Mass Confusion: Mass Effect 3′s Crippling Identity Crisis
I’m going to talk about Mass Effect 3 for a while. Spoilers: I don’t like it very much. In order to explain why I don’t like it very much, I’ve got to talk a bit about RPGs in general, so I’m going to do that now.
What does RPG mean? Role Playing Games, right? Because it’s easy to get confused with the obsession we seem to have with letters and abbreviations and acronyms; the Role Playing Game [d]evolved into the RPG and now it’s more sort of just the Are Pee Gee, an empty signifier with no equivalent signified.
Because the only thing better than a good blanket statement is a good dichotomy, I’ll go ahead and say that in general, there are two schools of thought regarding “what constitutes an RPG.” Some people will argue that RPGs are first and foremost games about progression and accomplishment. That character growth is paramount, and the way that this takes shape almost universally is through numbers and systems and stats and weird words like THAC0 and CON. This is the mentality that seems to be the pervasive one, which is pretty obvious to determine by looking at the plethora of games now that boast “Are Pee Gee Elements,” which, when you think about it is a buzzword that someone made up somewhere because they didn’t know how else to qualify an XP bar.
I take the opposing view, which is that RPGs are driven by their narrative; they require you to play a role, i.e., assimilate you (or more accurately, your character) into the game world. But more than just embodying your own character, RPGs also provide an intriguing world for you to interact with. It’s this tenet that BioWare’s latest swan song, Mass Effect 3 was purportedly constructed on—a story-driven, narrative game set in a rich and diverse sci-fi universe.
BioWare are regarded as the master of the western RPG, so let’s kill two husks with one biotic throw here and look closely at Mass Effect 3 through the lens of what makes an RPG, and find not a great RPG, but plenty of Are Pee Gee elements in abundance.
Creating a world itself doesn’t make an RPG; good RPGs create worlds with a sense of permanence and history, that your character merely fits into rather than dominating. It’s the difference between a game that revolves around your character, with the world providing context, and a game that revolves around the world, with your character playing a part.
To say that systems are what define an RPG is to overshoot; systems are what define a game. Whether that system is as simple as pushing a button to jump at the right time or as complex as a series of resistance tables and skill checks is immaterial. What makes it an RPG is not the complexity of the underlying systems, but how those systems are used to serve the primary purpose of telling a story (as opposed to, e.g., Super Mario Bros., a game which uses its systems for the primary purpose of challenging players’ ability to overcome platforming obstacles). “Leveling up” is not intrinsic to RPGs, however it is a system that the genre makes liberal use of because it’s a great way to mechanically express character development (more on this later).
The distinction here isn’t really one of kind, but more of focus. RPGs do tend to feature progression, and that progression very often does take the form of numbers and systems; just like Are Pee Gees do feature unique worlds and character development, but that development is the inferred result of the system-grinding, not the reason for it.
It’s a classic example of How vs. Why; Efficient Cause vs. Telos. It’s a distinction that’s so subtle it’s taken me more words than I care to spend trying to talk about it, and yet it’s crept into the base tenets of game design.
What does any of this have to do with Mass Effect 3? Well Mass Effect 3 has been heralded by just about everyone everywhere as the Greatest Are Pee Gee of all time 1. The thing about ME3 is that it suffers from a horrible identity crisis. It is a game that tries to please both RPG and Are Pee Gee fans by trying to present a system-driven game that revolves around its story. Or rather, it’s a self-proclaimed narrative-driven game that doesn’t care about maintaining its narrative. It’s a character study with one of the most vapid main characters.
It doesn’t know what it is.
Mass Effect 3 is a narrative videogame. This should be evident solely by the fact that it features 40,000 lines of recorded dialog. It’s also distinct in that it was, from the start designed as a trilogy. Trilogies are great because they have the pacing built right into them, and Act III is where you usually get the payoff of waiting around throughout instalments I and II.
Mass Effect also prides itself on creating a vast, immersive universe for players to immerse themselves in, sinking deeply into a hot bubbly immersion-bath. To be fair, Mass Effect does do that. The problem is, immersion and plot do not exist independently of each other. In fact, to compromise one, even seemingly for the sake of the other, will almost always have the effect of compromising its counterpart as well.
