Design Perspective on Mass Effect 3 Ending (Spoilers)

In the time since launch there has been a lot of discussion about the way Mass Effect 3 ends from a narrative perspective, but from what I have seen, not a lot of discussion about the game design around the ending (or the game design in general). Since I'm currently caught in the loving grasp of ME3's multiplayer, I have been thinking about the game daily, and wanted to put out some thoughts on the ending from this perspective.

Below are end game spoilers for all Mass Effect games!

The first piece I want to mention is the run towards the conduit.

In a direct callback to the end of the original Mass Effect, Shepard is tasked with trying to make it through a conduit to the Citadel under great duress. I thought this was a great moment, that was well executed. In the first game, we are barreling towards the conduit in the Mako, hot on Saren's tail. In that sequence the pressure comes so much from any threat of death, but from the countdown until the conduit closes forever. The experience the player ends up having is a seat-of-their-pants sprint towards a goal, with a need to go faster, and damn the consequences. In fact, once we make it through, the Mako is destroyed and cast off. We know we won't be needing it again.

When we are racing towards the conduit in Mass Effect 3, the callback gives veteran players a sense of coming full circle. We know from prior experience that the end is near, and it is time to go all-out. What is great about this moment is that, this time, there is no explicit counter. The pressure comes from the fact that we are not in the Mako, but on foot, with allies being disintegrated and blown up left and right. The sense of danger is very high - especially for those players that remember the first game. We aren't in a tank this time. We are exposed and vulnerable. And Harbinger is coming.

This vulnerability is immediately exploited when Harbinger arrives and rains down hot red death on Shepard. The sequence afterward, where we limp along with our pistol prepares us for what is to come. This time even Shepard isn't going to be awesome enough to get out unscathed. Things are about to get messy.

It's the final countdown!

The next interesting piece is the conversation with The Illusive Man (TIM). This is another callback to the ending of the first game, this time to the conversation with Saren. While this section seems fine to me on its own, I feel that it doesn't gel very well with the final decision. For now let me just say that I enjoyed confronting TIM, and that I could resolve that conversation the same way I did with Saren. More symmetry to bring things full circle.

The next interesting piece is the conversation with The Illusive Man (TIM). This is another callback to the ending of the first game, this time to the conversation with Saren. While this section seems fine to me on its own, I feel that it doesn't gel very well with the final decision. For now let me just say that while I enjoyed confronting TIM, and that I could resolve that conversation the same way I did with Saren. More symmetry to bring things full circle.

The last and most controversial piece of design is the final choice. The way this seems to work is that a higher war effort rating will not only unlock more options here (up to three) as well as make the outcomes of those decisions more successful. While people have criticized the ending choice railroading the player and only allowing them to basically 'pick a color' I have an entirely different bone to pick here.

For one, how the readiness rating works feels detached and artificial. It would be one thing if the rating represented only the completion of the Catalyst device, but the bulk of that score has to do with ships and troops that have nothing to do with the final choice. In contrast, the ending of Mass Effect 2 and the outcome of the suicide mission felt very grounded in the decisions, upgrades and loyalty you had worked on up until that point. We got to see our upgrades saving lives, or our squad holding the line (or not). With Mass Effect 3, we just build up a score that gates later content in an artificial way, akin to beating a game under a certain playtime or inputting a certain name for your character. The player has to go online and look up score thresholds to understand how they are being rewarded or penalized for their readiness, and that undermines the sense of player agency in the ending.

Score locked in, the player is given a set of (at best) three paths to take. I think the way these are presented is the biggest mistake in the ending design. The Catalyst explains that we can Destroy, Control, or Fuse with the Reapers, and we are treated to views of the paths that correspond to each.

Now, making a choice between Control or Destroy was something I was expecting going in to the ending. As I played through the conversation with TIM, I expected it was there that I would have the option to join himand try the control option. The whole game has been a fight against Cerberus and their attempts to control the Reapers at any cost. In that conversation, as a Paragon, I rejected TIM and his plans. I was certain that any control attempt would be a bad guy ending, and TIMs words and actions reinforce that. But when the Catalyst shows us the three paths, something funny happens...

