At the heart of all three Mass Effect games there is the deeply personal idea of choice. The ramifications of said choices drastically affect the entire story as well as game play. In-game, friends and loved ones are saved and sacrificed, much to the bitter dismay (or joy) of the invested gamer. As the story’s narrative slowly develops like a good novel, the game play too evolves with extreme sophistication.
The goal of this project is to examine the Mass Effect saga through both the narratologist’s and ludologist’s eyes. What we found is a seesaw-like distribution of the level of dedication between the story and the game mechanics as the years progress. In the first game, the importance lies in the story, not the function of play. This is practically reversed with the release of the third game: game play is phenomenal whereas the story suffers from neglect.
----------------------- Chapter 1: The Story -------------------------
The entirety of the first Mass Effect plays more like an RPG than any of its two successors. The story begins by putting the gamer in the shoes of Commander Shepard of the Alliance Military. After creating a personal Shepard with unique looks and a past, the player is assigned to the SSV Normandy, which is making its maiden voyage to the human colony, Eden Prime. However, this routine mission is suspect due to the fact that there is a mysterious SPECTRE (SPECial Tactics and REcon: essentially a spy under the command of the Council) agent present. It is soon revealed to the player that the Normandy is actually investigating a Prothean beacon (a relic from an ancient and extinct species) – a mission that will assess whether or not Shepard has what it takes to become a SPECTRE. Things turn drastic when the Normandy receives a distress call from Eden Prime stating that they are under attack by an unknown force. Shepard and a small team are dispatched planetside to secure the beacon, whereas Nihlus (the SPECTRE) preferes to rough it solo, stating that he “move[s] faster on his own.”
Shepard and squad mates move on, but quickly discover that their enemy is the illusive geth. These synthetics were created by the quarians centuries ago before they overthrew their masters and took over the quarian homeworld Rannoch. Rumor has it that they have not been seen outside the Perseus Veil in over 300 years. After a teammate is killed in action, the team runs into Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams, the lone survivor from the distress call. Williams opts to join them to avenge her fallen teammates. What is important to know is that the player always has independent choice when it comes to dialogue and narrative action. The dialogue wheel (typical of Bioware RPGs) includes the option for Shepard to be nice (paragon), neutral, or antagonistic (renegade). Answering a certain way will increase paragon or renegade scores – a feat that can unlock certain persuasion dialogue options and change the outcome of any given situation.
For instance, after discovering Nihlus' body (he was murdered by fellow friend and SPECTRE, a turian named Saren), the player can use paragon or renegade dialogue to access grenades from a civilian. Afterwards, Shepard and team move on and secure the beacon, but as Shepard is calling the Normandy for pick-up, a team member accidentally activates it. Shepard throws them out of the way, but is caught up in the beacon's aura. Shepard is imparted with a terrifying, yet disorganized vision of organics' destruction via an unknown synthetic enemy. The beacon then explodes, rendering Shepard unconscious. The hero wakes up on-board the Normandy, which is already en route to the Citadel, the galactic hub of trade, commerce, and politics.
The stint on the Citadel is essentially the gamer’s que to look for evidence against Saren. In the meantime, Shepard is able to recruit important and memorable teammates: turian C-Sec officer Garrus Vakarian, krogan mercenary Urdnot Wrex, and the young quarian Tali’Zorah nar Rayaa. Tali proves to be the most essential of the three because she has an audio recording that proves Saren was behind the attack on Eden Prime. The recording also incriminates the powerful asari Matriarch Benezia when she briefly mentions the return of something called the Reapers.
After getting the evidence against Saren, the chase is on. Shepard’s mission is simple: stop Saren and the return of the Reapers. This leads the gamer to far away planets such as Feros, Therum, Noveria, and Virmire. The events on Therum help recruit Liara T’Soni (Matriarch Benezia’s daughter) to the Normandy while Shepard learns more about the Prothean beacon vision on Feros. When Benezia imparts information on Noveria, the team find out Saren wants to go through the Mu Relay – a Mass Effect relay that leads to Ilos and from there to the mysterious Conduit. The Conduit is necessary for transporting the Reapers through dark space and allowing them to commit galactic genocide against all organic life. Shepard chases Saren across Ilos and through the Conduit (which happens to be on the Citadel) but by then, Saren has already begun his assault against the Council. In the end, Shepard defeats Saren and halts the return of the Reapers.
