I invited a couple of Mass Effect fans to reflect on our initial playthroughs of Mass Effect 3 together in real time, to be posted in a couple three installments. We invite you to come and revel in our luminous insights and trenchant bon mots! Marvel at our many euphemisms for space genitalia! Watch me make feeble stabs at appearing objective in critiquing the game series that has held us by the nerd short hairs* lo these last 5 years!


Al Schwartz:  I just realized I never even figured out which option you picked from the Catalyst buffet.

Trevor La Pay: I picked Destroy! What kind of a milquetoast do you take me for?

A:  Once I found out you let Tali Ophelia herself, I had to assume you were capable of anything.

T: But I had both Legion AND Tali in my pocket. Those stupid Quarians wouldn’t stop firing on the Geth ship! It wasn’t my fault!

Oddly, that moment was the high point of the entire ME3 experience for me. I might bitch a lot about the gameplay, but the story has balls.

A:  Earlier, you said that you didn’t buy the indoctrination ending for a second.  Now, I don’t think the ending was fully implemented or really works as presented in the video; for one thing, the “wrong” choices play out almost exactly like the “correct” one, and even the “perfect” ending leaves Shephard a bloody pile of meat who still hasn’t actually beaten the bad guys, which is a strange note to end on to say the least.  And why my preferred interpretation is that while Catalyst buffet is an attempt at indoctrination, it is literal and not a fantasy sequence.

But there’s too much about it that fits for it to be a coincidence, imo, most particularly the black wavy lines that show up during your confrontation with the Illusive Man (and nowhere else in the series I can recall, which has to mean…something) and the way the landscape changes to resemble the dream sequences after you get blasted.  The way it looks to me, and of course I don’t have inside sources or anything but generalized suspicions to base this on, is that the indoctrination ending was developed fairly extensively but weren’t able to implement fully.  Whether that is because they didn’t have time to iron out all the kinks or just lost their nerve to go with something so conceptual to cap off their EPIC TRILOGY, I don’t know.

Though if they were just trying to avoid fan uproar, then wow, way to dodge that bullet, Bioware.


The problem with things as they stand is that the options don’t really work taken at face value, but the post-Shepdeath scenes (however brief) don’t jibe with the fantasy interpretation that makes sense of the other 90% of the ending scenario.  But it’s so close to fitting that I find it hard to think it could result from anything but a last minute balk.  In particular, the teleporting Normandy sequence is so clearly grafted on from a different ending concept that there had to some major zero hour scrambling going on.


T: I never pay attention to any of the behind the scenes gossip, but there was some talk on the boards about a potential indoctrination plot that was either scrubbed or rewritten. The play’s the thing, though, so the final content should speak for itself.

This is armchair game development for sure, but there are a ton of ways BioWare could have written indoctrination into Shepard’s plotline that would have made sense. What about Shepard’s rebirth at the hands of Cerberus? Surely seeds could have been planted there, but that turned out to be nothing more than a way to yank Shepard into an enemy vessel without too much fussing over the details. There’s a throwaway line during the Illusive Man’s Base sequence where Shepard ponders whether he’s just a VI in a human-like shell. Now THAT would have made the destroy ending more interesting, at least for me.

Given the details, it’s very likely that a bunch of scenarios were mapped out, none could be agreed upon, and a Frankenstein’s Monster was stitched together as a result. The Normandy scene in particular. It was like watching Poochie get teleported off screen by a flying saucer.

Hey, kids! Even I don't know how the "synthesis" ending is supposed to work! ZIPPA DAB ZOOBA!!!!


I never did notice those those black lines, though.

Even though it was a big shrug for me, I’m excited to see how BioWare adds to the epilogue in DLC, assuming the PR blurbs are honest.

A: It definitely feels like a Frankenstein, so no matter what noble intentions we might ascribe to the writers, it doesn’t change the fact that it doesn’t succeed.  But I’ll play apologist a bit longer, because I seem to think there’s more to the indoctrination angle than you do.

Coming into this game I had wondered why the danger of Shephard being indoctrinated had never been addressed.  Given his interactions with Sovereign, his time on the derelict Reaper (which had indoctrinated everyone that had previously investigated it) and all the time messing around with the Collector’s Reaper tech in ME2, and especially getting zapped by the monolith in Arrival (which had also indoctrinated everyone around it), it seemed like at some point someone should have at least raised the possibility.that he had been compromised.  But I, and I assume everyone else, just kind of shrugged this off as typical video game macguffinry; when the bad guys are so unequivocally evil, with the stated goal of eradicating of all life in the galaxy, they can’t have henchmen at all unless they can brainwash them.

