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Mass Effect 3: A Narratological Review

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Mass Effect 3: A Narratological Review

Review - posted by VentilatorOfDoom on Mon 23 April 2012, 12:50:38

Tags: BioWare; Mass Effect 3

[Written by TNO]

Five years ago Mass Effect burst onto the scene as Bioware's ARPG in a new space opera setting. The game heavily borrowed mechanics from MMOs, and although elements of the story were interesting twists on standard space opera formula, the plot generally trundled along with the plausibility of a B-movie. Serviceable, but bland.

They followed up with Mass Effect 2. This time the gameplay borrowed heavily from Gears of War - more of a third-person shooter with stats than a true hybrid. The writers did a bang up job writing lots of interesting characters with their own neat little plot arcs packaged in 'loyalty missions', heinleining in some neat background elements. Sadly, this was squandered by a deeply implausible main narrative arc.

So let’s see how Mass Effect 3 has turned out. Warning: Spoilers for the entire series below, and I’m going to assume some familiarity with the setting.

Excursus: When is a plot hole not a plot hole?
Assessing plot continuity can be hard. Even games with a good plot can be picked apart by offering alternative hypotheticals for every action taken. Conversely, a plot can be exasperating without any conspicuous plot hole: the story slowly drips implausibilities like Chinese water torture on your suspension of disbelief until it finally snaps.

There are also genre conventions: ME3 (despite the developers' absurd claims as to its 'hard sci-fi' nature) is purely a space opera/space fantasy, and therefore certain concessions to the wider aesthetic are admissible: the fact Sovereign's shields fail when Shepard's team bests cyber-Saren at the climax of ME1 doesn't make any sense except to make a climactic battle finale - the same trope suffices to explain why the Naboo rebels didn't just shoot Darth Maul when he made his grand entrance, or why most settings have some excuse as to why you hear sound in space.

Your threshold for what constitutes a 'plot hole' also depends on the general track record of plausibility. If a story seems to you to be plotted robustly, you might be willing to give the writers a benefit of the doubt when something stands out as incongruous, and much less willing to give them the benefit of the doubt if it's been generally ramshackle.

Despite these apologies, the plot of ME3 is dire, plumbing depths of narrative hell not even touched by ME2 and its stupid human Reaper endboss made of genetic slurpee. ME3 has an absurd beginning, an indefensible end, and a string of brainless contrivances between the two.

The story begins with our hero locked up for flying an asteroid into the 'alpha relay', a backdoor entrance the Reapers were going to use to spread across the galaxy. If you have finished ME2 and wonder where this has come from, it's in the DLC. You get summoned to the Systems Alliance brass to explain the Reaper threat. Things are cut short when the Reapers jet in and start attacking Earth.

And here - within the first five minutes - is when ME3's plot jumps the shark. Why isn't this the game over screen? ME1's entire plot hinged on the fact that if the Reapers show up, the galaxy is finished (and this is repeated in the Arrival DLC). All the backstory shows that a single Reaper can only just barely be taken down by the might of the entire galaxy, and now hundreds have arrived. You're told how they crippled the Protheans in a single decapitating strike and then mopped them up piecemeal. Given ME2 has you boarding a Reaper that was disabled a few hundred million years ago, the Reapers have likely successfully wiped out organic life thousands of times. Even in ME3 Shepard tells the Alliance how the Reapers are the super-intelligent killer machines of doom.

Yet despite all this, the game still lets you win. Worse, the Reapers prosecute their genocidal war in the least intelligent way imaginable. They don't opt for a decapitating strike on the Citadel - the center of galactic co-ordination. Nor do they limit transit through the mass relays (which they control) dividing the galaxy to be picked off piecemeal. Instead, they spread themselves out in a long grinding war of attrition against everyone at once, giving our heroes enough time to hitch hike around to save the galaxy. Absurd!

All Bioware games follow the same plot with minor variations and adjustments for setting. You are the chosen one, a member of an elite crew (Spectres, Jedi, Wardens) set to stop some vast evil (Reapers, Darkspawn, Bhaal) by any means necessary. However, these means are almost exclusively comprised of wandering around, collecting plot coupons (star maps, alliances) and playing therapist for your party members.

You would think given that given "The Reapers are here! London is burning! Millions dead!" Bioware would change the formula. You would be wrong: in the familiar manner, you have to hitchhike around the galaxy doing quests to secure alliances with the other alien species, so that, united, you might beat the reapers. Not content with borrowing the narrative thrust of Dragon Age, the developers also throw in an ancient powerful superweapon (the Crucible) which your team is building to space magic away the reapers.

