There's a lot of good in Mass Effect 3. In fact, as others have argued I'd say the game is really roughly 98% good. In addition, unlike some folks out there I don't think that the ending of ME3 ruined the whole Mass Effect series. I do believe that it casts an indelible shadow across it that slightly diminishes it as a whole, but there's a big difference between that and saying that it's ruined as I honestly I don't think it even ruined the rest of the game let alone the series. I mean heck, I'm still playing the multiplayer and plan on replaying the rest when I have the time so that surely counts for something.
That said, I'm not going to write much about the good in Mass Effect 3 in this post, because honestly I don't have too much to say about it that hasn't been covered in the more glowing reviews. Instead I'm going to focus primarily on the parts of Mass Effect 3 that I consider to be badly designed or badly written, as well as those elements that I consider to be ugly game design in that they may be effectively designed but they still do a disservice to Mass Effect players.
Many words have already been spilled on the topic of Mass Effect 3, most of them focusing on its ending. I have a few thoughts on the ending as well from both a design and writing perspective, but before we even get to that there are a handful of design and development elements in the game that fail in one way or another and are worth addressing. These are mostly things that would have marred the game moderately even if the ending had been different/better in some way (bad design), and the part that makes me fundamentally worried about any games coming out of any EA development houses in the future (ugly design).
Undoubtedly the most egregious of the bad design or development failures from a sheerly technical standpoint is the character face import failure. While it didn't ultimately diminish my experience with Mass Effect 3 that much over the course of the game, it was absolutely jarring for the first 30 minutes or so of gameplay in which we see Shepard's face quite a bit. I did my best to reconstruct my Shepard, but once she was out in the world there were a number of camera angles where she just looked wrong.
In large part the disjunct between my redesign attempt and how my Shepard looked out in the world owed to the fact that the lighting on the character construction screen was pretty dark making it hard to see just what some of the character's features really looked like. Meanwhile, there are many settings in the game including the early ones that are brightly lit, and any protruding feature becomes magnified. The combined result was a development failure (import) and a design choice (dark lighting) that magnified each other in diminishing the quality of my experience as a player the moment I started the game.
I think the key design take away here is that improving the lighting in the character designer would have been a good design move in general based on the variations in lighting that occur over the course of the game. While it may have been nice artistically to have that screen be a little darker to stick with the mood of the game, it has serious usability consequences that have aesthetic consequences over the rest of the game, hence those concerns should've lead that design decision. In theory the bug was fixed in April, although I haven't tried a re-import as there's no real point in doing so currently. Ultimately, I'll say that fortunately this issue was greatly offset for me by Jennifer Hale's excellent voice acting, as her voice is in many ways a more defining feature for Shepard than my character's appearance.
Of course, the face import wasn't the only problematic bug in Mass Effect 3. Most of the other ones are small things and I assume all of them will be fixed eventually (some of them probably have been already). Still, I do have to mention one other bug since it touches on a general game design problem that certainly didn't kill the game by any measure but is fundamentally problematic in some ways. Specifically the bug on the Cerberus intel for the Eden Prime: Resistance Movement mission highlights a core design dillema in the series. The actual bug involves the mission not only being incompletable if the player fails to gather the intel when they're initially on Eden Prime, but the mission continuing to stay highlighted in the mission log and the system remaining highlighted on the galaxy map up to the end of the game even though there's nothing the player can do there.
Note that with other side missions BioWare made it possible to complete these missions even if you failed to collect items while on the relevant planet for a priority mission or other side mission. From my perspective, the problem this bug bug highlights seems to represent Mass Effect 3's designers reluctance to allow for the appearance of individual mission failures in the game. Players can fail a mission and die, but side missions are either completed or not, but never actually failed. It's possible the Eden Prime side mission was supposed to be different, but if so this just highlights the manner in which the norm for the game involves not allowing the player to fail.
While there are certainly development reasons for the bug that could in theory be tied to the fact that the main Eden Prime mission is DLC, it still touches on the second fairly major technical failure in the game: the mission log. As far as I can remember the mission log has been an issue in all of the Mass Effect games. The problem (which you're well familiar with if you've played the game) is that the mission log loads to the center of the list of all missions. This means that especially late in the game you have to scroll up a long list of completed missions in order to get to your active missions. Given that it's not unreasonable for players to reference missions with some frequency (why have a log if that isn't the case?) I'm going to assume that this wasn't an intentional design choice. This just makes it a really unfortunate failure of development (or perhaps design through neglect?) since it's been a persistent issue across titles.
