Tag: Mass Effect (page 2 of 5)

The End of Shepard

Courtesy BioWare
Using this picture again, because Garrus calms me down.

So now is when we discuss the ending to Mass Effect 3. I know it’s been discussed and being discussed all over the Internet as I type this. One of the best articles on the subject is over at GameFront and the Escapist podcast gives a good slice of opinions on the subject from people not frothing at the mouth in entitled rage.

Let me tackle that issue first to ensure I push spoiler material past most summary snippets.

I’m as flabbergasted by the endings to Mass Effect 3 as anyone. Moreover, I feel that at least a couple of the problems I have with them could be solved with some quick edits that leave the overall ‘message’ (if there is one) intact. But as much as I would like to see what I consider to be improvements applied to this conclusion to satisfy me personally, I know full well it may never happen. Just like we’ll never get a truly & universally satisfying end to the Star Wars prequels, or that “other” Indiana Jones movie, or Battlestar Galactica, or LOST, or the Transformers live-action films, we may never get one for Mass Effect.

Now, I’m not saying gamers shouldn’t try. I’m not saying we can’t be upset. The problem I have is in the way gamers are approaching it. Raising money for charity to make BioWare aware of this wide-spread disappointment is one thing, but to claim we want to “retake” it is preposterous. Mass Effect and its universe was never really ours, not entirely. It is a product of BioWare’s creative minds and programming chops, and to a lesser extent, it also belongs to EA’s marketing department just as much as Madden does. Yes, we add to the experience of the game by playing it, by making decisions, and by growing attached to its rich cast of deep characters. And as participants in the story, we can and should have something to say about how it ends. But we never owned it, outside of purchasing a copy of the game disc or downloading it onto our PC. There’s nothing to “retake”.

Now. Let’s talk about the actual endings. This is bound to get a bit long, so grab a drink. You may need a few, actually.

The Death Knell of Choice

Once Shepard talks The Illusive Man (hereafter referred to as TIM) into blowing his brains out in a nice if somewhat inexplicable call back to the first game, he’s conveyed via magic elevator into the Crucible. There the Starchild or whatever it actually is tells Shepard (and, by extension, us), that the Reapers do not in fact slaughter organic life as part of their reproductive cycle or just because they’re evil eldritch sci-fi horror-terrors. It is part of a “natural” cycle created to ultimately preserve organic life. The Reapers destroy sufficiently advanced civilizations so that they will not destroy themselves and all other life when they inevitably create synthetic life.

Courtesy BioWare
“It has been my plan all along to destroy organic life in the galaxy down to the last squirrel. Except for Jeff.
“… That is a joke.”

First of all, Shepard should be able to point outside the window at EDI. She’s spent the entire game exploring the aspects of organic living she doesn’t understand in an entirely peaceful way. And if you, like me, managed to broker peace between the Quarians and the Geth, then you have another huge example as to why the reasons for this cycle are monumentally flawed. While both races have work ahead of them to repair rifts left by racial hatred and near-genocide on both sides, the evidence exists that the peace will last, and synthetic and organic can work side by side without any sort of artificial reset button of face-melty death.

Just as perplexing is the notion that this sort of wholesale slaughter is necessary to preserve lesser species. It’s a given fact that organic life in general can get pretty wild. It does tend towards patterns of chaos rather than the rigid order of manufactured forms. However, imposing order on that chaos does not mean destroying it. When I want to prune a bonsai tree, I do it with tiny shears and patience, not a blowtorch. The Starchild is basically imposing SOPA on the universe with organic life taking the place of the Internet.