You are propelled through by a series of serendipitous phone calls that tell you to get race Y to join the alliance just after you've gotten race X on board and have nothing to do. (There are also the odd sidequests that follow upon ME2s loyalty missions, in which an old party member from ME2 needs you to help them out. There are also forgettable missions which unlock maps for multiplayer).

The set pieces themselves at best barely hold water: you may wonder why the Turians would be willing to trade their ships for Krogan soldiers when fighting giant killer squid from space, or why the Quarians picked the onset of the Reaper invasion to start a galactic war with the Geth (or why the Reaper controlled Geth are staying to fight them). After a while you get tired of making excuses for what all these quasi plausible things 'just happen' without justification. Others episodes are unjustifiable: Cerberus (the black ops organisation and soft power specialist) single handedly taking over the Citadel as part of a Udina-led coup is perhaps the worst.

The elements in this 'main arc' of the story are hopeless. The Crucible comes out of nowhere like the naked 'deus ex machina' plot device it really is: despite the two games' worth of opportunity for foreshadowing, you find the plans for it lying around among the Prothean documents on Mars (why wasn't it discovered earlier?), and the Alliance starts building it. Cerberus do their second handbrake turn back from an ally to the main antagonist: and again, Bioware squandered all chances in ME2 for the switch from "Destroy the Reapers by any means necessary" to "Let's control them for our benefit!" not to come arbitrarily out of the blue (this whole indoctrination thing could have been really engaging if weaved into ME2 rather than being just a plot band aid for whenever antagonists do something retarded). The Collectors remain the 'villain of the interval' and serve no important role in the events of ME3 - the Alpha relay stuff in the Arrival has far more relevance. The Reapers are given preposterous motivations and are double retconned from the original 'biosynthetic constructs' in ME2, but we'll cover them when we discuss the ending.

Look, sound, and feel
Mass Effect has a generic space opera setting, but it is a pretty good generic space opera setting: the alien races are better characterised without 'we all have the same personality trait', and various settings have at least be thought about before being thrown at the player. ME3 continues ME2's fleshing out of the galaxy. It is compromised a few times to crowbar in set pieces (why do Geth ships have medigel dispensers, or computer consoles, or corridors?), but beneath that it is good for what it is: I still like the Salarian and Quarian backstory, the history of the genophage, etc.

The way it adapts the setting to the 'imminent machine apocalypse', however, is somewhat of a hit-and-miss. I can just about buy the rest of the galaxy being fairly laid back until the scale of disaster becomes clear, and there are lots of neat little desolate touches (the hospital in the hub gradually fills with stretchers, the incidental conversation between a woman about to be deployed ensuring her daughter is safe, the exchange at the end of the game between a doctor and panicked civilian over communicators, and the last conversations you have with your party before the final reckoning, amongst many others). The misses show up when the game tries too hard to ram tragedy down your throat. There are more than a few overwrought wangsty death scenes (Thane and Miranda being two examples), but the worst offenders are the repeated dream sequences of Shepard running through a dark forest after a small boy who got killed in the intro.

ME3 takes a step back from ME2 in terms of what you get to look at. Generally your missions take place either in sci fi generic buildings or differently coloured rocky wasteland (Palaven grey-blue, Tuchanka yellow-brown, Earth grey, etc.), and visually things are quite forgettable. The music is alright with the usual portentous hush and leitmotif, although the pounding synth fare you got in the first couple of games has been replaced with Einaudi-esque piano tunes.

The voice acting remains (for the most part) very good - unsurprising, given all the big names Bioware splashed out on. Particular props to the actors behind (female) Shepard, Anderson, Hackett, Traynor, Tali, Garrus, and the Illusive Man. Male Shepard and Diana Allers, on the other hand, are two of the weaker performances. It all comes together into some pretty good ensemble performances (here, and here, and one cut). As always, the performance is modulated by the quality of the dialogue the actors have to work with, and generally it trundles along in sub-Joss whedon pretty writing with occasional dives into bathos - watching Bioware attempt epic speeches has always been unintentionally hilarious since Kirrahe's 'hold the line' rubbish on Virmire.

