The Fall of the Bioware Empire: A Post-Mortem Mass Effect Analysis

I’ve been expecting this news ever since Bioware announced that Mass Effect 3 would not change its ending. I’d hoped that maybe Andromeda could save the Mass Effect series, but then I played it and those hopes were dashed. So let’s cut open the still warm corpse of one of the best scifi gaming franchises and see what killed it.

The Fall of the Roman Bioware Empire

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Bioware was once one of the great companies of the video game industry, and seeing their label meant you were in for a storytelling treat. Sure, they told stories that were more traditional, and they didn’t push boundaries like Obsidian tried to do, but they were still good stories. There was a time when all I had to know was that Bioware was making it and I would instantly pre-order it, I didn’t even have to know what it was about.

Those days are long gone, so how did this empire of interactive storytelling become the hollowed out husk we see before us?

Well…

The Mass Effect 3 Ending Broke The Universe

This was something the defenders of Mass Effect 3’s ending seemed to miss… just how utterly screwed the game’s universe was post-ending. People like me, who criticized the ending, weren’t just mad because we didn’t get the ending we wanted; we were mad because we saw just how utterly the ending destroyed much of what we loved about Mass Effect’s universe. Even taking into account the Extended Cut, the amount of damage done to the Mass Relays would take decades if not centuries to be completely repaired. There were still left with a bunch of aliens on a devastated Earth where there wasn’t sufficient food to care for them.

Even ignoring all that, there was the classic Deus Ex problem of which ending would future Mass Effect games make canon? There’s a reason all of the recent Deus Ex games have been prequels, because Deus Ex: Invisible War highlighted the problems with continuing the story. Invisible War tried to circumvent the problem by creating a strange hybrid that made all the endings canon, it was actually sort of an elegant solution in its own way. Yet how would that have worked in Mass Effect, when all the endings were mutually exclusive?

The simplest solution would have been to simply erase the last ten minutes of the ending. Lose the Star-Child-AI-Whatever and that whole awful soliloquy about the Reaper “solution”, and just have the Catalyst set off a space-magic explosion and kill the Reapers. Sure, it would still have been a cheap move that negated all the choices player’s made and robbed us of a proper emotionally fulfilling ending, but it wouldn’t have irreparably damaged the Mass Effect canon.

AI
Even after all these years, I still can’t believe someone thought this was a good idea.

However even with Bioware’s stubborn refusal to change the ending, all wasn’t lost. They could have just Retconned the ending. Retroactive Continuity (Retcon) means a story contradicting and changing the events of a previous story, and it’s generally frowned upon. In fact there’s such a stigma attached to it that some storytellers will go to outrageous lengths to avoid doing it. It should absolutely be a method of last resort, but Mass Effect is one instance where it would be appropriate.

In fact, if Mass Effect: Andromeda had not been dead on arrival, I have a feeling this is exactly what Bioware was planning to do. Eventually I’m sure that it would have been revealed that humanity failed to stop the Reapers and all intelligent life was snuffed out once again. Perhaps the Reapers would even pursue the survivors to Andromeda in a future sequel.

No matter how you look at it though, the ending of Mass Effect 3 left an absolute mess for Bioware to try and resolve with the next iteration. Still it wasn’t unfixable and trying to circumvent the damage by taking Mass Effect to Andromeda could have been an elegant solution. Could Andromeda have been saved if it still had the old Bioware team working on it? We’ll never know because…

 

Most of Bioware is Gone

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Fuck you EA.

Playing through Mass Effect: Andromeda, it was difficult for me to imagine that it was made by the same people who made Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins. Other than the fact that Andromeda uses a Bioware IP, it bears very little resemblance to the games that game before it. Which makes sense, because as I researched this article, I found out that it wasn’t in fact made by the same people. Everyone, all most to a man, that worked on Bioware’s most famous titles had long since left Bioware by the time Andromeda went into production.

There’s a thought experiment called the Ship of Theseus that you’ve probably heard at some point, though probably using a car than a ship: if you replace every wooden part of a ship… is it the same ship?

Well I can’t speak for ships, but if you replace every member of a company with a new person, Andromeda definitively proves that it is not in fact the same company.

Freddie-Prinze-Jr-Voice-of-James-Vega-Is-Big-Mass-Effect-Fan-2
And just like this idiot, the newcomers just messed up the place.

Bioware began in 1995, making the company just slightly younger than I am. Three doctors, Ray Muzyka, Greg Zeschuk, and Augustine Yip were all medical doctors who started off doing some programming in med school and playing video games to relax. Thanks to the fact that doctors make pretty good money, they were able to pool together enough capital to start their own company. And now I understand why the company is called Bioware, Bio as in Biology because they’re doctors, I finally see what you did there guys.

Along with two other founding members, Brent and Trent Oster, Bioware began turning out their first video game Shattered Steel. I never played, or had even heard of, this game myself but it was enough of a success to gain the attention of Interplay. That’s when they began working on Baldur’s Gate.

And here’s what I want to focus on: the members of the Bioware team were all huge fans of pen-and-paper RPGs and especially D&D. They were passionate about the project, and this is something that will become a theme for all of Bioware’s titles. Like all great creative minds, they weren’t in this for the money so much, they all had successful medical practices after all. They wanted to create awesome games. In pursuit of that goal, they began looking to add more talent to their company.

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Unfortunately this is where the trouble began.

Bioware merged with Pandemic in 2005, and this is when Bioware would run into trouble. Using a holding company to facilitate the merger, Bioware bought Pandemic and the two merged into a single studio. Unfortunately that meant Bioware’s Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk were now beholden to stock holders and venture capitalists. So when EA Games came to them with a half-a-billion dollar offer, it seemed like good business to accept? Who among us would have the fortitude to turn down that kind of money?

The buyout by Electronic Arts was completed in 2007,  just prior to the release of Mass Effect. Shortly after that in 2008 EA would merge Bioware with Mythic Entertainment so that all its RPG teams would be under a single company. Still, despite all this, Bioware seemed to retain some of its autonomy, and, more importantly, its drive to create amazing video game stories. Over the years, perhaps even because of these mergers and the financial resources of EA, Bioware had managed to collect an exceptional team of talented people.

There was Drew Karpyshyn, senior writer for Knights of the Old Republic and lead writer on the first two Mass Effect games. David Gaider, who also worked on Knights of the Old Republic and was lead writer on Dragon Age: Origins and its sequel. Casey Hudson, who directed the entire Mass Effect series. Mac Walters and Patrick Weekes, who were both supporting writers on the Mass Effect series as well.

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Hang their names on the wall now, because they’re all gone.

Aside from Mac Walters, who directed Andromeda, and Patrick Weekes who works on the Dragon Age series, none of those people were still working at Bioware when Andromeda was in production. (Though Casey Hudson has now returned to Bioware, for however long that lasts.)

That’s not to say the current team isn’t talented, they might very well be just as talented as those that came before. Unfortunately all the talent in the world can’t save us from…

Corporate Bullshit

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Fuck you again, EA.

The real problem is that EA didn’t want to make a Mass Effect RPG, they wanted to make a No Man’s Sky ripoff. In much the same way Dragon Age Inquisition was trying to copy Skyrim‘s open world mechanics, to its own detriment, Mass Effect: Andromeda tried to create a procedurally generated universe. Not because the story demanded it or because it would make a better game for their players. No, they wanted it because the corporate dipshits at EA saw how much money No Man’s Sky was making and decided it wanted a piece of that pie. Problem is that not even No Man’s Sky could deliver on its promises: the technology just isn’t there to make procedurally generated as compelling as a handcrafted experience.

More to the point though, in its chase to lure new demographics to Mass Effect, they completely screwed over its existing fans. Those that went in expecting a compelling narrative and amazing characters were left solely disappointed. Meanwhile, the people looking for an infinite procedurally-generated space adventure were left disinterested because Andromeda couldn’t get it working. Years were wasted on a random planet generator, instead of a polished script and focusing on storytelling gameplay.

This is hardly an EA exclusive mistake however, every major publisher makes this mistake. In fact it’s a problem with businesses in general.

If you’re not growing, you’re shrinking.

That’s a common refrain and it’s also a toxic mindset, because it says nothing is ever enough. Every project, every game, has to make more than it did last time. It wasn’t enough for Mass Effect Andromeda to sell as well as Mass Effect 3, it had to sell more than ever before. EA estimated, apparently based on wishful thinking, that Mass Effect: Andromeda would sell 3 million copies in a few days. Mass Effect 3 sold that many in March 2012, but that was the conclusion of a trilogy that already had a solid player base that was emotionally invested. Expecting it to match its predecessor was unrealistic, especially given the mediocre games it released in the interim.

DAI-Box-art
*Cough*

That’s why both Dragon Age Inquisition and Mass Effect Andromeda both sought to expand their appeal, so it would sell more copies. Yet in the end all it did was sabotage itself, spreading itself so thinly that nothing satisfied anyone.

