Let the games begin!
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to break from my work commitments and finish the one game I have been desperate to play since 2010. In the lead up to this, I had avoided any spoiler screenshots or gameplay videos in order to engross myself fully in the game’s story/setting. You might be asking yourself if that was really necessary – after all, it seems a bit much that someone would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid minor spoilers. However, I believed that there was method to my madness. Arguably, Mass Effect is a series where the commercial success has largely been a result of a substantial emotional connection between the player, his/her Shepard, and the various other main characters within in the game. I wanted my connection to this finale to be as pure as possible – I only wanted to experience it through my own eyes, and through the Shepard I had created and carried through the first two games. For me, this was one of the primary reasons I felt so immersed in this universe – I had spent countless hours making critical decisions in the first two games that were inevitably going to shape the outcome of an impending war with the Reapers.
So how was my eagerly awaited Mass Effect 3 experience turning out? It was great for the most part. There were some niggling small issues like a flawed journal system, a broken character transfer system, a lack of those chocolate coloured eyes I had in ME2, and some other little things, but it was mostly a really engaging and stimulating experience. That was until the last two minutes of the game….
“That’s it ? Shit, did I miss something? Maybe I made a wrong choice along the way?”
These were the exact words I uttered after I had followed little god-boy’s choices and chosen the hybrid ending and witnessed what was really the unravelling of the trilogy. This was not the jaw-dropping OMGWTFBBQ! ending I had worked myself up to for over 50hrs+ of gameplay. I remember asking myself why the game couldn’t have just ended with Shepard looking over Earth, it would have been fitting, and filled with enough ambiguity to satisfy the creative minds and those who like myself were emotionally exhausted.
Choice is irrelevant
It turns out that the creative team at Bioware, one who I would have blindly followed into the sun at any given moment had for the first time in the series given me cause for concern. Had the team run out of puff? Was this ending the result of some sort of alacrity to get the product to the market? Or was it just the way it was meant to be ? It seems hard to believe that after 3 fantastic games of strong and thought –provoking writing that the story could end in such a dull and frankly puzzling manner.
Having now finished the game, I decided to see if my thoughts were simply my own, or whether the ending had affected anyone else in this profound way by trolling through the various articles on major game sites and the opinions of many ‘fans’ of the series on the forums. I was quite surprised to see the level of backlash there was. The fact that money in the region of $37,000 was made (to be given to charity of course) in response to the ending was simply baffling. I had never seen a reaction to any game in the past which evoked this level of feedback.
After reading these various posts/articles and emotional outbursts, it seemed that one of the principal reasons for this mass hysteria was simply due to the fact that all the players various choices made throughout the series amounted to the grand sum of shit-all in the final 2 minutes. So, for those who like maths, the dedicated players out there who had spent 150+ hours playing the series had their total playtime experiences shrunk to a measly 2 minutes. After all, it was the decision made in these dying minutes that really determines the ending of the game. The burning question in many of these gamers minds was simply, why? Why is it that a series, which has prided itself on its decision-making mechanics simply fizzled out in the dying minutes, discounting all the choices the player had made and ultimately all the investment he/she had made in these choices? Was there some sort of deep philosophical meaning in this ending which the story team wished to express? Or was it simply a case of using Dues- Ex Machanica to wrap it all up neatly?
The 3 endings: peas in the same pod ?
Perhaps the most jarring issue with the ending of the game is the fact that all three ‘alternate’ endings are strikingly similar. Coined by some as the infamous “RGB endings” (due to the fact that each ending is dominated by a particular colour of energy), these three stooges of the mass effect universe all use the same sequences, with minor variations to differentiate themselves from one another.
In the ‘blue’ paragon ending, Shepard chooses to ‘control’ the Reapers, thus sending them away from earth with the citadel into the void from whence they came, sacrificing his life in the process. The mass effect relays are destroyed In the process, and joker escapes the mass effect travel sequence and lands on some mysterious alien planet.
In the ‘green’ neutral ending, Shepard sacrifices himself, adding his essence to catalyst, which emits a green wave of energy that tells the reapers to leave, and combines both organic and synthetic DNA into a new hybrid DNA form. How it does this to already sentient living beings is beyond my understanding.
In the ‘red’ renegade ending, Shepard shoots a machine on the Citadel , which results in a red wave of energy emanating from the crucible which destroys all synthetic life. This includes the Reapers, the Geth, EDI, Shepard’s own medical devices implanted within himself, the various VI’s etc, and many other synthetic devices which aren’t specifically mentioned.
So there you have it — three endings, all ‘different’, yet consistently ‘lazy’ by a development point of view. One might ask how a series that prides itself on the different choices you makes ultimately recycles the same ending sequence and barely differentiates between them.
