Mass Effect 3: The End of the End

Goodness gracious, three blogs in the last five days or so, and all about the same topic.  You’d think I was a Mass Effect fanboy or something…

… oh wait.  I am.

At any rate, having finished my first playthrough of the game (and seeing one of these “horrible endings” for myself), I think I’m ready to add some more thoughts to what I’ve already posted.


Firstly, what I liked:

– The game itself is very, very fun to play.  The interaction on the Z-axis (going up ladders, jumping) can be jarring at points due to the delay the game has processing that you actually want to jump over this gap or climb this ladder rather than just sprinting to cover.  Enemies and fellow players don’t always look entirely natural as they interact with the Z-axis either, there’s just something off about how they move when falling or climbing, but it’s a minor yip in what is otherwise a sound blend of combat and role playing elements.

The improved combat really shines when moving from cover to cover or dodging attacks in the open… it is all very seamless and feels natural.  Each weapon reacts differently, much like how different weapons have different feels in real life, and it’s both a challenge and a delight to see those little details.

Graphically, the game can be downright breathtaking, the visuals (whether derived from that awful “stock imagery” or not) can invoke powerful feelings.  Having been to London, seeing it in rubble by the last missions of the game was an almost painful experience, simply because it hit home that nothing was going to be the same in that universe, no matter what Shepard and his crew did (I’ll continue this line of thought later).

The Multiplayer is an enjoyable experience… it provides a challenging option for people who really don’t want to go digging around Reaper infested space to find every little war asset out there in order to get the “best” ending.  But even without that influence on the single player campaign, it holds its own, and is worth playing simply because it’s fun to play.  I honestly don’t think Bioware had to link the two in order to get people to bring people into the multiplayer option.

But what I loved the most in ME3 was what I loved the most in ME1 and ME2… the characters.  Their depth… their interactions… the voice actors knocked that element out of the park.  Each and every character in this game felt real.  Even the most minor bit player left you with the feeling that they all had a story, they all had a history and reasons for being where they were and doing what they did.  Even if you never got the chance to fully experience it, you could feel that depth there.

The characters were so well written and composed that you could feel every death in the series.  An example is a Quarian Marine named Kal’Reegar.  Players meet him all of twice, both times in ME2, and both times, those meetings are fairly brief.  It’s safe to say that I never really got the chance to get to know this character.  Yet, when a report reaches Shepard that this fellow had died defending a Turian asset on Pavalen… it literally felt like I had been punched in the gut.  I had to stop playing for an hour because it hit me that hard.  This game really tugs the heartstrings because you really feel invested in the people you meet… and reminds you that you’re only one person, and that you can’t save everyone.

Which brings me to the ending of the trilogy, that has so many people up in arms, fuming and raving and ready to riot outside Bioware because they were just so horrible.  And the critics are right; the endings are awful… but I don’t think most of them really understand why.

The biggest complaint I’ve heard through various outlets is outrage that all the different paths you take, all the different relationships you form, all the different people you save and lives you alter… you’re forced into one of three choices, and that nothing you had done previously changes the end result.  To that, I tell people… grow the f*** up.  Guess what?  That’s not horrible; that’s reality.  Sometimes, no matter what you do, no matter how important you think you are, the things you do amount to jack squat in the end.  Sometimes, you have to make a choice where there is no right answer.  Sometimes, life really doesn’t care what you did, and it’s going to do to you whatever it damn well wants to do to you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

On that score, I have no problem with how the series was ended.  There was no pretty bow with sunshine, rainbows, and lollipops that could have possibly made sense.  As much as the first two games were about trying to make the world around you better… the third was all about trying to make the best of the worst possible scenario.  I respect Bioware for being willing to deliver such a harsh lesson, knowing a lot of Pollyannas weren’t going to like it.

Now bear in mind, that does not mean I think the ending was good… because it wasn’t.  It was actually quite poorly done.  And here’s why it failed, in my opinion.

Bioware’s writers thought they knew what their story was about; they thought they knew the story they were telling, and if you try to comprehend the story they were trying to tell, you can see where the ending makes sense, and would actually be quite good.  Their story, the one about the projected path of humanity as our technology reaches the point where the line between life and machine blurs irreparably, and the possible struggle between organic sentience and artificial intelligence, fits with how they tried to end it.

All the choices you have deal with how Shepard decides to handle this “singularity”, and how it reflects on humanity in this day and reality.  How will we approach this issue, as the line is already starting to blur?  Will we panic when the first machine says, “I think, therefore I am?”  Or has that moment already happened, and what will our reaction be?  Or will we try to yoke this life, dominating it like an oppressive god?  Or will we seek to unify the divergent paths and become something not wholly either?

In that context, the ending makes startling sense.  There is no clean resolution because there can’t be.  The uncertainty was the entire point. 

However, Bioware fell into a very common trap that a lot of creators fall into, and a trap I am terrified I will fall into myself as I seek to resolve my own intellectual property.  To put it as simply as I can; the story Bioware thought they were telling was not the story actually being told.

A fairly cynical literature professor in my university days once told me that the writer’s intent means nothing.  It’s what readers get out of it that is the only intent that matters.  I don’t entirely agree with this sentiment, because to be perfectly frank, readers can be simply wrong.  Not to mention that he had no problems marking me off on exams… if my interpretation was all that matters, why’d you give me an 86 on my English Lit 230 final, huh, Professor Tower?

However, I do believe that a story is not something that stays static, even as you are writing that final revision.  The tale gains a life of its own (which is fairly ironic considering how the Mass Effect story was supposed to center on the struggle of artificial life); it wants to take its own path… as the story unfolds, what it winds up telling can be very different than what it was supposed to tell.  If the writer is not aware of this as they are finishing the story, the ending simply won’t fit… because the lesson you are trying to impart does not fit what what you wound up laying out.

It would be like a math teacher laying out the First Theorem of Calculus… but if the class thinks he’s discussing the Pythagorean Theorem… all they hear is that A squared plus B squared equals… the function of X?  They then think this teacher is flat out insane, and has no idea what he’s talking about, even though he is assuredly more knowledged about both than all of the students in the room put together.

This is what I believe happened to Bioware, and it harkens back to what I thought the writers for the trilogy had done so brilliantly through the whole series.  The characters were so lush, their interactions so real, that the story stopped being about the struggle with synthetic life, and became about people struggling to survive and make sense of their own existence while facing impossible odds.  How do we respond when faced with what is likely annihilation?  What is the limit of courage and sacrifice?  How do people rise up when all seems lost?  How can we make sense of everything… when everything is falling apart right before our very eyes?

Players had come to attach deeply with the lives of Shepard and the different people that had comprised his crew over the course of these three games.  That is what the story had become.  And so when the ending offered no resolution for those characters, it was deeply and profoundly unfulfilling.  What was supposed to be an ending that demonstrated a blank slate instead came across as a horrible cliffhanger for characters who needed to know what fate had unfolded for them.

So yes, it was bad… in the same way that many endings really don’t seem to work.  I expected better of Bioware.  I expected them to be able to identify what their story had become.  That they didn’t wasn’t so much their fault, but mine for having such high expectations.  We are all only human, but it is still disappointing.

I’ll most certainly play the game again, but only because it’s a fun game to play, not to unlock the “secret” ending that still fails to deliver what I wanted.

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