The game development company BioWare recently announced a fourth title in their hugely popular Mass Effect series of video games, which prompted me to replay the already extant trilogy. Which in turn reminded me in great detail all the problems with the ending of Mass Effect 3. Some of those problems were game play (which I’ll spare you) (for now). But many of them were problems with storytelling. So I’ve gathered some of the lessons you can learn about storytelling from the bad ending of a terrific video game. There’s some spoilers here, but the statute of limitations has expired for this one, so this is the only warning you get.
1) Understand your medium.
Mass Effect is a video game. A lot of video games have very rich backstory and settings. They have immersive story that pulls you in. Mass Effect has that. It’s got very strong environment details that any novel writer could rightly envy. But it forgot what it was at the end.
Near the end, after the final battle (though first time players could hardly be aware it was the final battle), decision making is taken away from the player. Now, in a lot of games, decision making isn’t a factor. You go through the levels that are given to you, but those games are not roleplaying games. Mass Effect is.
And Mass Effect doesn’t even give you a level to work through. There’s no fighting (which doesn’t make sense for a game played as a first person shooter), there’s no dialog of consequence. There’s a very thin semblance of interactivity placed on top of a movie.
If you’re writing a first-person shooter roleplaying game, you can’t take out the shooting or the roleplaying, or you deny your story. If you write a fantasy novel, you can’t suddenly have your dragons fall out of the sky because physics doesn’t provide a means for such a massive beast to fly. If you’re writing a sonnet, you can’t toss in three lines of trochees. If you’re writing a blog post, you can’t blather on for five pages.
Action doesn’t automatically mean chase scenes or tense bomb defusals or epic sword fights. Action can be conversation. Action can even be introspection (provided you are remembering your medium, as above). But it’s got to be something that moves the plot. It has to feel like the conflict is being explored or that the characters are trying to overcome an obstacle.
Shepherd (the protagonist of Mass Effect) is injured near the end, and because of this has to do this limping shamble that makes moving through the compulsory long hallways with nothing interesting to see (well, except for a lot of carnage). Any walking that happens for the rest of the game will take. a. really. really. long. time. It takes half an hour, bare minimum, to get to the end of the game from this point. And a good half of that is walking. On injured legs. Very slowly. You don’t feel like anything is getting done, and it’s terrible and if that happens in something you’re writing, most readers are not going to finish.
3) The end comes from the beginning.
You’ve heard of deus ex machina? It literally translates to “god out of the machine.” Which was a popular way for ancient Greek plays to end – a device opened to allow an actor on stage who played a god such as Zeus or Hera, and then told everyone how everything should work out. Voila! Archimedes then said! Everything’s done!
It hasn’t been a popular way to end stories for centuries because it doesn’t make sense. Anything can happen, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with the events of the story. It’s bad because it renders the struggles of the story meaningless. There is literally no point to any of it but the set up and then the God straightening it all out.
Mass Effect 3 definitely has the problem of inconsistency with the rest of the story. At least one of the three choices actually contradicts the events and solutions of the story. “Control the Reapers?” Sure. That might make sense if every use of Reaper technology up till then hadn’t resulted in Lovecraftian nightmares and widespread carnage.
I was going to say Mass Effect 3 doesn’t have a straightforward deus ex situation, but then I remembered that the decision is forced on to Shepherd by a very godlike little boy who apparently controls the Reapers that have driven every sentient species in the galaxy for at least hundreds of thousands of years.
Even the need for that decision – the conflict that synthetic life will always destroy biological life – is demonstrably false. Shepherd has two synthetic lifeforms that actively support and work with him without false pretenses.
4) Death has to have meaning
Death of a companion can drive a protagonist, even if the death, in itself was senseless. And it can be deeply ennobling for a character to sacrifice themself to overcome a conflict, or to give others a chance to live, or so forth.
Mass Effect doesn’t do that. In one of the three choices, Shepherd’s death at least makes sense. But there’s nothing gained from it. In another, the “death” is played off as something transcendent, but it’s dissonant and a strong contradiction of the story – transcendence is only a theme for the bad guy, and his “transcendence” turns out to be corruption. In the third choice, the death is mostly… reasons… There’s no explanation for why Shepherd has to die, but it’s made very plain that death is required. It’s senseless.
Mass Effect has gotten a bad rap, considering that it is one of the best first person roleplaying games ever written. It got that bad rap because the ending was terrible. And because the failure was at the ending, it was impossible to leave the game without that bad taste. A story can have excellent writing, but if it drops the ball for the last 1%, the whole story is going to suffer for it.