Quite a few long-running stories that I’ve been following across different media are coming to an end these days. In the cinemas, there’s Avengers Endgame, the climax of a story that started with Iron Man in 2008 (and which I’ve seen—more on that soon). In comics, there’s Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine, which has been running since 2014 and is on its final story arc. And on TV of course, there’s Game of Thrones, now two episodes into its six-episode final season.
Endings are tricky things, of course, all the more so when stories are as sprawling as these three examples are. But these stories have an advantage: a large cohort of dedicated fans, who have invested in and stuck with the story from the early days. Perhaps the key to getting the ending right lies in making sure that these fans feel a sense of payoff for their dedication. And from the two episodes so far, Game of Thrones‘ creators understand this well.
(Spoilers for Game of Thrones below, but also for sundry other endings.)
The biggest game release of 2012 so far has come and gone, trailing controversy in its wake. Fans of the Mass Effect series have been enraged by what they see as a substandard ending for Bioware’s space opera magnum opus and have raised a lot of noise (and money) about it. I’ll talk a little about the ending later, but if you want deeper, more philosophical, design-oriented takes on the ending, you can read them here, here, or here.
In any case, if you have an interest in Mass Effect 3, beware of SPOILERS from here on in.
The first thing that you have to realise about Mass Effect 3 is that it’s all pay off. Unlike the first two games, where you had an abundance of side-quests to distract you as you pursued the main plot, here all of those smaller missions contribute to the main plotline. And if you’ve played through the previous two games in the series, it’s massively satisfying, occasionally heartbreaking and once or twice hilarious as it brings to a close the stories of the richly drawn characters who have accompanied you through the series. Which is not to say that there’s nothing for newcomers: the lengthy intro to the third instalment ably sets up the players and the stakes, but you won’t get the full effect if you’re coming in fresh.
As far as gameplay goes, Mass Effect 3 represents a bit of a step back from the streamlining that took place between the first and second games. The combat feels more fluid than ever, if significantly more finicky, with controls that are apt to put you in the wrong place if you get too enthusiastic with the key/button presses. With increased weapon and armour options, there’s plenty for you to tinker with too.
The sense of everything you do having an effect on a galactic war does lend weight to the decisions you make, and fittingly Bioware has the central Shepard character show the stress of the losses and compromises required to make that war winnable. (This sense of player agency is somewhat undercut by the fact that unless you play the game’s multiplayer mode or use the clunky Mass Effect Datapad smartphone app, it can be much harder, if not impossible, to reach the very best conclusion.)
So, anyway, onto that ending. And, in case I didn’t say it loudly enough before, SPOILERS.
The ending, by which I mean the final few scenes, draws on two main sources, one good and one iffy. The first is the original Deus Ex game, where the main character is presented with a choice that will change the world (and apart from scale, the choices presented in Mass Effect 3 are identical). The second is The Matrix Reloaded, where a heretofore unsuspected god in the machine reveals himself and offers the main character an insight into the true reasons behind the conflict they’ve participated in.
Now, I’m a completist. I scoured every inch of the galaxy in all three games, and I only found one hint, late in the third game, that there was some director behind the massive threat of the Reapers. So there was a lack of impact to him when he showed up. Secondly, of the three choices you’re offered, one of them is barely explained, even though it seems to be the preferred option from the designers’ point of view. So on the front of emerging from the choices that the character has made and the story that he or she has experienced, the ending falls short. However, I do love the fact that all three choices in the ending adhere to the theme of sacrifice, either of yourself or of at least one friend and possibly an entire race, in order to ensure the galaxy’s future.
Anyone who’s tried to put together a compelling narrative will tell you that endings are hard. Providing a pay off for a story as big as Mass Effect was always going to be a massive task, and I can see where Bioware wanted to go with the ending: consequences at a scale appropriate to the tale being told and a sense of closure to Shepard’s personal journey. However, Peter Jackson spent half an hour on the ending/epilogue for his Lord of the Rings trilogy, so fan disappointment at the two brief cut scenes that round off the Mass Effect series is understandable.
