By Richard Cobbett on March 14th, 2012 at 9:00 pm.
Mass Effect 3 closes off Bioware’s epic sci-fi series with a bang, and one of the most controversial endings of the last few years. Many fans have been clamouring for an update that outright changes it, and not simply because the war with the Reapers didn’t end quite as they wanted. Bioware maintains that it just wanted to get people talking.
So let’s talk a little about That Ending, shall we?
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. ABOUT SPOILERS.
The problem with Mass Effect 3’s ending isn’t that it’s bleak. Far from it. Elements like Shepard’s self-sacrifice, the (very predictable) destruction of the Mass Relay network, and the cost of retaking Earth are all very in keeping with both the story Bioware’s been telling all along and the final part of this kind of arc. If not for literally the last five minutes, I suspect it would have gone down as a simply great ending to an absolutely wonderful, multi-year adventure.
Instead, as the credits rolled, all I could think of was Lincoln’s nose.
This is a very likely apocryphal story, but a good one, so never mind. It goes that Abraham “Yes, That One” Lincoln, during his lawyer days, was defending a man accused of biting off another man’s nose. Through careful interrogation, it becomes clear that the main witness never actually saw this happen, leading to Lincoln triumphantly demanding of the discredited, humiliated fool “So how do you know my client bit this man’s nose off?”
“Because I saw him spit it out afterwards,” replied the witness.
The moral of the story? Quit while you’re ahead.
In Bioware’s case, things are admittedly slightly different – it’s not really an extra question that screws things up, but an unnecessary answer. Everything that happens between dealing with the Illusive Man and the Mass Effect relays going boom should have been cut. The series was absolutely fine when it was the Lovecraftian menace of the Reapers, and lord only knows why Bioware suddenly decided that a big picture of multiple cycles of civilisation combining their resources to take out a threat to all life suddenly wasn’t big enough to roll credits on. No matter how good the new idea, or how well written, there was simply no need to add a new layer, with Casper the Genocidal Ghost showing up to take credit for the series in the last few seconds.
There’s some writing of debatable quality in those closing moments, but that’s usually forgiveable. What has incited revolt is how much Bioware forces it into the story and happily breaks things that were going just fine. To namecheck the biggies…
War Readiness – This makes absolutely no sense in the context of the final battle. It should relate to getting the Crucible to the Citadel, defending it from the Reapers, and giving Shepard time to deal with the threat. Instead, its effect on the endings is completely arbitrary, with no causal link between Shepard’s war performance and the final results. It’s especially strange considering how well the Suicide Mission handled the effects of decisions, from how good each of your crew really was in their jobs to how much you’d upgraded the Normandy. Shouldn’t we have seen things like the ultimate bad ending being the Crucible being unceremoniously blown up on the way to Earth and taking half the solar system with it? It’d be more fitting.
Organics vs. Synthetics – Suddenly promoted from a running theme to the focus of the story, despite both the Geth and EDI (our primary AI contacts during the series) fighting for the squishy side, and it being clear that this isn’t a particular problem when compared to the likes of the very, very organic Krogan and Rachni running amok through the galaxy. If this is what Bioware wanted the whole series to hinge on, they left it at least a game and a half too late to establish.
Shepard’s Choice – Thematically, the Destroy/Control choices are absolutely fine – though Merge is damn stupid, transhumanist nonsense that doesn’t sit well with the series’ technology or your own experiences with the galaxy’s synthetic lifeforms, relies on taking the word of a genocidal echo that the universe is doomed, and makes you inflict by fiat what the villains have been doing by force. The fact that this is treated as a ‘good’ option absolutely baffles me.
Of the others, Destroy works more or less as is. The Crucible is a weapon, so fine. This Control option on the other hand is ridiculous when the Illusive Man has not only spent the whole game being shouted at for even considering the idea, but was available in the very last room to open that pathway. Simply agreeing with him and taking his power by force would have worked thematically and dramatically, and without falling prey to ME3’s biggest problem…
Magic Ghost Children Are Silly – Yes. Yes they are.
There are other issues too, like just where the hell the Normandy was flying off to in the ending, the idiocy of the choice being down to three buttons that shouldn’t even exist on the Crucible, and how resigned Shepard comes across to it all, but they’re minor. Mass Effect 3’s crimes are betraying its own themes for the sake of one more surprise; one more plot point.
