Also, Did Garrus Actually Get Laid? This Stuff Matters.

I did it. I finally finished the Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy, a mere two years after the final chapter was released. My avatar, Commander Shepard (known by his first name “Bunny” to his friends, at least in my playthrough), saved the galaxy. I went in knowing from the beginning that many people, including friends whose opinion I respect, absolutely loathe the ending.

I want to talk about (and spoil the living shit out of — only warning) that ending. Eventually. But first, let me talk about Tali’Zorah vas Normandy, my shotgun-packing space gypsy mega-geek girlfriend. Let me talk about missed opportunities.

Tali’Zorah is a Quarian, a race with an immune system that’s been seriously compromised by generations spent living on board spaceships. You literally never see them outside their pressure suits. (Form-fitting pressure suits. Seriously, Tali rocks the hell out of that thing.) Which opens up what should have been a fantastic moment when Tali becomes a romance option in Mass Effect 2 — a moment that never actually occurs.

The essence of narrative romance is obstruction. Take two people, have them fall in love, and give them a reason they can’t be together, and you have Romeo and Juliet; take away the reason they can’t be together, and you have porn. The essence of sex is intimacy and vulnerability; the most powerful sexual moments come from sharing our most private selves, from leaving ourselves physically and emotionally at our partner’s mercy. By its very nature, a romance with Tali should knock both of those out of the park, setting up a relationship that ought to rival the doomed-lovers paths with Alistair in Dragon Age for its potency.

How should sex be depicted in a video game? There’s literally no right answer, because every solution carries so much baggage with it. The more you try to engage the player by making it explicit, the more you flirt with the demons of bad taste. You can wind up with something that may or may not be porn, depending on how emotionally engaged the player actually is, and will definitely outrage the various Guardians of Public Morality who always howl to the heavens if a video game depicts nudity. But simply fading to black and leaving the whole thing to the players’ imaginations, while much safer, is a cop-out, one that will leave many players annoyed and feeling as though you’re treating them like children.

Even if you don’t woo her, Tali may well be, by the end of any of the individual games let alone the trilogy, one of your dearest friends and staunchest allies. She’s a funny, flawed, intelligent, immensely likable character. By making her a romance option, Bioware set up a truly brilliant everybody-wins scenario.

You never see Tali’s face; she spends the entirety of each game wearing a translucent faceplate that keeps her from getting sick and dying. Showing Tali’s face would be casually within the realm of good taste — and yet, Tali taking off her helmet, exposing herself to the risk of a potentially fatal illness just to physically be with somebody she loves, is literally the most intimate thing she could do. Showing her exposed face, terrified yet excited, would have created by far the most visually intimate moment in the series, one more erotically charged than any glimpse of Liara’s bare blue butt could ever hope to be.

It’s a moment that never actually happens — at least, not for the player. If she and Shepard hook up, he takes off her faceplate with her back to the camera, then the kissing starts, and then fade to black. What a waste of a truly brilliant and beautiful opportunity.

We do get to see Tali’s face in Mass Effect 3, sort of. If she and Shepard are a couple, she’ll leave a helmet-less picture of herself on his nightstand. In context, it’s quite beautiful and touching, something that I had Shepard take a closer look at more than a few times. It’s almost touching enough to make me forgive Bioware for, instead of properly designing and animating a naked-headed character model for Tali, apparently giving an intern access to some stock photos and having them bang something out in Photoshop over their lunch break. (Seriously, click the first “Show” button. The half-assery on display is not subtle.)

Bioware doubles down on the missed opportunities in Mass Effect 3 by hand-waving away Tali’s craptastic immune system. At the end of Mass Effect 2, if you wander around the ship after your “suicide mission” saves the galaxy and has an unexpectedly high survival rate, she’ll tell you about the consequences of your pre-we’re-gonna-die-anyway-so-why-the-hell-not tryst — one she prepped for by researching the hell out of human male sexual responses (because she’s a massive geek, and I really wish the game had at least implied Shepard had returned the favor) and dosing herself with every immune-boosting supplement she could lay her three-fingered hands on. “Just so you know, I’m running a fever, I’ve got a nasty cough, and my sinuses are filled with something I can’t even describe. And it was totally worth it.” Something about the delivery of that line elevated her to “Best Fake Girlfriend Ever” status for me.

