Tag: BioWare (page 1 of 6)

From the Vault: The Video Game Singularity

I’m on my way to Boston for PAX East this morning. While I make my way through several states on what are certain to be lovely roads, have a look at my thoughts on the lines between video game developers and video game players, and what might happen if they get blurred.


X-Box Kitten

I feel we are rapidly approaching what I’ve chosen to dub “the Video Game Singularity”. It’s the point at which the lines between developers and players of video games blurs to the degree that the storytelling experience these games convey is one truly shared between both camps. We’re on our way with RPGs with user mod tools like Skyrim, massively multiplayer experiences and yes, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure tales like the Mass Effect trilogy. Now, things like marketing departments, stratospheric fanatical expectations, and the limitations of current technology will hinder this advent, but it’s sooner than we think.

The Internet’s instant communication and dissemination of information is accelerating the process as we, as gamers, find and refine our voices. While we’ll never be able to excise every single idiot or douchebag from the community, we can minimize their impact while maximizing what matters: our investment in our entertainment. We are patrons, and video games are the art for which we pay.

Games are unquestionably art. Moreover, they a new form of art all their own, with their own traditions, their own classical periods, their own auteurs, their own mavericks. So I pose the question: why do we judge them as works of art extant in other forms when they clearly do not belong there?

Think about it. A movie critic, with little to no exposure to gaming in general, has no basis by which to judge the merits and flaws of BioShock or Killer7 in comparison to Kane and Lynch. By comparison, many gamers who only see a handful of movies may not recognize the reasons why film aficionados praise Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey. The two mediums are completely different, and the biggest difference is in the controller held by the player.

From the moment we put our fingers on buttons, sticks, or mice at the start of a game, we have a measure of control over our experience. A well-designed game lets the player feel like they are truly a part of the world they’re being shown, that their choices will help shape the events to come. In a movie or a book, there’s no interaction between the observer and the observed. We experience the narrative the authors want us to experience regardless of whatever decisions we might have made differently. Video games, on the other hand, invite us to make our choices and experience the consequences for better or for worse.

Since players are a part of the building process for the narrative, it could be argued that they have just as much ownership of the story as the developers do. That isn’t to say they should get a cut of the game’s profits, as not everyone can render the iron sights of a gun or the glowing eyes of a dimensional horror-beast as well as a professional, who has to pay for things like training and food. A game done right, however, makes the player feel like a part of its world, and with that comes a certain feeling of entitlement.

That word’s been bandied about quite a bit lately, and to be honest I don’t think gamer entitlement is entirely a bad thing. The problem arises when gamers act like theirs is the only opinion that matters. Gaming is, at its best, a collaborative storytelling experience. Bad games shoulder players out of their narratives with non-interactive cutscenes or features that ruin immersion. Bad gamers scream their heads off whenever things don’t go exactly the way they expect in a given story. “This sucks and so do you” is not as helpful as “I think this sucks and here’s why.”

Not to belabor the point, but you can tell an author or director how much a book or movie sucks in your opinion, and the most you might get is a “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Game developers, however, know their medium is mutable. It can be changed. And if mistakes are made in the process of creating a game that slipped by them or weren’t obvious, they can go back and fix them. Now, the ending of a narrative is not the same as a major clipping issue, games crashing entirely, or an encounter being unreasonably difficult, and not every complaint from the player base is legitimate. And in some cases, the costs in time and money required to make changes to adjust a story even slightly can be entirely too prohibitive. But when there’s truth found in the midst of an outcry, some merit to be discerned from a cavalcade of bitching and moaning, game developers have power other creators of narrative simply don’t have.

The question is: should they exercise it?

Let me put it another way:

Should finished games be considered immutable things like films or novels, set in stone by their creators? Does listening to players and altering the experience after much debate ruin the artistic merit of a given game?

I think the answer to both questions is “no.”

Changing the ending of a novel or film because fans didn’t like it is one thing. Most directors and authors would cite artistic integrity in keeping their tales as they are. There are those who feel game developers should maintain the same standards. That doesn’t seem right to me, though. For one thing, a writer may change an ending if a test reader can cite issues with it, and a director can re-cut their film if focus groups find it difficult to watch without any benefit. Moreover, gaming is so different from every other art form, so involving of the end user of the content, that sooner or later a different set of standards should be observed.

