I spent the weekend rushing through Mass Effect 3. The game is quite well polished from a production stand-point, though I was irked that one side quest was buggy. The ending generated massive player backlash, for very good reasons – I won’t go into details here as there are already excellent analyses elsewhere. In short, the production quality dropped off a cliff during the last 15 minutes of the game – it felt very tacked on and had numerous plot holes.
The remainder 99% of the game was satisfying. From a narrative point of view it felt closer to the original than the sequel – it was “epic” in thematic dimensions and there was constant tension (my main objection against the sequel was that the narrative of building out a team of diverse personalities – while all the characters were very interesting individually – felt like a cheap plot device to add 15 hours of gameplay). The entire universe was in peril; even against this backdrop, different civilizations were pursuing selfish goals and there were multiple conflicts across galaxies; you, as the central character, could choose to defuse these conflicts and unite the species against a common enemy (and you may succeed or fail depending on your choices).
The most interesting take-away I have about the game, is the unique immersive experience a video-game can provide, as opposed to other forms of media (such as film), and how it could leverage and expand on narrative techniques commonly found in films. There are a couple of really powerful moments in Mass Effect 3 – spoilers ahead – that demonstrate fully the power of the medium.
My favorite scene from the game is involving a side character, Mordin. Mordin is an alien (Salarian, to be precise) scientist introduced in Mass Effect 2, who speaks in a rapid fire monotone voice. He represents a strict utilitarian world-view, and is responsible for causing a disease called the “genophage” which made another hostile species, the Krogan, largely infertile – he sees this as an elegant solution to solving a complex problem. Over the course of the narrative of Mass Effect 2, his character development involves a side story where he discovers research that could cure the genophage, and it was up to the player’s choice how that data was used. Regardless, during this side story Mordin’s character evolves as he sees the damage that the genophage has done to the Krogan civilization, and he begins to feel remorse (while not necessarily changing his utilitarian view on the goals).
Mordin also serves as a source of comic relief within Mass Effect 2. His intentionally monotone machine-gun speech is always funny to listen to, and players could also unlock the following if diligent with engaging the character in dialogue:
In Mass Effect 3, the player is rewarded with a very dramatic scene that builds on top of these previous player investments. One mission provides closure to the genophage side-story, allowing Mordin (if the player chooses to do so) to cure the genophage and give the Krogans a renewed future. However, in doing so Mordin has to make a personal sacrifice, and during the climactic scene he quietly hums the song uncovered in the previous video:
Many a player have been quoted as crying when they first witnessed this scene. The beauty of the narrative here is that it is not only strong from a passive, cinematic point of view (the cutscene is well edited and can rival similar scenes in films and TV); but it is all the more stronger because the player’s interactions with the game led up to this point. The player interacted with Mordin, and got to know the character; there is stronger emotional investment than what is ever possible in film (which is all passive).
And of course, it is all the more intriguing that the player could, through a different set of choices, avoid this scene from happening. This to me was one of the best demonstrations of the power of the interactive medium, and the highlight of the game.