Another of ME2's strengths was the interesting characters you got to meet and travel with, and ME3 builds upon these. Mordin, Legion, Tali and Miranda are their usual selves, and Garrus continues growing into a level-headed, entertaining sidekick. The other ME2 NPCs only get short cameos. Even Kaidan and Liara, previously insufferable, are now reasonable. There is this nice sense of allies reunited and camaraderie as you meet old friends (and they meet each other), and by and large they come to terms with the fairly bleak prospects facing the galaxy in a plausible, not-too-wangsty way. Sometimes they are genuinely funny, like Tali's drunken episode, or shooting bottles with Garrus on top of the Citadel.

By contrast, the new companions you get in ME3 mostly suck. There's your new Marine sidekick Lieutenant James Vega: Jersey Shore meets Jarhead with a side order of roid abuse (amazingly, not a love interest). Or the flatly-acted and fanservice-costume equipped Diana Allers. Or the new EDI, whose fairly limited 'AIs are so zany!' shtick is horribly overplayed when Bioware make her a party member with a scavenged cybernetic body and drum up a romance with Joker (!!!). Worst of all is Kai Leng, a cerberus henchman/space ninja who fell out of the metal gear solid tree and hit every cliché on the way down. The one passable addition is Traynor, your communications expert, assisted by an able voice actor (she also replaces Kelly Chambers as your starship NPC emotional distress monitor).

All of this should be taken modulo romances, which are here horribly overdone prepubescent stabs at human (or quasi human, given all the aliens you can shag) sexuality: it is always either the undying one true love for an NPC after a handful of conversations, or casual hook ups with some of the worst come-on dialogue I have ever heard. They bastardize the characters who have to participate in them and make me pity the voice cast. A quick foursome to give you some idea: 1 2 3 4.

Bioware's penchant for 'cinematic experience' deserves its own section. To their credit they've gotten steadily more adept at cutscenes over the course of the trilogy: they've (mostly) gotten over their addiction of depth of field and portentous pacing. The big climatic space battles are jolly good fun to watch, and Bioware manage to keep some nice little somatic touches (things like Shepard tossing his pistol away in disgust after shooting Mordin).

The problem with something just above average is that you can eventually have too much of it. Too often is the game subjugated to walking between cutscene triggers and having the cutscenes drive forward the story. The most egregious example of this is Kai Leng: not content with rubbing this stupid antagonist in your face, Bioware goes one better by have him kick your ass twice via cutscenes.

Bioware is big on 'character driven narrative experiences', 'your choices matter', and so on. Generally, they do not live up to this: in almost all their games, the narrative drives the characters, and not the other way around, and the 'tone decisions' of tripartite hobson's choices of 'Absolutely!' 'Fine' 'If you insist' are notorious. This said, Bioware really pulls off narrative choices well in some parts of the game, and these are the highest points of ME3. This is best illustrated with an example, so let's consider the Krogan.

The Krogan are only willing to help you if you cure the genophage, the sterility plague inflicted upon them by the Turians and Salarians to stop them over-running the galaxy. The groundwork for a cure is in place: a rogue scientist (Maelon, who you met in ME2) did some preliminary work on a Krogan female he made immune to the genophage (Eve), and your own scientist Salarian (Mordin from ME2, assuming he survives) begins the work to spread this cure among the Krogan. The Salarian government, fearful of retribution from the Krogan attempts to counter-act this by offering their assistance if you sabotage the cure and conceal this from the Krogan.

From here, things can play out in several ways as the decisions you made in the previous games cross ramify within an elaborate set of dependencies:
  • Leadership: If Wrex survived ME1, he leads. If not, his brother Wreav does. It is implied that Wreav is much more dangerous and likely to seek revenge, while Wrex is more level-headed.
  • Eve: The female Krogan lives if you kept Maelon's research in ME2. If she survives, she is a stabilizing influence on the Krogan.
  • Mordin: If you opt to cure the genophage, Mordin dies dispersing the cure, possibly singing his favourite show tune. If you opt to sabotage, you have to shoot Mordin yourself, unless Wreav leads the Krogan and Eve is dead. Then you can talk him down and he plays along.
  • Krogan war assets: If you cure the Genophage, the Krogan throw their weight behind you. If you sabotage it, they are duped unless Wrex is leader, in which case he finds out, withdraws the Krogan support, and confronts you.

All that is pretty cool, especially give that you won't get to know all these eventualities when playing the game (assuming you don't "game" the system by reading walkthroughs/spoilers). This captures the sense of decision making under uncertainty whilst preserving a satisfying logic that links up choices to outcomes. The genophage plot also benefits from being one of the better elements of the game, with some of the better characters too (especially Mordin). In short, incredibly good stuff.

