Please note; this article contains SPOILERS. I will be putting the spoilery stuff after a jump, so if you don’t want to know anything about the endings to Mass Effect 3 or various other games like Beyond Good and Evil and Final Fantasy X, my advice is to not click the jump. Got it? Good.
So there’s been a lot of talk about the incredibly vague “ending” of Mass Effect 3 (It’s actually one ending with about sixteen different tweaks), and many are not in the least bit satisfied with it.
Now, I for one believe the conclusion to a game needs to be somewhat solid. When you’ve been playing a game for anything between ten and 180 hours, there has to be an overall sense of climax to it all. You’ve invested time and patience into the game, come to know the characters, accepted the lore of the game and all that entails. You’ve invested yourself into it, and obviously – having invested so much time into it – come to love and admire the universe that has been so well crafted for you. An ending should be natural if this process has worked as intended.
However, a solid ending doesn’t mean it has to wrap EVERYTHING up. Questions are good. Some uncertainty is good. Some moral indignation, consequences that are not quite what you expected is good. You don’t need a happy, huggy ending all the time. Solid doesn’t mean everything needs to be gift-wrapped in a shiny pink silk bow and delivered to you by FedEx before 12pm on the very next day. That’s expecting far too much, especially in a world and industry where moral choice dialogues are rife – it’s simply not cost-effective, or effective in the literary sense, to be able to please everyone with a dozen dramatically different endings. The same thing with just one ending – in a game of choice, one ending isn’t really capable of fitting in with the whole ethos either. It’s a lose-lose, and there is never going to be a winner in this fight. Mass Effect is, in this sense, perhaps the victim of its own success – by creating this rich and complex tapestry, it has unfortunately fallen simply by the sheer weight of expectation placed upon it.
That’s the niceties out of the way, and so now time for the jump. Everything past this point will have spoilers. This is your second warning.
And this is your third and final warning. Spoilers incoming. Do NOT shout at me if you read below this line. You have been warned.
The reasons Mass Effect 3’s ending has divided opinion so much is that it has gaping, unavoidable plot holes that are like a big black hole, sucking in everything you thought you knew about the series and the characters.
For a start, there’s this idea that the Mass Effect relays are now destroyed. Which means, effectively, the army you amass and bring to Earth is now stranded in the Sol system.
You know how Earth has problems with resources? Now multiply that with multiple massive alien armies, some species who are naturally more violent or prone to domination than others and you have what is, ostensibly, a BAD ending. You have indeed ended the threat of the Reapers – but at the same time, doomed Earth and billions of people of different races and species. Congratulations. You’ve replaced one almighty apocalypse scenario with another.
Then there is the sudden realisation that your “companions”, the team you’ve loved and built up a relationship with, come to trust, seem to also secretly be harbouring cowards and are perfectly happy to let Sheperd die a horrid death. Everything we’ve been through, the countless times Sheperd has saved their sorry hides, that was all for naught. Doesn’t count, because when the chips are down and Shepard needs a hand, it’s not there.
Shepard is alone. That is the overall consequence here. He/she is one human being, and despite the social negotiations and the investment in the characters, Shepard will always be alone. That is not in itself cause for lots of indignation – but I will admit, it doesn’t make sense in context.
Then there is the three-way choice at the end.
You get three options ;
(1) You can destroy ALL synthetic life.
(2) You can fuse flesh and synthetic life together.
(3) You can control the Reapers, after everything you’ve been through.
These are the only options “The Child” gives you. And for many, all of these go against the natural ethos generated over three games – Renegade or Paragon, it doesn’t matter, these are your options and basically, the ending is the same for everyone but slightly tweaked based on certain variables; like your choice here, who you kept alive, the side-quests you have done over the games, who you kept alive in Mass Effect 1 and 2 and so forth.
And I get it. I really do. None of this makes sense in the context of the game or the series. The ending isn’t the resounding success or conclusion people hoped for. I get it. I sympathise. I understand and I feel your pain.
But it isn’t like we’ve not had this sort of shit before.
I mean, let’s take a quick look at some other games with decidedly dodgy endings in their own context;
* Beyond Good and Evil; After Jade beats the Domz threat, and she releases people from their alien prisons, it seems all is well. That we’re about to have a happy ending. And then, after the credits, Uncle Pey’j appears to be deeply distressed and unwell – and then, suddenly, an alien boil – the mutation that Jade worked so hard to extinguish – appears on his wrist. Yup, it would appear that poor Jade has banished one Domz army – only, sadly, to create another. Great. Fantastic. And we’re still waiting for the sequel.
