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.

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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.

All That Matters is the Ending: Mass Effect 3

Way back in the day, when I was a naive youth making my first steps into the world of blogging, I wrote about the ending of a story being one of the most critical parts of a narrative and how much damage a bad ending can do. Who knew I would have been predicting the fate of one of my favorite game series: Mass Effect 3. So for those of you who haven’t heard, the ending of Mass Effect 3 was so terrible that players have taken to the internet in a rage of tears and money. I’m not sure how it works exactly, but yes, people have donated over 70,000 dollars for Child’s Play to show just how bad they think the ending is. It has gotten to the point that it has actually been covered by the BBC, Amazon.com is now offering full refunds for Mass Effect 3 to assuage disgruntled customers, and has been extensively covered by a series of excellent articles on Forbes.  That’s  right, Bioware made such a bad ending that Forbes, a magazine about business and marketing, has been covering this disaster and highlighting the bad business practices. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a video game ending ever having that kind of impact before.

Which, in itself, is rather a huge accomplishment. I love Mass Effect and the universe Bioware created, and Mass Effect 3 was supposed to be the epic conclusion to the trilogy, and many others shared my love for the series. We wouldn’t all be up in arms if we didn’t love it. Unfortunately Bioware fumbled the ball at the 1 yard line. The entire game was awesome, a tribute to how meaningful and emotional a video game can be, and then in the last 5 minutes completely falls apart. It so utterly, and completely fails on every level that I can’t even list them all. Since I’m a writer, however, I’ll simply keep my critique of the ending to how it failed on a literary level and leave the gameplay/art design failures to be described by more qualified individuals. As you know, this blog usually publishes every other Thursday, but it isn’t a Thursday is it? The ending was so terrible I needed more time than usual to organize my own thoughts, and figure out how to describe the ending in less than 50,000 words.

Warning: I am about to spoil not only Mass Effect 3, but every other Mass Effect game in the trilogy. I’m going to be spoiling these things worse than I was spoiled in 24 years of being an only child…and let me tell, that’s spoiled. 

First of all, let me introduce you all to the Dramatic Arc:

This is how most stories in the western world progress, name me a story and I can show you how it follows this pattern. Now there are some that break from this structure and are still incredible, but that takes exceptional storytelling skill and character development. For the most part, you either keep to this structure or end up with a story too incomprehensible and stilted to be enjoyable, especially if your story is following the Hero’s Journey.  Commander Shepard has always followed the Hero’s Journey, in all three games. The Hero’s Journey is what Joseph Cambell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces first identified as being the core narrative structure of any character driven story. If you have interest in writing or stories, I highly recommend reading it as well as The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. For the purposes of this blog post, however, I’ll just use this picture as an illustration of the idea:

Courtesy of http://www.thewritersjourney.com

All three Mass Effect games have followed this pattern: 

1. Ordinary World – 

Mass Effect 1: Aboard the Normandy, briefing with Anderson

Mass Effect 2: Aboard the Normandy

Mass Effect 3: Earth

2. Call to Adventure

Mass Effect 1: Eden Prime mission, finding the Prothean Beacon

Mass Effect 2: Shepard’s Death/Rebirth, Cerberus station attack

Mass Effect 3: Reaper Attack on Earth

3. Refusing the Call

Mass Effect 1: The ending of the first Citadel Council meeting

Mass Effect 2: Shepard’s reluctance to work with Cerberus

Mass Effect 3: Shepard’s reluctance to leave Earth behind

4. Meeting the Mentor

Mass Effect 1: Meeting Anderson, and his giving you the leads to find evidence against Saren

Mass Effect 2: Meeting the Illusive Man, given mission to Freedom’s Progress

Mass Effect 3: Meeting Hackett, ordering you to Mars and to find allies

5. Crossing the Threshold

Mass Effect 1: Shepard becoming a Spectre, given command of the Normandy

Mass Effect 2: Mission to Freedom’s Progress

Mass Effect 3: Mars Mission

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies

Mass Effect 1: Missions to Noveria, Feros and find Liara T’Soni

Mass Effect 2: Dossier Missions

Mass Effect 3: Missions to Palaven, Tuchanka, Sur’Kesh

7. Approach

Mass Effect 1: Landing on Virmire

Mass Effect 2: Collector Ship

Mass Effect 3: Landing on Thessia

8. Ordeal, Death and Rebirth

Mass Effect 1: Attacking Saren’s Base, Sacrificing Kaidan/Ashley, Meeting Sovereign

