Monday, May 21, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Ending, and Why I Liked It

If you are a gamer, or a friends of a gamer (unless you've been living under a rock), you've heard about the uproar about the Mass Effect 3 ending. If not, read the brief summary below (spoiler warning: if you've not played any of the Mass Effect games, do not read any further). I'm a little late to the game here, but it took me a while to gather my thoughts about this.

Mass Effect is the story of galactic civilization being threatened by a sentient group of synthetic life forms known as the Reapers. Throughout Mass Effect 1 and 2, you play as Commander Shepard, a human soldier who was exposed to an alien beacon warning of the Reapers. Only no one believes Shepard except your closest friends and allies. Shepard crosses the galaxy, gaining allies, solving problems, and twice saving the galaxy from the Reapers. 

One of the defining characteristics of the Mass Effect games has been the way the player can define the story. Aside from simple paragon/renegade conversation choices (similar to good/evil choices of other games, except that Shepard is always considered to be "good"), the player can make bold decisions about how the story plays out. Furthermore, decisions from Mass Effect 1 affect the way Mass Effect 2 plays, and decisions from the first two games affect the way Mass Effect 3 unfurls. You can get dramatically different conversations, events, and outcomes based on your choices. 
Penny Arcade - Multiplicity
Penny Arcade's take on the divergent paths.
I'm not just throwing that PA comic up there willy-nilly; Gabe (Mike Krahulik) has written a great post about why he doesn't accept the general criticism about the ME3 ending. Here's the link, but Gabe's story is not the same as mine.

When I first played ME1, I decided my Shepard would be kind of an asshole, but good when it counted. So I chose mostly renegade options, but I didn't shoot unarmed people, etc. In ME2, I continued much in the same vein, though I did make a few decisions I thought were out-of-character for my Shepard. What I didn't realize was that I was blending Shepard's and my own character.  After playing through the three games, I felt like I was Commander Shepard. When Kai Leng stole the Prothean VI off of Thessia, I felt just as distressed as Shepard looked. I even snapped at Joker in the proceeding discussion on the bridge (I chose renegade for all options). When I later replayed that section, I was surprised at my previous decisions, but that's because I wasn't as heated as I was in the moment.

One of the most moving moments of ME3 was after you assault the Cerberus base and have to go to Earth. You pull up the galaxy map and see this:

Oh shit!

Reapers, reapers everywhere. Palaven, fallen. Tuchanka, fallen. Sur'kesh, fallen. The enormity of the moment was not lost on me; I really was all-in on heading to earth to save the galaxy.

And so, Shepard assaults the beam, he and Anderson make it into the Citadel, they confront The Illusive Man, Shepard meets the Crucible, and you pick the color of your explosions. Krahulik did a decent job rationally explaining why he felt that the main complaints of the ME3 ending haters were not valid. But one of his points really resonates with me:
The claim here is that five years worth of gaming is wrapped up in a ten minute cut scene. I guess this comes down to when you think the ending starts. Like Tycho, I consider Mass Effect 3 to be “the ending”. The game starts with Earth under attack and from that point on it’s a mad dash to try and stop the Reapers. I’d argue that if you like ME3 then you liked the ending.
I felt the same way, that rallying the troops was this ultimate build up that tied everything together. But even more than that, my suspension of disbelief was at full strength, and I was completely all in.

I know how you feel, commander.
I can't convince you that the ending was a good ending. There were things that I didn't like. Why was the Normandy traveling at FTL speeds away from Earth? I eagerly await the new ending DLC Bioware is preparing, as I would love some more closure on how things pan out for the stranded armada and Normandy crew. But I will say that after the ending was completed, I sat and stared at my TV for at least 15 minutes, processing and coming to terms with it in the same way I've done with any amazing book/movie/game.
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