Wednesday, June 27, 2012

#27: Deus Ex vs. Mass Effect 3: The Similarities Between the Endings

(Disclaimer: At the time of writing, I have not yet played the Extended Cut DLC because it has yet to be released. It may full well addressed the concerns I elaborate on here. Also, Spoiler Alert for both the original Deus Ex and Mass Effect 3. You have been warned.)
Recently, I played through the original Deus Ex, a game lauded for its incredible story and ability to cater to a variety of different playstyles. While I had a great time and would wholeheartedly recommend it, this article is not about that. What I want to focus on is the ending to Deus Ex. Specifically, I want to talk about its ending in comparison to the ending of another, more recent game that was very similar, yet altogether different ending: Mass Effect 3 (Because from the looks of my viewership, people are not sick of me bitching about Mass Effect 3 yet.). This week I will present my opinion on my matter. Though I am aware that this is not exactly treading new ground, I feel that it is worth talking about regardless, especially with the new Extended Cut DLC making it topical again.

But before we can into any of this, it is important to detail the endings and background information of both games so that viewers unfamiliar with either or both franchises can keep up with those that are familiar with them. Deus Ex takes place in the year 2052 and has transhumanism and government controlled conspiracies as major control themes of the plot. The player plays as JC Denton, the new nano-augmented agent of the United States branch of the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition (UNATCO). The player begins by going against terrorists who are withholding the vaccine, called Ambrosia, for a new deadly virus called the Gray Death. When the player encounters the leader of the terrorist cell, the leader says that he was holding the vaccine from politicians to give to the people. After he has been apprehended, JC undertakes several missions and quickly learns that the people ordering him around might not be entirely honest with him. Once he was ordered to kill a prisoner (an order the player can choose to obey or not), he starts to go against UNATCO and work with the terrorists. Denton learns that the Gray Death is a manufactured virus and that UNATCO, along with many of the world's leaders, is involved in a conspiracy revolving around it. After being taken into the custody underneath the UNATCO base, Denton escapes with the help of an AI codenamed Daedalus, learns that an organization named the Majestic 12 is running the show, and heads to Hong Kong where Triad Leader Tracer Tong is trying to devise a way to cure the Grey Death.

After completing some errands for Tracer and getting a sample of the virus, they discover that the Grey Death is a man-made virus manufactured by the Illuminati. (As dumb as this may sound, this makes sense in context and works quite well.). Tracer sends Denton to Paris in order to enlist the Illuminati and their technical expertise in the battle against the Majestic 12. Upon making contact, JC learns that the Majestic 12 is led by Bob Page, a former member of the Illuminati, and that the Grey Death was nano-technology that Bob Page stole and repurposed for his own ends. The Illuminati leader, Morgan Everett, realizes that Bob Page no longer has the materials to build the virus and Ambrosia and figures that he will go to an Air Force Base with former Area 51 scientists in order to gain what he needs. (Yeah, this game is like a conspiracy kitchen soup, but it is still awesome.) Once there, Everett asks Denton to unleash Daedalus into the network in order to fight Bob Page. Upon completion of this task, Page unleashes his AI, Icarus, and the two merge to form the AI known as Helios. After completing addition tasks to prepare to defeat Page, Denton eventually tracks him down to Area 51, where he is being directed by Tracer Tong, Morgan Everett, and Helios, who each have a different strategy for defeating Bob Page. If Page is not stopped, he will merge with Helios and gain total control over the world's network and information, which is all being controlled from Area 51. Each of these tactics has with them different consequences on the world at hand and JC Denton has to choose who he will side with in the final battle.

As for Mass Effect 3, I have already covered most of the plot and premise of the series before, so I will just link to the article where I went over it here to catch up the unaware. As for the events leading up to the ending: The Alliance Navy and the other galactic military installations need to get the Crucible, which is a magical plot device whose blueprints have been added to with each passing Reaper death cycle by the space faring species of each respective cycle. In order to activate the Crucible, which everyone hopes will stop the Reapers and end the war, they need to attach it to the Catalyst, which is revealed to be the Citadel, which the Reapers moved to Earth and closed shut. The only way to get to the Citadel and open it back up is by using an energy beam that the Citadel is aiming at Earth in order to do something. To get inside the Citadel, Command Sheppard leads a final charge into the beam and most of the people involved die when hit by a Reaper death-ray.

