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Posts Tagged ‘mass effect’

Crisis on Question Mountain: Mass Effect 3’s Ending

The ending of Mass Effect 3, and of the entire Mass Effect series, broke the internet. I can’t call the ending ‘polarizing,’ because a polarized debate has two poles. Major gaming sites posted articles lambasting the ending, and protest groups formed to “Retake Mass Effect!” Elaborate strong misreadings of the ending were introduced to explain why Bioware was in fact engaged in an immense Inception game with players.

I finished the series for the first time a couple weeks ago, and I want to thank the folks at Bioware—if they’d set out to make a test case for endings and why they succeed or fail, I don’t think they could have done any better.

The Retake crowd, in addition to raising a number of continuity errors, claims that the ending reduces the setting’s complicated moral choices to a simple selection of A, B, or C, and that A, B, and C are mostly differentiated by the color of the explosion. Nothing is resolved, no questions are answered, and we’re left feeling hollow and betrayed.

On the other side stands Film Crit Hulk, a critic with deep appreciation for story, structure, formal experimentation, and fun. I’ve never yet been misled by a Film Crit Hulk article or recommendation. His long read on Mass Effect 3 identifies the Mass Effect series, up to and including ME3’s ending, as gaming’s Citizen Kane. That article nudged the ME series into my ‘to play’ column. I’m not generally a Wes Anderson fan but I loved Moonrise Kingdom, which I saw on his recommendation; I don’t generally sink 100+ hours into a franchise that looks an awful lot like a cover-based shooter, but the Hulk piqued my interest, and the further urging of forceful and brilliant friends sealed the deal.

In the article I linked above, the Hulk explains his love of the ending: how it resolves the series thematically and makes a powerful statement about the cyclical nature of history. To Hulk, even the similarity of the three ending cinematics is part of the text: we’re meant not to know what happens next, to stand on that alien planet with Joker and EDI and wonder what kind of strange new world our deeds have wrought. The point of inflection looks similar, but the futures look wildly different—and we’re left to wonder at that difference.

So, who’s right? The Retake crowd, or the Hulk?

Both, I think, though in different ways. (Yay, Synthesis Ending!)

(And here I put a cut, because I’m about to spoil ME3’s ending in detail, and offer minor spoilers for the ending of Hyperion and Season 4 of Babylon 5 to boot.  See you on the other side!)

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How J Edgar Hoover and I Ruined the Ending of Mass Effect 3

Way way back in the mid-noughts, my roommates and I had our first encounter with J Edgar Hoover.  Context is king: we were hot-seat playing through a first-person horror game called Call of Cthulhu: The Dark Corners of the Earth.  A few years before, we’d played through Eternal Darkness, loved it, especially the endgame (“Protect… UNIVERSE!”).  The concept of another Lovecraftian horror game with a robust sanity system and immersive first-person perspective pushed almost all our buttons.

The game was fine, not great—the sanity system, while present, wasn’t as pervasive or hilarious a gameplay element as it had been in Eternal Darkness, where low sanity manifested as everything from hallucinations and evil laughter to skulls spouting Hamlet to, in a spur of wicked genius, the game actually convincing you that it was about to delete your save.  But CoC:TDCotE, say that five times fast, holds a treasured place in our collective psychology because of J. Edgar Hoover.

You see, Hoover’s a character in CoC:TDCotE.  Your principal quest-giver, actually!  And he’s a jerk.  One of the serious A-level jerk quest-givers in gaming.  Over the course of the game he keeps you in the dark, threatens you with incarceration, subjects you to electro-shock therapy, gets his goons to beat you up, and, once he’s strong-armed you into working with him, starts sending you, alone, into whole warehouses full of Cthulhu cultists while his buddies the US Army stand outside and wait for you to give them the all clear.  Seriously.  What a tool.

It got so bad that we started screaming at the screen whenever Hoover showed up.  “Why don’t you send in the Marines?”  “Why the f*** should I help you?”  “What are you even doing here?”  And at no point does your character ever say these things.  No, you play the silent stoic protagonist, bravely enduring governmental torment to save the world from Things Man Was Not Meant To Know.

