[Author’s Note: This is a spoiler-light review of the Mass Effect 3 finale, the ensuing controversy and the nature of endings in general. What that means is that it contains very broad hints at the different endings, but no specifics; I made a solid effort not to give away anything concrete or even too terribly suggestive. If even that threatens to kill your buzz a little, though, please don’t read on. I’d hate to accidentally ruin your enjoyment the way a careless spoiler ruined some of mine before I saw the endings myself. Otherwise, enjoy!]
If you’ve had your ears open anywhere that picks up geek news lately, you’ve probably heard something about the controversy surrounding the end of Mass Effect 3. A number of fans have castigated BioWare for endings they felt were unsatisfying, even going so far as to start online petitions urging BioWare to change the current endings/create new ones. (This measure was apparently successful, by the way – BioWare announced that some form of change is coming, though whether it will be a patched ending, DLC or whatnot is unclear.) Others have bitten back against what they see as a a fan culture of entitlement, where players fail to accept the idea that not all stories have a super happy ending, not to mention that giving in to fan tantrums is not the best precedent to establish as far as business models go. If you want to hear what some video game experts have to say, PC Gamer has an interesting line-up of folks giving their opinion on this very topic as well.
About the only common thread that can be pulled out of this is that people really, really care about Commander Shepard’s story – there just wouldn’t be this kind of controversy otherwise. And it’s not hard to see why: Mass Effect 1 took a fairly standard concept about a small band of heroes battling a great evil and executed it in fun, innovative and most importantly emotionally engaging ways. While its formula has become a source of some teasing, BioWare’s patented branching stories, conversation wheels and crews of supporting characters to interact with are a stable model because they use them so well. It’s hard not to become attached to crew members, to try out different Shepards to see how different decisions affect the story. Mass Effect 2 then took that ball and ran with it so far it started playing a different sport, carrying over decisions from the previous game in meaningful ways, expanding on the universe, ramping up the stakes, digging deep into characters from the first game and bringing new characters and decisions in that added real weight to the story. (Well, except Samara. Jack may have been annoying sometimes, but at least she wasn’t dull, not to mention anatomically wince-inducing.) As the Empire Strikes Back installment of the series – building on a previous story and secure in the knowledge that there would be another following it – Mass Effect 2 took the opportunity to play a bit dark and dangerous, and rocked it. In prep for Mass Effect 3, I recently replayed the final mission from ME2, and I still get chills during the final rallying speech. It was, to properly employ an often overused word, epic.
Having finally finished the game and gone back to play through each of the endings available to me, let me give the short, spoiler-light version: there are three possible endings, at least that I’ve seen. Two of them are “normal” and one was available as a bonus because I’m a completionist who bumped galactic readiness to 100% and gathered all the war resources I could before the final battle, including arming several battalions of Girl Scouts, weaponizing Christmas music and equipping every bullet with its own miniature gun to fire while in flight. True to BioWare form, one choice seems to be offered as the “Paragon” option, one the “Renegade” option, and the bonus choice as a little bit of both. And to be honest, in their initial unfolding scenes, each of those felt right. Shepard’s choice is fine, I think – it’s the rest that’s a bit wobbly.
The problem is that after the immediate consequences of your initial choice, the endings all collapse into essentially the same cinematic, with the only difference between them being whether two characters appear or not. (Plus, after watching it several times, the writer in me has started yelling “Why are they even there? How did that happen?” louder each time.) Not only that, but you get very little in the sense of aftermath, especially for a story operating on such an epic scale. Leaving some questions unanswered is one thing, but leaving so many is quite another. At the end of Mass Effect 2, players agonized over knowing the fate of a single squad member, often restarting the final mission several times to try to get everyone out alive (or at least their favorites). At the very end, you got a chance to mourn anyone you’d lost, and see the survivors, count the people you’d helped. It’s part of what made Mass Effect 2 so effective – not only did it set the stage for Mass Effect 3 so well, it also made you feel like all the decisions you made mattered, from entire colonies down to the life of a single crew member.