The other major problem with the mission log involves access to mission information while charting navigation on the galaxy map. It's frankly ridiculous that a player has to navigate all the way back out of the map in order to get access to any kind of information about the missions beyond their general location. In a sane and sensible world, the player would be able to see mission information displayed on the same screen where they perform navigation. As with the scrolling issue, this was a user experience design problem in the previous game as well that really should have been rectified. It could have been fixed one of two ways: 1) Make it possible to navigate to the codex with one click from the galaxy map or 2) Populate the galaxy map with a little bit more information about active missions. I'm guessing that 1 would've been harder to do, while 2 would have required some good UI design to keep it clean but carry the right amount of information to help players make navigational decisions. The bottom line with all of the mission log issues from a UX standpoint is that you're wasting the user's time and making them needlessly click through screens. This detracts from the gameplay experience, and it's particularly unpalatable in a game that takes at least 20 hours to get through and upwards of 40 for a completionist like myself.
While the galaxy map/mission log issue is annoying, it's not quite as severe a user experience failure as the war room terminal is. The first time I saw the war room terminal I was tremendously excited by it. It's just such a cool looking interface and I figured, "Okay, the reapers have just attacked, but at some point in the game these various system statuses will change and I'll have access to some kind of cool features (maybe special missions and things) based on which systems are available after I do things in the game." I mean, that seemed like a totally reasonable interpretation of the interface as it's first presented.
The problem with the war room terminal is actually three fold. Two of the issues involve user experience, and the third involves the part that I think is fundamentally unethical design. First there's the fact that no matter how much you improve galactic readiness absolutely nothing changes in terms of what you can do on the map in the different sectors. The status unavailable message ultimately conveys nothing since the information revealed when a system is available is simply a general description of that system with no strategic relevance.
This is closely coupled with the fact that most of the activities I've done to push that meter up (multiplayer matches) act globally with very few of them affecting specific sectors. Taken as a whole this means that the interface promises something that the game never actually delivers: 1) That unique actions will have a meaningful effect on what that interface tells you about the different sectors and 2) That there's some way in which preparing those sectors impacts actual progression of the game in a meaningful way. Point 2 is a little hazier, but it's strongly implied by the message telling you that more information is not available when readiness is at 50%. Furthermore, given the very real complaints about meaningful choices that have plagued Mass Effect in light of the ending/s, point 2 actually carries the horrible burden of undesigned potential as well (more on that in a bit).
These two issues are further complicated by the single greatest design failure in relation to the terminal which is its fundamental opacity. There is nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, in the single player game that tells you anything at all about how to move the dial on galactic readiness. There may have been some piece of supporting documentation that I missed somewhere, but as far as information in the game either on the map itself or in the codex, the thing is fundamentally opaque. It was only after I spoke first to a friend and then to my brother and they mentioned that you had to play the multiplayer in order to optimize your outcome on the game that I went online to discover that playing the multiplayer or the iOS app were the only ways to improve galactic readiness. I'll get to my issues with that in a minute, but the key thing from a user experience standpoint is that given the choice, you should never force the user outside of your system in order for them to understand how some aspect of the system works. Ethical issues aside, that's simply bad design. Of course, we can't put the ethical issues aside entirely which is why I'll be returning to this topic at the end of this post.
While I have a variety of complaints with other various elements of game play (Press A for All Action!) and level design (that damn reaper on Tuchanka) in Mass Effect 3, they're all ultimately pretty insubstantial issues. Some of them are likely tied to my preferences as a player or the results of idiosyncratic errors I made that most people never encountered. Others are more common subjects of complaint. All of them are the types of critiques I generally write off in games, and the proportion of them was remarkably low in Mass Effect 3 anyway. Besides which, if you've read this far the last thing you want is to listen to me complain about the shortcomings of a basically decent combat cover system. This means the only topics remaining involve game design and writing in Mass Effect 3, and the frankly ugly results of crossbreeding multiplayer and microtransactions with a traditional big narrative game.
