Feb 27 2014

Mass Effect 3: Old, Unhappy, Far-Off Things

Published by at 10:00 am under Editorials,Video Games

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Previous entries in this series here (“Help Me Get Back Into Video Games After A Decade Off“), here (“What Ever Happened To Me Getting Back Into Video Games?“) and here (“Mass Effect 2: You Had Me At Martin Sheen“)

Well.  I knew it would be good.  I just didn’t know it would that good.

There’s a tipping point with good fiction.  When the story is good, when the audience is really listening, there comes a point where – temporarily – it becomes the main focus of your life, instead of a diversion.  The light side of this phenomenon is commitment.  Being involved with the fan community, discussing it with friends, maybe even dabbling in fan fiction.  The dark side is obsession.

There’s a great scene in The West Wing where Josh has a conversation with an intern who’s a Star Trek fan.

Janice Trumbull(speaking about Star Trek): I’m not obsessed. I’m just a fan, and I care.
Josh Lyman : I’m a fan. I’m a sports fan, I’m a music fan, and I’m a Star Trek fan, all of them. But here’s what I don’t do. Tell me if any of this sounds familiar. Let’s list our 10 favorite episodes. Let’s list our least favorite episodes. Let’s list our favorite galaxies. Let’s make a chart and see how often our favorite galaxies appear on our favorite episodes. What Romulan would you most like to see coupled with a Cardassian, and why? Let’s spend a weekend talking about Romulans falling in love with Cardassians and then let’s do it again. That’s not being a fan. That’s having a fetish, and I don’t have a problem with that except you can’t bring your hobbies into work. OK?
Janice: Got it.
Josh: Except on Star Trek holidays.
Janice: There’s no such thing as a Star Trek holiday.
Josh: Well, work hard around here. We’ll make one.

Putting aside the fact that some of what Josh lists hits a little too close to home considering what we do on this very site, his point is well taken.

I bring this up because after I finished Mass Effect 3 there were a few dicey moments when I felt myself going over that ledge.  Not content with the story being over, I was ready to dive headfirst into the internet and grab on to whatever I found – fanfiction, commentary, videos – like a life raft.  I’m glad I didn’t.  Sometimes it pays to take a breath, get some perspective.

I imagine the way I approached this is atypical.  I’m not sure I’d have appreciated Mass Effect more or less if I’d done it the normal way.  But all I have to say is, doing it like this – not playing video games for 10 years, then playing all three back-to-back-to-back with every single DLC – was a fairly massive experience.  One that I’ll remember for a long time.  It was like being in the desert and then finding an oasis that also had a bar, that served endless gin and tonics, and that also had a live band which was made up exclusively of beautiful/witty women.

Point of the point: amazing, awe-inspiring game.  A few hours after I finished it, I spent an hour furiously writing down my first impressions, and instead of polishing them up, I’m going to show them to you as-is, unedited:

ME3_Ending_C

Mass Effect 3 notes

Reapers = Deep Thought/Hactar from Hitchhiker’s Guide.  Taking the presented problem and going to a place that’s at the same time logical, and also batshit crazy.

Urgency – wow did this game do it well.  Every mission, never had a second to breathe.  Felt like if I ducked into a room to see if there was an item, I was costing people their lives.

Thessia, and parts of the last mission, literally, actually felt beat down by war; overwhelmed.

The ending is a test.  It’s not “like” the rest of the game at all, but the theme is very much in keeping with spirit of series.  Really looking forward to researching internet.  I’m sure I’m not the first one to point it out, but if you look at the end from the top down, it’s a red/blue dialogue choice.

Remember what EDI said – find video if possible – cut through the bullshit.  When you get right down to it, the Reapers are repulsive.  Control/merge options can’t be right.  Doomed to repeat because organic/synthetic can never get along – um, say hello to the combined Quarian/Geth fleets that are currently pummeling your ships.  Get DS9 quote from that Bashir episode with genetically enhanced people – like Miles said, you thought you could predict the future, had it all worked out what would happen in 1,000 years, but you couldn’t even predict what was going to happen in 10 minutes.  When you get right down to it, Reapers are evil.  Look at their words and deeds.  You don’t get to just get away with that.  Control = become one, basically.  “Assuming direct control,” doesn’t Harbinger literally say that?  And merge… you want to be part that?  Isn’t that just a husk?

