Mass Effect's Choices Remain Its Greatest Success—And Greatest Failure

The idea of "choice" is one of the great dreams of narrative games and their fans. The concept that you, the player, can build your character's personality and relationship and then the game world bends around those choices, in the way that a game like Civilization will bend around a player's economic and military choices. The dream, of course, is unattainable—writers cannot write dialogue for every possible situation, and any AI that could do it would probably be powerful enough to be a Mass Effect villain—but the attempts to reach it are still exciting and often beloved.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

I’ve gotta save it for later, but I can already tell this is a great piece Rowan!

Mass Effect was a prototype for the strengths and weaknesses of Telltale’s storytelling too. You make a lot of meaningful choices that color your experiences in particular but ultimately, to avoid some extremely wild exponential growth (your Shepard picks wrong, dies, and suddenly you’re playing the Garrus Vakarian, Private Investigator simulator on the Citadel), your story still has to have the big major beats.


Oh, god. What if Kai Leng had been Conrad Verner instead? Oh, god. I can’t stop thinking about this now.

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Bioware, please cancel the next Mass Effect and make Garrus Vakarian, PI instead.


This piece is way more credulous to Mass Effect’s approach than I was, and maybe speaks to the limits of critical writing assuming universality of felt responses to media. The various ineffectual, disappointing choices that nonetheless felt meaningful to Rowan, just felt ineffectual and disappointing to me. Which, perhaps ironically, was one of the reasons I wasn’t disappointed by the ending.

The series closed with an arbitrary, forced, binary (or trinary) color-coded choice that was narratively framed as significant, but which ultimately was disappointing and had little substantive impact on the narrative. This seemed to anger lots of folks, but for me it wasn’t really much different than the kinds of choices Mass Effect had been proffering for the previous 90 or so hours. My expectations weren’t high enough to be disappointed by the game, which by that point. My main affective takeaway was some vague, grudging disappointment that I’d invested ~90 hours into what ended up being a middling Farscape episode.


Put Garrus in a trilby and trenchcoat cowards!

The piece very much gets to the heart of why ME3’s ending was never an issue for me. The value I get from playing Mass Effect is the personal imprint I can make on the world and the people around me. The last 30 minutes can’t undo all that.

Also, most trilogy endings are bad. I just finished Dark Souls 3, and as much as that series likes its dour conclusions, it still was a wet fart of an ending. But the 200+ hours to get to there was still fantastic. No fire fading, or reaper kid, or Marcus Fenix taking off the bandanna, could ever take that away.


Exactly same - I left my personal imprint on this, and my personal canonical story of Commander Meredith Shepard meant a LOT to me as I was figuring myself out in the real world. The ending doesn’t undo that for me.


Meredith Shepard is a great name


I don’t think this is quite a complete response to Rowan’s position but, in the interest of “other things that are responsive and RPGs or RPG adjacent” -
Disco Elysium, arguably, does the “choices matter” thing as well as Mass Effect does - the “overall plot” is the same, regardless (you’re not going to discover a different killer or anything), but a number of your choices significantly colour both the way that unfolds to the extent of you finishing the game with an entirely different partner, if you get Kim killed, and the same “personal version of your Detective” level of choice importance that many people here are noting is signally important about how ME reflects on “their Shepard”.
I’d argue that this is easier for DE, since it’s both a shorter game - although not by that much, given that the “average completion time” for DE is “20 to 30” and ME is “17 to 30” depending on how many extras you do - but it’s also got a lot less fancy expensive assets (relative to the period in which it was produced).

(One of my beefs with Kentucky Route Zero, conversely, is that it doesn’t seem to do this. Sure, you can pick different choices for your viewpoint character’s responses to things… but even if you never pick any of Conway’s dialogue options that suggest he’s an alcoholic… he still is one, when it becomes narratively important. )

Indeed, I’d argue that there’s quite a few pieces of Interactive Fiction and IF-adjacent games which also manage to significantly include choice in their narrative - 80 Days springs to mind here - with all kinds of unusual branches possible and covered (despite the decreasing likelihood of each being discovered by a particular player)… again, because the cost of doing so is much lower than in AAA game which needs to be fully voice acted, animated etc etc etc.

(It’s also worth considering the converse solution to needing “reactivity” to all choices: simply not having an overarching narrative! The Crusader Kings games - and especially 2 and 3 - are all effectively strongly choice-based RPGs of a kind, and the reason they can give you all the freedom they do is of course that they don’t have a strongly crafted story.)


I really think, in retrospect, the epilogue slides introduced after the backlash are more insulting than anything in ME3’s original ending. I find them incredibly patronizing, in a “here’s the content/slop you ordered, dummy” kinda way.

Far, faaaaaaaaaaaar, worse.


I mean, I am genuinely of the opinion (having only played ME for a significant time, but knowing enough about the plots of ME2 and 3) that the real problem with the endings is that they’re predicated upon a stated truism - that synthetic and non-synthetic intelligences are fated to always come to blows - that isn’t even supported by the historical text of what has come so far. (To the egregious extent that ME3 even effectively contradicts itself by allowing you to resolve the Quarian/Geth animus, and then has an omniscient speaker tell you that this doesn’t happen.)
I think people would have been happier with the “press one of three buttons for an ending” option if it actually followed naturally from what the games had been telling you previously - all the Deus Ex games give you a similar choice, but as they all reflect themes covered in each game, no-one gets too upset about how sudden and late the choice is made.


