There’s no shortage of virtual blood being spilled over the ending of the Mass Effect series of games by Bioware/EA. Specifically the ending of the third and final game, Mass Effect 3. That uber-ending was expected to blow everyone out of the water, and it did. But not in a way that anyone expected or wanted.
One thing everyone agrees on is that the The Mass Effect series is amazing and awesome. I’ve gone on record to say that the series is collectively the best videogame I’ve ever played, and I’ve played a LOT of videogames. I played through the entire M.E. series and I read all of the novels: Revelation, Ascension, and Retribution by Drew Karpyshyn, (writer of M.E. 1 and 2) and Deception by William Dietz. I preordered the collectors edition of ME3, purchased ALL the game guides, and ALL the DLC (DownLoadable Content – Optional expansion missions that extend the gameplay.) I’m as hardcore of a fan as they get without naming my future offspring Wrex or Tali. And I played out the three major endings of M.E.3 just like all the other diehard fans.
I won’t lie to you – the endings of Mass Effect 3 are lame. Mediocre at best. But unlike many fans, I was not mad about it. Disappointed, certainly, like eating your way to the top of a marvelous dessert and finding a raisin instead of a cherry. But after slushing through the Bioware forums and online reviews, and talking to other gamers, I feel like a minority because I’m NOT running down to Bioware headquarters and lighting the building on fire. My friend Saveau thought the ending of M.E.3 bought the writers an eternity of chainsaw intimacy (my interpretation) and still others took some surprising actions against Bioware.
Perhaps I enjoyed the game so much that even a weak ending wasn’t enough to ruin the game for me. Perhaps my Inner Nihilist found the ending amusing and strangely satisfying. Perhaps the novels or my particular game playthrough gave me insight into the game that helped me process the ending. Whatever the reason, I feel objective enough to criticize the game ending with only a small number of expletives, capitol letters and lighter fluid.
Mass Effect Ending, Spoiled in Three Primary Colors
If you played Mass Effect 3 already, you can skip to the next section.
Warning > Spoilers ahead.
Here’s the one-sentence synopsis of entire Mass Effect series: [Deep Breath] An alien race called the Reapers left behind portals in space (called Mass Effect relays) that warn them when organic life evolves enough to take up space travel, and then they come out of hibernation and destroy organic life throughout the galaxy, but the valiant Commander ‘Not On MY Watch’ Shepard has uncovered the Reaper’s nefarious plan and gathered together all the forces of the known universe (organic and otherwise) to wage an epic battle against them, but once he reaches the heart of the Reaper-destroying-weapon known as the Crucible, he meets a Deus Ex Machina (literally ‘Ghost in the Machine’) in the form of a ghostly human kid who believes that synthetic and organic life cannot coexist peacefully so he invented the Reapers to keep the peace by repeatedly eliminating organic life before it gets too uppity, and the only three ways to end this cycle of death and destruction are presented to Commander Shepard as a choice of three possible ending-options: control the reapers, destroy the reapers, or “synthesis”, which combines organic and synthetic lifeforms.
Within these three game ending/choices, there isn’t a lot of latitude. If you choose to control the Reapers, you die. If you chose Synthesis, you die. If you choose to Destroy the reapers and your war assets are high enough, you’ll get to see a few second video clip in which Commander Shepard’s body lies amid burned wreckage, and the scene cuts just as his body moves, so it’s safe to assume you live. If you’re lucky, the earth won’t be destroyed, but your crew aboard the Normandy will be scuttled regardless, crash-landing on a faraway planet. The mass effect relays all explode no matter what you do, spreading some primary color throughout the multiverse, destroying entire systems of planets, ending Faster Than Light space travel, and pretty much insuring that “Shepard” will go down in history as not only the destroyer of the Reapers, but also the greatest war criminal of all time, and the first universal curse word in every known language across all (remaining) species in the known galaxy.
You can watch all the endings on youtube, along with plenty of joke endings and bitching too. There’s even an ridiculously long “documentary” that suggests the entire ending was a hallucination Commander Shepard experienced while under control of the reapers (AKA The Indoctrination Theory) I watched enough of the Indoctrination Theory to say that it is cross between a compelling solution and a desperate intellectual gambit, but no one should have to stretch their imagination that far to make the ending work. Nothing else in the game made such mental leaps of faith. Occam’s Razor says the ending was poorly written, not that it was so complicated that it takes a 90-minute video to explain it to us.
