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Mass Effect 3 and barking up the wrong tree

28 October on Blogs, Editorial  

Disclaimer: I just started playing Mass Effect 3. Most of what I will say is based of stuff that I either read second-hand or saw in YouTube videos. As I play, if I feel the need to change something, I will edit the text later. Please take that into consideration. Also, there will be some spoilers. Kind of hard to avoid those.

Wow. I have seen games polarizing people before, but I have to admit I am genuinely surprised at the effect that Bioware's latest title had. It's kind of funny, actually, because I had done an exercise where I started guessing how they would handle the end of their sci-fi trilogy given their track record... I realized how tricky it would be to deliver something that would reach people's expectations and I was fully prepared for some sort of cop out... but even then they managed to disappoint me.

I assume most people are familiar with Mass Effect, but here is a quick recap: the series was made by Bioware, a Canadian company with a pedigree in making high quality RPGs. With Microsoft backing the original game, they were one of the first studios rethinking the genre with the power of the then-new generation of consoles (namely, the Xbox 360). Their biggest achievement was the introduction of cinematographic dialogue, which was coupled with the duality of choices in the role playing. While the latter is not new, their promise was that every single (extremely dramatic) choice would reverberate all the way to the conclusion of the trilogy as you imported your save file. A bold claim. But between the first and the second game the studio got sold to EA. The second game saw a new writer sharing credit for the plot and an extreme streamlining of the gameplay. While that was probably necessary, there was a lot of vocal critics saying it had been dumbed down. I think it's safe to say a lot of the changes were necessary, even if the way they were handled might not have been the best. But that was not the real red flag...

Picture taken from Third Planet from Altair

Mass Effect 2 had one scary problem. All your earth-shattering decisions from the first game were mostly unnoticed. Yes, it changed some of the characters you would meet and some of the dialogue. But the plot itself was not affected. At all. As I mentioned in my lecture about morality in videogames, the danger of branching paths is that they quickly escalate into propositions that are not economically viable because A) it's extremely complex to handle the increasing number of outcomes and B) producing all that content is not feasible. They were painting themselves into a corner, and I can't imagine they didn't realize that. I haven't played enough to notice, but so far it looks like Mass Effect 3 takes exactly the same approach. You might get a few different quests and dialogues here and there. But if you killed a major character, he will just be replaced by a generic character to fill the exact same role. And the major decisions seem to not truly branch the plot in any way.

I could go on about more plot-related problems I noticed, but instead I will focus on Bioware's promise that your choices would have major impact in the series. I fully expected decisions like the fate of the Council, Rachni Queen and the Collector's Base (to name the major ones) to impact not only plot direction, but also gameplay. Alas, that does not seems to be the case as far as the canon is concerned. But that's not the main issue. The true problem is that the ending of the game is mostly dictated by one single decision made on the dialogue wheel towards the end of the adventure, which is in itself not affected at all by the major choices. And even that decision will only impact the color of a beam and an explosion - with ancillary scenes tacked on to deal with your "Galactic Readiness" (the "you should play the multiplayer part which is not available to used copies to get the best outcome to the main character" system). This may sound ridiculous, but... YouTube may be a better witness than I am.

I will avoid spoilers, but even the decision that leads into this is strangely detached from the rest of the game as a whole too, in a bit of a Deus Ex Machina that is a little too close to Gurren Lagann (not exactly new to Bioware - there is A LOT of very borrowed inspiration from sci-fi in all games. For instance, it's hard not to compare the Quarian/Geth plot with Battlestar Galactica's Cylons). Some people even went as far trolling Bioware's twitter about the color-coded endings, as you can see to the left. It may seem subtle, but it's downright emblematic of the ending's shortcomings.

What struck me the most was that the differences (other than color) are strangely utilitarian. Where is the emotional human element? The hugs, the sacrifices, the anger, the frustation? We get a timeskip and some people looking back, but we never get a chance to see the influence of our choices on the characters we have grown to care about. This worked surprisingly well in Final Fantasy VI's open ended finale… but here we get the opposite - choices impact technical outcomes about planets and mass relays, but nothing different about characters.

The ending truly polarized fans. And since Bioware was just riding out of some pretty bad PR nightmares to begin with (like people getting banned from criticizing EA on the forums and being locked out of content they had paid for or the whole Hepler fiasco, and I am not even going into the gay romance in ME3, which some people thought was the reason behind the Metacritic protest initially), things got a little out of hand. But then the person who reviewed the game for IGN actually went out of his way to condone the people slamming the game, which began a sort of pissing match with Erik Kain at Forbes. Meanwhile, Bioware itself has locked down registration for their forums and spewed a generic PR damage control response. On the other end, fans decided to vote with their dollars in a different way: they started a donation drive to show how much they would like a revised ending. Just for the record, there is even a piece of news about the original plan for the ending from the person responsible for the first game's script.

This may be the longest editorial introduction ever, but my point here is: the discussion got heated. I frankly think both sides are not being entirely realistic here. Changing the ending of the game is not economically and logistically viable, and selling it as paid DLC would reinforce a horrible precedent. On the other hand, Bioware seems to be plugging their ears and shouting, disregarding what seem to be a pretty clear criticism of their product. But I think there is a variable being left out of the equation here. The game got amazing reviews with huge scores from the specialized media. While I type this, the Xbox 360 version enjoys an enviable 94/100 on Metacritic. But as I read both IGN's and Gamespot's reviews (both sites had heavily advertised the game for EA), I find interesting coincidences between both. For instance:

"Assuming direct control"

Accomplishing such feats of diplomacy resides at the heart of Mass Effect 3. Gone are the loyalty quests of Mass Effect 2; things aren’t quite as personal this time around.


