When people think of storytelling and Mass Effect 3, they immediately think of the highly controversial ending, where all your choices up to that point boil down to a three-door scenario: control, destruction and fusion. The endings themselves aren’t bad but they commit the serious crime of wrestling control away from you, making all your choices be in vain.
But we’re not here to talk about the endings because to be fair, that subject’s been beaten so much it’s no longer a dead horse, it’s an undead one. Instead what I’d like to focus on are the other often-ignored shortcomings in Mass Effect’s writing, be it general storytelling or characterisation. There are good things as well and I’ll make sure to mention them, of course.
The first issue, one I discovered only recently as I make my way through the game playing Darth FemShep, my Renegade protagonist, is that Mass Effect 3 changes your protagonist the moment you start the game. If you’re playing a Paragon character you most likely won’t blink an eye at the characterisation, as the deep thought of the nature of loss and the trauma of watching innocents die will resonate with your frankly “good” character. But if you’re playing full Renegade, then your Shepard, as you played it in the other installments, will suddenly act out of character. She’ll act nice to others, she’ll be more compassionate and even her Renegade actions will lose their edge. Her responses will be weak, almost noncommittal, where she used to be a complete hard-ass.
Take the small child that unfortunately and tragically bites the dust five minutes into the game. When you first meet him, your Shepard has two options, warn him or actively try to protect him. None of these are Renegade options. By the time Mass Effect 3 rolls around, I had already played two entire campaigns as a Renegade and Darth Femshep and I had committed our fair share of despicable acts in the galaxy. Under that characterisation, that roleplay—a central thing since this is a Role Playing Game—she wouldn’t have even batted an eyelash at the little kid, nor would she be traumatized at the sight of his shuttle blowing up. She just wouldn’t care. I eradicated the Rachni, killed people begging for mercy, lied and cheated my way through the game and the only thing my Shepard and I held sacred was the lives of our crew. We protected and cared for them, but weren’t afraid to show them who was in charge. And when a critical mission came around, even they were expendable, as the mission was the most important thing.
I understand there’s a point in that this is part of the plot, to show the Catalyst’s influence on Shepard, a form of indoctrination if you believe most forums, but in forcing both Shepards down the same dream sequences they invalidate the characters we, the players, have built over the course of the different games. And again, a Paragon player might not see the difference, as Paragon is the epitome of Goodie-Two-Shoes. Bioware is now infamous in my mind for making good-aligned characters Lawful-Gullible, because you have to be a complete sap to be good in their games. But that’s another thing entirely.
Why not have the dream sequence slo-mo for Paragon, with reflections on those we’ve lost, the people we’ve left behind, and something much more sinister and perhaps violent for the Renegade, to whom the death and destruction were just another day. Renegade is the ultimate hard-ass and badass, unfazed by anything and ready to do even the unthinkable for the sake of the mission. This type of character has a completely different psyche, and so the dream sequences would have to be downright nightmarish for it all to mesh well together.
There’s a quote by Raul Julia in his final performance as M. Bison in Street Fighter that I always remember while playing with Darth FemShep: “For you, the day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me, it was Tuesday.” All we do in the game with our Renegades, no matter how awful, is just another day at the office. We’re borderline sociopaths, and Bioware I feel realised this and tried to backpedal as much as possible.
It’s true that it’s all a matter of how you roleplay your renegade. Role-playing is important, but the one thing we can all agree on is that Renegades aren’t good. Even in the most Machiavellian of playthroughs, your character will be a barely contained monster. That is the point I’m trying to make here, and it’s the issue with Mass Effect’s characterisation of Shepard, it tries to tame the Renegade, and it feels incomplete, lacking any form of emotional impact.
That is not to say the game is a complete failure in characterisation. Mordin Solus’ character arc is superb. His is one of the most poignant scenes in the game is you confront him at the Shroud facility. My crew matter to me, so I couldn’t stop him, but to hear the always logical and always right Mordin say “I made a mistake,” with such desperation was moving to say the least.
Another point that Mass Effect nails wonderfully is the reality of War. When you visit the Citadel, you’ll meet hundreds of NPC couples saying goodbye to their loved ones as they march into battle. I’ve delivered a few post-mortem messages already and the reactions are harrowing. It brings you closer to the galaxy in general, it humanises them and makes you care for their well-being.
Having said so, there are abandoned character arcs. Jacob and Grunt in particular. It’s painful to see central characters in Mass Effect 2 relegated to such minor positions. Jack, Samara and Miranda also don’t get much screen time but at least their missions offer more in terms of character growth and an “ending,” particularly Jack.
And while Ashley has a lot of screen time, her interactions with Shepard are confusing. With my playthrough, they were never friends, not even close, but still in Mass Effect 3 they speak as if they’d been best friends for ages. It’s almost as if they’d only written her as a friendly companion, without considering the nuance the myriad of decisions in Mass Effect 1 & 2 bring to the table.
But perhaps the greatest storytelling flaw in the game however is the lack of a Reaper presence. In a game that is all about these enormous destroyers, they barely show up. In Mass Effect 1, Sovereign has little screen time but has a lot of impact. In Mass Effect 2, Harbinger is a constant presence, you see and hear him every step of the way, a constant reminder of the danger you face in these ancient enemies. In Mass Effect 3, however, they don’t show up. You don’t hear from Harbinger, or “meet” new Reapers. With so many of them flying around, it would’ve been fascinating to meet more of them, to notice the differences in personalities in these mechanical monstrosities. But no, they are the black cloud of doom hanging over everyone, with no room for characterisation. In fact, what little you learn of them comes from a DLC mission.
Mass Effect 3 was to be the crowning jewel of Bioware’s RPG storytelling. But inconsistencies with previous installments, shortcomings in characterisation and those endings made it fall short of its glory. We tend to call failure “dropping the ball,” so in this case, as it’s all in the writing, I’d say Mass Effect 3 “dropped the pen.”