The second game picks up the narrative a few months after the Battle of the Citadel. The Normandy is out investigating ship disappearances in the Terminus Systems (outside Council space). Suddenly, the vessel is ambushed and destroyed by a powerful, unknown enemy. While evacuating the ship, Shepard is killed in action. The player, undoubtedly shocked and angry that their character just got spaced, is treated to a cut-scene involving the restoration of Shepard through Project Lazarus. The Project’s director is Miranda Lawson, but she serves a more foreboding pro-human splinter organization called Cerberus. Shepard awakens to the sound of gunfire and is promptly notified that the facility is under attack. Escaping with Miranda and Jacob, Shepard immediately meets the Illusive Man, the leader of Cerberus.
The boss explains his reasoning for resurrecting Shepard was because the Reapers are still an imminent threat to galactic peace. The player reunites with flight pilot Joker, who shows him the brand new SSV Normandy SR-2, an improved replica of the original. They are then sent to investigate a missing colony. Once there, it is determined that the colonists were abducted by a race called the Collectors, who supposedly live near the galactic core. Upon discovering this information, Shepard’s missions transition from investigating, finding, and then destroying the Collector base.
Once Shepard gathers enough people and obtains the necessary upgrades, they travel through the Omega-4 Relay for an assault against the base (likely a suicide mission). Fighting their way through, they reach their objective and are faced with a monumental decision: destroy the base as originally planned, or flood the base with radiation, thereby killing all remaining Collectors (this would leave the base intact for future Cerberus study). Regardless of Shepard’s decision, once back on the Normandy, Shepard is given a datapad that has the schematics for a Reaper. The camera then zooms out to show thousands upon thousands of Reapers approaching the Milky Way, setting up for the inevitable apocalyptic battle for the galaxy in the next installment.
Unfortunately, the third game's story is not as linear this time around. The player finds Shepard under Alliance house arrest, having narrowly escaped a court-martial for destroying a Mass Effect relay and a batarian colony. However, this plot point is only available through the DLC “Arrival”. If the DLC was not bought and installed, the narrative is blandly reinterpreted and Shepard is arrested for having come back to the Alliance (after having saved human colonies in Mass Effect 2, this makes no sense). The reapers waste no time in suddenly invading the Sol System, forcing Shepard is to flee and attempt to unite the Council races in an effort to save Earth. A trip to Mars leads to the discovery of an ancient anti-reaper weapon blueprint, the Crucible.
This introduction of the Crucible screams dues-ex-machina because it seems like such a simple solution to the Reaper threat. After eons of Reaper decimation, it just so happens that there is an end-all weapon tucked away in a historical archive on Mars? In order to assemble armies for earth and researchers for the Crucible, Shepard is sent on numerous convoluted quests to unite all the alien races. The turians will only help retake earth if the krogans send aid to Palaven. However, the krogans will only offer support if the genophage (a sterilization virus implemented centuries ago by the turians and salarians) is cured. The cure can only be obtained by going to the salarian homeworld, but the salarians themselves are unwilling to negotiate. Every time the gamer comes one step closer to completing a main task, they are set back by the multitude of miscellaneous quests each essential ally demands be done before any aid will be given.
Once all of the hoops are jumped through and every alien is cooperating, Shepard is called back to the Citadel to investigate corruption, a coup, and an assassination attempt instigated by Cerberus. After the coup is foiled, Shepard heads off to form another alliance with the quarians, and if possible, the geth too. The quarians have recently instigated a futile war in order to retake their home world, Rannoch. Shepard helps resolve the situation by either uniting the two races or siding with one over the other (this option will always kill the losing side). Now that every race is free to worry about saving one small, insignificant planet (which belongs to a group of species said aliens have proven no liking to), the whole galaxy marches on to Earth, and Shepard has to personally fight the largest and deadliest assemblage of Reapers forces. The ending, unfortunately, takes a complete nose-dive narration-wise, but this will be explained in full later on. Comparatively speaking, the plot of Mass Effect 3 is anything but linear as the previous games.
