“Unsophisticated” Gamers and Mass Effect 3’s Ending
I wrote this in response to Taylor Clark’s “Mass Defects.”
Clark is a columnist for The New Yorker so I thought it would be appropriate to give a full response.
I was in a bit of a bind. Commander Shepard needed to collect war assets to fight against the intergalactic menace known as the Reapers. Aria commanded three mercenary groups whom she assured me would prove vital in the upcoming climatic battle that will determine the fate of the galaxies. I can have all of the mercenaries groups at my military disposal as long as I do each of them a favor. Normally, I wouldn’t even listen to Aria’s offer, but the entire galaxy shouldn’t be destroyed because I’m still pissed that the Blue Suns tried to kill me in the last game. After much hesitation, I killed the leader of a rival gang, forced the release of a psychotic mass murderer, and ordered the assassination of a Citadel general who was slowing down the sells of black market weaponry. I was not happy about it, but it was all for the greater good! Oh wait, that’s right, it doesn’t matter.
The Catalyst is an AI system that controls all of the Reapers. This AI system is unknown to all players until the last fifteen minutes of the entire Mass Effect trilogy. The main anatognist that you never knew about then explains some stuff and tells you to make one of three decisions to decide how the war should end based on what he just told you. The primary problem with this moment is that players are not given the option to disagree with the Catalyst. For over one hundred plus hours of gameplay, I can disagree with anyone about any situation in front of me. From the petty stuff like cheating on girlfriends to events with more catastrophic consequences like allowing the galactic council to die, it was up to me. But suddenly choice is taken away. Mass Effect 3’s ending violated all precedents for player choice that the trilogy set for itself leading up to the conclusion, and also contained bizarre plot holes. Perhaps even more alarmingly is that every choice basically leads to the same conclusion with different color beams (Bioware lists sixteen seperate endings – false advertising).
Your criticism of gamers, in this case, is totally off base. Books, television and movies are all vicarious mediums that do not allow one to influence the events that take place regardless of sophisticated readership or the amount of pop buzz created. It’s as true in less “sophisticated”, but highly enjoyable, fiction books like Barry Eisler’s Rain Fall as it is in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The Mass Effect series is both vicarious and interactive. The choices you make are the plot. The relationships you forge could enable the unity among all alien species needed to preserve life as the year 2183 knows it. Video games are a different sort of medium, a different art but it’s no excuse to bash gamers as being unsophisticated and lacking maturity. What if Captain Ahab kept Moby Dick as a pet? What if Pip marries Estella and they live happily as next door neighbors to Joe? What if Romeo and Juliet faked their deaths and no one else knew? Something being “real art” has nothing to do with rigidly keeping an ending inconsistent with the rest of the story. The goal of that sort of articulation is to keep readers from comparing video games to other art forms. Your column is not speaking to the experience of playing the game or even addressing why people had expectations that their choices should make a difference in the conclusion of the game.
Hudson explicitly said that player choices would make a difference. I bought the game and played the entire series based on those statements. Playing the Mass Effect trilogy is like being in a good relationship, having the significant other abruptly leave and then attempt to return with the promise that everything will be fine as long as you have faith. Some might go back, but not without their guard up. I will not play another minute of the series again even with the new, improved ending but that’s my decision alone. Forget the good or bad ending. I did a lot of bad things to get those war assets and they meant squat. That’s what stings.