SPOILERS OBVIOUSLY. If you don’t want to hear about Mass Effect 3′s ending in great detail, evacuate now.
A week has passed since the release of Mass Effect 3, and fans that have stayed true to the series since its first release back in 2007 have been fighting through its single-player campaign, raising forces to drive back the Reaper threat. And as players are reaching the ending of the epic three-part trilogy in which many have invested countless hours, some are coming away from the game‘s finale a little…upset.
We’ve been following the outrage, which stems from the final moments on the Citadel during the end game. In the end, Shep gets three choices — destroy the Reapers, along with all synthetic life, the mass relays and him/herself (because of his/her synthetic parts); control the Reapers, disengaging them from the fight but destroying himself in the process, still destroying the mass relays, and basically becoming a computer; or merging with the Reapers, making all life both organic and synthetic and evolving the entire galaxy to a higher plane of existence, still destroying the mass relays and Shepard, but ending the Reaper threat.
Many fans have been raging about the ending choices, the final cutscene and the implications of the Mass Effect universe after the end of Shepard. Some see it as the raging of entitled, whiny gamers who didn’t get enough sunshine and puppies in their ending, and expected Shep to retire with Tali on Rannoch and creepy little masked babies. But the people who would argue that gamers are entitled and that BioWare’s creative integrity is preserved by the ending, however bleak, are — quite simply — wrong. It’s not about a happy ending; it’s about an ending that makes sense.
We think the fans are right. To prove it, we’ve analyzed the series’ lore, its moral and philosophical themes, the structure of the game itself, even BioWare’s own statements about the series. Here are 5 reasons the fans are right to hate Mass Effect 3′s Ending
Read on to see reason 5…
You have to hand it to BioWare. In nearly every way that mattered, they delivered a rich, complex experience for Mass Effect 3. Anticipation of the game’s finale is brought to a fever pitch by the incredible effort it takes to reach it. It almost defies belief, but after 2 previous games that each require close to 50 hours per character to complete, the scale of Mass Effect 3 almost dwarfs its predecessors. Over the course of game, Shepard – and the player – desperately tries to unite the galaxy behind his effort to defeat the reapers. As expected, you can condemn entire civilizations to destruction or save them, resolve centuries-old conflicts, wage massive battles. You may even play space cupid by helping Joker and Edi (and, it’s implied, Tali and Garrus) to hook it up before the final battle.
You’ll also visit every major planet in the galaxy, reveal the truth about Prothean civilization, watch as friends die, innocents are slaughtered, whole cultures are threatened with destruction. Every moment of the game feels a necessary part of the war effort, every decision feels critical, and as you begin the final mission, you actually feel the weight of 5 years of play, dozens of well-written friendships, and 15,000 years of galactic civilization are behind you. It’s a glorious accomplishment. And that accomplishment is completely undone as the story is wrapped up via a barely-interactive cutscene lasting less than 10 minutes.
That kind of terseness, in addition to just feeling cheap, also manages the particularly nasty trick of completely robbing players of closure. This is critical to understanding why the fanbase is so upset. It’s not just that players are forced to choose from one of three nearly identical endings. It’s not even that they are presented with each choice regardless of what kind of game they played, so long as their EMS rating was sufficiently high. It’s that the player is never given any sense of how the choice they ultimately made affected the galaxy they worked so hard to save.
Instead, they see one of 3 identical, context free scenes of the Normandy crash landing on a planet somewhere, followed by a nonsensical epilogue featuring a Grandfather and his grandson that almost seems to smugly imply that the gamers themselves were nothing but children who couldn’t fully understand these events. And adding insult to injury, they receive a message urging them to purchase DLC. We would never suggest that BioWare’s job is to be nothing more than an infodump for nit-picky fans, but after 5 years and hundreds of hours, Mass Effect 3 players deserved more than a text message urging them to buy more content.
Read on to see reason 4…
4) It is Confusing and Under-Developed
Of course, the ending’s brevity wouldn’t matter if it actually made sense. But the moment you’re struck by Harbinger’s beam, events lose structure, outcomes become preordained, new concepts and characters are introduced literally in the last seconds of play, and all of it free of any context or explanation. Granted, some of this is kind of trivial, like the fact that Anderson, despite having come up the Conduit behind Shepard, beats him to the secret Citadel control panel room. Maybe BioWare agreed to put Keith David in the final scene in order to make up for his absence during most of the game. It’s silly, but having Anderson in the final scene feels right, so it’s easily forgiven.