----------------------- Chapter 2: The Gameplay -------------------------
Having detailed how in-depth the narrative of the Mass Effect series is, now the discussion moves on to the ludology aspect. In a sense, the game play of the first two titles of the series is overshadowed by that of the third title and found lacking. This is because the focus of the first two games is on delivering an enthralling and rich story rather than hardcore game play. Juuls describes that, “The way the game is actually played when the player tries to overcome its challenges is its gameplay. The gameplay is an interaction between the rules and the player's attempt at playing the game as well as possible” (56).
Rules are often thought of as a restriction in the gaming world, but rules more often than not help to form the meaningful actions that a game can perform as well. In the Mass Effect series the rules of the games stay fairly consistent. As Shepard, the player is given very clear objectives such as defeating enemies in an area or securing a strategic point. There are of course restrictions on the actions the player can take to reach these goals. Throughout the trilogy, Shepard can do things like shoot a weapon or use a power to take down enemies. The ways the player could do these actions is restricted by the rules of each game. These rules change for the better between each game.
In Mass Effect, the combat system is tough to use at times because of its less-than-ideal cover system that requires a player to run to the area they want to take cover in while braving enormous enemy fire. Attempting to move away from cover often results in the player remaining stuck in the covered position regardless. Melee attacks are difficult to perform because of the odd control system as well as the limited sprint (which also took a long time to recover) a gamer needs to reach the desired target. The class system is very loose and the powers associated with each class limited. Cool-down takes an excruciatingly long time, especially when the gamer needs any and all bonus powers available during a stressful fight. Some classes in Mass Effect (i.e. the engineer) are almost worthless and have little play value because the majority of its skills are unpractical in many given situations. The best way the game play in Mass Effect can be summarized as is clunky.
In Mass Effect 2, the cover system receives a drastic overhaul and becomes easier to use. Melee is also less demanding and a more viable means to attack an opponent. The introduction of thermal clips limits the number of shots the player can fire before a new heat sink is needed to make the gun function again. This essentially eliminates the previously endless ammunition supply of all guns in Mass Effect, but this adds a level of difficulty for the player to overcome before he or she feels accomplished. It is this feeling of accomplishment that is crucial to keeping a player wanting to continue experiencing the gaming aspects, not just for the riveting story.
As the series evolves with the release of Mass Effect 3, the game play drastically improves for the better with the introduction of a revamped cover system and dodge rolls for sliding in and out of combat. Classes in the games are re-balanced and remodeled so that their abilities become quite useful in combat. Melee became a selling point in advertisements because it was a powered-up slash tailored to each specific character class (Gies). As a result, attacks become more practical and less like a suicide dive at the enemy. With these improvements, the combat in the game is more rewarding and enjoyable: the player spends less time fighting with the basic mechanics of the game. Coupled with the new map marker system, the act of moving on to the next objective or plot point is simplified.
What also changed throughout the trilogy was the difficulty and diversity of enemies. The diversity of abilities and enemies in the game means that in some situations the player has to stop and strategically consider what powers they will use on their enemies in combination with Shepard’s squad mates to help defeat enemies to reach the end goal. In Mass Effect, while the varieties of enemies are endless, the main bad guys are the synthetic geth. However, variety does not always equate with difficulty, seeing as how a majority of the multitude of foes all had the same weapons, tactics, and defenses. With an unlimited supply of ammo provided in the first game, killing enemies emphasizes less tactics and devolves into an endless shower of bullets until someone winds up dead (usually the player).
This drastically changes when Mass Effect 2 brings in the limited ammo supply and class power upgrades. The gamer faces off new enemies that ultimately require strategic use of bonus powers to compensate for lack of ammo. Use of one power causes all powers to undergo cool-down, but this is significantly shorter than that of its predecessor. Notably, in Mass Effect 3, the enemies build up resistances to some powers or forms of attack. “Exactly how you take down these unstoppable foes will remain a mystery until you witness the battles for yourself” (Juba 58). While there are not as many types of enemies in this game (they all consist of Reaper, geth, or Cerberus forces), each villain has varying differences that require different powers to defeat them. A simply play-through of the combat reveals the unique style each enemy employes. This forces the gamer to wisely choose which teammate to take with them in an effort to effectively use power tactics against intelligent enemies.
