Mass Effect 3: the good and the bad

I just finished Mass Effect 3 (ME3), and I can’t shake my disappointment. If you are reading this, you probably feel similarly about the unsatisfying ending. Yes, it should have been better, but I feel that in some ways, BioWare was bound to fail given how the video game industry works these days and how the Mass Effect universe was constructed. There are many reasons why ME fans are so angry (as this great clip explains), but I’ll just focus on these two. I don’t want to just focus on the negative though. For all of its flaws, the Mass Effect series was one of the most compelling SF experiences in any medium (books, movies, and games).

The Bad: ME3 ending

The perils of downloadable content (DLC)

Let’s get the bad out of the way first. The ME3 ending outraged fans because it was vague, confusing, and/or offered inadequate closure. At worst, it even contradicts or disrespects established elements of the Mass Effect story and universe. BioWare brass have already acknowledged that they sought to make the ending “memorable,” but I think that they tried way too hard. There is also a fine line between an open-ended ending that begs discussion and interpretation and a short, ambiguous one that blatantly leaves big questions to be answered by future DLC at $15 a pop. It feels like BioWare tried to toe the line between the two and failed. This provides ammunition to many fans who blame EA, BioWare’s corporate parent, for lusting after profits at the expense of game quality.

There will always be some gamers that despise DLC, arguing that all essential things should be included in the original product. Most gamers though know of and grudgingly accept the reality of video game publishing. It’s expensive to create a AAA game like Mass Effect 3, taking years of work and millions of dollars. Of course game publishers want to extend the life of the game as long as they can. But that’s the key word: extend. Fans will pay for DLC as long as it legitimately adds content. In ME3, many fans clearly feel that things were sacrificed for the sake of future DLC.

I don’t think BioWare intentionally withheld ME3 material–at least they shouldn’t have needed to–because it has produced quality DLC before. The Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC for ME2 was brilliant. Not only did it add a satisfying mission and expand Mass Effect lore, it allowed players to reconnect with Liara, one of the major characters from the original who had only made a cameo appearance in ME2. Gameplay plus story plus character development is the holy trinity of RPGs. These things were added without taking anything away from the ME2 main game.

Ultimately though, it doesn’t matter what BioWare did or didn’t do. The perception of reality is often more important than the reality itself. Besides, BioWare really should have known that fans would be unsatisfied. After investing at least 30 hours of their lives in ME3 and upward of 100 in the whole series, did the developers really expect fans to be satisfied with a 5 minute ending that leaves more questions than answers?

The mass effect of Mass Effect

As disappointed as I am in the ME3 ending, I’m not quite as bitter as most fans seem to be. I recognized that BioWare had a tough challenge because the Mass Effect universe was simply too massive to be wrapped up in one 30-hour installment. The first Mass Effect game set the stage by introducing a galactic conflict and a strong cast of characters. It provided a good balance between story and character development. ME2 is where the trouble began. ME2 ratcheted up the intensity of the story a bit, but it mainly focused on fleshing out the Mass Effect universe by introducing an enormous cast of new characters. This left ME3 with a tall order: to create a thrilling finish to the story AND to provide closure for all the characters, old and new. This task proved to be too much.

Basically ME3 feels a lot like a big checklist. You spend the first two acts gallivanting across the galaxy, catching up with all of your old teammates. A cynic might say that ME3 is basically a huge DLC for ME2, providing one bonus mission for each character. The missions are generally good, but the time you spend with each old acquaintance is simply too brief. You only get a glimmer of new character development before moving on to the next character. Romances, arguably one of the hallmarks of BioWare games, are also very abbreviated. There is simply insufficient time to develop them, so most of your romantic options are holdovers from previous games, dusted off, and spiced up with an added scene or two. I really enjoyed getting to know my crew between missions in ME2, but this doesn’t happen much in ME3 because you know most of the characters already. (To be fair, there were a few outstanding instances of new character development in ME3, including EDI and Samantha Traynor.)

