Mass Effect and Choice (or something like it)

Major spoilers for the Mass Effect series below! This was originally published on P as in Pterodactyl, April 9th, 2012.

Now that it’s been several weeks since Mass Effect 3’s release—decades in Internet Years—there have been plenty entries in plenty mediums explaining exactly what is wrong with the game’s final 10 minutes. And it really does take plenty of entries in plenty of mediums to explain—there’s a lot wrong with those final 10 minutes. I won’t go into the specific plot holes here because they’re big—big enough to drive a whole space ship through while it deserts the biggest battle in human history to go… somewhere with a crew that should either be on the ground with me or vaporized. However, there’s one particular problem with the ending that has niggled at me since my first playthrough. This angry little itch has only gotten worse now that I’m approaching the ME3 hat trick and the game critic community continues to chew on the same problem. My main beef with ME3 boils down to the apparent lack of choice in the eleventh hour and whether we as players in Mass Effect’s vast sandbox really had any choice to begin with (and contending with the occasional addendum of “we didn’t have any so stop whining, losers”).So how does Mass Effect 3 end? Mass Effect 3 was certainly under a lot of pressure to resolve some of the series’ biggest conflicts, arguably the biggest of which being the galaxy’s impending war with the Reapers. The return of the Reapers—giant, sentient space crafts capable of wiping out whole civilizations—is a threat that hangs over the events of the first two Mass Effect games, and it finally comes to fruition in Mass Effect 3. Instead of recruiting new characters for their motley crew of do-gooders, Shepard and the player are now tasked with recruiting assets for a galactic war—technology, politicians, armies, and scientists. Their progress can be tracked through both a console on Shepard’s ship and conversations with Admiral Hackett, who is building an ancient super weapon called the Crucible. A driving force of the narrative in the second and third act is discovering the final piece to the Crucible’s puzzle—something ham-fistedly codenamed the Catalyst.

The final 10 minutes of Mass Effect 3 turn this plot thread on its head by revealing that the Catalyst is actually an entirely new character—represented by a hologram of a little boy. This new character explains that it created the Reapers in order to reign in the chaos inherent of organic evolution—specifically, the inevitability that all organics would eventually evolve to create their own synthetic servants, and that these synthetics would inevitably rise against and kill their organic masters. The Reapers, then, serve to preen the organic hedge—to ensure that advanced civilizations do not even have the opportunity to complete their self-destructive cycle. With his explanation, the Catalyst leaves Shepard and the player with three final choices: destroy all synthetic life (friends and foes alike), control the Reapers and die in the process, or sacrifice Shepard to enable the final step of evolution in which everyone is part synthetic, part organic. Put another way, Shepard and the player can choose to commit Space Genocide, Space Indoctrination of an entire race, or participate in some horrifying exercise in Space Eugenics. Once phrased this way, I would hope that it is clear why I dispute these choices from an ethical standpoint, but it’s not really about me, is it? It’s about Shepard and whether or not she would dispute these choices—ethically or otherwise.  This is the epicenter of my problems with the ending and why I believe Mass Effect 3 ultimately ignores my choices and–in doing so–denies me closure.

The good news is Bioware and EA are seemingly receptive of fan criticisms in so far as they’re willing to release the upcoming free “Extended Cut” DLC to patch its ending. The bad news, of course, is that Bioware and EA don’t seem to actually listen to any of the fan criticisms, because this DLC addresses exactly none of them. “The Extended Cut” was announced with the promise of additional scenes that would “provide additional clarity and closure.”  Closure is a big deal for me, but clarity? The fact that the ending needs clarified at all should be sending up some red flags at Bioware and EA; as Youtube user MrBtongue succinctly put it in his analysis, “Mass Effect 3’s ending is broken;” the game doesn’t need to be clarified, it needs to be fixed. Given that Commander Shepard’s voice actor Jennifer Hale has not been asked to be record new dialogue, you can bet these clarifying cut-scenes won’t address the biggest issue I have with the ending, which is how it completely ignores my choices in creating this character and shaping galactic events. Therefore, allow me to clarify what I mean when I say the endgame ignores choices and thus (since the two are intrinsically linked) denies me closure.

But first, let’s talk about choice

Talking about “choice” in videogames is always tricky; it usually comes across in a “do what I mean, not what I say” sort of way. This is because we don’t usually make choices in videogames. As James Portnow and Daniel Floyd’s pre-Extra Credits video, “Video Games and Choice,” explains, most choices we encounter in videogames are either patently false—an extended but ultimately circular dialogue tree—or cleverly disguised problem solving—determining which cool-looking sword will get the player the best stats. In the case of the latter, the numbers running under the hood are given a slick narrative sheen in hopes of making it meaningful to the player, but it still doesn’t significantly change the game’s progression—it just makes it marginally easier or harder depending on the player’s equipment.

