Mass Effect 3 And The Illusion Of Choice (Spoilers)

Bioware’s much anticipated “Mass Effect 3″ video game promised players a unique culmination to their 100 hour investment in its far future universe. Supplemented with books, comics and tie-ins over the years, Mass Effect evolved into an unusually detailed play space. Some argue that Mass Effect is the most important fictional universe for the current generation fan base. So how did Bioware botch it so badly?

Huge audiences across genders and age groups embrace Mass Effect on the simple premise that their choices in the game matter. Players select which gender to assign the hero, Commander Shepard (Jennifer Hale’s voice acting so good as to almost mandate playing femshep at least once). During the game, the player’s decisions make or break friends, lovers and the commander’s own moral code. Each play through feels and looks personal. Plus, Bioware pushed the notion that decisions in games 1, 2 or 3 carry over. The game universe remembers individual fates which in turn affect the galaxy’s survival.

Or maybe not so much.

You’ve probably noticed enraged fans reaching the ‘end’ to be told that nothing really mattered. That anger is sweeping corners of the Internet. All those morally difficult choices? Who to save and who to sacrifice? Who to woo or beat down? Nothing. The last 6 minutes of the game feature a deus ex machina new character who, like “The Architect” from the Matrix movies, reveals you never had free choice at all. To cushion the blow, the player’s three phony choices blow up the galaxy in a different color.

Mass Effect 3, Reapers, Bioware, Ending

Bioware’s creative failure transcends a typical Hollywood tentpole let down. Mass Effect until the last 6 minutes offers players the illusion of customized choice; it feels like their universe for 100 hours. As role playing game (with a shooter element), Mass Effect emphasized the tale of humanity emerging on the galactic stage and that very stage in peril. Players’ sense of betrayal is therefore all the deeper. Outraged customers demand that Bioware (and publisher Electronic Arts) re-write the ending, provide new downloadable content (DLC) or acknowledge that the lamentable fail was part of a clever ruse and it never happened, ala Bobby Ewing’s shower scene in Dallas. (Here, the fans fighting cognitive dissonance desperately want their hero, Commander Sheppard, to be only ‘indoctrinated’ or brainwashed by the fearsome enemy Reapers at the end).

Bioware’s defenders note any created environment will feature some kind of tug of war between the creators and those playing in it. Those complaining are ‘entitled gamers.’ In other words, it’s just a game and buy the next one.

Creating universes and inviting people in is hard work. We speak from some experience back in neolithic times. We programmed and ran what may have been the first ever war game using the then-state-of-the-art Ashton Tate DBIII. Some of the people in that game worked for Rummy. (Hey, don’t blame the game, blame the playah). Maintaining the illusion of free will while being led along a narrative path is a tricky thing. Here, Bioware punted. Behind the scenes information in a $2.99 app reveals they had no idea how to end the series and ran out of time and money. Rarely a recipe for creative excellence.

To Paraphrase Chekhov, If You Show A Plan On The Mantle In Act I, You Have To Use It In Act 3

Mass Effect, Bioware claimed, always was intended to be a trilogy from the outset. This only magnifies its failure. Bioware did not create a universe to reach a pre-conceived conclusion in harmony with its story line. Successful enrolling narrative fiction always does. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings the most obvious example, maybe Simmon’s Hyperion Cantos or Babylon 5, etc. In contrast, Battlestar Galactica, another fan favorite, promised the Cylons “have a plan” from the first title sequences. If only they and the writers did. Lost, anyone? You probably have your own examples.

Perhaps Bioware’s failure is a cautionary lesson. Not just in the entertainment niche. Unless some unforeseeable DLC (and it better be free) rectifies matters, Mass Effect 3 is set for punchline status. It’s not ET games buried in a landfill bad. In a way, it’s something worse – it betrayed its promise and its fans.

As we watch the twilight of the third Bush Administration (kinder and gentler, at least in tone) it’d be nice to think people are no longer willing to be told their decisions matter only to end up with spoon fed, nearly identical outcomes. Or that the passions of a game fan base could apply to our wider society. But we suspect Axelrod et al. in Chicago and counterparts elsewhere would play through Mass Effect 3, nodding sagely. And commission focus groups on which color galaxy to offer.