The Mass Effect on my Brain (SPOILERS GALORE)
Saturday, March 17, 2012
Like most nerds of my generation, I like to mess around with a few different hobbies and skills when I'm not at work. I write (fiction mostly, but also this ranting nonsense blog), I play and write music, and I work on and play video games. Thanks to a how busy I've been lately, I pretty much only have time to PLAY games. It's still a hobby, don't judge me.
Because of this, I like to watch shows like Extra Credits that explore the intricate, inter-related nature of all these individual skills. They have a few episodes where they talk about games you should see as examples of attaining actual Art (capitalized intentionally) in the medium of games. They suggested I check out Mass Effect, and much to my current level of pain and grief, I did. The final chapter in the trilogy (which just came out March 6th) was on the way, so I said what the hell, and purchased the previous two installments on steam so I could dive straight in. (Do you remember on Duck Tales how Scrooge always jumped into a pile of money? I don't think it works that way, I think this would happen. I knew I wasn't the only one who thought that as a kid)
Anyway, now that I've given plenty of introduction, I will say that the below content contains A GREAT DEAL OF SPOILERS. If you haven't played all three, or at least the end of the third, turn back now.
First Impressions -- Mass Effect 1
It was everything they promised and more. Tons of unique options, including the ability to play through the game in a variety of greatly differing play styles. Loads of unique dialog options, excellent writing, incredible unified aesthetics... I was in nerd heaven. I had the right dosage of action to feel like I was a raging badass when beating things with my weapons, and felt like a tactical genius when I used the puzzle and RPG elements to my advantage. Neither of these are probably true, but I FELT like they were. That's a win for me and the developer. I had the option to customize my character in any number of ways, and ultimately wound up going with the default face and playing as a soldier (although I changed my first name from John to Jericho. I still think that sounds badass, but again: probably not. Don't care.). I also went as "paragon" as possible, just to experience the game on that level. By the end, I was amazed at how much I'd somehow managed to miss trying to get through it. Needless to say, I was ready for more, but felt a little sad that I hadn't seen some of the extra companion quests.
Second wind -- Mass Effect 2
This time, I didn't want to miss anything. I knew I'd jumped over a great deal of side content in the first game, so I went out of my way to finish every loyalty quest I could get. Cautious of spoilers, I didn't want to look online too much, but Danielle's obsessive nature played to our mutual advantage and she became the Oracle to my Batman. We played through as much as we could so I could get the exact end results I wanted. I wanted to save everyone: I genuinely cared about them. The writers and creators had humanized them so well that I gave a crap what happened to them. As someone playing Paragon, this worked even more to my advantage, because I felt like I was actually being rewarded for my care. I went out of my way in every possible opportunity in order to help them. I was happy to see the little tie-ins from the previous game, and how my decisions mostly came into play. That being said, there were only a few major plot points that came across. By the end, I felt incredibly satisfied and ready to win an impossible war against the reapers.
It's finally here! -- Mass Effect 3
The whole reason I even bothered to buy the games in the first place arrived! After some requisite fussing with Gamestop, EA, and Bioware, I was able to get it and all of my DLC installed (that's a rant for another day, but this whole thing made me think pre-ordering from Gamestop was a bad idea). On to the game: To say I was a completionist would be a ridiculous understatement. To say that I wasn't rewarded would be a bald-faced lie. Even little minor quests from the second and first game came back to me as I gathered assets for war. People I'd forgotten until they came back sent me e-mails to let me know they were fighting on my side. The impossible war felt like it was damn near doable. When Thane died, I teared up. When I shot bottles on the citadel with Garrus, I laughed. When Ashley finally realized I hadn't changed, we reunited in our relationship and it was awesome, and Danielle made those excited girl sounds when she saw them come together, so it was doubly satisfying. When I failed to save the Asari homeworld, I felt it as a personal loss. When my companions lifted me back up, I felt like a big damned hero. So by the end, with my full army by my side, I marched into the gates of hell. I finally finished the game.
