Mass Effect: The Story Is The Game
You’ve been fooled.
See, you thought the game portion of the Mass Effect series is that part where you run around and shoot synthetics or warp Cerberus soldiers in their balls, or the part where you fly from planet to planet launching your penetrative active scans in search of… I dunno, weird alien Bibles and lost Turian fleets.
That’s the game you thought you were playing.
Like I said: you were fooled.
Further, you probably thought, “This game has a great story. And wrapped around that game is a fascinating science-fiction tale — or maybe the game is wrapped around the story? ToMAYto toMAHto!”
Like I said: fooled.
The story is the game.
For added emphasis: the story IS the game.
All that shooting? All the planet mining and ammo gathering?
They’re just wrapping for the real game. The real game is how you, the player — in some ways, a collaborative author — arrange the pieces of the story to suit the outcome you desire. You desire XYZ outcome (“I want to save the Galaxy, I want to destroy the Geth-Collectors-Reapers, I want to bang Liara and my ship’s yeoman in some kind of cosmic asteroid hot-spring”), and then you try to direct events through your proxy in the game world: Commander Shepard. You make Shepard say things. You make her punch some mouthy fuck or play diplomat. You command her to let this character — or this entire race of characters — live or die. And in this way you’re moving story pieces the same way you might move one of those sliding block puzzles. Except this time with 100% more lesbian Asari sex.
This is what I love about Mass Effect. You carry your saved character through all three games. Choices made really matter. Play the game and poke through various forums and posts on the subject. You’d be amazed at how often you see other people’s stories varying wildly — “Oh my god, that person’s still alive in the third game? You can have sex with that robot? Nobody else was able to turn the Citadel into a giant space-bong?”
It gives oxygen to its characters and lets them breathe and bloom. It makes you care. It forces you into hard choices. It’s actually quite elegant how it makes the audience into a collaborative author.
And then the third game ends.
And by “ends,” I mean, takes a poop in its own mouth, then barfs that poop in your eye.
From here on out, there be spoilers.
Let’s Talk About That Ending
Seriously, last chance:
HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.
I’ve been sitting on the game’s ending now for a couple days. At first I was like, “Ehh, well, okay, whatever, it’s just a game, I mean, so what if it only made a half-a-lick of sense and didn’t really answer anything and reminded me of the worst parts of The Matrix Reloaded and I’ll just go to bed now and–”
And I couldn’t sleep.
I just kept thinking about it. Hovering over it. Nesting on it like an angry bird whose eggs were stolen by heinous green pigs. It was like a piece of gristle between my molars. Gristle I couldn’t reach.
It’s been like that over the last few days. Taking up intellectual space in my head, refusing to budge. I’m hoping writing this post will do some of that — it’s not that I’m angry over the ending, really. I’m not one of the many legions of fans who want to build a giant robot just to use its tremendous pneumatic grenade testicles to tea-bag the Bioware offices — no matter what the ending was or is or becomes, I still think the Mass Effect games (and the two Dragon Age games) are works of storytelling mastery. To use a theme from Mass Effect, this effort is a true fusing of the synthetic mode of games with the organic life of stories.
But that ending.
Man. What a fucking bummer. What a goddamn titty-twister.
Okay, let me break it down for you in case you have not or will not play these games: for three games we have been taught that our choices as Commander Shepard matter. Our decisions big and small — who we save, who we kill, who we fuck, who we love — actually change the story in each game. Each decision builds upon the next, a great big storytelling snowball effect, so that by the time the third game rolls around you’re really amazed at how the game still recognizes shit you did 100+ hours and two games ago.
And then you reach the ending, which breaks down to you meeting the… I dunno, Reaper God-Mind, and there the Reaper God-Mind is like, “Hey, I’ve boxed you into these two choices — no, no, I know people on the Internet say there’s a third choice but you don’t get that choice, Commander Shitbird, because you didn’t realize your Galactic Dickhole Score was critical to have at 215%, and so now because you missed some Batarian Widget in the Far Rim I give you two choices. One of them is to control the Reapers, the other is to destroy the Reapers. Both will probably kill you. Each will cause a different colored explosion and the same cutscene. And then we’ll blow up all the Mass Relays for no good reason and Joker will run off to some lusty jungle planet to either have robot babies with EDI or he’ll screw your own love conquest, Yeoman Traynor. Then, something about an old man talking down to his stupid grandson and oh! Don’t forget that shameless plug for downloadable content, which will jerk your chain right out of the story. So. What’s it going to be, Shitbird?”
Guh. Guh? Guh? (And why so much Joker there at the end?)
What the fuck, Mass Effect? Why you gotta do me like that? Without even the courtesy of a reach-around? All this time you’ve been teaching me how important my free will is both as a character and a player. How significant my choices are — except now the two (not three) choices I receive are the same choices every asshole playing the game gets? And those choices reveal functionally identical endings? And none of those endings give me one greasy lick of information about Garrus or Liara or the entire Krogan race or what the Geth are up to or how my Yeoman love interest responds to me getting burned to a crispy cinder?
I don’t mind that it’s a bummer ending. It’s not actually that much of a bummer. Shit happens and it is, as expected, a Pyrrhic Victory. I never expected differently. When I first heard the complaints about the ending I thought that was the problem — that’s certainly how gaming media framed it. “Oh, a cabal of pissy-pants gamers are upset because they didn’t get a happy ending. Get the sand out yer vaginas!”
But that’s not it. Not for me. Not for most.
It’s that the ending betrays the intention of the story.
It’s that I spent 100+ hours on three games expecting the same I’d always received: hard choices and a glimpse at how my hard choices paid off in ways both good and bad.
It’s that the ending doesn’t even make that much sense. It feels like it was duct-taped on, flapping half-loose in the wind, its amateur-hour esoterica boldly displaying its crass non-logic (“Yeah, so, to prevent you guys from getting murdered by synthetic beings, we’re going to murder you first. And yes, we are synthetic beings. I know, this is awkward. It doesn’t have to make sense. Just lie back and think of London, Commander Shitbird. Now here, dream some more of Joker, for no good reason.”)
It’s that this ending isn’t the ending that fits. Not philosophically. Not logically.
And worst of all, not narratively.
There. Blister lanced. Feeling better.
Oh, though, I’ll add — I have heard the so-called Indoctrination Theory, which suggests that this ending is purposefully bogus, because Shepard is Indoctrinated by the Reapers. It explains away a number of the logical inconsistencies that happen in the ending sequence and suggests that Bioware will release the “real” ending via DLC. Nnnnyeaaaaah.
If that’s true, it’s both genius and sinister as all hell.
Genius because, hey, bravo. That’s some tricky shit you just pulled.
Sinister because it’s like selling me a book with the last ten pages ripped out and then making me pay extra to get those ten pages back. Even though I bought them dead to rights to begin with.
Presuming such a theory is not true — should Bioware change the ending? I’m torn. Not because Bioware is the “author” here — anybody who plays games and these games in particular should divest themselves of the notion of a single author. Games are collaborative. I’ve long said the players are both author and protagonist (at least in part) and so I’ve no illusion about Bioware being the sole artist responsible. So, why not change it? Because it’s already out there. This ending already exists. It’s the ending on record, the ending I played through to get (for good or bad), and though it left a bad taste on my tongue, it’s still the taste I get.
Changing it now would just feel weird.
Then again, I’d also love an ending that fits the game I played.
Time will tell.
Anyway. Them’s my long-winded thoughts. Do with them as you will.
Contribute your own, if you’ve played the game.