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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

I had a nice chat with some game designers, some of whom may have been from Bioware, about the controversy about the MASS EFFECT 3 ending.


So, the hero, Shepherd, does what Buffy does at the end of seasons 1 and 5: sacrifice herself for the good of everyone else. And some players object to that. Even though, y'know, Shep has been dead at least once in the series already.

And the whole 39 hours of gameplay are all about loss and sacrifice.

But maybe the issue players are having isn't that Shep dies. It's that you have no choice about Shep dying. You are given up to three endings at the end of the game, but in each of them, Shep has to sacrifice her life for the good of all, at the end of a long sequence of cut-scene after cut-scene in which you have barely any choices to make or even anything to do.

I think the problem is that the player doesn't own Shep's sacrifice. He doesn't choose to sacrifice his life for the good of all. He has the controller taken out of his hands by the designers.

Sid Meier famously says that there are games where the computer is having all the fun, games where the designer has all the fun, and games where the player gets to have the fun. At the end of ME3, the designers are having the fun.

What if there had been an option for Shepherd not to sacrifice himself? But in that ending, only Earth survived, not the whole galaxy? Or there would have been some other sort of qualified victory? Then most of the players would have chosen to sacrifice Shep, but they would have chosen it. And then they would have owned the sacrifice. They would have got to have the fun.

I had the same issue at the end of RED DEAD REDEMPTION. Marston sacrifices himself to save his family, but the player doesn't get a choice. Suppose the player could choose to send his family to safety, or fight it out with his enemies, his son at his side. If he brings his son, his son dies. And then, bitter, sad, he goes to take revenge for his family. Most players would choose to save the family, if the game made it clear that there were real risks for the son. But they would own that decision. They would feel the redemption mentioned in the title.

I think it would also have helped ME3 if there were a bit more of an epilog. Bioware really saved a lot of money on the alternate endings. They're all about Joker and the Normandy racing to outrun the shock front of Shep's decision. If I choose to control the Reapers, I want to see a hideous giant fleet of Reapers heading out from Earth, with "United Federation of Earth" painted on their sides, so I can wonder if I've given humanity too much power. If I choose to destroy all synthetic life, I want to see the Geth die. Otherwise each winning choice doesn't really feel different. Either way the Reapers stop fighting and Joker fails to outrun the shock wave, and crashlands on a planet with some crew members on board.

It seems a shame that the ending of such a well-crafted game comes up so short. I can see why Bioware made its choice. The end-game cut-scenes are already expensive. It's a game; they wanted to maximize their efforts on levels and gameplay. But if you want your game to tell a story, a weak ending can really spoil an otherwise successful story.

(See all my Mass Effect posts.)

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I don't think the issue for most players is that Shepherd sacrifices herself (though there are some that are disappointed that if they do "everything right" they can't get a perfect ending like in many other scenarios in the game). I think for most players the problem is partly that you don't see any consequences (as you mention) and even moreso the five minute plotdump beforehand from the Starchild that is both incoherent on a plot level and exceedingly inelegant (to say the least) in its delivery.

Also, there's the fact that if you played the ME2 DLC Arrival, you're told and shown that blowing up a mass relay destroys the entire solar system around it due to the massive energy release (which is what Shepherd is on trial for at the start of ME3: killing millions of Batarians by blowing up a mass relay). Since the game doesn't give any evidence to the contrary in most endings, many people's first reactions were... did Shepherd just wipe out all life in the galaxy? And the only evidence against it is that that would make the ending even more of a colossal misstep than it already is.

I wasn't that invested in the Reaper story, so the ending didn't bother me too much, but it is ridiculous and very obviously a last-minute thing that wasn't thought through (as the developers admit in the Final Hours of ME3 thing).


By Blogger circadianwolf, at 9:27 AM  


I think the ending is a lie, and we'll be getting free DLC with the real ending in about a month's time.

Full reasoning over at my blog, but here's the tl;dr.

In a game that's all about choice, you get none in those last few minutes.

Also, things which have been explicitly pointed out in the game as signifying not-reality (lack of choice, slow-motion movement) show up at this point.

Now either they've made a perfectly brilliant game which somehow has screwed up every theme within the game in the last five minutes (and only the last five minutes), or there's more going on here than meets the eye.

By Blogger Piers, at 11:04 AM  

@alex_epstein (emphasis mine):

"[...]Shep has to sacrifice her life for the good of all"

...and then later:

"What if there had been an option for Shepherd not to sacrifice himself?"

I'm confused. I haven't played any of ME, but does Shepherd change genders during the course of the games? Or is that just a typo?

I ask 'cause @circadianwolf also says "herself" in the comments, and from the cut scenes, trailers and screencaps I've seen, I always thought Shepherd was a dude.

By Blogger deanareeno, at 12:20 PM  

Shep can be either male or female. Personally, I like to play Shep as a woman (FemShep in the parlance).

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 5:14 PM  


Yes, it could be that Bioware is playing 11-dimensional chess with a master plan to purposefully anger their players.

Or it could be that Bioware just threw out the original planned ending when they started work on ME3 after the lead writer left/got fired, put off deciding on a new ending until the game was almost finished, and predictably ended up with a half-assed, incompetent mess. Since they've admitted to all of those points except the last one.

I understand the desire to see some master plan behind what a game developer does, but for better or worse most collective creative efforts are almost entirely seat-of-the-pants, especially major franchises like ME.

By Blogger circadianwolf, at 6:31 PM  

circadianwolf: Sources, please.

In support of my argument I offer a quote from the lead designer from January this year: "It's not even in any way like the traditional game endings, where you can say how many endings there are or whether you got ending A, B, or C."

Now, either he's blatantly and deliberately lying less than two months before release - when the game is already locked - or this isn't the ending.

By Blogger Piers, at 9:21 AM  

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