Monday, July 18, 2016

Elements of Storytelling—The Flaws of Mass Effect 3 (or How Not to End a Story)

If you haven’t heard the controversy to the ending of Mass Effect 3 by now, then you’re just not a gamer—or you don’t waste as much time on YouTube like I do.
But studying the ending to this otherwise masterpiece of video game based interactive storytelling can be extremely helpful, because you will then know what not to do when it comes to endings. And knowing what not to do can be more valuable than knowing what to do.
For starters, the ending suffers from a bad lack of clarity. Most gamers were left confused over what was really going on. After Harbinger decimates Hammer Squad likes it’s nothing, and then just leaves like a pimp after assuming everyone’s a corpse, and Shepard wakes up badly wounded struggling to his feet, my own first set of questions popped up:
1) What the hell happened to my cool personalized and modified armor? Why is he (or she if, like me, you played “FemShep”—What? Did you think I was going to look at a man’s butt for 50+ hours?) suddenly in a badly beaten and burned version of the standard N7 armor he started with at the game’s beginning?
2) Where’s my rockin’ awesome Widow sniper rifle? Why is it that the only gun near him in the whole death field just happens to be the worst handgun in the Mass Effect universe? I might have even been okay with the ending(s) if I hadn’t had to die fifteen times to three wimpy Husks and one wussy Marauder because my gun sucked and Shepard’s crippled ass couldn’t aim steady! That’s a whole lot of work to go through for just a “meh” set of endings with no resolution.
3) Oh. AND WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO MY TWO SQUAD MATES! One second they were with me, and then suddenly gone, disappeared, no where to be found, not even two dead corpses.
4) After getting beamed up onto the Citadel and having to deal with the Illusive Man (which was actually the only part in the entire ending that seemed to have been handled well), and Shepard’s nearly bled out, do we suddenly get dumped with a Deus Ex Machinae in the form of a ghost boy calling himself the Catalyst who then gives Shep three choices on stopping the Reapers, all of which ends up in his death (well, except for the “perfect” ending in the Destroy option, where it shows him taking a gasp of breath even though the Destroy option was supposed to destroy all synthetics and Shep is half synthetic. And for the record, I didn’t pick the Destroy option. Screw the organics! I ain’t killing off the Geth and EDI just to take out the Reapers, not when other options are available, you heartless psychopaths!).
And those are just a tiny tiny sample of the almost infinite amount of questions the ending left you with.
And that is the true problem with the ending before it got “fixed” with an extended cut that finally fixed some of the plot holes and offered resolution, but still leaves you stuck fighting off the husks and marauder with the crappy gun and non-modified armor. It wasn’t that Shep died (now he only clearly dies in two of the endings). It wasn’t because you were left with only “three” choices. It wasn’t even that annoying ghost boy I wish I could shoot (which I now can but….). It’s because no matter how it ended, the plot holes were still glaringly obvious. And they wouldn’t have even been noticeable by most if the ending had been done well.
And it all comes down to the editing. Vital parts were missing, parts that might have provided the needed clarity. I could see what they were trying for, and I even applaud the attempt. And if it had been done correctly, fans would have been arguing over the philosophic merits and flaws of the ending instead of…well, it’s fictional structure. They managed to keep the players in a suspension of disbelief all the way through 90+ hours of gaming, only to completely break that suspension in the last five minutes of it.
If anything proves just how important the ending to a story can be, ME 3 shows it with perfect clarity.
A couple months ago Bioware came out with a free DLC that provided an “extended ending,” adding cutscenes and dialogue to help bring more clarity to what actually happened (Was Shepard being Indoctrinated and it all was just a dream? Did it really happen, and the galaxy really is that screwed? And how did the Mass Relays blow up without destroying all the star systems they’re in like what happened when Shep walloped a Mass Relay with an asteroid in “The Arrival” DLC? Or was it a bizarre combination of real events mixed with Shep hallucinating from an Indoctrination attempt by Harbinger? And where the hell did Harbinger go?!).
While they did manage to pull it off to some extent. I still wondered at first if the damage was already done, and there was no going back? No more suspension of disbelief? But what I discovered with the extended ending was that, yes, suspension of disbelief can be returned with a good enough fix, but I still haven’t stopped caring about being stuck with the crappy gun and not having my cool armor anymore. I’m just willing to set that part aside now.
Personally, I think they should’ve gone with this ending. After all, why not? The damage is already done anyhow.
So let this be a lesson to all storytellers, no matter the medium they tell their stories in:
Never, ever, ever screw up the ending.
And always, always give your audience the resolution they need.

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