If you are remaining ignorant of Mass Effect 3, you should not read this.
First, let me begin with a quote from the Mass Effect 3 lead writer, Mac Walters, “Mass Effect 3 marks the final chapter in Shepard’s story”.
I first read that back in October of last year after, I think, a PAX interview. I think that phrase says it all. Now, rather than unpack this phrase and story any more, I want to touch on something that I find interesting. The arc of God of War and Mass Effect are almost exactly the same structurally. It’s been a while since the God of War trilogy ended, and, like Mass Effect, it had a profound impact on gaming. However, unlike Mass Effect, God of War spawned many, many copies that couldn’t quite understand why their game didn’t do as well as God of War when the gameplay was so similar. The answer is easy, though it might pain many companies to hear it. Kratos is fucking awesome. There, that’s the entire secret of God of War. Ok, it’s not the entire secret. The rest of the secret is that the story and the way it was told was incredible, and that it combined puzzles and action so seamlessly that people forget how many difficult puzzles the series actually contains because there was no structural break. Huh, that sounds familiar right? Mass Effect is a game that seamlessly blends elements of a classic shooter with hardline roleplaying game story and mechanics. It also kept the pause function throughout the series, allowing to play it at a tactical, micromanage level if you cared to do so…and I always cared to do so. While they exist in explicitly different realms of influence, the fact remains that these games were breakout hits that were a breath of fresh air for the genres, and their hyphenates. However, and this is a huge however, Mass Effect and God of War were incredibly different when it came to player investment.
Kratos is a legend, no one can dispute that. He adorns shirts, mugs, appears in other commercials, and people even ask WWKD, What Would Kratos Do? The answer, if you are playing along at home, is rip off your arm and stab you to death with your own eagle talons. Kratos had a rich background, a definitive personality, and goals that you discovered through the game play. Kratos was the creation of someone else, and you were his guide to the noble goal of murdering the piss out of Ares and then slicing Zeus’s fucking hippy face off. You weren’t really guiding the story, you were there as it unfolded. The story was ultimately one of Fate, Cosmicism, Duty, Sacrifice and the Ends justifying the Means. I would argue very strongly that these are the same things that Mass Effect takes and drives forward to make their game so compelling. The difference is in the customization and storytelling.
Shepard is a frame for you to create an avatar for yourself in the world of Mass Effect. Now, I am one of the few people that left the settings at default, but I treated the series very much like a game, not an experience. To come clean, I love the shit out of this series. I have problems with it, but I still love it. I wanted the Shepard I saw on the box, so that’s what I played. Now, when I was playing Jane Shepard, I did tweak it somewhat, but only slightly so that it looked more like she and John were related. I know this is weird detail, but whatever. At the core, the game is driven by the choices that you make, and that affects how the game plays out. Now, this is where I might lose some reader buy-in. My contention is that the choices you make only really matter to the path of the story, not the conclusion.
Every good storyteller knows that it is the details that you place within the story that make it unique and gripping. A factoid of a man at the bar with a splintered peg leg in a drinking tale, or the weather for a series of days in a traveling fable, and so on. In this case, it’s the reactions of your fellows that are the details of the Mass Effect tale. The man you save in Mass Effect 1 and the woman you save in Mass Effect 1 repay you in kind in Mass Effect 3, and fall in love as a result. This doesn’t measurably change the outcome of the main tale. This is the hair on the shaggy dog tale of serial games. While these choices are significant to the PLAYER, they are not significant to the game world. While it might not be a former squad member in charge of a race, it very well might be his brother. You will still have some context for who this joker is, and the race continues to exist. By the time you get to Mass Effect 3, there are many derivative conversations that you might be having based on your previous decisions, but it does not change the core of the story. Yes, the lives and drama of you and your squad members are not the main story, I am sorry to break this to you. You are going to be experiencing the same stories told from a slightly different perspective, but the conversations and drama along way will be vastly different. This does not change at all over the course of the game. In fact, it’s more prevalent in Mass Effect 3 than in any other game. They tie in so much shit from your choices in the previous game it makes me think the game is impenetrable for people that haven’t touched the series before. This might be ok. However, you make only very subtle choices at the end of the other previous games, other than that, the endings are on rails.
Now, let me step back and explain the plot of the God of War series in the most basic parts possible.
1) Kratos makes a deal with Ares for good reasons, but is then betrayed by Ares, so he makes a deal with the gods and becomes tapped as their Agent to act where they cannot.
2) Kratos encounters mysterious forces that encourage him on his path.
3) Kratos is aided by the people who want him to do work, but all it not what it seems
4) It is revealed the Ares is but a pawn in the larger War in Olympus and Zeus is the real asshole here, but Ares is still a problem.
5) Kratos has to search for a mysterious artifact to allow him to win.
6) Kratos eventually succeeds in his task, but then dies, only to be saved and is now working for people he was trying to destroy.