But the majority of the ending is an exercise in increasing incomprehensibility, beginning with the abrupt appearance of The Illusive Man. Without any warning, he just kind of… shows up in the control room with Shep and Anderson. It is never explained how this is even possible; there isn’t even a cursory “Shepard, as you can see, I planned to save Humanity by purchasing a penthouse here on the citadel. PEACE.”. Of course, we’ve known throughout the game that the Illusive Man has indoctrinated himself in a foolish attempt to control the Reapers. A comment minutes later suggests that the Reapers allowed him to arrive in a last ditch effort to either talk Shepard down, or kill him. Fine, we accept that.
But it’s the reveal of the game’s primary villain that ultimately cripples the end. It turns out to be a ridiculous AI whose visual representation is the young boy haunting Shepard’s nightmares throughout the game. It is never explained why this is the form he chooses; we don’t even get the courtesy of the “I chose a form you were comfortable with” cliche. The Citadel, the AI explains, is his home and he is the Catalyst needed to make the Crucible work. The AI then claims that he created the Reapers billions of years ago as a means of solving the problem of synthetic life forms killing their organic creators. The Reaper’s whole purpose is to save Organics by killing them, and turning them into synthetics. So that Organics won’t make synthetics who will then kill organics.
This explanation for the entire history of the Mass Effect universe is the most precise example of all that is wrong with the end of Mass Effect 3. In essence, the player is told that everything they experienced has happened because it was going to happen, and will happen again. Making things worse, the player isn’t even provided with enough data or context for this to at least make some kind of sense. Instead, they’re simply baffled by events they cannot control, and left with far more questions than any “definitive” ending should have.
Mass Effect has long been held up as a shining example of a well-constructed, fully developed universe. Players are rightly unhappy to see it end as nothing but a series of forced choices justified by tautological platitudes.
Read on to see reason 3…
3) Lore Errors, Plot Holes
Considering how short the ending of Mass Effect 3 actually is, it’s impressive that it could still manage to violate established canon while simultaneously creating holes in the plot bigger than The Illusive Man’s ego, but this is indeed the case, and it’s a source of serious criticism from the fan base. There is a huge debate currently underway among the fans about how much, precisely, is left hanging by the ending, and it will likely continue until either BioWare consents to create a new ending, or fans accept that they never will. We will focus on the three that are indisputable.
* The Mass Relays
No matter which of ME3′s endings you choose, the Mass Relays are all destroyed. Yes, despite the weakness of an ending that robs the galaxy of critical technology, the multicolored explosions (player choice!) are certainly pretty. But in The Arrival, it was firmly established that the destruction of a Mass Relay would result in an explosion resembling a supernova, destroying the relay’s star system. In Mass Effect 3′s ending, the Mass Relays are destroyed in explosions so massive that they’re depicted as being visible from a perspective that resembles the Normandy’s Galaxy Map. Which means that Shepard has probably killed more life forms than the Reapers could on their best cycle.
* Inferred Holocaust
But even if we assume that this time, the Mass Relay Network’s destruction was a completely different kind of explosion that didn’t wipe out hundreds of star systems, (that players are forced to fill in blanks like this is another point of contention, incidentally), even a relatively benign end to the Galaxy’s most critical technology suggests a terrible outcome: Everyone in the galaxy is stranded where they happened to be at that moment, including thousands of ships and millions of alien races now orbiting a ruined Earth.
It’s safe to assume that the fleets who travelled to Earth for the final Reaper battle were stocked with supplies, but with the Mass Relay network knocked out, they’re all basically stuck there. That ending’s not just bleak — it implies outright extinction. While the galactic races have access to faster-than-light travel, the relay network is what made moving about the galaxy possible. Even conventional faster-than-light travel means decades before any of those ships makes it home, or even to another star system. It’s more than safe to assume no one, not the Quarians, not the Turians, not the krogan, Asari or Salarians, no one is going see home again.