Mass Effect 2: Attacking the Collectors, finding out Prothean’s fate

Mass Effect 3: Reaching Temple on Thessia, watching Thessia’s destruction

9. Seizing the Sword

Mass Effect 1: Illos mission, meeting the Prothean VI

Mass Effect 2: Reaper IFF mission

Mass Effect 3: Cerberus Base

10.  The Road Back

Mass Effect 1: The race to the Conduit

Mass Effect 2: Through the Omega 4 Relay

Mass Effect 3: Return to Earth, Sword Fleet Engagement

11. Resurrection

Mass Effect 1: Returning to the Citadel, Final battle with Saren/Sovereign

Mass Effect 2: Suicide Mission, Human Reaper fight

Mass Effect 3: Battle of London – Charge for the Beam, final Illusive Man confrontation

12. Return with the Elixir

Mass Effect 1: Foreknowledge of the Reaper Invasion

Mass Effect 2: Experienced Team and resources to fight Reapers, Collector Base if kept

Mass Effect 3: ????

It’s a credit to Bioware’s writing staff and game designers that many of these points along the Hero’s Journey are interchangeable, for instance it’s possible to do the Virmire mission in Mass Effect before you find Liara T’Soni, and this is possible because each mission is in and of itself a hero’s journey. However, for the most part, the Mass Effect series has stayed on the path of the Hero’s Journey, and as you’ve probably guessed, it’s not until the final stage that Mass Effect 3 unraveled.

Personally I’ve grown tired of people saying “You just hate it because it wasn’t a happy ending!” No, we hate it because it was an ending that failed on so many fundamental levels as to boggle the mind. We hate it because it made no sense in any context, and resulted in completely undermining the series we’d grown to love. There are so many things wrong here that I’m just going to pick the top three issues:

1. Introduction of New Elements and Characters

Imagine Frodo, dangling the One Ring, over the fiery chasm of Mt. Doom. He turns, and says, “The Ring is Mine!” and slips the One Ring onto his finger.

Suddenly he’s whisked into a universe contained inside the One Ring, an entire world trapped in the essence of the ring. He meets the Keeper of the Ring, an ethereal spirit who has dwelled within the ring since its creation and now Frodo must make the ultimate sacrifice. He has to become the ring, in order to destroy it.

How many people in the theater, watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy, would have stood up and said: “What the fuck is this shit?”

All of them, that’s how many, and do you know why? Because it introduces a new element that, by its very existence, shatters everything we, the audience, have come to understand about the world of Middle-Earth. If the Ring possesses a consciousness, why didn’t it destroy Sauron? Why is the Keeper of the Ring only now showing up when Frodo has put the Ring on before? Why does Frodo have to die to destroy it?

See throughout all three movies of Lord of the Rings we came to understand the universe, and how it worked; the rules and limits the characters were forced to work under. The Ring was a corrupting influence but could make the wearer invisible, it could only be destroyed in the fires of Mt. Doom, and Sauron created it. Suddenly introducing a new element, right at the end of the story, puts everything the audience knows into doubt including everything they enjoyed about the movie before the horrible ending came. That is exactly what happened with Mass Effect 3.

Meet God:

The Star-Child of Mass Effect 3
It’s the glowing blue thing masquerading as a literary device

This is the Catalyst. Now throughout Mass Effect 3 there are plenty of mentions about the Catalyst, it’s the whole focus of the game, but never, never, was it foreshadowed as being some all-powerful Super AI. And even if Bioware had spent the entire game foreshadowing that fact, it still wouldn’t make up for the fact that the appearance of this character completely screws the rest of the preceding Mass Effect games by opening up plot holes so huge that they could be classified as quantum singularities. For instance, the Catalyst claims that the Reapers are his solution. So then why, in Mass Effect 1, did the Catalyst not simply call the Reapers himself? Why did Sovereign need to do it himself? In fact why was Sovereign even still in the Milky Way when the Catalyst could simply have monitored organic life himself and summoned the Reapers. Why did the Catalyst allow the Protheans to reprogram the Keepers?

