Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Journey and the Destination

Whoo-ee, its been a while. Sorry about that for anybody who’s enjoyed my rambling, opinionated analysis of movies, but quite honestly, the real world got in the way again with job searching and the like.

This isn’t to say I haven’t been writing. Actually, that was the other reason why I haven’t squeezed out  new review in months. I’ve been revising and editing a novel and trying to get the ball rolling toward publication. (Long story short, writing novels is hard, writing 1-page query letters is even harder.)

What's cooler than walking away from an explosion without looking back? Walking away from an exploding PLANET without looking back

And then I beat Mass Effect 3 a week ago. I loves me some Mass Effect. I even raved about the first game here (didn’t have a chance yet for the second game, but it was also very enjoyable). So yes, a massive space opera about defending the universe from gargantuan threats where I can make decisions and have consequences unique to my choices was totally the bees knees, as they say.

And for the most part, Mass Effect 3 delivered on that front satisfyingly. So satisfyingly that I was able to overlook the stupid dream sequences and the blatantly cheap attempt at emotional connection with Vent Boy and his Infuriating Dream Sequences. (And yes, having the ONLY human child you ever see in the entire trilogy die as his shuttle gets shot down to the sounds of sad piano music is an exceedingly cheap attempt to build emotional resonance to the devastation occurring in the galaxy). But even that was easy to overlook when you can settle the genophage issue, rescue the Turians, and resolve the centuries-old war between the Geth and Quarians in different ways. That stuff was awesome.

And after all that goodness, all that excellent build-up, BioWare didn’t stick the landing. Actually, the ending not only fails to land on both feet, but it also rolls down a flight of stairs, through broken glass, and into a completely different story and then bursts into flames. Whole reams of digital paper have been filled with internet people dissatisfied with the ending. There’s even a fan-grown conspiracy theory about how the ending has to, HAS TO be secretly about Shepard being indoctrinated by the very things he’s been trying to destroy.

I won’t bother to go into the plot holes and logical head scratchers the ending features because there’s plenty of that out there. But I will go into something else that the ending jarringly does, and that is its massive tonal shift.

From the beginning, Mass Effect was a space opera, which as a genre is cut from a cloth that deals with discovery and wonder. That was one of the things the Mako exploration missions did extremely well: it let you put your boots on dozens of alien surfaces with differing skylines. Then you learned about the Reaper threat and it turned into a race to preserve not only humanity, but a wonderful, vibrant galactic federation of interesting species as well, and a battle against impossible odds.

Mass Effect 2 found humanity under attack by the mysterious Collectors, bug-aliens that raided human settlements and kidnapped whole colonies of people. They also try to kill you, but like the Six-Million Dollar Man (or Woman) you get rebuilt. The game then turns into a quest to assemble a team to stop the Collectors and figure out what the hell they’re doing. It culminates in what is described as a suicide mission against impossible odds.

Commander Shepard triumphs over that too and returns to Earth in Mass Effect 3, once more trying to warn everyone of the Reaper threat. Then the Reapers arrive and start attacking everyone and everything with faster-than-light capability. All of the shits have hit all of the fans and its up to Shepard to rally all of the alien races he can to find some kind of way to stop the Reapers and end their cycle of galactic harvest. Which is exactly what you do. You fly around, gather resources, rescue people, forge alliances, and make some tough decisions before coming back with a super-weapon that should help you retake Earth and stop the Reapers once and for all. Sounds like rollicking Space Opera, doesn’t it? It is, and that part works amazingly. It also goes some way to recapturing that sense of scale and wonder the first game had, so bravo!

And then you get to the actual ending.