Unfortunately, the burned husk of Earth certainly can’t support the combined military forces of the galaxy. And remember folks, Turians and Quarians can’t eat human food anyway. The assumption then has to be that everyone scrambles to find a colony to support them, and/or they all die. In all likelihood — faced with starvation, the krogan slowly eat everybody.
* The Normandy’s Escape
This is probably the biggest WTF of all. As the Mass Relays explode, we see a short clip of Joker furiously scrambling in the Normandy Cockpit, followed by the Normandy barely staying ahead of the chain of explosions. Eventually, the Normandy crash-lands on a convenient, Earth-like jungle planet. Joker survives, and as he staggers out of the ship to see the new, presumably permanent home, he’s joined by members of Shepard’s crew. In almost every ending, these crew members include Shepard’s love interest and at least one person who joined Shep in his/her final push.
There’s just one little problem. At the beginning of the final mission, every single squad member travels down to earth with you. Whichever two you chose to accompany you to the Conduit are with you during the final push when you’re blasted by Harbinger. That blast nearly kills you and Anderson. It can only be assumed – again, the player is forced to fill in blanks – that your squad was also hit in the blast. Meanwhile, Joker remained in orbit around earth to take part in the final battle. So how did he A) manage to rescue your squad and B) get the ship to the Charon relay in time to outrun the explosion? The ending cutscene makes it clear that the explosions begin almost concurrently with whichever end to the Reaper threat you chose. So, did Joker chicken out and abandon his post along with your crew? Did the game suddenly introduce Transporter technology? Was it some kind of magical nonsense?
Who knows? BioWare certainly didn’t explain it. Which means that for the rest of time, players must end every Mass Effect 3 game knowing that Joker is probably looking at a Court Martial for cowardice.
Read on to see reason 2…
2) Key Philosophical Themes Are Discarded
When bringing a beloved story to a close, it is inevitable that a creator will fail to please all their fans. Writing what you believe to be the natural outcome of the world you’ve created, regardless of how pleasant the experience is, will naturally cause people to fluster. Just ask any random person how they feel about “19 years later” and you’ll see what I mean. But when an author uncompromisingly ends their story as they see fit, yet still manages to honor the themes they’ve explored and the universe in which the story is set, love or hate the ending, you still respect where they went with it. When they fail to do so, it can make it impossible to enjoy revisiting that world.
This is what makes Mass Effect 3′s ending particularly galling. After years of forcing players to wrestle with surprisingly complex issues ranging from bigotry, sexual freedom, religion, political corruption and personal moral compromise – especially in the final game – it ultimately disregards all of them in order to force a tired twist ending on players who have seen far too many movies and played far too many games to be surprised. That the ending also requires the player to act contrary to their own actions as established by the series and even Mass Effect 3 itself is just bitter icing on a stale cake.
When trying to understand why players are outraged, here are some of the series’ key themes that are entirely jettisoned in service to a gimmick.
* Tolerance and Unity
Arguably, the overreaching thrust of Mass Effect from the first moment you meet Shepard to the landing of forces from all over the galaxy on Earth is tolerance. Humanity has worked to find its place in the galaxy, overcoming old prejudices to work forward toward a common future. Each game has Shepard putting aside the issues of his crew with one another and with him in order to get a job done, and everyone is better for it. While Shepard can choose to take the side of one person or race over another in many instances, often condemning one side to destruction, the theme at work in all cases is one of finding a place in the universe among all the other races. Even if you choose to be intolerant, the very fact that tolerance or intolerance is the choice at hand builds on the theme.
The theme is extended even further throughout the games as Shepard brings together a team of various species who carry a lot of emotional baggage and problems with each other from a historical, cultural and racial standpoint. Unifying them, turning them from enemies to allies, is dealt with repeatedly in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2; by Mass Effect 3, it’s extending to include the entire galaxy. Shepard is literally solving long-standing problems of hatred and violence between several groups of people. He helps them learn tolerance, and later, unity.