As we approach the Video Game Singularity, it becomes more and more apparent that the old ways of judging those who create the stories we enjoy no longer apply. We are just as responsible for the stories being told through games as the developers are, and while games empower and encourage us to make decisions to alter the outcome, we must realize that our power in that regard is shared with the developers, and is not exclusively our own. By the same token, the onus of integrity does not solely fall on the developers. We, as participants in the story, must also hold ourselves to a standard, in providing constructive criticism, frank examination, and willingness to adapt or compromise when it comes to the narratives we come to love. Only by doing this can we blur that line between gamers and developers. Only by showing this desire to address these stories as living things in which we have a say and for the benefit of which we will work with their original creators will gamers stop coming across as spoiled brats and start to be considered a vital part of the game creation process.

We can stop being seen as mere end-user consumers, and start participating actively in the perpetuation of this art form. To me, that’s exciting and powerful.

I mean, we still have people using racist and homophobic language in the community, but hey, baby steps.

When Storylines End

Courtesy Konami

Endings to stories are every bit as important as their beginnings. I’ve heard, on at least one occasion, someone tell me to write the ending of a story first. I rarely do that, but I can often picture the ending in my head, or at least the climax. It should be an emotionally satisfying experience, even if it isn’t a happy one. The ending of The Dark Knight, for example, is far from happy – many important characters are dead, Batman’s on the run from the law, and the Joker did, in fact, get away, or at least lived. But it’s emotionally satisfying. Our hero did, in fact, triumph, even if it was a Pyrrhic victory, and will keep fighting the best way he knows how. Not happy, but one can set their teeth and nod in agreement with it.

I bring this up because I recently went through two ending experiences in video games. I finished Silent Hill 2 for the first time, and I downloaded the Extended Edition DLC for Mass Effect 3. Both games have multiple endings, determined by player choice, and the experience of reaching those endings says a lot about storytelling in general, and its connection to gameplay in particular.

For the record, I now understand why people love Silent Hill 2 so much. The game is steeped in a tense, foreboding atmosphere that draws you into its dark, bleak world and refuses to let go of you. The sound design is excellent and the visuals sufficiently creepifying, even if the capacities of the PlayStation 2 were somewhat limited. The HD Collection doesn’t do a whole lot with the graphics, from what I understand, but the important thing is that James Sunderland is still wonderfully neurotic, incredibly determined, and deeply sympathetic, quickly becoming one of my favorite video game protagonists. I felt invested in seeing his journey through to the end.

Silent Hill 2, like many games, has multiple endings, and the three available to the player at the conclusion of the first run all make sense, based on the choices the player makes. The game examines how you behave, how you treat the NPCs around you, and what you do with the things you find. It makes sense of the seemingly random things you may do as a player, and produces the ending you think you deserve. It’s an impressive feat for a game from the previous generation, and a great example of an ending to a story being emotionally satisfying while not necessarily being happy.

Courtesy BioWare

As for Mass Effect, well… I went off on a bit of a rant on the endings of the final game of the trilogy before. I won’t go into detail as to how the new endings made me feel, emotionally, especially since Susan Arendt has already done just that. Swap a couple names in the very last sequence and you have my feelings on it. In light of Silent Hill 2, though, I can tell you why the “Extended” endings work where the originals don’t.

First of all, while some of the dialog still feels a bit stretched, better explanations of the Reapers, the Crucible, and our choices are given. None of it feels too stilted, and Shepard, bless his or her heart, often asks questions in the very same way we do. There’s also the fact that we are given the option to straight-up refuse to be involved in the final decision. If you think the Starchild is a pile of bullshit, you can say so. Granted, it comes off a bit as Shepard being a petulant child, but that’s totally not a reflection on the attitude of entitled gamers, right?

