Now that the Star Child has explained his nonsensical purpose of solving a problem by perpetrating the same problem on an even grander scale, he asks Shepard to pick a new solution from three available choices. I don’t know why. Even if we accept the idea that mass cyclic genocide is an appropriate solution to the allegedly inevitable conflict between synthetics and organics, Shepard has done nothing to suggest he’s worthy or knowledgeable enough to participate in this decision. To the Star Child, he’s just a wounded meatbag soldier that crawled in here.
Also: All of the three solutions result in Shepard’s death.
If the Star Child really believes that his solution is no longer working and that he needs a new one, and if he really believes that Shepard is the guy to make this decision, then why do the Reapers continue to press the attack? Why not stop the assault while Shepard mulls it over? Why doesn’t Shepard ask for more time, or if he can use one of his lifelines to call a friend? Arrogantly making unilateral life-and-death decisions on behalf of the galaxy is what the Reapers stand for, not Shepard.
The Star Child has no good reason to be killing organics. But if we pretend he does, then he has no reason to think that Shepard showing up should change that reasoning. But even if he did, there’s no reason to think that Shepard should be the one to decide on a new solution. But if he was, then shouldn’t he come up with a solution on his own, instead of picking from A, B, or C? But even if it makes sense for the Star Child to provide the choices, there’s no given reason to constrain the choices to these particular three thingsFor example, why can’t Shepard destroy ONLY the Reapers and not the Geth? If you’re giving Shepard all the power, then why can’t Shepard just TELL you to have all the Reapers fly into the sun without him needing to kill himself first?. But even if that made sense, there’s no reason Shepard needs to kill himself to make these choices happen. And even if that were true, there’s no reason for Shepard to believe that any of these things are true.
Sure, you can come up with your own justifications for a few of these. You can extrapolate if you want. Maybe if you glue on enough fan-fiction you can get through this scene. But this is the big reveal at the end. The writer tied the whole universe in knots to to make this moment happen, and the big reveal at the end is actually a fill-in-the-blanks homework project. The whole thing is just so nakedly arbitrary.
If you’re still playing and haven’t shut the game off in confusion or frustration, then the Star Child presents Shepard with three choices:
- Destroy all synthetic life. This includes the Reapers, the Geth, EDI, and Shepard himself, since he’s part machine. (And then I guess everyone needs to make a pinky promise to never build any more? How is this enforced?) If Shepard chooses this, he does so by walking up to a RED thingy and shooting it over and over until it explodes in his face, even though it’s not clear why he thinks that shooting this small device would kill all robots, and it’s really not clear why Shepard needed to stand beside it while it was blowing up.
- Control the Reapers. Shepard can dissolve himself into the machine. He’ll die, but his mind will live on, guiding the Reapers. (TIM was right all along! LOLOL!) Shepard has to grab onto a BLUE thingy that does the dissolving.
- Merge all organic and synthetic life. (Somehow. I guess robots will just randomly sprout some meat?) Shepard jumps into a GREEN beam that evidently disintegrates him.
Note that the Star Child still has all the power here. There’s no reason the Reapers couldn’t fly over here and blow up the Crucible. Star Child is letting Shepard win. And not because of anything Shepard has done. (Aside from show up.)
After Shepard makes this choice, the Citadel explodes in an energy cloud of the chosen color. This cloud touches the nearby mass relay, which also explodes, and sets off a chain reaction that eventually detonates all mass relays. These expanding energy waves magically accomplish whatever Shepard chose: Either all robots are obliterated from the galaxy, all robots are placed under the direct control of the now-disembodied intelligence of Commander Shepard, or all robots and organics are somehow blended or merged or whatever.
The Death of Agency
Outside of the Genophage and Rannoch missions, Shepard has no power to make decisions. The game is linear and Shepard is simply dragged from one mission to the next, and the only power he has is to shoot people and choose teammates.
Like I said way back in part 35: Shepard had nothing to do with the Crucible. He didn’t find the ruins, uncover the plans, decipher them, or decide to use them. He didn’t build the Crucible. He didn’t know what it was for or what it would do. The entire plot turns on this thing, and it’s completely out of his hands aside from pushing the “On” button. He didn’t uncover the big mystery that made this possible. He didn’t get the answers and then confront the villain empowered by that knowledge. He just showed up and it was given to him by the only character with agency: The villain. Here at the end, all of his choices are described and constrained by a malevolent enemy whom he has no reason to trust.
And since all of the choices kill him, he really should be skeptical that the Star Child is going to be true to his word after Shepard obligingly kills himself.
This is why the ending feels so patronizing: The writer is pretending to let Shepard have ALL THE POWER, but in reality Shepard has all the agency of a coin being flipped by someone trying to make a decision. The audience doesn’t feel powerful, they don’t feel informed, and nothing in the conversation feels like they have actually defeated the Star Child in any meaningful way.
In a tabletop setting, there’s a stigma to people who run games where victory is only possible via a superweapon that the players must collect. The GM can’t bear the thought of his awesome villain being defeated by those lame dirty players, so instead the story is about their awesome MacGuffin vs. their awesome villain. One of their creations defeats the other, and the players get to participate by fetching the weapon and escorting it to victory, which has the added benefit of putting the players in just the right location to act as an audience.
It’s an idea so selfish and shallow that I made it part of the story in my webcomic Chainmail Bikini, which was a tale of reluctant players being dragged through a cringe-worthy D&D campaign. And yet, despite the fact that I deliberately engineered that campaign to be horrible for the purposes of comedy, I actually think it’s less self-indulgent on the part of the game master than the story of Mass Effect 3. If the Chainmail Bikini players had ever bothered to gather up the super-weapons, at least they would have personally used them and understood how they worked.
Shepard wins the game by activating a machine he didn’t discover or build, with no understanding of how it works or what it will do. He doesn’t even know a proper history of the device. And once he turns it on, the bad guy lets him win. Shepard is then offered a choice, but the bad guy controls the parameters of the choice. This is a literal Deus Ex Machina. A god shows up and solves your problem for you. The fact that the god in question is also the source of the problem makes this a story in which Shepard is nothing more than a spectator. The best Shepard can do is plead for information, which is all hackneyed nonsense.
Shepard never had control of this situation, never understood what was going on, and was only being allowed to make any decisions at all because of the unexplained magnanimity of the villain, who he must implicitly trust for any of this to work.
Even if the writer had untangled all the continuity errors, lore failures, character misfires, and dialog shenanigans, this would still be an unsatisfying way to conclude this particular story. The player was given an unearned victory, a dumb explanation for the Reapers, an illogical choice, an unsatisfying and meaningless death for their avatar, and a confusing after-death cutsceneWhat happened? Why is Joker flying away from the battle? What was the impact of blowing up the Mass Effect network? How did the fleet around earth get home? Etc..
Having said that…
The End is Not the Problem
I love Mr. Btongue, the YouTube personality behind Tasteful, Understated Nerdrage, which is probably the best summary of the problems with the original ending. I love his work and I’m always hoping to see him start producing again. Even though he hasn’t made a video in a powerful long time, I wish he had a Patreon so I could throw some support his way for the awesome work he’s done in the past. I think his video on BioWare is some of the smartest stuff that’s been said about any of the companies that EA has gobbled up, and I’d be lying if I said his thoughts haven’t influenced my own ruminations on the business of making videogames over the years.
But I didn’t write this ponderous, self-important, overly verbose and barely proofread series on Mass Effect just to repeat what others have said. And if there’s one thing I’d disagree with in his videos it’s the idea that Mass Effect was great right up until the end.
The ending isn’t where the Mass Effect 3 writer faltered. The ending is where all of their ongoing, widespread, long-running failures finally came to a head. Failure to establish a theme. Failure to build up a proper villain. Failure to give the various factions ideas. Failure to characterize. Failure to construct a natural sequence of cause and effect. Failure to establish and adhere to the rules of the world.
The writer constantly wrote IOUs to the audience: This will all be explained later. It’ll make sense in retrospect. This is building up to a larger payoff. This is a setup for a later reveal. The writer never explicitly promised those things, mind you. We just sort of assumed those promises were being made. When the writer kills and resurrects the main character, re-writes major details of the world, radically changes the focus of the story, and imposes decisions of the player character that seem unreasonable or poorly justified, it’s natural to assume that it’s all in pursuit of some larger goal. Surely all these compromises now are in service of some satisfying payoff later, right? The writer wouldn’t bring us all this way for nothing, would they?
Once Shepard steps into that beam, all those implied or inferred IOUs came due, and the writer had nothing for us. It’s natural then to say the ending failed us. But I think the story was doomed long before we meet the Star Child. When Mass Effect 2 wasted the second act on a side-plot, it kicked all the duties of a second act into the third. When The Arrival introduced huge ideas that couldn’t feed directly into the main plot because they were DLC, the writer tied their own hands with regards to what they could and couldn’t do in the third game. They couldn’t contradict The Arrival, but neither could they build on it. When the writer made Cerberus such a central element of Mass Effect 3, they created a foe that would devour screen time and clutter up an already-busy story. When the writer built the emotional core of the story around a child we neither knew or cared about, they tied their final confrontation to a character that was fundamentally uninteresting and thematically wrong. When they dropped a contrived and unexplained deus ex machina into the story to solve the Reaper problem, they made it so that Shepard would never be anything more than a witness to the ending, not an active participant in it.
By the time Shepard reaches the Citadel, the writer has painted themselves into a corner so small, no amount of writing skill or sci-fi savvy could have saved it. Sure, you could come up with a better reason for the Reapers or a less arbitrary final choice, but the story was already hopelessly broken beyond repair. The ending was doomed to come up short, because the rest of the story had destroyed the framework that would have made a satisfying conclusion possible.
Nothing Could Have Been Good Enough
A common retort during the “Mass Effect 3 Ending Controversy / Temper-Tantrum of Doom” was that “after so much hype, nothing could have pleased fans”. As if to say: “The ending is fine, you just expected too much.” It’s an attempt to blame the audience for the failures of the writer.
If this series has done anything, I hope it’s destroyed this notion. Even if you loved Mass Effect 3, I hope you can at least see the game through the eyes of the fans who didn’t, and understand that for people who signed up for details-first, character-driven sci-fi drama, this ending was a failure on all counts.
Lord of the Rings concluded to everyone’s satisfaction. Return of the Jedi came amid a vortex of hype, and fans managed to love it anyway. Harry Potter captured the imagination of a culture for a decade, and there wasn’t a widespread backlash when the last book hit the stands. Properly concluding a series is not an impossible task. Other writers have done it. Fictional works have come and gone without enraging or alienating their fans.
You Just Wanted a Happy Ending
This argument is tricky, because it’s technically true in some cases and it’s more a matter of degrees than anything else. But this goes back to my points about what people want from their fiction.
Generally speaking, an audience is probably looking for three key things at the end of a story:
Affirmation – Love conquers all, hope endures, freedom is worth fighting for, the truth will set you free, justice can’t be denied, etc. You save the little kid, the evil overlord is defeated, somebody gets married, everyone celebrates the hero, cupcakes and ice cream. Ex: Frodo drops the ring into Mt. Doom and Saruon is defeated forever.
Explanation – All questions answered. Making sure it all makes sense also falls under this category. Ex: How did Gandalf come back from the dead? What made the Witch King undefeatable? What happens to the Three Rings if the One is destroyed?
Closure – How did things turn out? Did the characters have a happy ending? Ex: Sam married Rose. Frodo and Bilbo went to the Havens. Aragorn was crowned king.
Yes, there’s quite a bit of overlap here. But you get the idea. Good guys win, questions answered, and character stories are fulfilled. Lord of the Rings does all three. Of course, you don’t have to do all three. In fact, in a gritty sci fi universe like Mass Effect, a mega-happy ending can feel forced or out of place. It’s perfectly valid to write a story where the good guys lose. (Empire Strikes Back, Se7en, Usual Suspects.) You can leave questions hanging. (What was in the unopened package in Cast Away? What was in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction / Ronin?) You can drop characters without resolving their stories. (What happened to Sean Bean in Silent Hill?)
Mass Effect 3 didn’t deliver on Explanation, because the end was goofy vague science magic nonsense.
Mass Effect 3 missed on Closure, because the story ended with the Mass Effect relays being destroyed, the combined might of the galactic fleets in orbit around the now-ruined earth, and Shepard’s companions flying off, crashing somewhere, then taking off again. What happened? Was the earth saved? Did Shepard’s friends make it? Was the Citadel usable after this? What happened to the folks on the Normandy? Did they make it home okay? What happened to the Geth? Is the Star Child still around? Did anyone ever figure out what Shepard did, and do they understand it was Shepard’s decision? What happened to the galactic government without the relay network and Citadel to support it? Etc, etc, etc.
Some people just want happy endings, but other people are willing to go with a sad ending as long as it has something profound or clever to say. But if you are going to refuse the audience Explanation and Closure, then you’d better have some Affirmation for them. But Shepard is dead, the Earth is ruined, and the Star Child – king of the Reapers – seemed content with how things turned out. The bad guys weren’t defeated through cunning or strength. At best they let you win and at worst they won and got your hero to kill himself.
Which is to say, if the big reveal at the end had made some kind of sense, the sadness of the ending would have been less of a problem. If all that bullshit with Cerberus had led to some payoff or reveal, or if the Star Child had delivered a properly telegraphed mind-screw of a twist, or if the story had said something profound about the nature of life in the galaxy, then people would have been more accepting of having Shepard die.
The argument isn’t so much, “I want a happy ending” but “If you can’t give me anything else, at least you could give me a happy ending”. It’s much harder for the audience to zero in on complicated stuff like thematic failures or Schrödinger-style branching continuity holes, but everyone can latch onto the fact that it doesn’t feel like they won. Their avatar is dead, Earth is ruined, the mass relay system is ruinedWhich is either a paradigm shift or mass extinction, depending on how inter-dependant you assume the galaxy is. If the populous homeworlds can’t get food from the garden worlds, is that a temporary food shortage, or mass galactic starvation?, and as far as we can tell the rest of the galaxy never even got the few meager answers that Shepard did.
The irony is that the original Mass Effect – the nerdy, talky, details-first game that began with the premise of space Cthulhu coming to devour all civilization – was a pretty good setup for a sad ending. Cthulhu stories don’t tend to end in sunshine and rainbows. They’re dark and grim and usually the protagonist simply forestalls evil at great cost to themselves.
But the later games embraced an action-movie vibe of visceral audience empowerment and cheap gratification. If you’re not going to offer anything more nourishing than sensory stimulation, then you’d better not mess with audience expectations. The later games promised us cheap thrills and then tried to be dark and profound and mysterious at the last minute, and the result comes off as insufferably pretentious.
I’d be very surprised if anyone at BioWare had the patience to sit through my long-winded complaining. While I have nothing personally against anyone involved in making these games, I don’t blame them if they don’t care to read this thing. I imagine it would be excruciating to spend years of your life building something only to have nearly every aspect of it criticized in exhaustive detail. If someone were to do the same to one of my large projects, I’d probably skip it just to avoid feeling depressed and angry.
But I feel like this series is incomplete without some sort of constructive advice. So I’ll offer some for whoever managed to make it this far.
We can’t see inside of BioWare or EA, and we don’t know what sort of decisions shaped the development of this franchise. But we can see the high writer turnover as people left the company or jumped to other projects within BioWare. Every single installment of Mass Effect had a different arrangement of lead writers. That might be acceptable if this was a series of games like Uncharted or Fallout, where each installment is supposedly a stand-alone story. But the Mass Effect Trilogy supposedly exists to tell a single overarching story, and that story is completely incoherent because the parts don’t fit together.
So if there’s one thing I wish I could impress on the suits at EA / BioWare it’s this:
Writers are not interchangeable.
Everyone realizes that voice actors aren’t interchangeable. In the same way, writers also have distinctive voices and treating them like generic script-writing machines can only lead to disaster. Pick a lead writer and stick with them. Even if your writers are are all literal geniuses, don’t shuffle them around in the middle of telling what is supposedly a single story. Pratchett and Tolkien were both masterful and inventive storytellers, but that doesn’t mean either one would have been a good fit for taking over a Vernor Vinge novel in progress.
I realize this advice is probably lost on EA, who have built an entire company culture around the wrongheaded idea that you can turn all videogames into assembly line products. The thinking seems to be that if it works for Madden, why can’t it work for all games?
So that’s everything I have to say about Mass EffectI hope.. I’m glad the first game exists, I wish the latter ones had turned out differently, and I hope someone takes another stab at making some details-rich space opera Real Soon Now. I’m not going to comment on Mass Effect: Andromeda yetProbably in a future column.. My hope is that this retrospective acts as a sort of denouement of the entire ending controversy and enables us to put the whole thing behind us. The complaints have been made, the mistakes have been cataloged, and the advice has been offered. There’s nothing to do now but try to remember the good, forget the bad, and hope for something better next year.
Thanks for reading.
– Shamus Young
 For example, why can’t Shepard destroy ONLY the Reapers and not the Geth? If you’re giving Shepard all the power, then why can’t Shepard just TELL you to have all the Reapers fly into the sun without him needing to kill himself first?
 What happened? Why is Joker flying away from the battle? What was the impact of blowing up the Mass Effect network? How did the fleet around earth get home? Etc.
 Which is either a paradigm shift or mass extinction, depending on how inter-dependant you assume the galaxy is. If the populous homeworlds can’t get food from the garden worlds, is that a temporary food shortage, or mass galactic starvation?
 I hope.
 Probably in a future column.
The Best of 2019
I called 2019 "The Year of corporate Dystopia". Here is a list of the games I thought were interesting or worth talking about that year.
Grand Theft Railroad
Grand Theft Auto is a lousy, cheating jerk of a game.
The Middle Ages
Would you have survived in the middle ages?
Diablo III Retrospective
We were so upset by the server problems and real money auction that we overlooked just how terrible everything else is.
Starcraft 2: Rush Analysis
I write a program to simulate different strategies in Starcraft 2, to see how they compare.
298 thoughts on “Mass Effect Retrospective 50: The Final Affrontier”
Blah blah blah, all on front page.
Had to be, really, didn’t it.
I’m choosing to believe that this time it was on purpose and nothing anyone (Shamus included) says will convince me otherwise.
With you there!
At least he remained consistent till the end.
This is the first time I saw this much-mentioned problem, so at least I got to join in before it was over.
Comparing the ending theme musics of ME1 and ME2 might be the most concise way to illustrate tone shift between the two games.
ME2’s credits theme for comparison:
They’re both good themes, they just convey vastly different tones, like you said.