This greed for more, always more, is not only destroying video game quality but also making them much harder to afford. Just like banks making billions a year looked at ATMs and decided to charge people for accessing their own money, video game companies look at games we own and are continually looking at ways to make us keep paying for them. From absurd collectors editions to microtransactions and ridiculous real-money marketplaces in games we paid 60 for, there is seemingly no limit to what game publishers won’t do. All because raking in millions a year isn’t enough, they want to be making more millions than ever before.

I don’t want to get too much into politics, but this to me seems a problem with the world at large. I can’t imagine running a company that makes billions a year and thinking “well this is nice, but I’d really like to be making 9 billion a year instead of 8.5.” Obviously video game companies, even ones like EA, aren’t pulling in that kind of money, but my point is the same. Why is there never enough? Nothing in nature can grow indefinitely, even a star will eventually collapse in on itself if it grows too large.

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There’s a reason the pursuit of power and money for its own sake is a staple trait of villains.

Casey Hudson has said that Mass Effect will make a return some day, and I’m sure that’s true. I just doubt we’ll recognize it as Mass Effect when it comes out. Right now Bioware is working on Totally not a Destiny Ripoff  Anthem, a multiplayer based shooter. They claim there will be an epic story, but of course Destiny claimed the same thing and we know how that turned out. If it’s successful, I have no doubt that Mass Effect will return as a multiplayer based shooter as well. If it isn’t, I’m sure they’ll retool Mass Effect to fit whatever the current flavor the month is in the gaming world is.

The Mass Effect we all knew? That’s gone, and I’m sorry to say that it’s probably never coming back.

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All That Matters is the Ending: Dragon Age Inquisition

When I wrote my breakdown of Mass Effect 3’s ending debacle, I took several days to properly organize my thoughts and make sure everything I was saying made sense. By contrast, when I wrote my critique of Dragon Age: Inquisition’s ending, it was a stream of consciousness straight from my raging, bitterly disappointed mind onto the vast wastes of the internet. So let me take a moment, now that I’ve calmed down, to reiterate the reasons I think Dragon Age: Inquisition failed in its ending. And why that halfhearted ending makes an otherwise remarkable game…less than the sum of its parts.

First of all I should say that I was exaggerating when I said this was a worse ending than Mass Effect 3. It clearly isn’t. Inquisition’s ending didn’t throw out the established rules, lore and setting of all the other Dragon Ages, or end with a stupid closing soliloquy from an omnipotent god caught in a feedback loop of stupid. It’s not even really a bad ending, it’s just so…underwhelming. It avoids all of the horrendous mistakes made by Mass Effect 3, but at the same time we get such a pitiful and anticlimactic ending that it renders all the awesome stuff we experienced along the way seem less special.

[The following is based on my 65-hour initial playthrough and the 15-hour 2nd playthrough (yes, you can plow through the main storyline in about 15-hours, probably less if you’re better at the combat than I am) to see if any of the major decisions changed the ending. Spoiler alert: They didn’t.]

1. Every Story is Isolated

Don't let the other people fool you. You're all alone here.
Don’t let the other people fool you. You’re all alone here.

Interactive storytelling is hard, I get that, but that’s also why it’s so amazing when it comes together beautifully. Dragon Age: Origins remains one of my favorite RPGs because of how well all the stories meshed together, regardless of which origin story you chose or which choices you made along the way. Dragon Age: Inquisition has some remarkably good stories and some of the best characters I’ve encountered since Mass Effect 2. Yet very few of those stories actually interact with any of the others. They all take place in their own isolated little corners of the main story, sometimes being peripherally mentioned but never really impacting anything.

For instance, at first glance, I felt the new War Table was a wonderful new method of storytelling. Not only did it make me feel like I was really running a kingdom, but it allowed the game to tell me stories that impacted the entire world of Thedas rather than just the isolated corner my character was inhabiting. When Darkspawn appeared in southern Orlais I felt dread, for surely this was a sign that Corypheus was somehow summoning these creatures to aid him. Fortunately I had just saved Empress Celene’s life and secured Orlesian support for the Inquisition and thanks to Josephine’s skillful diplomacy I was able to call upon my new Orlesian allies to aid me. I thought this would help limit the Inquisition’s casualties in battle, though I was conscious of the fact that since Empress Celene’s treacherous cousin had held the loyalty of Orlais’s Chevaliers, I might not be getting their best troops. Still any little bit would help, or so I thought. After all, I didn’t want to deplete my own army when Corypheus might appear with his own at any time.

It’s a fine story in and of itself, and it really makes you feel like larger things are happening all around you. Unfortunately this feeling is completely undermined by the fact that the story doesn’t affect, nor is it affected, by anything else happening in the game. For instance my siding with Celene didn’t affect Orlesian support, nor did my destroying the Darkspawn army in anyway weaken Corypheus, and any troops I lost to fighting the darkspawn didn’t affect my army’s performance when I finally attacked Corpyheus’s army in the Arbor wilds. It didn’t even affect my approval rating with Blackwall, and he was the one guy I thought would be pleased with my destroying a darkspawn army.

Though with a beard that magnificent, I can forgive him.
Though with a beard that magnificent, I can forgive him his nonchalance at the news of the Darkspawns defeat.

And speaking of character approval, I never once saw a character’s approval rating come into play. It was a thing that might as well never have existed. Nor did any of the character’s side quests ever come to affect the ending or even the characters themselves.

When I helped Sten find his lost sword in Dragon Age: Origins, it had a lasting impact on his character throughout the story. He was no longer the standoffish and hostile brute I met back in Lothering…well okay he was, but not to me. Sten began to address me as Kadan (a sign of respect) and even began smiling when I talked to him, which up to that point I thought was physiologically impossible for a Qunari. When I helped Morrigan obtain Flemeth’s Grimoire and then slay the old hag, she became more genuinely confident rather than hiding her fear and hate behind a thin veil of nonchalance and arrogance. I didn’t treat Zevran very well my first playthrough (in my defense, he did try to kill me) and as a result when the Antivan Crows sent a second assassin, Zevran was quick to betray me. These are instances of where the character’s stories had real meat to them, where my actions directly affected the characters and in turn their characters affected the story at large.

Compare that to Inquisition. When I helped Cassandra find the lost Seekers, nothing really changed for her or the story at large. She seemed conflicted and then angry during the mission itself, but once we slew the Head Seeker and left? Outside of a couple conversations you have directly after the mission, it was like the whole affair never even happened. Again, the story itself is fine, I liked seeing her confront a betrayal of her fundamental beliefs. And I was genuinely curious what would happen after she was confronted with the fact that the Rite of Tranquility could be reversed and that her Order had become less a peacekeeping force and more a kind of Secret Police of the worst kind. Unfortunately my curiosity was never sated, because nothing changes. Are there perhaps subtle changes to Morrigan’s narration if Cassandra becomes the Divine? Perhaps, but considering that could take dozens of hours to get to that ending depending on when you do her quest, and compared to the very full and engaging character storylines of DA:O, it still falls depressingly short of good.

Which is a shame, because all the characters are wonderful. They just don't end up affecting the story.
Which is a shame, because all the characters are wonderful. They just don’t end up affecting the story.

Even each individual zone in the game remains totally isolated from everything else. Completing the main storylines of the Western Approach doesn’t affect how the siege of Adamant plays out. I thought capturing the keep in the area would not only weaken Corypheus’s hold over the Grey Wardens, but provide my own forces with a forward base from which to launch an attack. Go through the game without doing a single sidequest though, and the siege of Adamant plays out just as it did before. Same with every other zone and every other story. They all play out as if in a vacuum, all the stories are within sight of each other but they never interact directly. The closest we get to any of the stories interacting is with the War Table and certain zones, such as building bridges across the sulfur vents or setting up watchtowers in the Hinterlands, but even then those interactions are minimal and don’t affect any other nearby story.

On the surface Dragon Age: Inquisition gives the player a false impression that they’re experiencing a vast tapestry of stories all woven together to form a coherent narrative, but once you dive beneath the surface you see its not a tapestry at all…it’s an anthology of stories. They all take place in the same universe, and maybe they even take place at the same time, but they can all be read independently of one another or ignored entirely. That’s not to say it’s a huge problem, anthologies can be fun too, but when you combine this with all of the game’s other major problems, things start to unravel.

2. Choices have no consequences

…Story and Choice as a Fundamental Pillar of the Game.

How you choose to lead is up to you, but remember, in Dragon Age: Inquisition choices have consequences. Making a new ally can also lead to the creation of a new enemy. – From Dragon Age Inquisition’s Promotional Material, emphasis mine.

That’s just a small section of the marketing campaign that preceded Dragon Age: Inquisition’s release, and yet in the game itself very few of the player’s choices have any real consequences. Let’s examine the very first choice we’re given in the game: your race. Go ahead and pick a Qunari. Now you’d think being a huge hulking beast from a strange land that has fought several bloody wars with her Chantry, Cassandra would be a little more suspicious of you than if you’d chosen human or elf for your race. Unfortunately aside from a few minor dialogue changes, Cassandra’s attitude towards you remains static. You’d think it would be harder to win her approval and trust, but she’ll happily thrust control of the most powerful organization in Thedas into your waiting hands, even if you make it perfectly clear you think the Chantry and everything Cassandra holds dear is a lie.