Shockingly, it was the fact that EDI would die that gave me pause.  Her arc in ME3 was so beautiful. Long tradition of computers becoming human.  Data.  Heinlein, TEFL – Athena? Minerva?  Battlestar – that’s the Athena one.  Huh, maybe there’s a thread here with greek mythology / sentient computers?  Very compelling trope.

Sat there for a few minutes.  Took it all in.  ME3 could be about 5 separate posts.  Or 50.  there are so many threads.  so many things this game did right or did in a way that was so seamlessly good I didn’t realize until later that video games never do that.

Can’t think of another video game where I actually teared up.  Mordin, Thane, Tali/Legion pretty much wrecked me.  EDI self-realization/Grunt survival was the happy version of this.

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Ending: with Citadel DLC and speaking to team before Earth/on Earth, what more of a goodbye to those characters do you really need?  Would have been nice to see choices reflected – like Reapers getting killed by rachni or something – but it’s the journey, not the destination. Like the terminal message about Crucible staff being freaked out by rachni was enough for me.  I don’t need to see it.  Just because it’s a video game doesn’t mean you can’t leave some stuff to the imagination.

There is a specific feeling when you close the book on a beloved series.  Happy, but a bit hollow.  Faded.  Quiet.  Bittersweet is pretty close.  hinting at something vast, and beautiful, and sad – like the mission title from Me1.  Old, unhappy, far-off places… evocvative.  You can always come back, but you can never experience it for the first time again.  Only a few series have done this for me.  His Dark Materials; Harry Potter.  The Wire?  The West Wing? The Wheel of Time?  Books/video games have an advantage over TV/movies; active, passive .  You read, you turn the page, you play.  TV/movie, you watch.

What was going on with that dream sequence?  The fact that Ghost Kid shows up at the end pings my radar.  With all the shit that’s happened in Shepard’s mind – prothean beacon, cipher, being around reapers, being mind-controlled by Leviathen, going into the AI in Overlord, getting inside the Geth collective – anything else?  It’s a wonder she’s not drooling in a hospital somewhere.  Oh yeah, she was next to that object in Arrival for like 2 days, completely knocked out.  Yeah that’s not a problem or anything.  Oh! and she was rebuilt by Cerberus- yeah they SAID there’s no controlling chip, but have you MET the Illusive Man?  I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Can you play like Renegade-lite?  Like be ruthless, but not heartless?  Having played through ME1 twice, and ME2 and ME3 once I can see the other options.  Like, I guess I’d kill the rachni queen (even though I’d lose War Resources… damn it, they really should make heroism NOT PAY so well if they want people to play other paths) – but screwing over Wrex with the genophage?  Hell no.  I’m fine not showing mercy to bad guys, but I’m not screwing over my friends.  Re-read that sentence.  Sounds crazy to say that about a video game and not a little wonky, but somehow, true.

Made me laugh, made me cry.  Tali’s “emergency. induction. port.”  Tali mimicking the Normandy’s engine noise in the Citadel DLC was worth the price, ON ITS OWN.  Seriously.  Ashley on the floor.  Mordin/Eve banter.  EDI’s humor, particularly the line about the magic being gone, and forgetting to recycle the air.  Great reaction shot to that last one.  Literally laughed, literally cried.  Pretty strong stuff for a video game.

Everything Garrus.  He’s with you all the way through. The whole trilogy.  Actually he enters the same way in every game – about 2-3 hours in.  Shooting guns on the Presidium (spelling?  Wait, why did autocorrect not redline that?  Is Presidium a real word?  Well I’ll be damned).  Anyway!  “Do you come here often?  I imagine anyone who does is most likely an alcoholic.”  —–> this leads to discussion of Citadel DLC; I can totally see why some people wouldn’t like it.  It borders on zany.  Depending on when you do it, it can be a pretty abrupt mood shift.  On advice from readers I did it RIGHT before Priority: Earth, and it took me a few minutes to get into.  You have to loosen up a little.  But oh my god, what a labor of love.  the people who worked on that DLC loved the game just as much as us.