The Destroy option is shown first, with a spectral Anderson blowing up a panel. Anderson has been presented for the entire series as a the Good Guy, the surrogate father figure. The Paragon. He definitely wants to destory the Reapers. But his path is to the right, and highlighted in red, which are both things associated with Renegade actions. This confused me a little at first, until I realized that the Destroy option would also mean genocide on the Geth, who were not only peaceful, but my allies along with the Quarians. Since I had played through the series constantly making Paragon decisions and saving the Geth, Quarians, Krogan and even Rachni from genocide, this option was unappealing.

The next option is Control, shown with a spectral TIM in blue, on the left. This again is confusing, because siding with TIM or Cerebus has ALWAYS been a Renegade action. In fact, not two minutes before I thought I had taken repeated and explicit Paragon choices to reject TIM and his plan. Shepard remarks that "Huh...TIM was right all along...." which was jarring and too hard to swallow. But there is a third choice...

Synthesis, the middle, green path, only opens up with the higher readiness ratings. From a game design perspective, this suggests it is the most rewarding, since it is most difficult to obtain. I had intended to destroy the Reapers for the whole game, and was sure I didn't want to control them, but now I was confused. The control and destroy options that I had expected had been inverted in ways that made both of them feel unacceptable, and so I felt pushed towards the third choice. Between the way the choices are presented, and how they are unlocked, it seems that the designers really wanted to encourage players to take that middle path and intended for it to be the 'best' ending.

Unfortunately, what this path means, or what the consequences are is extremely vague and unsatisfying. We can't ask the Catalyst for more details, and are forced to make what is arguably the biggest and most profound decision in the series with very little information to go on. For me, this meant that I sat dumbfounded as the credits began to roll. Narrative shortcomings of the ending aside, I didn't have a strong sense of player agency in that final moment, nor ownership of the outcome.

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Tango Down - Manning Up And Breaking Brad

The recent Breaking Brad segment was great fun to watch. So much so that I felt a sick need growing inside me. No, not to send troll tweets to Brad.

I wanted to try if for myself.

First a little background. The Halo games are really the only FPS that I enjoy playing on a console. I'd previously played and beaten CoD4:MW while borrowing the game from my brother. While I can understand the appeal, I just wasn't quite in the right demographic to really fall in love with the series. I played a bit of the second one (single player only) before moving on. With Black Ops and MW3 hype barely registering on my radar, I never thought I'd pop another one of these back in the tray.

I picked the game up on Sunday afternoon, and sat down to play. Having watched the above feature live (while Steam downloaded Saints Row: The Third in the background), I knew exactly what I was getting in to. One way or the other, it would probably take at least as long as Brad. The question was, would I rage quit, or succeed?

Things seemed okay at first. I ran up, killed some guys, and died. I didn't get super far, but I felt good about it. After all, I was able to take out some terrorists before being slaughtered, so it couldn't be totally hopeless, right? Right? Guys...?

After a few runs I started doing worse instead of better. I realized that if I was going to stay in this for the long haul, I was going to need to do more than just run and gun. I needed a sustainable and repeatable strategy. My first goal was clear: to consistently kill the Tangos in sector 1-Alpha. In other words, I was going to need to be able to get through the first room reasonably confidently if I wanted to avoid breaking.

I found that killing "Bathroom Guy" (or at least, trying to) helped my overall performance. Getting killed right off the start was just too demoralizing and too much of a time waster. If I just ran past there was too much of a chance he would melee me from behind. Knifing him was satisfying, but in the end I settled on starting with a sprint, running up to that point, and then taking a headshot from the hip to take him out. Even if I missed or only wounded him, it would stagger him enough that my NPC squad would take him out.

I found that if I ran forward, killed Bathroom Guy, then went left through the meeting room, I could headshot the one patrolling dude and then get a chance to headshot as many of the reinforcements as I could while they ran clustered in to the room. Getting as many of them as possible in that moment makes a huge difference in how fast you can move through the encounter and was one of my milestones at progression. It also seemed like a ripe time for a flashbang, but I didn't find much success with that approach.

