Thursday, July 5, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Review: The Ending, Before and After!



The ending of the Mass Effect series has been discussed a lot. A LOT. It's kind of an unprecedented situation. 

BioWare, a company known for awesome video game storytelling, creates a trilogy of games in one of the most well-realized imaginary worlds ever created in the medium. People love this world. Passionately. Then BioWare fails to stick the landing. Deafening rage and butthurt echo across the Internets, who have nothing more important to worry about. So BioWare, at what I'm sure was considerable expense, makes a free patch to expand the ending. It makes things kind of better. Life, somehow, continues.

(By the way, this whole sorry incident is excellent proof that their IS such a thing as bad publicity. BioWare's reputation for good storytelling is invaluable. They saw it threatened. They reacted appropriately. But I don't think anyone working there is happy this happened.)

What the ending screams to me is that the developers didn't have the time and budget to do the ending they wanted to do. ME3 is SO ambitious and covers SO much ground that they didn't have time to give the Reaper issue the attention it needed. But this isn't the end of the world. The Reapers were never very multi-dimensional. The Krogan and Geth and even Cerberus were far more interesting.

So, if this is the case, piling onto the ending seems a little mean. Making a video game requires doing much with limited resources. You can't afford to do everything.

But, then again, after three games of this size, we have an expectation that the writers will end it well. I want to talk about my two problems with the ending- one which the patch fixes, one it doesn't. I aim to discuss game storytelling in general and what does and doesn't work.

(Please be assured that the following has no spoilers for Mass Effect 3 whatsoever!!!! If, for some reason, you don't believe me, leave immediately!)

What Is NOT a Problem

Some criticized the ending for creating some plot inconsistencies with things learned in the DLC for Mass Effect 2. (Namely, that blowing up a mass relay destroyed the solar system before and now it doesn't.) The horrors.

DOES ANYONE REALLY ACTUALLY CARE ABOUT THIS!?!? IF SO, RAISE YOUR HAND.

(Pause.)

I didn't think so.

Also, some put a lot of time into proving Shepherd was actually under Reaper control and the last game was a dream or something. (The famed Indoctrination Theory.) Of course this wasn't true. This was a AAA mega-million dollar game series that had always approached everything in a reasonably sane manner. They weren't going to end it with goofy Sixth Sense trickery.

And many thought that you didn't find out enough about what happened to your friends and to all the races you helped. I can buy this as a complaint, but it's a judgment call. I honestly felt I'd learned enough about what was going on and where things were heading to have closure. Bloody, unrelentingly gruesome closure.

So what are the problems?

Problem 1 - The Incredible Grimness

The unpatched ending of Mass Effect 3, unless you do a ton of side-quest farming and multiplayer, is awe-inspiringly grim. Everyone dies. Shepherd dies. The mass relays are destroyed. The Normandy is a wreck. The Earth is a cinder, surrounded by fleets of aliens stranded far from home. (Including the notoriously peaceful and easy-going krogan.) Space travel is over for, well, a very long time, if not forever.

Dude. And I thought the ending to The Sopranos was a poke in the eye.

But here's the thing. This aspect of the ending is legit. People don't generally like unhappy endings, but this is a subjective judgment. Unhappy endings are legal. They are allowed. It's not where I would go as the default ending for a series of this magnitude, and it is a HUGE change in tone from what came before it. But it is not technically wrong.

And, just between you, me, and these four walls? I admire their balls for going so dark. I wish more developers did it. Unless you believe things can go really wrong, there is no real sense of achievement or relief when they go right. One of the reasons Law & Order was such a compelling show is that the bad guys frequently won.

But the patch changed this. It's less bleak. Gives more hopeful details of the future. I can live with it either way.

But what really bugs me is the main element of the ending.

Problem 2 - The Star Child. Or Whatever.

My biggest disappointment in the ending of Mass Effect is this: It was a cheap deus ex machina. I didn't get to make the WIN for the team.

