This may shock you, but this is going to feature spoilers. But come on, anyone who is going to take the time to read this is either unconcerned about spoilers, or has completed the game by now. Well, almost everyone.
The reason I have taken so long to write about the ending of Mass Effect 3, was, well, that I wasn’t going to. I hadn’t completed the game when the initial uproar broke out, and by the time I had completed it, I was too annoyed at the ‘online outrage’ and really just didn’t want to get involved. That held true, until I cam across this article, Mass Effect 3 Ending-Hatred: 5 Reasons The Fans Are Right at Game Front (I’ll only be linking to the page once, as the have pulled the jackass move of splitting all these reasons onto their own page, just as well their site is so fast). Now, before I systematically examine each point, I want to set a few expectations.
Firstly, I am in no way saying that it is wrong to be disappointed with the ending, or the entire game for that matter. That is entirely your opinion. This piece is really more focused on invalidating the main criticisms lobbied against the game/ending, rather than saying that the story and/or conclusion are actually any good. Hopefully this idea will become clear in the following paragraphs. Disclaimer: I very much enjoyed the game, and the ending. However, by no means do I think it is ‘perfect’ (which is obviously subjective) or beyond criticism. I just believe that the main objections raised against it (highlighted in the aforementioned article) do not have any valid basis. Final point, though not completely crucial. I believe that the entire game can be viewed as the ending (after all it is the ending of the trilogy). I mention this as some of my points will rely on this belief, so while I will also argue in (at least partial) defence of the ‘true ending’, I will make the case that we are looking at the ‘ending’ wrong.
And yes, I’m an opinionated *expletive deleted*, all the kids on the internet are right, and I, therefore, am wrong. Now, shall we begin?
The 5 reasons are preceded by a short introduction, basically spelling out why they wrote this article. Let me throw some quotes your way:
“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.”
Of course, there is no way they are immediately showing bias there by taking the criticism to a ridiculous edge case happy ending that no-one was really arguing for. I also enjoy their throwaway line of “an ending that makes sense”. Let’s think about that. “Makes sense”. But with absolutely no context. I don’t know about you, but all three options make sense to me. Option 1: Destroy all synthetic life. Makes sense to me, the Reapers are synthetic. Option 2: Control the Reapers. Makes sense, no more Reaper killing, no killing of all synthetic life. Option 3: Merge all organic and synthetic life. This one especially made sense for my Shepard who went out of his way to save everyone and everything, and who very much believed that synthetic life was valuable. In every outcome, Shepard dies, and the Mass Relays are destroyed. I can see no reason why that wouldn’t “make sense”.
To end the introduction they finish with this:
“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.”
Keep that one in mind as we go through, sounds like hyperbole to me… On to the 5 reasons.
Basically: ‘everything in the past three games is undone, and rendered meaningless by the ending’. Summed up with:
“that accomplishment is completely undone as the story is wrapped up via a barely-interactive cutscene lasting less than 10 minutes”
Really? Everything you’ve done in the roughly 150 hours it takes to complete the trilogy is meaningless in the end? So saving the Geth was pointless, even though they get to live on in two out of the three scenarios? Saving the Rachni didn’t matter? Even though you have saved an entire species that survives in every scenario? And so on, and so on. It’s lazy writing, and it doesn’t “make sense”.
There are two other points relating to ‘Brevity’ that I wanted to address. The first is summed up below:
“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.”
The endings are certainly aesthetically similar, in that a number of assets are used in each ending, but the idea behind each is radically different. This is linked to the third sentence in that quote. That, effectively because they don’t have a fade-to-black wrap up on each character and situation, that the ending is a failure. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather be left to create my own ideas about what happened to the rest of my squad, than a splash screen at the end telling me that Vega is now more muscle than man, and Garrus is in a Simon & Garfunkel tribute band. This is a point I plan to come back to. Bioware has given us an epic science fiction adventure, and in the grand traditions of the genre, they have not spelled everything out for us. I count that as a win. Regarding the fact that you get the same three choices no matter how you played the game, come on. How many choices do you expect to have? The entire trilogy has been about the Reaper threat. The ultimate ending was always going to be concerned with how you stop that threat. ‘Oh I played as a total renegade, who punched people, blah blah, I should get different choices’. It makes no sense. When viewed in the context of the Reaper threat. None of the other decisions really matter on that scale. Sure, once you save the universe, it might be a better place because you did *blah*, but that doesn’t change how you deal with the Reapers. It’s almost the same as complaining that it is unfair that you have to continue on the path towards fighting the Reapers, because your Shepard doesn’t want to. And finally:
“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”
Does it almost seem to smugly imply that, or are you just really stretching to force home a point? If I am allowed a moment of candour, I may smugly suggest that, given the outrage at the ending, it’s not that they don’t understand it, but more that they are unworthy of the boldness of the ending. However, I must admit that the Grandfather bit did seem a bit tacked on to ensure you could keep playing without breaking continuity.
