Mass Effect: What to Expect When You’re Dissecting

In The Gaming Community, Video Games on May 3, 2012 at 7:03 pm

The best way to understand Mass Effect is to understand something of hyperdimensional physics. In the third dimension, we perceive the entirety of an infinite array of second dimensional information; this creates 3D space. From a 4D perspective, time becomes a traversable axis while perception exceeds and recedes into the past and future. In a theoretical 5D space, different timelines themselves come into play, the entirety of their 4D axis laid out for direct observation.

If this begins to reach into the areas that Man Is Not Meant To Know, you’ve begun to see the problem with an intense dissection and comparison Mass Effect‘s plot that the choices that end up sculpting the story. We knew that all that was presented was the illusion of freedom in what is actually a very well-defined plot, but Bioware approached the possibility — that we all wanted to believe — that the illusion was real, shortly before shattering that illusion with its ending.

When you begin really dissecting the decisions, events and plot of a game like Mass Effect, a game that purports to offer player freedom and impact where the story is concerned, you begin seeing both the shallowness of many of these decisions as well as the patterns by which the game deals with player choice.

Imagine the feeling, if you will, of agonizing over a given choice in a dialog tree, only to find out later that Shepard actually says the same thing in slightly different ways for each. Or that the effort placed into ensuring a crew mate’s survival is rendered somewhat inconsequential as a like-themed understudy takes that person’s place. It’s in realizing that the game does not offer full player agency (such as it boasts), but the illusion of such.

Depending on how you discuss this with your friends, this can be expressed in different ways.

Broadly, Commander Shepard becomes a Spectre and defeats Sovereign, gets killed, works for Cerberus to stop the Collectors, then madly scrambles to assemble allies for the final push against the Reapers themselves using the experimental Catalyst.

So when your friends ask you how you liked Noveria, Tuchanka, Ilos, Thessia, Earth or whatever, you can say that you did like it and how you handled the broader conflict on each. Because the conflict was the same for both of you, and both of you went to each of these places.

You are, in fact, playing the same game.

But then you get into plot-heavy areas that heavily populated the third game, and your friends will have no idea that Samantha Traynor is a lesbian (instead of Shep-sexual), that Tali and Garrus are romantically linked, or that Cortez discarded self-preservation after his husband died.

Even if you don’t keep your eyes on your own paper, these events do stand out. Even as other ones become a bit flimsy.

At times, it all felt very personal. As before, I mentioned that I attributed the Rachni presence to a decision I made in the first game. The geth and quarians played out just so due to my not-so-deft touches. My emotional attachment to Garrus, over the course of three games, ranked him among my most trusted crewmen and personal friends.

Mass Effect 3 crafted a very beautiful lie, one we wanted to believe — that your decisions mattered. To some extent, they do. Just not as much as we’d hoped, and definitely not in some areas.

Like the ending. SPOILERS BELOW!.

I will act like a politician and say that the degree to which you felt the ending was a betrayal of the design scope of the series depends on when the ending began for you. Reasonably, we should all agree that the ending began when you assaulted Earth. This is the first of many, many moments in the final conflict where the consequences of your actions come to play. What fleets are there. What squadmates you have. What allies aid you on the ground. Who lives, who dies, and how long they hold out.

Momentum carries this diverse explosion of probability into a singularity of three choices, however. The game must end. I think it was a tall order — allow victory over a force we’ve repeatedly told is nigh unstoppable, somehow with a single stroke. Defeat would be easy to write, at this point. Add to that some explanation, however token, as to what the Reapers are hoping to accomplish with all of this and I begin to believe that there’s nothing short of hundreds of pages of didactic text that could have quenched my desire to know.

To know plot elements like, who created the Catalyst and what occurred to inspire its grim view of synthetics versus organics. To understand whatever unknowable motivation might propel an intelligence millions of years old to do this. To find out what happens to your squadmates on the mission, your crew on the ship, and every person whose life you touched in some way though the binary implements of Renegade and Paragon. Did everything turn out alright? Won’t someone tell me? Does Shepard have to die? If she lives, what happens?

