Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Mass Effect 3 - The Extended Cut

So the ending to BioWare's sci-fi action RPG "Mass Effect 3" was the source of a lot of controversy. While I could probably go on about that for a really really long time, I'm not going to because that's old news.

To sum up, basically the endings to "Mass Effect 3" made a lot of people upset. So upset that the Internet basically exploded in BioWare's face and BioWare decided to put all of its plans on hold to change the endings.

Yesterday, the DLC that changes the endings, dubbed "The Extended Cut", finally came out and we saw the result.

Essentially, while I was never really as upset with the endings to ME3 as some people, I did concede that it made me want to replay the series less, simply because the endings felt very samey no matter who your character is. My Shepard who was a nice guy and did everything he could to keep all of his friends alive and do the right thing got the same choices and results as my Shepard who let all of her loved ones die and hated robots and aliens with a xenophobic distrust. This sapped any desire I had to replay the game.

Now that I have seen the Extended Cut, my desire has returned. While the endings are pretty much the same, the new window dressing and dialogue bits make each slight variation feel unique. My nice Shepard's ending felt appropriately heroic, while my asshole Shepard's ending felt bittersweet and ominous. That's how it should have been and now I'm eager to play through at least one more time.

But I know that a lot of people still aren't happy with the Extended Cut, and while I'm not going to try to convince these people that the ending is good, I'm fairly certain I can articulate why I think the ending THEY want is an ending that I personally would strongly dislike.

To explain it, I'll have to go into SPOILER territory, so proceed with caution if you haven't beaten ME3 or seen the Extended Cut.


My problems with the endings were more problems with execution, not so much problems with the theory behind the endings. In fact, the theory behind the endings was pretty much the reason I was so forgiving of them in the first place. I LIKE that there's no easy answer. I LIKE that there's no "perfect ending". I LIKE that each choice has different consequences that reflect what matters to your Shepard. This final choice felt very much in line with what made "Mass Effect" great.

The main issue with it was that the whole situation was poorly executed. A mystical being known as the Catalyst, who is entirely unexplained, approaches Shepard and offers him three options to alter or end the Cycle. Shepard doesn't really question any of these options or even the Catalyst's existence, and just blindly chooses one of the options, resulting in a cinematic that doesn't fundamentally change regardless of what you picked.

The main reason the "Indoctrination Theory" (which I'm not going to explain here, Google it) was so popular, other than the fact that people thought the ending was stupid, was because Shepard seemed to proceed uncharacteristically obediently.

There were also a lot of other plot holes. What was the Normandy doing? Why did the Mass Relays not destroy everything when they blew up? Etc.

Thankfully, with the Extended Cut, most of these problems were addressed.

First of all, Shepard now has additional dialogue options with the Catalyst, effectively questioning everything the Catalyst talks about. The Catalyst now can explain that he was designed to solve the problem between organics and synthetics, and the Reapers were his solution. However, he conceded that Shepard had defied the odds and opened new possibilities, so he decided to try and guide him/her into making the best possible choice. Each choice is now given more detail, and best of all, now Shepard can choose to refuse all of the options. This of course results in the death of all advanced organic life, paving the way for the next Cycle, but at least now if you truly think all of the options are out-of-character for your Shepard, you have the option to refuse them.

Second, now each choice is substantially different. Each one has a different character outlining the effects of the choice made as well as the guiding philosophies behind them. We also see glimpses of each character and what became of them, based on the decisions we made, giving each ending its own custom feeling. Yes, it's just window dressing, but it offers catharsis that the ending previously lacked. We see the people rebuild.

Lastly, they altered things so that they make more sense. Now the Mass Relays are just broken, not entirely destroyed. The Normandy's whereabouts are explained and it's no longer being torn apart by the energy from the Crucible. Not EVERYTHING makes sense, but it requires a lot less suspension of disbelief now.

As far as I'm concerned, my biggest problems have been fixed and I have a more complete appreciation for the game.


It's still not perfect, but no game is. Still, if I was going to nit-pick, I'd say that I would have appreciated a bit more cohesion between each ending. Before, one thing I appreciated was that no matter which ending you picked, they were all similar enough that the story could be carried over into a new game taking place afterward. Now, however, it's pretty clear that if BioWare did make a "Mass Effect" game that took place after the Reaper invasion, they would have to pick just one ending that would be definitively canon. Either that or have it take place SO far in the future that none of the different choices truly matter. Frankly, now I hope they never make a "Mass Effect" game that takes place post-Shepard.

I also wish we got some actual scenes with dialogue rather than still images happening behind a monologue, but I understand that voice actors and animators have to be paid, and unplanned free DLC is expensive enough already, so I can forgive it.

