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Narrative Fail: Mass Effect

After a year’s time you’d think the pain of betrayal would fade. You would be wrong.

More than a year after the fact and it still stings, the ache of what could have been as much a slap in the face now as it was then. I’m speaking of Mass Effect, a video game series that capped off a trilogy with a final game release last year. The first two games were excellent, pretty much the best examples of how a video game can tell a story, build a mythology, develop complex characters… this series of games represented the best and most mature possibilities of the medium.

This was not like Halo or Call of Duty. This was a game that put the choices of the player first and foremost, crafting a wholly unique experience for that player. Themes of genocide, racism, love, duty, honor, destiny, and sacrifice were all explored in stunning detail, placed against a backdrop that felt well and truly epic. It seemed like BioWare could do no wrong. This was the developer that had been flirting with perfection and genius since it’s inception, from award-winning classics like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights to Knights of the Old Republic and Dragon Age. They had earned a reputation for excellence, a rough equal to a company like Pixar in terms of the quality of their work.

Mass Effect felt like the culmination of everything they had done and built over the years. The fandom was receptive and appreciative of the effort that had gone into this series of games, and the first two parts of the trilogy had won many awards and sparked many memes. The main character, Commander Shepherd, was also fully customizable in not only appearance but also action and behavior. He or she was an avatar into a world more complex than any that had gone before, with choices, relationships, and consequences that felt as real as anything found in real life. Make no mistake; this series of games were a work of art. Officially, toys were made. Novels written. Movies produced. Comics developed. The fandom devoured everything that was put out and matched it with comics, movies, and novels all their own. The fantastic possibilities made real by this game only seemed to increase in size and scope. Promises were made by the developers, BioWare, that the trilogy of the game would cap things off in grand fashion – that the mythos that had developed would continue and end in a way that would satisfy that fanbase, that the story would end in a way that would cap what was the greatest story in the history of video games. Mass Effect 3 was released in March of 2012.

The game started out as everything it had promised, and early play throughs had people thinking that BioWare was going to live up to its promise – right up until the last fifteen minutes of the game.

That ending was horrible, so horrible that it started a massive backlash not only against the franchise, but against both BioWare and the company that many claimed interfered with and changed the ending to make it more palatable, Electronic Arts. EA had purchased BioWare in 2007 through backdoor dealing. Mass Effect 2 was released the same year and was far too late into its development cycle to be affected, but Mass Effect 3… well, Mass Effect 3 ended up being a disaster both narratively and publicly.

Understand, people resigned over this. Lawsuits were filed. The Better Business Bureau was contacted. The fanbase, horrified, disgusted, and appalled by an ending that was downright insulting, did their best to salvage the mess crafted by BioWare and EA, but were then told to go fuck themselves in pretty dramatic fashion. An Extended Cut of the ending was released as free DLC, that did nothing to fix the problem and honestly was just more of the same, a slap in the face to those that had cared about and supported the series. Another piece of DLC supported the ending and felt just as slapdash and insulting as what we had been given. If you’ve been clicking the links provided, you’ll understand some of the hate for the ending.

If you haven’t, here’s a summation: Mass Effect presents the player with a highly detailed, rich, and complex future filled with alien species and technologies that all feel real and complex. You play a human military commander investigating the mysterious happenings on one of the oldest human colonies, only to discover something horrifying. Humanity – and every other species in the galaxy – makes use of ancient technologies to traverse the stars, technologies left behind by a mysterious and now extinct people called the Protheans.

The Protheans vanished fifty thousand years ago, and as you play through the first two games you learn of the Reapers, a species of techno-organic hybrids of horrifying power who cleanse the universe every fifty thousand years. Over the course of the games, you are given lesser villains to battle who present means of dealing with this threat.

In the first game you meet Saren, who wishes to join all organic life with the Reapers and thus become Reapers, saving the lives of everyone by becoming part of this destructive horde. Alternatively, a human supremacist called the Illusive Man wishes to control the Reapers so as to cement humanity at the apex of galactic power, and he will stop at nothing to achieve his ends. Making matters more complex is the Reaper’s power of Indoctrination, a means by which the Reapers can take control of the minds and decisions of other beings without those beings becoming aware of the influence that the Reapers now have over them. Even dead Reapers possess this ability, and any sentient being that spends any time around Reapers or their technology risks exposure and sublimation to this process.