*end of notes

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I guess I should clear up a few of those now.  It’s been a week, and I have indeed “gotten on the internet” and widened the lens, as it were.  Having finished the game, I felt comfortable seeing what other people experienced, finding out what I missed, etc.

So, in the notes above, I came pretty close to working out the Indoctrination Theory.  I never quite got there on my own, at least not with that level of detail, but I did come pretty close.  I had the vague hunch that the ending was going to hinge on some kind of “failsafe” the Illusive Man had planted in you in ME2, but I was generally concerned and thinking about all the various ways Shepard had had her mind screwed with.  I’m not sure I completely buy the theory – although it is pretty much the only plausible way to do a direct sequel – but it’s certainly an interesting take.

My feelings on the ending can be pretty well teased out in the notes.  I had the softest landing possible – I went into it knowing it was supposed to be a letdown, with the Extended Cut, having played every single story-additive DLC.  So, to a person who’s playing it “fresh,” and without preconceptions, while the ending might not be the most viscerally satisfying thing ever, it’s still fitting and on-point.  I’m not sure I liked it, but I did appreciate it.  I don’t know exactly what the Extended Cut added, but if I’d played ME3 without Leviathan and with an ending that skimped on the Catalyst’s explanation, I could see myself being pretty angry.

Anyway.  So, if it wasn’t obvious, I chose Destroy.  Why?  Because of what EDI said:

I wanted to stand up and cheer.  I might actually have.  She nailed it.  The Catalyst tries to raise the stakes at the last moment, tries to get you to see the war from the larger perspective.  It’s really a thinking man’s ending.  Because you have to one-up that, and look at it from a larger perspective still in which the Catalyst is basically Hactar from Hitchhiker’s Guide - a supercomputer that was given a task, stated in such a way that its creators didn’t fully understand the implications of it.  That’s all it is.  On a tragic, galactic, huge scale, it’s just a kid who stuffed all his toys in his closet because his mom told him his room “had too much junk on the floor, you can barely walk around.”

That reference to Deep Space 9 in the notes is talking about the episode “Statistical Probabilities,” where the genetically-enhanced Dr. Bashir and a team of savants becomes convinced – through incredibly advanced mathematical analysis – that the Dominion War is un-winnable, that the only sane option is to surrender now, and to that end, they try to actively leak Federation secrets to the Dominion to expedite this.  After being stopped in the nick of time, Bashir reflects that they were so convinced they were right, so assured in their calculations about what would happen 10,000 years from now, but in reality they couldn’t predict what would happen in 10 minutes.  One person stopped them from leaking crippling secrets to the Dominion; one person changed the course of history.  I don’t have to draw a diagram about the parallels between this and ME3, right?

In the end, I chose Destroy because the Reapers are repulsive and they shouldn’t be allowed to continue.  The trick is realizing it actually is that simple.

I don’t know.  That’s just what I got out of the ending.  It’s a very Rorschach-blot ending.  Maybe it’s not the ending we want, but I think it’s the ending that fits.  A massive yet simple choice that makes you really think about your values and how you think about the big questions.

One side note before I sign off – this post is embarrassingly long already.  On a personal, selfish note, I’d love to an answer to the “renegade-lite” question I posed in the notes.  Since then, I’ve done more research, and some of the Renegade options are terrible.  Shooting Mordin in the back?  Tali jumping off a cliff? What the what…  No.  Unh-uh.  Not going there.  So – can you do a renegade playthrough where you don’t absolutely screw over your crew and still generate enough renegade points to have all dialogue options?

Anyway.  Anyway, anyway, anyway.  Like I said in the notes, this could be 5 posts, or 50.  There are so many threads to pull at.  It’s a beautiful game, and the trilogy as a whole is the best video game experience I’ve ever had, and it’s not particularly close.

