What About The Characters?
Here’s something that I’ve been thinking about lately, as I sit and consider Mass Effect for the 90 billionth time. When it comes to Mass Effect 3, I realized that none of the returning squadmates really get stories or character arcs in this game. They have dialogues, conversations, and in a few cases plot-based spotlights, but there’s nothing about their characters that really grows, evolves, or changes from the start of the game to the end of it. MAYBE with Ashley/Kaidan, given the whole trust issues relating to Cerberus thing, but that’s not really a character arc, more just tying up a loose end before they’re romanceable.
Given the usual strength in BioWare characters, I find this really uncomfortable. It makes it like these characters are stagnating, staying in one place, and not moving on. Through ME3, at least from my perspective, all the characters just kind of sit there, not growing or evolving, just being their same old selves, presumably for the sake of consistency - you liked them as they were, so we’re going to keep them that way so you can keep liking them.
Except it has the effect of making these characters just spin their wheels over the course of the game, hover in orbit around Shepard. There’s no growth for them. (And, if you DIDN’T like them as they were, then it’s just more of the same for you as things go on.) Hell, for the first time, I’m playing a game where Garrus died on the Suicide Mission, and I am not spending my time missing him, wishing I were interacting with him. Him not being there? I don’t feel like there’s something missing. Sure, I’m not going to the main battery and speaking with him, but the times when I would normally be interacting with Garrus or see him talking with the others… I don’t feel like his absence has an effect on anything.
Actually, in the scene after Tuchanka, where Primarch Victus leaves the Normandy, I think it actually plays better without Garrus - Traynor comes in and suggests that Shepard gets some sleep. I think that’s a good scene for her, both for the friendship between her and Shepard and for the fact that it puts her in what should be her element, the war room (really, why is she not in THERE, at least some of the time, instead of by the galaxy map? She’s an analyst, that should be her workspace). I think she needs that moment a whole lot more than Garrus does.
Really, when I think about it, I’m left with this really uncomfortable feeling that the entire crew could be removed or replaced with no significant change. I mean, half the characters ARE potentially dead, so perhaps on a technical level, yeah, you want to allow people who are playing games with them dead to still be able to go through and play without being narratively punished by not having them. But the thing is, by doing it the way that ME3 does it, they in turn made it so that when they’re there, they’re literally just THERE. They are wall hangings, not having any real contribution to make. All they really contribute is their presence. I mean, hell, even Liara, who I’ve (repeatedly) discussed having issues with her handling through the series, lacks this kind of contribution on a character level. The only reason they have for being there is that they were there before. As much as I love these characters, just contributing their presence and participation, it’s really not enough.
See, the way they did it here was that they made it so not having these characters wouldn’t make you miss anything by not having them. And that’s exactly the wrong tack to take here. One of the squadmates being dead in any given playthrough SHOULD leave a gap, a feeling of ‘you should be here too.’ Especially when loss seems to be one of the core themes of the game. Losing the people closest to you DOES leave a gap. I should feel like Garrus or Tali or Ashley/Kaidan not being there HAS left a hole in the group. Hell, the absence of the one left on Virmire should have been important as well - the team literally will never be whole again, even if Shepard made it through the Suicide Mission with the whole crew. Someone will always be missing.
Yeah, it gets complicated when you’re looking at the various 'require squadmate X here’ missions, but that’s managed with Garrus and Tali, and Kaidan/Ashley are only ever required on Mars, with nothing that requires them to come along after they rejoin the Normandy crew (which is a rant for another day), and that just leaves Liara, who can’t be killed in the course of the series at any point where it has an impact on the story (also a rant for another day). So where do you get that feeling of absence? With character arcs and development. If the characters ALL had arcs, rather than just new squadmates EDI, James, and Javik, all of them having something that they bring to the table that is not just them 'yes, sir!'ing through the game (and, when you get down to it, even their arcs could use some more meat on their bones)… Suddenly they all have something that they DO, a genuine course of character evolution. Make them all individually irreplaceable, not because of their contribution to the story, but because of who they are. Yeah, sure, there’ll be the whines about how there’s exclusive content for the people who kept these characters alive, but THAT’S THE POINT. Having a character not being there SHOULD matter. Even if it’s just on an interpersonal level, rather than a plot level, the fact that these characters aren’t there SHOULD have an effect on your story.
I mean, okay, there’s sort of something in how almost all of them are worried about family during the war, but really, as natural as that is, making them all focusing on MIA loved ones is narratively repetitive. Instead, they each should have had their own arc. Expand the stuff about Ashley’s sisters, let us actually meet Sarah, since she’s there (and make her sister actually LOOK like she’s related to her…). Kaidan’s biotics have evolved and, as we learn in Citadel, the fact that he can now Reave is considered strange and an accomplishment for an L2, so maybe we readdress the cause of human biotics and show Kaidan looking to the galaxy after the war and how people will respond. Garrus had turian generals saluting him on Menae, and the Broker files in LotSB say that he won’t come in to his own unless he gets out of Shepard’s shadow, so show him trying to stretch his wings now that he’s been in the position that he’s been in. Tali has ONE conversation once she’s on the Normandy, and is only just starting to get used to the concept of having a homeworld to go back to (Legion said in 2 that the homeworld had become almost mythological to the quarians), give her some follow up on this! Why can’t we have a bit to see her really take in what that means, that she will get to see things with her own eyes things that her parents and grandparents only saw in pictures? Or follow up with the whole 'shadow of her father’ thing, since that’s explicitly bothering her now that she’s an admiral. Hell, even Liara, the ONE guaranteed variable with the returning squad could have had an arc regarding the Shadow Broker network (given that she becomes the Broker regardless of if the player did LotSB), regarding how this is a lot of power in one person’s hands, maybe it could end up overwhelming her, and maybe it’s better that she shut it down.
Mass Effect 2 was all about the characters. Everything about it was tied in to the evolution and advancement of the characters. And Mass Effect 3 is very much a plot driven story. And not just on the heels of ME2, but also as the third part of the trilogy, this is very much a letdown. I have always been of the opinion that it’s the characters that make or break a story. You can have the most incredible plot ever devised, but if the audience doesn’t emotionally connect to the characters, watch them grow and develop, then it’s worthless. Likewise, the most by-the-numbers story is elevated by good strong characters and character development. There is just enough in the way of character usage, tying it in to the main plot, to give the illusion of growth and development by way of having these characters react, but the thing is, we’re not really given the connection to them that we need. If we are familiar with them from the first two games, ME3 assumes that’s all you need to care about them and makes no effort to try and help that process. If you didn’t care before, there’s no attempt made to show you why you should care now. And it’s just so… disappointing, when we know from direct evidence that they can and have done better.
Here’s hoping for a significant raise of the bar in ME4, I suppose.