Game of Thrones and the Mass Effect Problem
Fans drawn in by Thrones’ sprawling narrative may find themselves disappointed by a binary ending.
Now that Game of Thrones has returned to the screen, the search is on for breadcrumbs that point to how the show will end. But instead of rereading the books or scouring public interviews, hardcore fans could learn something from a turn-of-the-decade video game.
Mass Effect, the sprawling, critically-acclaimed action-RPG trilogy concluded in 2012, is today perhaps best remembered for the way the saga’s original ending left fans and critics alike disappointed. Game of Thrones, the sprawling, critically-acclaimed television fantasy, may be barreling toward the same fate.
Mass Effect’s troubles began early on, though they weren’t readily apparent at the time. The game was filled with rich characters and had a heavy emphasis on player choice — the decisions of the protagonist had an impact not only on the fate of the Galaxy but also on the fate of his friends. Actions had consequences.
We also see these themes in Thrones: seemingly innocuous choices by characters come back to haunt them episodes later, and many are continuously weighing loyalty to family with loyalty to a higher cause. This narrative structure keeps the audience on the edge of its seat, constantly wondering which side a character will choose or what choice they’ll come to regret next.
For Mass Effect, it turned out to be nearly impossible to deliver a satisfying ending for this kind of narrative. The Galaxy-destroying Reapers, the existential threat driving the main plot line, were so big and bad that there was only one way to defeat them: rallying the combined might of the known universe and building an enormous superweapon.
It was at once a satiating and hollow payoff: the player-character won the war, but in such a way that rendered almost all their previous choices moot. It didn’t matter whether the player helped this alien species or that on their journey, because the narrative had to progress to the destination regardless of what choice was made (Bandersnatch, this was not). And the final decision — what the player does with that superweapon — doesn’t matter much either. There are only so many ways to push a button.
The same issues are starting to surface in Thrones as it attempts to tie up a litany of loose ends. All the living characters need to show up (or avoid showing up) for the final Big Fight. Jon, Daenerys and the Night King all have dragons and it’s time to use them. And, as the show has been telling viewers for several seasons, the sole method of killing a White Walker is with dragonglass (or Valyrian steel). There’s only so many ways to plunge a sharp object into a frozen heart.
In the face of the existential White Walker threat, the political drama and personal intrigue the show was built on fades away. Either our hero(es) kill the Night King, or they die. It doesn’t matter if Jamie makes up with Bran, or whether Stannis is still alive, or what happened to Hot Pie. The narrative had to progress to this point with or without them.
That’s not to say Thrones’ ending will be bad, or that every open question will be left unanswered, but fans should temper their expectations. The show became what it is by subverting fantasy norms but it feels increasingly likely viewers will be treated to a classical fantasy ending. Mass Effect challenged many of the game design principles of its day, but it ended the way any other science fiction epic would have.
The myriad narrative threads made Thrones an enthralling journey, but if the history of Mass Effect is any guide, all those threads end at the same destination.