I look forward to talking about this one in the comments.  If one thing is clear from these posts, it’s that I have a lot to say on the subject of this terrific, superlative-inducing game…

ME3Liarahands





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22 responses so far

  • thatsmrsnyder

    Great post; really enjoyed reading it. The Mass Effect series was to me the first real foray into video games (I got a late start), and completely changed my perception of the medium, not to mention became my favorite science fiction property, well, ever.

    On the renegade thing, I tried a couple times to take the renegade route, but I just can’t do it. My curiosity does not overwhelm my affection for the characters and, like choosing Liara as my LI every time, I make the same choices every play through.

  • Death Surge

    On my 3rd playthrough, I played Renegade-Lite exactly how you stated it. I’d do anything nasty to people in my way, but I backed the crew at every turn. You still get plenty of Red points to where renegade options were open in all but a couple of cases, and those cases where the ones I wouldn’t have chosen anyway ( Shooting Mordin to keep him alive and to fake the genophage for instance). Feel free to give it a shot

  • goseebananafish

    I’ve played the series many times with renegade Shepards and Paragon Shepards. The one thing that all of my Shepards have in common is that they are good to their friends. If you make your choices based on their color or position on the dialog tree then you are not playing a role. You are letting BioWare developers make your decisions. Glad you enjoyed the series.

    • Indy Z

      I’m totally with you there. In fact, if I played through just based on my own feelings and gut instincts, I’d be squarely in the grey – a pretty balanced mix of renegade and paragon options.

      The problem is the game really rewards you for sticking to one side – there are places in ME2 – for example, when Jack/Miranda and Tali/Legion get into fights – where you can literally get them killed (losing loyalty) if you don’t have a high enough score on one side.

      So there are some conflicting desires there.

      In general, on my playthrough, once I understood the system I adopted a “favor Paragon” – consider every choice, but give weight to those options. I imagine I’ll do something similar, just reversed.

      • goseebananafish

        Good point. It is critical to save Jack’s loyalty mission until the end. I forgot to mention the Extended Cut. They added the Hackett narration over the still images of rebuilding at the end. And during the final sprint to the tower, the scene where the Normandy lands to pick up your crew mates. This scene solved one of my biggest gripes about the original ending. One moment I am running with my love Liara towards the tower. The next time we see Liara she is getting of the Normandy with Joker. No explanation for how she got on the ship. I thought it was a hallucination or something.

  • cypher20

    Many of the renegade choices are ridiculous. Honestly, you seem to basically have to decide, “I’m gonna be a renegade and just not take the game seriously”, in order to play through that way. Which obviously, is just a less fun way to play.

    I agree with you on heroism. If they want you to try other ways, don’t always make the “heroic” way the “right” way. One thing that stands out to me is a sidequest way back in ME1 where the paragon option actually gets you into a fight (you insist on reporting the corrupt scientists) while the renegade option gets you out of the fight (you take a bribe). ME should have done more of that.

    Omega is a great example of that. When you come to Aria with your paragon Captain Boy Scout routine, she should have either laughed you out of her place or tried to jettison you out the nearest airlock. Then, you should have had to find some other method to accomplish your objectives while the renegade player would gladly and easily integrate himself with criminals if it gets him what he wants. Still, overall a great series and I’m with you on the ME3 ending. Not the best, but not as rage-inducing as many made it out to be.

    I doubt that they will go the “it was all a dream/indoctrination” route though. If they wanted to do that, they should have done so in the ending DLC. Instead, they doubled down on their original ending. So, honestly, I would be upset if a new ME game comes out and they go the “it was all a dream” route. I do imagine they will need to pick a canon ending and that it will be the destroy route. Nothing else seems like it would work. If it’s synthesis, then everyone in the galaxy are weird hybrids. If it’s control, you’ll spend your entire time playing the sequel wondering “Where is the all-powerful Shepard reaper that could solve whatever problem I’m dealing with with ease?”.

    • Indy Z

      Agree with almost everything you said.

      As far as sequel speculation goes, I’d get over my annoyance over the last 30 minutes taking place in Shepard’s mind pretty fast if it meant there was still more of that story to be told. For a lot of logistical reasons, though, I do agree that it’s pretty doubtful. Hard to imagine what form a sequel will take when the ending(s) were so explicit about what form the future takes, though.

