Very recently I spotted on my tumblr dash a fantastically put together argument about why so many of us were disappointed with Mass Effect 3’s ending and more importantly, how Bioware should take note. Enjoy.
You know what Mass Effect 3 feels like to me, sometimes? You know those Choose Your Own Adventure books? So, you’re going through this Choose Your Own Adventure story, right, and you are busting your ass to get the best outcomes. You don’t just want to cure the Genophage, you want to cure the Genophage and you want Eve to live. I like that you can’t have both if you didn’t make a certain choice in earlier games: it makes that choice matter. So you keep going, and you don’t want to choose the quarians or the geth–you want to make peace. Again, repercussions if you didn’t choose certain things on your path through the story. And you can’t flub your way through it: certain variables must be aligned in order for that elusive peace to happen.
And then, just as you’re reaching the end of the story, the end of the choosing of your own adventure, you realize that no matter what wildly different choices you made: peace or no peace, death or no death, failure or success, paragon or renegade, full team or not, the Choose Your Own Adventure sends you to page 322. Even if the outcomes on page 322 make no sense, given the choices you made.
“Organics and synthetics can never work together,” says the starchild. “NEVER EVER.”
“But–” says the Shepard who’s brokered peace between the geth and quarians, “But I–”
“WHAT PART OF NEVER DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND? Now, what’s your favorite color? Oh, and don’t just fall back on your understanding of paragon=blue and renegade=red. That’s not going to make sense in this situation. I know, right? Confusing.”
“FAVORITE COLOR. I like green. Do you like green? Green is great. I’m not saying you can’t choose another one, but you’ll basically be a murderer if you do. Or you’ll be like that Illusive guy, everyone likes him, right?”
“But… this is ridiculous, your story’s full of holes big enough to drive the Mako through. Maybe even the whole Normandy.”
“Time’s ticking, human.”
And there’s no time to flick back through your Choose Your Own Adventure book, because you’re thirty seconds from critical mission failure (but why?), and even though you have no idea how the choices you made could possibly have landed you here, on page 322, you choose a color. While some people are okay with it, quite a lot are totally unsatisfied, because no matter how much they think about their progression through the story, they never envisioned it coming down to a fairly arbitrary choice after an eleventh-hour plot-hole-ridden infodump. I fully expected to have to make important decisions and choices in the endgame, don’t get me wrong. So many of the game’s themes revolve around choices and sacrifice. But certainly everything after Shepard’s, “What do you need me to do?” felt like pages pulled from some other Choose Your Own Adventure book, badly taped in.
So, long story longer, to answer your question: yes. If you’re going to give the player choice, and you’re going to sell yourself as the company that makes video games that give the player choices that matter, you can’t just shunt everyone off to page 322 at the end. Your players will stop believing you, and they won’t trust you to deliver the kind of product they fell in love with you for. They’ll start to believe that you’ve forgotten how to stick the landing. To mix metaphors for a moment, if you’re watching a gymnast flip and twirl and perform amazing acrobatics on a balance beam, but she face-plants the ending, you’re not going to remember how good the routine was. You’re going to remember her sprawled out on the mat, and the chorus of disqualifieds from the judges.
I mean, I felt an honest-to-God chill every time “Clementine will remember that” popped up on my screen; that’s some powerful storytelling. The Walking Dead game delivered. (Millions of tears.) Clementine was going to remember, and I was going to deeply regret not making a different choice, but unless I wanted to cheat and flip back to the last page on the Choose Your Own Adventure path, I just had to move forward and deal with the consequences. How upsetting! And how marvelous.
I know I talk about Mass Effect 2 a lot, but that’s because, in my mind, it’s the Bioware game with the formula that ended up working best overall for me. Sure, you can race through the game and not do any loyalty quests. Everyone will die! Maybe even you! Or, you can work your way through the story, building relationships, preparing. Then, when you get to that endgame full of choices–who to send where, how to proceed, oh my God what do you mean so-and-so just died in the vents what do you mean I can’t bring them back–it matters. It really matters! Why didn’t I upgrade the ship’s armor? you cry. If only I’d spent some time mining for the resources I needed to get a better gun!
Even DA2, which takes a lot of heat, really integrated player choice well for a lot of the game (I’m still mad about Suddenly Monster Orsino–DA2′s page 322–and wish wish wish WISH WISH WISH they’d had an extra year of development time, because oh man, imagine how amazing it would have been if they’d had that time). Your companions feel important and unique and not just interchangeable. Their ‘loyalty’ quests have relevance to their growth, and often to the progression of the story. You can have different kinds of relationships with them. You can lose them. They can leave and never come back. Right up to the endgame. Your companions have agency you cannot always (or ever, in some cases) affect. Frustrating as it can be for you, the player, it’s still a pretty amazing storytelling risk to take, and I applaud Bioware for taking it.
I guess what it boils down to, for me, is that if you market yourself as a Choose Your Own Adventure story, you can’t suddenly yank the choice out of the player’s hand three quarters of the way through, force them to then play or experience something totally linear or immutable for the last quarter (possibly negating or rendering obsolete earlier choices), and expect them to be happy about it.