Even With All Its Content, Mass Effect is an Incomplete Work
Warning! As usual, this post contains spoilers for Mass Effect 3. One day we’ll stop writing that — but it is not this day.
Mass Effect 3 is a curious case in the world of storytelling.
It’s not the only work of fiction ever to experience fan pressure that created a situation in which its authors, in some way or another, reworked its ending. But it is one of the rare examples of a story in which the authors created an ending, then had a chance to go back, to think about what they had to created, to expand on it and clarify it.
And yet, even with multiple downloadable content packs and an “Extended Cut” addition to its ending, which adds a significant amount of additional dialog and context to what BioWare originally created, many Mass Effect fans are still incensed about the failing of Mass Effect 3 to conclude the trilogy in a satisfactory way.
This week’s three-part reinterpretation of Mass Effect 3′s ending and its Catalyst character by Phil Owen, for which he replayed the entire series and all its downloadable and expanded content, has shown that there are multiple potential readings of Mass Effect that can help make sense of the series. But despite all the context BioWare has added to the situation, the best assessment of the material is that the trilogy is still, in a word, incomplete. Owen’s work found a way to read intentions in the authorship and a line of thinking that makes for some interesting insight — and it also reveals that, even with all the content BioWare added or could have added, making sense of it continues to require a lot of leaps of logic.
Owen’s work looks to interpret the statements made by the Catalyst, the apparent creator and controller of the Reapers, Mass Effect’s giant genocidal machines that return to the galaxy every once in a while to cleanse it of higher organic life. The original ending of Mass Effect 3 introduced the Catalyst through some quick lines of exposition, as an injured and bleeding protagonist Commander Shepard questioned him at the game’s conclusion. The Catalyst presented three choices for how to end the Reaper threat, all of which seemed to make little sense in context of the themes of the greater game and series.
The anger over the ending, which felt rushed and slapdash at best and which did a poor job of offering a satisfying conclusion to the three-game journey, was intense and, I still think, warranted. In response, BioWare created a few pieces of content that further expanded on that original ending — the Extended Cut DLC, which added further layers and explanation to the actual dialogue of the Catalyst and epilogues that put the choices into context, and the Leviathan DLC, which presented information about the Catalyst from the perspective of its creators. But what did these things add to the overall package, really?
With the games in a complete state, it’s possible to take all the textual evidence of the work together, from front to back. Owen’s playthrough, research and analysis was an attempt to try to use the series as a whole to understand the Catalyst better. With all the hints and subtleties throughout the series, all the things said by all the characters, and with all the DLC — basically, every thing BioWare had created, expanded and clarified — would one’s view of the Catalyst change? Would new insight be possible?
What Owen found was that, yes, it is possible to see some interesting potential undercurrents to the plan with the Catalyst and the motivations and actions of the Reapers, and his findings are very interesting for players of the series, in my view. But even as he developed an idea of what the Catalyst is actually up to, and more importantly, why, the primary work had been done by him — not by BioWare.
That’s not to say that nuance and understatement are effective literary tools, or that BioWare should have removed all mystery from Mass Effect to allow for a perfect reading. But instead what we’re left with is exposition built on a shaky foundation. Not everything has to be explained so long as what is makes sense, and while Owen’s read of Mass Effect is an interesting one, to me it still has to do too much of the work filling in holes. There’s evidence that suggests his read is potentially a correct one, but if any of those factors he’s forced to make assumptions about goes the other way, it can fall apart.
Even with the ability to basically clarify its endings into anything it wanted, with, at least in theory, creative freedom in issuing the Extended Cut and the Leviathan DLCs, Mass Effect 3 remains inadequate as a complete story. It still seems to run contrary to its own themes; it still seems to undervalue the life of its world after painstakingly creating a galaxy teeming with it; it still seems to favor “lots of speculation for everyone” over making a cogent narrative.
And what’s more, having all the information together in one place about the story still doesn’t leave us with any good way to make the overall Mass Effect series into something satisfying, because no matter what, the Catalyst still represents a painfully huge hole in the plot. He removes Shepard’s ability to be Shepard — there’s no agency behind the final choice of the series. After three games of being the lynchpin player in galactic politics essential to stopping the Reaper threat, Shepard picks one of three basically identical options.
The Extended Cut added epilogues that explain the context for each choice’s outcome, but they’re still all identical in serious, meaningful ways. And that makes the false choice so much harder to swallow. After three games in which Shepard’s agency was the crux of the plot, in the final moments, she’s stripped of it. As Owen points out, she’s basically a cog in another character’s machine.
The one thing that’s clear from spending the time with Owen to work through his analysis of Mass Effect’s textual evidence, and his interpretation of authorial intent in the Catalyst, was just how much there was to draw on — and how little it amounted to. BioWare skirts dealing with the ultimate conclusion of its series even as it “expands” on it. Was the trouble that the developer bought Sovereign’s line about the Reapers being unknowable, or just that good ideas about the direction of the series weren’t forthcoming until it was too late?
We’ll probably never know. That doesn’t mean continuing to look into the universe of Mass Effect isn’t without its benefits, especially with more games coming in the franchise and with the massive cultural impact the series has had on many players. And it’s clear that video game storytelling must be more than a figure-it-out-as-you-go enterprise, if those stories are going to have any lasting meaning.