The Mass Effect series is like a gaming Rorschach Test, and not just because of its tricksy moral hypotheticals. No two players seem able to agree on what Mass Effect does well and what Mass Effect does terribly, with opinions diverging to the point where you wonder if everyone is even discussing the same games. Mass Effect is the best science-fiction story ever told, unless it’s dreary, pulpy garbage. It’s got characters you care about deeply, unless they annoy you to the point of purposely sending them to their dooms. The ultimate Mass Effect is the first iteration’s open-world RPG playground, or maybe it’s the second’s tighter, more character-driven hallway shooter. Nobody cares about Mass Effect‘s combat, but would it kill these designers to have Shepard just shut up and shoot somebody already? Oh, and let’s not forget that it ends with either the greatest artistic achievement in gaming history or a pretentious, schizophrenic hodgepodge of undercooked sci-fi cliches so awful that it sent a small nation’s worth of nerds into a months-long, near-primal tantrum. Mass Effect 3‘s ending faced plenty of grousing about its lack of personalization, but given the wide spectrum of opinions about this series, players had no problem making these games their own.
So fittingly, Mass Effect 3 is the dictionary definition of a mixed bag. It contains both some of Bioware’s finest hours to date, and a few admissions that they often have no idea what the fuck they’re doing. These two extremes in quality often rest uncomfortably side-by-side. The series’ most dynamic level design — finally linking combat to environment — often sputters out, or spirals endlessly around a monotonous battle or task. Genuinely affecting attempts at character growth are too often cut short — in the case of poor Thane, literally, and at the hands of one of gaming’s most bafflingly idiotic villains.
Nowhere is this divide better illustrated than in the game’s opening moments. At last, Bioware’s endless cutscenes flow seamlessly into play, as Shepard and Anderson make a mad dash away from the Reapers’ invasion of Earth. At last, the game’s environments feel affected by the story beats, with events unfolding around Shepard that hinder her escape and challenge her abilities. But the sequence’s narrative, and the dialogue used to convey it, are screechingly bad, some of the worst in the series. Lazy, convenient plot developments — like Shepard receiving a mere wrist-slap detainment for obliterating an entire solar system’s worth of sentient beings — and tone-deaf “we should have listened!” banalities upon the Reapers’ inevitable invasion filled me with a sense of dread going into Mass Effect 3, especially pronounced after my generally positive takeaway from the second installment. Did I come so far in this journey just to be shamelessly manipulated by a rising string section and the death of a conveniently placed child? By the time my Shepard departed from Earth, the developers often sighted as video game’s greatest storytellers had done a fine job maintaining that honor as, at best, a back-handed compliment.
Luckily, the game’s later highs skyrocket, and Bioware actually finds a fairly brilliant way to give Mass Effect 3 a thematic and emotional arc without betraying the player’s agency. When Mass Effect 3 is moving — and it is, despite its general emotional clunkiness, at times quite moving — it earns its sentiment less through Shepard’s growth as a character than how she impacts and changes the world around her. Despite Bioware’s best efforts to shoehorn Shepard into an arc of her own — giving her creepy, metaphoric dreams about chasing her dead loved ones through a dark woods, a sequence so impressively bereft of self-awareness that it could double as a PSA trying to convince nerds to stay far, far away from attempting capital-A Art — she remains a variable personality orbiting a single goal: Stop the Reaper invasion. No matter who Shepard romances or what alien societies she brings along for the ride, and regardless of if she’s naughty or nice in her actions and words, she’s still an avatar, a tool of the player’s whims as much as Mass Effect‘s writers’. She — and of course, vicariously, the player — deeply affects the story, but her manipulable nature makes it impossible for her inner life to be the true center of Mass Effect. She is merely an agent of change, and what that change spells out for the more tightly scripted, non-player-controlled characters proves that maybe, just maybe, interactive fictions can tell genuinely affecting stories.
Take the battle of Tuchanka, heralded by many as Mass Effect 3‘s most compelling sequence. The mission serves as resolution to the series-long genophage subplot, in which the bloodthirsty (but possibly redeemable) Krogans seek a cure for their genetically engineered, species-wide infertility. At this point in the series, the player, as Shepard, probably has a clear idea of whether or not she’s going to cure the Krogans or trick them to gain favor with their skittish rivals, the Salarians. Shepard’s decision, while compelling to the player making it, is not really about Shepard. Unless the player role-played Shepard very specifically — say, to transition her from xenophobe to alien-supporter — the genophage decision has more to do with continuing forward as steadfast, power-fantasy-enabling Commander Shepard than any character growth for the protagonist. But this does not mean the decision is dramatically inert; the situation’s triumph or tragedy simply belongs to other characters. I’ve made no bones about my feelings that Mordin Solus is the best and most complex of Mass Effect‘s alien compatriots, and that Tuchanka largely boils down to his crisis of conscience — sacrifice himself to save a species he once betrayed, or live haunted by the suffering he’s caused — is smart storytelling, forcing the player to interact with a fully fleshed-out character. That the player chooses if Mordin is successful in completing his redemption arc lends the sequence’s finale either a bittersweet triumph or a gutting coldheartedness.