It is hinted throughout the first two games that while their actions are terrible, the Reapers are fighting an even more terrifying threat and that their actions are being carried out for the good of the galaxy. It seems that the Reapers, as originally written and developed over the first two games, are actually battling entropy – they are an ancient civilization that become aware that the universe was dying, and are harvesting the greatest species to help find a solution to this problem while killing others to forestall the heat death of the universe as a whole.

Now, we know the ending was changed partway through the development of the third game. We even know that the fanbase! – yet again – is attempting to give us what the ending should have been. Meanwhile, EA and BioWare are insistent that the lie they gave us should be enough for us, and that we are wrong to question them and what they have created. They believe that we do not have the right to be upset, that we are mere consumers and we must accept what we are given. They are wrong. We have every right to offer criticism, and we have every right to be upset when we have been lied to. EA is widely considered the Worst Company in America, and while there are many reasons that they have won this distinction, Mass Effect will always be one of the most gregarious.

This isn’t even the first time they’ve killed a once mighty franchise by not understanding what it was about, and they are not the first company to do this while thinking that they are immune to the consequences of their actions. It seems likely that they will follow in the footsteps of those that have gone before them and will fade into obscurity and bankruptcy, and then, maybe, someone will try and fix their mistakes and take those intellectual properties that have been mangled. There’s precedent for that, after all. Mass Effect was supposed to lead to a simple choice. Shepherd – the player’s character – was going to learn that humanity possessed the power and ingenuity to end the threat the Reapers had been fighting for millions of years.

The sacrifice of the human species as a whole would end the cycles of culling and save the universe as a whole, but Shepherd would be the one accepting this fate for humanity or attempting to find a different means of fighting entropy itself after destroying the Reapers completely. This would have been a complex and powerful ending to a complex and powerful game, that could have spawned off into a whole new franchise. Entropy, in this case, was being represented by creatures made up of dark matter; a franchise where Shepherd leads the charge against these creatures, with or without Reaper help, could have spawned an entirely new trilogy and kept the franchise going.

Instead, at the end of the third game, we were given three choices that made no sense with respect to the rest of the franchise. We could destroy the Reapers and, with them, all civilization and technology in the galaxy – the thing that Shepherd had been working towards since the first game. We were led to believe that this was the bad ending, and that if we did this we were bad.

The first of the two “good” endings resulted in Shepherd taking control of the Reapers, in effect doing what the Illusive Man wanted. Thing of it was, we had spent all of the third game fighting the Illusive Man, and in order to get to that point we had been forced into conflict with the Illusive Man and had actually killed him.

The control ending was a kick in the teeth that made no sense at all given everything that had come before, because it was something we had been fighting against for the whole of that game.

If, on the other hand, you were especially good at wracking up the meaningless points of the game, you could get the second “good” ending – where you won the ability to join with the Reapers. You know, like Saren wanted back in the first game.

This was a fate you, the player, had been fighting over the course of three games, and the means of doing so required no sacrifice and resulted in nothing bad, other than fundamentally changing the nature of all life in the galaxy without asking anybody else about that decision. This was an insult.

It is still insulting. This ending made no sense with all that had gone before. It was a betrayal of the basic themes that had been worked into Mass Effect’s narrative from the beginning, a failure made all the more spectacular by the ghost of what could have been. Did the fanbase overreact? A lot of people at EA and BioWare seem to think so, but it is not wrong for people to expect integrity from those they turn to for entertainment. Promises were made and broken. Thus, the fanbase had every right to react the way they did. The fury has died and Mass Effect is fading from public consciousness, the support for what could have been gaming’s biggest and most powerful franchise whittled away into nothing. A year later and you think it would hurt less. It doesn’t.

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One Response to Narrative Fail: Mass Effect

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