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Mass Effect 3 Ending Analysis Essay

Mass Effect 3 closes off Bioware’s epic sci-fi series with a bang, and one of the most controversial endings of the last few years. Many fans have been clamouring for an update that outright changes it, and not simply because the war with the Reapers didn’t end quite as they wanted. Bioware maintains that it just wanted to get people talking.

So let’s talk a little about That Ending, shall we?


The problem with Mass Effect 3’s ending isn’t that it’s bleak. Far from it. Elements like Shepard’s self-sacrifice, the (very predictable) destruction of the Mass Relay network, and the cost of retaking Earth are all very in keeping with both the story Bioware’s been telling all along and the final part of this kind of arc. If not for literally the last five minutes, I suspect it would have gone down as a simply great ending to an absolutely wonderful, multi-year adventure.

Instead, as the credits rolled, all I could think of was Lincoln’s nose.

This is a very likely apocryphal story, but a good one, so never mind. It goes that Abraham “Yes, That One” Lincoln, during his lawyer days, was defending a man accused of biting off another man’s nose. Through careful interrogation, it becomes clear that the main witness never actually saw this happen, leading to Lincoln triumphantly demanding of the discredited, humiliated fool “So how do you know my client bit this man’s nose off?”

“Because I saw him spit it out afterwards,” replied the witness.

The moral of the story? Quit while you’re ahead.

In Bioware’s case, things are admittedly slightly different – it’s not really an extra question that screws things up, but an unnecessary answer. Everything that happens between dealing with the Illusive Man and the Mass Effect relays going boom should have been cut. The series was absolutely fine when it was the Lovecraftian menace of the Reapers, and lord only knows why Bioware suddenly decided that a big picture of multiple cycles of civilisation combining their resources to take out a threat to all life suddenly wasn’t big enough to roll credits on. No matter how good the new idea, or how well written, there was simply no need to add a new layer, with Casper the Genocidal Ghost showing up to take credit for the series in the last few seconds.

There’s some writing of debatable quality in those closing moments, but that’s usually forgiveable. What has incited revolt is how much Bioware forces it into the story and happily breaks things that were going just fine. To namecheck the biggies…

War Readiness – This makes absolutely no sense in the context of the final battle. It should relate to getting the Crucible to the Citadel, defending it from the Reapers, and giving Shepard time to deal with the threat. Instead, its effect on the endings is completely arbitrary, with no causal link between Shepard’s war performance and the final results. It’s especially strange considering how well the Suicide Mission handled the effects of decisions, from how good each of your crew really was in their jobs to how much you’d upgraded the Normandy. Shouldn’t we have seen things like the ultimate bad ending being the Crucible being unceremoniously blown up on the way to Earth and taking half the solar system with it? It’d be more fitting.

Organics vs. Synthetics – Suddenly promoted from a running theme to the focus of the story, despite both the Geth and EDI (our primary AI contacts during the series) fighting for the squishy side, and it being clear that this isn’t a particular problem when compared to the likes of the very, very organic Krogan and Rachni running amok through the galaxy. If this is what Bioware wanted the whole series to hinge on, they left it at least a game and a half too late to establish.

Shepard’s Choice – Thematically, the Destroy/Control choices are absolutely fine – though Merge is damn stupid, transhumanist nonsense that doesn’t sit well with the series’ technology or your own experiences with the galaxy’s synthetic lifeforms, relies on taking the word of a genocidal echo that the universe is doomed, and makes you inflict by fiat what the villains have been doing by force. The fact that this is treated as a ‘good’ option absolutely baffles me.

Of the others, Destroy works more or less as is. The Crucible is a weapon, so fine. This Control option on the other hand is ridiculous when the Illusive Man has not only spent the whole game being shouted at for even considering the idea, but was available in the very last room to open that pathway. Simply agreeing with him and taking his power by force would have worked thematically and dramatically, and without falling prey to ME3’s biggest problem…

Magic Ghost Children Are Silly – Yes. Yes they are.

