The Mass Effect 3 Thing pt 1: The Ending
What follows is less about the actual nuts and bolts of the ending regarding any sort of closure inside the Mass Effect Universe, or of the supposed insidious business practices of EA , but more about why the ending was used.
I will do my best to keep it spoiler-lite for Shepards still fighting the good fight, and less intensive for those of you who don’t care about Mass Effect, but I can make no promises.
The Mass Effect series has a phenomenal story full of rich, detailed characters set against an incredibly detailed background of alien races, alliances, and deep history. You encounter, and some instances, solve, problems and disputes that happened hundreds, if not thousands of years before humanity showed up on the galactic stage.
The game functions like the best “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” book, ever, with all of your decisions shaping not only the story, but the people in the universe. Play like a bad-ass and space pirates and gang members treat you with fear, but so do civilians. Play like a boy scout and the civilians all too willingly talk to you, but bad guys blow you shit because they know you don’t have the balls to get in their face.
The truly amazing part is actually getting to see the consequences of your actions. Some of these choices have taken the entire trilogy to come to fruition. You might overhear the results passing a news terminal about a criminal you spared going on a murder spree, or the doctor you saved going back into the crime infested neighborhood to open a clinic. Some decisions are huge, affecting entire races and their futures. Prevent one race from slowly going extinct and find yourself on the shit list of the other societies that feared them and their resurgence on the galactic stage.
More than any other game, what you do, or not do, counts, and you have to live and deal with those consequences.
Which is why there’s such a vocal reaction to the ending where all sense of choice is stripped away; the universe you worked so hard to unite is forever undone, and everyone you spent over 100 gaming hours recruiting, befriending, and fighting alongside are at best ignored and at worst completely forgotten about.
On paper, I’m sure the two (or if you’re really good, three) choices display a huge difference, but not in the way it actually plays out on my screen or in the aftermath which is, as of this writing, exactly the same.
Now, I’m not going to break down all the ways the ending failed, or if it is as I’m hoping, actually a head fake on the psyches of the fans so brilliant it borders on diabolical.
No, I want to talk about how the ending disconnects from everything that came before by going for the metaphysical “profound” ending that “says more” than an ending that shows how a galaxy-wide war might actually end.
It’s because nerds and geeks still don’t think we’re good enough.
Despite nerd properties grossing hundreds of millions, and in some cases billions of dollars, at the box office or in video game sales, or the “acceptance of nerd culture” by the mainstream, authors and creators of genre fiction still don’t feel like we, collectively, deserve to just go for it.
You see it in movies all the time. The crew of the Enterprise is forever fated to kick ass and take names in the Star Trek reboot. Rather than seeing deeply within themselves the skills and confidence to make a difference in the universe, Kirk and Spock will always be moved by destiny to be The Kirk and Spock no matter what they do or what happens to them.
John Connor didn’t learn that the concept of humanity isn’t black and white when he used an asset in an unwinnable war to protect himself in the past during Terminator 2. No, instead he learns it when Sam Worthington-a-tron LITERALLY gives Connor his heart/humanity and imbuing Connor with this understanding in the most on the nose way possible. Who’d want to see the beginning of Judgement Day for two hours when we could watch Sam Worthington camp?
Battlestar Galactica’s reboot fell to these base storytelling impulses when the show stopped writing characters and began to write everyone as living themes. We stopped seeing these fully-formed characters debate the importance of religion in government or if democracy is still an option for a refugee fleet, or if the military can fight the enemy and police the populace. Rather every character became the mouthpiece for a specific issue. Then the idea of God working directly in the lives of everyone and each character’s fate and destiny mattering more than any choices they’d make took over, and the show collapsed under the weight of broadly drawn, under-motivated cop out.
The Matrix suffered from this, but only slightly. The mysticism was present from the beginning with Neo’s unexplainable powers and all the prophecies concerning the roles the Nebuchadnezzar’s crew would play in humanity’s fate. This is actually undone at the end of Reloaded where it’s revealed that it’s simple math, and the machines created an equation to keep the cycle going. I’m coming around on the Matrix trilogy as a whole, and I think this move serves the entire story, but the point stands that there was deliberate moment where entire themes of the narrative were upended in the name of serving a “larger” or more “meaningful” purpose.
This works on two levels.
First, the idea of having a fate and destiny can be comforting. No matter what you do; no matter how many times you fuck up; no matter what your peers or authority figures say about you or ignore you, you will still matter.
You could try and try and try to succeed, or become smarter, stronger, faster, more attractive. You could suffer. You could fall. You could march toward an uncertain future, fixated on a goal you may never achieve.
Isn’t being the chosen one easier?
You may not feel like you’re good enough, but the universe sure does. It’s comforting that there is a plan. It’s nice to have a safety net knowing that no matter what you do it can only lead you to the place where you’re supposed to go. How great it must be to know that any abhorrent behavior or vices you might exhibit/have it’s all part of a divine blueprint.
This leads into the second part of larger and more profound purpose line of thinking. I like to call it “what do you think of me now, dad?”
By trying to speak of a grander design and purpose when it never really appeared or was mentioned in the story prior to it’s introduction or placing drastically more emphasis on the idea of it when it until then existed on the periphery is a last-minute bid for profundity usually at the expense of character, themes, and the mechanics and physics of the how the story’s universe works.
I can’t speak for other (more successful) writers, and I’m sure it’s unconscious, but it feels like a last-minute bid for relevance. Maybe if they speak of about destiny or the human condition then it will be seen by non-nerds as more than a story about space aliens, ray blasters, and the other trappings of nerdom.
“If I make this seem important, it will be deemed important by other people.”
Which is a shame, because when you get down to it, in a good story, there’s no real difference between a sword, a gun, and a laser. Each is a tool for killing. Horse, car, boat, helicopter, spaceship don’t dictate what kind of story you can tell or the emotions you can bring out in your audience. They are things. Objects manipulated by what matters, the characters.
If Mass Effect’s architects, Bioware, wanted to tell a story about unity, sacrifice, control, and what it is to be alive and free they already did it. The last ten minutes are…
I don’t even know what they are. It’s grasping at some kind of profound revelation that it doesn’t need. They already did that when I saved a race from extinction, ended a war that raged for three centuries, and united the galaxy in a way that was thought impossible by everyone. Showing that where you come from or how you came to be shouldn’t matter and illustrating that we have far more in common than not is the profound moment. That’s the message. The hard part’s done. Let me enjoy the fruits of those labors. Let me see the impact my character’s life and choices had on not only the war effort but the universe at large.
Don’t introduce a character who is exponentially more important to the narrative than anyone I’ve met in the game in the last ten minutes and render all my choices, actions, and relationships moot so you can make a cosmic comment on…
Again, what? What point are you trying to make? I’m forced to ask because it feels so divorced from everything that’s come before I can’t figure out where said point could plug into the game’s fiber and become part of it.
Posted on March 26, 2012, in Matt Loman, Movies, Pop Culture, Television, Uncategorized, Videogames and tagged battlestar galactica, chosen one, cop out, destiny, mass effect, mass effect 2, mass effect 3, matrix, starbuck, Terminator, terminator 2, terminator salvation, the matrix, videogames. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.