Warning: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS. Since this is not a review, which I always serve up spoiler-free, I will be talking in detail about Mass Effect 3’s ending, as well as other parts of the game. If you have not played it yet and would not like to know anything about it, don’t read this. If you have already played it or just don’t care about spoilers, please proceed (and hopefully enjoy).
It’s been almost a year since Mass Effect 3 graced store shelves, and the fervor surrounding its ending has mostly died down. While I weighed in a bit while the debate was raging (it is one of my favorite game franchises, after all), I’ve never gathered all my thoughts about it together in one place. For some reason, I’ve been thinking about the ending a lot lately, so it’s about time to get it all out and let everyone know what I think.
First of all, I should state that I am a huge BioWare and Mass Effect fan. This does not, however, mean that I think they can do no wrong. I’ve never given a BioWare game a perfect 10/10 (I’ve given one or two DLC a 10/10, but to me that’s a very different thing), and if anything, I am more critical of their games, because since I play them over and over, I tend to scrutinize them more carefully. I’m sure some people would accuse me of being soft on BioWare just because I happen to like a lot of their games, but I’d like to think that’s not true. I have great respect for their work, but it is not beyond constructive criticism, and that includes Mass Effect 3’s ending.
My experience with Mass Effect 3 was pretty standard for me and a BioWare game. I had pre-ordered the game as soon as it was available, and I changed my pre-order to the collector’s edition when it was announced. I eagerly awaited its arrival in the mail on the day it came out, and as soon as it was at my door I had it unwrapped and in my 360 ready to go. I had a character who I had played in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 ready to be imported, and there were so many things I was ready to experience as I popped in that CD. Would Zoey Shepard finally reunite with her lover, Kaidan? What happened to all her crew members from Mass Effect 2? How many people important to her would die in the course of the game? And, of course, would she be able to stop the Reapers and save the universe? I was ready to find out all these answers and more.
Although I have yet to write a review for the game, I will say that Mass Effect 3 met all of my expectations and beyond, until I got to the ending. I experienced some of the best moments of any video game I’ve ever played in this game. The krogan mission was exciting and fulfilling, and allowed me to right what I had always felt was one of the greatest wrongs perpetuated among the alien races Shepard knew. Thane’s death on the Citadel left me sobbing, and I had to take a break before I could continue playing. Kai Leng made me so angry that I literally screamed at my TV. Every last moment, every goodbye, was exquisitely poignant. Perhaps this is why the ending of the game was so unimpressive. But before I address any particular concerns, here’s a quick rundown of what actually happens at the end of Mass Effect 3.
The end of Mass Effect 3 is a race against time to activate a device called the Crucible. No one knows exactly what the Crucible does, but it is apparently the result of generations of alien design. Shepard has to make sure the Crucible can be plugged into the Catalyst, which is the Citadel, but the Reapers have moved the Citadel to Earth. Shepard must fight through the rubble of humanity’s home planet, make it to the Citadel and activate the arms so that the Crucible can be moved into position, and then basically pray for a miracle.
Shepard does make it to the Citadel, but the majority of the human forces on Earth are lost, and her two squadmates are injured in the process. She continues to the Citadel, where she must face an indoctrinated Illusive Man. She makes it past him to open the arms, and the Crucible is docked. As she lies on the Citadel dying, Hackett informs her that the Crucible is not firing, and nothing is happening. She drags herself to the console, but finds nothing wrong. As she collapses onto the floor, a platform raises and brings her into a part of the Citadel no one has seen before. There, she faces a being that appears in the form of a child she saw die as she left Earth at the beginning of the game, and that child gives her three choices. The choices are to become a Reaper and take control of their race, to destroy them at the cost of destroying all synthetic life in the galaxy, including the geth, or to sacrifice her body to the Crucible and literally rewrite all the life in the galaxy so that everyone can live in peace.
Obviously, I’m leaving out some details, but that’s the gist of the ending of the game. If it sounds a little ridiculous, that’s because, well, it is. When I first experienced this ending, I had been playing the game for roughly two days, playing for about 16 hours a day until I finished it. I played the ending late at night, and I’ll be honest, when it was all over and the credits were rolling, the only thing I could think was, “What the hell just happened?” After I processed it a bit, I sat down and proceeded to play the game again, paying more attention to see if there was something I had missed that might explain the ending of the game better. I didn’t find anything. I was left with the same feeling of dissatisfaction that I had experienced the first time.