It is worth noting that the renegade options have generally matured a bit. Previously renegade choices were random acts of violence (such as this defenestration), or killing an NPC you just met for the greater good. The renegade choice in the Tuchanka story line involves you literally shooting a likeable NPC in the back, and potentially having the betrayal blow up horribly in your face if Wrex is around to find out. Having party members mention 'shame that Mordin had to die curing the Genophage' knowing you shot him to ensure it remained uncured was much more emotionally engaging that their canned tragedy routines.

There are other cases of similar complexity where the C&C shines. Resolving the conflict between the Quarian and the Geth is one example, talking down Ash/Kaidan at the council coup another. This sort of thing has only really been matched by Alpha Protocol, and I wish other games joined in.

Sadly, it isn't all that good, and the 'Bioware choices' which lead to at-best-cosmetically-different outcomes are out in force. If a party member died in previous installments, their role will be replaced by a functionally (and often word-perfect) equivalent stunt double: Mordin gets replaced with a scientist Salarian, Grunt with another Krogan Leader, Jack with a leader of biotic students, Tali with another Quarian Geth expert, etc. Supposedly important plot decisions count for little: destroy the Collector base and Cerberus still 'recovers' the human reaper and hangs it up in their headquarters, kill the Rachni queen and you still meet another Rachni queen 'created' by the Reapers, get Anderson to be councillor and Udina takes over the role anyway. And so on. It got to the point that whenever I saw an interesting little wrinkle in the game it made me wonder 'how would things have turned out differently?' I reminded myself that, in all likelihood, the difference would have been cosmetic. There are only so many times you can offer illusory choice before you prejudice the audience against you.

The influence of these decisions on the wider story in ME3 consists in the mechanic in which certain races, units, ships, etc., have a certain value as a plot coupon, and these coupons are summed together in a galactic readiness score, with a higher score leading to a better outcome in the endgame (although the scoring is a bit wacky - e.g., your own tricked out frigate gets more points than an entire fleet - not to mention the fact that the score is multiplied by a factor of how much multiplayer you engage in).

That said, let's talk about the ending.

ME3's ending is now the most infamous one in computer gaming history. What other ending has managed to get mainstream press coverage about how outraged the fans are (as well as all over the gaming blogs)? What other ending has provoked a grass roots campaign against the developers to put it right – to which the developers acceded? What other ending is so bad that fans flocked desperately to the 'indoctrination theory' implying that the ending was in fact supposed to be 'he woke up and it was all a dream?'

Hundreds of thousands of words have been spilled on the ending, and I don't want to add too much to the mound of vitriol. Instead, I'll state it, summarize why it is such a big deal, and editorizalize a bit. So, the ending: (Video here)

After knocking out Cerberus, the combined forces of the galaxy showdown at earth, where the Reapers have moved the Citadel - now a plot device they must connect their plot device to if they want to save the galaxy. The fleets engage, and Shepard and ground forces land in London to get to the teleport beam that will woosh them to the citadel. The force is chewed apart on destination, so that only Shepard and Anderson barely make it. They meet at a console room, where the now-indoctrinated Illusive Man controls them with Reaper tech and makes Shepard shoot Anderson. Eventually, Shepard kills the Illusive man and opens the citadel arms, allowing the two plot devices to frob each other, and Anderson dies too. Hackett buzzes Shepard to say they can't get the Cruicible to work, but Shepard loses consciousness.​
The floor with Shepard on detaches and heads up to the ceiling, and Shepard appears on the surface of the citadel. A small ghostly kid turns up to Shepard as he recovers, and calls himself the Catalyst. It transpires the purpose of the Reapers is to exterminate all organic life to prevent the organic life producing artificial life that will destroy them. However, now that Shepard has made it this far, the plan must change. Shepard can a) shoot a panel in the right of the map, destroying all synthetic life (the Reapers and the Geth included), b) control the Reapers by interacting with the levers on the left, c) walking into the beam, where Shepard is disseminated to give synthetic/organic fusion for all of mankind. These give red explosions, blue explosions or green explosions transmitted across the mass relay network (which is also destroyed).​
The game ends with the Normandy crashing to some tropical planet after failing to outrun the explosion, the characters climb out (so long as your EMS is high enough), and look to the horizon. Post credits, you get Buzz Aldrin telling you about all the different sorts of life in the galaxy to a grandchild asking about 'the Shepard'.​

ME3 led up to two ways Bioware could have taken the ending, and this horribly fails at both. The ending I was expecting was your fairly standard space fantasy 'climatic battle' leading to Shepard saving the day, with or without a heroic death scene, and some sort of epilogue/ending slides about how the galaxy gets on after you are gone. Schlocky as hell, but what did you expect? If Bioware wanted to burnish their narrative intensity or emotional engagement or maturity, they could have gone for a downer ending: just make Shepard lose and everyone die.

