Choices at the Event Horizon
Mass Effect 3
This is it: the end.
Since its inception in 2007, the Mass Effect franchise has been BioWare’s opportunity to show us how a space opera is done. While they’d proven they could spin stories in the Star Wars expanded universe, they began Mass Effect as a bid at creating a sci-fi intellectual property all their own (I’ve mentioned all this before).
The company’s initial success was robust, if incomplete. The first Mass Effect had its problems, certainly: the inventory system was torturous, and BioWare had yet to master the action-RPG gameplay style, so combat often felt awkwardly mechanical or off-kilter. But the size and scale of the galaxy they created, as well as their near-Asimovian commitment to scientific realism, won big points from sci-fi diehards. For those of a more literary bent – myself included – there was dialogue, plot and story. Almost too much for some. ‘It’s a book,’ Michael Krahulik of Penny Arcade fame griped on a podcast. His companion, Jerry Holkins, conceded this point: ‘Firing your sidearm is the equivalent of turning a page.‘
Mass Effect 2 was an excellent answer to these complaints. Managing a deft balance between futuristic action flick and classic science fiction ‘literature of ideas,’ the game no longer felt like a mix between a game and a novel. It was a game that played like an immersive movie. Combat was smoother, the inventory system radically streamlined – even the writing was punchier, more aware of its setting, context and genre, taking advantage of science fiction’s unique power to concretize moral and ethical dilemmas. From the Asimovian substrata of realism, a convincing, compelling universe of beings had emerged. More than that, a universe of choices – each with high stakes and lasting consequences for that universe. The cumulative effect of a player’s choices would shape the galaxy and everything in it. By playing in different ways, with different values, individual players were building different versions (and visions) of an unfolding galactic history. The second installment set high hopes for the glorious conclusion, and thus the final consequences of all those nail-biting choices. Could BioWare deliver?
At first, everything looks perfect – at least from the standpoint of apocalyptic aesthetics. Mass Effect 3 begins with your character, the now-legendary Commander Shepherd, being hastily pulled out of the brig and re-inducted into the Systems Alliance Navy – the trans-national defense force that serves as humanity’s collective interplanetary military. The moment you’re yanked out of your cell, you know something’s up – most legitimate authorities have disowned you after you spent the last game running and gunning with an infamous terrorist organization. Understand, your goal was noble – to stop the ongoing abduction of hundreds of thousands of human colonists. But your insistence that the perpetrators were simply pawns of an unstoppable legion of machine-gods called ‘Reapers’ – which legion, you attest, is plotting imminent galactic invasion – was just the kind of dissent-stirring doomsaying that makes career politicians unhappy. A few nearl;y catastrophic intergalactic incidents later, they decide to lock you up in order to shut you up.
What were we to expect from politicians? They never act in time. When they finally decide to call Shepherd before the defense council, of course it’s far too late – it’s clear the Reapers invasion you’ve been shouting yourself hoarse about has actually begun, and its course is set for Earth. When asked by a panicked member of the brass ‘what do we do?’ Shepherd has time to say one thing: ‘The only thing we can do – we fight or we die,’ before a kilometer-long mechanical squid monster drops down right outside the war-room window. Its interjection, in the form of a massive energy beam, serves to adjourn the meeting.
From here on out it’ll be one desperate situation after another. The Reapers – whose alien cephalopod appearance gives them Lovecraftian overtones – are here in force. Earth and its defenses fall within hours, allowing the Reapers to harvest the civilian population in droves, converting them into hideous, weaponized amalgams or reducing them into genetic paste to be used in their own reproductive cycle. Using a form of electro-magnetic mind control called ‘indoctrination,’ they subdue the planetary government and make its leaders into Judas goats.
Earth is just the beginning, too. The Reapers will be everywhere, soon – all over the galaxy. In short, the end looks nigh. The only hope is that you can rally all the other species in the known universe for one last-ditch battle. You even have blueprints for an ancient experimental super weapon, dubbed the Crucible, whose function is unknown but upon which all depends. So far this is shaping up to be a properly momentous final chapter.