You can’t tell me this isn’t familiar Mass Effect players. Yes, there are more details along the way, but look at the core of the story. God of War is quite literally a Greek tragedy. The goal of the tragedy is to evoke a sense of investment and loss in the audience, despite the events not happening to them. The goal is to have bring about a personal calamity for the viewer and make their reaction so visceral that they want to fine the person responsible for their grief and loss. Let me spell it out further, Mass Effect is a Greek tragedy.
Again, look at the above list. Mass Effect has variations on every single one of those points, and death occurs not only in the last act, but steadily along the way. Mass Effect 3 got me a couple of times because I had the unfortunate luck of playing two missions back to back that killed off characters that I loved, because of the choices that I made for one, and because of story for another. This does not affect the game story, but it does affect me, the audience and participant. Part of the reason for this is that I became invested in who the characters were. This was not only from my perspective as Shepard, also let’s not forget the symbolism of the name Shepard which is incredibly relevant, but from the perspective of a player who loves good, character driven stories. Breaking Bad is my favorite TV show for a reason, after all. You become invested in their tales, and you help them out with their trials and tribulations. You help them grow, or enact their vengeance. Either way, you are an active participant in the meaningful events of their lives. When they die, you are aware that you have lost that interaction. This is done in a lot of ways to not be trite either, and feel very realistic. Without the addition of the added melodrama, this has a big impact on you, the viewer and participant.
Stepping back momentarily to God of War, this thirst for vengeance is a defining characteristic of Kratos. The death of Athena drives the story of the third game entirely. This is an all out war on the forces that he once supported, and others that oppose all of humanity. The death of Athena after she was your main contact, besides that asshole gravedigger, plays a huge role in the story development and your relationship with your previous allies. The relationships you once had are now abandoned in this quest for vengeance, and you know that this is going to only go poorly for everyone involved. You see the tragedy unfolding before you, and you are helpless to do anything but follow it to its conclusion. The fatalistic tale of God of War ends exactly as you expect it would, with one final act of vengeance, spite, betrayal and sadness. There is never any doubt that God of War would end in any other way, yet the conclusion to God of War is ultimately satisfying. Kratos remains Kratos to the bitter end, for better or for worse. The impact he makes continues to be felt from that point forward. This ending was not criticized as it remained true to the tale of Kratos.
So what’s up with Mass Effect 3 then? The public outrage over the ending is simply astounding. There are petitions to change the ending and give more credit to the auteurship of the audience. After all, isn’t that what the series is about? I say no, that’s NOT what the series was about. That is what the game play was about. I love making choices, I love seeing the conversation forks, and I love playing the role of Shepard. This never changes. You get to do all of these things until the bitter end. The final conversation forks are where the contention lies. As you would expect from the initial quote and the fact that this is a Greek tragedy, the tale of Shepard comes to a close. The argument is that there is no catharsis. There is no outpouring of emotion. There is no sense that you played a larger role in the scheme of the universe. Why is that? You do not get to see your choices in action, and it’s not enough to know that you simply made the choice to the people who are arguing against the satisfaction of the ending. The point is, you still make your choice. Until the very end, you remain the Shepard you have chosen to be. From that point forward, events unfold as they may. This is the Greek tragedy in a nutshell. It is unfortunate. It is sad. It evokes a veritable cornucopia of emotions.
If you were watching the game unfold as a movie or book series, would it be enough? I believe that yes, it would be enough. You would watch this tale unfold over and over, flinching at every difficult, horrible decision that had to be made and feel the loss that goes along with the entire third act. This isn’t what is happening. Instead, people have become so invested in the auteurship that the game presents, they are saddened when that is seemingly taken away from them right at the last minute, despite the fact this is exactly what has always been done. Unfortunately, this is for all the beans. Their role as an auteur has come to a close. They are no longer the makers of their own fate, and the reality of fatalism strikes them right in the face. It’s a cold, sober morning for them. Understandably, they want and expect more. They want something else to have happened. They want the tragedy to unfold differently. They want it not to be a tragedy. One of the first Greek tragedies resulted in a thousand drachma fine for the playwright. Seem familiar?
I understand that this a very polarizing topic. Any time you create something with supreme emotional investment, you stand the risk of disappointment. In any work of consensual reality, there is a careful balance between the authors and the voice of the work. BioWare cleanly gave the voice of the details to the player, but kept the voice of the story for themselves. After the details took over meaning for the players, this line became blurred for many and the details WERE the story. When the voice of the story auteur struck up again, they found they were not happy with their role simply as the auteur of details. They wanted to write the story. They wanted to change what the story was about. They wanted the wedding to happen that made it a comedy. BioWare smiled gently and told them, not this time guys, maybe next time, ok? It was not ok.
To me, this means that BioWare succeeded in their job of creating a Greek tragedy trilogy, perhaps a little too well. I am not in the group that disagrees with the ending, so I know that I come at this from a different perspective. Still, I encourage everyone to do a little looking and a little digging while thinking about the Greek tragedy. I strongly believe that when you do this, you will find what I am saying all too true. It’s not an easy thing, but I believe firmly that this is what the creators were trying to accomplish.