Day Sixteen of Advent is of course St. Angela’s Day, the day on which we remember that despite our differences, we can all get along if we just ignore each other and internalise our hate into some sort of ulcer or embolism. So with this in mind, let’s gently peel back the flap to see what’s behind Horace’s unwelcoming glare today.
It’s… Mass Effect 3!
Jim: I couldn’t and didn’t anticipate the amount of noise this would generate. On the one hand I didn’t foresee the ending being quiet so objectionable to so many, and on the other I couldn’t have imagined the extent to which they would have been shouted down by internet commentators with different views. I was left in the middle – as satisfied as I’d expected to be by the ending (when are they ever good?) but at the same time pleased with what I’d seen in the game. Yes, I disliked the combat much more than I had when playing Mass Effect 2 (I can hardly even remember 1, now, but I don’t think I liked that much either) but everything else in the game had rung my bell quite competently.
Mass Effect 3 did big, dark fates pretty well. The opening was calamitous, the ending seemed (to me at least) suitably final. An apocalyptic orchestral strike at the end of a very long composition. And there are certain movements in that overall piece that I really did find affecting. One death, a heroic sacrifice, particularly – I think you know the one – made me nod: Bioware knew what they were doing.
I think there’s something else here, though. Which is to say that we really love Guns & Conversation. The reason so many people care so fervently is that these games really speak to us, whatever their problems. We want choice, we want character, and we want studios who can build thriving, fascinating worlds that we want to explore and care about. The Mass Effect games, I hope, represent the first step in making a mature version of that. You could write a science fiction, I suppose, of the sci-fi games to come. Perhaps this is just the prologue. At least that’s what it feels like to me.
It’s not really possible to think or talk about Mass Effect 3 on its own terms, is it? It’s very much part of a picture, and all about trying to bring resolution to relationships and characters built up over a half-decade. I found myself far more excited about prospect of meeting Wrex and Mordin again, of seeing what had changed on the Normandy and revisiting worlds affected by my choices in earlier games than I was by the idea of shooting and levelling up and buying model spaceships. There was the sense that I was in the late stages of some titanic Fighting Fantasy book, waiting with excited nervousness to see if I’d made wise decisions or not, to see if I really could make it all the way to the end.
Perhaps that’s what Mass Effect 3 did best – a sense throughout that we truly were in the climactic stages of this grand space adventure, rather than wandering casually through the galaxy. It’s that more consistent excitement/tension/end of the universe spectacle that most shone in this slice of a much-changed trilogy, though I do have to force myself to remember past the deflation and cod-mysticism of the limp ending proper to recall the grand and thrilling doom of the game’s bulk.
Though, perhaps, I should most admire Mass Effect 3 for often defeating my antipathy towards cutscenes. Having built up some excellent, nuanced and highly likeable characters over the course of three games, I was engaged in the cinematics in a way almost no other game manages. On the other hand, this does mean I’m solely praising the game for its presentation rather than its mechanics. I am a mite disturbed by that.
Even if I am writing these words purely due to emotional manipulation, let’s not shirk from high praise for how deft said manipulation was. I even cried like a tiny baby when [redacted] nobly met their fate while seeking a resolution to the Krogan genophage sub-plot which had run through all three games. Truly, their xenoscience studies ranged from urban to agrarian. A fitting end to a well-loved character – and one that, melodramatic license aside, made absolute sense within the broader arc of the series. I guess that’s also why I found the ultimate ending so wretched by comparison – I’m here to see science, not magic, save the universe. It’s those earlier, per-character endings that made Mass Effect 3 the conclusion the series needed.
Looking back at the trilogy, the second part stands out as my favourite – just the song alone is enough to secure that – but III is definitely the most accomplished. It takes a mature step forward, develops a lot more focus, and delivers some massive dramatic beats. What had been made comfortable in the first two games was destroyed, ripped apart, any notion of stability in the lives of the characters we’d grown close to taken away. But at the same time it built on the history you’d created, delivered on choices you’d made – even unknowingly – and let me pursue a relationship with a character begun in one game, and beautifully continued in another. That alone makes Mass Effect 3 utterly unique, and Samantha Shepard’s relationship with Garrus felt so distinctively mine. Their parting words, their final moments in that much discussed ending, were heartbreaking and wonderful, not just because they were expertly written and completely appropriate to the two strongly developed characters, but because the relationship had felt real beforehand.
And I think that hints at the most important thing about Mass Effect 3. Despite the torrents of bullshit that were spoken about the game, it absolutely did deliver on the choices you’d made in all three games, and your decisions absolutely did have massive consequences. An entire race died at the hands of another, and decisions I’d made in Mass Effect 2 dictated how much influence I could have over it in the third game. Characters I’d previously saved were present to make a difference in my experience, and those I’d failed weren’t there to impact my story further. Relationships had meaning, and the events throughout the game (and that’s what is so agonisingly missed by the frothing few) were the result of the last few years of playing this series. And even that final moment, that ultimate ending – while not directly linked to a binary switch I’d flipped in a previous game – my decision was absolutely influenced and driven by the character I’d been for over 100 hours, the friendships she’d had, the experiences she’d been through, and the ongoing telling of a massive space opera that dramatically peaked at that point. To pretend it wasn’t based on how I’d played the game would be madness.
Few games can claim to have done what Mass Effect achieved. Despite so many gaming series having not only reached their third part, but even their 13th, none has ever created such a strong bond between all three, none has created a true trilogy. Mass Effect was a true trilogy.