This is another thing Mass Effect 3 does.
Mass Effect 3 is a game that oozes desperation, right from the opening credits; Shepard has been de-Sheparded and Earth is in direct peril from an invasion of Reapers that is doorstep-levels of imminent. It is, to the game’s credit, a fantastic atmosphere to set, and the contrast with the omnipotent space-badass feel of the previous games (including the protagonist who literally shrugs off death) makes Mass Effect 3’s intro all the more striking.
Starting a game off with a major loss 2 is a good way to involve players directly with the story of a game; taking something from the player character is, by extension, taking something from the player herself. It makes people care. Chasing Shepard off of Earth to race against the Reapers is cool and exciting, and feels like perhaps the first actual challenge Shepard has faced. Players go from a character who has performed impossible feat after impossible feat to a character who gets driven off Earth like a helpless refugee.
In fact, it’s that contrast with the previous games in the series that makes Mass Effect 3’s opening so effective. If even Shepard, who, it has been demonstrated previously over the course of two games and literally 100 or so hours of play has been shown to be god-tier levels of Mary Sue, is being chased unceremoniously off of Earth, you know some very real Space Shit is hitting the Mass Relay. It’s an example of actually using the game to tell the story, which is basically videogames’ version of the whole “show don’t tell” thing (do don’t show?).
But then the problem comes when Shepard is set loose on the galaxy, faced with the monumental task of having to rally (shepherd?) all the [important] races together to build the Giant Space McGuffin to defeat the Reapers.
You are a well-known, though currently disenfranchised Space Badass. One day a fleet of might-as-well-be-invincible alien ships shows up on your doorstep, and rapidly goes about reducing the bulk of a major urban population center to component elements. As you rocket away from your home, you know a few pieces of information:
(1) The Reapers are here, on Earth, right now.
(2) Shit is already getting destroyed.
(3) You are, in all likelihood, the only one on the planet (universe?) who has any sort of chance at stopping them.
What are the odds that you then proceed to spend most of your time running around solving total strangers’ petty personal problems and running their menial errands?
This is one of the biggest narrative stumbling blocks that Mass Effect 3 faces: its (very competent) narrative setup is left hanging almost immediately. It’s a game that tries to both be about fighting against a Reaper invasion and about flying around to all corners of the galaxy finding lost Space Kittens. (Surprise—it’s really about neither of those, but in fact something way more boring. I talk more about this later too.)
Many stalwart Mass Effect fans defend this by appealing to the game’s Immersion and Agency. The game world was created, they say, for players to explore and get lost in. Putting players on a timer would, according to this explanation, ruin the immersion and rob the player of the agency and freedom of choice that the series is known for.
Regarding the immersion: it is not a thing that exists independently of narrative. In fact, narrative cohesion is an essential part of maintaining any sort of immersion in a videogame (in fancy schmancy game design lingo, this whole package bundled together is called “theming”). When I was chased off of Earth, I was drawn into the game by the incredible sense of despair and urgency created by the opening scene.
That urgency is what makes the rest of the game work. It’s the reason I feel any sort of connection to the otherwise mindless run’n’shoot of the rest of the game; urgency breeds danger, which is what breeds the excitement of playing the game. We’ve all played Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 before, and seen the ridiculous feats Shepard has carried out. We know Shepard is never in any actual danger, and whether or not Shepard is going to be able to overcome whatever particular foe isn’t really a question. The question is, whether Shepard will be able to do it in time to save Earth.
Danger and consequence gives weight to our decisions. The reason choosing to do Thing A is so meaningful is because we chose to do it over Thing B; Thing A was important enough to us that we were willing to take a loss in another area. Especially in a situation like Mass Effect 3, where Shepard is not by any means operating under ideal circumstances, it only makes sense that sacrifices would be made along the way.