But Shepard, beaten and half-dead, just kind of rolls with it. The Starchild presents three options: Destroy the Reapers (and, he says, all other synthetic life in the galaxy), control them (because that was such a hot idea when TIM was ranting about it all Huskified just minutes before), or synthesize synthetic life with organic life. Let’s leave aside the two obvious ones and look at that last one. Instead of doing what we’ve been doing all game long, brokering peace and helping people overcome differences to work together towards a common goal, we are essentially forcing every individual being in the galaxy to forgo all differences to become a single, homogenized race. They are given no say in this. It all comes down to what Shepard wants. I mean, all three endings have this problem and the word choice of the kid in the stinger calling him “the Shepard” seems to indicate this messianic overtone carried over into whatever life survives this idiotic illusion of choice.

I say “illusion” of choice because they are all essentially the same. All three endings end the same way. The Reapers are dealt with, the mass relays are destroyed, and the Normandy struggles to outrun an explosion. I’ll deal with those last two later. Stepping back and looking at the endings from a broader perspective, we see that the only true difference is a swap of colors and a few different graphical assets. The original Mass Effect only swapped dialog lines, it’s true, but those lines and choices actually had an impact on the games the followed. The finality of these endings, however, precludes any sort of feeling that we made that big a difference. We see nothing of what our teammates after those last moments on Earth. There’s no way to know how the galaxy reacted to its fate. There’s no closure. It’s an ending instead of a conclusion, an abrupt and forced truncation of the story of Shepard that leaves the player empty and unsatisfied.

The Indoctrination Theory

If you take a closer look at this, carefully prying up the cow patties BioWare seems to have left all over their trilogy, evidence exists of something deeper going on. Several sources on the Internet have pieced together moments and snippets of lore throughout all three games to put together the following theory. To me, it’s a bit of a stretch, but not much.

Since the very first Mass Effect, we’ve known that one of the most insidious weapons in the arsenal of the Reapers is the process known as “indoctrination”. An individual of sufficient power or influenced exposed to the Reapers begins to come around to a way of thinking not necessarily their own. Their reasoning seems sound and logical to them, but to the outside observer it’s clearly flawed, even dangerous. This influence is pervasive, creeping into the thoughts and dreams of the target often without their knowledge. This is called indoctrination. It happened to Saren. It happened to TIM.

And some say it happens to Shepard.

Courtesy BioWare
After all, Harbinger’s thing has always been to assume direct control…

The VI taking the form of a little boy Shepard failed to save in the prologue doesn’t make much sense even in the rather dumb “a form you can understand” explanation given in things like Contact. At least Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation used human perceptions of him to make various points or play some pranks. The Starchild, though, isn’t just present at the end. Shepard sees the sprog in nightmares throughout the game. And the nightmares, while carrying the voices of lost comrades and the cries of the dying, also are possessed of an inky blackness that pervades them, just as inky black tendrils try to creep into Shepard’s perceptions during his showdown with TIM.

The evidence doesn’t stop there, according to this theory. Consider the “choices” offered. Two of the three of them end with Shepard dead and the Reapers alive. In synthesis they exist in a new form but they continue to exist. And in the control option, even if Shepard believes himself to be strong-willed enough to call them off, they still live. Only the destruction option matches up with Shepard’s goals, but two things happen that not only are meant to dissuade players from choosing them but give subtle hints that there’s more going on. First, the Starchild plays down the option, saying that destroying the Reapers is not enough, and the explosion will kill all synthetic life. For a weapon painstakingly designed to only kill Reapers, this seems incongruous. Second, the option and its explosion are colored red, the color of Renegades. It’s directly opposite the control option, colored Paragon blue, despite it being in line with TIM’s wishes, to which Paragons are staunchly opposed.

The cherry on this theory is that with enough readiness and war assets, when the destruction option is chosen and the result plays out, a hint is slipped into the end that Shepard survives the ordeal. This is probably the ‘best’ ending possible, very hard to attain, and yet it comes bundled with free genocide for the Geth? There’s something wrong, here. Either it’s yet another facet of the ending I simply cannot grok as a writer, or the Reapers are lying to you.

