March 18, 2012
This post contains spoilers for the Mass Effect series, especially Mass Effect 3.
If you follow gaming news, perhaps you’ve heard by now that a controversy is brewing over the ending to Mass Effect 3.
Because I’m a fan of the series and have no regard for my own sanity, I’ve been keeping abreast of the official forums since finishing the game a week ago. By my estimates there has been a post about the ending every five to ten seconds for that entire period, with the vast majority of them being negative. They range from pleas for epilogue DLC to demands that BioWare retcon the ending to conspiracy theories about an elaborate PR stunt. Meanwhile, a Child’s Play charity drive has amassed over $60,000 in donations, and dozens of stories have appeared from both the usual suspects (Kotaku, Destructoid, Penny Arcade) and a few unusual ones (Fox News, CNN, Forbes.com).
Some fans are saying that the ending to Mass Effect 3 was so bad that it ruined the rest of the game; some say that it ruined the entire series; one poor betrayed soul said that it’s actually ruined all video games. But even ignoring the hyperbole, I think it’s fair to say that this runs a little deeper than the usual whinging that accompanies popular video games.
What the official Mass Effect Twitter account has looked like for much of the past week.
Though often exaggerated, the complaints about the ending are not without merit: the last fifteen minutes or so of Mass Effect 3 really do seem uncharacteristically poor, given the pedigree of the series. Many of the decisions are completely mystifying to me: the thematic non sequitur that suddenly propels the organics/synthetics subplot to the forefront of the story, the disconnect between the final choice and virtually all other choices in the series, the three nearly identical cutscenes that follow that choice, and the inexplicable crash landing of the Normandy on some untouched habitable planet. I recommend reading Michael Clarkson at Ludonarratology and Richard Cobbett at Rock, Paper, Shotgun for more elaboration on the details, but suffice it to say that while the ending did not ruin the game for me (let alone the series or the medium), it didn’t exactly satisfy, either.
So why did things misfire so badly?
Here’s what I think BioWare was hoping we would experience. The choice Shepard makes atop the Citadel is not meant to be the end of the Mass Effect trilogy; Mass Effect 3 as a whole is meant to be the end. The major plot threads from the series — the geth/quarian conflict, the genophage, Cerberus, the fates of myriad secondary characters — may be wrapped up throughout the game instead of in its final moments, but a majority of them are still addressed. Everything from the Reaper invasion onwards is intended as denouement.
By the time Shepard is gearing up for the final battle on Earth, it should be abundantly clear that no one expects to survive. The series of pep talks from the squad in London is where the player is supposed to find closure with the main characters. Think of it as a bleaker version of the Dragon Age: Origins post-Archdemon scene, where the Warden shares a final goodbye with his companions before everyone parts ways. Here, though, they head to their deaths instead of to new adventures.
All this is to say that when Shepard makes her choice after speaking with the Catalyst, her (probable) ensuing death is not meant to come as a surprise but as the inevitable culmination of her efforts. Rather than mourning the lost, though, the player is meant to reflect on how the victory was worth the sacrifices. This, effectively, is where the story ends; the final scene with the Normandy is meant to reinforce a feeling of blossoming hope for the future, not to suggest some further escapades. (The post-credits stargazing scene is largely an Easter egg to showcase Buzz Aldrin’s cameo.)
The critical mistake BioWare made was to confuse their fans’ investment in the characters with interest in the fate of the universe as a whole. The ending is supposed to be hopeful — the Reapers are no longer a threat, and organic life can flourish. But by attempting to wrap up the story arcs before the final battle, and then sketching out the conclusion with broad strokes in which everyone’s fate is left unresolved, they’ve betrayed a colossal misunderstanding of how the audience was engaged with the story.