It is Confusing and Under-Developed
The second reason is a lot harder to pick apart on the surface. It is far from a ‘perfect’ ending. What is up with StarChild? Where in fresh hell was the Normandy going and why? I’m sure you have your own nits to pick. So sure, parts of it may be confusing, but the basics of the ending are ‘Here is an AI, he built the Reapers, they will kill all organics to start a new cycle, this cycle will continue, you can end it, here are your three choices’. Man, that was so confusing that I just managed to explain it in a sentence. There is a complaint that they get no explanation of why the AI chose that form, which harks back to my point about people wanting everything spelled out for them. I’m no genius, but I’m pretty sure I know what the developers were aiming for with the dream sequences and the choice of form. They may not have executed it as well as they might have hoped, but it’s reasonably obvious what they were shooting for.
“In essence, the player is told that everything they experienced has happened because it was going to happen, and will happen again.”
Wrong. We are told that the Reaper invasion/harvest was due to happen, and has happened before. Sure, the implication is that it will happen again, but this is in the same scene that we are given the three choices to end the Reaper cycle, so that kind of renders the “will happen again” point moot. Plus, during the entire series we have been told that this is “a cycle”, the fact that has happened before and is due to happen again should hardly be a surprise to anyone by this point. Again, I take issue with the language used here. “Everything they experienced” is a very absolute statement. I’m assuming that Game Front is only talking about the 3 game long Reaper fight here, as there are an absolute multitude of experiences that, while instigated by the Reaper threat, are completely separate from it, and therefore, the ending.
Lore Errors, Plot Holes
This deals with the destruction of the Mass Effect relays, an ‘inferred Holocaust’, and the Normandy’s escape. The Mass Effect relay destruction didn’t bother me, and yes, I did play Arrival, and yes, they do mention it in Mass Effect 3. It may be me that’s stretching this one, but I believe it’s a different kind of destruction, and therefore, wouldn’t cause the damage that occurred in Arrival. Even if not, and it is the same, it’s still better than the destruction of all organic life in possession of minimal intelligence. Making this sentence,
“which means that Shepard has probably killed more life forms than the Reapers could on their best cycle”
incredibly inaccurate at best. The ‘inferred Holocaust’ is rooted in the belief that not all the galactic races can survive without the mass relays. Yes, people are stuck where they are, yes there will be casualties, but we’re saving the universe here! Many races survived and prospered without the relays, I’m sure they can do it again. I would bet it’s a more desirable option than being harvested. The Normandy one? Yeah, got me there. I have no sound defence for what was going on. If you have a viable idea that isn’t “he bolted”, please let me know.
Key Philosophical Themes Are Discarded
The second-last section argues that Shepard spends the whole trilogy as the human embodiment of unity. It’s what he preaches, it’s what he does, and that each of the endings is out of sync with that ideal. While that may be accurate, I think the main thrust of the trilogy is ‘Shepard fights Reapers’, which each ending syncs with perfectly. Again, I’m not saying these endings are perfect, but I think we need some perspective. One of the most fascitating aspects of the trilogy for me was the synthetics/organics relationship, summed up perfectly by one character (and my favourite in the game), Legion. Apparently the ending robs you of all that meaning and debate. Funny, I thought that’s what the ‘green’ ending was for. My Shepard was fully in support of the Geth, and actively encouraged the relationship between Joker and EDI. Considering that relationship, the ‘green’ ending seems like the natural final decision for my character. Ok, maybe my character lined up better with an ending than yours, but even renegades could choose the ‘kill the Reapers and be done with it’ option. Reason four ends with this:
“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.”
Aside from the ‘identical’ dig (again). I really don’t see the problem here, other than Bioware being a victim of their own success. They have built a universe, and a trilogy, that people have identified with to such an extent that they set aside all notions of video game endings, and seem to think there would be a million-and-one options just for them. I don’t want to discourage ambition, but I think we need to know our boundaries at this stage.
