Sunday, April 21, 2013

Being Effected: Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect 3 has been out for a long time now, but I'm a very slow player. I would love to spend days and days in front of my tv, enjoying the fictional worlds and adventures of these carefully created characters, but alas I have a job. And a family. And, you know...a life. So, it takes me longer than your average bear to complete a game. If you're a slowpoke like me and haven't completed ME3, be forewarned that I'm about to spoil the heck out of you.

I fell in love when I played Mass Effect 2. It took character customization—which I absolutely love to play with—to a whole new level. Plenty of games that came before allowed you to chose your sex and race, or perfect the arch of your eyebrow. ME was the first that I had played that also allowed you to control your character's sexuality. ME3 took it even further. I loved walking through the Citadel and hearing a female character talking about her wife and daughter, or having Cortez, the shuttle pilot for the Normandy, talk to me candidly about his husband. No judgment, no fanfare; it just was.

I was psyched to play ME3, despite hearing the grumblings of people who were dissatisfied with the ending, to put it mildly. I mean, I figured that the unhappiness probably meant that Shepard died. Of course people are going to be upset that a character they put countless hours into shaping, navigating, and saving would end up dead in the end. That despite all of the careful choices they made, the end was the same regardless. It didn't bother me initially, and I was intent on playing the last entry in the series and enjoying myself. As I got closer to the end though I grew nervous. There were all of these hints about the final decisions, and I came to find that it wasn't simply a matter of Shepard dying, but also of how Earth and the Normandy would fare. I finally buckled and checked out some spoilers over at IGN.

The first disappointment was in finding that there was in fact a way to have Shepard survive, but it required having a Military Rating of 4000 or more. As far as I can tell, the only way to get such a rating is to play with "help" the whole way through. In other words, cheat. I can't see any way that during the course of normal game play someone would be able to make all of the right decisions to get to this rating, enabling the "best ending" option.

My military status at the end gave me access to the Destroy or Control options. At that point, no matter which I chose Shepard would die, and Earth and the Normandy crew would be saved. I knew that based on the spoilers at IGN, so I was prepared. I figured I'd make my decision, die a hero, and watch the results. I went with Destroy; not necessarily because it was the decision I wanted, but because I went up the destroy ramp and it promptly trapped me there. Strike one: trapping me into a decision before I'd actually made one. I'd gone up to investigate, tried to turn around to go and investigate the other option, and found that I couldn't. Oh well. So I destroyed the Reapers and saved Earth. I saved the Normandy crew, except the ship crash-landed on what appeared to be a deserted, uninhabited jungle planet. They were alive, but I had essentially killed technology and the relays, so chances were they were stranded.

And the credits rolled.

My jaw hit the floor. We'd won—I'd won. Right? The Reaper threat was destroyed. It didn't feel like a victory though. It felt like anything but. Shepard was dead; the relays were destroyed, taking with them the ability for people to travel between clusters and therefore stranding all of these fleets and crew away from their homes; and the Normandy crew was stranded in the middle of nowhere. Technology had been destroyed. And that was that.

I reloaded the last save and played again, chosing the "Control" option. Surely that had a better ending, right? Well...Shepard still died. The relays were still destroyed. The Normandy crew was still stranded. What was the different? Oh, the Crucible shot out blue lasers instead of red ones. Neat.

The best word to describe the ending(s) was: bleak. The war had been won, but nothing felt good about it. The ending actually felt...rushed. Like the team at Bioware really stopped trying after the decision point on the Citadel. They slapped together one ending scene, and set it so that it played no matter what decision you made. Again, the only change was the colors used when the Citadel emitted its laser.

I knew that Bioware had released a DLC to address fan furor over the ending, so I went in search of it to see if it was worth downloading and playing. I found videos online for each ending, and as I watched them I realized what had been missing from the experience I'd had—what it was that had made this ending so sad and unsatisfying for me (beside the fact that it was the same ending for each decision).

No closure.

As I watched the cut scenes of ground troops cheering, of Joker having to be persuaded by Garrus to leave the area (i.e. Shepard's dead, we have to go); as I listened to the voiceover explaining what happened, Admiral Hacket talking about rebuilding the relays and civilization, voicing a post-mordem of the war; as I watched the Normandy crew and Shepard's—hell, my—friends hang a plaque commemorating Shepard on a wall of honor; I realized that that was the bookend that was missing. How can you feel good about character sacrifice without seeing the good? Without having your character honored, missed? How can you say to yourself, "It was worth it" when the game doesn't give you an opportunity to see what your actions yielded? The celebration of troops after the longest, hardest battle of their lives, is essential to closing the chapter, as is the mourning and silent thanks of the crew that stood by Shepard's side. The extended cut ending showed the good of what Shepard sacrificed herself for; showed that it was a worthy sacrifice. The original ending...well, to me it was just dark. Even though she saved the galaxy, it didn't feel like victory.

I don't hate on Bioware for deciding that, unless you play with all the answers, your Commander Shepard is going to die, going to sacrifice his or herself to the cause. I do think using the same ending for multiple options is cheap and lazy, and totally robs the player of the very feeling of self-determination that was so vital to the feeling of the game. It felt like being cheated, that after so many careful decisions the biggest ones at the end of the game don't really mean anything. It was cheap and lazy to not be clear about what exactly the decisions meant. Are the relays destroyed or aren't they? Does that effectively cut off clusters or nebulas or planets from each other or what? Why did the Normandy crash no matter what happened? Why was Garrus on the Normandy when it crashed and not James when they were both part of my last mission crew?

It's a testament to good storytelling, and in general just an overall good game, that this has effected me and that my character's death will be something I ponder and think about for days to come. It's also a shame that the lingering questions and feelings of incompleteness will be a large part of what I remember about this franchise.

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