Sheppard survives and keeps limping towards the energy beam. He/she ends up in a part of the Citadel that no one has seen before. Then Admiral Anderson contacts Sheppard through the radio and says that he followed Sheppard into the beacon when there was no trace of him during the limping scene. He somehow beats the player to the Citadel control console when the Illusive Man somehow arrives as well and paralyzes both Sheppard and Anderson in some biotic field. The player can have a conversation which ends up with both Anderson and Illusive Man being shot and killed. (Side-Note: While the scene is pretty poorly written in my opinion, the concept of having a final boss conversation over a final boss battle is a very good idea and quite clever on the count of Bioware's writers, especially considering that the dialogue is the most important part of Mass Effect.) Sheppard limps to the console and activates it, opening up the Citadel and allowing the Crucible to dock.

He/she is then magically transported to the top of the Citadel where he meets a magic god-child. God-child explains that he is the true Catalyst and leader of the Reaper forces. He says that the Reapers were created to kill all space-faring organic life every 50,000 years and turn them into Reapers so that synthetic beings do not kill all organic life because the created always rebel against the creators. (Note: Depending on what the player did over the course of the game, he/she will have several ways to refute this claim.) Sheppard blindly accepts this, but tells god-child that he is taking away “their hope”. The catalyst tells Sheppard that he/she has up to three choices (depending on the player's galactic readiness) for ending the conflict and saving organic life from the Reapers. The player's choices are explained and Sheppard makes a decision that should have wide-reaching, galactic consequences.

Now that the stage is set for both games, I will now go over the possible ending choices, listing one from Deus Ex and then its Mass Effect 3 equivalent. The first ending option in Deus Ex is given to the player by Tracer Tong. He explains that as long as global communication remains a reality, the rich and powerful will always try to assert their will on the people and that even if Denton defeats Bob Page, someone else will take his place. Tong explains that all of the world communications are controlled and sent through Area 51. The only way to give the people freedom would be to destroy Area 51 and the network, plummeting humanity into a New Dark Age. This will bring government down to a small, local and much more manageable scale free of the ruling class. The cost is that global communication would be disabled meaning that humanity would be scattered without the ability to connect. When choosing this option, the game shows a scene of Area 51 blowing up with JC running to escape. It is unknown what happens passed that.

The equivalent option from Mass Effect 3 would be the Destroy option. As god-child explains, choosing this options destroys all synthetic life. The Reapers, the player's AI squadmate, even the race of AIs that the player may or may not have spared would be destroyed. Furthermore, since Sheppard is also partially synthetic (the beginning of Mass Effect 2 makes him/her a cyborg), it is implied that he/she may die as well once the power is unleashed. Making this choice also destroys the Mass Relays, disabling super long-range transportation and plummeting the galaxy into a sort of Dark Age. If the player chooses this option, Sheppard is seen destroying a red panel on the Crucible and the machine fires off a red, cherry-flavored explosion that spreads throughout the galaxy, leading to some nonsense scene with Joker trying to escape the Crucible's energy beam.

The second possible ending in Deus Ex is given to the player by Morgan Everett. The Illuminati's leader tells JC that it would be best to just kill Bob Page outright so that he cannot merge with Helios and even extends an invitation to Denton to join the shadow organization should he do this. When Denton questions this, Everett explains that it is ideal for humanity to be guided by the invisible hand of a benevolent dictatorship. If Denton chooses this option and kills Page, then the game cuts to a conversation between him and Everett. He says that worldwide Ambrosia shipments have been proceeding as scheduled, but it could be expedited by doing it directly. Everett explains to him that the Illuminati operate indirect, subtly influencing the world with an invisible hand. When JC asks what people will think of all that happened and how the Illuminati will say hidden, Everett goes into detail describing how people have short memories and that overtime they will begin to forget the events and move on.

