The Sense of an Ending: Preliminary Thoughts on Mass Effect 3

Note: This blog post was written without any knowledge about the overblown ME3 ending controversy - I'm simply not entagled enough in the intricate web of gaming community grapevines to have picked up on all that stuff before the release of the game - and for the record I think it changes little about my overall impression of the game nor has any real impact on these general, preliminary remarks below.

With Mass Effect 3, it's very easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Using EA's bombardment of ME3-related news and trailers as their dubious data points, everything from the addition of a multiplayer mode to the unorthodox choose-your-playing-style option and even the new default appearance of the female Commander Shepard has been meticulously scrutinized, picked apart and extrapolated from in pretty wild ways by anxious fans fearing the worst; as people tend to do whenever they care passionately about something and it isn't clear what the future holds.

But with this game it's more important than ever to focus on the basic facts, because they are spectacular enough on their own. With the completion of its ambitious sci-fi trilogy, Bioware has pulled off a grand 5-year experiment the likes of which the gaming industry has simply never seen before. Sure, there are lots of classic RPGs which have allowed importing save files from previous installments; my personal favorite example being the implausible long-lived "Dark Savant" story arch from Wizardry 6-8 (published inbetween 1990 and 2001 (!)). But any such previous attempts are utterly dwarfed by the scale and sheer audacity of what Bioware set out to accomlish with the Mass Effect games, which include a staggering amount of big and small decisions all being carefully carried over (in some way or another) from each of the two first parts of trilogy and brought to bear upon the third and final chapter in the epic Reaper saga. EA's desperate marketing pitch about new players being able to jump right into ME3 is not only wrong; it's also a rather disingenuous invitation to miss the point completely about what makes this game - and the fact that it even exists at all - so remarkable.

Now, judged very narrowly in terms of the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of the Western RPG as traditionally conceived, ME1-3 are in some ways all too predictable examples of a genre schizophrenically (although in this case also rather competently) incorporating the outwards trappings of action games and by doing so arguably getting further and further away from what, for better and worse, used to define the genre. However, when viewed from the broader perspective of making significant advances in interactive storytelling and player engagement in a fictional world fraught with meaning and emotional resonance, there's no question in my mind that Mass Effect as a whole represents a ground-breaking, historic achievement in interactive entertainment. Even for someone like me (who complained that a game like Witcher 2 strayed too far from the stats- and turn-based roots of hardcore RPGs), it becomes downright silly to think about Mass Effect solely in terms of how it does or does not conform to certain long-established tropes of the genre. For all Bioware's somewhat abrupt changes of direction along the way (involving everything from combat controls to class system, levelling up mechanics and the overall tone and atmosphere etc.) which have made these past 5 years into a bumpy and emotional ride for many fans, the series is a sui generis in video gaming and easily stands on its own regardless of whatever quibbles one might have over mere genre classifications. It's far from perfect but it's certainly unique, and that ultimately matters more - especially in an AAA landscape in which playing it safe has long since become the norm...

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5 Comments
Posted by Egge

With Mass Effect 3, it's very easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Using EA's bombardment of ME3-related news and trailers as their dubious data points, everything from the addition of a multiplayer mode to the unorthodox choose-your-playing-style option and even the new default appearance of the female Commander Shepard has been meticulously scrutinized, picked apart and extrapolated from in pretty wild ways by anxious fans fearing the worst; as people tend to do whenever they care passionately about something and it isn't clear what the future holds.

But with this game it's more important than ever to focus on the basic facts, because they are spectacular enough on their own. With the completion of its ambitious sci-fi trilogy, Bioware has pulled off a grand 5-year experiment the likes of which the gaming industry has simply never seen before. Sure, there are lots of classic RPGs which have allowed importing save files from previous installments; my personal favorite example being the implausible long-lived "Dark Savant" story arch from Wizardry 6-8 (published inbetween 1990 and 2001 (!)). But any such previous attempts are utterly dwarfed by the scale and sheer audacity of what Bioware set out to accomlish with the Mass Effect games, which include a staggering amount of big and small decisions all being carefully carried over (in some way or another) from each of the two first parts of trilogy and brought to bear upon the third and final chapter in the epic Reaper saga. EA's desperate marketing pitch about new players being able to jump right into ME3 is not only wrong; it's also a rather disingenuous invitation to miss the point completely about what makes this game - and the fact that it even exists at all - so remarkable.