Mass Effect 3’s end theme is good too, though for perhaps the wrong reasons.
It does a great job of conveying a dazed ‘what the hell just happened?’ tone.
It’s been funny, fascinating, and miserable.
Congratulations on bringing this fine series to a close.
Thanks, Shamus! Loved every word and I’m sad to see it end. And now you can rest.
Thank you for this series. I never played Mass Effect, but I’ve really enjoyed hearing about it!
Same here. I mean, I played through the first half of the first game like 3 times, but yes.
I loved this series, it really let me understand what was going on/wrong in the games. Plus, as usual, your writing is a pleasure to read. Please deconstruct some other story in detail as soon as possible. xD
Print version. When?
What are you going to do with all the free time this has freed up?
I think I’m looking forward to Andromeda’s release more to hear what you have to say about it than the actual game itself.
Yep. Bioware is dead. At least reading about the re-animated corpse’s shenanigans is still fun!
You made it, Shamus! Now, if you haven’t seen this, maybe you can get some enjoyment from it.
No, not space hamster!
… is it a GIANT space hamster?
It’s a dwarf giant space hamster
A modder was able to make a Space Hamster placard, but Bioware wasn’t able to print the player’s custom name, huh?
Heh. I know people got upset by that when they saw THE SPACE HAMSTER in the joke vid. However…there are some issues with number of characters that Bioware would have had to have taken into account waaaaaay back in ME1 to know they’d be making an Extended Cut. So I can see why they went with just the last name.
That said, it’s really fun to put ridiculous names up during that scene. :)
EDIT: I should add, obviously easier for Bioware with the real tools but that took me an entire afternoon to get done properly and that’s after Fob had figured out how to do the letters and spacing in the first place. /EDIT
I wanna see the advanced volus ballet! :D
Congrats on finishing this series! As a (hopefully) future writer, it’s given me a lot of great insights.
While I agree that ME3 was bad before the ending (and this already started in ME2), I do think a better ending would be pretty easy. Just repeat the suicide mission from ME2 but now on Earth and on a larger scale (for example, you choose to send Turian or Salarian forces to a certain target). Keep the motivation of the Reapers vague (they are supposed to be beyond our comprehension, after all). Let the game end similar to Dragon Age Origins, either Shepard or one of your squad members has to make a sacrifice. This satisfies players who want Shepard to sacrifice himself and people who want a happy ending with their LI. While it may not be the most creative ending, at least you’ll make most players who spent 100 hours on the entire trilogy happy. Let’s face it, a large part of the audience of these games are mostly interested in the romances/friendships. Bioware made a huge mistake in not catering to their wishes.
Instead of boarding the Citadel, the final part of the game would be boarding Harbinger to either destroy him (and rout the Reapers) or hack the Reaper network. It would still be a mess but better than the Star Child at least and it doesn’t require the Crucible. It’s a sound military tactic, if the enemy outnumbers you, try to take out the leader.
> Keep the motivation of the Reapers vague (they are supposed to be beyond our comprehension, after all)
“See, I’ve always had a problem with the idea of nigh-invincible creatures supposedly having motives ‘far beyond our understanding’. It’s bullcrap! Motivations are very simple things – they WANT something! That is ALL that a motivation is – a goal to be achieved! If they want cosmic power or to win a war against super-intelligent electrons or something, it’s perfectly understandable! The complex part is that they’re playing chess and they’re ten moves ahead of everyone else. The PLANS are complex, not the motivations.” – Lewis Lovhaug, Atop the Fourth Wall – Spider-Man: Crossfire.
But unless they sit down to explain their motivations to you, they those motivations might as well be unknowably obscure.
A caveman might understand the motivation for wealth or power, but he’s not going to have the slightest clue that my tapping on keys on a computer keyboard is a step toward that aim because he doesn’t have much conception of using a botnet to brute force passwords to hack into a corporate website to steal information that I can sell to a competitor for a lot of money (which only exists virtually in my bank account). And he’s not going to see the connection between those activities and the payoff, even if the payoff is something he can understand (food, luxury items).
So unless I explain what is going on, my motivations might as well be a complete mystery to him, and even if he magically knew what my motivation were it wouldn’t in the slightest give him any ability to predict what I was going to do next to achieve them.
You can argue about whether that is keeping the motivation vague or the plans vague, but what I’m saying is that once someone is so different to you that knowing every step of their plan still doesn’t inform you about their motivation, and knowing their motivation is of zero use in predicting their plan, then to all intents and purposes their motivations might as well be completely alien to you.
And thats essentially what happened here. “Trust us. Killing all of you is the best thing because of robots.” I believe we’re meant to assume that they’re so awesomely smart that they’ve reliably calculated how this outcome is an inevitability (robots overrun everything and no further civilizations develop, we’re just the gardners.)
But we’re thinking “Why don’t you just throw rocks at the dude, then take his fancy colorful pelt and wear it back at the tribe. They’ll assume you’re the next medicine man and you’ll get your pick of women. Duh!”
And then there’s the Leviathan DLC, which is sort of meant to REALLY explain it, and honestly, is the only way I can see the Reapers actually sitting down to explain their motivations — their creators do it for them. The idea of that DLC is really good, but the execution leaves much to be desired.
It is worlds better. Its sort of brilliant (possibly accidentally) in explaining why what the Reapers believe makes no sense. There must be hard coded dogma the Leviathans put in the Reapers. And of course we know now that robots are disruptive to tribute. It doesn’t matter that the pressure the Leviathans put on their subjects is what pushes them eventually into this aggressive pursuit of technology.
That said, there’s plenty of stupid. Like the cave markings of the Leviathans. Why cave markings? Because the Leviathans are, like, really old dude.
Except the Reapers are tens of millions of years old. How did anything a caveman made survive that long? Especially exposed like it was?
Yeah, haha the cave thing was silly, but I like the idea of it.
My overall gripe with that DLC, the Reapers have gone from “incomprehensible, you live because we allow it, and you will perish, because we demand it.” To yet another AI gone horribly wrong. Also, Shepard gets the Leviathans to agree to help out by… yelling at them… from inside a big scuba tank.
I also would have liked them to come up with something that incorporated Sovereign’s “We are each a nation” thing a little bit more literally. Here’s my idea for how Reapers really should have been explained by Leviathan:
1. Leviathans achieve biological immortality, dominating the habitable reaches of the galaxy, and generally play at gods, but discover that the Mass Effect is increasing the rate at which the universe expands by introducing more dark energy into the system.
2. This is a concerning revelation to an immortal creature, and they work at the problem for a while, but can’t come up with a solution, so they make an AI that might figure it out.
3. The AI can’t come up with a solution either; AI concludes that it isn’t smart enough. It tries to simulate learning, upgrading its own hardware and such, but no matter what, it can’t get smart enough. There’s an upper limit to what machine learning could achieve on its own.
4. The AI concludes that, with enough time, biological evolution might provide a solution to the learning problem: networked TranSapients could learn as fast a machine while providing another level of pseudo-randomness to a system, while computers are dependent on their initial conditions. TranSapients within a simulation might provide a solution.
5. The AI start collecting genetic samples of rare individuals in a population, looking for outliers on every spectrum. Most species do not volunteer for this, so the first harvest begins. Populations that can’t contribute to the experiment are discarded.
6. The first Reaper is born of the Leviathans, which is aspects of many different Leviathan minds crammed inside a simulation, iterating on a quest to find a solution to the entropy problem. This process is repeated over and over. The AI controlling them doesn’t live in a house on the Citadel, it’s just the collective consciousness of all Reapers, just as each Reaper is the collective consciousness of entire civilizations.
7. The entire galaxy is harvested of its galactic civilizations, which are the easiest to access, but still a solution isn’t found. So the Reapers wait for primitive species to reach the galactic scale, but this is needlessly slow, so they speed it up by leaving infrastructure and key information caches in systems with primitive life. The Citadel is created to ensure the harvest is met with minimal resistance.
8. The process repeats, the galaxy a testing lab, for millions of years while the Reapers search for a solution. The surviving Leviathans are content to wait for the Reapers to find solution, seeing as how they’re still functionally immortal and don’t like the idea of witnessing the heat death of the universe.
This would require Bioware to have not discarded the (much more sensible) dark energy ending because it was leaked.
No. The “dark energy” ending was not leaked, EITHER time.
The endings we got were the ones that were leaked. There are differences in the dialog, and in which characters were supposed to be which, BUT… the basic structure of the ending is identical to BOTH leaks.
This is very obviously better than what we got. What were they thinking?
It still doesn’t fix the ending, but it’s at the very least not another AI gone wrong trope. When they introduced Legion and how unique the geth seemed in ME2, I had high hopes for their explanation for the Reapers. Just more disappointment.
What I like about this a lot is that it’s very much in tune with classic sci-fi. It’s like Asimov’s The Last Question: robots trying to fix a problem that physics says is impossible to fix. It’s a little less eldritch, but it’s logical enough for a sci-fi story.
I think the eldritch horror aspects can still exist with this motivation. Think about it in the context of discovering that this is why you’re doomed: You have no ability to conventionally kill your enemy, you have no guarantee your space magic will work against them, and you find out that your only feasible solution to talking the Reapers down is to come up with a solution to a problem so complex that millions-years old machine intelligence can’t figure it out.
What I like a lot about it is it helps explain some of the behavior in ME2:
I like the idea of the Reapers trying to complete the harvest in secret, but of course, the execution of the ideas presented in ME2 were very poorly conveyed in the main plot. Cerberus / Collectors are a cool sort of faction-level foil: one group is a clandestine Alliance black-ops group, the other is a clandestine faction of the Reaper arm. They try to out-clandestine each other, and Shepard makes all the difference– but of course this isn’t conveyed in a way where the player gets agency over decisions on the Cerberus camp, and the Collectors don’t ever seem threatening enough to actually carry out their plans.
That’s the problem with trying to create an alien motivation (or at least plan) far beyond our understanding and then trying to explain it. If the explanation makes sense to us (and to the writers) then it isn’t far beyond our understanding. You kind of have to leave it completely unexplained even in principle, otherwise you risk undercutting it, unless you’ve got a really detailed explanation of how it all actually makes sense worked out somewhere. And I think we’re all fairly clear by this point that that doesn’t apply to ME3.
The communications with the Reapers should have always been impersonal. Like in a way where, while the mere mortal is getting an appropriate response, its clear that its not actually the Reaper talking. Its just a squawk box to deal with the barely sapient primates while vast inscrutable minds communicate with their peers far above us.
Yeah but that’s the stupid explanation we get at the end of the game. “We must kill most of you to prevent robots from wiping out all of you.” I believe there were better options.
If you have to give the Reapers a motivation, make it about:
a) Survival. The Reapers simply need this harvest to survive, just how we eat food.
b) A war that spans galaxies. The Reapers are fighting some kind of war that we don’t understand (hence the “beyond your comprehension” part). Think the equivalent of a war that happens through the internet in our age. Anyway, the Reapers need the harvest to keep fighting this war (for whatever reason, resources, making new Reapers, intelligence, Biotic power, etc.).
Option A wouldn’t really be beyond our comprehension though, but B could be.
Let’s say some fire ants start building their nest in my air conditioner (yes, this happens), and let’s say they’re sentient and intelligent but ignorant of anything beyond ant experience. How would we explain to them why I’m trying to annihilate them or force them to relocate? How many completely foreign concepts would they need to understand in order to even vaguely grasp my motivations? The situation seems pretty analogous to the Reaper-everyone else situation at the start of ME.
To vaguely grasp it? About half a concept.
“Your colony is built inside a very large tool I’m using, and your colony being there is making the tool not work.”
Or even simpler because actual not intelligent ants engage in killing out colonies all the time?
”This is my territory, not yours. Die!”
Except that doesn’t explain why you don’t kill the eggs there, which will hatch to become a new ant colony, or why you leave structures around to make building the colony easier.
I think Reapers as inexplicable horrors was the correct decision in Mass Effect 1 and their position in the story as antagonists irredeemably weakened by the star child’s explanation and by the explanation and details provided by the Leviathan DLC. Should have kept them as mysterious space-gods.
As Lovecraft put it:
[A]ll my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form””and local human passions and conditions and standards””are depicted as native to other worlds and universes.
Leviathan had the right idea,but it was in the wrong place(and of the wrong length).ME2 shouldve been the one that focused on the origin of reapers and finding out their weaknesses.A kill switch by the creators,maybe?This way you could still keep the reapers as mysterious and powerful as ever,yet be able to defeat them with a weapon made by the old(er) gods.
Certainly would be a lot more relevant than the damn Collectors.
“But wait, they’re Protheans! Obviously they’re important!”
…Well no, they’ve been dead for a long time. Unless they’re here to give us useful info on the Reapers and how to deal with them (like, say, BEACONS), they’re useless and irrelevant to the narrative. They ended up a mere “Hey, this is kind-of a neat little twist” rather than “OMG, THIS EXPLAINS SO MUCH I KNOW WHAT WE MUST DO NOW.” Practically scenery.
Heck, Javik was a better direction integration of the Protheans into the story than the Collectors, and he’s not even critical to the overarching plot either!
I like how the Collectors are the Reapers’ attempt to conduct the harvest in secret. It’s a cool idea, and they make a sort of FOIL for Cerberus’ super secret human organization. It’s the execution of these ideas and foray into action-adventure rather than Science fiction that makes it head-scratching.
Also: How the hell did the Collectors expect to complete their harvest? As far as we know, they have maybe one or two ships where they collect people? We only see one, but we are told about another. They don’t seem to have any super advanced technology, they’re not even better than a fully upgraded Normandy. They can’t control the Relays, they don’t seem to be indoctrinating people, and they are generally just weaker than Reapers overall. If the Collectors seemed like a serious threat, one that could test the entire galaxy like Sovereign did, then I think they would have worked much better.
If we had been looking for Prothean tech or answers then the Prothean reveal might have had more significance.
Javik is another missed opportunity. “Hey let’s cast this Prothean space marine to fight with all the other space marines in this action plot.” “Why does he have to be Prothean if he’s just there to shoot people?” “I don’t know he was like really important when he was alive.”
Except he wasnt.He was just your regular run of the mill grunt.Its the fact that he is a living prothean in this cycle that makes him special.And the worst thing about him is that he should be huge.Massive.Even if he were brain dead because of the amount of time he spent frozen,he would still be the most important discovery in forever.But no,they use him just to shoot things and have liara be amazed once or twice.Its insultingly bad to anyone who had interest in the lore of me1.
If I had to come up with a story, I’d say the idea is that the Collectors build up the nascent Reaper to the point that it’s space-mobile and possessed of weapons systems (a Reaper toddler– awww!). Then it and the Collector ship(s) go on to bootstrap the process, taking larger populations as the Reaper gets larger and more capable and able to utilize Indoctrination, etc.
Eventually you have a full-grown superdreadnought which will thenceforth be in charge and (hopefully) able to use its superhuman intelligence to work out a new plan to open the Citadel relay using the Collectors+indoctrinated agents. The fact that no one but Shepard and Cerberus are worried about a repeat at least gives them some room to plan.
Obviously, this is all speculation rather than anything actually included in the story as written.
Well, by that definition, they already explained their motives: They want to wipe out organic life and harvest it to make more of themselves.
I’ve long thought there’s one very simple way to improve the ending (not fix – definitely not fix – but possibly improve) and it wouldn’t even require any rewrites or new art assets or voice acting or anything: you have that final conversation with TIM (which is crap, but probably unavoidable unless you wanna change the rest of the game too), slump down with Anderson while he bleeds out… and then just cue the Destroy ending. With the Extended Cut prologue if you so choose.
No Star Child, no Ending-o-Matic, none of the additional piles of idiocy that come with them. It doesn’t FIX the ending – I agree 100% with Shamus, there are structural problems dating back to ME2 that no amount of tweaking would fix. But at least it wouldn’t have introduced a couple dozen more problems right at the end of the story :P
To me, a sacrifice or unhappy ending always feels forced unless it had sufficient setup and justification before the end. The sacrifice ending in Dragon Age: Origins worked because it was setup from the very beginning of the game. There were hints about it that you see if you replayed the game. A sacrifice ending that is there simply to satisfy the people who want an unhappy ending cannot ever satisfy someone who believes that the ending to the game should and always was leading to a happy ending as to them it will feel forced and artificial.
I also slightly disagree with Shamus about Cthullu ending being about just stemming the tide. While the Reapers were like space Cthullu’s, they were not actually Cthullu’s because they existed entirely within the physical realm and were the creations of people much like ourselves using technology and materials that we also use. So the knowledge from the second game would be a way to defeat them which is then deployed in the third game leading to an ending where Shephard and friends get to live but the actual offscreen losses are incredibly high. Since we actually defeated a Reaper in the first game, the second game should have involved, at least in part, studying the dead Reaper and working with the Council rather than having the Council continue to deny the existence of the Reapers. Since we gained knowledge of the existence of the Reapers and their plan while foiling that very plan and buying time, something that no prior cycle had ever been able to do, we had time to prepare that no other cycle had. This was our greatest advantage, one that we never get to capitalize on in the second game and find ourselves with our britches down in the third game as if the first game never happened. The Galaxy is caught unprepared in the third game to face a threat that we knew about from the midpoint of the first game. The entire point of the Protheans great sacrifice was to give us the chance to prepare before the Reapers came.
To me, the third game should have involved guerilla warfare, sacrificing planets to the Reapers while we slowly whittled down their numbers. Shephard’s role because one of diplomat, convincing leaders to stay the course and devote their military might to the ultimate goal rather than breaking off to independently defend the planets we chose as sacrifices over their objections. We shouldn’t have been taking back Earth, we should have been thanking the people of Earth for their sacrifice and promising that it wouldn’t be in vain.
This sensible approach reminds me of the adversaries in the Orphans trilogy of sf novels by Sean Williams and Shane Dix,* which also featured super-advanced and nigh-unstoppable aliens that were, nonetheless, not quite Space Cthulhu. It wasn’t impossible to take one down… just almost impossible.
(Spoilers follow… possibly inaccurate because it’s been years since I read them.)
In the Orphans trilogy, the Reaper equivalents are the Starfish–gigantic starships (possibly alive) that resemble spinning shuriken. Even though humanity has recently acquired supertechnology from benevolent aliens, including FTL travel and communications, the Starfish are far beyond our level and have been slaughtering their way around the Milky Way for aeons. And they’re much quicker on the job than ME’s Reapers. Basically, when they appear in your planetary system, everyone who doesn’t immediately flee is dead within hours.
