Would Jesus save the Geth?

Warning: Mass Effect 3 Spoilers Ahead.

Well, you can’t say that the ending of Mass Effect 3 doesn’t make you think. It’s not like anyone ever agonized over the ending of Baldur’s Gate. (How did it end? I think you killed the bad guys.) I can’t remember how Fallout 3 ends, but I don’t think it was some kind of masterpiece. I suspect if someone asks me how Mass Effect ended in twenty years, I’ll still remember. On that basis alone, it should be considered a success.

Mass Effect has deservedly won praise as one of the best games ever created. It’s probably the best computer RPG ever created, even though the player’s freedom of action is extremely limited: gameplay is confined to running around locations littered with “cover” and either fighting or talking to people. Everything else is cut scenes. (In the original Mass Effect you could drive a vehicle around and shoot things, but you had to exit the vehicle to have conversations.)

Indeed, despite the narrowness of the player’s field of activity, I would hold up Mass Effect against most “tabletop” RPG experiences owing to the tightness of the writing, immersion offered by the presentation, and the knife-edge quality of the choices offered. Mass Effect repeatedly presents the player with moral quandaries and emotional immersion that equal or exceed anything I’ve ever experienced as a tabletop player or been able to evoke as a game master. (I once designed a tournament module – To Pierce the Heart of Darkness – that over the course of two typical three hour sessions was intended to create at its climax the kind of emotional bite that Mass Effect 3 manages to achieve half a dozen times.)

Mass Effect has several key advantages over tabletop games in achieving its effect. To begin with, high production value computer games are, today, incredibly immersive. Huge teams of talented artists, sound engineers, musicians, and voice actors labor to create what amounts to an interactive TV series with top notch special effects. No GM can really compete with this, and it’s telling.

Another enormously powerful device is the “multiple choice response”. The Mass Effect series essentially presents dialog/action choices in the form of a précis of your character’s reaction or intent to a situation and then, when you make your choice, presents it in detail (so that your character’s action is often as much a surprise as the outcome). One of the problems I faced in To Pierce the Heart of Darkness was to try to make the course of action the players needed to take “obvious” without explicitly laying it out for them, so that when they figured it out it would be either satisfying or tragic (based on how long they took to figure it out). Because the idiom of the current generation of Bioware games is multiple-choice, you have your options laid out for you and it doesn’t feel like you’re being guided. But of course you are. A tabletop GM not only lacks the idiom of the multiple choice response (you think you’re “free” but in fact here are four options, two of which are obviously stupid) and the team of creative people to flesh out and present the results of those choices.

In a nutshell, Mass Effect is able to employ the power of good movie-making to immerse the player and put emotional weight into choices, and then use the power of a role-playing game to have the player invest in the story and characters, and it does this in a way no other computer RPG has ever done through the sheer quality of writing, voice acting, visual presentation, and scoring.

The Great Disappointment

By now, even if you haven’t played any Mass Effect games, if you pay any attention to the world of PC/console games you know that a lot of people (who knows if it’s a majority or simply a vocal minority) are horribly disappointed by the ending of Mass Effect 3. A lot of the complaints come down to “we made all these tough choices and they seem to have had no effect on the ending”. This despite the fact that this was exactly what happened in the last two installments. Look: the story is going to be a Christmas Tree, you only get to decide on the ornaments.

Personally, I think it’s stupid and unrealistic to expect Mass Effect 3‘s ending to offer much variety given that, say, no matter how well you did in the original Mass Effect, you come back dead and with none of your original crew. And no-one is complaining about the start of Mass Effect 3 where, no matter how well you did in Mass Effect 2, you start pretty much from scratch again. So, let’s ignore that entire aspect of the Great Disappointment.

The “good parts” aren’t as good as some people think

One comment I read, which was pretty indicative of the general thrust of complaints about The Ending was that up until the last bit Mass Effect was this incredibly tight SF setting, and the “child god” crap ruined it all.

