Okay, when I saw that someone had come up with a 400-page plan to rewrite Mass Effect 3 I was a little annoyed that I hadn’t done it myself, because it seems like a fun project for someone who has too much time on their hands, as I occasionally do. On the other hand, the whole project seems based on exactly what I thought was so off-base about the whole Mass Effect 3 freakout in the first place.
Part of the problem is that the complaints tend not to acknowledge the constraints that arise when a script needs to be paired with the expense of creating an interactive 3D environment and pairing it with actual enjoyable gameplay and making it all work on a budget. But the bigger issue involves whether total freedom of choice is a realistic goal to begin with.
Since the beginning, Mass Effect was faced with a classic science fiction trap, because it had created an enemy so powerful that there was no sensible way that our heroes could win. The only possible solutions involved either making the Reapers less powerful, giving them some sort of mortal weakness, or creating some force even more powerful than they were that could intervene. The task was even more implausible since every prior galactic civilization for millions of years had been fighting the Reapers to no avail, and the first two games gave no clear indication as to why this time could be different.
And yet: Not only did there need to be some way of beating the Reapers, in order to preserve the game’s promise, there would need to be multiple different ways. Except the more possible paths to victory the player has, the more weaknesses the Reapers would need to have, and the more implausible that they managed to carry on the cycle of galactic extinction for so long in the first place.
Mass Effect 3’s ending wasn’t perfect, although I think it’s better than it’s gotten credit for. But the game couldn’t deliver on the concept of infinite branching story options, and its real mistake was in making the promise.
In all three Mass Effect games (and, really, BioWare games in general), most of your choices are basically different roads to the same destination. In Mass Effect 1, the final battle plays out almost identically whether or not you kill Wrex, or save the Council, or punch Kalisah al-Jalani. In Mass Effect 2, the only influence you have over the game’s ending has to do with how many members of your crew survive the suicide mission. In Mass Effect 3, regardless of how you resolved things with the Krogan, or the Quarians and the Geth, you still have to fight the same final battle.
The games got away with it for two reasons. For one, they gave you a lot of chances to influence what was going on around the story’s main plot. You could affect the composition of your crew, the leaders of the Krogan, the fate of the rachnai, and so on, and they could show you how those choices paid off as you played through the next game. This plan broke down in Mass Effect 3 because there was no next game to continue the story.
More importantly, the idea that some things would be beyond Shepard’s control just makes intuitive sense. Sometimes the games would give you too many choices: Even if the Alliance fleet would let Shepard decide whether or not to save the Council at the Battle of the Citadel, it really made no sense that Shepard get to pick humanity’s representative, since commanding a military operation and staffing a diplomatic office aren’t exactly comparable fields of expertise. Mass Effect 2 only solved this problem by lowering the stakes: Shepard’s only choice at the end was whether or not to destroy the station, something you would naturally have control over.
Every problem with Mass Effect 3’s ending stems from an attempt to add choices into a situation that probably shouldn’t have had them. The obvious deus-ex-machina Star Child gets most of the hate, but I think the bigger problem is that there are three different ways to stop the Reapers and Shepard gets to make the choice. The fan rewrite ditches the Star Child but keeps the exact same options — but, bizarrely, takes the choice away from the player by having Shepard make it automatically. That approach might have generated a less severe fan reaction, because the Star Child really did come out of left field, but I’m skeptical, since all it does is replace one deus ex machina with a different one that’s implausible for different reasons.
What really might have made a difference would be if the game had ditched the color-coded choices in the first place. If there was only one way to beat the Reapers, the game could have spent its development time time building a mythology around the Crucible (what bothered me most about the game was that you never even got to visit the thing) and, more importantly, delivering an epilogue that really put the spotlight on the choices you made and showed what the post-Reaper galaxy looks like as a result. This is such an obvious and commonplace RPG trick that I really can’t understand why they didn’t do it, although the Extended Cut is a nod in that direction. (BioWare made a great epilogue for Dragon Age: Origins, but inexplicably ditched the idea for the much less satisfying Dragon Age II.)
But that would have been a different game — and, really, a less ambitious one. Mass Effect 3’s problem was that it probably tried to do too much, which isn’t a bad problem to have. The original Mass Effect had a lot of problems for much the same reason, except on the gameplay side. Its creators learned from the experience, and came back with a much better experience in Mass Effect 2 came around. With luck, Mass Effect 3’s shortcomings on the story side have taught them lessons that will pay off whenever the next game comes out.