Mass Effect 3: The Consequences of Narrative Incoherence

I finally finished Mass Effect 3. It was definitely a slick AAA title, and had a lot of good points, but it also had more than a few rough edges. I really enjoy the high-action space opera of the Mass Effect series, and the willingness of a big studio to make original IP rather than recycle Star Wars yet again. But the most interesting thing about Mass Effect 3 is the huge divergence between professional reviews and user reviews (As of now, on Metacritic it’s 8.9 vs 3.8) Pretty much everybody agrees that Mass Effect 3 is a solid game with some of the best combat in the series, but the ending is even more hated than the ending of Battlestar Galactica. In fact, fan backlash against the ending has been so intense that after a month, Bioware promised to fix it with DLC. There are many plausible explanations for why the ending fell apart, but I think it’s because the game tried to make two contradictory narratives, and could not resolve then. I’ll try to keep this spoiler free until the end, so please read on.

First, some definitions: Narrative is generated by the interactions between the player and the game. Story is what the game says, the cutscenes and dialog. Action is what the game does, the small details of play and plot. And Background is what the game is about, the history and philosophy. This is not a universal model, but it fits ME3, which breaks up shooter sequences with dramatic cutscenes, and supplies a lot of information about the world through text entries in the in-game Codex and War Readiness display.

The story of Mass Effect 3 is about Sacrifice and Standing Together, and it hammers points relentlessly. I think there were about a half-dozen instances where NPC of the mission dies finish the job, or holding off the enemy so Shepard can finish the mission. It’s pretty much The Sands of Iwo Jima in space, with Shepard trying to hold on as friends die all around him. The writers draw liberally from a rich cultural history of war movies here, and while it can be a little schmaltzy in places, it mostly works, and a few pieces are truly exceptional. The game does a good job establishing these characters, their stories, making their sacrifices have emotional impact.

The second side of the story is about building an alliance of all the sentient races in the galaxy to fight the Reapers and save Earth. The ME3 universe is actually a pretty interesting place, with a more complex than average group of humanoid aliens, most of whom have committed horrific war crimes against each other in the past. There are eminently plausible reasons why the galaxy does not unite, even in the face of an existential threat. Here, the writers don’t do as good of job. They’re clearly trying to run with Babylon 5: Season 3, but the dialog options just aren’t good enough to make it seem like failure is an option, or that the stakes matter. Compared to the conversation system in Deus Ex: Human Revolution Mass Effect is clunky and old school. Most problems can be solved by ((Renegade Interrupting)) whichever dignitary is being difficult, which cheapens the story about Standing Together.

As I mentioned, the action in the game is a slick 3rd-person shooter with squad-based tactics and RPG elements. It’s done very well, if the game is mostly running through a corridor from set-piece battle to set-piece battle, but what narrative component of the action says (i.e. what a somebody who didn’t speak English would get out of it) is that Shepard always arrives in the nick of time and saves the day by shooting people in the face.

Mass Effect is a space opera, and both the story and the action support the premise that the right person in the right place at the right time (with a gun) can change history. In fact, to be more explicit about it, the first two games were really a Western in Space, with Shepard as a literal space sheriff travelling from colony to colony defending them against various types of space Injun (Gith, Collectors, Pirates, Slavers, Reapers) as he gather the evidence and allies necessary to confront the villain; It could be subtitled Have Blaster-Will Travel. The Paragon-Renegade morality meter is basically what color hat Shepard wears, whether he’s John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. Westerns don’t have the cultural cachet that they used to, but they’re still a good formula for a game, and they go with science-fiction like peanut butter and chocolate. (Star Trek was originally pitched as ‘wagon train in space.’)

The third game abandons that familiar formula to put Shepard in the middle of a full-scale war between humanity and the Reapers, and it’s this third part, the setting, that contradicts the established Mass Effect narrative. The third game opens with the Reapers attacking Earth, blowing through the planetary defenses as if they weren’t even there. Within hours, mankind is reduced to fighting a desperate guerilla war for survival as mile high robotic death machinehttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifs stalk through major cities, ‘harvesting’ the population and converting them in zombie footsoldiers. It’s made very clear that the Reapers totally outclass galactic forces, and that only insane suicide attacks have a chance of doing any damage whatsoever. The military is being attrited away to nothing, civil infrastructure has been smashed, millions of people are dying every day, and nobody can do anything to stop the Reapers.