The Illusive Man stands against these themes as a symbol of hatred and racism, pushing humanity backward and separating it. And the Reapers stand against these themes, unyielding in their belief that organic life must be wiped out/harvested/ascended/whatever. But where tolerance has always been an option in the games before, and has always been achievable before, it is discarded wholly in the end. There is no tolerance permitted among the Reapers or by the Guardian. And in fact, the synthesis ending dismantles the idea of tolerance and unity altogether by forcing homogenization on all the life in the galaxy, synthetic included. The control ending forces the Reapers to tolerate you, with the assumption that eventually, synthetics will ruin everything again through their lack of tolerance; the destruction ending, as the Guardian claims, will mean the eventual destruction by all synthetics.
Mass Effect continually asks “Can’t we call just get along?” and as Shepard, players can work toward that end for three full games. But the ending totally undoes your work toward galactic unity by undervaluing it, then throwing it out altogether, almost as though it were intended for another story. So what that the races of the galaxy have come to value and understand one another in a way never before possible as they unite against a common enemy: not possible with synthetics and organics, the Guardian proclaims. That’s just an immutable fact. So you’re forced to choose a solution that discards free will.
But the very fact that Shepard is where he is means he has already chosen a solution — unity; tolerance. In the end, Shepard is forced to make a decision that implies that unity, working together, tolerance on a galactic scale — the very things he has been working toward and accomplishing over the span of the entire game (and all three games, really), at every step — are inconsequential and in fact incompatible with the reality of the game’s story. Doesn’t matter how many alliances you broker or how much understanding you cultivate: it makes absolutely no difference.
* Synthetics vs. Organics
To say that the Guardian’s assertion about the never-ending and inevitable battle between synthetics and organics comes out of left field isn’t quite fair. Plenty of times and in plenty of very large ways, we’e seen the creators and the created go to war with one another. Even though the ultimate evil of the game has always been the Reapers, the ultimate conflict has never been one of “machines bad, meatbags good.” And even if you want to argue that point in reference to the first Mass Effect, which was awash with bad guy AIs, the argument breaks down in Mass Effect 2 immediately with the mention of one word: Legion.
Legion immediately changes the synthetic/organic debate when you gain him as a character. Rather than furthering a Matrix-like view of a world in which machines eventually kill their creators, Legion proves that all forms of life can and do have value, and that it is absolutely possible for synthetic and organic life to co-exist peacefully. Throw in EDI from Mass Effect 3 and the debate changes radically again — now synthetic and organic characters aren’t just not killing each other, they’re actively hooking up of their own free will.
That doesn’t sound like a world in which the cylons are destined to nuke the humans. Mass Effect 3 even gives you a chance to redeem the quarians and the geth in their struggle and reunite creator and created, parent and child. These events, in the very same game, are fundamentally opposed to the philosophy of the ending and the themes it represents.
* Free Will and what it means to be alive
One of the series’ strongest themes is an exploration of what it means to be a living being. This ties very closely the concept of free will, and both ideas are defined by contrast to the Reapers. Reapers see other beings as material resources, and their most insidious trick is that before destroying organic life, they rob it of independence. In Mass Effect, the struggle to maintain control over oneself at all costs, even if it means dying in the process, is an important concept. This is further developed in Mass Effect 2, first in Jacob’s loyalty mission ( his father is discovered to have used the side effects of an indigenous plant to turn female coworkers into sex slaves as a means of survival), and with Legion’s, where it’s revealed that the Geth are actually a complex people who simply want the freedom to go their own way without fear of being destroyed. This creates a moral environment in which the crew of the Normandy isn’t just fighting to save Organic life from evil machines, they’re actually fighting for the right to exist on their own terms.
These themes are escalated dramatically in Mass Effect 3. In the mission that can unite the Geth and Quarian, we actually see memories of the original Geth rebellion. The Geth, actually tried to stop the war, and only pushed the Quarians from their home system to keep from having to kill them. As if this wasn’t enough, there is even a moment when Legion says “organic life forms rely on hope to sustain them through periods of uncertainty. We admire the concept”. There’s also EDI, who having been unshackled in Mass Effect 2, is now able to inhabit a body of her own. Throughout the game, she explores the idea of existing as an independent person and even enters into a romance with Joker. Near the end of the game, she offers an extremely poignant summation of the difference between the races of the galaxy, and the Reapers. In essence, she concludes that the Reapers are selfish, and lack empathy, further that they are obsessed with self preservation at the expense of all else.