As far as what effect your gameplay had on the ending, it’s easier to point out your choices that DID matter in the finale of the game, because there are only two:
- Whether you salvaged or destroyed the reaper technology at the end of M.E.2. (And even this factor isn’t that important. If you didn’t play M.E.2, it was assumed that you did destroy it.)
- Numbers. Also called the “cold calculus of war” by your companion, Garrus. How many people did you get on board for the final battle?
That’s all. Size matters. None of your decisions mean a damn unless they add people to your posse.
Now, parse the size of your army into the three final choices, and you get a handful of ending cutscenes, all of them amazingly similar, and none of them particularly satisfying. Most likely you die, and that’s probably the better ending for you. You won’t likely see your ship or crew again (because all the FTL relays went boom, remember?) and thanks to your efforts, the universe explodes in one of three primary colors.
“If Bioware made a Titanic video game they would give the player some variety though with 3 different colored icebergs.”
Is that all? People are pissed about that? I was so pissed about midi-chlorians in the Star Wars saga that I wanted to fly out to Hollywood and kick George Lucas in the balls, but I didn’t find the Mass Effect endings particularly worthy of hating on.
After some reflection and chatting with others who finished the game and filtering out all the whining, here’s a list of the major legitimate complaints about the ending.
The Endings From Left Field
Through all three games, the motivation of the Reapers is kept secret. When their purpose is finally revealed, it goes over like a fart in a closet. The gameplay completely failed to foreshadow the ending. You won’t figure it out, no matter how carefully and meticulously you play the games. (The ONLY hint I got through the whole 3-game saga was when a reaper told me “I am order and you are chaos”, which was a specific, Paragon-unlocked dialog option) So when the spooky-ghost-kid known as ‘The Catalyst’ shows up with three unsavory, primary-colored choices, it seems like a last-minute-rush-quick-fix endings, as if the game writers didn’t know what the ending was either until they actually got there and were forced to write something. In one hour. At gunpoint.
All other occasions when I spoke with the enemy, I was told that my puny mind “wouldn’t understand.” Strangely, at the end when Spooky-kid-god finally explained to me that organic life needed to be purged to contain the inevitable war between synthetic and organic life… well, that actually isn’t hard to understand at all. It was, however, inherently WRONG. (See ‘Your God Is An Idiot’, below)
There really isn’t any excuse for such a disconnected ending. This is easy enough for the game designers to control through the use of the Inevitable Master Plotline, and while I applaud Bioware for pushing the envelope and widening their virtual worlds, the beauty of the inevitable master plotline is that it allows the game writers to force critical story plot points down the player’s throat. In this case, it would have not only been warranted but welcome.
Players should have encountered and spoke with the spooky kid-ghost-thing multiple times throughout the game. Instead you chased him around dream sequences that had no meaning. You should have had some insight into what it wanted and why BEFORE you got to the end of the game. Armed with that knowledge, maybe you could have had argued with it, played against its desires/fears, or used other intellectual leverage against it. This is the point in the story where you point to EDI and Joker making out in the observation deck. See? Organic and Artificial life are getting along just fine!
Instead, the ending had all the ugly transition of a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and the available choices were completely out of left field. Not exactly the “control” people were hoping for, which leads me to the next issue.
RPG Decisions = Irrelevant
I really struggled with some decisions in Mass Effect. Should I play this as a Paragon or Rogue? Angel or Asshole? Should I have a love interest? Which crew member will I be knocking boots with? Should I side with criminal elements like Aria T’loak? Who should I support on the council? Who is it safe for me to piss off? Should I sabotage the genophage cure?
These were big decisions in the game. But in the end, all of that RPG gameplay was thrown out, and the “cold calculus of war” was all that mattered.
Gameplay decisions are important to RPG gamers, and they should have been important to the game designers, and they should have been important to the ending too. But it didn’t matter. None of it. All the decisions you had to pause the game to carefully consider, all the hard choices you labored over, and all the sides you took, and all the people you saved and/or pissed off… didn’t amount to a hill of Elcor dung. The only thing that mattered at the end of the game was how many troops you had amassed.
People were promised influence over the ending. Real influence. Control. And even though you got to choose from three endings, that wasn’t the kind of control people wanted. Maybe players have some “control” by choosing the ending, but their 100+ hours of gameplay didn’t have any “effect” on the ending, and that’s what people really wanted.