Being able to hop from one corner of the galaxy to the next completing fetch quests, solving several major galactic-level political disputes, and making it home just in time to meet the brunt of the Reaper invasion head-on is not only unrealistic given the narrative framing of the game, it’s boring. It’s a narrative inconsistency that cuts the emotional and ludological umbilical cord that was directly connecting us to the game. In other words, it breaks our immersion.
For all the agency we like to talk about when we talk about videogames, the fact remains that narrative is still an author-driven element; the narrative of a game is strictly the province of the developers. They are the ones who are telling the story. The act of playing a game is, by definition, the act of relinquishing our agency to the developers; the developers define the narrative and ludological parameters (by making the game), and we agree to overcome whatever challenges the game presents while abiding by those rules (by playing it). That’s not to say that all games are on-rails, passive experiences, but videogames are, in their very nature, closed systems. There are only a certain number of choices a player can ever make in a game, as defined by the developer.
The tricky thing about player agency is that it tends to have an inverse relationship with narrative consistency, in that the more players are able to do whatever they want, the less likely it is that they will follow the developers’ guidance and actually adhere to the narrative being told. To deliver a narrative that is tight and impactful, undesirable or extraneous variables have to be controlled. Thus, the developers’ job isn’t so much to give the player more and more choice or agency, but rather to figure out a way to make players think they have agency where they really have none.
Mass Effect 3 is a shitty DM. It’s the DM that can’t (or won’t) control its players, letting them wander around in the woods until, after a while, you’ve all forgotten what the overall goal is.
It’s a joke among tabletop DMs 3 that “if you want the players to go north, they’re going to go south.” Good DMs 4 know that players can (and very often will) deviate from whatever narrative path you’d hoped they’d take for the sake of running around in a forest picking fights with wolves. But good DMs are always prepared to deal with uncooperative (or simply just acooperative) players, and use the mechanics of the game in service to its narrative.
Preserving that overall narrative, wrapping players up in it, dare I say roleplaying it, is what keeps the spirit of the game alive. The systems are important too, yes, but they do not define the experience; they merely set its parameters (to put it another way: if all that was really important were the systems, you could just flip a coin or play rock, paper, scissors for a few hours).
To extend this language further, Mass Effect 3 is a shitty DM. It’s the DM that can’t (or won’t) control its players, letting them wander around in the woods until, after a while, you’ve all forgotten what the overall goal is; it’s the DM that enforces the systems at the expense of the narrative, making the subtle but crucial transition from Role Playing Game to Exercise in Accounting.
Finding the About
To take an overly reductionist view, all games are just bundles of systems 5. What makes a game “good” or “bad” is that these systems all come together to form the game’s About—the usage I just made up to more palatably talk about thematic cohesion; in other words, the game’s primary Thing You Do, and how that ties back to (or doesn’t) the Thing It’s Trying To Say.
As an RPG, Mass Effect 3 claims to be About saving the universe from the Reapers. But it only takes a little while of playing it to see that Mass Effect 3 is really About shooting things—talking to people briefly, going to a planet and shooting things, then returning to talk to people briefly before heading back out to shoot things. Of course there are segments in which Shepard isn’t shooting things, but these are treated largely as either intermissions from shooting things, or else as staging areas where Shepard collects a bunch of different missions on which to embark and shoot things.
The series is renowned for its conversation engine, but it’s the action and shooting things segments that you’re meant to focus on. While the dialogue is (for the most part) well-written and certainly A Thing That Should Be Noticed, if you pay attention, you’ll notice that nothing actually happens in the dialogue sequences. There is almost nothing that happens in the dialogue that couldn’t be conveyed through the “shooting things” missions and cutscenes; nothing happening between its characters that makes the game more About saving the universe than its action makes it About shooting things. Conversations are almost universally either setup (giving you things to go shoot) or curiosity (equivalent to those Did You Know? sidebars in middle school textbooks).
There are experience points in Mass Effect 3. While by no means new to the series, their appearance in 3 is particularly extraneous. While XP-based leveling is a systems-based approach, it ties into the narrative consistency of RPGs; as your Strength or Intelligence increases, your character is, as demonstrated by the mechanics of the game itself, literally becoming “stronger” or “smarter.”
