Growing up, I have always been drawn to the storytelling ability of video games. Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic may have been the first game I played that fully immersed me into the idea that video games could be an advanced form of storytelling, one that merges reader/player and protagonist. Years later, their Mass Effect trilogy made that idea into a reality. With Mass Effect: Andromeda, the question becomes: What new directions will the storytelling go?
The Mass Effect Trilogy stands as an unparallelled achievement in video game history. A closely joined story arch that spanned three games and included a multitude of different scenarios, characters and outcomes based on player action. On the whole there is little emotion I can express for this work other than admiration. However, Mass Effect was not perfect. Mistakes were clearly made. Many people out there will tell you that the largest failure came in the ending, with Mass Effect 3. I do not share this belief. Yes, Mass Effect 3 is likely the worst game in the series (which is not to label it “bad” by any stretch) however I will argue that the greatest failings, at least in terms of character and story development, came in Mass Effect 2. I know: the game that is the best in the series is also the worst.
The question of how that is possible is best broken into three parts: character, story, and construction. I will address them in that order. Anyone familiar with Mass Effect will tell you that one of the highlights of the trilogy is its characters. Commander Shepard is an incredible protagonist who maintained his/her own identity despite the player influence. The first Mass Effect also introduced its audience to an incredible squad makeup that included Garrus Vakarian, Liara T’Soni and Tali’Zorah nar Rayya (just Tali for short). The squad wasn’t large, only six members total: including one destined to not finish the game alive. The result created a very personal atmosphere with clearly defined characters who each made a powerful impact. This is the squad size in Mass Effect 2:
Clearly there are more to be counted. Compared to the six in the first game, twelve potential crew members filled out this roster. There were also certain decisions in the game that could be made to give the player alternatives to certain squad mates (Samara OR Morinth). Expanding the central cast is always a dangerous move when designing a story. Any writer will tell you that there should never be more characters than necessary. The characters in Mass Effect 2 are well-written, realistic and flushed out creations, they are in large part what made the second installment the best. However, when their place in the trilogy is determined, nearly every character introduced in Mass Effect 2 has little to no impact on the overall story. This is a failing in writing and has largely to do with Mass Effect 2‘s construction, so I’ll come back to it.
Let’s examine the story in Mass Effect 2: a suicide mission against the threat known as the Collectors. Commander Shepard must assemble the most dangerous people in the galaxy to stop the Collectors before it is too late for humanity. That’s a compelling story on its own but already there is a problem: no mention of the Reapers. The Reapers are the main threat of the Mass Effect Trilogy. They are hulking, nigh-indestructible ancient machines that have periodically extinguished all civilized life in the galaxy. Yes, the Collectors are working for the Reapers and yes, the Collectors pose a threat to humanity but the Reapers are bigger than that. The first Mass Effect concluded on a larger scale with one Reaper nearly eradicating the hub of galactic civilization. It was a bizarre move to lower the scale and try to tell a smaller story in Mass Effect 2. The result is that everything of real importance happens in Mass Effect 3, causing the final game of the trilogy to have to rush at a mad pace to try and resolve everything on its own.
It isn’t that the story in Mass Effect 2 isn’t entertaining, it just doesn’t matter. Nothing, from the cybernetic rebirth of Commander Shepard, to the Tali mission concerning a dying star, to the reveal of a human Reaper, really impacts the trilogy. Every question raised in Mass Effect 2 goes unanswered. Worse still, most of the questions: such as how the galaxy will react to the Reaper invasion (a question raised at the end of the first Mass Effect) are left for Mass Effect 3.
This all comes down to construction. The writers of Mass Effect 2 set out to tell a small story of a man who assembles a team and stops a threat. The game succeeds brilliantly at telling this story but, was it the story that should have been told? In many ways, Mass Effect 2 would have worked better as a first game rather than a middle installment. The “suicide mission” mechanic would ultimately prove disastrous for Mass Effect 3. In a game with the largest squad possible: any person could die. Even Commander Shepard, if the player did not prepare enough, could meet his/her end during the finale. The problem with “anyone could die” is that it leads to this: “everyone can live“. Meaning, from a game design perspective, that there are twelve what-ifs that people will care about in the final game. None of them can impact the story too drastically (because they might not be there) but all of them must be mentioned in some way. So everyone was treated to bizarre cameos in Mass Effect 3 where the character returned but never really did anything. The result was unsatisfying and sadly: easy to see coming. Rather than design an achievement structure which rewarded saving everyone, Mass Effect 2 should have instead opted for more scenarios like the first game: certain people have to die whether the player likes it or not. It was supposed to be a “suicide mission” after all.
On its own, Mass Effect 2 is a brilliant game. In the trilogy, it was a foolish mistake. Yes, one can argue that if EA had not rushed Bioware in the development of Mass Effect 3, the writing staff may have found a way to better rationalize the two. However, the writers at Bioware did nothing to help themselves out. Mass Effect 2 was simply too low scale in an epic trilogy. It’s great to personalize the characters but not at the price of the story. Its a fundamental problem that largely prevented one of the most towering achievements in video game history from reaching even greater heights.