But okay, maybe its too much to ask to change the beginning of the story based on your race (even if that’s the exact thing that made Dragon Age: Origins stand out and started this whole franchise.) Let’s tackle some actual gameplay and see what kind of consequences the player experiences:

After being led by Cassandra to the Inquisition’s forward camp, you’re asked to make the decision on how to approach the Rift. Do you take the mountain path, and risk casualties among your soldiers. Or charge with your troops, but risk losing your scouts in the mountains? Or do you just flip a coin because there are no consequences for this choice?

I’m not asking for this early game decision to have butterfly effect ripples across the entire story. I didn’t expect the ending to shift because I lost some soldiers or scouts, but I did at least expect this to have some kind of change to the encounter with the Pride Demon at the Rift. I chose the scouts the first playthrough, and was gratified to see Archers (who I thought were the scouts) loose their arrows as the Pride Demon came through the rift. I thought, upon a second playthrough, that these archers would be replaced with more soldiers or different kinds of soldiers (two-hand wielders or something). Unfortunately there is no such change.

Nothing changes based on your choice apart from which road you take, a gameplay mechanic so simple that even Gears of War managed to integrate it on a regular basis.

Come on Bioware, you can do better than this can't you?
Choices in an RPG should have more significant consequences than a Gears of War game, don’t you think?

But okay, it’s early in the game, maybe they just didn’t have the time or inclination to make the beginning amazing. Fine. Let’s skip to halfway through the story.

The Inquisition attacks the Grey Warden stronghold of Adamant to free them from the corruption of Corypheus. Once you’ve succeeded, you’re given the option of allowing the Grey Wardens to join with the Inquisition or exiling them from Orlais. In theory this presents sweeping and potentially dire consequences for the player. On the one hand, Grey Wardens are Thedas’s only line of defense against another Blight as it’s their mastering of the Darkspawn’s corruption that allows them to kill an Archdemon. Yet on the other hand, it’s that same corruption that allowed them to be twisted to Corypheus’s will. Allowing the Grey Wardens to serve the inquisition might give you a powerful ally against Corypheus should he somehow summon Darkspawn armies to his side, but at the same time Corypheus might use those same Grey Wardens to undermine the inquisition from within. It was a choice that demanded careful consideration. So what affect does this choice have on the story?

None.

Okay yes, it does end up affecting which portrait you get in the closing epilogue and Morrigan’s narration, but that’s it. Don’t take that to mean I don’t like “slideshow” endings, I have no problem with having slideshow endings or narrations, in fact I think both can be incredibly effective storytelling techniques. Both Dragon Age: Origins and Fallout New Vegas had great endings, and they both heavily relied on slideshows. My main problem is that Inquisition’s slideshow is anemic and unsatisfying compared to most games that have used this technique, including Inquisition’s predecessor Dragon Age: Origins. Inquisition’s epilogue covered only a few of the decisions the player could make and only told us the story of which character became the new Divine, all of your other companions were left in the dust. The epilogue for Origins covered every major choice you made in the game and told you the fate of every character you met, which made it infinitely more rewarding than Inquisition’s.

"When fellow qunari asked if there were worthy people outside Par Vollen, Sten would answer that in all his travels he had only met  one.” - Sten's Ending
“When fellow Qunari asked if there were worthy people outside Par Vollen, Sten would answer that in all his travels he had only met one.” – Sten’s Ending Slide, after my Hero of Ferelden died slaying the Archdemon.

I will say this for the game, it was very good at making you think everything you were doing had a consequence, it’s why I was so happy with the game right up until the end when the illusion fell apart. However there was one choice given in the game that almost went out of its way to make sure you knew what you did was pointless, and that was the Templar mission. Early on in the game you’re given a choice to save the Templars or the Rebel Mages, with a specific warning that choosing one will deny you the other.

Now if you went for the Mages, you probably thought all the Red Templars you were running into throughout the game were the consequence of your choice, and you probably went through the game thinking that was the meaningful consequence of your actions. I, unfortunately, chose to side with the Templars in my first playthrough. So you can imagine my annoyance when, not only were there no rebel mages to fight outside of the attack on Haven, but even worse there were more Templars fighting for Corypheus than were fighting for me. I never once saw a Templar come to my aid in battle, or march along side my armies during the attack on Adamant. They didn’t show up to help me battle Corypheus at either the Well of Sorrows or in the final battle. Instead all I came across were legions of Red Templars? So what was the point of saving their order? They showed up at one brief cutscene when you seal the rift and that’s it. We might as well not even been given a choice in the matter (especially since the Templar mission is such a royal pain in the ass compared to the Mage mission.)

Yes I'm talking to you and your bullshit ground AoE attack!
Yes I’m talking to you and your bullshit ground AoE attack!

The only place I felt like I had any kind of impact on the story was at the Well of Sorrows. First you’re given a choice to either follow Corypheus’s followers down a crevasse to the well of Sorrows or undergo the Rites of Metel and pay homage to the Elven Gods. This does actually seem to affect how the Ancient Elves regard you and allying with the Elves allows you to bypass most of the combat by taking secret passages. Then you can choose whether the player character or Morrigan drinks from the Well of Sorrows. If Morrigan drank from the Well of Sorrows the she’s able to transform into a Dragon like her mother Flemeth once did and do battle with Corypheus’s corrupted dragon. If the player drank, you have to first subdue a dragon and bring it under your command using the power of the well. And that’s it. That’s the sum total of the impact it has.

And you know what, that’s actually fine, and had there been more small changes to the ending based on your choices I wouldn’t be writing this. Having small amounts of feedback throughout the course of a long game can be just as satisfying as having wildly divergent branching endings. Unfortunately Inquisition failed to deliver on either of those, because those consequences to the Well of Sorrows choices are the only real impact you’ll have on the story or ending. As much as I hate to keep comparing Inquisition to Origins, let’s look at how the choices my choices in Dragon Age: Origins affected the story.

My first character was an Elf from Denerim’s Alienage, and because the Arl’s son was a monstrous rapist, I gutted him like a pig in his own bedroom to save my cousin. Much later down the line I was trying to gather support for the Landsmeet, but because I had butchered the Arl’s son, I lost not only the support of that Arldom (which had fallen into Loghain’s hands) but I also was unable to convince the landsmeet that Loghain’s plot to sell the Elves into slavery was a bad idea, because now they all saw Elves as murderous psychopaths.

You butcher one castle's worth of people and suddenly your the bad guy. Go figure.
You butcher one castle’s worth of people and suddenly your the bad guy. Go figure.

A seemingly inconsequential choice at the beginning of the game had a profound impact on the story later down the road, now that’s a consequence. So when the Landsmeet turned against me and Arl Eamon, did the ending change drastically? No, you end up having to go mano a’ mano with Loghain no matter what you do. Yet seeing the consequences of my actions from the beginning of the game having an affect on the story so late in the game was incredibly gratifying. It made me feel like a part of the story, a part of the world I was in, rather than merely a spectator. That all important word, immersion. That’s what I felt playing Dragon Age: Origin.

Meanwhile, my choice to choose the mountain path? To exile the Wardens? To Save the Templar Order? To save Empress Celene? I got no feedback from the game. And these were huge choices that implied dire consequences no matter which choice you made. By comparison, the choice to kill the Arl of Denerim’s son seems downright trivial, and yet I got more feedback from that than I did any of the major decisions with Inquisition. So I guess it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that, when I finally did reach the ending that –

1. The Ending is the very definition of an Anticlimax

Perhaps all of these problems could have been forgiven if at least, at the end, I’d had seen a battle worthy of all the buildup. To battle a Godlike Corypheus in the depths of the fade, perhaps even in the center of the Black City itself, while in the normal world our two armies clashed in a bloody maelstrom of steel and magic. Unfortunately we didn’t get any of that. Instead we got Corypheus alone in the ruins of the Temple of Sacred Ashes giving us a cliched (and hilariously misguided, given his track record of failure) monologue about his imminent ascension to godhood. Then we fought him, and it was a boss fight so pitiful I almost felt sorry for him at that point. The dragons I had killed throughout Thedas had been more challenge then him. His Fear Demon ally in the Fade was tougher than him. Most Red Templar mobs were tougher than him. His half dead dragon was tougher than him.

Then we blast him into the ether of the fade, go home and have some drinks with the guys and roll credits.

The closest I got to feeling excited in that final battle was when Morrigan grappled with Corypheus’s Dragon. Watching those two colossal beasts having at each other was a spectacular sight to behold, but every time I got close to feel some excitement it would cut away from the amazing aerial dragon battle to focus once again on the pitiful old man Corypheus. The last time I felt this apathetic towards a boss fight was when Ezio punched the pudgy old Pope to death in Assassin’s Creed 2.

