Mess Effect

Shamus Young recently compiled his long-form retrospectives on “Mass Effect” into a book available in print and for E-readers called “Mess Effect”.  I tended to re-read the retrospectives fairly regularly while compiling but thought it would be really, really nice to have it in print form so that I didn’t have to read it on a screen and didn’t have to stop every so often to click to the next post and let it load.  So I bought it, and then after finishing my reading of classic works I decided to sit down and read the entire thing (all 700+ pages of it).

Shamus was basically reacting to his own sense of loss at having the specific sort of game/story that was started in Mass Effect changed into something else, as well as both his and the reaction of others to the ending.  He posted a video by MrBtongue at the end of his retrospective which posited that the story of Mass Effect was good right up until the ending, which dropped the ball (full disclosure:  I haven’t watched that video).  Shamus disagrees, and thinks that the problems started long before that and it was only at the end where everything finally fell apart.  “Mess Effect” is a book/retrospective whose purpose is to make that argument, as well as perhaps document the decline and fall of the series and Bioware as a whole.

Now, I’ve played the entire series, and my reaction to the game and its story is an interesting one in light of those comments.  I certainly didn’t think that the story in Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 was great, and didn’t think that the ending was all that good.  But I didn’t really hate any of it either.  My impression of the story in ME2 was that the plot was incredibly thin, but that it existed for no other reason than to give the player a reason to go around recruiting all of those interesting characters, and that it worked pretty well at that purpose.  This made me like the plot of ME3 a bit better than that of ME2 because it at least was trying to tell a story and so, well, actually had a plot.  But I didn’t think that it was a wonderful plot either, just a serviceable one.  As for the ending, my reaction to that was literally “This Star Child AI/VI is just nuts and so I have to destroy all the Reapers, because if I merged with this thing to control them I suspect I’ll end up as crazy as it is”.  I did, of course, note the idiocy of “Synthetics develop to wipe out all organic life, so we have to try to solve that by wiping all of them out first for … some reason”.  The explanation is nonsensical on its own and doesn’t fit in a universe where we have examples of synthetics that would be happy to co-exist with organics if the organics would only let them (seriously, going the other way would make more sense, having them wipe out organics to try to preserve synthetics).  So yeah, it was nuts.

One of the advantages I had with the series is that I’m pretty much immune, it seems, to writer fiat.  If I can tell that the writer wants me to believe something but the work doesn’t actually develop or show that, I can most times pretty much reject the frame of the writer and simply go with what makes sense.  This means that dropping into the Primary World isn’t as big a deal for me in those cases, as I just note what the writer was trying for, note that they failed, and move on with my own assessment.  That’s why I was able to simply consider the Star Child nuts even though it was probably supposed to be profound, and also why Kai Leng didn’t really bother me because while the writer might have wanted me to think he was cool I considered him a complete poser who was trying and failing to be Shepard, and so wasn’t a real threat.  I judged both of them on what the writer had revealed, not on what stylistic devices the game and writer employed to try to make me care about him more than he deserved.  And so I was pretty much able to skate on past them without too much concern.

But after reading “Mess Effect”, I have a new opinion on the game and the series.  I think that Shamus is right that the problems started much earlier than the ending of ME3 and that the fact that ME2 and ME3 spent time abandoning what ME1 had set up but didn’t replace that with anything else was going to make it extremely difficult to create a satisfying ending.  I also agree that the worldbuilding in ME1 and the things that they didn’t ditch from that game were the only things that worked in ME3 (the Genophage, the Quarian/Geth conflict), and so if they had done more worldbuilding and kept more from ME1 things would have worked better.  But I also think that the ending would have been better received if it, itself, had been better.  If the ending was done well, then the reactions would have been much less angry.  And the ending could have been done much better, even if it didn’t have that much to work with.  I’m going to take another couple of posts and talk about how I think that could have been done.

3 Responses to “Mess Effect”

  1. Marc McKenzie Says:

    I’m currently playing the Legacy Edition of MASS EFFECT and while I never finished ME3 on my 360, I did finish 1 and 2. The first one had a solid story, but reading your post I can see the flaws in ME2’s story….

    …Not that it’s dampened my enjoyment of the game at all. The characters really make the story and I’m interested to see what my reaction to ME3 will be. I pretty much ignored the spoilers about the ending.

    For me, though, the main thing about all the games is about how your actions, good or bad, will have consequences. I remember seeing people gloat about how they were badass Renegades in ME1 only to start complaining about how their actions came back to bite them in the caboose in ME2 and 3.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      When I played the game the first time, my character was kinda in-between but leaned Renegade. For the most part, she was willing to do what it takes to get the job done. but was insanely loyal to her crew. I don’t recall there being any really terrible consequences from that.

      For your actions having an impact on the world, I think Dragon Age did it better, at least in the original one (Origins). It was also a bit less judgemental because it didn’t have a Paragon/Renegade divide. And now that I’m also replaying Mass Effect from the Legendary collection, I am struck by how much stronger NARRATIVELY Dragon Age was. On the other hand, Mass Effect has a much more open world than Dragon Age did.

      I’d be interested in seeing what your reaction to the endings in ME3 will be as well, because in my case I did know most of it before I went in.

  2. Mass Effect Ending: Revelation vs Ending | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] as I talked about last week, while I agree with Shamus Young that the Mass Effect trilogy had problems long before the ending, […]

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