Look. The galaxy was invaded by the horde of horrible bug creatures. I wanted to FIGHT them. I wanted to figure out their weaknesses. I wanted to use the cunning and resources of the peoples of the galaxy to figure out how to kill them, and DO THAT. I wanted the ending of the story to be a celebration of courage and general badassery.

What did I get? You take some weird spaceship and stick it into some other spaceship. And then baby SpaceJesus (tm) appears from somewhere and uses StarMagic (tm) in the way you tell him, and this makes everything different forever.

Now, let's set aside the ookyness of having the fate of the whole galaxy be decided on a whim by one bloodthirsty gun guy who happened to be at the right place at the right time. I think the ending was perfunctory, non-sensical, and a true wasted opportunity.

At the end, you push a button to choose the fate of the galaxy. It did not provide a fraction of the joy I would have felt at actually finding a way for humanity to take down those stupid Reaper ships ourselves. The ending, as written, was the space opera equivalent of giving the last place soccer team a trophy for Trying Very Hard.

Whew. I Should Take a Pill.

I generally love BioWare games and write nice things about them, so much so that I have been accused of sucking up to them to try to get a job. (I have a job, thanks. And, believe me, if BioWare wanted me, they'd have said something to me by now. They know I exist.)

It's a great series, full of fond memories. My wife and I spent an enormous amount of time in their world, and I don't regret it. I still recommend it, especially ME1 and ME2. And then ME3 with the patched ending.

So. Any news about Dragon Age 3 yet?

33 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  3. (Ergh! Two replies above me have been eaten by the author!)

    My thoughts are a lot simpler. And although it may seem like I'm sucking up, it's the honest truth:

    Of all the analyses on this subject that I've seen on the Internet (and in case nobody noticed, there's a lot), I agree with this one the most.

    P.S. How about fixing some of the ME3 multiplayer issues now, Bioware? Please? :-)

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  4. I actually thought the Indoctrination Theory was credible because it is a lot more coherent than Baby Space Jesus(tm).

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    1. Yeah. With that:

      Indoctrination Theory is essentially "and then I woke up, it was all just a dream". This is, in storytelling land, the single worst atrocity you can commit. (Followed closely by "we escaped from the forest, to a modern city in the current day")

      I can accept its appeal, but anyone pushing for Indoctrination Theory because it's less cheap than the current ending, is committing irony.

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    2. Bah, it only would have been like the final 5-10 minutes of the game, not the entire series. That isn't the *worst* ever, just lazy. But I still say it made more actual, coherent sense than the plot hole ridden mess the current endings leave us.

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  5. Good, fair points, and they hit closer to home with me than most of the ending-rage debates I have seen. I didn't care for the pipsqueak SpaceJesus, and some sort of grand battle at the end instead of this isolated decision made up in space would have been more entertaining I think. But the trilogy was well-written, the games immersive and I felt like in the end, there was a lot more good than bad to be had in the experience.

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  6. Very well written! My better half and me agree almost completely.

    The ending feels so weak because, most of the time, the game was just so well written and the experience and storytelling so great.

    I really loved the character interaction and truly miss the cast of characters. So many sad, heroic, and heartwarming moments!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the series. :)

    Cheers, Marcus

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  7. I actually thought that the blue ending where Shepard controls the Reapers was rather uplifting. For one, no one is stranded in the blue ending:
    1. Larger ships with large mass effect cores could achieve interstellar flight without the mass relays. It would take them a few months to get places but it would just be an inconvenience to the galactic economy.
    2. Shepard _controls_ the reapers and they could move pretty fast without mass relays too. Shepard has disabled the citadel relay functionality as well as the Alpha Relay so the Reapers could no longer invade via mass relay and instead just used mass effect cores. They went from so far outside our galaxy that we couldn't detect them to Earth in about 2.5 years. I'm sure the Shepard-starchild would be willing to chip in a few reapers to help the recovery effort.

    Another point is that the new quantum entanglement technology that has arisen provides a way to instantaneously communicate across the galaxy. This means that diplomacy may continue as well as the financial markets.

