Why Mass Effect 3′s Fans Are Wrong About The Ending – But So Is BioWare (Part 4)

So after looking at how the problem with Mass Effect 3’s ending is a reliance on a major plot point that BioWare didn’t allow players to influence while letting them sway the path of several other significant plotlines,  the question I’ve been posing since the start remains:

Just why are both the fans and BioWare wrong about the ending of Mass Effect 3?

Why The Fans Are Wrong: The Theme of Sacrifice

Since Mass Effect 3’s release, the game has gained a significant amount of infamy over its ending. Fans have not only discussed its shortcomings; they’ve bombarded BioWare with digital protests, even set up an effort dedicated to raising money for the Child’s Play charity in the hope that the sheer volume of money raised would convince BioWare that its audience was serious in their desire to make the ending make sense.

Now, in some respects, the fans are right, especially in regard to some of the ending’s finer details. How do team members last seen on Earth, some of whom engaged in the last desperate push toward the portal to the Citadel, wind up on the Normandy in time for Joker to flee the energy wave from the Crucible’s activation?

A fan’s rendering of the happy ending he/she wanted, including what Tali might look like without her environment suit.

They are even right to argue that Commander Shepard deserves a happy ending, especially after everything the Commander has done for the galaxy.

But they are wrong to demand that BioWare grant Commander Shepard his or her happy ending.

Why? As much as the Mass Effect games have been about the triumph of diversity and the overcoming of old prejudice, they’ve also been about sacrifice.

One close squadmate died at the end of the Virmire mission in Mass Effect. More may have died at the end of Mass Effect 2. And in my play-through of Mass Effect 3, I had to watch as Mordin Solus, the salarian who loved Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs, and Legion, the geth who made me think about the nature of consciousness and synthetic life, gave up not just their lives to effect change but also their chance to see how their actions affected the galaxy.

I also watched as a fighter pilot sent his craft at the wall of Reapers around Earth, knowing he and many more would give up their lives in the fight. If he had any comfort, it was the hope that his and his comrades’ lives were being spent to stop the Reapers wiping out the rest of humanity and our race’s friends throughout the galaxy.

Asking that Shepard be spared a similar fate simply because he or she is our avatar is almost cheating.

Yet we have to believe that that happy ending for Shepard is possible, have to want to see Shepard settle down with Tali on Rannoch, with Liara on Thessia, with Kaidan or Ashley or Garrus or James or Miranda or Jack.

If we don’t, then we’re not giving anything up by sending Shepard into the Crucible. It’s the writers’ job to ensure that our virtual friends mean something to us, that we love them a little, so that we too can hope that by giving Commander Shepard up, we’re making a better galaxy for them, even if we’re not around to see it.

That’s why we don’t get more closure than what the game has already given us (which, quite frankly, is a ton – if you take up the option, you can say goodbye to each and every one of your surviving squadmates, past and present, before the final push). That’s why we don’t get the demanded funeral scene, the cliched movie epilogue where lines of text tell us what happened to everyone after the technical end of the film.

Because to tell a tale about hope, Mass Effect 3 has to show us what it’s like to give everything up without knowing whether things are going to work out for our friends and family. It has to show us what it was like to be Mordin, to be Legion, to be each and every ground-pounder, fighter jock and spacehand who went in to take Earth back and died before they got to find out if their sacrifice was worthwhile.

That, after all, is the very nature of hope. It only really means something when it’s blind.

Why BioWare Is Wrong: The Expanded Ending Isn’t Enough

After listening to and reading fan complaints about Mass Effect 3’s ending, BioWare has announced that they will create a package of downloadable content that they call “Extended Cut.” This package will flesh out the ending further, in the hopes of addressing the concerns of those fans who offered constructive creative criticism of the troublesome ending, and will not cost anything (for those who download it within two years of its release, at least).

They have, however, also announced that they are standing by the creative decisions of their writing team, and while the Extended Cut will attempt to clarify the ending, it will not change it or offer further alternatives.

Yet this won’t address the fan frustration that the current ending treats the time they spent on doing good in the galaxy, of showing that you don’t need to make fundamental changes to the nature of life itself to achieve lasting peace between to different forms of life, as worthless.

The volume of emotional response to Mass Effect 3’s ending is a testament to the depth that the Mass Effect trilogy has allowed players to immerse themselves in its narrative. Yet for all the choice that each game gave players in approaching each of its high concept situations, for all the emotional depth it gave the characters who represented the possibilities and consequences of those situations, it managed to leave its biggest, most high concept idea inviolate, unexamined, unquestioned for three whole games.

That virtually all of the complainants I’ve read don’t even realise this is again a testament to the storytelling skill of BioWare’s writers, character and world designers, animators, voice artists and every other member of the crew that brought the Mass Effect galaxy to such vivid, enthralling life. Gamers were simply so engaged with, so busy with all the big and little decisions relating to ideas like the genophage and the rights of synthetic life to notice that the biggest issue was slipping past them until it suddenly took centre stage right at the end.

Was this an oversight by BioWare?

Possibly. I dread to think how many man-hours went into making each and every Mass Effect game a working product. Any creative effort involves triage, deciding which ideas to develop and which you don’t have the time or resources for.

I certainly believe that without any malice aforethought, BioWare’s creative team focused on those issues that engaged we players so much because they engaged BioWare at least as much. The team either couldn’t figure out how to make the issue of the reliance on the mass relays narratively interesting or they just got too busy with everything else that they ran out of time and resources.

To correct that situation now, BioWare would have to make fundamental changes to the plotting of the whole of Mass Effect 3, perhaps extending the revisions as far back as Mass Effect 2 or even the first game. If ideas that directly affect a few races in the galaxy, like the genophage or the geth rebellion, took three games to introduce, establish and resolve, ideas as big as the whole galaxy will need at least as much time.

