What qualifies as “story” in video games runs a wide gamut. In many games, the entire story can be summarized with something along the lines of “Bad Guy is doing Bad Things – go thwack him repeatedly until he stops.” Some games like Limbo eschew traditional story altogether, and try to flesh out their narratives through atmosphere and visual/auditory cues. Others, like Skyrim, infuse their world with so much backstory and text that whole libraries couldn’t contain the number of unique books and stories told in their worlds.
Mass Effect 3 is blazing new trails in terms of story. It takes significant risks, and flies in the face of the way some people play games. However, it largely succeeds in telling a story whose scope and impact are far beyond almost anything we’ve seen in gaming to date.
There’s no denying that Mass Effect 3 is well-written. Bioware has a long history of excellent storytelling, and everyone has a favorite character or scene from Bioware’s history. The story in Mass Effect 3 is unique because it dares to show us a situation where our heroes are powerless. In the previous installments, Shepard and the team were able to prevent the mass extinction of the galaxy’s sentient races, but they knew they were living on borrowed time. The races of the galaxy have begun to heed Shepard’s warnings, but their efforts are ultimately too little, too late.
The opening sequence of Mass Effect 3 throws the player right into the heart of the conflict – the Reapers are no longer a legend, no longer a problem for future generations. They are here, on Earth, and they are harvesting and killing humans by the millions. There’s no saving the world at the final second before the ultimate evil is unleashed. There’s no last ditch suicide mission that just might work. Despite the very real threat, the races of the galaxy continue to bicker and let old wounds fester. This is quite likely the end – the only question is how long it takes, and whether any sentient spacefaring races will survive the onslaught.
The introduction attempts to use some “shock value” scenes involving an innocent child to amp up the emotional connection, and it largely works, although it quickly outstays its welcome. I don’t think anyone believes that the later dream sequences involving this child were really necessary.
On the flip side of this, however, are the reappearances of various major and minor characters from previous chapters. Both the previous games featured a large roster of squad- and ship-mates, and most who survived make an appearance. Some are returning squadmates, but most only appear briefly, in times of great need. Watching the ways in which they sacrifice in order to aid Shepard and the Normandy is touching, and having their history carry forward into this game makes these scenes even more powerful.
Carrying over actions from your previous games is an important part of what makes Mass Effect 3 unique, and what makes its story so controversial. Although the choices are far from infinite, it is quite likely that among your friends, no two of you will have the exact same experience in this game. This is a story that each of us is telling individually, and all of our major and minor choices have shaped its conclusion. The staggering amount of choice can be paralyzing, however. Knowing that every decision has a direct and measurable impact on the conclusion of the game can be a burden. If you take into account all of the previous choices that could have been made in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, the amount of effort you’d need to invest to see all the possible combinations is staggering.
However, in the 5 years since the release of Mass Effect, we’ve each been telling our own stories through these games. Allowing us to take that story, with all its ups and downs, and follow it to its conclusion is an extraordinarily powerful gift. Most games that offer significant choice would be content to say that one of the two endings is canon, and then move forward with a sequel based on that decision. Mass Effect 3 challenges us to take responsibility for our choices, and see them through. In some cases, you won’t be able to save people – not even your friends – from death, simply because you’d have to have chosen to sacrifice others 20 or 40 gaming hours previously. There is no truly “good” ending here. There is simply the end to the story you’ve been telling all along.
Some gamers had concerns over the newly added “action mode” (which short-circuits the dialog choices) and the multiplayer co-op experience, fearing that they would have a negative impact on the storytelling. I can understand that as the third part of a long-running game series that the designers would want to include things that had more mainstream appeal, and attract more first-timers to the experience. I can also safely say that it doesn’t feel like they made any sacrifices in the single player game in order to accommodate these additional modes. They multiplayer in particular manages to feel both completely optional and yet rewarding. If this brings the Mass Effect experience to a wider audience, and allows Bioware to create larger and more expansive experiences in the future, then I am all for it.
“Epic” is a word that has taken on additional meaning in our language, but one of its oldest meanings is to denote the long-form telling of a legendary hero’s journey. If Mass Effect 3 could be summed up in a single word, that word would be: epic.