Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The greatest video game series ever made comes to a close

Mass Effect 3 just came out. It was the last of a trilogy. I beat it this weekend. And now my life feels empty.

I'm pretty sure that there's no other franchise, even among television, that I've ever become more emotionally invested in than Mass Effect. Maybe Song of Ice and Fire. Gaming can get really damn time consuming, not to mention expensive, and those things scare a lot of people off from it. There are others who are still stuck in a mindset that gaming is only for children, unaware of just how many video games have been tailored specifically for adults. It makes me sad that those people will never be able to experience what these games are.

In terms of actual gameplay, it's really nothing special. I don't think Mass Effect 1 aged very well and it's hard for me to go back to it (some disagree); it's like it was in some limbo where it couldn't decide if it wanted to be an RPG or a shooter. This combo can definitely be pulled off (Borderlands), but the combat itself just wasn't anything special. But it steadily improves throughout the series, in my opinion. The third game finally brings it about on par with your standard cover-shooter.

But that's really not the reason why most people play. The big thing about Mass Effect is its sci-fi opera story. And it comes with a hook -- choice. You choose your character's gender, appearance, race, and by your decisions throughout the game, his or her personality. The savior of your universe be a gay black woman, if you wanted. In a genre usually dominated by straight white male protagonists, the choice for a player to change things up a bit is a pretty huge step, if you ask me. You choose what dialogue to say, you choose what decisions to make, and it all has a huge impact on the universe around you. It's obvious that a huge amount of effort went into developing the characters you meet and fight with. Sometimes your choices end in their deaths; sometimes they don't die, and they're able to continue the story with you. And you are able to import your saves from previous games, so your personal story carries over. You get pretty emotionally invested in something that is designed to feel so intensely personal.

Here are screenshots of my two Shepards. I've been playing both since ME1. They're fucking badasses.

Just about everything extraordinary about sci-fi is jammed into the plot. You got your moral questions on whether advanced AI is actually "alive." You got your magical "force"-like essence that allows people to manipulate space-time. You got your massive wars and your interstellar politics and your different races trying to get along with each other. It's your plot, and it can change drastically from player to player. Example:

There are a number of characters you can fall in love with. A big favorite among the guys is a quarian named Tali, because she's just such a damn sweetheart (Tali <3). A few centuries ago, the quarians were kicked off their homeworld of Rannoch by advanced AI they had built called the Geth. The quarians became a race a spacefarers, with no world to return to. Their entire species was confined to live in their fleet. This demolished the quarians' immune systems, and they're now forced to wear suits to fight off disease.


In Mass Effect 3, you finally make it back to the homeworld of Rannoch. The quarians have finally launched their war against the Geth to retake it. The point where I've embedded in this video was one of my absolute favorite moments in the entire game. It turns out, there was a reaper lying in wait on Rannoch (super advanced organic-synthetic hybrid machines from another dimension, bent on destroying/harvesting all organic life; completely separate from the geth). What Tali said to me right before I went out to fight it just melted my heart: "I love you." A video game should not be allowed to have this much of an impact on me, but it did. Tali loves me. And if Tali wants a homeworld, that's what she's going to fucking get.

Immediately after this fight, I managed to convince the quarian fleet to stand down in their war against the geth. Both the geth and the quarians then allied with the fleet I was building to take on the reapers. Tali hugged me. It was perfect.

I got lucky. Turns out, it's actually pretty difficult to get that outcome. Just to present an example of how horribly wrong these situations can go, go ahead and watch this next video. This is what happened to my brother when he got to this part. He was also romancing Tali. He told me he had tears in his eyes, and his girlfriend made fun of him.

YEAH. FUCKING CHRIST. Not to mention, she told him she loved him five minutes before this happened. I don't know how I could've gone on.


Tali was who I was romancing, but Garrus was my fucking bro (he's a romance option for female players). This right here was probably my favorite moment in the entire game. It doesn't even have anything to do with the plot, it's just Shepard and Garrus hanging out. You just start thinking about how much you guys have been through, and how this might be your last chance to do something like this together, and I seriously nearly got choked up watching it.

The ending of the game has 90% of the fans pissed off out of their minds. When I reached it, it initially seemed beautifully sad and bittersweet to me. I didn't really feel anger, or sadness. I was just numb. I didn't quite know what to think. But the more I thought about it, I slowly began to realize just how much of a huge letdown it was. I have no problem with how everything turned out in the end. My problem is that it just wasn't executed very well. It was emotionally unsatisfying, and it didn't give you a lot of answers. In comparison to how the fanbase has been reacting, this is a very mild criticism. The fanbase is fucking livid. I have a friend who is obsessed with these games. She helps keep a blog on tumblr about Bioware (the game company), and she very nearly got a job running their twitter account (had a Skype interview with them and everything). She's usually the first to defend everything this company does, but she couldn't be more angry about what happened. She just won't accept it. The first thing she did after beating the game, she tells me, is start brainstorming ideas for a fanfic so she can "fix" it.

And it's terrible that it had to end up like this. Mass Effect 3 was a fantastic game, one the best I've played in the last few years. Taken all together, this trilogy has been the most epic gaming experience of my life. That's what everyone needs be talking about, but the last ten minutes just has everyone so drained and empty that it's all they can think about. Mass Effect threads all across the internet have been derailed into nothing but talk about that damn ending. I've seen people in forums saying they lost sleep over this. Some people have said they have cried over how utterly terrible and unsatisfying it was. Found this in the Mass Effect subreddit.

But there's a theory. And I'm inclined to believe that it's true. I won't go into a lot of detail about it here because I know I have a couple friends who read this blog who haven't beaten ME3 yet. If this theory is true, then everything can be redeemed. What we saw at the end of the game might not be the actual ending. There are little hints here and there that leave things open for future downloadable content. EA bought Bioware a few years ago. They are a morally desolate game company, and many feared (including myself) that this meant the death of everything we love about Bioware. This would not be something beyond EA -- emotionally demolish thousands of loyal fans into an incomplete ending, and make them purchase downloadable content with the "real" ending a short while down the road. And there's actually a lot of plausible speculation that this may be the case. For those of you who have beaten ME3, here's a great video summing up what this theory is all about (massive spoilers, obviously). And here's a forum post breaking down the ending in further detail, moment by moment. And tweets from yesterday are almost close to a confirmation.

If this is true, it would simultaneously be the worst and the greatest moment in the history of video games. Because it would just be such a massive mindfuck for the actual plot. It would be so fucking brilliant. But it would also mean that we have reached the point in video games where you can't even complete the god damn game without paying for "extra" content to see its ending. After I get done celebrating and beating it and bawling my eyes out over the sheer epicness, I will vow to never buy a Bioware game ever again.

And even if it isn't true, I'm going to pretend it is just to make myself feel better. Because that ending was shit.

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