Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The ending of Mass Effect 3: Loss of Agency.

I am trying to figure out why I hated the ending of Mass Effect 3 so much. (Spoilers abound).

I played the game several years after release and I had the benefit of the extended edition patch so I didn't feel the pressure to engage in forced multi-player or to buy unwanted dlc that so incensed early players. Merely by playing the game the way I wanted to I managed to amass a high enough score to unlock all endings. 

I can understand why the perception of forced dlc and forced multiplayer upset people when the game was initially released but these were not my concerns. My dislike is more fundamental and has to do with the ending itself. It made me think about the relationship between games and stories and about the conflict between narrative and agency.

Mass Effect is a monumental role playing game series that offers the player many choices about how they develop their character and how they interact with the game world. This gives the player a tremendous feeling of agency: the ability to control events within the game world.

Mass Effect is also a story: a galaxy spanning saga of epic conflict. That story must come to an end and the right of authorship allows the game designers to conclude the narrative in the way they see fit.

The first problem is that I really disliked all of the endings on offer to me. Each of them represented a deep betrayal of everything my character believed and had striven for. All of the agency, the power to make things happen, that I had built up during the game is rendered useless at the ultimate moment of the game when I was forced to choose between such deeply unpalatable alternatives.

This is not a new problem. Every narrative must come to an end and ending requires a loss of player agency. It would be a tedious world if every story had a shiny happy ending and games have explored ambiguous or unsettling outcomes before. Spec Ops: The Line is a notable example. BioShock is another. In Bioshock and Specs Ops your loss of agency and the unexpected outcomes are explained with  clever plot twists. In a strange sense the surprise of the plot twist lets the player down gently. Yes the game is finishing in a way you didn't expect and perhaps didn't want but at least you have gained a deeper understanding and now know why this outcome is necessary.  

There is no big reveal in Mass Effect. You don't actually learn anything new at the end. You do finally get to see your nemesis personified but apart from appearances it is the same nemesis you have been fighting since the beginning of the series. You cannot defeat or overcome this nemesis. Instead you are forced to accept one of a number of deeply unpalatable outcomes that the nemesis offers you. The nemesis tries to justify these choices according to its own logic but since you have been fighting against this nemesis and this very logic the entire game there is absolutely no reason why you should suddenly start believing in it now ... except that you have no real choice. In actual fact the nemesis has won the game and gets to decide on the possible outcomes. All you can do is decide which one is slightly less unpalatable.

Mass Effect 3 doesn't just rob players of their sense of agency at the end of the game it does it in a brutal and thorough way. The last half hour of the game sees your character, once a heroic saviour of the galaxy, reduced to a shambling cripple with very limited freedom of action. This is not an enjoyable part of the game to play through. You cannot skip or save the game at any point during this long shamble towards the conclusion. If you want to experience alternate endings you must play through this unpleasant section all over again. Finally you are presented with your unpalatable choices by the haughty avatar of your nemesis. You may not like them but they are all you get. All of your previous activities, all of the weeks you spent playing through the game making choices and building your character are rolled up into a single number which impacts on your choice and its consequences in a non intuitive and unsatisfactory way.

To add insult to injury when I was playing I couldn't find any signpost or hint as to which path to take for which ending. Red, white or blue: pick one. It makes no difference anyway you won't get an outcome you like. At that point I really felt that Bioware was rubbing my nose it it, making it brutally clear that the few weeks I spent playing their game was trumped by the man years they spent developing it. Authorship trumps agency. They get to decide the outcome.

In the end I was so frustrated that I just turned around and shot the little brat. If I had done more reading in advance I would have realised that this course of action gives the worst of all possible endings but that small act of rebellion was the only thing I could do that gave me some feeling of control.

EDIT: I have watched videos of the ending again and I now realise that if I paid more attention during the speech I would have noticed the colour code of the different decision paths, Better than nothing but still not very clear. 



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