There are other issues too, like just where the hell the Normandy was flying off to in the ending, the idiocy of the choice being down to three buttons that shouldn’t even exist on the Crucible, and how resigned Shepard comes across to it all, but they’re minor. Mass Effect 3’s crimes are betraying its own themes for the sake of one more surprise; one more plot point.

And its punishment? To have that one plot point from the last five minutes of the game overshadow the twenty-plus hours that came before, not to mention leave the series’ most polarising question one of whether the Catalyst bit is merely stupid, or the dumbest thing to happen in science-fiction since Obi-Wan said “younglings”. Your mileage may vary.

But what of those other twenty-plus hours… not to mention everything else that happens on Earth and the Citadel before Casper shows up? There, I think Bioware is getting oddly short shrift. Let’s take the arguments from the fan campaign and see how they hold up.

In turn, those claims are that Mass Effect 3 (to be more exact, its endings)…

Does not provide the wide range of possible outcomes that we have come to expect from a Mass Effect game

For the actual endings, this is largely true. The endings consist of three different coloured explosions, with the main variance being a couple of seconds of extra animation.

However, it’s important to remember that while the Reapers are the focus of Mass Effect 3, and what drives the story, their main purpose in the narrative is to shake things up and enable smaller scale stories to be told. Each of Mass Effect 3’s Priority missions focuses intensely on a core part of the story, with at least two – the war between the Geth and the Quarians and dealing with the Genophage – being of critical importance to the galaxy going forwards.

It’s true that Mass Effect 3 makes a rod for its back by turning the results of these into mere numbers on the War Assets list, and ultimately, they don’t make much difference to how the game plays out. That’s unfortunate, and something that Bioware could have done a better job on. However, the decisions still carry weight, especially when they bring in characters we’re familiar with and want to do right by. Each individual section also offers a wide range of results, both from your direct choices, and how you approached the game up to that point. Miranda for instance doesn’t have to be shot by her father. Wrex and Wreav respond differently if you only pretend to cure the Genophage. The Rachni Queen is trustworthy, while her replacement if you killed her in the first game ultimately stabs you in the back. There are lots and lots of minor breakpoints to make it feel like the universe is reacting and moulding itself around you.

During the final push, it’s surprising that Bioware didn’t model things a little more closely on Mass Effect 2’s Suicide Mission to make it feel like you were using your War Assets instead of simply hitting the enemy with a number – calling in Krogan ground troops for instance. A few shots of fleets preparing to go into action wasn’t good enough. Ignoring that lapse though, Mass Effect 3 offers more than enough variation for any story-driven RPG to be proud of, and nothing has come close to making years old decisions still feel relevant in the finale.

Does not provide a sense of closure with regard to the universe and characters we have become attached to.

Again, I disagree. Almost all the characters we’ve become attached to reach the end of their stories by the finale of Mass Effect 3, from Tali finally bringing the Quarians home to Miranda settling things with her father. Even the characters from the novels show up.

There’s no epilogue that says exactly what happens to everyone after Shepard leaves them to their own devices, but nor are stories simply dropped. From the e-mails you receive to small details like Wreav’s speech to his men on Earth, you can get a good feel for what’s likely to happen once the Reaper threat is taken care of. The genophage. Any Geth/Quarian alliance. Whether anyone will ever give a shit about James Vega (his desolate Wikia page suggests no). These are all far more fun to ponder and discuss than simply be told outright.

As for all this being ruined by the destruction of the Mass Relay network… well, it’s science fiction. There’s always a new way to fly, up to and doing it the old fashioned way and simply having it take much, much longer. The universe is still out there, just less convenient.

Does not provide a sense of succeeding against impossible odds

Were we fighting the same Reapers? Building the same weapon designed over generation after generation of extinctions? The Crucible was always a bit of a get-out-of-jail-free card, but the descent from shiny, shiny Vancouver to the ruins of London, the collapse of entire empires and the fact that Shepard struggled to kill two Reapers made them a serious threat. They are admittedly dialled down from Sovereign in the first game, and lose a lot of their mad Lovecraft powers in favour of just shooting things with lasers, but the game does a splendid job of making it clear that the galaxy is not beating them without a Crucible shaped miracle.

