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David Eby's blog

11:54 PM on 03.14.2012

Mass Effect 3’s Ending and Video Game Plots [Spoilers]

While I have noticed that many people are mad at the game and the ending for MANY different reasons, I was most upset at the seeming betrayal of the game’s principles.

Plotting in videogames is an odd duck. To my mind, an ideal video game plot should A) follow from the mechanics/genre of the game and B) allow player agency. That is first to say that I don’t think I’d like an RTS Romance game or a Mystery Racing game, and second that if the player can significantly influence the plot, they are more likely to invest in it. The necessity of plot in video games also varies between genres into 3 main categories.

The first type of game has essentially no provided plot. This type of game includes racing games, puzzle games, sports games, music games, platforming games, most multiplayer activities, and more. In these cases a plot is unnecessary, as we play for the gameplay. Mario platforming games have never had a particularly notable plot, we don’t play them to see how Bowser will kidnap Peach, nor do we expect puzzle games to honestly justify solving so many tests in a real world setting. Just as Chess and Monopoly don’t need a plot, the game mechanics and challenge are enough to sustain interest.

The second type of game asks players to create their own plot in the game’s universe. This type of games can often include MMOs, some RPGs, many sandbox games, and simulation games. These games can have missions that contribute to a grand arc that initiates and concludes the game, but as in GTA and Elder Scrolls, one can spend the great majority of their time simply playing around in the greater world. Side missions can dominate much of the playtime and exploration of the game world contributes to a sense of personal accomplishment, thus investment, on the part of the player.

The third type of game is the trickiest and involves a mostly linear plot. This category has included genres like Adventure, Shooters, RTSs, and some RPGs. Because the plot is more linearly defined, there is a significant danger of removing player agency. Ideally this category of game offsets this by offering the player choices that affect difficulty, minor plot points, or relationships. All too often, though, these games end up separating the plot from gameplay, sometimes to the point of play through stage A, watch a movie 10 minutes, wash, rinse, repeat.

Shooters, in particular, have a problem with plot. This isn’t to say that I have never played an action game whose plot I liked, (I’m a big fan of Uncharted) but it is quite difficult to create satisfying player agency in that genre. Just as Shooting Galleries and Paintball don’t require a plot in the real world, shooters often use plot as a method of stringing stages together.

But Mass Effect was different. Mass Effect offered a galaxy’s worth of options for characters, relationships and conclusions. This game consisted of an organic mix of cover-based shooting, adventure game-style dialogue trees, and RPG upgrades with occasional puzzles and vehicle sections for good measure. While everything might not appeal to everyone, (I was never a big fan of combat in ME,) the game comprised so many genres that people were willing to stomach the unpleasant as an interlude to the preferable sections.

In the end, sadly, Mass Effect 3 deviated from being an RPG with action elements into an action game with RPG elements by diminishing player choice. And while gamers accustomed to a plot cinematics serving as justification for gameplay rather than gameplay in their own right might remain satisfied, those gamers expecting a plot fully integrated into a game from beginning to end may come away disappointed.


My anger over the ending has two main quibbles: plot holes, and the loss of player agency.

I don’t have a particular problem with unhappy endings or with Shepherd dying. But, to me at least, the tone of the final cinematic indicated Bioware wanted to have its cake and eat it too. All of the endings include the destruction of the Citadel and (in my view the larger mistake) the Mass Relays. This puts the galaxy in dire straits, as the standard FTL drives would likely take years or decades to cross the galaxy (if not why use the mass relays at all). Are the Turians, Asari, etc going to pull a Star Trek: Voyager and begin a long trip home through mostly uncharted space? Not to mention the devastation wrought on all three capital planets of Earth, Palaven, and Thessia. It was one thing to hope that disaster areas might get relief from unaffected systems after the Reapers were defeated; now their reward for war’s end will be surviving a Reaper Winter (think Fallout minus the radiation and Brotherhood of Steel) in isolation. And the removal of a galactic economy means every unsustainable outpost colony will also have trouble. Wave goodbye to the NPCs you’ve gotten to know, as they will likely all starve to death.

If Bioware wanted a melancholy ending they should have had an ending that wiped out all intelligent life in the galaxy: Reapers and Shepherd-aligned species alike. You could set a death montage to sad music and flash past familiar characters, and then have the next cycle begin with synthesis. Cut to “alien Neanderthal people look up at stars around fire on alien world” with glowing circuit-skin. Bioware chose to conclude the trilogy with significant devastation and a tone (the music, the montage, the final shot) that imparted unearned hope.

