A lot has been said about the endings to ME3, and hell, they got me thinking too. Let me start by saying that I don’t have a particularly strong objection to the content of the ending I got. My primary objections to how ME3 ended are based in the context of those endings and what they lacked, rather than what they contained. Further, I think there are some valuable lessons to be learned from these endings and Risk: Legacy.
WARNING: ME3 SPOILERS AHEAD
The Endingtron 3000
First off, Mass Effect’s endings and my problems with their execution. For reference, you can watch this video about Human Revolution. Basically, they have you choose which button to press for your ending to this three-game epic. Having your ending rest solidly on a single button press seriously devalues your earlier choices in the game. Mass Effect is a franchise founded in choices and consequences, and the particular choices you make during the game are massive in scale. NPCs in the game are quick to remind you that once this war is over, there could be dire consequences for the galaxy based on these other choices.
But for all you see, it doesn’t matter. Just choose: red or blue. Okay, or green. And here’s the other problem with Endingtron—it puts complex issues into a context that oversimplifies them. Control the Reapers or destroy them? I created peace between organics and synthetics before, son, I can do it again. But here I am, faced with this absurdly simple choice package. Part of the problem here is that the scope of Paragon/Renegade is exceeded by the choice offered. So “control or destroy” comes off as a conceit of the writers rather than a necessity born of earlier decisions. Furthermore, ending choice like this is not part of the structure of heroic fantasy. Big Damn Heroes do not pause at the end, a stroke from victory, to chose between a few possible outcomes. They deliver the final blow, complete the spell, whatever they came to do and they do it just in time. There’s no debate about it. I get that the game, founded on choices, is all cute and symmetrical this way. But ME3 would have been better off with just one ending, and…
And an Epilogue! This is the Fallout model of story resolution, and I think that for this kind of game it is the best possible solution to the problem of decision-generated branches. Give the game one ending, where you annihilate the Master/Enclave/Enclave Again/Reapers. Because we all knew that it was going to happen, that it was the only way it could happen. This is the structure of epic heroic fantasy, of which ME3 is a member. The hero destroys the big evil. After that ending, give us what we really want, what we worked for: to see how our choices affected the world. Fallout delivers a bunch of brief but pointed descriptions of the world after you’ve left it, hitting all the major locations. ME3 desperately needed this, or something shaped like it.
This was the saddest things about ME3: the fact that it didn’t end. Not for me. Sure, I got a cutscene or two, but whatever. I’m left hanging, unsure of how my choices affected the universe I came to adore. Shit, I don’t even know what happened to my alien lover across three games and over ninety hours of playtime. I have all these questions about the world, and because I don’t know how things panned out, I have no sense of resolution or completion. You’re left just after the climax of your decision, and there’s no denouement whatsoever. If you look at almost any other (well-done) work in this genre, you get to see the characters briefly after the climax. It doesn’t need to answer every question, it doesn’t need to be happy. But it did need to tell you what happened next.
Only once the game ended did I realize this very important fact: that I wasn’t playing to defeat the Reapers. I knew I would do that, because that’s heroic fantasy’s structure, though granted I didn’t know what it would cost. I was playing to find out what happened. To Shepherd’s legacy, to the galaxy at large, to my alien sweetheart. My feelings about these issues are alarmingly personal, which is a triumph of Bioware’s excellent writing. But it feels like these attachments were discarded, and casually at that. I think a lot of the outrage about the endings to ME3 are generated by similar feelings.
My group has been playing a bit of Risk: Legacy, where the rules and factions and map itself changes with each and every game. This game really hit the sweet spot because for once in my life a game of Risk isn’t about winning, it’s about finding out what happens next. Amazing! A competitive game where I don’t care, not really, if I lose. I care about what happens to the world and its factions. This was the missing piece of ME3 and I think we can learn a great deal from this. Oh shit! Vincent Baker totally wrote this into Dogs and into Apocalypse World! And when I look back to the most rewarding games of Becoming Heroes that I’ve run or played in, it’s because all the players were playing to find out what happened.
So how does one design this play-to-find-out in their games? It’s clear that you need a shared fiction which everyone helps create, which is pretty easy by story games standards. But Risk has me thinking that you want another artifact contributing to this shared fiction, with easy and clearly defined ways for players to influence the world outside the scope of their characters. In Risk you get this ever-evolving geographic situation, as well as evolving factions. The very fact that these things exist outside of any one player’s direct control makes it interesting, and so giving a GM this power and calling it a day I think is insufficient. Maps might be a good place to start, both for political intrigue kind of games and for your standard adventure/discovery fantasy/scifi arrangement, though maps have some limitations. And I think we can all agree that character sheets are generally lacking.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that this artifact has three jobs. One is to record the changes already made to the world, one is to allow a particular vector for player authorship, and the third is to imply that there is still more to discover. So what would that artifact look like in a story game? Are there examples of this kind of thing already out there?