After one particularly grievous offense, which went something like “Go wipe out that fortified cultist position with like 40 dudes and a bunch of shoggoths singlehandedly with your revolver, so I can send in this infantry regiment with their tanks to arrest everyone, and no you can’t have any extra ammo quit your whining,” well… I shot him.  Right in between the eyes.  Because I was frustrated, I shot him.  Because the game had never showed my character act logically around this jerkwad, I shot him.  To see what happened, I shot him.

And he didn’t die.

J. Edgar Hoover was immune to bullets.

If there is a Hell, I imagine one of its subcircles feels a lot like that: J. Edgar Hoover standing over your shoulder, commanding you to go forth and murder in his name or else he’ll shock your balls off again—and you have a gun, and no matter how many times you shoot him he just laughs and laughs.

Which we did, of course—Hoover the Immortal becoming a shibboleth among we few, we geeky few, we band of brothers—and ever since that day, whenever I find myself faced with a frustrating choice or situation or character in gameland, and I’m not in Skyrim, I pop a few rounds into their face without effect, and chuckle in memory of J. Edgar Hoover. 

Which brings me to last night, and my first playthrough of the ending of Mass Effect 3.  To make a long story short (spoiler warning if you haven’t played it already), there’s a conversation at the very end of the game with Exposition Hologram Child, who explains the world and then offers you a choice of how to resolve a particularly thorny issue.  It’s a frustrating choice for a bunch of reasons that I won’t talk about right now, because that’s a whole other blog post.  The fact that it’s frustrating isn’t bad—but it was getting on 1 AM, and I was feeling punchy, and, well, I had a gun.  And Exposition Hologram Child was staring at me, and when I hovered the cursor on him, I saw no health bars or enemy name, no indication this was a valid target at all.

“This one’s for J. Edgar,” I thought, and shot him.

And the universe died.

Enraged at my temerity, Exposition Hologram Child killed me, destroyed all life in the galaxy, and reduced my 100 hours or so of gameplay to a time capsule thousands of years in the future, mourning my mistakes and exhorting future generations to do better.

Roll end credits.

A tip of the hat to you, sir (or dame) Bioware. You half gave me a heart attack.  You might have put a health meter and enemy tag on Exposition Hologram Child as a warning, but beyond that, I cannot fault your actions.  You livened up my night.  You had an autosave that let me go back and actually make the choice I wanted to make, even if it did mean I had to sit through the Illusive Man cutscene again.

And you proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that J. Edgar Hoover is mightier than an intergalactic swarm of mecha-Cthulhus.

Silk Mass

Because my life is awesome, the following package arrived in the mail on Friday.

For those of you without images for some reason, that’s:

  • Mass Effect 3, which I’ve opened but won’t get a chance to seriously devour before my book deadline at the end of the month.
  • Life Along the Silk Road, by Susan Whitfield, director of the International Dunhuang Project, the project dedicated to cataloguing the Dunhuang Manuscripts, about which more later I promise but trust me it’s awesome.  Basically, Whitfield is one of (if not the) best qualified people (/person) on the planet to write this book, which is a series of short biographies of the life and times of different types of characters who wandered the Silk Road over a few hundred year span of history.  SO excited to read this!
  • Religions of the Silk Road: Premodern Patterns of Globalization, by Richard Foltz, which if that title doesn’t make you salivate, well, you’re probably a more normal person than I am and that’s okay, you don’t need to feel bad.  But OH MY I can’t wait to burn through this.  There’s a chapter on each of about twelve different religions, analyzing their spread and codevelopment across the road.  Incredible!
In case you’re wondering, no, I’m not really planning a book set on the Silk Road right now.  I haven’t traveled the region enough (though one day…)—it’s just one of the most fascinating historical areas of the world, and it’s so hard for most Westerners to study.  ‘Lost’ civilizations galore!  Nestorian Christianity as an important religious and philosophical force!  International commerce linking China to the west!  Intrigue!  Scheming!  Revolution!  Genghis Khan!  The Tang Dynasty!  The spread of Buddhism!  I spent a few years desperately wanting to become a Silk Road scholar, until I finally realized that even with (at the time) quite excellent Chinese I still could barely manage the primary source reading, and on top of Chinese I’d need about five modern languages at a similar level and somewhere between five and seven ancient languages, a few of which are insanely obscure (I’m looking at you, Sogdien).  Ten years or so of pure language study was a daunting prospect, psychologically and financially speaking.  Basically, the Silk Road is INCREDIBLY COOL and I have absurd heaping gobs of respect for Silk Road scholars, and insane gratitude for the ones who publish in English so I can reap the benefits of their linguistic kung fu badassitude.  Only mid 19th century China rivals Silk Road studies for sheer mindblowingness in my eyes, and that has more to do with the sheer WTF-ery of the Taiping Tianguo .
So yes.  I get cool mail.