Nobody knows why they do this, and much of the plot concerns efforts by the survivors to figure it out. Several explanations are offered by the end of the trilogy, growing increasingly weird and high-concept with varying degrees of narrative satisfaction, but I can’t remember if any of them are confirmed. (I particularly liked the one that says their arrow of time is reversed and they’re actually creating life instead of destroying it.)
So we have terrifying, godlike antagonists who are nonetheless treated in a science-fictional way–people try to figure out what their motivations are and how to stop them.
Also, just like the Reapers, the Starfish aren’t completely invincible. You can fight back if you try hard enough (like killing Sovereign), but in practical terms it’s just not an option (like fighting off a full-scale Reaper invasion as envisaged in the first Mass Effect). There’s a memorable battle sequence in which humans and somewhat more advanced aliens pool their resources in an attempt to stand and fight. The Starfish warp in and duly set about obliterating everyone, but having extensively studied their fighting methods, the plucky underdogs manage to limit their casualties and stay in the game.
I hope you don’t mind if I go into detail here (mainly because it was one of my favourite sequences in the trilogy):
From memory–and again don’t quote me because it’s been a long time–the Starfish are described as launching strange ‘blue spears’ that, in turn, deploy blinking orange lights (antimatter bombs hopping in and out of hyperspace, which make them impossible to block). The humans and their allies stay alive by targeting the blue spears, which can be taken out with sufficient fire. Unfortunately, the Starfish just keep launching more. It’s a bit like shooting down enemy bombers but being unable to land a hit on the carriers.
Finally, the good guys pull off a massed attack on a single Starfish and succeed in getting their own hyperspace bombs inside its hull, blowing it full of holes. It’s crippled but still functioning. Two more Starfish swoop in and carry off their damaged (or possibly injured) comrade. Then the entire Starfish fleet quits the system.
Everybody celebrates. Lowest casualty rate ever recorded in a direct confrontation with the Starfish! Why, almost half of us are still alive!
And then… a new vessel warps in. Never before seen. Far bigger than any Starfish. And it starts launching hundreds of the damn things. Turns out the Starfish themselves are effectively just bombers. This is the equivalent of an aircraft carrier. We managed to sting the pest control guy on the leg during a routine spraying, and now we’ve got his attention. Cue mass panic and evacuation.
It becomes clear that defeating the Starfish, while technically feasible, is simply beyond anyone’s ability. The characters have to figure out some other solution instead. I won’t describe it here, in case you feel like tracking down the books.
Incidentally, the books provide a nice sense of escalation appropriate for a videogame–by the end of the trilogy you see multiple ‘aircraft carriers’, along with much weirder things, and it becomes clear that the Starfish are just components of a much greater whole.
That’s pretty much how I expected ME2 and 3 to go. It’s also why I don’t mind as much as others do that the Reapers are spaceships in a game designed for third-person shooting. After all, hitting the Reapers head on just won’t work. Whatever the solution might be, it will of course involve a small three-person squad doing something clever and RPG-ish. Surely. Right?
*BTW, anyone interested in checking these books out should be warned that the characters are made of finest quality cardboard. Not uncommon in this kind of sf, sadly.)
When talking about TUN you use the phrase ‘hasn’t made a video in a powerful long time’. Is that an autocorrect flop (for ‘aweful’) or a valid phrase I have simply never heard before?
But more importantly: Thank you, Shamus, for a very insightful and entertaining read, and giving (or at least trying to give) the ME-effect some closure :)
(And I am crossing my fingers for your Hugo!)
Powerful as an adjective used in that way is slightly archaic, but totally valid. You’ll usually see it in westerns, but it exists elsewhere.
Using “powerful” essentially as a synonym for “very” is a pretty standard Americanism, heard more often in the South but not really common anywhere; it was more common a long time ago.
The Simpson’s episode spoofing Huckleberry Finn had Tom and Huck describe Derringer bullets as “powerful weak.” The only youtube clip I can find of it is, as Simpsons tends to be, in Spanish, which sort of defeats the purpose of citing it as an example.
Frinkiac.com to the rescue.
As the others have said, it’s not in common usage – but it is exactly the kind of thing MrBTongue might say himself! (He probably has done, in fact, although I don’t have a specific reference.)
He did use it, in the Shandification video iirc (could be another, though). “He’s been dead a powerful long time…” or so.
Huh. There is no reference so obscure that it can’t be solved with a few minutes of crowdsourcing.
I was indeed quoting him with that line. Or re-using the archaic phrase. It’s one of my favorite lines of his.
Gotcha, thanks everyone for educating me :)
Well yeah. Didn’t you know the internet is our hivemind? The only things separating our species from the zerg is that we don’t have badass DNA assimilation powers, and we created our OWN intelligence unifying network.
I’m almost sad that it’s over. Thanks so much Shamus, I’m going to miss reading these!
So like, not to hopefully darken the tone, but I had a near-fatal heart attack just after Part 21: Geth of Honor, and as I lay recuperating, and counting my many blessings, one of the items on the list was that I’d make it to today, and see the end of this brilliant series.
(It wasn’t Geth of Honor that caused it, I should stress! ;D Just locating it chronologically, back in November.)
Thanks for reading? Thanks for writing! Right, I think I need to go somewhere and have a moment…
Welp, everyone else can pack it in. “I had a heart attack and I willed myself alive just so I could read the rest of the series” is pretty much the zenith of praise, ever.
Like it! Not sure if my will alone can take all the interim credit – I did get a boatload of help from awesome folks! – but there’s also much truth to what you say. (It might not be the regular truthy kind of truth? – but is perhaps all the truer for that.)
I was expecting these last few chapters to do a much more exhaustive dissection of exactly why everything Starchild says is stupid. I suppose you’re right that all the details-oriented complaints about the ending have already been made a thousand times. It’s not necessary then, to make the complaints here, but it makes for a strange departure from the detail-oriented complaining of the last several dozen chapters.
I tend to agree with this, but what I find amusing is we still do not know if there’s an upper limit to how much people are prepared to discuss Mass Effect.
We got Andromeda, so the mass effect discussions will never end! NEVER! Hahahahahaha
And Shamus hasn’t even discussed most of the DLC, the Extended Cut, or the books/comics!
I was hoping we’d get to see at least something on Citadel, because it’s such a shift back towards the things that make the series good that it feels almost like a return to form. Or at least, a realization of what worked and what didn’t throughout the games.
It’s by no means perfect, but that DLC is by far my favorite.
Citadel is very fun, but I have a lot of problems with it. It feels like “The Apology” DLC.
Sorry I’m late here but I agree with you, apology cake. I also have found a fair number of jokes from the Citadel DLC (OK, just two so far) in the main game tlk file. It appears there was some intent to make Mass Effect 3 a little more light-hearted at points but it didn’t make it into the main game.
Yeah, a lot of the DLC is dispensible, and I can certainly understand taking the position that the games should stand on their own. (And IIRC Shamus had practical difficulties buying it due to Bioware’s unnecessarily complicated credit system.) But several of them are good adventures on their own (e.g., 2’s Lair of the Shadow Broker and Citadel itself), and Leviathan and to a lesser extent From Ashes are for better or worse lore-important. And Citadel in particular is just fun.
Though it’s possible it wouldn’t be for Shamus, given what a slog he’s found the entire series post-ME1. The callbacks I found entertaining (because I liked what they were calling back to, or at least was amused by it in retrospect) might instead just be revisiting stuff he didn’t think much of the first time.
In any case, while it would have been interesting to see what Shamus had to say, but given the massive effort involved in going over the main game, I can certainly understand being thoroughly done with it at this point.
I would think Shamus has to be tired with this at this point.
But I agree, I think the real reason he glossed over it was as he said, why go over this again as so many have properly. In Mass Effct, things fell apart waaaaay before the ending and his synapses of why people like or don’t like stories and that overarching stuff is really good. I’ll be referencing that stuff often.
Best line to me is below. Granted, it needs context or people won’t get it. But in the context of post 50 I love this.
“The argument isn't so much, ‘I want a happy ending’ but ‘If you can't give me anything else, at least you could give me a happy ending.'”
Totally agree! “How very Shamus,” I thought, as I read that line.
I’d say that line works in a lot of different contexts.
I agree with you but man…in the context of Mass Effect though, ugh. The haters of those who did not like the plot; yikes!
One thing that stops people from realizing how long ago Mass Effect fell apart was that it was good enough at distractions and giving out explanation IOUs that most of the audience was willing to continue w/o thinking too much. Then the end arrives and is so bad that you forget all the little things that went wrong and ask “how did this happen?”
I had a lot of bones to pick with ME3 when I played it the one time and I forgot almost all of them because the ending was that bad.
The line about exposition IOUs is great. I think it’s a good summary of many of the problems that I had.
There is the 4th option for the ending. You use your pistol to shoot the star child in his stupid star child face. This then dooms everything, the cycle continues, you get a cutscene saying some other aliens a million years later worked it all out. So canonically the worst possible ending and the one I was content with because I got to shoot him right in his face.
I love that you are relatively satisfied with that choice given the choices. I can understand where you’re coming from. :)
It’s been a while but I think I recall that fourth ending happening if you fired your gun at all while in the Star Child’s vicinity. Kid just doesn’t like guns for some reason.
It was a very Obsidian-like thing to do. Like saying no to the guy who has the remote for the explosive collar around your neck. As Spoiler Warning showed, Obsidian will let you do that and allow the consequences to play out (even better, you can shoot anybody in Honest Hearts at any time. If you shoot the good guys, the rest of the DLC is just shooting people till you get out of the canyon.)
That ending wasn’t originally available. It was part of the ‘oops, we screwed up the endings, here’s an extended ending DLC you can all have for free’ response by Bioware/EA to the controversy over what was originally there.
The game without that only has the red, green, and blue endings.
(As an aside, I’d also argue that it’s the best possible ending, because it doesn’t result in you being complicit in StarChild’s plans/designs, and ‘due to knowledge your team provided to the next cycle,’ they were able to beat the Reapers without being forced into a solution that required cooperating with the Reaper’s StarChild God.)
I would bet money that it was added precisely because Mr Btongue used shooting the Catalyst as a recurring motif in his videos. Which didn’t stop me from almost falling out of my chair when I tripped it at 2AM during my first playthrough of the Extended Cut. (Inspired to do it before choosing an ending by those selfsame videos.)
Personally, I cannot help but feel that that ending is really the worst. More than anything, it exhibits that Bioware, or at least the writer behind it, simply didn’t understood any of the more analytical criticism of ending, or at least not on anything more than a rudimentary, surface-level basis. Beside the ending feeling quite a bit like a spiteful and petty GM declaring “Rejecting my beautiful, artistic writing will you? Well, fuck you! Rocks fall, everyone dies!“, it actually doesn’t allow for any actual rejection of the Catalyst’s “logic”.
Like all the other endings, it starts from the assumption that the player, or at least Shepard, takes what Catalyst tells you about the nature of synthetics and organics as pure gospel. When rejection is chosen, Shepard gives what attempts to be a “profound” and “emotional” speech about freedom of choice, but it does at no point address the huge holes in the Catalyst’s “solution” and worldview. The player is ultimately still not allowed to question the idea that everything hinges on this supposedly inevitable conflict between synthetics and organics. The end result is that player’s only recourse for protest against the writer’s flagrant railroading is essentially being reduced to put forward an ineffective straw man argument for the writer self-insert (the Catalyst) to knock down.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think it’s a *good* ending (and by ‘good’ I don’t mean ‘happy’), just that it’s the best of what’s available.
I too thought it was included only spitefully, and is essentially, as you say, a ‘rocks fall, everybody dies’ conclusion. It’s just that I think the other three endings are worse, largely because they rely on you accepting the Star Child’s arguments, when every point he makes in support of that argument is inconsistent, both internally (‘my army of robot reapers destroys organic life to prevent organic life from being destroyed by robots’) and externally/thematically (Geth/Quarians, EDI, etc).
And none of that is why I went for that ending – I just hated the dream sequences and I didn’t care about the kid. I could say that the other options didn’t seem any better but I’d be lying, I just really hated chasing that stupid kid so when the game gave me the opportunity to kill him I went for it. The fact that it turned out to be a valid end state for the game was a bonus.
Ah, but isn’t it still the only way the player can demonstrate true freedom?
I’ll leave this thing some genius made nearly a decade ago as a comparison.
Honestly, I think that the idea of a large, AAA, multi-work, choice-driven (sort of) epic was a poor idea right from the get go. Your choices were always doomed to be either meaningless or superficial because of the costs of modern content creation and the changing make-up and culture of a company over 5 years can (and did) lead to pretty big shifts in tone and focus betweent the games.
Given how their strength has historically been with characters, I never really understood why Bioware was so insistent on doing these big, sprawling, save-the-world/galaxy stories instead of something a lot more focused and character-driven. It seems like it would be a lot cheaper and easier to have choices that still feel meaningful if they were all about affecting the personalities and relationships of your companions rather than dictating the structure of galactic politics.
CDProjekt Red managed to do it with The Witcher series.
The first game came out in 2007, just a month before Mass Effect. Over the years, both companies have grown massively, but one managed to stick to its core beliefs and the other seems to be spiraling out of control.
The Witcher 2 had a year longer to develop, and TW3 had 2 years longer.
TW3 won game of the year from just about everyone, and ME3 earned EA worst company on earth.
Well…not exactly. CD Projekt has been able to make choices meaningful with each individual Witcher game, but as a series it really hasn’t really been able to do so. Imports always suck, and the Witcher games are no exception. Fortunately, that series has never been about a single plot tying all three games together; the Wild Hunt, while a thematic throughline, is more of background foreshadowing in the first two games. For Mass Effect, the trilogy was always about the Reapers and How to Stop Them, so having the games needed much more thematic and plot cohesion from one game to the next. I can begrudgingly forgive how The Witcher ignores my choices from before; for Mass Effect, my choices are kinda the point of the game.
I was referring more to the developer itself, rather than the games. Yes, The Witcher series is not very consistent except for its main cast of characters, but the company itself didn’t betray their core values along the path of success, and they didn’t try to bite off more than they could chew. CDProjekt gives their games enough time to develop. For Bioware, there’s plenty of evidence of internal chaos when they bleed writers, creative directors, and project leads between major installments.
It’s important to keep in mind that The Old Republic was in development during ME2 and maybe 3, and that a lot of classic Bioware talent got shunted to it over time.
Thankfully, it was worth it and TOR is a masterpiece of modern storytelling.
Because the one time they tried to make a character-driven story (Dragon Age 2), it was very poorly received. Maybe not for the right reasons, but the backlash made BioWare kind of gun-shy, so DA:I feels a lot like they were playing it safe.
But even if the choices you made ended up being relatively superficial, most people playing games are willing to accept that if the ride is relatively fun. We’re not at the point yet where we have the sophistication to handle complex branching narratives and huge amounts of choice, but Mass Effect could at least have been like an effective JRPG. That would have been the minimum to aim for and the latter two games failed at that.
This has been a great series. Well done Shamus.
This is what I didn’t like about the Extended Ending DLC. It was easier to glue on the fanfic needed to get through this ending before they filled in the blanks and confirmed one of the dumber interpretations of an already dumb ending.
Especially telling was when they declared that the Mass Relays were back on line quickly which makes no sense given what we originally saw combined with the fact that nobody really knows how to build them. They clearly retconned that because they hadn’t given any thought to what would happen if a bunch of species were stuck in the same solar system.
Yeah, it’s not like the Indoctrination Theory filled all the holes, and it’s not that the Extended Cut completely rules out the IT, but it was at least a somewhat clever response (it actually fit with one of the themes instead of betraying it! and there’s tons of foreshadowing if you look for it!) to something so incredibly stupid on the surface. It’s not a great video-game ending because there’s still no player agency, but it could have been damn clever in a meta-fiction kind of way (the audience is indoctrinated to think this actually the ending, but they’re just playing a fictional game where the fictional protagonist is slowly going insane and taking the audience down with him). The extended cut is basically the DM stopping the game to clarify a point she made two minutes ago when the players went off the rails.
For what it’s worth, I find the Indoctrination Theory fascinating. It has its criticisms but for me it makes a lot of powerful arguments. There’s so much been written on the subject (and I’ve read most of it), that all the things we see (continuity issues, colour coding of red and blue giving reverse paragon/renegade options, and all kinds of other things), that it can’t all be coincidental or simply missed during writing.
For me, it explains so much and, maybe I’m giving Bioware more credit than their due, but the idea of indoctrinating Shepard through the player is an amazing one, whether they intended it or not.
Yeah, I really wished Bioware had doubled down on the indoctrination thing toward the end. It’s the easiest in-universe cop out for them, and people spend a ridiculous amount of time looking for evidence and filling in holes.
There’s this ME video series called “Choose Wisely” that gets pretty deep in the “what if this wasn’t a game and we analyzed this story as if there were zero mistakes?” It’s fascinating how, once you change your perspective, new ideas crop up all over the place.
If you have a few hours free, check out the whole series, it’s a fun rabbit hole to explore, even if their final conclusion is kind of silly.
The reason all that stuff is there and it feels like it can’t be coincidental is that it isn’t a coincidence. From the developer commentary Final Hours:
They scrapped some kind of Indoctrination ending very late in the process, and must not have had time to pull out all the foreshadowing associated with it.
Final Hours also ended up saying something that proved for the final game, Indoctrination Theory is definitely not true, but I can’t remember the quote.
My biggest issue, with the Indoctrination theory is even with all I’ve read there’s still no concrete support for it, it’s all very circumstantial and if it was the intended ending the writers would have been more explicit with it.
It’s seems to similar legitimacy to the “Tommy Westphall” universe theory that declares that a large number of fictional TV shows actually exist within the mind of an autistic boy from the series St. Elsewhere. And therefore aren’t “real,” even within their own respective fictional universes. Because St. Elsewhere ended with a reveal that implied the entire TV series of St. Elsewhere existed only in that boy’s imagination, and as such various cross-overs/references have then applied the same logic to about 419 other shows.
It feels more an explanation in search of supporting evidence than the other way around.
The Tommy Westphall thing is more a joke than a serious interpretation, I’ve always heard it in the context of “Hey, have you heard this wacky, silly thing?” and not “I’m about to blow your mind.”
I think Indoctrination Theory is largely a product of the failures of the ending: the canonical series is nonsense, so people take to Indoctrination theory as a way to bring order and logic into the world. The reason they gravitate to Indoctrination Theory in particular instead of a dozen different fan theories is that IT has significant support within the canon: the remnants of a scrapped Indoctrination plot that give IT a scaffold to build upon.
