More Than a Game: Why the Mass Effect 3 Endings Work
By now, you have heard the outcry. Gamers have been blasting BioWare for how the company chose to end Mass Effect 3. Some have gone so far as to demand refunds on the game from Amazon and other retailers. Others have taken a much more gentle approach, chipping in to send 400 cupcakes to BioWare and including a note saying they believe the company will get it right. Things got so bad that Dr. Ray Muzyka, one of the co-founders of BioWare, wrote a statement on the company’s blog, viewable in its entirety here, stating the Mass Effect team was working on some game initiatives which should help fill in the gaps. Some are saying this means BioWare is going to change the endings, but that is not what Muzyka actually said.
While I am not opposed to having more info on what happens after the endings, I for one hope BioWare does not change them. Why, you ask? I have one simple answer:
By ending the way the game does, the Mass Effect Trilogy does something few games manage to do: transcend the medium in which it was made and become more than just a game.
As you might imagine, it is impossible for me to truly present my case without getting into major spoilers both for the trilogy as a whole and Mass Effect 3 in particular. If you do not want the endings ruined, do not read this until you have beaten the game.
The Struggle at the Heart of the Trilogy
On the surface, Mass Effect is a story about the various races of the galaxy having to band together to deal with a threat to all life as they know it. Throughout the games, you play as Commander Shepard, the first human Spectre and the one person in the galaxy who seems to be uniquely qualified to unite the various races against the Reapers. In each game, you enlist more and more people to fight a threat that, once it finally arrives, has the power to destroy everything in its path.
BioWare does a fantastic job in Mass Effect 3 of showing the gamer just how dire things are becoming. Even the controversial killing of the kid on the shuttle is used to give Shepard that reason to push on against impossible odds, managing to do what no one in their right mind had thought was possible. I loved the conversation I had with Garius where he made the joke: “Next you’ll be telling me the Turians and Krogan are working together. Oh wait, you did that too.” That little comment helps solidify just how impossible the task set before you is, and yet if you play your cards right, you are able to do just that: the impossible.
When it comes right down to it, though, that is not the true conflict of Mass Effect, at least not as I see it. The real conflict lies within one single question: is it possible for organic and synthetic life to coexist. You see this theme crop up throughout the games over and over again, from the Quarian war with the Geth to the questions about whether a fully unshackled EDI can be trusted. At several different junctions throughout the games, you are faced with decisions which reinforce this issue, including but not limited to whether you destroy the Reaper base, encourage EDI to understand what it means be truly alive or work together with Legion to eventually free the Geth from Reaper control. At key points in the story, you make choices which show which side of the debate you are on, including what you chose to say when arguing with Javik about this very issue. It is at the very heart of the story, and it is the key to understanding the choices at the end.
The Choices You Make
By the time I beat the game, the controversy over the ending was in full swing. I was bracing myself for something I may not like, but I was also pretty sure things were being blown out of proportion. I rushed to the beam which would transport me to the Citadel for the final showdown, expecting a harrowing battle to take control of the former home of the Council.
What I got instead was a lengthy set of cut scenes with choices which finally helped explain just what was happening.
First comes the showdown with the Illusive Man. I had built up enough reputation to get him to see the Reapers were controlling him, and he chose to end his life to break the hold. Anderson and I talked, he passed on, and just as I thought that I was going to do that as well, Hackett tells me the Crucible is not firing. I am brought up to a new part of the Citadel, and there two things happen of great significance: I meat the catalyst and am given my choices.
What is so significant about the catalyst you say? Well, I find it interesting it was in the form of the boy you saw die in the shuttle explosion. The question is, did you really see him die, or was that the catalyst giving you that extra spark of drive from the beginning, figuring it would help you do what needed to be done. Did the catalyst take on the form of the boy just to help interact with Shepard, or was it the boy all along? That’s a question which could probably be debated for years to come.
The second thing is definitely the most important. The catalyst explains the Reapers exist to cull intelligent life from the universe at the point it is capable of making truly sentient synthetic life in order to “control the chaos.” According to the catalyst, there will always be unrest between organic and synthetic life, and the Reapers were its solution for dealing with this. It also informs Shepard this plan will no longer work. You are given three choices: Destroy all synthetic life, including EDI and the Geth (if you have not already destroyed them), Take control of the Reapers as the new catalyst or add your energy as an organic/synthetic hybrid to the Crucible to merge organics and synthetics into a new form of life.
So there I sat: three very different choices, three very different possible solutions. While this could have been a rather difficult choice, for me it was not. After all, I had already made the choice by the way I had chosen to handle all of the questions arising from the struggle between synthetic and organic life throughout the series. The only real question was would I remain true the the Shepard I had created?
