Perhaps the most common criticism levied against the now-infamous ending of Mass Effect 3 is that, in a trilogy emphasizing player choice and the long-term consequences of those choices, the ending fails to adequately provide the player with either thing. Without spoiling the story (yet), the claims are that Shepard’s actions leading up to the climax seem to have no substantial bearing on how events ultimately unfold, that the game’s sequence and ultimate decision are tonally incongruous with the rest of the series, and that this decision and the events following it introduce thematic inconsistencies, significant plot holes and an unsatisfying denouement. I agree with the bulk of those points, and don’t worry – I’m not going to waste your time writing more about them. My issue is that, in attempting to articulate how these things diminish the quality of the game, some say that there is ‘no agency’ involved in the ending, or that it only provides ‘the illusion of agency’. This stuff troubles me, because it seems like we are using ‘agency’ as one of those nebulous blanket words (‘fun and engaging!’) to help express our disappointment without being clear about what we’re saying.
So, what is agency? I like to use the definition Janet Murray proposes in her book Hamlet on the Holodeck: Agency is “the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices”. Importantly, she defines it as an aesthetic; that is, as a feeling. Agency happens when we feel like our actions can be meaningful, and we become confident that after taking certain actions we will observe meaningful results in the game world. Yet by contrast, sometimes we prefer to view agency as a sort of ‘narrative variance’ metric wherein an interactive story has n number of choices that using some valuation technique give you x amount of story difference, and if there isn’t enough story difference then agency cannot exist or it is somehow illusory.
I believe that in truth the second definition is not very useful, and that people only apply it while seeking tangible details to explain why they didn’t feel agency in some game they played. Players might say something like ‘the ending is the same no matter what you do, so there’s no agency’. Indeed, they may start an online petition demanding 126 unique endings complete with cinematics and even more Tali. Yet the lack of those 125 extra endings is not the root of their complaint; if they had felt in the first place like their decisions mattered and the game respected those decisions, the only ending they’d care about is the one they got. Remember that games are works of fiction; nothing is ‘real’ but what you think and feel about them. When a game makes you feel angry, that is anger and not ‘the illusion of anger’; anger can’t actually be an ‘illusion’ in that sense. Likewise, when a game makes you feel agency it isn’t (and cannot be) illusory. The ending of Mass Effect 3 obviously did not accomplish this for all players; interestingly though, ME2’s suicide mission did manage it for most. What does it do differently?
Note: Some light Mass Effect 2 spoilers follow. That’s a ‘2’, not a 3.
You may be familiar with Film Crit Hulk. He is a guy who sometimes writes long and insightful essays about the theory behind cinema (which, for several reasons, happen to be all-caps and from the voice of the Incredible Hulk). One such article describes how you make good action scenes, including an explanation of one very interesting narrative dynamic: Setup and payoff. We see Indiana Jones fill a sack with sand, we wonder why he did that, then we see him use it to mimic the weight of the golden idol and we go ‘oh, I see why he did that!’ (Crucially, we aren’t left wondering ‘what was up with the scene where he filled that bag with sand?’ or ‘where the hell did that bag of sand come from?’) This works great in action movies, and it works even better in video games because the setup can be a thing you did. As it turns out, ME2 is all about the setup and payoff. Early on you can research special shielding for the Normandy, then at the climax it saves you from an enemy attack. Good thing you mined all that palladium, Shepard! Note that the player doesn’t have to pick from 3 different kinds of shielding and then depending on which one she goes to a different side mission; that is unnecessary. By presenting the player with a setup (she can choose to research this armor or blow it off) and then showing her the payoff (her ship gets attacked, and either the damage is minimized or, in the rarer case, it kills some of her crew) the game has allowed her to take meaningful action and see the result, possibly causing her to feel a sense of agency. Best of all, this stuff works without adding thousands of hours to the development process. You don’t need to hide content behind branching decision points; you just need a bit of smart planning and good, clear feedback.
And of course, the armor thing is by no means the only example you could name from ME2. The whole game is a series of setups that payoff in a big cascade during the suicide mission. Upgrade your ship, find your team, learn their strengths and weaknesses, gain their loyalty and then witness the results, taking heavy losses or none at all depending on what you did. Nor is this the end of Bioware’s cleverness; by basing the bulk of the game on building friendships between characters and then balancing the ending around how many of said friends die, the developers provide a strong thematic focus that ties everything together. Setup, then payoff at multiple scales. Smart.
Note: The remainder of this article contains END-GAME SPOILERS for Mass Effect 3. That’s a ‘3’, not a 2.