And quite honestly, the Pope put up a better fight.
And quite honestly, the Pope put up a better fight.

As I wrote originally, it was such an anticlimax I thought it was Bioware trying to fake me out. This was all just a ploy to take me off guard when the real villain showed up, and the one thing convinced me that was the case right up until the end was Skyhold. Chekov’s Gun is an old literary axiom that basically says if you introduce something to the story, it better serve a purpose. The saying is from, of course, Anton Chekov:

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there. – Anton Chekov

Skyhold is the gun hanging on the wall. Why did you give me a huge, epic keep and allow me to personalize it if we weren’t going to have an epic siege there? You don’t give the player a castle and then not attack it. Imagine Dragon Age: Awakenings if at the end of the game, the keep you spent so long rebuilding just… sits there, doing nothing. Or flying the SSV Normandy II into the Omega 6 Relay and then peacefully landing on the Collector Base without a single shot being fired. Or even better, imagine leading the counter attack on Earth at the end of Mass Effect 3 and finding no Reaper fleet or vicious ground battle being fought, and instead cutting to those last godawful 10 minutes immediately after landing.

Just imagine this.
Just imagine this.

Skyhold was the perfect setting for the climactic final battle with Corypheus. Defending the walls of the keep you’ve come to love, watching as Morrigan in Dragon form fights the Archdemon in the skies above the fortress, while great siege engines rain down fire and destruction. It would have been every definition of epic. There could have been so many amazing ways to make the Siege of Skyhold the epic ending we all needed. All of your characters would have been involved too, rather than just the 3 you chose to take with you.

It could have been a tense, bitter fight as the gates are shattered and Darkspawn come pouring into the courtyard where, without the help of the Grey Wardens, my soldiers are beaten back into the keep proper. Or if you kept the Grey Wardens perhaps the Darkspawn are scattered, leaving the Venatori and Red Templars to lead the vanguard of the assault.  Blackwall and Cullen could lead the defense of the courtyard. Sera and Varric could direct the archers on the walls and rain death upon the enemy ranks or take potshots at the dragon. Cole could assassinate priority targets and cause chaos in the enemy ranks.  Iron Bull and his Chargers could lead a vicious counterattack and buy the time necessary for Cullen to withdrawn his exhausted and wounded troops into the keep where the Inquisition would make its final stand.

A climax worthy of the term would have made Dragon Age Inquisition my new favorite RPG and I would have overlooked all the other problems with the game. Instead we got a pitiful whimpering boss who could barely put up a fight and made every other flaw in the game come through with glaring clarity. I don’t need a dozen amazing endings, I just need one good one.

Give a dragon and an army to fight, and I will give you my undying praise.
Give me a dragon and an army to fight, and I will give you my undying praise.

Marching on Denerim at the head of the army I had worked so hard to build is still one of my fondest gaming memories. Sending packs of Werewolves to shred the Genlock Archers harassing me while a newly crafted Golem took on an Ogre with help from the stalwart Legion of the Dead was incredibly satisfying, it was a final battle that really made me feel like everything I did in the game actually mattered. All of the alliances, all of the sacrifice, all of the death: it had all been building towards this moment, and it was a moment that did not disappoint.

Mass Effect 2’s Suicide Mission remains the epitome of the epic ending for me. A mission in which everyone can die, including you, and an explosive finale that sent a chill down your fucking spine.

Even Mass Effect 3 had a damn good conclusion until they fucked it up in the last 10 minutes. That final charge towards the Citadel Beam may have seemed stupid, but it was the stupidity of desperation. It was a desperation that said “we either do this now or we go extinct.” It was a desperation I felt right down to my bones.

Thanks, Harbinger, you did good son.
I like to pretend the game ended here and we all died. It’s less depressing.

Those are the endings that will stay with me for a long time. Not because I’ll remember the specifics of why or how or when, but because I’ll remember how I felt.

Dragon Age: Inquisition… well it’ll be just another game I’ll probably remember having played at some point, but I won’t remember what it was about or what happened in the end. And most importantly I won’t remember how I felt.

Because Dragon Age: Inquisition didn’t make me feel anything…

I wish these amazing characters had appeared in a story worth the telling.
I wish these amazing characters had appeared in a story worth the telling.

In Closing:

Dragon Age: Inquisition is a game filled with some amazing, unique and fine crafted stories. It has some incredible world building. And while the main plot is pretty mediocre, the underlying plot of the Dread Wolf and Flemeth and ancient magics awakening is really compelling. Yet good storytelling is about more than good characters, plot and world building.

It’s about bringing all those elements together to form a whole that’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s like cooking, you can have all the best ingredients but unless you mix them right and cook them properly, you don’t have a good meal. Dragon Age: Inquisition had the best ingredients, it just undercooked them.

A note to Mark Darrah:

Hi Mark,

First of all I appreciate your response, I really do, that’s not sarcasm or anything. While I can see where you’re coming from, citing the “lose texts” as alternate endings is a bit disingenuous don’t you think? By that train of thought any game that has any kind of text message when you die technically has multiple endings, which would make Sierra Adventure Games of the 1990’s king of the alternate ending. I remember playing Space Quest when I was a kid, I used to get all kind of hilarious messages when I died.

And I died so many times...
And I died so many times…

And while wanting to emulate Sierra Games circa 1995 is a laudable goal, perhaps releasing serious RPGs like Dragon Age: Inquisition aren’t the best way to go about achieving that. I’m totally on board for a Dragon Quest parody game though.

 

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WritersBlock

 

More on Dragon Age Inquisition:

The Ending Isn’t The Only Problem

Why Corypheus is a Bad Villain

The Failure of the Inquisitor

Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut

So today Bioware released the Extended Cut DLC for Mass Effect 3, and I have to say…I’m impressed. Given the horrific mess that were the original endings, Bioware has done an excellent job making these Extended Cut endings both thematically consistent and emotionally satisfying. In a previous post I said I thought this Extended Cut would be like trying to put a new coat of paint on the smoldering ruins of a car, but Bioware has instead performed a magic trick; using smoke and mirrors to make the endings something that can be enjoyed by drawing our attention away from the flaws. Those smoke and mirrors are some excellent writing and a firm grasp of storytelling basics, something I thought Bioware had lost given the absolutely broken original endings. Whoever was responsible for the catastrophe of Mass Effect 3’s original ending clearly had nothing to do with the Extended Cut DLC.

Two of the biggest issues I had with the original endings was the lack of resolution and the core themes of the game being abandoned for pure nihilism, and Bioware has managed to fix both of these. And 2 out of 3 ain’t bad.

3. Lack of Resolution – FIXED! 

Yes, I’m very happy to report that the new endings do give the audience a feeling of accomplishment and resolution. You no longer get a stupid 15 second clip of your team crashing on a planet and fading to black to spare you the sight of your friends slowly cannibalizing each other. Instead you get a rather touching moment in which your crew hangs your name (Commander Shepard) on the memorial plaque onboard the Normandy, right alongside all the others who fought and died alongside you, including Anderson. This is an important moment because it shows us the characters we’ve all grown to love sharing a moment to mourn the death of their friends, and for us, we can mourn with them because this represents the end of our journey together. Their story is over, and our time with them is done. That was the moment we needed, the moment we were all denied in the original endings.

Equally important is that we get some closure on the universe we’ve lived in for five years. Each concluding video gives a great narration by one of three characters, depending on which ending you pick, who give their unique view on the situation. Not only do these narrations give us some closure on what happens in the Mass Effect universe after the defeat of the Reapers, but also expand on what is happening in the endings themselves, helping to solve the next huge issue on my original list.

2. Abandoning of Established Themes and Characters – Fixed!

This was the biggest issue for me. All three of the original endings were so thematically different from the entire series that they felt like the endings to a totally different game. Now, however, thanks to the expanded endings reveal what the hell is going on in these endings.

Wait…what?

Of all three endings, Control was the one that really confused me. Yes, the Reapers flew off after Shepard took control but what the hell happens after that? It didn’t make any sense to me because what was happening wasn’t really explained aside from “yeah, you’ll control the reapers, just trust me.” Do the Reapers just fly off back into Dark Space? Do a little song and dance on Mars? What?

However, now, I think the Extended Cut Control ending is my favorite ending to the game:

Narrated by Shepard, or rather the collective consciousness born of Shepard’s personality merging with the Reapers, he explains what’s happening and why. The great thing about his narration is that, it not only gives us closure as to Shepard’s fate, but makes the control ending fit thematically with the rest of the series. All of the original endings featured Shepard dying for no real apparent reason. It was sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice. It didn’t fit because Shepard, while always willing to sacrifice, didn’t simply do so just for the heck of it. In this video though, we see what his sacrifice allowed for:

I will rebuild what the many have lost. I will create a future with limitless possibilities. I will protect and sustain. I will act as guardian for many.