Okay, there might be a few volunteers, just not of the top tier variety


But, if you accept the indoctrination ending in concept, there’s something crazy ambitious about it.  Because now Bioware has hinged the conclusion of the entire series on a seemingly-impossible feat.  I can buy that the character of Shephard, stressed out beyond belief by the burden of fighting the apocalypse more or less by himself for years, seeing so many friends die, being horrifically wounded and also affected by whatever physical process the Reapers use to brainwash people, would struggle with completing his mission right at the finish line.  But for this ending to work, the game has to convince me, who has not actually experienced any of those things, to consider adopting the villain’s evil plan at literally the last minute.  How the fuck do you pull that off?

By playing on the assumptions I make about how a game like this works.  My guy can’t be brainwashed, because I’m the best and of course I can’t and of course my feats of badassitude have convinced the immortal space monster to reconsider its entire raison d’etre for the last 800 million years.  And by adding a significant downside to following through with my plan at the last second, and making the bad guy’s plan seem to be the option that allows me to win without sacrificing any characters I’ve come to care about. And having the big scifi transhumanist option only available if I rack up a certain score, so that it feels like an unlockable “best” ending that powergamer in me will want to access.  And by coloring the options according to the paragon/renegade dynamic the games have always employed, but reversed to suggest that the “bad” ending is what the paragon would choose, which makes sense as a representation of the Reapers mucking about with my guy’s subconscious to steer him toward it.

You do all that, and you just might pull off the impossible and manage to brainwash me into pondering decisions that my character would only make because he’s actually been brainwashed.  To set up that conflict and play it out without tipping your hand about what was going on (because if I know for sure that’s the deal, then of course I’m not actually on death’s door and haven’t had my brain chemistry altered by subsonic vibrations or gamma rays or whatever space juju justifies the indoctrination diegetically, and the decision becomes a no-brainer), that would be a really incredible feat of writing.

But, of course, none of it works if I’m actually too badass to be brainwashed, and the villain’s plan really does turn out to be a no fuss-no muss solution to the whole dilemna, which means I’m kind of a colossal dick for making him shoot himself 5 minutes ago for considering it, and by the way my whole crew is now on the other side of the galaxy because what the fucking fuck.

It's certainly not because I'm a total coward who fled to the far edge of the galaxy as soon as the camera was off me, I can tell you that much!


Anyway, on the backlash:  should we really have been that surprised by it?  Sure, long-running genre series don’t ever seem to wrap without pissing off a sizeable portion of their fanbase, and video game nerds are a fairly entitled bunch on their best day. But beyond that, it seems only natural that people would feel a degree of ownership over this story that goes above and beyond the investment fans of Lost or whatever have in those stories.  I mean, a large part of the appeal of this series has always been the idea that the player was a vital part of shaping the story with their decisions.  As you’ve said previously, that may have been largely an illusion, but it’s one that Bioware created and fostered, and it seems obvious in retrospect that it would serve to intensify the backlash when it inevitably reared its head.

I’ve seen Misery mentioned as a touchstone for how batshit the campaigns are, but Annie Wilkes might have come off as a smidge less crazy if the books she obsessed over had advertised that SHE would have major say in how the story developed from the very beginning, no?

T:  I think you’re right, but I also think there’s this new, crazy phenomenon where if someone doesn’t like a particular movie or game or book or whatever, they’re now compelled to take it to the streets rather than moving on with their lives like normal humans. See Lost, Twilight, Avatar, the Prequels, The Dark Tower finale, and basically any high profile piece of media that isn’t particularly good. I’m not talking about critical discourse – bitching about Avatar and Twilight is both cathartic and necessary – I’m talking about taking it that one Wilksian step forward and calling for petitions, boycotts, or god knows what else. It’s a mix of whiny entitlement and the power of social media. People are the starring mouthpiece of their own internet adventure. By giving BioWare the finger, they’re doing what any good adventure hero would do: sticking it to the bad guys!
A: I don’t know.  I agree with you that the internet and social media play a large part in creating the sort of environment where something that was a horror writer’s paranoid fantasy 20 years ago is today’s trending Twitter topic; both on the macro level, where we as a society have grown increasingly expectant to have whatever product we want delivered to our exact specifications but right now, and on the micro one where it has made it easier than ever to share your angry rant with the whole world and to gather 30,000 signatures on a petition.  Not saying people shouldn’t participate in fan campaigns if they are passionate about the property (GREENDALE HUMAN BEINGS FOREVER!), but it’s hard to dispute that the bar has been lowered for getting such a campaign started simply because it’s 100x easier to get an electronic signature than a real one.
Although of those examples, I feel like only the prequels really inspired this level of nuttiness. They’re the ones that people still can’t seem to stop talking about or armchair writing/directing a decade later, whereas something like Avatar was too self-contained to build up the kind of long term investment that fuels this brand of nerdrage and Twilight had probably lost anyone who needed more than toothless romantic melodrama before it got to the ending that sounds like it delivered that (batshit plot details aside).  But the prequels are their own beast.  There’s a whole nother discussion to be had on why that fire just won’t die.