And its punishment? To have that one plot point from the last five minutes of the game overshadow the twenty-plus hours that came before, not to mention leave the series’ most polarising question one of whether the Catalyst bit is merely stupid, or the dumbest thing to happen in science-fiction since Obi-Wan said “younglings”. Your mileage may vary.
But what of those other twenty-plus hours… not to mention everything else that happens on Earth and the Citadel before Casper shows up? There, I think Bioware is getting oddly short shrift. Let’s take the arguments from the fan campaign and see how they hold up.
In turn, those claims are that Mass Effect 3 (to be more exact, its endings)…
Does not provide the wide range of possible outcomes that we have come to expect from a Mass Effect game
For the actual endings, this is largely true. The endings consist of three different coloured explosions, with the main variance being a couple of seconds of extra animation.
However, it’s important to remember that while the Reapers are the focus of Mass Effect 3, and what drives the story, their main purpose in the narrative is to shake things up and enable smaller scale stories to be told. Each of Mass Effect 3’s Priority missions focuses intensely on a core part of the story, with at least two – the war between the Geth and the Quarians and dealing with the Genophage – being of critical importance to the galaxy going forwards.
It’s true that Mass Effect 3 makes a rod for its back by turning the results of these into mere numbers on the War Assets list, and ultimately, they don’t make much difference to how the game plays out. That’s unfortunate, and something that Bioware could have done a better job on. However, the decisions still carry weight, especially when they bring in characters we’re familiar with and want to do right by. Each individual section also offers a wide range of results, both from your direct choices, and how you approached the game up to that point. Miranda for instance doesn’t have to be shot by her father. Wrex and Wreav respond differently if you only pretend to cure the Genophage. The Rachni Queen is trustworthy, while her replacement if you killed her in the first game ultimately stabs you in the back. There are lots and lots of minor breakpoints to make it feel like the universe is reacting and moulding itself around you.
During the final push, it’s surprising that Bioware didn’t model things a little more closely on Mass Effect 2’s Suicide Mission to make it feel like you were using your War Assets instead of simply hitting the enemy with a number – calling in Krogan ground troops for instance. A few shots of fleets preparing to go into action wasn’t good enough. Ignoring that lapse though, Mass Effect 3 offers more than enough variation for any story-driven RPG to be proud of, and nothing has come close to making years old decisions still feel relevant in the finale.
Does not provide a sense of closure with regard to the universe and characters we have become attached to.
Again, I disagree. Almost all the characters we’ve become attached to reach the end of their stories by the finale of Mass Effect 3, from Tali finally bringing the Quarians home to Miranda settling things with her father. Even the characters from the novels show up.
There’s no epilogue that says exactly what happens to everyone after Shepard leaves them to their own devices, but nor are stories simply dropped. From the e-mails you receive to small details like Wreav’s speech to his men on Earth, you can get a good feel for what’s likely to happen once the Reaper threat is taken care of. The genophage. Any Geth/Quarian alliance. Whether anyone will ever give a shit about James Vega (his desolate Wikia page suggests no). These are all far more fun to ponder and discuss than simply be told outright.
As for all this being ruined by the destruction of the Mass Relay network… well, it’s science fiction. There’s always a new way to fly, up to and doing it the old fashioned way and simply having it take much, much longer. The universe is still out there, just less convenient.
Does not provide a sense of succeeding against impossible odds
Were we fighting the same Reapers? Building the same weapon designed over generation after generation of extinctions? The Crucible was always a bit of a get-out-of-jail-free card, but the descent from shiny, shiny Vancouver to the ruins of London, the collapse of entire empires and the fact that Shepard struggled to kill two Reapers made them a serious threat. They are admittedly dialled down from Sovereign in the first game, and lose a lot of their mad Lovecraft powers in favour of just shooting things with lasers, but the game does a splendid job of making it clear that the galaxy is not beating them without a Crucible shaped miracle.
Had Shepard pulled a trigger after the encounter with the Illusive Man, sacrificing the galaxy’s travel network and potentially Earth, I don’t think there’d have been much argument that the Reapers were a phenomenally awesome threat, on the level of Freespace 2’s Shivans (even if they did end up largely being Darkspawn of the Future). Having them humiliatingly demoted to some ghost kid’s lackeys though, and then destroyed or leashed via a magic glowing button… well, after that, it’s hard to think back to a time when they felt threatening.