The Real Problems

Even if this theory proves true, or BioWare reveals some other greater agenda to explain away the aforementioned malarkey, the real problems of the endings still exist. We’re not just watching Shepard make some sort of sacrifice to deal with the Reapers once and for all. We’re watching the end of galactic civilization as we know it, and we’re watching perhaps the cruelest betrayal in all three games combined.

The mass relays are destroyed. And the Normandy abandons you.

Let’s tackle the bigger one first. The DLC Arrival had you destroying the Alpha relay, an act that wrecked the system so thoroughly that hundreds of thousands of innocent beings died. This was why Shepard was on Earth in the first place, facing down trial for that act. And then, at the end of Mass Effect 3, we apparently destroy every single relay in the galaxy. That’s going to be a LOT of dead people.

Let’s assume that this isn’t the case, and some sort of space magic preserves trillions of lives from the big booms. Civilization’s still pretty fucked up. While it’s an established fact that FTL drives do exist on all civilized spacecraft in the galaxy, they are a great deal slower than using the mass relays. Journeys that take hours or days would take years without them. So those aliens who lept to your aid at Earth now have to limp their way home. If you managed to assemble the largest force possible, this means the quarians who finally retook their home planet may never see it again. It means the krogan possibly freed from the genophage will never actually sire children on Tuchanka. I think you get the idea. I’m not entirely sure if galaxy-wide communications relied on the mass relays or not, but if they did, Shepard saved the galaxy only to plunge it into a dark age. Fierce fighting over fiefdoms and religious zealotry ahoy!

Courtesy Relic Entertainment
Pictured: James Vega twenty years after the ‘liberation’ of Earth.

But even beyond this issue there’s one even more personal. The Normandy has been our home for three games, moreso in the last two. The final game even makes an effort to put a more lived-in feel into the ship, with crew members wandering around and conversing freely with one another without our prompting. This ship and her crew have been there for Shepard through thick and thin. They flew through the Omega-4 relay in Mass Effect 2 knowing it was a suicide mission. In fact, at the start of Mass Effect 3, the ship was grounded. To get to Shepard as quickly as they did, the Normandy had to have already been airborne when the Reapers hit. They knew what was coming and they knew their commander needed them. And yet at the very end, when Earth is on the cusp of rescue and their leader making a dire and perhaps final choice, what do they do?

Apparently, according to BioWare, they tuck tail and run as fast as they can. It’s possible they didn’t know about the space magic that would keep the mass relay explosion from killing them all, and were trying to escape before what happened to Bahak happened to Sol. I still don’t get that, though. They’re not just abandoning Shepard but the entire planet they just helped liberate. And how would they know it was coming? Their motivations for running are unexplained and nebulous. You do see some of them living after the whole outrunning-the-explosion bit if you had enough war assets, but again, logic comes and bites whatever happiness you can get from this stupidity right in the ass. If Garrus or Tali survived, what happens when the humans run out of dextro-friendly food? If Liara survived, how do you think she’s going to like living out her long life on this planet while every other person she survived with dies around her? They’re stranded, and with the mass relays destroyed and given the distance Joker probably jumped, chances of rescue are slim to none.

To me it would make more sense if the Normandy was caught in the blast from the relay and Joker has to struggle to keep her aloft long enough to land safely on Earth. And when they do land, depending on the war assets, either they’re all killed, they survived but the battle wiped everybody else out, or they survived and are hailed as heroes… with the notable and palpable absence of Shepard.

But hey, what do I know, I don’t write for BioWare.

The Biggest Tragedy Of All

The worst part of the endings has nothing to do with the decisions themselves or the gaping holes in the plot through which one could fly the Normandy. The worst part is how the ending of Mass Effect 3 renders every decision you’ve made over the 150+ hours spent across the trilogy completely inconsequential. It doesn’t matter if you cured the genophage, brokered the peace that ends a centuries-long race war or even how many lives you save or change just by being Shepard. In the end it all comes down to different colored explosions that basically give you the same results.

