Anyone with a video game console has probably at least heard of the Mass Effect series. You may also have heard that the much-anticipated final game in the trilogy, Mass Effect 3, came out in March to rave critical reviews. Or you may have heard that its ending created an uproar, prompting massive backlash from fans, write-in campaigns, and even a promise from its creators, Bioware, to build and release an "extended" ending this summer to placate the fans upset by the current ending.
As a quick summary for the uninitiated, the Mass Effect series follows Commander Shepard, a player-character who tries to save the galaxy from a race of monstrous mechanical beings called the Reapers bent on exterminating organic life. Throughout the course of his saga over three games he must deal with the distrust and skepticism of other races in the galaxy, who have little experience with humanity and are distracted by their own concerns. What made the story unique was that the player's choices had long-ranging impacts that carried over from game to game. You could be a "paragon" or a "renegade," take sides in conflicts that could end or save millions of lives, and even lose main characters who would have had an important role to play down the road. It had the scope and the promise of a truly self-made story, and by and large it delivered.
I've been turning it over and over again in my mind, trying to decide what to write about. At first I considered reviewing the game, offering the Culture Brats community my thoughts on--and awe for--the experience I had just completed. Then I considered taking up the debate over video games as an art form, roundly dismissed by both Roger Ebert and my wife, neither of whom have put the effort into Bioshock, Red Dead Redemption, or Portal that would render their opinions meaningful. I even thought of diving into the debate about the ending, and about who really owns a created work shared by the masses: is it the creator whose vision it represents (a la George Lucas) or is it the fans who have adored and adopted it as part of their lives (a la anyone who remembers when Han shot first)?
I thought about it, and thought about it more. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that maybe that was the story.... that I can't stop thinking about the series. Now that I've completed it, I miss it. I desperately miss it.
The ending was indeed a let-down, a confusing and rushed anti-climax that was out of synch in both tone and content with everything that happened before. It provoked the same emotions I felt about the finales of Lost and Battlestar Galactica, which lacked the logical and emotional satisfaction I (and I think we all) had thought the plot and characters deserved. But what so impressed me about it, despite all that, is that I had those emotions for the same reasons... because the rest of the series was so very good, and because I cared so much. I spent hours discussing timelines and theories about Lost; I literally had a standing meeting in my office every Thursday morning to break down the previous night's episode with co-workers. With Mass Effect I would download all the add-on content, watch videos of alternate endings (the ending of each game was unique to the player based on the choices you made), and even considered crossing a dangerous barrier between geek and nerd: buying an action figure when you're over the age of 14. (I didn't, for the record).
I cared about the Mass Effect universe, so richly realized in both depth and breadth. I cared about the characters, each of whom had a complex personality and a unique emotional relationship with me because of how I chose to interact with them. I cared about the choices I made, terrified that a decision would start a war, doom the galaxy, or worse, kill a friend. It was a game, but it was also a world that sucked me in and engaged me on a truly intimate level, as much as Middle Earth, Hogwarts, and a galaxy far, far away ever did.
I'm sad at the ending of Mass Effect mostly because it IS the ending. Mass Effect was a triumpant galaxy-spanning space opera, but it was also a journey of discovery. Over the 100+ hours I put into the series, I explored gorgeous and grim new worlds, unlocked head-spinning mysteries, faced threats and played politics with uncertain, often species-threatening outcomes. As conflicted as I feel about the ending, it can't take away what I cherished most about the experience: the long late nights when my eyes would widen in disbelief or my heart would race with anticipation and dread.
To those who have never picked up a controller, I tell you it's time. Some of the greatest stories being told today--by some of the greatest storytellers--are being told through games like Mass Effect. Don't let the mindless drones playing Call Of Duty dissuade you; would you skip Moneyball or Tree Of Life because everyone went to see Transformers? To those who thinks games are for kids, it's time to stop acting like the medium hasn't evolved since Pac-Man or Super Mario Bros. In the right hands--the hands of Bioware, for example--they can be intelligent, affecting, and sophisticated, while still delivering a wicked punch.
And to those gamers I know who haven't played Mass Effect 3 because of what they've heard, I say don't be a fool. Why rob yourself of a grand and rewarding finale, to finally choose whether to end the genophage, forge peace between the Geth and the Quarians, and hope you have the strength and support to face down the Reapers in a final conflict for the preservation of all life. (I hope that didn't just shut down the brains of everyone else...) There are 30+ hours of heart-pounding, bittersweet, and totally epic battles leading up to final reckoning, and only the last few minutes--like the frog scene at the end of Magnolia--are debatable.
When I say "epic" this is what I'm talking about.
I can't help thinking about how rare and wonderful it is for something to affect me so. The argument about whether video games are a form of art or not is beside the point, like arguing about whether an ocean sunset or a stolen kiss are special or not. If it moves you, then that's all that matters. A team of designers, programmers, and QA testers lovingly assembled a marvelously paced, fully-realized narrative that grabbed me and still hasn't let me go. I completed the suicide mission of Mass Effect 2 two years ago and I still can't get it out of my head. (Best video game mission ever, BTW) I'm sure Mass Effect 3 will be haunting me for just as long.
And like all great things, it must come to an end, and for me it has. Sure, I can play it again, do things differently--perhaps go renegade, romance Ashley instead of Liara, maybe even cozy up to the Illusive Man a little more--but it will be nostalgia instead of discovery. I'm envious of those who still haven't played it, who still haven't met Garrus or Mordin, and who haven't yet been to Virmire, Tuchanka, or the Lair of the Shadow Broker.
So do it. Trust me. Buy an Xbox 360 if you have to. Not just for yourselves, but for me, so I may live vicariously through you. I'll be staring over your shoulder, scanning the galaxy map, and bouncing with excitement at what you're about to see.