When the story picks up in the third act, the characters all fall by the wayside. You do get to catch up with them briefly before the final battle, but it’s all just window dressing because they have no impact whatsoever on the ending. In fact, all of the endings are basically the same no matter what choices you made throughout the entire series! And after it’s all over, you are left to ponder what exactly became of all the characters you have grown to care about over the years.

By now it should be quite apparent why many ME fans loathe the ending. Little character development and relevance + little real player choice + Swiss cheese ending (plot holes, loose ends) = rage.

The Good: the Mass Effect journey

Warping through a rich universe populated by fascinating races and compelling characters with interesting stories, the Mass Effect journey has been an amazing one. Despite what people might say about the ending, they have to admit that Mass Effect 3 still had its moments. Tali’s mission to retake her homeworld was both dramatic and fitting. So was Mordin’s. There were a few dudes (Jacob’s tale felt somewhat out of character), but by and large, BioWare did a good job given the challenges.

One comment I read stated that the ME3 ending was one of the best and worst ending ever. I share that sentiment. The ME3 cutscenes were some of the finest I’ve seen. The music was moving, and the action was rousing. It just left you feeling unsatisfied. Still, the ending does its job, ending the galactic conflict begun years ago in original Mass Effect game.

The Mass Effect universe was rich and memorable, rivaling all other SF universes to date in any medium. It was a remarkable journey, one that shouldn’t be marred by such widespread discontentment. BioWare is said to be considering changing the ending. Honestly, I don’t need a Hollywood ending. I just hope that they can do justice to a great series.

10 thoughts on “Mass Effect 3: the good and the bad

  1. Great vid, Phil. Thanks. Here is another great vid that’s packed with insights into the making of ME3 which gave me deeper appreciation of how much work went into it. Given their challenges, the devs did an admirable job. The ending could have been better though.

    Speaking of that, BioWare recently announced that they are releasing an Extended Cut DLC this summer to “add more context” to the endings. They are not changing them though because they believed in the dev team’s artistic vision. I can respect that, but I’m sure that most fans aren’t happy to hear this. Really though, this is probably the best BioWare can do on short notice since Mass Effect 3’s problems are structural.

    I think that this new “extended cut” will be a success if the devs can make players feel like their squadmates and/or their prior decisions actually play a role in the ending. To me, these are bigger issues than knowing exactly what happened to every character (although this would be nice too).

  2. Am I the only one who feels like end of Mass Effect 3 reeks of Hegelian dialectic philosophy? I can’t believe I haven’t seen anyone else mention this. You have the two most likely endings (Killing vs Controlling the reapers) in constant conflict with each other throughout the game (symbolized by Shepard and the Illusive Man), and at the climax of the conflict, a third possible ending emerges as synthesis. That framework is identical Hegel’s Dialectic, including the use of the term synthesis.

  3. Congrats, Nick! You might be the first one in the world who has mentioned this, at least in writing. I haven’t seen it anywhere else. I even Googled it with no results.

    I suppose this makes sense since most people struggle with Hegel, so it would never occur to them to see his dialectic in a video game. Maybe some innovative philosopher prof somewhere will start using Mass Effect 3 in his class to teach it…

  4. Ok, so the “Extended Cut” came out…and the endings still disappoint. Yes, some of the plot holes are patched up and there is most closure, but the ending are still basically the same graphically. The extra words pretty much say what you’d expect them to say. There seems little point in replaying the game for these “new endings” when you can just watch them on YouTube.

    It’s too bad, really. I once held BioWare in such high regard that I would buy their games without hesitation. After Dragon Age II and now Mass Effect 3, that is no longer the case.

  5. Russell, this is great! Is there any chance of us reading the paper once it’s finished? I’d love to read it, and I’m sure some other people with an interest in philosophical SF would too. Only if you are comfortable with that sort of thing though. No pressure.

  6. Absolutely!
    I would like to wait until after I have presented the paper formally (for my own comfort).
    After that, though, I think that the dang thing will be fair game.

Comments welcome!