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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.

Monday, March 12, 2012

[SPOILERS] Mass Effect 3's Bizarre (and bad) Ending

See - it's right there in the title. Spoilers.  Big time.

First (and to give those who are still parsing the whole "spoiler" bit a second) - I want to say that the Mass Effect series is still an amazing achievement and hands down my favorite BioWare franchise to date.  I don't know if a full review is really helpful from Cathode - easy to say I highly recommend it.  I have a few nitpicks with it - like the fact that in the far future I have a holographic glove which can unlock doors, repair items and kill people ... but I can't check my email.  Or that once again, BioWare managed to put in a boss fight which suddenly jumps the difficulty (and when both your squad mates die when walking in the room, don't cry "strategy" to me).

99% of this game is gorgeous, plays great and tells a wonderful story.

Until the end.  And I don't think anyone will ever really know what happened here.  Here's five reasons why Mass Effect 3's ending was just plain wrong.

And no, it's not because Shepard usually (and probably) dies. (spoilers!)

1. You don't save the galaxy.
I'm not sure what the definition of saving the galaxy would be ... but let's recap here:

Option 1: Destroy the Reapers and all the mass effect relays.  Destroying the Reapers also destroys all the important technology in the system, totally wiping out both the quarian and the geth and possibly doing untold damage to the other races who have already been decimated by the Reapers.

So in every cycle, the Reapers come and wipe out the dominate species and leave the remaining ones intact to evolve and be harvested later.  So while not the usual plan here - I'd still score this one pretty solidly in the Reaper column.  Most of the galaxy is destroyed, and what isn't has been tossed back to some kind of stone age.

Option 2: Die and control the Reapers.  Which is the first of the three options which starts to leave logical thinking aside.  I'm dead ... but I'm in control.  Worst.  Promotion.  Ever.  There's no indication of what this odd paradox of being both deceased but in control actually means - you're just left to assume.  It doesn't help that every end cutscene is 95% identical except with a few edits and color changes.

For the record, this is the only ending which seems even passable to me.  If I assume Shepard is now some kind of free-floating Reaper god child (seriously, wtf) - then I can assume enough technology and power remains that maybe everyone I just spent all that time fighting for might have a chance to live.

Option 3: Modify the entire galaxy into some kind of organic-synthetic hybrid.  Or as I like to call - what the frak are you talking about? How...   what.  Huh?  I mean, you stick a circuit into Joker, and put some dermal patches on EDI ... wait ... that's all the Reapers really wanted?  They just wanted organics and synthetics to get along?

But I did that.   It's possibly to have the geth and quarians living happily side by side, without any bullshit cutscene or mass genocide.  And since all the mass effect relays exploding still killed the vast majority of life in the galaxy ... I'm still not entirely calling this "saving the galaxy".  Not to mention, oh little glowing god-child of my dreams .... but a synthetic-organic hybrid could still make synthetics which could kill all the synthetic-organics.  And according to you, it's inevitable.  And now the Reapers are on vacation from "saving us".  So the synthesis doesn't really solve anything that controlling option did, except for altering all the DNA in the galaxy.  Everyone is still pretty much doomed, but they get new glowing bits.

So end result of any of this: nearly everyone on in the galaxy is dead, and those that aren't are likely marooned and about to die in the wake of the single most technological disaster in history.

But at least the Reapers were dealt with.

2. Your choices don't really matter.
BioWare did a great job of making me actually care about choices I made throughout both ME2 and ME3, and I felt that ME3 was building off some of my ME2 experience.

Until I got to the end.  Remember all that time you spent wondering if the geth should be given a chance for free will, even though you knew it might turn into another geth war when you really didn't need one?  Well, doesn't matter.  Your choice here is reduced to a bonus "military readiness" and the fact that in one ending, they're all dead - and in the other two they're either altered so that it wouldn't have mattered what you chose (because we all know that if geth just had a real heart to begin with, then ... no wait, that's Wizard of Oz) and then in the other there's actually a strong likelihood they'll probably take over what remains of the galaxy anyway.

More to the point: there's no real epilogue here.  If I sacrificed myself for the galaxy, can I at least know that my significant other got his or her dream of a white picket fence at some point?  Did the Krogan actually succeed in reproducing and hence becoming a threat to all the galaxy again, or did Wrex live up to his word?