To understand metaplot elements would be good too. When did the series so relentlessly focus on the conflict between synthetic and organic life, between creations and their creators? Is this the ultimate deconstruction of the “rogue AI” we all fear? Or the only explanation for a genocide that spans millennia?

I will say here and now that I do not mind the ending. I chose Synthesis, if that matters: the sacrifice myself and the power of the Reapers, to say nothing of the guiding evolutionary force of the mass relays, ensuring organic life evolves along a preplanned path. To see life free from the shackles of the endless cycles, free to make and live and innovate and explore.

To have the ending grant that chance, I’m okay. I was okay when Legacy of Kain: Defiance ended on this note, even as I hoped for more. I’m okay with it now.

I’m not happy to not know how literally anything else turned out, why the game showed me Joker, Anderson and Liara as I made the decision, or any of a number of questions remain unanswered. Nor am I happy that we got a dial-an-ending.

Times like these it’s hard to separate the anguish of never going on any more adventures with my friends again, and hoping for an ending that could lessen that feeling.

  1. “Times like these it’s hard to separate the anguish of never going on any more adventures with my friends again, and hoping for an ending that could lessen that feeling.”


  2. The question I’d have to ask regarding Mass Effect 3 is whether or not it was planned this way (at least loosely) from the start, or if it was mostly written game to game, with the larger plan of dealing with the reapers but little else intended in between. The main writer for the first two Mass Effect games didn’t work on the third, and I’d heard (though I haven’t done the research to verify this) that one of the original creators of the idea left after the first game; the driving question behind all this would be how much the idea changed (if at all) from what was first intended to what we actually got.

    I’m not particularly fond of the endings, I’ve mentioned as much before. I do find the lack of detail most offensive and I hope the summer patch will rectify this to satisfaction, at the least. I did go with the Synthesis path myself, the first time… though I find the Destroy ending slightly more cathartic now, considering it’s the only one showing Shepherd waking up on Earth and bringing the last half our into question.

    That said, the arguments of synthetics versus organics is thrown into serious question if the Geth/Quarian conflict is resolved (as it was in my game), and I wasn’t really looking for a deeper meaning as to why the Reapers did what they did.

    Truthfully, finding out the Reapers were using organic life to reproduce was oddly reasonable to me- they take what they need and they wipe out any existing civilizations so that an offensive isn’t mounted against them later. I assumed they’ve just been hopping galaxy to galaxy, losing a few (the way they lost Sovereign) but generally fattening (or maintaining) their numbers. Creating a figure head with the god-child/crucible/contrived plot device in the 11th hour took away agency from the Reapers, reducing them to pawns, as well as confusing the matter of Harbinger, whose presence was named and noted as being in the final battlefield only to never be touched upon.

    Regarding the larger scope of the series, I’ve generally accepted that not every choice is going to be well used. I actually loved how Maelon’s data from Mordin’s sidequest came into play after ME2, but I was pretty certain the Collector base was going to be an underused device (I left it intact, reasoning I could just blow it up again later if need be)- I can’t imagine building an environment and making a major plot point around something you may have destroyed in the ending of the previous game.

    I see most of what they did in building the main Mass Effect 3 story (ending notwithstanding) as practical, and think anyone who was expecting a radically different experience for each person may be asking a little too much for current design technique and technology… maybe one day, and it’ll be cool when it happens, and the Mass Effect saga will likely be the progenitor to it all.

    Also, since you mentioned LoK: Defiance… I actually liked that ending too. But it did precisely what it intended to: satisfying the Soul Reaver story arc. There was still a larger arc looming, but there was no sign at the time that this was the end of the series. The fact that they had started on another Kain game before being shifted over to Tomb Raider certainly says something about the fact they weren’t done, and I hope beyond hope that maybe- just maybe!- Square will bring the franchise back and make good with it since it’s technically in their hands now.

