Sunday, August 19, 2012

Dead Men Tell No Tales: Reflections on Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut


This story was originally posted at KnownGriefers.com.  Though I did my best to keep this spoiler-free, if you have not finished Mass Effect 3, it's best to just not read this.

I hate to say it: the extended endings to Mass Effect 3 (DLC released June 26 on XBox Live, PlayStation Network, and PC) are good.  Even though these––in many people’s eyes––are the endings that should have been there in the first place, these have merely fallen in line with what is expected of “epic video game endings.”  With this new DLC, the Mass Effect franchise, but mostly the still brilliant Mass Effect 3, are now just a really good video game series with a “video game ending,” and is not worth talking about any more, and that’s a tragic shame.

I was one of the few, apparently, that had no real qualms with the original endings.  They were a little curt, undoubtedly, but when I reflected upon the alternative, I realized satisfying every fan’s choice, in every possible combination, would be a ridiculous prospect to consider.  For a game built around the conceit of “choice” (more on this later), I argued that the original endings were the ultimate transference of choice.  Over the course of three games, “choice” develops as a sort of ironic, metacognitive philosophical concept, one that organically and believably moves from being 1. choices made by the game (or, to use the parlance of the series, choice has a “synthetic” beginning) to 2. choices made by the player and the game together (a “hybrid” process) to––with Mass Effect 3’s original endings, at least––3. choices that are the player’s alone (becoming an “organically” controlled concept).  This movement, one rife with and ripe for conversation between fans, was not only brilliant and mature, but it created something I hadn’t seen in the gaming community before: a critical discussion of the meaning, depth, possibility, and purpose of a video game’s ending.

Bioware rigorously mapped out how to satisfy every fan.  Their heads exploded.

The lengthy gameplay of the series is a fantastic exercise in video game roleplay and storytelling in addition to the aforementioned philosophical exercise of choice, a stew which made the series essential for gamers to play.  The original endings, however, made this series ascend from being excellent sci-fi to being flat-out literary.  Only the player knows his or her Sheperd best; in truth, only the player knows how the future of the galaxy (not the universe, by the way) could play out based on the supply of choices made.  Furthermore, those final choices carry a self-aware, emotionally-charged importance for the player (well, for me, at least) because no choice felt safe, no future could be guessed, and no person aside from one’s self could be consulted. It forced a player to really push the religious undertones all the way to its boundaries and make the choice based on a sort of faith––the player has to trust that his or her "shepherd" will do the right thing, and that the endings don't tell you what happened force the player to rely on that faith, just like we all have to do in life's major decisions.  While initially making my final choice, my heart was pounding––I honestly had no idea what to do.  It is a rare game that can make a player feel like that––locked in a standstill because of moral and personal implications of a simple choice.  Combined with the vagueness of the original endings, this experience is what made Mass Effect 3 one of the most beautiful games ever made––you had to believe that everything worked out the way you wanted it to.  Choice, however, was also at the heart of Bioware's narrative.

Here, a designer is testing the new "spoonfeeding" narrative engine.

First and foremost, this is a series about a character named Commander Sheperd.  Sheperd is an amazing specimen, one who seems perfectly built to fight this war.  Most importantly, Sheperd is not a god.  Unlike other RPGs (or games in general) where the player can build a character or a team of characters to become unstoppable death trains, Mass Effect’s Sheperd is always fighting an uphill battle.  This keeps Sheperd human and relatable to whomever is playing.  Like a good book, the story about Sheperd ends when that character’s story is complete.  With the exception of one of the original endings, there is no possible way for the character to know what happened following the final decision.  The original endings were enough to let the player know the immediate implications of what happened (and here is where I felt the original endings faltered a bit by not offering enough difference and that the extended cut improves) but, as far as Bioware’s intent was concerned, the story ended with the player’s last decision, and so the game should follow suit.  The choice made in those final moments determined what kind of person Sheperd ended up being––which was arguably Bioware's goal with the series––and was, with any hope, informed by all the character’s previous decisions so that the player could make a choice that was absolutely valid.

Players who want an "epic" ending can use two monitors now.

This was where many players had issue with the original endings, arguing that all the choices made in over a hundred hours of gameplay “meant nothing.”  I would wonder how these people define “choice” as it relates to Mass Effect.  I have the feeling many people think Mass Effect is a stellar example (pardon the pun) of choice in video games.  It’s not, but that’s not a bad thing because the series is still amazing.  A player’s Sheperd is not an accurate representation of one’s physical self in a digital world, no matter how physically similar the player made Sheperd look.  A Mass Effect player does not have the freedom to choose what to do.  Instead, players usually only get a choice between option red or option blue.  That is not an open-ended morality system; that’s binary.  It’s the compilation of all the either-or choices made throughout the series that builds this sense of ownership, authority, and uniqueness in the audience, not the choices themselves.  While the newly updated variety of choices in the game's final moments may indeed make a player feel more empowered, such variety is actually incongruous with how choice was defined by the series, making the ending, technically, more anomalous than before.  People's complaints about the choices having no value is like saying which light switches you flip within your home during a given day makes you who you are––and that you should be president because of it.

If all the choices meant nothing to a player in the final moments, then I argue it was the player not paying attention the entire time, not Bioware.  In my experience, the choices I made brought fantastic and tragic repercussions throughout the series and I felt like I was actually making a difference in this story.  I didn’t need the ending to tell me as much because it was pretty clear all the way through.  I wonder what complainers wanted.  I wonder if they expected the game to keep track of their decisions (which it does), codify them and create what it deems to be “Commander Sheperd” and then judge the player’s final choice.  Do these haters want the game to give them a bad ending with a text box that says, “Your Sheperd would never have made that choice, and here’s a list of reasons why” or vice versa?  Do they need a (synthetic) game to tell them that they’re good at staying in character?  Or do they want what they got with Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut: cheesy freeze-frames and short sequences with ponderous voice-over?  If so, then congratulations, you got the game and endings you wanted.  And they’re good, they’re great, even––but it’s just a game, now.  I’m sorry over a hundred hours of gameplay, story, and characters meant less to you than a ten-minute FMV.