It’s about to get all video-gamey up in here. Don’t fear, though; it’s mostly about writing and narrative structure, so if you feel like hanging with me through a big pile of geek, welcome to the party. If not, I’ll have something fancy and crowd-pleasing for the next post. Maybe. It’s hard to say. This post is also really, really long, so be warned. With that said, let’s talk about Mass Effect.
What The Heck Is Mass Effect And Why Are You Writing About A Video Game’s Narrative Structure?
Because I’m a nerd? Fine, I’ll start with the first part of the question.
Mass Effect is a trilogy of video games. It’s a big, honking science fiction epic that not only takes you through a continuing story, but allows you to import your character – along with all the choices and their consequences – into subsequent chapters. The level of investment this built in players was unlike anything I’ve seen from a video game. You ended up not simply caring about the plot. You cared about the people, just like you do when you read the best books or watch the greatest television series. I hopped in late. Mass Effect 1 never came out for Playstation, so I didn’t start playing until the second game. That didn’t change how deeply the game grabbed me, and how much I needed to see how my choices played out in the finale.
That level of investment is a double edged sword as the conclusion nears. It’s hard to end any story. Every story builds up a pile of conflicting needs that can’t all be paid off in a way that will satisfy everyone. Everyone’s prioritized what they want and how they think they want it by the time they’ve gotten there. It’s even worse in series writing, because at least when reading one book or playing one game you’re under the sway of the writers through the course of things. Between volumes people build expectations separate from the intentions of the author. Players coming into Mass Effect 3 had desires and expectations so varied that there was bound to be disappointment.
What I didn’t expect was the level and depth of that disappointment.
By the time I got to the ending, everyone else had finished, gotten angry, talked about it at length, and pressured Bioware into releasing a Directors Cut version of the ending (to be released In The Future), so I knew people were upset. I just didn’t know why. I figured I’d either fall into the camp of detractors or be one of the quieter voices defending the ending against unfair attacks (much as I do for Battlestar Galactica). What I didn’t expect was a reaction so mixed that I needed to write a multi-thousand word blog post to make sense of it.
Let’s Get Something Out of the Way
You know what didn’t suck about the ending? The ending.
Stay with me for a second. The antagonists in Mass Effect are a Lovecraftian race of ancient, synthetic lifeforms. Old Machines – the Reapers - from the dark space between galaxies who have been the architects of a cycle of galactic extinction events. This leads into a recurring theme in the series: the conflict between organic life and the synthetic, artificial intelligences they create. The end of Mass Effect 3 is absolutely focused on this theme. The choices Commander Shepard is given (Shepard being your main character) branch out from that conflict. Do you control and enslave synthetic life to keep them from one day wiping out all organic life? Destroy all synthetic life to protect it? Or do you bring the two together, leading to a hybridization of the two so that they might life in peace?
That ending is awesome. The way those choices grow out of both the subplots of the series and what we know of the Reapers was immensely satisfying, and those who’ve said this ending comes out of left field were not, in my opinion, paying attention. My friend Nick goes into this in a lot better detail, so I’ll let you read his thoughts if you want. For my part, I want to talk about how Mass Effect 3 botched everything else about this wonderful conclusion, both through gameplay mechanics and story structure.
The Stupidity of a Score
Let’s start with game mechanics, since it’s the least juicy thing we have to talk about. If you have zero interest in this, feel free to skip to the next section.
In all of the Mass Effect games there are certain things you can do that affect the ending. Specifically, doing a lot of things – or making certain choices – gives you a better ending than not. This might mean certain side characters survive, or whether or not your ship is lost in the battle, or even whether or not Shepard makes it through. Each game has had its own way of doing this, and it’s the difference in the way Mass Effect 2 handles the endgame in comparison to Mass Effect 3 where the problems begin.
In Mass Effect 2, the overall thrust of the story was gathering a team to take on a likely suicide mission. There were certain characters you had to pick up, but there were also a handful of teammates you could convince to join you or skip. Whether or not you’ve picked up a full team is the first thing that determines how the game ends. This leads to the suicide mission itself, which is, without a doubt, the single most intense and involving game ending I’ve ever played. At every step, you must choose which teammates must accomplish which tasks, like a general directing her troops. It’s not obvious at first, but who you choose to send on what task decides who lives and dies. Making the wrong call gets people killed. People you’ve come to care about. Getting a lot of people killed means you might not have enough of a team left to help you escape. The ending in Mass Effect 2 is based both on understanding who the people on your team are and the choices you make based on that understanding. It’s a totally character based conclusion to a game that’s essentially an action shooter.
In Mass Effect 3, none of your choices matter. Not one. At least they only matter in your head, carrying the value you’ve placed on them. No matter what choices you’ve made, how the game ends is determined by a number. As you rally the galaxy to war, this abstract numerical representation of your strength goes up. That number and that number alone determines not only who survives and dies, but determines whether or not Shepard gets all the choices presented in the endgame. It’s ludicrous and goes against the deep sense of choice and consequence present in the series. Why does the Super Machine Intelligence at the end care how many War Assets you’ve built when it offers you its final choice? It shouldn’t, and that it does is insane. Worse, fleet strength seems to change what the choice does. As in, if you don’t have enough ships, the explosion you cause blows up Earth…even though those War Assets can’t do anything to stop a Big Explosion. That everything in Mass Effect 3 comes down to an abstract score is devastating.
Yet, that still could be a minor problem if they hadn’t gotten their story structure all backwards.
What About Earth?