You see, the existence of this Catalyst renders not only the entire ending of the game as pointless and confusing, but retroactively does the same thing to everything that’s come before. And I remind you, that this is in the final few moments of the game, on the Dramatic Arc I showed you, this is the Resolution. Bioware was supposed to be tying up loose ends here, resolving plot points and character arcs, not creating all new ones in the final few seconds. I’ve never seen a good story that managed to incorporate a last minute change like this and still be good. Even stories with twist endings, like The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense all foreshadow the twist in subtle ways so that when the twist comes we can look back and say “Oh yeah, now it all makes sense” rather than “that was such bullshit”. Just ask M Night Shyamalan what happens when you use twist endings without any previous foreshadowing.

I think the absolute worst part of the Catalyst is that it completely destroys the menace of the Reapers.

“You exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it.”

That is such a perfect line. It delivers so much menace in just 14 words…a single sentence. It sets the stakes for the protagonist, grants the villain a perfectly ominous entrance, and delivers real emotional weight to the situation. That is the kind of beautifully simplistic, yet artfully delivered line I hope I can come up with in one of my own stories someday. But enough fawning over that, the point is, the Reapers were damn good villains. In Mass Effect 1, Sovereign says “Each of us is a nation.” They are so far above us that it was frightening, the fact we didn’t know why the Reapers were exterminating advanced organic life every 50,000 years is what made it so scary. That was what made them a good villain. They were unknowable. And nobody was asking to know them. That was a question we absolutely didn’t need to know the answer to.

But then the AI God comes along and basically reveals they are the Terminators to his Skynet.

Which explains this I guess…

Yay?

2. Abandoning of Established Themes and Characters

Not only does this entire scene completely discredit Shepard as a character, but it also represents a jarring shift in theme. The Mass Effect series explores several key themes:  The attempts to stop the Reapers, a seemingly unstoppable force brought into play the idea of Self Determination vs Fate. Encounters with artificial life forms like Sentient AI’s and the synthetic Geth bring the question what constitutes life? Is life merely the end result of evolutionary forces, or is it a state of mind and being? Can Synthetic and Organic life coexist peacefully?

But the biggest one of all, is the idea that it is our differences that make us strong. This is what all three games explored, in one way or another. Mass Effect 1 was about getting the galaxy at large to recognize Humanity’s worth, to put aside their distrust of a new species, and in the end work together to stop Sovereign. ME2 had the player running around recruiting people of various races, beliefs and backgrounds, and to get those people to work together as a team. Finally this theme reached a galactic scale in ME3, as the player was tasked with creating a multiracial coalition to fight the Reapers and to put aside old grievances and suspicions, and work together for a common good. And in these horrible, final moments of Mass Effect 3, this key theme is brutally murdered, tossed into a woodchipper, and then fed to the hogs. I’m going to spare you the obtuse, over-wrought dialogue that the AI God spews, and just give you a brief rundown of what he says:

Yes, as stupid as it sounds, this is what the supposedly hyper-intelligent AI tells Shepard. According to the literal Deus Ex Machina we meet, he created the Reapers, a species of Synthetic life forms, to destroy all organic life every 50,000 years to prevent organics from creating synthetic life that will eventually kill organics. What kind of circular fucking logic is that? Is this AI stuck in some kind of feedback loop? It’s so impenetrably convoluted that it defies all attempts to try and rationalize it, so you know what? I’m not even going to try, I’m just going to let it sit there like the failure of basic human reasoning that it is, and let it think about what its done. [It has been pointed out that isn’t what the Catalyst actually says, and I’ve addressed this issue in this post.]

And the stupidity just keeps snowballing as he presents us with three options:

1) Control the Reapers – The theme of Self Determination goes right out the window as we forcibly take control of a sentient species. Sure, they’re trying to kill us but it would have been nice to at least debate the merits here.

2)Merge Organic and Synthetic life – Remember the whole Strength through Diversity theme? This completely obliterates that by stating the only way to achieve lasting piece is to make everyone the same. Really? That’s what you think will achieve peace? I seem to remember another guy who had similar ideas. This is not only the most offensive option, but the one that makes the least sense. How exactly does this fusion take place? Why does Shepard need to die to activate it? Why is this horrible idea, akin to genocide, presented as the best possible option (it requires a 100% playthrough to get)?