After picking the "red" ending, Danielle and I sat in rapt attention and watched the events unfold. As a paragon, it was a bizarre choice, but I knew that I had saved not too long ago and it wouldn't be too long before I could try another one. Danielle had read spoilers and was leading me towards the "red" ending, because she knew with my scores that I'd likely survive the destruction of the citadel. This made her happy, so I went with it. But I wasn't happy. This wasn't how it was supposed to end. So I went back, and I picked the "blue" ending, which was my preferred paragon ending. I was sure that there'd be more closure if I picked this one, because I'd chosen to sacrifice myself for my people. The red ending is selfish towards organics, and not long-sighted. Organics will build new machines that will kill them, and I'd spent way too much time helping the Geth and learning that they were not evil to just abandon them. If we were going to break the cycle, cooperation was the only way, even if it meant my death. I assumed this ending would maybe show me how they lived on, what happened to them. But I was wrong. This couldn't be right. We spent hours on google trying to discern the meaning of it, trying to understand if we'd done something wrong. It's very important that I impress upon you how that affected me. I felt personal failure for seeing an unsatisfying ending: I thought it was my fault. I can't let this happen. It's not happening.
This is bullshit! I spent so many goddamn hours trying to get this game to do what I wanted. I sacrificed myself for the good of the galaxy, and all I get is a super-vague and crappy clip show for an ending? What happened to all the alliance of races still in the solar system? With this ending, I had spent so much time building an alliance between the Geth and Quarians, and I sacrificed myself to save them both. Surely, with all of our combined resources (pretty much maxed out the assets), we could rebuild the mass relays and usher in a new era of prosperity, right? Maybe. Who the hell knows? Buzz Aldrin just tells some asexual kid that the stars are all over the place and there's a ton of shit there. Who cares? What the fuck happened to all of those careful choices I made? Who the fuck do these Bioware assholes think they are? They spent all this time bringing up stuff I did in the last two games to just bail on an ending and not give me any form of epilogue at all?
Okay, so I looked it up, and there's more DLC coming out. Maybe it'll explain what happened. Hell, maybe my Shepard got absorbed into the consciousness of the Catalyst, and now instead of being a creepy little kid ghost, it's me, and I help people understand they have something to live for. Or maybe, they'll make some new explanations about what's going on. I just found out there's actually a petition online for people who want Bioware to change the ending into more satisfying options. Hell, at the end of Dragon Age, they at least told me what my choices wound up accomplishing, I'd be fine with just that. I agree it's a little entitled to say we have the right to change someone else's creation. I'm not that angry now, but let's come to some kind of agreement here. Just give me a little closure, that's all I need.
I was betrayed. They promised us so much when this game was coming out. Danielle refuses to even play through the rest of the first and second game because all she has to look forward to is this depressing crap of an ending. And she's right: what's the point? If I'd have known it was going to be that crappy of an ending, I'd probably not have wasted the 80+ hours it took to get through all three games. I certainly wouldn't have done all that I did to make it "right." I don't even know if what I did accomplished anything. How would I know? Who cares. This game was stupid. The commercials are dumb. Bioware are murderers of souls.
Alright, it's their game. They've already changed their stance from "the ending is exactly what we wanted it to be, no explanation needed" to "okay, we'll discuss it, but let more people finish it first." They probably realize that people are judging them not for their choice to make a potentially depressing ending, but make an ending that came across as lazy compared to all the other work they did. Whatever happens, it was a good ride, and I should be thankful for the experiences I had. I still have some questions, and I'm a little wary about the way they treat their characters, but life goes on.
Not until I'd mourned the passing of the game did I realize exactly what I had done. Maybe I was mourning the death of my character, maybe it was that I realized this entire process had happened because I'd felt genuinely attached to something that had to come to a complete close. All in all, it was a great experience, but to be fair it was just a game. I was taking it a bit too seriously. But only now, once I realized I've gotten over my overdramatic grief, do I understand why I felt it in the first place.
People have brought up a host of complaints about the ending, and while I think all opinions are valid, it's easy to see the opposing view on most of them.
Why just pick one of three endings?