And while I didn't necessarily believe the "Indoctrination Theory", it is a little disappointing that they've almost entirely invalidated it with the new details. While it's still possible that Anderson and the Illusive Man were both illusions brought on by Indoctrination and by defeating the Illusive Man, Shepard broke free from the Indoctrination (a la "Fight Club"), the prospect that everything after the blast from Harbinger was an illusion is simply very very much unlikely at this point. Not impossible to explain around I suppose, but it's pretty clear that BioWare considers it to be non-canonical.


The fact is, most people still aren't happy with the endings, and I understand why. They wanted something completely different.

Some people wanted the "Refusal" ending, but they wanted it to be an ending where everything works out if you did everything right and played all of the previous two games.

I can understand this. They want to feel rewarded for all of the effort they put into all of the games and they don't want to have to make a decision that destroys a part of the game that they love. They don't like the "Destroy" ending because it breaks the Mass Relays and destroys the Geth and EDI as well as the Reapers. They don't like the "Control" or "Synthesis" endings because Shepard effectively dies and also the Mass Relays are broken (though the Reapers would conceivably rebuild them).

They want an ending where Shepard lives and everything they worked for is retained simply because they did everything "right".

Speaking only for myself, I would have hated an ending like this existing.

I would have hated it if BioWare basically stated, through the mechanics of the game, that the ONLY way you can get the "true" ending was to play every game in exactly a certain way and make a certain specific decision. "Oops! Sorry, you can't have the perfect ending because you let a character die in ME2."

THAT would have REALLY stripped the ending of any sense of choice.

A game like "Kingdom Hearts" can get away with having a "true" ending that you can unlock by playing a perfect game because varying choices isn't an element of the gameplay.

And yes, I know that the endings of ME3 change based on your Galactic Readiness, but thankfully you can get enough Galactic Readiness points no matter how many seemingly dumb decisions your Shepard has made.

My play-through where Shepard got everyone killed should feel just as valid as any other play-through.

I can think of valid reasons for picking any of the four choices at the end.

"I picked 'Destroy' because I don't really like the synthetic characters and I want Shepard to live."

"I picked 'Control' because I want the synthetic creatures to survive, but only if the will of Shepard is guiding it through the ether because I don't trust those Reapers."

"I picked 'Synthesis' because I don't mind Shepard dying and I think the Singularity is really cool and I like all the organic beings having glowing green eyes for some reason."

"I picked 'Refusal' because Shepard would rather go down fighting than choose the destiny of all life in the galaxy."

The fact that each ending feels valid is what I like about it. Creating a new "perfect" ending that's objectively better than all of them invalidates them as "bad" endings.

It also redeems the fact that ME2 had an objectively "perfect" ending by saying that not having a "perfect" ending in ME2 doesn't really cause any serious problems in ME3. If you want to see how a particular problem is affected with a certain character dead, now you can and you don't have to worry about not getting a "good" ending for ME3.

Other people just think that the stuff with the Catalyst at the end simply makes no sense. I would disagree, and to make my point, I'm going to use a straw man based on legitimate arguments I've heard since the initial game's release (and have still heard since the Extended Cut came out).

"Why would Shepard listen to this starchild?"

Because he looks and sounds like a kid that represents his/her own inability to save everyone. Unless you pick the "Refusal" ending, Shepard's decision to use the Crucible comes from his concession that the allied forces can't defeat the Reapers through brute force. He can't save everyone. He has to sacrifice something. That's what the kid represents. Of course, if you think Shepard SHOULDN'T listen to the Catalyst, then go ahead an pick the "Refusal" ending. Just remember that the ENTIRE GAME pretty much flat-out tells you that the Crucible is the only hope at defeating the Reapers, so honestly believing that you could have just beaten them with brute strength from the beginning is incredibly naive. Not everything is a shonen robot anime.

"Why would Shepard make a decision that goes against the fact that organics and synthetics can coexist without merging them together? He/She saw the Geth and the Quarians finally make peace!"

First of all, not every play-through will result in Geth/Quarian peace. Second of all, just because they made peace NOW (in a time of war) doesn't mean the peace will last forever. The Catalyst came to the conclusion  that no peace between organics and synthetics can last due to a fundamental inconsolable difference between their ultimate motivations. That's why he created the Reapers. You (and by extension, Shepard) can go ahead and say that you don't believe that's true, but as the Catalyst says, "Your belief is not required." If you really don't believe it, then don't choose it. Pick "Control" or "Synthesis" and create a world where synthetics and organics can coexist. If you want them to remain separate, "Control" is the option for you. Sure, Shepard dies, but wouldn't it make sense that he/she would sacrifice him/herself to establish and protect that new peace?