Still, that doesn’t mean that the final game in the series isn’t worth playing. It’s a compelling, finely crafted narrative wrapped up in a polished storytelling and gameplay engine, and it’s done horrible things to my productivity over the past week. Even if it doesn’t spot the landing perfectly, it still engages and enthralls throughout its performance and is worthy of the high scores that it’s been getting.
(This is the first in what will hopefully be a series on computer games and how they do or don’t tell stories.)
In honour of the fast-approaching due date of Bioware’s Mass Effect 3, the culmination of its space opera epic, I’ve been replaying Mass Effect 2 in an effort to polish up my save game. Replaying the entire title gave me a second chance to appreciate just how good this game is. It’s not without flaws, but as a combination of action, character, setting and story, it’s hard to think of any titles that approach, let alone match it. Except that there’s one niggling gap in the experience, and it’s constantly under the player’s eye.
I’ll skip over action: I play games for story and experience and leave twitch games to those with better hand-eye coordination and reflexes. When it comes to rich fictional settings though, Bioware have an excellent track record, and they’ve crammed as much as they can in here. The galaxy presented to the player is rich, varied and deep, with plenty of corners to explore, and the only potential frustration is that it’s much less free-roaming than the Elder Scrolls or Fallout games from Bethesda.
The characters who accompany the player on their quest to save the galaxy are simply a joy. Richly detailed, flawed yet capable, you aren’t so much presented with them as you are offered a chance to get to know them. The life that they have comes from two sources: quality design, voice and motion capture work and a mass of thoughtful detail put into their backstories, even if you’re only partly aware of it all. My view of one character in particular was shifted appreciably by an easily overlooked text file found lurking in a data vault in a piece of downloadable content. Now that’s attention to detail.
Which brings us to that gap I mentioned. Among this cast of real characters, the player’s avatar, Commander Shepard, is a plastic everyman (or woman). Not only is the Commander’s gender flexible, but his history is virtually a blank sheet, his ties to the rest of the universe loose at best, and his abilities and opinions subject to the player’s whim. It’s fair to say that the ship he cruises the galaxy in, the Normandy, has more character than he does. In fact, like the Commander, it was reborn bigger and stronger in the second game, and with a literally new personality.
The Commander’s lack of identity is part of a problem that’s plagued makers of computer RPGs for years: the more you define your main character in a story-based game, the more you take agency away from your player.(1) The recent Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a wonderfully polished revival of a well-loved series, but there were times when you felt like you were just hitting one checkpoint after another as you followed the story of the pointy-chinned hero: your choices were limited to just how violent you wanted to be in reaching each checkpoint.
Japanese-style RPGs, such as Final Fantasy, seem happier to establish your character in advance of the game, but their western counterparts tend towards the blank slate approach: the player creates the character then unleashes them on the world to participate in a the story. Bioware itself wrestled with this problem in its Dragon Age series: the first game gave players a multitude of options as to who they could be, the second narrowed down that scope dramatically and suffered for it.
Outside the realm of the pure action offering, games work best as story creation, rather than story experience, engines. With Mass Effect, Bioware have created a galaxy full of secrets and characters, presented the player with a massive problem to solve and then let them go about it. Of course, the path that they can take to do so is limited, but the key is to create the illusion of freedom, and a big part of that is allowing the player to be the hero they want to be. In this way, Bioware and the player collaborate to create a more immersive story than Bioware could create alone: they’ll care more about the deeds and relationships of a character they identify with than they will about one presented to them fully formed.
By allowing the player’s choices to feed over from one game to the next in the series, Bioware have deepened the impact of the story they’ve created. I’ll be interested to see how all this pays off in Mass Effect 3. At least now I have the perfect save game to start the experience with.
(1) This trend was ably dissected and toyed with in Black Isle’s seminal Planescape: Torment, wherein the player is an amnesiac everyman, who repeatedly dies and has to deal with the choices made in past lives. The point made there is one of self-determination, in which the player has to actively consider choices made and understand their morality, yet has the freedom to choose any path, regardless of moral right or wrong.