Mass Effect 3 (ME3), in the course of one grievous mistake, gave me some important realizations. My woman Shepard, or FemShep, was an orphan who grew up in a slum on Earth, joined the Alliance Navy, and became a war hero. Despite being elevated to a heroic status and becoming a representative of humanity’s prowess, Shepard never forgot her roots and never allows the big picture to obscure the individual, which probably hampers her ability to be a great military commander. Losing a planet in large-scale conflict is not a failure to Shepard, but losing one person under her command was a traumatic catastrophe that can never be repeated again. While she favors diplomacy, safe resolution a quick trigger-finger away isn’t ever discounted when her crew is at risk. I learned that my FemShep is a matriarch and her crew, the only family she has, is the most important thing to her in the universe. No other game has made me role-play a character in this way, and it’s doubtful another one ever will.
While the Mass Effect (ME) series has an interesting sci-fi setting where humanity has only just arrived on the galactic scene and has to fight for what respect and influence is available from the established space-faring community, ME is nothing without its characters; any time a ME game has the player interacting with squad-mates and crew members the game is doing something right, feeling light years ahead of other games in the same vein. I have tried many times to put into words the sincere love that I feel for the original Mass Effect (ME1), and every time I feel like I do I’m doing the game insult. I haven’t ever tried to write about Mass Effect 2 (ME2) for the same reasons. Unfortunately, in the quest for understanding and closure, Mass Effect 3 is forcing my hand otherwise.
ME created a fictional universe worth giving a damn about, worth saving. ME2 put that notion to the test while the developers were oh so keen on reminding everyone that people, including Shepard, could die on what was referred to as the “suicide mission.” Imagine the surprise and emotional reaction of somebody, unspoiled, watching the Normandy be destroyed as Shepard “dies” getting the last of her crew evacuated to safety in the opening cinematic.
In the course of assembling a crew that was minus some of the key characters from the original ME, it was hard not to get attached to most, if not all, of the new cast. While some of the characters were old and had already lived to have serious regrets, some motherly attention and advice could push all of them past hurdles they weren’t getting over themselves. Decisions regarding the characters and their loyalty missions were made not from the best interests of Shepard or the greater mission to save the galaxy, but what would be best for the character.
The subsequent emotional investment in these characters could break all but the most callous, bankrupt players; the stakes during the final mission of ME2 felt so much greater than any other heroic journey able to be experienced in the medium. Each decision was painstakingly analyzed. Who had the best chance of success while still surviving? To my Shepard nobody was expendible and getting everyone out of ME2 alive was a greater achievement than saving the day. The retcons and oversimplifications to the gameplay didn’t mean piss next to that unparalleled experience. ME3, it seemed, would be made or broken by how these characters were handled.
In this regard, ME 3 doesn’t disappoint. The majority of the surviving characters from ME2 see one form of resolution or another, with many of them growing up and coming into their own before the player’s eyes. Like my own parents I imagine, I was powerless as decisions were being made by these people I made myself responsible for, and I could only hope that I prepared them best for the worst life has to offer. I didn’t like what happened in every circumstance, I would have changed how things played out if I had the power to do so. It hurt, but god damn; I was so proud and so moved, to tears in several instances, by what I witnessed. ME3 wouldn’t be the first game I lost sleep over, but it was the first instance where it occurred when I wasn’t actively playing.
This melodramatic space opera sounds so perfect, what did ME3 do wrong?
Reader, if you want a pristine Mass Effect 3 experience and you haven’t finished it yet, I’d recommend you stop reading now and go do that, hoping that you remember to return to this after doing so.
The mistake ME3 made is stupidly obvious: none of the characters were included in the conclusion of the game. My Shepard was there, along with a couple other minor characters. But nobody who really mattered was present when they were needed most, when I needed to hear from them what they would want me to do when the mission parameters had so drastically changed. When these fantastic characters deserved to be stealing the show and coming into their own as the other non-party characters had done previously in the game, they were robbed of the opportunity to do so. Instead, the conclusion is only about Shepard and what Shepard chooses to do to be the hero. The undeniable truth is that my Shepard needed these people just as much if not more than they needed her; the deus ex machina, the forced decisions, the silliness of the whole situation would have been bearable with them present. In any other video game an ending like this wouldn’t be a problem, but this is Mass Effect, which was never even really about Shepard at all, but rather the interesting, wonderful, great characters who were so conspicuously absent.