Had Shepard pulled a trigger after the encounter with the Illusive Man, sacrificing the galaxy’s travel network and potentially Earth, I don’t think there’d have been much argument that the Reapers were a phenomenally awesome threat, on the level of Freespace 2’s Shivans (even if they did end up largely being Darkspawn of the Future). Having them humiliatingly demoted to some ghost kid’s lackeys though, and then destroyed or leashed via a magic glowing button… well, after that, it’s hard to think back to a time when they felt threatening.

(See also the Borg, post Star Trek: Voyager. No villain deserves that.)

Up to that point, the only reason to think of the Reapers as anything other than an unstoppable threat is that this is a game, and you’re Commander Shepard. And even Shepard spends much of the game on the point of cracking under the pressure. Their power is not a problem.

Does not provide an explanation of events up to the ending which maintains consistency with the overall story.

Yet again, this only really affects the Catalyst nonsense – which, yes, is foreshadowed earlier in the game, but not to the point that it matters – and to some extent why the Reapers are focusing on London. Remove that stupid plot point and everything else becomes much stronger.

Should the problems be fixed though? Honestly… no. Even if doing so would improve the game, this is the ending that Bioware chose, and storytellers should always have the right to choose how their stories end. Sometimes, bad things need to happen. Sometimes, the price for saving the world should be a hard one to swallow. No story is going to please everyone, and trying to do so is to create a world where surprises can’t happen and all drama is doomed.

Forcing Bioware into it would be a mistake. Given the choice, I’d love to go back and remove the whole Catalyst scene from Mass Effect 3 with an arc welder. That said, many people think that Romeo and Juliet should have had a happy ending, and I’m willing to sacrifice my creative veto over other peoples’ projects to keep sillyheads like that from having theirs.

Even if Bioware decided it wanted to change it though, I’d be reluctant to see it happen. That’s a tougher argument to justify, even to myself. Games are constantly rebalanced post-release. There’s nothing controversial about a new quest or area or feature being added to something like The Witcher 2 – it’s a good thing. Indeed, I felt that game needed an extra chapter to finish the story, and would happily see one patched in to cover a little bit more ground.

Rewriting a story is trickier though, not least because while Bioware can easily patch its ending, it can’t patch my memory. No matter how good it might be, the time to atone for a bad ending is when writing the next game, be it the next Mass Effect, Dragon Age 3, or something new.

The only time I can see a real exception to this rule is when an ending is fundamentally broken – Fallout 3 being the obvious example. In case you don’t know, this tried to end on a tragic note by having you sacrifice yourself in a radiation tank, despite a) you almost certainly having enough radiation meds by this point to take holidays in the damn thing, and b) potentially having a companions who actively thrives on lethal radiation suddenly refuse to press a button on your behalf. The subsequent Broken Steel DLC didn’t exactly flash up a “We’re Sorry, We’re Morons” letter from the designers, but it did quietly retcon that into something more sane.

Unfortunately… it did so at a price, and while the industry has been uncharacteristically restrained when it comes to paying to unlock games’ true endings, it’s not the only such example. The most recent reboot of Prince of Persia for instance ended with the Prince actively undoing all of the player’s hard work, and it was only if you shelled out for the Epilogue DLC that you got to find out what the hell he was thinking when doing so. It wasn’t particularly controversial, but only because nobody was that excited by the game in the first place.

Something as big as Mass Effect 3 doing it… that’d be a bad precedent. Day One DLC and potentially forced multiplayer be damned if big publishers realise they can charge us an extra £5 to not have our hard-fought victories magically turn to shit before our tired eyes.

For now, Bioware has no choice but to fly the flag for the ending. The game’s only just out, and they’re not about to admit that they screwed up in the first couple of weeks on sale. After a while though, I suspect we’ll see the kind of acknowledgement of problems that we eventually got after Dragon Age 2 fell flat and Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s bosses proved less than an acquired taste. Expect the words “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” And I’m sure it did.