I know, I know: beating a dead horse right? Who hasn’t talked about the ending of Mass Effect 3? Few video game stories last year were as widely discussed. From the overwhelming negativity at the initial ending(s) to the lessened reaction to the Extended Cut to the few people out there who were satisfied all along, everyone who played the Mass Effect trilogy has something to say about that ending. But, like most well-thought out reactions out there on the internet, it was instantaneous. Everyone had something to say THEN. What about now? It’s been a year and the game has changed in that time. Bioware added four single-player DLC (downloadable content) packs, three of which were targeted at changing the experience of the ending: Extended Cut, Leviathan and Citadel (not to forget From Ashes, which was available day one). So playing the game today, with this content installed, yields a vastly different experience than we received back on March 6, 2012. Having recently replayed Mass Effect 3 with all of this content, I have formed a new opinion on the ending(s) and surprise, surprise: I like it.
Warning – Here Be Spoilers
For those of you who don’t know, Mass Effect 3 concludes the story of Commander (insert first name here) Shepard. In the game, Shepard unites the various species of the universe against the apocalyptic force of the Reapers, a race of mammoth sentient machines bent on exterminating all advanced civilizations. Pretty damn epic, in other words. The Reapers are a great threat, with their larger-than-life presence they seem almost invincible… almost. The game ends with the final battle, Shepard confronts the main antagonist of the story (the Reaper AI manifested in the form of a child) and either destroys the Reapers, controls them or merges all organic and technological life into a new infused state of “technorganic” being. People (myself included) had problems with this.
So let’s start with one of the largest factors in the ending: the main antagonist. Christened “godchild” by angry fans, this creation felt like a walking deus ex machina (plot device existing solely to nicely tie up the story). Really it was a valid criticism. At the time there had been no other mention of this being at any other point in the trilogy (aside from an absurdly minor mention in Mass Effect – like Codex level obscure). In addition, Mass Effect 2 and 3 had been, up until that point, establishing a Reaper known as Harbinger as the main antagonist (the Illusive Man, despite being Martin Sheen, doesn’t count). Harbinger appeared to be the largest Reaper, head of their fleet and, possessed a major grudge against Commander Shepard. In other words: pretty good villain material.
Instead we got this guy:
I’m not going to get more into the reaction, there are already plenty of articles on it. Needless to say, people don’t like it when you introduce a new villain in the final minutes of the game who appears to have power over everything and all the answers to all the questions in the universe. That was a bad move by Bioware (and EA). Good thing is, they fixed it. While Harbinger is still absent, the DLC pack, Leviathan, establishes the lore of the “godchild” fairly early on in the game. The Catalyst (godchild’s official name) was an AI created by the Leviathan, an ancient race of super evolved beings. The Catalyst was created in an act of hubris, from the Leviathans believing themselves above every other organic race in the universe. So they created an AI program to help “balance the equation” with all the other AI-organic life conflicts in the universe. As you can guess, it didn’t work out so well for them. The program went rogue and created its own radical solution. As for the fate of the Leviathan, well, take a look at the last surviving member:
This greatly enhances the thematic value of the ending. Throughout the trilogy, the struggle between AI and organic life has been a central issue. There are multiple cases: the geth vs. the quarians and the creation of the character, EDI, being the two prime examples. The Leviathan DLC transformed an abrupt appearance into the conclusion of a theme, with the player’s Shepard being able to pick the resolution. In addition to this sequence, new dialogue options were added with the Catalyst by both the Extended Cut and Leviathan dlcs to allow for a fuller, more believable conversation.
With the “godchild” problem at least addressed (you can still find Bioware’s antagonist decision to be a poor choice but at least now it makes sense), a large section of the ending is improved. Another major issue was the lack of variety in the ending. I can remember reading, before Mass Effect 3 came out, that there were 16 different endings in the game. I was very excited – until I saw the original ending. Basically there are three variants: Shepard causes a massive explosion in every ending, it can be red, blue or green. Everything else (with the exception of very small details) plays out exactly the same. Doesn’t sound like 16 different endings to me. Thankfully, all of that was addressed in the Extended Cut DLC. Are the endings still similar: yes. Are they now different enough to be enjoyed and have the player choices felt: yep. So that’s two problems down.
Let’s end by talking about the Citadel DLC. This might be my favorite part in the trilogy overall. A large complaint with the Mass Effect 3 ending was the lack of character closure. Shepard is separated from his/her crew for the final confrontation and many players (myself included) felt that they didn’t get a chance to say good-bye to the characters they had come to care about. Now there’s this:
Bioware showed incredible care and intelligence in the release of this DLC. Of all the endings in Mass Effect 3 (the entire game is itself just one giant ending), this one feels the best. Players now have the ability to relax and have fun with their Normandy crew before it’s time to say good-bye at the end. The Citadel DLC is not driven by plot but by characters and that shows an essential of storytelling: the best stories don’t rely on their plots alone to be interesting.
Is the ending of Mass Effect 3 perfect: not by a long shot. Yet it is now satisfying enough that I didn’t feel cheated or let down in the final minutes. While Mass Effect 3 is overall the weakest game in the series, the blame for any storytelling shortcomings should not fall solely upon its shoulders. Indeed, despite being the overall best game in the series: Mass Effect 2 is the entry where the story seriously miss-stepped (the fact that a player can skip Mass Effect 2 entirely without missing any significant plot development is not a good sign). So if you were a fan of the trilogy but didn’t like the ending fist time through, do yourself a favor – get the DLC and experience it again. Except for Omega, I’m not kidding, stay far away from that waste of downloadable content.
Thoughts? Comments? Am I full of shit or onto something? Let me know now in the feedback section of this article.