Please, don’t delude yourselves.

Here’s a simple example of just how bad the SF in Mass Effect is:

In the part where you’re trying to break into the Cerberus space station you crash into a hangar (without, as far as we can tell, causing the atmosphere in the hangar to vent, but OK force fields or something) and then shortly afterwards EDI tells you excitedly that you need to find a control panel because they’re going to vent the atmosphere from the hangar and if you can’t get to a control panel in time you’ll all die. Leaving aside the fact that you can survive thirty seconds or more in hard vacuum, and it will take a significant amount of time for the pressure to drop that far — we’re not asking for Arthur C. Clarke quality science here — You. Are. In. An. Armored. Spacesuit.

Might I further add that you constantly display a callous disregard for your need to breath. When you’re at the Mars Archive you come across a room where the Bad Guys vented the atmosphere from the library and everyone inside died. Bastards. You and your companions go in, re-establish air pressure, and then take off your helmets. What the fuck? What happens if the bad guys (a) vent the atmosphere again, or (b) one of the powerful weapons everyone is firing around with total disregard for the structural integrity of the base blows a hole in an outer wall?

And, hey, this is a very important, well-guarded, secure facility. No precautions against decompression? “In the event of sudden pressure loss, kiss your ass good-bye.” We do better than that on commercial airliners.

Endings Suck

Name a long series that has a great or even worthy ending.

The Lord of the Rings could have ended well if Tolkien or his editors had out all the crap after the victory ceremony in Gondor, except perhaps for the epilogue where Frodo and Bilbo head off to the Grey Havens. But no, we get hundreds of pages (or does it just seem that way?) of crap about the giant Aryan über-hobbits rescuing The Shire from two pathetic has-beens and then a bunch of sentimental claptrap. And sadly much of this rubbish is faithfully replicated in the movie adaptation, which glosses over or mangles a lot of good stuff to get to it. (And then there’s even more in the appendices. Everyone dies of old age? Really?)

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant had a pretty good ending, until Donaldson went and wrote another series (that effectively ruined the ending of the original). A team of writers is struggling to hack together an ending for the completely screwed up Wheel of Time. Ursula Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earth Sea is essentially one great book with increasingly lame and unnecessary sequels. I can’t remember the ending of Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle but I do remember not caring for it. Jack Vance, perhaps my favorite writer of all time, ended The Demon Princes quite well (hero gets the wrong girl and wanders off to maybe have a life), Tschai (a.k.a. “Planet of Adventure”) has a decent ending but the entire series is only as long as a typical “novel” today, the end of Lyonesse was rushed and too neat, while the Cadwal Chronicles started with what is probably Vance’s finest single book (Araminta Station) and ended with a book that might as well not have been written. Second Foundation pretty much sucked (and I have studiously ignored the later attempts to sew the Foundation universe with the robot universe, as well as the posthumous collaborations).

Peter F. Hamilton’s series end acceptably well, but then they’re kind of slap-dash all the way through. (The key is for the series not to be too good in the first place.)

Indeed, many conclusions to long series not only fail to be satisfying as endings, but fail to even match the tone and feel of the rest of the series. (At least with The Demon Princes, the last two books went together.)

People despised Return of the Jedi because of the Ewoks, and I’m sure many were at least slightly annoyed by the whole Princess Leia in bronze bikini, sex slave to a giant slug monster bit, and some of us hated that light sabers suddenly started bouncing off hand rails. but everyone pretty much gave it a free pass on the whole “and what happened to the rest of the Imperial Fleet?” thing. It’s a silly adventure story, just accept it.

The Last Crusade was pretty good, especially compared with Temple of Doom. (Let’s ignore the new one, since I can’t even remember if I managed to watch it all the way through.)

Lost was perhaps the worst popular culture flameout in recent memory. BSG was merely badly paced and a lame cop-out. Even my favorite TV show of the last twenty years, The Wire, sputtered in its final season. (I’m keeping my fingers crossed that The Killing has a good ending. Being limited to two seasons from the outset is a good start, reminiscent of Murder One, until they decided to make a second season.)

