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4:11 PM on 03.23.2012

Mass Effect 3 - The end of the end

I guess I'm a little late for the discussion, but those kind of details never stopped me. Anyway: Mass Effect 3 is a highly subjective game. It has to be - one made so many decisions in the prequels that it's nearly impossible for anyone to have the exact same experience. I am not here to rant about Bioware's whole conclusion to its science-fiction saga, but to vent about the game's ending. An ending which raised so much fuss that over 10,000 users of the Bioware forums voted for an additional ending - a plea that was taken up by the developer, who promised to deliver... something in April. And because I'm already on a spoiler roll, I'll take the finale of Deus Ex: Human Revolution along for the ride.

I want to explain the game's last moments to you. Thogh I'm wondering a little, why you're still reading this if you haven't finished the game yet, but that's up to you. I already warned you about spoilers and I won't do it again after this.

So, the Reapers attack. That much is clear. Earth is pretty much in ruins and the only hope is a prothean super-weapon, missing one key element. After some running about it becomes clear that the last puzzle piece is the Citadel itself. In the final act, Shepard manages to reach the Citadel's control center, so close to destroying the intergalactic threat once and for all, but he's being stopped by the Citadel's avatar known as the Catalyst. The Catalyst explains that every former cycle - meaning the regulated destruction of high civilizations - was meant to prevent the complete eradication of organic life by synthetic life forms. The idea is that it's better to ascend those civilizations into higher beings (well, except for the Protheans - these guys are stuck transforming other races into Reaper slush. So much for salvation), leaving room for lower species to grow, before the galaxis-wide worst-case scenario occurs and nobody's left save the synthetics. But since Shepard made it this far it's clear that the old plan doesn't work anymore. So the commander gets to choose:

1. To kill all the Reapers and every synthetic lifeform or lifeform containing synthetics - this includes the Geth and, since his resurrection, Shepard himself/herself. The catch is that the Catalyst predicts that the day will come when new synthetics will be created, which will ultimately be every organic's demise.
2. To take control over the Reapers, just like the Illusive Man wanted. This sounds pretty great, but Shepard would have to give up his existence for this.
3. To throw Shepard down a gleaming stream of light to scatter everything that makes him, which would trigger a chain reaction resulting in the mutation of every organic's DNA into an almagamation with synthetics of some kind. This is supposed to be the highest level of evolution. I have no idea how it's supposed to work, but apparently it does.

No matter what the decision, after the retreat/destruction of the Reapers we see the Normandy with its crew crash land on an unknown, beautiful planet with no way of getting away (since all the mass relays are destroyed), exiting the broken ship (sorry, EDI) and looking up to the sky.

The points of criticism are multifarious (yeah, I looked that one up): None of the decisions ever made have any say in the ending (except for the third ending, which might just not be there if you were not prepared enough for the last battle), none of the possibilities are truly hopeful, they don't tie up the destiny of the side characters very well, since the whole crew's just hauled to some vacation planet, Shepard dies.

My Shepard was a decent guy. He tried to create peace whenever possible, always helped out his crew, was in a relationship with Liara before falling in love with Tali... which is why I would've been really curious as to what happens to those many characters, whose lives I've touched, after the war. Or how they mourned Shepard. That would have been proper and would have checked the missing "hopefulness" aspect in one go.

But it is nonesense to claim that the ending doesn't reflect our former decisions. I'm going as far as to say that Mass Effect 3 does so better than any game before it. After three times thirty to fourty hours of game time, one feels with his Shepard. You make decisions for him and the feedback reaches our emotional conscience. Though there are constants: No matter what you do, Shepard's the good guy. And he must save everyone from the Reapers. Therefor it makes sense that any of the three choices do not refer to the ending but the method of reaching it. The Reaper threat is stifled, Shepard makes the ultimate sacrifice.
I had to think long and hard before deciding to take control of the Reapers. When I did that, I didn't think of mankind's future or that of the aliens, the development of life or standing up to a prophecized fate, but I thought of Tali. And that my Shepard would never see her again. He wouldn't even be able to say good-bye. The synthesis solution seemed unreal to me and I couldn't bear having the death of every synthetic on my head. The Geth didn't deserve that. But I decided to become the Reaper's conscience mainly because I would be able to go on protecting my lover - and the rest of the galaxy's inhabitants. If you're so deep inside the head of your protagonist that your views have kind of merged, you've arrived in the realm of head canon, meaning that you're trying to put some meaning and reason into the decisions you make, rather than living in an arbitrary multiple-choice world. This kind of decisionmaking is better than a set flag in your save game and distinguishes video games from complex choose your own adventure books!
Comparing with a different Shepard: She was an ass for the most time in Mass Effect 1 and 2, a pure renegade. Until she's met Thane, who changed her life and gave it a point outside of performing her duty. She never really became nice, but she was a little bit more empathetic at the end of ME2. When Thane died in Mass Effect 3, Shepard was angry. Angry at Cerberus for killing her love, angry at the Reapers and the Geth, which she never liked anyway. And angry at the Citadel midget which had the gall to think it was so wise, so Shepard took her gun and did what she came to do - no matter the cost. And now you tell me, that "my" Shepard wasn't there at the end. Whoever grouches ONLY about this hasn't played the games with enough attention to earn any grouching rights.