      The Omega example is a great one. A noble Paragon-style Shepard *should* have had a tougher time there. It should have been harder to accomplish her goals. Similarly, call the Council “blind idiots” enough times, and you shouldn’t expect it to be as easy to get everyone to work together in ME3.

      Realistically, though, the complexity and sheer size of the decision-tree branch you’d have to construct is impractical. Even if you’re only talking about two paths to the same goal, it gets real complicated, real fast. With so much of the game being awesome, it’s natural to find flaws, but all things considered it’s a pretty minor one.

  • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

    Can I hug your post, Indy? Would that be awkward? I’m doing it, anyways. I’m hugging your post. Sorry.

    I just finished the Citadel DLC and as I turned off my Xbox… feels bad, man. So final. I’ll never have a first-time original Mass Effect trilogy experience again. Congrats on missing out on the original ending. I was expecting/wanting an indoctrination theory-style ending too, but I can settle on the extended Destroy. What did the extended cut add? Anything that you liked. Cut out every single thing that referenced anything you actually did in-game, and what’s left is the original ending.

    • Indy Z

      Right back at you, Nick :)

      Yikes. If that’s the case, I’m glad I leapfrogged the original ending. It would have totally blown to end such an amazing series on such a sour note.

  • Nick Ramsay

    +1 for FemShep

    • Indy Z

      Yeah, I can’t help thinking of her in those terms. My first experience with the series was male, default appearance solider in ME1, which inspired the “what’s all the hype about?” post, and on reader advice I replayed ME1, then continued to ME2/3 with a female, custom-look Vanguard. Night and day. So she’s now my indelible mental image of Shepard.

  • Shawn

    Ahhh really really nice, but I disagree with your view on the merge.

    Merging stopped the reapers from being evil. It also ended all conflict between the various species.

    Now “renegade lite” is exactly how I played ME2 and ME3, there were a few QTE where it serious made sense, shooting the gas pipe during the Mordin Old Blood Loyalty Mission to kill the Weyrloc Clanspeaker just made sense to do even though I took the Paragon path through all three games. I tried to do a full Renegade run and didn’t get very far, renegade seemed not to be “a daring hard hitting go-getter” and more like a “unadultarated arsehole” to me.

    Really glad you got so much out of the game(s) I agree it doesn’t get much better than the ME series as far as games go. The only two other recent series that have affected me as much as ME are Dishonored and Alan Wake.

    • Indy Z

      I might try the Merge option on my 2nd playthrough just to see how it works out, but if my hunch is right and it’s a “everything sunny all the time always”-type scenario, a la Stepford Wives, I’ll probably stick to my guns.

      Ending all conflict isn’t a good thing – conflict drives us, allows progression, engenders change. Wanting to end all conflict is what got the Reapers started in the first place, and look how that turned out. The mistake most people make when constructing utopian societies is to treat conflict as fundamentally bad.

      Anyway. The “Renegade-lite” option seems like a good choice; I agree that being an unadulterated arsehole just isn’t much fun.

      Shooting the gas pipe in ME2 was the one time I took a Renegade interrupt. Just made sense, like you said :)

      I’ll have to check out those two games…

      • Shawn

        Well conflict also causes things like the Genophage…

        I looked at the merge as a Tabula rasa moment. It reset everything to a utopian time of peace in the Galaxy. Conflict will surely come again, it is in all of the species nature.

        But the merge ending gave me the feeling it will take a very long time before anyone feels the need to pick up a pulse rifle again.

  • Jason Badower

    Thank you to both you and Paul for letting me re-live the greatest video game I’ve ever played. I love seeing this game through other people’s eyes. Your EDI/Sheppard video actually made me tear up because of your impassioned context. I felt my ending choice was about character. Whose character(s) did I most relate to? Anderson (Destruction), Illusive Man (Control) and EDI/Jeff (Synthesis). I chose “synthesis” and I like to think that my desire for EDI and Jeff to have a real life together was not reflective of my need for us to “all get along”. Especially when you were prepared to make the tough choice and say “enough.”