And let’s not even discuss The Matrix.

Harry Potter and Toy Story both ended very well, so perhaps they’ve raised the bar for series endings.

In this company, the Mass Effect 3 taken as a whole is pretty damn good. It matches the tone and feel of the previous installments, it’s very well paced, and it’s an emotional roller coaster with plenty of tough choices. The ending is “too neat and rushed” — which is pretty much as good as it gets. But hey, it’s better than walking home to The Shire. While a less abrupt ending might have been better still, it’s hard to imagine one because of the nature of the actual ending.

But…

You know how we’ve sent you on suicide missions before? This time we mean it.

Your final mission is to reach a “beam” which the Reapers are apparently using to suck up their victims from London to the Citadel (which they have captured and are going to use for something… probably to build new reapers). You need to get back onto the Citadel to open it back up so that the Crucible (which resembles a gigantic dildo wrapped in an even bigger dildo) can be inserted into the Citadel’s… um… flower petals (the Citadel manages to resemble both a giant dildo and a giant vagina) and thus activate something everyone assumes is some kind of weapon that will destroy the reapers.

This “plan” is what the fate of the galaxy rests on.

(Seriously, how about spending the same effort fleeing to a new Galaxy? This one sucks.)

But we just need to accept that this is a universe where the hero can restore saved games — so depending on him or her to successfully complete long odds missions is actually quite sensible. We’ll stake our entire civilization on this ridiculous throw of the dice, take it on faith that beaming up into the citadel won’t simply drop you into a giant meat grinder, and that the device will turn out to be a weapon, and that there’ll be a control panel somewhere within a reasonable distance of your arrival point that you can somehow operate.

Just accept it.

At absolute minimum there are three important things we need to do to resolve this story:

  • Why are the Reapers doing what they’re doing?
  • What is the Crucible for?
  • What the heck is the Illusive Man doing, and how can we make sense of his behavior?

To its credit, the writers clearly understand that this is the task in front of them and attempt to address it. This is more than many endings manage.

I need to build a giant abattoir. For people. Just trust me.

We can dismiss one thing straight away. Nope, the Illusive Man makes no sense. Apparently he wants to control the Reapers because, um, it will make life better somehow. Even if he has to kill everything to make them appreciate it. And he needs Shepard around because he wants Shepard to validate his decision. How can someone that stupid and unhinged have been ahead of Shepard (and everyone else) the whole time and recruited so many smart and decent people to work for him? Or maybe husks make great scientists?! Nope. Makes no sense. Oh well.

(Apparently if you’re paragon-enough, you can talk him into killing himself.)

If it were only a dream, that might be better!

It was all just a dream is widely, and I think correctly, regarded as the worst possible denouement for a story. To quote Gregory House: I choose to believe that all this… matters. (I’m quoting from memory, so I’m probably off.)

Some discussion of the ending (in particular, discussion centered along the line that the final sequence aboard the Citadel is some kind of dream, hallucination, or final psychic battle between the Reapers and Shepard) argues that another important plot point is the resolution of Shepard’s dreams of trying to find the boy (first seen in Vancouver) and being confronted with shadows of people Shepard couldn’t save. Some of these arguments are pretty compelling and suggest that the developers were at least trying to hint at this kind of thing. But these arguments are as full of holes as the ending taken at face value.

For example:

  • It must be a dream because Shepard isn’t in armor and Anderson “clearly” died running to the beam.

Well yes except by that token it seams like Shepard “clearly” died running to the beam and there’s no rule that says the beam needs to bring your armor up with you, and in any event perhaps the fundamental problem was that they couldn’t render every possible outfit possibility. Chances are, the scene where Shepard’s body in the rubble shows signs of life (in the red ending) doesn’t match the armor Shepard was actually wearing either.

