Being able to find the flaws in something you appreciate is a difficult task. I've found errors in my favorite short stories and novels, and I am forced to take a drastically different look at the works. By looking critically at something, we can ease it into the acceptable, broad-termed realm of 'art'. Since video games constantly teeter on the line between 'art' and 'not art', they warrant the same amount of scrutiny offered to our other artsy works. Video game narratives deserve further critical viewings, just as film and television stories are critiqued and studied for what they do right, as well as what they do wrong.
Some studios have built their reputations on their ability to tell grand stories. However, the ability to tell consistently good stories across multiple games, not necessarily in a series, is not guaranteed. With inconsistency comes awareness of it; when people are aware of plot holes, they want to dig deeper into them. In any form of entertainment, be it television, movie, book, or video game, if there's a plot continuity error, I personally want to figure out how it got there.
Back in March, I wrote a reactionary response to a proposed 'new ending' for the controversial Mass Effect 3. With the extended ending's release this past week, I found that whatever initial irritations I had were unfounded, and I think the extended cut offers some closure that is otherwise absent from the original ending. It's also forced me to reassess how I feel about this game series as a whole.
I appreciated the original ending of Mass Effect 3. I thought it encouraged the gamer to use his or her imagination and creativity to fill in the gaps and leave it be. Giving it a tougher look, nearly three months later, it becomes apparent that Mass Effect's overall, consistent story is kind of a mess.
Under scrutiny, the story reveals itself to have a few Normandy-sized holes, especially in its third offering. From an out-of-nowhere ninja-like antagonist (though ninjas are nothing to really complain about, so we might let this one slide), to the far too late inclusion of a long-term party member (too late for me to care about their fate, anyway), the complete turning-on-its-head of a few major plot elements (the geth-quarian conflict, the repulsive salarian dalatrass), and even into the controversial ending, the tale spun in Mass Effect 3 feels, well, disappointingly off at best, and amateurish at worst.
Mass Effect, as a whole, seems to have an identity crisis as a game. The series tried to be a third-person shooter with a heavy narrative drive. It succeeded, to a point, but overall, it's hard to tell what it's really trying to be. Is it a shooter with RPG elements, or is it a narrative-driven RPG with the odd combat mission thrown in to keep gamers on their toes?
I'd lump the game series in with current-generation RPGs, and leave it there, but I'm compelled to critique it now. Examining it closely as a story reveals a sometimes teeth-gritting narrative about a messianic character who can't seem to be left alone by other people and their personal problems long enough to make a rational decision.
For a game series dedicated to choice, most of the decisions ultimately did not matter, and those that should have mattered more either fell flat, or warped in such dismal and nauseating ways that I had to wonder about the writers and where they were standing on the entire series. At times, it feels as though they simply want it over with, as though this narrative has already gone on too long, and they have other things to do.
The Mass Effect central story - Shepard's role in the war against the Reapers - is fascinating and it draws the player's attention. The universe the story inhabits did some brave things, especially in its social awareness of historical events inserted through in-game context, and its exploration of complicated things like adult relationships, politics, and warfare. It did some truly innovative things in these areas.
At the heart of the issues with Mass Effect 3, and the trilogy as a whole, is a passionate fan base that seems to agree on one thing: they didn't want the game series to end.
I'm with them, because I didn't want to say good-bye either. The Mass Effect trilogy set a very high standard for RPGs for this console generation; it broke new ground with its dialogue wheel, ever-evolving style, and presentation. What it did right has set the bar high, and high it remains.
Whatever wrongs the series has committed are open to debate, but I can see myself going back and replaying the entire series again at some point in the future. I'll simply be paying closer attention this time around.
Serious Infotainment runs on Mondays.