As with Mass Effect 2, I’m going to be referring to the writers as if they were a single individual. In reality, each game was written by a team of people that shared some difficult-to-quantify overlap with the other teams. So yes, I realize that “The Mass Effect 3 Writer” isn’t actually a single person, but for convenience that’s how I’ll refer to them.
This is for the sake of my own sanity. The question of “Why?” lurks behind every plot hole, every retcon, and every implausible character beat. What happened to Mass Effect? Why did the story change so radically? Part of me wants to put up a bulletin board of photographs and newspaper clippings, forming lines between them with bits of yarn, obsessively toiling over this puzzle until I can crack the case and figure out Who Killed Mass Effect.
But that’s a fool’s errand. We don’t know what was said in the writer’s room. We don’t know what kind of pressures the writing team was put under, or what sort of ideas were imposed on them from the outside. We could just as easily end up cursing the name of an overworked writer who, in reality, did the best they could with the time and material given to them and who might even agree with a lot of this analysis.
Moreover, it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing to be done. It doesn’t matter who broke this story, or why. In the end, you can’t “take back” Mass Effect because not even the authors themselves have the power to do that. For good or for ill, this is the story we got. The point of this series isn’t to identify the guilty or single them out to be the focus of the widespread nerdrage the surrounds this franchise. The point is to put all the nagging issues to rest, simply by identifying and acknowledging them. We can’t fix the problems, but we can catalog them, and that brings a sort of calming sense of order to the madness and offers a grudging kind of closure. This is about moving on by way of clearing up all the questions that might be preventing us from doing so. I don’t know about you, but when this series is over I will be well and truly out of things to say about Mass Effect.
I said at the start of Mass Effect 2 that it wasn’t a horrible game, and that I wasn’t angry. I feel less sure about both of those statements this time around. Parts of this game are pretty horrible, and the failures do make me mad sometimes. We’re still talking the story apart and looking for problems, but this time the problems are more more pronounced, more numerous, and more baffling.
I suppose it’s not good to get mad at a videogame, but my anger doesn’t come from the fact that the game wasn’t everything I wanted. I mean, I thought Deus Ex: Invisible War and Master of Orion 3 were pretty huge disappointments, but I didn’t write novel-sized reviews enumerating their flaws. No, what angered me in Mass Effect 3 was how many problems are shockingly obvious and easily avoided. The problems with the game aren’t bugs, or janky assets, or asset recycling, or padding, or any of the other problems you might expect from a game that ran low on budget and time. Mass Effect 3 could have been drastically better for no additional expense. It was a game that was exceedingly weak in exactly the areas where the original was strong.
I've said before that if Phantom Menace had just been a random sci-fi movie and not a STAR WARS movie that it wouldn't have drawn nearly so much rage. It would be a Fifth Element kind of thing: Campy, illogical, but otherwise inoffensive space opera with pretty visuals and fun action. We wouldn't be outraged over the many plot holes or annoying characters (Ruby Rod and Jar-jar) because we'd be happy Hollywood threw us sci-fi nerds a bone this year.
Likewise, if Mass Effect 3 had been an off-brand Gears of War knock-off, we probably would have given it credit for being, “Pretty smart, for a shooter.” But this isn’t some random shooter. This was supposed to be something special. This franchise originally stood in stark contrast to the lowbrow bombast of stuff like Quake, Gears of War, Dead Space, Space Marine, or Bulletstorm. This was the conclusion to the Mass Effect franchise. This was the “Star Trek” of videogames. We weren't just mad at the game we got. We were mad because of the game we didn't get. The game we would now never get.
Previously we could look at Mass Effect 2 as this awkward bridge as the series transformed from middlebrow science fiction to broad action adventure. But now the transformation is complete and it turns out that the writer isn’t really sure how to make action adventure, either.
We Still Have The Original
Sometimes when you criticise a book or a movie or a game that stands as a sequel to an earlier, better work, you’ll hear the defense, “What’s the big deal? It’s not like they burned the earlier stuff. They still exist and they’re still as good as ever!”
Let’s set aside the problem that, “You can pretend it doesn’t exist if you want” is a really sad thing to say in defense of a work. The more important point is that it isn’t actually true. Terrible sequels can and do harm our enjoyment of their predecessors. This is particularly true if the sequel is a continuation of a story begun by the earlier work. If some hack takes over for Tolkien and writes a version of The Two Towers where it’s revealed that Gandalf is actually a fool and a liar, then our perception of the first book will be changed.
In Fellowship of the Ring, there’s a scene where Gandalf and Frodo sit in front of the fire at Bag EndIn the movies this was compressed into the scene where Gandalf jump-scares Frodo and asks him, “Is it secret? Is it safe?” and Gandalf slowly reveals the history of the ring and the danger it poses not just to Frodo, but to the whole world. By the end Frodo’s perception of his place in the world has dramatically shifted, and he realizes that the seeming safety and calm of the Shire is an illusion, and that he is naked and helpless in the face of an implacable enemy capable of dominating armies. His wise and powerful friend is even more wise and powerful than he ever understood, and yet still far too weak to defend him from this looming threat.
But in light of the alternate version of Two Towers, the scene loses everything that makes it special. The revelations that seemed so profound are just stories. The feeling of looming danger is dispelled and replaced with the mild irritation that this massive exposition dump is now a waste of time because none of it is true or meaningful.
When the reader returns to the beloved first book, their natural curiosity from within the story leads them to wonder about the future and how the story will turn out. Through this contemplation they are reminded of the revelations in the second book and how it diminishes the impact of this one. They are at the same time compelled to look forward and yet unable to do so. What should they do? Compose their own end to the story to take the place of this unsatisfying one? Indeed, you can see people doing exactly that.
