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Behind the Lethargic Ending of Mass Effect 3

March 18, 2012 | | Comments 6

Following this initial paragraph is a considerable spoiler regarding the ending of Mass Effect 3. By now, it’s no secret that fans of the franchise are standing in (near) unison in their rejection of its ending. Casey Hudson, Mass Effect’s chief cook and bottle washer, stated that “they” were aware the ending would be polarizing. It’s not polarizing if 98% of people polled (52,000 votes and counting) consider the ending bad. Is it justified, and where do I stand? For that, you have to understand what I was experiencing in those final hours and why my reasons are based on the writing more than on the gameplay.

If I disliked the ending, am I just an enraged fanboy who can’t handle a downbeat ending? Could I take an elitist perch like some of my friends have assumed, claiming the end follows a classic trend of many science fictions novels from the past (Childhood’s End comes to mind). And then I started thinking of Ronald Moore’s take on Battlestar Galactica, on how it ended, how some people hated it, and how the defenders were claiming bravery in its final act when, for others, it came down to having an ending that made sense. There’s another issue involving BSG on whether an ending can ruin the journey—more on that later. I have an issue with certain writers believing an offbeat, unexpected, or downbeat ending is the way to go as it would break from expectations and show courage on the part of the writer.

The final act of Mass Effect 3 involves a long sequence of battles beginning with the assault on the Illusive Man’s base and ending with the final battle of Earth. Most people have stated the final twenty minutes of Mass Effect as being the issue, but the first flaw is in a plot jump which assumes something drastic much earlier. A good chunk of the game involves you often returning to the Citadel, the UNHQ of space, the Babylon 5 of the Bioware set. It’s a space station / ancient artifact where tens of thousands of people live and where you return to often in every game. Dozens of characters you know by name call it home. You perform many duties there, make lots of friends, and help the council of allied races that use it as a base. Then in a conversation before the ending, you’re informed it’s the vital final piece to complete this super weapon to destroy the reapers. Except the reapers “steal” it and bring it to Earth. Not only that, but without really dealing with the implications, EVERYONE aboard is found dead, disregarding nearly every sidequest you had spent dozens of hours completing to that point (I’d be ok if there was a line about an evacuation; if so, please tell me).

You arrive on Earth and must fight your way to a transport beam which will take you to the Citadel (why they don’t go through the teleporter on Ilos from the first game is beyond me), which the reapers are using to convert the population. Like always, you take two people with you (it never explains what happens to everyone else, like in the second game where everyone was doing something). It is implied that the two people with you are killed as you race towards this beam. You are mortally wounded but wake up on the Citadel among a field of dead bodies. There’s a conversation with the villain from the second game. Resolved, you’re whisked into the sky to meet the Architect—I-I mean the Catalyst, who informs you of one undeniable fact, which apparently the entire trilogy was based on: that inorganic life created by organic life is fated to rise up and annihilate its creators.

The reapers are living machines that “prune” the advanced societies to prevent them from causing this issue, thus saving primitive species the fate of being wiped out by the machines of advanced nations. If the reapers didn’t cut down the advanced societies, they would create synthetic life, which in turn would wipe out everyone, including innocent planets caught in that cycle. At least the reapers protect the primitive planets from this curse, assuming this cycle is fated, determined, undeniable….which is where my biggest issue rises.

It’s a misguided and pessimistic view that machine life will always want to destroy their organic creators, an idea I have never agreed with, an idea that apparently Bioware didn’t endorse until its final twenty minutes. Beyond the obvious fact that there’s no precedent this will ever happen, many science fiction authors like assuming it as fact, unlike the concept of superior nations subsuming vulnerable or inferior ones. That does have precedent; that would have been a valid reason for the reapers to exist—to prevent the subjugation of primitive societies by superior ones…except that’s not what happens. Instead, the game takes the lazy route of mimicking Terminator, Matrix, and more blatantly, Battlestar Galactica by claiming that it’s the fate of organic life to create synthetic life that will eventually destroy them. In Mass Effect, there’s no evidence that the Protheans from the previous cycle were about to create machine intelligence capable of threatening them. However, they DID subsume and subjugate lesser species. The game even presents synthetic characters that state their desire for peaceful coexistence (EDI and Legion), which is in contradiction to the imposed ending of the last game.

