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Mass Effect 3: What If Your Choices Really Mattered?

Posted by Andy Chalk (December 24, 2010)

Mass Effect 3: What If Choice Really Mattered?

Note: There will be at least one major Mass Effect 2 spoiler contained herein. If you haven't played it yet, consider yourself warned.

By now you've almost certainly seen the big Mass Effect 3 trailer that debuted on the Spike Video Game Awards show. The Earth is under siege by the Reapers. Two million dead in the first day; defenses are shattered and the planet is in flames. The only hope for salvation: Commander Shepard and whatever forces he can marshal for the fight. It promises to be a big finish to one of the most epic sci-fi RPGs of all time. But pause for a moment, take a deep breath and give this some thought.

What if Shepard can't save the day?

One of Mass Effect's big selling points is the idea of choice. The decisions you make throughout the game, BioWare says, will have a real impact, sometimes with unforeseen consequences. Some of them are largely cosmetic; whether you chose to save Ashely or Alenko in the first game, for instance, will net you either a soldier or a biotic for your team and may have an impact on the romance subplot, but otherwise has little bearing on the game and virtually none on Mass Effect 2. Others are more significant, such as the encounter with Wrex on Virmire, which can take him out of the picture entirely, or various character interactions in Mass Effect 2 that can quite literally mean life or death for some or all of your crew. But even then, the bottom line remains essentially the same. The Collectors are defeated and the galaxy lives to fight another day.

But what if BioWare took the concept of choice to its logical extreme in Mass Effect 3? At the end of ME2, the player must decide the fate of the conquered Collector base. Should it be preserved as a valuable tool for the coming fight against the Reapers, or destroyed to keep it from falling into the wrong hands - specifically Cerberus, Shepard's patron, which makes no bones about its intent to use the technology to give humanity an edge in future dealings with the galaxy's other races? In light of the utter amorality displayed by Cerberus over the course of the game, it's not as easy a choice as it might first appear.

Yet what if it's the choice that saves - or dooms - humanity?

The Reapers launch their onslaught against Earth. The combined human fleet, with Shepard and company at the tip of the spear, roars in to do battle. At the last minute, some sort of MacGuffin-esque technology emerges from the Collector base, like the famous "sleep" command that tamed the Borg, and the day is saved. And if there's no Collector base? Then there's no saving the day. Humanity, and maybe the entire galaxy, falls.

It'd be a bold move. Presenting gamers with a no-win scenario would invite unprecedented anger and recriminations from an audience accustomed to beating the odds every time. But it could also herald the emergence of a new kind of maturity for videogames as an artistic medium. Games are unique among all creative enterprises in that interactivity and choice are a central part of the experience, yet aside from some occasionally frustrating run-ins with the reload button, the industry has never really explored what "choice" can mean. Why can't it mean failure?

I'm not suggesting that gamers be deprived of their game, or even viciously punched in the junk. The good fight will still be fought, it's merely the outcome that changes. The blow could be softened somewhat with a "noble sacrifice" outcome; the Earth Alliance is wiped out but its valiant efforts allow the combined forces of the other races to muster and ultimately defeat the Reapers. It doesn't really matter, that's just details. The important part is that you made a choice, and now you get to live with the consequences.

Let's be honest, we all know it's not going to happen in Mass Effect 3. There will be blood, people will die, but when the rubber hits the road it's the Reapers who are going to come up short. But someday, I'd like to see a game follow through on the promise that my decisions will matter, because as long as I can't really lose, it's not really true, is it? My path may be different than yours, but in the end we all wind up in the same place. It's still great fun, and make no mistake, I love Mass Effect. But I can't help wondering: what if the fate of the galaxy really was in my hands?

Andy Chalk is a freelance writer and PC gamer whose work appears on The Escapist, Gamezebo. Joystiq and elsewhere - even, sometimes, here!

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