But what happens when you have end-of-the-world sex and the world doesn’t end? Now what? This is where the “romance through obstruction” thing should have kicked-in, hard. Her immune system is still crap. Yes, she survived ONE encounter with nothing more than a really nasty head cold (which must be an absolutely miserable experience if you can’t even touch your own face, but hey, beats death), but life is, indeed, going on. What happens when the two of you find yourselves back in each other’s lives? Do you accept that you were never meant to be anything more than a one-off, no matter how great it was? Do you try to give it a go anyway, knowing that you can never directly touch without one of you accepting a dreadful risk?

I wish the game had done more with “Tali’Zorah vas Normandy, Bad-Ass Bubble Girl” independent of whether you pursue the romance option. If she’s still around in ME3, she’s at the very least a dear friend. Surely when on their own ships, the Quarians must have sterilized “clean rooms” where they can disrobe in safety. (Which would mean that the Quarian rite-of-adulthood pilgrimage is REALLY an ordeal.) What if you had the option of repurposing a chunk of Shepard’s absurdly large personal room into Quarian living quarters for Tali? Carving out a place that’s explicitly hers, where she no longer has to wear a full pressure suit, would do more to make the Normandy her home than a million “loyalty missions” or friendly dialog options.

So at the very least, Tali could wind up as your roommate. And if her living space were made out of transparent material blocked-off with tasteful inner curtains (and Tali the Interior Decorator would give a character who already has oodles of personality even more opportunity to show it), Tali-the-girlfriend could have the curtains pulled-back.

Imagine two one-person beds, side-by-side, with a plexiglass wall between them. That simple image would tell you so much about what the two of them were trying to overcome and how they were trying to overcome it. The whole “touching-through-the-glass” thing may be a cliche, but tell me it wouldn’t choke you up if you saw Tali and Shepard in love and enacting it.

I’m just saying it’s a way more interesting addition to the room than the aquarium.

As to Tali and Shepard’s sex life, with or without a Quarian cleanroom … as the delightfully voyeuristic messages in the Shadow Broker DLC from ME2 revealed (seriously, Grunt’s Google history is comedy gold), she’s installed something in her suit called “Nerve-Stim Pro: Deluxe Edition”. Tali solves problems. You can’t go too far down this particular rabbit hole without summoning those Bad Taste Demons by the bucket, but I definitely would have appreciated more hints that she and Shepard are exploring ways to be physical without endangering her life.

It would also make the occasions where they DO just plain get it on have real impact. “I actually kind of look forward to apocalypses, because it means I get to kiss you the night before. That’s weird, right?” Tell me a line like that wouldn’t make you love her a bit more.

Instead, we get some hand-waving about how her immune system is “adapting” to Shepard. (And Tali is, apparently, not the only example of a recurring problem with MaleShep’s romance options. Shepard’s Magic Penis — It cures immunodeficiency! It heals psychological wounds! It erases ethical issues raised by banging your subordinates within a formal chain of command! Seriously, Bioware, I’m a fan, but could you please think some of this stuff through? I approve of adult content, but “Adult” is better when it’s more thoughtful than just “They’re totally doin’ it!”) Tali’s slacker immune system gets sidestepped entirely, which is just plain sloppy given that it’s a defining trait of her entire species. (And given that we STILL don’t see any character model other than the usual full-suited Tali, lazy to boot.)

The problem with writing a post like this is that it can give the impression you really hated whatever it is you’re carping about, and I don’t. I actually really liked the romance with Tali — I wasn’t joking when I referred to her as “Best Fake Girlfriend Ever.” She’s a great character, and I loved a lot of what the game DID give between her and Shepard. (The scene in the Citadel DLC where she and Shepard are watching a movie she loved as a teenager was heart-meltingly adorkable.) The moment at the end of my game where she adds Shepard’s name to the wall … seriously, I’m misting-up right now just thinking about it. (I can hear Garrus saying that Tali’s the one who earned that honor, and that moment doesn’t actually exist. It doesn’t need to.) It’s a great optional sub-plot, and I’m very glad the game included it.

But it could have been so much more than that. By exploring what she and Shepard would have had to overcome, by simply giving her a face, this truly could have been something amazing. I don’t lament the story, I lament the missed opportunity.

And that’s how I feel about Mass Effect 3’s much-reviled ending.

