Mass Ado About Nothing
Over the course of a delightfully lazy weekend, I managed to finally wrap up the final chapter in BioWare’s Mass Effect trilogy. Now, because it seems that one can’t so much as utter the words “Mass Effect Three” without inciting torrents of invective aimed squarely at the game’s conclusion, I’ll give the internet collective a moment to finish their grumbling before I begin.
Yes, ME3 had an awful ending that seemed to disregard every single heart-wrenching ethical decision you had made over the entire series. No, that’s not what we’ll be discussing. I think enough has been said about how truly bizarre and unsatisfying the coda was, to the point that project director Casey Hudson is no doubt self-flagellating at this very moment while overseeing Mass Effect’s upcoming “Oops, the last two minutes of ME3 were really just the first two minutes of ‘Lost,’ but here’s the real ending” DLC. I think it’d be more productive to look back at the series and examine what it’s done so well, and in some cases, what it’s managed to do that no other game has yet to achieve.
Now, in my experience, there are two opposite ends of the video game spectrum. On the one hand, there are the video games that really stress the “game” aspect of the medium. These titles derive satisfaction more directly through actual gameplay. Their allure comes from the relationship between what’s happening on-screen, and how that causes your brain to communicate with your fingers. Your fingers then manipulate the controller in order to affect what’s on-screen, which your brain interprets in order to tell your fingers what to do…and so on.
This is a type of positive feedback loop, and our brains simply can’t get enough of it. In fact, the earliest video games fell into this category. Space Invaders, Missile Command and Asteroids are all games in which the primary draw was the gameplay itself. One could change the sprites of the aliens in Space Invaders to something far more abstract, like simple shapes, and the appeal would still be there. The conceit of protecting Earth from a horde of intergalactic assailants was merely window dressing, nice but ultimately inconsequential. Nobody ever played a game of Ms. Pac-Man because they were dying to find out whether she ends up tying the knot.
On the other side of said spectrum are titles that function more as interactive fiction. In these, the focus is on narrative and character development, which the players are tasked with influencing as they see fit. Games like Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire are recent examples of mainstream interactive fiction (IF), and while I enjoyed both titles immensely, it certainly wasn’t because of what they had me doing with my thumbs. The gameplay wasn’t really the main attraction, but the chance to become fully immersed in a well-told story, and influence it from within. Unlike Space Invaders, changing any of L.A. Noire’s characters to abstract shapes would obviously undermine the entire experience.
This brings us to the concept of player agency, which is defined as “the feeling of empowerment that comes from being able to take actions in the (game’s) world whose effects relate to the player’s intention.” The key words here are “player’s intention.” As involving as L.A. Noire’s narrative was, I never felt that I was Cole Phelps. I just felt that I was along for the ride. I could help tell him when people were bullshitting him, but his wants, his intentions, were running the show. When certain critical narrative bombs were dropped, the player was never asked weigh in. Our reactions to events weren’t important, it was how Cole felt about what had transpired that dictated how the story unfolded.
This is the case with most games whose focus is on storytelling. The player is not the protagonist, the player is simply the protagonist’s co-pilot. Of course, this is due to the staggering amount of writing and plotting one would have to undertake in order to offer true player agency.
Enter BioWare. Ever since Baldur’s Gate, the Canadian developer has made player agency a defining aspect in their game design, but it was the Mass Effect series that allowed them to really take the concept and run with it. Granted, the choices in BioWare’s titles are always binary. You can only let the game know that you’d either like to “help the old lady across the street,” or “violently murder and eat the old lady while making her grandchildren watch.” Sure, you’re only given two extremes to pick from, but at least the developer’s had the inclination to ask.
But in Mass Effect, there were countless decisions you were tasked to make that fell into a muddled grey area. Killing the Rachni Queen in the first game could be seen as a douche move out of context, but what about the Rachni War? This is a species that has incited an intergalactic conflict before…can they be trusted to be left to their own devices? Would the greater good of the galaxy be served by wiping out their kind? I often found myself pausing the game in order to mull over my decisions, and BioWare did a wonderful job of molding the game’s narrative (nay, the game’s universe) to my particular brand of ethics. Furthermore, they managed to roll your decisions into the following game in the series, truly creating a sense that, not only did the world of Mass Effect exist, but that the player’s intentions were shaping all of the life within it.
What’s even more impressive is that, unlike its IF contemporaries, ME3 finally managed to include gameplay that was genuinely engaging. While the first two games in the series had merely serviceable cover-based shooting mechanics, ME3 really swung the doors open, and allowed for truly different ways to tackle combat.
I went through the saga as a Vanguard. In the first two titles, being a Vanguard just meant using Shockwave as a means of crowd control when I wasn’t firing my heavy pistol. Biotic Charge (BC) wasn’t terribly useful, as ME and ME2 had little tolerance for engaging the enemy outside of cover. You would use BC to cross a large distance and smash directly into an enemy’s face, but then you were just, kind of…in an enemy’s face. They (and their comrades) tend to blow holes through anyone that gets right in their face.
ME3, however, completely changed the play mechanics of the Vanguard class with a few simple additions. On top of a few modifications to BC, now there was a heavy melee attack, and a little move called Nova. Through the choices made when leveling these moves up, it was possible to have your shields recharge every time you used BC. Using this in conjunction with Nova (a powerful move that used up all of your shields), it was possible to simply zoom around a room, smashing into enemies using BC, popping off a heavy melee attack to kill them, and then use Nova to damage/kill anyone around you. This would leave you without shields, though you’d need only to target another enemy with BC and you were right back where you started. Suddenly, combat became less like Mass Effect and more like Vanquish.
After a while, I stopped carrying a firearm completely, and dealt with every enemy up close and personal. This newly discovered play style is something that makes ME3’s combat even more frantic and intense than it already is. Even as I write this, my right thumb is gearing up for my next Galaxy at War session. The underlying gameplay of ME3 is downright addictive, conjuring up the same feedback loops most interactive fiction can only dream of delivering.
In my eyes, BioWare finally pulled it off. Mass Effect 3 was able to deliver a piece of interactive fiction that integrated a strong sense of player agency with gameplay that’s as engaging and habit-forming as the best the industry has to offer.
Again, yes, the ending was piping hot poop, straight from the butt. Yes, the last ten minutes completely threw out three entire game’s worth of ethical dilemmas in favor of finding out what your Shepard’s favorite color of laser was. I realize that everyone’s qualm with the ending wasn’t so much about how puzzlingly awful it was so much as it was about every player getting the same stupid ending, regardless of how you chose to play the game. In Mass Effect, player agency was what brought players into the franchise. I can understand that people were pissed when the conclusion disregarded everything that made your personal campaign unique. It was totally lame.
But my question is this: Can a game’s final ten minutes really negate the hundred-hours that preceded it?