An End Once and For All: Discussing Mass Effect 3's Controversial Ending

[Today's article is generously provided by friend of Nitrobeard and Platformers regular Jacob Dadon/DiabloFett]


Alright, first off, a disclaimer. This is not a review of Mass Effect 3. There are enough reviews online already, so if you’re looking for one of those, sorry, but you’re out of luck. This is an in-depth discussion of the extremely controversial ending to one of the most anticipated games of the decade. If you don’t want to be spoiled or are just tired of hearing about the ending by this point, I suggest you close this article now.

Let’s get this out of the way first: I love Mass Effect. Anyone who knows me will tell you, I have a bit of an unhealthy obsession with the sci-fi space opera franchise. I’ve played through the first two games more times than I can count, I’ve read all of the comic spin-offs (as well as a few of the books, but one man can only take so much punishment), and there may or may not be a video online of me getting my N7 hoodie signed by the cast and crew of ME3 (as well as coaxing a hug out of Jennifer Hale, but that’s neither here nor there). I have consumed an unhealthy amount of Mass Effect, to the point where I thought it was pretty much impossible for me to be disappointed by the ending to this amazing series.

And yet, when the credits finally rolled, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of severe disappointment with what I had just witnessed in the final 10-15 minutes. What was that? What just happened? Where was the friggin’ resolution? Luckily for me I finished at around 3 in the morning, so I immediately slept the initial disappointment off and didn’t allow it to fester into a blinding rage like most of the internet has. Instead, I woke up and was determined to pinpoint why the ending is so disappointing, and to figure out just what went wrong.

So, let’s set the stage. It’s the final push. The Crucible is ready to fire, it’s just missing that one component that the Reapers are now in control of: the Citadel. Shepard fights his/her way through an incredible battle on Earth to the Citadel, where s/he has a final confrontation with The Illusive Man and shares a final word of pride with Admiral Anderson, before opening the Citadel for the Crucible to do its’ thing. Anderson and The Illusive Man lie dead around him/her, and it’s obvious that soon, Shepard will succumb to his/her own wounds. Up until this point, it’s a rather beautiful, if bittersweet ending. There’s death and destruction all around Shep, but they still got the job done.

And then Admiral Hackett speaks over the radio. The Crucible isn’t firing. No one knows what’s wrong. Shepard is raised to a new room in the Citadel, where s/he is greeted by an AI that claims to be the Citadel itself, calling itself the Catalyst. It tells Shepard that it created the Reapers in order to avoid a “technological singularity”; a fancy way of saying organics will always create AI that will surpass them and try to destroy them. The Reapers harvest organics before this event happens every cycle, and “uplifts” the organic races in order to preserve them. It then ponders that this “solution” is no longer viable due to the simple fact that Shepard is standing there now. It offers Shepard a choice: destroy all synthetic life, including the Geth whom you may or may not have just given full sentience, control the Reapers but die in the process, or merge his/her DNA into an unexplained magical space ray that’ll rewrite the DNA of every living being in the galaxy. No matter which option Shepard chooses, the Reapers either die or leave, all of the mass relays (the cornerstone of galactic travel in the galaxy) are destroyed, and the Normandy, which for some reason was trying to outrun whichever option Shepard chooses, crash lands on a mysterious planet. Roll credits.

Now, the immediate and obvious problem with this ending is that it lacks a resolution. There’s a climax, but no denouement. That’s not to say everything needs a clear resolution. There are certainly films out there that lack a concrete resolution and leave the ending up to the audience (Inception), but those kinds of stories are designed from the ground up to lead up to that ending. Mass Effect 3 is not. Mass Effect as a series is not designed that way. The Mass Effect games are all about choice. Every game stresses that your choices matter, that they will somehow play a key role in the ultimate endgame. Every choice you make with your squadmates brings you closer to them, makes you more familiar with them, makes you care about them. Mass Effect 3’s ending does not address your choices at all. In fact, it actively makes your choices throughout the three games largely irrelevant. Did you cure the Genophage? Doesn’t matter, all of the Krogan soldiers are trapped in the Sol system now. What about the Quarians? Did you give them back their homeworld? Did you give the Geth sentience? Again, it doesn’t matter anymore. Did you romance anyone throughout the three games? Do you wanna know what happened to them? Too bad!

It’s actually kind of baffling just how much the ending betrays the themes of the rest of the game at the most basic of levels. And it’s not for a lack of trying, either. The ending is presented as a choice. In fact, the room in which you make that choice is actually shaped like one of Mass Effect’s trademark dialogue wheels. The problem comes when that choice interferes with and invalidates pretty much every other choice you’ve made in the game up until that point. By making the ending a choice that occurs no matter what path you’ve taken to get to that point, you take away any sense of accomplishment for the player. You take away the idea that it’s their ending, and in a series that stresses letting you play the game your way, that is a big misstep.