  • Shepard is moving too quickly while limping. So he/she must be “floating” and thus it’s a dream.

Um, Shepard “floats” through the entire game.

  • If you look closely at “objective reality” distant shots of the crucible and the place the final talk with the Catalyst talks to then…
  • The final scene on the citadel looks kind of like the run-up to the beam. There’s even three round things where there’s the wreck of an armored vehicle with three wheels visible.

Um. We’re grasping at straws. Why should any of this matter if it’s a dream? Or not?

  • Clearly Shepard was partially indoctrinated, so this is clearly a final indoctrination.

If you say so. After all, without cosmetic surgery, Shepard has these glowing lines on his/her face that become more or less intense based on something or other, right? Except my Shepard has no visible lines and never used the surgery. The Illusive Man looked 50% husk. I think if Shepard were significantly indoctrinated there’d be more of a visual cue.

I think that pixel peeping screen caps for clues that there’s some incredible subtlety to the ending of Mass Effect 3 is a waste of time. It is what it clearly is. Mass Effect has many virtues, but subtlety isn’t one of them. I’m happy to concede that the fact that the Catalyst appears as a boy ties into the dreams but… so what? We know Shepard is “fated” — he/she gets messages direct from the Protheans.

I hereby dub this giant device that we don’t know what it does, the ASS Deus Ex Machina

The names of the final plot devices aren’t subtle either. There’s a crucible inside of which there’s a catalyst. The implication appears to be clear — tough situation, transformation, the catalyst will help the transformation happen, but be unaffected by it. Right? The cycle will continue. Shepard — on behalf of Galactic Civilization — has fought for and won the right to choose how this cycle ends.

But that’s not true. What happens in the crucible is nothing like as nasty as what’s happened and presumably continues to happen outside it. If anything, the “crucible” is the calm in the eye of the storm. The Catalyst and the Mass Transit system explode. So the Catalyst isn’t really a catalyst but more like a bomb. Oh well, so much for the significance of words.

The fact that the crucible isn’t much of a crucible and the catalyst isn’t any kind of a catalyst makes me wonder if some more elaborate ending was abandoned for time or budget constraints.

Inside the crucible you have to listen to the Illusive Man monologue, watch your oldest friend — real or imagined — die, and then pick one of three outcomes, which are all pretty similar. By the standards of the rest of the story, more like a vacation than a crucible. Pick red, and you live (at the cost of the Geth and any other “synthetic” civilizations around that you don’t know about). Pick blue and you die, but the Geth live. Pick green and no-one dies but everyone gets monkeyed with. Apparently there are other differences at the margins (e.g. how much damage Earth takes from the explosion).

Shepard’s Choices

The three choices are color-coded blue, red, and green. The actual places you go to act on the first two choices are actually not-so-subtly lit with blue and red light. Throughout the series, blue is the “paragon” color (which many conflate with “good”, but which is more like “polite”) and red is the “renegade” option. Many fans have opined that the “red” option is the “correct”, “perfect”, or “winning” option because Shepard appears to survive (versus becoming some kind of husk and then being vaporized). As I picked my choice, I was well aware of the color-coding, but I had deliberately ignored the whole paragon/renegade system — if anything leaning towards renegade — throughout Mass Effect 3, taking what I thought were the pragmatic choices from my ruthless but fundamentally fair-minded Shepard’s point of view.

And picking the choice where you don’t die is how you resolve “the crucible”? Really? That tough a choice?

I may have missed something, but I wasn’t offered the third “green” ending in my play-through of Mass Effect 3. I wonder if this option requires that you somehow make peace between the Geth and the Quarians. (Presumably if you got both of their fleets your strength would be greater. I don’t know how you broker a peace — perhaps you need to deny the Geth access to the Reaper upgrades, in which case you may not end up being stronger anyway.  (According to this guide it simply comes down to your effective military strength, and without boosting readiness via multiplayer, etc., it’s very hard to get high enough.)