The knights move into stupidity in the last 10 minutes fails both as a crowd-pleaser as well as at delighting gentlemen who prefer their space fantasy computer games to have plots of a more cerebral nature:

Continuity: there are all these little drips of water torture throughout the entire ending sequence. If the reapers knew where the Crucible was (implied by Hackett before storming the Cerberus base), why didn't they attack it while I was gathering military strength? Why don't they just turn off the teleport beam between Earth and the Citadel, forestalling any hope of me getting to it? Why is the Illusive Man alone inside the Citadel, waiting for you to deploy your paragon/renegade conversation options on him, instead of, say, a battalion of troops to make sure I couldn't frob the console of power?

The annoyment drips turn into torrential floods when we have this Shamalyan-esque 'twist': why have I regained consciousness? Why the hell are there three conveniently placed 'ending-o-matic' devices ready for me to use? Why are the options shamelessly ripped off Deus Ex? Why does the number of spaceships I have determine which options are open to me and colour of the explosion I get in the end? How do any of my actions lead to the giant explosions/controlling all reapers/synthesis anyway? Why must the mass relays blow up? Why the hell is Joker running away in the Normandy? Wasn't he fighting? Why are my crew on board when they were fighting back on Earth a minute ago?

Antagonist: The Mass Effect series has limped along without ever having any plausible antagonist. It is as if they realized they wrote themselves into a corner with "nigh-omnipotent uber machines that wipe out all organic life periodically" realized they had to work out a) why they were doing it, and b) how our cover shooting hero can stop them, and tried to put it off like an unloved chore for as long as possible until throwing something out as a final act of desperation.

The idea behind the crucible is at least passable (implausible, but that each 'cycle' of organic life keeps adding to it, so it fits the bill for a focus for an organic versus synthetic ragnarok). The motivation for the Reapers isn't. Even if you can accept the need to stop synthetic life, periodic prophylactic omnicide is a completely nonsensical way of doing it? Why couldn't the Reapers, instead of chilling outside the galaxy until they wake up for their mass murder, instead patrol the galaxy on the lookout for other synthetic life and zap them? Why not just keep their massive overwhelming fleets hanging around and threaten organic life into not making synthetics? Why not anything else?

C&C: The three final choices, besides being foisted in (and working via) incredulous space magic, are just recolourings. The plot coupon readiness system effectively serves no purpose besides arbitrarily determining the availability of particular colours. You also never see the consequences of anything you've done, and so the 'long range' outcomes of having Wreav instead of Wrex as Krogan leader, making peace between the Quarians and Geth versus taking one side, and so on, are nil.

EA are throwing out more DLC in an attempt to 'clarify' the ending - I'm guessing ending slides/cutscenes. What the ending really needs is a rewrite - it is stunning how Bioware missed the open goal of a 'You win the galaxy is saved!' ending modulo some cheap tragic touches of Shepard’s heroic death.

However, the (deserved) fracas over the shoddy ending should not distract from the fact the story is shoddy throughout. This isn't a plot that was ruined in the last ten minutes - rather, it serves as fitting capstone to a trilogy that has see-sawed from the artless (ME1) via the absurd (ME2) to collapsing under the weight of both (ME3). At nigh-every stage in the trilogy Bioware has gone for the cheap way out: about grabbing some 'AWESOME!' sounding epic idea and crowbarring it in - to hell with continuity, a cast of clichés and rip-offs and smothering most of their original ones in cloying romance-scene fanservice and wangst, the fake choices and pseudo-agency, and tacky over-done cinematics in lieu of genuine 'emotional engagement'. The isolated touches of brilliance (hell, competence) just aren't enough to carry the rest.

Bioware reached the ceiling of their competence doing schlocky derivative ‘epic’ fantasy, and ME3 shows they can’t even do that right. ME3 is a disaster, and bad enough to ruin in retrospect the previous games in the series. Fans of the series should avoid ME3, and newcomers should steer clear of the series altogether.

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