Save-importing from previous games allows a level of immersion when beginning the second and third games. The player's personal Shepard can continue his or her previously built-upon legacy. However, the common opinion with Mass Effect 3 is that the game moves away from its established goals of immersing the player in a science fiction world with deep characters and multiple outcomes and more towards overly dramatic story-changing events. The focus targets violence and action shooting by introducing graphic head-shot damage (the heads explode in a fountain of gore). The best possible game play, and to an extent narrative, hinges on the newly developed multiplayer function.
By playing in multiplayer, the gamer has the chance to build up their Galactic Readiness Score--a meter that lets the gamer know the odds of Shepard's success in the final confrontation against the Reapers. The more that multiplayer is utilized, the more the score percentage increases. An extremely high score leads to unlocking a few new cut-scenes that may not be available for players who stick solely to single-player. This shifts the the series' previous ideology (playing for the sake of furthering the plot's mystery) towards mindless side-combat extravaganzas. Multiplayer can be fun and engaging: the player has the chance to meet people online and work as a team towards a mutual goal as well as experiment with different power bonuses. Unfortunately, the player eventually becomes more obsessed with buying upgrade packs and increasing their international rating than improving the single-player experience. This "game within a game" notion is eerily reminiscent of plot-less Call of Duty FPS games (Sharkey).
To summarize, the progression of ludology from all three games continually enhances and improves. Nevertheless, the shift in Mass Effect 3 solely focuses more on game play and combat as opposed to presenting the player with a unique personal narrative, as gamers clearly saw towards the end of the series.
----------------------- Chapter 3: The Ending -------------------------
Having discussed all three games in terms of both gameplay and narrative, we arrive at the ending of Mass Effect 3: the Catalyst Scene. Widely criticized for its lack of continuity, the end scene is a complete departure from the original narrative that provides gamers little input to boot. After Shepard’s confrontation with the Illusive Man, the proceeding cut scene lures the gamer into a false sense of security—Shepard and Anderson stare proudly into the vastness of space, slowly succumbing to their wounds, yet they (and to an extent the gamer) feel accomplished. However, this is not the case, as Hackett is quick to announce over the intercom that the Crucible has yet to destroy the Reapers. Shepard shuffles over to the console in an attempt to find the 'start' button but collapses before anything can be turned on. It seems like the end for our hero. Suddenly, the platform beneath Shepard ascends in a flash of light and transports Shepard into a vast and infinite room where he/she comes face to face with a projection of the little kid from his/her dreams. Said kid introduces itself as the Catalyst.
The narrative at this point takes a decisive downturn into a convoluted mess of logic that completely defeats the purpose of the story and renders the gameplay absolutely null. No one really needed to find the catalyst component in the first place because apparently it was already installed as an AI component eons ago. In fact, the Catalyst goes on to boast its instigation of all the reaper invasions throughout galactic history. Its reasoning for genocide is supposedly simple: organic life has to be eradicated by synthetics every 50,000 years because it was only a matter of time before organics and their synthetic creations would destroy themselves. In effect, the catalyst has been systematically putting civilizations out of their would-be misery over a mere possibility.
Shepard goes so far as to point this out too—that perhaps it is not preordained in organic’s history to even create synthetics, much less go to war with them. While playing, the gamer cannot help but recall all the hours spent uniting the geth and quarians after their three centuries of bitter civil war. But in this scene, interactive game play comes to a screeching halt: the infamous dialogue wheel's options do not work at providing a coherent platform for the gamer to speak through. There is no available paragon or renegade interrupt option Mass Effect 3 was so liberal with during previous play. In effect, despite all Shepard has done for the galaxy this cycle, he/she is forced to deal with the very poor cards that have been dealt.
