Mass Effect 3: Character or Plot?

Warning: The article below contains spoilers for Mass Effect 3

I have always been interested in games with story, whether role playing through a computer or home console system or, better yet, tabletop games like D&D. Typically, I don’t expect much plot or character development from a game, but recent attempts by Bioware have proven that somewhere between all the shooting, a loose series of cut scenes can weave together a decent narrative. Whether such a medium will ever rise to the level of a novel has yet to be seen. But what really intrigued me about Bioware’s latest, Mass Effect 3, is the controversy surrounding its ending. For many gamers, it was a terrible disappointment. A poor conclusion to a story leaves the reader/viewer/player with too many unanswered questions (this year’s Prometheus comes to mind) or doesn’t offer proper closure (Hunger Games: Mockingjay). Other bad endings include the dreaded deus-ex machina, from the Ancient Greek play, where an actor dressed like a god was elevated onto the stage to resolve the conflict. In a deus-ex machina, the events leading to the conclusion feel inconsequential and the audience feels cheated. Notice how I did not mention unhappy endings, which are not classified as bad, otherwise Shakespeare would be the worst writer in history. Crowd pleasing is an easy sell. People generally want to feel happy. It takes a true master of story telling to make a person feel satisfied with a negative emotion. This is called a tragedy. Of course, many tragedies misfire, which is usually the case when the ending doesn’t satisfy the above criteria, when it doesn’t answer its own questions or give meaning or closure to the story.

The writers of Mass Effect 3 achieved a perfect, albeit bittersweet finale, and I am completely baffled by the public reaction to it, which forced Bioware to do something unprecedented: to create a downloadable, extended ending, which, not surprisingly, did little to appease the outrage. I have not been this baffled since the hatred for the Star Wars Prequels. I immediately grabbed my iPad to better understand the reaction. Armchair critics have been typing their hearts out with dissatisfaction. As one blogger stated, the game was a failure because people don’t care about philosophical questions or mythology, in reference to the Reapers, an alien race who believes it necessary to exterminate higher intelligence in the galaxy. Excuse me? Mythology is the very best of story-telling tradition, and as for philosophy, I’ll simply quote from Socrates, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” If a story, any story, can make us think about life, about the BIG picture, that is always a plus in my book (figuratively and literally). But, as usual, the critics state their opinions as facts. These are the same people who give advice to George Lucas on how to make a Star Wars film. Now I have no problem disliking pop culture, such as the new James Bond film Skyfall, which, despite 92% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, I felt was boring and pointless. Opinions are like that, varied and inarguable. What bothers me, however, is a growing trend that may shed light onto the Mass Effect 3 haters and the Skyfall lovers

For the past ten to twenty years, fiction has been moving away from plot and more toward character. Now, I focus a great deal on my protagonists in my own work, but the balance has shifted too far; character trumps plot to the point where plot becomes irrelevant. George Lucas disappointed millions of fans by focusing his Prequel Trilogy on political and philosophical questions rather than on character (in both acting and dialogue). The Dark Knight Rises, which was received with near universal acclaim, plays like a psychological study of Bruce Wayne, while disregarding the logic of the plot. This year’s Avengers, despite one awesome SFX sequence after another, puts more emphasis on the heroes’ relationships to each other than the events on screen. For the first time in Bond history, Skyfall delves into James’ childhood and the Oedipal drama between him and M. On the book front, Life of Pi focuses exclusively on the thoughts and feelings of one character, which is more widely accepted than Cloud Atlas, a story of grand philosophical concepts. All that brings us back to the ending of Mass Effect 3, criticized for not adequately giving closure to each of its characters . . . we don’t know whether they lived, died, or went on to happy lives. To this I say, who cares?

Has the isolation and dehumanizing effects of our Facebook generation made us obsessed with ourselves and our feelings? Never mind why the aliens are attacking, what matters is how we feel about it. Don’t get me wrong, some of the best fiction is character-driven, from Shindler’s List to 127 Hours to Catcher in the Rye, but for me, a galaxy-wide war involving synthetic aliens intent on making all extra-solar civilizations extinct does not speak of character study. There are far more interesting and significant issues to be mined from such a story, and I could care less what my blue-skinned girlfriend will be doing after the games’ credits roll.

Character matters, but so does plot; the two are conjoined and complement one another. If one fails, the story fails. Mass Effect 3 does not disappoint in this regard. Shepard, the hero of the Mass Effect series, sacrifices his life for the big picture. But perhaps what really bothers the critics is the fact that, however the game ends, the hero dies. For them, no matter how noble the death, Mass Effect 3 ends on a tragic note. These same people forget how short and precarious life is, how we’ll all end up in the same place some day. The Ancient Greek philosopher, Solon, argued that how a man dies is far more important than if or when. I really cannot imagine a better way to end my life than by saving trillions of lives. It is the very definition of the heroic journey, past down from Beowulf, and if that doesn’t fit the feel-good package the Internet community thinks it wants, well that is art. Art gives us what it wants, not what we ask for. Which is precisely why, as art must do, it stirs up so many passions.


54 thoughts on “Mass Effect 3: Character or Plot?

