The World vs. Mass Effect 3's Endings

Great game, great series, no happy endings, many people outraged.


Last night I finished the Mass Effect 3, the last part of an exceptional scifi trilogy. Up until this point I’ve consciously evaded all ME3 news, posts, reviews, articles, videos etc. that were floating around. I knew there was some sort of controversy regarding the game’s ending, but I had successfully tuned out all that hubbub whenever it came up.

But now that I’m done fighting the good fight, I took a look — and boy, the outrage! So many angry people shaking their fists at Bioware HQ, it’s unbelievable.

Shepard standing in front of Earth

Problem is: I’ve no idea what those people are complaining about, and when skimming the forums the overall mood seems to be that if you like that ending, you might be on weed.

So here’s why I loved the game, and yes, its ending, too. Especially the ending, actually.

The emotional punches the game threw really struck me; it’s probably due to me being so heavily invested in the first two games as well. The underlying pressure it dishes out in every briefing, the omnipresent feeling of a galaxy at war, of everything being at stake, the loss of Mordin and Legion, the reminiscing with Garrus, later on saying my good-byes to everyone, Liara’s gift, Anderson… all of that hit home, brutally so, again and again. And the ending (I went with the 3rd option) just fit the overall narrative arc and personality of my Shepard.

I seldom come across works of art that make me feel that heavy, that weary, that elated, and that misty-eyed, but when I do, I tend revel in those moments. Beauty doesn’t necessarily mean constant happiness.

Thus, I really wonder what people were expecting… a movie blockbuster finish á la ID4, maybe. I don’t know. Many people didn’t like it, then. I can respect that, as it’s definitely not a happy ending. But people are seriously demanding Bioware has to change the artistic vision of their work? Give me a fucking break.1

So, why didn’t I complain? Why wasn’t I bothered by the supposedly botched finish?

For starters, I was aware that I was working and acting within the confines of a big, pre-written narrative arc, and so the choices offered were not that …offensive. I was given the choice between pest, cholera and a (to me) rather acceptable compromise.

Just like “my” Shepard I, too, was kind of surprised we got that far, and so I took what I could get. I mean, Shepard wasn’t able to simply will the Reapers away, so he/I was accepting the cards given and going with what he/I had.

I still don’t understand the outrage. See, at the end of ME1, Sovereign was beaten, yet still most people (in ME’s universe) were trying very hard to believe that one single Reaper was just a fluke. And I, the player, had no choice about making them really believe. Still, it was very clear Sovereign was just a hint of things to come. Among the players, noone was angry about that fact, because it was a major point in the story we were participating in.

Then, at the end of ME2, you could either keep the collector base or blow it up; but to get there, your ship had to be configured just right, there was no player decision involved. To effectively start the suicide mission, the Normandy had to be ready. Didn’t install that Thanix cannon? Your assault would fail before reaching that base. Outside the game, noone was outraged about that. And whether the base remained or not, it was still clear the Reapers would show up in force, and soon. Stopping the Collectors didn’t change that, and noone was outraged, because it was another major story point.

At the beginning of ME3, Earth got hit. You were tasked with assembling the biggest strike force possible to hit back, knowing the resulting mother of all battles would conclude the story. Near the end, when the battle was in full swing, Shepard went into the lion’s den, and it was clear for a long time coming s/he wouldn’t come out again. And again, in said den, you’d only have so many options; your cards would be dealed, and you had to decide what to do with your understandably bad deck.

Cue the outrage.

I think my point is this: I was part of an epic story, and was allowed to work within its framework, and I am happy I did. But just like life, in the Mass Effect universe there are so many things that I can’t change, things happening by chance and outside influences, and I like it for that, as it was playing make-believe, but in a rather, well, realistic way.

People around me were dying over the course of the entire game, hard choices had to be made, this oppressive feeling of doom was really affecting my mood, and for that wide range of emotions evoked over the course of those 40 hours I am actually thankful. (Not because my life is dull and I need the change, but because I like my scifi stories un-bland and gripping, mind.)

So I wasn’t surprised to see its bleak endings; maybe their visual representation could’ve shown a bit more variety than different color palettes, yes. Regardless, to me the marks they would make on that universe, their outcomes, were perfectly aligned with the rest of the storytelling, its tone, its philosophical questions. What is life? What does it mean to be alive? What would you sacrifice, how far would you go to achieve your goals? Is it all worth it?

I stood there for a minute, considering my choices. I looked up, seeing the silent explosions around Earth, and I felt a slight terror inside, because I considered all those thousands of (make-believe) people dying in those (make-believe) explosions while I was thinking furiously, trying to make the best of an impossible situation.

What could I do, then? Destroy all synthetics? But I had just helped the Geth going their next step as a species, and what about EDI?! I couldn’t possibly erase an entire people! But taking control of the old machines felt very wrong, too. So… Synthesis, then? Considering that all the races had just come together to fight an overwhelming threat side by side, putting aside their differences, organics and synthetics alike, it struck me that we were already on the right track as species, and that this was just another compromise, a rather small step, if it meant saving all those people. So that’s what I did, making Shepard run towards the beam, throwing away his gun and taking a leap of faith.

Sometimes bad shit happens to good people. And frankly, to Shepard and his crew(s), a lot of bad shit had already happened, and not all of them did walk away from it. (Here’s to our fallen.) From that first recon drop on Eden Prime, all those twisted paths we took to get to the top of that Crucible went downhill.

The overall picture painted in the Mass Effect games was a rather bleak one, right from the beginning — and in that context, the endings fit right in.

And honestly, I’m rather thankful for that. It was an amazing tour de force, and I don’t want to miss an hour of it. In my opinion, it was a good, sad, bold and worthy ending to a excitingly good scifi series, and I’d rather have that than an action champ walkaway one.

Thanks, Bioware.

  1. Related: that spreading sense of entitlement is starting to really, really piss me off. ↩︎

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Carlo Zottmann @czottmann