I can not stress enough, if you have not finished Mass Effect 2 and intend to, then go no further. This article is not for you -- at least not yet -- because I intend to spend time exploring its most tender and uncensored secrets, probing with a total disregard for the sanctity of any of the game’s normally unmentionable parts. In terms of spoilers, this article is "gone wild" like an illicit spring break video or a David Duchovny diary entry.
As usual, reviews be damned. You want my review of Mass Effect 2? Here it is – the game is really good, just like everyone else on the planet has already confirmed. The specifics that make such a statement true – or at least objectively defensible – are, frankly, pretty boring and certainly a lot less interesting than the game itself. The time for reviews is over. The time for analysis is at hand.
Beware, I’m giving the end of the game away in 3.
Like BioShock before it, Mass Effect 2’s greatest sin is in the final boss battle with the human reaper, a ridiculous Terminator-shaped space ship that is, frankly, made all the less imposing when you consider that I killed it by shooting it in the eye with a pistol.
The greatest threat you face is not an ancient evil. The greatest threats are bans on handguns. Repeal any curbs on the Second Amendment in your sector and consider yourself now safe from Reapers. You’re welcome. Love, Cmdr. Shepherd.
How I longed for the game to have ended after the monumental and crucial decision over what to do with this supposedly hyper-advanced technology. Here at last was a game whose climactic element is a decision with ramifications that may not play out fully for years to come. Daring and inventive, this was maturity and restraint on a grand, galactic level.
Then the big Reaper thingy lunges up from out of nowhere, like the bad guy at the end of a bad horror movie, and shoots some laser beams at you for a little while. How I wish it had all stopped while this construct still maintained a vestige of mystery about it – when I could still suspend my disbelief that I hadn’t worked all this time to fight an overdeveloped Sinistar that could be felled by a particularly well organized drive by. Whether this constitutes good or bad game-making is a point worth some debate, but without question, it’s terrible storytelling.
File Mass Effect 2 into the unfortunate folder of evidence that supports the thesis: Game companies should consider getting rid of boss battles from adult games.
Is that too audacious a statement to make? Can we not begin to imagine that, perhaps, we have confused a story's climax with an arbitrary conflict with a difficult “boss”? Can we entertain the notion that this conflation is a fundamental flaw that deserves to be aggressively re-examined? Would we feel that something had been lost from our games if we looked for new ways to end epic games?
I struggle to remember a boss battle that I genuinely enjoyed. Maybe fighting the titular evil at the end of Diablo 2; because let’s be honest, it just makes sense to have that fight. But even as I consider it, I have to admit that it wasn’t so much the battle that was fun, but the story of that confrontation. Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, was primed to have a satisfying ending built on the foundation of difficult moral dilemmas and gray-area choices – do you give technology to the Illusive Man that he might someday use to dominate other races?
I am not the best person to discuss comparative examples of good and bad boss battles. I rarely get to the really big ones in most games, and when I do I’m either disappointed at how trivial the ordeal was or frustrated that I didn’t get it on the first try. It seems like one of those conceits in gaming that is nearly impossible to pull off, where the window between accessibility and challenge is so narrow that 9 games out of 10 won’t even come close.
To make a boss really work, he needs to be present throughout the game. He needs to seem initially invincible, but increasingly evenly matched as you progress. There must be a sense of confrontation fostered within the protagonist, so that when you arrive to finally lay waste to your enemy, it makes sense. And, even then, it’s maybe 50/50 at best that most game makers will stick the landing and give players both a sense of accomplishment and closure.
There has to be a better way.
Is it so wrong to imagine that just resolving the story, or challenging the player with a tough choice, is not enough? As game-makers develop their story-making chops, why not have them dare to rely on their skills as storytellers? Is there room for a place where "climax" is not synonymous with "epic battle"?
I am very happy to have played Mass Effect 2. As I pointed out at the start, I am convinced that this was an outstanding game. Like “unobtanium” in Avatar, the Reaper episode will just be something I try to forget. It serves as a reminder, however, of how far we still can go in finding new ways to tell stories in games.