think. I also think you’re right that people thought it came out of the blue, which I wouldn’t say is super fair in that we see hints that there is a lot more going on than immediately meets the eye, especially in the final missions. And in terms of eliminating choice, it’s my experience that most computer games (including most good ones) trend towards a focal point where your choices up to that point do not dramatically change the outcome, though of course there WERE factors that changed the outcome, like whether Earth survives mostly in tact, for example.

    Obviously, we disagree about whether the endings made sense or were any good :). Instead of writing an article all about that, I primarily used it as a jumping off point to talk about the best way to present choices in computer games, in light of being able to load when things don’t go your way.

    As for the synthesis (the choice I went with), obviously it tampers with something fundamental in organic DNA and synthetic circuitry. I also imagine that, in order for it to be a fundamental change with real value, it probably changes organic and synthetic life in some meaningful, possibly pseudo “spiritual” way, that leads to greater understanding and perhaps compatibility between the two lifeforms. At the same time, it doesn’t appear to totally fuck with people’s base personalities, as Joker isn’t walking around like a zombie or anything like that during the cut-scene.

  3. As Aarne said, the problem with ME3′s ending is not that Shepard dies. Shepard dying as the price to save the galaxy is a perfectly good ending to a story. The problem is that the last thirty minutes of the game are terrible. They make no sense, they’re full of contradictory details, they involve a literal deus ex machina popping out and presenting an brand new, unsubstantiated claim about the inevitability of organic-synthetic conflict with no opportunity to dispute it, and they remove all player agency, leaving you with a choice of what color do you like your bullshit space magic that destroys everything you’ve managed to save and invalidates any hard choices and difficult successes you’ve accomplished so far. It answers nothing, raises more questions, and doesn’t provide proper narrative closure. It’s so bad that the Indoctrination Theory *has* to be correct, regardless of what BioWare intended, because the only way for that not to be a wretched ending to an epic story is for it to not have actually happened at all.

  4. I have mixed feelings about the ME3 ending. On one side, as a gamer, i really likedthe three ME and i totally accepted the ending as a legitimate one. On the other side the deus ex machina effect is strong and a litte uncalled for. There’s a way to make everything fit, but I’m not sure Bioware is enough of a gambler to try to do it. this solution is simlpy to make your choices count in the future games.
    Imagine a Mass Effect: Rebellion (or another cool title) that start from where you left the world in ME3 and addresses the Krogan situation or the Quarian/Geth conflict or anything else. Mass Effect Academy? Jack and the recruits! Mass Effect Legacy? Miranda and her family! And so on. The Shepard’s story reached his ending, but there are many stories yet to tell.

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