Analyzing the plot of Mass Effect 3
I don’t have to mention that this will be filled with spoilers, do I? No? Good.
Before we actually get into ME3, two things.
Firstly, an issue that I often think about is to what degree does my changing relationship to gaming stem from changes in myself as a person vs changes in the games themselves?
It’s a funny thing to say for someone who is has left his job to become a full-time game developer, but gaming as a pastime is not as satisfying for me as it used to be. I play fewer games, and the ones I play I tend to enjoy less. The number of games that I play for a few hours and then put aside permanently is depressingly high. Sometimes I feel like an addict trying to recapture the high of that first hit, always frustrated but unable to stop trying.
Except, and this is what keeps me from believing that I’ve simply ‘moved on’ from gaming as a hobby, I’m not always frustrated. Sometimes I play a game and it all comes rushing back, that joy, that complete immersion that leaves you blinking in surprise when you look up and discover that it’s 3 AM. It’s become much rarer for me to achieve that state, but I still experience it often enough to know that I haven’t lost the capacity for it.
( In fact, I experienced that feeling with ME2 )
Which is reassuring. But the fact remains, things have changed, and I wonder how much of it is me and how much of it is the games themselves. There are certain aspects of modern gaming that I believe contribute, but I also cannot deny that much of it is due to changes in me. Like any other critic, the more I’ve played games, them more I’ve become critical of ideas and themes which in the past I wouldn’t have had a problem with, that most people probably don’t have a problem with.
“The Chosen One saves the world to much adoration and blowjobs” plotlines have lost a lot of the appeal for me, for example. I don’t have a problem with them in light-hearted romps like the John Carter movie or Orcs Must Die, but anytime a story tries to engage with me at a deeper level those plots simply fall flat. The critical sections of my brain roar to life, all belching fire and whirling blades, and tear that plot to shreds.
What I’m getting at here is that despite the fact that this post is fairly critical, ME3′s plot is no worse than dozens, hundreds of other games I’ve played and enjoyed. I might say some aspect is ‘terrible’ when in fact it is no worse than average. My baseline for what a ‘good’ experience is has drifted far off from that of normal gamers, to the point where it only matches a handful of other curmudgeons. Do not feel offended if you enjoyed something that I felt was ridiculous.
( I also thought the plot for the movie Avatar was laughably shit, so your feelings about that movie might help you gauge whether our opinions align, in general. )
The second thing that I wanted to mention is that the things we care about have the greatest power to anger us. If I get ranty here, it’s because I care about story, I care about fantasy/sci-fi, I care about RPGs and I generally care about the suite of RPGs that Bioware has put out. If it seems like Bioware is being singled out for criticism here when many other products deserve similar or greater criticism, it’s because I’m more emotionally invested. I just don’t care enough about the modern warfare FPS genre to be bothered.
Alright, enough of that, let’s talk Mass Effect. There’s been a lot of noise about the ending(s) of ME3, but honestly I think the sheer inanity of the Star Child has eclipsed the other flaws in the plot. So let’s take it from the top.
The Core Premise is Lazy as Fuck
Let’s talk about foreshadowing for a second here. Foreshadowing is when you build up to a plot point, hinting at it long before the crucial moment arrives. This lends that thing impact and ‘roots’ it into the story, Bioware knows about foreshadowing, the plot twist in KOTOR had plenty of it.
The term ‘deus ex machina‘ refers to the most egregious violation of the notion of foreshadowing, when the plot is resolved via the abrupt introduction of some contrived plot element which simply ‘fixes’ things. The Crucible is exactly such a plot element.
Through the dramatic Reaper Invasion intro sequence you get to witness first-hand the unstoppable might of the invading Reapers, backed up by Codex entries informing you that they tore through the Alliance fleets like they weren’t even there. The message is clear : DOOM.
But, within 30 minutes of gameplay it is revealed that your scientists have been digging through the Prothean archives on Mars and have discovered something, plans for a super-weapon that the Protheans conveniently got to 99.9% complete, design-wise, but didn’t actually manage to use. And the discovery of this ancient blueprint is made at the most dramatic moment imaginable.
If it had been made later, well, everyone would be dead. If it had been made a year prior, the information would have been disseminated already, you wouldn’t have the ‘fight Cerberus infiltrators on Mars’ bit and Cerberus wouldn’t have been able to ‘steal’ the information.
The Reaper invasion has been foreshadowed for 2 games, you knew it was coming and so their arrival has the weight of that anticipation behind it. They clearly built the games knowing the invasion moment was coming. But I’m guessing that they didn’t have exactly how everything was going to be resolved it nailed down though, which explains why there is no foreshadowing of the Crucible or the Star Child. Gotta leave maximum flexibility for changes at a later point.
