Mass Effect 3 was released nearly two years ago and was one of the finest games ever crafted…….. right up until the last 5 minutes. For many gamers, a thoroughly amazing trilogy was decimated in 5 minutes of star child babble. Even an updated ending in the form of free DLC was not enough to ease gamers’ reactions. I’m not here to convince you that Mass Effect 3’s ending was horrible. That is self evident. Yet, many games and movies have had endings that have been as bad or even worse without generating the amount of vitriol that Mass Effect 3’s ending created. I’d like to provide a deeper look at why exactly Mass Effect 3’s ending was so hated and what it means to gaming in general.
Why People Loved Mass Effect
Mass Effect didn’t become such a major franchise because of its gameplay. The original Mass Effect was an awkward mix of RPG and shooter mechanics that proved unwieldy. The RPG mechanics were too shallow to please RPG fans and got in the way of the, mediocre, shooter mechanics. The series improved its gameplay by streamlining itself into a more traditional third person shooter. While the gameplay was far smoother and combat was undeniably better, the series lost a bit of its personality in the transition.
Mass Effect’s strength was in its story and particularly in its emphasis on player agency. Throughout the entire series, players were constantly reminded of their active participation in the story. In the first game, players were allowed to make several key choices that were reflected in later games (although some choices were sadly swept under the rug). The choices made in the second game promised to have severe ramifications on the third entry of the game as some characters would live or die depending on your actions.
Of all the narrative based games I’ve played, which is definitely not all of them, Mass Effect 1 and 2 most convinced me of my influence on the world. In preparation for Mass Effect 3’s launch, I prepared about 4 different completed files to see how various actions would play out. I had one file for each gender and alignment (Male renegade, female renegade, male paragon, female paragon) and made different choices along the way to see how the universe would be impacted.
The Failures of Mass Effect 3
Hey wait a minute… I chose Anderson…
While people tend to focus on the ending, the problems in Mass Effect 3 began earlier on. It was disappointing to discover that many of the choices you made had limited impact on the story. Whether you decided to appoint Udina or Anderson as the councilor for humanity, Udina will be the councilor by Mass Effect 3. If Mordin is dead, another Salarian scienctist will take his place and serve the same function. If Tali is dead, another Quarian will replace her. If you didn’t save the Rachni, they’ll still be present. No matter how faithful you were to Cerberus, the Illusive man will still hate you by Mass Effect 3.
There were of course some changes to the story both minor and major. Saving the Geth and the Quarians is only possible under certain circumstances. If Wrex is dead, it is possible to screw over the Krogan without popping Mordin. If Garrus and Tali are dead, you’ll miss out on some great scenes with the two of them. However, the influence your decisions have over your galaxy never seem to be as important as promised.
The New Uncanny Valley
The uncanny valley is a concept in gaming that points out that the more realistic games become, the more we notice small imperfections. For instance, the faces in Mass Effect 3 are so convincing that it’s easy to notice that their mouths don’t look quite right in motion, something that never bothered me in a game like Final Fantasy 10. The closer we get to photorealism, the more we notice non-photorealistic elements. We usually refer to the uncanny valley in terms of graphics, but the same concept applies to gameplay as well.
The Mass Effect series promises a compelling universe shaped by player choices. It promises that our choices will shape the galaxy. It allows us to be the hero of an epic in a way that was never possible in other mediums. We could never decide whether Luke Skywalker joined the dark side, but we could shape the intricate universe of Mass Effect 3, or so we thought.
At the end of the day though, Mass Effect 3 is a game that is programmed by the folks over at Bioware, and there is only so much data. The game has to culminate in a finite number of possible endings, and it is impossible to create one for every possibility. So, you have the readiness system. The readiness system is where the fourth wall crumbles and the hand of the creator reveals itself. All of those painstakingly considered choices were boiled down to the most base video game concept ever… points.
Samara survived the battle against the collectors? Kudos. 25 points. You couldn’t save the Geth? Tsk tsk minus 500 points. Upgraded the Normandy in Mass Effect 2? Good going! Ten points. Saved the Krogan? 500 points. Chose to let the Rachni live? 100 points. Saved the ascension? 70 points for you buddy. All of those choices which you thought would have meaningful ramifications on the story are reduced to a simplistic point system. You won’t see Rachni on the Battlefield nor will the Ascension swoop down to save you. It is all reduced to a point system little more complex than Pacman eating dots.
What do all of those points get you? Well, they let you choose from one of three endings. In the original ending, you literally had three palette swaps of a nearly identical ending. The extended cut adds a more satisfying amount of detail, but the endings are still more or less the same.
Gaming’s Next Frontier
This is why I believe people truly hated Mass Effect 3’s ending. Of course, the ending was bad in and of itself, but many games or movies have bad endings, and fans rarely demand a change (at least not with such a large and unified campaign). But Mass Effect 3 was different. By the time we reached the Citadel’s beam, we had 100% bought into the fantasy provided to us. We truly believed this was our world and our story. We were so sold on the universe and its authenticity that the eventual revelation that this was Bioware’s world and Bioware’s ending was all the more shocking.
Just as visual flaws stand out more in a game that is approaching photorealism, the lack of control gamers have over a narrative is more striking in a game that has done such a convincing job of bringing you into the story. Bioware’s amazing work in the area of immersion made it all the more disappointing when they had to take back the reigns. Obviously, Bioware could not have truly crafted an ending that would incorporate the dozens of choices we made, but they came so much closer to a real breathing single player world than any other developer had that we believed in the illusion and were more disappointed when it ended.
With the next gen dawning, all of the conversation has focused on resolution and framerate, and frankly, I couldn’t care less about either of those things. What I want out of the next generation of gaming is for developers to work towards a game that can take the incredible work done by the Mass Effect team one step further. Create a fully fleshed out and engaging narrative that players can truly shape. This, far more than any visual enhancements, is what can take gaming to the next level, and hopefully developers are working on how to make the bold ambition of Mass Effect a reality.