Sovereignty and responsibility in Mass Effect 3

You matter.

This is one of the central claims of Christianity. The Bible tells us clearly that our place in the universe matters and that we have a purpose. This is not far from what makes video games compelling. Games place us in worlds and give us the ability to influence them. Good games place us in worlds we identify with, appreciate and value. This is why Mass Effect 3 sold 3.5 million copies in its first week: the game places players in a dense and diverse world threatened with destruction and gives the player direct influence over saving it. In ME3, you matter.

The interactive nature of games makes them especially equipped to explore the consequences of our decisions. Passive mediums like film and literature present us with pre-crafted stories, while games offer players the potential to craft their own experiences. Games like the Mass Effect series ask us to make decisions that will impact the fate of both our friends and entire civilizations for good or ill. Part of what makes the ME games special is the ability to transfer your character from game to game. The high-impact decisions you made in the first Mass Effect game are carried over to the second and will be brought to culmination in the third.

Sadly, however, when I loaded up ME3, I was asked how I wanted to play the game. Did I want to play “action” style and have all my character’s interactions play out in predetermined scenes? This question frustrated me because it seemed to indicate that all my choices in the previous games didn’t really matter. ME3 had a story and an outcome in mind before I ever set foot in its world. I chose not to play “action” mode, but I couldn’t help wondering if any of my actions would matter. And if they don’t matter in the end, why bother?

Scripture tells us a number of similarly troubling things about the world and our place in it. We learn that God “works all things according to the counsel of His will” and that as he plans “so it shall be.” In fact, the central story line of Scripture, namely God’s plan of redemption, was written “before the foundations of the world.” And yet Scripture calls us to make disciples, to proclaim said plan of redemption, love our neighbor, pray for our enemies and do good works for all. In each instance, the Bible implies that our actions matter.

There has been no small outcry against the ending of Mass Effect 3. Fans were frustrated by a perceived lack of influence. The import of our choices was, after all, what drew us to the franchise from the beginning. ME3, however, holds two realities in tension that we often do not: we are not in control and yet our lives matter.

We misjudge the value of games if we judge them solely on how their stories end. I spent most of my time in the ME series talking to its characters - hearing their stories, their struggles and the plight of their home worlds. When I could, I helped them. Sometimes I neglected their pleas for help and suffered the consequences. Relationships were strained and people even died due to my priorities. I may not have gotten to choose the ending, but the series constantly highlighted the weight of my actions.

God indeed works all things according to the counsel of His will. And yet this same God takes pleasure in “giving [me] the kingdom.” This same God tells me I am valuable, my life matters and that His kingdom is worth bearing fruit for. So the question with games like Mass Effect 3 is not whether it ended the way we wanted, but whether the journey was worth the effort. Most of us won’t see the end of God’s story this side of eternity, but we can trust that it is both a story with a sure ending and one worthy of our personal investment.

What Do You Think?

  • Have you played Mass Effect 3? What did you make of it?
  • How do you deal with the tension of knowing that God is in control, yet having the freedom and responsibility of your own actions?
  • How do other video games deal with this dilemma?


Comments (2)

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“ME3, however, holds two realities in tension that we often do not: we are not in control and yet our lives matter.”

That wasn’t my experience in the game whatsoever. Ultimately, the “Mass Effect 3” ending came squarely down on pure sovereignty in my opinion: our choices didn’t matter one whit. And this wasn’t just supported in the storyline, but within the game mechanics themselves at the very end.

But even putting the ending aside for the moment, I found that “Mass Effect 3” didn’t respect my choices—my agency, if you—in subtler ways. For example, as I played the game, I found that it actually did little to really and truly impress upon me the weight of my actions.

For example, the game had the same error as “Dragon Age 2”, namely that I could spend as much time as I wanted to traveling to any and every locale and going on any and every mission, and the game would happily suspend the crisis at hand. As I wrote in my review/critique/analysis of the game:

“How interesting would it have been if BioWare had included, as a game mechanic, some sort of meter or timer that gave you an indication of how much time had elapsed, and how much time (approximately) you had for missions? And what if different missions required different amounts of time to complete due to the distances involved, mission complexity and length, and other factors? You would be forced to carefully consider which missions you went on, since you couldn’t go on them all. You’d have to prioritize, and what’s more, you’d run the risk of going on missions that might harm your overall efforts if you did them at the wrong time. Or, because of the time involved, you’d find that the window for completing other important missions had closed.”

However, by not having anything like this, I felt as if “Mass Effect 3” didn’t actually care about what I was doing, but just ignored it until I hit specific “trigger points”—which made the game feel all the more linear, and more on the side of sovereignty, if you will.

I haven’t had a chance to play ME3 yet, but I loved the first two installments. I’m trying to keep an open mind about how the series ends, even though I’ve heard a lot of the griping. The last game whose ending I didn’t care for was Fallout 3, so I’m hoping that ME3 won’t be too terrible.

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