To take the writing and game design issue head on, I'm going to say simply that I was unprepared for just how disappointed I would be with the end of the Mass Effect series. I got a late start on the game (about a week or two after it came out), and didn't have the time to commit to pushing through it quickly. I also didn't push through it as fast as I might have because it required fairly long play sessions so I couldn't pick up the controller when I had a half hour window and know that I'd be able to get through a mission. The result of all of this was that I definitely had some advanced warning that the end of the game left something to be desired. Even with some fair warning though, I was still surprised at how disappointing the end of the game really was.
As a quick aside, I would like to note that there's something about the culture of video games that makes it incredibly hard to avoid spoilers. Unlike books and movies, gamers seem to have some exceptionally bad habits when it comes to spoilers in social media, and games journalists aren't always as dutiful as one might hope in providing spoiler warnings. This is frankly annoying, and a topic deserving of its own blog post.
To get back to the spoilerific topic at hand, I was fully prepared for a game in which no matter what the player did Shepard would die. When I heard that fans were upset that there wasn't a "good" ending, my first assumption was simply that some players really wanted a happily ever after ending. Then I began to pick up complaints tied to the limited amount of agency that the player has at the end of the game. This was when I began worrying a bit more about how the writers at BioWare might have potentially failed in finishing the series. After all, as Samara says to Shepard if you speak with her before beginning that final conflict, "Only your actions will be remembered. May you choose them well." Choice has been such an essential theme in the series that an ending which fails to provide the player with meaningful choices is already problematic. I'm willing to give some wiggle room on this since there are other meaningful choices in the game, but in truth the problems tied to the writing around the ending only start at the question of whether offering 2 or 3 different "doors" for Shepard to choose from qualifies as a meaningful choice for the player.
Taking that question first though, it's easy to envision endings for Mass Effect 3 that offer more meaningful choices. For instance, I experienced one moment that would have offered a frankly surprising outcome if the writers had decided to allow the player to actually lose the game. For some reason I can't fathom, I somehow didn't manage to have enough paragon points built up to convince the Illusive Man to kill himself in the final confrontation with him on the citadel. I'm not sure why I didn't have enough points since my meter appeared to be maxed out, but I'll write that off as a relatively minor UX issue. At any rate, the result was that after I chose the paragon like option and failed to talk the Illusive Man down, I didn't pull the trigger when he went to shoot Anderson since it was a renegade QTE. This is incidentally problematic for other reasons. Shepard shoots countless people who are far less nefarious throughout the game, but saving Anderson by shooting the Illusive Man is somehow specifically a renegade act? At any rate, I watched him shoot Anderson in a bit of shock as I'd rather expected to have some alternate paragon action to take at that point. Then I failed to hit that right trigger again with the red renegade symbol flashing as the Illusive Man turned his gun on Shepard and shot her.
This is just one point (of many) where the writers had an incredible opportunity to provide an ending based on an actual lose state. Instead of sending me back to the save point where I had just been beamed up to the Citadel (a save point from which I have absolutely no meaningful options that can change my interaction with the Illusive Man), the writers could have accounted for this as an actual failure. Shepard dies, the Illusive Man attempts to take control of the reapers. Maybe he succeeds, maybe he doesn't, there are interesting options either way. Maybe his success or failure even hinges on other actions the player has taken earlier in the game (ignored Cerberus in a push to get back to Earth? That may have been a mistake). Perhaps the war is lost and the cycle continues, or perhaps the Illusive Man is right and he saves humanity. It's an ending that would suck, but at the same time it would've made that choice not to shoot the Illusive Man (a choice presented as not taking the renegade option) a truly meaningful one. If anything, this reinforces my previous theory tied to the mission log that one of the major problems with Mass Effect 3 is the designers' unwillingness to allow for actual failures that aren't just combat deaths that push you back to the last autosave.
Far more problematic than the question of whether that actual choice feels meaningful in the moment is the part where all the endings are substantively so similar that based on the available information the player has, consequences of that final choice seem to be almost completely ameliorated. That is to say, I may be wrong in my assumption (shared by many) that based on what we saw in the Arrival DLC the destruction of the mass relays which is guaranteed in all three endings means the destruction of the systems in which each relay is located including Sol. If I am, there's a massive unexplained inconsistency in the Mass Effect universe that simply put doesn't really need to be there.
