‘Mass Effect’ Proves Videogames Can Become the Ultimate Narrative Medium


I finished “Mass Effect 3” today after a long and arduous journey through all three games, spanning about six years. Yeah, I played each a bit later than they came out, which now makes me feel like I came in late to three different parties, and I’m just getting tipsy danger while everyone else is passed out and unable to take another chug.

I would love to be part of this universe (and this crew).
I had avoided “Mass Effect 3” for a  while because of the overwhelmingly negative response it had. Considering how the gaming community suckles on Bioware’s tittles like there’s beer coming out, this was very shocking. In particular, people seemed to complain about the ending, and how it felt like every choice was worth squat. I was very nervous about all of this for a number of reasons:

I played through 1 like I play through most RPGs: main quest, side quests only if they sound interesting, finish. I tried doing the same with 2, but I was warned that if you weren’t careful, you could lose a bunch of characters in the end. I didn’t listen, and I lost Tali, Mordin, Samara, and Jack.

“Eh, as long as Garrus is still around”, I said, and moved on. Since this was the end of the trilogy, I wanted to do it as best as I possibly could. Turns out the game was cockblocking my efforts. Despite having wiped out the galaxy clean of side-quests (something I had only done with “Final Fantasy VIII” before), I was still pretty low in the “readiness” scale. Apparently having fucked up so bad in 2, and refusing to play a multiplayer (fuck you, Bioware, for forcing MP on single player) lowered my overall chances. In the end, I was prepared for a downer of an ending.

“As long as Garrus is still around!”

I finished the game and was left scratching my head. Why did people find it to be so shitty? In my playthrough, I took control of the reapers and took the Mass Relays with me (though apparently in an extended cut, the Relays are just ‘damaged’). For me, that was a great ending. It was bittersweet, epic, represented an enormous sacrifice, and wrapped a gigantic story in a nice little bow.

Then I found out that having cleaned up the side quests to increase my war assets and preparedness, I barely crossed the line into “Decent Ending” territory. Hell, a friend who finished 2 like a champ got the exact same ending! This means most people had the “Bad” ending, which means it ended with . . . well, the destruction of Earth and possibly the end of all life on the galaxy. I saw a couple of comments on Youtube in the “Best Ending” video going “Wait, there were multiple endings!?”

Yes there fucking were! I can’t blame them—BioWare had to be high as fuck to make it so hard for someone casually playing the game to get even a remotely good ending. It involves playing 1 and 2 perfectly, then spending hours on multiplayer, then spending hours doing sidequests. It’s bullshit. 2 only required a short side-mission for every character to get the best possible ending. This is too much to ask, especially considering this is the wrap for the entire trilogy. Blargh!

So I know it’s weird if I say something like “This might be my favorite gaming trilogy ever”, considering how long it took me to finish them. I stopped both 2 and 3 halfway through for reasons I don’t want to call boredom, but frankly I can’t think of another word. I love the “Uncharted” trilogy. Love the “Xenosaga” trilogy, but this one had something special.

Garrus Vakarian, probably.
There wasn't ONE mission when Garrus wasn't by my side.

Best Character Of All Time (is there a waifu equivalent for “virtual BFF”?) aside, “Mass Effect” as a whole is incredibly impressive for one reason: its writing. There isn’t a videogame franchise I’ve played that has created something quite like this. Yeah, there is a lot of shit wrong on each one, but when seen as an overall universe, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed.

When it comes to RPGs, the measurable quality of the writing is directly proportional to the depth of the game, and with western RPGs, that means not the main storyline, but everything surrounding it. I remember thinking that the Balamb Garden message boards in “Final Fantasy VIII” were an awesome detail that explored and deepened the world and its characters, but then I realized “Mass Effect 2” slaps FFVIII’s face silly with a 15 inch dong.

I know you can’t compare, in theory, a 1999 game on 32 bits to a game released two generations later, but I don’t think Square would ever put as much detail to one of their games as BioWare did. “Final Fantasy XIII” is running on the same hardware and though its localization is very, very good (have you checked out the entire codex in XIII? It’s very complete) and it doesn’t come anywhere near it.

There are hundreds of planets you can investigate, each with its own design, comprehensive paragraphs of its history, relevance to the plot, and many technical specs like landmasses, O2 levels, etc. There are dozens of relevant main characters, each with a very complex back-story, varied interests, and really well defined personalities. There is a ridiculously detailed network of historical connections, lore and mythos between species. And all this is the stuff surrounding the main story, which at its core is basically “Stop these aliens from destroying life in the galaxy”.

