Grant Rants

Why Bioware SHOULD NOT change the end to Mass Effect 3

- March 20th, 2012

Greetings heathens, zealots, web denizens, and the rest of you!

Alright, some disclaimers right off the start here: if you hate video games or simply do not understand we geeks, leave now. The level of geek here is about to reach a level beyond geekdom. Also, if you are one of my people and haven’t finished ME3 first, shame on you, second, there will be spoilers about the end – you have been warned.

So lately there has been this fanboy web meltdown about the endings to Mass Effect 3, a work of interactive entertainment that, at this point in video game history, is the Citizen Kane of video games. I can think of no other game that transcends the tropes of the medium to present us with something that is this visionary and entertaining.  It stands, in my view, with other science fiction works like War of the Worlds. It’s not just empty action. It has a brain. And it assumes we, the audience, have one too.

If you want spoon fed action, Mass Effect is not for you. The trilogy is not brainless, but the final game in particular is striking in its intellectual and emotional content.Mass Effect 3 Teaser Wallpaper

For those who do not know, Mass Effect has become for video games what Star Wars was for movies or, a closer analogy would be what LOTR is for books. An expensive deeply rich, fictional universe that invests you in the characters and every last little detail of what makes it believable and interesting.

The story follows the tale of Command Shepard, an archetype hero who is archetypal because you, as the player pretty well define what and who he or she is. Shepard’s gender, sexual orientation, attitude, politics, interpersonal skills , methods of problem solving and fighting style are all defined by you. Bioware, the company behind Mass Effect, draws you in with a compelling story, and graphics and characters. But you are in control of a great deal of what defines how the game plays out. Bioware sets the stage, but you play the part.

The first game is a cosmic whodunit, where Shepard works to identify and defeat a threat to galactic civilization, stumbling upon a genocidal race of god like machines called the Reapers bent on wiping out all advanced organic life in the Milky Way. The second game is built around a sci-fi version of the Seven  Samurai: (Or the Magnificent Seven, for the less cultured.) Shepard builds a team of unlikely heroes to confront agents of the Reapers, who are harvesting human beings.  (yes, that is just as creepy as it sounds – a sci-fi take on the Holocaust really.). By the third game, billed as the last (but probably won’t be) the Reapers finally arrive in force. The galaxy is in a full blown war for survival. It is a battle against extinction.

Along the way, you confront ethical dilemmas about war and politics, religion, about science and ethics, about race relations, about what it means to make a hard choice in hard circumstances, about what it means to be human. It even has  a healthy dose of romance and while it is not exactly J.R. Ward (lacking that level of steam), the story is written well enough for you to feel invested in the romantic subplots. (For instance I, along with a lot of Mass Effect players, were more than a little excited to get our Shepard’s girlfriend back after she made only an cameo in the second game. Shepard’s girlfriend’s back and she carries a frakin’ pulse rifle, so yer gonna in trouble. Hey, nah, hey,/ nah.)

None of it is trite, as someone who doesn’t know modern video games might think. But presented in a very mature, often challenging fashion.

But what has people tied up in knots is the ending of the trilogy. (Spoilers my fellow geeks. Twice warned is…well, twice warned).

Mass Effect does not end with Shepard winning the day and riding off with his lady love (or man love depending) into the sunset. Bioware takes the notion of total war very seriously, and the story is as grim as it is engaging. Victory is possible, but not without heavy loss and the total alteration of the status quo. The game can end in several ways, depending on how you play. Even the best victory scenario comes at a price, resulting in the death of friends and allies. In Mass Effect, as in life, you cannot always get what you want and you have to make the best with the options you have, even when those options are not good.

The end also is not straight forward, no matter what scenario plays out. The entire end of the game appears to be an exploration of the human mind. Bioware has taken a page, it seems, from Inception, making it unclear what exactly is “real” what and isn’t. My own view of it is the final sequences of the game are all in Shepard’s mind, as he attempts to fight off a process of Reaper brainwashing called “Indoctrination”. It’s surreal, unsettling, and makes you THINK about what is happening and why. It makes you consider every choice you have made up to this point in the series (one of the clever aspects of the series is that Bioware allows you to import your Shepard from one game to the next, coming with all the choices you have made, good, bad and ugly. Shepard always has baggage.) It makes you question your own assumptions and motives on several fronts, and how you deal with that impacts your final choices.

You do not come away from the end feeling happy. It is, regardless of what you do, a visceral punch to the gut, punctuated with the smallest ray of hope – a ray that is only there if you made particular choices through the series.

Some rabid fans of the game do not like this. They have started web petitions, written blogs, made Youtube videos all about how the end of ME3 “sucks”. There is not typical, flashy, shoot out with a final enemy to win the day. There is no triumphant hero pumping his fist in the air in victory. There is no simplistic, action movie, final moments. You are left instead, to think long and hard about what just happened and why  (which has interestingly resulted in some very cool talk about it, including my favorite bit of fan speculation known know as the “Indoctrination theory” about the end of the game.)

Bioware, which pays close attention to fan reaction to games and often includes tweaks to its products based on that feed back, has said it is listening and knows some fans need more “closure” to the story than the endings presently give, suggesting they might offer up some downloadable content that will change how the story ends in some fashion.

This could be a mistake, in my view. Yes, yes, the fanboys will rant and rave and claim the ending is horrible because, basically, they are not being spoon fed a happy ending. Life doesn’t guarantee us happy endings, loose ends are not always tied up, something Mass Effect has accepted since the start of the series. What Bioware has done is craft an ending one has to deeply consider and interpret, a very rare feat in a medium that is still maturing into a full blown art form: Did Shepard really defeat the Reapers? If so, how much of what we saw was “real” and not just in his head?  The end offers up more questions and it does answers.

Rather than change the ending, my hope is that Bioware will do what it has always done – offer up downloaded additions to the game that expand the universe and lead us in new direction. But change the ending because some players have an over the top, fanboy meltdowns over it? No. We shouldn’t be asking to be spoon fed base pap. There is a legion of sitcoms and awful science fiction programing and lunk headed fighting games for one to delve into if you want that. What Bioware has created is something unique, that should be allowed to stand and players should learn that it is ok to have to think. The low common denominator they appear to ask for isn’t worth it.

Categories: Geekosity, News, video games

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