One day, when his children are long dead, we as a society will have hated this kid enough. Just kidding. He dies childless and alone.

T: In the Community case, I don’t think anyone loses. Misery would have been a romantic comedy if Wilkes were passionately trying to get Sheldon’s last book published after the publisher rejected it.
A: That’s just absurd.  Anyway, I feel like we’ve been very critical about the parts that don’t work and that might be overshadowing that we had an overall positive experience with the game.  It sounds like some of the gameplay issues bothered you a bit more than me, but obviously no one here is angry enough to take up arms against Bioware. I think we both came into it expecting it to disappoint on some level, going off your earlier comment that games routinely end on a weak note.  Is that fair to say?
T: Yeah, I had an overall positive experience with the game. I don’t think I’ll be rushing back into it before the first DLC releases (to be announced on April 6th, apparently), but considering that the first ME games were the ONLY ones that I actually rushed back into immediately after finishing, it’s hardly a complaint.
A: The reason I was expecting disappointment on some level was that I’ve always been an easy mark for space opera and fantasy epics, and over the years I’ve learned that the finale is almost never as good as the build up promises.  And I’m not just talking about the prequels, but the other properties Trevor and I have name-checked.  It happened with The Matrix, it happened with Lost, it happened to a lesser extent with BSG and holy hell did it ever happen with The Dark Tower.  It’s been interesting to be more or less on the apologist side of this one, because I very much wasn’t with the rest.  I’ve deliberately tried to avoid invoking the chestnut about how “it’s about the journey, not the destination” here, not because I don’t think it’s true when it comes to life generally or even enjoying series like this, but because it strikes me as a convenient way to avoid accountability for ending up at a shitty destination.  Mass Effect fucking up the ending doesn’t undo all the fun I had getting there, but all the fun doesn’t unfuck that dog either.

Wait, what?


I am willing to to cut ME more slack on that front, however, because it’s major (story) issues are confined almost entirely to the last 5 minutes. Since ME3 was “a series of endings”, pretty much every storyline was wrapped up by the time you got to London, and things don’t really go off the rails until all that’s left to do is press the button to release space magic and slay the dragons.  That makes it exceptionally easy to fanwank around, and the fact that there isn’t one “canon” storyline for the series actually encourages you to in a way a book or TV show doesn’t. I can ignore the wider context of the endings and accept my own view of the indoctrination theory, and if that doesn’t work for you, you can just imagine that your Shephard activated the Crucible and wiped out the Reapers without meeting the Catalyst, or even that he died dashing across No Man’s Land and never found out if one of his friends was able to complete the mission without him.  Whereas with those other examples, my problems with the resolution of long-running storylines are such that they couldn’t be addressed without making major changes to parts of the series I had enjoyed in the first place.  You can say that’s stupid and arbitrary and apologist nonsense, and you’d probably be right. I’m not the final arbiter of quality, what works for me doesn’t work for everyone, and frankly, the world is probably better off that way.


Would you want to live in a world where EVERYTHING ends with this?


Anyway, the point I wanted to reiterate was that people are, consciously or not, holding this ending up to the standards set by TV, film, and literature more than those set by Zelda or Gears of War.  Fanboys aren’t losing their shit because they nerfed the engineer’s somesuch rating or overcharged for multiplayer maps, they’re going nuts because they feel the story’s conclusion didn’t adequately incorporate and pay off the themes that had driven it from the start.  For the folks who get up in arms about video games not being recognized as art, ME3 makes the case as persuasively as it has ever been: it’s shown that a game can infuriate and disappoint its fans every bit as much as a book or TV series, and on the same terms.

So I say take a bow, Bioware.  The idiotic campaign to get you to rewrite your ending is actually an incredibly high, albeit thoroughly backhanded, form of praise for the series as a whole.


 Part 3

Part 2

Part 1