If we look closely at all three sequences, there are some major discrepancies that linger in this abundance of ambiguity. Firstly, let’s look at the crucible and the god-kid catalyst. The fact that the god-kid had little to no idea at all about the catalyst, and the way it would work, is puzzling. Only when it docked with the citadel did the god-kid ‘understand’ the new options open to him. He states that “the crucible changed me — created new possibilities”. So how is it that this crucible, supposedly built by many different races over a period of many many cycles, perform 3 distinctly different yet inherently complex functions all by releasing one coloured wave of energy ? If we look specifically at the neutral ending, It is very implausible that the crucible gives the catalyst this new ability to alter the genetic makeup of everything galaxy wide, through one simple wave of energy from a machine that until these last few minutes had an unknown function both to the past and current inhabitants of the galaxy and to the catalyst itself. This is especially implausible when you consider that the crucible has an additional 2 completely different functions on top of this.
The second head scratcher is the sequence in all endings where we see joker using the mass effect relay system. It seems very implausible that somehow, joker takes the Normandy away from the battle on Earth, away from supporting Shepard and the rest of the team to use the relay to get to somewhere else in the galaxy. It would seem that the insertion of this sequence is merely to facilitate the crash landing of the Normandy on the alien planet and end the game with a happy, hopeful ending. The other issue with this sequence is the random third person we get of the Normandy and onto the planet. In my green neutral ending, joker and EDI were first to leave, followed by Ashley. The problem with this was simply that I had taken Ashley with me on earth. She even accompanied my shepherd in the final earth gameplay sequence where the player runs toward the citadel beam and gets mowed down by harbinger. So the fact that she somehow either magically manages to escape harbingers beam of death or gets magically extracted by the Normandy in that hot war zone is really quite baffling.
Also of interest is the renegade ending. As ME3 was the last entry of the trilogy, one might question the survival of Shepard in this ‘red’ ending. Why does Bioware offer us a brief snippet of someone in N7 armour, which through power of deduction is likely Shepard, gasping for air, hinting at his/her survival ? More importantly, some have asked why it is only in this ending which see’s Shepard survive and not the other two. I have even seen some people asking why the paragon players making the self-sacrificing choices have been punished. It seems sloppy from a creative standpoint to include this snippet in only one of the endings. Are we to consider that if there are future games with Shepard, that is to be the canon ending because Shepard survives only under the ‘red’ ending circumstances?
Examining the cycles and the reasoning behind Reaper intervention
“The reapers are mine – I control them. They are my solution.”
This is what the cute little god-kid utters in references to his beloved toys – the Reapers. These machines, harvested and derived from past advanced civilisations, are the catalyst’s answer to ‘chaos’. He goes on further to say that “the created will always rebel against their creators” and that they have “found a way to stop that from happening – a way to restore order for the next cycle”. Shepard protests that the people of his cycle “would rather keep [their] own form”, than be turned into machines. The catalyst retorts that “without us, synthetics would destroy all organics” and that they’ve “created the cycle so that never happens”.
The biggest issue I had with this particular comment was that I had just spent a large portion of ME3 brokering a peace between the Quarians and the Geth. In my play of the game, Legion had even assumed his own identity, and sacrificed himself to ensure that both the upgrades to his people and the peace could eventuate. A selfless act like this makes you wonder what sort of rebellion past synthetic life may have caused.
Furthermore , it is even explained within the Geth cyberspace mission that it was in fact the Quarians own ignorance and fear that was the participating factor in the war with the Geth. It is explained that it was merely the Geths own Fight or Flight instinct that forced them to retaliate. Even when the Geth had the choice of destroying the fleeing Quarian fleet from Rannoch, they chose not to. This is in direct conflict with what the catalyst touts as reasoning for the Reaper solution. If we even think back to ME1, it was the Reapers that instigated the war on the Citadel, not the Geth, as they were being controlled by Sovereign. How can the catalyst then justify the need to reset the cycle if it was in fact the Reapers that directly instigated a conflict ? The irony of it all is that if indeed the catalyst is a part of the Citadel and is merely a machine, it is this machine which is effectively executing and instigating the course of events which it was design to control.
Another example of evolved synthetic life that defies this pattern is EDI. I spent a large portion of ME3 mentoring EDI on the nuances of human nature. I even hooked her up with joker. EDI is a prime example of a synthetic life that has exceeded her original programing and has begun to appreciate the same level of sentience and decision making capability as any other organic. On numerous occasions, she even exhibits emotion and an overall desire to protect the people she cares about.