Your God Is An Idiot
There was no opportunity to point out that the AI spooky-ghost-kid is incorrect in arguing that synthetic and organic life cannot live together in peace. Even if this were true, the point could be argued that a life at war is better and more productive than a constant cycle of annihilation.
But it isn’t true. And the fact that you’re not given the option to argue with the Idiot Ex Machina is as frustrating as the fact that you also can’t shoot the little bastard. In fact, Saveau pointed out to me that the Catalyst’s beliefs go AGAINST a major theme of the game for those players who brought peace to so many warring species like the Geth/Quanari. Which is also in itself proof against the spooky kid’s theory, but there’s even stronger proof.
The Normandy’s shipboard artificial intelligence known as EDI bears special mention here, because she manages to cross the line between synthetic and organic life over the course of the game. With encouragement on your part, EDI may fall in love with Joker, the pilot of the Normandy. In fact, she may love him so much, that she overrides her own self-preservation code because she decides that she would willingly die to protect him. Later, she feels fear of death before going into the final battle.
Wow. This is quite possibly the most amazing character arc of all time, and yet another reason Bioware games are so fucking awesome. The fact that it has no purpose in the story and is completely ignored in a climactic endgame decision about synthetic and organic life getting along is not just an oversight. It’s an injustice to the writers and the gamers.
Accomplishment, Success, and the Lack Thereof
A complaint raised by the Retake Mass Effect movement (which we’ll get to shortly) raised this issue with the game. They said it was missing “A heroic ending which provides a better sense of accomplishment.” Elsewhere I saw this written as “Hard-won success through your actions in the face of impossible odds.”
I’m tempted to disagree, because too many Disney movies and Hollywood films take Happily Ever After Ending as a default, so I’m always eager to see stories that DON’T end this way. However, in this case, we are dealing with a media that has the potential for MULTIPLE ENDINGS and since the player gets to pick between them, what harm can there be in allowing someone to pick a happy ending? If the endings were truly different, then you’d have discussion about which one was better. Which are you? Team Happy or Team Martyr? Selfish Love or Self-Sacrifice? And think of the replayability, something the marketing departments love to go on about. But I doubt anyone will be replaying Mass Effect. The endings are all pretty much the same.
I fully expected to have to sacrifice either myself or my crew to stop the reapers. Actually, I expected to have to chose between my romantic interest and stopping the reapers. THAT is the kind of storytelling that tears your f-ing heart out. But all three of the choices turn out pretty much the same way, and as I said before, none of them were particularly satisfying.
“Success” and “sense of accomplishment” are relative terms. Your efforts at the end of M.E.3 were successful. If you make it to the Crucible, I don’t think there’s a way to LOSE the game, per se. Your goal is to stop the reapers and save the frickin multiverse, and no matter which option you choose, you stop the reapers and save the frickin multiverse. You might not save Earth. You might not save your friends. You will most likely die in a primary-colored, galactic explosion.
But you will be successful.
It just isn’t a very good success. It’s a very limited, conditional success, and it comes with a high cost. Too high for some, apparently. Want to know why that is?
Good, because there’s one more piece to this puzzle, and I’m going to save it for last. It’s the piece that amplifies all these points of contention to superhuman proportions. But for now, these are all legitimate complaints about the ending.
Let’s release the fanboys, and see what happens…
The ending of the game Mass Effect 3 ignited the largest-scale internet fan debacle the media world has encountered thus far. I’d call it as close to “rioting in the streets” as you can get via online activity.
The Retake Mass Effect Effort
Someone calling him/herself “The Mass Effect Community” used the online service ChipIn to setup a donation portal to the charity Child’s Play. Dissatisfied gamers were encouraged to contribute to the Child’s Play charity in lieu of signing a petition. The list of demands to Bioware was simple:
We therefore respectfully request additional endings be added to the game which provide:
- A more complete explanation of the story events
- An explaination [SIC] of the outcome of the decisions made, especially with regard to the planets, races, and companions detailed throughout the series
- A heroic ending which provides a better sense of accomplishment
The Retake Mass Effect effort raised over $40,000 in its first day.
As of today, the charity has raised over $80,000.
The scale of this effort can’t be overstated. over 4,000 people donated on average $20 each to get the game ending of Mass Effect 3 changed.
