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Why Decisions Don’t Matter, Part 1

[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.]

even Wrex dying won't matter since he'll just get replaced by his brother Wreav

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.

ok yeah i got pissed off when Carley got killed

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.

Mass Effect 3, while it still raked in the profits expected of any AAA game and had its fair share of praise, was mentioned as one of the most disappointing games in 2012 mostly for its story.

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?

where did it all go wrong?

Here is the second part of this essay!

[Header image by Jessie Lam]

About Joseph Berida

Joseph likes video games. He also likes writing. Do the math. He hates math.

4 comments on “Why Decisions Don’t Matter, Part 1

  1. Patrick
    4 March 2013

    ME3 was the third installment of a trilogy where players consistently made decisions about the shape of the galaxy only to learn that, apart from your War Asset score, none of it mattered in the end.
    TWD is a standalone game. It’s only natural that TWD isn’t going to get the same kind of backlash. There was nowhere near the sort of player investment that there was in the ME series.

    • Joseph Berida
      5 March 2013

      I’d argue that TWD pulled out even more player investment than the entire ME series, given the near-unanimous praise it received on how much strong emotions it evoked from the compelling plot, the strong relationships with the characters, and the tension the game squeezed out of every moment. I don’t know of any other video game that managed to built a powerful father-daughter-like bond in Lee and Clementine. It had people biting their teeth every time Clem was put in danger, and it had them bawling like children at the very end.

      TWD also made people face huge moral quandaries whenever they had to pick a side between characters, and they start thinking “What have I done?” when something tragic happens because of their choice.

      I’ve played all three Mass Effect games, and never have I come close to shedding a single tear, nor did I ever regret making a decision, nor did I even fist pump as hard as I did when Lee powered his way through a zombie horde even when he was slowly dying just to get to Clem in the hotel.

      Sure, having to wait years anticipating the climactic final act only to not get what you want sucks. Those who played the Episode One of TWD when it first came out also had to wait with bated breath for months before they could finally see how it ended. TellTale had these fans by their souls with critics all over the Web having already taken notice with their reviews hailing its compelling nature before Episode Five came out. TellTale had such high expectations set, and they very well could have bungled it hard if they didn’t come up with a satisfying conclusion that resonated with the rest of the previously released episodes.

      I also believe that by having a much more intimate story about people, it had a greater capacity of drawing in its audience and touching their hearts than one about a galactic war that ponders universal and philosophical themes.

      Of course, ME having a much bigger fanbase contributed greatly to the immensity of the reaction.

      But what I’m trying to argue at is not so much the scope of the reactions but the underlying reasons for it. Like I already said in the article, TWD also had players consistently make decisions about the fate of people they had come to truly care about, and none of it also mattered in the end.

      I hope you read the second part of the article though to get to what I really wanted to say!

  2. Eric Barbour
    5 March 2013

    Honestly…I think you’ve missed the point and the comparison you are drawing is extremely flawed.

    First, I haven’t played the walking dead yet, but some of my favorite games have significantly less choice and/or are far more linear than Mass Effect. There’s something to be said for anticipation and presentation, and it’s axiomatic that a game which presents and sells itself as more linear is judged by a different set of criteria than something that claims otherwise.
    I didn’t knock points off of Arkham City because I couldn’t change the ending or influence the direction of the story.

    Second, the problem with Mass Effect 3 *was* the ending and how it related to its themes. I know some gamers say lack of choice was the problem, but this is a situation where what gamers say and what they mean are slightly different.
    The problem wasn’t the lack of choice, but that the choices we were given made no sense and were contradictory to the core themes of the entire story.

    The problem was that they introduced a new character in the last five minutes of the story who told us new information that contradicted everything we’d seen in the story up to that point and then told us to pick which method we’d most like to destroy our favorite sci-fi universe with. That’s not something that can simply be written off as gamers being unhappy with a lack of choice. That’s indefensibly bad and lazy writing, especially for a series which up till that point had been pretty damn good in that department.

    EDIT: lol, just realized there was a page 2…image at the bottom makes it confusing.

    • Joseph Berida
      5 March 2013

      See that’s the thing. The Walking Dead was also sold by TellTale that the players choices mattered in how it wove the story. It says so right when you start the game! And yes, I’ve also read complaints around the Internet about how the choices in that game didn’t matter.

      You having not played the game to come up with a criticism that doesn’t even hold up on first light is a problem. You should fix that right away by playing The Walking Dead ASAP! I’ve got a good feeling you’ll love it!

