Tag Archive: Mass Effect

In Defense of BioWare

I want to say something about fans. Actually I’m going to let someone else say something about fans because he said far more elegantly than I ever could.

“Fans are clingy, complaining dipshits who will never, ever be grateful for any concession you make. The moment you shut out their shrill tremulous voices the happier you’ll be for it.”

This sentiment basically sums up the way fans have reacted to final installment of what is probably the greatest science-fiction story of our generation and definitely the most ambitious video game project ever undertaken. You have a massive company filled with some of the most creative and talented people in the industry pouring their lives into a project that took over half a decade to complete, and the fan reaction is to angrily throw it back into their faces and demand a mulligan, free of charge. This is insulting and it’s made me think twice about my decision to enter the industry, if the reward for my effort is to be told to do it again on my time and my dime.

By now you can probably guess I’m talking about the ridiculously over blown backlash against Mass Effect 3 that most of the Internet I frequent has jumped onto as their new bandwagon of choice. Frankly I’m kind of disgusted and ashamed by it, not because of their opinions, because having an opinion even if I disagree with is perfectly fine, but the petty, entitled way the fans have decided to go about it is just shameful. Now personally I didn’t have a problem with the way Mass Effect 3 ended, I think it’s a good ending, it might even be a brilliant ending, but even if I didn’t like it, that still wouldn’t invalidate all the fun I had with it up to that point. Tali would still be my favorite character, Garrus would still be hilariously awesome, and the sight of the massive Reaper getting curb stomped by the mother of all thresher maws would still have been awe-inspiring.  We are looking at a masterpiece of the medium, a glimpse of the heights games can achieve, and I for one am going to take a stand in favor of it.

First of all Mass Effect 3 has a good ending. Most of the complaints I’ve seen don’t make any kind of sense to me, and it seems to be that people are confused and angry and aren’t really asking themselves the question I did once I finished the game: “What is BioWare doing here?” First of all it should come to no one’s surprise that Mass Effect 3 is the ending to Mass Effect. I can’t count the number of times BioWare promised/warned us about this. Maybe we just didn’t believe it. After all remember when Halo 3 was going to be the last Halo game? Or when Metal Gear Solid 4 was going to be last the Metal Gear game? We’ve been promised endings to popular IPs that never come for so long I don’t think it’s truly sunk in yet that Mass Effect is over. This is why I hear so many people saying that Mass Effect 3 has ruined the franchise, this complaint is total nonsense. Mass Effect 3 ended the franchise, which is exactly what BioWare promised they would do. If a man asks if it’s okay to punch you in the face and you say it’s okay, do you then get mad at him for punching you in the face?

Then there’s the complaint I hear that the ending didn’t bring closure to the series. This is also total nonsense and as Penny Arcade argued on last Monday, Mass Effect 3 is the ending to the Mass Effect story, that the ending isn’t when you beam up onto the Citadel or get asked to choose between a red explosion, a green explosion, or a blue explosion. The ending starts when the Reapers show up and blow up Vancouver. And honestly there’s so much closure throughout this game it’s insane how much effort they put into it, there are scenes that probably cost them thousands of dollars that you’ll never see because of a decision you made in another game. In my story I won Tali back her homeworld while Legion sacrificed himself to end the war between his kind and his creators. I helped Miranda put her past and her father behind her for good. I watched Jack turn from a violent criminal into a responsible teacher. I ended the Genophage and gave hope to the krogan, united under my buddy Wrex. Liara gave me a gift that I don’t understand but knew that it meant the end of our friendship. Ashley became the second human Spectre and saved the Council from a traitor. Everyone of these is an ending to a story that started a game or two ago so how can you say there is no closure to the series? Then there’s that final, controversial decision at the end, and each one will change the Mass Effect universe in a completely different way that it would functionally impossible to continue the story. I don’t know about you but that’s what I call closure.

Mass Effect is a trilogy because it’s a three-act story. Functionally each game isn’t its own separate story, but an act in a much larger story. Each installment neatly fits into the three act structure. In the first game the threat of the Reapers is discovered and the dramatic question: Can Sheppard stop the Reapers, is posed. In the second game you go around collecting all the tools and forming the bonds that will be needed to answer the question, which is what is supposed to happen in the second act. And finally the third act is where all the events of the second act play out and the dramatic question (can Sheppard stop the Reapers) is answered. If Mass Effect was going to have a bad ending, it’s one where the answer to the question is: No. That’s an ending that would have sucked, that would have demolished everything the players worked for, where if no matter what you did the Reapers won and everyone died. The only way Mass Effect could have had a bad ending, is if it had a prototypical Bad ending. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t even have a prototypical good ending either, which is good because let’s face it, if players were presented with just a Good ending, or a Bad ending, everyone would have chosen the Good ending, and so the whole point of player choice would have been rendered meaningless. The choice between either an exotic Asian massage or being repeatedly punched in the gut is not a real choice.

