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.”
3 thoughts on “Dropping The Pen – The Storytelling Flaws of Mass Effect 3”
Very accurate! I agree
Although late, the revisiting of a classic made me read this tread.
The analysis is similar to what I have come to experience with the whole Mass effect trology arc.
There is an important inadequacy between the nature of Shepard character and the imposed actions by the story arc. The path laid for the game is too narrow to fit the profile chosen.
Indeed, in Mass effect, the protagonist has the choice to orient his choices for heroism or pragmatism, saving lives and sparing enemies or reaching his objectives, with collateral damages in tow.
To reap (!) the most out of the storyline, the paragon path is the best: more sidestories, more jokes, more relationships… the space opera at its best !
Let’s be frank: it is incoherent and frankly dishonest. Shepard cannot accomplish one mission without killing organics or demolishing synthetic life. Even if he tries to stay behind his squad and let them to the massacre to lighten his paragon conscience, it doesn’t work, and he must participate in the destruction…
So, to see him in the middle of mission (or between missions, or “dreams”) being soft hearted is… unconvincing.
Most probably, everybody dies around him.
Here is a more convincing storyline arc for the trilogy of the “hero”, and a challenge and interesting take for a revisit of a classic !
Paranoid: a radical form of egocentrism when someone thinks everyone in the galaxy conspires against them. Describes well our character!
Male, normal physic
No reputation (paragon or renegade score) required. Most dialogue choice should be bottom right…
Colonist ruthless, adept or sentinel. (I took sentinel in ME1 to have Overload and Sabotage, but carried on with Adept in ME2)
Squadmates without skills or upgrades, with worse weapons possible and weakest armor.
No powers allowed from squadmates… As close as possible to squadless…
So… it’s the story of an orphan, who’s parents were killed on a colony by slavers. Terrorized, beaten, tortured, assaulted, raped… he survived by adepting… he was a natural with biotics. And in the hostile conditions he grew up, his ruthlessness became his most defining trait. He can’t trust anyone, because is always suspicious and scared of everyone : everybody is an enemy, or might become one. He is alone, surrounded by threats. He destroyed the slavers and went on a crusade to get rid of all those that threaten him. And in his mind, they were legion. He does not talk much, to anyone, except to demand and manipulate. His skillset brought him to the alliance. Mainly his capacity to kill in order to achieve a goal. He resented any form of authority, since he learned young of the cruelty of masters and their untrustworthyness. But the Alliance had ressources he had not. He used the alliance to get what he wanted: a means to an end. Anderson is a tool. Easy to manipulate.
Shepard has displayed his potential to Anderson to get what he needs. Raw power and ruthlessness, mixed with cleverness opens many doors… And he heard about an opportunity arising to become a specter.
This would be it : he could get what he wanted : a way to eliminate all those who are a threat. want to get him, to hurt him, or simply to stand in his way. Those who do die. Period.
Jenkins dies, of course.
Saren , he is a threat. He hates Shepard, he want him dead. “It’s him or me”
Bring Wrex along, but not Garrus, is a turian like Saren.
The quarian knows something, got to get to her.
If someone’s on his way, he dies. All of them. Not just the henchman. You really think that after killing all merkx he will suddenly leave the leader alive ? Hell no: Fisk dies.
No sidequest. No time. Got to get to Saren.
Once you have the Normandy, it’s on the way to Feros.
No time to help colonist losers who seem to resent his presence. Are they looking at him funny ?
Kill Jeong, he’s a stupid bitch to some white collars with big money.
Kill the colonists, their infected. He knew they were after him !
Kill Shiala, she tried to kill Shepard multiple times already, albeit in clone of hers. No way she can be left behind on good faith. All liars trying to get past him with smile and promises. Dead liars are better than living ones.
● Get Lorik’s evidence.
● If you have 5 reputation skill, bully Lorik to testify, then, give the evidence to Anoleis, he and Ginna will kill each other: two snakes with one stone. If not reputation skill point, take the pass and head to Peak 15.
● Hot labs first
● Kill all henchmen of Benezia
● Kill the rachni queen.
Now, without Garrus and Liara as squadmates, Wrex cannot die on Virmire. No matter the renegade or paragon score, he will submit to Shepard like a well fed dog.
Send Kaidan to die with kirarrhe. So no helping kirarrhe, he asked for help already by blackmailing to get one of your man. He thinks he can handle it, Captain salarian !
Kill the asari scientist
Ash survives. Romance her, or not.
Kaidan dies (with Jenkins dead, the initial squad is gone)
From now on 2 missions before final.
● Bring down the skies.
● Fetch Liara
Bring down the skies.
Kill Charn, the lieutenant, for the keycard. Are you kidding: he wants out now that he’s losing ? He’s just another turncoat. Nope, dead.
Balak, the batarian boss, threaten to kill the hostages when he was going to kill millions with the asteroid ? Go ahead, kill a few workers, but you die for it !
nothing special. Keep the geek alive and use her. This is meant as a first mission and is all straight forward… Too bad it cannot be avoided or that the storyline cannot kill off Liara, daughter of Saren lieutenant.
Anderson punches that slimey Udina. Could kill him right there, but need to go. He puts him on his list of names.
Then straight to the conduct. No mercy. Kill Saren twice.
Of course, kill the council…
Back from the dead. An unknown enemy runs after Shepard and wants him dead. But, hey, he is back, more paranoid than ever.
