Unforeseen Consequences: Reaping What’s Sown in Mass Effect

In Video Games on May 1, 2012 at 5:05 pm

Warning: Severe spoilers for Mass Effect 2 & 3

I’d read the opinion that Bioware has trouble with “longterm stories.” I did not then nor do I currently agree with that sentiment. Bioware in fact excels at long term stories, ones that last through multiple games and expansions, and not to put too fine a point on this, but they’re really the only studio doing this kind of thing. When was the last time you imported a savegame outside of Mass Effect? Or had a game series of closely aligned installments, each building upon the plot of the last? What games exist where decisions truly matter, to say little of the game actually acknowledging your own deeds?

No, where Mass Effect fails is in really letting you know what decisions it thinks matters, especially where this doesn’t match up with your own expectations for what’s important.

Gamers, being gamers, are pretty good at compiling charts and lists that bring the crunch to the relatively abstract concept of what helping someone or saying something means in a given game. Mass Effect is no different, but to begin looking at this larger pattern, where Bioware aggregates this data and assigns values to it, both in terms of plot or mechanical significance, brings with it a certain kind of vertigo.

For example, you might have spent the extra five dollars and played through ME1′s DLC, “Pinnacle Station” and “Bring Down the Sky,” that nets you a few extra points on your readiness rating in ME3. Deciding the fate of the Collector’s base gets a line of dialog and some points in the readiness rating (from what I understand, haven’t beaten the game yet). Whether or not you spared the Rachni queen in ME1 doesn’t change that there’s a Rachni presence in ME3, only how that mission plays out in the end.

That last one threw me. I considered that to be an unforeseen consequence, that the Rachni, heavily implied to have been waging war under Reaper control in the first place, fell back into their hands somehow. I blamed myself for the presence of Rachni-based “ravager” husks. Except, of course, that they’re in the game anyway. Just get a slightly happier outcome.

Where this really begins to result in some severe cognitive disassociation is in the outcome of the conflict between quarians and the geth. This conflict was broadly described in the first game and was topically in the forefront of a few missions in the second. Between Tali’s and Legion’s loyalty missions, you received some nice insight into both races.

Naturally, ME3 brings this thread to conclusion, pitting quarians and geth against each other regardless as to the outcome of anything in ME2. But brokering peace between the two — or failing to do so — rests on a few innocuous moments in ME2.

Broadly speaking, you should understand that the quarians have always been the aggressors in this conflict, the possessors of the original sin. The history of the conflict was muddled and mutated for quarians, who retold it time and again until every quarian alive knew only that the geth expelled their people from their homeworld. Geth, of course, remember exactly what happened.

If you’re aware of this, you should realize which side needs convincing to accept peace. The question is, were you aware of this, and did you act with this in mind when presented with the opportunity to do so?

To disseminate this abstraction into a mechanical basis, the opportunity to broker peace is dependent upon acquiring five of a total of seven “points,” each granted for making certain decisions in the second and third games. These decisions all depend on benefiting the quarians wherever the geth are concerned.

So when Legion offers you the opportunity to save the lives of the heretics by rewriting them, instead of killing them, you must choose to kill them. Why? Because more geth doesn’t help the quarians. Did you prevent Tali’s exile? If not, then you have no high-ranking ear to bend. Did you make Tali and Legion see on eye to eye when they argued? If not, then you don’t have the ground to stand on when it comes to bending that ear.

Then there’s the two support missions on Rannoch prior to the big event. Obviously, letting geth fighter squadrons fly free and killing an admiral won’t help the quarians at all.

So it’s clear: the geth, as a species, are waiting for their creators to stop shooting them on sight. That’s the key to peace. That’s why supporting the geth in ME3 is the “top right” paragon option, even as it results in the death of the entire quarian race, and supporting the aggressors, the quarians, is the “bottom right” renegade option, condemning the geth for the crime of wanting to live.

Afterwards, I realized that a few minor choices in ME2 mattered more than the “big” choice during the ending regarding the collector base. Because I played the game the way I did, my friend, the cute quarian kid I met on her pilgrimage, threw herself off a cliff rather than face the cruel world I’d made for her.

Creators often kill their creations. Authors are more guilty of this than most. When Joss Whedon decreed Wash die at the end of Serenity I was angry over the death and considered it poor writing, owing to its arbitrary nature. That death can be arbitrary in real life didn’t seem to matter, and that death is often pointless meant little.