If I did things right, I would end up emptying my clip in to the second patrol dude just at the north meeting room door and then take a knee and reload with about 50 seconds left. Then I could quickly waddle through the room and clean up any remaining terrorists as I moved forward. This would get me to the start of the 'breach' room and sequence with about 40 seconds left depending on the quality of the run. Picking up a new weapons or screwing up seemed to slow me down to only having 30 seconds left at the breach. Once there I could reload for a second time.

The decompression of the plane was the second bottleneck, and where the randomness started to get really apparent. Sometimes it seemed like all the terrorists would get sucked out. Sometimes it seemed like none would. Sometimes a bunch of guys would come down the stairs afterward and sometimes they seemed to already be down and waiting for me. Dying here meant doing the whole first room over again, which despite having a strategy for continued to be hit-or-miss.

This is where flashbangs really started to come in handy. I could sit and wait for the blow out before moving forward, but that burned precious seconds. I decided the best thing to do was to flash and move forward before the explosion to maximize forward movement. I could get to the low cover in time to start mowing down the badguys as the ran down the stairs, but had to keep an eye out for the odd baddie that would randomly survive the event and try to kill me from the side/behind.

Once I started to get this down, it became obvious that with the path I was taking and my skill level, I was getting to the stairs at around 25-20 seconds remaining. I felt like I was pretty close to the end, but the home stretch sure is a doozy...

On track to win?

The second floor proved to be my biggest challenge. At this point I had done the first floor over and over, and seemed to have hit a wall in terms of improvement. If I was going to beat this, I had to do it with roughly this much time left. I tried killing guys and moving forward, but would run out of time. I started taking bigger risks, but that would just get my killed. Even when I was lucky, it wasn't enough. It started to really get to me. There are so many guys up here! What the fuck?!

I found that throwing a flash from the stairs was critical. Sometimes my squad would come up with me and sometimes not, but either way if I threw a flash it would give me a chance to get in there and clear it out before dying. If I moved forward aggressively enough it would drag my squad with me to help. I started using even more flashbangs here, since there are a few more to pick up half way through the second floor. Believe me, they are there as a hint. There are way too many terrorists to just run past or kill.

The worst part was when I started to notice how inconsistent the flashbangs seem to be. I would toss one in a room, and half the time it would bllind me even if I looked away. If that wasn't bad enough, it seemed like there was always at least one asshole who had avoided the flash and was waiting to gun me down. I started to hate the flashbangs and their shitty design. Who made these things anyway? AARRRRGGG!!

Finally, I started to make it quasi-consistently to the final hallway. And then run out of time. I started flashing and then just running forward as fast as I could, but the fat fucking terrorists would stagger blindly in the hall and block my way. At this point I was yelling at the TV pretty regularly. MOVE!! WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? WHY DO YOU HATE ME?! Whyyyy?

The breakthrough came with I started picking up a shotgun from one of the flashed-and-shot terrorists at the start of the second floor. If the stars aligned I would get it full of ammo which would save reload time, and then I could run forward and blast anyone that got in the way. I could see the door. Then I could almost reach it.

Then I made it! It opened!

And I missed the shot, killing the hostage.

Twice.

FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUU~

But I wouldn't be broken, and after many, many attempts at this damn level, I waited patiently for the last bastard to show this face. I got the headshot after only making it to that point three times. If only I had been more patient the first time, I could have saved myself a few hours of hell.

All in all, I ended up playing the level over and over for quite a while. I want to say around 6 hours total over four sessions. It was pretty hard, and pretty frustrating at times, but also a lot of fun. I highly recommend everyone with the game at least try it, if only to really appreciate Brad's cries of anguish. I hope they do another session - I'd love to see him get it live.

(At the time of this posting, I don't think the achievement has hit my profile yet. Probably because I just got it a few hours ago. I promise I really did it.)

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