Stories have done the “what you choose doesn’t matter” ending before, and it’s been effective. Brazil and 12 Monkeys spring to mind. But those were films. These are video games. Moreover, the Mass Effect series are video games that emphasize player choice, tolerance, examinations of individuality and life itself. We are told, and invited to exemplify through gameplay, that the choices we make matter, that the direction lives take are important, and that tolerance and peace are not only possible, they are preferable to the alternatives even in our current, modern day lives. A world where different species can form friendships and even romances without any serious social implications and a man can talk about his husband in a very real and moving way is one that is definitely worth dying for.

But Shepard’s death, just like our choices, really has no meaning. I mentioned before that there’s no sense of closure. There’s also no sense of gravity to our decisions. We have no idea if the alliances we’ve forged, the peace we’ve brokered, will last beyond the multi-colored explosions we create. And in the end, we’re given to understand that it really doesn’t matter. To make everything in all three games come down to a single choice could work, if the aftermath of that choice also reflects choices we’ve made since the beginning. As it stands, those decisions carry no weight. Even in the case of the ‘best’ ending, there’s no sense that what we did was ultimately worthwhile. The whole trilogy, from who to rescue on Virmire to the events on Thessia, feels like a waste of time, because no matter what we do, the completely interchangeable endings are waiting for us.

It’s one thing to botch the ending of a video game. It’s another to ruin its replay value as a result, and another still to also destroy the replay value of the games that came before it. As a writer and a gamer, I simply cannot grok this decision.

I’m fine with Shepard dying. Just as I was with Spock dying in Wrath of Khan. It’s all a question of the how and why behind that death. If BioWare do indeed heed the criticism of their fans, there’s no reason to simply push them into a “happy” ending. But the ending should mean something. It should have an effect on us other than anger. We should feel our time was well-spent, and worth spending again. Even if the end is bittersweet or downright tragic, if it’s satisfying enough it will be worthwhile, perhaps even to the point of repetition. People watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy and all of those Star Wars films multiple times, even if the ending isn’t entirely happy, because the world is still rich and full of life and meaning after the end. As it stands now, the Mass Effect universe is left empty. Shepard’s death is essentially meaningless. Shakespeare put it best:

It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

This post may be similar, in the end. I have no idea if BioWare is actually listening. But even if they aren’t, if you’ve gotten this far and are still reading, I thank you for your time. I welcome other thoughts on this matter. And I pray that I never, ever botch the ending of anything I write this badly.

Game Review: Mass Effect 3

Endings are tricky things. It can be difficult to tie up loose ends, wrap up character arcs, and bring the lines of the plot to a satisfying conclusion. It’s as true for romantic comedies as it is for war stories, though the latter tends to be more harrowing and bittersweet in the end result. And make no mistake. Mass Effect 3 is a war story.

As an aside, I will maintain my usual policy of avoiding spoilers in the review, which is difficult in this case because the controversial ending of Mass Effect 3 has an effect on the game as a whole, but I can’t discuss it without spoiling things. I will do my best.

Courtesy BioWare

In the 6 months since the events of Mass Effect 2‘s Arrival DLC, Commander Shepard has been under house arrest on Earth. Finally brought before Alliance Command, it turns out they suddenly believe Shepard’s story about the Reapers. That’s because the Reapers invade Earth. The race of sentient murderous machines have begun a unilateral campaign of annihilation across the galaxy, and as much as Shepard would like to stay on Earth to fight, the Normandy is instead sent out to get help. And with an enemy as numerous and implacable as the Reapers, they’ll need all the help they can get.

The theme of war and an impending sense of doom hang over Mass Effect 3 like a dark shroud. The Reapers are everywhere. Even in the galaxy map, you can see them descending on system after system. Shepard has to deal with them as well as just about every friend and foe that’s been made over the course of the trilogy. This being the last game in the story, anybody who’s survived thus far is pretty much obligated to make an appearance. Thankfully, Mass Effect 3 continues the tradition of maintaining a coherent narrative in its character moments right down to incidental things like individual rescued colonists and well-meaning but overenthusiastic fans. It also looks even more polished and expressive than the previous titles, even if the pervasive lens flares get a bit irritating.