In any event, if you grade the desireability of endings by the difficulty in obtaining them, the “green” ending appears to be the best and the “red” ending the worst. Had I been offered the green ending, I think I would have been tempted, but I would have still picked blue. Both green and blue do not involve willful genocide, red does. On the other hand, green presupposes a lack of faith in the ability of synthetics and organics to coexist peacefully. I find the whole species-based-determinism assumption to be repugnant and stupid, and in any event monkeying with everyone’s biology without asking them seems morally equivalent to genocide, and on a bigger scale.

Should Jesus have taken out the Romans with his biotic powers?

The differences between the outcomes are minor. Shepard’s survival isn’t a big deal — he/she doesn’t have a life outside of his/her mission. I don’t picture Shepard getting old. And who would want to live with those memories? All your friends and lovers dead, so many horrors witnessed, so many deaths on your conscience. So it’s a choice between throwing the Geth to the Reapers so that Shepard can toast dead comrades in a bar in Rio (if it’s still there, which seems unlikely) or dying so that the Geth (et al) can “live”.

If you subscribe to the basic premise that underlies the entire presentation of this “quandary” as a choice — that there’s a hard line between “synthetic” and organic life, then it’s almost no choice at all, “does Shepard live”? If you do not subscribe to it (and I see no reason to) then it’s a clear choice — Shepard must die — and then it comes down to whether you think monkeying with everyone will make a difference (and if you don’t subscribe to the basic premise that organics and synthetics can’t coexist peacefully then why try to fix it? You disbelieve the premise enough to die for it!)

Oh, and if, as it turns out, you only get the third option by negotiating peace between the Quarians and the Geth then surely this gives you even less reason to believe the premise.

Like most mass-market SF from the US (BSG is a notable example, Lost also) there’s plenty of religious — no let’s call it what it is, Christian — undercurrent in Mass Effect. Shepard’s name and resurrection are both heavy-handed Christian references just for starters. And then there’s the crucifixion pose of the human Reaper in Mass Effect 2 and of course the Shaft of Light at the end of Mass Effect 3. (Imagine how different a Buddhist-inspired Mass Effect would be! Indeed, imagine if there were even a hint of non-Christian world-view in the game.) It seems a bit bizarre given this background that the option where Shepard survives would be interpreted by anyone as the “correct” choice. (It reminds me of Frasier Crane reading Dickens to the bar flies in Cheers: “As Sidney Carlton climbed into the Apache helicopter, he said “’tis a far better thing I do, than I have ever done before. ’tis a far better [momentary hesitation] butt-kicking I give, than I have ever given before.”) The “red” choice explicitly benefits the “organics” by kicking the “synthetics” under the bus, and this is also explicitly the choice that doesn’t require Shepard to die. Why should the fact that Shepard doesn’t in fact die vindicate it? If anything it argues that the Catalyst was telling Shepard the truth and the red choice is simply selfish and xenophobic.

Haven’t we seen this somewhere before?

BSG didn’t seem — to me at least — to be about there being a fundamental cycle of life where people become technologically advanced, create robots, and the robots kill them, until they pulled this out of their ass at the end and decided it was some kind of Grand Unifying Theme. If anything, it seems to me that the logical conclusion would be for the sane people to form a hybrid Culture-like civilization while the die-hard “give me carbon/silicon or give me death” types could go fuck themselves.

Why should recycling this fundamentally stupid idea be OK for Mass Effect? Again, the Reapers didn’t seem to me to be fundamentally “synthetic”. If anything, they seemed more like some kind of demonic undead monster akin to the plague that overwhelms humanity in Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn series. (One of the cool things about that series was the reaction of more advanced alien civilizations to humanity’s plight — eh, that’s something everyone goes through and you either deal with it or not.) Even foreshadowing the whole conflict with the war between the Geth and their Quarian creators didn’t help. It’s very easy to see the Quarians not taking the path they took (indeed, it’s made explicitly clear that a substantial number of Quarians opposed the genocidal impulses of those in power). And the foreshadowing involves taking a step back from the idea that the Geth were fully alive in the first place. (There’s literally a bit of dialog where you talk to Legion and say something like “but hey, I thought you said you guys were alive” and he replies something like “mostly but this way we’ll really be alive”. They appear to be self aware; they appear to have free will. What are we arguing about? Blood? Poop? Sexual lust? Sense of humor?)

