March 22, 2012

Thoughts on “Mass Effect 3”

Thoughts on “Mass Effect 3”

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Mass Effect 3. Consider yourself warned. It’s also long, so be sure to pour yourself a tasty beverage and/or find a comfortable chair.

There’s a fine line between expressing legitimate, thoughtful criticism and simply coming across like a whiny, entitled baby. I sincerely hope that this article lands closer to the former than the latter. Put simply, the more I reflect on my Mass Effect 3 experience, the more disappointed and underwhelmed I become. This is not to say that Mass Effect 3 has no positive qualities whatsoever, and it’s only fair to begin by considering them.

When Mass Effect 3 does work

I beat the game in a little over 30 hours, and I certainly had plenty of exciting gameplay that kept me hooked right on through to the (bitter) end. The game is an “action RPG”, with the emphasis definitely on the action. And the action was fun, no doubt about that. While no Halo, Mass Effect 3 still delivered plenty of solid first-person shooter action that encouraged me to think strategically as opposed to charging in with barrels a-blazing (though I did plenty of that, too). I played the game as a Vanguard, which blends a traditional gun-wielding soldier class with super powers — “biotics” in the game’s parlance — and I enjoyed finding the balance between those two aspects. It was quite satisfying to disarm or expose an opponent with biotics and then take them out with my assault rifle or shotgun, or to send foes flying with a well-placed shockwave.

As was the case with the first two Mass Effect games, you’re joined by two other party members on most missions, and part of the game’s fun is trying to figure out which party members have the right skills to help you succeed. I ended up taking Garrus Vakarian and Liara T’Soni on most missions because I liked the blend of combat, technical, and biotic skills that our trio had. However, there’s no one “right” party combination: the right combination is whichever one fits the way you want to play the game. I thought Mass Effect 3 open enough to accommodate multiple styles and approaches, which is certainly no mean feat.

One aspect of the Mass Effect series that has received a lot of attention, good and bad, is its romance system, which allows you to romantically pursue, and get intimate with, other characters. I chose not to pursue any romantic endeavors, but I was still pleasantly surprised by the depth of relationships contained in the game. In keeping with the game’s storyline — you are preparing for all-out war with an apparently unbeatable armada of intelligent machines (the Reapers) bent on destroying all organic life in the galaxy — you experience a number of touching and elegiac scenes with other characters in which you take stock of your friendships and say goodbye to one another in case you don’t survive. Especially moving were a couple of sequences involving Liara in which she encouraged my Commander Shepard, or we shared a close moment that had nothing whatsoever to do with romance. Such scenes even occured with non-player characters, such as Karin Chakwas, my ship’s doctor, and certainly added a more emotional dimension to the proceedings.

Finally, there’s the game’s exploration of morality, which has arguably been the series’ main selling point. I‘ve already written about how the Mass Effect series explores moral decisions and their consequences (here and here, for example). You still face several large quandaries in Mass Effect 3, and you engage in several conversations regarding the “moral calculus” of war, i.e., situations in which you may have to sacrifice billions in order to save billions. However, I found the quandaries less affecting and demanding this time around.

What I found particularly frustrating was that, given the galaxy’s dire situation, I never really felt the weight of my decisions. If I’m going to be making decisions that affect the lives of billions and billions of sentient creatures, then I expect there to be ramifications, not to mention some sort of emotional toll. But as the game neared its end, I found myself feeling strangely ambivalent. Whereas Mass Effect 2 left me questioning my actual sense of morality (no, really), I was surprised by the lack of any such lingering effect. Reflecting on the game, I believe there are several reasons for this.

This is the way the world ends

Let’s start with the game’s ending. To call it “contested” would be an understatement: many people have been very vocal in their dissatisfaction with how Mass Effect 3 ends. (One player even filed complaints with the FTC and the Better Business Bureau because of the ending.) Indeed, the outcry has been so large that BioWare is taking notice. While they haven’t exactly promised the new ending that many are demanding, they have announced that they are listening to players and will incorporate feedback into future content for the game:

…we also recognize that some of our most passionate fans needed more closure, more answers, and more time to say goodbye to their stories-and these comments are equally valid. Player feedback such as this has always been an essential ingredient in the development of the series.

[…]

So where do we go from here? Throughout the next year, we will support Mass Effect 3 by working on new content. And we'll keep listening, because your insights and constructive feedback will help determine what that content should be. This is not the last you'll hear of Commander Shepard.