The Brilliance of the Choices
As many of you may remember, I wrote an article about how I thought the ending of Fable 2 was actually good, despite the issues many had with it. The game presented you with three possible and choices. and the question was which would you chose. The only problem with it was Lionhead let gameplay after the main story be a deciding factor in what choice you made. I ended up going against the character I had created just because it would give me something I needed to complete a quest, where as the ending I wanted to choose would block that quest from me. I felt like I was betraying the character I had created, and that was really brought home when the Knothole Island DLC was added, which would have allowed me to bring back what I needed to complete the quest and still made the choice I wanted.
What is great about Mass Effect 3 is that does not happen. There was no issue I would not resolve if I made one of the choices. The question I was faced with was which choice would my Shepard make.
You see the distinction there? I did not make the final choice based on weighing just that final choice. I made it based on how I had played the game up to that point. I had destroyed the Reaper base and opposed the Illusive Man’s ideal of trying to control the reapers from the get go, so that choice did not make any sense for my Shepard. I had also taken steps to foster a working relationship between organics and synthetics. I had encouraged EDI to explore both what it meant to be alive and the relationship she had with Joker. I had argued against Javik every time he tried to tell me synthetics could not be trusted, trying to get him to see the difference between the Reapers and EDI/the Geth. I had even backed Legion when he tricked me into using Reaper Code to make the Geth truly alive. Every action I had taken had backed the idea that organics and synthetics could work together.
Still, there was truth in what the catalyst said about the two sides only being united for a short time. All it would take was another Illusive Man or an intelligence similar to the Reapers to send the truce which had been fostered spiraling down into chaos once again. A more permanent solution was needed; one where organics and synthetics would have to rely on each other, thus maintaining the alliance between them.
So I made the only choice my version of Shepard could make: I dove into the light of the Crucible and united the two forms of life.
And that is the brilliance of the ending of Mass Effect 3. It has nothing to do with the end cut scene or the man telling his son about the great “Commander Shepard.” It has everything to do with putting the gamer in a position where he must decide if he will remain true to the character he has dedicated possibly 100+ hours to creating. Could the gamer in good conscience go against all that his version of Shepard was just to get the ending he wanted. or would he chose to remain true to the way he played the game? That is the true test of the ending, at least in my opinion.
Was that truly BioWare’s plan all along, or was this something they kind of stumbled into either as the game came together or by accident? I truly cannot say, but as the founders of BioWare have doctorates and are extremely intelligent, I would not put it past them to have done this intentionally. Even if that was not the case. having an ending like this which deals with the deeper questions of how do you live with truly sentient synthetic life makes for a game which manages to combine high concept Science Fiction with rousing action. It is not the only story to have done this; Blade Runner, a story based on Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, did the same thing. It is rare in any medium, however, so rare in fact that I cannot think of another example in the realm of video games. Mass Effect 3 truly helps make the trilogy so much more than the sum of its parts.
There is another reason this ending works. BioWare was faced with the unenviable task of wrapping up a trilogy of games where each player’s experiences could be radically different based on the choices made. When I hear of gamers saying they wanted more closure in the ending, I wonder if they understand just what they would be asking BioWare to do. Programming the kind of ending some gamers were expecting would have been a nightmare: BioWare probably would have had to have well over 20 different endings based on the characters left alive after Mass Effect 2 and the major choices you could make which would completely alter the game. Instead of attempting to do that, they chose to give you a chance to interact with your team before heading into the final mission. There you got to say your goodbyes and share mutual admiration with the people who had been there for you throughout this war. What made this even more interesting was it was not forced upon you; you could go straight to the next mission without addressing any of your teammates individually. Sure, you would miss out on much of the closure you were seeking, but BioWare gave you that option if you so chose.
Why Is This Significant?
Have you ever been reading a book or watching a movie/series where someone did something so out of character your felt betrayed? You got invested in a particular character, and suddenly you did not know what to believe anymore. You may even have found yourself wondering just what the author/script writer was thinking by having that character behave in such a way. The amazing thing in Mass Effect 3 is you now get to play the part of that writer. Yes, there is a story written for you, but how it plays out is determined primarily by the choices you make. In the end, you must decide if you are going to make your Shepard do something which goes against the character you have shaped through three games. That alone makes this ending one which will stick with me for years to come.
I find it interesting that, after beating the game, you are brought back to a position just before your attack on the Illusive Man’s hideout, which begins the endgame. I have heard this was done for DLC purposes, but it wold give you the option of playing through the end and making a different choice. I personally could not make either of the other choices without replaying at least Mass Effect 2 and 3 again, however, making significantly different choices than I made the first time. Otherwise, I would be betraying the Shepard I created, and I am invested too much in him to do that.