As that effort could well involve recalling every copy of Mass Effect 3 or creating huge, multi-gigabyte patches at expense comparable to designing at least one whole new game, I can’t see that ever happening.

Also, before Mass Effect 3 launched, BioWare staff announced in gaming press that they were keen to explore the universe they’d created further, even if Shepard’s story was to end with this game.

Given the way that Mass Effect 3 ends by turning the galaxy on its head, I think that BioWare are keen to start telling stories of a galaxy that is pulling itself out of a disaster and truly building something new once freed of the patterns of the old.

This may well be why they’ve not let players address the question of alternatives to the Reapers’ model of order for three games. They’ve been saving them up for a new cycle of their own, a galaxy rebuilding itself from the ashes of the Reaper invasion, a sort of interstellar post-apoclaypse.

Regardless, BioWare are correct to stick by their writers and the ending they created for Mass Effect 3. Giving those players who believe that Shepard and the beings who accompanied the Commander aboard the Normandy deserve a happier ending than the one they got would violate the narrative of Mass Effect as presented in their games. It would need a turn-around that runs contrary to the very nature of the enemy that BioWare created.

So What Could Happen Next?

That’s definitely a question being debated a lot right now, especially in the arena of authorial integrity and who gets to define and hold authority over “good” and “bad.”

Whether I’ll take a look at the Extended Cut DLC depends on how much re-playing I have to do to access the revised content. I’m curious, but not sure whether I’m curious enough to play through the game’s final act from the assault on Cerberus’ headquarters onward. Both the combat missions and the emotional impact of the scenes on Earth are pretty tough.

But I don’t feel like I need to. As I wrote in the first post in this series, I was happy with the ending I got when I played Mass Effect 3, and though the fan outrage has pointed out some of its shortcomings and made me think hard about the particulars of the trilogy’s narrative, I’m still happy to let it stand as is.

And in some ways, it ought to. Debates over authorial and artistic integrity aside, watching others make mistakes is a good way to learn how to not make them yourself.

Although most of us may never create a game, a movie, a TV series or a novel, it’s still worthwhile to know that despite our best efforts, even those of us at the top of their game can make mistakes – and survive them.

What would do, if I had the chance?

I would ask BioWare, a company that prides itself on giving players choice, that markets its products around giving players the ability to make the game their own, be much more careful when making authorial judgments on the ideas that form the very bedrock of the universes of their next games, particularly any new adventures in the new Mass Effect galaxy.

BioWare, the players will want to question those bedrock ideas just as much as they want to question the slightly smaller stuff. I know that whenever I saw the mass relay jump animation play in Mass Effect 2 and 3, I’d remember that the relay was Reaper technology that the galactic civilisation you created and let me explore w0uld sooner or later have to pay a price for relying on, and hoped to get the chance to do something about it.

When you don’t let your players tackle those issues and then base the end phase of your game, your series, around them, the players will cry foul, even if they can’t pin the precise reason for their disappointment down.

Just like they did with Mass Effect 3.

8 thoughts on “Why Mass Effect 3′s Fans Are Wrong About The Ending – But So Is BioWare (Part 4)

  1. Stoicus

    Thanks you for writing such an interesting article. I agree with your points about the happy ending. I never expected Shepard to have a happy ending, such is the nature of sacrifice. Perhaps a compromise could have had Shepard having a happy ending, but at the cost of something not being resolved/achieved within the galaxy. I personally would have disliked to see Shepard skipping off into the sunset. The first play through of ME3 was emotional and I loved it. I didn’t dislike the ending on the first play through, but when I realised the endings were uniform, I did feel a little bit cheated.

    • Rob F. Post author

      You’re welcome, Stoicus! I just started thinking and couldn’t stop until I’d written it out.

      How do you feel about playing ME3 through again for its own sake? I’ve played the first two games through twice each, but #3… I dunno. It was pretty rough going from Thessia onward; on one hand, I don’t want that kind of emotional battering again, and on the other… I don’t want to play through it because it’s going to have less of an emotional impact.

      Odd, huh?

  2. nuc3larsnke

    And then, after thinking the part 3 was not so good, this part 4 seems right on, again. Well, good on you, I guess. I mean, I’m just an anonymous person on the Internet, but for what it’s worth, this is still probably the most thoughtful set of writing on the ending controversy I’ve read.

    • Rob F. Post author

      I’m glad you thought so. Again, thank you for the time you put into reading it.

  3. BeeJay

    Fantastic article Rob! Really well thought out and not an immediate knee jerk reaction to the expected Hollywood drivel ending most people seem to want. Whilst the cut scene at the end with my team that was just with me was a little jarring, the whole sacrifice ending was totally within character for Sheppard. Here was a person who was willing to do whatever it took to serve their country, planet, universe. Sheppard is a Soldier who by definition is someone willing to take up arms in the defence of their “cause” and lay down their life for same if required.

    Like you I’ve played through ME 1 & 2 a couple of times with different characters but I’m waiting a little bit before I play through 3 again, I hated saying goodbye to my little band of merry men but want to see what the bad ass side of reactions is going to be like. (First play through was with first toon from ME1 and pure Paragon, other toon is pure Renegade).

    • Rob F. Post author

      Thank you, BeeJay, and glad you liked what you read!

      Me, I can’t stand to play Renegade – Shepard is just too much a jerk for my tastes. I’m interested, though, in playing without choosing the dialogue reward unlocks; every now and again I get the feeling that they hand you a win on a plate and actually shortcut some very interesting drama.

  4. yo

    Your article is stupid and you should feel bad for writing it.

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