Do the means justify the ends?
Writing an ending is difficult. There's a reason why your high school English teacher scribbled "NO! See me after class" when your creative writing essay finished with ”And I woke up and it was all a dream”. I know you thought it was really clever. I did too. You should never have asked for my advice. We were so young and naïve.
If the endings to your own fictions were bad, game endings were even worse: sometimes, you were just shown a black screen with the word "CONGLATURATION", followed by a long credit roll. In other titles, if you hadn't collected enough magical MacGuffins or didn't play on Ultra Nightmare Hard difficulty, you wouldn't get to see the 'true ending'. The problem was that in arcade games, death was the only end to your story. Programmers are not writers, and it took a while for game developers to understand that stories needed proper care and attention.
Warren Spector's Deus Ex was partially named after the dramatic plot device, hinting at his frustration with the terrible storylines that typified games of the time. It was the first game which allowed player agency to really impact the story through play: even if this amounted to mere alternate endings, it was an honest attempt at breaking the linearity of game narrative.
More than ten years have passed since Deus Ex. What has changed? Judging by the reception to the ending of Mass Effect 3, a hell of a lot. Stories matter more than they ever did: they can even raise thousands of pounds for charity, if players are sufficiently enraged by their lack of closure. I finished Mass Effect 3 last week and was pretty shocked by the ending, which certainly didn't live up to my expectations. But considering how great the rest of the game was, it got me thinking: how much do endings matter, really?
Consider the Gears of War trilogy. The first game's story provides the thinnest of excuses to kill lots of aliens: if the characters were unable to speak, it would be hard to differentiate the plot from an underground-themed twist on Space Invaders. In the second game, there was an attempt to flesh out the characters by embellishing their relationships, but it clashes with the universe established in the first game. I am fine with these people being meatheads. It's alright for them to beat their chests and roar like a gorilla to mourn a friend's passing; I wasn't expecting them to quote W.H. Auden.
Yet Gears of War 3 is different. There is an sense of desperation throughout; a sobriety that doesn't detract from the gung-ho monster hunting, but adds meaning to your actions. There are poignant (I never thought I'd use that word to describe Gears) flashbacks to memories before the war. Friends are lost, the war is won, but the end of the game simply shows Marcus Fenix looking out at an ambiguous future. Your victory of the Locust Horde is shown to be a somewhat hollow one, because everything you fought to defend is either flooded or incinerated. It's not a happy ending, but it is a satisfying one.
Game stories don't always need satisfying endings. Confession time: I have never completed Knights of the Old Republic. I've played the entire game, right up to the final boss. The first time I fought Darth Malak, I died, and had no desire to continue. This wasn't because it was too challenging, or because I wasn't having fun: I just knew how it was going to end. Kill the bad guy, save the galaxy, roll the credits. Yay Star Wars!
KOTOR plays its hand too early. Its story culminates at the halfway mark in a shocking revelation, and it's hard to keep the player's attention after that. From that point, you know exactly how this is going to end: with a Sith Lord impaled on the end of your lightsaber and John Williams' theme booming from your speakers.
Bioshock is another game with a great story that peaks in the middle. By the time you've learned the true identity of 'Atlas' and confronted Andrew Ryan, it's fairly obvious what's going to happen next. You expect more from Bioshock than a big bad at the end (personally, I was hoping to murder Ayn Rand), but neither a mutant freak nor a cheesy ending detracts from the overall story.
Still, better a predictably good ending than none at all. Halo 2 is one of the worst offenders, whose ending is Master Chief saying "IN THE NEXT GAME WE WILL FINISH THE FIGHT". That's why it is the least memorable game in the series: the first Halo ended with you detonating a spaceship's nuclear reactor and escaping its exploding carcass in a jeep, by comparison. Fahrenheit (or, as it's more boringly known in the USA, Indigo Prophecy) leaves out large chunks of the middle of the plot. One minute you're hiding a corpse in a toilet, the next a Mayan sorceror is throwing fireballs at you. A good story could possibly connect these events, but no story can't.
Game narratives are necessarily different to others: Dear Esther would make a pretty dull film, while Mass Effect just wouldn't be the same without player involvement. The problem with games is that in order to derive satisfaction from most of them, the player has to be capable of winning. Since death normally causes you to reload a previous saved game, it feels like a cop out for your character to die at the end of the game due to "natural causes". That's why there are so many happy endings in games, which brings us back to Mass Effect 3.
The gamers who have expressed disappointment with how BioWare's space opera ended are justified in feeling that way. To end one hundred hours of game with your choice of three coloured explosions doesn't just undermine the central theme of player agency that is so important to the series: it actually makes our memories of the previous games worse. It reveals the man behind the curtain, sending out a message that your actions were ultimately for nothing. The problem with Mass Effect 3's ending is not that it's an unhappy one, but that it is an unsatisfying one. It's inconsistent with the game's internal logic and the actions of the character you worked so hard to create.
I respect BioWare's creative decision: it's their story, even though they've done a great job of convincing us otherwise for the past five years. To say that they should change the ending is preposterous, especially since the damage has already been done. Rather than alienate readers who haven't played the game even further, I'll just say that we deserve something more coherent and less illogical. I hope BioWare make amends. More importantly, I hope they don't charge for the privilege.