The equivalent ending in Mass Effect 3 would be the Control option. As god-child explains, choosing this option means that Sheppard will sacrifice him/herself and “lose all the he/she has” (I am assuming this means that he/she downloads him/herself to the Reaper sub-conscience, but this is very ambiguous, so I do not know), but the Reapers would obey his/her will. The Catalyst also explains that overtime, Sheppard might come to accept that the Reapers were right all along and the cycle would continue, but he cannot confirm this. Making this choice also destroys the Mass Relays, disabling super long-range transportation and plummeting the galaxy into a sort of Dark Age. If the player chooses this option, Sheppard is seen grabbing to electrical conduits on the Crucible which appear to melt his/her flesh and give him/her glowing blue eyes before he/she disappears. The machine fires off a blue, blueberry-flavored explosion that spreads throughout the galaxy, leading to some nonsense scene with Joker trying to escape the Crucible's energy beam.

Lastly, the final possible ending for Deus Ex is the option given to JC Denton by Helios. Helios knows that Bob Page wants to merge with it and believes him to be insufficient. Its mission is to make the world as good and safe as it can and does not believe fusing with Page will give him the best ability to do that. By contrast, Helios thinks that by merging with JC that it will become better equipped to protect humanity and use its power over the world's network in the best, most efficient way possible. Helios shares Morgan Everett's belief that people will not be able to take control of their government and that the enlightened few would need to guide them, however it thinks that Morgan and the Illuminati are also not enlightened enough to guide humanity. It explains that since it is an AI designed to protect people and has no stake in anything beyond that directive (meaning it cannot be bribed or influenced), it is most equipped and prepared to keep humanity safe and secured at the cost of privacy and free speech. When choosing this option, Denton steps into Helios' AI core and fuses with it. They then say some cryptic stuff about having things to do before the scene ends.

The equivalent option in Mass Effect 3 is the Synthesis ending. As god-child explains, Sheppard has the choice of throwing him/herself into a glowing energy beam. If he/she does this, then Sheppard's essence would be fused with the Crucible's energy. Unleashing this energy would imbue every life form, synthetic or organic, in the world with a “new DNA”, turning them into half-synthetic/half-organic hybrids. The catalyst explains that this is the final evolution of life and that doing this would force the Reapers to stop their attacks. Making this choice also destroys the Mass Relays, disabling super long-range transportation and plummeting the galaxy into a sort of Dark Age. If the player chooses this option, Sheppard is seen jumping into the energy beam. The player watches as Sheppard is torn apart on a molecular level and fused with the Crucible. The machine fires off a green, lime-flavored explosion that spreads throughout the galaxy, leading to some nonsense scene with Joker trying to escape the Crucible's energy beam. As you can no doubt see, there are parallels to be draw between these endings. They are similar in a number of ways. However, one was very well received and the other is known as perhaps one of the worst endings in video game history. Why is that? Well, there are a number of key differences in the games that explain the difference between fan reactions.

The first thing we need to go over are the key differences in the endings themselves and the lead up to them. In Deus Ex, the themes of control of a few over the masses and technology influencing the world are brought up again and again. The endings do not come out of nowhere and are a logical extension of the world in question. Tracer Tong and the terrorists play their role in the plot because they are sick of a few powerful people taking control. The Illuminati, while equally opposed to the Majestic 12, believe in an invisible hand guiding the world. Even the AIs that compose Helios give the player their viewpoints via transmissions well before the ending. There is a lead in to every choice. Take this in contrast with Mass Effect 3. In that game, the Reapers are always top priority. Synthetic and organic life opposing each other are not major themes in the main plot at hand. When god-child comes and asks Sheppard to resolve the situation, it comes out of left-field. The Crucible is never established to have any of these abilities. It is only thought to be a Reaper kill button. Never once was it hinted at that Sheppard would be able to fuse organic and synthetic life and while the Illusive Man thought he could control the Reapers, he was confirmed to be indoctrinated at not of the best mental health. The goal was always to destroy the Reapers and that was only one possible path to take at supposedly grave consequences.

