This article contains spoilers from Mass Effect 3. Don't read any further if you have not played this game and intend to do so in the future.
Destroy. Synthesize. Control. What'll it be?
That was the controversial question posed to me in the final moments of Mass Effect 3
. Millions of others saw the same three-pronged finale. Many considered this final choice to be a cop-out, the final branches of Mass Effect
's story tree to be comprised of inconsequential differences in the grand scheme of BioWare's trilogy. A space epic like Mass Effect
deserves a grand finale and maybe you don't feel that the developers delivered on that promise, but it was in their extended cut update where I got my personally canonical playthrough and the most satisfying ending. Along with elaborating on the original endings, BioWare went and added a fourth ending that allowed you to pass on all of the previous options. Instead, you could, like all who came before you, add your technological contributions to the war with the Reapers, a struggle that was reignited every 50,000 years, and leave it up to the next generation or future generations to be the ones that overcome their powerful overlords.
I loved it. For once a game was letting me choose to be a piece of the puzzle, but not necessarily the final, victory-sealing piece. I was but a cog in the perpetually spinning wheel of civilizations that would evolve, revolt, and inch closer to victory before falling short of the ultimate goal. Games so rarely let you choose partial successes like that, especially when the universe is on the line. Narrative driven games return to the weight-of-the-world plot so frequently that it sometimes becomes a bore. I don't always need the weight of the world to be on my shoulders to be moved by a story.
Hidden within Mass Effect's fan servicing rewrite was the best ending of them all.
This example from Mass Effect
is an important one, but it's only a half-measure. While the universe being at stake makes sense in a space epic such as that, the premise of the series sits among countless other games that tell us to save the world. Why is this such a popular storyline? Does everything need to be so drastic? It's like in The Office
, the US version, when Michael Scott always pulls the gun
on his improv class. Going to the most extreme situation possible can be a shortcut to making your story feel impactful. It's a well that, if visited too often, dries out. I've possibly reached that point as a participant in these stories.
Perhaps part of it is because fantasy and science fiction, two well represented genres in games, have customarily told these types of stories. They often involve some sort of weapon - be it technological or magical - that threatens all of the world and we play the one hero who can prevent it. Is that the only avenue to explore within these genres, though? We can look at recent games like The Swapper
that exist very much under sci-fi or fantasy headers but don't resort to pulling the gun on the improv class. It just seems like games disproportionately threaten to eradicate all life, while other mediums tell stories that can be much more affecting without needing to pit their protagonists in fate-of-the-universe scenarios.
Science fiction doesn't inherently imply the universe needs to be at stake.
A few years ago on my TA blog I talked about how the one genre that didn't yet exist in games was one where ordinary people dealt with real world problems. Now, I wasn't asking to have a Supermarket Simulator
, but in the time since I wrote that, what I envisioned has come to fruition via the indie route. That Dragon, Cancer
is a game that comes to mind. It exists as an experiment in catharsis for the two parents/developers to find a way to cope with losing their young child to cancer. That really happened to them. The game, then, lets you play out a host of days in the family's life, some great, some not so great,and some downright awful. That's a real world issue and it's handled with maturity. We don't need to fight to save the world because I can say as a father that losing your child would like feel the world has ended anyway.
There are others too, like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
, and even more on the way, like Reflections
. Yes, these games often fit under the umbrella of "walking simulators", of which I'm a fan anyway, but that's partly a result of indie studios working within their limitations while remaining the only developers willing to tell stories that affect individuals, rather than all terrestrial life, or more. Some games even find ways to tell both stories at once. Life Is Strange
is a good example of this. Max and Chloe have to navigate the usual trials of high school - bullies, homework, drugs, etc. - but in the meantime, Max's time-altering abilities seem to be signaling the destruction of Arcadia Bay. The Last of Us
comes to mind as well. A society ravaged by a fungal infection makes it very hard to live even just another day and, in this case, the world is very much gone already, but the game centers around the human relationship between a grieving father and a young girl who becomes his ward.
An epic adventure is often a lot of fun, but it's not the only avenue for a great story.
Conflict is story. It's fundamental. The problem is that game writers so often define conflict as only the bloodied, action-packed, all or nothing kind. Too often it's forgotten that conflict comes in many forms, however. Maybe developers are satisfying what they think is an inherent desire for literally explosive action in those of us who play games, but that's certainly not mandatory. By focusing so often on just the biggest of conflicts, studios are leaving behind the potential for so many other stories, ones that move us not because the world is threatened but maybe because one person's world is threatened. I think there will always be room for Halo
, for Mass Effect
, for The Witcher
. Those are for audiences that exist and absolutely should be considered, and they'll most likely always be the biggest moneymakers. The industry just seems top heavy with the same repeated plot points, leaving only the small independent artists to make "walking sims" of real world and often more relatable issues. Big studios could tackle these concepts as well, if they ever took chances. A lot of AAA titles feel like the end result of months of focus group data about what sells, what's cool, but not necessarily what's affecting or artful.
Movies, books, television, they all have their big budget epics that want to tell massive stories with far-reaching consequences. Sometimes I love those. But those formats also know how to scale it back and tell more human narratives. The world was never on the line in Breaking Bad
. The fate of our planet was never at stake in We Have Always Lived in the Castle
. As much as the whole world seems to adore Star Wars
, theaters would be pretty empty if the only movies being made were Star Wars
and similar films. You can have a great improv class without pulling the gun on your partners. You can tell an excellent story without all of existence being threatened. Video games want us to play the hero of everything far too often. They keep putting the weight of the world on my shoulders, so much so that, now, I can't help but shrug them.