Mass Effect 3 is focused more on plot than the previous installments were, and at first, you might miss Mass Effect 2's more obvious personal touch.


I will come out here and say that this is NOT something that struck me in such an obvious way to see two sentences that are so similar. Maybe I am being a bit too overzealous here, but I would not be surprised if the game's Non-Disclosure Agreement included nudges to reinforce certain aspects. I have seen a fair share of NDAs in my career that asked not to discuss certain topics to avoid spoilers (Metal Gear Solid 2 and Resident Evil 4 come to mind), but sometimes we see cases of much more heavy-handed manipulation like demanding scores for Driv3r exclusivity or asking for changes in the review of Kane & Lynch which culminated in Jeff Gerstmann being fired. Frankly, both show just how much pressure the gaming press is under from advertisers and publishers. But there was one change along the way that I think made this situation even worse.

I remember some stories I heard about how bad marketing was responsible for the flop of great games like Beyond Good & Evil and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Both were critically acclaimed, yet had sales below expectations due to what is commonly regarded as very poor marketing. Now, while I think Jason Rubin tackled the whole developer versus marketer struggle much better than I ever could, not too long after that a new metric start getting used instead of sales to measure the success of a developer: aggregated scores like Metacritic. Now, while this is far from the first time I heard about this, I find it ironic that on the same week of this big mess, we learn that Obsidian is firing a good chunk of its workforce because it didn't meet a Metacritic goal for Fallout: New Vegas. Don't get me wrong, I don't think the Metacritic approach is entirely bad: it does technically allow for a better measure of the success of development objectively than sales. The problem is: videogame PR and marketing personnel were ALSO subjected to that same scrutiny.

Why is that bad? Because since they can't really influence the product, they were extremely aggressive about getting these scores. I heard multiple stories from journalists and former game PR associates that they actively tried to influence scores in the most varied ways possible. A quick glance at how much money EA seemed to be pouring into the marketing of Mass Effect 3 and how much advertising IGN and Gamespot sported, I don't think it's too hard to imagine that someone in the process didn't nudge them into focusing on certain aspects and/or hyping the game. And since the so coveted scores were their endgame, I can only believe that magical number was in the mix at one point.

It's not the first time I vent about the fact that the specialized gaming press is composed of enthusiasts (text in Portuguese). I brought that concern up in 2008. This, in itself, is a huge problem. Does this sound like a bunch of objective journalists to you?

I could have just as easily used a Halo video. While I will not deny that I would fit in a Nintendo fanboy category, I prefer to believe I am able to report and analyze it without resorting to hype. I wish I could say the same about most of the articles I see in the specialized press. But that's not true: a lot of previews read almost like press releases hot off a marketing manager's word processor. By comparison, go read some film critics reviews and general reporting about movies on a newspaper. The tone is very different - not only because of the journalists, but also because of the public. Gamers are also enthusiasts with a history of being perceived as a niche - something that was actually reinforced by the appearance of Casual Games and Gamers, which polarized Core Gamers as hype-driven enthusiasts. And so the cycle is perpetuated.

Back to Mass Effect 3: the case here is not so much that gamers should demand a new ending, but rather that the pressure of the publisher for scores created an environment where a hyped and unrealistic review created unrealistic expectations. I say unrealistic, but they were reinforced by hype-driven previews of all three games in the series promising enormous consequences for the choices made by the consumer. The marketing noise somehow blurred the difference between what was expected and what was delivered - and the poor gamer gets caught in the crossfire, but no one wants to take the blame. Not the developer, not the consumer... and in the meantime, the press just throws more fuel in the fire - after all, a heated argument actually benefits them with more traffic about protests, excuses and whatever else they can pass as news. Anything but mention what seems like a major omission in discussing the lack of impact of choices in the ending of Mass Effect 3.

So, recapping: using aggregated review scores as benchmarks for marketing and PR people is a dumb idea, even more so when an enthusiast press is involved. We (and I do take part of this blame myself) conditioned our audience to hype-intensive coverage, which has now become the norm. Previews and reviews encourage hyperbole and a marketing oriented point of view of the product, which generates expectations on consumers AND has the side effect of alienating the general public (non-gamers). It LOOKS like a win-win situation for most of those involved, but it's actually quite harmful. If we game journalists acted more like our counterparts that cover books and movies, I think the outcome would be quite positive in the long run.

So I don't think it's reasonable to expect a new and revised ending for Mass Effect 3. But I do think the gaming press should have called out Bioware on this. I am still enjoying the game, disappointment and all. However, not only have I grown suspicious of its creators, my trust on the international gaming press has suffered an ever harder blow. I am not sure this is one change that we can expect to come from the readers, and somehow I feel like game journalists won't exactly jump at the opportunity, either. Isn't it ironic that all this happened on the same week Gamespot has merged with Giant Bomb, the company founded by the same person they fired for not budging to advertisers?

Esta postagem também está disponível em: Portuguese (Brazil)

Author, freelance videogame journalist, cinematography major and a little insane.


  1. Melissa says:

    I also liked DA2, it had a tighter wtirten story and dialogue. Although DA1 had better wrap up in their dlc. ME3 s mistakes were = All the glitches and code errors they didn’t fix (dropped audio, vanishing squaddies during cut scenes, unsynched dialogue); the dream sequences which violate a basic rule of good game design (never make the player do something that doesn’t have a reward); and of course the taped on contradictory endings. ME is hard/military sci-fi, not fruity Zen-Lite.