While the original Mass Effect especially tasks players with keeping track of all manner of sci-fi equipment for their squad, many of the choices players are purported to make affect the actual trajectory of the narrative—who lives and who dies, etc. For Kris Ligman, as she pointed out in her post about ME3’s ending, these choices are not meaningful because no matter what players do, certain plot points will always occur: a human squad member will always die on Virmire, Shepard will always battle Saren, and Shepard will always end up working for Cerberus in Mass Effect 2—even if she spends 20 of her 60 hours in the original Mass Effect wiping the floor with its soldiers. In other words, the ways in which players can change the trajectory of the story are limited; this is true. The reality, of course, is that every branch of Mass Effect’s story has to be accounted for and designed by Bioware, which makes the number branches finite by necessity. But I don’t think that necessarily makes these decisions meaningless.

Just because the choice isn’t meaningful in the way that completely changes the story’s trajectory doesn’t make it meaningless, especially in a game like Mass Effect. I think it’d be hard to argue that the conversation choices and character interactions aren’t two of the key pleasures to be found in Mass Effect. After all, players spend as much time in the first two Mass Effect game negotiating with other characters as they spend shooting them. Moreover, the developers seem to be aware of these pleasures because they’ve introduced a Story Mode in Mass Effect 3  where these narrative choices—who lives and who dies—make up the core gameplay mechanic.  In this situation, it’s difficult for players to differentiate between the narrative sheen and the actual numbers running under the hood whenever a player makes a choice (or “choice” if you want to go all Turian Councillor on it). Sure, players can apply problem solving to their conversations. For example, in Mass Effect 3, they might discover that choosing the most diplomatic option will result in the most amount of War Assets being donated to their cause, resulting in some players mindlessly spinning their dialogue wheels up to the top right option. However, I think it would be remiss to dismiss the influence of that narrative sheen on most players. You can hum and haw about whether games can be narrative all you want, but the point here is that—at the very least—the trappings of narrative are an important aspect of the Mass Effect games. Especially in Story Mode, the story, the characters, and the choices/”choices” players make regarding them are integral to the experience. In this way, a “meaningless” decision like determining which human squad member dies on Virmire all the way back in Mass Effect has the potential to significantly influence the player’s experience in Mass Effect 3. It might not affect the War Assets, and it won’t change the trajectory of Shepard’s journey away from fighting Reapers, but it certainly affects the way in which the player engages with the story—with whom their Shepards are friends, whom they love, and whom they betray. Even if it doesn’t appear that way at the time—what with all those other numbers to keep track of in Mass Effect’s mess of a GUI—this decision becomes more meaningful to the player as they progress through the series.

In this way, I’d say Bioware made good on its promise to make sure our choices mattered–and that’s the heart of all of this, isn’t it? These choices are meaningful in part because we are told their outcomes will be meaningful; they are committed under both the assumption and the assurance that they will matter. Even if it was hard to tell in the heat of the moment during Mass Effect or Mass Effect 2, there is always the promise that a decision could come back in a big way in future games—either to your rescue or to bite you in the ass. That also becomes part of the pleasure—part of the thrill—of playing a Mass Effect game—how will tweaking this decision in my next playthrough come back to haunt me down the road? This, of course, is the same thing fans have been saying for weeks now: we were promised our choices would matter and they don’t. On the other hand, the opposition says we didn’t have choice to begin with. I’ll get to that in a minute. First, now that we’ve established what I mean by choices in Mass Effect, let me explain what I mean when I say Mass Effect 3‘s ending ignores my choices (for real this time).

Ignoring my Choices

In his defense of Mass Effect 3’s conclusion, Penny Arcade’s Ben Kuchera conflated players unsatisfied with the ending with those who were unsatisfied with the game itself—or otherwise somehow missed all of the choices they made along the way—and dismissed the whole lot as “insane.” Instead of focusing on what he describes as “a five minute movie [that] didn’t pat them on the back for what they’d done,” players should be looking to the entirety of the third game for narrative closure and payoff for their choices throughout the series. Sure enough, the visits to the five major alien homeworlds of the Mass Effect universe each incorporate a myriad of different possible plot threads—considering who lived and who died, what artifacts the player collected, etc—into numerous satisfying conclusions. These conclusions are paced over two acts. Each of these missions can end in the player either siding with one galactic race over another, or—if the player does all of the correct footwork—brokering peace to end centuries-long conflicts. Balancing so many variables is technically impressive; more importantly, the final product is well written, well paced, and immensely pleasurable to play through—especially with multiple Shepards to see all of the possible outcomes. In this way, I would say that Mass Effect 3 is overwhelmingly successful in giving its players a satisfying sense of closure while reflecting the player’s choices along the way. The problem for me is that—while each of the proceeding acts succinctly concludes some of the Mass Effectuniverse’s greatest conflicts, the final ten minutes undo any sense of closure players gain from tying up all of these loose ends—either by refusing to acknowledge the player’s experiences or introducing new problems that overshadow the player’s solutions. Let’s look at the missions surrounding the Quarian and Geth conflict as an example.