Relying on this kind of plot device is a sign of a poor writer, poor planning or both. There have been two game plots recently that relied on the “and then the magic device fixed everything!” ending, Starcraft 2 and ME3, and both times it annoyed me greatly. And it annoyed me that gamers, as a whole, don’t get upset about these things. We get crap writing in games because we accept crap writing in games.
Generally Clumsy Handling of the Primary Drama
I want you to take a moment to think back on your experience of ME3. Think about how much time was actually spent engaging with the Reaper invasion, dealing with the consequences first hand? Superficially it seems like all of it, but think a bit harder and actually, it’s less than you think.
The primary problem is that they Bioware shot themselves in the foot by switching from the Reapers to Cerberus as the primary antagonist for the majority of the game. As I said, the Reaper invasion has been foreshadowed for the whole of the previous 2 games. When the intro invasion sequence starts, there is a feeling of “this is it!”
But that feeling is blunted as you quickly shift gears to focusing on Cerberus. And this pattern continues for much of the game. Even though there are some memorable set pieces with the Reapers, for the most part their invasion is experienced rather passively, at arm’s length. They move in, attack planets…and that’s it, really. They’re doing it, you know they’re doing it, but it doesn’t develop much beyond that point. It feels like, for a giant chunk of the story, nothing much develops with the Reapers. Cerberus is doing shit, they’re active and out there, fighting you. The Reapers are like planets, they’re just a backdrop to the story that is happening in the foreground.
I spent most of the game thinking the Reapers were stupid for not attacking the Citadel first, when you reach the sequence where the Citadel is under attack I thought “well, took you long enough!” Then I saw it was Cerberus and was like “Oh.”
It’s partially a problem with using such godlike opponents, you need something on a more human scale for any believable conflict. But that’s not enough of an excuse. You could easily have had Shepard in the thick of things for most of the game, as he is on the Turian moon. And I couldn’t help feeling that the game would have been much better if Anderson and Shepard had swapped places, if the player had been left on Earth to rally the survivors, organize pockets of resistance and lead guerrilla actions against the Reapers in a desperate struggle to buy time for the Crucible to be built and the cavalry to arrive.
Instead, they diluted the tension they’d spent so much time building up and introduced a completely unnecessary new antagonist, Kai Leng the Ridiculous Anime Ninja, who doesn’t get enough screen time to develop any personality whatsoever. We already had villains to fight, it was stupid to try shove in a new one. If they needed some field agents for Cerberus, well, what about all the NPCs from ME2, the characters Shepard recruited? But no, of course not, all those characters are your friends! And they all jumped ship when Shepard did. I’ll go more into this problem in a bit.
The writers make this mistake twice. Just like they expect us to care about Kai Leng without the proper emotional connection, they also expect us to care about that fucking kid without taking any time to buildup an emotional connection. The logic is obvious here, of course you’re going to care, it’s a child!
I wish writers would learn this lesson : do not expect your audience to care. You must build attachment to a character before you put that character in danger, otherwise you’re just threatening a background prop. And this particularly annoyed me, not just because that bloody child kept popping up in dream sequences, but because there was such an obviously superior alternative : kill one of the characters the player already knew from previous games. Anderson springs to mind, or Ashley. Have some balls, as writers, and kill a main character. Right there, in the beginning. Show the player that shit just got real. This would have had literally 1000x the impact of watching a transport full of random NPCs being shot down by a Reaper. And you could have dream sequences later where that character showed up, or show flashbacks of moments from the previous games…literally 1000x more emotional impact.
Lack of Ambiguity
I have to laugh at the ‘Indoctrination’ theory of the game ending that went around the net. Ambiguity of motivation or action* was almost entirely lacking from the rest of the game, in fact it went out of its way to avoid it. The best example is Shepard’s Cerberus implants. There are a number of conversations where the question of whether Cerberus has messed with your personality comes up. Unfortunately, rather than getting introspective about this, most of the dialogue is of the “I’m me, Ashley, and I’ll prove it to you!” variety. And later, you get reassuring videos of the Illusive Man making clear that he doesn’t want you messed with. Considerate of him, to tape those conversations with a random employee for you to find later.
The whole plot is also spent making sure that you know that Cerberus really is the bad guy this time (while being careful to reassure you that siding with them in the second game was completely the right choice at the time) and that the Illusive Man has totally gone off the deep end. They took what could have been an interesting tension, an opportunity to make the player question whether they were doing the right thing or not, and simply threw it away.
