I’m not writing about Mass Effect 3 to complain about the ending. There’s been enough said about the subject that I don’t feel like I have much to add. Except that there is one logic behind the madness: DLC.
With Shepard dead, and no Mass Relays left, Bioware can write DLC that fits onto all save games. Characters can refer to the indefinite article “Shepard”, none of the crew will know exactly what happened, and you can have non-Shepard adventures on this convenient jungle world. The only thing bioware has to do to make the DLC specific to your own Shepard is change some lines, change which charaters are around. Without access to the galaxy at large, we cannot see the broad outcome of our actions.
Like I said, though, I’m not writing to talk about the ending. I need to preface this by saying that until now, I’ve been a huge fan of the dialogue wheel Bioware games. I never played the Dragon Age games, but Knights of the Old Republic remains one of my favourite games, as does its sequel. Jade Empire was an awesome game, and I was all about the Mass Effect games at first. I consider all 6 games to be a part of the same progression.
But as Mass Effect 1 turned into Mass Effect 2, something started to nag at me. I’m a sucker for great roleplaying, which is why KOTOR was such an amazing game for me. Other roleplaying games had offered the experience of playing a role within a story, but here was a game that let me shape the story. It let me develop(Or, perhaps even better, not develop) relationships with characters as I wanted to. In between planets, I would make sure that I had exhausted all possible dialogue trees. And it was amazing. With KOTOR 2 and Jade Empire, I was given more of the same. And then the Mass Effect games started coming out…And I was given more of the same.
While Bioware spent tons of effort improving the combat gameplay, and making things shinier, they stopped improving the actual living, breathing heart of their games: The dialogue wheel. It has remained static since its inception. Good option, top right. Bad option, bottom right. Extra good/bad options on the left, and a middling option inbetween. The only actual improvement to the roleplaying mechanics of the diaogue wheel games was the introduction of the Paragon/Renegade quicktime events, and really, while they added, they didn’t change.
KOTOR was a hit. A success at every level. And the combat sucked. It really, really sucked. Since the launch of KOTOR, I have begun playing D&D, so I have slightly more appreciation for the d20 system behind the game, but the thing about D&D is that you(or your DM) fill in the blanks. When you say “I cast fireball” and you roll your dice and it causes a huge amount of damage, a good DM will give an excellent description of what just happened. KOTOR offered repetitive animations and pop-up numbers showing the damage you’ve caused. It was brutal. And people still loved that game.
Though I didn’t really realize it until much later, Bioware missed the point. Yeah, KOTOR had the Star Wars brand backing it, but it sold, and was loved by gamers, despite having pretty terrible combat mechanics. So the wisdom Bioware gained from that is “Take KOTOR, keep making it, but improve the other gameplay mechanics.” But they missed the point. People played KOTOR in spite of the combat. So, are people who love KOTOR really that interested in combat mechanics?
It’s also worth noting that if Bioware had churned out 3 more Jade Empire-type one-off games, I probably would have much less of a problem with this. I mean, KOTOR 1 and 2 were made by different studios, and they had different main characters. It would’ve been absurd to ask that Bioware improve the RPG element inbetween those two(Again, KOTOR 2 not made by Bioware). And Jade Empire was a one-off. Furthermore, it was in Jade Empire that they fixed the combat from the KOTORs.
But Mass Effect was supposed to be different. Mostly because they told us it would be. From the onset, Mass Effect was supposed to be a trilogy. The feature of carrying over your save games from game to game was announced early, if memory serves correctly, and the name of the series promised great consequences for your actions. The effects of your decisions weren’t just going to be felt in the next cutscene; they were going to be felt in 2 games. It was supposed to be Bioware’s great leap forward; the next step in their evolution. But it certainly didn’t play out that way.
While I’m a veteran of the Bioware formula, I’m sure that even rookies could tell when they were being presented with a hallmark decision moment. Does the Rachni Queen live or die? Do you save the council or not? Who goes back, Ashley or Kaiden? Do you reprogram the Geth? When you transfer your save game from ME2 to ME3, it lists all the decision outcomes it’s importing. And when I was playing each one of those decisions, I knew it would eventually be on that list. Again, as a veteran, I was used to these moments, but by the end of Mass Effect 2, I had become weary of them. The degree to which those moments broke immersion was always supposed to be outweighed by the eventual payoff, but as time went on, and everything about the games improved, the immersion breaking rose, while the payoff stayed the same. I had hoped that Bioware would get around their clunkiness, and work towards something more elegant.
Part of me knew it all along. While I was enjoying Mass Effects 1 and 2, I knew that the scope of the game that would fulfill the promises made to us would be beyond anything even EA could afford. The hours of dialogue, the dozens of scenarios, the multitude of endings…Impossible. But it disappointed even my cynical side. When discussing the Rachni with my friend, the biggest ME fan I know, before the launch of three, I said “I bet that it’ll just be something stupid, like a 3 second FMV of the Rachni helping out the allied fleet during cinematics of the final battle.” Scoffed at the time, it now sounds like an improvement on what we got. Did we even see the Rachni on Earth? No?
I had a little hope that Mass Effect 3 would really deliver on its promised 16 endings, but when I heard people hated it, I knew exactly why(Though I had to avoid spoiers like hell as I slowly worked through the game). And thinking about it, it’s funny that people were surprised by the ending of ME3. Because its the same ending they’ve had 5 times before. Maybe not in terms of content, but certainly in terms of structure. Do you defeat Malak or do you replace him? Do you release the water dragon, or do you enslave it? Do you save the council, or not? Do you destroy the Reapers, or do you control them?
And that’s really the problem. I think peoples’ outrage at the ending of ME3 is a manifestation of my problem with the game. Bioware found a lush pasture, with rich, rich soil. And it proceeded to farm the hell out of it, without any breaks. And because we love Bioware’s crops, we ate it up. But soon, the soil became arid, and Bioware couldn’t grow quality crops anymore. With each iteration, the combat improved, the graphics improved, the writing(arguably) improved, the number of storyline options improved, the number of sidequests improved…But the actual beating heart of the games, the RPG mechanic, stayed exactly the same. What wowed us in 2005 bores us in 2012.
While doing research, I found a summary of the endings for KOTOR, which goes like this. “There are three endings, and your light/dark scale does nothing to influence it.” Sound familiar?