You get to make a lot of interesting choices in the Mass Effect series - but at the end you just get a differently colored cutscene and absolutely no resolution or closure whatsoever.

And no, dude and dude's son on some future planet don't count.

3. Last minute premise which makes no sense
Wait, so the Reapers (who are synthetic) were just being controlled by some kind of AI or VI (also, synthetic) in a the longest running campaign of genocide ... in order to ... save organics from synthetics?  Why not just bring down the full bear of that power on ... rogue synthetics?  Couldn't they have just wiped out the geth in ME1 and saved us all that murder and mayhem?  This is like the worst project plan in the history of project management.

Goal: Save organics from synthetics.
Solution: Use synthetics to destroy organics.

And nobody raised their hand at that meeting?  If anything, the history of the Reapers and geth show that they were going to try to keep organics from destroying synthetics.  The whole spin here seems a last minute explanation to frame the "destroy, control or integrate" outcomes.  It wasn't needed either, I didn't need the sudden inclusion of a "Reaper master" to explain how they were tools all along (Sovereign didn't seem to agree with that, but whatever) or a concise description of their motives.  I was pretty good with "evolution going unchecked leads to chaos, we hate chaos" and going from there.

4.1 Worst plot device goes to: Synthesis Ending

I originally wrote the following section as "worst plot device".  I recant.  The more I think about the synthesis ending, the more I hate it.  It's the ultimate cop-out.  It explains nothing, allows for everything and anything.

Maybe Nano-Tali can eat Nano-Leaves because the green explosion made things work that way?  Maybe Nano-Joker can have man-babies with Nano-Jarvik, because now they are all the same species and sex and there is no more war!

Someone on the Bioware forums asked quite astutely about EDI's fate in a post-Normandy world (which is quite grim if you think about her nature). But the synthesis ending offers a clear possibility: THE NORMANDY IS NOW ALIVE.  The synthesis gave it organic parts and now it will just grow into the Nano-planet and it will never die and EDI will always be fine and can have lots of Nano-Babies with Nano-Joker.

Seriously?  Stupidest plot device since midichlorians.

4.2 Second worst plot device goes to: indoctrination
So Reapers can apparently send out a field which causes organics to fall under their control.  This is often done behind the scenes during the franchise and works kinda OK that way - because it just allows the explanation of key betrayals and whatnot.

But then you have the Illusive Man on the Citadel - himself indoctrinated, and with very little effort making two people be puppets to his will and you start to wonder ... how the hell are the Reapers even remotely losing this war?  It was one thing when there was like ... one of them, or that they were all in deep dark space or whatever ... but if Martin Sheen can play this trick after just learning how it works, why aren't the Reapers just brainwashing the whole galaxy into submission, then killing them off at their leisure while afterwards going back for some brews?

The whole Cerberus angle in ME3 feels a little weird, but the ending just killed it for me.  The Illusive Man is no longer interesting - he's just a tool with some new H.R. Giger makeup setting humanity up for a fall.  And instead of having Shepard and Anderson just shoot each other ... he does what every other garden variety villain does .... he talks them to death until his own demise.  Gee, I was so shocked.

Edit: More evidence - many people want to explain the ending by declaring that Shepard was indoctrinated.  Any plot device so free-form that your reader/player/user introduces it to explain away things which don't make sense - you've just created self-fulfilling plot holes.

5. They stole all this from Deus Ex.
It took reading some forum posts to make this click - but damn I thought this all felt familiar.  And here's why: this is the exact same kind of choices from the original Deus Ex.  You can either become a god-like AI in control of technology, you can send everyone back to the stone age, or you can integrate with technology to "better understand".  Control, destroy or integrate - and even the outcome is more or less the same.

At least in Deus Ex, you got three completely different cutscenes to describe what happens - not just a different colored filter.

OK, that's all for now sports fans.  Look, I still loved the franchise.  I don't know if I'm in the boat to go back and play ... well, any of it, again - and the ending is definitely a reason for that.  But it was a great ride, and I got a lot of great moments out of ME3 even if the ending felt like it was finished by the Korean Animation Studio:

Cheers, everyone.  You might also check out the next post, on how Bioware failed from a narrative point of view.

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