My own spicy take is that the game shouldn’t have had a final choice at the end. You spent three games making choices about what the post-war galaxy should look like, it wasn’t necessary to throw in one more at the very end.


If you simply refuse to make a decision at the end you end up with the best conclusion anyway, imo.

My feeling is that the control option maybe should have been the only choice. It’s like “Well, I’m not gonna just kill all the Geth or EDI, and synthesis seems like a weird thing to force on people, and also I don’t really feel bad about enslaving the Reapers.” There’s a very clear line you can draw between them and other synthetics, and I don’t really see why I should have any compassion. Sorry, I guess, but maybe ya’ll shouldn’t have turned yourselves into Lovecraftian monsters that only exist to consume


(Good point, but I don’t think Kentucky Route Zero is trying to do quite the same thing as “choices matter” games. I view it more like a play where the script is already written; you’re just choosing which lines to read or where to shine the spotlight, you’re not making decisions as the characters.)

An interesting example I think about when the branching narrative topic comes up is Long Live The Queen. This game is often accused in negative reviews of having a linear plot and only one correct set of skills, that you’re supposed to figure out by trial and error. Whereas, if you try experimenting with different runs, you realise that a lot of major crises (civil war, foreign invasion, assassination attempts, etc) won’t happen at all depending on choices made previously, and that playing with new skills actually open a ton of other options in the plot. The first reason players can miss this is that the failure points are based on skill checks, so they require you to go back several weeks to change your skills if you want to keep progressing in one run, which can discourage you from exploring other options. But the second reason is what Rowan said in the article, responsiveness. The causes behind most of the plot events are kept hidden; you’re supposed to figure out the how and why over multiple runs, when a certain skill check gives you access to that information. This has the unfortunate side effect of making them seem arbitrary at first. If you don’t know that character Y is behind the coup attempt, you won’t realise that it is a direct consequence to your interaction with them earlier. The infamous “X will remember that” was way more effective at the time (it’s become too much of a parody since) to convince players that their choices would be reflected later on than actually having a complex branching narrative chart.


Returning to Mass Effect has uncovered an unfortunate truth: Garrus bad.

The dude’s whole deal is that as a Citadel cop, he wasn’t allowed to torture people and kill culprits because of ‘Red tape’. Extremely blue lives matter energy coming off everything about him in that first game.

Ultimately I like where they take the character. In 2 and 3 they show that Garrus’ main struggle is with his own sense of impotence. He almost gets himself killed on Omega because he bought his own Archangel hype, and his loyalty mission in 3 culminates in you pretending to be a worse shot that him (if you’re nice) because otherwise the dude has nothing on you. A Paragon Shephard completely annihilates Garrus’ worldview and forces him to realise that he’s a follower, not the leader in his own life.

This is why the ‘Garrus Vakarian C-Sec’ game doesn’t make a huge amount of sense to me. The Garrus we meet in ME1 is true cop - an angry guy obsessed with doing ‘whatever it takes’ because crime wrong, and it just ends up with a lot of dead and traumatised people because he’s trying to prove something to himself.

That’s my read on the character anyway. I really think that what works about the character, especially with a Paragon Shephard, is that Garrus comes to realise that he doesn’t actually embody the values he claims to. Paragon Shephard does, slowly eroding Garrus’ sense of righteous anger until he submits to the naked truth that he can only become a better person if he starts following Shephard’s example.

That’s a lot of words about Garrus! These games were a big fucking deal weren’t they?


It’s funny you mentioned that because I had that exact thought yesterday. Garrus was a bad '80s cop stereotype. My Paragon Shep ripping him a new one when he was complaining about red tape was the first time you sorta saw the Garrus people like poke through, but he definitely doesn’t start as the guy everybody likes. Not one bit. Yikes.


Absolutely, I agree. The dissonance for me is primarily ludic - there’s no interface difference between “I am choosing to have this character not say this [because it isn’t true for my version of them]” and “I am choosing to have this character not day this [because whilst it’s true for them, I don’t want to bring it up right now”.

And yeah, Long Live The Queen was another thing I might have brought up in the context of “IFish” games, which it feels more in the spirit of than “Bioware style RPGs”. It’s not even responsiveness so much as “having reassurance that I have narrative agency here” - which is important as the default for most games is for there not to be any/much at any point, so the converse being true needs clear signalling. (Unless you’re aiming purely at the class of people who do only play games with strong narrative agency…)

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All of this is why I think Garrus is such a great character but I’ll never romance him. :laughing: He’s really a great example of what Rowan’s article is about.

I only really play Paragon Shepard, so when I run through ME1 I get to see him gradually take Shepard’s criticisms to heart, change his mind, and decide that maybe “getting the bad guy” isn’t the only thing that matters. Of course, by ME2 he still ends up as Archangel anyway, but in a Paragon run it feels like something that happened because Shepard wasn’t around to be a good influence whereas in a Renegade run it’s the natural consequence of how his character ends ME1. It’s the same plot outcome, but it still gives the player a chance to feel like they had a tangible effect on Garrus’ life.