    The 3 button ending may have been a cop-out but don't tell me everyone has to be stranded because in the blue ending there are multiple modes of transportation and communication still open to a post-starchild galaxy. Yes, the reaper invasion was a tragedy but the galaxy still has hope if the blue ending is chosen.

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    1. Now that I have seen all the endings it seems like the extended cut was a cop-out... ish. All of them feel the same, unlike before where they had unique consequences for your action. :/

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    2. Oh, yeah, a different color for each, that's pretty unique!

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    3. I never said the colors were what made them unique. The consequences of your choice (galactic implications) were what made then unique.

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  8. The thing I liked about the "child" is that, within a minute of conversation, it's incredibly obvious that he is broken. He's a cheap AI. He is less intelligent than EDI and less human than the Geth. A broken machine with a flawed, er, "final solution".

    Multi-button endings... christ, we JUST did that in the Deus Ex remake! Even down to the same 4 buttons. Synthesis, control, destroy synths... or suicide and let the next generation sort it out.

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  9. .
    Idk. It seems I'm the only one who thought the final was great. Terrible narrated (then fixed with the extended cut) but still a great ending.

    And my reasons are terrible personals.

    I love bleak endings, just as Jeff pointed out about nothing wrong with it. Yet not bleak in the sense that everyone dies, but bleak cause the antagonist was in the end like an element of the nature. Like that fire the kids mentions in the DLC. Suddenly all that is human-ish (wars, diplomacy, culture, advancement, enlightenment) is just a whim in the story of space and that bigger forces are much more mundane.

    It's hard to describe, but it gave me this dread sense of futile bleak universe, sudden realization that what we consider sacred is just a mot of dirt, a sort of vertigo when you peak at the vast universe.

    There's a scifi book that further goes into this bleakness, called Blindsight. Maybe it's cause I recentrly readed that I loved the end of ME3. Well, at least the original bleak, the second gave too much hope and there wasnt really a decision and the end, except for the color.

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    1. I second this. Though I enjoyed ME2 more than ME3 overall, my favorite moment of the entire series is the ill-fated dash to the beam on Earth. It made the threat and power of the Reapers feel real in a personal way. Shepherd finally felt human, rather than some un-killable superhero.

      I also thought that the Deux Ex Machina ending kinda made sense. What I found wanting was just more explanation of what the crucible, the Reapers, and the goofy Star Child are. I really liked the idea that at the end of the game we were using the combined knowledge of all the species from previous cycles to finally destroy the Reapers.

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  10. "What the ending screams to me is that the developers didn't have the time and budget to do the ending they wanted to do"

    Well, It took me over 60 hours to completely finish ME2, while finishing ME3 barely took me more than 30 hours: I'd say that the lenght of the game is proof enough that they had budget constraints (then again, with AAA game more and more often breaking the 50 millions dollar budget and Bioware games selling around 4 million copies, this was rather unavoidable)

    Of course, this has little to do with all the internet rage: no matter how much they deny it, the "Retake Mass Effect" crowd was too obviously first and foremost angry at Bioware for taking Shepard, which the previous games had constructed as the quintessential power-fantasy protagonist, and completely breaking her both mentally and physically in the last episode.
    ... Which may be Bioware's ballsiest move, but as this conundrum showed, upper-class westerners don't like to have their toys broken.

    ***

    "I wanted to FIGHT them. I wanted to figure out their weaknesses. I wanted to use the cunning and resources of the peoples of the galaxy to figure out how to kill them, and DO THAT"

    You can't

    The Reapers have been around for at least a billion years: that's tens of thousands of genocidal "harvesting" campains.

    And. They. Never. Lost.

    By making the Reapers the antagonists, the Bioware writting team put itself in a corner:
    • if the Reapers end up being defeated by sheer firepower, then how did they manage to succesfully crush so many pan-galactic civilizations?
    • If the Reapers end up having an enormous weak point allowing the outgunned organics to defeat them, then how come no one among the previous pan-galactic civilizations found it before?
    The backstory of the Reapers made it simply impossible to give Shep & co a victory in the classical sense of the term without contradicting said backstory: if your antagonist is Cthulhu, unless your protagonist is a better looking Cthulhu, a straight up victory is pretty much out of the question.