But annihilation is easy. We’ve been representing the ruin of civilization via divine, alien, technological or simply natural forces at least since the Flood story, but that doesn’t make every instance a classic. The destruction is rendered with properly cinematic grandeur – projected onto the wall of my spouse’s apartment, bigger than the biggest of big screens, the experience was a triumph of home theater. The real master stroke, however, lies in how Mass Effect 3 leverages its finality, the pressure of impeding ending. The secret ingredient is urgency, which amplifies the power of the game’s numerous moments of choice.
Choice – more specifically choice and consequence – is what makes the Mass Effect series so compelling. Most missions, tasks and interactions have multiple, mutually exclusive options for how to complete them. For example, upon finding a wounded team of soldiers, you can either have them hold back and wait for evacuation, or talk them into risking themselves so as to give you cover while you complete the mission. This (admittedly simplistic) example serves, as well, to illustrate the game’s built-in morality system – a polarized opposition between selfless, hopeful ‘Paragons’ and ruthless, jaded ‘Renegades’ – which is often mapped onto the decisions players must make. This system ends up producing potentially consistent roles of hero and anti-hero, but the player must constantly decide.
Many of the dilemmas facing Commander Shepherd are fiercely complex. Politics are no simpler or more elegant on the galactic, interspecies scale. The guns only get bigger, the stakes larger, the risks higher and the egos and agendas more overweening than ever. In order to create a united galactic front, you must broker alliances which run contrary to centuries-old grudges and grievances. Your case should be strong, since extinction is the price of failure – the Reapers, you must understand, have been routinely wiping out galactic civilization every 50,000 years for no-one-knows-how-long, each time letting it regrow before swooping in to harvest it again.
How to stop them? ‘At any cost’ seems like the easiest answer. Times of desperation don’t lend themselves to the lengthy or privileged contemplation of moral issues, and Mass Effect 3 rarely loses sight of this danger. To borrow the words of the sometimes-self-righteous Major Kaiden Alenko – one of Shepherd’s long time crewmates – ‘…sometimes the way a thing goes down does matter. Later, when you have to live with yourself.’ Living means living with your choices, and their consequences – however, when your life, and all other lives, hang in the balance, the question becomes ‘will we live at all’? Ethics at the world’s end, like physics at the edge of an event horizon, seem to stop functioning in expected ways.
Since the series’ inception, the choices of Mass Effect have had enduring consequences. At the end of each game a player is able to export their character and then import it into the next game, rather than having to start from scratch each time. This allows one to preserve the appearance and accumulated abilities of their character from game to game, but more importantly it transfers the data about that character’s choices, choices that often profoundly affect the course of the narrative history – not to mention the player’s concurrent emotional investments (another specialty of BioWare’s). The balance of galactic power, as well as the status of your close relationships, hinge upon a long chain of decisions with lasting effects. Potential allies view you in light of your previous actions, comrades in arms who die in previous installments stay dead, and past romances can be rekindled – but only if you seized the right moment in an earlier game.
This can have a profound effect on players, at least on those of us who have a strong narrative fixation. The promise (threat?) that any given decision might be consequential causes me to weigh every decision with a gravity I wouldn’t otherwise. I will – and indeed have – loaded my game, sacrificing hours of gameplay by having to repeat numerous tasks, just to change the course of one conversation I initially bungled. While my investment may be uncommonly strong, I’m not like this with every game, and Mass Effect in particular fosters this feeling. My spouse – not a woman taken to suffering the least boredom or tedium – subjected herself to the same crazy grind, replaying an entire mission and more in order to avoid an unsatisfactory consequence.
This feeling of consequence starts off as the product of the narrative’s ongoing nature – since we’re prompted to export our character from this game, and import it into the next, we know our character’s choices will matter ‘down the line’. But when dealing with an ending, as we do with Mass Effect 3, the dynamic shifts dramatically. Since ending itself marks the limit of continuity, the sense of consequence – still present – is now derived from knowing our choices will matter ‘in the end’. What was playing out will now be played out, gaining a whole other kind of permanence – weightier, even sepulchral. At root, it’s the grammatical difference between imperfect and perfect – the continuous past of implied consequences, and the completed past of final Consequence.
