To commit a war crime, press one. To commit a crime against humanity, press two. To be uncharacteristically gullible, press three.

From the earliest Mass Effect marketing to the latest attempts to pour oil on the waters of fan-anger, Bioware has made a big deal out of the game’s supposed hard choices. And they did a good job of making those choices feel hard, in the moment; or anyway risky. But they weren’t, really. If you played the game conscientiously and made sure your options were open you could make the right choice, every time, be sure that you were doing the right thing — or if not sure you were doing the right thing, at least sure you’d rather be wrong your way than the way of the people arguing against you; that you’d happily roll the dice, take your chances, and if it turned out you’d made the wrong choice, deal with the consequences.

You never did, though. The game always let you have your Krogan birthday cake and eat it, too.

So I can see why fans haven’t been entirely happy with the three choices Bioware gives you at the end of Mass Effect 3.

  • To kill an innocent friend, commit genocide against a loyal ally, save the galaxy, and live happily ever after, turn to page 63.
  • To die heroically achieving the goals you’ve shot your greatest enemies for trying to achieve, on the word of another enemy that it’ll save the galaxy and not play into that enemy’s hands in any way at all, we promise, turn to page 57.
  • To die heroically committing the worst crime imaginable against freedom of choice, bodily autonomy, and a good six or seven out of ten of Martha Nussbaum’s ten central capabilities, again on the word of an enemy that it’ll save the galaxy, and that achieving that enemy’s goals is what you really want — honest — despite having proven by your own actions earlier in the game that the enemy’s central thesis is bullshit — turn to page 60.

I chose page 63, as the least out of character of the three options. And since it turns out the murders you’re committing by making that choice don’t actually appear on the screen, you’re free to believe they never happened, and the enemy who told you the consequences of your choice was lying. But I suspect that, canonically, we’ll find out that they did happen. Or — more likely, since it’s harder to get — that page 60 was supposed to be the happy ending. Either way, I don’t really see playing any more Mass Effect games.

Which is a shame, because there was some good stuff in there, on a small scale. But the large scale never really made a lot of sense, and increasingly less (ME2 final boss fight, anyone?) as the series went on; and by the end it was all about the large scale.

I’m not saying none of these endings could be done, and done well, even the bleakest — see The Centauri Device, or Blood Music, or The Urth of the New Sun. But as talented as the Bioware team is, they’re not M. John Harrison nor Greg Bear nor Gene Wolfe, and what they do well isn’t cosmic consequence, it’s character. So I’m not surprised they wrote themselves into a corner they couldn’t gracefully get out of; it was clear early on (“You cannot grasp the nature of our existence!”) that the ending was never going to be all that intellectually satisfying. But I don’t think it was inevitable that the last ten minutes be a different game — and a different genre — from the previous hundred hours of the series.

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