On closer examination and with these better explanations, it becomes more clear to me that the endings of Mass Effect 3 are, in fact, the culmination of our choices rather than the death of them. It was difficult to realize this when the explanation was so truncated previously; now, as there is back-and-forth, there’s more time to think, to reflect, and to choose. As the Starkid explained synthesis and the evolution of life, conveniently leaving out how magically rewriting DNA was supposed to work, it occurred to me that this was what Shepard had been striving for all along. In my play-through, time and again, Shepard chose the way of peace: sparing the Rachni queen, convincing Garrus not to shoot Sidonis, trying to warn the Batarians in Arrival, getting the Geth and Quarians to lay down arms… The final sequence is now a conversation, rather than a glorified menu of choices, in which Shepard reflects on all that’s come before, and when the battered soldier starts to move, it’s for good reason rather than just to end things.

In addition to making the final choices feel like they matter, the Extended Edition also makes the endings more personal, more accessible. To quote Susan, “Saving the universe is great and all, but it’s too huge a concept to really feel particularly connected to.” My favorite moments in Mass Effect 3 were deeply personal ones, from the fates of Mordin and Thane to the back-and-forth between Shepard and Tali on Rannoch. Making the endings grand and sweeping but ambiguous and impersonal was a misstep, one which has now been corrected. From the look on Kaiden’s face when Shepard tells him “I want to be sure someone survives this,” to that last moment at the memorial wall, we feel more invested in what’s happened. We see characters we’ve come to care about dealing with the monumental decision we’ve made. And, perhaps most importantly, we get the chance to say good-bye.

Courtesy Konami

A similar moment comes in Silent Hill 2, as we hear Mary read her letter to James. Be it uplifting or tragic, the end result is an understanding of the choices made and an opportunity to bid the characters farewell. As in Mass Effect, the conclusion should and does feel personal. I hesitate to use the word “logical” when we’re talking about a psychological survival horror piece and a work of space opera that works on what boils down to magic, but the choices made and the endings that result from those choices do have make logical sense, and that goes a long way in giving them weight and making them complete.

A writer should never underestimate an audience. Allowing an audience to speculate on the unknown and draw their own conclusions is all well and good. It’s one thing to leave an ending open to interpretation; it’s quite another to simply cut things short. We can imagine all sorts of endings and fill in blanks any way we like, and while there’s great freedom in that, too many blanks can give the impression that the creators simply didn’t care enough, or didn’t know themselves. Seeing how the creators end things can be interpreted as spoon-feeding information to the audience, but it also allows for permutations we may not have anticipated. While you should never underestimate your audience, you should also never be afraid to definitively end your story where it should logically end. You don’t necessarily have to tie up all your loose ends in neat little bows (I’m looking at you, Legend of Korra) and you don’t have to chop up the ending into quick cuts to make a statement of some kind (*cough* 2001 *cough*). Let the characters make their choices. Let the audience understand those choices. Make that connection between the two, and the ending of your story will be far more satisfying.

You may now deposit your hate mail telling me how horrible I am for daring to compare Mass Effect 3 to Silent Hill 2.

Trendy Hate

Bandwagon

It’s always interesting to get different perspectives on things. I follow quite a few people on Twitter, and some of them have viewpoints on entertainment or politics that diverge from mine to various degrees. But even when I disagree with them, I don’t unfollow them. My personal feelings towards their opinion does not invalidate it; they are perfectly allowed to have it.

That said, I’m having trouble understanding when or how it became so “cool” to hate things.

I’m not talking about despicable things like race hatred or slut shaming, here. I’m more referring to the sort of talk you’d hear out of people that goes something like “Well, I used to like X, but then they did Y, and now I hate them and everything they’ve ever done” or “I don’t like X about this particular game/movie/tv show/book so the rest of it sucks.” The wording may change from conversation to conversation, but the sentiment is always the same: I am correct, this is irredeemably horrible, end of discussion. Most people are intelligent and courteous enough that you can engage them in conversation over these things, but more often than not, such discussions still end with, “Yeah, well, I still hate it.”

And that’s fine. I’m not putting this up in an attempt to invalidate anybody’s opinion. The great thing about individuality is having your own opinion of things, and it’s even better when freedom of speech allows you to give that opinion a voice. It’s when you start shouting to make your voice the most influential one in the room that things can get a little dicey. Now, there are times when it may be necessary to shout and even be caustic when something is truly objective, such as “No, going outside is not better than staying inside when a zombie apocalypse is happening”. But since we are, for the most part, discussing art in this particular post, I think it’s safe to say that most of the opinions to be bandied about are subjective.