So basically its Shepard doing what he was always doing, only this time his personality is superimposed on the Reapers, turning them into a fleet of invulnerable Shepards. I can live with that.

Similarly, the other big theme that was abandoned by the original endings was the Strength through Diversity theme. This was why I had such a huge issue with the Synthesis ending, because it seemed like the solution in this case was basically “make everyone the same so they don’t fight!” which is a horrible idea. However, the new Synthesis ending suggests that this merging doesn’t make everyone the same so much as it grants everyone a new perspective. With both organic and synthetic beings woven together, they each gain an understanding of the other’s view point. That’s something I can respect, and it could be argued that it’s perhaps the best ending. I still have an issue with the idea of forcing such a radical change on a galaxy of billions without their consent, but the ending doesn’t have that same undertone of racial hygiene as the original ending, so that alone makes this whole DLC worthwhile.

Strength through Diversity is a theme further reinforced by the new cutscenes, where we actually get to see Krogan, Turian and Asari celebrating as the Reapers fall silent across the galaxy. Finally we get to see something other than just humans triumphing in this conflict. The new Destroy Ending features Admiral Hackett saying that the victory wasn’t won by a single species or on a single world, but through the collective strength of all of them.  Finally, good to see everyone else getting some credit.

1. Introduction of New Elements and Characters – Not Fixed

The bottom line, however, is that at the end of the day this still isn’t the ending that Mass Effect deserved. It’s infinitely better that the originals, and the Extended Cut endings are even pretty good in their own right. Had these been the endings that came out with the game originally, Bioware wouldn’t have had to deal with a month of outraged fans pouring hate onto their forums. I think there would have been some mild disappointment, but I can live with these new endings. They’ve fixed 2 out of the 3 crippling problems of the originals, and honestly, that’s good enough for me.

Yes, we still have the stupid God A.I. retroactively screwing the plot of the original Mass Effect and the added dialogue doesn’t do anything to make this section any less horrible. They could make the God A.I.’s explanations ten thousand words long, but at the end of the day, the explanations and logic are still flawed, overwrought and stupid. Adding more explanations to a wrong answer doesn’t make the answer any less wrong. Similarly, the new Refuse ending seems a little half-assed to me as well; I’m glad they chose to add a refuse option but it definitely doesn’t feel like they put any kind of effort into it. You get a small 20 second clip of Liara’s time capsule and that’s it. I would have hoped for a cinematic detailing the last stand of Sword Fleet, as everyone desperately fights to the last man.

Though the Refusal ending is worth it, if  only because we get to shoot the kid.

Still, like I said, these endings are good. Thematically and emotionally they’re very satisfying. They aren’t the epic endings to a massive saga that I would have liked to have seen, but these at least I can live with. I can now play Mass Effect 3 without feeling like there’s a guillotine hanging over my head, and when I finally finish my second run-through now, I know I’ll have a worthwhile ending waiting for me.

So yes, the new endings are a bit of magic trick. Underneath it all, the ending is still fundamentally broken due to the inclusion of the God A.I., but as Michael Caine said in The Prestige, the thing about a magic trick is that “you want to be fooled.”

Damn right I do, especially when the trick is this good.

“The man who gave up his life to become the one… who could save the many.”

I’ve got something in my eye again…

KISS in Stories

Keep it simple, stupid. This simple rule can be applied successfully to a lot of things, especially instructions. Anything with instructions too complicated usually results in my blowing something up. It’s not pretty.

My bad.

More to the point, though, it applies to stories as well. We’ve all seen a story that, had it not clogged itself up with a lot of unnecessary details or intricate plot threads, might have been great. Battlestar Galactica, Crysis 2, Mass Effect 3, all of their failings can be summarized in five words: they didn’t keep it simple. Now let’s be clear, just because a story is simple does not make it “dumbed down” or unsophisticated. It means you treat your audience with respect and not waste their time by cluttering up the story with a lot unnecessary crap. But what do I mean by unnecessary crap?

Well let’s look at something like A Game of Thrones, either book or mini-series. There are a lot of elements in George RR Martin’s stories, intrigue, espionage, war, romance, and the many themes he explores throughout all of them. At first glance George RR Martin’s stories look like they break the rule of keeping it simple, at least on the surface. I mean some of the machiavellian twists, the presence of so many characters, and the constantly shifting allegiances of those characters should make the story incomprehensible in theory. So why is it such a popular, and easy to read, story?

Because he does keep it simple, and he does so by doing what is sometimes the hardest thing for a writer to do; he cuts out anything that doesn’t move the story forward. Every scene in the mini-series, and every description in the book, go directly to helping move the story forward. There’s no scene that exists solely for it’s own sake. The audience may not understand how it contributes the story, at first, but in the end it all comes together. With a sprawling saga like A Song of Ice and Fire it could have been easy to fall into the trap of over-describing everything. He could have spiralled into a vortex of royal hereditary lines, the intricacies of the wool trade in Westeros, or taken us through the process of crafting a sword all the way from mining the ore to a how many hammer blows it takes to shape the blade. Yet he managed to stay above this, and not include anything that wasn’t helping to advance the story.

That’s tough to do as a writer, because for us, every single thing we write is interesting. For instance in the science fiction book I’m writing, I had a really cool scene of the main character space walking along the hull of a battleship. I really liked it. Problem is, though, it really has nothing to do with the story itself. It doesn’t advance the plot, it didn’t help characterize any of the characters, it was just fluff. So I cut it out. I’ve stashed it away because I still like the idea, and perhaps in a future story I’ll be able to directly incorporate it into the plot, but for right now, my current story doesn’t need it.  It was just cluttering up the place, making it difficult for the story to keep moving.

Let’s pull out everyone’s favorite ending and see what happens when you include stuff that just doesn’t need to be in the story:

Beating this kid up never gets old

Okay, so what did Mass Effect 3 include that could have been cut? Well first of all, let’s just ignore the fact that Mass Effect 3 deserved a much better ending than this, and see just how the ending we did get could have been better if only they’d cut out some things.

1. The Kid

The kid Shepard sees killed adds absolutely nothing to the story. We can surmise that Shepard is disturbed by the sight of the boy dying, what with all the freaky dreams he has about the boy, but Shepard’s character never really changes as a result of it. The dreams he has are the only indication that Shepard is affected at all by the event, and those dreams don’t really seem to evolve his character or advance the plot. We don’t see Shepard suffering from sleep deprivation or anything. The destruction of Thessia was actually a much better catalyzing event for Shepard’s character, because we saw him change as a result of that event: snapping at Joker, self-loathing and anger in his conversations that follow. We cut out that kid and suddenly the whole story improves. We don’t get a “WTF?” reaction from seeing a glowing blue version of the kid on the citadel, and in fact we can bring in an old friend of ours who was sadly neglected in Mass Effect 3:

Yay! Someone remembered me!

Yeah, we replace that kid with a final appearance by Harbinger, either as a holographic simulation like the one we saw on Virmire or telepathic communication (because at this point why not?). Heck if necessary Harbinger can spout off that crappy dialogue, at least then it’s delivered by a verbose and forbidding voice which at least makes it sound cool.

2. Miranda Lawson and her Family Issues

Was anyone else a bit weirded out that we suddenly came across Miranda Lawson during the mission on Horizon? I know I was, mainly because it didn’t seem relevant to the story. Now let me ask you this: if you removed Miranda and her family from the mission, would it really change? Would there be something lacking?

For me at least, the answer is no. Replace Miranda’s father with some final boss, either Reaper or Cerberus, and really nothing would change. Miranda’s family subplot contributes absolutely nothing to her character or the story as a whole. She’s basically there because they wanted to shoehorn in as many of the Mass Effect 2 cast as possible. In fact, she can die in Mass Effect 2 and you still end up having to solve her family problems at Horizon. She’s like the crazy ex-girlfriend that’s constantly dragging you into her drama, she just screws everything up. Don’t get me wrong, I’d loved to have seen Miranda actually contribute the story in some way, but she doesn’t and she should have been cut from Horizon.

Of course, cutting her from Horizon means there’s no one there to plant the bug on Kai Leng. Well, allow me to alleviate that little hiccup as well.

3. Kai Leng

Seriously, look at this guy:

Don’t you have a Metal Gear Solid game to be appearing in?

Now I know we’ve been in a downward spiral in terms of character design in Mass Effect, going from somewhat practical space gear in Mass Effect 1 to form fitting lingerie-armor in Mass Effect 3, but this guy is just way too over the top. More to the point though, he doesn’t need to be in the story. There isn’t a single thing in the game that would change without him being there. In fact, removing him actually fixes some of the problems. First of all who remembers this scene:

The top comment says it all:

Am I the only one that simply can’t watch this without coming up with a thousand ways to kill Kai Leng?

Watch the video: there are several times when Kai Leng could have just been mowed down by Shepard’s entire squad without risk to Thane. But someone wanted to give Thane a tearful goodbye and came up with a horribly contrived battle to the death in order to give Thane that moment. The problem is that there were plenty of better ways to do it: make it simple.