That is what I think falls a bit flat at the end of ME3 – you don’t get that final look back over what you’ve saved, and what you’ve lost. Which means that all those tough decisions you’ve made along the way, particularly the really tough ones in the last game, don’t mean as much, because we don’t get to see what they accomplished in the end. To make matters worse, some of what we do see appears to be “take backs” – plot twists that neatly undo something the player has worked hard to accomplish or agonized over losing throughout the game. (Imagine if after all the blood and sacrifice and inspirational Tom Hanks speeches, Private Ryan was simply shot and killed in the closing moments of the bridge battle, and you get an idea of what I mean about how a “take back” makes the audience feel.) In a game that goes out of its way to resolve a minor storyline involving Conrad Verner, a comic relief character from the first two games and Shepard’s #1 super fan, the decision to leave huge stories and major characters undetailed is a bit puzzling to say the least. It feels a bit like the writers got lost at the end and just didn’t know how to wrap up all of the stories they’d been telling, so they took the path of leaving most of it unrevealed. Which might work, except all this emotional investment you’ve built up needs somewhere to resolve itself, and when it doesn’t have enough of an outlet, it turns to frustration instead.
It’s as though you’d gotten to the conclusion of the Lord of the Rings, with armies clashing and a ring poised to fall into a volcano, only to suddenly cut away to a single human soldier walking back to his farm and hugging his wife and children. On the one level, what a neat, close-up way to end the series. It’s implied that the forces of good won the day, after all, and rather than sweeping images of armies of thousands, a single person’s story can be that much more emotionally effective, putting epic events back on a scale we can relate to more easily. It could be part of a great ending, no question. On the other hand, if that’s all we get, we’re left with a trilogy’s worth of characters and storylines that are now stuck in a sort of emotional limbo, with no resolution to wrap them up. What happened to the hobbits? To Aragorn? To Gimli and Legolas? To Gollum? To freakin’ Gandalf? We may not need an accounting of every man of Rohan, but accounting for none of them? We’re left with Schrödinger characters, nether alive nor dead.
And, emotionally, it just doesn’t work.
Don’t get me wrong, I am normally a staunch advocate of letting writers tell the story they want, including ending it how they feel is best. A lot of people whined about the end of Battlestar Galactica, for example, but I was always quick to defend its creators – it’s their story, they get to tell it their way. Fans are free to bitch, and they do, and the fact is that no matter what ending a game or a series has, some nerds will always rage about it. You really can’t make everyone happy. I suspect that a lot of the fans complaining about “we didn’t get the ending we wanted” are frustrated that they don’t a flawless Hollywood action hero American ending. They can, to put it mildly, put on their big kid pants and shut the hell up. If they weren’t expecting sacrifice and loss, they really weren’t paying attention – the Mass Effect series has always been about making hard choices, from your decision on Virmire to the suicide mission to the very last battle.
At the same time, no matter who you’re trying to please, your ending needs to be true to its own story. I was prepared for the idea that Shepard might very well not survive Mass Effect 3 – when the annihilation of all civilized life in the galaxy is the threat, a heroic sacrifice is always on the table. (That’s not a spoiler, by the way. I’m speaking in theory, about heroic stories sometimes requiring heroic sacrifice. Breathe easy.) The problem is that, regardless of whether Shepard lives or dies or turns into ice cream or puts on the Metroid armor or goes on to win “Dancing with the Stars”, right now the endings don’t do justice to everything that’s come before them. We can’t have closure about every single possible character, and I accept that, but we need more than what we’ve got right now. When I shed some tears about the loss of a crew member – and I did, especially for one of them, and I get choked up thinking about it even now – you’ve done the impossible, as far as writers are concerned. You’ve made me truly care about your characters. Bravo.
Just let me say good-bye to them, too.