Here begin the spoilerish posts. If you haven’t finished yet, I sincerely hope you’ll come back once you have. I’m hopeful that we have in Mass Effect material for many years of analysis, that in its scale and the way that scale exposes important features of its ruleset (in which, as is my wont, I include what’s generally called its “content”) these games will stand as a landmark if not as a classic. The only negative outcome of the incredible ferment of discussion about the ending of the trilogy over the past few weeks would be if the dispute were a nine days’ wonder.The thing that struck me most forcefully as I watched the credits roll had nothing at all, on the surface of it, to do with the strange and apparently inconsistent events of the ending, with their echoes of so many well-known sci-fi (non-)resolutions (The Matrix is the one that I felt the strongest resonance with, but I could name many, many more). What struck me was that I knew instantly that in some way I had not had the range of choices at the end that I could have had, and that this constraint (this rule, or rather this mechanic) was operative because I had not played enough multiplayer recently enough.
Such tedium to describe the bizarre system of Galactic Readiness. It comes down to BioWare breaking the apparent boundaries of the gamespace (also known as Huizinga’s Magic Circle and as the possibility space), papering that rupture over with the veneer of a galactic war, and laughing all the way to the bank as players purchase gear for their multiplayer characters on the plan of Wizards of the Coast’s brilliant Magic: The Gathering model, where the player (or rather, consumer, or perhaps player-consumer, in this case) gets the wonderful little frisson so well known to anyone who’s entered a casino, of pulling the slot-machine lever to see if this time s/he’s got a piece of gear worth having.
If you play enough multiplayer, in your single-player story you do not suffer a crippling weakening of your Effective Military Strength, and narrative possibilities are. . . different. I say “different” where most players would undoubtedly say “worse”: people (characters) die, when you don’t play multiplayer. More, your BIG CHOICES are fewer. I had two of the three possible, and when I had made my choice the final cinematic indicated pretty clearly that my failure to play multiplayer had cost Liara, my consort, her life.
You can point to other examples of important choices in other games, but I defy you to produce anything that truly compares, above all when it occurs at the end of 120 hours of practomime.
It’s also in my view consonant with the thematics of the narrative ruleset of Mass Effect in an absolutely extraordinary way. I’ll explore this further as time goes by and my thoughts unfold, but it’s difficult to escape the impression that BioWare is here in the role of the Reapers, especially if we subscribe to Indoctrination Theory: we can’t tell whether our choices mean anything, we consumer husks.