Now, judged very narrowly in terms of the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of the Western RPG as traditionally conceived, ME1-3 are in some ways all too predictable examples of a genre schizophrenically (although in this case also rather competently) incorporating the outwards trappings of action games and by doing so arguably getting further and further away from what, for better and worse, used to define the genre. However, when viewed from the broader perspective of making significant advances in interactive storytelling and player engagement in a fictional world fraught with meaning and emotional resonance, there's no question in my mind that Mass Effect as a whole represents a ground-breaking, historic achievement in interactive entertainment. Even for someone like me (who complained that a game like Witcher 2 strayed too far from the stats- and turn-based roots of hardcore RPGs), it becomes downright silly to think about Mass Effect solely in terms of how it does or does not conform to certain long-established tropes of the genre. For all Bioware's somewhat abrupt changes of direction along the way (involving everything from combat controls to class system, levelling up mechanics and the overall tone and atmosphere etc.) which have made these past 5 years into a bumpy and emotional ride for many fans, the series is a sui generis in video gaming and easily stands on its own regardless of whatever quibbles one might have over mere genre classifications. It's far from perfect but it's certainly unique, and that ultimately matters more - especially in an AAA landscape in which playing it safe has long since become the norm...

Posted by Vegetable_Side_Dish

Have you finished Mass Effect 3? Do you know about the story in this game? Are you trying to tell me it is something we should hold up as a golden standard in storytelling and player interactivity? 
 Please, I'm genuinely interested to know the answers to these. 

Posted by Egge

@Vegetable_Side_Dish: Well, I have barely even played ME3 yet (and have been quite happy to avoid any of the spoilers out there), so I'm certainly not commenting on the actual plot of the game here. I'm simply stating the obvious "big picture" stuff, i.e. it's pretty darn cool that a story-oriented game series has been created with such a strong focus on carrying over player decisions from previous games.

As far as that aforementioned plot goes, I think they sort of lost me with the whole outlandish twist about the Reapers (or "evil space mites from outer, eh, space", as I like to call them) way back in the original Mass Effect; so "golden standard of storytelling" would certainly be an overstatement in this context. It's the ambition and the clear intent to get people engaged in a story which changes (or at least responds) depending on your own long-term choices that is the remarkable achievement here, not so much the slightly silly space opera itself.

Posted by Mento

I was always partial to Quest for Glory's character importing. There's at least one instance where you can export a character with a class that wasn't available in the next game in the series, and it still flies. The far-reaching consequences of Mass Effect's decisions is still more impressive though. I'll get around to Mass Effect 3, just not right now. I'm determined to do away with this pile of shame of mine.

I'll also agree that the "they're not real RPGs any more" complaint is a little trivial. While it is a shame that BioWare has turned away from the more focused RPGs their fans enjoyed in the past, I see it more as they're creating a whole new hybrid genre rather than diminishing a genre that is still going strong elsewhere.

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Posted by Vegetable_Side_Dish
@Egge said:

@Vegetable_Side_Dish: Well, I have barely even played ME3 yet (and have been quite happy to avoid any of the spoilers out there), so I'm certainly not commenting on the actual plot of the game here. I'm simply stating the obvious "big picture" stuff, i.e. it's pretty darn cool that a story-oriented game series has been created with such a strong focus on carrying over player decisions from previous games.

As far as that aforementioned plot goes, I think they sort of lost me with the whole outlandish twist about the Reapers (or "evil space mites from outer, eh, space", as I like to call them) way back in the original Mass Effect; so "golden standard of storytelling" would certainly be an overstatement in this context. It's the ambition and the clear intent to get people engaged in a story which changes (or at least responds) depending on your own long-term choices that is the remarkable achievement here, not so much the slightly silly space opera itself.

So, it's the ambition and the scope that is the achievement, correct? I can understand that view, but I don't think it counts for much when the execution is, to put it nicely, lacking. I would say that there were at least some endearing characters, a feat that most other big budget games simply do not pull off, but I don't think it's anywhere near ground-breaking.