Mass Effect 3’s marketing focused on a clear idea: Take Back Earth. The game opens with the fall of humanity’s home to the Reapers, and there is a steady pulse of wanting to go back home, save the survivors and retake your world. Every human character talks about how much they hated leaving Earth behind. Every alien race you bring in to help offers assistance in the reclamation of Earth. When the endgame comes, returning to Earth becomes a necessity of galactic survival. The game is about Earth’s fall as much as it’s about the larger threat.
Yet, in the game’s final minutes, the salvation of Earth drops off the table entirely. Your final choice results in one and only one shot of people on the planet below. The fate of your home – whether it could be rebuilt, whether enough people survived to make the battle worth it – is left entirely up in the air. It’s just ignored, left as a side-note to history. This is a problem of the writers’ own making. Starting the game with the pain of Earth’s fall made the stakes personal. Because they neither pay off your efforts in an equally personal way nor pivot away from that goal earlier in the story, it feels like a cheap tactic to get players invested. If your story is not going to care, in the end, whether Earth survived or not – if it’s not going to really delve into what its fate means – then it shouldn’t make it the entire focus of the story. I cared about Earth. Really and truly cared about taking it back. When the end played out, it wasn’t obvious right away that the failure to give some kind of closure on it was such a problem. Over time, though, it became the core of the larger issue in the game’s ending.
No frakking denouement.
I Wanted An Ending, Not Just Rolling Credits
Here’s what happens at the end of Mass Effect 3. You make a choice. Music starts to play. You see about two minutes of stuff happening: Reapers blowing up on Earth, things exploding in space, your ship – the Normandy – outrunning an explosion and then crashing on some unnamed planet, and a couple of side characters walking out of the wreckage. If you’re lucky, you might also see your main character, Shepard, take a single breath, because She’s Alive. That’s it. That’s the whole ending. No matter what choice you make.
The problem isn’t exactly that the ending is brief, though that’s a factor. The ending of Mass Effect 2 is as brief as Mass Effect 3. The difference is in Mass Effect 2 most of what you care about – who lives, who dies, how screwed up they are – is addressed during the gameplay of the ending itself. All those side characters into whom you invested time and emotion live and die before your eyes. In Mass Effect 3, your team and crew stay offstage for most of the ending and disappear entirely in the last twenty minutes. We have no idea what they’re going through and how they feel about what Shepard is doing. Since we don’t get any resolution on them in game, that leaves it to the denouement to bring us closure.
Instead of a denouement, we get the Final Fantasy 7 ending: a shot of a vista with a few of our characters looking out over it. The end.
Look, not every story needs Return of the King’s thirty ending structure (though I am on record as liking the extended close of that movie). Sometimes things can stop in place and your mind can take the characters forward from there. I don’t need to see that this one got married, that one had kids, she became president, and he went crazy. What I do need is some sense that the people with whom I journeyed got an ending.
Proof that I don’t need Maximum Closure before I continue (this is largely spoiler-free): I recently watched Terriers, a show that was cancelled at the end of its first season, but whose final moments serve as a perfect ending. It basically cuts off just prior to a decision – drive straight or turn left – but works because that choice gives us a place to travel in our heads. It tells us their life will continue, in one direction or the other, and lets us think about what they might do based on what we’ve learned about them. The point was that this was an ending, not just a failure to give us context as things wrapped up.
What Mass Effect 3 lacked was that context. After 40 hours of gameplay in this game alone – that doesn’t count the time you might have put into the first two games – wanting to see what the lives of your comrades will be in this brave new world is not an unreasonable expectation. I don’t say this to mean that writers should ever make a story call based on giving readers exactly what they want or expect. The point is that an ending should both grow out of the story before it and comment on what it meant. An ending doesn’t just project the world forward. It reflects back on the events that led to it.
Terriers leaving us on a choice between friends does that. Ignoring a dozen people we care about at the end of a galactic war does not. Unless the point was that no one but Shepard actually mattered, which is the exact opposite of what the series seemed to be saying. Giving us closure only on Shepard and a few big ideas minimizes the importance of the individual actors that had been such a key part of the Mass Effect series. The lack of a denouement hurts the story by abandoning the relationships and people left behind. It goes against what the series stood for: That people matter, and that your definition of ‘people’ is far too narrow.
The End of the End
I liked Mass Effect 3 far more than I didn’t. It’s just that every story problem is backloaded into the final minutes. Everything up to Shepard’s desperate, limping walk into the final sequence is pure brilliance. I nearly cried three times during the game as characters exited the story. That’s how much they made me care. I was totally sold through most of the end. It wasn’t until the credits started rolling that I realized how little Bioware had done to make the choices and relationships I’d built matter. It left a hole in the story for me, a hole that kept me from doing what I love to do in the days after something ends: roll the memory around in my mind, feel out the texture of the completed piece and explore the emotions it left me with. The lack of texture and context died me this. I cared about those people, and I wasn’t given the faintest idea what life would be like for those who survived.
This is why too-brief endings can be a problem. Shepard made a galaxy-altering decision. That decision’s weight should have been felt in how it affected the people about whom we cared. The sad, slow endings of Return of the King showed us what a world handed over into the dominion of men meant to the non-humans left to witness it. The world changed, and we understood the change through their eyes. Mass Effect 3 leaves us with a scattered set of images – mostly of explosions – and not a clue as to what the repercussions and consequences are.
The ending of Mass Effect isn’t a failure, but it fails in the way so many endings do: in misunderstanding what it asked us to care about and why. It nailed the big honking plot it had set up, but did so in a way that betrayed the people, details and context that made the plot matter. The irony is that in another game, with lesser writing and weaker characters, I wouldn’t care enough to be upset.
It’s a reminder to writers and storytellers that how you leave your audience changes where they think you took them. Stick the landing.