    In fact, I'm surprised to see criticism of Bioware's choice on this blog: after all, what is the role played by the Vahnatai in Avernum 2 and by Erica in the third if not Deus ex Machina?
    But these were smart Deus ex Machina, which ended up making both stories much more interesting than if the tables had been turned merely by a bunch a adventurers who just came out of an intensive grinding session. You can't have the Avernites beating up the Empire by themselves, and you can't beat Rentar-Ihrno like an ordinary last boss.

    Same thing with the Star Child: there was no way to have the relatively young organic races defeat the eons old Reapers without cheapening them. So instead we see the thing which embodies the collective will of the Reapers is gracious enough to admit that there is a flaw in its logic and give the organic creature which embodies the rejection of the Reapers' will alternatives: making the God of the Milky Way lose confidence in its "divine plan" is not merely "Trying Very Hard".

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    1. Yet, you did defeat them using the Crucible. So why not use the Crucible in another way. Why not allow it to disorient the Reapers, plant a virus in them, break down their communications/coordination, etc. If using the Crucible as the game currently allows us isn't a cheat, then why not some other way that would be more interesting an in iine with the other 2 games and the universe they has established?

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    2. I agree. The reapers are made out to be almost a god like force--to the point that if the game ended like most Bioware games do (i.e. shooting a boss with a machine gun) it would have felt silly and anticlimactic.

      I actually kind of felt like that at the end of Dragon Age Origins. An entire game of hyping the great evil, which culminated in having my party plunk away at a dragon with arrows in what was the easiest boss fight in the whole game. It was a bit silly.

      As much as people complain about the Redbeard fight in Avadon, it at least let you know that Redbeard is one bad mofo. To quote Omar: "If you come at the king you best not miss" (also bring lots of Resurrection scrolls).

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    3. At least in Dragon Age the blights are established as beatable forces from the very beginning. Still, its revealing -and involuntarily funny- to see Bioware writter hyping the Warden as this unstoppable force of nature in the following games and novels just to keep the story internally coherent.

      On the other hand, I have a personal pet theory about the Dragon Age series that it was intented from the very begnning to be a story about the collapse of a social order and that they added Dragons and a zombie horde because calling it "Medieval Social Contract Obsolescence and ensuing bloody political recomposition: the RPG" would not have helped the sales

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  11. Jeff, I am disappoint.

    "ME3 is SO ambitious and covers SO much ground that they didn't have time to give the Reaper issue the attention it needed."

    Stop apologizing. BioWare have a ton of resources and make huge games that hundreds of people work on. Mass Effect 3 was ambitious, yes. That doesn't excuse things like "moronic plot points that make no sense" and "bad characters that pale next to the old stand-bys" and "villains without believable motivations." Those are things that require talent, oversight, editing and so forth to fix - this is the kind of thing that should have been fixed months and months before production ever began. This speaks to a lack of foresight and management, and is not something I think should be hand-waved.

    "DOES ANYONE REALLY ACTUALLY CARE ABOUT THIS!?!? IF SO, RAISE YOUR HAND.

    (Pause.)

    I didn't think so."

    Congratulations, Jeff. You're so willing to apologize for BioWare's flaws that you have completely undermined the main selling point of both BioWare's games and your own - enjoyable storytelling and interesting game universes. Guess what - if those things are so important to your game, and you screw them up, then yes, that is a big deal and people care. I'm sorry that you apparently don't - that's not a good sign for your own games, if you really are so apathetic towards narrative detail and consistency.

    "This was a AAA mega-million dollar game series that had always approached everything in a reasonably sane manner. They weren't going to end it with goofy Sixth Sense trickery."