      And I said to myself that I wouldn’t be suckered into a debate about the quality of the ending. What I’ve come to believe in these two posts is that the sticking point is in the lead up to the inevitable. I’ll just C&P what I’ve written in other forums with a little addendum to answer the points you’ve brought up about the ending. I don’t want this be a retread of the same arguments the entire Internet has dealt with for a year, BUT HEY MAN WHATEVER THIS IS THE COMMENTS SECTION.

      Sovereign had already mentioned in the first game that the Reapers harvest advanced races, and this was confirmed by the Catalyst which had already been hinted at along with the Crucible in the beginning and throughout the game that it would be the literal deus ex machina needed to end the war with the Reapers. The Catalyst just elaborated on the reason for the harvest, that being to keep the advanced races from 1) creating synthetics that would eventually wipe out all organic life 2) preserving all their knowledge and culture albeit in a twisted form and 3) finding out a better solution to the entire philosophical problem of the created turning against the creator.

      Vendetta, the Prothean VI in Thessia, also alluded to the pattern and potential purpose of the Reapers.

      The Catalyst hinted at Synthesis being the best ending, as it already mentioned in the dialogue that it was the only real solution that would keep organics and synthetics living in real harmony because of actual physiological and emotional unity. The game also hinted at that when you pursued the ultimate paragon path in allowing Joker and EDI to form a relationship and in bridging the gap between the Quarians and the Geth.

      It was also the only choice that would definitively break the cycle, as choosing destroy also means sacrificing EDI and the entire Geth species that battled for the chance to understand what it means to live. Doing so would send a message that in the fight for freedom, synthetics are the sacrificial lambs.

      Having wiped out the physical traces of synthetic and organic peace that not even 80+% of the galaxy was witness to, it leaves the rest of its populace to come back to their original ages-old assumptions that synthetic life isn’t to be trusted. The strongest of beliefs can die without a symbol to rally on. Hell, the galaxy wouldn’t even know the context of Shepard’s sacrifice and the purpose of the Reapers, thinking the Crucible and the Catalyst were just superweapons that put an end to the Reaper threat. When synthetics start making trouble again (and that isn’t far-fetched), they might start thinking it’s time they start making a new pair of the galactic WMDs.

      Choosing control also wouldn’t break the cycle. My thinking for that is that with Shepard attaining a whole new level of intelligence and understanding by taking the place of the Catalyst, he’d come to the same conclusion that the cycle would need to continue. If not that, then it would still present the potential problem of some parts of the galaxy still opposing the presence of the Reapers even if they started helping all these civilizations due to past fears and lack of that true understanding synthesis would make possible.

      It also doesn’t completely prevent the possibility of organics and synthetics from going to war once more. Shepard using the Reapers as an interplanetary police force still retains the spirit of their original purpose, albeit in a much more CONTROLLED manner, and I’m pretty damn sure that there will be races that would also oppose that totalitarian-like authority. And what would Shepard do when it inevitably comes to hostility? Destroy the opposition?

      The counterpoints that could be brought up in arguing how synthesis isn’t the ideal option are Saren and The Illusive Man’s goals. However, both they’re goals are inherently flawed. Saren wanted organics to surrender to the Reapers, while TIM wanted to control them. The Reapers’ harvest was simply part of the cycle, and not the final solution. TIM using Reaper tech on his minions was ultimately about finding a way for organics to gain utter mastery over synthetics.

      The conflict of creation and creator is also echoed throughout other major plot points in the series. There’s the deal with the Salarians uplifting the Krogan only to have them multiply rapidly and start conquering solar systems, the test tube Krogan that is Grunt trying to find a purpose beyond what Okeer bred him for, Miranda’s daddy issues, Samara and Thane both having to deal with their wayward children, EDI turning against Cerberus, and even the Zha’til that became sentient during the time of the Protheans.

      There’s also the idea that when dealing with a story having such a massive scope with an “enemy” beyond comprehension of mere mortals, tackling an issue as metaphysical as the conflict between creator and creation, it only felt logical that a meeting with the nearest approximation to a an all-seeing being at the end would be necessary to come to a resolution. The true purpose of the Reapers had yet to be revealed till that point, and leaving it at BLARGH CONTROL THE GALAXY JUST BECAUSE would be trite while leaving it as just a mystery would be frustrating. And as I’ve argued, their purpose as well as the decisions you’re given fell in line with some of the game’s thematical and narrative foundations.

      So there, I don’t think the ending choices were entirely contradictory to what happened before. And none of the original three choices resulted in destroying the ME universe! Yeah, the original ending cutscene showed that, but that was rectified by the Extended Cut DLC.

      I do have to agree that Bioware presented the games in such a manner that made people think they could do the impossible, which is a point I actually make in the second part of the essay!

      oh god look what you made me do

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This entry was posted on 3 March 2013 by in Features and tagged , , , , .

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