The real problem with such trendy hate is that it fosters a bandwagon mentality. It encourages or sometimes even pushes people into conforming to a particular point of view. When someone tells you how much they hate something, with a voice full of bitterness and narrowed eyes that brook no dissension, it’s hard not to feel like some form of persecution is taking place. You don’t want to end up on the receiving end of it, so you go along with it. And if said opinion is being put out there by someone with social standing, even if little to know specific bitterness is being conveyed, people will hop on board without prompting in an attempt to either be part of that person’s circle or prove themselves to be more clever and refined by crapping all over what that person says.

Again, not to invalidate anybody’s opinion, but take a moment to think for yourselves, folks.

Case in point? (Yes, here we go again) Bioware.

I stand by my opinion that the ending of Mass Effect 3, as it stands at the time of this writing, is terribly executed and undercuts the entire trilogy of games. I also think Dragon Age 2 was one of the most lackluster RPGs I’ve ever played. But do I think they’ve never gotten it right? Is BioWare incapable of telling a good story? I think the answer to both questions is “no”.

As trendy as it may be for me to say “BioWare’s never ‘stuck the landing’ on a game” or “BioWare is ruining the game artform if they cave to fan demands”, I have no evidence to substantiate either claim. I do, however, have evidence from their previous games that good threads of storytelling exist. The characters in all three Mass Effect games, the overall experience of Dragon Age: Origins, and the nature of the reveal in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic spring instantly to mind. Sometimes the combat in their games has hit a logjam or particular story points have seemed missing or never clicked for audiences. This doesn’t mean BioWare hasn’t told a good story, or that they’re incapable of doing it.

Just like getting off the Halo hatred bandwagon, I never hopped onto the one hating on BioWare. I may be in a minority and I might not have the opinion that prevails, but I maintain that BioWare has the potential for better storytelling than we’ve seen recently. I also maintain that this downward trend in their games does not mean everything they’ve ever done is suddenly shit. I’m allowed to think this way and I’m going to choose to continue doing so, no matter how trendy it is to hate.

The Video Game Singularity

X-Box Kitten

I feel we are rapidly approaching what I’ve chosen to dub “the Video Game Singularity”. It’s the point at which the lines between developers and players of video games blurs to the degree that the storytelling experience these games convey is one truly shared between both camps. We’re on our way with RPGs with user mod tools like Skyrim, massively multiplayer experiences and yes, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure tales like the Mass Effect trilogy. Now, things like marketing departments, stratospheric fanatical expectations, and the limitations of current technology will hinder this advent, but it’s sooner than we think.

The Internet’s instant communication and dissemination of information is accelerating the process as we, as gamers, find and refine our voices. While we’ll never be able to excise every single idiot or douchebag from the community, we can minimize their impact while maximizing what matters: our investment in our entertainment. We are patrons, and video games are the art for which we pay.

Games are unquestionably art. Moreover, they a new form of art all their own, with their own traditions, their own classical periods, their own auteurs, their own mavericks. So I pose the question: why do we judge them as works of art extant in other forms when they clearly do not belong there?

Think about it. A movie critic, with little to no exposure to gaming in general, has no basis by which to judge the merits and flaws of BioShock or Killer7 in comparison to Kane and Lynch. By comparison, many gamers who only see a handful of movies may not recognize the reasons why film aficionados praise Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey. The two mediums are completely different, and the biggest difference is in the controller held by the player.

From the moment we put our fingers on buttons, sticks, or mice at the start of a game, we have a measure of control over our experience. A well-designed game lets the player feel like they are truly a part of the world they’re being shown, that their choices will help shape the events to come. In a movie or a book, there’s no interaction between the observer and the observed. We experience the narrative the authors want us to experience regardless of whatever decisions we might have made differently. Video games, on the other hand, invite us to make our choices and experience the consequences for better or for worse.

Since players are a part of the building process for the narrative, it could be argued that they have just as much ownership of the story as the developers do. That isn’t to say they should get a cut of the game’s profits, as not everyone can render the iron sights of a gun or the glowing eyes of a dimensional horror-beast as well as a professional, who has to pay for things like training and food. A game done right, however, makes the player feel like a part of its world, and with that comes a certain feeling of entitlement.