    The entire end sequence makes no sense. It's implausible. It introduces eleventh hour characters and concepts and fails to adequately explain them. It introduces huge plot holes. It even lacks such a thing as temporal and spatial consistency, both between individual scenes and in entire sequences (like inside the Citadel). It has a magical god-child who has a big deus ex machina device that's millions of years old and specifically made to entertain three possibilities that no sane person would choose. Unless you want to retcon the entire ending as having never happened, they really did pull some Sixth Sense stuff.

    "Problem 1 - The Incredible Grimness"

    You say this is a problem and then go on to claim that BioWare had "balls" for doing it and that you wish more developers took their route. So... what do you actually think? Or are you just so busy apologizing for BioWare at this point that you'll say anything to defend them?

    "Whew. I Should Take a Pill."

    Seriously, if that's all you have to say about the game that's negative (and really, most of it wasn't, despite what you claimed), then you must be the nicest person in the world. Good on you! But, this is hardly the rage and vitriol I was expecting considering all your warnings.

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    1. And no, for the record, I'm not necessarily fueled by rage and vitriol (though I am certainly a chronic nit-picker).

      At the same time it's odd that you didn't single out more problems... because the entire game is full of them, whether they're major plot holes (the entire game's story is founded on a mountain of them!), bad characters (Kai Leng, TIM), poorly handled story threads (all of Cerberus, the Citadel attack, etc.), or even minor details that the updated ending screwed up (like the "beam run" scene and the fact that the Normandy shows up, lands for 30 seconds, etc. all while the Reaper just chills there doing nothing so Shepard can have an Emotionally Engaging(TM) time with squadmates).

      I guess what I'm saying is, you're a game designer. Praise is important, but I'd expect you to provide a lot more insight than you have here, no offense intended. It just feels like your desire to avoid angering BioWare fans or employees outweighed your critique.

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  12. Personally, I think the ending should have stopped when the Crucible did nothing and everybody was screwed. The image of a dying Sheppard still trying to fix things when it's clearly beyond all hope was really powerful to me. A few shots of the fleet being annihilated, and I'd call it perfect.

    No-one has ever beaten the Reapers in thousands of cycles. It was pure hubris for Sheppard to think that it was possible for her.

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  13. I quite liked the ending. It wasn't that grim.

    After all the fuss I had to double-check that I hadn't already downloaded the extended cut (I hadn't - doing it now).

    Minor points only.

    It was literally a Deus Ex ending - it replicated the same choices as the original Deus Ex along with the 'cut everyone off from each other' option - but managed to at least make it plausible that a choice exists.

    I also didn't know why the Normandy was flying around in space when I'd just left everybody on Earth, but there you have it.

    Also should just have been Joker & EDI walking out of the ship for Adam & Eve parallels. No need to show Liara there too, like some blue gooseberry. Perhaps that would have been a bit too BSG.

    Really I don't see what the problem was. I even got to say goodbye to all my shipmates. Twice.

    Actually, it was a bit over-long if anything.

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  14. I loved the bleakness of the ending and don't think anyone has any right to complain about it mostly because since ME1 the games have been doing nothing but hype the reapers as an unstoppable force. So why should anyone be surprised when we reach the conclusion of the series and (gasp) discover that they basically are an unstoppable force? It's only narrative convention that would lead any one to expect any other outcome, but since we are used to games that hype the villains as unstoppable but then let us succeed against the odds anyway people have come to see that as the norm. So it was refreshing that Bioware had the balls to subvert those expectations and actually follow through on the hype.

    That said, I really hated the extended cuts and think they actually made things worse in many cases. An ending like "synthesis," for example, worked in the original precisely because it left a lot of things unsaid, vague, and open to interpretation. It was more mysticism than science fiction which allowed you to read the idea of "Synthesis" on a more allegorical level (and, quite frankly, the only way something like "synthesis" makes sense is on a more allegorical level).