For the record, before I continue, I don’t think that the ending of the game ruined the entire series for me. I will continue playing Mass Effect probably until the day that I die, because I love it so much and nothing will ever change that. However, I think there are a few issues at work here that need to be considered when trying to analyze the ending and the effect it had on the game as a whole. They are a) the poor nature of the storytelling at the end of the game, b) whether or not BioWare had an obligation to change the ending, and c) the question of whether or not video games are art. The DLC eventually released that extended the ending must also be considered.
The first issue is the actual storytelling involved in the ending of the game, which was sloppy at best. That’s because the ending of the game is essentially what is referred to in literary theory as a deus ex machina. Latin for “god from the machine,” deus ex machina usually refers to a divine force that shows up at the end of a story to provide a miraculous solution to the problem at hand. This ending is usually a happy one, but it doesn’t have to be. The deus ex machina is usually considered to be bad storytelling, because introducing a crucial element so late in the story is generally seen as a sort of cop-out. The child that appears at the end of Mass Effect 3 is clearly, in fact literally, a deus ex machina. Although the solutions it provides are not exactly what players would consider happy, it does provide a miraculous end to the problem of the Reapers, no matter which way you slice it. The problem is that there is no indication of these potential solutions throughout the rest of the game, so it comes as a total surprise to the player. While the Leviathan DLC helps this a little by adding some preliminary information about the being who appears at the end of the game, it feels like too little too late.
The ending of the game sparked so much outrage that fans demanded that it be changed. I know what people were expecting – they wanted Shepard to defeat the Reapers, walk off into the sunset with her significant other, become Fleet Admiral, and earn a literal ton of medals. This expectation is not out of line, since that is how most video games end. Players play for victory, and the ending of Mass Effect 3 doesn’t feel like victory. This, however, is not my essential problem with the ending of the game. In fact, I think that the ending of the game deserves respect for not sticking to the status quo. I appreciate that BioWare didn’t want to have a traditional video game ending for the Mass Effect series, it’s just that the execution was poor. In fact, I think that the biggest question to arise out of this whole thing is whether or not BioWare had an obligation to change the ending, as many players alleged, and that question directly relates to the question of whether or not video games are art.
In my opinion, video games are absolutely art. They are visual, auditory, and kinetic masterpieces (well, the good ones are, at least). This does not mean that there aren’t bad video games – after all, there is bad art. But I also believe that you can’t say one example of a medium is art and another isn’t. It’s all or nothing, and then you can be subjective about the specific examples as you desire. The reason that it is important to note this is that art is made by its creators, which means that they control everything about it. Technically, BioWare did not have any obligation to change the ending of their game, no matter how crappy people thought it was. The extended ending DLC didn’t actually change the endings of the game, ultimately, and I was happy about that. The ending DLC made things a bit more palatable by adding extra scenes to each ending that better explained what happened as a result of Shepard’s final decision, but again, it was too little too late for Mass Effect 3.
My biggest concern about the ending debate was the outrage that the players demonstrated against BioWare, citing the supposed obligation, which I’ve already said I don’t believe exists, that they had to change the ending. This obligation supposedly arises from the fact that games are a consumer product, and therefore, if the consumer is not happy, something should be done about it. However, I do not believe that this obligation exists in art. You wouldn’t realistically ask an author to change the ending of their novel because you didn’t like it. That doesn’t mean that you, as the consumer, are obliged to like it. You can certainly express your dislike. But if we treat games as solely consumer products and demand satisfaction when we don’t like the plot, where does it end? BioWare has faced criticism about plot points in their games before, and never before have they released a DLC that changed or added anything to a game beyond isolated new content, like the Shadow Broker and Arrival missions of Mass Effect 2, which didn’t change any of the base content of the game. Additionally, I think that a large problem that came out of all this was that a lot of the criticism wasn’t constructive, it was simply uncontrolled rage and petty outburst, which never solves anything. In fact, some of the constructive criticism was lost in the shuffle, which is a shame, because a lot of people had good things to say, and this type of criticism is how progress is made the next time around.
Ultimately, yes, the Mass Effect 3 ending was disappointing. However, I think that while it deserves criticism, it also deserves respect. BioWare was trying to do something unique that didn’t follow the normal video game pattern, but they didn’t do a perfect job. I think that people suggesting that BioWare ruined an entire game franchise, or that they simply can’t be trusted anymore, are blowing things out of proportion. Progress entails taking risks, and while this might not have been the right venue for that risk, it hopefully means that when they take further risks in the future, they will do a better job next time.