Okay this is gonna be awkward, but you two need to…um…merge…

3)Destroy the Reapers, but in doing so extinguish all Synthetic Life (including the Geth, your allies) – Of all the crappy options, this is the one that makes the most sense, in the same kind of way poking out one eye with a stick instead of both makes sense. So, we destroy the Reapers, and all Synthetic Life…but at least that makes some kind of sense, because killing the Reapers has always been the goal, and Shepard has been willing to sacrifice a lot to see it come to fruition. That’s his character.

A character that is viciously torn apart in the final moments of the game. Even though the players control Shepard, there are certain inalienable qualities to his character that are present whether the player chooses Paragon or Renegade options. Shepard has continually being going against all odds, succeeding where everyone expected failure. If someone told Shepard there were no options, he/she made their own god damn options. Throughout ME 1, everyone in a position of power insists that the Reapers are a myth, and that Shepard should ignore it. In ME2, he’s told his mission to stop the collectors is a suicide mission, and that no one will return. ME3 sees Shepard confronted with the very real possibility that nothing he does will be able to stop the Reapers as he watches them lay waste to Thessia. Yet in all these instances, he finds a way to persevere, to find new options, or to die in the attempt. He never, never accepts the inevitable nor does he simply accept what people tell him as the truth, especially when the galaxy is at stake.

Yet now Shepard goes completely against his character and accepts everything the AI is telling him, despite the mind boggling circular logic he employs. Shepard doesn’t look for another option, or even ask a single solitary question. I mean, not only is this against his character, it’s against human nature. If some mystical god thing landed in your backyard, said you have three options to make the world a better place, but you have to die to make it happen our first instinct would be to say: “Wait…what was that last part?” I mean sure, many of us would be willing to make the sacrifice if necessary, but I think we’d all want to know why we had to die before we did it. Apparently not Shepard, he just can’t wait to throw himself into an abyss:

3. Lack of Resolution

No, you’re not missing anything, that’s the entire ending of the game. No, no, not just the game. The series. The entire Mass Effect series ends with a 5 minute video. Now, I should point out that yes, this video does resolve the plot. Don’t look at me like that. I said it resolves the plot, I didn’t say it does it well. But the plot of the whole game was to stop the Reapers, which the video does in fact, show happening. Unfortunately, no one really gave a damn about the plot, it was all pretty standard to a space opera. What made Mass Effect special was the characters we met along the way.

As a wise friend recently told me: “No one gives a damn about events, it’s how they affect the characters that they care about.” And that is the biggest, most crippling issue the ending has. It goes from being about how the Reaper war has affected the people we care about, to a stupid event-driven cinematic. Sure, it sort of shows your crew crashing on an alien world (which just opens up even bigger plot holes), but there’s no sense of resolution from that 15 second clip they give you.

Many people who say they liked the ending Mass Effect 3 will often bring up the fact that the conversations with your crew before the final battle was our resolution. No, no it isn’t, and allow me to explain why.

Remember the Dramatic Arc?

Hi there!

Now let me walk you through that Arc in Mass Effect 3.

Yeah, once you get to London being incinerated you can pretty much just guess the rest. Now let’s go back to that Dramatic Arc, the above scene essentially operates as the Call to Arms or Inciting Incident, a devastating event that forces the main character to be separated from the life he knows and starts him out on his journey. Earth can’t stand alone against the might of the Reapers, and so Shepard leaves a burning Earth behind in order to gather allies and hope that a counter attack with the combined might of all the races can destroy the reapers, which moves us into Act 2: Frustration and Opposition in which the Rising Action portion of the arc begins. In order to secure these alliances, Shepard is forced to mediate disputes between various alien species, help other races secure their own borders, and search for a way to complete the Crucible, a weapon of Mass Destruction that Earth hopes can end the war. It’s this second act that is really the meat of the game, and it’s terrific, absolutely awesome. It stumbles here and there, but overall, I thought this was a brilliant piece of storytelling. It’s partly because this section is so damned good that makes the horrible ending even harder to bear, I think people would be less upset if the entire game had been terrible, because at least then you know the whole game is trash and throw it away. When it all happens in the last five minutes, it’s like being sucker punched in the gut. You want to replay the game because it was so amazing, but the foreknowledge of the terrible ending is always hanging over you like a guillotine.