Taken in a vacuum, the ending is … passable. Not great. But I’ll give it a passing grade. A hobbling, likely-mortally-wounded Shepard chatting with some sort of star-child representation of … ultimate evil? unintended consequences? tech gone wrong? … gives a nasty case of tonal whiplash. Mass Effect likes to play with big ideas, but ultimately, the series feels very grounded and personal; yet that final scene has a certain sci-fi woo-woo quality that feels like a refugee from a poorly translated JRPG.

The mechanics of choosing the ending are sloppy as well. I wasn’t sure which path represented which choice (hey, it was 5 in the morning, and I didn’t realize the game was literally showing me which was which until it was time for me to shamble towards one of them), and I accidentally triggered the “Synthesis” ending that somehow turns all organic life synthetic and makes all synthetic life organic. “Right, totally want to do the ‘Control the Reapers’ thing, which one was that? Eh, it’ll give me some sort of prompt and let me click before triggering one of them. So let’s slowly lurch towards this beam of light and … noooo! Shit, I’m triggering a DIFFERENT apocalypse! Reload! Reload! Dammit! DAMMIT!”

The “Synthesis” choice, clearly meant as the “best” ending, gives the utopic dogs-and-cats-living-together-in-love-and-harmony ending, which I really disliked. It plays out exactly like the kid said it would, with no nasty surprises coming about as a consequence of unilaterally deciding to alter the fundamental nature of literally every living thing in the galaxy. Thinking like that is what gave rise to the Reapers in the first place, then later to Cerberus, the games’ two Big Bads. For it to actually play out as “Nope, HAPPILY EVER AFTER, bitches!!!” feels like a betrayal of the larger themes of the series.

So I reloaded and, after rewatching a half-hour’s worth of unskippable cutscenes (thanks, Bioware), went for the ending I actually wanted in the first place, where Shepard ascends to King Reaper. That one actually worked all right for me (overlooking the tonal whiplash), in large part because the choice was so thoroughly based on my experiences in the game. I was frightened by the maxim of absolute power corrupting absolutely, but the alternative was the death of all synthetic life in the galaxy. I’d been touched by the storyline where my girlfriend’s people had come to peace with the Cylon-like Geth who had displaced them from their homeworld. I really found myself caring about my ship’s autopilot’s journey to sentience, and her ambiguously romantic relationship with her pilot; EDI was my friend. Hell, I even found myself caring about the possibility that the Reapers were themselves a kind of victim, tools of a force they could neither hope to fight nor control.

But moreover, I wanted the choice that allowed the denizens of this universe to keep finding their own way forward, rather than having the deus ex machina enlightenment of the Synthesis ending dumped on their heads without their consent. I just hoped my Shepard could handle the power he was volunteering to take on without become a dark, cruel god unto himself. Sure, he was a Paragon, mostly, but he definitely had a bastardly Renegade streak, too; sometimes, you just need to headbutt a motherfucker. Would that doom him? And, in turn, doom the galaxy to yet another iteration of the war it was now fighting?

The alternative was a genocide I’d fought very hard to avoid, and the death of a friend. Risky, balancing all life in the galaxy against that. But doing the right thing often means taking risks, in the game or out of it. So, I rolled the dice. And I was all right with how it turned out.

The third ending is, of course, to just go ahead and wipe out all synthetic life in the galaxy. And it needed to be on the table; it’s the sure thing. And if that ending had really hammered home the consequences of your choice — you’re dead, the Geth are dead (if they weren’t already), EDI is dead, technology across the galaxy is crippled, but what the hell, at least the cycle of growth and brutal genocide has finally been broken for good — I would have liked it too.

But I saw that ending on YouTube, and it seemed to gloss over most of that, except for the Shepard’s Dead bit.

That was my big problem with the ending. It wasn’t so much the merits or deficiencies of any of the three choices. (Though if you want to argue that the truest, most emotionally satisfying ending would have been for the Crucible to work exactly as advertised while Shepard and Anderson look on from the Citadel, two war-forged friends bleeding out and dying side-by-side as they watch the fruits of their labors and sacrifice save everybody they love, I really don’t have a good counter for that.) The Mass Effect trilogy loves giving you hard choices. Watching how those choices play out is one of the pleasures of the game. Yet when the opportunity came to offer the ultimate payoff and show the consequences of your actions on the largest stage it could, it mostly punted.