The Tommy Westphall theory was proposed (by the late, great comics creator Dwayne McDuffie) as a satire to explain why tight inter-title continuity in comics is a bad, limiting idea, illustrating how crazy it would be if TV worked the same way.
Of course, now that superheroes with crossovers are becoming big on TV, calls for that sort of continuity (why doesn’t Flash help out with the Arrow finale? why does Superman keep ignoring the crises on Supergirl? don’t the Avengers notice all the explosions Daredevil is getting involved in a few blocks from their headquarters?) are getting stronger there. I don’t know if McDuffie would be amused or appalled.
Not sure about McDuffie, but I’m amused. I keep telling my friends, you guys, this sort of thing happens in comics literally all the time. You’ll get used to it eventually.
I personally despise the Indoctrination Theory because it does not fit with how Indoctrination seems to work in addition to “All Just A Dream” generally being unsatisfying. From what we’ve seen, it appears that people who are Indoctrinated don’t actually have elaborate hallucinations, just vague imagery at the corner of their vision and maddening, ceaseless whispering. Saren did not show any sign of being confused about what was physically happening, and neither did Benezia. TIM’s plan made no sense in that it was not clear how he got from messing with Indoctrination (which affects organics and is projected by Reapers but does not seem to influence the Reapers themselves) and controlling Husks to full control of the Reapers, but he was actually messing with Indoctrination and controlling Husks. The Hanar you confront in Kasumi’s quest has a nonsense conclusion, but refers to facts that are actually true. As Benezia put it “the longer you remain aboard, the more Saren’s (actually Sovereign’s) will seems correct.” It disrupts decision-making much more than perception.
To work with how Indoctrination was presented everywhere else, it would make your dialog wheel options perpetually more nonsensical, make the labels less and less informative, shed alternate options, and bar making good decisions behind increasingly high Paragade scores, and by the very end your dialogue wheel would have two incredibly difficult to activate Paragade options to defy the Reapers and a single other option labeled “Protect the Galaxy” where taking it has Shepard agree to the Reaper’s plan.
Huh, maybe they really did do it and started from the beginning of ME2.
We don’t know what other points of view experience while being indoctrinated, only what they describe to the audience / other characters. We know for sure they describe “incessant whispering (Virmire tests), growling that rattles your skull (Eden Prime + Caveman vision), a change in perspective or desires – a willing slave (Benezia), complete devotion to an idea or cause (Saren), Oily Shadows (Rachni Queen), headaches, shared memories, and hallucinations (Derelict Reaper guys)”. Also, we don’t know how indoctrination could be conveyed in the context of a videogame, what it would look like or feel like, except what is described by the characters or the game’s codex. We also know that slow indoctrination is different than the fast version: slowly indoctrinating a subject changes their perspective but leaves them mostly functional (Saren), while quickly indoctrinating someone makes them easy to manipulate but functionally a zombie (husks, huskified Saren, the salarians in captivity, the guys on the derelict Reaper, etc).
Basically, IT claims that the entire third (or maybe second AND third) games are a slow decent into madness, Shepard being indoctrinated SLOWLY. The increasing lack of dialogue choices, the weird moments where characters look directly at the camera (breaking the 4th wall), the dreams, the rest of the Normandy’s crew being suddenly concerned for Shepard’s mental state, the entire pile of trash that is the Arrival DLC, etc. It just all culminates in the end, where things make less and less sense, and the final “conversation” with the Star Child is actually the Reaper’s control manifest in Shepard’s mind, where the choices are a red herring, and the only choice is to Destroy the reapers (one that allows Shepard to live), symbolizing Shepard’s ability to see through the trick.
The theory would hold a lot more water if it was implied more throughout the games, maybe characters reference Indoctrination more, or have more conversations with Shepard about her mental state. EDI would actually be the perfect person to talk to about it, seeing as she’s a computer intelligence and could be “taken over” by a sufficiently sophisticated virus. I think there’s ONE conversation with Joker in ME2 about it, but that’s it.
My personal problem with the indoctrination theory is that there is a certain but vocal group of rabid Bioware fanboys who have latched onto it, declared it gospel and defend the game on the grounds of basically every single problem being explained by progressive indoctrination… and if you try to argue that it’s at best something that was planned but got cut and we should discuss the merits (or lack thereof) of the game based on what we actually got well that just means you’re too dumb to catch on the subtlety and genius of Bioware’s storytelling.
The asari had the technology to build more relays. they just chose not to. That they could was a government secret because they couldn’t figure a way to profit from it, or they wanted to keep the existing relays unique and mysterious.
My impression is more that the asari had the technology to make the attempt, and that Aethyta was pushing the equivalent of the Manhattan Project in 1940 or the Apollo Program in 1960: costly, probably eventually doable (especially now that they know about the Conduit), but something that requires R&D and might not be a slam dunk. (As witness the fate of several other countries’ nuclear programs in the 1940s, or the Soviet manned moon landing program in the 1960s.)
(And to be fair to the asari, not wanting to devote a hundred billion dollars to build a Wright Flyer when there are 787 Dreamliners free for the use is at least not an incomprehensible position for a government to take.)
Whether their level of knowledge (plus plausible gains from looking at the wreckage) is sufficient to patch existing relays back together is a storyteller call. It could be the equivalent of kitbashing three broken PCs into one by sticking the power supply from one, the motherboard from another, and the video card from a third into a case that wasn’t dented too badly. Or it could be like trying to repair a burned out Core i7 CPU at a time when Shockley et al. have just figured out how to build a transistor.
This is the bones of storytelling. Action and reaction, promise and payoff. People got on twitter and said they wanted “all their choices to matter!” or “A happy ending!” when in reality they wanted PAYOFF to the promises the story was making. The easiest way to screw this up is to lack internal consistency in your setting, characters, or plot. Mass Effect 3 betrays the audience on all counts at the end (it did it all throughout the game, but it’s just incredibly obvious at the very end when EVERYTHING fails).
You can actually tell a pretty okay story by setting up some Big Problem and have the protagonist engage the Big Problem somewhat rationally, while the Big Problem reacts in turn, and we have this cycle of action + reaction until there’s nowhere left to go, so the story ends. This is basically how most Dan Brown books are told, and while I don’t think his books are very good, they at least fulfill this basic tenant of not betraying the audience. They fulfill the promises set up in the story’s premise, sub-plots come to a conclusion, mysteries are revealed, and the good guy wins by the skin of his teeth…. you know, a story. ME3 is like an attempt at metafiction while stopping half way through and going “wait, no, just kidding, we’re totally serious” so you have no idea what to believe except… it’s bad. Just really really bad. It’s worse than almost good, it’s almost good sometimes while seeming to intentionally screw itself up. It’s just… mind boggling how bad they screwed this up.
Congratulations on finishing this series, Shamus, and congrats on the Hugo nomination. I found this sight (oops, meant ‘site’ – i need coffee) due to this series, and you’ve earned yourself a fan.
What a long, strange trip it’s been.
Thank you for doing this, Shamus.
Thanks Shamus! This column has been an enjoyable part of my weekly reading since its inception and I commend you for your dedication in seeing it through. This kind of long-form analysis and in-depth criticism is tremendously valuable. I can’t wait to see what’s coming up next!
“Pick a lead writer and stick with them.”
I think they can follow this advice because they did it with Dragon Age
DA2 took weird and sometimes wrong-headed turns, but I’m inclined to think most of those were from the other devs wanting to experiment with new tech or concepts and Gaider trying to make those work narratively, than from Gaider himself. Even then, it’s amazing how the trilogy manages to hold together despite those detours. It helps that the games are stand-alone but connected episodes instead of ostensibly a single three-part saga, of course.
David Gaider wrote the framework for the Dragon Age series in a pretty detailed way even before the game was pitched as a project to Bioware. So there’s a timeline, a history of events that happened, and the games basically are all about filling in the details.
Between that and the various Dragon Age wikis and the internal story bible, the Dragon Age games have been very consistent with David Gaider at the helm.
Now that David has left, I’m anticipating that Bioware has one, mayyyybe two more good Dragon Age games left in them before it goes off the rails.
Hell, it’s already started to go off the rails; Dragon Age Inquisitor is more traditional high fantasy than the first two games, which were more fantasy horror or low fantasy. And that was WITH Gaider at the helm.
No!Please no!I beg of you all,dont do that!That exact reasoning is precisely why this has happened.I know many think that bioware made nothing but gems up until they got bought by ea,but thats not true.This is not the first time they botched a story this hard.And if people just kept reminding them “Remember neverwinter nights?Remember how you screwed that one because you focused on building your aurora instead of writing a good story?Remember that clunker?” this wouldnt have been as shitty as it was.
Please,PLEASE,stop forgetting the bad!Because as long as we keep forgetting the bad things,they are bound to be repeated.
Aw come on! :< Sure, the main campaign of NWN 1 was nothing too impressive, but nothing spectacularly bad either. And HotU, and later on, Mask of the betrayer went far ahead and further than the simple story the main campaign had. *And* it allowed some user-made modules to be among the best I've ever played.
Ok, I might just be a little fanboish about it. I wouldn't worry about Bioware's sales hurting though, there's always people with enough disposable money making questionable gaming purchases, myself included occasionally.
MotB wasn’t Bioware, it was just Obsidian licensing their engine (all of NWN 2 was).
The main nwn campaign was spectacularly boring.The two expansions were good,but that doesnt change the fact that the vanilla was utter crap.I praise the expansions every time I get the chance,but I wont forget the original simply because they did something good after it.I am capable of doing both.
But the Aurora toolset was pretty sweet. I think as a product, NWN was well worth it, just not for the reasons they printed on the back of the box.
And thank you for writing this. I’ve enjoyed it immensely, both as a bit of a brain-teaser and in the general sense that it panders to my confirmation bias about the latter two Mass Effect games.
One thing to ponder regarding EA/Bioware’s management of writers: Dragon Age, their other current big franchise, had the same lead writer (David Gaider) from Awakening through Inquisition. I don’t know about Origins, but Awakening had a somewhat different feel from Origins, so I suspect that Gaider took over the reigns there. Sidestepping any discussion of whether or not Dragon Age is good, I do think that the games have been fairly consistent in tone and plotting. They also included DLC that led into future games, but unlike Mass Effect didn’t get hamstrung by it. Gaider also wrote at least one of the tie-in novels and incorporated a character from that novel (Cole) into Inquisition. Gaider recently left the company and we don’t know what the future of the franchise looks like, but Dragon Age seems to have been a fairly well-managed series, all things considered.
Why did it escape Mass Effect’s fate? Was EA simply disinterested in it? Was Mass Effect the victim of circumstance and not mismanagement? I think it’s worth pondering.
I think, if anything, Dragon Age suffered most when it tried to be too much like Mass Effect. Now, with Andromeda, it looks like Bioware wants to apply the Inquisition methodology to the ME universe and see what happens. I hope it’s good, but I’m not holding my breath.
DA2 has a voiced, named, human protagonist that collects merry companions who all have issues that
ShepardHawke must resolve which ties into the game’s main plot in some fashion.
Origins is great, but I don’t think it moved quite enough units to justify how incredibly open-ended the ending is, and while it’s a prime example of promises and payoffs done well, it’s REALLY hard to create follow up games that account for every possible conclusion. I think Bioware realized that when they wanted to make it a franchise, so they veered off and stumbled a bit, and while I don’t think Dragon Age’s setting or plot is quite as interesting as Mass Effect’s could be (I just love good sci-fi), it ended up remarkably competent.
See, I think DA2–the most Mass Effect entry–is really underrated. It seemed to be compromised by the rushed development time, but it was doing something rather different with its plot and dialogue mechanics than ME, even though there were a lot of structural similarities. If ME2 was an instance of a writer who didn’t really understand what made ME good or how to work with those systems to great effect, DA2 is an instance of a writer who had a clear vision of how to turn ME’s mechanics towards his own ends.
I’m willing to grant that DA2 is rated extremely low, which is technically underrated for something that deserves to be rated only fairly low. The rushed development really shows in gameplay, but the narrative has problems too. It largely throws out Mass Effect’s whole Choice and Consequence schtick with a very linear plot that hinges on some moments of forced player stupidity, it makes pointless retcons (Qunari have horns now!), and it can’t be bothered to respect choices you made in a previous game (Leliana is back, having apparently gotten over being decapitated).
Huh, you’re right, it is very Mass Effect. Mass Effect 2 anyway.
The qunari by all accounts were always intended to have horns, but this didn’t work with Origins’ engine, specifically doors (Shale had a similar problem and had to be redesigned). This isn’t really a retcon so much as a strange by-product of how 3D video games work. It’s nothing on par with the clashes between ME and ME2.
As for the characters, you’re right, it didn’t do a great job acknowledging all possible permutations, but to be fair lots of RPGs are iffy about this. Didn’t the beginning of Baldur’s Gate 2 completely ignore your BG1 party composition?
We could argue all day about the merits of DA2’s approach to storytelling and whether the writers or the development conditions are to blame for the game’s (very real) flaws, but I still think that it’s decidedly more consistent going into DA2 from Origins and from DA2 into Inquisition than going into ME2 from ME and from ME2 into ME3, and Inquisition was obviously working to correct DA2’s flaws and try new things rather than doubling down on what didn’t work.
I consider DA2 a minor miracle, in that there are still compelling stories and characters to be found in it, even though the team had (IIRC) 18 months to put it together while also introducing about half a dozen experimental new gameplay and story concepts. Who knows how much better it could have been with another 6-12 months of polish?
That doesn’t magically turn it into a great game, of course. It just makes me regret we never got the game it promised. It could have really shaken up the genre, given us a more mature kind of fantasy RPG that didn’t have to be a Chosen One power-fantasy about stopping the Dark Lord (the next Morrowind, maybe? Dare we dream?). But its failure led BioWare to return to safer ideas, for the most part.
I genuinely think that it has the best party of any Bioware game I’ve played. The plot doesn’t totally hold up–there’s a little too much ludonarrative dissonance regarding magic–but I enjoyed every minute with those characters, and I really enjoyed having control over Hawke’s personality. It wasn’t just a morality meter, it actually made the PC into a real character in the narrative, a feat that they weren’t able to replicate in Inquisition. Actually, Geralt in The Witcher games is probably the closest analogue, but not even CD Projekt has been so ambitious as to have player choices affect randomized banter.
And it’s a functional game! I don’t know that I ever encountered a bug–certainly nothing showstopping–and while the recycled maps, unchanging city, and waves of enemies were disappointing, it had a more distinctive art style, multiple acts, many quests with multiple outcomes, a revised combat system that was in many ways an improvement on its predecessor, a revised party relationship system, and multiple romances. People dislike it, but that team made in 18 months a more complete title than many developers put out in double that time. You’re right: for as much as I enjoyed DA2, the version where they had more time to polish things up would probably have blown me away.
Additionally: another mistake was being called “Dragon Age 2” — if they had called it something else, like “Dragon Age: Kirkwall” or whatever, people might have dismissed it more than hated it. “Oh yeah, DAK is a good story with some silly mechanics, pick it up if you’re a DA fan” would’ve been the review narrative, but people TRASHED the game because they expected a sequel to DA:O.
Agree 100%! It should have been called Dragon Age: Champion, since Hawke is the Champion of Kirkwall.
Gaider was the lead writer for Dragon Age since the early 2000s.
There’s nothing more I can add to this that I haven’t said in earlier entries, although I will say that there is actually a good reason why EDI and the Geth are destroyed in the Destroy ending. It’s because both of them utilize Reaper code. EDI was created by Cerberus from an AI found on Luna Base, but upgraded with Reaper code. Meanwhile, the Geth, if they survive to the ending, do so by incorporating Legion’s Reaper code upgrades to transform into fully-fledged AI. Ironically, this means that the Geth were architects of their own demise. If they had stuck to their original goal of finding their own path to full consciousness, without any help from other races or AIs, they would have been perfectly fine.
I have.Specifically,this guy.Specifically for this quote:
Liars like him and Peter Molyneux deserve nothing but contempt for such blatant deception.
I mean… be reasonable though. Was that specific marketing release basically a lie and was the product worse for it? Sure, that’s true. Do you really want to get into the GG insanity of “holding him in contempt” though? You don’t even KNOW the guy. Maybe he was reading a prepared statement or made the statement at a time when it was more justifiable. Just like… don’t buy further things where he is the Team Lead, if you feel like he’s likely to continue with that pattern of behavior.
“Sure he lied, causing a negative impact, but be reasonable though. Don’t have any contempt for him though, don’t actually complain.”
That doesn’t sound like being reasonable. Voting with our wallets is only half the process, if you don’t express your complaint, tell them why you’re not buying their product any more (e.g.: they’re lying liars who lie), then they’re not going to change.
There’s a difference between complaining/criticizing and having contempt/hating a person, though.
Sure, one can speak multitudes about how the guy may have screwed up, both in story and promises. But that’s still not a good reason to hate him as a person, in my opinion. Just… a good reason to avoid his work in the future (and perhaps convince people not to make the same mistakes).
Screwing up is human,I dont resent people for that.Being deliberately deceitful,that I despise.
As I see it, Molyneux (and Hudson) were talking about their intentions. What they WANT to do, what they are aiming for.
I’m a developer. I know about the rift between what people are dreaming for and what actually happens. I find it hard to call it deception when I believe they believe it. I’m sure Hudson was sure they’d have a decent branching ending to the series, just like I’m sure Molyneux was utterly convinced that you would be able to plant a tree in Fable and have it grow in real time, or whatever the heck he said he was going to do.
So no, they didn’t deceive you. They failed at what they were trying to do, because they were ambitious, and I *want* developers to be ambitious because on rare occasion they succeed, and when they do it’s amazing. (And even the failures are more interesting than the unambitious paint-by-numbers AAA games that are churned out.)
Thing is, he wasn’t. For ages, we just didn’t know, but recently, we got that Lionhead retrospective article that did a ton of investigation, and it painted a picture of Molyneux as a calculating, manipulative liar.
It’s people like you, saying “I’m sure he’s just a naive optimist who means well” that let him get away with lying for so long.
To get pedantic, they did deceive you because while lying requires intent, “they deceived you” just means “They caused you to become deceived” i.e.: made you believe a thing that wasn’t true. That definitely happened, whether they intended it or not.
Furthermore, we don’t know that they’re liars, but we also don’t know that they’re not, so going around saying that they’re not is an assumption just as irresponsible as saying that they are.
You’re right, I should have started by saying something like “As I see it,” to clarify that it was my viewpoint and not uncontroversial fact.