Courtesy BioWare
Actually it’s pretty mild in this shot.

The inventory and combat systems have been tweaked a bit, making things feel like a hybrid of both previous games. Shepard’s loadout is now based on weight rather than class, allowing you to customize your experience to some degree. You can load up an Infiltrator with a shotgun or a Vanguard with a sniper rifle, with the only price being an increased recharge time for your powers. Returning from the first Mass Effect are weapon mods, this time handled in their own interface rather than being buried somewhere in the general inventory system. Procurement, upgrades, and customization are all done in one place, with separate interfaces for each, making these decisions easy and actually interesting instead of the tedious chore they were in the first game.

As for combat, we continue to handle our differences in opinion in a succession of corridors full of chest-high walls. The reintroduction of grenades, however, encourages us to move around the battlefield and keep the pace and tension high. Enemies will also employ special tactics against you, such as setting up turrets, siphoning health from nearby friendlies, and approaching cautiously behind riot shields. Your powers remain satisfying to use in response, for both you and your squadmates. It bears mentioning, though, that having one button for taking cover and picking up items and using environmental highlights and just about everything else can be frustrating when you meant to take cover but wind up trying to hack a terminal while angry enemy warriors use your N7 logo as a bulls-eye.

Courtesy BioWare
“My momma says I’m pretty.”

The scanning mechanic of the previous game also makes a return, but it’s not quite as crap. The removal of resource-gathering, the reduced time to find a particular item, and the chance of getting chased down by angry Reapers actually makes it a bit fun to search for war assets. The purpose of scanning this time around is not to buy fancy upgrades but to bolster the war effort. Discovered assets and forged alliances can be viewed in the Normandy‘s war room, along with a ‘readiness rating’ that reflects participation in the multiplayer, iOS interactions, and possibly other aspects as well. The goal is to gather as much support and firepower as possible in order to, in theory, get the best ending.

While it’s to be expected that a war story is going to have all sorts of tragedy and noble death, it must be said that Mass Effect 3 does a great deal of it quite well. Despite some of the forced tragedy of the opening, some of the character moments are absolutely amazing. We get the feeling that things we’ve done in the previous games do, in fact, have lasting meaning. Characters we’ve come to know and love come out guns blazing, defending their ideals to the death and showing just how much influence one individual can have. These moments, combined with the smooth combat, improved world-map hunting, and some above-average dialog even by BioWare standards, had me absolutely adoring the Mass Effect 3 experience…

Courtesy BioWare
Wouldn’t be a story about Shepard without Garrus.

…right up until the ending. Which I will discuss tomorrow.

Stuff I Liked: The variety of weapons and the ability to try them out on Shepard no matter what your class. The diversity of the enemies that required tactical thinking to overcome. The revamped Normandy and the way crew members walked around it naturally instead of being stuck in one place constantly.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: The reduced number of conversation choices, while allowing things to move more quickly, felt a little off, as if choices were being made for me. The finicky use/cover button. So many lens flares. The occasional graphical glitch or clipping issue. And while I appreciated Kai Leng’s role as a villain, was it necessary to make him a space ninja?
Stuff I Loved: The tight focus on characters. The smartly-written dialog. The casual and progressive way in which the game handles same-sex relationships. The way every decision feels important, and the ways the game shows you the consequences of those decisions, until the ending begins.

Bottom Line: Mass Effect 3 is like going out to dinner with a bunch of old friends. You have some drinks, laugh about old times. The food is delicious and the company’s fantastic. It’s a deeply satisfying experience… and then, suddenly, your friends are gone, you’re stuck with the massive check, and something on your plate was undercooked and now you have food poisoning. The ending ruins what was otherwise a great gaming experience.

