”I wasn’t expecting Ammon to clap us on the back and say “Great job kid, now let’s go home,” but it’d be better than what we got. As it is, all our work, all our effort invested into NWN2 as a game is undone in seconds because Obsidian wanted a ‘tragic’ ending. It is tragic, mind, but only for the player.”
~ Let’s Play Neverwinter Nights 2, by Lt. Danger
How do you end a game? Especially one as ambitious as Mass Effect 3?
BioWare had a tremendous task ahead of it. It had to tie up the loose ends from the first two games, resolve its own Reaper invasion plot, and account for a multitude of variables, including providing alternate plot branches for main characters who could be alive or dead based on your past choices. The writers even admitted that they shot themselves in the foot with some ideas, like the idea of a suicide mission in part 2 of a trilogy.
Overall, I’d say they did… adequately. It’s linear, railroaded, the writing is uneven – some of it brilliant, some of it corny, and some of it plain tired and uninspired, as if they gathered every idea they had and threw them all into a blender – and most of your past choices amount to little more than some numbers and tweaked lines here and there, but your decisions do matter overall and you get the power to shape the fate of the galaxy.
ME3 is a decent game, better than I expected based on marketing material and previews. I’m sure Yahtzee will do a better job at picking it apart than I can, and mainstream critics are already gushing out compliments left and right, like they tend to do with games of such calibre, focusing on its good sides, which I have trouble describing – despite their abundance – because I usually focus on the negative. But the part of almost any game that interests me most is the story, so let me say some words about that, in particular.
Is ME3’s story good? Yes. It’s a competently written three-act story, with a clear beginning, middle, and climax. You could even say it has an end. With some reservations that I’ll stop on later.
But even discounting the ending, ME1 still had overall better writing. Even despite all the cheese, being essentially a rehash of Knights of the Old Republic, despite everyone living in a world of boring copy-pasted grey boxes, it had a sense of “realness”, verisimilitude, relevance, an extrapolation of our own world into the future, that the other two games failed to replicate.
* * *
Mass Effect has been, at its worst, a somewhat more verisimilar Star Wars clone. At its best, it has been a solid SF setting with a well-thought-out, interesting background and plenty of untapped potential. Each game had its share of good writing and bad writing, as it is common with BioWare games. But in the chain of ME1 -> ME2 -> ME3, we can see the proportion of plausible elements gradually diminish and the outrageous elements, inserted only for the Rule of Cool (and for the sake of flashy trailers), take over.
Perhaps it is inevitable that given enough time, any game franchise that sells itself on visuals is going to pile on more and more ridiculous over-the-top stuff, simply because publishers need copies to sell – and for that, they need engaging, action-packed trailers, logic be damned.
I can forgive such elements as a Cerberus cyber-ninja, curvaceous robot girl squadmate or Shepard lines ripped out of your average generic war movie, because mainstream games need a mandatory amount of cheese to sell themselves to their target audience. And I went into ME3 with low expectations to begin with, so I was pleasantly surprised a few times. Which, if anything, makes the ending even more bitter to swallow.
There was a time when BioWare endings had a simple dichotomy about them. As Yahtzee puts it: “In the good ending, you’re a virtuous flower child with love and a smile for all the shiny-coated beasts of God’s kingdom, and in the bad ending you’re some kind of hybrid of Hitler and Skeletor whose very piss is pure liquid malevolence.” I would be deluded to think that those were good times. Rose-colored nostalgia glasses are not in my arsenal, and have never been. The studio has matured, and so did their endgame choices. I welcome that.
You could have a “light side” ending, a “dark side” ending, and a middle ground ending. This is ME1.
You could have several morally ambiguous choices, some more repugnant and some almost happy – almost. Black, grey and light grey, if you will. This is Dragon Age: Origins.
You could make a scale based on your success, with one shining, golden ending you have to work for, and some less satisfying endings. This is ME2, and previously, Obsidian Entertainment used it in Mask of the Betrayer, the (much superior) expansion pack to Neverwinter Nights 2.
And finally, you can do the kind of ending that renders the entire buildup to it pointless and moot.