In my last post, I gave what I referred to as a ‘technical overview’ sort of review of BioWare and EA’s latest epic: Mass Effect 3. However, as most anyone familiar with the game is well aware, there has been much controversy over the game’s ending. Therefore I found it necessary not merely to review the game as a whole, but to specifically spend some time talking about the game’s ending in particular. Unlike so many others out there, I don’t intend to rant about BioWare’s alleged laziness and ignorance or how EA is the worst company in America (no joke!) but rather to give ME3’s conclusion a fair evaluation and present both arguments for it, and yes, against it.
To start things off, I will warn you that this post most definitely contains spoilers, and rather major ones at that. If you haven’t completed the game yet, I would recommend you do so prior to reading this post. However, if reading of the controversy and seeing that it’s not as bad as all that may help convince you to buy the game, then read on. You have been warned.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly…
I don’t want to spend a lot of time here, since the complaints against ME3’s ending have already been presented quite well in a GameFront article which I would highly recommend you read before continuing on. I feel it is the best presentation of the problems I’ve read thus far, and as such I will be writing (mostly) in response to it rather than in tandem with it. To summarize, GameFront lists 5 complaints against Mass Effect 3: the ending’s brevity, that it was confusing and underdeveloped, had lore errors/plot holes, that key philosophical themes are discarded, and worst of all, the article complains of how player choice is completely discarded. As of yet I have not heard a better summary of the reasons behind the gamer backlash taking place against BioWare/EA; everyone may list one reason or another as bothering them most, but ultimately they all boil down to one of these 5 issues. And let me get this straight right here and now: in principle, I agree with them.
The basic version is: if you were expecting things to pan out similarly to the endings of ME1 and ME2, you will be disappointed.
Although things seem to be building up for a boss battle (which would make sense considering there was such a fight in the other two games), ultimately you find yourself literally stumbling into the game’s end, the last enemy to kill being another of the same Marauders you’ve been fighting since day 1–not the biggest, baddest creature you’ve seen yet. Oh, and your only available weapon is an unreasonably powerful pistol that can take the digitally zombified Turian out in a couple of shots when previously you had to expend entire clips of ammo to put such a creature down. In many more ways than this it is a shocking change of circumstances that happens suddenly and unexpectedly, and takes the remainder of the game in a highly different direction from what you probably anticipated.
And somehow, despite how easy it is to complain, I can’t bring myself to dislike what happens thereafter.
Unlike some video game heroes, Commander Shepherd has always felt very human. Why? Because for all practical purposes, he/she is you, and (correct me if I’m wrong) you’re human. Yet it was easy at times to feel somewhat like an invincible human, especially after dying and being resurrected by means of cutting edge technology in Mass Effect 2. Therefore, in a gut-wrenching way it just felt right for Shepherd to finally be brought to the brink of death and still have to push on to the end even once it becomes apparent that this will be a one way trip. And although the lack of a final boss fight felt slightly odd, it also seemed fitting that the series would be drawn to a conclusion by conversation and story sequences rather than raw gunfire. The final minutes with Shepherd and Admiral Anderson are some of the most touching BioWare has yet created, and the final appearance of the Illusive Man, though mildly puzzling, functions fantastically as a way to cause players to decide once and for all how they will tackle the goals they’ve been pursuing for the past 5 years…plus I can think of no better end for the Illusive Man than for Shepherd to put a bullet in him personally, or for the Illusive Man to put one in his own head, depending on how the talk is handled.
But the game doesn’t end there, as fantastic an end as it would be, looking out over earth, all known objectives completed. As it turns out, Shepherd is called upon to do one last thing before bleeding out, which leads directly into a somewhat confusing sequence explaining who made the Reapers, why, and what can be done to stop them. As if certain death wasn’t bad enough, now Shepherd must accept the fact that there is no happy ending–only three undesirable endings that will solve the Reaper problem in one way or another while killing thousands, if not millions, in the process…not to mention that Shepherd will have to sacrifice him/herself in the process. This too I found to be fitting in a gut-wrenching sort of way. It’s the ultimate choice in a game of choices, yet it is overshadowed by the grim responsibility of being the one to carry out the fate of the galaxy in the way that is right, not the way that is best, as no best option exists. Life can be like that sometimes, and I liked in a pained sort of way that even the great Commander Shepherd got thrust into such a human position. Regardless of your final decision, millions do die, the Reapers and Mass Effect Relays which they used to move about are all destroyed, and the Normandy is stranded on an earth-like planet in the resulting destruction, leaving Shepherd’s crew to start the universe anew. Depending on your performance elsewhere in the last three games, you may also discover that Shepherd miraculously survives all this and ends up being the stuff of legend for grandparents to tell of to their grandchildren in a world that exists without the Reaper threat.
