Before you say that was so last season, yes, I know the Mass Effect video game trilogy came out several years ago and, given our penance for looking for the next great game, no one currently cares. I; however, have just finally completed the third installment in the series. I will admit that I was dubious of completing the series because I had long since heard gamers were upset with the ending of Mass Effect 3. It was a controversial ending many thought at the time and, for all I know, still do. But I decided to get a used version of Mass Effect 2, which later lead to a used version of Mass Effect 3.
First off, I will say that while at times I wanted to throw my controller through the TV because of issues with the duck and cover system and what I later noted as an intentional turning of my character to disorient me, I am just amazed by the story telling. Let me say that again, I was amazed at the story telling! This series, while derivative of many great works of science fiction, was a stunning achievement in space opera told in an interactive medium.
Not only did they tell a Science Fiction story on a grand scale, but they must have written multiple stories to cover the myriad of choices affecting the final ending. For example, I learned after a second attempt to save a character I had allowed Shepard to fall in love with that there was no way I could do so given the actions and consequences of my play through of Mass Effect 2. Maintaining a cohesive story while allowing each player to effect the telling by their choices had to be, excuse the pun, a massive headache. I assume that they probably put some limiting factors to manage the number of branches you could follow and how they fit into the over all story, but wow. Each player could end up with a completely unique play through yet reach a similar ending. Sure, many players followed paths with little variation, but others could have had very different outcomes.
In retrospect, the creators of Mass Effect took the medium of video games and science fiction to new levels not necessarily appreciated by fans. I believe some of angst toward the series came from the fact that they were not only trying to make a good video game, but also a great story. A story that the player actually gets to live over three games. I will admit there were times that I felt gypped out of game play because of long cinematic story telling sequences, but now, after finishing the series, I appreciate what they were doing. The way the creators handled the ending was excellent science fiction and movie storytelling.
If you have not played the games and wish to after reading the above, then don’t read further, if you want to come at this without foreknowledge. What Mass Effect does better than any franchise I know is to tell a great space opera in such a way that the gamer viscerally lives the story. Where in books writers try to use prose to spark responses in the reader for them to envision the scene they are writing, a video game programmer can actually put you into the scene via the character you play. A case in point, was a section very near the end where I had to survive a ridiculous pairing of Reaper laser attacks along with Banshees cutting off my escape routes. As if this was not challenging enough, the programmers tossed in a maddening half turn my character would periodically take after a combat roll. Basically, as I rolled away from the laser beam, my character would stand up and then turn left or right totally disorienting me. Getting through that section was pure perseverance. Thinking back on it; however, I feel they did this to give me a visceral feeling of what it is like to be in a life or death combat situation where you are under intense enemy attack.
As for the overall ending sequence, I can see both sides of the issue. Being a long time gamer, I am quite use too and sometimes demand that the programmers make me fight to the very end. Yes, tell me a good story but I want it to end in an extravagance of button pushing battle. The one thing I noticed but did not think too much about in the first Mass Effect game was that the ending was almost entirely a cut scene sequence. I fought my character to a certain point and achieved a task that created the opportunity for the actual ending to occur. The actual ending was a cinematic sequence worthy of a movie. The same is true for the final ending. Your character does not fight hoards of enemies to the bitter end, but instead is left in a relatively quite place where a final world-changing decision has to be made.
The final choice your character has to make is worthy of stories like Startide Rising, Hyperion, and Dune and is science fiction at its best. With all the advanced technology, alien lifeforms, and political intrigue, sometimes it all comes down to one person and their decision. The ending was reminiscent of the conclusion of the Hyperion series by Dan Simmons or the Matrix series by the Wachowskis and tells a science fiction story better than the bulk of Hollywood’s sci-fi output. I could only wish that Hollywood would create an epic with the same breadth and depth of the Mass Effect series. Instead we get Alien versus Predator or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Movies like the original Planet of the Apes and Blade Runner are few and far between (surprisingly both are only derivative of their original stories not verbatim copies).
The best part about the end is that you are made to literally live a last stand situation through your character. At the end, your character is beaten up badly and disoriented. Unlike a book where lots of descriptive prose would be used to convey this feeling, the programmers got the point across by stripping away all the fancy and powerful controls you have used throughout the series and leave you with only a gun you can barely lift. Your character responses are completely sluggish and you feel like someone waking after a severe head trauma, ears filled with cotton, head ringing, and eyes watering. Almost more cinematic than video game play; however, you still have control and have to defeat a few more aliens, very cool! At the end, you have to drag your character along a choice of two simple paths, no explanations or hoards of aliens to fight. One path is blue the other is read, one path ends in freedom the other continuation of what is currently happening. You choose without anything obviously pointing to which color represents which ending, until you remember a feature of your characters development. Throughout the series you are awarded status as a Paragon or a Renegade based on your decisions. Paragons usually take the high road favoring peace and acceptance over force. A Renegade, on the other hand, prefers to squash dissent and force their way through delicate situations, control over cooperation. Paragon status was represented in blue and Renegade status in red; thus, I had the means to make my choice. Because the hint was so tenuous and subtle, I found myself fretting all the way as I dragged my character along the path, hoping it was the one I meant to take. Luckily it was.
To conclude, the Mass Effect series did for my science fiction gaming what Skyrim did for my fantasy gaming. The series told a great story worthy of some of the best science fiction novels and movies by letting me inhabit an avatar, the reference is intentional, and live another life in a sprawling sci-fi universe. It also took full advantage of the video game medium to immerse me in the story beyond what any book or movie could do. My actions affected how the story was told and I had to struggle through intense sequences with my character. The experience further was enhanced with great music and stunning cinematography. In the end, I felt I got to be part of a great story and not just another bystander reading the story from a distance, which is something neither books or movies can offer you, kudos.