The conflict between the Geth and the Quarians is first established in the original Mass Effect in which the Geth are the primary adversary—or at least the primary cannon fodder. The player’s view of the Geth/Quarian conflict, then, is informed by a combination of the waves of faceless Geth shooting at Shepard and her squad, and exposition from the Quarian squad member Tali. As Tali explains, the Geth exiled her people from their planet to a disgraced, nomadic lifestyle in the far reaches of the galaxy. When the player later learns that the Geth are actually working for a Reaper, Sovereign, in its plan to wipe out all organic species, Mass Effect draws clear, unmistakable battle lines. In a hypothetical war against a synthetic enemy like the Geth or the Reapers, it is a battle of us versus them—good organics versus evil synthetics—thus drumming up sympathy for the Quarians. More importantly here, the war between the Geth and the Quarians as it is first pitched to players in the original Mass Effect is exemplary of the inevitable conflict between synthetic and organic races at the crux of the Catalyst’s logic. However, this cut-and-dry dichotomy—good organics versus evil synthetics—is irreconcilably complicated by the introduction of sympathetic synthetic characters in Mass Effect 2.

In Mass Effect 2, Shepard and the player are introduced to the Normandy’s new AI EDI and, perhaps more importantly here, a Geth EDI names Legion. Legion reveals to the player that the Geth they faced during Mass Effect were “heretics”—a splinter group that followed the Reapers as sort of religious figures—and not reflective of the Geth consensus as a whole. This invariably shakes up the once rigid moral division between synthetics and organics. Brokering trust—or, at the very least, tolerance—between Legion and Tali also becomes a key decision point for players, determining which character is ultimately loyal to Shepard, if not to each other.

Assuming both survived the events of the second game, Shepard is reunited with Tali and Legion in Mass Effect 3.  Shepard will be able to complete a number of missions—one with Tali, one with Legion—that will give her and the player a more holistic view of the conflict, allowing them to eventually side with one race over the other or—if they have Legion and Tali’s trust and complete all of the missions to completely understand the conflict—a third option to broker peace emerges. None of these options come without sacrifice—either Legion’s noble self-sacrifice to free the Geth or Tali’s suicide if Shepard is unable to encourage a peaceful outcome—but that goes along with the territory. When making choices–especially choices of the big, intergalactic peace kind–there will always be consequences. Isn’t seeing those consequences play out one of Mass Effect‘s pleasures–good or bad?

As these characters’ arcs come to a close over the course of Mass Effect 3, Shepard and the player are repeatedly shown how the Catalyst’s inevitable conflict might not be so—synthetics rebel, but its under the systematic abuses of their creators. Allow the synthetics equal autonomy and Shepard does not just accomplish peace between synthetics and organics, but she sets the stage for a willing cooperation both in the task of rebuilding their shared planet and fighting the Reapers.

Flash-forward a few more hours to the endgame where the catalyst tells my Shepard that the Reapers do their reaping because the organics will always make synthetics that will destroy them. Just like the Quarians and the Geth. Or something.

After helping the Geth and the Quarians, there’s a big, fat, “Yeah, but…” hanging over the entire final 10 minutes. Being told that Shepard must choose her flavor of galactic war crime because synthetics will always try to kill organics otherwise does not leave me agonizing over the fate of the galaxy; it does not make me feel small and insignificant and in awe of the larger space opera; it leaves me stuck at the intellectual hurdle of how my Shepard is even in this situation to begin with—how the choices I made in molding her character and galactic events could lead her to unquestioningly accept the Catalyst’s terms. If anything, Shepard and I repeatedly proved the Catalyst wrong. Where is the fourth, “I reject your circular logic. Now excuse me while I and my united-against-all-odds army go out guns blazing” option? Because that’s the road I thought my Shepard was heading down.

So did I ultimately have any choice in the matter? Well, no, Mass Effet 3’s final 10 minutes made that abundantly clear. You can’t even say that Mass Effect 3’s ending was effective problem solving—the player is not given enough information to make an educated decision one way or the other. However, this does not mean that I never had choice—that I never had any agency in Mass Effect and I somehow “misunder[stood] the developer’s rhetoric,” as Ligman suggests, because I just spent the other 90% of the game seeing my choices pay-off spectacularly. It’s only the last few minutes that completely ignores those choices—that all but inserts an entirely new Shepard in place of my own—and expects me to roll with it. This is a problem–more specifically, this is my problem with Mass Effect 3. In finishing Mass Effect 3, I do not get to experience the ending to my Shepard’s story. Rather, I am shown the ending to someone else’s story. Just as it does not reflect my choices–my Shepard’s experience–the ending does not grant me closure for my Shepard’s story.

If the element of choice (or “choice”) was removed—if this was a movie—and the hero had spent the entire second act successfully ending centuries-old conflicts between synthetics and organics (not to mention repeatedly discussing human nature with her AI squadmate), having her accept that the conflict can only be resolved through either Space Genocide, Space Indoctrination, or Space Eugenics would have been unquestioningly qualified as bad writing. Why are we so eager to give Mass Effect 3 the benefit of the doubt—to attribute to it some sort of meta conversation about choice or somehow blame the audience for misunderstanding PR rhetoric? I think that’s just cracking the surface of a larger, perhaps less popular discussion: why are the fans the only ones questioning Mass Effect 3‘s ending?

But that’s a post for another time.

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