Also, I didn’t believe a word Moly ever said. I was sure he was a naive optimist, I may well have been wrong, but I wasn’t stupid enough to believe anything a naive idiot said, any more than I’d believe a lying salesperson, any more than I believe what a kickstarter campaign says, any more than I believe any press release ever. There isn’t actually a practical difference between thinking someone has intentions greater than they can grasp, and thinking someone is lying about what he can do, that I can see.
I mean, other than on whether you should loan them $200, I guess.
An optimistic developer will, through sheer chance, eventually achieve some of the goals they set. A liar has no incentive to do so, they’ll never improve. I know people who were following Molyneux all the way up to Godus where they hoped that working on a smaller project would force him to reign in the scope of his wild estimates, and we can see how that turned out. If Molyneux was an optimist, that would still arguably be a foolish gamble, but gamble at least implies a chance. “Say whatever it takes to sell it” Molyneux was never going to deliver.
[quote]An optimistic developer will, through sheer chance, eventually achieve some of the goals they set.[/quote]
Based on his product, then, Moly was an optimistic developer, at least at some point, although he may have shifted more towards liar along the way. The early stories from the link certainly paint him that way.
Reading this article gives no such impression. Immediately after that quote, they quote Charlton Edwards as saying, “He’d mention how great the game was, and how proud he was of everybody, and he’d just break down. He was really into it. That’s why I’m a bit of a Molyneux supporter. He wasn’t bullshitting. That’s inspiring sometimes, because you get behind him and end up rooting for him.” The article itself takes the stand, “There is genius there, though. In among the crazy, unworkable ideas would be a gem: the dog in Fable, which many on the team thought silly, is perhaps the best example of Peter’s design sensibility at its best.”
When you promise something that turns out to be beyond your capabilities,you then say “Hey,I know I promised X,but it turns out that wasnt feasible.So Im sorry,but X wont be in my product”.And you say it before the product hits the shelves(or you allow for refunds).Thats the proper way to do it.
But if you go on to not only not admit your mistake,but defend it with “artistic vision”,thats outright deception.
From the given link, I saw an email of him saying exactly that? (Granted it had made up numbers in it, and it was silly because the promise was fairly silly in the first place, but still. He did that.)
Nope.His apology(if it can be called that)came after the whole uproar about the ending,and with no refunds.
Ah, so it was. Although I don’t know why you mentioned “ending” when I was talking about “trees”.
I also don’t know why you think that “man who knows the truth but doesn’t say so” is so much worse than “cloud coocoolander who couldn’t identify which world he lives in”. I am at no point advocating that we believe a single word that comes out of his mouth. As far as I’m concerned you have a higher estimation of him than I do.
In Moleneux’s case, I feel like he’s not an outright liar so much as… ‘delusional?’ That sounds meaner than I mean it to. He doesn’t have realistic expectations, like he either doesn’t understand the limitations of a dev team or he falls for his own hype. The things he says are what he wishes to be true. Which is also a valid thing to criticize, and doesn’t change the fact that he consistently delivers less than he promises.
He’s a reverse of Scotty from Star Trek, in that regard: He swears he has enough time, but then the warp core is breached.
So obviously he should go into politics.
He really is a liar, or at least he was for the last decade. We all want to believe he’s just a naive optimist, because that’s the charitable interpretation, and that’s the persona he presents, but the Lionhead article I linked above has a pretty damning quote:
There was also some stuff surrounding the Godus kickstarter (that I’m too lazy to dig up now) where he more or less admitted to saying whatever it takes to get funded.
Yes, Casey Hudson was not telling the whole truth there. It was an “ABC” ending, there were six distinct ending sequences that depended on war assets and what choice was made, and all of those endings were variations on three choices.
He tried to mealy-mouth it later by saying ‘the whole game is the ending’ by which he means the choice at Rannoch, the choice at Tuchanka, and which of the missions you did all lead to a slightly different world-state, only… no. No that’s not what players saw; the ending is the ending sequence and there are only six of those. Three for destroy, two for control, and one for Synthesis.
That said, I’m angry at him for being deceptive, but I’m not carrying any dislike for him. He was the one who pushed for and produced Mass Effect in the first place. Without him, we wouldn’t have Mass Effect.
Is it just me or that Big Ben is kida missing the Palace of Westminister?
Well if you want to be pedantic, the Elizabeth Tower might be missing the Palace of Westminster, but we have no way of knowing whether Big Ben is there or not. (Big Ben is the bell, the Elizabeth Tower is the clock tower containing Big Ben)
I’ve never posted here before but I thought I’d make an exception as it’s the final instalment. I’ve read every single episode over the past couple of months and had a great time catching up and reminiscing with the Mass Effect 2 stuff and looking forward to the weekly updates on ME3 once I had caught up.
So yeah, I just wanted to check in and give my thanks to Shamus for keeping me entertained, and fascinated, over such a long series. Please continue doing what you do, it’s been a pleasure.
This one is pretty easy to counter without even reaching into other games *coughwalkingdeadcough*.The refuse ending is technically the best done ending of all four.That doesnt say much,because its still a shitty ending,but its still leagues ahead of the rainbow endings.
Your reasoning is exactly why I modded out the starkid and just went straight to the “refuse ending” or rather, “it wasn’t enough, Shepard and the galaxy lost.” I used the mod finally and after 100+ hours…yeah, it stung, but it felt right. Anything to get that kid conversation out is what I’m after.
My personal ending for the series is when you’re killed by the reaper lasers. You die there. You don’t get up again with the magic infinity pistol and walk into the magic transport beam, you just die.
Well, to get down to it, we’ve all really just been playing a small side-story that exists simply to give some background to one of the minor characters that Marauder Shields encounters during his epic adventures.
I mean, the real, canonical ending is one where Shields prevents Shepherd from beaming up to the Citadel, right? The last hour of Mass Effect 3 is just speculative fan-fiction.
Pretty sure it would have been improved if the ending had been TIM/Shep slash fanfic.
His name was Marauder Shields. He lived as Marauder Shields and died as Marauder Health; honor his memory.
If there’s anything I actually liked best from the ending, it was that it spawned the whole Marauder Shields thing.
He was a trooper and a soldier. May he rest in peace.
Yeah, that also is a good ending point. Harsh, but even more logical. Man…I love when tragic tales are done well, like
Red Dead Redemption.
I just wanted to say thanks for writing all of this. I know it’s probably been a herculean task and it was probably somewhat cthartic but it’s been great to not only read your collected thoughts on the mass effect games, written in your own particular style, but also nice to read a long-form essay. They’re so rare these days and I do so enjoy them!
Congrats on finishing!
Thanks, Shamus. This should definitely go to print. Or at least to ebook.
A story is like a trapeze in which the creator throws you into the air. It doesn’t matter how much fun flying through the air was, you’re going to be pissed if the creator don’t catch you in the end.
(Not my metaphor, sadly, I can’t find the source.)
I think dick grayson said that one.
Oof, too soon!
I haven’t played the game at all, but the ending just screams Video Game Endingâ„¢. The avatar gets to make The Decision solely because they’re being piloted by the player. You get three different endings (ish) because Player Choice, which has been a feature of the series.
In fact, I sort of wonder if the ending wasn’t written by a different team altogether. After reading all of this, it wouldn’t surprise me if some team at EA wrote the ending and then handed it off to the Bioware team and said, “Okay, here’s your ending. Figure out how to get there.” I’d bet the writer(s) of the ending were only given perfunctory information about the series in the first place. “The universe is being destroyed by evil robots, and this Crucible thing is important, and so is the player character.”
Nah, worse than that. The head writers (like 2 guys) locked themselves in a room and came up with this on their own. They then forced it into the game without allowing any of the other writers to comment or alter how the sequence went down. IT SHOWS SO MUCH.
I would be shocked, because if there’s one thing this ending isn’t, it’s corporate-managed. The suits at EA would give the player a happy ending where they literally punch a Reaper in the face, save the world, everything is happy, and you retire to a beach planet with your love interest.
The ending we got is dark, artistically ambitious with risk of failure, and scraps the entire galaxy as a place to revisit in future series. I cannot imagine an ending EA would want less than the one they got.
This. Whenever anyone suggests that this or that story decision was the result of interference from EA, I always point to ME3’s original ending. If EA was willing to let Bioware do that, then they probably would have been willing to let Bioware do just about anything.
From what I can find, there isn’t a single former Bioware employee willing to blame EA for the mistakes of Mass Effect. Everyone says EA gave them plenty of room. It’s kind of surprising how perpetual the notion is that EA ruins franchises, but I guess that’s the easiest explanation for “my beloved game company is making sucky games now, it must be the change in ownership!”
That’s the thing: corporations generally don’t care about endings. They care about sales. From what we can tell, they pushed multiplayer, they pushed more shallow gameplay mechanics and less RPG elements, etc. (or created an environment where that was clearly the objective from the outset, which is the same thing). As long as there wasn’t some embarrassing racial slur or something in the ending, they wouldn’t care about the story one iota. I think a lot of people would argue that what happened was that EA’s pushes led the story, the part they didn’t care about, to atrophy, because of other concerns that were pushed forward more.
Corporations absolutely do care about endings in the sense that they care about whether they leave room for sequels. ME3’s ending did not, especially in the original ending, and the result is that the next ME game inevitably doesn’t have all that much of a connection to the previous games. Any way you look at it, EA took a huge risk by giving ME3’s ending their stamp of approval.
EA gave Bioware creative room, but they did not necessarily give them scheduling room or budget room.
Before Riccitiello was fired, he was pushing Bioware to release games in each of their product lines yearly, or once every two years, at least. He wanted these CRPGs to come out annually just like their FIFA and Madden and other sports games or first person shooters.
DA 2 was rushed because of that EA mandated schedule, and the reviews showed it. So did the sales. Then there was the disaster of Mass Effect 3.
Once Riccitiello was fired, Bioware finally had some scheduling room. It seems they’re going to settle on releasing a game in each of the lines three years from the date of last release, and using DLC to pad releases and generate income in between. From a business and ‘keeping people employed’ point of view, this is a very good thing.
Well done! I don’t comment much, and I never got more than halfway through ME1, but this series was a fascinating read nonetheless! I’m eagerly awaiting whatever’s next!
(a sequel to Witch Watch, maybe…? I can dream…)
Thanks for the wild ride, Shamus :) You really have a knack for untangling a convoluted mess (of stupid).
The writer constantly wrote IOUs to the audience: This will all be explained later. It'll make sense in retrospect. This is building up to a larger payoff. This is a setup for a later reveal.
So it was written by Damien Lindehoff then.
I played ME1, and remember enjoying it. I played ME2, but never finished it. I never played ME3, didn't think about why, but after reading your article, I agree from ME1 to ME2 there was a narrative tonal shift, and arguably a narrative quality decline. Thank you for writing this series. It was a good read, and well written.
As you said, too much blood and sweat goes into these products for me to want to flay the people who worked on them, but that doesn’t preclude a constructive critique. On that note, you were often quite harsh on the ME2 and 3, but it was also clear that came from your passion. Good job.
It’s been a long trip, but at least we’ve arrived at a satisfying conclusion, and I’m sad to see this end, because I’d love to see more. I wish I could say the same for Mass Effect itself.
There is something to comment on the Extended Cut, though. The writers swore that the Cut would simply “expand” on the ending and explain a few things better. That was just the last on a long line of condescending and insulting lies. The Extended Cut changed a lot of things. The Mass Relays weren’t obliterated, for instance.
The most prominent change, though, was the addition of a fourth ending, the “refusal” one. If you talk to the Starchild and tell him you accept none of his choices and walk away or you just shoot your gun around him, he goes away and the cycle continues. You get to see Liara’s time capsule displayed in a new cycle and all. The bad part is that you still get the “Winter on Mars” scene at the ending, with the child asking for another “Shepard” story, which makes no sense because a) this cycle didn’t make it, so civilization would be much different and b) why would Shepard be regarded as the hero instead of the ones who actually stopped the Reapers?
Another thing that bothers me is that, if you choose the “destruction” ending (as you know, the only one in which Shepard can survive), you get to see all civilization being rebuilt, people honoring Shepard’s sacrifice… and then you get to see Shepard breathing in the rubble.
… Just… how? Has Shepard been buried and alive in the rubble all these months, maybe years? No one went to look for the body? You know, to even try to check if their friend had survived? And where is that rubble anyway, did the Citadel crash on Earth? And Shepard survived that?
Just more evidence that the entire thing was tacked on and they didn’t even take five minutes to think if any of it made any sense.
Anyways, cheers. Looking forward to your next series.
It’s ironic that their attempt to fix the ending, even if it was a net positive (if only because they’d hit rock bottom and had nowhere to go but up), ended up introducing more plot holes.
One other thing that stands out in the extended cut:Shepards first name actually is commander.
What? You thought people called him that because of his rank? :P
The Stargazer scene actually is different in the Refuse ending. The silhouettes are different (they kinda look like Asari), the voices are different (the Stargazer has a female voice actor), and the dialogue is changed to say that the stories were passed down through Liara’s time capsule. Look it up on YouTube sometime.
As for the Shepard breathing scene, it wouldn’t surprise me if that and the ending slides are supposed to be out of chronological order, with most of the slides being flash forwards to after galactic civilization is rebuilt, before it returns to the present for the funeral scene. Also, if Miranda or Jack is your love interest, they are alive at the end, and Shepard survives, their ending slides are changed to show them gazing at the stars. So that’s something.
And where is Shepard in that scene? Beats me, but the ending slides do show that the Citadel is still in orbit after the Crucible fires.
A Diablo Ex Machina?
Starcraft Ex Machina.
…even though it kind of sucked. For a lot of reasons that I think are actually kind of similar to your reasons for saying that the end of ME3 was doomed. Hey Shamus; want to write us another critique novel?
It… did? Wait, what? This is news to me.
(Unless you’re referring to the Epilogue in specific, in which case, okay, I hear you.)
Nooooo… I was sort of talking about the half of the 750-page book where Harry and friends wander around the woods alternately sniffling and angsting at each other, completely isolated from all of their friends and families because apparently no one thought to buy a cell phone. And then a silver glowing Doe Ex Machina turns up from nowhere to lob Excalibur at them for no particular reason except that it is the one thing in the universe that will let them smash horcruxes. And then Harry wanders into a final confrontation where Voldemort defeats himself – with almost no help from Harry – through a combination of gloating idiocy and Dumbledore abusing some previously-obscure fine print of a magic wand’s operating manual like the worst RPG power gamer who ever lived.
Don’t get me wrong; I quite enjoyed the series as a whole. But the last book was _awful_.
Does it make it worse or better to you that the loophole probably wasn’t Dumbledore’s plan?
Hey, I finally found someone who shares my opinion of the ending! I also boycotted the last two movies–we really didn’t need a whole movie dedicated to wandering around the countryside aimlessly.
I mostly agree. I do think the last Snape chapter in HP7 was brilliant though and I quite like the final conversation between Harry and Voldemort.
What mostly bothered me during my first read of HP7 is that J.K. Rowling seemed to kill off characters simply for the sake of making the story dramatic. Their deaths had no foreshadowing and were often handled terribly (best example are the deaths of Lupin/Tonks and Fred; who barely got two lines and especially Tonks/Lupin got almost no aftermath). Even though it was war, it felt a bit excessive to me. Characters died left and right because Rowling felt like they had to, not because it actually drove the plot forward or because it was a satisfying conclusion to their character arcs. It also does not match with the themes of the HP books, this is no Game of Thrones.
Rowling couldn’t let them return to Hogwarts though and a final battle for Hogwarts was pretty much a given. The HP books also require a quite big suspension of disbelief for why they don’t use our modern tech (guns, cell phones, internet). I don’t mind that, in a way the books almost read like a small parody.
But I agree that the scenes in the forest were too long and the whole book was quite predictable (including Gringotts, going to Malfoy’s house…). I also felt that too many Horcruxes were destroyed too quickly. I would’ve contributed more to Dumbledore and have them destroyed in HP6. I also agree that the Epilogue was horrible (I think even Rowling admitted that she regretted including it) and to me it makes more sense for Hermione to hook up with Harry instead of Ron. Finally, I would’ve let Voldemort capture Ron or Hermione at some point for some dramatic tension. They’ve always been together, if you are gonna separate them I would make Voldemort responsible instead of teenage drama from Ron.
Pft, the best example was Hedwig, who somehow managed to die offscreen despite being physically attached to the protagonist. I spent half the book waiting for her to come back, only to go “Wait, seriously, she’s really dead? Like that?”
The Horcruxes falling too quickly was a pet peeve of mine too. They’re the key to the whole story of Voldemort. We read what? Like 2,000 pages in this series before they were even mentioned? And then spent a full book getting to one? And then spend 300 pages wandering around camping doing nothing about them at all before four fall into our laps like machinegun bullets. If you didn’t want to make each as epic a quest as that first one (and I really liked whichever book that was that talked about tracking down the first one) then… just don’t make eleventeen of them in the first place.
Having to come up with yet another even-more-strained-than-the-last new way to destroy each “indestructable” horcrux made it extra silly.
But to try to tie it back a bit to Shamus’ ME critique: Harry is our PC. He has no conceivable motivation for most of his actions, wanders from place to place apparently because the writer wanted him to, has no agency in the eventual plan to defeat the baddie, and the plan made no sense in the first place anyways. He then stumbles in to a final confrontation with the baddie with no plan to defeat him, and watches passively as the baddie defeats themselves. In the process, lots of people die, but usually offscreen, or in ways with no impact. So we get no Affirmation – sure the baddie is dead, but only after catastrophic destruction is visited upon the world – no Explanation – none of it makes any sense – and no Closure except for the Afterword that apparently everyone hated (I don’t recall caring anymore by that point.)
Technically, the first Horcrux was destroyed at the end of the Second book. We just don’t find out that it was a Horcrux until much later.
It requires very little suspension of disbelief, actually. It’s 1991 at the beginning of the series and 1997 at the end. (The first book was published in 1997 and the last in 2007)
Dial-up Internet wasn’t really a thing in Britain until 1992. DSL didn’t become available until 1998. [wikipedia] Public WiFi networks didn’t exist during this time period. (Keep in mind that right when these technologies become available is not when they become available for everyone, let alone at an affordable price)
Cellular telephones were enormous, clunky, expensive bricks for a long time. They didn’t start gaining popularity until the end of the ’90s and they didn’t start getting small enough to be comfortably carried around until ~2000.
As for guns: They’re in Britain. They would have to steal from the military while they’re trying to hide from people who can track magic usage.
Of the three characters we follow, only one of them would have a chance to even know about any of these subjects. And I wouldn’t put those odds in her favor given her introversion and education.