That word’s been bandied about quite a bit lately, and to be honest I don’t think gamer entitlement is entirely a bad thing. The problem arises when gamers act like theirs is the only opinion that matters. Gaming is, at its best, a collaborative storytelling experience. Bad games shoulder players out of their narratives with non-interactive cutscenes or features that ruin immersion. Bad gamers scream their heads off whenever things don’t go exactly the way they expect in a given story. “This sucks and so do you” is not as helpful as “I think this sucks and here’s why.”

Not to belabor the point, but you can tell an author or director how much a book or movie sucks in your opinion, and the most you might get is a “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Game developers, however, know their medium is mutable. It can be changed. And if mistakes are made in the process of creating a game that slipped by them or weren’t obvious, they can go back and fix them. Now, the ending of a narrative is not the same as a major clipping issue, games crashing entirely, or an encounter being unreasonably difficult, and not every complaint from the player base is legitimate. And in some cases, the costs in time and money required to make changes to adjust a story even slightly can be entirely too prohibitive. But when there’s truth found in the midst of an outcry, some merit to be discerned from a cavalcade of bitching and moaning, game developers have power other creators of narrative simply don’t have.

The question is: should they exercise it?

Let me put it another way:

Should finished games be considered immutable things like films or novels, set in stone by their creators? Does listening to players and altering the experience after much debate ruin the artistic merit of a given game?

I think the answer to both questions is “no.”

Changing the ending of a novel or film because fans didn’t like it is one thing. Most directors and authors would cite artistic integrity in keeping their tales as they are. There are those who feel game developers should maintain the same standards. That doesn’t seem right to me, though. For one thing, a writer may change an ending if a test reader can cite issues with it, and a director can re-cut their film if focus groups find it difficult to watch without any benefit. Moreover, gaming is so different from every other art form, so involving of the end user of the content, that sooner or later a different set of standards should be observed.

As we approach the Video Game Singularity, it becomes more and more apparent that the old ways of judging those who create the stories we enjoy no longer apply. We are just as responsible for the stories being told through games as the developers are, and while games empower and encourage us to make decisions to alter the outcome, we must realize that our power in that regard is shared with the developers, and is not exclusively our own. By the same token, the onus of integrity does not solely fall on the developers. We, as participants in the story, must also hold ourselves to a standard, in providing constructive criticism, frank examination, and willingness to adapt or compromise when it comes to the narratives we come to love. Only by doing this can we blur that line between gamers and developers. Only by showing this desire to address these stories as living things in which we have a say and for the benefit of which we will work with their original creators will gamers stop coming across as spoiled brats and start to be considered a vital part of the game creation process.

We can stop being seen as mere end-user consumers, and start participating actively in the perpetuation of this art form. To me, that’s exciting and powerful.

I mean, we still have people using racist and homophobic language in the community, but hey, baby steps.

The End of Shepard

Courtesy BioWare
Using this picture again, because Garrus calms me down.

So now is when we discuss the ending to Mass Effect 3. I know it’s been discussed and being discussed all over the Internet as I type this. One of the best articles on the subject is over at GameFront and the Escapist podcast gives a good slice of opinions on the subject from people not frothing at the mouth in entitled rage.

Let me tackle that issue first to ensure I push spoiler material past most summary snippets.

I’m as flabbergasted by the endings to Mass Effect 3 as anyone. Moreover, I feel that at least a couple of the problems I have with them could be solved with some quick edits that leave the overall ‘message’ (if there is one) intact. But as much as I would like to see what I consider to be improvements applied to this conclusion to satisfy me personally, I know full well it may never happen. Just like we’ll never get a truly & universally satisfying end to the Star Wars prequels, or that “other” Indiana Jones movie, or Battlestar Galactica, or LOST, or the Transformers live-action films, we may never get one for Mass Effect.

Now, I’m not saying gamers shouldn’t try. I’m not saying we can’t be upset. The problem I have is in the way gamers are approaching it. Raising money for charity to make BioWare aware of this wide-spread disappointment is one thing, but to claim we want to “retake” it is preposterous. Mass Effect and its universe was never really ours, not entirely. It is a product of BioWare’s creative minds and programming chops, and to a lesser extent, it also belongs to EA’s marketing department just as much as Madden does. Yes, we add to the experience of the game by playing it, by making decisions, and by growing attached to its rich cast of deep characters. And as participants in the story, we can and should have something to say about how it ends. But we never owned it, outside of purchasing a copy of the game disc or downloading it onto our PC. There’s nothing to “retake”.

