caveat: This is all based on experiences with the default Shepard. I played through with this version for two reasons: one, I played the first 2 games on PC and this one on PS3, so no old saves, and two, this is the game as written - it's the version that people new to the series are going to play. If I was reviewing the game, then I figured I should experience Mass Effect 3 the way the average person was going to play it.
The default Shepard did not have a game that is even remotely similar to most of yours - you probably saved Wrex and have a canon 'saved everyone' playthrough. Not the case with default Shep, 'cuz she fucked up in most situations. Hard to say why, though she's probably just human.
If you didn't import a save, Shepard failed to save most squadmembers from 2 (i ran across mordin, garrus, jacob, miranda, and tali), kept the Collector base, killed the Rachni and Kaiden (in my case), Wrex, didn't save the councillors from the first game, never opened Grunt's capsule, sold Legion, and ignored the DLC. There are probably some other options, but even this much difference ensures that the default game is likely not typical, at least for you, the market that Bioware was going for: the players who have a canonshep playthrough from the first mass effect, with every important decision optimized for the story you wanted.
I didn't find this much of a problem; for one thing, I remember killing Wrex in my original Mass Effect game, because he struck me as unreasonable at the time and I didn't figure it'd come back later. That was four computers and two consoles ago, but the spirit remains, as much as I like him: I think that default Shepard probably represents a genuine 'blind-first-time-through' playthrough pretty well. We tend to discount how much influence message boards and social media play on our decision-making. For instance: how about that ending, eh?
The cognitive dissonance that came from reading everyone's posts about the game as a whole made me realize something about how people play Mass Effect, and what stories do in general. Normally I'm King Shit of Fuck Mountain when it comes to Writing, but this particular insight came from filmcrithulk's monumental posts on storytelling and screenwriting, available here
Like a good teacher, it reminded me of something I already knew, but put in a new light. People generally want two things from characters: to relate to them, and to want to be them. The two together let the viewer/player identify with the character. When we talk about 'bad game writing', for the most part we're talking about flat characters - those who do cool things or invite our empathy, but don't go beyond that in any sense. See Army of Two or Heavy Rain. Movies can be left with 'empathy' as the necessary reaction to most film characters, but games have a larger problem - that of 'cool'.
Since games are mostly built around wish fulfillment, players demand that the protagonists do something 'cool'. All 'cool' really means is 'i want to be like that person'. It can be their courage under fire, their graceful walk, their creativity, their bravery, their ease talking to/fucking women, their acrobatic skills, deadly aim, social prowess, etc, etc, etc... usually 'cool' characters are defined by their extraordinary abilities in one or many areas - areas in which the vast majority of us are sorely lacking. It's a simple concept, but just as hard to pin down as 'fun' - it's so individual you might as well not be saying anything at all. (Games don't have to be wish fulfillment, or at least not in the explicitly indulgent way, but that's a conversation for another day. This is a game with epic scope and god dammit we gonna fuck some blue ladies.)
For many games, that ability can just be 'amorality'. Shoot whoever you want and duck around a corner. Problem solved. Good job, space marine.
For Mass Effect, that gets a little more complicated.
(this is a simplified version of a much longer article)
Most RPGs, ever since they were invented and called 'stories' and told communally, have to do with wish fulfillment. For many, many years, those wishes had to do with status, social mobility, and gettin' hella laid, which resulted in a genre of fiction called the 'romance'. This is where we get most of our ideas of what the Middle Ages were like from. Romances have a hero, usually a knight, who lives by a chivalrous code of honour and who is tempted on their journey to reclaim some artifact or personage.
They encounter marvels previously thought impossible, (re)discover new countries, places, and peoples, and eventually reach their goal after proving their worth in a trial or series of trials. Then they bone a lady: the damsel in distress, also a princess, which makes them future king.
(Yes, this vaguely conforms to the Hero's Journey. No, Mass Effect is not the Hero's Journey. The Hero's Journey is an academic tool used to study myths for essentially anthropological reasons. using it as a blueprint is silly, like using any other formalist rubric as a blueprint.)
Anyway, this pattern continues all the way up to the present day, with those satanist D&D players and GTA4. At this level of abstraction, almost every game is a role-playing game; however, Mass Effect differentiates itself as a franchise by consciously trying to be a palette for expression rather than a mold you have to fill a la Niko Bellic. You create your character, her backstory, looks, makeup, and then you guide her on her heroic journey, reacting to things appropriately. The Renegade/Paragon split has never been about breaking the rules, even at its most forceful: it's been about keeping to your code and deciding how much play you want to give yourself in interpreting that code.
So yeah. Mass Effect is a romance. (Actually, planetary romance, but that's a separate article.)
Let's switch settings for a moment.
Mass Effect's literal deus ex machina (god from the machine) rubbed almost everyone the wrong way. Per my preface, what almost nobody gets is why. At first I thought it was the kid too. Truth is, it could have been anyone, even Mac Walters himself or the obelisk from 2001, and it'd have been just as clumsy.
(this bit is going to be a simplified version of a much longer article too)
I'm gonna do a fun teacher thing and talk about something else and then at the end you're going to realize I was talking about Mass Effect all along, okay? Kay.
Check out the endings for the original Deus Ex: join the evil shadow government, transcend your meatsack body and unite with an omniscient AI, or send the Earth into a dark age. They give you pause while also being conceptually quite satisfying: why?
