An Open Letter to Mass Effect 3 Producer Casey Hudson Regarding the Mass Effect 3 Ending Controversy
(This article contains Mass Effect 3 spoilers – ed.)
Mass Effect 3 is a great game, as so many reviewers and consumers alike have said, with their words and their money. But the growing number of players who don’t accept the ending (the Bioware forum thread has over 50,000 votes demanding a better, happier ending) of both the game and series doesn’t just stem from the final choice and cutscenes. Although you responded to fans on Saturday about this, it’s not as simple as “the ending doesn’t work”.
It’s a game-wide issue effectively left unresolved from the very beginning of Mass Effect 3, one that comes to it’s bitter conclusion leaving not only “passionate” fans without closure to one of the best game franchises this century, but everyone who has played one or both of the past games. To think otherwise insults the intelligence of Bioware fans and Mass Effect 3 players around the world.
This was done in one, over-arching way: remove any and all connections players can build with the game. Mass Effect 3 does it in a number of ways:
1. Too Many Plot Holes
Mass Effect 3 is a comfortable home to plot holes. Everything from Shepard’s grounding for six months to Mass Effect 2 characters popping into the game for 30 minutes at a time. Sure, the stakes are more dire and there isn’t time to reminisce war stories with old friends (yet time wasting is so easy), but haste is no excuse for simple explanations.
It may seem like a moot point, yet what makes Mass Effect, well, Mass Effect, is it’s incredible and very in-depth story. That story brings players around the galaxy for exploration, finding new worlds, and essentially doing the whole Star Trek thing in a darker, more realistic setting. The story makes that feel real…except when it doesn’t make sense because things aren’t explained or just happen with no questions asked.
Examples include nearly every Mass Effect 2 character not joining Shepard for the most important mission ever; how any alien race agrees to help Earth when their own homeworlds are being attacked; or how it took hundreds of ships to destroy a single Reaper (Sovereign) in Mass Effect 1, but a few thousand took on hundreds in the final battle for Earth. None of that make sense, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
2. The Decision Tree is Broken
In Mass Effect 1 & 2, it was very clear what dialog options were good and bad. Most of the time, options were actually exactly that, the good-guy or bad-guy move. This was obviously polarizing and too easy, so Mass Effect 3 has more grey areas than just black and white.
The problem isn’t with the grey, but that it isn’t the only change. Mass Effect no longer uses a good vs. evil choice progression: every decision aims to save the galaxy. The question isn’t “is Shepard good, honest and pure or blunt, harsh end evil,” it’s “do I get the job done right, or do I get the job done, period”. This is a mind-bogglingly big change. And frankly, that’s not what Mass Effect is all about.
Mass Effect has always spurred a single thought: how would you save the galaxy? Would you be a good person? Would you be merciless? Would you attempt to complete everything or rush to get the job done immediately? These are all important questions, but Mass Effect 3 doesn’t ask these questions. Players are force-fed the single task: save the galaxy from the Reapers, no questions asked. Be whoever you want to be, there are no consequences that really matter to your actions. All that matters is that you get to the end, and that you have enough galactic readiness points to choose your ending.
That’s crap. Mass Effect players signed on to make real choices, which are all but absent. The only real options to choose from are whether or not to complete certain missions, and the occasional rare decision like choosing between the Geth and Quarians. As Luke Plunkett of Kotaku so perfectly pointed out, players are forced at the end, when confronted by The Illusive Man, to perform renegade actions…or die. That isn’t Mass Effect. That’s bullshit.
What makes this worse is Bioware’s own Jonathan Perry, Lead Cinematic Designer on Mass Effect 3, had a session at GDC days after the game’s release discussing this exact problem: a lack of clarity in decision making, and how Dragon Age 2 was fundamentally flawed by it. I can’t even begin to understand how he could speak about it publicly after his latest work feels utterly and completely unclear.
3. Teammates are Too Few and Two Dimensional
Good stories revolve around interesting characters. The better the character, the worse the story can be. That’s why people love Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. You must have misplaced that memo early on Mass Effect 3′s development. Every major player in the game is bland with rare exception. Shepard is the only excusable one-dimensional character; after all, he/she is the player’s avatar. Everyone else should be interesting, or at least worth talking to.
The first problem is that there aren’t enough teammates to choose from. Mass Effect had six, the minimum required to make a perfect team based on character classes alone. Mass Effect 2 had nine, because the game was focused on building a perfect team. And the finale? Start with two, if all goes well, you had a good ending in Mass Effect 2, and purchased the day-one DLC, then you can eventually choose from seven teammates, which can’t perfectly match any class. Some teammates, like Ashley and James, are both Soldier class. Welcome to the department of redundancy department.