    However, the extended cut overly literalized things to the point that it just made it incredibly silly. Seeing images of humans with glowing eyes and robot body parts working together with robots was just dumb. It'd be like if Kubrick released a cut of 2001 that had a bunch of extra scenes which provided incredibly mundane explanations for the lightshow and baby in the last 20 minutes of the film (and actually, Clarke's original script did explain all this, but Kubrick wisely took it out in the final film). Not saying ME3 is as good as 2001 (it's not), but some things work better when they aren't literalized or over explained too much. The original's elegent and simple shot of Shepeherd jumping into the light followed by the shot of EDI and Joker emerging from the crashed Normandy into a paradise (A New Eden, perhaps?) was, quite frankly, all I needed to see of synthesis. After that my mind could fill in the rest. However, all the stills of the half robot/half alien being working together for a brighter future in the extended cuts was just silly and changed the ending from mystical apotheosis to bad science fiction.

    If ME3 does have a problem, I think it's just that they perhaps didn't set things up fully in a way that would prepare fans for this. And I think the biggest problem with Star Boy is that he does kind of come out of left field. Basically what happened was that MAss Effect tried to become the video game equivelant of an art film in its last 30 minutes, when up until that point it had very much been more of a boisterous and fun summer action adventure film. So I do sympathize with people who might be disappointed in the ending. However, I also don't think that Bioware should have changed the endings. Not only because I liked the original ending a good deal (I actually hold ME3's ending as one of my favorite ever for a video game--everything from the final good byes up to star boy is perfection, I think, and I liked what they were trying to attempt with star boy, even if their execution might not have been perfect), but also just because I think it sets a bad precedent to let fans dictate story in this way.

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  15. OK, seen extended synthesis ending now. Quite liked it, but I was happy as it was.

    The only odd thing that struck me was my nameplate on the memorial board. I did have a first name, y'know. Surely it's not too much trouble to render it to a texture...

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  16. Let`s write that letter we thought of writing "one of these days Tibia Gold, just because someone doesn't love you the way you want them to, doesn't mean they don't love you with all they have Tibia coins, don't waste your time on a man/woman, who isn't willing to waste their time on you sro gold.

    The consequences of today are determined by the actions of the past rs gold. To change your future, alter your decisions today Runescape gp, Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards rs gp, but it takes character to keep you there.

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  17. I loved the bleakness of the ending and don't think anyone has any right to complain about it mostly because since ME1 the games have been doing nothing but hype the reapers as an unstoppable force. So why should anyone be surprised when we reach the conclusion of the series and (gasp) discover that they basically are an unstoppable force? It's only narrative convention that would lead any one to expect any other outcome, but since we are used to games that hype the villains as unstoppable but then let us succeed against the odds anyway people have come to see that as the norm. So it was refreshing that Bioware had the balls to subvert those expectations and actually follow through on the hype.

    Gambar Animasi Lucu

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  18. I hold Mass Effect series dear. I absolutely love Mass Effect 1 and 2, it's like nothing else. Mass Effect 3 was a really hard slap in the face for betraying the protagonist's character.

    In my roleplay, she was a streetwise soldier trying to do things right way and defending her views vocally and by action. The series was very consistent till ME3 happened. Auto-replies going against her previous statements were cringeworthy but still bearable. In the finale she basically agreed with everything she strongly disagreed until the moment (believing in one controlling others, enforce decisions of individual on others, slaughtering allies for sake of other group/s) and that the game's tone was so celebratory about it.

    It used to be an inspiring story about making the world better place by not compromising ideals, now it's just a story about an immoral backstabber.

    Of course I wished for a good ending for my Shepard (a lesbian protagonist allowed to live with her partner, that's new) but I'd already expected the trendy grimdark. Director's Cut is just tasteless, a twisted version of terrible crimes sugarcoated in rainbows and unicorns.
    Shepard dying in the Crucible and failing to save the galaxy would be 500% better ending.

    Anyway, I like the honesty of your posts a lot, Jeff. Time to install these games of yours I bought and play them :).

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    1. By the way, while I remain bitter about ME3, I still respect Bioware, like its employees - at least these I follow on Twitter :) - and look forward to play more of their games (maybe except ME4).

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  19. I have played many games in my life but this game is the best..

    Download Free PC Games | PC Game Download

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