Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut

07 Jul 2012

Mass Effect is over. Finally.

With Extended Cut, the trilogy has been completed and an end placed on the story of Commander Shepard. While it is certainly possible that more content will be released and more stories will be told in this universe, Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut finishes a series that has lasted half a decade — a series that did for video game storytelling what the Halo games did for first-person shooters.

Commander Shepard is, despite her intentions or desires, a hero and she is thrust into situations where she is the only person able to prevent the complete destruction of every living creature in the universe. But Mass Effect was also a series about the struggle against forces greater than yourself and against powers well outside of your ability to control: there were events that could not be prevented and there were costs that had to be paid.

While the original Mass Effect game provided players with the ability to make decisions, it was not until the sequels that those choices became significant — they were transformed from simple binaries of good/evil and nice/mean into questions of expedience versus difficulty; of faith versus reason; of desperation versus integrity. Bioware created a universe where players could aim to be anti-heroes or paragons of virtue with room to slide between the two, but they also made actions, and the manner by which they were enacted, have consequences.

It made for an interesting gaming experience. Casual ruthlessness was easy and often fun, but it could have results that spanned the duration of the series; likewise, adhering to virtuous ideals might make the present much more difficult, but later provide benefits that could not have been foreseen at the time. What we did and the way that we did it felt important, because we were able to understand and examine the results of our actions (and inactions).

Which brings us to the ending of Mass Effect 3, wherein all of the decisions we have made prior and all of our original intentions culminate in the ultimate choice of the series: Shepard is responsible for the fate of every creature, every species, and every bit of life in the universe. It can prove to be an incredibly difficult decision — particularly because it toys with some of our fundamental understandings of the game world – and one that will have have effects much grander in scale than any prior action. Regardless of how the player ends the series, Mass Effect 3’s final heroic moments will be tragic, in at least one sense.

One of the problems with this original ending of the game is that, unlike every other moment in the series, the player is given no indication of what the results of that final decision are. We see a few vague cutscenes that seem to indicate only that we have “succeeded”, but not how or why or what is left behind or at what cost. For a series that was so good at providing conclusions, the original ending feels incredibly lack-luster. It was an infuriating end to an otherwise incredible series.

Fortunately, enough fans raised hell until Bioware agreed to release Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut which, although leaving the ultimate decision mostly unchanged, better explained the options and revealed their consequences and, in doing so, they reiterated a major theme of the last two games: that there are not necessarily “right” choices. Can the cost of victory be too great when the battle is on a galactic scale? What use are ideals when the very notion of “life” is at stake? Good people can die, bad people can have the right idea, and the best possible outcome can be different for each individual.

Does Extended Cut resolve the series into a perfect story that will leave each player satisfied and resolved? Of course not. There are still gaping problems with regards to the coherence of the entire Mass Effect 3 finale that are frustrating to anyone interested in the idea of storytelling or narrative structure or a complete product. With regards to those problems with the game, there could be no simple solution: Bioware would have had to create a new ending that completely altered the last scenes of the game. Even then, I would likely still complain that the ending should require some agency from player instead of being a cinematic. It also would not hurt to, in some way, involve the characters that we have come to appreciate and care for through the course of the story – as was done expertly with Mass Effect 2’s suicide mission.

All of this to say that Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut fixed what it could and ignored what it could not. It provided a pretty important piece to a story that easily passed one hundred hours: closure. I was able to walk away from it with resolution to a world that I spent so much time exploring and to the characters that I explored that world with. It is not perfect, but it is an ending; that will have to do.