Now. Let’s talk about the actual endings. This is bound to get a bit long, so grab a drink. You may need a few, actually.

The Death Knell of Choice

Once Shepard talks The Illusive Man (hereafter referred to as TIM) into blowing his brains out in a nice if somewhat inexplicable call back to the first game, he’s conveyed via magic elevator into the Crucible. There the Starchild or whatever it actually is tells Shepard (and, by extension, us), that the Reapers do not in fact slaughter organic life as part of their reproductive cycle or just because they’re evil eldritch sci-fi horror-terrors. It is part of a “natural” cycle created to ultimately preserve organic life. The Reapers destroy sufficiently advanced civilizations so that they will not destroy themselves and all other life when they inevitably create synthetic life.

Courtesy BioWare
“It has been my plan all along to destroy organic life in the galaxy down to the last squirrel. Except for Jeff.
“… That is a joke.”

First of all, Shepard should be able to point outside the window at EDI. She’s spent the entire game exploring the aspects of organic living she doesn’t understand in an entirely peaceful way. And if you, like me, managed to broker peace between the Quarians and the Geth, then you have another huge example as to why the reasons for this cycle are monumentally flawed. While both races have work ahead of them to repair rifts left by racial hatred and near-genocide on both sides, the evidence exists that the peace will last, and synthetic and organic can work side by side without any sort of artificial reset button of face-melty death.

Just as perplexing is the notion that this sort of wholesale slaughter is necessary to preserve lesser species. It’s a given fact that organic life in general can get pretty wild. It does tend towards patterns of chaos rather than the rigid order of manufactured forms. However, imposing order on that chaos does not mean destroying it. When I want to prune a bonsai tree, I do it with tiny shears and patience, not a blowtorch. The Starchild is basically imposing SOPA on the universe with organic life taking the place of the Internet.

But Shepard, beaten and half-dead, just kind of rolls with it. The Starchild presents three options: Destroy the Reapers (and, he says, all other synthetic life in the galaxy), control them (because that was such a hot idea when TIM was ranting about it all Huskified just minutes before), or synthesize synthetic life with organic life. Let’s leave aside the two obvious ones and look at that last one. Instead of doing what we’ve been doing all game long, brokering peace and helping people overcome differences to work together towards a common goal, we are essentially forcing every individual being in the galaxy to forgo all differences to become a single, homogenized race. They are given no say in this. It all comes down to what Shepard wants. I mean, all three endings have this problem and the word choice of the kid in the stinger calling him “the Shepard” seems to indicate this messianic overtone carried over into whatever life survives this idiotic illusion of choice.

I say “illusion” of choice because they are all essentially the same. All three endings end the same way. The Reapers are dealt with, the mass relays are destroyed, and the Normandy struggles to outrun an explosion. I’ll deal with those last two later. Stepping back and looking at the endings from a broader perspective, we see that the only true difference is a swap of colors and a few different graphical assets. The original Mass Effect only swapped dialog lines, it’s true, but those lines and choices actually had an impact on the games the followed. The finality of these endings, however, precludes any sort of feeling that we made that big a difference. We see nothing of what our teammates after those last moments on Earth. There’s no way to know how the galaxy reacted to its fate. There’s no closure. It’s an ending instead of a conclusion, an abrupt and forced truncation of the story of Shepard that leaves the player empty and unsatisfied.

The Indoctrination Theory

If you take a closer look at this, carefully prying up the cow patties BioWare seems to have left all over their trilogy, evidence exists of something deeper going on. Several sources on the Internet have pieced together moments and snippets of lore throughout all three games to put together the following theory. To me, it’s a bit of a stretch, but not much.

Since the very first Mass Effect, we’ve known that one of the most insidious weapons in the arsenal of the Reapers is the process known as “indoctrination”. An individual of sufficient power or influenced exposed to the Reapers begins to come around to a way of thinking not necessarily their own. Their reasoning seems sound and logical to them, but to the outside observer it’s clearly flawed, even dangerous. This influence is pervasive, creeping into the thoughts and dreams of the target often without their knowledge. This is called indoctrination. It happened to Saren. It happened to TIM.

