Moving Past Mass Effect

First, I apologize in advance for another “blank” entry.

As someone who typically plays games that are old and on Steam sales, I can appreciate the frustration of people who are waiting on ME3 and yet are inundated by spoiler-laden posts on their Readers/blogrolls. In fact, I do not even like friends telling me they liked or disliked an ending to anything – my mind immediately starts analyzing the kinds of things my friend likes/dislikes (“Hmm, he wasn’t a fan of FF7’s ending…”), and extrapolates possible ending scenarios from there.

If you are such a person, or don’t want ME3 spoilers generally, last chance to bail.

Yeah, we kinda do.

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us… We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”
–Franz Kafka

Since finishing Mass Effect 3 Monday night, I have been in turmoil. Post-game depression is fairly typical for me, and endings like this one are a sort of double-whammy.

Rohan described the break as being “pre-beam” and “post-beam,” but it actually started earlier for me. The invasion of Earth itself was curiously… off. What should have been a momentous emotional occasion was, well, not. Where was the stirring music? Fires and Reapers and silence. For a while, I was actually worried that there was a bug preventing any music from playing.

Once back aboard the Normandy, things started feeling right again. This was Mass Effect, this was what it was about. In fact, it was not until ME3 specifically that I even felt I knew what the series was about. Interstellar war was one thing, but what I cared about was landing in a situation, and being the right man at the right time. Shepard was not setting out to dictate galactic policy, Shepard was not some god-figure who arbitrates which species lives and which dies. He (or she) simply happened to find himself in that position, at that turning point in history, and does the best that he can.

It is in that context that I felt the post-beam sequence was fine, for what it was.

Through the prism of the ending, I felt that Shepard the character got the closure he needed in the hours leading up to the end. The romance section put it in sharp relief: I was so worried about getting “locked-in” too soon that I accidentally past the point of no return without anyone at all. When I reloaded and made my choice, the stark difference between my feelings of the game – based simply upon those two scenes, one alone and the other with Liara (sorry, Tali) – drove home the fact that I love this series, no matter what happened.

Ever read The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan? As of today, the series is one book away from completion, and I have become so invested in the final outcome that I can barely stand it. But… what kind of ending should there be? The one I want, or the one I deserve? What if the ending is simply terrible, like how I felt ME3’s was at the time I was experiencing it?

With Wheel of Time, that answer is largely moot. There was one point in Winter’s Heart (book 9), one perfect moment, when everything in the narrative came together for me; a great character catharsis, independent of any kind of grand action event. I remember sighing, and a tension I did not even know existed, releasing. No matter what happens in Book 13, no matter what the Wheel weaves, they can never take that moment away or cheapen it.

I am coming to understand the same with Mass Effect.

Bioware cannot take away the feeling of immense depth with Mordin, when the Salarian stereotype fell away to reveal a reservoir of guilt for necessary evils; a doctor moved to inflict harm, faced with impossible choices. Bioware cannot take away my own feeling of guilt when I heard Kaiden’s “Belay that order!” command repeated in the forest dream sequence; a sacrifice I readily accepted at the time to save a woman I had feelings toward and ultimately passed over. Bioware cannot take away EDI and Joker and all the other hilariously poignant moments in the entire series, but ME2 in particular. Bioware cannot take away the bromance with Garrus, or the absolute struggle I had in choosing whether to intentionally miss that shot or not.

Here, here.

So, if you struggled as I have, or struggle still, I have a recommendation. Listen to To Build a Home by The Cinematic Orchestra. Listen to it again. Then read this Kotaku article. Then remember every time you felt this way before – maybe Cowboy Bebop, maybe End of Evangelion, maybe Saving Private Ryan – and try to remember the last time you have felt so wounded by a video game. Have wanted something different so bad you could taste it.

And then… try to let go. If you are anything like me, I am having an exceedingly difficult time wanting to.

Good game, Bioware. Good game.

P.S. Epilogue: For what it’s worth, I still believe Bioware should have handled the ending better (and I am aware of the “secret ending”). The tone and recycled outcomes were one thing, but the incongruent Normandy bit was quite another. At first, I railed against the notion that Bioware was planning on going the “if you want the true ending, it’ll be $9.99 DLC” route, and the implicit dream/indoctrination sequence that implies. But the precedent already exists: Bethesda did just that in the Fallout 3 “Broken Steel” DLC.