Roberto Bolaño / Mass Effect

Happy Friday everyone!  We’re settling in for a crazy blizzard up here in the Northeast.  Fortunately, as a result of the Birthday of the Trees seder a few weeks back we still have about three gallons of wine in the fridge, so we’re all set for a fun weekend in.  I finished the first draft of the third book in the Craft Sequence (of which Three Parts Dead was the first) last week.  This is a much more first-drafty first draft than mine usually are, so I’m looking forward to hearing what the beta reader round thinks of it.  I have some thoughts of my own, but after stressing out over this book for the last four months, my thoughts are skewed.

So, for this week I’ve turned my attention to other areas of life.  I’m working on outlines for a Seekret Project which should be a lot of fun, which has involved writing a more detailed background and world bible for the Craft Sequence setting.  Muahaha.  Also chipping away at this weird short story I’ve been working on for months now, which makes the Paris Review’s recent post of Roberto Bolaño’s 12-step guide to the art of writing short stories all the more interesting.  Check it out!  I’m a Bolaño newb; I’ve only ever read The Savage Detectives, but I liked it, even though I didn’t quite get the ending.  Even if you’re not a Bolañophile, though, his thoughts on short story writing are pretty awesome.  I especially like the bit about writing nine to fifteen stories at once.  Ack!  Alternatively: “oh, so that’s what I’ve been doing wrong all these years.”  Points 9 and 10 are particularly worthy of note:

9. The honest truth is that with Edgar Allen Poe, we would all have more than enough good material to read.

10. Give thought to point 9.  Think and reflect on it.  You still have time.  Think about Number 9.  To the extent possible, do so on bended knees.

What a boss.

Speaking newb-ness, I took the excellent advice of basically everyone on my facebook feed and spent yesterday playing Mass Effect.  I’ve never played ME before, and damn, I’d forgot how awesome Bioware could be, and how fun it is to play something in which you have no professional interest!  There’s a line in Sandman where Gaiman’s Shakespeare says “Everything that happened to me in my life, happened to me as a writer of plays.”  You’d be hard-pressed to find a writer who wouldn’t agree with that statement; I’m tempted to add “or as an editor of plays.”  (Or of, you know, fantasy novels.  I digress.)  It takes a weird kind of concentration to just enjoy books at this point, unless they’re so close to perfect as makes no difference.  But, folks, I am lost in Mass Effect.  I’m even enjoying the Warthog!  That’s how lost I am.

I remember people being frustrated by Warthog segments when the game first came out, but I’m finding them fun in a weird sort of way.  I take a ‘broadside’ approach to the thing: when I see enemies on the horizon, I stop moving, turn myself sideways, and move forward or backward (that is, from side to side with respect to the camera angle) to dodge incoming super slow rockets, while returning fire with the main gun.  This, by the way, Dear Reader, is why we don’t make super slow rockets.

I mean, sure there are things I could nitpick if I wanted to pick nits.  But the important point is that I don’t want to.  I’d much rather participate.