This is why an ending casts a shadow over an entire work, and the bigger the buildup, the bigger the payoff needs to be, since The End – serving as both frame and pedestal – supports and contextualizes the final whole both as final and as whole; it’s only a trilogy once there’s a third installment, after all. It’s a daunting responsibility, when you think about it, and infamously difficult to pull off. The giants of popular fiction – I’m here thinking of King and Rowling – have both been criticized for failing in just this manner. The Stand is something of a pulp masterpiece until we reach that limp ending, and I have to believe Rowling slipped the Harry Potter epilogue in while her editors were distracted (counting money, maybe). I don’t say this to disparage, at least, not in a superior fashion. Both are cases of epic works which defy satisfactory conclusion.
By now I’ve tipped my hand. This kind of circumlocution would never be necessary if Mass Effect 3 incontrovertibly delivered. Numerous articles have proliferated, addressing the controversy surrounding what some fans have decried as an ending which is too short, insultingly reductive, embarrassingly inconsistent and – worst of all by my present reading – renders all the player’s choices retroactively meaningless. The fan-protest Facebook group, dubbed ‘Retake Mass Effect 3’ – whose singular stated purpose is to ‘demand a better ending’ – has garnered nearly 63,000 ‘likes’ as of this writing; clearly the fans are very worked up.
Over what, exactly?
The specific reasons for rancor are outlined skillfully by Ross Lincoln over at Game Front – and they are, ironically, directly tied to Mass Effect’s great strengths. He lauds BioWare exactly as I do, for making ‘every decision feel critical’ such that ‘as you begin the final mission, you actually feel the weight of 5 years of play, dozens of well-written friendships, and 15,000 years of galactic civilization are behind you.’ This, according to Ross, is a ‘glorious accomplishment,
And that accomplishment is completely undone as the story is wrapped up via a barely-interactive cutscene lasting less than 10 minutes.
Whoops! How’d BioWare managed to screw that up so badly? The core complaint, as Lincoln puts it, is (and isn’t) this:
It’s not just that players are forced to choose from one of three nearly identical endings.
This is a fair assessment. The final cutscenes, all of which depict commander Shepherd’s spacecraft, the Normandy, fleeing the shockwave of a massive explosion, differ from each other, now infamously, primarily in the color of that explosion. What that explosion’s color represents is supposed to be extremely significant, since it reflects the game’s final choice between a.) destroying the Reapers – red explosion b.) controlling the Reapers – blue explosion or c.) synthesizing all organic and synthetic life so as to forever resolve the inevitable battle between organic life and the artificial life they create – green explosion.
The choice itself is big – the problem is the actual visible consequences of the choice are so superficial they undermine the significance we might otherwise invest. It reeks of laziness and rushed production: recoloring and reusing visuals is about the oldest corner-cutting trick in video game history.
It’s not even that they are presented with each choice regardless of what kind of game they played…
This may be a gesture of fairness, making sure all endings are available to each player regardless of how they played. But it also suggests that it doesn’t matter, contrary to the game’s explicit premise, how a thing goes down in the end, if – in the end – it always goes down the same way.
It’s that the player is never given any sense of how the choice they ultimately made affected the galaxy they worked so hard to save.
Which is, I’d assert, the most important and distinct experience Mass Effect has to offer – that sense of consequence.
Instead, they see one of 3 identical, context free scenes of the Normandy crash landing on a planet somewhere, followed by a nonsensical epilogue featuring a Grandfather and his grandson that almost seems to smugly imply that the gamers themselves were nothing but children who couldn’t fully understand these events.
This last is an extremely weak post-credit-roll attempt to establish some sort of significance-enhancing ‘frame narrative’ – all the more bungled since it actually serves to make the framed content feel less significant, boiling down important questions about survival, ethics and the importance of unity into a dull platitude about the diversity of life and how each life ‘has its own story.’ This bizarre reframing is be bad enough, but it’s then immediately followed by a brazen solicitation to buy downloadable content. Worse still, this solicitation is actually coded into the hastily introduced frame narrative. ‘Tell me another story about the Shepherd’ the grandson begs, to which the grandfather replies, ‘It’s getting late but, OK: one more story.’ Maybe the nameless grandchild will get this story for free. It’s pretty clear the rest of us will have to pay for it. We may just be consumers, but this feels awfully disrespectful.
