View RSS Feed


Why the Mass Effect franchise succeeds as an RPG despite its endings

Rate this Entry

Let me start this off by saying that I have never been as deeply disappointed in the ending of a game as I was at the ending of Mass Effect 3. For a franchise that makes such emphasis on choices and their consequences, Bioware seemingly forgot about the most important consequence in a story: the resolution of the conflict. I could go on and on about why the endings are crap (choose the color of your explosion, etc…), but the problem is that by dwelling for too long on this particular issue, one can lose sight of another element that makes Mass Effect so great: the ability to make you feel as if you really were Commander Shepard.

Last year saw the release of a great action-rpg, which received a standing ovation from both the critics and the players alike; its name was Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I personally enjoyed the game, and would recommend it to pretty much any gamer I know. However, there IS one characteristic that Human Revolution shares with Mass Effect 3: a crapfest of an ending. For those of you who haven´t played it, DE: HR ends with the player having to decide between four different choices, which are each triggered by the pressing of a different button. In other words, it’s a “press button, get ending” kind of thing, and for very similar reasons to the ME3 endings, they weren’t very well received. But here’s the question: if these two popular RPGs suffered from the same type of shortcoming, then why is it that most can see past Human Revolution’s failures in favor of its successes and achievements, while on the other hand people are going as far as to donating money to charity JUST TO GET BIOWARE TO CHANGE THE ENDING FOR ME3? Simply put, it is because while both ME3 and HR have the theme of “choices have consequences”, Mass Effect delivers in a department where the other does not: player immersion.

In Human Revolution, you play as Adam Jensen, a man who receives several technological upgrades to his body known as “augmentations”, and then must unveil a worldwide conspiracy while dealing with the issue of his own humanity. The game starts when the Sarif Industries, the company which Jensen works for, is attacked by a group of augmented terrorists who leave Jensen in a near death state, and then presumably kill his love interest. He is saved when Sarif, his boss, implants him with said augmentations, thus making him a total badass. However, in a world where many reject augmented individuals, claiming them to be more machine than human, Jensen now faces a large amount of animosity and prejudice. The worst part, of course, is that the choice to get the augmentations wasn’t his, as they were forced upon him by Sarif. At this point in the game, most people (myself included) probably felt pity for Jensen and his current state of affairs, but at the same time others just wanted to tell him to suck it up because he got superpowers. What’s interesting here is that both of these reactions imply that the player is does not consider himself to be Adam Jensen, but rather an outsider that is observing the situation. While it is true that players get to define Jensen’s ideology and personality through the decisions they make, in the end that’s just it; they´re molding a character based on their perceptions, rather than being the character itself. I felt like a badass when I played HR, but it wasn’t exactly because I felt that I was Jensen himself; rather, Jensen was the actual badass, and since I controlled him, it made me a badass by extension as well. This is the very reason as to why HR’s endings haven’t had the same outrage that ME3’s endings had, despite them being crappy as hell. I never actually felt as if I lived in the world of Deus Ex (which would have been the case if I actually thought that I was Adam Jensen), and therefore its future didn’t concern me very much. It was an interesting look at what might happen in the future of our own world, but nothing more than that. The moral dilemmas were engaging, but the universe itself didn’t grasp my attention in any definitive way, unlike the Mass Effect series did.

As everyone and their mother knows, in ME you play as Commander Shepard, an awesome space marine that must save the galaxy from an evil race of ancient machines known as the Reapers, which have come to harvest all organic life. It is because of this that ME3 differentiates so much from ME1 and ME2; the first two entries are setting the groundwork for the big event that is the reaper invasion, while ME3 is where the whole thing actually happens. As such, tension is at an all-time high, both for the universe and for the player. This leads to some of the most memorable moments in gaming history: for example, the death Mordin Solus (which can come through his own sacrifice, or through a bullet fired by Shepard himself, and even then there is an option in which he doesn’t have to die). Many claim that this is the most emotional point of the game, but for me, it was not. For me, it was the fall of Thessia, the Asari homeworld. I still remember when I had to tell the Asari councilor that despite all of the Asari that sacrificed their lives to help me, Cerberus beat me to the punch. I was greatly saddened, but above all, guilty; very, very guilty. This was not merely how I was supposed to feel in-universe. I was how I actually felt in real life, and thus this led me to wonder if I should really be feeling as guilty as I had at that moment, since it was not one of my decisions that made Shepard lose against Kai Leng, nor was it one of my decisions that caused the reaper invasion of Thessia. I could understand if someone felt guilty for taking the renegade path and shooting Mordin back at Tuchanka, since that WAS a decision made by the player. The truth was that, as the player, I should have been exempt from any kind of responsibility for what happened in Thessia, and yet I could not help but to feel guilty about it. I later realized what had happened; I had stopped being the player a long time ago. I was Commander Shepard, and because of that I was to blame for my defeat at the hands of Cerberus, even though I never actually had the choice to influence that outcome. There was no player or character; only I, Shepard. That´s how powerful this game is. That´s how immersed I had gotten into my role in this universe. Shortly after telling the Asari councilor what had happened, I went to talk to Garrus, and after a long conversation, he said “we’ll make it through; we always do”, and I thought “we always do, don’t we?”. Garrus Vakarian is a videogame character. He is a squadmate in the Mass Effect series. But at that moment, he was more than that; he was Garrus, one of my closest friends in a galaxy that made trust a hard thing to come by. Surely millions of players have gotten this exact dialogue from Garrus, but to me none of that mattered. To me, it was real.

A constant complaint from the fanbase is that the Mass Effect games have been losing their RPG elements as time went on. It became more “Gears of War” as time went on, and this scared many into thinking that the narrative would suffer as a result. However, I ask of those people to go beyond gameplay mechanics and look at what “RPG” really means: role-playing game. RPG fans love things like loot and quests because it makes them feel in a familiar territory (as these elements are very common in RPGs), but in the end role-playing is about getting in character; believing in a world that is far beyond the borders of reality, and becoming a person that lives in that aforementioned world. In this, I believe that Mass Effect as a whole surpasses all other RPGs. I love the Elder Scrolls series, and Fallout, and Dragon Age, but none of them could immerse me as much as Mass Effect 3 could, precisely because of the time and games it took to make me a part of itself, rather than an outsider or an observer.

Right now, the fandom is experiencing an unprecedented rage over the Mass Effect franchise. Many are saying that the endings of ME3 were so bad, that they will never be able to play a Mass Effect game again in their lives. Others are even suggesting that people shouldn’t get into Mass Effect in the first place, because they’ll just be disappointed by the ending. To those people I say: If ME ever made you feel like you really were Commander Shepard, and that the events happening were real, rather than fictitious, then whether you like it or not it has succeeded as an RPG. Playing the entire trilogy with the same character is an experience that cannot be obtained anywhere in the realm of videogames, and depriving others from it is doing them a disfavor.

Someone told me that the Mass Effect series is like a rollercoaster: you enjoy the ride, then you get to the end and puke. I will not deny that I indeed puke, as many others did when they got to the ending of the ride. However, wasn’t this particular rollercoaster one of the best you’ve gotten on? Not many things turn out like we want them to, and for better or for worse, that was the case with Mass Effect. Just remember that even though the end was not what you hoped for, maybe this time it is the journey itself that can make it all worth it.