As flawed as it is though, we shouldn’t let the ending… a tiny slice of the ending at that… become something more than it was. I clocked up well over 20 hours with Mass Effect 3, skipping meals and staying up late, and even replaying one whole mission because I was damned if I was going to let Tali down after all this time. It’s one of my favourite games for a very long time, and while I have complaints and I have quibbles, I have exactly no regrets about playing it.

And I absolutely can’t wait to see what Bioware does next.

[RPS note: this is specifically Richard’s take on the ending, the rest of the team have some different ideas which we’ll discuss later in the week.]

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BioWare, endings, feature, If you ignored the spoiler warning and read on it's your own damn fault, Mass Effect 3,

By now, you’ve likely heard that the endings to Mass Effect 3 have made people a little bit…upset. Fan backlashes to endings are hardly a new phenomenon in the geek community, but this goes beyond angry letters and wistful fanart. A significant chunk of the fanbase is petitioning BioWare to change the ending entirely via DLC.

If that sounds ridiculous to you, you’re not alone. Many gaming sites have scoffed at Mass Effect fans, throwing around words like “childish” or “entitled.” However, this fight is far more complicated than a few fans whining over the lack of a sunshine-and-rainbows ending. The way this thing plays out could have major ramifications not only for the gaming industry, but for how we define the concept of creative ownership. If you care about gaming, storytelling, or digital media, this is a story you should know about.

EDITOR UPDATE: Bioware has, uh, actually responded, sort of. Read Becky’s response here.

Before I begin, I have to admit a bias: I am an enormous Mass Effect fan, and I was very disappointed in the ending. I wrote my review of the game after I completed my playthrough, so everything I said there holds true: Mass Effect 3 is one of the most spectacular games I have ever played. I cannot praise the game highly enough…except for the last five minutes. The last five minutes broke me. While a new ending would do a lot to fill the N7-shaped hole in my heart, it is not something that I have been actively campaigning for, nor is it something that I entirely expect to see happen (though my opinion on that is shifting). Still, if such a thing did come to fruition, I would be in favor of it.

That said, I’m going to do my best to stay objective. There are already plenty of articles arguing for or against a new ending, so I’m not going to go there. I’m just here to explain what’s going on and why it’s rather important. As some of you haven’t finished the game yet (not least of which, the managing editor of this very site, who would have to read this post at some point), and as some of you have no background with this series at all, I’m going to attempt to lay this whole thing out as spoiler-free and easily-accessible as possible. While I will be outlining the narrative issues that some fans have, I will be doing so in the most general terms by leaving characters, events and locations out of the discussion entirely. However, if you don’t want your opinion of the ending influenced in the slightest, you may want to put this article aside until you finish the game.

The Context

To start, let’s review just how big a deal this series is. The Mass Effect trilogy is a sprawling, intense space opera, adored by fans, lauded by critics, and honored by more awards than I can count. Within the world of science fiction, Mass Effect’s contributions cannot be ignored. A recent essay at i09 called the series “the most important science fiction universe of our generation.” An article at Scientific American hailed the setting of Mass Effect as “one of the most carefully and completely imagined sci-fi universes out there.” It is considered by many to be an example of one of gaming’s first true epics.

While the series’ gameplay mechanics themselves are top-notch, what keeps fans coming back is the staggeringly customizable story. The protagonist, Commander Shepard, can be male or female, and any race of your choosing (for convenience’s sake, I’m going to refer to Shepard as “her” for the remainder of the article). The player’s decisions affect not just the plot of the story, but Shepard’s personality and social ties as well. The player decides who Shepard is friends with, who she falls in love with, if she is compassionate or pragmatic, who she lets live and who she leaves to die. It is rumored that there are well over a thousand storytelling variables that could be imported into ME3. The end result for the player is a level of emotional investment that I have yet to experience in any other story, be it game, book or movie. This is a sentiment shared by many long-time fans. BioWare, the developer behind the series, is keenly aware of this fact. It is perhaps the game’s biggest selling point.

ME3 sold nearly a million copies within twenty-four hours of being released. With its final installment in place, the series now takes roughly one hundred hours to play through (depending on the speed of the player). That’s one hundred hours, stretched over five years, interspersed with books, comics, and additional downloadable missions that play out like bridging miniseries.