Have Thane holding off a dozen Cerberus troops while Shepard and crew try to break through a door to help him. Let Thane take them all out himself but become fatally wounded in the process. It would make his death more heroic because it was actually a fight that he could believably lose. Then let Shepard say a tearful goodbye there and have Thane tell Shepard to get to the shuttle where Udina is planning to escape with his last breath. On Thessia, we don’t need his ugly mug to screw things up for Shepard, god damn Reapers were all over the damn place and if you really wanted to get Cerberus involved, any run of the mill strike force would have sufficed. On Horizon, don’t have some stupid deus ex machina of “Oh I planted a secret bug on him!”, just go simple and say you hacked a computer or something. This isn’t difficult to do.

What I’m saying is: to hell with Kai Leng, he was superfluous and completely over the top.

You know what have worked even better and solved two of the above problems in one go? Have Miranda Lawson come back as the right arm of the Illusive Man. It’s an already established character that the audience knows and cares about, she’s extremely capable and a credible threat to Shepard, and it adds emotional weight to the story. Then on Horizon we can uncover the truth of how she was indoctrinated following Shepard’s arrest, whether by accident or intentionally, it doesn’t matter. In the end, we’d be forced to put a bullet in the head of a dear friend because the Reaper’s corrupted her so thoroughly. That would have been a powerful scene, one with real emotional weight and a traumatic event for the characters. It would have added to the story, rather than just diluted it like Leng did.

4. The Last Ten Minutes

Now I think we all know what happened at the end of Mass Effect 3: They ran out of time. EA booted it out the door much too soon. Bioware’s PR guys can deny this all they want, but let’s face it, there’s really no other explanation for the ending. No one could have made that on purpose. So you know what they could have cut, and made the ending at least palatable rather than atrocious? Those final minutes with the kid.

Am I the only one who was practically in tears during that scene? That was a powerful finale, with the two guys who started this whole journey, sitting down and sharing their final moments together.

You know what? I would have been okay with the Catalyst simply parking its rotund ass on the citadel and wiping out the Reapers with some space magic. I still would have complained, of course. I would have pointed out that they should have done more, and you know what, that’s okay. I would rather be telling Bioware what they could have added rather than telling them what they should have removed. Of course there will still be the issue of the Illusive Man and his strange powers at the end, but that’s small potatoes compared to the kid.

So yeah. If Bioware was that short on time, this scene is where they should have cut it. They could even have used the same Destroy ending, minus the stupidity of the God AIs logic, it’s actually not a bad way to go. Cut the stupid part of the Relays exploding and the Normandy crashing. Cutting out that final ten minutes might have given them enough time to give us an Animal House style epilogue or even a Halo 3 funeral service on a devastated Earth.

That’s why you need to keep things simple: it’s just better that way.

Mass Effect 3: The Final Word

Wow, what an intense couple of weeks this has been. Having a blog go from a few dozen readers composed of only friends and relatives to suddenly logging 18,000 views in a single day and averaging 4,000 views since then has been a lot to absorb. I’m really glad all of the people that have viewed my blog and written in have enjoyed it so much. That said, I am getting a bit burned out on Mass Effect so this will be my last post on the subject for a while. I may come back to it when they release the Extended Cut and analyze whether it works or not, but until then you will all have to join me as I review other stories from TV, Games and Movies. But moving right along, the final piece of my Mass Effect 3 coverage:

BioWare: “No New Ending”

The Reapers have won people...

So here you have it folks. Bioware says the completely insane ending is completely acceptable, and instead of changing it, will only be “clarifying” it.

“BioWare will expanding on the ending to Mass Effect 3 by creating additional cinematics and epilogue scenes to the existing ending sequences. The goal of these new scenes is to provide additional clarity and closure to Mass Effect 3.”

Basically they are going to make sure the ending is clearly labelled as crap, rather than leaving us to come that conclusion ourselves. As hopeful as it is to see Bioware taking our complaints into consideration it’s just…not enough.

They could add an hour long ending cinematic to the end, and it still wouldn’t redeem the ending. Unless that cinematic wakes up Shepard from his indoctrination coma or something. In the end we’re still stuck with the God AI Starchild and his very questionable logic, the destruction of all Mass Relays, and the ridiculous pick one of the colored buttons “choice” at the end.

The point is that, unless this Extended Cut from Bioware incorporates the Indoctrination Theory into the game, or even better, completely rewrites the last ten minutes of the game, nothing the Extended Cut can do will make the ending acceptable. It would be like adding a new coat of paint to a car that crashed into a brick wall at 120mph. No matter how much you dress it up, at the end of the day it’s still just a pile of smoking wreckage.

Are there going to be more/different endings or ending DLCs in the future?

No. BioWare strongly believes in the team’s artistic vision for the end of this arc of the Mass Effect franchise. The extended cut DLC will expand on the existing endings, but no further ending DLC is planned.

I’d really love for someone from the actual writing staff at Bioware to come forward and tell us what their artistic vision was. Bioware’s PR Department keeps harping on about how proud they are of their writers and insisting the ending we got was totally planned, and not at all the rush job that it totally looks like. So if that’s true, how about Bioware let their writers off the leash and tell us about the ending. As a writer myself, I’ve written some really trashy endings too. Sometimes as a writer I get too close to the story, and while the ending works in my own mind, when someone else reads it they’re dumbfounded by the stupidity. I then try and walk them through that horrific ending, showing them how it makes sense to me, but in doing so realize how convoluted it is to someone who hasn’t lived and worked with the story for a year. And that’s what has really stuck out in this whole thing, none of the writers have tried to take us step by step through their ending to show us how it made sense to them. If this was truly their artistic vision, they would be able to do that, it probably still wouldn’t make sense but we could see how it could make sense from their perspective as the creators.

Instead we’ve had BioWare PR Reps spewing forth endless drivel of “look at all the great reviews we got!” “We sold X amount of Copies” as if these things excused the ending. Oh, and of course everyone’s personal favorite: “Artistic Integrity”, but of course if artistic integrity were a thing that still existed at BioWare:

1) This never would have been released

2) They wouldn’t be hiding behind the shield of “artistic integrity” to avoid taking responsibility for the fact that the ending is broken on several fundamental levels, as in a creative writing 101 level.

Time to Move On

So with this latest announcement from Bioware, I no longer have the desire to highlight the issues with Mass Effect 3’s ending. Instead, since what we’ve been presented in Mass Effect 3 is the ending we are all now stuck with, I feel we should all start moving on to better games and, more importantly, better companies. There was a time BioWare was on my “buy no matter what the hell the game was about” list because they just made incredible story driven games. Now, whatever Bioware comes up with next, I might pick it up when it hits the 10$ bargain bin…but only if its getting rave reviews from people I know, and not just game review sites.

However, I still love Mass Effect 3 despite the kick in the balls that is the final ten minutes. There are some great moments in this game, and they deserve to be enjoyed. So instead of dwelling on those last ten minutes, I’m going to highlight my favorite moments from the game.

Rannoch

I have a save game that is a straight run from ME1 to ME3, a Shepard where I played through the game totally blind and not knowing what to expect. So while I do have other saves where I managed to save Wrex on Virmire and left no man behind on the Suicide mission, my first playthrough was always blind. My Shepard Prime as I call him, made mistakes throughout all three games, and I must say Bioware did a great job incorporating these mistakes.

Rannoch is where this really hit home for me. While I had completed Tali’s loyalty mission in ME2, I later lost her loyalty when I sided with Legion in an argument which then negated Tali’s loyalty. Forgetting that point in the Suicide Mission I ordered her to open the doors in the first section of the base, and she succeeded in her mission at the cost of her own life. That was a really poignant death in ME2 for me, because it was fast and brutal. A lot of deaths in movies and games are really drawn out, with the characters sharing tearful goodbyes, which works great in certain situations. But in ME2, Tali takes a bullet to the head and slumps to the ground. No goodbyes, no last soliloquy, just dead. The characters don’t even have a chance to mourn as they are forced to keep fighting. That’s when I realized “holy crap, this IS a suicide mission”.

So now years later, trying to infiltrate the Geth Dreadnought, we catch a brief glimpse of Rannoch in the distance:

“Tali would have loved this.”

That was a powerful line perfectly delivered by both of Shepard’s voice actors. Just a small reminder than the choices you’ve made throughout the game have mattered. Tali isn’t here to see Rannoch because you made a mistake.

This was quickly countered by a happy reunion with my favorite character, Legion, and I was grinning from ear to ear when I heard him say “Shepard Commander!” again. Then, once again, we’re met with an incredibly powerful scene where Legion must sacrifice himself so that his people can become truly unique.

“I must go to them.”