Finally however, we move to Act 3: The Nightmare and the beginning of this act promises to be the most epic thing we, the gamer, have ever experienced as the fleet we gathered in Act 2 jumps into the Sol system ready to fight the Reapers to the last man. This is the Galaxy”s last gamble, everything has been thrown into this one final battle. The Crucible has been completed, requiring only a connection to the Citadel (a massive Reaper-built space station) in order to deploy and hopefully end the Reaper threat forever. The fate of humanity, and the rest of the galaxy, rest on this one last battle.

Shepard’s fleet punches a hole in the Reaper defenses, allowing him to land:

And this is where we run into our first snag in the ending. After a brief firefight in which Shepard disables some huge AA guns, he finds himself at a base where we are preparing for the last push to victory.The Citadel features five huge arms that normally stay open, but are currently closed to defend the station during the battle. In order to deploy the Crucible, Shepard has to fight his way through devastated London to a huge energy beam connecting the Citadel to the Reaper Base on the ground, once on board the Citadel he has to open the arms so the Crucible weapon ship can dock and deploy. This is all well and good, but before launching the mission, Shepard, or rather the player, has the option of talking to the squadmates we’ve grown to love over the last three games.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this in theory and indeed some of the dialogue in this section is some of the most powerful in the game. Unfortunately it seems Bioware made the mistake of shoe horning in resolution right in the middle of the rising action. See, on that chart up there, we haven’t quite reached the peak of the action yet and begun our trip to climax and resolution. Now I think, and I’m just guessing here, that these scenes were merely meant to convey that everyone knows they might die, and this could be the end of the road. People are exchanging final goodbyes, which is fine as long as you have resolution afterward. 

This is the point where most people say “Hey, that’s your resolution right there!”

Oh really? Then what the hell was this:

And I suppose this was just a relaxing stroll through some daisies.

The whole point of the rising action is to slowly build up the tension until the reader/player/watcher is on the edge of his seat. Resolution is where writers gently begin letting the reader/player/watcher relax, and allow them to absorb the journey they just completed, relieving the tension created earlier and most importantly allow the characters to return to a more normal state.  By trying to shoehorn the Resolution into the Rising Action, any calming effect the resolution might have had on us was completely lost when we dove back into the rising action with the Battle for London and the charge for the Citadel Beam, and the characters are all prepared to die and still in crisis mode. We were never given a chance to see how they have changed over the course of the game. That’s the big reason why so many people were left feeling unfulfilled at the ending, there was no opportunity for resolution with the characters we’ve grown to love. The plot line itself was resolved, albeit in a horrible illogical way, but it was at least resolved. With the characters, however, we’re left adrift in a sea of confusion and grief without any kind of resolution to throw us a lifeline.

We salute your sacrifice Garrus, even if Bioware didn’t.

How I Would Have Handled the Ending

There’s been a lot of sarcastic stuff floating around on internet, strangely enough from Game Review sites who you’d think would be most upset by this, that all the fans are looking for is a Animal House style ending sequence. While that would have been better than what we got, which was essentially a picture of Bioware’s middle finger next to a note to buy DLC, that’s not what resolution is. At least not in the way I’m meaning it.

I went into this game fully expecting an unhappy ending, because I just didn’t think there would be anyway to defeat the Reapers. I think fighting a futile hopeless battle would have been incredibly poignant, with Joker slamming the Normandy into Harbinger in the final moments, or a last stand by Garrus as he takes down fifty husks before finally being overrun, and finally Shepard fighting defiantly to the bitter end against a horde of Cannibals. The possibilities were endless. Even a sad ending, would allow resolution, because in those final few moments before the end we could see the characters we knew and loved defiant to the last, we would understand their fate and respect their sacrifice.

Resolution doesn’t mean let the audience walk away happy; many of the most critically acclaimed stories in the world have sad endings. The Epic of Gilgamesh ends with his best friend Enkidu dying, one of the oldest stories in the world. Resolution means allowing the audience to absorb the story they’ve just read/watched/played, and allow them to decompress before gently letting go. What Mass Effect 3 did was raise the tension and stakes to their highest point…and then suddenly deflate the whole thing.

We are the diver suffering from the bends after you reeled us up to the surface too damn quickly, Bioware.