The standard edition of ME3 costs sixty dollars. One can assume that most people who purchased the game have long since purchased the other two games at a similar price, as well as at least some of the aforementioned books, comics, and DLC. BioWare itself is one of the big moneymakers in the gaming industry, responsible for some of the best-selling and most critically acclaimed RPGs ever made.

The Fan Reaction

Endings are always difficult to pull off, especially for ongoing series. But within just days of ME3’s release on March 6, it was clear that something had gone very wrong. Before the weekend even hit, a fan movement called RetakeMassEffect popped up, complete with a Facebook group, a Twitter account, and forum signature banners designating “fleets” organized by geographic location. A simple user poll on the BioWare Social Network entitled “What would you like to do about the endings?” (spoilers) had over 100,000 views (by now, that number has nearly quadrupled). It wasn’t long before some major gaming sites began to take notice, and in general, their comments were none too kind. In an effort to shed a more positive light on the campaign, some fans organized a fundraiser for Child’s Play (a game industry affiliated charity which donates toys and games to hospitals). The fundraiser site states:

We would like to dispel the perception that we are angry or entitled. We simply wish to express our hope that there could be a different direction for a series we have all grown to love.

They have currently raised over $70,000.

Over at Metacritic, ME3’s average user rating score is currently 3.7 out of 10. On Amazon, the game has a damning two stars. Though it may seem paradoxical, many of these poorly scored reviews mention that the users loved the game. The ending, they claim, is just that hard to swallow. To paraphrase one comment I read, “If the game had been bad, we wouldn’t care this much.”

If there was any doubt that this sort of response is bad for business, some players are now reporting that Amazon has granted them a full refund for ME3 — even for opened copies of the game.

The Perceived Problems with the Ending

So just what are fans in such an uproar about? As you might expect from the ending of any popular series, there some who dislike the treatment of their favorite character, or disagree with how a pivotal moment played out. But that’s not what’s driving the call for a new ending. It’s fairly obvious to anyone who sticks her head into the BSN forums for a while that fans are rallying behind more nuanced problems with the narrative.

After reading through copious amounts of forum posts and discussing the matter with fellow fans ad infinitum, it’s pretty clear that all of the hullaballoo boils down to a few core grievances. Now, of course, the points I’m about to outline don’t cover every complaint, and these aren’t views that every Mass Effect fan shares. They aren’t views that every fan calling for a new ending shares. They’re not necessarily views that I share. But I do think these three things are the general foundation upon which the new ending movement has been built. If you want a spoiler-heavy look at specific story elements, I recommend Ross Lincoln’s analysis over at GameFront. For the rest of you, here’s the gist.

Lack of Choice

The hallmark of the Mass Effect series is its intricate web of ethically complex decisions, all of which impact how the story plays out. Take, for example, the much-loved ending to Mass Effect 2. Commander Shepard goes into her last mission with no fewer than ten squadmates, all of whom are fully developed characters. They can all die. Permanently. So can Commander Shepard. Their fates depend not only upon which quests you do with them throughout the game, but what tasks you assign them to in the final fight. And depending on your other choices, these people include countless combinations of potential friends, adversaries, and lovers.

This is the level of customization that players had come to expect from the series. In May of last year, Mass Effect executive producer Casey Hudson promised more of the same:

If you just rip straight down the critical path and try and finish the game as soon as you can, and do very little optional or side stuff, then you can finish the game. You can have some kind of ending and victory, but it’ll be a lot more brutal and minimal relative to if you do a lot of stuff. If you really build a lot of stuff and bring people to your side and rally the entire galaxy around you, and you come into the end game with that, then you’ll get an amazing, very definitive ending.

