Feature: Mass Effect, the trilogy and the ending
This article contains major spoilers for the Mass Effect trilogy, including the ending to the series. There’s also an itsy-bitsy spoiler for Deus Ex (come on, it is 12 years old) and I give away the ending to 2008′s Prince of Persia. Don’t worry, it’ll make sense. Hopefully.
In Gamedot’s recent review of House of the Dead 3 on PSN, James started with the sentence ‘It’s important to stay away from hyperbole in game reviews.’ In conclusion to my even more recent review of Mass Effect 3 I wrote ‘The game designer’s Holy Grail might just have been touched – not triumphantly secured or carried away, but we’re getting there.’
Huh. Seems I may have ignored that sage advice, then.
I still stand by that phrase and I feel that if I’m going to convey what I think about Mass Effect 3′s ending, it’s important to explain why and to look at the importance of the series as a whole. That ending has generated the biggest discussion of gaming narrative that we’ve seen for a long time, certainly in the decade that I’ve been avidly following gaming news rather than just playing the darn things. So it’s only right to get stuck in, since that 9/10 score in the main review might look a little misguided otherwise.
I made that Holy Grail comment because I believe the Mass Effect trilogy has been a vital experiment in gaming narrative. It’s the first long-term franchise that has tried to give players vastly more control over the storyline than, say, the three-choice ending that concludes Deus Ex, whilst still sticking to a scripted, ordered plot (unlike an Elder Scrolls game, for instance). Casey Hudson, director of all three Mass Effects, said back in 2010 that ME3 would have over a thousand plot variables carried across from the first two games. Add in the further choices made by players in the final chapter itself and we can realise just how unprecedented this kind of narrative construction is.
So, structurally and mechanically, the way the series has told its story is remarkable. To some extent, this sheer novelty is what has earned it such acclaim. What I don’t think that praise is down to is the actual quality of the plot itself. It’s a blockbuster smash, an action flick, one with excellent direction and a lot of heart, but an action flick nonetheless.
The villains are gigantic space-insects who deal in the usual genocide and mad professor mutations dished out by countless Dark Lords and Dr. Evils, where the main goal is classic ‘save the kingdom/world/galaxy’. A large proportion of the games many, many choices are binary decisions between being naughty or nice, as characterised by the Paragon and Renegade mechanic. It’s not a character study like Planescape: Torment; Grand Theft Auto has more to say of relevance to its audience; The Witcher has provided choice-and-consequence gameplay with more satisfying ambiguity.
Of course it excels in other areas. The first is world-building. I love how so many technological features are plausibly explained by the eponymous ‘Mass Effect’, whereby electrical currents charged using ‘Element Zero’ can raise or lower an object’s mass, neatly explaining a lot of features from interstellar travel to how the future’s assault rifles work. Dragon Age’s codex seemed full of folk tales and Elven songs; Mass Effect’s codex contained things that, to me, were of greater importance to the function of the game world.
The second area is in what we might call direction, things like voice acting and camera work, essentially cinematic areas. The final, furious push to the transporter beacon close to ME3′s end is a brilliant example of this, especially the astonishing transition from raging, shouting, pulse-pounding run to the last few yards, where the horribly wounded Shepard stumbles in slow-mo to the beam, all the fury muffled but the tension ramped even higher. Then there are the deaths of major characters. After getting my whole squad out alive at the end of ME2 (first time as well – oh yes), I lost Mordin and Thane. One died amidst explosions whilst heroically curing the Genophage; the other died in bed, relatively peacefully, though wounded. From a directorial point of view, both scenes were tremendously engaging and powerful. That might not be the case in all parts of the trilogy, but in many others it is.
Many other games though have had immensely engaging worlds rich in lore (Morrowind is the pinnacle for me) and many others are superbly directed (go and play Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time for confirmation). So here, in my view, is the crunch point: the Mass Effect trilogy is more important than it is good. I think it will be looked back on in decades to come as a vital point for gaming, but not as one of the true greats based on individual merit. Its enormous achievements lie in the area of narrative structures, storytelling mechanics – and whilst these achievements have created a formidably powerful tale for millions of players, they do not, in my view, raise it to the very top table of, dare I say it, artistic achievement.
Now (at last) to the ending. For what it’s worth, I agree entirely that it fails the fanboy’s ultimate test by being riddled with plot holes. Others have documented these exhaustively, so look ‘em up if need be. I think that demands for a change are understandable and represent a fascinating change in notions of authorship, but for Bioware to cave in would be a dreadful mistake leading only to further disappointment. A committee of 10,000 fans will not create a decent ending and the current finale can’t simply be wiped away from players’ memories.
I do not have a problem with the presentation of the game’s three final choices. ME1 climaxed with a binary choice (save or abandon the council); ME2 climaxed with a binary choice (destroy or preserve the Collector base); ME3 is similarly limited, with only one more option. I don’t even see it as a literal ending – whilst I’m intrigued by the Indoctrination theory doing the rounds, I think it could be said that the ending is almost allegorical. I don’t think it has to fit with the game world, through the Indoctrination theory or a literal interpretation. The presence of the cheesily-dubbed ‘Star Child’, and the almost magical nature of the machinery powering the three choices convinces me that it is not a literal ending. That’s just my view – I am a smarmy English graduate, after all.
As far as I understand it, the main problem many have is that for all their choices, the game boils down to three possible endings – not a thousand, but three. Players might justifiably feel that their agency was a fabrication rendered meaningless in the final choice. I personally feel that I’ve seen more than enough evidence of my own agency in the other 99% of the trilogy. My Citadel Council is still kicking in ME3 and I haven’t seen Kaidan Alenko for years after getting him nuked on Virmire. I’ve saved Krogan and Rachni, I’ve been thanked by Quarians and Geth, I’ve put a smoking hole in the Earth Ambassador’s head (that was fun). Do you know what one of my weirder regrets in the trilogy is? Ordering Doctor Chakwas to run back to the Normandy, alone and traumatised by imprisonment in ME2′s suicide mission, because I suspected that sending an escort would mean losing that squad member. Doctor Chakwas, in reality a pretty minor character, vanished as she ran – and I horribly regret that.
Does the ending rob that moment of its power? Not in the slightest, and the same applies for the many other decisions I’ve made. For some though, it does, and fair enough – that’s your prerogative.
Do you know what? Let it be spoiled. If you feel bad about it, please rant, rage and vent, keep discussing, talk this through. If you want, say that the whole plot is now ruined for you – but don’t, don’t let that devalue the incredible experiment in narrative, the structural brilliance of this trilogy that made you care so much in the first place. Step outside the story, try and take the long view and try to see just how important Mass Effect could be to modern gaming and just how much it could affect future ideas of narrative.
If you can’t get past that, then I’ve got one last story that might help. 2008′s Prince of Persia (a criminally underrated game, by the way) ends with the Prince undoing his work across the entire game in order to resurrect his beloved Elika, knowingly releasing the evil god Ahriman all over again. It occurs after the credits roll, in an almost dream-like state as the god whispers in your ear, as the music and atmosphere tempt you to strike the trees of life that will complete the process. I didn’t like that. So on my second playthrough, after the credits finished and Elika lay lifeless on the altar, I stood next to the trees, sword in hand, wavering – then wandered to the edge of the map and quit. That was my ending – the Prince, agonised by her death but unwilling to undo all they had fought for, walked away. It was perhaps the truest roleplaying moment in gaming that I’ve ever experienced.