Previously on, "Getting Players to Care"
I talked about all sorts of interesting stuff and laid out the foundation for this article series. Each part leads directly into the next and explains what the heck is going on. If you haven't read a previous part, check out Part 1 and skip along merily through my linear corridor of an article-design. I'll work on a non-linear article series next time, I promise.
After reading dozens of forum threads, articles, discussion on the “Retake Mass Effect 3” Facebook group and watching vlogs on the subject – it is apparent that the major criticism regarding the original conclusion to Mass Effect 3 was that the potential endings you could choose from were virtually identical.
The Mass Effect series is largely defined by its emphasis on player choice. Players make big decisions throught the course of the games’ events and a major selling point of the titles has been that your decisions in earlier games will spiral out to impact later ones. If you save an alien species from extinction, they’ll remain in the galaxy and will remember you. If you exterminate the alien species, that will change the nature of galactic politics.
The endings of Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 involved mammoth choices that would determine who lived and who died, a cathartic experience that players applauded BioWare for creating. With this identity at the core of the series, indeed at the core of BioWare’s brand, it's little wonder that the original ending choices leading to identical conclusions frustrated fans of the series so intensely.
The only issue with this complaint is that the endings are not identical. In fact, they represent the most important choice in the history of the Mass Effect franchise and every other BioWare title ever made.
At the end of the series, the players were put in the position of a god for a single decision. Throughout the entire franchise, the player’s goal had been to stop an army of synthetic monstrosities known as “the Reapers” from destroying all life in the galaxy. Naturally, the plan was to find some way to destroy them all. However, at the last minute, BioWare gave the players three potential options to choose from.
The first option was for the player to destroy all synthetics in existence, including his synthetic allies, in order to destroy the Reapers. It was also likely that the player would die in the process. The second option was for the player to sacrifice his own life in order to take control of the Reapers – using them however he pleases for the rest of eternity. The final option was to force a synthesis between organic and synthetic life – merging all life in existence into a strange hybrid of the two (an option that also costs the player’s life).
This choice would impact the future of all civilization in the galaxy. Depending on the choice, all synthetic creatures might be destroyed, the synthetic monsters might come under the hero’s control or the very nature of life might be forever changed. It is hard to imagine any choice more grandiose or more impactful on the future of the universe.
And yet, players were vocal in insisting that these endings were identical. At first glance, this doesn’t seem possible. The stakes were certainly high in the conflict and the sense of scale was absolutely mindboggling. However, the endings failed to impact what the players actually cared about.
Mass Effect’s players cared about the characters that surrounded them on their journey; the crew they’ve spent the past five years of their lives building relationships with and the other characters in the galaxy they’ve worked alongside. They’ve spent dozens of hours attempting to repair race relations between the various warring species of the galaxy. In the process they've made friends, saved lives, and chosen sides. Mass Effect 3’s characters are what the players invested their emotions in and the three original endings had effectively identical impacts on the lives of these characters.
No matter which of the three endings you chose the Reaper threat was ended, your crew somehow escaped the explosion to crash on a jungle planet and the vast armada you spent the entire game building up by uniting the galaxy into one force was now stranded without supplies. It didn't matter which ending a player chose, the effects on the characters the player cared about were almost identical.
A strong analogy would be if a player was given three options to how a well-loved character in the game ends up dying – while the death itself is unavoidable. The player could choose to have the friend they like die by fire, ice or suffocation and then watch the result. However, these options are effectively identical to the player as the result on the object of the player’s emotional investment is the same. Regardless of what option is chosen, the well-loved character dies. The method of death is immaterial to the player’s emotional investment.
This mistake is emphasized by BioWare’s repetitive use of aesthetics, showing similar cinematics regardless of the option chosen (highlighting the choice’s similarity). It has often been said of Mass Effect 3’s original endings that the only significant difference was the color of the cinematic that follows the choices. If the option to destroy all synthetic life was chosen, the explosions were red. If the option to control the Reapers was chosen, the explosions were blue. If the option to synthesize all organic and synthetic life was chosen, the explosions were green. Otherwise, the fans are correct – the endings are astonishingly similar in appearance. The following is a video of the multiple ending options a player can receive, played simultaneously alongside one another for easy comparison.
With cinematics that similar and a failure of the ending to bring about noticeably different results for the objects the players’ emotional investment, it's easy to understand why players claimed that the final options felt identical. In fact, a follow-up display of the community’s passion involved sending 402 cupcakes to BioWare’s employees. One third of the cupcakes were topped with red frosting, one third were topped with blue frosting and the final third were topped with green frosting. The professed intention of the gesture was to point out in a good-natured way that while the colors on top might be different – underneath the cupcakes all tasted exactly the same. This gesture cost $1,005 dollars to fund, an amount that was raised in less than an hour from the enthusiastic fan-base.
This is an astonishing display of both the power and peril of emotional investment. The fans of Mass Effect 3 demonstrated incredible emotional investment, caring about the series and characters to such an extent that it’s become a phenomenon of the game industry. With players so emotionally invested in the characters, BioWare had a huge opportunity to make the final installment one of the most powerful and vibrant narrative experiences ever felt by its players.
However, the company tragically misunderstood the true objects of their fans’ emotional investment. They seemed to believe that players cared about the abstract, faceless galaxy as a whole. Their endings made a tremendous impact on the fate of a faceless galaxy. Unfortunately, the original endings were absolutely meaningless when it came to affecting the core of the players’ emotional investment – the characters they’d befriended and journeyed alongside for five long years. The result was crippling backlash towards an extraordinary developer, with user ratings of the game set even lower than some of the most disappointing titles in recent years.
The results of these examples all point to the same principle. The Rokia Study, The Sarah Phenomenon and Mass Effect 3’s backlash all demonstrate that specific individuals, the game’s characters, are the most fertile objects for a player’s emotional investment. With this principle in mind, I dedicated the majority of my time throughout my own study to determining a model for how to reliably create compelling characters for players to invest their emotions in, the foundation for all dramatic experience in games.
A model for creating compelling characters that anyone can use? Blasphemy! Surely only the wild writhings of inspiration can be responsible for the wonderful characters we know and love.
Well, let's dive in for Part Six and see how deep this rabbit hole goes.