The alliance wasn’t able to help, sure, let’s use Cerberus !
Anderson as councilor, because Udina is too slimey. And anyway, Shepard has Anderson in his back pocket. What a tool !
Tali is a geek with a bossy attitude. Shepard can’t stand those. So he keeps the ill Quarian.
Than pick up the first 6 squadmates:
Jack (he understands her, a kindred spirit), which can be romanced or not…
Mordin: let the wounded batarian die, let the batarians kill Mordin’s assistant
Garrus : let the kid go with the Mercs and die,
Kasumi and Zaeed…
While getting Grunt, let the wounded merc try to call his friends and then kill him for it
Leave Grunt in his tank, forever !
Get Jacob’s upgrade (and others if wish, by dialogue before loyalty missions become available) before Horizon. Don’t upgrade ship yet…
Then pick up Samara (kill the Eclipse recruit, let Ptne For partner run into a biotic bully),
Thane (let the salarian worker die, push the merc off the ledge),
Tali (let Reagar sacrifice himself)
Do all loyalty missons except Jacob’s.
Jack : kill Aresh, who wants to restart the facility
Mordin’s loyalty : kill the scout, kill Maelon. Deleted Maelon’s genophage data.
Do IFF as soon as available so crew will die…
Give Legion to Cerberus
Do other sidequest : all loyalty (except Jacob’s)
Tali’s loyalty : give evidence against father. Lose loyalty.
Take Jack side when fighting Miranda, lose her loyalty.
Choose Morinth over Samara ( need high rep…) She dies.
(If not enough rep, Morinth dies, and Samara can kill herself in ME3…)
Garrus : let him kill all those in his way.
Zaeed: let the workers die and also let Zaeed get his revenge.
Miranda: let her kill her traitor friend.
Thane: let his son fullfil is mission, hence killing the Turian politician. Lose loyalty
Get Patriarch to get killed in action
Make the barman in lower Afterlife drink his own poison
Shadow broker : Kill the hostage (or try to…)
Arrival: well, kill 300 000 batarians… !
Overlord : let Cerberus keep the Lawnmower man !
● Loyal : Kasumi, Zaeed, Garrus, Morinth, Jack, Mordin,
● Disloyal : Miranda, Tali, Jacob, Thane
● Upgrades to ship : armor only (not Cannon nor shields)
Way in : Kasumi and Thane die
Specialist : send the hotshot Garrus.
One free survivor: Dr Chakwas. If she was lucky enough to survive, make the most of it and get her ass to the ship… alone. Nope, dead.
Miranda wants to play the full adept when she is only a sentinel. Let’s see.
Miranda as specialist, and bring Zaeed and Morinth
Jacob as leader of Fire Team.
Zaeed dies and Jacob dies.
Final gauntlet with Jack and Morinth.
Miranda as final leader, dies and Tali dies.
Incredibly, Mordin survives…
Destroy the base.
The Surviving crew of Normandy SR-2 :
● Paranoid Shepard
● An Ardat-Yakshi
● A Psychotic biotic
● An Insane engineer
● and EDI
Quite a massacre for an accomplished mission!
Those idiot politicians. They die right off the bat.
Now Ash is being a moralistic bitch. She is getting on Shepard’s nerve and drive his paranoia further.
No visit to Ash at Hospital. She, a Specter? That’s a joke, right? What is the slimey Udina up to?
No sidequest (except those mentioned) no scanning, no DLC’s. No chatting with the crew. Minimal assets…
No Grissom Academy.
Palaven : no Garrus, already dead.
3 squadmates: Liara, James and Edi.
Surkesh: Wrex is back, with a mafioso clan boss attitude. He will be a pain in the ass of the Galaxy. Better make sure he stays the dog he was meant to be… or put him down.
Save the Turian’s mission is a go, … a bomb you say? Let’s leave it there… might become useful.
Krogan scout: rachni queen at his command? Yes! Shepard shall call her Ridley!
Tutchanka: don’t speak to Eve before or during the mission. The Dalatrass suggestion is timely. A perfect bluff to use the Krogans as tools … again.
Eve dies. Kill Mordin.
Citadel and Cerberus:
No Thane or Kirarrhe,, the salarian councilor dies.
Ash too stupid and bitchy to realise she is a tool in Udina’s hands. Shepard kills them both.
Rannoch: let the crew die; save the geth. The Quarians began a war while the reapers are here. That was too fracking dumb.
The entire Quarian fleet (and race) is eliminated…
At some point, the bomb on Tutchanka goes off, and Wrex discovers he was used. Shepard kills him.
The Krogans are doomed to extinction,
Only Liara is left of the original SR-1 crew..
Thessia: too bad Liara cannot die here. Her turn will come.
Horizon and then Illusive man’s HQ : kill phantom Jack
Earth: Cortez dies, kill banshee Morinth
All crew of ME2 are dead, except Edi and Joker.
Take Liara and James to final battle.
Liara and James die by Harbinger.
Kill Illusive man
Only option: destroy the Reapers.
Because the crucible is damaged, all technology in the galaxy destroyed: EDI destroyed and entire Geth race destroyed.
Normandy destroyed, Traynor and Joker die, and the whole crew of SR-2… again !
Not to mention all spaceships in the galaxy…
In a nutshell :
All civilisation in the galaxy is brought back to pre-industrial era, thousand of trillions of lifeforms die, slavery most probably returns…
Now, that is an ending !