Friday, 3 August 2012

Winterton’s Fridays: Endings Part 2- The Importance of Themes

Last week I looked at the importance of narrative and character in the endings of video games. This week I’m going to look at how the presence of themes, and see how they can be put to good use. Again, there are obviously going to be spoilers here, specifically about “Red Dead Redemption” and “Mass Effect 3”. Just so you know.

So the theme of “Red Dead Redemption” is, ostensibly, redemption. We are told this in the title, and Marston himself keeps talking about how he hates what he is being made to do. Now, forgive me for missing something, but when exactly does John Marston get redeemed for his violent crime sprees? Is it…erm…when he is committing more violent crime sprees? Yeah, not sure how killing lots of people is penance for killing a few people in the past.

Hog-tying is, at best, morally ambiguous.

And yes, I know he’s doing it so he can see his family, but surely that sort of undermines the gesture? Numerous characters point out that he is killing hundreds of people just for selfish reasons. I mean, his family aren’t exactly in danger, they’re just away from him (and, as we see at the end, John often brings danger with him). Moreover, it’s hardly redemption if you are being forced to do it. Charles Manson didn’t suddenly become a better person when he was arrested, he just wasn’t around to commit crimes anymore.

Now let’s clarify something; the people John kills don’t necessarily deserve to be killed. Even if we accept that being shot dead by a cowboy is something someone can deserve (I have mixed feelings), it feels strangely at odds. Moreover, since “Red Dead” is a sandbox game, it implicitly encourages exploration, looking for side-quests and whatnot. Which leads to Marston actively seeking out trouble. In fact, the game ends with possibly the most clear indication that John has failed, as we see his son Jack gunning down a former FBI agent. Then, with no apparent irony, the title card flashes up, as if redemption has finally been achieved.

You can't just put a red filter on things so your title has a rhyme in.

The only hint we get at John’s internal dilemma is a recurring sidequest with a mysterious stranger who hints at John’s dark past, who it later turns out is a hallucination John is having. This was undoubtedly my favourite part of the game, and yet was never alluded to at the end, nor given much time.

Compare this to “Mass Effect 3”. Now I’m sure we’re all aware of the controversy and generally negative fan reaction to this ending. In simple terms, Sheppard finally gets to a point where s/he can kill the Reapers and save the universe. S/he is then presented with a choice: destroy them, but also all other synthetic species (such as the Geth who, in my playthrough at least, were a staunch ally), control them, or fuse all organic life with all synthetic life. Seeing the final option as the most suiting of my “solve-all-problems” Sheppard, I picked it, and was treated to a beautiful, transcendental journey as Sheppard sacrificed himself for this change. I then see the human Joker and the AI robot EDI landing on a new planet together, both sporting evidence of their new merged genetics.

I can honestly say I think this is one of the best endings, not just in video games, but in any popular media. The theme of choice that runs right throughout the “Mass Effect” series is solidified in these final moments. Throughout the game, we see the toll Sheppard’s journey has taken on him or her, as Sheppard is continually haunted by the memory of an Earth boy s/he failed to save. Throughout all the moral complexity of “Mass Effect”, the ending underlines quite simply and elegantly the things that are important in life, and for once ends on an optimistic note, after the fatalism of the series up until that point.

Pictured: Pure awesome.

I know many people have complained that we do not see what became of the supporting cast and how things developed, but my answer to that is simple; if you do not know Garrus or Tali well enough after three games you never will.

I’m interested to know what people make of this, and hope to read some controversial comments and interpretations.

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