This argument is summed up pretty well by the picture here. We were told that the ending of the game would be determined by our choices throughout it, but in reality, we only had one of three choices in the end, and those are the endings you get. People compared it to Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which is ironic because there's also a Deus Ex Machina at the end of both of those games (and in both games it's pretty intentional). I can understand that, but I never really saw it happening this way. I knew that as a writer, no matter how many loose ends are frayed and how many individual paths have been opened, if you want a symmetrical storyline, those paths have to converge. The climax has to lead to some kind of resolution, and that resolution has to be the answer to the question asked in the first act: can "synthetics" and "organics" ever get along? Ultimately, I think you really have to answer that yourself, and because of that, they wanted to give you the ultimate power, no matter who you were or what you did, to make that decision in the end. I think if those three endings were all possible before the end, and your choices forced one of them to happen rather than choosing at the end, people would have been just as pissed. It calls into question the premise of the entire work: why bother asking this question if the solution is the death of everything? And that leads to:
Why would a machine murder us with machines to prevent us from being murdered by machines?
Yes, this is funny, and is a good line, but I have to say it's a massive oversimplification. Yes, the end result is that a lot of people are efficiently "harvested" at the end of each cycle, but the machine logic for it is very simple to understand if you also bring into account the other theme brought up: do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? The cold calculus of war, as Garrus put it, ultimately comes into play, and I think it's an important aspect of the game. The relatively short period of pain keeps every form of sentient life from being wiped out. This also calls into question the cycles themselves. This has happened every 50,000 years for countless cycles, why is this one different? Was it the humans? Was the paragon's ability to unite all people against a common foe, or the renegade's ruthless tenacity to survive and let no one be in their way the ultimate deciding factor in the war? For me, I like to believe that uniting the Geth with their creators proved synthetics and organics could live in harmoy for the mutual benefit of both parties. Legion wore my armor: perhaps he knew that I was different from other humans just like he was different from other Geths. Maybe the whole point of this is that the cold calculus of war ultimately leads to nothing but suffering. In that context, the red ending is just a delaying of the inevitable. The green ending is forcing the galaxy to get along against their will. The blue ending is only controlling the reapers to move away for now, but maybe since they're controlled by the will of my version of Shepard, they go out into the world and rebuild the mass relays, uniting synthetics and organics once again. Or maybe they come back and murder everyone. But I like to believe (as a paragon) that their job is no longer necessary.
But what about those relays? In arrival, one blowing up destroyed an entire star system. Why not now?
From the standpoint of the fan, I completely understand this logic. But remember: in arrival, Shepard crashed an asteroid into the Mass Relay. The mass effect generator had a core meltdown, and it released energy all over the star system. As the catalyst explains it to you, using the crucible actually requires the energy of those mass effect cores. In the process, you completely drain that energy to convert it into blue, green, or red energy to do what you wanted. I think that's the point: this is the only way you could spread that out across the entire galaxy and have it all have its effect.
My personal opinion
If you haven't had the chance to check it out, see if you can watch the Extra Credits on proper pacing. In it, they describe the flow of a beautiful and well-crafted plot. There are a variety of peaks and valleys, but in the end, they go into explaining how the viewer/reader/gamer needs some form of closure. They need to feel like the plot is summed up and that everything worked out in the end, for better or worse. The example they give is Star Wars episode IV: A New Hope. In the end, we are treated to a long scene in which our heroes are given special awards for their achievement. It really serves no narrative purpose: we don't get any kind of new information, other than the fact that Luke apparently has a weird 70s racing jacket he never wears before or after this scene. But it's important: we get a few character moments, like Han's wink, R2-D2's jaunty little shake, and Chewie's trademark victory graawuwufllruf. We use this information to understand the characters as well as the events they've just witnessed and been a part of. I don't feel like Bioware gave us that. I understand that they really wanted to wrap the sequence of events from the first three games into the context of a much larger narrative, in which The Shepard is only a small part of that story. Perhaps he was a very important part of it, and maybe the events of the last game are subject to change, due to the fact the Star Gazer says some events were lost to time. But I still don't know what happened to my friends. And that disappoints me. The whole reason I cared about the game, the whole reason I cared about the universe was my connection to those characters. That connection was pretty rudely severed, and maybe that's the point. Maybe the true cost of the sacrifice of a hero is not knowing if their wild plan came to fruition. Maybe the real cost is not knowing if your life meant anything. And maybe that's a valid point to make, but I'll never grant that it was a satisfying one.