One of the most common complaints about the ending is that it makes the rest of the game feel “pointless.” With the Citadel and the mass relays destroyed, what difference does it make if the genophage is cured or if Rannoch is recovered? It feels pointless because, in the end, no one was really trying to save the galaxy; they were trying to save the people. Pulling the camera so far back that we can’t see anyone severs the emotional connection that the rest of the series built up. The implications of the three endings can make for interesting thought experiments — what does it mean to combine organic and synthetic life? — but they are just that: thought experiments. Abstract speculation about transhumanism is the ending to a story that was not being told.
Then there is the more mechanical way in which the ending undermines the series. If the Mass Effect games have been known for anything, it’s the complex ways in which they react to player choices. As is now catalogued on the BioWare forums, the developers had pledged to uphold that legacy in their prerelease talk about Mass Effect 3’s ending; executive producer Casey Hudson even specifically stated that it’s “not like a classic game ending where everything is linear and you make a choice between a few things.”
The ending they created — which, as many have noted, fits Hudson’s description almost exactly — fails on two counts: the choices leading up to it have little effect on how it plays out, and the choice made during it has a presumably profound effect whose consequences we don’t get to see. Such a decision is not in the spirit of the series, and it too helped contribute to the widespread sense that the player’s choices in the rest of the game don’t “matter.”
Speaking of player expectation, it’s worth noting that for some fans nothing short of a happy ending would have been acceptable. The earlier Mass Effect games, and even much of Mass Effect 3, established the precedent that if a player makes all the right choices, does all the right sidequests, and says all the right things, there is a “best” solution to the most difficult problems. Wrex can be saved on Virmire. The “suicide mission” at the Collector base can be survived without casualties. The geth/quarian conflict can be resolved peacefully.
There is no such solution available at the end of Mass Effect 3. Regardless of how many war assets you gather or multiplayer matches you win, the happiest ending you will see is a brief glance at a heavily wounded Shepard, weakly stirring from beneath a pile of rubble while abandoned by her allies and surrounded by corpses. If it were possible to end the game with a raucous celebration on the Normandy, a parade in Shepard’s honor, and a bunch of little asari children, I suspect that some fans would have been far more forgiving of the Catalyst. That said, I’m not sure I’d like to see BioWare alter the ending with the specific goal of making it cheerful, as that seems like a surefire way to make things worse.
Ironically, based on all the evidence I’ve seen Mass Effect 3 is significantly less bleak than originally planned. In the script that leaked last year, Cerberus assassin Kai Leng offs one of your squad members; in the game, he does not. During the final battle, Harbinger was going to kill two more squad members in a cutscene; in the game, it does not (though they can still die under certain circumstances). Moreover, Shepard’s sacrifice was originally unavoidable instead of merely likely: Geoff Keighley’s new feature “The Final Hours of Mass Effect 3” shows “Shepard’s death” written prominently on a page of Casey Hudson’s notes, followed by “But why did he have to die?” and, at the very bottom, “LOTS OF SPECULATION FROM EVERYONE.”
That last line certainly proved to be prescient, although much of the speculation they’ve engendered seems to be born of frustration and confusion rather than genuine engagement with the story. (One popular fan theory is that Shepard was indoctrinated by the Reapers in her last moments, making the entire end sequence a figment of her imagination.) But perhaps BioWare is starting to come around to the idea that inciting speculation was the wrong approach: in an official statement released Friday, Casey Hudson acknowledges the criticism of the ending and reaffirms his wish to maintain a dialogue with the fans about it — though he noticeably avoids making any concrete statements.
In “The Final Hours,” Keighley quotes Hudson as saying that “Whatever we do will likely happen before or during the events of Mass Effect 3, not after.” Given the current level of discontent, might he renege on that? What are the chances that BioWare would give in and say, in so many words, “Sorry about that ending — here’s a new one”?
I’d put those odds on par with Shepard’s: low but measurable. If I had to guess, I’d say that BioWare takes this one on the chin and tries to manage expectations better in the future. They are leaving the door open for something bigger, though, and if no more news is forthcoming between now and the Mass Effect panel at PAX East in three weeks, things could get interesting.