My Favorite Quarian

Courtesy BioWare

This has become something of a tradition. BioWare’s games tend to eat up a lot of my time, and the habit has become to dash out a post as I push myself towards the usually somewhat disappointing ending. I’m doing my best to keep my fingers in my ears to drown out all of the entitled whining, bitching, and moaning going on regarding Mass Effect 3, so before I reach the conclusion of an overall fascinating sci-fi trilogy, let me break up the crusty surface of cynicism that is current gaming-related writing and talk about something sweet.

Or rather, someone.

Back when I first played the original Mass Effect, I thought all of the characters had something going for them. Even if Ashley Williams was a horrible racist, she was interesting. Saren, despite being the villain, did what all good villains did and had nuances to explore and motivations that, while extreme and ultimately very wrong, one could understand from a certain point of view. But as much as I loved sniping with Garrus or headbutting with Wrex, over the appeal of a blue-skinned bisexual bookworm, I was taken by Tali’Zorah nar Rayya.

From the very start, Tali showed she was fully capable of taking care of herself in a galaxy poised to swallow up a young woman out on her own for the first time. Very smart, unflinching in combat, and with a wicked tongue adept at snark, Tali’s experience with machinery made her an invaluable asset in the fight against Saren and the geth. Indeed, her experiences not only helped her complete the Pilgrimage her people all took on the cusp of adulthood, but also allowed her to return to the Migrant Fleet with more information and confidence than she could have imagined at the start of it all.

My primary Shepard is male and is trained as an Infiltrator. This unfortunately meant that he and Tali shared some redundant skills, so the adventures they shared on that first outing were not as numerous as they would have been otherwise. I took the time to talk with her as much as I could on board the Normandy, at least, but there was no option to really get to know her better, not like there was with Liara or Ashley. And considering I wasn’t about to let Kaiden die if I could help it, that limited the infamous romance options to Mass Effect to exactly one.

And then BioWare announced the option to romance Tali would be in the sequel, Mass Effect 2.

Sing, choirs of angels.

Considering this was long before Lair of the Shadow Broker, it seemed that Liara would remain a distant figure throughout the second game. I was okay with this for two reasons. One, it added a lot of much-needed depth to her character and made a great deal of sense given her brilliant mind. The other one, of course, was that I could look into Tali’s feeling without feeling a great deal of guilt. That was my rationale for that play-through, at least, and it was worth it to hear Tali stammering a little when the subject came up. Seeing Tali grow between games into a full-fledged adult Quarian with responsibility and leadership skills was heartening. Tali’Zorah vas Neema (and, later, vas Normandy) continued to show exemplary skill in Mass Effect 2, and provided an emotionally charged loyalty mission that is still very much worth doing even if you’re not pursuing her romantically.

I know there are some out there who consider romancing Tali a somewhat creepy option. It’s possible to see her as just another video game damsel in distress, a fulfillment of some sort of juvenile male power fantasy involving a young and ineffectual girl unable to survive without the strong hand of a man behind her. When I look at Tali, though, I don’t get that. Setting personal bias aside, her first encounter on the Citadel has her brushing off unwanted attentions, easily evading capture through clever deception and explosives use, and immediate participation in the ensuing firefight. She can handle herself. She doesn’t need a man in her life. And being attracted to that capability, that bravery, and those smarts is creepy? Seriously, I do not get “cool” cynical hate-filled gamers sometimes. Making decisions in Mass Effect 2 specifically so she has no option but to stay with you, though, that is creepy, and a little sad.

Anyway, after a Hardcore play-through as a female Vanguard, I resurrected my Infiltrator to play through both games on Insanity. Revisiting the first game was fun, and also afforded me with an opportunity to make a few decisions differently, including deflecting advances from both female characters. Basically, I held out for Tali. And considering how things have turned out so far, now that I’ve completed events on the planet Rannoch in Mass Effect 3, I can tell you it was definitely worth it.