But if the stars don’t align and players missed any of those three things, then they are SOL and can end up with as few as four teammates: James, Ashley/Kaiden, Liara, and EDI. Garrus and Tali could both die in Mass Effect 2, Javek is a required $10 character, and Tali can die depending on your choices in Mass Effect 3. Even then, Tali isn’t a usable character until past the middle of the game. It’s too easy for even skilled and veteran players to not have access to these characters.
What’s worse is that the teammates available are boring. Garrus is loyal but dull, Tali is smart but too inexperienced and immature to be interesting, Liara too busy researching to share anything meaningful, James is just an annoying brute, and Ashley just constantly whines and complains. If Kaiden is anything like the first game, then forget it. And to hell with anyone who demands I pay $10 for a damn character that’s already on the disc?
Where are the interesting, unique races? Mass Effect 2 had some great, amazing teammates to choose from, like Mordin, a genius Salarian scientist with centuries of experience packed into just a few decades; Thane, the galaxy’s most dangerous assassin; Samara, a poise Asari Justicar who is a ridiculously powerful biotic; hell, even the psychotic Jack, which was made for players to hate, at least had style and an interesting story to tell. Yet all of these characters only make cameos. All we get in Mass Effect 3 are the remnants of exceptional storytelling and some of the best, most interesting characters in videogames to date. Which brings me to my next, and perhaps most personally important point…
4. Mass Effect 3 Effectively Discarded the Best Videogame Character Ever: Wrex
Urdnot Wrex is the best non-playable videogame character ever conceived. This badass Krogan is a walking tank, a lizard-like being who’s over a thousand years old, fought in hundreds of wars, killed likely tens of thousands (including his own father), all the while knowing his species has no future. He makes jokes about genocide and sexism and how weak everyone is compared to him, and has the battle scars to prove it. Yet under that rough-as-diamonds exterior, Wrex has a heart of gold and always, always means to do right.
You said that Wrex was incredibly hard to not kill in Mass Effect, and perhaps you’re right. I’d like to make this point crystal clear: Wrex was the reason I wanted to complete side quests. His amazingly brilliant, witty dialog made me take Wrex on every single mission. When Shepard goes toe-to-toe with Wrex, I knew there was no way in hell I’d shoot him. I’d start the game from scratch first. If there was an equivalent to a virtual best friend to me, Wrex was it.
His absence in Mass Effect 2, aside from a brief time with him on his homeworld, didn’t fill the massive hole on my roster. But the additional unique characters did, and Grunt’s very Krogan-esque personality helped me forget that loss. So I let it slide.
Mass Effect 3 shows no attempt to plug that galaxy-sized gap. No character can stand up to Wrex’s sheer brilliance and dialog. Even the few missions with him are utter genius; I laughed out loud listening to him talk about eating Salarian liver…in front of Salarians! That’s just too good for words. Yet when the moments passed, there was no character worth talking to except EDI, who is the Data of the series. Even Joker, voiced by Seth Green, lacks the comedic appeal so notable in past games. No one can take Wrex’s place, but it’s as if you and the development team didn’t even try. After a few hours of trying to coax interesting or funny conversation out of my crew and important game characters, I gave up. They aren’t interesting, aren’t funny, and I never cared about them once. Not even once.
5. Mass Effect 3 Doesn’t Follow Trilogy Guidelines
There’s no official guide for how to make a trilogy. The general gist is this: #1 is an introduction to characters, story, and is an all-inclusive tale that is open-ended. #2 demands the protagonist learn or achieve something while the enemy makes its move and makes significant headway. #3 ends the trilogy with the hero saving the day, good defeating evil, under the most dire of situations.
It’s more complicated than that, but as Bioware has stated before, you guys followed the traditional trilogy path. Mass Effect 1 and 2 reflected exactly that (considering, of course, the requirements of a game versus a film or book). Mass Effect 3? Read this in Nelson‘s voice: HA HA!
The entirety of Mass Effect 3 is a complete lack of hope. The Reapers have arrived, and Shepard isn’t trying to save the galaxy against an enemy that can be defeated. They can’t be beat. You and Bioware only give players the tiniest of strings to reach for, and you keep yanking it like we’re cats. There’s no way to beat the Reapers, then there may be a way but nobody knows how it can work or what it does. The whole time it’s up to Shepard to find the solution, do everything, and then save the galaxy. How hopeless can it get? From the get-go there is no chance for survival, and every hour or so Shepard reminds players of that in dialog with random people. Even if players are full-paragons, full of hopes and dreams, it’s the most sullen attitude from anyone in the series.
