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.