I had a pocketable Star-Tac in 1996. While the average teenager didn’t have one (7% cell phone penetration in the UK in 1995), magically pickpocketing a Muggle executive, or converting some of Harry’s gold to pounds and buying one wouldn’t be especially challenging. (Harry and Hermione both spent summers in the Muggle world, so they should be reasonably up to date with it.)
(And if they’re able to infiltrate the Ministry of Magic, which actually expects to have to repel wizards, then I’m guessing that apparation, invisibility, accio, etc. are more than enough to raid an armory. Memory charm anyone who sees you.)
But Rowling wasn’t telling a realistic story of magic in the modern world– she was creating a fantastic world that could (somehow) exist in the interstices of ours. So electronics fail inside Hogwarts, Voldemort still largely maintains secrecy even when he’s engaging in two wars of ruthless conquest, and if Rowling had had to deal with the plans of clever gamers there would have been as many ad hoc rules as necessary to explain why a spell and an air strike doesn’t beat a spell alone.
Pretty much every conversation I have about the Potterverse returns to this refrain – so pardon me if I’ve waxed evangelical about this before on Shamus’ site – but if you like the idea of Harry converting gold to pounds you really should read the first few chapters of http://hpmor.com/. (If you don’t enjoy it by that point, stop. If you do enjoy it, nothing anyone says will convince you to stop…)
I spend a fair amount of time on Slate Star Codex under a different username, so I’ve heard… a bit about HPMOR. :-) But thus far I haven’t been able to get into it. Still, it’s clearly one of those things where if it’s the sort of thing you like, you’ll like it quite a bit. (And there’s certainly a lot of it.)
Like you said, seriously discussing these kinds of questions is missing the point of the story. But I can’t resist.
Sure, the main characters (the villains, being anti-muggle bigots, have ideological reasons to not use guns) could steal guns without much trouble, but how would they train with them? Being British teenagers, it is highly unlikely that any of them had any prior experience with firearms, and finding someone who is willing and able to teach three random kids how to shoot would be next to impossible.
I also think it is arguable just how useful guns would be against mages in the HP universe, even assuming that there aren’t any spells that can easily defend against them. Bullets are generally designed to kill through blood loss, barring a very lucky shot, and healing magic seems to have little trouble with that kind of thing, considering how easily Snape was able to heal Draco’s Sectumsempra wounds. Combine that with the numerous real life stories of people getting shot and then proceeding to act normally for several minutes before they pass out from blood loss, and shooting at a wizard is starting to seem more than a little risky. Especially if, again, the people wielding the guns are inexperienced and untrained.
On the other hand, a good candidate for the most unbelievable scene in the series is the one where a wizard meets with the muggle Prime Minister, informs him that a group of magical terrorists is rampaging around his country murdering British citizens left and right, and the muggle Prime Minister does not immediately insist on getting his own security forces involved. I perfectly understand why Rowling didn’t have that happen – the last thing she wanted was to have her fantastic adventure story turn into a Clancy-esque technothriller, but any other reaction is simply preposterous.
There’s a remarkable leap between ‘7% market penetration’ and ‘everyone knows about this thing that exists, including two children that never completed their formal education or have any friends that might know about this stuff’.
On things Harry / Hermione would know about…:
Harry was just turning eleven at the start of the first book, and he has a very limited understanding of the non-magical world as a result.
Most of his time during the summers was spent doing chores. He had no friends or acquaintances outside of Hogwarts. He rarely payed attention to the media (both magical and not) until the fifth book.
His first summer back was spent imprisoned in his room. His second was spent in Diagon Alley, specifically staying there and not interacting with the non-magical world. His third summer back was spent with the Weasleys. His fourth was spent paying attention to magical papers and looking at local news for clues of Death Eater movements.
Harry would have very limited knowledge of all three topics, if at all. His only experience with firearms would be Hagrid twisting a primitive hunting shotgun into a pretzel. Harry might know what a machine gun is, but I doubt he understands how effective they would actually be.
Harry might have heard of the Internet. If he has, then he likely doesn’t know anything about it beyond the name and that people use it to talk to each other instead of using mail.
Harry never mentions cell phones, not even when he gets one of the two-way mirrors.
This whole thing is turning into an essay. I’ll try to be short with the rest.
Hermione has a better chance (albeit slim) to know about the state of technology since being enrolled at Hogwarts, due solely to curiosity.
That being said, she’s an introvert with no friends in the non-magical world, and her chief source of information would be newspapers.
Back then, outside of businesses, cellphones just weren’t talked about that much. It’s entirely possible she wouldn’t know.
I’m unfamiliar with education in Britain. Would an eleven-year-old in the early nineties know the efficacy of modern military weapons? I would assume not, but I don’t actually know.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that they do know how effective modern guns would be.
The Ministry is shown as being able to detect magic use. They don’t care about magic-use inside of their workplace because they’re wizards and they use magic.
Military bases, however, really shouldn’t have a lot of magic going on near them. This would be a major red flag and Harry, et al. would lure the very people that they are hiding from right to them by making the attempt.
I think my brain blocked out half the points you made. I guess it’s been a while since I read it.
To be fair, I had to look up some of the details in the Wikipedia article… because a bunch of them are pretty forgettable, having no logical connection to the story in the first place. But I definitely remember the essence of it making no sense and driving me nuts.
My theory is that (by her own admission), Rowling wasn’t exactly a big fan of the fantasy genre, and especially not post-Tolkien adult fantasy fiction. This was actually to the series’ benefit in the early books–she didn’t get hung up on detailed world-building or meticulously mapping how the whole plot would work out the way a lot of fantasy authors do. Instead, her fusion of classic British children’s fiction with Agatha Christie-esque locked-room mysteries and really well-drawn characters was a fresh take on the genre. E.g. A lot of children’s fiction generally paints adults as absent, evil, or incompetent, but in Harry Potter the adult characters have interesting backstories and motivations directly relevant to the main plot. And the twist endings of those earlier books are just amazing. Sometimes it’s good for the genre to have someone from outside it who isn’t overly hung up on all the “rules”.
I think that starts to fall apart at the end though. Not having a clear idea how this story should conclude, the last couple books fall into a lot of fantasy cliches. The seams in the world-building start to show as well. E.g., all of a sudden the second-last book introduces a Collect-the-MacGuffins-Quest, and then the last book introduces another Collection Quest before the first one’s even completed! Credit to Rowling though–I appreciated that Harry had already dealt with half the MacGuffins in the earlier books.
You also run into issues where the magic system is only internally consistent with each book, but as the series goes on, there’s too many simple ways to solve problems with magic that would break the plot.
Time Turners are the obvious example; they’re really cleverly used in the book that they’re used, but they never show up again because the entire plot would be about time travel.
Yep. I liked the HP world, and as long as you didn’t try to think too much or look too far it all keeps up, but the last three books really suffer a bit from the lack of consistency in some of the earlier books….And especially the 7th one had very serious pacing issues.
“Return of the Jedi” likewise isn’t universally beloved, going from the dark and serious “The Empire Strikes Back” to Stone Age teddy bears defeating an entire legion of the “best troops” availble to a galaxy-spanning empire, while a single noble act wipes out the stain of decades worth of mass murder and torture from the main villain’s soul, ending with fireworks and a luau. (Or in the Special Edition, the cheering voice of Jar-Jar Binks!)
I never heard people say anything bad about Return of the Jedi until after the release of the prequels when the internet decided that George Lucas was not only some kind of monster but always had been one. Which is not to say that Return of the Jedi was absolutely universally beloved, but you’re kidding yourself if you think that it wasn’t and isn’t pretty darn popular–even among people who may like to carp about Ewoks from time to time.
Pauline Kael in 1983:
(Though there were of course lots of positive reviews as well. Ebert loved it.)
Huh. That Kael quote sounds very familiar. Possibly because somebody brought it up in the Ewok discussion during the Knights of the Old Republic season of Spoiler Warning. But the key phrase in Shamus’ argument is “fans managed to love it anyway”, so I’m not sure I see the relevance. (For one thing, Kael doesn’t strike me as a fan, since she apparently disliked A New Hope as well.)
The point is that Shamus is right: Return of the Jedi did all the things that Mass Effect 3 failed to do. It concluded the story and resolved the central conflict of the story in a largely (given the tone of the work and the genre it inhabits) plausible way. It had satsifying conclusions to the principal characters’ arcs. It even had a happy ending. And it was, as I hope we have established by this point, popular with fans (as well as the general public).
Empire Strikes Back is the odd one out, though. New Hope had just as simple and broad an arc as Return of the Jedi, so it’s not as though the final movie turned the trilogy on its head.
Scruffy freedom fighters triumphing over arrogant oppressors is well within the established themes, even if they are teddy bears, and a single act of repentance cleansing a soul isn’t an unheard of idea in religion or fiction, especially if it involves self sacrifice.
Return of the Jedi is not a perfect movie, if nothing else because it awkwardly conjoins two entirely separate stories, but it is a solid star wars movie.
It’s one of the things that defines “a star wars movie”, so it’s hard for it not to be. But the earlier films had the plucky heroes using weapons of comparably high tech to their enemy, not spears vs. APCs. The Ewok battle is one of a number of somewhat hamhanded Vietnam allegories in SF (Le Guin’s “The Word for World is Forest” would be another, and to an extent Cameron’s “Avatar” though that at least had the magic trees) which misses the part where the North Vietnamese were armed with 20th century weapons by a superpower, not with pointed sticks and gumption.
Honestly? I still like it fine. But I know plenty of people who will only grant there being two good Star Wars movies, going back to when I was at college a decade before the prequels started.
George Lucas was barely doing any directing through the early scenes in A New Hope, because when they were in Tunisia, he’d fallen very ill. Sir Alec Guinness was the one coaching the younger actors; Mark Hammill in particular.
In Empire Strikes Back, again, George Lucas was not the director. Lawrence Kasdan was. The dialog snaps, the scenes have emotional tension on top of dramatic tension, and the characters have quite a lot of development. Of all the movies, it is actually the best.
Return of the Jedi, though… Lucas was back in the director’s seat and this time, he was actively directing. It starts to show.
Then the Prequels were all Lucas, who directed, did post-production editing, and was the producer AND scriptwriter. The myth of Lucas being a great director is shown to be false for all the world to see. Though he can write some decent banter.
Irvin Kershner directed TESB and Richard Marquand directed RotJ.
Ah, yes, you’re right. Lawrence Kasdan was writing ESB. Lawrence Kasdan also wrote parts of Return.
But then you get to the Prequels, where it’s Lucas all the way. Sole writer, sole director for TPM and Revenge, and only one additional writer for AotC.
It would more accurate to say that they were armed with 20th century weapons and also with pointed sticks.
I never got the Vietnam reference of Endor, I must admit. I always saw it more as a colonial power brushing off ‘uncivilised locals’ and paying for it. Something like General Custer’s defeat in face of superior numbers, or Ceasar’s legions never really getting far into Germania. In fact, the emperor calls his troops a legion, so I honestly thought Endor was meant to evoke Asterix comics more than Vietnam.
Other than it being set in a forest, I don’t see how it evokes Vietnam? The empire is still clearly Nazi germany, the ewoks, as you said, don’t make for convincing vietcong and the ATSTs looked more like space tech Tiger tanks than UH1 helicopters to me, so it’s not like either side was using Vietnam style tactics.
As for earlier films showing the heroes with high tech weapons:
In A new Hope we are introduced with a huge imperial star destroyer chasing a tiny blockade runner in the ultimate ‘bully beats up little guy’ scene.
In Empire strikes back, even though we see the rebels using blasters, we are clearly told that the imperial gear is miles ahead of them (‘that armour is too strong for blasters!’).
Both movies support the theme of ‘underdog eventually truimphs over superior foe’, and that’s what Endor was: tenacity, overwhelming numbers, superior use of terrain, and main character allies (Chewie is the one who truly turned that battle, just fyi) will triumph over Evil Arrogance, no matter how big their weapons.
Yes, it was a more extremely one sided matchup, but the themes of the movie were fully adherent to being ‘star wars’.
Lucas himself cited the Vietnam inspiration repeatedly, notably in the 1983 PBS special From Star Wars to Jedi (around the 6 minute mark of the linked section) and the 2004 DVD commentary.
At battles like Little Big Horn, the Sioux had rifles and superior numbers, and the US forces didn’t have a fortified base. The VC were practically identified with the AK47 and had access to explosives and NVA backup in addition to lower tech armaments. The Ewoks have three rebels and a couple of unarmed droids, who forgot to bring a few caseloads of blasters.
The battle of Isandlwana was spears vs guns, but the British were caught out in the open without fortifications or armor (not even trenches or circling the wagons) at a 10:1 disadvantage. In the sequel, the much-fictionalized Rorke’s Drift, fewer than 200 British troops stood off 5000 Zulu from a stone fortification, and they didn’t have armored vehicles (or force fields :-) ).
It’s especially striking (no pun intended) that the armor that’s too much for vehicle-mounted blasters proves vulnerable to swinging logs. (Their one weakness!) Sure, AT-STs instead of AT-ATs, but surely that starts getting into special pleading.
Considering that every SW video game I’ve ever seen has antivehicle weapons blow apart AT-STs with trivial ease, I don’t think they’re supposed to be remotely as tough as AT-ATs.
Unless AT-STs show up in games prior to RotJ, I’m assuming that’s a consequence of their being apparently made out of cardboard in that movie.
But there’s still the question of why you’d build armored vehicles and carry them light years to the most important planetary base in the galaxy, the key to the Emperor’s plan to snuff out the rebellion, if they’re so bereft of protection that the enemy doesn’t even need to have made it to gunpowder to be able to breach them. The Empire has AT-ATs– was there something more important than protecting the Death Star’s force field generator so it can crush the Rebels that they were all doing that day?
(Obviously, the good guys have to win. But a bunch of Ewoks excited about the shuttle-load of bowcasters and laser tripwires and anti-vehicle thermal detonator mines would have been a little more plausible as far as the Rebels allying with a local insurgency goes.)
I mean, people make fun of Stormtroopers. But in Star Wars, the troopers on the Death Star are under orders to let the Falcon escape so it can be tracked to the Rebel base, and they show remarkable restraint given that they have to take casualties to make it look good. Other than that, there’s no sign that Troopers aren’t fearsome and competent– or that their armor is superfluous– in either Star Wars or Empire. (On Hoth, they’re inexorable, and the only thing the Rebels can do is fight a delaying action long enough to run.) It’s only really in RotJ, again, that a legion of the Empire’s “best” are overwhelmed by small people with melee weapons.
I love the idea that the Ewoks were That Plucky Gaulish Village.
If you’d like to see a depiction of them as the Viet Cong, do a search for “Apocalypse Endor”, a comic about a ex-Stormtrooper describing his time on Endor.
I feel like this retrospective ended better than Mass Effect 3, Ill pick green.
Great – I’ve now got a toaster stuck to my head and my left hand has turned into a hairdryer.
And I think my fridge just ate all my groceries?
“Does this unit have a soul? Answer carefully.”
Its better than me being inside your soul… or something, or me blowing up your toaster. I think?
Sorry, you can’t. You don’t have enough paragrade points.
This has never happened to me before.
Rethinking the ending sequence has me thinking that everything after Shepard makes a choice is a dying hallucination, and what’s really happening is that Space-YouTube user HarbingerRoxUrSox81 is uploading a video entitled “Chump Alliance Commander Activates Chump Machine Like A Chump” with the description “This REALLY hurts you xD LMAO”
Googled this, with disappointing results.
Your mentioning of having to trust the Starchild reminds me of why I will always pick destroy, despite the horrible implications. Or maybe refuse, except it’s not much of an ending.
Control? That’s an obvious lie. You said only a few minutes ago that TIM couldn’t do it, so why should I believe you when you say that I can.
Synthesis? That doesn’t even sound remotely possible, so I’m going to assume you’re just making this stuff up.
Destroy? Probably still a lie, but at least not as much of an obvious trap as the others. Plus, it’s the choice Starchild tries to really steer you away from, so doing this was as close as you could get to refuse before the EC.
Of course, the EC cutscenes show us that the first two aren’t lies (somehow), but Shepard can’t know that. Although, actually, Control is a lie anyway. My Shepard would take control of the Reapers and then fly them into the sun as you said. The fact that that didn’t happen shows that Shepard isn’t really in control.
Well, that’s what you get when you ask the player to make an uninformed choice based on bullshit and two games worth of plot holes.
> Control? That's an obvious lie.
Not in this story. The writing sucks.
Synthesis? That doesn't even sound remotely possible
Not in this story. The writing sucks.
It’s been a largely vindicating experience reading this series. There were maybe a couple things that you didn’t touch upon* that I would have been interested to hear about, but as a whole it’s been a decent read. Thank you.
*Like Liara becoming the Shadow Broker (whether you did the DLC or not) and how there was ultimately very little payoff to it. You can get a few war assets in ME3, but other than that, the whole secret intel network doesn’t really amount to much. Instead you get moments like Traynor doing some mag..tech trick which gets you that one important piece of detail or Hackett just having all the info ready anyway.
But what score do you give the games, Shamus?
ME 1: Purple
ME 2: Brown
ME 3: Black
Halibut/10 on the Fish Scale.
People like to play the “If I wrote the ending” game, and it’s an easy, satisfying game to play, but I think a much more interesting hypothetical is “If I wrote the Extended Cut”. Bioware comes to you with a tight deadline (have to get the whole thing written, animated, voice-acted and tested within mere months), tiny budget, and the creative constraint that you’re not allowed to throw out the original ending, only expand upon it.
It’s not difficult to beat the writers at “If I wrote the ending” because the ending was a mess, but “If I wrote the Extended Cut” gives me some sympathy for the position they were in post-launch, again, because the ending was a mess.
What would you do in that position?
Increase the font size of the “Buy DLC” message by about thirty times.
It isn’t. “[T]he peace won’t last. Soon, your children will create synthetics, and then the chaos will come back.” It’s just taking the arrival of Shepard and the Crucible as a sign that the Reaper “solution” won’t work anymore. (Even though the Reapers appear capable of completing their mission, and it’s not clear what would stop them from doing so to the next cycle and so on, the Crucible says that something has changed). So if organics insist on autonomy without Reapers they can have it, and the chips will fall where they may.
Sooo….The child admits that the solution doesnt work any more and that it needs to stop.But if you refuse one of its options,it continues with the reaping?Why?Even the refusal ending makes no sense in this context.
This whole series was really great to read. I take my hat (and monocle) off to you, sir, for a job very well done.