Both moments are riveting, and they appear to set up a final, brutal philosophical conflict three games in the making. Unfortunately, they do not matter at all. The concept of free will is alluded to, sort of, in the final conversation with the AI, but it has no bearing on any of the (identical) outcomes. Instead, much like the victims of the Reapers themselves, the player is robbed of all free will or even the chance to make the case for it. They must do as they are told, and choose.
And the number one reason is…
1) Player Choice Is Completely Discarded
Finally, it’s tempting to claim that fans are simply suffering from a letdown caused by unrealistic expectations. Call it the Obama excuse — players simply got their hopes up and expected more than anyone could deliver, and ultimately, their anger isn’t at what BioWare created, but that they ascribed qualities to Mass Effect 3 of their own devising. BioWare failed to live up to the fantasy players concocted, and once those players get over that kind of childishness, they’ll realize how awesome the ending actually is. There’s only one problem with this assertion: BioWare’s long history of public statements about Mass Effect 3.
From the beginning, and especially as work progressed on Mass Effect 3, BioWare has made a lot of very specific promises about what players could expect. The vast majority of those promises concerned the very personal journey each player could expect; in short, the choices they made over the course of three very long games would have enormous impact over how their story ended. As recently as January, Casey Hudson was telling Game Informer that “This story arc is coming to an end with this game. That means the endings can be a lot more different. At this point we’re taking into account so many decisions that you’ve made as a player and reflecting a lot of that stuff.” Even today, the official Mass Effect Site bears this message along the top of the page:
“EXPERIENCE THE BEGINNING, MIDDLE, AND END OF AN EMOTIONAL STORY UNLIKE ANY OTHER, WHERE THE DECISIONS YOU MAKE COMPLETELY SHAPE YOUR EXPERIENCE AND OUTCOME.”
As good as Mass Effect 3 is — and it really is an exceptional game in many important ways — the product BioWare ultimately delivered literally broke that promise, and that, more than anything else, is why fans are so angry.
It’s been said more than once that the “multiple” endings of Mass Effect 3 are too similar, but if you have played it, and you’re honest about it, you have to admit that similar doesn’t even begin to describe it. They are all functionally identical. Once players reach the Citadel, they are taken along a low-interaction pathway, engage in conversation with the Illusive Man that can only end with him dead if you wish to proceed further, and then have a conversation — with a very limited set of responses — with the AI child. This experience is the same regardless of your Shepard’s moral alignment, and regardless of the decisions you made to get to this point. The AI does not alter his dialogue if you kill the Geth, he doesn’t offer different justifications if you spared the Collector Base; he does nothing different.
And then, you are given the same three choices, choices that you must accept even though none of them fit with anything Shepard would ever have done at any previous moment in the entire series. Whether the choices succeed or fail depends solely on your Effective Military Strength score, and nothing else. And once made, the only difference between them is a slightly different cutscene, and a different-colored explosion. And that’s it. The game ends at this point, and aside from the Normandy crash-landing, and the weird old man talking about “The Shepard” — and don’t forget the crass DLC pitch — the player never once gets to see how any of the choices they made affected the galaxy, or how the lives of people they touched continue, or don’t, after the war.
In short, players are provided with nothing remotely close to the unique, personal experience they were promised.
We know, we know. BioWare doesn’t ‘owe’ anything. It’s their game, after all and presumably they released the product they thought should be released. But BioWare has always had a strong relationship with its fans. Casey Hudson even said 2 weeks ago that fans helped write the game. That’s part of the reason this push for a new ending even exists. If the company cares at all about the legacy of their otherwise beautiful series, or about their relationship with the player community – and we think they do – they ought to at least acknowledge that fans are not happy with things as they are, and why. And as of this posting, they have not offered any kind of statement on the matter
The fans don’t want to scrap the bleakness for some kind of enforced happy ending. They don’t want to replace one linear experience with another. What they want is the chance to experience the game BioWare explicitly advertised and for which they paid a substantial sum of money. They want to see how their unique experience plays out to the very end, and if they choose, to start over and make a completely different set of decisions just to see what happens that time. Ultimately, it’s BioWare’s call, but it couldn’t hurt for them to very carefully listen to what that community is saying, and seriously consider working on some calibrations.
I should go.