So, in the end, the problem with the “resolution” of Mass Effect 3 isn’t that it doesn’t reflect all the player’s choices up to that point — how could it? Or that it gives you three different, but fundamentally similar endings. One good ending would have been fine. The problem is that the writers chose to force a final decision point when they didn’t need to, and make it about something the story never seemed to be about in the first place — some kind of fundamental synthetic vs. organic divide. After all, surely the lesson of the Rachni / Krogan / Salarian / Turian arc — which is both more prominent and more consistent in the series than the Quarian / Geth arc — is that (a) organics will do horrible things to one another with no synthetics involved, and (b) individuals can transcend “species determinism” (a series of Salarian scientists sacrifice their lives to help the Krogans). Heck, even Tali ends up trusting Legion.

This is lazy bullshit. You can’t resolve a story by deciding it was “about” something it was never about. No-one — not even the Quarians — seems to have a problem with synthetics that aren’t trying to annihilate them for no apparent reason. And for their part, there’s no evidence that the Geth ever did anything to anyone except try to survive. If this whole saga really was “about” the synthetic/organic divide then where’s the evidence? (At least BSG actually was about a synthetic/organic divide, and its non-resolution resolution along those lines still sucked ass.)

Oh well, so the actual ending is, upon inspection, total crap.

All this has happened before, and will happen again.

The Simplest Fix

One suggestion that several people (contributors?) made in a GameSpot video of various people (mostly) complaining about Mass Effect 3‘s ending was that they just roll the credits after Andersen dies. While this appeals to me — it’s similar to how I thought Bladerunner should end (when the elevator doors close — which turns out to be how Ridley Scott wanted it to end) — I think this would actually piss off more people. Talk about not providing “closure”. (I think “closure” is a myth, but whatever closure is, that wouldn’t be it.)

My Ending

It seems to me that everything that takes place once you hit the beam is a dead loss and should be scrapped.

Shepard seems to get hit by the Reaper and reach the beam at the same moment. White flash. Distant sounds of radio chatter… “Did anyone make it?”

In the dream world, Shepard is holding the child in his/her arms, and they are both on fire. But their flesh doesn’t burn, and the flame flickers and fades. The shadows resolve into the forms of those who sacrificed their lives. Shepard stands and tries to reach some but they all dissolve into mist. He/she looks down to the child but the child is gone.

A ghostly Prothean stands nearby. And a multitude of other, previously unseen, aliens behind it. Their voices — sometimes singly, sometimes in chorus — tell you “we each struggled to defeat the reapers; we tried to pass on what we had learned to help those who would follow; we hoped someone would somehow manage to build on our legacy and… survive…”

Fade to black.

The camera pulls back to reveal a ragged field hospital, overwhelmed by wounded, more limping or being carried in (is one of them Garrus carrying Shepard? We can’t tell), wrecked tanks and dead soldiers and civilians from the final battle, destroyed reapers, the devastation of London, then — whoosh around the world and back to the silent ruins of Vancouver, and the forgotten wreckage of the shuttle which the boy was flying on, revealing his charred remains, an N7 shuttle toy still clutched in his fingers.

Roll credits, interspersed with cut scenes of outcomes based on your decisions. E.g. if you helped the Geth and they wiped out the Quarians, maybe it shows you visiting a memorial to the Creators and Legion. We can even show Joker and EDI landing on a new world, ready to populate it with hybrids.