The greater point I’m trying to make here is that synthetic life in this cycle is distinctly different, simply because of the many decisions that my Shepard made throughout the series. Yet when it comes to the final 3 choices, especially the ‘red’ choice, the emphasis still seems to be centred on the idea that chaos is still holistically a synthetic vs organic problem. Where were the references to the Krogan/Rachni wars? Or the genophage created by the Salarians and deployed by the Turians? It seems odd that the many chaotic and destructive issues between organic races which Shepard had to deal with were cast out the window and the focus was squarely on synthetics vs organics.
ME3 and the dev team
From a development point of view, it seems odd to draw your audience in and alienate them in the final minutes of the game. Many have stated that they won’t play the game again because they think that given the endings, their choices/actions will be pointless and that they have no motivation to go through it all again just to come to the same disappointing conclusion. Adding insult to injury, the game slaps a nice big DLC message at the end which asks you to stick around to find out more about the universe through future packs. This certainly didn’t go down well given the added controversy of the day one DLC pack ‘from ashes’.
Another reason people are upset was due to the comments by Casey Hudson , one of the lead developers of the game. He stated before the release of ME3 that:
“There are many different endings. We wouldn’t do it any other way. How could you go through all three campaigns playing as your Shepard and then be forced into a bespoke ending that everyone gets?”
“Mass Effect 3 is all about answering all the biggest questions in the lore, learning about the mysteries and the Protheans and the Reapers, being able to decide for yourself how all of these things come to an end.”
“Every decision you’ve made will impact how things go. The player’s also the architect of what happens.”
“You’ll get answers to everything. That was one of the key things. Regardless of how we did everything, we had to say, yes, we’re going to provide some answers to these people.”
These statements certainly seem at odds with what actually occurred. I’m sure this wasn’t intentional at all, and that Casey had the best intentions for the series, but one can’t help feel disappointed about the difference between these statements and the end product. I know I won’t be knocking on Casey’s door and knocking him down cause of being tired of his disingenuous assertions. I reserve that kind of action for Khalisah Bint Sinan al–Jilani.
The creative process: an artist’s rights, and the rights of his/her community.
Let me be very clear here – I am a great believer in the notion that an artist’s work is very much his own, and should not be influenced or be forced to change by his or her audience. For me, this is a golden rule that applies across the entirety of the humanities and the arts. Let me make another thing very clear – I believe that videogames are as much a part of the arts as any other medium. Despite this, videogames possess a key element which substantially differentiates them from other mediums: interactivity. Interactivity is someone unique to videogames, it allows the player to become directly involved with the outcome of a story or creative piece. I would even go as far to say that the mass effect series is one of the most interactive games ever made simply due to the fact it’s story system is determined by the players own choices and customization of his/her protagonist. It is for these reasons that I find myself questioning my own beliefs. I know I have had no say whatsoever in the writing and design of the story in the series. I also know that I have no power or influence or right to ask Bioware to change it. However, I feel that due to the choice system in the game, I was directly responsible for the manner in which my Shepard progressed throughout the series – and that somehow, the end 3 choices do not reflect any of the hard decisions and thought processes my Shepard went through to get where he is standing now. So should I have any moral rights as a consumer to expect and ending which provides better closure or allows for a sequence of events that would be fitting of the actions my Shepard took? Honestly, I cannot answer this question. This is the first instance in my gaming history where I have felt so strongly about objecting to what I had just witnessed.
One might argue that all the choices that are made within the game are irrelevant simply because the player really had the potential to make a decision/choice in the first place due to the fact that it was already predetermined. In other words, it is plausible to suggest that Bioware’s story team had woven into the game the illusion of choice as a plot device to heighten the player’s connection and experience within the game. But that seems a little too cynical to wholeheartedly believe, doesn’t it? I think a more plausible explanation here is that the writers were inclined to believe that these 3 choices reflect the way in which they thought the series should end. Perhaps they ran out of creative steam as they approached the ending? Or perhaps they chose a set of neatly packaged ending over the many headaches that could have potentially arisen if they were to cater for all the potential endings through different choices throughout the 3 games.
I think the irony of this whole situation is evident in one of the last speech options of the game. Just as Shepard states to the catalyst in one of his speech options, “the defining characteristic of organic life is that we think for ourselves, make our own choices. You take that away, then we might as well be machines just like you”. Ok so maybe it’s not so evident , but if you can stretch your imagination a bit, what im trying to infer is that by taking away the impact of the choices the player makes throughout the game, Bioware has effectively fallen in the mechanical sarlacc pit. They have essentially transformed an organic, free willed experience into a monotonous, mechanized pre-determined mess.
So the big question that’s on everyone’s mind is whether the ending should be changed, altered, augmented, re-written, or left untouched. Part of me desperately wants closure, but part of me wants to respect the creative process. What do you guys think?
It would appear for many that this final level is not Commander Shepard’s favourite place on the Citadel. Not at all.
images adapted from: