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Reflections on Mass Effect

March 16, 2012

About a week ago, I saved the galaxy. I completed the enormous video game trilogy that is Mass Effect. Now, before we get into the spoilers, I’m going to say that these games have been some of the most rewarding entertainment experiences of my life. They’ve made me laugh, cry, and most importantly, introduced me to the idea that a game can be more than head shots and pwnage. They can truly be art. They can tell an amazing story. They can make you care more about the characters than beating the bad guy. If you haven’t played these games, if video games have never connected with you, I can’t stress enough how much you need to play Mass Effect. I don’t think you’ll regret it, but those who vocally loathe the final moments might tell you differently. We’ll get to that later.

In short? I loved Mass Effect 3. I’ve been here from the beginning. I still fondly remember stepping off the Normandy with Alenko and Jenkins. In this final chapter, I sat before my computer, blubbering like an idiot at more than a few scenes. Yep, this game is an emotional roller coaster for fans. There are going to be some hard goodbyes. Some of the emotional sequences are a bit awkward and forced. But damn if they don’t hit it out of the park more times than not. Amazing characterization and (save very few exceptions) incredible voice acting, Mass Effect 3 is absolutely a character drama as much as it is a space opera.

Bioware is one of the best video game publishers when it comes to this. In other games, non-player characters might spout off relevant information, give you a fetch quest, and get in your way. In Mass Effect, they’re people. They’ve grown and changed. They have fears and family. The characters are where the heart of Mass Effect is, and seeing them again is like reuniting with old friends. With other game sequels, you might say, “I can’t wait to start killing aliens again!” With Mass Effect, you’ll say, “I can’t wait to see Garrus again!”

I’ll hit on some of the technical stuff quickly before getting into the meaty spoilers. The combat is improved, and the wide array of weapons is amazing. Each gun has a different feel, action, and can be customized, though this customization is a bit limited. The enemies are smarter, faster, and tougher. Gameplay is more exciting than ever, and the inclusion of the new omni-blade is a great addition. The load times are staggeringly quick on the PC, though the “space bar for everything” took awhile to get used to. Even now, on my third play-through, I’m still rolling when I mean to duck for cover.

Okay. Now that’s out of the way, we’ll get to the part you really want. My reaction to the ending. Spoilers all the way down.

Like so many other people, I was expecting the end of the game to be completely different. This was the final game, after all. It didn’t have to end at a certain point that the next game would start, so there must be a number of ways this could end.

Not so much.

(And a quick aside, I’m aware of the Indoctrination Theory. I’m not going to address it here, rather take everything we’re presented with at face value. Perhaps another time we can get into that.)

After a beautiful scene with Anderson (and that pained, “What do you need me to do?” make me choke up again), the game makes a jarring tonal shift that has understandably thrown many gamers off balance. We’re swept up to a platform where we meet a Starchild, and we are presented with one last choice. Yes, it’s disappointing that it all converges back to that single point, that single choice. It’s tragic, and heartbreaking. It’s also kind of beautiful and poetic, we are literally standing on an option wheel at that moment. We’ve come full circle.

Yes, every choice you make is essentially the same, only different colors. Yes, the final cutscene with Joker running from battle makes zero sense. Yes, the squad mate who might have been beside you during the final push stepping out of the Normandy safe and sound makes even less sense. Yes, there are plot holes that I’d like to see filled. The ending fails here, absolutely. I was initially in shock, confused, and incredibly sad. It took me a few days to digest everything that had happened and collect my thoughts.

But the loudest and most irksome complaint is that we weren’t given a real choice. That every single moment, every single decision we’ve made up to this point doesn’t matter. And that is missing the whole point.

Your choices matter. Your choices from the very beginning, which squad mate (or mates) you left behind, if Wrex lives or dies. That matters. My Wrex-alive playthrough was wildly different from my Wrex-dead play-through, and I had to kill Mordin because of that choice I made. I literally had to shoot that good man in the back because I wasn’t savvy enough to save Wrex, and in turn, I was forced to doom an entire race of beings. That mattered.

It didn’t happen to me, but Tali’s death matters, especially if you make stupid mistakes that let her slip away from you. In another case, I got too greedy with my war assets, and that cost Miranda her life. That was my call, and she died because of it. Her life mattered, too.

That last choice Shepard makes matters, too. Does Shepard continue his/her renegade ways and “destroy” all synthetics? Renegade does what needs to be done, damn the consequences. As a renegade, you just screwed the universe to save it. The relays are gone, and so are the best chances of rebuilding them. You’ve just resigned quarians and turians in Sol to death, slowed down the rebuilding of Rannoch because the geth are dead, and a number of other ramifications.

If you choose the control option, you’ll notice that you do not destroy the Citadel. This is the only option out of the three that leaves the Citadel intact. The Citadel leaves the galaxy with the Reapers, but Shepard is somewhere in there, too. The geth, provided you saved them, DO have the Reaper code, and we saved the geth. They are already helping the quarians rebuilt and adapt much faster than they ever could on their own.

If you choose synthesis, then everyone is part Reaper. We’ve gotten some of their DNA, maybe some of their brains, maybe some of their thoughts. Again, the possibility to rebuild the relays is here, and this is the best outcome for peace. There won’t be war over misunderstandings between creator and created. Those roles don’t exist anymore. We’re all part creator and created. We’re equal.

The destruction of the relays is symbolic. The only reason we got so far ahead as a race in the galaxy is because we were standing on the shoulders of giants. The Reapers can’t guide our evolution anymore. We’ve shown them that we can work together as a galaxy, passed their Crucible, and have proven that it’s time for the cycle to end (Ha, my Reaper analysis might need to be yet ANOTHER post). We didn’t earn the technology, we stumbled upon it. It’s a lazy shortcut. Now? Now we have to earn it back on our own.

Plot holes and poor execution of explaining all this and the possible outcomes aside? That’s pretty damn cool.

The choices that we make in life matter. Yes, we’re all going to die someday. In the big picture, nothing matters. We’ll die, our friends and our family will die, time will wear down everything humankind has ever built, everything will eventually decay. What is the point of doing anything? What’s the point of getting up out of bed in the morning when it doesn’t matter at the end of our lives?

It matters through our lives. Our choices matter through this game. The choices our Shepard makes, especially that last one, matter after s/he is gone. We might not get to see them, but they still matter.

That journey was worth it.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    March 16, 2012 1:41 pm

    I’ve missed your posts.

    Glad to see you enjoyed the game. (Heh, like there was ever any doubt) I still haven’t even beaten the first one, and the 2nd one is sitting unplayed on my shelf… (First Fallout, and now Skyrim, keep getting in the way.)

    I haven’t gone far enough to be too invested in the games, naturally, but I was still very disappointed in Bioware when I read the full plot and all the outrage. I even heard that a bunch of gamers had raised over $32,000 to try and pay Bioware to write a new ending. Which I totally understand.

    It’s not even so much the different explosion colors and the lame cutscenes and the whole “crippling the galaxy/killing everyone with tech inside them/stranding billions of aliens across the universe to die” consequences. Or that no matter WHAT ending you choose, you still destroy the galactic unity you’ve worked towards during the last 4 years. (It doesn’t matter how nicely everyone finally gets along when they’re ALL STUCK.)

    It’s the whole nonsense of the villains motivation is what bugged me the most. The Reapers, a race of synthetic creations, continually take all the advanced organic races and wipe them out… In order to save advanced organic races from being wiped out by their synthetic creations? Huh?

    It’s just… It sounds dumb.

    • March 17, 2012 12:06 am

      Ah yes. Reapers.

      I’ve thought a lot about them and their motivations as well, but there wasn’t time in this post. Perhaps another time.

      The money being raised is actually for the Child’s Play charity, not Bioware, and I’m kind of torn on that movement. It’s a mix of entitlement and genuine concerns, and it is asking the question of what disappointed consumers can do in the modern digital age. Honestly, at this point, I can’t think of a viable way to make changes to the game at the level some are asking for. Or at any level, really. The damage is done.

      Like I said, I’m also dissapointed, but I understand what the writers were trying to achieve in those last minutes. It’s a great performance that doesn’t stick the landing.

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