Instead Mass Effect 3 gives players three different endings. Yes the videos that play out once the choice is made are 90% the same, but the implications of what would happen to the galaxy are all radically different. There is no right and wrong choice and the answer you have is the answer to a question that lies at the core of Mass Effects’ theme. This question has been asked in some variation across all three games: is subservience preferable to extinction? Is it better to be at the devils right hand, then in his way? In the first game the villain Seran argued yes, in the second game we saw the consequences of what that subservience would have been, and in the third game, where we leave the Earth and stand above it, looking down at it from the domain of a god, we are asked to answer that question. But not in terms of the organic life, because saying yes would have been in direct violation of Sheppard’s character, which would have also made for a bad ending. Instead the question is asked in the terms of the Reapers. The ending to Mass Effect 3 completely turns the core theme of the game on its head and asks you to answer it given the new context. Is it better to destroy the Reapers or make them your slaves. And you know what? If the Reapers were to answer that question it would be yes, and they would want you to say yes too.

The fact that Mass Effect 3’s ending gives the answer to the core theme of the game to the players is why I think it’s a good ending. But if this one particular fan theory is correct, then Mass Effect 3 has a brilliant ending. As I hinted at in the last paragraph at the end of the game players have the option to control, destroy of coexist with the Reapers. For the Reapers, given what we’ve been shown over the past two games as to how they think, they would say that subservience is preferable to extinction, and would do everything in their power to prevent Sheppard from killing them, even if it meant that serve as slaves. The whole MO to the Reapers isn’t to wipe out all organic life, but to prune it, to shape it into Reaper form or a form the Reapers can control. They see themselves as intergalactic gardeners. But Sheppard, and by proxy the players, sees them as threats to all life everywhere, one that has to be destroyed. If only there was some way the Reapers could change the way a person thinks and sees the world and get them to come about to their side of thinking.

Oh right, they can. This is why the indoctrination theory makes way too much sense to be ignored. After all there was something wrong about the ending, and I think it was intentional. I mean, why BioWare give us a Renegade interrupt to save Anderson’s life? Why is it when the game shows us the destruction option it’s color coded in red, the Renegade color, and when it shows us the option to control the Reapers, it’s color coded in blue, the Paragon color? But in the last game the option to destroy the Collector base was Paragon, while the option to save it was Renegade. Because the Reapers are trying to indoctrinate Sheppard, which at this point is their last line of defense, and instead of telling us through cut scenes, the sinister effects of indoctrination are being showed to us through game play. This means that BioWare is intentionally taking the conventions of the game’s mechanics and turning them on its head to demonstrate the fact that an outside force is trying to make you do something you would never willing do on your own.


            Look people, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t declare that games should be considered art and then shoot down any ending that requires an in-depth analysis to understand. Because that’s really the only difference between BioShock and Mass Effect 3, BioShock came out and told people what it was doing, while Mass Effect wanted you to stop and actually think about it yourself. If games are going to be art than this is what that’s going to look like, because interactivity and the conventions of game play are what make this medium unique, they’re what make it so different from any other medium and they’re why games do in fact matter.

So BioWare, let me do something that I don’t think you’ve heard at all from anyone this week: let me say thank you. Thank you for all the time and effort you put into crafting this masterpiece, this exemplar that reached for the stars and showed us a glimpse of the future of games. You have legitimately added something to the substance of our culture and I’m grateful that I get to live in a world that this exists.


Contextualizing Multiplayer

It’s not hard to get most people to love multiplayer. People love it for the same reason we love tag or water gun wars, it’s friendly competition. Multiplayer in video games for most of its existence has never gone beyond the barest of reasons to justify what is ostensibly a game of digital laser tag. Team Fortress 2 doesn’t even bother at all, you’re Red, they’re Blue, now go murder each other. Which, by the way, what is it with video games and assigning the default team colors as red and blue? I like to imagine that colors exist in a relationship similar to the Serpents in Ultima 7 Part 2: Serpent Isle, where red and blue represent opposite forces and they have to be kept in order by yellow; the balance color. And then yellow disappeared so now red and blue must battle for all eternity.

Somehow I just made a theology out of this.

