Mass Effect 3 and the Quest for Multiple Endings
Let me say this first: I am not a huge fan of the Mass Effect series. I don’t enjoy playing Sheppard, whom I consider to be an overzealous military prick irrespective of gender, and I find the battles long and tedious as well as inconsistent with the theme of the story (“save the world by hiding behind chest-high obstacles”). But there are some things I love about the game, and moreover it is the possibly most acclaimed story-based single-player RPG from the last ten years. Given its high status in the gamer community, I find it highly interesting that the final minutes of the saga presented in the Mass Effect 3 game, has raised such a controversy.
Fans are upset with the ending for many reasons, not only because it is a rather dark ending. For example, GameFront lists five reasons why they think fans are right in hating the ME3 ending, and Eternalsteelfan has critizised the ending from the perspective of a screenwriter. (I concede that the ending he suggests would have been more satisfying). The critique arises from one core issue: that the alternative endings are all too similar. Fans wished for, and Bioware promised, a range of possible endings that would vary depending on players’ choices throughout the game (and, as ME3 allows players to import saves from previous games, actually the whole game series). But would this really have been possible?
What kind of story is Mass Effect? Let’s go real basic. Structurally, all games in the series consist of a collection of battle scenes that can end in slightly different ways depending on the players’ dialogue choices (and a bit on battle skills). Players have a bit of control over the order of these scenes, and the scenes also play out somewhat differently depending on the players’ previous choices. In between the battle scenes, there are pure dialogue scenes. Some are focussed on developing the relationship between Sheppard and his/her crew, whereas others are more political and have more impact on the main plot. The scene-oriented structure of the game makes it technically rather easy to create a branching storyline and multiple endings: either different scenes can be unlocked depending on what the player has done so far, or the same scene can be initiated with different parameter settings depending on the player’s previous actions. (No doubt much more goes on in the real engine. I am just sketching the basic idea here.)
The problem lies in the thematics. Thematically, Mass Effect 3 is the well-used story about the Big Battle against the Enemy. As in much fantasy and SF, the ME3 enemy has no redeeming qualities at all. Its core vile is its ability to enslave people, depriving them of free will. Reapers turn people into droids, or worse use them as building material for zombies. An enemy like this is a great motor in games, as it forces players to care about defeating it. Also, it creates a reason for characters with conflicting backgrounds, goals and motives to collaborate even if they are each others enemies. The storyline in the Mass Effect series poses several challenges to the player, that typically are related to resolving such conflicts or that force the player to side with one of the parties in a conflict.
Here, we find the major narrative strength of Mass Effect. Due to these secondary conflicts, the games manage to play in almost all quadrants of the action-emotion palette at once. ME3 plays primarily in the upper half: Sheppard is already an acclaimed hero and the game continually reminds the player of this in dialogues. But there are seldom any ‘best’ choices: almost every choice the player makes has both good and bad consequences (I drew this as two connected dots combining guilt and pride). At the same time, there is a counterpoint of incapacitated frustration; as the Reaper invasion is already ongoing, millions are dying by the hour, and the player can’t do anything about it. Although there is an upward-rightward movement throughout the game (you are progressing towards a situation where you will be able to launch a counterattack on the Reapers), all these emotions are reinforced throughout the game. This is what we would expect of the ending as well.
But with an Enemy like the Reapers, there is really only one possible ending: The reapers must be defeated, and defeating them must cost. Already Tolkien knew this. And remember that every player has killed Sheppard and his crew dozens of times: that is part of game-play and only a temporary setback. So even though an ending where Reapers win could be designed, it would just mean that players would reload the game from an earlier save.
What variability exists, then? Bioware works with a combination of two mechanics, none of them particularly good. Firstly, they sum up all of the players’ previous achievements into an overall score, that determines how much it will cost to defeat the Reapers. Secondly, they throw in a rather arbitrary choice concerning how they are to be defeated, that has nothing to do with what players have done previously. (I suspect that the latter idea arose as a solution to the problem that there was only one possible ending to the game.) The use of an overall score destroys the emotional complexity of previous choices in the game, as they get reduced to calculating scores to see which is the ‘better’ or ‘worse’ alternative.
Part of the problem lies in the choice of enemy in the game. If the Reapers had been less evil, it would have been possible to let Sheppard learn to know them throughout the game, giving the option of joining them or negotiating some sort of truce towards the end. But even with an all-out Evil Enemy, there is room for more alternatives than ME3 offers.
Most importantly, the available choices on how to defeat the reapers could have been dependent on the players’ previous choices. Re-using the mechanics of ME2, the ending could have let Sheppard chose which comrades to fight with, and his relationship with those comrades would influence who survived. But since ME3 plays on a more political scale, I think it would have been thematically consistent if some of Sheppard’s comrades had been able to rise in rank during the game, to take up military, political or diplomatic missions that could affect the endgame. Furthermore, since Sheppard negotiates truces between different species during the game, the endgame could have been affected by how strong those truces were, e.g. offering alternative plotlines with last-minute betrayals. All of these options could have created completely different strategies for defeating the enemy, and very different sorts of sacrifices would need to be made.
Also, players want to know how their actions will have affected the world that lives on past the game. Dragon Age Origins has a cheap solution for this: it presents such consequences of player choices as rolling text during the ending credits. A simple solution that could have gone a long way to satisfy fans.
Yes, it would cost to develop such a range of endings – but after all, this was what BioWare promised its fan base.