If there's one thing I think every single member of HTL can agree on, it's that Mass Effect 3 is a shining example of how not to write a story.
It's rather weird, looking back now, that this game that I anticipated for months and months turned out this way. I was expecting, from all the trailers, TV spots, and internet hype, that this was going to be the singular most epic game of all time. I'd only heard accounts of Dragon Age 2's shortcomings, and I stayed away from SWTOR (but only because I don't do MMOs), so I was more or less happily oblivious of the two strikes already accumulated by BioWare. Unlike many members here, I've never played Baldur's Gate or Neverwinter Nights, and I only played through Dragon Age: Origins for the first time in the last few weeks. My experience with BioWare was limited to Knights of the Old Republic and the two Mass Effect games. Well, also MDK2, but...does that one really count?
Despite my limited experience, it was still clear to me that BioWare had an incredible flair for storytelling and world-building. It was quite a shock to play Mass Effect 3 and realize that it felt so wrong. And at first, I couldn't put my finger on exactly why. So I took to the internet, and sure enough I was far from the only one who felt this way. What started then, in early March, was a lengthy literary criticism case study that has given me a ton of insight into stories and storytelling that previously I could only express in vague and abstract terms. Suddenly, I was surrounded by pages and pages of information and opinion on Mass Effect 3, from every source imaginable: journalists, authors, aspiring writers, game designers, amateur critics, long-time gamers, and many fellow internet citizens like myself. All of these people had at least a small piece of the puzzle, and over the course of months of reading, the big picture became clear: Mass Effect 3 was a great example of bad writing. No, even more: it was a perfect storm of Really Bad Writing.
To name several elements of this storm: the Catalyst, a literal Deus Ex Machina with no foreshadowing; Kai Leng, a villain character with no context; Thessia, a very forced defeat for the protagonist; the zombified Organic/Synthetic plot that had already been resolved; the complete betrayal of major characters, namely Shepard, Joker, and the Normandy crew; the attempt to give closure with squad mates before the climax; the abrupt, jarring, plot-hole-ridden ending sequence that provided no emotional release or denouement; the complete abandonment and replacement of series-long themes in the last few minutes.
These are things that I vaguely understood while playing and immediately after finishing, but could not verbalize effectively. I took me time to understand the reason why I felt so unsatisfied when the credits rolled. Since then, I've been able to apply the lenses of criticism I picked up from Mass Effect 3 discussions to other stories that I love, and noticed that they work just as well; those stories continue to hold up for me even under closer scrutiny and deeper analysis.
So, if nothing else, Mass Effect 3 has served as an informal bit of education into proper literary analysis. As I am an aspiring writer myself, this has all been hugely informative and helpful, if for nothing else than teaching me exactly what never to do when writing. It's unfortunate that it had to come at the expense of possibly my favorite video game series of all time.
Mass Effect 3: Unintentional Literary Criticism Course
Blog entry posted by calvinocious, Sep 5, 2012.