The only way to describe the setting of Mass Effect 3 is ‘Cosmic Nihilism’. Every 50,000 years or so, these gigantic living starships appear and destroy technological civilization, neatly explaining the Fermi paradox, the divergence between the expected frequency of life in the universe and the lack of evidence for life. Mass Effect borrows this device from the Berserker novels by Fred Saberhagen, and Alistair Reynolds’ absolutely bleak Revelation Space series. Derivative as they are they, the Reapers are wonderfully horrifying: invincible, super-intelligent death machines that are not just more powerful than any spaceship humanity can build, but who use ‘indoctrination’ to convert organics to their cause, and who corrupt our very bodies to manufacture zombie soldiers.

The Reapers are a powerful setting element, but they’re also bleak and deprotagonizing. Shepard is reduced from the Only Person Who Can Save the Galaxy to just another soldier in the war. RPGs have trouble getting away from a framework of fetch quests, but where Mass Effect 1 and 2 gave you a plausible way to explore the galaxy at your own pace, ME3 has you zipping from crisis to crisis retrieving the supplies needed the build the Crucible, the experimental super-weapon which is only hope against the Reapers. Meanwhile, the game flinches away from asking what it takes for people without high-end combat armor and an experimental stealth frigate to simply survive the Reapers. The sacrifices you witness and the alliances you build are drained of meaning, because the setting implies that the real action in the Reaper War is playing Sophie’s Choice with entire planets.

All through the game, I was wondering how they were going to square the melodramatic soul of Mass Effect 3 with its nihilistic exterior. Spoilers follow.

The end of the game takes Shepard to Earth, where he leads a final charge of the combined forces of the galaxy against the Reapers to seize control of the Citadel (which has been relocated to Earth) and activate the Crucible, which will end the war. Nobody has any idea if the plan will work, but nobody has any better ideas, since a conventional war on all fronts is a sure loss against the Reapers. Shepard makes it to the Citadel, but is heavily wounded and staggers around armed only with a pistol. He confronts The Illusive Man and a strange AI which is responsible for the Reapers in a philosophical dialog about what man can and can’t control, and the destiny of organic and machine life in the galaxy, before making a three-button choice where Shepard alone determines the fate of the galaxy.

Yeah… We all saw that one coming.

What really bugs me is not that this is a bad ending; it’s just an ending for an entirely different game. The philosophical questions that are raised are interesting questions, and they’re handled in a relatively mature way for a video game. But they’re questions which are peripheral to the story. Shepard doesn’t care about controlling things; Paragon wants to let people make their own decisions and Renegade just wants to do whatever gets the job done. The Illusive Man is obviously insane and corrupted, and has nothing to offer Shepard aside from a change for another ((Renegade Interrupt)), and an unsatisfying one at that. The Reapers actually have an interesting philosophy about preserving a cyclical balance between organic and machine life, and allowing the next generation of organic species to rise and flourish, but these points are only brought up periodically in the game. For something so alien and cool, it deserves more time.

Mass Effect 3 fan endings are a cottage industry now, but if I were to do mine, I’d likely drop the grand war plot and focus on Shepard versus The Illusive Man, and make it so that the personal relationships, the sacrifices, and the way that his crew stands together are what counts in the end. But if you want epic, Professor Phobos at RPG.net knows how to do it right.

Mass Effect 3 was a good game, but it will always be regarded as a seriously flawed finale to the series. The confused ending is understandable, given the conflicting demands of the two narratives, but Bioware choose to bury a minimal ending under random mysticism rather than give us closure. This was a failure of vision and of management, and a major studio should know better.


  1. I agree that Bio ware rushed the instrument of the final game, but the mass effect universe from the different races to the "space like" ambient atmosphere and music really inspired my life.

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