Secondly, the endings in Mass Effect 3 are much more homogenous than the ones in Deus Ex. As you can no doubt see from my descriptions, the ending scenes that the player sees are nearly identical with minor variations. They lack any real contrast. This is particularly jarring when compared with Deus Ex. In each of Deus Ex's endings, the scene played is radically different. Furthermore, the thing Denton has to do in each ending is different as well. Tracer Tong directs the player to move passed Page and head to the reactor, turning it up to eleven and causing a meltdown. Everett advocates dropping Bob Page's shields by turning off his four power supplies and then finishing him off afterward. Helios tells the player to sneak passed Page and turn on the systems that allow it to merge with people, sneaking back afterward to complete the objective before Page's cybernetic upgrades are finished. This allows for a greater feeling of diversity with the endings because everything, including the objective, changes.

Another difference between the endings is that in the Deus Ex ending, there was not an obvious alternative to the solutions at hand. The three decisions cover the gambit of possibilities in this world. One allows for people to rule themselves, another allows a shadow organization to take control, and the last shifts rule away from humanity and lets technology take over (like a literal Deus Ex Machina, or “God from the machine”). On the other hand, Mass Effect 3 has one glaring alternative: Why is Sheppard unable to convince god-child to just call off the Reapers? God-child is confirmed to be the leader of the Reapers, thus he has control over them. The fact that the player cannot make the obvious choice results in an overall weaker ending.

This ties nicely into my next point: While JC Denton questions each choice, Sheppard blindly accepts the god-child's word. In Deus Ex, when each faction states what they want to do, Denton is skeptical, which is in character for him. He forces each faction to explain their reasoning and why their choice is the best. This forces them to not only explain their own logic but why the other two choices are not ideal solutions. All of them present their points well and the player's choice is tough because of it. In Mass Effect 3, all three options are explained by the god-child. While Sheppard does ask questions in the final scene, he/she accepts the answers given without a follow up question and just accepts that the god-child is sharing an unbiased opinion (which, as a side note, runs contrary to Sheppard's character). While Deus Ex leaves no doubt towards the intent and bias from each side as well as the logical consequences of each choice, Mass Effect 3 has a very ambiguous ending where the player is unsure of the consequences of what he/she did. Too many questions are left in the player's head, which is a problem. The ending should be a conclusion and tying up of the events at hand. Questions should be answered, not added to, which Deus Ex did very well.

There is one final difference between the endings of the two games and it is an important one. Mass Effect 3 only explains the direct effect of the player's choice of ending. On the other hand, Deus Ex not only explained the direct effect of what the player chose to do, but the aftermath and eventual consequences of the choice as well. This is a very important and very subtle distinction to make. God-child makes small hints towards what each ending would do, but never directly states what the galaxy at hand might look like as a result of what Sheppard does. What are the consequences to destroying all synthetic life? Also, if Sheppard might die to due being a cyborg, what about others with cybernetic implants like biotics or Quarians? What are the possible repercussion of gaining control of all the Reapers and could this new power corrupt Sheppard? How would society change as a result of everyone become synthetic/organic hybrids (ugh)? This is never explored or elaborated on. But in Deus Ex, all three factions go into express detail into what would come about. Tracer Tong's destruction of the network would lead to small city-states and local governments arising once more. While it would be difficult and many would struggle to survive, they would be free of the influence of the few. Joining the Illuminati would allow their reign to continue, but JC's influence would allow the group to stay together and continue to advance humanity into the future with nano-augmentation and new technologies. Merging with the AI would free the world from the Illuminati, but introduce a new ruler in its stead who is devoid of any directive besides “protect and advance humanity”, leading to a police state, albeit a benevolent one. These are all elaborated on, so the player can decide for themselves what they want to shape the world into. The ambiguity of Mass Effect 3 leaves much to be desired, which partially led to the backlash we saw.