And some say it happens to Shepard.

Courtesy BioWare
After all, Harbinger’s thing has always been to assume direct control…

The VI taking the form of a little boy Shepard failed to save in the prologue doesn’t make much sense even in the rather dumb “a form you can understand” explanation given in things like Contact. At least Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation used human perceptions of him to make various points or play some pranks. The Starchild, though, isn’t just present at the end. Shepard sees the sprog in nightmares throughout the game. And the nightmares, while carrying the voices of lost comrades and the cries of the dying, also are possessed of an inky blackness that pervades them, just as inky black tendrils try to creep into Shepard’s perceptions during his showdown with TIM.

The evidence doesn’t stop there, according to this theory. Consider the “choices” offered. Two of the three of them end with Shepard dead and the Reapers alive. In synthesis they exist in a new form but they continue to exist. And in the control option, even if Shepard believes himself to be strong-willed enough to call them off, they still live. Only the destruction option matches up with Shepard’s goals, but two things happen that not only are meant to dissuade players from choosing them but give subtle hints that there’s more going on. First, the Starchild plays down the option, saying that destroying the Reapers is not enough, and the explosion will kill all synthetic life. For a weapon painstakingly designed to only kill Reapers, this seems incongruous. Second, the option and its explosion are colored red, the color of Renegades. It’s directly opposite the control option, colored Paragon blue, despite it being in line with TIM’s wishes, to which Paragons are staunchly opposed.

The cherry on this theory is that with enough readiness and war assets, when the destruction option is chosen and the result plays out, a hint is slipped into the end that Shepard survives the ordeal. This is probably the ‘best’ ending possible, very hard to attain, and yet it comes bundled with free genocide for the Geth? There’s something wrong, here. Either it’s yet another facet of the ending I simply cannot grok as a writer, or the Reapers are lying to you.

The Real Problems

Even if this theory proves true, or BioWare reveals some other greater agenda to explain away the aforementioned malarkey, the real problems of the endings still exist. We’re not just watching Shepard make some sort of sacrifice to deal with the Reapers once and for all. We’re watching the end of galactic civilization as we know it, and we’re watching perhaps the cruelest betrayal in all three games combined.

The mass relays are destroyed. And the Normandy abandons you.

Let’s tackle the bigger one first. The DLC Arrival had you destroying the Alpha relay, an act that wrecked the system so thoroughly that hundreds of thousands of innocent beings died. This was why Shepard was on Earth in the first place, facing down trial for that act. And then, at the end of Mass Effect 3, we apparently destroy every single relay in the galaxy. That’s going to be a LOT of dead people.

Let’s assume that this isn’t the case, and some sort of space magic preserves trillions of lives from the big booms. Civilization’s still pretty fucked up. While it’s an established fact that FTL drives do exist on all civilized spacecraft in the galaxy, they are a great deal slower than using the mass relays. Journeys that take hours or days would take years without them. So those aliens who lept to your aid at Earth now have to limp their way home. If you managed to assemble the largest force possible, this means the quarians who finally retook their home planet may never see it again. It means the krogan possibly freed from the genophage will never actually sire children on Tuchanka. I think you get the idea. I’m not entirely sure if galaxy-wide communications relied on the mass relays or not, but if they did, Shepard saved the galaxy only to plunge it into a dark age. Fierce fighting over fiefdoms and religious zealotry ahoy!

Courtesy Relic Entertainment
Pictured: James Vega twenty years after the ‘liberation’ of Earth.

But even beyond this issue there’s one even more personal. The Normandy has been our home for three games, moreso in the last two. The final game even makes an effort to put a more lived-in feel into the ship, with crew members wandering around and conversing freely with one another without our prompting. This ship and her crew have been there for Shepard through thick and thin. They flew through the Omega-4 relay in Mass Effect 2 knowing it was a suicide mission. In fact, at the start of Mass Effect 3, the ship was grounded. To get to Shepard as quickly as they did, the Normandy had to have already been airborne when the Reapers hit. They knew what was coming and they knew their commander needed them. And yet at the very end, when Earth is on the cusp of rescue and their leader making a dire and perhaps final choice, what do they do?

