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170 of 227 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Narrative Failure, March 18, 2012
= Fun:2.0 out of 5 stars 
This review is from: Mass Effect 3 - Xbox 360 (Video Game)
Are games art? However you personally answer that question, it's clear that the writing team that created Mass Effect 3 certainly intended their game to be. Whereas Mass Effect 1 and 2 were conventional action-adventure stories set against a sci-fi background, the third and final installment in the Mass Effect trilogy attempts to address "darker", "deeper", and more "mature" themes. Unfortunately, the writers lacked the depth and maturity themselves to properly execute this sort of change in tone. The result is a poorly-constructed story poorly told.

While I would argue that these problems begin almost as soon as the game does (where Shepard watches a child -- the first ever portrayed in the series -- being killed), the game's ending has generated the most controversy and so is where I will focus the rest of this review. I will not give any spoilers except to say very generally that the game ends on a serious down note. It's an attempt at a tragic ending without understanding what makes tragic endings work.

Tragedies have a long history in Western literature. While there is and has been a great deal of debate as to the structure of a tragedy, the core idea that makes a tragedy work well is that the hero's sad fate is the inevitable result of his or her character. Aristotle referred to this as the tragic hero's hamartia (which means "mistake", though it's often translated as "fatal flaw"). This is a very important idea because as Nietzsche argued, tragedies resonate with us because they contradict, not confirm, a pessimistic view of the universe: the tragic hero doesn't experience pain and misfortune for no reason, but instead experiences this pain as a direct consequence of his or her own nature. In other words, an ending is only truly tragic if it's the result of the tragic hero's shortcomings; an ending where "rocks fall, everyone dies" may be rather sad, but because it happened at random it's not tragic.

Mass Effect 3's ending fails because Shepard is not a tragic hero. In fact, Shepard does everything absolutely right up until the last 5 to 10 minutes of the game. Only then, by pure writer fiat, does he or she fail. There's no catharsis for the player, no satisfactory explanation, no hope. There is only "deep", "mature" death and despair.

If games are ever going to be art, they need to pay better attention to the artistic traditions that have shaped our culture.
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Comments

Tracked by 3 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 17 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 18, 2012 1:47:47 PM PDT
Great review and understanding of the flaws of the game. I wish more writers who desire to write "mature" stories would read this review.

Posted on Mar 19, 2012 12:38:46 AM PDT
Dead on! The child at the beginning, in the dream sequence, and the one in the ending seem to be in the game for the purpose of providing some kind of theme in the narrative, or cheap irony based on how the game ends. But none of it rings true because Shepard isn't a tragic hero, he has no flaws aside from having the weight of the universe on his shoulders. At the beginning of ME1 he was a sole survivor, in ME2 he survived the suicide mission, nothing in the narrative dictates that things should end the way they did, either the writer had no clue what occured in the previous games or just doesn't understand how basic story telling works.

Posted on Mar 19, 2012 9:00:20 AM PDT
Brendan Ross says:
Great review. You really get at the core reason why this simply didn't work as an ending.

Posted on Mar 21, 2012 12:56:33 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 21, 2012 12:59:03 AM PDT
Joseph says:
Well said! I agree that the plot through-out the game (maybe even the series) was delivered clumsily. Usually I'm happy to overlook that kind of thing in video games or books where that's clearly not the main goal. But my god ME3 just tried so hard to present itself as novel, elevated SciFi, that that heap of trite ontological cliches at the end ruined the entire series for me and has put me off bioware game indefinitely.

Posted on Mar 25, 2012 5:51:57 PM PDT
A. Mushel says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

Posted on Mar 25, 2012 6:11:56 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 25, 2012 6:14:07 PM PDT
Thank you for this outstanding explanation of why the story failed utterly.
The simpletons complain that people such as ourselves want only "bunnies and sunshine" ending. Total b.s.
Some of my favorite movies-- Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard, Lawrence of Arabia, etc.-- have tragic endings, and they're great precisely because of the things that you stated here. The ending isn't just a failure of writing -- it's utterly moronic. Even the voice acting is uncharacteristically off (i.e.: a loving tone of voice with a psychopathic "star child" that has killed billions of beings).

Posted on Mar 27, 2012 9:21:43 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 27, 2012 9:23:09 AM PDT
N. Pitts says:
I believe your analysis owes more to Aristotle than Nietzsche, although it is a somewhat pedantic point. Nietzsche esteemed the pre-socratic tragedians as the best embodiment of classical Greek culture. He believes that Socrates and his intellectual progeny, as well as Euripides, were decadent. I am not sure which of N's books you read, but it's actually vital to his thought, the reason the Greeks were so beautiful was because in classical the Greek tragedies, good and virtuous men suffer, and this, through no fault of their own, just as good and virtuous men do in this life. But the Greeks still managed to say in spite of that, contra-Schopenhauer, that life is ultimately good, beautiful, and worth living, in spite of the presence of any arbitrary injustices one might encounter, e.g. the conclusion of ME3.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 29, 2012 8:15:26 PM PDT
James Felix says:
Just because you don't understand it that doesn't make it nonsense.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 29, 2012 8:21:14 PM PDT
James Felix says:
If this were a philosophy class I'd be inclined to give your comment a good grade. But it's not philosophy class, it's a game. It's a game that (if you include the entire trilogy, which I think is fair) most of us spent over $150 and 150 hours on. And to spend that kind of time and money only to be hit with an out-of-the-blue, not-a-damn-thing-you-can-do-about-it downer of an ending is about the finest example of poor game design I can think of.

Games are supposed to be fun. I'm supposed to feel better after I play them. If I want to learn about the arbitrary injustice of existence I can turn off the game and go to work.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 31, 2012 1:14:11 AM PDT
Kerome says:
Great analysis of the endings inconsistency with the core story theme of the trilogy and the genre. But what I find truly amazing is that the ending fails on so many levels that it is almost impossible not to find fault with it. All I can imagine is that it was put together under great time pressure, and even then it's staggering that it passed both internal, publisher and critic reviews before hitting the fans in the face.
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