So, the ending of Mass Effect 3, eh? It certainly…ended Mass Effect 3.
Massive ending spoilers below
A lot of fans are unhappy with the endings, and they’re putting pressure on Bioware to change them. There’s been some online commentary talking about this in rather black-and-white terms trying to paint one party or the other as victim, which I think is unreasonable.
Do fans have a right to demand a new ending? Does Bioware have a duty to change it for them? No, of course not. But expressing dissatisfaction doesn’t make you an entitled whiner, either, and there’s been a lot of valid criticism even if it’s not always expressed in the most constructive possible way.
And I don’t think it’s helpful to cast this as a choice between the ending Bioware originally intended, and a fan-demanded ending that abandons the artistic integrity of the work. The fact is, assuming that Bioware didn’t intend a lot of players to have a negative emotional reaction to the ending, they didn’t write the ending they intended to write. Even if it is brilliant when you interpret it the right way (and I’m not sure it is), that doesn’t mean that players’ initial gut feelings aren’t important. The artistic integrity of the work may not have been fully realised in the first place, because the players didn’t ‘get’ the ending in a way that was emotionally or intellectually satisfying. A changed ending might well be more artistically satisfying, and in that sense a better expression of what Bioware really intended.
I don’t think the main fan demand is for a happy ending, either. (At least, that’s not what I’d want.) It’s for an emotionally satisfying one. That could well involve Shapard and all his/her allies dying, or even the human race being wiped out, if it’s presented in the right way.
I personally didn’t find the ending satisfying at the time, and the more I think about it, the less satisfying it gets. I can feel the fans’ frustration, as I have loved, loved, loved the Mass Effect series up to that point. My specific thoughts are below:
After a mostly Renegade playthrough, I was presented with two options: Control and Destroy. (I’m aware there’s a third option which appears if you achieve more War Assets; I deliberately didn’t fill the bar all the way up as I wanted to save the best ending for my second playthrough.)
I chose Destroy, and later realised I’d done so based on misunderstanding the choice presented: I had thought that the ‘this will destroy all the mass relays’ bit applied only to the Control choice. After browbeating the Geth and Quarians to live together in peace, and helping Joker hook up with EDI, even my Renegade character didn’t like the idea of wiping out all synthetic life, but I thought it was worth it to protect the relay network that made galactic civilisation possible.
But it turns out that the relay network gets destroyed whatever you do. Actually I’m only sure of that because I’ve read about the endings online: the ending cutscene wasn’t completely clear. It wasn’t clear on most other things, either. Big red fireballs engulfed London: so, was London destroyed, or was that just individual Reapers exploding? Or was Earth destroyed? Did the wiping out all synthetics thing work? Did Shepard survive? I can guess, but it’s not clear.
Another question: why is the Normandy flying through mass relay-space at the time the explosions happen? Why is Liara on board, when a few minutes ago she was part of my squad and running for the conduit with me?
It’s possible for Joker to have picked up my surviving squadmades and made it to the mass relay while Shepard was on the citadel, but there’s no reason given why he should have. So if it does make sense it’s not clear why, in which case see point 1.
It’s also not clear what the cause-and-effect is between the collection of War Assets and what happened in the ending. In Mass Effect 2, this was handled very well: if I fail to buy one of my ship upgrades, or failed to do one of my squadmates’ loyalty missions, that makes the ship or the squadmate perform poorly in a visible way in the endgame. In Mass Effect 3, the number of War Assets I’ve obtained effects the success or failure of whatever choice I make, but it’s not clear how or why this happens. In fact, I only know there are different levels of success because I’ve read up on it on the internet. All three endings are enforced by arbitrary last-minute space magic, and there’s no reason why my having got the krogans or whoever on my side should affect the wave of red explosions that disables the Reapers.
Finally, even where it did make sense, I didn’t think the ending was satisfying. All three ending options change the galaxy so radically that it would overshadow the effects of all the choices I’ve made up to this point. The end of the mass relays means the end of galactic civilisation in its current form, so what does it matter whether the Salarians and Krogans are on good or bad terms with one another? In any case I don’t get to see the effects of the choices I’ve made because the game ends so abruptly.
The choices come out of nowhere and rely on space magic to enforce them. They’re not integrated with the plot: you could replace them with pretty much anything else and the plot would make sense equally well. They’re also a sudden swerve into fantasy for a series that’s always been on the hard-sf end of space opera.
It’s possible that it does all make sense when looked at in the right way, and I’m just not understanding it. I think I’m a reasonably clever guy, though, and I’ve had no trouble understanding it up until this point, so maybe it’s a case of the writers misjudging how easy they made it to understand.
There’s a theory that the events of the ending didn’t literally happen, but represented Shapard’s hallucinations as s/he fought against Reaper indoctrination. I’m inclined to believe this, since it does make the ending make more sense. But, if that’s what Bioware intended, that still doesn’t make the ending brilliant, because 1) it’s not clear that this is what happened, and 2) it’s still not a satisfying ending because even if Shepard breaks free of Reaper control, that doesn’t win the war. We’re left with Shepard lying wounded or dead on Earth and the Reapers still closing in.
On the whole, I thought Mass Effect 3 was brilliant. I think Mass Effect 2 was still just better, but 3 is well up there in its league. And I don’t think that the ending was a ‘slap in the face’ or any other melodramatic nonsense, but I do welcome the noises Bioware are making towards changing it.
Works of art — including video games — aren’t handed down complete from the muses to be presented to the public in their one perfect form. They can be changed and improved, and sometimes they’re released in a state that’s not as perfect as it could be. I believe this is what’s happened here, and if I were a Bioware writer I’d be welcoming the chance to change my work based on the audience’s reaction and enhance its artistic integrity.