Oh, nice monocle. And nice specs up there, Mike S. – I don’t think I’ve ever properly noticed this avatar eyewear before!
Now that you mention it, neither have I. :-)
While I like RPGs and I like scifi, because of other games and whatnot I never got around to playing Mass Effect. Despite that, I’ve liked the ME posts on here, and this whole series. if I had my druthers you’d start all over on another game or type :-)
Thank you for writing this, it’d been a while since you’d done some really long form writing, and no matter the subject (music, programming, Star on Chest, Mass Effect, autoblography,….) they’re easily my favorites.
Hurray for Shamus!
Closure was always my biggest problem with the ending. I was willing to overlook the plot holes/lack of explanation, I was willing to not have a happy ending (Shepard’s a Christ figure, they never stick around permanently, so she had to die), but I just wanted to know what actually happened, you know? Did my squadmates other than Joker/EDI/my love interest make it? (those were the only ones shown in the original ending) What about people like Wrex? What were the immediate effects of the choice you made? (also not super clear in the original ending) What happens next in the galaxy, especially with the green choice? etc. etc.
As dumb as the ending was, I think it still could’ve been satisfying to a degree if it had actually answered some of these. The original ending was just ridiculously abrupt, and while the Extended Cut took a little more time to wrap things up, it still didn’t actually answer most of these. IMO it was mostly just “quick throw in some happy things so they stop complaining”. So it’s really not satisfying either.
It’s pretty impressive how the original ending almost seems carefully designed to satisfy exactly no-one.
You wanted a sound explanation of the Reapers? Nope
You wanted a happy ending? Nope.
You wanted closure for any of the characters? Nope
You wanted a bombastic awesome ending where you punch Harbinger in the face? Nope.
You wanted an opportunity to argue with the head of the Reapers and convince him that he’s wrong? Nope.
You wanted to see all those war assets you’ve been gathering throughout the game finally pay off? Nope.
You wanted a fourteen sentence explanation of the series main plot by Some Kid followed by three non-sequitur choices devoid of context or follow-up? We gotcha.
Hey. be fair. He’s got almost twenty sentences!
The fourteen figure, which I assume you’re getting from Mr. Btongue, is fourteen lines, which counts several two or three sentence bits as one line each.
There’s pedantry, and then there’s this comment. Well done, sir.
congrats on making it through shamus….wait did you have enough points to actually survive this project?
Your point about different writers was really good, and looking back if bioware/ea had gone with different characters with their own stories it could have worked a lot better (just not as a triology/single story)
Are we going to see this made into a book? I’d totally buy it! Loved every step of the way.
I’ve always felt that the ME3 ending was a very clumsy attempt at a pseudo-Lovecraftian ending by a writer who doesn’t understand Lovecraft (or the ME series itself), but this passage made me realize it even more:
“[Shepard] didn't uncover the big mystery that made this possible. He didn't get the answers and then confront the villain empowered by that knowledge. He just showed up and it was given to him by the only character with agency: The villain. Here at the end, all of his choices are described and constrained by a malevolent enemy whom he has no reason to trust.”
The circuitous and baffling logic that drives Star Kid (and the entire series) always felt like someone tried to make an enigmatic Blue and Orange Morality motive for their version of the Great Old Ones and instead came off as so nonsensical it was as if a five-year-old wrote it. And the lack of agency leading to a grimdark ending seems like an attempt to replicate the feeling of existential helplessness inherent to true Lovecraftian fiction. But to be honest, I kind of feel like that second one is giving the writer too much credit.
I’ve been reading every week for a year now (since it started) and it’s finally finished. It was one hell of a ride, for better or worse.
I’d love to do an audio version of this.
What, no DLC coverage? Shame; Leviathan is very interesting, and Citadel is at least fun (Omega, though, is overly meh). You also seem to be doing this without the Extended Cut, which I find rather strange.
ME1 was my first Bioware game. It had its ups and downs; personally, I think that ME2 was somewhat better overall, as it had better characterization and better use of characters, for the most part; only the central plot was seriously lacking (not to mention that it had much better gameplay). ME3 was rather a disappointment, overall, but I do think that it could have been salvaged still after ME2. And… honestly, I’ve never liked the implication that Bioware has somehow been irrevocably tainted by EA: nothing of their pre-ME oeuvre has appealed to me, and the fact that several fans appear to seriously want a regression in its game design is always off-putting.
I didn’t think the mass effect relays actually exploded; I thought this was a depiction of their spreading your choice of Crucible space magic throughout the galaxy, not being destroyed.
Mind you, I only ever watched some of the conversations and cutscenes on YouTube, so I might be missing context, but I also haven’t had my trust in the storyteller throughly burnt away.
As for the Normandy speeding away, it makes me think of something from 30 Rock – “This script has no ending! Nothing happens!” “Don’t worry, we’ll have some music over a montage of people walking about, gesturing at each other, exchanging meaningful looks, and it’ll seem like a conclusion.” (The episode then ends this way.) Your ship and your companions escape from danger, fly off into the night, land on a verdant planet and are safe from the battle in Earth space. I suppose it looks like an ending if you’re not thinking about it?
They initially did explode, but the Extended Cut redid the cutscene so that at least in high EMS, they just fall apart. Even with the original explosion people made the excuse that it was a “controlled detonation” and therefore different from the violent smashing from Arrival. Or they would point out that the shiny core disappears right before the explosion so the energy is gone. I think those are lame excuses, using the art to override the story.
However, even if you accept those, there is still a problem; you see them in a cutscene after the choice has been made. When you’re choosing, you’ve merely been told that using the Crucible will destroy the Mass Relays. You have no reason at that time to think it will be any different from Arrival.
I don’t have much to say about this one because it’s spot on and there isn’t much to add. Thanks for this series! It’s been great and people I’ve spread it to over on the Bioware forums are enjoying it.
“The writer constantly wrote IOUs to the audience: This will all be explained later. It'll make sense in retrospect. This is building up to a larger payoff. This is a setup for a later reveal. The writer never explicitly promised those things, mind you. We just sort of assumed those promises were being made.”
This is very perceptive and really is one of the biggest problems with the ME3 ending.
Congratulations on getting to the end of it Shamus! Its been a fun (if sometimes rather painful) time! Thanks for putting in all the effort.
For a chance of pace, how about spending lots of words telling us why a videogame story is great next time? I’ve always loved the Spoiler Warning Half-Life 2 series because it basically consists of the crew explaing why that game is so great.
I wonder if a big part of the explanation for how unsatisfying the ending is comes down to a comment that you’ve made repeatedly about how the ending doesn’t reference what you’ve done in the game with your companions and the various planets/races, and invalidates a lot of it. Taken that way, the ending is pretty much all Reaper; you settle the Reaper question, sure, in some way, but you don’t really get to see anything else, as others have pointed out. And doing that might undo bringing peace between the Quarians and Geth, and make Mordin fixing the Genophage irrelevant and, well, undo pretty much anything you did for the galaxy and your companions … and we don’t even find out for certain what DOES happen there. If the story had been more Reaper focused, then we might have dismissed that as idle curiosity, but as the series has shown the series DIDN’T focus on the Reapers. The first game had them as the main event, but even there built in a lot of interest in the side issues — the Rachni War, especially — that we had to interact with. In ME2, the Reaper threat is nothing more than an excuse for you to go around interacting with people and learning about interesting galactic but non-Reaper issues, and while ME3 makes them a big deal with the invasion, as has been pointed out they made them a background event, as you spend most of your time fighting Cerberus and solving interesting non-Reaper galactic issues.
So, for most of the series you’re spending your time dealing with characters and other stories, as these have been the most interesting and compelling parts of the story. At the end, however, all of that gets sacrificed to solving the Reaper issue … an issue that for most of the series we had to constantly remind ourselves was even an issue.
The ending wouldn’t have been satisfying because, well, it has a lot of holes, but I wonder if it would have been better received if more focus was put on the Reapers in the previous games instead of them being on the back burner most of the time. I definitely think, based on the comments, that even a “You’re here, now push a button to end the Reaper threat!” ending would have been better received as long as we highlighted what impact you had on the galaxy beyond that, and if your crew had been with you at the end. Heck, even a “The only way to defeat the Reapers is to wipe out this cycle, but the next cycle would be free” — an at least bittersweet ending — if your crew was there with you, or it was highlighted that the choice involved sacrificing all of those who had been attached to for a greater good.
Given the structure, I think an ending like that of Dragon Age was what we wanted, with the resolution of the big story attached to the resolutions of the small stories. Given how they limited the “big” story, that probably wasn’t possible, and so they should have aimed at the small stories, even if that meant resolving the “big” story perfunctorily. Instead, they ended what we cared about perfunctorily and simply couldn’t end the big story in any way that made us care about it more than the small stories they ignored.
Although I only played a small amount of ME1, I have really enjoyed following this series and am genuinely sorry to see it end. Which is apparently far more than can be said for the end of ME3! Thanks so much for the ride, Shamus. :)
Excellent retrospective. I agree on all accounts, except for putting this entire mess behind us. ME3 should be remembered as a prime example of how to mismanage a franchise. The amount of corners cut, passive-aggressive jabs at the audience, and general tom foolery (I didn’t see tali’s face mentioned) should permanently turn people away from from this shell of a company I feel.
What a farce this game was.
“Everyone realizes that voice actors aren't interchangeable” *cough* DinklBot *cough*
or Nolan North and the other 2 that voice just about everthing.
Thanks for writing this, Shamus.
It’s disappointing, because it’s made me realise how little I actually love ME3. I thought I loved it, until the end. But you were right.
Reading these criticisms have helped me understand WHY the game annoyed me so much, in ways I didn’t have the knowledge to articulate.
When I’m in a better financial position, I’ll be backing you on Patreon. Because I’m very grateful to you for this writing.
Just wanted to say thank you for this awesome series, Shamus! My Thursdays are going to feel empty for a while without it. :)
I’ve been silently reading every week since catching up on ME1, so thought I’d finally post at the end to say thank you, Shamus! Your retrospective has really helped me see why elements of the trilogy (mostly ME3) didn’t work for me when so much of it did.
I’d also like to mention that the TIM island piece and the re-writes of scenes from other stories, like LotR, have really helped me further understand how stories work in general and, at the very least, helped show me how not to write a story :)
So again thank you for writing this incredible series and also thank you to all the commenters for providing another novel’s worth of fascinating discussions each week!
Well. Now I know.
I’ve enjoyed this series, even though (or perhaps because) I’ve never played Mass Effect. I’m afraid I would not be kind to it if I were to play it now, but the series was fun to read. Here’s hoping it wins an award.
One more thing that I just noticed, that plays into the whole thing:
Mass Effect was hijacked. Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 aren’t Shepard’s story anymore and never were. Both stories are all about the Illusive Man, not Shepard. Shepard was reduced to being a bystander, reacting to events and never being proactive, never following their goals, only other people’s.
Shepard ceased being the protagonist, and instead became nothing more than a point of view camera with guns.
Timing is everything. (And evidently the admiration is mutual.)
I’m surprised no one caught this until now, that’s not true. Mass Effect 1’s lead writer was Drew Karpyshyn, Mass Effect 2 credited both Karphyshyn and Mac Walters as lead writer, and 3 credited solely Walters. I guess you can argue that “Karpyshyn + Walters” is technically different than either Karpyshyn or Walters, but the above quote is awfully flimsy when there were only two people with lead writer credits across three games.
While the lead writers may have been consistent, it’s very clear there was a shift, and when Drew left, that shift accelerated. Drew with Mac is effectively a different writer than either Drew or Mac alone, but you can see the degradation in quality from Mass Effect through Mass Effect 3 as Drew’s influence faded and Mac’s became more prominent.
With the loss of certain non-lead writers and the addition of many more writers, the character of the writing team changes in each game. This dilution of perspective has a profound effect on how the story gets written.
The loss of Chris L’Etoile in specific was a great blow to the feel of Mass Effect. He was the detail oriented guy, the writer who understood how science fiction differed from space opera or superheroic or space fantasy. He was the one who characterized Geth as being different originally and rejecting individuality. He was the one who pretty much wrote the entire Mass Effect codex for the first game.
After reading some interviews, and reading between the lines, this insistence on the details mattering led to Bioware becoming a hostile work environment for Chris because of constant conflict with Mac Walters, whose approach to writing is more in line with Star Wars or comic book writing, where drama is far more important than consistency.
This is just my belief and it may not be the reality of the situation, but I believe my view is supported by both the public statements made and by the evidence available within the games.
Thanks for this very insightful and comprehensive series on the ME franchise!
I know, I usually only posted when I disagreed with something you wrote in your articles but over all, I am with you on 99% of these blogs and I think it should be an obligatory read for anyone, trying to create story driven video game series.
Congrats on finishing such an exhaustive and cohesive review, I just wish Mass Effect itself would have had such a good sense of structure. :)
Have read all of this, and what was said about Fable 2’s main story, I am strongly favoring the idea that Bioware hired the Fable 2 guy or one of his writers. Or were completely on acid for both games. It just makes no sense to have the writers from Bioware’s really good previous games, and yet take their editorial clues from Fable 2. It’s like Fable 2 infected the Mass Effect setting.
You finished this just about the time that Amazon put the Trilogy on sale ($12) and I bought it and started playing it again.
My son bought the third game and it was on his Origin account so I could not get my saved games from ME2 for ME3. ME3 is so much better when the old characters appear in the game.
One problem I see in the ending of ME3 is that Bioware could not create a game with unlimited different endings. At the very end, there have to be a limited number of choices, because they actually have to be scripted, dialogued, and animated.
My biggest problem with ME3 is that ME1&2 kept promising us that our choices were important, and yet in the end they really aren’t. No matter what you do up to that point, you end up in the same room with the same choices. Okay, you have to get a certain galactic war readiness score to get the middle option…or at least you did, but that is only ME3. In the end, what you do in ME1&2 make no difference in the end game.
If there are four endings (with the Extended Ending), then it seems to me that choices made in previous games should be part of what allows you to choose those options. Maybe if you are too renegade (across all three games, not just ME3) then maybe you are not the person who can make the middle decision. Or maybe more regenade means you have to destroy, but paragon means you have to control.
Again, just in case anyone did not read it the first time, I am referring to choices made across all three games, not just ME3.
If you destroy the rachni queen, and kill all the Feros colonists, then maybe you don’t really care about people, and a choice will be blocked. If you destroy or convert the heretic geth that might be used as a decider on how you feel about synthetic life, and especially if you combine the ME2 geth decision with the Rannoch decision.
Your explanation of the difference between the details-oriented and drama-oriented really struck home for me, and it gave me and idea for where ME2 should have gone.
First, we are told that Shepard has been ordered to hunt down Geth after ME1.
Who the hell orders around a Spectre?
ME1 clearly tells us that the Council doesn’t like to get too involved in the details of Spectre activity, and she doesn’t take orders from Admiral Hackett. He keeps asking for her help.
I like the idea of ME2 being Shepard’s quest to find a way to stop the Reapers, and if you want, you can put the Collectors in there as her major obstacle. Turn the tables on the ME2 we got. Shepard does not need to stop them. They need to stop Shepard. You could even turn the final mission into a combination of stopping the Collectors because they stand in the way of her quest, and going to the Collector Base because they have information she needs.
In the middle of ME2 you could have Shepard find plans for, or at least information about the Crucible.
This would change ME2 so much that ME3 would have to be completely different, and then if you toned down a bit of the “Cerberus is ever, at once, in overwhelming force” then they could remain in ME3, in a reduced role, as another obstacle. What is TIM is studying Reaper Tech? Then Shepard clearly has a reason to go into Cerberus bases and find that Tech and their data on it. We get one mission like that, but we could have more and Cerberus could attack Alliance bases building parts for the Crucible or studying Reaper Tech and Shepard could come to the rescue.
Personally, I like the idea of Cerberus studying reaper tech, and TIM believing he can control them. Then the final TIM on the Citadel could have been a much more powerful scene, like the ones with Saren, where he finally realizes that he is indoctrinated. It could have made him sympathetic at the end and given his death a better meaning.
But, one question is still bothering me.
What would Shepard really choose at the end?
Think about all that s/he has gone through getting to that decision. Earth is in ruins along with Palaven and Thessia and many other worlds. Anderson is dead. She does not know if her crew or companions are alive or dead. She died and was brought back, she fought and killed three reapers, four if you count the one on Earth. She is near death herself because of the battering she has taken getting to this point.
And now, the fate of all life in the galaxy is in her hands.
The Catalyst has said that war between organics and synthetics is inevitable, but he doesn’t really say enough to convince me.
Now, let us consider the four options.
1. Control the Reapers and die in the process
2. Synthesis and die in the process
3. Destroy and most likely die in the process
4. Do nothing and everyone dies
In addition to the two options that require her death, options 3 and 4 either leave her dead, or on the Citadel with no way of knowing if she can get off.
Though I played through it once just to see the ending, I cannot believe that Shepard would ever choose to do nothing. He’s been through too much to decide to do nothing. The other options are not so horrible as to make them a no go.
Shepard does not really have enough time to decide if synthesis is a good choice. That is the sort of choice that would take a long debate, IMO. Now, know that she does not have time for long debates, I can see where she could make a snap judgment and go for it, so it remains in play.
I have not really come up with an answer.
Thank you for writing this. I’ve been trying to motivate myself to do something similar for ages before i found out about this series. I may still do, as you don’t cover areas i’d have liked to (level and art design in particular).
As others have mentioned, i do miss some acknowledgement of the indoctrination theory. It’s an amusing theory, but it builds on information we receive from the first game. The oily shadows bit would have been something i’d have thought you would mention in the dream sequence part, for example, as it seems to allude to it.
As far as i understand it, Kai Leng and more about indoctrination is explained in the books. Which is a stupid idea, and something i would also have thought you’d mention. Standard EA tactic of ‘forcing’ people to buy merchandise to be able to enjoy the main product better (same with putting apparently critical story elements (Arrival) behind a paywall, a cardinal sin).
And no, those extra bits still don’t justify Kai’s inclusion or the entire derailing of the story elements. I just expected a call out :)
Those quick personal thoughts aside, i would have hoped you’d have covered the Citadel DLC. It’s such a brilliantly odd piece of the puzzle! Taken on its own, the writing is excellent, the story is enjoyable, witty action schlock and the second half gives a personal look at all the companions which the third game never really took the time for otherwise.
It contrasts beautifully with the idea that time is of the essence, yet we’re having a random sideplot in the middle of proceedings and a long party with drunken payoff afterwards. Moreover, it works *best* if you leave it as late as possible, just before you apparently have to quickly chase the reapers down!