The Blind Leading The Angry
Unfortunately (or perhaps Fortunately) whoever started the effort stopped soliciting donations, stating that they had “won” because Bioware announced that it will provide DLC to help clarify the ending (see below), and also because of people misunderstanding the involvement of the Child’s Play charity. Many people thought they were buying an alternate ending of the game, or that Child’s Play was going to take on Bioware, or help to produce an alternate game ending. The charity was flooded with requests asking what actions they were going to take, and for updates about when the new ending would be available.
Once people realized that the Child’s Play charity was actually…um, a CHARITY, and not taking action towards a new game ending, many people asked for their money back, to the point where the charity was contacted by Paypal directly to see what was going on. Tycho Brahe released a statement clearing up the charity’s position:
Child’s Play cannot be a tool to draw attention to a cause. Child’s Play must be the Cause.
What’s ironic is that the pissed off gamers lost money on another bad ending here, too. But this is what happens when the blind lead the angry. I’d say this worked out for the best…this time. The angry mob got the attention of Bioware, who promised to make things better. A charity got soaked in angry e-mails and phone calls, but they also got $80,000, so they can pay someone to answer phones and e-mails for them.
Bioware should be really fucking thankful. Mark my words this will happen again, by someone with a real plan. And it will not end pleasantly. Had someone started a kickstarter account with some semblance of an action plan involving lawyers and class-action lawsuits, this story would have turned out quite differently. They could have really done some real damage, not only to Bioware, but to any potential video game makers, their insurance agencies, and the entire video game industry.
FTC? BBB? WTF?
Another disappointed gamer decided that Bioware’s game did not live up to the promises of its marketing department:
“After reading through the list of promises about the ending of the game they made in their advertising campaign and PR interviews, it was clear that the product we got did not live up to any of those claims…”
His solution was to file complaints with the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau.
Hopefully none of you reading this need a lawyer to tell you how silly this is, even if BBB employees agree that Bioware marketing needs to learn to lie better . If there were repercussions for media not living up to its marketing hype, then all marketing execs would be strangled to death with their own intestines, and George Lucas would be doing jail-time for midi-clorians.
Operation Letter Tsunami
A latecomer to the Mass Effect Ending Rebellion is an attempt to flood the Bioware offices with hand-written letters, postcards, drawings, pleas and other hard-copy materials.
The Operation Letter Tsunami website offers template messages and addresses of Bioware HQ. Their target date to flood Bioware offices with letters is 12 May 2012.
We want to send letters and not just some letters. We want enough letters to fill the entire building. Many people have great ideas for the letters. Rather than just pick one and limit the choices, we will send them all. We will send postcards. We will send POV letters. We will send artwork. We will send them all.
Date has been set, the tides will rise on 12 May
I’m not entirely sure what this hopes to accomplish, since Bioware has already agreed to run damage control on the issue.
Bioware Relents, Promising An “Extended Cut” Ending
Just before the Internet actually physically exploded with all the intensity of a mass effect relay, Dr. Ray Muzyka, co-founder of BioWare responded to the seething masses on his blog:
Exec Producer Casey Hudson and the team are hard at work on a number of game content initiatives that will help answer the questions, providing more clarity for those seeking further closure to their journey. You’ll hear more on this in April. We’re working hard to maintain the right balance between the artistic integrity of the original story while addressing the fan feedback we’ve received.
This isn’t new. We’ve all seen “director’s cut” or “alternate ending” versions of films that attempted to undo previous damage. And if there was ever a medium made for content retraction, videogames are it. Treat it like a bug in the code, upload new ending and presto! Now game designers can release poorly written code AND poorly written content and patch it up after delivery! But notice that Bioware isn’t offering a new ending, they are offering “clarity” and “closure”. Which is like saying “If you understood what we were trying to do, you’d approve.” I’m not so sure. It’s doubtful that there’s any way Bioware will placate angered fanboys unless they give them quadruple their money back and an Asari handjob.
As I write this, the new ending is already in production, and the term “Extended Cut” is being thrown around.
Many people disagree with Bioware’s re-actions, suggesting it is like “Negotiating with terrorists.” The fact that the mob efforts were successful will only make people more likely to do it again in the future. But that’s a blog post for another day.
So, Was The Ending Of Mass Effect 3 Really THAT bad?
No, it really wasn’t. It was a dud, but it certainly wasn’t worth asking for your money back, or launching an angry fundraising campaign, complaining to the FTC or BBB or letter-bombing Bioware HQ. Some people actually liked the M.E.3 ending and others said it was time to leave Bioware alone.