Reactions to plot holes and repercussions will vary, though, and is secondary to Bioware’s betrayal of player agency.

The first potholes come in the final discussion with the Illusive Man. In concluding the conversation my Paragon-aligned character was forced to engage in Renegade QTE or face a game over. I can understand wanting good and bad choices to have ramifications, but to be forced into a “bad” move so close to the end of a game so rife with choice is absurd. Additionally for a game whose core mechanic involves shooting enemies who are pointing weapons at you to make a statement at the 11th hour that doing the SAME THING is evil is deeply hypocritical. (Is it because he’s voiced by Martin Sheen? His voice is good but that doesn’t mean I think his character is “good”!) I realize that if you play your cards right there is a way to have the Illusive Man shoot himself, but after over 100 hours (ME 1,2,3) of playing good over 98% of the time, to tell me now I’m not good enough is just silly.

As I hinted at with the common destruction of the Citadel and Mass Relays, all the ending cinematics share a significant number of elements. They mostly result in the reapers either being destroyed or leaving, and Earth either surviving or being destroyed. Extra variations consist of a transformation of sentient life galaxy-wide to organic-synthetic hybrids, and the possibility of Shepherd’s survival. These changes sound major but are carried out by substituting a couple short shots into the ending and (in an example of Tali’s-Face-as-Getty-Image level obliviousness) a color shift of the galaxy wide distribution wave. Due to the trifling size of these variations, the player feels the sense that their agency was minimal.

For an ending to preserve player agency, as most RPGs try to, I believe it needs to follow one of two routes: either a few distinct and clearly differentiated endings, or a single ending to the primary story placed in the context of choices made by the player. A good recent example of the distinct endings option would be Infamous 2, which contained distinct-yet-satisfying endings for “good” and “evil” (For an example of Bioware doing this well, take the original KOTOR). The few-choice option is probably a better fit for the conclusion of a trilogy, and helps reinforce the grand nature of the story. The alternative form, notably used in Fallout games, of a mostly unified ending juxtaposed with reminders of many player choices, could also work. This option would likely require a montage allowing for a more personalized and thus more personal conclusion, emphasizing the relationships to characters in the present, and hints of what waits in their individual futures.

The best analogy I can think of for this situation lies, not in movies but in TV. In television, a series conclusion needs to find a balance between resolving plot arcs and resolving character relationships. I don’t need every single plot thread tied up and every character paired up, but the most important ones need to be highlighted and given either conclusion or some form of continuity. For what it’s worth, I think ME3 came awfully close to the sweet spot, I found the character resolution mostly satisfying, and the discussion with the Catalyst of cyclic synthetic rebellion had great potential (go watch Quantic Dream’s Kara demo and try not to get shivers).

If I were asked to fix the ending I’d likely write for 3 profoundly different ones. I already suggested a different synthesis ending above, emphasizing a rebirth of sentience with a better hope for the future. A Paragon-aligned ending could emphasize self-sacrifice for the global good. Perhaps sacrifice everyone and everything on Earth and in the Sol System, while allowing the rest of the galaxy to rebuild and recover with the reaper threat lifted and the mass relay network mostly intact. Humanity would survive on colony worlds and the Normandy could excitingly escape the explosion acting as an emotional consolation for Shepherd’s loss. A Renegade-aligned ending should emphasize impatience and a disregard for the consequences. Perhaps go with the Bioware ending, destroying advanced technology, the mass relay network, and the Geth along with the Reapers. You might save Earth, but only by leaving the galaxy in damaged to the point it might never recover. A situation that has superficial benefits but is unsatisfying the more one considers it.

Despite earlier thoughts otherwise, I don’t think we should ask for the ending to be officially changed. I certainly believe games are art, and that the artists, in this case the writers from Bioware, retain the rights to conceive their work however they wish. Though the interactive nature of games gives players the perception of ownership, we are merely enjoying someone else’s creation, which simply needs to be appreciated (to whatever enjoyment you DID get from the game) as a whole. After all, I wouldn’t ask Arthur Conan Doyle (were he still living) to change “The Final Problem” because I dislike Sherlock Holmes’ death. It’s enough to let them know our dissatisfaction and hope that it proves a learnable moment for the company. But if, as in Doyle’s case, Bioware choose to amend the ending (DLC) or continue the story (ME4) I would be happier.   read

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