Aside from the key differences in the endings, there are also to more abstract reasons why people respect Deus Ex and its ending more than Mass Effect 3 and its ending. The first one is that while both games have a huge emphasis on choice, they emphasize different types of choices. Deus Ex's plot is inherently linear. The player has little influence on the events at hand and how they play out. The choices are not involved in what happens and what the player does. Rather, and this is another very important distinction, the choice is in how the player does what he does. Every Deus Ex player will go through the same plot and complete the same objectives, but they can complete them in different ways. Does the player arrest a terrorist leader by killing all his guards, sneaking past them and catching him by surprise, finding a alternate path through lockpicking and hacking, or some other method entirely? This is an important distinction from Mass Effect. Mass Effect advertised itself as a series where the player affected the plot through choices with direct consequences on the events at hand. This is why Deus Ex players loved the ending because it allowed them to express their opinion and assert their will on the world whereas Mass Effect players were disappointed that the final choice did not have as much of a perceived impact.

The other non-ending reason people preferred Deus Ex's ending is that the audiences had altogether different expectations due to the time gap between the two games. When Deus Ex was released in June 2000. At that time, people did not have a very high expectation regarding games and their ability to comment on the world and express viewpoints as an art form. Back then, games were just fun things that people did in their spare time. Fast forward to March 2012, when Mass Effect 3 was released, and people have a different outlook on games. The audience for games expect good and interesting stories in AAA game releases. We expect the plot to make sense and contain few plot holes. We expect characters with interesting personalities and quirks that differentiate them from all the others. We are much harsher and scrutinize games more closely now than we ever did before and in the age of the internet, this scrutiny is magnified. While I personally believe that Deus Ex handled its ending better, this new environment can be directly linked to the sheer backlash we have seen with Mass Effect 3.

Upon reflection, I am not entirely sure what the take home message of this article is supposed to be. I just noticed the similarities and stark contrasts of the two endings and wanted to comment on them. So for my final message, I will say this with regards to the Mass Effect 3 ending and with the benefit of hindsight: Yes, the Mass Effect 3 ending was not really that good and it have very glaring plot holes and thematic inconsistencies. No, it did not give closure to the narrative. Yes, criticisms and analysis of the endings were a completely justified and necessary part of the process. No, with the benefit of hindsight, I cannot say that the sheer amount of hatred and backlash towards Bioware was warranted in the least bit. And while Bioware does not owe the fanbase anything, I do believe that expanding on the ending is very good idea. Most creative endeavors are never static and constantly in flux. Creators respond to critics and adjust all the time, changing details, redoing certain thing, and so on. This change that Bioware is promising (and that I am very optimistic for) is a sign that games ARE becoming more of a valid form of expression, not heading backwards as many people believe. Hopefully, we can all learn and grow from this.

Edit: Now that I have seen all of the Extended Cut endings, I will go through and discuss how it changes the thoughts presented in this article. 

  • First, the endings still come out of nowhere when it comes to the ideas and themes behind them. There is still no buildup.
  • Second, the added epilogues and monologues within them decrease how homogeneous the endings seemed. The epilogue also contains a slideshow that plays during the monologue. It changes depending on what the player did during the game, reflecting Sheppard's decisions and their consequences. This means that even if two players picked the same ending, they probably will not get the same epilogue. While there is still a degree of homogenization, each ending on it's own feels unique enough to stand out. Furthermore, they removed the part where the Mass Relays blow up on all three original endings.
  • Third, the player still cannot take the obvious route of convincing the Catalyst to stop. This is a shame because it would have given players a good reason to build up their Reputation to Charm/Intimidate him. 
  • Fourth, Sheppard does not have to blindly accept the god-child's word now. He/she can question the Catalyst and even express skepticism towards each option. The player can even openly reject all three choices if they wish, dooming the current space-faring denizens of the galaxy but guaranteeing success for the next ones.
  • Fifth, due to the new investigative option, the aftermath and long-term consequences of each ending are much more clear, allowing the player to make a more informed choice.
So basically, it nearly invalidates this entire article. I still have my complaints about the ending (even with the new explanations, it seems like space magic the way events unfold and the aforementioned inability to take the obvious route), but I am satisfied with Bioware's attempt to salvage the ending overall. Most of the problems were addressed.

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