"Why can't there be a happy ending?"

I know that most people don't ACTUALLY want a "happy ending", but the sad fact is that a lot of people genuinely DO. To them, I simply ask... What game series were YOU playing? From the very first game you are asked to make decisions that require sacrifice. Kaiden or Ashley? Council or Alliance? Rachni or no Rachni? Krogan or Salarians? I know that it would have been cute to see Shepard with his/her significant other raising children and stuff, but it wouldn't fit the tone of the series. The series has always been about victory through sacrifice, and I'm sorry you apparently didn't realize it until now, but that's just the way it is. You don't have to like it, but don't pretend that a bittersweet ending was never implied or telegraphed throughout the rest of the series.

"Why doesn't the Catalyst just trick Shepard into killing him/herself?"

It's pretty clear that the Catalyst isn't particularly happy with the turn of events, but he's an AI. He accepts that now that the Crucible is completed and attached and now that his Illusive Man meat-puppet is dead, he failed to stop Shepard from attaching it. But now that it's there, he's learned that even if he can stop Shepard THIS time, there's no telling whether or not he'll be able to stop it NEXT time. Despite his best efforts, the plans for the Crucible always survive. Maybe next time, the organics will discover it and build it long before the Reapers arrive and instantly destroy them before he has a chance to try and influence them. But this time, he knows that Shepard is physically and mentally exhausted and will listen to reason. He is uniquely qualified to make this decision and since his original solution has proved ineffective, he might as well take this opportunity to guide which solution shall replace it since he can't decide for himself. He's admitting that his solution is flawed and is cutting his losses while he still has the chance to maintain some influence on the shape of the future. He really doesn't want Shepard to pick the "Destroy" ending because in his mind, that will doom the galaxy in the long run since there's nothing to stop the inevitable organics vs. synthetics conflict. And if he said nothing, it's possible that Shepard or whoever would get where Shepard got in some theoretical future Cycle would just instinctively pick the Kill All Reapers option without really knowing that the other options exist or what they would result in. He's trying to mitigate what he considers a massive failure on his part.

"The Catalyst is just a Deus Ex Machina!"

It sure is. Still, it was foreshadowed. No one was really sure what the Crucible would do. We kept seeing the kid in Shepard's nightmares. The themes of each of the decisions that face Shepard in the end are brought up regularly throughout the series. Yeah, a magical AI giving you three choices does pretty much come out of nowhere and nicely solves all your problems, and that's definitely a Deus Ex Machina. But at least it was a Deus Ex Machina that you were building towards throughout the entire game.

"There's still no real choice! Each ending is just the same with different bits pasted in to make it seem different!"

Well what did you expect? BioWare assigning each player a team of writers and developers, crafting a completely unique ending for each player? Yes it's ultimately illusion and window dressing, but that's all the games have ever been. No decisions actually seriously affect the story or gameplay beyond some differing side-plot events and dialogue options. It's only ever been about making the game FEEL unique for each player, not actually BEING unique. And in that respect, the Extended Cut did the job for me. Seeing Jack standing in front of her students and seeing Zaeed chilling on a deck chair made me feel satisfied. Seeing the memorial wall with all of the names of the people I'd let die felt poetic. Seeing the unmasked Quarians shaking hands with the Geth in the "Synthesis" ending was pretty awesome and reflected the core reason why most people chose that ending. They did a good job making the endings FEEL unique even if they were just pre-programmed bits ticked off by certain choices represented by boolean flags.

"The endings are just badly-written!"

OK. That's your opinion and you're entitled to it. I'm happy with the endings now, but as with any story, not everyone is going to like it and I don't intend to try and change their minds. Some people hate "Star Wars". Some people unironically love Shyamalan's "The Last Airbender". Diff'rent strokes and whatnot. Still, I feel like a lot of the "reasons" brought up for why the endings are terrible can be discounted (at least from my perspective), and the ending that a lot of these people would have been happy with would have had me hating the endings just as much as they currently hate it. Maybe BioWare could have made an ending that would have satisfied everyone, but I'm not going to say something sucks simply because it could have been better. I will however concede that the endings do suck for certain people and there's probably nothing I can say to convince them otherwise. They have every right to express their disappointment and explain why they hate it and I would be happy to read differing opinions on the matter.

So those are my thoughts on the "Mass Effect 3" Extended Cut DLC. I'm happy we got it and that BioWare ultimately found a comfortable balance between incorporating the criticism and maintaining their own vision for the endings. It won't appease everyone, but that was probably never going to happen anyway.

And at least it was free.