Personally, I’d like to see to end with a little vignette of Aria D’Loak making her way in the aftermath. Everything she did to help the war effort was predicated on narrow self-interest (or perhaps that was merely how she rationalized it to herself and the mercenaries). Perhaps she is disappointed in how things turned out, or perhaps she is doing something so heroic it surprises even her. (There’s no particular reason why the population of the Citadel needs to all be dead in this ending, but maybe it is but she made it out, filling her private ship with desperate refugees.)

And then, if you must, have the final scene with the stargazer and the boy, except this time the stargazer is a Geth. Or one of the jellyfish who seem to have disappeared from Mass Effect 3.

Mass Effect, Matter

I finally went back and played through Mass Effect. I was originally turned off by the interminable elevator rides and dialog. It turns out you can skip through the dialog (sometimes it pays to read manuals, I guess) but there’s no avoiding the elevator rides. (Perhaps even more annoying than their duration is the way that you and your two buddies put away your weapons and stand around looking like dorks every time you climb in an elevator — not what I’d be doing in the middle of a 50,000 year old alien ruin infested by hostile zombies.)

Mass Effect is interesting in many ways as — until Mass Effect 2 ships — it represents the most evolved playable form of Bioware’s thinking on RPG design, and its gameplay bears a pretty striking resemblance to the videos I’ve seen of their upcoming Star Wars MMO. It’s particularly interesting to consider it side-by-side with Fallout 3, which is built on Bethesda’s platform, but is itself a sequel to Bioware’s original RPG.

One of the most annoying constraints in Mass Effect — perhaps a holdover from Knights of the Old Republic — is its hardwired dualism. You’re either a “paragon” (light side) or “renegade” (dark side) and all of your meaningful decisions are framed in that light. Except, of course, that whether you’re a paragon or a renegade, you’re actually going to save the Galaxy, so you really don’t get to be nearly as evil as I’d like. In fact, you don’t even get to be as rude as I’d like. (It’s quite annoying to pick a dialog option such as “So what?” or “This is meaningless” and discover that you in fact say something (a) quite polite, and (b) verbose.)

In the Fallout series (even in Fallout 3) there are sometimes multiple outcomes, and it’s not necessarily clear which is the “good” outcome. What’s worse, is that some morally ambiguous outcomes in Mass Effect are shoehorned into the paragon/renegade dualism. For example, there’s a “quest” involving the grieving husband of a dead soldier who is trying to get her body for burial — and you have two completion options: convince the guy responsible to release the body, even though it’s being held for research that might ultimately save the lives of other soldiers, or go to the husband and tell him why the body isn’t being released, and to deal with it. If you do the first, you get “paragon” points, and if you do the second you get “renegade” points.

More interestingly, Bethesda treats quests as being far more organic than Bioware currently does. Fallout 3’s quests have the ability to branch, fork, and adapt to external events. You can achieve degrees of success or discover that the quest has become impossible as originally conceived but still complete it in a different way. Bioware’s quests appear to simply allow you to aim for a “nice” or “nasty” outcome. It’s also possible that you might be able to fail them or make them impossible to complete, but I haven’t bothered to try to — for example — assassinate quest NPCs just to see what the engine does. I suspect nothing interesting.

Admittedly, paragon and renegade points are chiefly of interest to people trying to get “achievements”, but they do highlight an underlying needlessly simplistic and linear story structure. This is a pity, as Mass Effect is a very fine game. Its lack of moral complexity and actual plot variation prevents it from being as great a game as Fallout and Fallout 2 (which were not without their flaws).

Fallout 3’s character creation system may be only a shadow of the quite interesting system in its predecessors, but it’s also much more interesting and sophisticated than Mass Effect’s — suffice it to say that Mass Effect has character classes, and I doubt that you’d any interesting differences between any two characters of a given class at level 20.