Yet the Mass Effect ending saga shows us that in spite of the denouement, it was an remarkable story: one that players really cared about, with decisions and relationships in which they were emotionally invested. That is such a difficult thing to do: most films and books don't manage it, let alone video games. Of course fans deserved a better ending, but they wouldn't have cared at all if it weren't for the exceptional foundations.
While Mass Effect's story has ended, for better or worse, the real story of gaming narratives is just beginning.
Rather than wait for BioWare to 'fix' the ending of Mass Effect 3, I've written my own alternative ending. What choice will you make?
EXT. LONDON- NIGHT
It is the final push towards the Citadel. Shepard and her squad race towards the teleporter when all of a sudden HARBINGER appears. OH NO!
HARBINGER: I've waited a long time to rend the flesh from your bones, Shepard.
SHEPARD: I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint you.
HARBINGER: Your planet is ash. Soon there will be nothing organic left in the galaxy to harvest. You have lost. You have no chance to survive... make your time.
SHEPARD: We'll see about that, you rusting space lobster!
A BIG BOSS FIGHT ensues. Long health bars, repetitive attack patterns, cheap one-hit kills that will get you at least once. Once you've whittled down Harbinger's health to nothing:
Harbinger charges his big eye laser. This doesn't look good for our heroes… UNLESS Wrex is alive, who jumps out of a shuttle with a M-920 Cain and launches a missile right into Harbinger's face. Wrex ex machina.
At this point, the story branches depending on your level of war readiness:
You're toast. Illusive Man wins. 'Bad ending'.
The combined galactic forces finish off Harbinger, but Shepard suffers a fatal injury.
Harbinger is destroyed by the combined fleet, Shepard enjoys the fireworks.
If Wrex is alive, the game treats your readiness as greater than 5000, because Wrex is a badass.
Shepard enters the Citadel's central chamber. There's a LOT of orange and blue lighting. Illusive Man appears, having a smoke as usual. Depending on whether you destroyed the Collector Base in Mass Effect 2, he's either wearing a white or yellow shirt.
ILLUSIVE MAN: Shepa-
PARAGON AND RENEGADE OPTIONS BOTH FLASH ON SCREEN. THEY DON'T GO AWAY UNTIL YOU PRESS ONE.
YOU PRESS ONE.
No matter what you choose, Shepard:
- Soldier- Draws a pistol and ploughs several rounds into him
- Adept- Warps him through the window
- Vanguard- Drop kicks him out the window
- Engineer- Hoses him with a machine gun
SHEPARD: Didn't you know smoking was bad for your health?
(If Wrex or Garrus is present, he shakes his head in dismay).
The Illusive Man has left a sinister looking device on the floor. You can choose to pick it up and use it, or not.
Shepard ignores that weird thing on the floor and activates the Citadel. All the Reapers explode: the explosions are blue, because that looks better than a regular explosion. If Shepard was injured in the Harbinger fight, she dies here and is carried out by her squadmates.
Shepard and her team leave the Citadel and are beamed back to Earth. The surviving armies cheer for them. There aren't many left, but that doesn't matter.
If Shepard is alive, your love interest appears (if they aren't there already):
Love Interest: Shepard, what do we do now? How do we begin to rebuild the galaxy after this? So many lives have been lost...
Shepard: We'll do what humans always do when the outlook is bleak: let's get drunk and party until we can't feel feelings any more.
MASSIVE PARTY. EVERYONE DANCES. IN-JOKES. ROLL CREDITS. THE END.
(If Shepard is dead, the party is not quite as riotous and your team just watch from the sidelines rather than having a boogie.)
"Continue Shepard's legendary drinking skills in Mass Effect 3: The Hangover, coming as DLC this April".
Shepard uses the Illusive Man's device. THIS MAKES EVERYTHING RED. The Citadel activates and destroys the Reapers (these explosions are red, to signify that this is an evil explosion), but also kills the Geth, EDI, anyone wearing face jewellery, Biotics, and even Shepard herself.
Electricity crackles through Shepard, melting half her skin off so she resembles a Husk. If Shepard was injured in the Harbinger fight, she dies here. Otherwise, Shepard and her team leave the Citadel. The surviving armies cheer for them. There are very few left, some weeping over the bodies of their melted colleagues. Anderson appears…
ANDERSON: Shepard, what happened in there? What happened to your face?
Shepard's eyes resemble those of the Illusive Man. She warp-blasts Anderson and kills him. Depending on who is alive, a Paragon squadmate (Garrus, Tali etc.) confronts Shepard:
SQUADMATE: What on Earth (ho ho!) are you doing?
SHEPARD (COLDLY): This was a difficult battle. There were so many casualties. It's a shame we'll never know what happened to Anderson.
SQUADMATE: But we do know! You just killed him!
SHEPARD (STARING THROUGH DEAD EYES): IT'S A SHAME WE WILL NEVER KNOW.
The squadmate backs down. Shepard smirks and watches smoke billowing from the Reaper corpses. The galaxy is saved and Shepard has become the only living Biotic- the most powerful organic in the galaxy. What a bitch.
NO PARTY. NO JOKES. ROLL CREDITS. END
Shepard wakes up in a cold sweat. What was that terrible dream about? It seemed so vivid... she stretches and gets out of bed. Today is her first mission with the Alliance Navy. She tries to recall the assignment... something about a beacon on Eden Prime...
Every week in Reality Check, we tackle technology in the usual opinionated, irreverent Split Screen style. You can read past articles here.