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  1. Thomas, most of your argument is A = A, unfortunately. You insist the Mass Effect 3 game had a terrible story, that it was illogical, inconsistent, etc. I do not agree, however, with your overall assessment. I enjoyed the story, because I enjoy a level of ambiguity; I enjoy speculating, as to whether the godchild made sense, or was a faulty AI, or was insane, etc. My interest in the story had to do with the drama and the setting and the emotion. I only brought up books to state that I do not expect a level of story telling in a game equal to a book, and that the level of story telling for a game, as is, was decent. I have also listed games that I thought had good stories, but I simply do not agree that Mass Effect 3 fails any less than the majority of games fail on the story front. You need to understand that these things are entirely subjective (based on your experience). Look, I have been studying fiction for 30 years. The more I learn, the more I have come to realize that everything in fiction is subjective, is opinion, is perspective. When I was younger, I used to get so angry at books I'd throw them across the room. As I got older, I realized that my viewpoint was limited. There are books that even today I absolutely hate. For example, I hated the last book in the Hunger Games series, but I would never be so arrogant as to call Suzanne Collins a bad or lazy writer, nor would I ever suggest that people who enjoyed her final book are stupid or don't understand story telling. Simply visit and you will see that for every book/movie/game, there will always be someone who hates it, no matter how popular, and there will always be people who love something no matter how much others hate it. There is absolutely no way to judge a piece of art objectively. If that were possible, every game/book/movie would have a great story. When Picasso unveiled his cubist work “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon” it caused an outrage across Europe. When Rodin made a statue of Balzac, it was so universally hated it caused a scandal in France. Now please, stop posting here. This is a literary blog and I am beginning to regret ever writing about a video game! I'd much rather discuss “Cloud Atlas”—something I did feel was genius (although I am sure there are lots of people out there who hated it just as well.)


  2. I mentioned before that I have read the Twilight books, and that I have enjoyed them, but I also firmly believe that they aren't great books. I can't judge a piece of art solely on the emotions it evokes on me, because that's a very narrow point of view. I might get emotionally moved by something that is complete garbage, but mirrors or resembles things I experienced in my life, thus shaking me even if it's clearly the work of an hack. I can enjoy throwing rocks on a lake, trying to make them bounce as many times as possible, but the fact that I like it doesn't make it any less mindless.

    The Deus ex prequel has also its low moments, as I said, I was just pointing out how you had a better build up to the ending, and how the proposed solutions reflected much more clearly different views and philosophies, you get to shed the light on the downsides of them, before reaching the final.

    I will ask this, because I am not sure if I get you, but are you telling me I should stop posting comments here? Am I bothering you? Are you referring to me when you say “how passionately people fight and argue to prove an opinion”? Also, I believe there is nothing wrong about being passionate about opinions, even if I am not sure that everything can be brought down to just a matter of differing opinions, in the discussion about ME3.

    You can sometimes have a few lapses in logic in a story (and depending on the setting and general background of the story, one can even make huge leaps of logic in said plot), but the problem is the long string of said fallacies that simply has to be considered a poor job, especially because they don't really add to the emotional stakes of the situation.

    I am not arguing that having 3 choices at the end of the game is bad, but that the way we are introduced to them, and the way they are explained to us, are way beyond ridiculous. I can't look at it without coming up with better ways to do so, even if I wanted to push the same themes in the story, which makes me inevitably categorize it as bad writing, even considering the current level of videogames, especially since this one seems to emphatize the narrative so much. I would never dream to complain about a Super Mario game's narrative, even though it is much worse than the one in ME3 (or isn't there at all), because those games try to engage players in a different way. ME3, on the other hand, tries, but fails, making the mistakes all the more glaring. Heck, a series of fan-made comics, that started as a parody of the ending, is now doing a better job at making a logical ending, while making it much more emotional, it just baffles me how some of the fixes would have been easy to add.


  3. mdqp, I would like to say that I have really enjoyed talking to you. Of all the people I have discussed this issue, none have been as polite, articulate, and insightful as you have. Most of the other comments I have received (that I did not post) have been insulting and at times threatening. Passion is a great thing, but not to the extent where rudeness, insults, and threats come into play. I simply do not have the time or the desire to deal with this sort of nonsense.

    As for your comments, it would appear that we see things differently. You seem to suggest that there is some objective way to determine whether a story has merit. I would argue that that's impossible, that all art is subjective and therefore the only thing that matters is emotion (throwing stones in a pond can be a great thing). I enjoyed Mass Effect 3 a lot; the inconsistencies simply did not bother me much, either because I did not remember them or because my focus was elsewhere, and no amount of proofs will change how I felt about it. This does not mean that I can make an objective analysis as to the merit of the game, because that is impossible. You may argue, as I have known many people to do, that the overwhelming negative reaction to the ending is a non-objective measure of success/failure, but I do not adopt, what I consider to be, mob mentality. I think everyone must look at a work of art and come to his own conclusions, without other people's ideas and opinions interjecting. I believe the surest test of art is TIME. We are too close to Mass Effect right now to even be capable of impartiality. There has been too much hype and anticipation and emotional investment that ultimately skews perspective. In ten years, we'll have a better objective assessment. Case in point, “Moby Dick” was considered a commercial and critical failure when first published; it is now considered one of the greatest novels ever written.

    As for your earlier question, no, you are not bothering me; but many other people are. I honestly do not have time to read through the garbage littering my comments box. I also feel this discussion has run its course. If there is anything else you would like to discuss regarding literature, please feel free to look over my reviews section. I am certain you may find many of my opinions disagreeable (or not) and I welcome any input you may have.



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