Yes, in the last moments of his life Legion experienced individuality, he was no longer an amalgamation of thousands of different programs working in tandem but a fully realized person. Even if he wasn’t made of flesh and blood, he was every bit as alive as Shepard. And in that moment he makes the ultimate sacrifice thus proving that –

“Synthetics will always seek to wipe out Organics”

SHUT UP! WHO SAID YOU COULD SPEAK!?

No, bad John, we’re focusing on the good. Deep breaths, deep breaths…

Thessia

As one of my readers, Captiosus, recently pointed out, Thessia is where the game begins to unravel. He’s right, that is where the game begins to start steamrolling toward the ending, exchanging the intricate plot threads of other missions like Tuchanka and Rannoch for a straight up shooting section. That said however, Thessia was one of my favorite parts of the game.

Whereas the fifteen minute intro section of Earth being destroyed didn’t really affect me, the fight through the streets of Thessia really moved me on an emotional level. Seeing the desperate, frightened Asari soldiers selling their lives in a hopeless battle, the utter devastation being wrought by the dozens of Reapers scouring the cities, all punctuated by some brilliant dialogue from Liara as she watches her homeworld turned to ashes and powerless to stop it. Then, after Cerberus intercepts you at the Beacon, and you hear the terrified screams of an Asari soldier as a Reaper lands right on top of her position, I felt just as angry as Shepard. I was ready to go ripping up the god damn galaxy for vengeance, and when I snapped at Joker for making a joke about the massacre, it was like Shepard was saying exactly what I was thinking.

That was really one of the highlights of the game for me, even though it does represent the turning point and downward spiral of the end-game, it still has some great writing and memorable moments.

Launching the Missiles

How epic was this sequence? Holding off wave after wave of Cannibals, Banshees and Marauders as EDI makes the necessary calculations to launch the missiles. Finally a Reaper itself starts trying to incinerate you while your still fighting off what seems like the entire Reaper army. I have vivid memories of retreating into a building, desperately shotgunning three cannibals before being forced to take down a forth and fifth with biotics and melee attacks. The rest of my squad was down, I was out of medigel and I had only a handful of ammo left. Then EDI tells me that the last set of missiles are on target and I make a mad dash for the control pad, ducking through waves of Reaper troops and managing to launch the missiles just before my health is gone.

The Run for the Citadel Beam

Now, there are plenty of continuity issues with this run to the beam, such as what the hell happens with your squadmates, why aren’t the tanks able to help us out here, and why does Harbinger have a rapid fire beam clearly superior to his other Reaper brethren?

All that aside, however, I loved that charge for the beam. It was a desperate move by desperate men, and they just nailed  that whole sequence. That final suicidal charge across the field, watching as the entire task force gets incinerated around you and the Citadel beam gets ever closer… and then BAM, you’re incinerated by Harbinger’s beam. Game over, the credits roll.

Thanks, Harbinger, you did good son.

Shut up! That’s where the game ended and no one is going to tell me otherwise!

Anyway, everyone join me this Thursday for my next blog post…about something that isn’t ME3 this time.

BioWare’s Announcement and the Future

So I was all set to release my final post on Mass Effect today, when Bioware announced an “Extended Cut” of the ending for Mass Effect 3, so now I have to take some more time to write up an appropriate response (hint: it’s not a happy one). However, this as good a time as any to address the question I’ve been asking myself since my blog exploded with activity after posting my deconstruction of the Mass Effect 3 ending.

What Now?

Previously I had a captive audience, pretty much everyone who read my blog was a friend or family member, and I had the luxury of nagging them into reading my blogs. Of course now I’m getting thousands of hits per day, and I’d love to continue to provide people with cool articles they would enjoy reading. So I’m going to be asking you, my audience, what is it that you’d like me to write about here on this blog? Shall I keep doing what I’m doing and continue writing about my own stories and life, occasionally broken up by finding bad writing and exposing it for everyone to see like Mass Effect 3? Or should I switch to a more review based blog and begin tearing apart stories, both good and bad, to continue showing people how they work on a basic level?

So I’m asking for input from everyone, write in or comment if you have a game/movie/book you want reviewed, or any general ideas to help improve my blog and give me some some ideas as to how to keep everyone here entertained.

The final Mass Effect 3 article will appear sometime this weekend after I have added some commentary on Bioware’s decision, so stay tuned. I’ll be updating my facebook and twitter accounts when it’s posted.

Mass Effect 3 Continued: Clarifications, Corrections and Comments (Also Alliteration)

First of all, a huge thanks to everyone who has made this post such  a success. According to the WordPress tracker I’ve received over 30,000 views over the past three days, as well as hundreds of messages in my email, twitter and comments. When I wrote this article I never thought it would get this much attention, of course I secretly hoped it would and am overjoyed that hope has been fulfilled. That said a lot of comments and emails, while all overwhelmingly positive, did point out a few mistakes I made in the first article. Others have brought up issues with Mass Effect 2 that would be helpful to explain. So let’s get right down to it:

The Logic of the Catalyst

So what little negative feedback  I did get was about my use of the Meme picture, and that I wrongly interpreted the Catalyst’s intentions. And they were entirely correct. In my defense, the Catalyst AI God had so flabbergasted me that, in all honesty, I wasn’t paying that close attention to what he was saying. However, instead of retroactively changing my original post and in the interest of full disclosure, I decided to leave it as is and address this mistake here.

So initially I said that Catalyst was seeking to destroy all organic life in order to save organic life from synthetics, a completely circular argument. However, what the Catalyst actually says is that they destroy advanced organic life in order to keep them from developing synthetic life which would in turn destroy all organic life, regardless of technological advancement. So no, it’s not completely circular, but the logic being employed is still incredibly faulty since the Catalyst is relying on either highly speculative or downright false information to come to its conclusion. The Catalyst asserts that organic life will inevitably create synthetic life, and then further asserts that all synthetic life will eventually try to wipe out organic life. Therefore the Catalyst and his Reapers seek to avert this situation entirely by destroying organic life before it can create the synthetic life that would lead to its own destruction. Let’s try and break this thought process down, and see where it goes wrong:

First of all, the Catalyst says synthetic life will always wipe out organic life. Now this is demonstratively false, not only through evidence such as EDI and the Geth working in harmony with organic life, but through the Catalyst’s own existence! See the Catalyst claims that they seek to preserve organic life in the form of Reapers, and the cycle is meant to protect undeveloped organic life. But the Catalyst is a synthetic life form itself, some kind of sentient AI…so by its reasoning, shouldn’t it be trying to wipe out organics anyway? The very fact that the Catalyst is trying to preserve organic life is evidence against its own argument, since he (a synthetic life form) isn’t trying to wipe out organics. Well, okay he is trying to wipe out organics, but only to advanced organics before another Synthetic does it to all organics. If he’s capable of understanding the value of organic life, why does he think all other synthetics would be unable to come to this conclusion?

The only evidence given in support of the Catalyst’s thinking is anecdotal, he tells us a story of how the Reapers were once organic beings being wiped out by synthetics but became the Reapers to destroy them. He doesn’t really give us anything other than his opinion as to why Synthetics would want to destroy their creator, there was the possibility for some cool dialogue to tell us the Reaper’s perspective on things. Instead we’re just expected to believe him implicitly, which we have no reason to do since he controls the Reapers currently exterminating humanity. By all accounts Shepard has the closet organics have ever come to defeating the Reapers, and now the Catalyst has every reason to lie, but we’re expected to believe him?

“Would this face lie to you?”

And even if we accepted the argument being presented, there are several less complicated ways to go about preventing this situation. Why not have the Reapers move in only on the condition that some synthetic life form actually becomes hostile, and a threat to the galaxy. Or better yet, why not just stick around, greet the new species at the citadel and tell them the dangers of creating synthetic life forms. Act as a galactic police department as it were, and slap down any species attempting to create synthetic life. There are plenty of ways to go about preventing the Synthetic vs Organic holocaust, nearly all of which don’t involve the wholesale slaughter of billions.

Finally, if the Reapers are merely galactic gardeners doing what must be done, why do Sovereign and Harbinger seem to relish the slaughter so much? In Mass Effect 1, Sovereign seemed to think Organic life was inferior and unworthy of his attention…but yet his mission is really to safeguard organic life? Why so hostile if the end result is benevolent? Harbinger was even more psychotic, with several lines in ME2 referring to genetic abnormalities and weaknesses, furthering the conclusion that Reapers view organic life as inferior. So are the Reapers all hapless pawns, not even realizing their own objective is to help organics? If so, that just neuters the menace of the Reaper’s even further.

So yes, the Catalyst’s argument isn’t circular, but that doesn’t make it any less stupid or flawed.

I Don’t Hate Bioware

And they should totally hire me

So the rest of the negative feedback focused on what other people saw as a hate fueled rage against Bioware, so I just want to get out there that I don’t hate Bioware by any stretch of the imagination, nor would I hate anybody or anything simply for ruining a game. My criticism may have been harsh, but it wasn’t meant to sound angry. I chose a somewhat irreverent tone because a purely professional tone would have bored a majority of my readers, and sure I threw in a few expletives for the sake of humor, and maybe poked a little fun at the writers at Bioware, but by no means was it meant to convey contempt. In fact, if I didn’t like Bioware I wouldn’t have gone through all the trouble of writing out a huge step-by-step post about how the ending went wrong.