Just in case that speedy retelling doesn’t convey the positivity that I intended it to, let me recap with some direct responses to the arguments placed in articles like the one by GameFront linked to above.
1. It’s not that confusing.
I won’t lie, it took me a little while to figure out just what the ending was supposed to mean. But once it did all come clear, I realized that it actually fit perfectly well with what the rest of the games had built up to. The Reapers were designed not merely to kill organics, but to harvest them so that their life essence could be preserved before the synthetics of the organics’ own creation could wipe them out completely. Of course not all civilizations had developed synthetic life yet, and so any that had not were left behind to become the advanced civilizations of the next 50,000 year cycle. Once the Reapers had done their job to reformat the galaxy, they’d start putting this life essence back into the world, and the next cycle of entirely new species would be born. Far fetched, and a bit too much like other movies and games we’ve already seen? Absolutely. But it’s not impossible to conceptually understand. The Reapers did warn you that their purpose was beyond your comprehension anyway, right? Technically it fits within the story for certain parts of the story to be incomprehensible. But really, it isn’t that hard.
2. It’s not about tolerance.
Contrary to GameFront’s assertions, the theme of the Mass Effect series has not ever been one of tolerance. Perhaps that’s how an individual player interpreted the universe and made choices to that end, but this is one game that cannot be reviewed on one person’s experience alone. At its base level, Mass Effect is simply about how far you will go to survive.
“This isn’t about strategy or tactics, this is about survival.” ~Commander Shepherd, Mass Effect 3 opening sequence
Aside from that, I’d only go so far to say the game is about unity in diversity, but that is even fueled purely by the fact that the Reapers are a common enemy to every organic being, and they must join together to defeat them. …or in other words, survive.
3. The entire game is the ending!
It’s easy to look at the last 5 minutes of Mass Effect 3 and consider that the ending, but let’s not forget that the entire game is a conclusion, and all along the way the stories of many characters are drawn to a close. Some die, some survive, some achieve what they’ve always wanted, and some have their dreams crushed beyond repair, so it’s unfair to say that ME3 has one ending with three different colors. While some might argue that these subplots coming to wildly different endings don’t matter in light of the final ending, I’m inclined to disagree. What happened to people in my ME game is a little different than what happened to people in everyone else’s ME games, even if the ultimate result of it all is the same. That’s not really a new concept, by the way. Mass Effect 1 was the same way, and if you survived at all, so was Mass Effect 2. There were little variations in the subplots, but the larger narrative was on a set of rails all along…it just felt more favorable because it ended happily.
I’m not saying it’s a perfect conclusion, or that there is no need for DLC to expand upon what the ending means. If I had been told from the beginning that I would be putting 5 years of gaming towards getting this result, I know I would have been disappointed. It doesn’t treat gamers as nicely as it should or provide a great enough solution to live up to all the hype. Developer promises were broken, despite a three month delay to supposedly give them time to make good on those promises.
However, you have to realize that with a series like Mass Effect, no ending could be truly satisfying. Too much player effort has been invested at this point for it to all just…end. I can think of no better way to close the book on ME than by knowing that I did my best against truly impossible odds. Not that that is what BioWare intended…but it works. Admittedly, the controversy over the last few minutes has left a scar on every previous moment, making it harder for me to imagine revisiting ME, but I’m not sure that’s entirely a bad thing. Shepherd was Shepherd, and no other Shepherd could ever be quite like the first. That’s a painful way to put down three of the best games I’ve ever played, but as I’ve said several times already, best or not, it’s what is fitting. It feels right.