I truly believe that a strong focus on NPCs’ stories and development is not only a way forward for video game narratives, but how they have always functioned best. Didn’t we care about the changing lives of the people of Hyrule or Clock Town with much greater depth than we felt for Link? Weren’t our rampages through Liberty City colored far more vividly by the citizenry’s reactions than by our one-note sociopath stand-ins? The player character will always be something of a compromise, the exact intersection of creator and audience’s input that is unique to the form. I’m a complete believer in respecting an artist’s vision, but even I find it hard to separate my avatar from my playing style, or even whatever outside emotional baggage I’m bringing to the game that day. No matter how well-defined as a character, that space marine or warlock or whoever still must represent my contribution to the experience, making a set-in-stone emotional arc much less likely. (This is why Valve’s Portal and Half-Life games can pack such an emotional wallop despite their cipher-deep player characters and near-suffocating linearity. The worlds surrounding Chell and Gordon react to their presences in such forceful and transformative ways that they guide the player through a deliberate emotional journey that’s hard to mistake.) I cared about Mordin — horrid in-game animations and all — because he was a complete character who didn’t need my input to exist. Sending him off to cure the genophage is the resolution of one of gaming’s few truly thought-out character arcs. It ain’t Shakespeare, but it works.
But as with all things Mass Effect, your mileage may vary. When the great lashing out began moments after Mass Effect 3‘s release, many fans decried the more linear structure that gave shape to moments like Tuchanka. They felt limits on Shepard’s ability to tackle events in any order went against the vastness of the series’ scope. I like Mass Effect 3‘s orderliness; it lends the game momentum and pacing, and insures I won’t accidentally choose eight missions centered on familial drama to complete in a row. (Here’s looking at you, Mass Effect 2.) The added structure feels less indulgent, which not only fits the “war is sacrifice” grimness of the whole game, but is also one of the few design choices where Bioware doesn’t just cave to what it thinks its fans want.
What didn’t work for me? I hated Kai Leng, the Illusive Man’s new sidekick, with a passion. Dressed like a rejected early Metal Gear Solid boss, he’s the least cool person on Earth’s idea of what the coolest person on Earth must be like. And while I think Bioware improves the combat on a visceral level (every biotic move and shotgun blast finally has that last bit of “oomph” to count as genuinely great feedback), Mass Effect 3‘s many battles are a study of diminishing returns. As Jonathan Blow pointed out in his critique of Bioshock Infinite‘s combat, shield-based shooters have a problem creating lasting stakes, instead supplementing true strategy with general freneticness and bullet sponge enemies. Mass Effect 3‘s last battle on Earth suffers from this problem to a nearly comical level, until the finale’s pacing feels like continuously trying to ignite a whoopee cushion with no air inside. By the time the hordes of identical enemies died down, I was exhausted less from the emotional taxation of a good fight than the sheer repetitiveness of offing my six-thousandth Banshee. Yet enough people love Mass Effect 3‘s combat that an online multiplayer still thrives over a year later, and Google Image Search confirms at least a handful of people were touched enough by Kai Leng to construct elaborate costumes in his honor. Could Mass Effect‘s courting of so many different opinions — attempting to be all games to all people — be why its railroaded grand finale left a bitter taste in the mouths of so many?
Oh, about that ending. Perhaps you’ve heard a thing or two about it! Like many divisive pieces of media, I found my opinion oddly aligned with the center of the two extremes. Thematically, I bought it, because my takeaway from Mass Effect is that it’s “about” how choice leads to personal evolution, and allows us to break free from harmful cycles and bigotry. So when the Star Child told my Shepard that her ability to cross the aisle time and time again allowed for the Synthesis of man and machine — a new way to break the Reaper’s cycle, based on her actions — I believed it, because the game was largely already about that for me. (Although I wish the finale didn’t make such a huge deal out of the “synthetics versus organics” conflict, and interpreted the recurring motif of breaking cycles on a broader, less literal level. Many of the most effective parts of Shepard’s journey have nothing to do with robots and organics, and the ones that do bring the two sides together so quickly that it’s a stretch this is the first cycle where machines and mammals can reach an understanding.) Did I love the execution, the trite Garden of Eden imagery, the return of that blasted walking cliche of a child? (And don’t get me started on that nonsensical wet fart of a Buzz Aldrin tag.) Absolutely not, but it also didn’t bring me to a frothing rage. I bought the space magic; I bought that this final decision ended the trilogy’s thematic conflict. And some small part of me even found it touching that this branching monster of a game, the one that launched a thousand opinions and “personal canon” stories, brings us all back together in the end, itself becoming one of the cycles at the core of its narrative. It’s an ending worthy of Mass Effect in total: ambitious, unsubtle, imperfect. As oddly personal as it is wholly generic. Half beautifully and deeply realized, half astoundingly dumb and thoughtless. But something that, despite my reservations and kvetching, I’ll almost assuredly catch myself thinking about for years to come.
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