The Three Thematic Failings of Mass Effect 3’s Ending, Part 1: Weight and Payoff

Oh, Mass Effect 3.

I really don’t know how, but you somehow managed to piss off oh so many people.

Well, rather, I do know. There’s a lot of reasons for it, from the palette-swapped end cinematics, to the lack of a solid epilogue for your companions, to even simple gameplay mechanic failings. And, while those are fairly valid points (Its a sad statement when the most fervent supporters of something have to admit that its pretty lazy), there’s some heavy, underlying issues with the end: The ending to Mass Effect 3 simply clashes with the themes that were so prominent elsewhere in the three games.

Oh, and this should go without saying, but hey: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Venture on at your own risk.

I’ll get to the other two in future posts, but I feel like the most prominent failing of Mass Effect 3 is simple: Your decisions have weight.

Recap: Here’s How the Saga Ends

At the end of Mass Effect 3, assuming you have gotten enough war assets, you are presented with three options by the creating/controlling intelligence behind the big bad of the series, The Reapers: You can:

Control the Reapers, killing your Shepard so that you can force the Reapers to leave the Galaxy alone.

Destroy all Synthetic intelligence in the galaxy, which includes the Reapers, but also includes the Geth (who may be buddies at this point), EDI (an AI that IS your friend) and probably your Shepard, since due to the events of the first game your Shepard has a few after-market synthetic parts. This is the only ending where its possible to survive, and you only get that if you have a REALLY high War Asset rating.

Use your Shepard as the blueprint to reshape all life in the galaxy, Combining synthetic and organic life, creating an energy wave that changes everything.

After you make the decision, the super-weapon you’re in creates the energy wave, killing/forcing-away all the Reapers on and around Earth, and it propagates throughout the galaxy via the Mass Relays, destroying them (making interstellar travel severely less convenient) but doing the same to all the Reapers in those systems. You see your ship fleeing the energy wave, before the wave catches up, knocking it to some far away, gorgeous planet, where you see the survivors of the crash climb out, looking out on the beautiful world. Roll Credits.

Oh, and after the credits we’re treated to an old man (voiced by the one and only Buzz Aldrin!) finishing up telling his grandson about The Shepard, ensuring that life will continue on. If you have the super-high War Assets rating, you will then see Shepard in some rubble, taking a gasp of breath.

Sounds impressive on paper, maybe. But there’s a problem:

All three endings have, aside from the color of the energy wave and other, minor changes, the same cinematic.

Palette Swap: Not Just for Monster Sprites Anymore!

This is, frankly speaking, a massive event. Either all Synthetic life is destroyed, the Reapers are controlled by Shepard, or the very nature of organic life is changed at the single most fundamental level across the entire galaxy! Not to mention that the basic method by which people travel the starts is gone, and would take forever to rebuild, if it could be rebuilt at all.

Say that you were reading a book, and at the end of the book, due to some powerful event, all oil disappeared from the Earth, and that’s where the book ended. You might be able to reason out what might happen as a result, but it would still not have the same impact as if the book explored a world without oil for a little, showing how the world reacted to the sudden loss.

Now, lets look at the end to Mass Effect 2. The entire game is building up to what seems to be a suicide mission. You build a team, gain their loyalty, devotion and focus, have the opportunity to upgrade your ship, and the stakes get raised when most of your crew is taken by the enemy. And then the choices start coming.

Here’s a Sadistic Choice for You…

Do you leave immediately to save your crew, if you’re not completely ready? Wait too long, and members of your crew will die. But if you go immediately and you’re not ready, you might lose some of your teammates in the attack.

Did you remember to upgrade your ship? If not, you can lose three loyal teammates on the attack run.

You’re faced with choices throughout the attack, on who should do certain jobs (hack a system, lead a secondary fire-team, create a pseudo-science bubble). Choose the wrong teammember, be they unsuited for the task or not Loyal? Someone’s going to die as a result.

When you get to the kidnapped crew, do you send someone to go back with them? If you don’t, the crew doesn’t make it, but if you do, your team is weaker, and you might lose someone else later on.

This is what all of Mass Effect did so well, up until the final ten minutes: Show you how your choices influenced things. Even in the third game, there were choices within the game, as well as choices coming from the previous games, that paid off, for better or worse. Sometimes an off-hand comment, sometimes with dead bodies.

But there was no payoff for the final, and most important choice. I remember sitting there in my playthrough, stunned at the possibilities. What’s the right choice? What’s the choice I would do in that situation? I made my choice, but before taking it, alt-tabbed out and backed up my save. I just had to know what would lie at the end of the three roads.

Imagine the impact it would have had if you had seen Earth, ten years later. The surviving party members, meeting up in a recovering London and discussing how the galaxy had changed, and maybe discussing their good friend Shepard, who couldn’t make it.

But, instead? All Bioware could deliver was a shrug. And that’s perhaps the worst way to end a franchise.

Part 2: Just a (Wo)Man

Part 3: Sacrifice


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  1. The Three Thematic Failings of Mass Effect 3′s Ending, Part 2: Just A (Wo)man « Beyond the Polygons
  2. The Three Thematic Failings of Mass Effect 3′s Ending, Part 3: Sacrifice « Beyond the Polygons
  3. Captain America 2: Trying to Have your Apple Pie and Eat it Too | Beyond the Polygons

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