From the beginning of the game, Deus Ex is doing its best to put you in JC Denton's shoes, to make you aware not only of his augmented nature but also his deeply personal ties to UNATCO and to the nanotech augmentation that makes him special. He's the younger brother who eventually overshadows his big bro, maybe even saves him, and then saves the world by being a slick robot dude - how cool and empathetic is that? At the same time, Warren Spector (who rules) gives you cultural conflicts that are directly relevant to modern society - the problems of information oversaturation, government control, ethical research, political mobility and protest, and class stratification. Each of these ideas are given (often multiple) anchors in characters whose actions directly affect JC and thus the player. It's what science fiction does best - cultural commentary. Each ending speaks not only to the themes of the game but to the empathetic nature of JC and thus the player.
How do you fix the earth, flawed human? Surprise: there's no right answer, no happy ending. You have to do it anyway. Deal.
Compare this with the reboot, which (third article) is a fun game but nowhere near as profound. You play as Jensen, a sounds-similar to Denton, who is a cop guy with robot arms and a dead girlfriend. You strive against.. things. Corporations? I think corporations. How does it end? You can expose mechanical augmentation for.. some reason, I forget, and stifle human progress, remove the limits on augmentation and expand progress, or kill everyone on the ship. There might be a fourth option that I can't remember, but who cares? It mistakes the forest for the trees: the specific anchors which are conduits to the real and visceral themes of the story are focused on in the ending, but don't deal with the themes themselves. Not only that, but where Deus Ex was specific where it counted, DX:HR rewards you with the vaguest, shallowest introspective mumble about how augmentation changed Jensen's life.
Who gives a fuck about Jensen? Not you! DX:HR confuses epic scope
for meaning and affect
, which is maybe the most common mistake in games as they stand. Sure, this decision affects everyone in the fictional US or could erase Jensen and all the other figureheads - but so what? None of them actually matter! None of them have made you react in any meaningful way or made you feel for them! (see also: the upcoming article on syndicate)
The original Deus Ex gave you endings that asked you where your priorities lay, with real and grounded stakes and consequences. The sequel gave you vague bullshit on every count. One ending feels sharp, meaningful, and memorable, and the other is none of those things. Each character is only ever an avatar for a mindset or worldview - the trick is in making you believe in them and how they clash with other ideologies, putting yourself in every set of shoes. It's why we can study literature and why the author matters not at all in criticism of the finished work - the events on the page don't really even matter, it's the interaction of competing ideas through their stand-in avatars that is what draws people in and gives art its power.
(i dare you to ask me what good a humanities degree is now.)
Let's get back to Mass Effect 3.
Yeah, part of the problem with the ending is the fact that it's exposited by a kid who we don't know and don't care about. It also doesn't relate to most people in the story we care about except in the vaguest terms. It only relates to themes in the story in the basest terms, and repaints the story with the broadest brush possible. These are minor issues at best.
The real crime, narratively speaking, is fucking with Shepard for no reason. Not the in-game person of Shepard, but the dynamic which Shepard embodies. See, for the first time in the series, Shepard is vulnerable. Her moms is in danger. She fucks up, Kai Leng eats her cereal, and it actually shakes her. For two and a half games, Shepard has been the one with unflappable confidence. Determination may actually be her middle name. It's certainly her defining trait, even next to 'soldier' - she gets shit done, even if the cost is grievous, even when it threatens those she cares about most.
And for the first time, it might not be enough.
It's where she makes the jump from "player stand-in" to "actual character." If there's one thing we know about as humans, it's not knowing if things are going to work out. Hell, you say as much to EDI when encouraging her to jump Seth Green's fragile bones. You begin to realize exactly how much strain Shepard is under in that moment - not even the hamfisted dreams or occasional Tense Holoconversations manage that. She might not fucking win and she is the Big Goddamn Hero. Makes the buildup to the ending mean that much more. When she settles down next to Anderson, it's two soldiers resting after a mission accomplished, comrades under fire patiently dying after a long, long career. She's headed to heaven to bro out with Garrus, who is laying thousands of miles below in a puddle of green blood. We're sad, but also we're satisfied. Big damn hero, big damn heroic death, martyred for the good of the galaxy.
And then the phone rings.
She staggers to her feet, bloody and scarred, half-robot, and mumbles "What do you need me to do next?" Hit number two, right to the gut. We echo her pathetic sentiment. What more can you ask from this woman? She waves at the console, nothing works, she collapses. Cue capcom: BAD END.
And then the platform raises into the air. This is where things start to go off the rails, so to speak. Let's pause and examine what's happening here - in her extremity of need, her determination has failed her. She didn't quite make it. And that doesn't seem to matter. In the lingo of the romance, she failed her trial, but gets to reap the reward anyway.
That's really where the ending falls down. Everything after seems hollow because it is - there's no reason why she deserves to save the galaxy when she beat the big bad and it didn't matter. The endings don't work because they don't address what people have been told to care about through the entire series - the themes that the writers have been reinforcing, mission after mission. They've been shaping Shepard into what they wanted to be most - a better person, a better lay, maybe only the person willing to be ruthless and stretch the rules where it counts - and it doesn't seem to matter at all.
The violation isn't of the player's decisions. It's of Shepard's role as the player's ideal hero. It takes the interactivity of the game, perhaps its most unique and evocative feature, and utterly ignores the immense potential to take the romance genre to its most extreme catharsis. Every step to this point has been another drop in the Care Bucket, and it just got set gently to the floor instead of poured out in one big release. (yes this is all sexual)
So, players take to the internet, tension unrelieved, and vent it against Bioware and Catalyst instead. I was expecting Shepard to end up being the Catalyst, because that would make sense in terms of the tautology of the game - Shepard is the person who is the most necessary to save the galaxy, because we spend the entire trilogy making her that way.
It doesn't matter how that's expressed, only that it is. We didn't get that moment. Instead, we get an epilogue talking about 'the Shepard', an abstract concept that doesn't have a lot to do with the "reality" of the game we've played.
She might as well be anyone. And that's the thing that nobody wanted said about their Shepard.