Choices and the Journey: On Mass Effect 3 and the Worth of a Finale

The folks at RPG Site have editorialized about the “illusion” of player choice in video games, and how the choices made during the Mass Effect series ultimately led to fan disappointment with the ending they culminated to in Mass Effect 3. A spoiler warning is applicable here, as you might have expected:

Choice, at least how it exists in games currently is very much an illusion. In a videogame you are always limited to the developer’s will, and everything in a game that plays out as a result of your decisions is there because the creator’s allowed it to happen. There is a big difference in how you go about making decisions in real life and whether or not you romanced Garrus or Thane. In your everyday life you are constantly making choices of your own free will, right down to what you put in your morning coffee. You are not limited to the will of a puppetmaster the way you are in something like Mass Effect. When I was a kid, I was really fond of RL Stine’s Goosebumps series, particularly the choose-your-own-adventure offshoots. It is the kind of literature that really helps kids get hooked on a novel and feel involved with the narrative, this time *you* get to decide how the story would play out. Making your audience feel like they are in charge is a good way to earn their trust, it makes them feel powerful. When you actually look at these stories however, they generally stop at the same end point because you aren’t actually controlling the narrative, the writer is. Videogames are the exact same way, the set dressing may change but the outcome really is not up to you.

Now all of this is not an epiphany by any stretch, but as it pertains to Mass Effect’s finale; should the critics firmly hang their hat Mass Effect 3 is a bad game because the ‘choices’ and how they played out were not to the audiences liking? Everyone is of course free to critique the ending in terms of the quality of the writing itself, but focusing solely on the choice aspect seems a bit shortsighted. One of the more discussed ‘choices’ in the series is whether or not Wrex survives the first game, as he is a much beloved character. How he grows and changes from the first game to the finale is a high point of the overarching narrative for sure. However, just how important to the actual plot is Wrex’s life? Not very, whether he live or dies, you are still going to be courting the Krogan to join the war effort against the Reapers and Mass Effect 2 and 3’s overall plot play out much the same way. Some will vehemently disagree with the notion that Wrex is interchangeable in the plot, but really it’s because they love they character, and that’s the important part.

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