Furthermore, Dr. Ray Muzyka, one of BioWare’s co-founders, recently addressed the disappointment surrounding the game’s ending and announced some plans to deal with it:

…since the game launched, the team has been poring over everything they can find about reactions to the game — industry press, forums, Facebook, and Twitter, just to name a few. The Mass Effect team, like other teams across the BioWare Label within EA, consists of passionate people who work hard for the love of creating experiences that excite and delight our fans. I’m honored to work with them because they have the courage and strength to respond to constructive feedback.

Building on their research, Exec Producer Casey Hudson and the team are hard at work on a number of game content initiatives that will help answer the questions, providing more clarity for those seeking further closure to their journey. You’ll hear more on this in April. We’re working hard to maintain the right balance between the artistic integrity of the original story while addressing the fan feedback we’ve received. This is in addition to our existing plan to continue providing new Mass Effect content and new full games, so rest assured that your journey in the Mass Effect universe can, and will, continue.

For a good list of the ending’s deficiences, I recommend reading GameFront’s in-depth “Mass Effect 3 Ending-Hatred: 5 Reasons The Fans Are Right”. Of the five points, the one that is most salient to my claims here is their #1 reason, “Player Choice Is Completely Discarded”. The end of the game, while not completely and totally awful — I did find parts of it affecting — does seem to reject any notion that the decisions you’ve made since the very first game were of any real importance. As GameFront puts it:

It’s been said more than once that the “multiple” endings of Mass Effect 3 are too similar, but if you have played it, and you’re honest about it, you have to admit that similar doesn’t even begin to describe it. They are all functionally identical. Once players reach the Citadel, they are taken along a low-interaction pathway, engage in conversation with the Illusive Man that can only end with him dead if you wish to proceed further, and then have a conversation — with a very limited set of responses — with the AI child. This experience is the same regardless of your Shepard’s moral alignment, and regardless of the decisions you made to get to this point. The AI does not alter his dialogue if you kill the Geth, he doesn’t offer different justifications if you spared the Collector Base; he does nothing different.

And then, you are given the same three choices, choices that you must accept even though none of them fit with anything Shepard would ever have done at any previous moment in the entire series. Whether the choices succeed or fail depends solely on your Effective Military Strength score, and nothing else. And once made, the only difference between them is a slightly different cutscene, and a different-colored explosion. And that’s it. The game ends at this point, and aside from the Normandy crash-landing, and the weird old man talking about “The Shepard” — and don’t forget the crass DLC pitch — the player never once gets to see how any of the choices they made affected the galaxy, or how the lives of people they touched continue, or don’t, after the war.

So much of Mass Effect’s appeal was its refusal to hide the consequences of the player’s actions. You make a hard decision and you’re faced with a hard consequence, one that might hinder your ability to save someone you cared about, not to mention the galaxy. But in the end, none of those decisions and consequences really matter. The result is a hollow, superficial ending. Of course, given the sheer amount of decisions and possibilities contained within the game, creating truly satisfactory endings would certainly be a daunting task. But one can’t help but feel like BioWare took the easy way out here, and if you’re feeling cynical, went with this ending in order to entice players to purchase future DLC that might hold the answers.

(To be fair, this seems like it will definitely be the case. Rumors have been circulating of some DLC called “The Truth” becoming available in April, and it’s entirely possible that BioWare can and will “patch” or expand the ending via DLC. Which raises other questions about putting canonical closure in DLC and not in the core game itself, and charging people for it.)

Show me Shepard, don’t tell me about him

The ending aside, several other factors added to my disaffectedness. As I continued through the game, I found myself ironically growing more and more detached from Commander Shepard and his plight. I say this is “ironic” because I spent so much time shaping and molding him, from his gender and appearance to his outfits and gear to his personality (via my chosen dialog options). I worked hard to create Commander Shepard in my image, so to speak, and this sort of projection/ownership is a fundamental aspect of the game. And yet, by pouring so much of my imagination into the character, I ultimately created a character that left nothing to my imagination. (It’s surely a balancing act to find a way to allow players to “own” their character while still crafting a character that is iconic, and I think BioWare errored too much in the former’s direction.)

Adding to this were the numerous scenes where other characters basically told me how my Shepard was feeling, or how he ought to be feeling. This is related to the old storytelling adage “Show, don’t tell.” I kept getting told that my Commander Shepard was under duress, or asked what it felt like to be under duress; however, I never saw much duress for myself.

How effective would it have been to return from a mission that somehow went wrong and see Shepard get drunk in the lounge, or to see him collapse in a sobbing wreck in the loneliness of his darkened cabin after receiving some horrible news from the front? Something like that could force me as a player to see my character’s emotional burdens up close and personal. True, there are some disturbing dream sequences in the game, but they felt superficial and tacked on, and you do occasionally grimace when viewing some instance of brutality, but that’s the extend of it… which isn’t much.