Apparently, according to BioWare, they tuck tail and run as fast as they can. It’s possible they didn’t know about the space magic that would keep the mass relay explosion from killing them all, and were trying to escape before what happened to Bahak happened to Sol. I still don’t get that, though. They’re not just abandoning Shepard but the entire planet they just helped liberate. And how would they know it was coming? Their motivations for running are unexplained and nebulous. You do see some of them living after the whole outrunning-the-explosion bit if you had enough war assets, but again, logic comes and bites whatever happiness you can get from this stupidity right in the ass. If Garrus or Tali survived, what happens when the humans run out of dextro-friendly food? If Liara survived, how do you think she’s going to like living out her long life on this planet while every other person she survived with dies around her? They’re stranded, and with the mass relays destroyed and given the distance Joker probably jumped, chances of rescue are slim to none.

To me it would make more sense if the Normandy was caught in the blast from the relay and Joker has to struggle to keep her aloft long enough to land safely on Earth. And when they do land, depending on the war assets, either they’re all killed, they survived but the battle wiped everybody else out, or they survived and are hailed as heroes… with the notable and palpable absence of Shepard.

But hey, what do I know, I don’t write for BioWare.

The Biggest Tragedy Of All

The worst part of the endings has nothing to do with the decisions themselves or the gaping holes in the plot through which one could fly the Normandy. The worst part is how the ending of Mass Effect 3 renders every decision you’ve made over the 150+ hours spent across the trilogy completely inconsequential. It doesn’t matter if you cured the genophage, brokered the peace that ends a centuries-long race war or even how many lives you save or change just by being Shepard. In the end it all comes down to different colored explosions that basically give you the same results.

Stories have done the “what you choose doesn’t matter” ending before, and it’s been effective. Brazil and 12 Monkeys spring to mind. But those were films. These are video games. Moreover, the Mass Effect series are video games that emphasize player choice, tolerance, examinations of individuality and life itself. We are told, and invited to exemplify through gameplay, that the choices we make matter, that the direction lives take are important, and that tolerance and peace are not only possible, they are preferable to the alternatives even in our current, modern day lives. A world where different species can form friendships and even romances without any serious social implications and a man can talk about his husband in a very real and moving way is one that is definitely worth dying for.

But Shepard’s death, just like our choices, really has no meaning. I mentioned before that there’s no sense of closure. There’s also no sense of gravity to our decisions. We have no idea if the alliances we’ve forged, the peace we’ve brokered, will last beyond the multi-colored explosions we create. And in the end, we’re given to understand that it really doesn’t matter. To make everything in all three games come down to a single choice could work, if the aftermath of that choice also reflects choices we’ve made since the beginning. As it stands, those decisions carry no weight. Even in the case of the ‘best’ ending, there’s no sense that what we did was ultimately worthwhile. The whole trilogy, from who to rescue on Virmire to the events on Thessia, feels like a waste of time, because no matter what we do, the completely interchangeable endings are waiting for us.

It’s one thing to botch the ending of a video game. It’s another to ruin its replay value as a result, and another still to also destroy the replay value of the games that came before it. As a writer and a gamer, I simply cannot grok this decision.

I’m fine with Shepard dying. Just as I was with Spock dying in Wrath of Khan. It’s all a question of the how and why behind that death. If BioWare do indeed heed the criticism of their fans, there’s no reason to simply push them into a “happy” ending. But the ending should mean something. It should have an effect on us other than anger. We should feel our time was well-spent, and worth spending again. Even if the end is bittersweet or downright tragic, if it’s satisfying enough it will be worthwhile, perhaps even to the point of repetition. People watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy and all of those Star Wars films multiple times, even if the ending isn’t entirely happy, because the world is still rich and full of life and meaning after the end. As it stands now, the Mass Effect universe is left empty. Shepard’s death is essentially meaningless. Shakespeare put it best:

It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

This post may be similar, in the end. I have no idea if BioWare is actually listening. But even if they aren’t, if you’ve gotten this far and are still reading, I thank you for your time. I welcome other thoughts on this matter. And I pray that I never, ever botch the ending of anything I write this badly.

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