Garrus Vakarian: recalbrating your sexuality since 2007.
The amount of lore is just staggering, the world (universe?) building unmatched. I don’t think I had ever seen a videogame come anywhere near. Yes, the main plot is lacking in terms of pacing, and the second game is largely plotless (sorry BioWare, but “put a team together” isn’t a story), but I can’t ignore the sheer scope of its storytelling.

There was a point near the end of 3 when I had to make a pretty tough choice that could mean the destruction of an entire species. After taking it, I was left a bit breathless, like many scenes in 3 left me.

I had one of my very own “I wanna write something like this!” triggers. It’s very easy for me to get these triggers. I get them all the time, and I often pursue them (“The Armor of God” was triggered by a “Pacific Rim” dream I had late last year), which results in dozens of fleshed out but unfinished novels. Yet, after a moment of consideration, I realized that I couldn’t do something like this. No one could.

It hit me: BioWare is dangerously close to perfecting videogame storytelling.

Videogames have become a narrative medium that grows deeper and more sophisticated with each new generation, and the most important differentiator between videogames, and literature (the only medium that can compare in terms of potential depth), is the interactivity. Yes, videogame narratives are still mostly about shooty-shooty blow-up-the-town, but the experience can be entirely different from one player to the next.

Imagine this: I killed certain characters in 1, then had others die in 2, which resulted in a power shift between certain species, which limited my chances to get to a certain planet and recover an artifact that would, in 3, allow me to save the lives of two other guys. Imagine this kind of chain reaction happening in tens of different threads running through the trilogy. The butterfly effect hits hardest in 3; that is why my bare bones playthrough of 2 made my life miserable in the finale.

It's extremely frustrating, but that's what the RPG is all about! It's about how your choices will affect the story! If I was a terrible player and still got the exact same experience than a more dedicated gamer, it'd defeat its purpose. It's great that a game rewards dedication like this.

Go back to all those threads in the butterfly effect, and now factor in a bunch of characters only available through DLC in both 2 and 3; you’ll see just how deeply the tree branches. The design of the last game is intricate as fuck. I don’t understand how a game can process such an enormous amount of variables. This makes the game almost un-spoilable. I can tell you who dies in my game, but who gives a shit because in yours it’ll probably be completely different.

What does suck is that I feel like I missed out on a huge chunk of content, considering that most of my crew was dead by the end of the last game, and each has an individual plotline. The only character I followed through and through was Garrus.

My entire "Mass Effect" experience.
Yes, in theory this isn’t anything “Silent Hill 2” didn’t do to a certain capacity. That game measured your psychological interests as you played in the subtlest of ways, and gave you one of three endings: the one you’d most react to. “Silent Hill 2” is as a game superior to "Mass Effect", and one of the greatest games of all time; its narrative immersion is brilliant, but comparatively unambitious.

In the end, the massively branching plot is eventually reduced to one of four endings. It sounds disappointing, but here’s the thing: in a story that involves the destruction of the galaxy, there really aren’t many possible outcomes. Either the galaxy and life therein will be wiped out, or it won’t. It’s literally impossible to have as many outcomes as there were plot possibilities. Impossible.

So “the ending” becomes not the actual final event, which again can’t possibly go in many directions, but the road taken to get there. We might have seen the same cinematic in the end, but it definitely isn’t the same ending, considering what happened to all my characters, and the hundreds of other side characters that died on the way.

This is why it’s disheartening as a writer: I will never write (or read) something like “Mass Effect” because I’m not a videogame writer (and frankly because I’m not that good a writer, at least not yet). And even if I was, I wouldn’t be alone—it’d be a dozen writers’ story. Not that that’d be a bad thing, but it would no longer be my story, and it would involve a lot of boring extra ‘writing’.

As a writer, I can shoot to write a space opera, but I would still be shackled by the fundamental limitations of literature: its linearity. What are the ways to circumvent these limitations? Have some kind of “Choose your own adventure” deal? That is a literary sin, not to mention a childish gimmick, and I would likely have to write twenty volumes of one thousand words each to cover a storyline like “Mass Effect”.

BioWare has proved how videogames have become, in many ways, better equipped to tell a personal story than any other medium in existence. Until we get full-on virtual immersion á la “The Matrix” or “eXistenZ”, this is going to be the narrative medium to look out for.

It’s a shame 98% of videogames are still in the Grade Z level of writing.

But hey at least it’s still above network TV!

By the way, this is my 100th post.
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About The Damn Beast

Pre-op trans-minotaur, sci-fi/fantasy/horror author, metal singer, videogame journalist, pop culture blogger. I also lift heavy things and put them down again repeatedly to occupy more space.
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