The game’s final scenes are certainly problematic. There are some things that don’t make a ton of sense—can someone explain the actions of the Normandy in those final moments?—but many of the complaints about the game’s ending ring false, and show more about video game fans than they do Bioware.
Let’s look at a few of the common complaints. The first thing that some people have said is that the ending is a giant deus ex machina, and that’s certainly a valid criticism. The final scenes progress a certain way no matter what you’ve done or what you’ve chosen in the final moments. The game becomes a Choose Your Own Adventure book at that point, or at least it does a poorer job of hiding the linear nature of your choices.
My counter-argument is that the deus ex machina was dropped into the story at the beginning of the game. Earth is attacked by Reapers, Shepard is forced to accept a strategic retreat, and just like that there is news of a super-weapon that may hold hope for the entire galaxy? The writers’ hands are obviously at work early in the game, and the setup is monstrously obvious: We must race against time to create this amazing piece of alien technology that can save us all! It’s like a higher stakes version of the novel Contact. There was certainly a large and obvious plot point dropped into the game, but it happened right off the bat.
Also, who was that kid that Shepard spoke to at the end of the game? We saw him die in the early section of the game, and the dream sequences let us know that he has been haunting Shepard for some time. The ghostly manifestation of the child at the end of the game is the Reaper technology finding a form that’s important to Shepard, and it’s also oddly subversive. How do you expect someone to make a decision that impacts the galaxy when you are speaking through the mouth of a child who reminds that person of their own failings in dealing with the crisis at hand? In some ways the child represents Shepard’s worst fears, and all the people he couldn’t save. It makes sense.
Lastly, the choices presented to Shepard at the story’s end have been criticized as being magical, but the game has had no problem presenting Prothean technology as being so advanced that it might as well be supernatural. The Citadel and the Relays are both Reaper technology that was constructed before the Protheans, and are both examples of powerful technology that is barely understood in the game’s universe. The abilities of the super-weapon at the end of the game continue the internal logic of Prothean and Reaper supremacy.
Hell, even Arthur C. Clarke noted that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The Protheans are clearly sufficiently advanced. Even if they weren’t, it’s not like Biotics are ever covered with anything except a hand wave. You have to get those casters in the game somehow, right?
But my choices meant nothing!
My choices were meant to mean something in the game, but they don’t! It’s all arbitrary! This is the argument that makes the least amount of sense; the forty or so hours before the ending scenes are filled with meaningful moments that deal with your choices. Characters live, or they die. You have to make tricky decisions when dealing with the many races and characters in the game, and past choices will either look wise in retrospect or come back to haunt you. Mass Effect 3 often left me stumped, sitting in front of the television with the controller in my hand, weighing my options.
These choices aren’t arbitrary. I’ve spoken with many people who have played Mass Effect 3, and their experiences have but the slightest resemblance to my own. The difference is the choices we made, and how the game treats those choices. The fact that players ignore an entire game that’s all but made up of consequences only to complain that a five minute movie didn’t pat them on the back for what they’d done is insane. The meaningful nature of your personal game is thrown out because you didn’t get the ending you wanted? Or because the game doesn’t give you a rehash of everything you’ve done in the final cut scenes?
Also, the final decisions you make in the game determine the fate of damn near every living thing in the galaxy. Of course your decisions matter, the result of those decision is simply not made explicit. What the game doesn’t do is rub your face in your choices. There is much left to the imagination, and in my opinion the player is given more than enough closure for a satisfying conclusion.
Why is everything so sad?
This is the last complaint, and it’s the one that seems to make players the most defensive. No matter what you do, no matter what you choose, no matter what happens in the game, the ending has a certain amount of pathos and despair. There is no “happy ending.”
Different players deal with this in different ways. Some are begging Bioware for DLC to offer new endings, “better” endings. They want a happy Shepard on the bridge of the Normandy, drinking a beer with Joker and talking about the good ol’ days. That’s an ending you can’t get at the moment, or at least we don’t believe so. Some people are asking Bioware to “fix” the ending so that it’s better, as if they’ve been cheated by a game that doesn’t offer the pay off they had hoped for since the series began. They put in the time and effort to “win” the game, and they want some happiness, dammit.
“Mass Effect 3 emotionally wrecked me. It’s Bioware’s game so it’s their choice. And obviously the game was effective to get that response, but I still feel like shit,” one fan told me. “I don’t play games to feel like this after [they’re over]. How do I trust Bioware to not wreck me again if I decide to join them on their next epic?”
Here’s the rub: You don’t know that they won’t wreck you again. This is one of the amazing things about dramatic works. You begin to like your characters, and maybe even love them, and there is nothing keeping the people who have control of those characters from killing them off or making you feel complex emotions. Good drama is much like life; you don’t have much control over the fate of people you care about. They come and go. Gamers are used to the idea that if they do everything right, they are owed a happy ending and they get to keep the image of their happy avatar forever and ever. Bioware was going for something a little braver, and much heavier. This move was telegraphed multiple times throughout the game, and it wasn’t hard to catch. There was never a guarantee that Shepard would survive, and it was all but promised the journey would come at a massive mental and physical cost. The ending kept the tone and thematic arc of the series.
Mass Effect was always built around the idea of choice, but that choice was only given around certain events that will always happen. No matter how you play the first game, the antagonist will always be the same. Shepard will always die at the beginning of the second game. Mass Effect 3 will always end with Shepard on the Citadel, making his final decisions. You always had room to explore the world and try to save or punish the characters around you, but Bioware kept a tight hold of the reins. This doesn’t make the ending worthless or your choices arbitrary, it simply means that there was a specific story to tell, and it was your job to play a role in that story. How you acted was up to you, but Bioware always controlled the beginning, middle, and end of your journey.
This is a game you can’t win, not in the way people are used to. Seen in totality, the story is now a tragedy, not an adventure. The only thing you can do is save who, and what, you can. For me, that’s a much more satisfying and emotional story arc than ending the game with Shepard beating the odds once and for all. The lesson of Mass Effect is much more brutal, and honest. Heroes die.
Even if you disagree with everything I’ve just said…
It’s possible you still think I’m full of shit, and I can accept that. Your Shepard isn’t my Shepard, and we may have very different ideas about the best way to present a story to the player. What makes this conversation so thrilling is that there is finally a science fiction setting in video games that features believable characters. We are almost forced to be passionate about what happens to them. We’re arguing about this because we care about the game, and the people and places in it. That’s an amazing accomplishment.
Even if game’s ending wrecked you emotionally, you became enraged, or you are now boycotting Bioware, at least the writers got under your skin, into your head, and made you take some kind of action. The backlash against a game’s ending may be the biggest compliment anyone has ever paid a developer.