The Catalyst proceeds to offer Shepard two solutions (three if the galactic readiness score was high enough; for this project we’ll discuss all three): a.) merge Shepard’s consciousness with the Reapers, thereby obliterating his/her body but is able to control them long enough to send them back into deep space; b.) destroy the power junction that controls the station, the Catalyst, and the Reapers but also all synthetic life and technology in the galaxy (the geth, EDI, Shepard’s and Garrus’ cyborg implants—they will be destroyed as well); or c.) provide Shepard’s body as a template for organic and synthetic synthesis. There are massive amounts of problems presented with all three endings.
The “control” ending provides no serious conclusion to the series. Shepard will have needlessly sacrificed his or herself into delaying the inevitable. The Reapers are not destroyed (the ultimate goal the first game set in motion)—instead they are waiting back in deep space for the next cycle to begin all over again. The “destroy” ending throws a wrench into both gameplay and narrative because, while the Reapers are destroyed as planned, it also undoes all the quests Shepard accomplished in the third game. In effect, this lackluster ending makes hours of gameplay seem redundant. There is no point in catering to either the geth, quarians, EDI, etc. if all they do in the end is die. The reward factor is significantly reduced.
The “synthesis” ending poses an awkward solution that more or less illuminates the dodgy writing provided in the game. If the Catalyst has known about the synthesis option for all these millennia and worried over the fates of synthetics and organics, then why has it never instigated synthesis before? The Catalyst, appearing as this omnipotent and omnipresent AI, is confident that organics and synthetics would inevitably wipe each other out. To an extent, this third ending is a benevolent choice given to Shepard as a reward for having a maximum Galactic Readiness Score. Yet this solution is awkward as it defies all preceding commentary—the catalyst has proved that it does not actually care about organics’ choice because it cyclically destroys billions of species without pause with an invincible synthetic army.
Regardless of whichever of the three endings the player chooses, the ultimate conclusion is the same for everyone. As a 'reward' for endless hours of game play, all players are forced to watch Shepard die, all relays explode, and the Normandy (which is seen uncharacteristically running away from the battle) gets stranded on a remote planet. According to Juul, it is important that any game make attaining the positive end challenging enough to satisfy the gamer upon achieving it (40). Yet despite the intense game play, there technically is no positive ending in Mass Effect 3, which explains the general feeling of player disappointment.
There are only three endings, all unsatisfying and indistinguishable from the other except for the colours of the relay explosions: red for “destroy,” blue for “control,” and green for “synthesis.” Never mind that it was previously established (DLC “Arrival”) that should a Mass Effect relay ever explode, it would take out the system it is in. Never mind that without the relays, all the species Shepard has called to Earth’s aid are now stranded in the Sol System. Dextro-amino aliens such as the turians and quarians would surely die from starvation so far from home and the krogan would quickly resort back to the old Tuchanka motto, “Survival of the fittest.”
However which way someone spins it, the ending to a fantastic series falls short of expectations. The advances made in progression of fun and challenging gameplay are defeated when offered no absolute closure. The diversity of enemies made for exciting battles but the Catalyst scene thwarts the gamers’ attempts at defeating the Reapers: everyone is ultimately doomed to an unknown, yet presumably nasty end.
----------------------- Conclusion -------------------------
In conclusion, the Mass Effect series displays the immense ability to grow into an intelligent and simplistic style of gaming as well as create an in-depth, three-dimensional world for gamers to immerse themselves in. Mass Effect has a richer plot than Mass Effect 3, yet the game play of the latter is unparalleled. However, while the action of Mass Effect 3 allows for new, FPS audiences to play with ease and familiarity, the story's conclusion comes across as stale and flat.
- Gies, Arthur. "E3 2011: Mass Effect 3 - From Cover to Combat." IGN. 2 June 2011. <http://ps3.ign.com/articles/117/1172200p1.html>
- Juba, Joe. “Mass Effect 3.” Gameinformer May 2011: 50-61.
- Juul, Jesper. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2011.
- “Mass Effect 3 Ending and Why We Hate It!” Youtube, 2012. Web. 20 May 2012.
- Sharkey, Mike. "Preview: Mass Effect 3's Co-Op Multiplayer." GameSpy 27 Oct. 2011. <http://pc.gamespy.com/pc/mass-effect-3/1210851p1.html>