WARNING: Major Spoilers for all three Mass Effect games ahead.
At this point, I think it’s safe to assume that nearly every single person out there with even a passing interest in video games knows about the whole brouhaha surrounding the end of Mass Effect 3.
The short version is this: many fans of the series expected to get a certain type of ending, one that took into account all their choices, gave them a multitude of ways in which to conclude their story, and gave a satisfying conclusion to the 100+ hour epic.
But Bioware did not do this. Instead, the developers gave us an ending that they felt would challenge the players’ assumptions, wrench the story into a more thematic and philosophical debate regarding the nature of self and predestination, and, in their own words, leave “lots of speculation for everyone!”
Personally, I thought it was a bold choice and I appreciate what they were trying to do. I understand the fans’ anger about the derth of options present, but my issue with all this is that it’s deflecting people from the real issue with Mass Effect 3’s narrative; an issue relating to breaking a promise made at the end of the series’ first installment.
The Broken Promise
No, I don’t mean the real world promises made by Casey Hudson or any other Bioware rep. I’m specifically referring to Commander Sherpard’s final line of dialogue after she stormed out of the council chambers. To paraphrase:
Shepard: “The Reapers are coming. And I’m going to find a way to stop them.”
Read that again: “I (Shepard) am going to (act by using all my resources) find (scour the galaxy with the help of my friends) a way to stop (end the Reaper threat) them.”
The glorious opening chapter to the Mass Effect series sets the table for the Space Opera Campbellian Hero’s Journey to follow. Here’s Shepard, a more or less ordinary (if accomplished) soldier in the ranks of a relatively insignificant part of galactic civilization.
Things change, however, when an ancient artifact imbues her with visions – a move that elevates her above the typical Ashley Williams and Kaiden Alenko’s of the world. Combined with her natural strength and leadership, she rises past the prejudices and hardships, taking charge of the quest to safeguard the galaxy. And in the end, she is the only one with the strength and determination to make her bold promise of “finding a way”.
Here’s the thing, though: she doesn’t. Not really. For majority of the series after the end of ME1, Shepard actually does not follow through with this promise.
Consider Mass Effect 2. Here, Shepard is killed at the beginning of the game and left for dead, only to be resurrected by shadowy organization Cerberus. It’s an interesting twist int he narrative, because now Shepard has to work with a man who clearly has humanity’s intentions at the forefront, but acts upon them in incredibly unscrupulous ways.
But she plays along, and what follows is an enjoyable romp through the galaxy collecting fascinating squadmates, exploring the seedy nooks and crannies untouched by the Alliance, and seeking to save human colonies from the Collector threat.
The narrative then ties back into the main Reaper threat when it’s revealed that the Collectors are serving the Reapers… somehow. In light of the events of Mass Effect 3, I’m actually not all that sure that the Collectors were absolutely necessary.
Nevertheless, it was a fun game with a decent story… except Commander Shepard did nothing to advance her promise. Sure, she made some noises about an invasion coming, sure the Collectors were a threat, and sure she was suspicious of Cerberus and their motives… but, again in light of Mass Effect 3, I wonder why Shepard did not do more to try to actively search for a solution to the Reaper threat.
Remember, a good hero is an active one, especially after the first act in a three act structure. But rather than actively trying to drive the story – looking for a way to stop the Reapers, looking to discredit Cerberus, anything – Shepard spent most of the second game reacting to events. The only time she really made a firm decision to act was at the end.
If I may ask a question: why was the idea of a Prothean super-weapon not introduced in the second game? Narratively, it would have made sense for Shepard, or Liara maybe, to start digging up hints of this “way to stop them” about halfway through ME2. Blueprints? Rumors? Anything. That way, while she’s going about solving the Illusive Man’s issues, she could be secretly helping “find a way to stop them”. As it is, this is already the second act and there’s still no hint or foreshadowing of how to solve the Reaper problem.
The problem continues in Mass Effect 3.
Forgetting about my problems of introducing the very first hint of a solution in the third act, I willed myself to accept that the Crucible existed and would ultimately solve the problem. “Yes,” I said to myself. “Shepard is now going to fly around the galaxy trying to unite the various races by solving their issues and convincing them to fight for humanity. The way she’s going to do this is because each sector she needs to visit may have a piece, software or hardware, of the Crucible and she needs to get them.”
Eh… not quite. Instead, the Crucible is dumped on Hackett and Shepard goes around collecting… assets. Yes, she achieves closure on a lot of character issues set up throughout the series, but as far as the endgame narrative goes, all she’s doing is just building an army.
Now, this is fine if Mass Effect was going to end in a conventional way, with strength of arms and ammount of warriors deciding the result. If so, then Shepard successfully uniting the Geth and the Quarians, successfully ending the genophage, and successfully convincing the other races that humanity is worth fighting for is the right way to go. She found “a way to stop them.”
But… no. Strength of arms was never going to win the war. Right from the get go, it was the Crucible that was going to do so. As such, being the hero of the story, Shepard should have had a greater hand in ensuring the Crucible’s creation and deployment.
At the conclusion of the game, she does end the Reaper threat. But, the way it played out, she did not “find a way to stop them”… she kinda just fell into it.
It may sound like I’m crapping all over Mass Effect 3, but I’m really not. I enjoyed playing every minute of it, even the endings. I’m fine either way if Bioware gives us a new ending, fine of they leave it as is. I’m not going to join the “re-take Mass Effect” movement, because I like the idea behind the ending, but I don’t disparage other people who do.
I do applaud their decision to attempt a more “Idea” based ending, even if I find their execution a bit lacking. I found the game to be the most affecting game I’ve played in terms of character development and making me care for this ragtag band of misfits. The gameplay itself was my favorite of the series. The voice acting was superb, particularly with regards to Jennifer Hale, Keith David, Martin Sheen, Ali Hillis, and Seth Green.
But if Bioware wants to make a series dependent on narrative and storytelling, if the industry as a whole wishes to take gaming to a more cinematic level, then the series needs to be held to the same narrative standards that other media are held to.
Now, if only they stuck to their other promise of making a Space Opera instead of turning it into military sci-fi… but that’s a complaint for another post.