Games need more characters like Tali. Her presence is strong, a good mix of smarts and combat capability, with occasional touches of femininity and deep emotion that make her far more interesting than most obligatory video game love interests. To me, at least, she’s one of the best things about the Mass Effect trilogy in general, and this final game in particular. So far, at least. We’ll see how that bears out at the end.

Keelah se’lai.

Tension Is Good

Courtesy BioWare

If you have any connection whatsoever to video games in general, you know Mass Effect 3 got released yesterday. Reviews are up all over the place, including this great one at the Escapist, along with the requisite whining from entitled gamers about how the DLC issue should have prompted a boycott and conversations about leaked ending footage, blah blah blah. For me it’s off to a good start, even if the character of Jason Vega is a little ridiculous, but what has my attention, not just as a gamer but as a writer, is how tense everything feels.

In the previous game, there was a lack of urgency save for the very last mission. You could putter around the galaxy doing whatever you liked and there was no consequence for it. I highly doubt Mass Effect 3 will punish me for going after side-quests or taking time to chat people up, but now I have a feeling for the stakes right from the beginning. The threat is not imminent or implied – it’s here, and needs to be dealt with now.

This feeling of tension is bleeding into the dialog. BioWare’s always been decent at characterization through conversation, and so far this game is living up to their other best titles. There have already been moments within the scant few hours I’ve played where characters have left things unsaid, conveying emotion far more deeply in the spaces between words than in the words themselves. While some of these moments are open to interpretation based on how you personally want to play the game, the fact that this depth and complexity exists at all in a modern AAA shooting game earns early top marks from me.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution did this, too. Being a man of few words, Adam didn’t always say exactly what was on his mind. Especially after the attack that lead him to becoming an augmented one-man assault force, he plays things close to his ballistic vest. The nature of the dialog bosses and the moment when he reaches what he believes to be his ultimate goal make great use of tension. It’s clear evidence that the right word, spoken or unspoken, can have just as much power as a well-placed bullet.

In games it’s very easy to let the dialog fill in expository gaps to get the player from one shooting gallery to the next. It’s far more difficult to make the player care about the pixelated people involved in the action. By showing instead of telling, by keeping this tension high and filling conversations with hesitation and uncertainty, the writers give the action that follows more weight. We don’t just want to survive the firefight or earn the rewards or teabag the bag guys. We want to find out what happens after, what the next conversation holds, if the guy gets the girl (or guy) who clearly wants to their feelings to be noticed even if they don’t say anything about them, if an issue is going to be dealt with or avoided… It’s the tension, not the shooting, that keeps the narrative moving. This isn’t just a good thing. It’s a great thing.

You can, and should, do this as well in your writing. By keeping conversations tight and holding back on exposition and explanation, you make your reader want to know more. The promise of answers, not necessarily the delivery, is what will compel them to keep reading. While some stories may dangle the carrot of satisfying answers in front of you until the end before slapping you with the stick of deus ex machina or some other form of bait-and-switch, good ones leave things unanswered entirely so readers keep thinking about the story after it’s done. Did Richard and Pixel live after The Cat Who Walks Through Walls? What happened after the end of Serenity? Did Cobb actually make it home at the end of Inception? What’s Coburn’s next move after the end of Double Dead? So on and so forth. These stories raise questions at the beginning and answer them at the end, with plenty of tension in the middle and enough left at the end to leave us wanting more.

If Mass Effect 3 can pull this off, I’ll be quite pleased. And if it doesn’t, you’ll be damn sure I’ll tell you about it.

DLC: Decidedly Lavish Crap

TARDIS USB Hub

Behold, Whovians. My USB hub involves Time And Relative Dimensions In Space. I can connect to SO many devices. Some of them aren’t even of human manufacture! Muahahaha…

…okay, it’s a silly USB hub shaped like a TARDIS. I don’t need it. But it makes my life easier and it’s really cool-looking, in my humble opinion.

The TARDIS hub is, in a way, a lot like a video game’s downloadable content, colloquially called DLC.

