Effected Masses II: The Curtain Drops

2 May


Especially considering my most recent obsequiousness to the subject matter, something must be said about Mass Effect 3. It’s been a full month since I finished it, and now that my thoughts have had time to simmer and caramelize in my brainpan, what do I think? I know you’re waiting with bated breath.

We’ll save The Ending for the end. For now, let’s talk about how this magnificent series has dropped the curtain on three 50-hour galactic globetrotting games.

As better men have already made clear, the entirety of Mass Effect 3 is spent in denouement. Take the opening scene: I was re-introduced to Xanadu Shepard as she spent her leave after the events of Mass Effect 2 in a spartan military facility on the glassy shores of Vancouver. Her R&R is perforated by news that the Reapers – the Lovecraftian beings of ancient and unknowable synthetic lineage, who return every 50,000 years to fuck the galaxy up royal – have reached the Sol system and are on a direct course for Earth. This revelation is interrupted by the city-shaking rumble of a Reaper, vast and ponderous, touching down astride Vancouver’s skyscrapers. In the next few seconds, half of the coastline is gone, obliterated in the heatbeam gaze of three more titanic invaders. Reports stream in that they are landing in London, Tokyo, Paris, Sydney. The invasion of Earth has begun.

This shocking opening sets the tone for the rest of the game. You take Shepard from one incredible action setpiece to the next, fighting waves of mutated Reaper spawn while enduring attacks from the duplicitous Illusive Man and his seemingly endless supply of Cerberus troops. This is simultaneously excellent and irritating; repetitive sequences of “shoot dudes – talk talk talk – shoot dudes” severely limit gameplay variety, but nowhere near enough to dull the impact of the crazy shit Shepard is witness to. The turians, the proud militaristic alien race to which Garrus “Bro” Vakarian belongs, call for humanity’s help in defending their own homeworld, Palaven, from Reaper annihilation. I’ll never forget standing on Palaven’s moon under the shadow of Reapers so huge and intimidating I was afraid of being stepped on, until I realized they were a hundred kilometers away, with Palaven itself filling the starry sky above me as it burned. Moments like that are ME3’s bread and butter, and they leave indelible marks on the mind. It’s clear from the first time you press start that the whole game is an ending.

Remember last time, when I was talking about my intimate connection to the character I’d created? I was saying that I had no idea what lay in store for Xanadu. Going in to Mass Effect 3, she was a merciless valkyrie who got the job done, no matter the cost. Would the new game, and the catastrophic things that take place in it, change her?

I’m happy to report that the answer is yes. I thought that the horror of the Reaper threat and the constant, soul-crushing pressure of being responsible for stopping it would shear away the last of Xanadu’s humanity. I assumed she’d harden up, and allow her tactics to become unrestricted in their brutality. Everyone in the galaxy would be living on borrowed time – Xanadu wouldn’t have the patience for diplomacy or sentimentality. This was where I thought ME3 would take her, and I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The truth is, I underestimated Xanadu. I thought the only way she’d survive what was to come would be by shutting herself completely off from everything she loved, so that it might be protected and preserved. Turns out she took the opposite tack: the firelight of the apocalypse reflected in her widened eyes, and she clung fiercely to what mattered. She realized her hours were numbered, and spent that time fixing all the relationships she’d broken or neglected. Her relationship with Thane Krios, carried over from Mass Effect 2, was a microcosm of the entire galactic conflict – as he died slowly of an incurable disease, they held on to each other with a melancholy tenacity. Their time was finite. They knew with deadly certainty that what they had couldn’t last. It exposed their passion; their raw emotion was brought to the surface as they tried in vain to grasp the love that they couldn’t stop from slipping through their fingers. Love that was so important because in the glow of obliteration, it was rarer and more precious than life itself.

On his deathbed, Thane had Xanadu read him a prayer from a Drell religious text. She spoke it like a eulogy, her voice low and shaky. When she expressed a gentle confusion at its curious wording, he spent his last words telling her the prayer wasn’t for him. It was for her.

I sat there gripping the controller in white knuckles, and could not stem the tide of tears. It was the first time I’d cried at any piece of media since my annual Christmas viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life (which doesn’t count, because dammit, it gets me every time). And it wouldn’t be the last time Mass Effect 3 would wrench the weepy from me. All that these games have really been about, the whole time, is Xanadu. Watching her beat insurmountable odds to throw her broken body into a white-hot beam of light, sacrificing herself for the uncountable lives she’s never seen, or touched, or loved, for the trillions of lives wiped out and the trillions yet to come – that was the ultimate redemption. It was what I waited years to see. And it made me bawl like an infant.

