So, as you may have already guessed, I’m kind of a nerd. I’ve absolutely loved the Mass Effect games ever since the first one came out and particularly loved the way the player characters decisions shape the world around you and shape what the game world will be like not only through the current game but in future games as well.
Three examples to illustrate why this is awesome:
- Choose to save the Rachni in ME1? Well, you can expect to see them working with you to help build the crucible in ME3…. and being assimilated by the invading Reaper fleet alongside the other advanced civilizations. Be warned, reaper-fied Rachni are tough.
- Choose to stand up for Tali Zorah in ME2 when she’s being unfairly accused of treason and prove her loyalty to the fleet? Well that’s going to have a major (as in the fate of two entire civilizations hangs in the balance) impact on your options for resolving the Geth / Quarian conflict in ME3.
- Successfully convince Wrex to help you destroy the “cure” for the Genophage in ME1 instead of having him turn on you? Well guess who’s the new leader of the Krogan people in ME2? And of course having a leader who understands the value of alliances and wants to work with the other species in the galaxy instead of going it alone and sticking to tradition has impacts on the odds of getting the Krogan on your side to fight the Reapers in ME3.
I could keep listing all day.
In short, the Mass Effect franchise was built on the power of choice and consequences in a fantasy setting, it’s as integral a part of the franchise as Mass Effect fields or blue space lesbians with tentacle heads.* So you can imagine how pissed off players were when they fought all the way to the end of ME3 – a game where the entire storyline is based on building a coalition between species who have deep divisions and mistrust going back centuries – and found out that the size, power, and character of the coalition and the sum total of all the decisions they’d made up to that point had absolutely zero impact on the ending. None. In fact, all you got was the same generic nonsensical cut-scene regardless of how you got there. This was a big shock for a number of reasons, not least because the game developers had been saying in interviews right up until the release that character choices would have a major impact on the game’s final resolution and that it would be possible to fuck up so badly that they could get to the end of the game and fail to stop the reapers. So it’s not just that the ending broke with every convention of the franchise, it’s that players felt like we’d been deliberately lied to and promised something that was not delivered.
After 2 weeks of working my way through the game in my few spare hours after work and tweeting and posting on facebook constantly about what a great game it was and encouraging all my friends to get it, that ending was so bad that I quit the game, uninstalled all the games in the franchise from my computer, shut down my machine, and swore that I would never buy another game published by Electronic Arts. Perhaps it’s a sign of how good the storytelling was up to that point and how invested I’d become in my character and his journey that I reacted so strongly. I was pissed off in a way that I’ve never been before or since about any game, I had to get up and go for a walk. My wife asked if I was alright. I was really not alright.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Gamers worldwide were pissed. Like SOPA pissed. Like, taking to social media in huge numbers and posting a huge number of angry rants on the facebook pages for Bioware, EA, and Mass Effect and videos on youtube. That quickly turned into a facebook group for pissed off fans which metastasized almost immediately into a massive campaign to have EA release a new ending. Most of the gaming review sites chose to side with the company (because of course they reply on the goodwill of game producers in order to get the access they need to do their jobs) and made a point of mocking the people campaigning. Cue backlash against them as well.** Personally, I was too busy with work and such to spend a lot of energy ranting about it, but I can understand why people were upset because I was too.
As a result of the backlash, sales of ME3 went from record breaking to a virtual halt as gamers who’d been waiting to buy heard about how terrible the ending was and decided to hold on to their money – something that finally got EA and Bioware’s attention. In any case, they ended up with a lot of angry customers and a huge black eye. It’s worth noting that without social media that backlash would not have been nearly so intense or so fast and that EA and the review sites who push their products for a living had to learn the hard way that customers expect to be able to talk back and be heard in a way that just wasn’t possible even a few years ago. Brands who would like to avoid permanently damaging their image and credibility should take a good look at this as a case study of what not to do.
Long story short (too late, I know) EA/Bioware relented and promised a new ending, which just recently became available. And so I re-installed ME3, loaded up my old save game from right before the last battle, and just spent a couple hours getting to the ending, again. The good news is it’s … less terrible. You get a voiceover talking about the impact of your final choice while cut scenes showing the ramifications of other key choices play so you get a sort of broad overview of the impact on the rest of the galaxy. a couple gaping plot holes were…. well not closed exactly. But made somewhat less obvious. Your surviving crew members hold a memorial service for you.
The bad news is you’re still forced to choose between controlling the reapers, wiping out all synthetics (including EDI and your Geth Allies), and magically turning everyone in the entire galaxy into a utopia of networked synthetic-organic hybrids who all work together and love each other through the power of green light. Never mind that you’ve proven the Crucible’s argument that synthetics and Organics are destined to always be at war false by uniting the Geth and Quarians and by working with EDI through two whole games, never mind that free will and choice are the central themes of the entire damn franchise up to this point. In every way that matters this is still a truly terrible ending. Not even my radically lowered expectations can make me forgive them.
The fact that it’s not quite as terrible as the ending it replaced is simply not good enough. While I’m glad they at least attempted to make it suck less it’s still too little, too late.
*Well not lesbians exactly. Like snails, slugs, and whiptail lizards in the real world, the Asari are omni-gendered so they’re not really female or male – they’re both. But they look ‘female’ by human standards and real world Christians had a major freak out back in ME1 over the fact that female player characters had the option to romance an Asari crewmember
** At last a couple gaming sites got it right. But it’s amazing how many of them were so focused on keeping their industry sources happy they forgot that reader goodwill matters too.