How much more interesting would it have been if, instead of showing Cerberus as comically evil, they’d shown Cerberus’s Reaper-augmented troops fighting hard to save human colonies from Reapers and having far more success than non-augmented humans, leading to lots of human volunteers for Cerberus and an emotional conflict for Shepard : their methods (integrating Reaper tech) are questionable but their results undeniable. Do their ends justify the means (saving humanity)? You could have had this lead to the “everyone’s a cyborg now!” ending quite naturally, without green voodoo magic.
1000x more interesting, it would have been. It’s not even hard to think of these kinds of conflicts, ME2 set it all up. It annoys me just thinking about how they dropped this ball.
Speaking of clear lines, I mentioned above that Kai Leng was unnecessary, that they could have used the crew members from the second game. That would have been emotionally conflicting, eh? Your ‘friends’, disagreeing on whether the Alliance could save humanity (as they did in the second game) and siding with Cerberus (as they did in the second game). Forcing you to fight and maybe even kill them. Yes, that would have had some gravitas to it, wouldn’t it? Opportunity missed.
Just like the opportunity was missed with EDI. The ship’s computers all flicker when she plugs into the robot body, and we only have the AI that might have been compromised’s reassurance that she wasn’t compromised by Cerberus programs in the robot body. But nothing comes of it, at all. I guess that would have ruined the “Shepard teaches an AI to love” sub-plot?
The only betrayal comes from a 2nd-tier NPC, the slimy politician, in a series that had long since made clear its stance on politicians vs upstanding military personnel.
Bioware was braver than this as far back as BG2.
* I say “motivation or action” here, because there were ambiguous outcomes, in that you don’t know the outcome of certain choices, like choosing the Geth over the Quarians. But, for the most part, the characters’ motivations are fairly black or white. There is only one character I can think of whose actions are uncertain, Wreav. You don’t know whether he plans to attack the other races once the Krogan are united or just wants to use the threat of it to his advantage. But even there, he quite plainly says “tee hee, I’m not telling you my plans!” The subtlety and ambiguity that the Indoctrination theory supposes is entirely absent from the rest of the plot.
Lazy. As. Fuck
I came back to this because I’m serious, it’s fucking lazy. More than half the missions could be described as “Cerberus Dun It!” Done what? Every fucking thing. They serve as a convenient (read : lazy) justification for almost any mission. Why are you doing this? Because Cerberus is up to some not-terribly-specific evildoing! Go in there, stop them, get a feel-good debriefing explaining that your actions have achieved…something vague related to the war. Cerberus won’t be allowed to get away with whatever the fuck they were doing while Shepard is on the case!
And while we’re on the topic, can someone, please, tell me what interest Cerberus could possibly have in Omega?
You remember Omega from ME2, right? The old space station that now serves as a smuggler’s hub? When you meet Aria T’Loak on the Citadel, she tells you that the reason she is there is because Cerberus snatched Omega from her control. She’s mad about this, obviously, and will give you support in the war if you can rally the merc companies to her cause.
Again I ask : Why would Cerberus seize Omega? What exact purpose was there in that, how does getting into a war with mercs and criminals serve them at this juncture?
The answer, I suspect, is that there isn’t any purpose. This was just a rather contrived justification for the return of a character from a previous game.
The galactic readiness missions are even worse. They couldn’t even be bothered to put in proper dialogue with the NPC, now you just overhear someone saying they desperately need a doodad, find it during a mission and return it for kudos and an increase to your readiness rating. Perhaps I’m being unfair in criticizing what they may have intended to be little more than job board notices, but I feel that even most recent MMOs have made more effort in sprucing up their “go fetch me 10 bear livers” quests. Skyrim certainly did. This is Bioware, I expect them to try harder on the writing front. This is their thing, man.
And finally, the part we’ve all been waiting for. Let’s talk about those endings.
It’s obvious that the 3 different colours thing is a fucking joke, and that they deserve flak for that, but what about the actual ending itself? There’s two aspects of this, does the ending make sense, and is it a ‘good’ (not happy, but satisfying, appropriate) conclusion to the ME3 series.
No. And no.
It doesn’t make any sense. And not because Shepard doesn’t question the things the Star Child tells him. Shepard barely batted an eyelid when EDI she told him that she’d plugged into the Cerberus infiltration bot but everything was fine, nothing to worry about. Shepard was a goddamn idiot, I can buy him not questioning the Ancient AI’s motives. No, it was the rest of it that didn’t make sense. Why did the ancient AI let Shepard kill or control it / the Reapers?