The difference being, of course, that Fallout 3 was immensely cathartic in wrapping things up at the end, straight out of the box.

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Posted on March 14, 2012, in Commentary and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Have to start off that I’m not finished yet. I do everything in games so it takes me much longer. But I was aware of the endings since the leaked script.

    What I do know is that the ride so far has been fantastic. I might want a happy ever after ending but the whole story of Shepard has been him carrying on when no one believed in him. Him carrying the weight of the whooe world (see LotSB DLC conversation with Liara). Along the way Shepard got to meet some great people. All had flaws but almost all of them grew in character and we got to see that. Shepard got to realize that he had an influence in it.

    We agonized about the genophage just as much as Mordin. We learned about the Geth and the morning war. We experienced the agony that a mother has with children that have major issues. The ride delivered more emotion and feelings than most games could ever hope to.

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  2. Whenever I see someone I consider to be possessed of good taste pour their heart eloquently into ME3, I pause to wonder about some mysterious deficiency in mine.

    Irrationally, given that I tend to enjoy that sort of game a great deal, I’ve stayed away from the ME series. Since I read about games, I get its basic idea by osmosis, but for reasons I cannot quite identify, everything I’ve ever absorbed about it pushed me away. Could have been the whole Jennifer Hale craze (had the misfortune of being exposed to some rabid fandom) could have been the overabundance of romance, could have been that the ambience brings to mind several generally-beloved science fiction series I just couldn’t get into. No clue, but it’ll have to remain a vicarious experience.

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    • Unless you are simply opposed to 3rd-person shooting games on principal, I see no real reason to avoid the Mass Effect series the next time a Steam/Amazon/etc sale comes around.

      Indeed, I believe it was precisely my low (initial) expectations that made it possible for me to end up enjoying it so much. I spent the entire series pleasantly surprised – something I hope came across in my ME1 & ME2 reviews. Perhaps your skepticism will serve you as well as mine did.

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    • If by romances you mean 1-3 minutes or air time then yes it has a romance. But all are easily skippable. The romances get better and more real from ME1-ME3. By ME3 they are more like a very close bonding and not sex.

      As for jennifer she has some great voice acting in ME3. You know her emotion as she reads lines based on paragon/renegade choices or if she should be calm or upset.

      Finally, don’t take this the wrong way but make your own decisions. Stop listening to others so much, including me. Remember that everyone’s tastes are different and what they hate you may love or the other way around. But not trying is the worst choice.

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  3. I’m struggling to really understand your meaning. Your epilogue suggests that you want the cathartic wrap up, to walk away content and happy, yet the Kafka and music quote suggest that the game has touched you deeply exactly because the ending is not satisfying.

    I haven’t played the game so maybe I’m really wide of the mark. I don’t become so embroiled in games and perhaps that’s my loss, but I wonder if this ending and its obviously disturbing or perhaps unpredictable nature is intended, deliberately to have such an effect on those that are emotionally vulnerable to games ?

    (I’m not being rude with my last comment, I get the same way about films, I can cry like a baby in the dark of a long haul flight.)

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    • Oh, it is absolutely a tension or dissonance of sorts at work.

      I want the catharsis. At the same time, I also recognize that my very desire for catharsis means that a video game – something typically disparaged for not being art – has actually affected me to that exact degree. And while I don’t think anyone deliberately seeks bittersweet emotions, there is an inherent nobility in experiencing them that elevates the feeling further. So, having run the gamut of knee-jerk reaction to sublime appreciation, it is probably to Bioware’s credit that things ended the way they did.

      But… it was half-assed in many respects. If you don’t care about ending cinematic spoilers, just look at the frame-in-frame comparisons. Asking for 5+ different cinematics is obviously too much, but those are literally it, The End. Red, green, or blue explosions. It was like the endings from Deus Ex (both original and HR), but without even the differing exposition outlining what the world looks like after your final choice(s). And the last half of that, the part where Normandy is running away? Makes no sense whatsoever, lore, setting, or character-wise.

      I’m fine with ME3 being Shepard’s last chapter, in the same way I was fine with the ending to Saving Private Ryan; the sacrifice makes everything leading up to it (more) meaningful. It is how they went about doing it, that I take issue with.

      P.S. No worries about the “emotionally vulnerable” bit. Bioware absolutely knew what it was doing, and Casey Hudson came out and basically admitted to deliberately making the ending controversial so as to make it “not forgettable.”

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