More than anything, however, the fanbase feels betrayed. While the argument over what grounds and rights the fans actually have to a satisfactory ending quickly becomes a circuitous and deeply entrenched discussion of authorship and consumer rights, the feeling itself is undeniable. For whatever reason, the players seem to think they had some kind of covenant with the game and its producers, a covenant that is now seen as – in some difficult-to-describe but definitive way – violated. I can relate: to find out that all my attention to detail, the seriousness of my decisions, doesn’t really amount up to anything in the final tally makes me feel hoodwinked.
I admit, at first I was in denial – I’d heard bad things about the ending, but I refused to let this color my perception. Upon initially experiencing the ending, I felt pretty okay about it. I even texted my spouse to say (in effect) ‘stupid internets, they just aren’t thinking hard enough’. Upon granting the grievances closer investigation, I found my perspective being shifted – never a comfortable experience. I realized that I was probably being partisan in favor not of the game makers but of the game itself. My investment was great enough that I needed the ending to be at least okay. But the longer I thought about it, the more I realized, it wasn’t okay. At least it didn’t feel okay. I went at once to work on reasons (read: excuses) as to why.
First I thought it might be because so much is hung on a MacGuffin; that, after all, is essentially what the Crucible superweapon amounts to. The question constantly posed during the course of the game regarding this mysterious device – the only way to defeat the Reapers – is not only ‘will it work?’ but ‘what will it do?’ And, after all, what really could the Crucible have been, or done? What was it but an uncertain certainty, an expectation with no clear content, – a ‘doomsday device’ in the truest, narrative sense, being a thing that brings the story to the end, and along with it a final reckoning. It’s an effectively formal feature to which it might be difficult to ascribe any satisfying content.
And really, are we owed satisfaction? Not as consumers of creative commodities; all we can be is once-bitten, twice shy. As readers, consumers of narrative, however, we get the sense that some promise has been broken – that the story has not lived up to itself. Does that mean readers have a right to ask for a better ending, the fulfillment of this assumed promise?
I don’t actually have an answer. I’m not certain there is one. In a blog post about the ending controversy, Jerry Holkins sums up the difficulty well:
When it comes to Mass Effect 3, certainly [the game makers] have the “right” however vaguely enumerated to make what they want, and those who consume it have the “right” however vaguely enumerated to say that what they have done is wrong/bullshit/authentically evil. These “rights” don’t necessarily overlap: they exist as perfect spheres, bouncing off one another in space. Creating or critiquing is just a way to pass the time until you die. I won’t say ne’er the twain shall meet, but they might not, and they don’t have to.
I don’t think that the answer is just to shrug, however. No more than it is to whinge about how the writers or the text itself ‘owes’ us something. I’m not saying that such whinging doesn’t have a hint of legitimacy, nor that writers, artists and cultural producers ought not to be called out when they let us down.
For it was easier, much easier, to skip the dialogue and fudge the choices after I knew the ending. This wasn’t a product of simple repetition fatigue, either. I played through some parts of the game as many as four times before knowing the game’s end, and previous to the story’s completion, I replayed with all my usual care and attention. But the ending, casting its shadow back over the work, robbed my choices of their power, and stole away much of my involvement. Rather than granting my actions urgency as it once had while still a promise, the actual fulfillment of the ending killed the very urgency which I had previously experienced so intensely.
I’m left wondering, though, if this is the ending’s fault alone? I feel that I must in some way be complicit. If one wishes – as I do – to ennoble the game’s complexity, how it causes us to pay attention to our choices and entertain serious moral questions in light of their consequences, we should not let ourselves off so easily. Do we really think that the game must provoke this in us without effort of our own? If we must be forced or seduced into exerting our judgement, our prized Enlightenment faculties must have badly atrophied.
Because the choices themselves are still there. And while their consequences may seem nullified within the canonical edifice of the work, that should render them no less real as choices. As we know in the world, in our lives, when we ourselves make momentous decisions, we sometimes don’t have the opportunity to see how they pan out. In truth, life possesses no such duty to final reckoning – all our judgments must rest upon our faith in their consequences.
Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous video game reviews for Open Letters can be found here.