He says “it’s clear because you’re here that my plan has failed.” But wait, has it? Funny, looks like it’s working fine to me. The Reapers are wiping the floor with everyone, Shepard wouldn’t even have gotten up to the top of the Citadel if you hadn’t sent an elevator to fetch him, he had no idea how to make the Crucible work and now you know that the only way the organic races had of fighting the Reapers requires the Citadel (home of the Reaper leader) to even work! The plan is going swimmingly, all you have to do is not let the bleeding, woozy human make a decision about whether to kill all synthetics or not. It’s utterly nonsensical that the ancient AI would leave it up to Shepard whether to end its existence, just, like, because.
Not only does it not make sense, the Star Child invalidates the entire plot of ME1. Why did Sovereign need to recruit the Geth to occupy the Alliance fleet while it attempted to reprogram the Citadel to open a way for the other Reapers? The master of the Reapers lives inside the Citadel, why didn’t it just activate the necessary programs after Sovereign sent it a signal? Seems like rather more effort than was necessary?
The exploding of the mass relays also don’t make any sense. Why was that necessary again? The majority of the Reapers were gathered around Earth to defend the Citadel, we were told. Can’t the Star Child simply signal them to stop? Or fly themselves into black holes? Why the wave of energy? Even if you don’t signal all of them, just get the ones you do signal to use the mass relays, take the message to their fellows in other systems. Would take some time but the Codex tells us it would take over a decade to finish harvesting Earth. There is time. No need to trigger off the end of galactic civilization, I’d say. If the Star Child is considerate enough to passively help Shepard murder it in order to safeguard organics, surely it could offer to die in a way that didn’t involve the death of most of those same organics? But I guess explosions are dramatic?
There’s also the magic thing. Did you notice that 2 of the 3 endings involve Shepard jumping bodily into magical space energy? Apparently, to call off the Reapers, it’s not enough to go to a computer console and send them, like, an email. Shepard has to grit his teeth and wrestle lighting! Wow, drama!
Which isn’t even as bad as the “make everything a cyborg” green voodoo wave. There’s a thin line that sci-fi dances on, where it introduces fictional elements but tries to remain internally consistent. Magic waves of energy rewriting all organic life at a fundamental level is over that line, way over. And why did that require Shepard being absorbed into another magical energy wave, might I ask? Did the godlike AI not understand the comparatively simple technology of the implants?
Joker and the crew crashing on an alien planet has been examined to death already, suffice to say that it makes no sense, they were all on Earth moments before. But I think that scene clearly shows one thing : Bioware was quite aware that people wanted to see what happened to their favorite characters. Even if you got the worst ending, with the Earth left in cinders, your buddies make it out and survive. Some people have tried defending the endings and their lack of ‘closure’ as some form of artistic vision, purposefully vague. I say that shuttle shows they understood quite clearly that it was important to show the player some form of ending for their crew mates, to the point where they were willing to sacrifice internal logic to make it happen. Artistic vision, pshaw. They just did a hash job of it.
The worst part of it, is all they needed to do to end it was phone this one in. Seriously. Hard fight to the Citadel, shoot the Illusive man, plug in the Crucible, BOOM, cinematic of Reapers exploding all around the Galaxy due to mysterious space magic, then it’s victory parades and tear-filled speeches about all the valiant sacrifices everyone made. And then it’s tea, cake, and ending slides showing the consequences of your actions on various planets.
It’s not about a ‘happy’ ending, it’s about catharsis. A a good story is like sex, the buildup of tension needs to conclude with an appropriate release, or all you get is frustration. The howls that resounded around the internet were a consequence of fans everywhere not getting their rocks off. You got them to the cusp, Bioware, then backed off and held out your hand for some DLC dollars. The rage here is completely predictable.
They quite literally outsmarted themselves, the fans would have been perfectly happy with the most obvious, easy ending sequence to write. And it would have been an ending that left Galactic Civilization intact but in ruins, a perfect setting for spin-off games. Seriously, how hard was this? Not hard.
Boggles my mind.
I’m uncertain where to lay the blame though. My instincts say that Bioware is changing since joining the EA collective, 2 games in a row now with such obvious missteps. Also, ME3 introduced team-based multiplayer and is built around a core mechanic that allows easy plug-in DLC and expansion products. Maybe if they’d spent less resources on building an MP architecture and more on what their existing fans love them for, roleplaying and storytelling, the SP game would be better? But you know what the publishers are saying right, gotta fight them pirates. Every big new game property needs an online component and has to offer a “platform” for DLC now. It could be that Bioware has simply reached their pinnacle and slipped over the edge into decline, as is the natural cycle of things, but I suspect EA is giving them a push here, as they have so many other developers in the past.
We’ll see what happens with Dragon Age 3. That’s really Bioware’s core competency, a traditional fantasy RPG. A third fuck-up would be rather damning.