And now it's time for the comparison to Human Revolution. The latest Deus Ex approaches the ending problem in a similiar way by giving the player the choice to fundamentally change the direction of the augmentation culture with politics or to give humanity the reins to this decision. I found this resort cheap, because, in contrast to Mass Effect 3, you are allowed to completely contradict everything you have done up to this point. I might have been a human purist until the very end, but then I get the choice to betray everything I believe in? That's great storytelling right there! It's like if Abraham Lincoln worked years and years to free the slaves and when he is supposed to sign the Emancipation Proclamation he decides that slavery actually isn't that bad. Slaves build streets. We need streets.
Mass Effect 3, on the other hand, lets us generate a justification for any of the three endings - which, if we think enough about it, might even tells us something about ourselves. True character only reveals itself under pressure, after all.

In the end, what I didn't like was Shepard dying. Yes, I get it. I really do. With every game Shepard becomes more than just a human, he becomes hope incarnate for everybody, the shining star of salvation. And by fulfilling his task this sun has to burn out. It's the perfect ending for the metaphor, even if every part of my being yearns for a happier one.
It just hurts, because Shepard is human, too. He is me, too. He planned a future with Tali on her home planet and in the end he doesn't even get a chance to say his good-byes. My other Shepard was only out for revenge at the end, she wouldn't have cared that much since she was on a collision course with death anyway; her only intention was to make it a loud one. But it broke my heart with my first Shepard.
Saying your good-byes is important, after all. It gives us the power to live with difficult decisions and the sentiment to have nothing left undone. I think I'm not alone with the wish that, if I kick the bucket some day, I will have the chance to tell all of my loved once what they mean to me. That is the difference between a tragic and a bittersweet ending. Unfortunately Bioware decided to make the bitter pill the bigger one.

In the end I can't say whether the ending of Mass Effect 3 was good or bad. I can only say that while the credits and after I was slouched pretty depressed in my chair and thought. Had I played with my second Shepard first, then making the decision from inside my head would have been far easier, I suppose. I'm curious what Bioware will do with the coming update. I just hope they are respectful.   read

5:53 AM on 03.13.2012

About art games, conflict, roller coasters and Portal

I agree with Jim's recent Jimquisition that there is no place for games which try to be books or movies (exception: Visual Novels, but even those enhance the experience by giving the player the power of choice, which can't be accomplished anywhere else). Books, movies, even theater have their own level of conflict they excel at in portraying - inner conflict (what's going on in the heads), outer conflict (exploding cars, oppressive regime) and social conflict (my brother slept with my sister, oh boy!). All of those media can also fiddle in their siblings' domain, but there's generally only that one thing they're really good at.
Games are a little bit special in that department. Like movies they excel in picturing outer conflict, but they also have the power to take the conflict around the protagonist and make it the player's own internal conflict. We emotionally hyperconnect even with typical, mundane stories, because - if the rest of the game is done right - we have the ability to do something about our fate. We lay down the steps, we decide when we go on and, if possible, even where. The developers' job is to keep us inside some invisible boundaries of what we're actually allowed to do. We can feel that our actions have repercussions, no matter how minor or how inevitable the final outcome. Creating a video game means giving the player the ability to do everything, but not too much.

Everything, but not too much. If the player can do too much, he destroys the game's narrative and the bubble bursts. This is why pure sandbox games like Crackdown or Just Cause don't even try to implement more than a sporadic plot. If he can't do enough, he will notice that he's just a part of a roller coaster ride. That can be fun, sure, but it doesn't matter whether you raise your arms or no. Game designers who do not try to achieve this fine balance rob their games of a whole dimension. It may be perfect on the other ones, yes. But it's still flat and could have done more.

If you want to see what kind of games tell a magnificient, deep story without being bereaved of their actual gaming part, just take a look at the Portal games. I assume everybody has played Portal up to now. Would the experience have been enjoyable without the puzzles and the platform gaming? Absolutely. The plot and the general feel of the game couldn't have been destroyed by yanking out the major gameplay component. Chell could've walked from one test chamber to the next, be passively tested by some kind of machine, until something went wrong and she escaped to the main computer room where she just had to walk to a death switch while GladOS gives her final monologue. The end.
But ask yourself: Isn't Portal more because of its gameplay? For about one and a half hours you make yourself acquainted to the Portal gun, learn its quirks and works. Then, when GladOS openly tries to kill you by letting you take a ride into the incinerator, your heart races. You know that you have to DO something to avoid death. There is no deus ex machina, no serendipitous coincidence saving your ass. YOU have to do it, IF you want to live. So you look around, you find the usable panel, you break out of the roller coaster and you're relieved. At this point something radically changes: You aren't at this mad computer's mercy anymore. You have gotten the opportunity to take your life into your own hands. And, this is the most important: All of those feelings clash together right after the moment you DID something, resulting in not only the obvious new mission - to escape the labs -, but another that couldn't have been delivered as deeply by simple story telling: You want revenge. You want to make GladOS pay for its betrayal. For keeping you imprisoned. For forcing you to dump the cute, little companion cube. You were in a bad situation, but now you're in charge and you're going to fuck the major force of antagonism up. FUCK'ER RIGHT UP.

Now you tell me how Valve should have gone on about this without actual gameplay.

Oh, by the way: If you want to play another excellent game with heavy focus on narrative, interweaved with a top-notch (but hard!) gameplay experience, get yourself the original Xbox game Breakdown. It's compatible with the 360.   read

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