My Thoughts on the Indoctrination Theory:

There’s been a popular theory that states that everything that happens after Shepard is hit by the beam is actually Shepard being indoctrinated, a form of mind control. You view the video here. Now there is a lot of evidence to support this theory, so much in fact, that I think that was the direction Bioware might have been going for. And you know what?

That would have been an amazing accomplishment. If they had pulled that off I would be down on my knees praising Bioware as the new Writing Gods, and I would be sacrificing my own manuscripts on a pagan altar built in their honor.

This would have been the gaming equivalent of the Unreliable Narrator, a literary technique where the narrator of the story lies to the reader. This would have taken that concept to the next level, because it would actually succeed in making the player betray himself. They would have indoctrinated us, the players! It would be an astounding achievement, one that would show the world the incredible possibilities of writing stories for an interactive media and would be studied for years. So it’s a shame that I think it came down to the cold, calculating methodology of corporate executives that killed this idea.

See there’s too much framework already in place to believe all the evidence put forward by the indoctrination theory is all coincidence. However, the fact of the matter is that what we got is being presented as the ending. If, by picking the destroy option, we had been greeted by Shepard waking up in the debris still on London and allowed to continue playing, I would be applauding Bioware so hard my hands would have been reduced to bone and fleshy pulp. And with all the bad publicity Bioware is getting, I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t just come out and tell us that this was the ace up their sleeve.

So here’s what I think happened. I think the writing team at Bioware originally had the indoctrination theory in mind, and the game designers were diligently creating all the subtle clues, preparing to pull of the most brilliant narrative effect in recent memory. Then they hit the wall…the wall of a looming deadline and rapidly shrinking money pile. Mass Effect 3 had already been delayed by three months, and properly incorporating the Indoctrination Theory into the game would have resulted in another delay. So someone without a shred of artistic integrity saw the ending sequence of the indoctrination and said “why not just make this the ending?” so they whipped up a half-baked closing cinematic, slapped it on the end and called it a day.

Further evidence that this decision was not made by the writers, is that none of them have come forth to defend the ending. Not a single solitary member of the Mass Effect 3 team has stepped forward to try and at least explain what the ending was about, plug the insanely huge plot holes left, or even apologize for so royally screwing up.

Of course that’s all speculation, but it seems the most likely scenario.

So Should They Change the Ending?

Absolutely.

A lot of detractors of the Retake Mass Effect movement say that fans shouldn’t have any say in how the ending of story is told, and that those that complain about the ending are entitled brats. The phrase they like to pull out is artistic integrity. Even the co-founder of Bioware, Ray Muzyka, used this term artistic integrity to defend the ending in his statement. But allow me to counter:

No one with any artistic integrity would have let that absolute debacle of an ending be released. No one. The ending was so inexcusable on so many levels, that I can’t help but laugh at people’s attempts to defend it by calling it art. As if Art were not subject to ridicule and criticism.

Not only do I think they should change the ending, but if my above hypothesis on the Indoctrination Theory is right, they probably want to anyway.

However, Bioware is completely in their rights to keep the ending the way it is, just don’t expect me to like it.

Note: I’m overwhelmed by the huge amount of positive feedback this is getting. When I wrote this my blog usually averaged 100 views per day, and now I’ve accumulated 19,000 views in two days. I really appreciate everyone writing in and expressing their feelings on this subject. For those of you who have written in with questions or requests for me to elaborate further on certain points, I will do my best to answer these questions and may even write a follow up article to this one, illustrating other problems. I’ll try to respond to everyone as quickly as possible, so if you’re waiting on a response I’m not ignoring you, I’ve just received a lot of messages! Thanks again!

Note 2: I’ve been getting a lot of questions as to whether or not Bioware has responded to this article, or acknowledged that they’ve read it. I did tweet this article to Mass Effect’s twitter when I first wrote it, as well as Mike Gamble, but I never imagined this article would gain so much traction and I never attempted to reach Bioware by any other means. So while the answer is no, Bioware hasn’t responded, I haven’t really tried that hard to get their attention. I’ll be sending this article to them tomorrow, but everyone feel free to send Bioware the link, they’re bound to see one of them eventually. Maybe they’ll even be impressed enough to hire me. In the meantime, thanks again for everyone’s support, and I’ll keep you all updated.