A Video Game Narratives Case Study of Mass Effect 3
If you watch Videogame Hour Live (Tuesdays at 9 on TSTV), then you may have seen me review a game or two over the past few years, including the previous Mass Effect game, along with a host of mostly story-driven, single-player experiences. Your perception of my taste in gaming may be skewed in this direction, and rightfully so. Don’t get me wrong, I have played a good share of the Halos, Battlefields, and Call of Duties, but my heart truly rests with a character-centered story piece. The original Mass Effect is, in my mind, one of the greatest examples in this form of interactive media, and Mass Effect 2 offered a more-than-worthy middle chapter. Having completed Mass Effect 3 only moments ago as of writing this, I would like to applaud Bioware for a truly valiant effort at wrapping up such an ambitious and critically lauded trilogy. However, I cannot help but feel disappointed with the steps taken to do so. Bioware fell into many of the same traps that I have come to expect from the video game industry, along with inventing some new ones along the way.
Some spoilers follow so SPOILER ALERT.
To give you a brief history as to how videogame storytelling has evolved, let’s touch briefly on Shakespeare’s work. Any English teacher will be quick to point out what they call the five act structure. Act I provides context and introduces characters, and Act II introduces an antagonistic force and events that constitute the “rising action.” Act III serves as the midpoint, where decisions are made, which will affect the plot going forward. The moment when Hamlet makes the decision to kill his uncle comes almost directly at the center of the book. This point is also known as the climax. Act IV begins what we call “falling action” and Act V resolves all the story threads presented in Act I. Got it?
Fast-forward a few hundred years. As the movie industry began to evolve, the major studios became experts at figuring out what people wanted to see in a film. Over a hundred years of experimentation, they cut out two acts and skewed the action sharply to the end of the story in what is called a modified three act structure. Not every film follows this format, but it is most obvious in the summer blockbusters, the Transformers of the industry. Before you cry foul about how bad the Transformer movies are, remember that those three movies have made over $2.5 billion in worldwide box offices, so those executives up at DreamWorks and Paramount are definitely onto something. Movies that follow the modified three act structure have shifted the climax from its place at the midpoint to a spot much closer to the end, as in within about ten minutes from the credits, often much less.
So how does this all tie back into video games? The story telling in most modern games more closely resembles the modified three act structure. It makes sense that games would emulate film, as both are visual media projected on a screen. Games like Uncharted and Modern Warfare have taken this comparison to heart and have even been called “interactive films.” The resemblance to summer blockbusters are not just in plot structure. Uncharted and Modern Warfare have their share of explosive eye candy and pulpy dialogue as well.
Again, these are popular franchises that have taken some very resolute steps towards characterizing video game stories. I enjoy these games greatly, so please don’t take this the wrong way when I say that I would rather see video game developers forge new paths rather than following those already laid by films. Game and film are two very different forms of expression, and one cannot necessarily copy the other and expect a good result.
Nowhere is this repurposing more apparent than at a game’s ending. The example that sticks out to me most is the conclusion of LA Noire. Again, I greatly enjoyed that game and played it for a good 30 hours up to completion. However, the designers thought it a good idea to take me away from the character I had become invested in over the previous 28 hours and put me in control of his rival for the final act. On top of that, (SPOILER) the main character ends up dying, and much of the emotion of the scene was lost because of the shift. This would be the Hollywood equivalent of the climax. The falling resolution that follows consists of a one minute cut scene of Phelps’ funeral. While the main plot line ended sufficiently, the supporting characters gave no sign that they had been changed by the sequence of events. There was no evidence that the world had been affected by Phelps’ sacrifice at all. LA Noire is far from an isolated case, as many games suffer from unsatisfactory resolutions, Mass Effect 3 among them.
ME3 does an excellent job of wrapping up the supporting cast’s roles, as you are given time before the last mission for a final chat with each member of your crew. However, once Shepard performs his final, legendary act, I was treated to a brief cutscene and credits. The falling action and resolution are almost non-existent, leaving me empty after a nearly 30 (or 150, counting playthroughs of the previous games) hour investment of my time. After all that time, I would have loved to see how my hard work affected the galaxy I am leaving behind. The ending itself baffled me, as (SPOILER) the writers felt the need to incorporate a mythological, existential component, something the series had never even hinted at before.
Besides the ending, Mass Effect 3 exemplifies some fundamental problems with its story telling. The entire story is told from the point of view of the player’s customized version of the Commander Shepard character. As the player, you given the illusion of choice throughout each interaction with the game’s huge cast of supporting characters. Dialogue wheels prompt you to act as the valorous Paragon or the snide Renegade. I say the illusion of choice because you cannot really pick and choose either side at your leisure. For almost every choice you make in either direction, you earn numerical points that cement your reputation as Paragon or Renegade. Either path is viable for completing the game, but those who walk the line are punished later in the game, as those reputation points unlock advanced conversation options in the endgame. Though 99% of my choices fell in line with the Paragon, I was still unable to select the game’s final advanced Paragon conversation option. This is especially frustrating, since Bioware had the problem solved in the first Mass Effect game, and then subsequently broke the system in the sequels. The original Mass Effect allowed you to spend upgrade points on unlocking those special options for one or both pathways, and you were then free to go about each conversation as you wished. The system in place in ME3 really took away from my immersion into the role-playing aspect, as I often wanted to be a jerk to characters I did not like, but was afraid of the consequences of earning a few Renegade points.
Aside from the conversation system, the writing itself lacks the immersive quality from the previous games. Nearly every piece of the script feels overly expository and pandering. This is probably due to the wealth of conversation possibilities, but it felt like the game was constantly writing itself out of corners, even ones that I had not even noticed. With all that effort, you would think that your choices would have significant impact over the course of the story, but in reality, you really only control minor details. Even the game’s many endings vary slightly in terms of outcome, each one hinging on only a couple of key decisions from the previous games.
I greatly enjoyed my time with Mass Effect 3, so much so that I was loathe to see the series I loved come to an end. While I know that all good things must come to an end, the one I saw left me empty. All of the sudden, the trilogy was completely in my past, the conclusion given to me unable to fill the void that remained. This hole is indicative of the larger abyss plaguing the still young video game industry. We have taken such immense narrative strides from the early save-the-princess tales, and I would hate to see these trends turn into bad habits. As fans of this beautiful form of interactive media, we need to foster the continued evolution of storytelling, hopefully by the time I get to play Mass Effect 4.