We have all the time in the world… again

Mass Effect 3 didn’t do much to much to illict much emotion regarding the galaxy’s plight. Last year, I wrote a critique of Dragon Age 2 that listed several ways that game undermined its own narrative. Sadly, Mass Effect 3 suffered from some similar issues. Namely, you feel little sense of urgency regarding your travels as you traipse around the galaxy. Indeed, the game undermines any such sense by giving you numerous side missions that are little more than grinding (i.e., opportunities to level up your characters through mindless and repetive actions). The game explores the consequences of your decisions, but not your traveling. You’re rarely, if ever, penalized, for hopping from system to system as the galaxy is being overcome, nor do you have any sense of how much time is passing and how quickly time is running out for you.

How interesting would it have been if BioWare had included, as a game mechanic, some sort of meter or timer that gave you an indication of how much time had elapsed, and how much time (approximately) you had for missions? And what if different missions required different amounts of time to complete due to the distances involved, mission complexity and length, and other factors? You would be forced to carefully consider which missions you went on, since you couldn’t go on them all. You’d have to prioritize, and what’s more, you’d run the risk of going on missions that might harm your overall efforts if you did them at the wrong time. Or, because of the time involved, you’d find that the window for completing other important missions had closed. As I wrote in my Dragon Age 2 article:

…I might’ve been frustrated at the loss of freedom. (I certainly would’ve been kicking myself for my lack of foresight and planning.) But would such an approach have driven home even more pointedly the notion that something was truly at stake, that the lives of countless individuals were riding on my shoulders? If a good story is contingent upon crisis, what better crisis could there be than knowing that, however unprepared I thought my companions and I might be, we had to head into the storm nevertheless—that the city of Kirkwall, the Chantry, the Mage’s Circles, and the whole of Thedas were depending on it?

Replace the city of Kirkwall, the Chantry, etc., with the galaxy, and you see what I’m getting at.

Mass Effect 3 had something close to this — as the game progressed, you see a visual representation of how many solar systems and galactic regions had been invaded by the Reapers and to what extent. However, this rarely hampered my travels, and I certainly felt no real pressure from within the game to exercise wisdom and prudence in my mission selections. (Admittedly, I'm no game developer, but I can imagine how complicated something like this might be to implement well. Still, imagine the storytelling and dramatic possibilities.)

I ain’t afraid of no Reaper

One other emotion that I felt little of throughout the game was fear. In the first two Mass Effect games, the Reapers had been effectively built up as a truly terrifying foe, a race so ancient and advanced that they were unfathomable to mere mortals. Those games included scenes that only added to their mystique. In the first game, you first glimpse a Reaper as one lifts off after doing God knows what at some remote facility, and the characters are all left shaken by the experience. In the second game, one of your missions has you exploring the body of a derelict Reaper. It’s a pretty creepy mission, and the game borrowed from Lovecraftian horror to emphasize just how alien and horrifying the Reapers were.

Unfortunately, Mass Effect 3 contains no similar scenes. As is the case with so many “reveals”, the Reaper onslaught proves a somewhat underwhelming experience. Sure, they’re decimating countless planets, but that’s almost beside the point. The Reapers are supposed to be a highly advanced, nearly mythical and incomprehensible race that descends upon the galaxy every 50,000 years to destroy all advanced sentient life, and they’ve been doing so for eons. Don’t you think that, by now, they’d have found a more efficient, and dare I say, graceful way to decimate the galaxy than landing on individual planets and lumbering through cities while using their eye lasers to knock down buildings?

One would think that orbital bombardment, making stars go nova, nanotechnology-driven husk-ification on a planetary scale, or even something involving dark energy and mass effect fields would be more the Reapers’ style given their stated level of development. To see them walk on the ground like giant crabs makes them seem rather pedestrian, and not quite the terrifying, hyper-advanced species we’ve been told they are.

Conclusion

BioWare has, over the years, developed a reputation for delivering some of the best RPGs in the market. And all complaints aside, Mass Effect 3 is still a notable achievement. Just its world-building efforts alone are pretty amazing. (Which makes the events actually occurring within that world all the more disappointing.) And yet, the last few BioWare games that I’ve played have run into the same storytelling and gameplay issues. I’m not sure, though, if that’s a BioWare issue alone, or endemic to RPG video games in general. I do know that ultimately, I found Mass Effect 3 a far cry from the “gripping, coherent triumph” that critics have called it.

I am curious to see how BioWare’s recently announced “game content initiatives” will address players’ concerns. However, I’m fairly certain I won’t be playing the game any time soon, it’s that frustrating. Rather, I’ll just content myself with reading the final details on Wikipedia and/or watching the real ending, if there ever is one, on YouTube.