I was expecting Bioware to use the same pattern in the sequel, except perhaps on a larger scale. The premise seems designed for it: Raise an army, then use it to engage the Reapers. And things go well enough at first, paying off various events from earlier in the trilogy in interesting (and occasionally heartbreaking) ways. But then it comes time to retake Earth. Yes, different alien fleets appear in one of the late-game cutscenes depending on which allies you gathered and sure, Wrex may show up on the ground to rally his Krogan buddies. Unfortunately, there are many reasons why these techniques are not effective at creating a sense of agency. Firstly there is the fundamental problem of poor feedback. At length I could make out the different fleets and appreciate that some of them were Turian and others Quarian, but what about all those individual dreadnoughts I pulled from various planetary garbage heaps? Possibly they are all in there somewhere, but I for one could not begin to pick them out; as a player I am not trained to look for subtle differences in rendered FMV sequences, and those big wide shots they use are hardly conducive to recognizing details. On top of this I don’t remember off the top of my head what all those dreadnoughts were called, so if you really want to reward my fetch-questing (which you do) you ought to list them in some way. Have them all report in, or something; I for one am willing to wait the extra 30 seconds to hear about how much everyone appreciates my planet scanning. (Wasn’t I willing to spend the extra 30 minutes playing your silly mini-game because I thought it would help save your pretend galaxy? Slightly incrementing an ambiguous green bar is not enough.)
An even bigger problem is that they decided to break the climactic confrontation up into a) A giant space battle that I rarely hear anything about and b) A ground drive that only seems to include Alliance grunts and a handful of Krogan whom I never see in combat. Consider the following sequence of events. Despite the fact that getting lots of troops to the magical red beam thing is at least as strategically important as positioning the Crucible to make sweet love to the Citadel, the deployed ground force seems awfully anemic. I just finished recruiting the Krogan and the Geth, two of the most feared fighting forces in recorded history; where are they, now that I need them? They are not shown fighting on the ground nor are they apparently doing a very good job up in space; the Reaper guarding the beam, which the Normandy crew defeats by the skin of their teeth more or less singlehandedly, gets replaced right away by Harbinger & Friends while our massive painstakingly-constructed space fleet fails to do a single damn thing about it. Shepard reaching that red beam is the primary objective! If those guys up there were the ones playing a video game, they’d have a big ‘MISSION FAILED’ graphic plastered across their entire monitor. Where is the payoff here? I just spent twenty hours putting this whole thing together, and yet in the end I still seem to be doing every damn thing myself. Incidentally, why is that red beam even down there in the first place? Couldn’t the Reapers just turn it off or shoot it or something? If you’re going to use contrived plot devices to suit your level design needs (and since this is video games you are definitely going to do that), you must strive to choose your contrivances effectively. That means more Indiana Jones and less ‘Michael Bay presents Transformers‘.
The game doesn’t need hours of extra content or some completely new space battle mechanic or anything. The developers could have done exactly what they did in ME2: A cascade of setups and payoffs that reminds me of what I did earlier and demonstrates in concrete terms how it helps later. Let Shepard choose whether the Turians or the Geth guard his left flank, and then do a quick cutscene wherein Shepard (or better yet, his love interest) is in trouble but the chosen group arrives to faceshoot a few Banshees. If Jack and her biotic soldiers are available, give Shepard the opportunity to actually deploy them (and actually show them do an actual thing that is of actual importance to Shepard’s mission). To embrace the themes of tragedy and attrition, make sure deploying anybody is dangerous and has a high chance of killing some main character; construct rule systems to determine whether that happens (this is what everybody thought that big green bar would do). If Shepard saved the Rachni, maybe have them appear unexpectedly as a ‘get out of jail free card’ to save one character’s life; if you’re at the final payoff before the end sequence and you haven’t used them yet, have someone almost die and the Rachni save her even if she wouldn’t otherwise have been in peril. (This would probably have taken less work than doing an entire Rachni-related sidequest, yet would be more poignant for longtime ME players: ‘You bailed my ass out in the first game, now I’m returning the favor’.) Make sure every piece of content you produce is either a setup or a payoff; use both components to create scenes of tragedy, heroism, jubilation or bitter regret, supporting agency all the way through.
What transpires on the Citadel and the lack of a coherent denouement are problems in their own right, but I’ll save those for another day. And in any case, were the preceding battle handled with the same care as ME2’s suicide mission it’s entirely possible players would view the rest of it in a less fatalistic light. Certainly fewer would report a lack of agency. Break the story into setups and payoffs; make sure they transcend the rudimentary ‘5 beast teeth for 200 experience points’ and that they leave no loose ends. Where ME2 focuses on Shepard’s preparedness and how it affects the lives of his team, ME3 could have focused on both that and the fate of entire empires. Games of all sorts should take note of what happens when you do these things right and, perhaps more importantly, what can happen when you do them wrong.