  3. For LOK (really, the entire post was a bait and switch to talk about Legacy of Kain), I view the remaining story as obvious: Kain fights the Elder God. He’ll probably learn more about why it’s a good and/or bad idea to do so and have to make some big, tough decisions on the way, but I think we know how it’d turn out. That’s largely why I’m okay with the series ending, though I hope beyond everything that we’ll see a new entry in the series, even if it were just an XBLA game.

    From my research, the collector base:
    -changed the scenery and dialog for the Illusive Man’s base, containing more or less of the reaper
    -changed the “intact reaper organ” gained from beating that mission (thus you can say, leaving it intact nets you a nominal boost to your war assets)
    -At very low readiness, you only get control, or destroy; which one depends on whether you nixed the base or not.

    I’ve discussed with Brenny (I think, might’ve been Jack) that it would have felt better if they didn’t let you pick an ending: that which ending you got was a literal judgment as to how you played the series to that point. That may have helped, I think, in reducing the ire gained in that the endings were so similar.

    I’ll be honest, the alleged departure of creative talent had an impact we’ll never be able to measure. Bioware has traditionally been a “written by committee” kind of place, so one guy leaving doesn’t mean he took the heart of the story with him, and the lead writer in all likelihood just gets to decide the overall focus while leaving the larger plot intact.

    That said, I do feel two things about the ending.

    One is that they wrote themselves into a corner with an innumerable, unstoppable foe.

    The other is that Bioware has been more moored in fantasy than sci fi, and Mass Effect, for all its wondrous sci fi cream filling, shows its fantasy roots, most especially in its magical, time-lost ancient-civilization-spanning Crucible and the aged deific Catalyst.

    I can see in hindsight that much of what they wanted to cover, thematically, was challenges to long-held rules and expectations of standard science fiction and space opera. That’s why you have deco-recos like the Asari, who titillate while being the most intelligent, advanced and culturally significant race in the galaxy, or the remarkable short-term vision by the most short-lived race, the Salarians, or in just how damaging it might be to find some ancient network of FTL relays, to growth and innovation.

    Reapers take the place of the truly implacable machine threat, the synthetics that always threaten us in sci fi, but also fill a sort of cosmic horror niche, an unknowable presence whose very presence warps reality. That they bring order to chaos serves to reinforce this: in cosmic horror, humanity is inherently irrational in its existence amid the sea of dark, cold space. This is why people go insane from the realization: humanity isn’t wanted or needed.

    That sentiment is further underlined by much of what you see in the first game. Humanity is lumped with the Volus, Hanar and Elcor. The big First Contact War was just one of those weeks for the Turians. That sort of thing.

  4. Except… Kain killed the Elder God. It looked like it was all about the Hylden, the shadowy anti-vampires who… didn’t sparkle or something. They were terribly mysterious. Also, Tony Jay is dead, so I’m not sure if I’d want to see the Elder God come back even if he could.

    That aside, the closest thing we’ve had to a new Kain game is an entertaining patch in that downloadable Lara Croft game a few years ago. Watching Kain and Raziel bicker and solve puzzles was kinda nice.

    As for the story planning and all that… yeah, we’ll never know. Such is the unfortunate reality of things. I don’t think the Reapers came off as so utterly unbeatable that they couldn’t be stopped, especially considering Shepherd helped take down one in the first game and dispatched… half of one?… with only a small team in the sequel. It always came off as being more about unity, working together, accepting the probability of steep losses, and perhaps a giant cannon that fires thresher maws.

    I do agree that dictating the ending by the player’s actions rather than letting them choose would have been better… and honestly, it sounds more like what they said they were going to do anyways. I’m still suspicious of the circumstances surrounding the event (word from one writer was that Casey Hudson- and I think one other person- did the entire ending themselves, without the rest of the writing team), as I feel like it shifted away from both the tone and the theme of the game thus far to something that was representative of Evangelion.

    Except Evangelion’s ending had fewer plot holes.

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