Perhaps the reapers were developed millions of years ago and certain societies back then were being wiped out by their creations. So why do the reapers destroy organic life? Wouldn’t they take out the machine threat, unless they were in fact that very same machine threat in the first place? If all of that was true, it still resulted in the reapers winning at the end of the last game. Sure, the cycle was broken, but they still succeeded in wiping out all civilized life in this cycle while enforcing their own bankrupt philosophy which showed no sign of repeating in the first place. By limiting the game to three fundamentally identical choices, all of which enforce variations of the same viewpoint, any selection effectively validates the reaper’s view, no matter how much we disagree with it.

And Shepherd, whether renegade or paragon has no choice but to play along. At no point does he reject the presentation. He accepts the fatalistic options presented and plays along, despite all the evidence that he had witnessed first-hand of the contrary. Imagine another possibility, that this time it WAS different and the reapers represented an obsolete view, offering an allegory, using the threat to represent absolute rules, religion, and single-minded fanaticism (a good idea which I’m almost thankful Mass Effect didn’t employ…as I use that in Amethyst).

All of this is armchair quarterbacking as we’re forced into three functionally identical choices and slight philosophical variations of the same concept. The final minutia in the climactic minute is determined by one value, your military readiness…which in itself makes no sense. If Sheppard is left alone to make a single decision that affects the entire galaxy, how does the military strength around Earth even matter? How does the might of the united navy decide whether or not the blast wave that is sent out from the Citadel destroys Earth or not? It’s not even logical. So by the end of the game, not only is your fate decided by a single value that shouldn’t bear any connection to what’s occurring, the game disregards all your other choices made to that moment. Not much is actually resolved, and potential conflicts, political alliances, and character points that the story was bringing up for three games are summarily wiped out in Shepherd’s final moment of shortsightedness. In the end, everyone effectively loses; you know…the Evangelion ending.

But some people love the way Evangelion ended…and I can see why that ending is appropriate for that show…it didn’t lie to you about what it was doing through its run. It was messed up from the beginning. Battlestar Galactica made a similar critical error. For those of you not aware of what I mean, let me summarize it for you this way: Science, Science, Science, Science, Science, God did it; the End. And I won’t accept the theory that the end of Mass Effect 3 is a hallucination or a dream, because that’s a scapegoat which explains even less and potentially leads to an even more depressing ending.

Writers have a responsibility to their readers as well as to their story, and the ending of Mass Effect 3 sullies the setting, ignores the story, and alienates its audience. To put it simply, the ending of Mass Effect 3 is lazy and irresponsible. Players have way too much invested in every aspect of the story to suddenly narrow it down to three colors. There is no satisfaction, and that’s sin Bioware committed. You could expect that from many games; it’s happened before. Mass Effect 3 could have been the best game every made…literally…it was THAT GOOD until then. I have a friend that has stated that he loved BSG but hated its ending, but that the journey made it worth it. I disagree. A bad ending can nullify the journey. What good is a trip to Disneyland if, at the end of a great trip, you find that it had burned down?

We can accuse George Lucas of being egocentric, but there are so many people associated with ME3; didn’t anyone lift a finger and ask, “Why are we pissing our fans off?” This is the reason why I think it may never be fixed. There had to have been staff or testers that voiced their concern. You don’t receive this much condemnation without it being represented within the staff at Bioware. Someone with power and ego imposed this ending despite criticism, and that type of personality is a hard one to fight against.

Will Bioware spend tens of thousands of dollars (if not probably more) creating a DLC to allow all people to be satisfied? More likely, they will tweak little things that they think will work, but only serve to alienate us more. Or worse, they will patronize us by “explaining” the ending, like we’re all ignorant gamers that simply don’t get it. Even if they did address the ending, how will they fix it to everyone’s satisfaction? You can’t just tack on a scene where Shepherd lives and the Mass Effect relays don’t wipe out all life. You have to create a huge final act with every possible variable that people expect. But the flaws begin WAY back, starting with the sudden moving of the Citadel and the killing of everyone on board.

As for now, the wind has been taken from my sails. Deflated. I feel like my puppy died. If I have any hope of returning to this game, I will have to take a lead from a friend and simply put a sign over my computer screen before the end which reads:

Reapers Die
Everyone Fucks

…because seriously, that end makes more sense and is more respectful of the journey than what we got.

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About the Author: Chris Tavares Dias is the literary equivalent of that crusty burnt cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot. Some people claim he looks like Mathew Perry. He would like that to be true. It's not. In 2010, Chris co-wrote and created Amethyst Foundations, a 4th Edition setting based on the previous version under 3.5. It has received critical acclaim for integrating science fiction into classical fantasy. In August of this year, Chris was last seen staring at a dead raven that had fallen beside his car. Two months later, his watch and notepad were found in the stomach of a basking shark that had washed ashore off the coast of Florida.

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