Anyone who disagrees certainly hasn’t played Neverwinter Nights 2, or Fallout 3, or watched the Matrix movie trilogy. These media all had crap-tastic endings, but none of them launched this kind of uprising.
Neverwinter Nights 2 put in bold on the back cover of the box “Everything you do has meaning” but your actions in the game only ran up your Good/Evil score, and the game ended with a Good or Evil slideshow, spiced with tiny bits of your gameplay decisions. A much bigger disappointment than the Mass Effect ending, I assure you.
Fallout 3 bragged about having many different endings, but that turned out to be a lie, since there were only four, and all of them were far lamer than M.E.3.
I was only disappointed that all the endings of M.E.3 were so similar and lame, when they could have been so much more varied, compelling and memorable. Bioware has great writers, but the endings of ME3 don’t really show that. I’d give the game a 4-star rating, pulling a star because of the weak endings.
So why the uprising? What did people really want?
In M.E.3, people were promised to have influence over the ending:
Experience a sci-fi epic with multiple endings determined by your choices and actions throughout the game
The problem, as I said before, is that they got this, but it just wasn’t good enough. They had choice, but none of the choices offered were good enough.
To put it bluntly, the endings did not meet player expectations. Here’s why:
Emotional Investment, Cubed
“Remember – don’t write a check with your mouth you can’t cash with your ass.”
A multi-game series is one of the largest media investments you can make. The Mass Effect series makes the Harry Potter series look trite. You could sink well over $200 into the Mass Effect series, and push 150 hours of gameplay. For some people that could be an entire year’s worth of going to the theater. Or a year’s worth of books. Or a year’s worth of Netflix. And the physical cost pales in comparison to the emotional investment fans make via the magical interactivity of videogames. You could spend the length of an average movie just setting up your character in Mass Effect.
After all that time, money, energy, effort, planning, guessing, frustration, failure, success and hope… when all of your button-mashing efforts and mind-bending, ethics-flexing, political-maneuvering, decision-making culminates in the final climactic climax… the end of all endings… the role-playing orgasm you’ve waited for, worked for, and paid for when you could have used that time/money/effort for other things…
The ending better not SUCK. In fact, it better not even be just OK, because the audience expects awesome-covered-awesomeness with a cherry on top. An awesome cherry, too. Because all that emotional energy carried over from ME1 to ME2 and on to ME3, ramping up as it went.
This was not just three games added together in a row. Everything about this game grew exponentially with each part of the series. It wasn’t just three times as much marketing hype, it was marketing hype cubed. With all the awesome gameplay and good reviews of the first two games, all that emotional energy built up, storing up silently in your Saved Games files. Sitting there like a shaken up pop bottle, getting another jostle with every husk you killed and every decision you made, building up pressure and waiting for the game ending to pull the trigger…
With so much emotional energy riding on that ending, the final minutes of the Mass Effect series released with a fizzle. I’ll be those who jumped into the series on the third game and did not play M.E.1 or 2 probably weren’t as upset by the ending. But those who carried all that expectation with them from ME1 would be more likely to think the ending was an Epic Fail. And when the ending failed to properly resolve all that emotional energy, people put it to other uses: complaints, letters, forums, calls to action, and blog posts like this one.
A Good Ending
The good news is that if people didn’t love the game so much, they wouldn’t have gotten so mad about the ending.
So, while Bioware seems to be getting burned by it’s own fans, lets not forget who lit those flames in Mass Effect 1 and who threw a can of gas on them with Mass Effect 2 and then stoked the fire with TNT during 99% of Mass Effect 3. Bioware burned themselves by writing a check with their mouth that their ass couldn’t cash. Their only crime is making the greatest dessert in the world and putting a raisin on top.
It may be too late for the game, but the entire Mass Effect Ending Debacle can still have a good ending. The gamers spoke, and Bioware listened. They realize the error they made and are taking steps to correct it. Video game companies worldwide are watching this unfold, and I hope they learn a valuable lesson: the ending is important. It’s not something you skimp on, cut short, or kick out half-finished because you have deadlines. I’m pretty sure Bioware game endings will improve because of this, and that’s something they’ve needed for a long time. I’m looking forward to the “Mass Effect 3 – Extended Cut” ending from Bioware, as well as other games they release in the future.