I’m sure you can see the other problems here. Personally i love that DLC to bits, but hate the game they put it in to. It would have fit perfectly into the beginning of a sequel to the first game, with downtime still being a possibility given the difficulty and vague objective before shit got hairy again.
Anyway, thanks again. It’s just a videogame, but it made me so angry at the time. Such an irrational thought, but i can’t help it. The series gave me a bit of catharsis in that regard and even inspired me to a certain degree :)
The conversation with Sovereign remains one of the most bone chillingly awesome moments i have ever experienced in any video game, though i guess the voicework was to thank for at least half of that. Just had to mention this! :>
Nice. Gotta say, thanks. While I think you missed a couple interesting points, it doesn’t really change the gist of it. I can see better why a lot of people detest the ending or ME3 as a whole.
For me, it all fell apart at the very beginning of ME2. Yet ME3, somehow, made it mostly work again. It’s as if all the positives of ME1 and negatives of ME2 strangely worked in unison.
I hated the human-centric bullshit, COD gameplay accenting bipedal enemies, I hated Cerberus and so I guess it made me somewhat immune when this trend continued in ME3 so I could filter it rather effectively.
I hated when ME2 switched Star Trek for some cheap James Bond knockoff, so when the genre was changed to a Star Wars knockoff for ME3, it wasn’t as jarring.
It was somewhat entertaining to watch how the universe is full of arrogant idiots so I guess Shepard was just tired to call them up on it all the time (though a few times she does).
At the same time, it’s funny how the ending went in line with my expectations and my own playthough. I didn’t want a good ending (I have enough of world-saving heroes and saving the whole galaxy from an ancient thread that always wins is really too much). I felt Shepard has TOO MUCH agency in ME1 if anything.
Having played Leviathan before, having the Extended DLC and also not resolving the Geth/Quarian conflict so that everyone is happy means that the Catalyst’s explanation was believable enough (filtered through logic of ancient broken machines made by arrogant immortal demigods).
Having the Prothean dude DLC with enough interesting dialogs and being immersed in the war chaos made miss some of the silliness. And overall I was willing to handwave even the large logical flops (like the whole Crucible thing) since it wasn’t enough to completely boot me out of the game.
Strange, because I’m a massive nitpicker otherwise, but eh, everyone can have a guilty pleasure of sorts.
I still wish you played the Leviathan and the From Ashes DLCs. Not to change your mind or anything, but because they are good, you missed out on a lot of interesting stuff and you didn’t get the full picture. It’s really a shame these bits weren’t included in the original release. But if the abysmal DRM isn’t held against the games, then this shouldn’t be either.
So basically… EA sucks.
Excellent read. I had searched in vain for a criticism of ME3 that wasn’t about just the ending. And this put my own thoughts and more into words and also reminded me of how I felt when I played ME2. Such a shame.
Something I would add (and also have difficulty finding mention of) is just how terrible the graphics seemed in ME3 in many places (on PC). I started up the game expecting greatness and thought, mechanically, narratively, and graphically : huh?! And never mind the in-game textures, the cutscenes seemed to be running at a low res, looking much worse than the game itself to a ridiculous extent! (On my 1080p screen.)
Oh well, we’ll see what CDProjectRed bring out with their sci fi rpg :)
Would love to know your thoughts on Deus Ex as context for all of this critique, especially with the crazy similarity of the ME3 ending with the Deus Ex ending.
Well, shit, man. How do I tell you this… ? Eh, you probably already know.
Also, this made me laugh out loud a lot. Yandalf.
I just want to add something to the “you just want an happy end” thing, because I think it is directly connected to something you said many times before in this series: “The writer don’t manage to create proper theme and atmosphere.” You spend the whole first and second game to see Shepard doing things, and more important: You see him surviving everything, even a so-called “suicide mission”. And all this scenes create a feeling of “hope”. Because Shepard managed to join forces with the other races in ME1 and he manages to lead a team to a “suicide mission” and he is able to bring all of them back alive.(at least, the player is able to make that happen.) In ME3, the writer established the crucible as a symbol of hope,too. He never bother to create something like a “film noir” atmosphere, he don’ show us many desperate situations and he don’ treat the story as an adult scifi-game, with realistic conflicts and situations, you can’t always bring to an satisfying conclusing. But at the end of mass effect 3, the writer tell us: “Well, eventually you manged to solve all this big and difficult problems, even in the most hopeless and desperate siuations, but now, you have to choose between a ‘turd sandwich’ and a ‘giant douche’. You don’t like that? That’s your problem, get a life, moron! Not everything in life turns out as well as you want it to be!”. And that is, at least for the Mass Effect franchise, bullshit. If the developer intended to make a game containing believable, adult conflicts, with many shades of grey, I’m perfectly fine with that! But if you introduce a story about hope and overcome even the biggest problems, you can’t make a 180 degree turn in the last 10 Minutes of the game. That isn’t fun and its just as bad as everyone claims it is.
Because of this, maybe it sounds silly to demand an “happy end” in the first place, but I’m some kind of confused that you wrote 50 pages of analysing this franchise and overlook, that establishing a tone, atmosphere and a theme means, that you have to stick with it, or if you want to make a change at some point in tone, atmosphere or theme, you have to put hard work in making this change believable for the player. In ME3, this would have been possible, by showing, that fighting the reapers is pointless and there is no hope to beat them, no matter how much force you join or how much old prothean ruins you explore. But they just don’t to that. They even let us solve a conflict between synthetics and organics, just to undo this solution a couple of player hours later. In the end, it makes absolutely no sense to ignore all that and try to make some kind of “there is not always an happy end”-bullshit. Demanding an “happy end” is not childish or stupid. It have to be the conclusion of this game, not because some teenage girl(or boy) want to see an romantic happy end with his/her love interest. But because it was foreshadowed since the first game and never tried to tell us anything else but: “There WILL BE an happy end to all of this.”
I haven’t spend this much time whispering Oh god yes this this so much since… well, uh, you know what I mean. Very satisfying. It’s like someone watched me playing and took all those little moments where I felt somehow cheated and micro-angry and gave them a voice. Looking at the storytelling and worldbuilding in Dragon Age: Inquisition, where they continued all the tendecies you describe so perfectly , I certainly look forward to Andromeda. It will be a pile of shit, but you will have a lot to write about that, and I can’t wait to read it.
Having just been linked to this series, I’ve found it fascinating and enjoyed your thoughts on it.
However, I do disagree a little with your statement “By the time Shepard reaches the Citadel, the writer has painted themselves into a corner so small, no amount of writing skill or sci-fi savvy could have saved it.” That’s because when I got to that point I thought I had a reasonably good handle on how it was going to play out. I assumed that:
– The Reapers were created by an organic civilization to end a war, misinterpreted their programming and preceded to repeatedly genocide
– And that Shepherd would end the cycle by arguing successfully that organics/synthetics could co-exist
Now, that wouldn’t have fixed all the issues with the game to the point but it still would have produced a more emotionally satisfying ending.
The other thing I wanted to point out is that you’ve not mentioned the Shepherd lives ending (if you have enough war points and pick the right ending then the last shot is Shepherd’s N7 armour on a pile of rubble taking a breath). While that’s my favourite ending (I like to picture Shepherd trudging off to find Jack and celebrate their victory) it really undercuts a lot of the emotional weight they’re trying to put into the ending.
Shamus hit the nail on the head; the changing writers destroyed the Mass Effect series.
I’ll be blunt; I don’t like it when developers mix my rpgs with my shooters. However, I don’t doubt that many more people would have been satisfied with the trilogy if it had a consistent group of writers. The evolving gamestyle of the series probably wouldn’t have had such a pronounced effect on its overall quality.
I’m finished. I read your entire retrospective, all 50 parts. I stumbled across this site a few days ago because I was curious about the entire full Mass Effect story. I only have ME3. I’m a Wii U owner, and it’s the only ME game available from the trilogy.
I’m still amazed when I read (and watched the youtube link to Vigil’s convo) reapers were “trapped” in dark space. Last I checked, trapped means you can’t escape wherever you are. You’re stuck there. But many people seem to ignore that. Trapped apparently now means “very, very far away, super-distant.”
Anyway, my main reason for posting was ME3. Having replayed it 6 times now, I think I qualify as a debater. Even though I’m, like, 2 years late.
I’m not even really here to debate. I agree with 96% of what you’ve already said. There’s just a few points I disagreed with.
1. Leng. You claimed the writers made Leng this awesome, cooler-than-everyone, out-of-place assassin who always wins. Depending on who you’ve kept alive (whether through an import or using the interactive comic), the only time he gains the upper hand is on Thessia. If Thane’s alive, he prevents one of the councilors from being assassinated. Thane is damn near dead but was kicking Leng’s ass. That makes Leng look awful. He also fails to kill Miranda, if she’s warned. And during your fight on Thessia, he has to constantly run from you when his shield breaks. His helicopter friend has to cover for him.
Then after you beat Leng in your final battle, you literally turn away to get on the computer like dude was an afterthought. When he tries sneaking up on you, Shepard wasn’t shitting his pants. Like another poster said, your renegade interrupt shows you were fully aware of his presence. Hell, even if you don’t hit the renegade interrupt, you still dodge his sword and end his pathetic life. Only person impressed/scared of Leng was Anderson. If you select any renegade responses during the Leng discussion with Anderson and Hackett, you say, “He’ll die like the rest.” Sure, the cutscene loss on Thessia was bullshit, but without it, Leng would have potentially failed at every single one of his missions. Lol.
Him having a sword didn’t really bother me. Kinda stupid to have a sword when everyone else — excluding his phantom friends — has guns. Still didn’t bother me, though.
No, he wasn’t a great character or a rival, but he never made me rage.
2. Dream Sequences. I don’t see how the dreams taking place in a forest Shepard’s never been to is wrong. A quick google search will show many examples of people having dreams in locations they’ve never visited. Hell, I’ve had dreams where I’ve walked through a cave, a sewer, and a castle. I’ve never been to any of those.
You also said dialogue didn’t exist. Either you had an everybody-lives playthrough, or you didn’t hear the dead whispering. No, wait. I know there were voices in your playthrough. Thane always dies. Someone between Kashley had to die in ME1. Mordin is dead, too, unless you convinced him to go into hiding and not cure the genophage, in which case you’d then have to kill Wrex (if he’s alive). You also told us you let Miranda die in ME2, and picked the Geth, meaning Legion and Tali are both dead. That’s six dead people haunting you in your dreams, whispering your name, repeating familiar things they used to say.
3. The ending. You can definitely tell TIM to open the arms and control all the reapers. It’s a sarcastic renegade response. It’s hilarious to see TIM be like, “I will! I’ll do it. I just… I can’t do that, Shepard.”
Now the 3 options. You repeatedly stated they all kill you, but I’m sure by now you’ve been told the destroy option — with enough war assets — allows you to survive.
Then you asked a few questions that the game already answers.
Yes, you did see the reapers departing, right? (since you picked control) I don’t understand the question. The only time Earth isn’t saved is when you have low war asset and choose destroy. Earth — and basically every other planet — gets incinerated. The reapers die, but so does everyone not on a space ship. At that point, you’re even worse than the reapers, because you even kill the lesser species the reapers leave for the next cycle.
Didn’t you just say they crash-land, then take off again? Didn’t you see all your squadmates standing behind your love interest as he/she looks at the memorial wall, your nameplate in his/her hand? Why are you asking this question?
Here’s a good question. On a side-note, I also wanted to know what happened to the council and Bailey.
We can assume so. If anyone from the Normandy dies, their name gets put on the memorial wall. Except Eve (if she dies), but technically she’s not a crew member. Yes, even E.DI’s name shows up if you pick destroy option. So, knowing that, and not seeing any new names on there during that scene, it’s safe to say they all lived.
I was about to ask why you’d ask this, but then I remembered you, one, picked control, and two, didn’t make peace between the Quarians and Geth. If you made peace, you’d know Geth and Quarians live together on Rannoch, rebuilding. Not sure what Geth do by themselves, though, but I’m guessing they rebuild Rannoch by themselves, maybe.
I’m drawing a blank, but I think he just ceases to exist if you picked control. You take his job/position. He’s definitely dead if you pick destroy option.
Hackett knew you were there. He didn’t see the Starchild shit, so he wouldn’t know you had options, but he knew you reached the Citadel.
I know you want more expansive details, but Hackett just says they’ll rebuild whatever was lost. Can’t speak for all players, but in my first playthrough I was just happy we won. We beat the fucking reapers. Only thing I cared about was who lived, not the economy and government. Maybe because I’m a drama-first, details-last kind of guy.
4. Shepard has no power to make decisions.
This is very wrong. I mean, sure, you can’t stray from the main missions, but you can definitely choose to ignore all side missions. You can let the ex-Cerberus scientists and Jacob get killed. You can let Cerberus capture Jack and turn her into a generic phantom. You can let Samara commit suicide for her daughter, then turn around and kill her daughter anyway. You can let Captain Riley die. You can let Miranda get killed by not visiting her or telling her about Leng. You don’t have to visit Thane in the hospital, even when he’s about to die. You can ignore Steve and let him die during the final mission. You can kill Balak. You can stop EDI and Joker from getting into a relationship. You can make Kelly Chambers commit suicide. You can save Kelly Chambers by telling her to change her identity. You can be an asshole during your interviews with Diana or just not allow her on your ship, letting her get killed on another ship. You can authorize quite a few things inside the Spectre Office, good and bad. You have the power to do several dickhead things. Probably not as many as ME1 or ME2, but it’s there.
Instead of debating you,Ill just give you this brief explanation so you can get insight into Shamus’s mind,which can help you understand all those questions.The (good) rpgs Shamus knows from before mass effect all had very detailed,extensive endings,telling you outright precisely how your actions impacted the world,how every important npc and settlement faired after your visited,sometimes even decades after the events of the game,etc.For example,read this page about the original fallout.If you meet any of those prerequests,youll get one of those blurbs in the ending,one after the other.And thats one of the shorter examples.None of that exists in me3.Oh sure,theres the extended cut where Shepard talks about rebuilding and whatnot,but that one presents a plethora of other problems that Im not going to get into here.Yes,we can assume a lot of things,but fannon assumptions are not a replacement for canon.Because going by assumptions,you can easily reach the same conclusions as the indoctrination theory.
Those endings were pretty bad, but I think the absolute worst part was that all four preclude the possibility of sequels. The galaxy just changes too much.
That wouldn’t be so bad though, if it weren’t for the absolute worst part of the series: that there are no imitators. Mass Effect was pretty popular, but absolutely nobody else has managed to pitch another space opera game.
Hello from the future… Again.
You know just like it’s a shame that Mass Effect is incomplete (i.e. there really is only the first game that’s true ME), it’s also a shame that this critique series is incomplete for not covering at least some of the DLCs.
In a way, it’s a tad ironic. First, because you did the same as the ME writers, i.e. balked on some parts you didn’t agree on despite making this huge, comprehensive work. Second, you skipped on parts that would either explain some things, or would give you more ammo for the criticism.
I get it. Important parts shouldn’t be left to DLCs. They are expensive. I know. But at the same time, they exist, they are part of the story, so skipping on some of them is the same as skipping on ME2 and then complaining you don’t know what happened there.
In reality it’s worse because the Leviathan DLC not only foreshadowed a lot, it’s also probably the 3rd best piece of the entire trilogy after conversations with Sovereign and Vigil. And certainly has a lot more to do with the overall story than ME2 does.
Honestly I don’t have much of a problem with the ‘organics and synthetics always end up in a war’ premise. Doesn’t matter that Geth aren’t the aggressors, there is a war either way. If anything, I’d like to know where the hell has all the synthetic life disappeared, I mean before the Reapers came to be. There had been lots of pre-reaper cycles when the robots killed their masters… Where did they go?
Also while I can get the disappointment with ME3 ending, I maintain that nothing in videogame endings ever can be worse than the metal terminator baby reaper created from melted people.
Like Shamus said, the ME3 endings had superficial (at worst, IMO) tropes of a sci-fi epic. ME2 didn’t even have that. The story, and ending of ME2 would be an embarrassment to anything outside of some outrageous anime. Even Kai Leng is nothing compared to that.
Although I guess it depends on which you find more outrageous:
A) Reapers kill 99% of the population and (somehow) turn the 1% into a new reaper (because, like it has to be a SINGLE reaper for trope reasons)
B) On the inside, that one reaper has to superficially resemble the species’ skeleton so in order to obtain the metal to make it, and in order to give it the essence of said species, we melt people.
A) is presumptuous nonsense, but B) is just a retarded fever dream.
I would have liked him to have played the Arrival DLC just to read the resulting apoplexy. Did that as part of my Legendary run and woof, it’s mindbogglingly bad. If I’d played that before I played ME3 originally, my expectations would not have been in a position to take the crumbling they did.
Actually having read about his recent health problems, it’s probably not a good idea for him to play Arrival. Sorry Shamus.
One “to” too many.
anyone who thinks the Indoctrination Theory is “ridiculous” or “has very few evidence” should watch these 3 videos. They present a LOT of convincing evidence from throughout the entire series.
I am way too late to this but…
This was an amazing read! Very interesting points and all true! *mega hugs*
One only thing I’d wanted to say myself is that in the end, when seeing the whole picture,
it seems to be clear that the company EA mostly made the games, unfortunately, so as them to be played as standalone titles.
Mass effect 1 was a hit (maybe unexpected). The best in the galaxy worldbuilding. Old Bioware style.
Mass effect 2 was made to capitalize on that success, but they purposefully made it be about, something else, a practically self-contained story with its own “world building”. Collector’s story, meet new characters, the Reaper baby.
Mass effect 3, even if it was the “Big Ending”, at the same time it could also be played standalone, it was just a “Save the Earth” storyline with its own rules and facts. That explains changes on what exactly the Reapers are, changes on how the Reapers travel, how the Galaxy’s races act, etc. It had to work on its own.
It’s almost like, EA wanted gamers to not have to play the previous games to play the “last new one”. They must have got afraid that people would not buy the new game because they “had” to play the olds? Probably…
EA: “Everyone buy the new game, to hell with the old.”
That could also explain why important story connections/explanations like Arrival and Leviathan were DLC. It was only for the old gamers who wanted the connections. New gamers to the specific Mass effect didn’t “need” them.
I know that some very important choices do exist: the survivor, Geth, Flotilla, but if we see EA as making standalone games so as them to sell more, the remaining choices seems to be “left overs” from a production (the last Bioware employees?) that tried as hard as they could, to keep the Mass effect as the connected trilogy they wanted.
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