* Final Fantasy X (and X-2); Yuna loses Tidus seeing as he is only a figment of the Eion’s fevered dreams of the past. This changes Yuna, causes her to reflect deeply and consider the consequences of her actions – only in the sequel, X-2, to totally forget that and basically become a Charlie’s Angels-type figure, overtly flirty and sexual. Oh, and in the BEST ending, Yuna gets Tidus back – they find a way to make this dream character real, not the one from the past who is tormenting the world – her Tidus. The one she remembered. It was a happy ending, but required more deus-ex machina bullshit than you’d find in the entirety of the Doctor Who saga to make it work.
* Metal Gear Solid 2; Oh god, where the hell do I start with MGS2? To say this ending was utterly barking would be doing it the greatest disservice in the world. Turns out that your little stealth operative Raiden has been taking instructions from a warped, twisted AI who toys with his emotions and memories, convinced in the superiority of the United States. And turns out Raiden wasn’t the main character after all, but a side character. It’s like saving Princess Peach as Luigi, only to see Mario take all the credit at the end, and Luigi is shoved to one side. Seriously?!
These are just three examples of unsatisfying endings, there are dozens more out there. The games industry is kind of rife with this sort of thing these days – whereas once upon a time the climax was a specially-composed piece of music set to some snapshots or curtain call, these days the complicated nature of most tales means conclusions can either be too black and white, or too vague.
BUT – and there is a BUT here after all this complaining – it doesn’t detract from the fact these are actually, dare I say it, bloody good games.
Sure, the endings are a bit shit. But at the same time, the payoff has already happened – you have enjoyed a dozen hours or more of fantastic dialogue, characters and story. Tight, honed, enjoyable action. Explored nooks and crannies, come to love it. The vague endings are annoying, sure, and the awkward shoehorning sometimes grates, but the games ARE good. The endings, as awkward as they are, should not be what defines a game.
Mass Effect 3 isn’t shit because the ending is shit. The game is still soundly solid. The game is still enjoyable. You’ve had the payoff. Shepard we all knew was going to die – that was NEVER A SECRET. The manner of that death, sure, sucks balls. But we knew. We knew a long time ago. And we knew too, with so many variables from the past games, that a complete ending was -always- going to be a bit of a stretch. Shouldn’t have stopped them trying, I agree, but it was always going to be a bit of an issue for such a complicated narrative.
And this is the ultimate issue at hand here. Endings are the conclusion of a tale – but they shouldn’t always flatter your ego. They shouldn’t always be complete, or tie everything up in a neat bow. A good ending should conclude one story, and possibly open another. Mass Effect 3 does both – there are consequences to your actions that open up scope for a sequel, and concludes Shepard’s story by killing the character off. In that context, from a purely analytical writers perspective, the ending is a resounding success.
Everything else in between is grasping at straws, trying to make sense of things, wanting there to be more. A good story doesn’t always need to make complete sense – like the world, there are shades of light and dark, things we don’t like, consequences we don’t imagine until they inevitably turn up. It keeps it in the memory. It keeps us thinking long after the game has concluded. It keeps us, arguably, hoping for another game to just quiet those internal monologues we have to work out what an ending has accomplished.
People assume Mass Effect 3 is “the end”. It’s not. BioWare never said ME3 is the end of Mass Effect – just that it was the end of Shepard.
So the vagueness, the consequences, the actions, the complications – all signs point to a sequel. But this time as a different character, with a different team as the Normandy is stranded on a planet somewhere in the arse-end of the galaxy, putting right the wrongs of the past most likely.
I suspect the ending, as much as people hate it, is perhaps cleverly done as to leave much more open for a sequel, or the MMO variation that has been mentioned a couple of times – re-activating the Mass Effect relays, seeing what has happened to the worlds after a century or so alone and cut off from the rest of the galaxy and all that. Who knows where they’ll take it next? But they’ll probably do something with it. They’ve left it open enough for a revisit in a few years time.
It likely wasn’t meant to be an open and shut case. And in that, as unsatisfying as it feels now, I think BioWare are playing a very clever game. They got away with it. They probably knew this wasn’t going to be easy – but they just about, in some strange way, made the best of a peculiarly awkward situation.
However, I will say – after The Old Republic and Dragon Age 2 – it may be too clever under the circumstances they are in now. Fans of the series are soundly condemning the ending. People have lost their faith in BioWare – once the darlings of the gaming community – to make games “properly”. There will be a stigma attached to BioWare for many, many years as a result of their actions, comments and mannerisms the past couple of years.
Those are the consequences of their action dialogue options, the choices they made for themselves. Only time will tell if the story of BioWare will have a happier ending than the one they left with fans of Mass Effect 3…