But today, I killed Tali and her charming, well-written race of space-faring Romani — not Bioware. The tragedy was bitter and sweet, well-written throughout. The cost of saving her would be high — marching through half of ME2 and most of ME3 just to get to the same place.

I felt fully the consequences of my actions from fifty hours ago, and before I’d read up on mechanically why, I thought about every moment I made a choice where Tali, Legion, the quarians and geth were involved. And I accept responsibility for what I’ve done.

I can’t think of another game that’s even tried making me feel this way.

  1. Extremely well said.

    (But seriously, finish the damn game)

    • On the topic of “Bioware has trouble with longterm stories” – it’s the kind of truth that only matters because half the internet believes it. Somewhere out there 1 or 2 people made a compelling argument why they thought this was the case and, thanks the the mindless me-too ism the internet seems to breed thousands more echoed those very same arguments as their own.

      Indeed, some people don’t even know the reasons behind it; they just say the words without the knowledge to back it up.

      The closest thing you can compare ME 1, 2, and 3 to is a scifi movie trilogy, or perhaps a series of graphic novels or books. Subjective opinion time: ME beats most of the content out there, regardless of platform; just because you do not like the ending doesn’t mean the other 99% of the storytelling was bad.

  2. I’d love to reply to this…but Trod has not beaten the game.
    And my resolution of the Geth/Quarian conflict would just Depress him further.

  3. So, I missed this topic when it was written up because for whatever reason my email apparently treated the notification as spam. Dunno why.

    I would like to state that my viewpoint that Bioware has yet to effectively structure a good longterm story is not the same as them telling a bad story. The narrative of Mass Effect 1 didn’t really click with me for the most part, but I quite enjoyed 2 and 3 (the ending of the saga notwithstanding) and really do hold them in high regard.

    Part of the reason I like 2 & 3 though is that I feel the characterization improved greatly, with many of the new characters being more interesting than the original squad and the old characters coming off as better expressed when they showed up.

    I do also feel Mass Effect 3 did a great job resolving several ongoing plot points, particularly the genophage and the Quarian/Geth conflict. I respect the intricacies of these events and how they unfolded them, and I particularly like the cases where more subtle actions (such as what to do with Maelon’s data) were used to great effect.

    My feeling with their handling of longterm storytelling comes in part with how much demonstrated practice they have doing it (which, at least since I’ve started playing their games, is not much): Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire were both isolated experienced, KOTOR2 was handled by Obsidian. Maybe Baldur’s Gate 1 & 2 were a better demonstration? Haven’t played those so I could be wrong.

    Part of it is shown in current demonstration. I don’t think the writing team had a major plan when it came around to using the Rachni queen; ME2 treated the decision as one of the major ones it was tracking, but the event in ME3 was a somewhat isolated incident. One that could create a war asset yes, but also one with no tangible repercussions to the narrative at large- it wasn’t part of any real grand, ongoing plot; it was just a thing that sort of… happened.

    I’ll concede of course that some of this perception comes from examining the bones of the whole damned thing. Obviously looking at all the other permutations of the events that transpire is going to reveal how much things have to go the same at times. It stifles the magic. Some events need to happen the same way whether or not your ME2 crewmate survived and I don’t mind that Bioware had to drop something in place of the Rachni queen- who wants to find out that chunks of the third game are entirely closed out because of things they did in the first game.

    But, at the same time, what decisions matter and which ones don’t are pretty clearly a stumbling point. Either Bioware didn’t have a plan for the collector ship or they did and scrapped it for whatever reason. The little decisions were often handled better than the big ones, and maybe it’s just a sign that those are the things Bioware should shift their focus towards the seemingly innocuous action (as much as big decisions make for better drama).

    I do think good storytelling of this sort will be better fueled by not knowing what decisions matter, and the problem with who lives/dies and destroy/preserve decisions is there’s no subtly to them; there’s still a place for them of course, but they should probably be used with greater care.

    Any form of longterm storytelling is ultimately going to be damned by hindsight, when it’s released in several parts. I ultimately don’t think Mass Effect was really fully planned as a saga when they started doing it- maybe they had an idea where they’ll end (whether what we got reflects that original idea is a whole ‘nother can of worms), but I still admire the ambition of the project and what they did with it, and I hope to see more either from Bioware or another studio with like-storytelling ambitions.

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