Mass Effect 3′s Citadel Bad for the Game, Maybe Bad for the Future
Despite the idea that a year has passed since we all went through the trials of Mass Effect 3′s incredibly dark story and that we’ve been beaten bloody, in a figurative sense, thinking and talking about the ending of the game, Citadel still exists in the world of Mass Effect 3. We the audience might be ready for a rest from the game’s end-of-the-world plot, but it’s disingenuous to the story being told across the whole series to throw Citadel into the middle of that story and pretend it doesn’t matter. The DLC’s dialogue and story are wanting desperately for a laugh track, and they’re completely out of character of Mass Effect as a whole. Fans are required to perform mental gymnastics to keep Citadel from falling down under the pressure of Mass Effect’s themes and even Shepard’s own dialogue about jerks on the station pretending the galaxy isn’t burning down around them.
What’s more, the story is laughably bad, and while that’s kind of the point, it further weakens Mass Effect as a whole because we’re now obligated to consider Citadel a part of the greater fiction — because that’s how stories work. I don’t like Alien 3, but I don’t get to just pretend it doesn’t exist when I’m thinking or talking about Alien and Aliens. And so if we have to acknowledge Citadel as existing, we also have to acknowledge that it bends and twists Mass Effect’s characters to fit its feel-good please-have-fun lets-throw-a-party needs. Liara is not a jokester. Shepard is not okay with hanging out in an apartment that would reasonably be unattainable by all but the most Mark Zuckerbergian of sentient beings in the ME universe. Stopping in the middle of the end of the world to throw a party would not occur to these people.
So while I get it — it’s “fun” to have “closure” with “our” characters — this isn’t a great way to get it. Citadel feels like a piece of fanfiction meant to serve fans’ goofy desires to get exactly what they want out of characters, whether those things are true to those characters or not. Tali sings and Wrex dances, for crap’s sake. I half-expected some crazy slash-fic situation to pop up in the hot tub in Shepard’s apartment.
Why Citadel is Kind of Bad For Us
Here’s the thing, though. You can enjoy your crazy fever dream farewell catharsis (colleague and friend Phil Owen, who loves Citadel, considers it a hallucination Shepard is having on the ground next to the beam to the Citadel during Mass Effect 3′s end game), but if you enjoy it and you say so and you spend money on it, you might be confirming BioWare’s stated suspicions: that you just needed a happy ending.
One of the worst and most devastating arguments surrounding the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy was that it was the ending’s bleak tone and bleaker conclusion that triggered such animosity from fans, but that’s not true at all — it was the ending’s total abandonment of established themes and characterization that made it bad. It didn’t feel like Mass Effect and it didn’t stay true to the journey heretofore experienced by players.
Citadel is the exact same departure from character and tone, which makes it a weak addition to the story; furthermore, whether it means to be or not, it’s a manipulative one.
Most people I’ve spoken with consider Citadel just the Mass Effect team’s final hurrah, a chance to make something light and fun that the developers felt like creating because they like their own universe. It may well be that, but for the sake of the hypothetical, let’s entertain another notion: that Citadel is targeted at fans who remain frustrated and annoyed with BioWare’s treatment of Mass Effect’s ending and its staunch refusal to even acknowledge the valid criticism thereof. If we look at it in that light, Citadel starts to worry me.
Consider this: While it’s hard to get a really accurate picture of the Mass Effect fan base, anecdotal evidence suggests to me more often than not that many fans (we’ll avoid the term “most” for argument’s sake) are still really, really angry about Mass Effect 3. Many of those people (again, not “most”) have been soured enough that while they might have been huge BioWare fans in the past, they’re more dubious about future titles, possibly even swearing off them altogether. And of course, BioWare wants those people back.
If you were trying to get those fans back and make them happy with you again, how would you do it? Not to put too fine a point on it, but — Citadel is how.
Citadel is unblinking, unyielding fan service from start to finish. Not just in its jokey demeanor, but moment after moment is crammed in a way that gives off that fanfiction aroma. I can’t stress this enough — it ends with Shepard throwing a party for all his crew friends. All the characters stand around and get drunk. It references such elements as the repetitive “I should go” line, and is meant to play on the emotions of fans who really are this wrapped up in the Mass Effect universe.
For my part, I can’t help but wonder if the reason Citadel is so feel-goody is that it’s trying to achieve a specific goal. It abandons all aspects that make Mass Effect 3 what it is, or make Mass Effect as a series what it is, in favor of playing to your every character call-back whim. It wants you to leave feeling satisfied, and it’s willing to mortgage or sell off every aspect of Mass Effect’s soul to achieve that goal. It’s too hard to ignore those elements in light of the greater context of the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy.
What bothers me most, though, is that Citadel represents all the worst possible lessons from the ending debacle. If Citadel achieves the goal of bringing fans back into the fold, it doesn’t bode well for future game stories from the studio, in my mind. Imagine it: You’re working on the hard-hitting ending for Dragon Age 4 that includes every character dying. It’s sad, but that’s the story the game needs to tell, and furthermore, it fits the tone and characters you’ve created in the game up to that point. But then a suit wanders up and tells you the ending has to be happy, because the suit learned from the success of Citadel that people like happy endings.
Citadel isn’t about good storytelling, it’s about feel-good storytelling. And it’s not that there’s no place for that in either games or in Mass Effect — indeed, break Citadel up into 20 or so pieces and it would have worked great sprinkled throughout Mass Effect 3. But the DLC represents a departure from what Mass Effect is, and it sets a precedent in which pandering to fans supersedes telling great stories well. And that’s no better than the situation we were left with at the end of Mass Effect 3 a year ago.
BioWare’s success was born of its ability to tell deep stories with relatable characters, often with a willingness to attack dark themes and ideas. Mass Effect covers genocide, racism, politics, as well as friendship, acceptance and unity, and touching on those elements and treating them in a smart, believable way is what drew so many of us to the series.
I worry that a post-Citadel future will see a departure from tough subjects in favor of more singalongs, dance sessions, drunken parties and giant apartments with hot tubs. That’s not why I like BioWare, and it’s not why I like Mass Effect.