But this systematized process of leveling is not an end in itself. Mechanical character growth ties directly into the story—if you want to kill that god or slay that dragon, you’re probably going to need to be stronger and smarter to expect any chance of success. Thus the process of your character fighting and leveling (grinding) is basically equivalent to the training montage from an 80s movie.
In Mass Effect 3, your character has no stats. Or rather, there is only one stat which is at all quantifiable and/or relevant, and that’s “how much damage your guns do.” What this means is that, mechanically speaking, Shepard as a character doesn’t grow throughout Mass Effect 3; doesn’t get stronger or smarter, just gets guns that hit harder. Yes, you do acquire new biotic and tech powers, but those are largely ancillary. I say that because it is entirely possible to beat Mass Effect 3 without leveling up. It would be hard as hell, sure, but you could do it.
Shepard is already an uber-hero the likes of which are usually relegated to power-fantasy action titles. The leveling up doesn’t exist as development for the characters, but instead as a reward for the players. It’s a trick that’s used with static (read: boring) characters in action games (specifically action games because in action games all that’s happening, generally speaking, is action, and that largely takes the same form over the course of the game) that new abilities are bestowed on the player throughout the game. It’s the game’s way of keeping players interested and giving them something new to look forward to, because the characters aren’t doing it on their own.
One more small point on the whole experience point front; in Mass Effect, XP was doled out for every enemy you killed or door you hacked. There was a 1:1 ratio between doing a thing and the “experience” you gained from doing it. In Mass Effect 3, rather than being action-based, the experience points are earned per mission. Every mission has a predefined number of experience points as a reward, regardless of what you actually do on that mission. What is the point of even having the experience points, or at least of calling them “experience points,” if they don’t correlate to the character’s experience? It’s the game saying “hey look! You earn XP in this game! It’s an RPG you guys!” It’s a way to try and obfuscate the fact that the game is About shooting things, and a hope that if we squint really hard or maybe don’t pay that much attention, we’ll still think the game is About something interesting.
Lack of Character
The reason I’d want to Play the Role of a character in an RPG is because it is an interesting character with an interesting role to play. I’m not talking about the macho, burly, I Wanna Be A Badass overcompensating for your insecurities kind of “roleplaying,” but allowing (or really, requiring) yourself to actually become your character. In tabletop RPGs roleplaying is an essential feature. It’s not enough to just show up and crunch numbers and manipulate systems; many manuals allow for nebulous situations that require creative and involved roleplaying, not only to make sense, but to keep the campaign cohesive (just check out some of the crazy shit Call of Cthulhu does regarding player sanity).
In one of her blog posts, Kris Ligman wrote a piece defending Jacob Taylor, the oft-ridiculed, “boring” party member from Mass Effect 2, saying that Jacob is really no more boring than Shepard is:
over the normal progression of gameplay, [Shepard] is pretty much flat as a board when it comes to her own personal depth. You barely hear mention of her past exploits, nor do the details ever matter because whichever path you choose never influences the proceedings . . . without three epics under her belt, she and Jacob are exactly the same kind of vanilla, utterly malleable stock character.
That right there is the major Space Elephant in the room. Shepard is boring. I understand that BioWare was trying to make Shepard as much of a blank slate as possible so that players could “project themselves onto Shepard,” presumably because these players don’t trust BioWare’s ability to tell a story and write interesting characters and thus have demanded the ability to effectively cross out any of BioWare’s characterization and replace it with their fanfic. I get that. But if you’re selling me the opportunity to take on the role of this hero character, it had better be a character whose shoes I care about walking in.
I put it to you that it isn’t strength that makes characters interesting, but rather weakness. Dealing with and overcoming adversity, and the means by which characters do that, is where characters really develop, because they’re real. Flawed. That makes them like us, which makes them more relatable.
Shepard’s the kind of person you’d meet at a party drinking Corona or, more likely, warm tap water.