…Which leads us to the golden cord stringing this whole hullabaloo together: the barrel-chested, square-jawed, weight-liftin’, truck-haulin’, cigar-chompin’ story. A story which had been entirely driven by my own choices. A story which, as all good ones must, comes to an end.

To touch on the ending’s controversy: I believe the boys at Penny Arcade have, in keeping with their M.O., hit the nail on the head. The fact that people are outraged at Mass Effect 3‘s ending is at once understandable and infuriating. Understandable, because Bioware has asked the player to invest huge amounts of time and devotion into the game, and it should not be surprising that our expectations were high. Infuriating, because the backlash against the conclusion – so widespread and so pandemic that some gamers actually campaigned Bioware to change the ending – is utterly misplaced. Worse, it revealed an ugly character of modern gamers which speaks ill of the gaming community as a whole; people displayed a truly unbelievable sense of entitlement in their approach to the issue. Here’s the straight dope: no matter how invested you were in the game, no matter how much you care about your characters and your own crafted story, and no matter how much agency you think you have in the way the game plays out, it’s not yours. You don’t own it. Simple.

A group of insanely talented people have slaved for years to create this astounding product. They have invested more in Mass Effect than you, sitting on the couch and twiddling your controller, ever could. It is their product, and their baby, and at the end of the day, whether or not you liked the ending is irrelevant. You still bought it. To think that you deserve a say in the game’s creative construction is the same as telling Michelangelo you think David should probably have been a bit more well-endowed. Honestly, you don’t even know what you’re talking about.

But, damn, I’m skirting the issue. You don’t care about any of that. What you want to know – he said, winking knowingly at the underwhelmed crowd of chirping crickets – is what I thought of the ending.

I agree with the criticisms against the ending’s execution. I felt it was poorly handled when compared to the rest of the series. I was annoyed at the lack of closure (what happened to my crew, damn it??), and at what appeared to be visible plot holes (Where did the Normandy go?).

That doesn’t mean two things: that the ending was bad, or that I didn’t like it. A complaint that I saw many times was that people felt the ending’s “choose your own adventure” style was inappropriate; that they should have been given a myriad of possible conclusions which reflected the choices they had already made. They wanted an ending as unique as their whole crafted narrative, instead of the HERE ARE THREE OPTIONS, CHOOSE ONE ending that they got.

In this, I feel people have fundamentally missed the point. I’ve spent three games choosing one of three dialogue options in every conversation Xanadu had. It’s a format with which I’m well familiar. And I’m comfortable within its cozy confines; not once have I felt that the Paragon/Neutral/Renegade dynamic was too simple, or too black and white. Why, then, should I be surprised and upset that the ending was cast in the same mould? On the contrary, to distill an entire narrative’s worth of experience into an echo of that three-tiered structure isn’t lazy, it’s elegant. It’s consistency of design. It’s intentional and appropriate.

Of course, many fans left unsatisfied have raised theories to fill the holes they saw – my favourite being that from the beginning of the Mass Effect series, Shepard has been suffering a process of slow and insidious indoctrination by the Reapers. This answers many hanging questions, and provides a truly inspired interpretation of what we’ve seen in Mass Effect – a great example of fan devotion working to the betterment of a product.

It’s those unanswered questions, though, which I think are the most important part. Not all endings need closure; in fact, many excellent stories end without really ending at all. I think in many ways that’s more true to life than a manufactured coda, a “they lived happily ever after” tacked on by lazy, unimaginative writers. The writers of Mass Effect are anything but.

To me, an “open ending” isn’t a slur, it’s simply an ending that raises more questions than it answers. If an ending closes the book on the narrative, we’re given no more chances to invest that universe with our own thoughts. Probably the thing I love most about Mass Effect is how it stokes the fire of my imagination – and personally, I haven’t had any trouble at all imagining satisfactory reasons and explanations for every problem that’s been pointed out. My ability to author my own story within the ME universe is empowered by this, not lessened. I’m adding my own ideas and insight to craft a conclusion that makes sense to me. This isn’t grasping justification, it’s how I want to play Mass Effect. And for that reason, I think Mass Effect 3 has the best conclusion a series could hope for.


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