Yes, it was very nice to see semi-animated stills of the Krogan rebuilding Tchunka into something other than a radiation-scarred hellhole. I would have preferred to see an in-game cutscene, with direct gameplay consequences, showing several million Krogan warriors descending upon Reaper-occupied Earth with a debt to repay, an axe to grind, and ammo to burn — preferably with a horde of Rachni at their side with their own score to settle. I sweated ethical bullets for those big boisterous toad-shark bastards, watched a friend die for them (Dr. Mordin, yet another great character in a series stuffed to the gills with them). I wanted something more than a rousing speech from my old drinking buddy. Just like I wanted more than an ambiguous “Okay, it’s all good now!” from the very dangerous alien bug-monsters I’d twice kept from extinction (to the deep unease of the aforementioned toad-shark drinking buddy).

Just like I wanted the union of the Geth and Quarian fleets to result in something more than a couple of inconsequential numbers being made larger. In fact, given that I had assembled the largest and most diverse war fleet in known history, a bit more deep-space Reaper ass beating would have been very much appreciated.

Just like I wanted to know what happened on Omega after I left. How deep does Aria’s new-found sense of decency go, anyway?

And all those decisions I made during the course of three games … I wanted something to surprise me. I wanted somebody whose life I spared to show up and have some major effect on the galactic stage, for good or ill. I wanted the decisions to affect one another. I wanted to be saddened, or overjoyed, or … or just see something to indicate that my choices had, in a large sense, mattered.

Hell, even on the most rudimentary level, I wanted some indication that all those military assets I’d spent Mass Effect 3 hoarding like so many Pokemon cards really made a difference. As you assemble the might of the galaxy to fend off the Reaper threat, the game assigns point values to the various assets you recruit to your cause, from hundreds of points for entire fleets of warships all the way down to the five points you get for carrying an embedded journalist on your ship. When I got to the credits, I was really confused; it felt like those points hadn’t mattered at all.

It turns out, according to the Internet, they did. The total value of your military assets determines which endings are available to choose from. (Well, the total value times a multiplier based on how active you’ve been in the on-line version of the game. That was a surprise, too; I thought that weird “readiness” thing and the “war map” were part of a half-implemented feature that made it into the final release for some reason. So, my solo experience depends in part on whether I’ve been doing multiplayer? Lick my taint, Bioware. If I gave a shit about multiplayer, I’d be playing somebody else’s games.)

Which is, in all honesty, bizarre. So if I have insufficient warships, a particular metaphysical reality ceases to be true, and I can no longer bring about eternal galactic peace by vaporizing myself in a particle beam. LOLWHUT?

It’s arbitrary, it’s tonally bewildering, it’s cookie-cutter, and yet … and yet. I can’t bring myself to properly despise the ending. It’s flawed, certainly, but it’s no Battlestar Galactica, which managed to somehow invert everything that made the show great and turn it into a rancid pile of pretentious suck. If Mass Effect 3 represented swinging for the fences and missing, Battlestar Galactica swung for the fences and not only missed but yanked its arms completely off, or suffered some other cartoonishly horrifying injury that revealed it had spent its career doing epic amounts of steroids, casting a pall upon everything you as a fan once admired.

But the opportunities missed … my God. I played the exact same character across three games that delighted in giving me one wrenching choice after another. Letting those choices add up to something interesting, something unexpected, something SUBSTANTIVE, would have made this game into something truly worthy of its own epic scope.

I know why it broke down that way: Money. Tali-with-a-face, all the choices you made playing out in ways that actually affected the gameplay, coming up with some clever web of how those choices could have interacted with each other and animating each result, all that shit costs. It’s a triple-A title; those things hemorrhage money during development. I don’t doubt that each and every thing I suggested here was brought up by somebody on the dev team, only to be shot down by one simple question: How much return are we going to get on that investment? The answer being, of course, less than the millions of dollars I just fanboysihly insisted they spend.

I don’t regret the time I spent playing these games, at all. (Well, aside from those occasional “Holy fuck it’s four in the morning?!?! Well, I guess I can still finish this mission….” sessions I allowed it to suck me into.) It’s a good series. Flawed, to be sure, but still a damned fine gaming experience.

It could have been much, much more than that. But, I suspect, the difference in sales between good and great is less than the difference between creating good and great.

Still. The ending left me equal parts satisfied and saddened. I wish it was what it could have been. That’s a game that would, I suspect, stay with me long after I’d finished it. That game would really be something to see.