It's a me, barrio!
[To avoid any confusion as to how I actually arrive at my conclusions, I'm putting the link up to the second part of this essay here up top, too.]
It’s been almost a year since Mass Effect 3 came out, but having just finished the series right after beating another game that presented “story-altering” choices in The Walking Dead, I feel like it’s only appropriate that I talk about how both games approached the ambitious project of making the player’s decisions matter throughout their respective series.
During the course of the Mass Effect series, the player is faced with many situations that require a choice, with results varying in impact. Some have you availing of a store discount or pacifying a frustrated rebel group in one corner of the galaxy, others have you determining the fate of a fellow soldier or an entire race.
Having such choices isn’t anything novel, as past WRPGs have done the same. What’s impressive about the Mass Effect series is that Bioware managed to carry over the decisions you made through all three games, all the way from the first installment which came out in 2007, when Bioware wasn’t even sure it would be able to put out a trilogy.
As revealed throughout Mass Effect 3, all the major decisions you made in the previous two games that were supposed to have equally major consequences ultimately had little to no bearing on the direction of the overarching narrative.
[Spoilers for the Mass Effect series and The Walking Dead here on out.]
Choosing which squad member to rescue in the mission on Virmire in Mass Effect does not affect how the rest of the galaxy will manage in the battle against the Reapers two games later when you get a chance to once again enlist the aid of the surviving comrade. It doesn’t even have any effect on what happens to the rest of the first game. You get different dialogue and limit your romance options, sure, but nothing that touches where the series goes.
Did you show no mercy to the captured Rachni Queen near the end of Noveria, and extinguish the last trace of her ravenous species? Well, the Reapers built their own Rachni Queen to breed their own army of cybernetically-modified insect artillery anyway.
Did you resolve to blow up the Collector base housing a half-built humanoid Reaper at the end of Mass Effect 2? Doesn’t matter because Cerberus managed to salvage parts of the Reaper despite your explosive, action-blockbuster-style handling of the hidden headquarters, and you gain only 100 points for War Assets instead of 110.
It’s only until the ending does the player actually make a decision that directly influences the direction of the narrative. Ironically, it is the only thing that got soundly denounced by a lot of fans, saying the choices given all resulted in the same manner–only in three different colors. Granted, the original endings really did have a problem in that there was very little difference in how each one played out, leaving much to the player’s own imagination.
I was fortunate enough to experience the ending through the Extended Cut DLC first. Minor plotholes were fixed, story details were elaborated upon, other races’ efforts were recognized, characters were given proper farewells, and the future of the galaxy is made clearer.
But as for the actual ending choices themselves, they remain largely unchanged. The original three paths all still had Commander Shepard making the ultimate sacrifice. There were complaints that those courses rejected the themes of self-determinism coupled with achieving the impossible–themes thought to have been steadily developed by the series.
Bioware’s answer to that particular grievance in the Extended Cut DLC was allowing the player to refuse all given options. This left the galactic army fighting the Reapers to their own devices, eventually succumbing to the might of the machine menace no matter how high the Effective Military Strength (EMS) the player reached.
And still, Shepard dies.
There is simply no escaping that fate Bioware had written for the hero, except for one ending’s unbelievable instance that only hints at the possibility of Shepard living in the very end if your EMS was high enough. Still, that particular ending went down the way of having to accept the Catalyst’s own solutions with its threat of the destructive cycle inevitably repeating still looming. Shepard might have cheated death, but the player is still trapped within the machinations of Bioware.
I won’t bother debating the merits and flaws of the endings themselves, as I believe that argument really boils down to how you view the series tackles its themes.
What is interesting about the whole thing is how Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead has a similar method of handling the effects of the choices in its overall narrative, but never did it brew up a collective storm of vitriol as Mass Effect 3.
In fact, The Walking Dead is much more limited in how your choices affect the course of the story. In the Mass Effect games, you still had situations that had dramatically different consequences depending on your decisions within the confines of one mission, one game, or one overarching thread throughout the series. In TWD, even the immediate repercussions of most of your actions play out the same no matter what decision you make.
In Mass Effect 2, you are given the choice to win the loyalty of the squadmates you recruit, and you can accomplish these goals in a couple of distinct ways. You can even lose the loyalty you gained based on who you side between two squabbling squadmates. Why loyalty matters is made clear in the final mission, as those whose trust you never gained may very well die in the suicide run. Even the choices of assigning which team member carries out which role in that last hour determine whether they will make it out in the end or not.
Even in Mass Effect 3, you are burdened with the choice in how to settle an ages long war between two species. If you did not build enough good will among both parties, you are forced to a conclusion where one race is wiped out for the other to live.
There are plenty of other decisions to make that have weight throughout the Mass Effect series. TWD, on the other hand, fails to present much variance in the results of the choices even in the moments that soon follow.
And yet as the credits roll in the adventure game that could, the only strong emotions that burst from the player is that of heartbreak (the good kind). No anger, no confusion, no denial, and no Internet-wide movements to change the ending.
It won mass critical acclaim, appearing in many GOTY lists and winning a whole lot of them while picking up a couple more awards in the process. It turned Telltale Games from niche developer to big-time players. It revitalized the adventure game genre that was virtually dead in the mainstream market.
These two games were similar in their restrictions of the player’s ability to affect the story. But where did they diverge to elicit such polarized public reactions?
Here is the second part of this essay!