I think I and others would feel a little less burned on this matter if we hadn't shelled out the additional money for a piece of DLC that set the stage for the final chapter, and if the Mass Effect writers hadn't paid a tremendous amount of attention to detail around these issues throughout the rest of the series including in Arrival. The point being, as many others have pointed out the destruction of the mass relays would seem to indicate the annihilation of the vast majority of living creatures that Shepard made any decisions about over the course of the series. If this is not what the writers intended, then they seriously violated the rules of their own universe or failed to provide any semblance of an explanation for why the destruction of the relays in this instance is different from what happened with the Alpha relay. The point is, if you've written an ending where you need to modify the rules of your universe to account for the conclusion you've written that's pretty much just bad writing.
The shoddiness of the writing in the conclusion in comparison to much of the rest of the series is reinforced by a number of other moments. Of course the mystery outcome surrounding the Normandy and the presence of a character you took on the final mission in the crash landing scene is one such moment. Frankly, I felt like the need to have the MacGuffin which is the Crucible combine with the Citadel in a manner that massively highlighted the fact that you'd had the entire galaxy working on the construction of a huge space phallus was another. Both of these issues are frankly superseded by the fact that all of the choices the player has made are rendered irrelevant as the only thing that matters in determining the outcome in relation to that final choice is how far up the player has managed to push their effective military strength which really smacks of giving up in the 11th hour on pushing the medium forward (more on this in a minute). And of course there's the fact that they even did the whole starchild ending in the first place which was also frankly beyond cliché. The whole Mass Effect universe is so full of narrative richness, and the writers could have done dozens of things to end the series in a variety of different ways without resorting to a fairly tired trope. While I know there have been statements to the contrary, taken en masse these various angles make me feel like the writers were rushed, painted themselves into a corner, or both.
Even if we stick with the basic structure of the ending of Mass Effect 3 (i.e. we keep the starchild and 2-3 doors), there are still a range of interesting things the writers could've done to provide the player with outcomes that would've felt more meaningful. One such possibility that was written up rather beautifully by Arkis over at Deviant Art involves simply giving Shepard the option not to take any of the choices offered by the starchild and to have the outcome of the final battle dictated by the work Shepard did throughout the rest of the game. There is of course the "indoctrination theory", but I honestly don't put much stock in it. The writing in the Mass Effect series has generally been quite good, but I haven't seen any indication at any point that there was any kind of writing at this meta level. Furthermore, I would still consider this sort of option to be relatively poor writing compared to the hard work of creating well written endings without resorting to any metanarrative tricks.
Another possibility that I've been thinking about since I finished the game involves that undesigned potential I referenced earlier in discussing the galactic readiness map. The notion that's been playing through my mind is the idea that instead of all of the mass relays getting destroyed no matter which choice Shepard takes at the end, some of the mass relays could remain intact and this outcome could be determined by actions the player has taken. The galactic readiness map comes into play as one possible means for representing which relays might survive and which might be destroyed, although this information could also be tied to specific missions or actions but hidden from the player in terms of any available interface. In short, consequences for exploring or maintaining readiness of a system could either be positive where there's some way of shielding the relays or otherwise preventing their destruction in systems that are 100 percented (or at full readiness, or have special missions that were completed), or negative where the opposite is the case. Either way, it would provide a mechanism for all of Shepard's other choices (e.g. the genophage cure, the Geth/Quarian conflict, etc.) to become more meaningful. Granted, this sort of approach splinters the state of the galaxy instead of funneling everything back into a relatively consistent state, but then again so do the three endings as presented. In either case, you've created a situation in which the state of the universe is greatly divergent, but my point is that I think that's honestly okay. Series should be allowed to end, and what better way to do that than to fracture the baseline state so badly that there's no reasonable possibility for writing future events in the same setting?
The main issue in all of this for me is that the ending of Mass Effect 3 represented a really awesome opportunity for the writers at BioWare to do something that really pushed the medium of video games forward when it came to narrative. It presented an opportunity to have deeply varied outcomes based on a wide variety of choices that the player had made not just in that game, but across the entire series. Arguably that final choice can be seen as the writers opening up the black box and essentially saying, "Really we've just been creating the illusion of choice for you the entire time." That's fine on some level, and it certainly makes an artistic statement, but it's kind of trite compared to the profound statement that having deeply dynamic outcomes would have actually made.
Alright. Finally, with the issues about bad design and writing in the end of Mass Effect 3 out of the way, it's time to consider (just briefly), the role of ugly game design in the game. When I first found out that the single player game in Mass Effect 3 was tied to the multiplayer and the iOS app, I wasn't just annoyed I was outraged. There are two ways in which I consider this choice to be fundamentally unethical game design. The first is only moderately bad as it involves the betrayal of player expectations, but the second is downright unholy as it involves one of the most blatant attempts to date to literally cash in on player desires in relation to the single player experience.
