In this week’s DLC column, James Gardiner looks at the narrative options in Mass Effect 3 and ponders the nature of player choice
Warning: this editorial contains more spoilers than a Ferrari showroom.
It’s no secret that I loved Mass Effect 3 – not only did it work as a grand space opera, it also succeeded in resonating on a very personal level, one of the surest signs of a work of art. Yet although many can attest to Mass Effect 3’s ability to connect emotionally, I feel as if the game has even more to it than that, as if developer BioWare had a thematic meaning it wanted to convey. Even more than its ability to emotionally resonate, Mass Effect 3 has something important to say about player choice.
While Mass Effect as a whole deals with many topics, including racism and the conflict between the creator and the created, the most important idea the series covers is player choice. After all, player choice, the ability to alter the narrative through one’s in-game decisions, is the central mechanic of the series; why wouldn’t BioWare want to say something about it. By choosing this as the topic, BioWare made Mass Effect a work of metafiction: fiction that says something about the devices of fiction, in this case, a game mechanic.
In order to understand what the Mass Effect series has to say about player choice, one must look at the ending of Mass Effect 3. While there were numerous complaints brought up against it, there was one that was brought up far more than any other: the results of each choice in the ending were almost identical. Thematically, they couldn’t be farther apart: one involved military victory with a heavy price, one involved taking control of the very race attempting to destroy all life, and one involved achieving a sort of transcendent organic-synthetic hybrid state for all life in the galaxy. Yet while all of these were wildly different in ideas, the actual sequences shown to the players for each ending were near identical, with only a few minor visual cues to differentiate them. Detractors claimed that because of this, Mass Effect 3’s endings betrayed the central tenet of the series, arguing that the ending choices didn’t matter.
In a way they’re right; the choices in the ending don’t matter, and neither does any other choice in the series. Think back to the many choices you made in the earlier games, and consider what effect they ended up having on the events of 3, the supposed culmination of those choices. Save the Rachni queen? She’s just another cog in the war machine. Let Jacob die on the suicide mission? He’ll be replaced without difficulty in his ME3 side mission. Have a romantic relationship with Tali? There’ll be a reunion and some dialog, but it doesn’t affect your ability to recruit the Quarians. No matter what the choice was, it has very little effect on the outcome of the story.
That’s exactly the point BioWare made with Mass Effect 3: in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. Player choice regularly devolves into the player choosing from a selection of varying plot options. However, rarely does this ever affect the narrative in any meaningful or organic way; essentially, the same events will always occur, with minor variations and maybe a branching ending. BioWare understands this. By creating an ending where the choices were near visually indistinguishable, it essentially satirized the whole notion of meaningful player choice, even in its own games. The War Assets and three colors of the endings reaffirm this, unmasking player choice as nothing more than a series of numbers and a visual alteration.
Were this brutal deconstruction of player choice all Mass Effect 3 had to say, it would be more than enough. However, BioWare goes one step further, reconstructing its player choice in light of its own criticisms. Yes, the choices did not affect the outcome of the plot, but does that mean that they don’t matter? Of course not; while the player choices may be meaningless to the plot, that doesn’t take away from the emotional investment that the player gave these choices.
Saving the Rachni queen isn’t just a number on a screen, it’s a statement that the player understands that all deserve life and a chance at redemption. Letting Jacob die in the suicide mission is more than swapping out one character for another, it’s a feeling of personal failure in letting someone die, forced to live with that failure. Romancing Tali is more than just Gamerscore points; it’s a genuine emotional connection between the player and the game’s character. The ending reflects this statement beautifully, offering basic narrative explanation for each choice and inviting the player to infuse them with their full weight.
All throughout the series, the player makes choices, yet never did they offer plot changes, but rather emotional and thematic resonance. This is the theme of Mass Effect 3, the final statement it makes on its topic: the choices the player makes in a game matter only as much as the player allows them to.
As for the Extended Cut, while I was afraid it might dilute this message, it actually ended up reinforcing it. While the original ending emphasized the disillusionment of the importance of player choice, the Extended Cut reinforced the importance of the emotional bonds between the player and the characters. Neither ending is better than the other – they form two sides of the same coin, BioWare’s final sendoff to the story of Shepard.
It’s understandable why many were displeased with the way Mass Effect 3 ended; in an attempt to criticize player choice, it alienated many who fell in love with the series because it emphasized player choice for so long. However, I feel as if gaming enthusiasts should ask themselves why the developers made these choices. By taking a deeper look into why a game’s story is the way it is, we can understand why the stories do or don’t engage us, both emotionally and thematically. In the case of Mass Effect 3, we can find out that BioWare was not simply rejecting player choice, but rebuilding it into something greater than it had been before.