Irrevocability and meaning in Mass Effect (rules of the text 9)

The very large differences in the ways players of Mass Effect have viewed the way choice works in the trilogy deserve attention from a practomimetic perspective first because they represent critical perspectives worth refining. Second, and more importantly, however, those differences demand attention because of their affective nature, in light of what I would call the fundamental relationship in practomime between form and affect.

If we take on board the notion that performances within rulesets, making rulesets for new performances, form the essence of something like what I’m calling the great chain of practomime, then we must view players’ individual performances both formally (these are the choices the player makes) and affectively (this is how the player feels about those choices), because the affective dimension gives us access to an essential element of practomime that would be unavailable through formal criticism: the contribution of the player’s subjectivity to the development of his or her performance on the one hand and the practomimetic ruleset itself on the other.

To that end I want to look at three posts about the ending, by Sparky Clarkson, Kate Cox, and David Carlton, that provide a way into the problem of irrevocability precisely in the different manners in which each of them deals both in a formal and in an affective way with the parts of the ruleset of Mass Effect that enforce that irrevocability.

Compare the following generally representative excerpts:


The end of ME 3 disregards the player’s choices on both galactic and personal scales. In contrast to the exquisite, if occasionally opaque, ways the player’s decisions dictated the outcome of Shepard’s suicide mission in Mass Effect 2, ME 3′s finale is essentially a railroad. Provided a player has gathered enough military force, all three possibilities for dealing with the series-long villains, the Reapers, are available. The player can opt to control them, destroy them, or join with them in an organic-AI synthesis of some kind. The choice only determines the primary color and some other minor details of an ensuing cutscene. This denies the player any meaningful feedback about this decision, and the game’s refusal to elaborate in any serious way on what happens to the galaxy undercuts the importance of choices made in this and previous ME games.


Perhaps Mass Effect 3 really is a bleak endorsement of a joyless philosophy. In an argument between fate and free will, we are left with the reasonably free will of the player against the stark and unforgiving fate handed out by the game’s designers. And yet, to argue that Shepard’s choices cease to matter, to argue that the player’s input ceases to matter, seems to miss the point not just of the game but of existence itself.


This isn’t just a redirection of the game’s theme: the mysticism that’s always been present in the game (in the name Shepard!) erupts. It’s always been a series about salvation, but one that involved heroism of a fairly banal adolescent game nature. But the recurring nature of the Reapers harkens back to the eternal recurrence of another one of my favorite adolescent game series, namely Zelda; to Nietzsche, that favorite author among a certain type of adolescents (of people who haven’t yet escaped from adolescence, no matter their age; and yes, part of me is in this group); but also to Buddhist notions of recurrence of ages.

That recurrence is, I think, more of a Hīnayāna Buddhist theme; I see Mass Effect 3 as putting a Mahāyāna spin on it, with its insistence on the possibility of breaking the cycle of recurrence for all sentient beings. Which leads to the ending; though I enjoyed reading and respect both points of view, I’ll side with Kate Cox over Sparky Clarkson and end up satisfied, pleased, impressed by the ending.

The most passionate of the voices, Clarkson’s, declares that choice is meaningless in the end because the lack of variation in the ending of Mass Effect 3 fails to reflect the promises BioWare made explicitly about the meaning of choice in the trilogy on the one hand, and, on the other, the implicit promises made by the ruleset itself that for example saving the Geth would, in fact, save the Geth. Clarkson’s negative reaction is thus specifically not to the irrevocability of choices like saving the Geth but to his perception that the ruleset in fact fails to make that choice irrevocable.

Cox and Carlton both see precisely that dynamic as the game’s insisting on a more adult way of looking at the possibilities of human existence; for them, the failure of irrevocability signifies the deeper irrevocability of an eternal order.

The critique Plato makes of homeric epic as a guide for running a culture may be seen from one perspective as a critique of the ability of a system run along the lines of homeric practomime to provide rewards that matter–irrevocable rewards. The honors of the cave-culture game are trash that Plato’s Socrates explicilty and ironically likens to honors among the dead in the underworld–the kind that Achilles tells Odysseus he would rather be the lowliest living man than have.

Clarkson’s criticism of Mass Effect‘s ending to my mind is that it provides precisely this level of reward–the kind that’s not worth having–precisely because of the way the game’s ruleset over-rides them, and imposes its own irrevocability.

I want to suggest that this criticism represents an analysis of a failure of irrevocability, but that the fact of the criticism’s arising, and of its cogency, is an indication of the accomplishment of Mass Effect, and of the nature of irrevocability as a determiner of the ruleset as we have it. On the other hand, praise of the way the trilogy ends reflects the success of precisely the same dynamic–that the role of irrevocability in the practomime creates a meaning-effect players can take with them.

Irrevocability, simply put, is the tendency of performance decisions in a practomime to effect a permanent alteration of the ruleset of the practomime. As such, it stands in a symbiotic but vexed relationship with the constraints of the ruleset themselves, because those constraints have themselves been encoded irrevocably into the ruleset by ruleset’s designers. It’s the perceived conflict between the two that, if Clarkson’s post is anything to go by, has displeased some number of players: their irrevocable choices have been over-ridden by the irrevocable choices of the designers.

In Platonic terms, the fundamental choices of Mass Effect have been shown to be the rewards of the cave rather than the rewards of the sunlit world–but that revelation is then put by the game in the context of the potentially greater rewards to be had through that exact recognition.


  1. I’m going to be one of those people and point to my own blog post on the topic to introduce one other angle into your analysis. In addition to how the player feels about the designer’s treatment of choice and meaning in the game in ways that are internally consistent to the Mass Effect experience, there are also bigger questions about the design decisions taken and what they signify in relation to the medium. As I commented over on my blog:

    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.

    Hence, there’s another meta level of player interpretation I think rides on top of the one tied to the narrative of the specific game that is equally important when interrogating player reactions to the ending of ME3. I don’t think all dissatisfied players are approaching it on that level, but I believe that some are. That is to say, the promise of Mass Effect wasn’t just a promise of the meaning players constructed through game play, but a promise of future meanings that could be constructed through improving game technologies.

    1. Author

      Thanks, Moses. I guess I don’t think it’s trite, though I’d also really like to play a practomime that actually realizes your vision!

      1. I should actually be clear in my use of trite here. It’s less of a content critique and more of a form critique. The two are of course not completely distinguishable, but my main issue isn’t the message the writers chose to deliver, but rather the missed opportunity that accompanied that choice in terms of advancing medium. I honestly thought ME3 was going to be one of the first AAA titles that granted a practomime experience more comparable to playing a tabletop RPG in terms of truly dynamic storytelling. I believe that even with Shepard’s death as an irrevocable part of the story that still could’ve been achieved.

      2. Author

        Well, I suppose I’m of the opinion that, for reasons that certainly may have had to do with failure to imagine the possibilities broadly enough, the writers chose to over-ride player-choice the way they did. I’m not sure it’s as profound as they may have been hoping it would be, but, despite not being the thing that you and I both long for, I think it’s a work that does explore the nature of choice and irrevocability, and allows us to think about them in (albeit perhaps only slightly) different ways.

      3. I definitely agree that it explores those issues and that’s actually where the parts of the writing that I consider to be shoddy (almost certainly as a result of time pressure) really come into play. Your point definitely stands though, and you do an excellent job of illustrating it in this post. I do really like your use of contrasting voices in drawing out the significance of the player in the practomimetic process.

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