All’s well that ends well: Mass Effect 3 and narrative closure
Last week saw the complimentary release of Mass Effect 3: The Extended Cut, a batch of downloadable content that was designed to assuage growing discord among a vocal majority of the series’ fans, but was always predestined to be a superfluous disappointment. The fact that a cost-free expansion to a cherished franchise was met with any amount of derision, especially from an audience used to paying extortionate amounts for disposable add-ons, is indicative of the continued hostility and disharmony between the wider Mass Effect community and its creators. How did this all start? With an ending.
Having begun in 2007 with the first Mass Effect title, the series managed to solicit an almost unprecedented level of fevered devotion from players due to an overarching emphasis on the equilibrium of choice and consequence. This isn’t the first time Mass Effect’s developer BioWare have indulged in this structural model, however. The exalted Canadian-based team have built their reputation over the past decade through their progressive player-led dialogue systems and their indomitable propensity for constructing highly-detailed locales and characters, each of which are directly effected by your words and actions within the game-world.
While their model has a venerable heritage in the gamebook or ‘create your own adventure’ genre within literature, BioWare’s receptive and reactive worlds and the systems implemented to offer an unprecedented depth to the level of player interaction were created with enough affection, attention to detail and technical competence to garner a significant, loyal parish. The Mass Effect series augmented this already prosperous template by allowing players to transfer their protagonist’s custom appearance, background and most intriguingly their in-game choices directly into the narrative architecture of the first game’s sequel, Mass Effect 2. Whether incidental or momentous, each singular decision became part of a wider universe and narrative, an expansive chronicling of a leader’s rise to eminence where spoken history is something tangible as opposed to a mythical pre-set fictional base.
In hindsight, ending such an ambitious and celebrated saga was always going to alienate as many as it satisfied. Behind a veil of freedom and volition there was always a complex set of stubborn algorithms which ultimately had to converge into some form of linearity when the time came for a conclusive event. Without delving too specifically into the ending of Mass Effect 3, and in turn the trilogy, it is unsatisfactory, insincere and when deconstructed into its basic narrative elements, really quite dumb. An over reliance on a deus ex machina device which leans on the flimsy foundations of an argument from authority attempts to paper over a resolute betrayal of the series’ own ethos. Instantly a narrative that has embraced ethical nuance and emotional bias is replaced by a facsimile of choice, ordained by the flawed logic of a supposedly omniscient being. Ignoring the plethora of plot holes that the final sequence presents as well as its unforgivable reduction of a genuinely intimidating, unwavering breed of enemy into an army of lapdogs, its opaque simplicity and sheer ineptitude was galling.
Calls for a re-write grew post-launch, with a fan-led campaign named ‘Retake Mass Effect’ gaining momentum as the finale was witnessed by an increasing number of disgruntled players. In spite of a noble charity drive that raised $80,000 for Child’s Play there was still a hint of sneering condescension to this hopeful quest for resolution that was both unfair and inaccurate. The consensus from the campaign’s detractors decided that the reaction was based on the ending’s bleakness, which opposed the ubiquity of endings within the industry which presented Hollywood utopias as the accepted norm.
With industry blockbusters like Halo: Reach having already dabbled in disconsolate conclusions this isn’t exactly a valid or fair retort. Unfortunately, BioWare’s response was no less arrogant. While the existence of the ‘Extended Cut’, downloadble content that provides “clarity” and “closure” through additional cinematics, suggests a modicum of humility in the face of failure, its development was rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding from its creators. Citing ‘artistic integrity’ as the reason why a complete re-write was unnecessary rang false. The artistic merits of the series thus far had been focused on a complex amalgamation of variable choices and consequences in a game that could superficially be looked upon as just-another-space-shooter. This ideology, however, was abandoned at the series’ close in favour of a limited number of pre-destined options based on an underdeveloped, contradictory philosophy from a divine entity.
As the Mass Effect games became more interested in fluid third-person adventure/shooter gameplay the primary draw of interactive dialogue and interpersonal relationships became secondary, and this was exemplified in the finale. Herein lies a problem with the videogame medium as a basic construct. The end-game, in most cases, still reverts back to the idea of winning and completion as paramount. This isn’t necessarily a hindrance, but when a complex narrative is diminished by an arbitrary, assumed ideal of having to make the end of a story coincide with victory, it can be. Some of the most revered games have deficient endings because of an imbalance of focus on either the gameplay or story. Bioshock, Batman: Arkham Asylum and every Metal Gear Solid game ever made fit into this category. In fact I can think of only five games which balance interaction and storytelling without reservation: Portal, Half-Life 2: Episode 2, Red Dead Redemption, Super Metroid and, ironically, Mass Effect 2.
If Mass Effect 3’s dénouement could provide anything positive in its wake, it would be a re-evaluation of how the finale of a videogame should ‘play out’. The most nonsensical ending in Mass Effect 3 has been dubbed ‘Synthesis’ which posits that the metaphysical tension between synthetic and organic life can be solved by some kind of hardware-DNA coalescence. In future, if the same logic can be applied to the frequently disparate elements of narrative and interactivity in the videogame industry, maybe we can all live happily ever after.Tagged in: BioWare, gaming, halo reach, Mass Effect 3, Mass Effect 3: The Extended Cut, Retake Mass Effect, video games
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