Sunday, April 08, 2012

The End of the End

Well, it's been a long time since I've had a game post, and with the announcement of Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut, the time has come.

There is no further part of this post that does not contains spoilers of the most intimate kind.

For those who don't know but are still reading this post, the ending of Mass Effect 3 has occasioned a large enough fan base kerfluffle that developer BioWare has actually agreed to change the ending. Well, sort of. They've agreed to "more context and clarity to the ending of the game, in a way that will feel more personalized for each player" through "additional cinematic sequences and epilogue scenes." Whether any existing content is actually being changed is so far unclear, though I'd be surprised if it was. I haven't had a chance to lay out my thoughts on the ending in detail, so I thought I'd take this opportunity to do so by considering which complaints extra ending content can and can't fix..

As far as I can tell, there's some appreciable portion of the fan base that feels that the ending off Mass Effect 3 fails to deliver on the promised multiplicity of endings and character closure. I can sympathize with wondering whether Garrus starved to death on Earth or not, but in the largest sense, I think this was always impossible. Like the Matrix "trilogy," the Mass Effect games tell a story in two parts and three products. Mass Effect is the story of how Shepard discovers that the Reaper menace exists. Mass Effect 2 sets up how the galaxy prepares, or fails to prepare, for the imminent arrival of the Reapers. Mass Effect 3, like the third Matrix movie, is simply an enormous climax.

You spend a lot of the first two games making decisions that one feels must surely have a major impact on the climax. Do you save the last of the rachni or destroy them? Does Wrex survive to unite the krogan or does he die for his principles? Do you save the Council or sacrifice it? Do you destroy the Collector base or hand it over to Cerberus? Even in the midst of the climax itself you're making these kinds of decisions. Do you cure the genophage or not? Do you win the support of the salarians? Do you kill the geth or make peace between them and their creators?

I suspect there were a lot of people who were hoping that Mass Effect 3 would tally all these decisions and present you with a way to defeat the Reapers that was the sum total of them all. In reality, all that has to happen - and, at least the way the game is presently constituted, all that can happen - is that Shepard reaches the Crucible superweapon, meets an avatar of the race that created the Reapers, and then chooses one of three equally unpalatable ways to use the Crucible to defeat them. No matter what you do, Shepard makes it to the Crucible. The only real effect that uniting the galaxy has is that more people are there to die while you do it.

My question to people who complain that this doesn't take enough account of all you've done before is, "How else could it end?" I don't think anybody seriously wants an ending where you don't stop the Reapers. But does anybody seriously want an ending where the combined might of the galaxy simply beats them? That would be ridiculous. The Reapers are supposed to have harvested the most advanced of the galaxy's races every 50,000 years for millennia beyond memory. What would make this cycle so much more militarily badass than the rest of them? The answer to the Reapers has to be a superweapon, and unless the entire trilogy was about searching for that superweapon, the superweapon has to be a deus ex machina. That's the inevitable consequence of having as your villain a race of sentient cyborg starships that has harvested the most advanced of the galaxy's races every 50,000 years for millennia beyond memory. So if you object to defeating the Reapers through a deus ex machina, well, that was always how it was going to end.

On the other hand, you could see exactly in which way the assembled races of the galaxy are inconsequential. That might not be as silly as it sounds. Right now, the only consequence of having the various races or other galactic war assets on your side at the final showdown is that your space and ground forces get decimated later rather than earlier. But you never actually see them fighting. That's something Extended Cut could conceivably fix. Would it feel better to see an Alliance soldier get saved by a geth before both are blown to smithereens - or alternatively, see him not get saved by a geth who wasn't there, before he's blown to smithereens? Honestly, yeah, it would to me. I can accept that all roads lead to the superweapon. But seeing how each road differs in the details would certainly make those details feel weightier.