In the climactic moments of ME3, the player is handed a crucial decision, as expected. The number of choices available is ultimately decided by the player’s Effective Military Readiness score — basically a measure of quest results and time spent playing multiplayer matches. However, regardless of how high your score is, every choice results in a virtually indistinguishable ending (I can attest to this, as I had every race in the galaxy at my back and left no side quest undone). None of the choices that a player makes in any of the games truly affects the outcome. Though one could argue that the writers were making a point about fatalism, it seems like a strange way to end a series that has always placed high value on player choice, and it certainly runs counter to what Hudson and other developers had talked up. Many fans were upset by what they saw as a jarring change to the series’ established structure — a change that only took place in the last moments of the final game.

Lack of Closure

The supporting cast of the Mass Effect series is an example of some truly outstanding character development (and voice acting as well). Your squadmates add their own insights and comments as you travel around the galaxy, and the personal details revealed within private conversations make these characters instantly memorable (in ME3, you can even discover them having conversations with each other aboard your ship). In the ME2 DLC Lair of the Shadow Broker, you can read through your squadmates’ computer usage history, which ranges from pithy (Grunt doing web searches on dinosaurs) to poignant (Tali struggling to write a letter to the family of someone who died under her command). These are characters that have been expertly designed to make you grow attached to them.

On top of all this, the worlds and cultures of the Mass Effect universe are richly defined. When you pause the game, you can access the Codex, which gives you encyclopedia-style entries on the species, planets and technologies you share the galaxy with. It is a canonical level of detail that Tolkien would approve of.

Since I promised no spoilers, let’s stick with the example of Tolkien and use the film adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a passable analogy. Everybody jokes about how long it takes The Return of the King to end, but be honest: after twelve hours of movie spread out over three years, wasn’t that twenty minutes of catharsis exactly what you needed? Okay, now imagine that The Lord of the Rings takes a hundred hours to watch, and that The Return of the King ended with that shot of Frodo and Sam lying on the side of Mount Doom after the ring had been destroyed.

That’s how a lot of Mass Effect fans are feeling right now.

After spending years with a series that has gone out of its way to give you details about characters and events, many players feel that the lack of closure at the end of ME3 is not only akin to a broken promise, but does not reflect the level of detail presented throughout the entire series (including the majority of ME3 itself). Moreover, as BioWare had previously made it clear that ME3 was the final chapter of Commander Shepard’s odyssey, some feel that ending the stories of so many complex characters in such an abrupt manner marked yet another break in narrative.


Bound as I am to avoiding spoilers, I can’t say much on this point. Suffice it to say, the final moments of the game left players with some very big questions, and not just those related to a lack of closure. We’re talking basic questions of how characters got from one place to another within a very short amount of time, as well as either a total reversal or a complete oversight of the rules concerning some all-important technology (while this may sound like a nitpicky detail, it’s something that was used as a significant plot point in Arrival, the final DLC for ME2 — a plot point that is mentioned early on in ME3 as well). For some, the end choices themselves pose an additional problem, as they see Shepard’s acceptance of any of the options to be wildly out of character. This is of course a matter of personal opinion, but in general, the lack of logic in an otherwise straight-forward and reasonably plausible story is a major point of contention.

The fanbase is currently locked in debate over “the Indoctrination Theory,” an interpretation of the ending that neatly explains these issues. To put it simply, the Indoctrination Theory suggests that the ending cannot be taken at face value, and that in order to understand the real ending, the player has to read between the lines. Though my evidence is somewhat anecdotal, I would say that even though fans are split on this issue, most players on both sides still want the ending changed, regardless of whether the Theory is what the writers intended. The argument goes like this:

If the Indoctrination Theory is canon, this explains the plotholes, but makes little sense when compared to the storytelling style of the rest of the series. The player has never before had to do any guesswork when it comes to major plot points, which suggests that DLC revealing the real ending was planned from the get-go. If this is the case, fans feel that BioWare should be upfront about it, or at the very least, confirm that the Theory is correct.

If the Indoctrination Theory is baseless, then the plotholes remain. If this is the case, fans expect BioWare to fix it.

And therein lies the crux of the matter: Do any of these complaints justify altering the ending? Are fans out of line for petitioning BioWare to change the story? As a creative entity, what is BioWare obligated to do, if anything?

>>>Next Page: The role of the fan in popular culture, why this matters, and how BioWare might respond.