Mass Effect 3's ending: Was BioWare right to deny players choice?

From the OXM archive: Ed compares BioWare's opus to Spec Ops and I Am Alive

According to Andrew Ryan, "a man chooses - a slave obeys." Rapture's overlord had bigger fish to fry at the time, but he might have been alluding to the popular conviction that games that impose limits aren't really games at all, but expressions of an antiquated cultural tyranny. Holders of this view often seem terrified that we're on the brink of slipping back into the arms of non-interactive entertainment. Hence, continual agitation for "more freedom". Walls must be lowered - invisible or otherwise - and any suggestion of guidance or direction stamped out.

Yes, it's another piece from OXM's glorious past, originally published in March 2012 and repromoted to celebrate the bank holiday. Are there any other articles you think deserve a second lease of life?

I've spouted the idea at points in my career, and it's only just occurring to me how superficial and, well, limiting it truly is. How do we benefit from polarising criticism in this way, and what do we lose, exactly, by giving ground? Why not build on the hinterland between games and other kinds of media? Isn't there room for experiences like Asura's Wrath, an unrelentingly rigid brawler that's strangely entertaining nonetheless?

Bloody kids.

And isn't meaningful choice more valuable than freedom for freedom's sake? Like it or not, games are founded on restrictions - they're bundles of tasks with rules and obstacles. When the rules are relaxed, or the obstacles made negligible, the sense of fulfilment generally ebbs. Skyrim presents you with hundreds of possibilities from the get-go, yet marvelous as it feels to be master of your own destiny, the trade-off is that individual decisions matter less. Surplus breeds complacency. Perhaps we appreciate the value of choice most when we're denied it.

The good Shepard
Mass Effect 3 is a game that, at a critical juncture, denies you choice. Or rather, it denies you the belief that previous choices matter. I won't spoil the finish, but one of the arguments given by detractors is that it robs the decisions you've made in prior games of significance. Rather than rolling all your carefully weighed plot calls into the climax, BioWare simply cuts the threads. This complaint has picked up a lot of momentum online: aggrieved fans have started Facebook and Twitter groups, forum petitions and charity campaigns calling for a revised ending, released as a free update [Ed's note - following the publication of this piece, BioWare has released an Extended Ending as DLC].

Others have sought solace in the idea that the "real" Mass Effect 3 ending was penned by Drew Karpyshyn before he departed to work on The Old Republic. Evidently, taking the reins out of player hands can be a stirring dramatic technique. Albeit a technique that requires a certain skill. That legendary Andrew Ryan sequence, for instance - its weakness is that it artificially sidelines control during the vital moment of realisation. Rather than arranging matters such that you actually enact its brilliant intertwining of spineless obedience and clunky corridor design, it obliges you to supervise the process from behind cutscene borders.

The Line's model is Heart of Darkness, but there will be twists.

You're no longer really "there" when the revelation, the "anagnorisis" of Aristotelian tragedy, occurs. And Mass Effect 3's ending? I'm struck by what the series does and doesn't share with 2K's upcoming Spec Ops: The Line, which implements the hailed notion of "moral choice" with a savage, almost parodic contempt that, bizarrely, reinforces the idea's attraction.

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