    Indy, I hope you’re the one I explain my escape plan to in the Reaper camp.

    • Indy Z

      Okay, this is how we do it… we just need a geth pulse rifle, two miles of copper cable, and some omni-gel…

      I’m really glad you enjoyed the article. I hadn’t considered framing the ending like that. See, this is why I actually kind of like the ending… the scale of it really makes you think about your values and beliefs. I’m definitely going to try the synthesis ending next time, if only for variety and to see how it turns out.

      My fundamental problem with it simply stems from the fact that everyone getting along, that stopping all conflict is inherently a good thing. Like EDI said, self-preservation isn’t the end all and be all, and no matter how you break it down, if you merge with the reapers and everyone gets along, then I’m getting along with a hyper-intelligent, technologically-superior race of machines that operated under a value system where liquifying trillions of sentient beings and turning them into giant robots was a justifiable thing to do.

      And that just doesn’t sit right with me. I like to think that EDI would understand…

      I’m sure I’ll have more to say once I’ve seen the Merge ending.

  • J5

    Loved ME2 and ME3 and I just started the original for a full playthrough of the series and GOOD GOD is Mass Effect taking some getting used to.
    Really not liking the first one so far.

    • Indy Z

      Wow, yeah. I don’t know that I’d be able to get through ME1 if I’d played ME2/3 first. Playing the actual game is way less fun; the story is really what drives it, and if you’ve played the last two games, there aren’t going to be that many surprises.

  • Indy Z

    Oh man, great commentary, Alec. Discussions like this are the reason I take the time to write these monster-length articles. I really enjoy Unreality’s reader base. Almost universally thoughtful and fun to talk with.

    Anyway!

    Yeah, the timing of the Citadel DLC is problematic. I’m not sure when I’ll do it during my inevitable 2nd playthrough. I think earlier, or at least do the missions but save the party for later? There are a series of “crewmate interactions” like meeting Garrus/Wrex at the bar and playing the combat sim with Jack, that seemed to be either timed or you have to run through a certain number to get more. So getting through all of those might require doing the whole thing a little earlier and then coming back a few times? Not sure about that.

    Wow, I totally missed that Mordin send-off. It’s great. I’ll have to see if I can find it next time…

    I didn’t know that about the ending. The Leviathan DLC helped a lot with making it feel like less of a bolt from the blue. I do think the whole “dark energy” thing could have been an effective ending as well.

    A Mass Effect live action thing (I think it would probably have to be a miniseries) is one of those things that my heart screams “yes!” but my head says it wouldn’t work…

  • Dimipapa

    Anyone still play ME3 multiplayer? I still do on xbox360. If you want to play add me gt is Eldarion Gil.

  • Uriel Zetazate

    Nice article. Reading the notes section reminded me somehow of Mordin. I could almost hear him in my mind as I read through it.

    I’m with you on being wary about going full-Renegade. I think the worst choice I made throughout the series was choosing Morinth instead of Samara. Everything else I played full-Paragon (achieved peace between quarians and geth, cured the genophage, etc.)

    Like you, I also never went through the original non-Extended Cut ending, so I wasn’t really put off by the conclusion. All it did was get me curious to see the other endings, and to see the “where are they now?” sections for my squad. And another thing different between the original and the Extended Cut: I never actually saw the non-DLC ending – not even on YouTube – but I did hear the first take of the soundtrack, “An End, Once and For All”. The first version was really discordant at the end, unlike the Extended Cut rendition. I think that says enough about how different they are.

    About the ending choices: I’m something of a hopeless romantic, so I decided to play the series around whichever love interest I chose. For example, I choose the Destroy ending only when romancing Tali, because she’s the only love interest who seems to actually want Shepard to survive the trip to the Citadel.

    Oh, and don’t worry about the length of your article. When it comes to anything Mass Effect, there’s no such thing as too long for me. Heck, I even read all of the 500+page-long ME3 fan-made revision.

    • Indy Z

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I might do another one about my (hilariously) inept try for a Renegade playthrough…. I think it seemed like my Shepard had multiple personalities at some points.

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