But I digress, my point is for some reason context gets chucked out the window the instant five or six complete strangers get dumped into a room together filled with guns, in fact some see context as a barrier to enjoying the ensuing mindless carnage. People actually praise Team Fortress 2 for its complete lack of plot or justification for why all these unique, colorful characters are murdering each other in industrial facilities. Which I find really strange because in single-player land people actually get very frustrated when they aren’t given a clear indication of what they are doing and for why. Story in games essentially evolved out of a need for developers to explain to players what’s going on and why they should care about their game about shooting squares. This was really important back in the Atari days when graphics weren’t good enough to describe anything but the most basic and generic of objects.

Okay I'm pretty sure your enemies are the orange blobs with erections.

But I am glad that as graphics became more sophisticated so two did our ability to convey more and more complex stories and more interesting characters through a game’s single-player experience. We have effectively created a brand new storytelling medium, as long as you’re playing on your own. For several reasons multiplayer hasn’t changed to keep up with the highly contextualized nature of single-player, and most people like it that way.

But as of last year I’ve noticed a strange new trend amongst developers, namely that some of them actually want to contextualize multiplayer, and the results have been pretty scatter shot. Splash Damage created and brand new intellectual property for the sole reason of contextualizing multiplayer, and insanely risky endeavor whose success is debatable. Brink didn’t just sit around content with being another game about Red and Blue duking out their endless conflict, they created the world of the Arc and gave compelling reasons and justifications for why the Resistance and Security sides were fighting. I love Brink the setting, and I like the game, but their efforts at combining single and multiplayer were anemic. A brief cutscene before every match does not a story make. I would still like to see Splash Damage return to this IP, maybe do a real single-player game given how much work they spent fleshing out the world of the Arc.

Recently the most successful form of bridging the single-player/multiplayer gap was The Old Republic, which I’m sure most of you have at least heard of. The game’s big thing is have Mass Effect styled interactive cutscenes in place of the typical MMO answer to context, blocks of text no one reads. BioWare also decided to go completely beyond what was necessary and created 8 different storylines for each class and have just as much content as one of their single-player RPGs. People have asked “When is there going to be a Knights of the Old Republic III?”. Well, The Old Republic is Knights of the Old Republic III through IX. This attempt has been far more successful, currently ToR has about two million subscribers which makes it the most successful MMO to come out in recent years that wasn’t World of Warcraft. By giving us better reasons for going out and killing X number of creatures beyond because that’s what a block of text told me to do, ToR has held my attention far longer than any other MMO has had any right to, and by giving a multiplayer game a stronger story focus BioWare were even able to bring in people who normally wouldn’t be caught dead playing an MMO.

But in my opinion, the best attempt in contextualizing multiplayer is right around the bend; Mass Effect 3. Now when I first heard Mass Effect 3 was going to have multiplayer I was firmly in the DO NOT WANT camp. This had to be EA’s doing, turning our beloved RPG setting into another competitive shooter to steal dollars away from Call of Duty by pandering to the mindless, knuckle-dragging grognards who sit in a near vegetative state playing the same map with the same weapons over and over until they level up their skill scores or whatever. Then I heard it was going to be cooperative. Then I saw the trailers. Then I heard how it would work. Then I changed my mind.

Mass Effect has a pretty damn big, well realized universe that succeeded because it always felt like it existed beyond the limited scope of Commander Sheppard and the Normandy. In the second game you start it by dying and spending two years in experimental surgery to come back, and the galaxy kept on turning all that time. Now with the galaxy wide Reaper invasion we’re being promised, it’s clear that the game needs to encompass a scope larger than Commander Sheppard. The game does this by having a map of the galaxy depicting which systems are being attacked and combining all this information with a “Galactic Readiness” bar. That would have been fine, but BioWare went one step further, they claim that the Galactic Readiness screen also takes in data from how well you do in multiplayer. This is why this multiplayer is so brilliant, the single-player storyline and universe provide the context for your matches, and the matches feedback into the single-player and provide context for what would otherwise be a pretty abstract system that wouldn’t be able to capture the impact of a galaxy wide war on its own. Unlike Brink, which tried to use multiplayer to tell a story and failed to realize it, Mass Effect 3 is still going to maintain some level of separation between its two game modes, but they aren’t entirely separated. Much like how the dialogue wheel bridges the gameplay and the story, the Galactic Readiness and the context of the game’s universe will bridge the multiplayer to the campaign. And honestly, this is the best of both worlds, multiplayer fans don’t have the story getting its dirt all over their carpet, and us story lovers get to have a justification beyond the endless color war of Red and Blue.