(See also the Borg, post Star Trek: Voyager. No villain deserves that.)
Up to that point, the only reason to think of the Reapers as anything other than an unstoppable threat is that this is a game, and you’re Commander Shepard. And even Shepard spends much of the game on the point of cracking under the pressure. Their power is not a problem.
Does not provide an explanation of events up to the ending which maintains consistency with the overall story.
Yet again, this only really affects the Catalyst nonsense – which, yes, is foreshadowed earlier in the game, but not to the point that it matters – and to some extent why the Reapers are focusing on London. Remove that stupid plot point and everything else becomes much stronger.
Should the problems be fixed though? Honestly… no. Even if doing so would improve the game, this is the ending that Bioware chose, and storytellers should always have the right to choose how their stories end. Sometimes, bad things need to happen. Sometimes, the price for saving the world should be a hard one to swallow. No story is going to please everyone, and trying to do so is to create a world where surprises can’t happen and all drama is doomed.
Forcing Bioware into it would be a mistake. Given the choice, I’d love to go back and remove the whole Catalyst scene from Mass Effect 3 with an arc welder. That said, many people think that Romeo and Juliet should have had a happy ending, and I’m willing to sacrifice my creative veto over other peoples’ projects to keep sillyheads like that from having theirs.
Even if Bioware decided it wanted to change it though, I’d be reluctant to see it happen. That’s a tougher argument to justify, even to myself. Games are constantly rebalanced post-release. There’s nothing controversial about a new quest or area or feature being added to something like The Witcher 2 – it’s a good thing. Indeed, I felt that game needed an extra chapter to finish the story, and would happily see one patched in to cover a little bit more ground.
Rewriting a story is trickier though, not least because while Bioware can easily patch its ending, it can’t patch my memory. No matter how good it might be, the time to atone for a bad ending is when writing the next game, be it the next Mass Effect, Dragon Age 3, or something new.
The only time I can see a real exception to this rule is when an ending is fundamentally broken – Fallout 3 being the obvious example. In case you don’t know, this tried to end on a tragic note by having you sacrifice yourself in a radiation tank, despite a) you almost certainly having enough radiation meds by this point to take holidays in the damn thing, and b) potentially having a companions who actively thrives on lethal radiation suddenly refuse to press a button on your behalf. The subsequent Broken Steel DLC didn’t exactly flash up a “We’re Sorry, We’re Morons” letter from the designers, but it did quietly retcon that into something more sane.
Unfortunately… it did so at a price, and while the industry has been uncharacteristically restrained when it comes to paying to unlock games’ true endings, it’s not the only such example. The most recent reboot of Prince of Persia for instance ended with the Prince actively undoing all of the player’s hard work, and it was only if you shelled out for the Epilogue DLC that you got to find out what the hell he was thinking when doing so. It wasn’t particularly controversial, but only because nobody was that excited by the game in the first place.
Something as big as Mass Effect 3 doing it… that’d be a bad precedent. Day One DLC and potentially forced multiplayer be damned if big publishers realise they can charge us an extra £5 to not have our hard-fought victories magically turn to shit before our tired eyes.
For now, Bioware has no choice but to fly the flag for the ending. The game’s only just out, and they’re not about to admit that they screwed up in the first couple of weeks on sale. After a while though, I suspect we’ll see the kind of acknowledgement of problems that we eventually got after Dragon Age 2 fell flat and Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s bosses proved less than an acquired taste. Expect the words “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” And I’m sure it did.
As flawed as it is though, we shouldn’t let the ending… a tiny slice of the ending at that… become something more than it was. I clocked up well over 20 hours with Mass Effect 3, skipping meals and staying up late, and even replaying one whole mission because I was damned if I was going to let Tali down after all this time. It’s one of my favourite games for a very long time, and while I have complaints and I have quibbles, I have exactly no regrets about playing it.
And I absolutely can’t wait to see what Bioware does next.
[RPS note: this is specifically Richard’s take on the ending, the rest of the team have some different ideas which we’ll discuss later in the week.]
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