There are, of course, more problems with the. There’s the fact that the Catalyst AI’s reasoning is completely nonsensical. It claims to be trying to stop organic life from destroying itself, yet has spent countless eons doing just that. And why doesn’t Shepard ever challenge the Catalyst? Why does s/he just accept everything it says and offers? Why is Joker fleeing the battlefield at the end? Doesn’t that go completely against the very core of his character? And what about the Galactic Readiness and War Asset counters that seem to be completely pointless? Basically, unless you’re actively trying not to gather War Assets, Shepard always ends up in London on their way to the Citadel. The only thing that seems to be affected is the cutscene preceding that. Why not integrate the War Assets mechanic into the ending? It would integrate the players’ actions from throughout the game and give the player a sense of accomplishment at the same time.

For comparison, let’s take a quick look at another heavily story-driven game that was also all about endings: Metal Gear Solid 4. Much like Mass Effect, the MGS series built a vast and detailed universe populated by interesting and unique characters. Billed as the last game in the series, MGS4 attempted to tie up literally every dangling plot thread by the time the credits rolled. And for the most part, it did. It reintroduced nearly every character that appeared throughout the series and gave them a role in the final chapter, just like Mass Effect did. What Mass Effect didn’t do, however, was give those characters a resolution. This is mainly because MGS4 actually shows what happens after the climax. It also never strays from the core themes of the game, no matter how crazy or confusing it gets. When the audience becomes as invested in the story and characters as they do when playing through multiple games for numerous hours, they want an idea of how life is going to proceed from that point forward. Now, I’m not pretending that MGS4’s ending is perfect, because it’s not. It’s long-winded and needlessly confusing, but at the end of the day, you know what the state of the world is when those credits roll. Mass Effect 3 lacks this clarity.

So, just what went wrong? Why did this game, which for the most part has some of the best writing in the videogame world, completely fall apart in the last 10 minutes? It’s easy to blame the writers, so that’s probably what I’m gonna do. I’m not going to blame all of them, though, because I happen to know for a fact that not everyone at Bioware was happy with the ending that we ended up with, including at least one of the writers. I imagine that after the explosion of negativity over the past week over the ending has a lot of those folks handing out a few “I told you so”s around the office. But the fact is that the person responsible for the ending was one of the writers, and he vetoed any protests that may have arisen. In fact, according to reliable sources, the ending was written by one writer with no feedback from any of the other writers, which is the exact opposite of how the rest of the game(s) was written.

Another possibility is the leaked beta script. When the script for the game leaked in November of 2011, Bioware essentially panicked. They quickly put out a press release claiming that the script was outdated, but soon after, they confirmed that certain elements were being rewritten for the final release. And when one looks back at those leaked documents, they find that Bioware did in fact change a lot about the ending. Namely, they removed nearly all of the variation that the ending could have had based on your decisions. Hell, the leak had a scene in which Joker, in the Normandy, manages to kill Harbinger (who got all of 40 seconds of screentime) during the final push. That alone would have drastically changed the outcome of the ending had it been something that could have been achieved.

And then there’s this. In short, the original Lead Writer left the series halfway through development on ME2 in order to work on The Old Republic, and his departure brought about a change in the Reapers’ motivations, as well as a different final choice for the player to make. The validity of this story is slightly suspect, but it makes sense. Given the complete 180 in tone the story takes in the final moments, attributing it to a Lead Writer change midway through the series would certainly account for something. It would also cover the Dark Energy plotline that seemed relatively important in ME2 but was completely dropped in ME3. Would this ending have been better? There’s really no way of knowing, and ultimately the real problems with the ending we have aren’t really addressed (What happens after we “beat” the Reapers?), but I will go on record as saying that I think the “choice” you’re presented with in this ending is better and could theoretically play off of the War Assets system rather nicely.

So, will Bioware “fix” the ending through DLC in a manner similar to what Bethesda did with Fallout 3? That remains to be seen, but with the severe backlash and the already split office in Edmonton, it’s seeming more and more likely, especially for a company that prides itself on its’ connection to the fans. Personally, I wouldn’t mind a better conclusion, but if it never comes, I can still find solace in the rest of the game. Despite how disappointing the ending to Mass Effect 3 is, I still believe the rest of the game is one of the finest pieces of interactive entertainment ever created. I understand that people like to vent about things they don’t like, especially on the internet where it can get particularly vitriolic, but I sincerely hope people get past it. It’ll be very sad if the legacy the game leaves behind is the final 10 or so minutes, and not the 30+ hours of extraordinarily well-written material.

I mean, seriously. There’s a quest where you revive an extinct species of space dinosaurs so the Krogan have mounts to ride into battle. How friggin’ cool is that?