Monday, October 15, 2012

A Letter to Dr. Ray Muzyka, from some Mass Effect 3 Players

In mid-March, Ray Muzyka, the co-founder and GM of BioWare, used his own blog to reply to some of the overwhelming fan dismay at the ending of Mass Effect 3. This post, which will be spoilerific (unlike my spoiler-free Mass Effect 3 review), is a response to Dr. Muzyka and the rest of the creative team responsible for Mass Effect 3 and any upcoming changes to the game.

No really, the spoilers shall flow.

First of all, Ray, that blog post sends irate fans like me a mixed message. I understand that you're obliged to save a certain amount of face with this sort of public appeal. You can't outright apologize for a product you're selling. I get that. A lot of fans get that. But opening and closing a letter meant to assuage wounded fans with attestations to the critical receipt of the product is self-defeating, incendiary, and vain.  It's like book-ending an apology to your girlfriend with "I was right, and you were wrong. And simple-minded." We know Mass effect 3 is a mechanically beautiful game. The combat is crisp and precise, but the combat isn't what drives the hardcore Mass Effect fan. We thrive on the story, and that's imperiled by a sloppy ending that flies in the face of narrative elegance, ethics, and logic.

To recap, Mass Effect 3's final moments begin with Shepard and two squadmates charging towards a supply beacon in war-torn London. The beacon will beam Shepard into the heart of the ancient structure called the Citadel, where he hopes to activate a mysterious super-weapon called the Crucible to defeat the Reapers once and for all. The Crucible is based on the compounded designs of previous ages' greatest species, each of whom added to the concept of this anti-Reaper weapon before being extinguished by the race of genocidal machines. Under Shepard's banner, an alliance of all races have assembled a massive fleet and pooled their resources to finish the designs and construct this weapon without knowing anything about its function other than it needs to link to the Citadel to work. And so Shepard charges that one final hill in a mad foot-chase to destroy the enemies of all organic life--of all life, really, since they seem to be poised to destroy or enslave the robotic geth as well.

"It's like book-ending an apology to your girlfriend with 'I was right, and you were wrong. And simple-minded.'"

Just short of the objective, Shepard is hit by a secondary blast from a Reaper weapon, leaving him a bloodied, shuffling mess as he plods into the beam--apparently the only survivor of his part of the assault wave. This is where things start to go sideways, plot-wise, but nothing too bad. He finds himself transported into the heart of the Citadel, where he meets up with former CO, mentor, and all-round old-school butt-kicker David Anderson (voiced by Keith David), who is being held at gunpoint by the Illusive Man (Martin Sheen), the Benedict Arnold of the future. Though a cybernetic and psychic puppet of the Reapers, the alleged big bad guy still tries to convince Shepard how his plan to control the Reapers is feasible and imminent, now that he has access to the Crucible. The conversation is well-played between the three characters, but we're stepping on some old ground here--this is pretty similar to talks with Saren in the first game in this trilogy. And, as with Saren, it even comes down to you either shooting the Illusive Man yourself or talking him into committing suicide to snub the Reapers' control. Talking a bad guy into offing himself is a pretty cool proposition, but it shouldn't be made stale by getting repeat performances.

Still, the ending is decent-but-depressing at this point. And quite railroaded, too. But it's only after Shepard and Anderson sit down to bleed to death together that the plot nose-dives into something off of an inebrious cocktail napkin. Shepard is upraised on a lift to another chamber and greeted by a ghostly, child-like apparition. The apparition gives Shepard very little chance to get a word in edge-wise, but he has a lot to say though it makes little sense. The boy/ghost-thingie is the Catalyst--the last part needed to activate the Crucible. He's also the creator and controller of the Reapers, whom he created millions of years prior as a mechanism to manage organic-synthetic conflict. Apparently, little boy Catalyst decided that the best way to prevent the violent cycle of organics making synthetics and then killing each other is to make the biggest, baddest synthetic race imaginable--the Reapers--and set them loose on the galaxy, periodically wiping out all organic life when it gets too advanced. How does that end the cycle of violence? Furthermore, he goes on to offer 'options' which revolve around the concept of synthesis--a third faction, completely separate and superior to the synthetic/organic divide. Which makes no sense. Also, all of his choices amount to personal suicide for you and social suicide for all civilization in the galaxy, since it involves the exhaustive destruction of the interstellar transit network called mass relays.

The dumb and the stupid just pile up on each other faster than red hatchbacks piling up in the middle of a Wisconsin death-fog in late winter. There's no punch-line, no recognition of how bad the plot has turned. Just a blind careening of blanket, unfeasible statements and wild philosophical tripe.

Now, the Mass Effect series has more than enough homages to indicate that at least a handful of you guys are Serenity fans. So let me spell things out for you. If we apply the same principles of storytelling used in Mass Effect 3 to the climax of Serenity, this might have been what dedicated browncoats would have gotten in theater years ago:

I mean, really look at the elements. They're all there--all pure Mass Effect 3 in both the beautiful, heart-rending, ball-grabbingly awesome setup and the teeth-kicking so-called payoff. And the inclusion of the Catalyst boy is just as jarring as taking the worst element from another sci-fi property and shoe-horning it into the most emotionally charged part of the story.

Now, I originally wrote this article at the end of March, but I'd held onto it because Bioware had promised to release an 'extended ending' DLC to address fans' concerns with the crap ending. So I waited to see what the DLC's ending was, whether it at least shone some light on the rationale of the twist or revealed a bit more clarity on behalf of the writers when it comes to the odious implications of their opus' closing note. It didn't.

As you can imagine, I have more I could say on this topic. But, in the interest of diluting the nerd-rage, I'll save that for later. Right now, I'm going to watch The Avengers or maybe console myself with a ninety-ninth viewing of Firefly.

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