The ending features a badly wounded Shepard staggering into a conversation with a glowing version of that damn kid you were supposed to feel forced emotion for where he gives some vague explanation that this “Catalyst” thing controls the Reapers to kill organics before they can create synthetics that will kill all organics. Bad logic aside, he then offers you the final choice of the game: Destroy the Reapers, Control the Reapers, or Synthesize organics and synthetics with Space Magic. Either way, the ending is pretty much the same. The station you’re on fires a blast of energy into every mass relay in the galaxy that performs your chosen action (indicated by color) and in doing so destroys the relays, which are the crux of galactic transportation and connection. Also, DLC for Mass Effect 2 made it very clear that destroying a Mass Relay is a Very Bad Thing for the system its in. So regardless of everything you’ve done in the course of three games, Galactic Civilization is just as boned as though the Reapers had succeeded.

Let me reiterate: The same galactic civilization that Commander Shepard has spent three games fighting to preserve (successfully, I might add) is unequivocally destroyed at the ending of the game. Regardless of your previous choices. The relays are destroyed, civilization is in ruins (at best). That’s. Not. Space. Opera. That is Tragedy. That would be like Return of the Jedi ending with Luke’s death and the Emperor and Darth Vader high-fiving as they blow up Endor and the entire rebel fleet as the heroes fail.

A grim, bitter ending would be perfectly fine if the game had been tonally billed as such. For instance, that wouldn’t be too out of place in the Fallout games and even those have room for the possibility of a more cheerful ending than this. But Mass Effect was hailed for its less linear approach to the story. You save the galaxy how you want to. Commander Shepard has a minimal personality presented because the player is given control of how to proceed. Shepard doesn’t get drunk unless the player makes that decision. For instance, my “canon Shepard” in the first game was played pretty much as “Captain America in Space” and going full-paragon because the game let me. Through effort and diplomacy, I was able to save as many people as I could for a brighter future because I was playing a Space Opera. And I felt like I was making a difference in this fictional universe.

That is why the ending fails. Because it is not consistent with anything that has happened leading up to it. Commander Shepard can convince the villain of the first game to shoot himself, he himself comes back from the dead, can lead a suicide mission with zero sustained casualties, and can resolve several centuries-old diplomatic disputes by convincing people to get along. The series is full of precedents of Shepard being able to find favorable solutions to impossible situations (while still allowing bad resolutions to those same situations) that it is not unreasonable for the fan base to be unhappy with how it all ends. Because it feels like a rug has been pulled out from under you for the sake of a cheap twist ending (or TWEEST! if you prefer). A left-field twist can work for other narrative fiction, but in a game of Mass Effect’s ambitious scope, the player has an incredible amount of agency beyond “I will watch this movie or I will not watch this movie.”

So yes, Mass Effect 3 ends on a note of colossal disappointment not because it betrays “the Fans” (which is such a nebulous thing that includes dudes that want to simply renegade interrupt people through every available window to those who wonder what Tali’s sweat tastes like, and I wish I was making that up), but because it betrays itself. The choices presented to Shepard at the end are all superficial and all lead to the same basic ending: Shepard sacrifices himself/herself to make the galaxy a better place and does not succeed. The “choice” to sacrifice Shepard is not what people have a problem with, it’s the feeling of utter nihilistic futility that accompanies that action.

The ending of Mass Effect 3 is not a Space Opera, while the rest of the series is. Its no wonder that that kind of tonal shift fails to resonate with the audience. Its not even a “but it’s the journey, not the destination that’s important!” situation. In this case its like an exhausting but awesome hike through a national park and at the beginning someone says “Hey, enjoy the trip, there will be a bottle of water for you at the end!” And you DO enjoy the trip, smelling the fresh air and taking pictures and having a great time. Then you reach your destination and somebody hands you a bottle of water filled with sand, and that awesome park you just hiked through and enjoyed was paved over after you left and then someone asks you to enjoy any future parks they may add on that you have to pay extra to visit.

I’m still curious to see what may come down the pike regarding Mass Effect. I still love the fictional universe BioWare created for it as one of the most imaginative game series of this generation. But I’m guarded about any future downloadable content. And I will play the game again at some point, but when it comes down to facing the three unsatisfying choices at the end, I realized my player agency allows me a fourth choice.

I will turn off the console. Because the only winning move at that point is to not play the game.

Whew, I feel better. I wonder which stage of grief this is?

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