Yes, this is about the “No happy ending” thing. But, then again, not really.
Getting this out of the way…
At the end, you’re faced with three options. All of which destroy the Mass Relays. All of which you expect to kill you.
The first failing here, is that its just not a sacrifice by Shepard.
Dead (Wo)Man Limping
At this point in the story, you are very badly injured, given that you took a hit from a weapon that tears apart tanks. Its not unreasonable to say that you’re going to die there.
You are faced with three options, and have little to convince yourself that you can survive any of them (unless you looked up that you can survived the Destroy ending if your war assets are high enough, but no meta gaming!).
So. If you take any of the three listed options, you’ll die. If you do nothing, you’ll die.
In essence, you’re dead already, all you’re doing here is picking how you’re going to go out and what will happen as a result.
Imagine if a man had to choose between death by electrocution or death by a gas chamber, but going out by the Gas Chamber means that an orphan would be saved. Does the decision to save the orphan seem heroic? The guy is dead either way.
Because the consequences for Shepard are essentially the same, the decision feels flat. Most of the other choices throughout the series had a clear benefit on one side of the equation. Save the colonists on Feros? You can, but its a lot harder than just shooting them, particularly if you run out of grenades. You might not make it out.
Compare this to Shepard’s actual sacrifice: Saving Joker when the Normandy was being destroyed. Even though you didn’t have control over Shepard’s action there, it felt like a real sacrifice, because Shepard could have let Joker die. But he didn’t, he sacrificed himself willingly and with other options for survival, and made sure Joker got out alive.
That’s why the “Every option for Shepard leads to his probable or certain death” takes the oomph out of the sacrifice. There’s no way for Shepard to get out of there alive. He’s dead already, so he might as well do some good while he’s at it.
But, there’s also the lack of a happy ending. Of course.
Happily Ever After
Let me be clear: No one was expecting a Happily Ever After ending. Well, maybe some were, but its not a deal-breaker for there to be no happy ending.
The problem is that, unless you REALLY screw up, all the endings are… well, just as cheerful. Shepard dies (…ignoring the 5k War Asset rating, because “deep breath in a pile of rubble” is just… too much to go into there), the Relays are all exploded, and things change massively.
And, yes, there’s no way to avoid it, no matter how hard you work, no matter what kind of effort you put into building up war assets.
One of the great unappreciated gems of the industry is the expansion pack to Neverwinter Night’s 2: Mask of the Betrayer, a D&D-based Western RPG developed by Obsidian Entertainment.
At the end of the game, which is fairly epic in scope (you literally invade the plane of a god, even if the fun gets curtailed a bit in the end), you’re faced with a sadistic choice:
- Get rid of this curse that has befallen you since the start of the game, one that was destined to kill you, and return to the mortal realm to live out your days. But the Curse also returns to the mortal realm, and will kill and destroy more and more people
- Stay in the plane of the God, keeping the curse with you. It won’t kill you there, but you’re essentially kept as a prisoner.
The selfish choice that puts people in danger, or the benevolent choice that screws you over. Fairly basic end-of-an-RPG stuff, albeit a fair bit darker than the usual fare.
If you went to the right areas, brought the right NPC’s to those areas, did the right thing, and all with damn near no prompting by the game that you should do this? You get two new options:
- Absorb the power of the curse, becoming an amazingly powerful entity with the ability to not just stay, but devour the gods themselves.
- Destroy the curse once and for all, bringing peace to the souls that spawned the curse, earning you the ability to return home, without endangering anyone at all.
This is something TvTropes calls Earn Your Happy Ending. I’ve always found it to be a very effective way of telling a story, particularly in an interactive media. It makes the reward all the sweeter, and makes the bittersweet ending even more bitter, when you realize you screwed up and the sad ending is your fault.
And apparently Bioware agrees with me, because that’s how they did the ending to Mass Effect 2.
Looming threat of the Reapers aside, you could get through the “Suicide Mission” without a single casualty, but only if you worked at it, and worked hard.
Was it all happy? No, a lot of people still died, there was a lot of heartbreak, and a lot of destruction. But you could tell that your actions mattered in the end. And, with Mass Effect 3, they… simply didn’t. Unless you count a half-second gasp of air as the payoff you were looking for.
In The End…
The Mass Effect series is one, at its core, that is about choice. Your choices have weight. They have meaning. And the “Right” decision is often one that’s hard to discern, if it exists at all.
Just look up some debate on the “Geth” question from Mass Effect 2.
You, Shepard, are just a man trying to do the best he can to save the galaxy. And, in the end, the lack of choices betray that theme.
Because, in the end, the choice you’re given rings hollow. For all the size of it, the consequences are the same for your Shepard, the effect they’ll have on the rest of the galaxy is passed over with a shrug, and it settles for reaching for a deeper meaning in that Shepard becomes “The Shepard”, an explicitly deific figure.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the people defending the ending are right. But this doesn’t feel like the ending that three excellent games all about decisions and consequences were building towards.
But, hey, call me a subscriber to the “Death of the Author” school of literary criticism. Because even the greatest writer can turn out a turd every so often.