Taking a step back, Mass Effect is actually a pretty amazing achievement. It’s a fairly hard science fiction space opera set in a quite detailed and original setting with a pretty decent story line that makes sense, has some genuine twists in it, and even manages to be pretty non-sexist. While in places it is decidedly overwritten, it is by and large well-written. It’s even pretty non-sexist, and the characters are almost not two-dimensional. (Well, the character you play is pretty one-dimensional…) I like the fact that, for example, the tough female marine NPC has a pretty convincing back story, including being a bit xenophobic and a conservative Christian, and yet remains plausible and sympathetic. It does all this and managed to be a commercial and critical success.

Matter

I also finally read the latest (?) Iain Banks Culture novel (it’s actually explicitly labelled “A Culture Novel” — I’m guessing that after The Algebraist, which I thoroughly enjoyed but apparently many others did not, his publishers are anxious to reassure potential buyers that they won’t have to digest a new setting or something).

I won’t say much about it, but it’s not his best work. It seemed about halfway through that it would be another Excession in the sense that it would reveal another “surface” of the Culture. We’ve seen how the Culture deals with slightly inferior enemies it wants to spank (Consider Phlebas), annoying empires it wants to mess with (Player of Games), primitive societies it wants to mess with (Use of Weapons), and stuff it’s actually scared of (Excession). These are, in my opinion, the best Culture novels — the others are simply fun to read.

Matter introduces a new peer-level involved civilization — dominated by elastic sea anemone-ish blobs — that the Culture cannot simply bully or manipulate or ignore, and an intriguing and extravagantly bizarre new object of interest — the Shell World — each a set of concentric spheres, each with its own environment, atmosphere, and collection of artifical stars, held apart and joined by elevator shafts. Its plot trajectory appears to be heading towards the intriguing question of how the Culture might settle its differences and/or merge with a civilization of similar power and scope. Instead, it peters out into a more-or-less trivial shootout, and manages to exhibit almost all of Iain Banks’s worst traits as a plotter.

Almost every Culture novel (and most of his other SF novels) feature a long, often arduous, urgent journey from A to B by a central character who’s not really clear on why the heck they’re supposed to be doing this in the first place. (If it was ever his intention to satirize fantasy novels with this kind of plot — which is hardly necessary given Terry Pratchett’s body of work — it’s long past that now.) This journey essentially serves to do little more than hold the front and back parts of the book apart and provide a sense of scale that could be achieved far more economically. It may, in fact, simply be the best way Banks has of padding out his ideas to an acceptable length for modern “novels”. It’s more palatable in some of the earlier books because Banks is introducing a lot of entertaining Culture “stuff” (ridiculously huge Culture spaceships with entertaining personalities, wonderfully crazy societies, and so on) — but as the series has grown, we get more repetition and less invention. Matter has pretty much (aside from the pretty ridiculous and contrived Sphere World) nothing to offer aside from not especially vivid new alien races. Even the Culture spaceship names are both few and weak.

(It’s probably worth mentioning that Use of Weapons (the best — in my opinion of course — of the Culture novels) is also the only one that isn’t essentially built around a really long journey.)

The Wikipedia description of Matter, which is far more sympathetic (and spoiler-ridden) than mine, asserts that the themes of Matter are the mentoring of lesser civilizations and simulated versus actual battle (this is where the title comes from — in naming the book, Banks is quoting himself rather than — as has been more usual — T. S. Eliot). The former is certainly described (but not in detail, and very little actual mentoring takes place) while the latter is merely touched on.

So the best that I can say for Matter is that it suggests that at least one more good Culture novel is possible (i.e. one that actually answers the question Matter poses but never addresses — how might the Culture attempt to mess with a peer civilization?). I think Matter might even have been saved — i.e. rate a B rather than a C, say — by a nice epilogue, but in fact its epilogue is quite weak. (My favorite is at the end of Consider Phlebas, and it pretty much does lift that book from a B- to an A- simply by putting the events of that story into a larger context.)

I wonder if perhaps Banks meant to write the novel I was hoping for when I got halfway through, but he just didn’t get there.