Some of the comments that I didn’t allow through all usually came down to flame bait or simply screams of rage about my picking apart of the ending. For those people, I’m not censoring all attempts at disagreement, but if you’re going to disagree, at least do it in a respectful and at least partially coherent way. For instance reply #193 in the comments on the article, was extremely well written and didn’t devolve into name calling, while at the same time disagreeing with me entirely.

There was one comment in particular that bothered me, however, that I’d like to address here: “I like how your 2nd edit was basically asking them to hire you when you essentially called them idiots.” 

Well first of all, the comment was only half-joking, I don’t seriously expect an offer from Bioware. My only qualifications are as a writer, and since I have no prior experience working in the gaming industry, it isn’t realistic to expect a job offer. That said, if ever I were to apply to Bioware, I would certainly be using this article as part of my portfolio since it speaks to my ability to reach a large audience and write in an entertaining and informative way.

I believe Bioware, and the people who work there, have the emotional and professional maturity to accept the criticism of their work. If they didn’t, I doubt Bioware would have gotten this far. An essential part of writing, or really any creative endeavor, is to accept criticism of your work and not take it personally. If you start taking every criticism as a personal attack you’ll go absolutely insane. I also don’t believe I called Bioware idiots, and in fact I think I praised them for the story telling in Mass Effect 3 aside from the ending. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone screws up occasionally. Being able to accept that and move on is part of being human. You learn from the mistake and use what you learned to do better in the future. Bioware didn’t get to where it is now by failing to learn this basic lesson.

So to the person who left that comment: Your belief that Bioware would refuse to hire me based on a post criticizing their work does Bioware more disservice than my critique does.

Mass Effect 2: Shadows of Things to Come

A lot of people have said they found Mass Effect 2 equally flawed as a game, and while I agree it was flawed I don’t think it was as badly flawed as Mass Effect 3. However, there were several large flaws that created a ripple effect and led to some of the problems we saw in Mass Effect 3, such as:

The Crucible

So a lot of people wrote in about how they thought the Crucible came right out of left field, and they’re right, it did. Right after Shepard’s escape from Earth, he heads for Mars where some Prothean Archives apparently hold the secret to defeating the Reapers. Why this information was never discovered before is never adequately explained, with Liara making vague references to using the Shadow Broker’s assets to locate this information.  Mass Effect 3 also fails to mention how this Crucible is supposed to work. In fact the lack of information originally had me thinking the Crucible was nothing more than another Reaper ploy, getting all the races to waste valuable time, resources and manpower constructing a useless weapon. I thought that would have been an awesome twist. But okay, it docks with the Citadel and the Catalyst says the Crucible has allowed for new options and gives you your red/blue/green options. There’s never any explanation as to why the Crucible has allowed for new options or what exactly the Crucible does upon firing.

So why does this relate to Mass Effect 2? Well, because if Bioware wanted to introduce the Crucible, the time to do so was in Mass Effect 2. Whereas Mass Effect 1 focused on introducing the Reapers and the threat they posed, Mass Effect 2 should have focused on Shepard’s attempts to find a way to stop them and when I first played Mass Effect 2 I thought it had.

Everyone remember Haestrom?

There was some pretty heavy foreshadowing in this section of Mass Effect 2, taking great pains in letting the player know that Haestrom’s Star was dying faster than it should be. When I originally played the game, I thought this was going to be the galaxy’s salvation. After all, if Dark Energy was capable of killing a Star, surely a Reaper would be even easier to kill. I thought perhaps Mass Effect 3 would focus on the galaxy’s attempt to harness the Dark Energy into a weapon capable of killing the Reapers. Now, the original writer of Mass Effect 2 has come out and said that the original plan was for Dark Energy to be the poltergeist of the universe, and the Reapers were trying to stop its spread. I can see why Bioware abandoned this idea, because it is a bit weird. However, Haestrom itself was a great way to subtly introduce a salvation for the Galaxy. In fact, it would have been so easy for the Crucible to merely be a Dark Energy weapon, that I’m surprised that Bioware didn’t simply run with that idea from the start. The foreshadowing was already in place, and it wouldn’t have been any more ridiculous a solution as having the Crucible found on mars.

Cerberus

Part of the reason I think Mass Effect 2 failed to introduce a plausible way to stop the Reapers, was because it focused too much of its energy on setting up Cerberus as a secondary villain. Now don’t get me wrong, I think Cerberus made a great villain and personally I thought Martin Sheen just plain kicked ass as the Illusive Man. However, Cerberus also goes from being a small, but well organized and funded organization in Mass Effect 1 to a huge conglomerate capable of funding a ridiculously expensive reanimation process right along with providing enough funding for dozens of other operations, not to mention the cost of creating the Normandy SR2. It goes even further in Mass Effect 3, with Cerberus apparently having the infrastructure to possess a highly sophisticated army and fleet capable of launching attacks on multiple targets. This all took took Cerberus from a small, but credible, threat to an enormous larger than life organization that was just as dangerous as the Reapers. The trouble is that the Reapers were such an immense enemy, they demanded a lot of time to properly flesh out, characterize, and eventually, lead us to a solution to defeating them. Unfortunately, if you think about Mass Effect 2, most of the time was spent going about the intricacies of Cerberus’s operations, and only occasionally broken up by fights with the Collectors.

The point is, most of the time was spent doing stuff completely unrelated to stopping the Reapers, whereas in my opinion, that needed to be the focal point of the entire game.

There’s nothing wrong with having another villain in a story, but you cannot give both villains the same amount of screen time with diluting both of them, which is what happens in Mass Effect 3. If you think about it, a lot of Mass Effect 3 is actually about fighting Cerberus rather than the Reapers. In fact the very first thing Shepard does after leaving Earth is go fight Cerberus on Mars, and with every mission focusing on stopping the Reapers, there is another plot critical mission to stop Cerberus.  The missions come in rhythm of fighting Reapers and then Cerberus, the only break in that 1-2 rhythm is the Perseus Veil missions.

Earth Mission – Reapers

Mars Mission – Cerberus

Palaven Mission – Reapers

Sur’Kesh Mission – Cerberus

Tuchanka Mission – Reapers

Citadel Mission – Cerberus

Perseus Veil Missions – Geth, with Reaper finale

Thessia Mission – Reaper and Cerberus

Horizon – Reapers and Cerberus

Cerberus HQ – Cerberus

Earth Finale – Reapers

As you can see, the end result is that no one really gets enough screen time to fully realize their independent plots. Cerberus’s ultimate plan was never really fleshed out, and I was genuinely excited to see where it went after the Horizon mission and saw Cerberus had acquired the ability to disrupt Reaper signals on the ground. It seems like that was an important plot point that would be brought up again in the final battle, but unfortunately it is never mentioned again. When Shepard finally confronts the Illusive Man on the Citadel, he never really reveals how he was planning to control the Reapers, and it was clearly mentioned on Horizon that Cerberus had only learned how to disrupt the Reaper signal to Husks and related fodder, they were still unable to disrupt a full-fledged Reaper. Now we can chalk that up to the Illusive Man being indoctrinated, but in the end, it seems like Cerberus’s story line just petered out. In the end it was as if Cerberus served not other function than to merely slow down the player from completing the story line too quickly…it felt like filler.

By comparison, not nearly enough time was given to the Reapers and the main plot line: how to stop them. Harbinger, who played a significant role in Mass Effect 2, isn’t actually seen until the finale of the game…and even then he doesn’t speak or do anything other than blast Shepard with his Beam. The Crucible, and how it works, is subsequently never revealed. In the end it felt like two unfinished plot lines that, instead of getting tied up, frayed into a thousand different fibers at the end, like a rope pulled too taut.

Hi…does anyone remember me?
(I’m so lonely)

Now I can see why they did this from a game play side of it, after all, constantly fighting the Reapers would eventually get boring and Cerberus presents the player a new set of challenges to keep them interested. However, I think Cerberus needed to play a much smaller part, and in fact I think Cerberus was done perfectly in Mass Effect 1. It was a small, but highly organized and well funded organization that was constantly on Shepard’s radar, and yet was ultimately insignificant compared to Saren and the Reapers. You could go through the entire plot of Mass Effect without ever doing a Cerberus mission, and that’s how they should have kept it.  Purely optional missions to help flesh out the world, and give the player something interesting to do if they got bored fighting the same enemies.

In the end, however, Mass Effect 3 was a result of it collapsing under its own weight by trying to carry two huge villains at the same time. In my opinion, Cerberus should have continued being a small, optional threat you had to deal with on the side but otherwise having no actual impact on the main plot. However, there was just so much time invested into fleshing out Cerberus in Mass Effect 2, that it was almost unavoidable that they would be included in the main plot.