This down-trodden outlook, and the idea that everything is doomed unless this half-baked last minute plan works, leaves no hope or real desire to succeed for players. Unlike Mass Effect 1 and 2, players aren’t off to save the galaxy, on a merry journey, even knowing that some friends may not make it. Even Mass Effect 2’s suicide mission was at least posed as a challenge: beat this if you dare! Mass Effect 3 spits in players faces and says, “it’s over. There is no hope for victory.”
Now what kind of a game is that? Who the hell wants to play that? The end of a trilogy is about the hope of success, the trials and tribulations undertaken before and during to make success a possibility. At the very least the game should have been about the journey, the quest to find a solution and implementing it. Instead, the entirety of Mass Effect 3 is only about one goal: stop the Reapers. Which, as is talked about over and over, is impossible. Ironically enough, the only character with any sense of hope is the Illusive Man, who at least see’s a future where the entire galaxy isn’t wiped clean of life.
Not only does this break the general trilogy “guideline”, it decimates player expectations, hopes, and the whole “hero’s journey”. We all wanted Mass Effect 3 to be something special, just like the previous two. The way it is now, it’s mostly forgettable.
6. General Bullshit
To emphasize this point, I’ll be clear: I don’t use expletives when writing publicly. Ever. Yet Mass Effect 3 is so fraught with bullshit, I’m obligated to express my exact feelings on the matter.
First is the matter of DLC. Day-one DLC, as you’ve heard from the uproar, doesn’t work. Or maybe it does. But I know one thing for sure: it doesn’t work when you include something important like a full game character and dangle it in front of our faces saying, “just $10 for this important game extra!” On principle alone I’d rather buy horse armor. At least that’s clearly a cry for money. This? This is sneaky and hypocritical.
Next is multiplayer. I love the multiplayer. I play it nightly. But like every other human being when I get a new game I play single player first, MP second. So thanks for punishing everyone by forcing us all to play MP before completing the single player campaign. And for the record, the equipment purchasing and upgrades are also bullshit.
There are a few more things, but they’re minor, so I’ll just mention two: bugs and PC controller support. We may live in an age where day-one software updates are the norm, but that’s no excuse for pushing out a buggy game. And I call severe bullshit on no controller support for the PC version. Every console game put on the PC can very quickly and easily get gamepad support. Saying you don’t have time before shipping, especially after doing exactly the same for the last two games, insults our intelligence and your staff. If Bioware can’t add gamepad support for the PC, how in the hell did they manage it for the 360, let alone the PS3?
There is no DLC band-aid that can fix these problems Mr. Hudson.
Because Mass Effect 3’s ending isn’t just 10 minutes of unfortunate plot devices, it’s 20 hours of combined gameplay and storytelling that is summed up in a way that has absolutely nothing to do with the game we all played. And that game? That game had nothing to do with the Mass Effect franchise. It just took the characters and setting, and left everything that makes Mass Effect Mass Effect, out.
As for the actual ending, Gamefront writers Ross Lincoln and Phil Hornshaw do an excellent job describing everything wrong with it. Or if you feel like taking a look at what many of today’s outspoken fans have to say about it, just head over to Reddit. Here are just a few examples of their thoughts. Or keep an eye on the Retake Mass Effect 3 charity. All I’ll say is that if Mass Effect 2 could have an ending this complex, why can’t Mass Effect 3? And if the idea was to be artistic, well…this game clearly failed.
There is a clear disconnect between Mass Effect 3 and players, fans, and Bioware itself. The game doesn’t make players feel connected to the game in any way the previous titles did, through story, characters, ideals, decisions, design…all it does right is gameplay. Even the multiplayer-single player crossover, universally hated, can be solved with a single warning pop-up. Why isn’t there one? Because the game you and Bioware made is not the game millions of gamers around the world were making for themselves. And ultimately, that’s something no amount of DLC can ever fix. You and Bioware took away our experience for one of your choosing, in a franchise that we built with our decisions. Mass Effect 3 doesn’t reflect on our decisions, our desires, or our hopes. No wonder so many people hate how it ends. Most of us don’t get closure, and we spent the entire game looking for it.
I’ll end this letter with a simple question: when did Bioware decide to make its games “good enough”?
Reviews Editor, Gadget Review