But if you’re mentally sorting through multiple works and trying to build some sort of coherent story by picking and choosing among their elements, then you are very much stuck in the Primary World. Your sense of immersion is gone, and you’re left with the thankless task of cleaning up the mess left by a careless author. The best outcome you can hope for is to purge the later works from your mind and accept that the beloved original will be left forever incomplete, its questions unanswered, its characters abandoned, and its problems left unsolved.
Which is to say that yes, terrible sequels can ruin what came before. Mass Effect 1 is no longer a story where Commander Shepard embarks on a journey of discovery that will show him how to win reprieve or salvation from the Old Gods that are coming to unmake civilization itself for reasons beyond our comprehension. It’s a story about an apathetic galaxy that doesn’t want or deserve to be saved. It’s a story where the galaxy has been wiped clean by drooling idiots who cause the problem they were designed to solve and who only win because their guns are biggest. It’s a story where Shepard pointlessly works with and then fights against a Cobra Commander style supervillain instead of keeping his mind on the more important problem of learning about the Reapers. It’s a story that ends in the worst sort of Deus Ex Machina: One that ends the story but fails to conclude it.
Mass Effect 1 is the Best Part of Mass Effect 3
Just as Mass Effect 2 was a nonsensical mess intercut with fantastic character pieces, Mass Effect 3 is an absurd disaster of a story intercut with wonderful vignettes about how the various species resolved their original differences before coming together and having all of their hard work rendered moot. It’s not a good game with a bad ending. It’s a towering heap of juvenile action schlock with no understanding of tone, themes, genre, pacing, or even rudimentary story structure, but with solid mechanics and a couple of really good side-missions.
People defend Mass Effect 3 by saying they liked the resolution to the Krogan genophage story. Or the resolution to the Quarian / Geth conflict. And those stories are indeed interesting, smart, and reactive to player choice. But they have no connection to the main story. At the end, some people agree to join your cause, and that cause could have been anything. They didn’t need to be attached to this sophomoric tripe. Battlefield Earth wouldn’t be a good movie if you inserted a couple of popular Star Trek episodes into its runtime.
All of the problems with the Mass Effect 2 story are repeated here, only to a greater degree. The human characters take center stage, overshadowing both the antagonist and (at times) protagonist. The main character has even less agency this time around. The attempts at pathos are so crude and clumsy they become offensive.
Yes, the resolution to the Quarian / Geth storyline is great, and so is the conclusion of the Genophage. Same goes for those final character moments at the end when you say goodbye to Garrus, Liara, and Tali for the last time. But those are things introduced and built up in the first game. Mass Effect 1 made the investments so that those stories paid off. This is what you get from careful and patient worldbuilding: Stories with a ton of personal, emotional, and thematic heft. You get groovy stuff like catharsis, meaning, and closure.
In contrast: What did we get from Aria? The Collectors? Kai Leng? The Human Reaper? Sure, there were some stories there. But none of them led to the kind of payoff we got from the Mass Effect 1 storylines. Instead, radical new ideas were introduced (often with no sense of build-up) and were later forgotten without closure, or dissolved into nonsense.
Which is to say: The best parts of Mass Effect 3 – perhaps the only genuinely good parts of Mass Effect 3 – are only good because of the groundwork done by Mass Effect 1. Mass Effect 2 gave us a bunch of wonderful characters, but they’re mostly absent this time around, or demoted to side-charactersMy Mass Effect 3 squad was smaller than my Mass Effect 1 squad, which is really screwy since the middle game was all about assembling this massive roster of 10 or 12.. I don’t defend Mass Effect 3 because the Quarian and Krogan stories turned out so well. I condemn it because almost nothing else did.
I look at the dumb conversations with Aria or the stupid assault on Cerberus and think, “Why couldn’t this be as good as the mission to cure the Genophage?” The screen time is there. The art assets are there. The company spent the money, hired the actors, and scripted the cutscenes. The only thing wrong is that the script was a dreadful mess on every level.
I’ll give Mass Effect 3 this: I think they nailed the gameplay this time. The way the weights of different weapons will impact the cooldowns of your special abilities is a wonderful design decision. Weapon selection is now more nuanced than “figure out which gun has the best DPS”. Two characters with the same build might have totally different weapon loadouts, depending on playstyle.
The old linear skill trees have been replaced with branching skill trees that offer interesting tradeoffs. Do you want this attack to have a bigger blast radius, or higher single-target damage? Do you want to hit harder, or more often? Do you want to boost your own power, or your team’s?
On the other hand, the fact that one button is used to sprint, enter cover, exit cover, vault over cover, and interact with items is a pretty glaring flaw.
Still, if you were going to rip the story out of the entire Mass Effect series and judge it on its gameplay alone, Mass Effect 3 is the clear winner and Mass Effect 1 is the loser. This makes things somewhat difficult, since the reverse is true if you judge the series on any criteria related to the story.
It’s a videogame! Gameplay is all that matters! Therefore the game isn’t that bad.
It’s a BioWare story RPG! It’s all about the story! Therefore the game is a disaster.
On top of everything else, Mass Effect 3 is almost engineered to ignite flamewars.
 In the movies this was compressed into the scene where Gandalf jump-scares Frodo and asks him, “Is it secret? Is it safe?”
 My Mass Effect 3 squad was smaller than my Mass Effect 1 squad, which is really screwy since the middle game was all about assembling this massive roster of 10 or 12.
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