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Mike Versus MASS EFFECT 3: CITADEL – One Last Bow

March 18, 2013

If the original ending was the climax and the Extended Cut was the epilogue, then Citadel, the new Mass Effect 3 DLC, is the curtain call.

Spoilers ahead after the (extended) cut.

It’s been a strange year for Mass Effect fans. I’m not getting into the whole ending thing except to say that I liked the original ending, loved the Extended Cut, and think that my rights as a consumer encompass “does it work” and not “is it to my taste.”1 I have treated everything artistic I have enjoyed in my life as a risk that is only guaranteed to show me what the artist wanted to communicate and is not guaranteed to make me happy about it.2 This is the year fandom set me straight on that. Totally by coincidence, this is also the year I decided that all fandoms could burn forever in a lake of fire.3

That out of the way, I will admit to things being a bit off by virtue of the fact that all DLC takes place before the ending of the saga, where Shepard dies and the galaxy changes forever – but we all experienced it after, which made it sometimes difficult to recontextualize. It’s like having new episodes inserted into the middle of a seasonal box set. There is smart business in DLC, but I have begun to think that there might not always be smart storytelling. DLC promises the adventure never has to end; but stories, in some way, demand some ending.4

The smoothest fit was Leviathan, with its atmosphere of a Call of Cthulhu scenario in outer space, dealing with impossibly ancient beings that bend your will like gravity in a black hole. Things were a little less smooth with the Omega DLC, which doesn’t tie into much lore and is oddly humorless, and lacks anything to do with your space pals that you zip around the galaxy with. It was probably my least favorite. Sorry, Bioware. I just ain’t give a hoot about Aria.

These are not problems that Citadel has. It’s better than Lair of the Shadow Broker. It’s the best DLC I’ve ever played, and it squares a circle I previously thought was impossible and gave me new respect for the Bioware Writer’s Pit.

This one has no time to watch an explosion.

This one has no time to watch an explosion.

Firstly, it’s hilarious. I could fill this entire blog post recanting all of my favorite lines, gags, and callbacks. This is a story where the phrase “Chekov’s Toothbrush” could be applied, accurately. This is a story where the glowing spherical hologram Glyph, upon being asked to host a subdued formal party, sprouts a holographic bow tie. Blasto the Hanar SPECTRE is in it.5 I described in on Twitter as “Saints Row invades Mass Effect for a day” and stand by it; while it’s not as outright surreal and sociopathic as Saints Row the Third, it carries the same aura of “yeah, we’re going to put that joke in, because why the hell not.” I’ve laughed harder at it than I have at most comedies I paid to see in a theater.

If all it were were callbacks, jokes and reunions with old friends, Citadel would be a worthwhile, if shallow, trifle. But it has a coherent theme and throughline that lasts from the opening to the closing. When Shepard is shown her6 new apartment, she’s alone, walking through it, reading and listening to the thoughts of its previous occupant, a man kept away by the gulf of war. Nonetheless, it’s a friendly gesture by Admiral Anderson. Not long afterwards, Shepard goes to a sushi bar to meet up with Joker, and their dinner together is cut short by a mercenary attack.

Shepard has to fight them off alone, initially. That is, until old friends – in my case, Liara and Wrex – show up to help out. As the mystery of the attack is revealed, Shepard brings in more and more friends and allies to help her against her newest foe: a clone of herself, grown as a contingency plan by the Illusive Man, in the event that he was unable to revive Shepard after she dies at the beginning of Mass Effect 2. The clone, now lacking purpose and having been kept around merely for spare parts, has decided to usurp Shepard’s life.

Having an enemy who shares the hero’s face and voice would require complex CGI in a live-action movie, but computer programming in general and games in particular are based around easy duplication. It’s why DRM is a losing battle. It’s why so many games copy each other’s innovations. The default state of a computer is the replication of data, as it is moved from secondary storage to main storage. So creating a duplicate of Shepard as a foe for Shepard is in some ways easier than creating something new – and with that, the problem emerges:

If replication is so easy, to the point a computer does it almost by accident, then what makes a particular piece of information – say, a game – so special?

Who needs to look where they’re shooting, anyways?

The moment the clone of Shepard shows up, bringing this problem to the fore, the game immediately starts to communicate its answer. You chase the imposter Shepard down through the Citadel archives, the literal lore of the Mass Effect series – this lore being part of what makes the game stand out. There have been other shooters, and other games are even starting to duplicate the particular aesthetics of Mass Effect (its musical cues, its visual look.) But there have been very few games that have had me consider an ethical quandary as sticky as the genophage.

When Shepard catches up, it’s only through a friendship with an unlikely candidate that she makes her way into the Normady to reclaim her ship. She battles her duplicate, which attacks with the same general powerset as Shepard.7 Shepard’s friends prevent the Normandy from escaping and Shepard and her duplicate are sent tumbling out the front cargo bay doors. As they dangle, a hair’s breadth away from death, the clone of Shepard asks Shepard – and by extension, the series – just what makes her so special.

The game answers by having Shepard’s friends save her, and this is the most perfect answer there could be. What makes Mass Effect special are things you can’t copy & paste. You can’t program the wry wit of Garrus Vakarian, the soulfulness of Liara T’Soni, the mystique of Tali’Zora Vas Normandy or the barbed bitterness of Javik. It takes dedicated artistry to do that, a stable of which Bioware maintains in larger numbers than most any other game studio. There are concept artists and composers galore in the games industry, but very few companies put the emphasis on writing that Bioware does, and this is what makes them, and Mass Effect, special.8

... I only JUST NOW realized that Kasumi is covering up her face so her picture isn't taken. That's perfect.

… I only JUST NOW realized that Kasumi is covering up her face so her picture isn’t taken. That’s perfect.

To close out the story, Shepard hosts a get-together at her new apartment, culminating in a picture of all your friends and one last wistful look out the window as the crew gets ready to head back out into the war. The scene has a double poignancy, being about both the party that just concluded and the trilogy that is now gently closing its doors. Of course, there are dark days ahead – Shepard is all but guaranteed to die – but in this, Shepard is no different from anyone else. We all die. The times we had were still good, the friendships we had still meaningful, and the deeds we accomplished still important.

That said, it’s awful nice to see them all back together again, as if hosting a reunion. The end of most stage shows has all the cast come out for one last bow before the curtains close, even if their characters die or are otherwise rendered moot. That’s what Citadel evokes, and does so beautifully.

By managing to simultaneously close off the series thematically, by evoking the feeling of an ending without actually being the ending, Citadel accomplishes a task I thought would be impossible – one last ride that doesn’t feel tacked on or fannish. I can’t think of a thing I’d change. It’s masterful.

And I would 100% watch Better Homes & Gardens with Garrus and Zaeed.

1 I’m a “consumer” when it comes to hamburgers. I treat art with a bit more respect.

2 “But I was confused – ” I watched the ending to The Prisoner. You’re adorable.

3 But not all nerds. You can be part of nerd culture without being a fan. But that’s another post.

4 Or they demand to become iconic, always telling “middle story,” but that has problems all its own.

5 Imagine if Jason Statham was a giant pink jellyfish. That’s Blasto the Hanar SPECTRE.

6 I love you, Mark Meer, but as far as I’m concerned, Shepard is a lady.

7 A vanguard in my case. “Oh, so that’s how annoying it is to get hit with charge-nova-charge-nova over and over.”

8 Though I’ll put Obsidian up there with them – but even then, Obsidian has so far released only one original IP, in Alpha Protocol. Having seen the rewards reaped by Bioware for creating their own sandbox, I hope that their second effort in Project Eternity works out well.

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