I’m a consumer in general, of media in particular. Be it through conditioning or simple instinctual inclination, I like little optional extras. I like having a car charger for my iPhone that also has an FM transmitter. I enjoy samples of wine before a meal. And if there’s art or music above and beyond what’s included with media I really dig, you can bet I’ll be finding ways to check it out. Heck, as I type this supplemental material to the Internet narrative comic phenomenon Homestuck is winging its way to my door. Well, not winging so much as rolling, as it’s coming USPS, but you get the idea.

But I know none of these things are necessary. My life will not be diminished if they were absent. Plenty of people get by without things like this. I’m just in a position where I can enjoy such optional extras.

DLC is a lot like that.

In recent years it’s become the practice of certain big software publishers to bundle their new releases with DLC that is only available to those who pre-order or buy new. The DLC in question usually becomes available later for an additional fee. In Dragon Age: Origins, the character of Shale was only included in the initial release of the game if it was purchased new. If you got a copy second hand, you’d be deprived of the bird-stomping golem unless you paid $15 US. This was due to a launch date developers were struggling to reach, causing them to cut Shale from the project until the date was pushed back.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is another example. Pre-orders of the game from certain vendors featured the Explosive Mission Pack. This includes a bonus mission involving an important character that has appeared throughout the Deus Ex storyline in both previous games. The reward for completing it is an interesting bit of continuity and a wickedly powerful weapon. If you didn’t pre-order the game, you can download the pack (as I did) for $3 US. It’s cool to have for story buffs and the like, but it’s no more necessary to that game than Shale is to Dragon Age: Origins. Don’t get me wrong, I love Shale; I just acknowledge that she isn’t an essential part of that game.

Courtesy BioWare

The reason I’ve decided to bring this up is the imminent Reaper invasion contained in discs and downloads around the world. Mass Effect 3 is coming, and some goofball on the Internet leaked its Day One DLC. Called “From Ashes”, it is included only with Collector’s Editions of the game and has a few neat points, which are outlined here. The biggest one is an additional character, a member of the Prothean race that has been part of the Mass Effect universe from the very beginning. From what I understand, this character is like Shale in that his content and very presence is entirely optional, and if you weren’t fortunate enough to pre-order a collector’s edition of the game, you can buy the DLC separately for $10 US. BioWare contends that the game is complete and “huge” even without this DLC.

Nonetheless, there is a LOT of uproar over this. Folks threatening boycott and saying that it’s EA’s marketing doing stuff like this that’s killing the industry and exploiting the consumer. I can see where they’re coming from. I don’t like the mentality of big business publishers when it comes to things like this, and as much as a lot of the backlash to “From Ashes” sounds like a bunch of entitled whining, this sort of behavior is a major shift from their previous Mass Effect title, which included a character and other enhancements as Day One DLC for free as long as you bought the game new.

This doesn’t change the fact that DLC is optional. Provided BioWare is honest about the completeness of the game without “From Ashes”, it seems to me that this Prothean character and the module’s other content falls under “nice to have” instead of “must have”. I’ve considered not buying the game myself as I don’t want to support toxic policies like this, but on the other hand I’ve been wanting to see for myself if BioWare can come back from its recent failures. If Mass Effect 3 turns out to be as lackluster as Star Wars: The Old Republic or as aimless and repetitive as Dragon Age 2, it’ll be the last time I buy anything from the company, unless it’s a copy of an older game I no longer have a disc for like Baldur’s Gate or something.

After giving it some thought, I’ll still be buying Mass Effect 3 but I will not be picking up “From Ashes” initially. Maybe if the game delivers on all of its promises and makes me forget all about BioWare’s unfortunate EA entanglements I’ll come back to it. But this really is like all other DLC and optional extras for consumers in general. Nobody’s entitled to it. It’s never guaranteed and while it’s nice to have, we can live perfectly fine without it. It is, at the end of the day, decidedly lavish crap.

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