I’m afraid I don’t really get the colossal wave of nerdrage engulfing the planet about the endings of Mass Effect 3. And here’s a fair SPOILER ALERT – if you haven’t played the game and have managed to avoid enough of the controversy to not know what the nerdrage is about, then what follows may contain unwelcome revelations. But probably not – is there anyone, gamer or not, who doesn’t know what all the fuss is about by now?
OK, let’s start with a couple of disclaimers. Firstly – I’ve not played the game myself. Or Mass Effect 2. I started playing the original Mass Effect but didn’t get very far, it felt too shootery and RPG-y enough for my own personal tastes. Secondly, I know that the fuss isn’t just about the nature of the ending, it’s also about how many variant endings there are (Bioware allegedly promised more than you can actually get) and how much difference there is between them. But an awful lot of the fuss seems to be that a lot of players are offended by the ‘downer’ ending and wanted to see something more ‘happily ever after’.
Never mind Mass Effect 3. If we don’t like downer endings, then we need a campaign to change the ending of Gladiator, never mind Blake’s 7. Somebody get me a time machine to go back to the battle of Trafalgar. Britain’s greatest victory at sea, and the hero of the hour is killed at his moment of triumph! That’s just not fair. And then there’s King Arthur, killed by his own son and pretty much the entire supporting cast massacred as well…
The hero’s noble sacrifice is one of the most enduring dramatic devices, and for good reason. Happily ever after just doesn’t feel right for heroes – you know that it’s not going to be for ever after, only until the next adventure. In the end, heroes should die as they have lived, paying the price they’ve been willing to pay from the outset, and not fade slowly into a nursing home. Every Beowulf deserves his dragon and a final blaze of glory.
I wonder whether the gamer reaction comes from players who are used to the conventions of video games rather than those of epic fiction and heroic legend. Gamers are used to winning games. Not just winning, but pwning the opposition. The concept of a Pyrrhic victory just doesn’t really appear in games, where at most it’s a setback before the player powers on to ultimate victory. It’s just a matter of being good enough at the game to score all the achievements, the perfect score, the flawless victory. Nobody expects the Kobiyashi Maru scenario, and a lot of gamers seem to react to it as Kirk did – they want to reprogram the ‘no win’ scenario into one they can win.
And that would be a pity. Because regardless of how you view the Mass Effect series as games, there’s a story there with a hero’s journey, and it deserves to reach a proper hero’s resting place.