Player Choice Is Completely Discarded
Ok, so this is the big one, and where I reference back to one of my initial points. Mass Effect 3 is the conclusion of the entire trilogy. The much vaunted player choice throughout the entire series has always revolved around the side-quests, and the decisions that are made along the way. There was never really ‘player choice’ concerning how Shepard dealt with the Reapers. Why should the ending be any different. Were you given a choice in how to deal with Sovereign? No. Player choice is definitely a critical part of the Mass Effect experience, but you were never really able to deviate away from the main thrust of the story; Deal with the Reapers. In that context, this argument is completely flawed, as however you played the entire trilogy, you were never able to deviate from the intended path. But, when considering the entire game as the ending, this statement becomes even more egregious.
Now, I know that the complaints re: the ending are about the literal ending, but this is another facet of the argument that I think is wrong. Throughout the first two games in the series, you are making decisions, and altering people’s lives. It is throughout Mass Effect 3 that these decisions bear fruit. Did you have the same experience with Connor in ME3 as I did? (He heroically threw himself in front of a ‘bullet’ for Shepard, and ended up with an attractive young lady). Was he even in ME3 in your game? Did you save the Rachni Queen? How did that whole section play out for you? How about Wrex, was he in charge of Tuchunka? Did he even survive Virmire? These are just a small sample of the decisions and outcomes available in the ME series that culminate during the third game.
According to the article, it was the promises of BioWare that built up expectations, and that they broke those promises. Specifically the following; taken from the Mass Effect Site:
“EXPERIENCE THE BEGINNING, MIDDLE, AND END OF AN EMOTIONAL STORY UNLIKE ANY OTHER, WHERE THE DECISIONS YOU MAKE COMPLETELY SHAPE YOUR EXPERIENCE AND OUTCOME.”
I don’t see any broken promises in there. You get the beginning, middle, and end of a story, and the decisions you make have a huge impact on your experience, and the outcome of those experiences. Yes, not every decision has an affect on the final outcome, but they do greatly affect the story arcs that they relate to.
Other snippets from this section include:
“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.”
Why would he care about this? Why would the AI concern himself with these decisions? This screams of looking for choice and divergence, when logically there should not be any.
“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.”
They don’t fit? So the combination of synthetic and organic life is nothing like arguing that the Geth should have the same rights are organics? That killing the Reapers regardless of consequences is nothing like killing the Rachni or Geth without worrying about the future ramifications of that decision? This is a particularly hyperbolic sentence, even in the context of this article.
On discussing the final cutscene:
“the only difference between them is a slightly different cutscene, and a different-coloured explosion … 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.”
I alluded to this earlier but, god help us that we actually have to use our imaginations.
As previously mentioned, the ending has a great deal of ambiguity. However, I look on this as a positive. You are free to use your imagination. What happened to your team, and the galaxy as a whole, after this? Well, based on your actions and experiences over the course of the three games, why don’t you let your mind wander, and fill in the blanks. There was an interview with Damon Lindlelof by The Verge where he discussed ambiguity. Basically, if we take a scale of ambiguity, with the ending of ‘Lost’ being the most ambiguous, and The Architect scene from ‘The Matrix’ as the least, you want to be somewhere in the middle, but always want to be closer to ‘Lost’ than to The Architect. This is because The Architect scene is the worst scene in the history of science fiction movies, if not film in general. Ambiguity is nothing to be afraid of. In fact, it is pretty much a staple of the science fiction genre. Tell me a great science fiction film that does not include any sort of ambiguity in it’s resolution. If you can name one, I highly doubt it is indeed “great”. If we accept this in film, why can we not accept it in games? Should that not be what we (as a gaming community) are striving for? We often complain about not being taken seriously as a medium akin to television and film, but when a game dares to push the envelope and leave you with questions, there is an outcry. Is it any wonder that we have not made more significant strides?
The last line of the article is:
“I should go.”
The extended cut drops soon, and may well obliterate people’s complaints. It may render this entire article obsolete. But the fact that they have been forced into creating and releasing it, I believe, shines a harsh light, not only on the entitlement of the internet masses, but on the direction we are pushing our most treasured of media.
TL;DR People are pissed that a complicated, expansive science fiction story didn’t wrap everything up for them in a nice little bow. This is why we can’t have nice things (specifically in video game writing).