I know there are also some people who object to the fact that all three endings destroy the mass relay network, thereby rendering interstellar travel beyond fairly short distances (galactically speaking) impractical. This has the unfortunate effect of, for instance, probably dooming the various alien forces you've brought to Earth who can't eat terrestrial food. So no matter what you do, odds are you've killed tens of thousands of your allies. Oh yeah, and plunged the galaxy into a sort of new dark age of isolation.

Well ... yeah. The relays themselves, and the very existence of pan-galactic civilization, have always been a Reaper trap; that much is revealed in Mass Effect. It should come as no surprise to anybody that the Reaper solution, whatever form it ultimately took, involved a galaxy without mass relays. And what about all those stranded aliens (and humans too, for that matter)? Or the destroyed mass relays, what about those - did they just burn out, useless artificial asteroids? Did they explode (and if so, why doesn't that wipe out their associated systems like it did in Mass Effect 2)?

Mike Krahulik has a point that worrying about this sort of thing is a lot like worrying about the Endor Apocalypse after Death Star II was destroyed. Yeah, it probably happened, but dwelling on it misses the artistic point. But even if you do choose to dwell on it, Mass Effect's strongest theme has always been that war requires you to make terrible choices - that no matter what you do, and no matter how hard you try, and no matter how special you are, every decision you make kills someone you don't want to die. So if saving the galaxy means dooming thousands and thousands of your allies to a horrible, anticlimactic death by starvation ... um, duh?

Of course, all this is conjecture. It does feel a bit anticlimactic to wonder what exactly happened to all those ships in Earth orbit after you destroy the mass relay network. Did any of them know what was happening? Did they try to use the relays one last time before they were burned out (the three endings sort of imply that, though there's no explanation of how anybody could have known to run for the nearest relay)? Did they all starve to death? Did any of those ships ever make it home, perhaps crewed by the descendants of their original crews? All those are questions that, sure, it would be nice for Extended Cut to show answers to.

Then there are the people who feel like the ending (or rather, the end of the ending - if you didn't feel like the entirety of Mass Effect 3 was the end, I'm not sure what's wrong with your artistic antennae)came out of nowhere. In some senses I think that's just people being tone deaf. For instance, of course the Illusive Man was on the Citadel with Shepard and Anderson. By the time you get to Earth you already have confirmation of what you've known for a long time - that the Illusive Man is indoctrinated by the Reapers - and you know that he left for the Citadel before the Reapers seized it. Why wouldn't the Reapers leave their powerful indoctrinated thrall on the station? On the other hand, finding out that the Citadel has had a secret core holding the digital avatar (or maybe the spirit? It's unclear) of the race that created the Reapers, just waiting for somebody to finally finish the superweapon and thus prove that the Reaper solution was unnecessary ... well, yeah, that kind of comes out of nowhere.

I think this isn't necessarily a bad thing. I was really expecting the end of Mass Effect 3 to come down to a binary choice, like Mass Effect 2 did: side with the Illusive Man and control the Reapers for humanity's benefit, thus advancing human civilization immeasurably but at the peril that they would fall into the wrong hands, or side with Anderson and destroy them, thus returning to the status quo ante. I was pleasantly surprised that it did not end that way.

I was less pleasantly surprised that, when all was said and done, I couldn't think back on the rest of the series and say, "Oh yeah, now I see where that was hinted at." That is my biggest problem with the end of the end. It isn't as if it came completely out of nowhere; characters do wonder who created the Reapers, and why, as early as Mass Effect. But there isn't very much of it, and I don't feel like you can look back after the credits and have an "aha" moment about all the seemingly unrelated pieces whose connections you can now see. You can't, because there simply aren't all that many pieces to begin with.

If I were to expand Mass Effect 3, I probably would still do it with additional dialogue and cutscenes rather than rewriting the whole game, as some people seem to implicitly prefer. But I wouldn't add a lot to the end. What I'd do is add more to the middle of the game, so when you finally meet one of the Reapers' creators, you have more pieces to connect.

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