In terms of the betrayal of player expectations, up until Mass Effect 3 the series had been a single player experience with a little light multiplayer tacked on to Mass Effect 2. In other words, as a series it was a single player and players had every reason to expect that they could play it and have the complete experience as a single player game. Much as rhetoric around how the galaxy being at war calls for the mobilization of a network of players sounds nice, it's ultimately a betrayal of player trust to take a series that was single player and suddenly drop in the multiplayer component as closely connected to the single player component at the end of the trilogy. To be clear, if it hadn't been done at the conclusion of a single narrative arc, but rather had been done in another game set in the same universe that would have been completely acceptable. However, to introduce a multiplayer mechanic that is closely coupled with the single player game in the end of the series is really a trust breaking move.
The larger reason for this is closely tied to the issue of monetization through DLC and the iOS game as well. Ultimately, not all players choose to or even have the ability to pay for an XBLA account or in some instances even an internet connection. To take a single player game and have outcomes tied to the DLC from this and previous games as well as action taken online, and potentially access to an iOS device is really a pretty unethical design decision. Don't get me wrong. Making those options available as enhancements to the game is just fine. However, making the actual outcome of the single player game closely coupled with them is really not cool.
To make matters worse, it's really quite evident that no matter the rhetoric behind the design decision, this connection between the single player and multiplayer and iOS game looks an awful lot like a mechanism to drive more purchasing. The concluding message at the end of the game urging the player to continue to build Shepard's legend by purchasing DLC does a lot to reinforce that notion as does recent messaging from EA's execs indicating that they envision a future of interconnected games (i.e. sell brands not products). At base this means putting producers and not designers in the drivers seat when it comes to game development, and as far as the big publishers go players really have no reason to trust them to make decisions that are in the interest of actually growing the medium of video games.
The irony in all of this is that there are other business models that could be used to help move the industry forward (i.e. good for the market side of games) that would actually be ethical and wouldn't involve trying to milk players of every possible dollar by forcing an ecosystem approach across products whether or not it actually enhances the player experience. For the record, I think it's fine to develop some products that are ecosystems. However, I think it's a terrible idea to try to shape the industry to eliminate a type of experience (stand alone single player games) that is actually core to the medium of video games. It's even more problematic when we don't even have the infrastructure to ensure that a player can have a good experience in a game that relies on connectivity even when they're not playing with others (I'm looking at you Blizzard/Diablo III).
The point being, I'm personally confident that the Mass Effect 3 multiplayer would have stood up just fine as a stand alone product that wasn't connected to the single player. It's a damn fine multiplayer experience, and if it weren't tied to the single player then there would've been an opportunity to do really cool things with galactic readiness that could've had an impact just across the multiplayer gaming experience. I mean, in theory the whole galaxy is at war, but every player's readiness rating is different. Are we all in this together or aren't we?
Anyway, marketing Mass Effect 3 multiplayer as a separate game would still have allowed for the reuse of a bunch of assets. It also would've spared BioWare the headache of having to develop a system that was totally consistent for both experiences (balancing issues), allowing them instead to reuse the parts that made sense and rebuild the parts that didn't. It also would've allowed for them to separate development timelines using the launch of one aspect of the game to create hype for the other aspect. Of course, all of this relies on taking a pretty substantial risk and going against the general trend of requiring AAA titles to contain both types of experiences. However, it would've been ethical design which may or may not pull down as many player dollars in the near term, but would have done a lot to build player loyalty in the long term.
Whew. I think that's actually it. That's all I have to say on the topic of bad and ugly design in Mass Effect 3 for now, although my colleague Ben DeVane and I have discussed the possibility of writing an actual paper on ethical game design and Mass Effect 3 which would take a much deeper dive on the topics discussed in this last section. At any rate, if you made it to the bottom of this word wall, congratulations. I don't have a badge to give you, but I'd certainly love to hear your thoughts on Mass Effect 3, BioWare, usability in game design, ethical and unethical design, and of course the execution of narrative in games across the Mass Effect series and other such things that touch on what might have been or may yet be in video games more generally. In the mean time, I'll be continuing to try not winding up last on the score list in the multiplayer and refusing to give EA any of my real money in exchange for virtual guns.