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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

[SPOILERS] Mass Effect 3's Ending From a Narrative Stance

The whole controversy over Mass Effect 3's ending is picking up a feverish pace at this point.  One of the things I'm finding interesting is that many players are finding wrong with nearly the exact same things, which I went over a subset of yesterday.   Usually when fans get upset about storytelling in games, you'll get a host of things they thought were wrong.  A more literary example - ask a hardcore grumpy Tolkien fan what they didn't like about the movies, or what should have been in them: you'll almost always get "Tom Bombadil" ... but also fifteen other random things.

In the case of Mass Effect 3, the fans are all noting the exact same things: including plotholes, lack of closure, deus ex machina character, overall similiarity despite previous choices and a depressing outcome.

Was that really Bioware's intent?  Or did they just completely mangle the message by spending too little on producing the end cutscene?

Instead of focusing on in-game elements, which the more I think about it when those elements include the ability to alter the DNA of every living creature in the galaxy with a green energy cloud ... which supposedly solves all the Reaper's issues and yet they didn't try that like 10,000 years ago because killing is so much more fun ... well, it occurs to me that debating the finer points of things like what happens after all the relays explode might not even be possible - so instead, let's look at just the narrative tools Bioware used to bludgeon their own ending.

1. Deus Ex Machina
Yeah, let's start with the big one that everyone is calling out.  Deus Ex Machina, or "God from a machine",  dates back to plays and operas where exactly that would happen - when all the actors on the stage were in terrible peril, they would get someone dressed up as Zeus or Poseidon or whomever and pulley them down to save the day.  

How did they get out of that mess?  Zeus did it.  We get this here, but instead the question is: "How did we get into this mess?"  Well, apparently The Catalyst did it and has been all along.  And so he's also capable of doing anything else ... like a "synthesis DNA explosion".

The problem with this mechanic is that it is so transparently lazy.  The viewer has no context or setup for the core feature of the ending and is hence forced to simply accept it on faith or be left bewildered.

Clearly, a lot of fans are in the latter camp.

2. Simple explanations happen off-screen
Why is Joker fleeing Earth?  How did your squad get away from Harbringer?  How does Shepard survive being blown up in outer space?  You'll never know.  You can imagine a whole host of possible explanations, and while that might highly entertaining for some fans ... the amount of information left up to the viewer is pretty staggering in this case.  It's also very different from the style of storytelling the player has been offered up until this point.  I spend how long in nuanced dialogue to determine tidbits about the story, but you can't tell me why one of my best friends just abandoned me to die?

3. Important (possibly good) things happen off-screen
Perhaps even more important is that if Bioware wanted some of the endings to be "better" than others, they take absolutely no time to make that apparent to the player.  Does controlling the Reapers mean that the Mass Effect relays might be re-built?  Or at least can everyone stuck on Sol get a lift home?  Does being a hybrid mean anything other than having glowing bits?  Does your love interest live happily ever after on a remote planet, or do they die of space malaria?

You'll never know.  Bioware doesn't even illustrate whether the destruction of the relays causes supernovas across the galaxy, which has been previously established as a possibility, or if more than five people are likely still to be alive anywhere.

4. The destruction of the relays overplays the hand
I get the impression that destroying the relays was somehow important to Bioware, perhaps for setting up the next game in the series.  But especially with #3 above in perspective - it in of itself is such a serious catastrophe to the state of the galaxy that the player is left with nothing but questions and the high probability that instead of spending this time saving Earth and the galaxy in general, the galaxy has been sent back to the stone age.  

Take into consideration if the relays had only been destroyed under the "Destroy" option.  First of all, this makes sense - the relays are Reaper based tech, and the Catalyst clearly says all advanced technology will be destroyed.  If any of the other options didn't have this event - those options would have been clearly determined as "good" by players, and the ending wouldn't have been so depressing.

If Bioware really felt the need to destroy the relays, they could have at least shown what happened across the galaxies.  Krogan babies, healthy quarians, new Asari monastaries - whatever.  

In short, Bioware's failure here was a lazy setup, an execution which doesn't do anything but raise completely inane questions and a payoff which doesn't offer anything good associated with what the player has been working for across three games.

Personally, I think a patch to give players three extended cutscenes is certainly in order here.

P.S.: Also consider GameFront's article on this, which is quite excellent.

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