Planescape: Torment has one of the best RPG protagonists ever seen in a game. He’s strong, and intelligent, and powerful—and also incredibly flawed. His story in that game is not one of overcoming an unspeakable evil or halting a threat to the universe. It is a game that centers entirely around The Nameless One’s journey of personal discovery, uncovering more and more of his flaws as you go. It is a game that asks you, how do you come to terms with some of the terrible things you’ve done? That question forms the game’s central conflict, and it makes for an incredibly powerful, character-driven narrative.
Shepard has exactly zero weaknesses. None. Shepard is never faced with a situation he isn’t equipped to handle, or about which he feels uncertain 6. There is no challenge Shepard can’t meet with liberal application of various levels of stern grimace. Shepard’s the kind of person you’d meet at a party (drinking Corona or, more likely, warm tap water), talk to perfunctorily for a couple of minutes, and then quickly slip away before you get caught trying to look for the lobotomy scars.
This is only amplified by the fact that Shepard is surrounded by some incredibly interesting characters. Even during conversations on board the Normandy, where characters are opening up to Shepard (god knows why, Shepard’s got all the warmth and welcoming nature of a bathtub full of frozen barbed wire), when Shepard is practically drowning in all this humanity that’s being poured out all over him; even then it’s still impossible to see any sort of weakness, or vulnerability, or hell even empathy from the overly stalwart hero. Most of the Normandy therapy sessions consist of Shepard saying “tell me your problem so that I may go and correct it for you, with liberal application of stern grimace.” Hell, Shepard is more of a robot than the two actual robots on board the ship.
Ok, so Mass Effect 3 is a terrible example of an RPG. It’s the quintessential Are Pee Gee, crammed with miscellaneous systems, but lacking any real narrative or emotional punch. But is it a bad game? That’s trickier. In the sense that it contains several systems and those systems work, in that you push buttons and actions happen on screen the way they were (presumably) meant to, sure, it’s totally Fine as a game. It’s not even bad as a shooter; there’s plenty of action and you can throw people around and set them on fire, and they scream and explode and it’s all very gratifying in a “hey look what I did” sort of way. But it all comes back to that damn About, and Mass Effect 3’s bloody identity crisis.
Even a bro shooter like Gears of War gives players a firm answer to “why should I care about this?” In Gears’ case that reason is mechanical rather than narrative. The plot is dumb and the characters are cliche, but I’ll be damned if ducking into cover and nailing an active reload and popping a headshot doesn’t feel good. It feels so good that the game is specifically designed around making you want to do more of that.
Mass Effect 3 attempts to offer both mechanical appeal and narrative appeal, but it refuses to pick a side and as a result, neither feel particularly satisfying. The story is there, but it’s almost as if BioWare were too afraid to commit to fleshing it out, and it gets promptly obfuscated by the horrific collage of systems that get thrown on top of it. But the game can’t even commit to being fully system-driven and mechanically tight; the action and shooting keep getting interrupted by awkward jaunts back to Cutsceneville and Storytown. Like the Are Pee Gee itself, Mass Effect 3 is an empty signifier, a simulacrum that turns out to be less than the sum of its parts. And like the Are Pee Gee, when you peel away the layers and pluck the systems off one by one, you realize that there’s been nothing there all along.
- Note: this is hyperbole. ↩
- Other notable first-act losses: Baldur’s Gate (Gorion), Baldur’s Gate 2 (Khalid, Dynaheir, Imoen), Planescape: Torment (your entire identity), Skyrim (your $60) ↩
- DM = Dungeon Master; the person who creates, presents, moderates, and runs a tabletop campaign (just in case you didn’t know) ↩
- It should be disclosed here that I’ve never DMd before, even a little bit, so I can’t claim to be speaking from personal experience; though I have had many in-depth discussions with enthusiastic DMs about this very thing, so I do have some modicum of perspective. ↩
- You want me to throw in that Symphony of the Night quote here don’t you? Well I’m not going to, so let’s move on. ↩
- Ok, yes, I gave Shepard a gender here. I tried not to, really, but it made for some really awkward language usage. For the record, the reason Shepard is a male for the purposes of this article is because I find the male Shepard’s performance to embody this woodenness particularly well. ↩