So, I realize I’m probably spending too much time thinking about this, and I realize I’m probably taking things a bit too…um…seriously, I guess, for my own good. Okay, for my age.
But I have to say it’s easy for writers to mishandle characters. And I think I found such an instance.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Characters belong to their creators and those creators do whatever the heck they want to those characters within the limits of their ability. (Ref: George Lucas and the mangled characters of the Star Wars universe.) But at some point, your characters can become a franchise for you and you can mess things up – sometimes beyond repair – if you’re not careful.
I’ve made no secret of being a recent convert to the Mass Effect universe. I like the games. I would probably like the comic books if I still read comic books. If there are novelization tie-ins, I might read those too, though my time for reading is severely limited by other things (like, computer programming, playing video games, playing with the kids, playing video games, spending time with my wife, playing video games…). So I feel I’m sort of a fan, if not a full-fledged “fan-boy” of the franchise.
That being said, I think the writers did a horrible job of handling the character and the resolution of the Mass Effect trilogy. Now they want to have a fourth installment, and there is only a remote chance of being able to do that.
I think the reasons are manifold, but a few key items are here.
The hero must go on. Sonic the Hedgehog, Mario the Plumber, Master Chief from the Halo franchise, the Final Fantasy franchise…you name it, all of them have an iconic hero who survives the adventures and the situations and moves onward to new things. How many variations on running around, jumping and collecting rings or coins can you possibly have? Well, for the better part of the last three decades, Sonic and Mario have been doing just that. Nothing more, really, and when the game developers did try to expand the limits of the game (ref: Sonic Unleashed), the attempt was met with less than enthusiastic embraces from the fans of said franchise.
Trying to breathe new life into an old game franchise may seem hard to do. Heck, it might be difficult to breathe life into any old franchise. But the success of the James Bond series, the ongoing success of things like The Simpsons and South Park, and the long-running Mario and Sonic IPs show there’s not always a need for perfection.
With Mass Effect, there was a careless mistreatment of the hero at the end of the final game of the trilogy. That mishandling brought backlash from the fans, but not enough to amend or correct. (Let’s be honest here, this is a video game, and downloadable overwriting is possible.) Instead they stumble happily forward and invite the disgruntled fans to check out their newest addition when it’s ready (I won’t be doing so, because it’s for the latest/greatest hardware, which we don’t have). But…how many might be there to support it who aren’t because of how you handled it?
I don’t know whether the mangling was to try and close off the story and leave it without another installment, but for the most part, that’s how it looks because they simply didn’t treat the hero of this story like the heroes of other stories. By mishandling the character you delivered a critical wound to the franchise. It’s only fixable at this point by doing something lame.
Now, I’m not a professional writer by anyone’s measure. I have a lot of honing of skills to do and not much drive and commitment to doing that. In times past, I’d argue I’m as good a writer as anyone else, but today, I don’t know.
I’m certainly not a match for a team of them. And most video games have teams.
This story is a space opera, so it’s broad-reaching in scope. Covers the entire known galaxy, which is a lot. In this universe there are some really cool concepts, and some pretty lame ones. If you look hard enough, and set about doing so, you can pick the story apart and find every flaw. There’s no fixing that; that’s true with every human work of art ever set forth.
The flaw which glares the most in the eye of the viewer – this viewer anyway – is the ending.
As mentioned above, the story has been brilliant right up to the final act. There is heroism galore, sacrifice, pain and tough choices. There’s death, mayhem, and politics. There’s a wider story which hinges on the events in all three stories, folded across the entire trilogy in what I thought was pretty well-conceived fashion. Not perfect, but pretty doggone good.
So the complaint is the massive failure of the ending to leave the audience with a heaving sigh of victory and relief. No calls of “Hurray! The hero wins!” here. Instead, most of us looked at what the writers and designers did, and went, “WTF? Seriously?” Yes, that’s the ending. Those are the choices made. And yes, it did leave a lousy taste in your mouth, fans. But…tough. Ready to drop $80 on our new release next year?
But maybe I’m too picky. Maybe thinking we need a happy ending is a joke. There are tragedies as well as comedies, after all. There are things which end badly. I just don’t think most people want that. Sure there’s a subset of folks who like the tragic endings, but mostly, people want victory, I think that’s more true in video games where the player has worked hard to earn that victory. To have all that effort go to nothing in the end?
If you’re writing a movie or book, and you want the ending to be sort of a sour note for your audience, you get to do that. No one will back you financially next time, but you can do that. Your audience won’t trust you going forward, but that’s your issue. Get the ending right, even if it’s a tragedy, and you’ll have fans for life.
Video games? No, this is a MAJOR investment of time and energy. It’s more interactive than movies or books. It’s you, fighting the bad guys, blasting the aliens, jumping the obstacles and collecting the items. Even in third-person games, you are the hero, you are the one living out the actions, the choices, the wins and losses. And then, at the end, to have all your efforts go beyond your own control? Yeah, that’s not gonna be popular.
So a lot of gamers who loved the franchise became disenfranchised by the ending of Mass Effect when, after following along for five years, it finally came. They dedicated a lot of energy and time into helping the hero along. Their “reward” was viewed by a lot of them as a slap in the face.
No matter how hard you try, this is what you get. It’s probably too much like real life for most of them. I know it was for me.
Anyway, three major screw-ups all in the closing episodes of an otherwise great trilogy of games. It sort of bothers me that it happened, but it is what it is. Like I said, there are other considerations for why I won’t be moving onto the fourth installment if it ever comes along, but I don’t think it had to be this way. This could have been a great franchise, instead of merely a good one.
My wife and I discussed this like we do all captivating fiction. I hope to have her well-expressed thoughts on this in writing someday. 🙂
Hope you had a happy weekend. I sure did.