I've spent the best part of the last 3-4 weeks obsessed with Mass Effect. From the initial defense of Eden Prime to the final closing minutes of the battle with the Reapers, I've been there every step of the way, guiding Shepard purposefully towards his/her destiny, urging the rest of the Milky Way to band together in the fight for survival.
Mass Effect was a visionary dream, pushing the realms of science-fiction and capturing a passion that very few games these days evoke. Few would argue with this - but for some, the ending was less than satisfactory.
Some called it lazy, others simply found it empty. There was a demographic that thought it missed out vital explanation.
Here's why the ending was actually rather great...
WARNING: Incoming Spoilers! Everybody get down! If you have not finished Mass Effect 1, 2 and 3 I strongly suggest you bookmark this post for a later date!
Bioware found the tirade of negative comments that came in after the release of Mass Effect 3 "incredibly painful". I find this rather sad as a gamer, as, for a developer to make a somewhat arty and open-ended game in this generation is somewhat of a rarity. I hope that for the sake of gamers everywhere, organizations like Bioware are not too put-off by people's remarks.
That's not to say that I don't completely disagree with those who believe that the ending was lazy, however.
Let me elaborate.
I finished the game by choosing Synthesis - the process of moving the Galaxy forward into the next stage of evolution by merging synthetic and organic life. The other options involve either destroying the Reapers, or attempting to control them.
Lets begin by analyzing each of the options in turn as viable choices.
- Control the Reapers -
Controlling the Reapers is hugely tempting. Assuming that your mind is your own, the chance to control these giant destroyers and finally stop the cycle is overwhelming. The Catalyst child-type-thing claims that the Illusive Man was right all along, and that there is indeed the ability to have full power over these beings, but that he could not do it as he was already indoctrinated. Who's to say Shepard isn't indoctrinated though?
- Destroy the Reapers -
This was my initial gut reaction to the situation I found myself presented in. Destroying the Reapers would end the 50,000 year cycle and save the established Galaxy. However, there would be collateral damage - killing the Reapers would also mean saying goodbye to all synthetics. That includes the whole Geth species, AIs like EDI and even smaller parts of synthetics that are part of everyday life in the year 2186. Could I do that to my allies and friends?
- Merge Organic and Synthetic Life -
Merging all life into one advanced state was the final option on the table. Doing this would certainly cost Shepard his/her life, but would make the need for a solution to the 'problem' moot. Would doing this be a ruse for further control by the Reapers, though?
|Not the only red/green/blue decision to ever cause me issues|
So what gives? Why haven't my 30+ hours of gameplay culminated in an ending completely separate from that of my peers? Why is the only noticeable difference in my decision the color of the 'space-magic' that flies out of the Citadel? The reason for that is answered in Mass Effect 2.
THE ENDING OF MASS EFFECT 2
Mass Effect 2 ended very differently for each gamer that played the game. Although the premise was the same, there were a huge number nail-biting and seat-shifting choices that could be end up getting your favorite squad members cut down in their tracks by angry Collectors.
The relationship with the characters was built up out of a range of 'loyalty missions', which essentially tested your relationship with the crew and vice versa. When it came time to kick Collector butt and save the Human colonies, it was those who weren't as 'loyal' to you who didn't make it back through the Omega 4 relay.
This wasn't all. Failing to heed Garrus' warnings about calibrations would lead to you lacking the vital equipment that would see you through. In fact, if you really goofed up, you could end up concluding your trilogy early with Shepard's own death. With so much at stake (and none of these factors made pressingly obvious to the gamer) it was everything to play for, making for one of the best endings in video-game history. The rich tapestry of decisions made throughout Mass Effect 1 and 2 combined to build an ending truly unique to the individual player.
This is why the ending of Mass Effect 3 was disappointing.
Straight off the bat in Mass Effect 3 the player is given access to the War Room - a new part of the SSV Normandy where Shepard evaluates the battle with the Reapers as a whole, on a galactic level.
Also, the player is placed back in this room, rather than the Normandy's CIC at the completion of each major 'priority' chapter. This helps to reinforce the message that what you're doing out there: recruiting species, building alliances and making treaties isn't all just part of some game - you're actually making a difference and piece-by-piece, percentage-by-percentage building an army that will be strong enough to take down the most powerful force in known existence.
Additional to this, Mass Effect 3 has considerably more 'side-missions', found throughout the Citadel where you are tasked with finding a number of artifacts that will all add something to the galactic war effort. As someone who largely avoids side missions unless I find them emotionally investing or something that I imagine my character actually wanting to do - I found this a little bit of a drag. But I humbly obliged as many of them as I could, knowing that every little piece of the story could be crucial to the final battle. I didn't want to see Ash or Garrus going down in a hail of gunfire because I couldn't be bothered to take 10 minutes to fly out to some far-flung corner of the Galaxy to retrieve the book of Plenix for the Volus.
But alas. That wasn't really the way the Mass Effect 3 worked. Hours of relationship building, errand-running and treaty signing still ended up with the same three decisions that everyone else in the world got.
SO THE ENDING OF MASS EFFECT 3 SUCKS, RIGHT?
On the face of it, it's hugely disappointing to see all of those hours of gameplay squandered in an ending that everyone else saw. But that's not the point.
Mass Effect has been leading the player to these three options right from the very start.
In Mass Effect 1, Saren, the indoctrinated Spectre was hung up on combining synthetic and organic life - rather like the husks. Saren knew that this was the 'next step' and was in the belief that Sovereign needed him, to 'reactivate' the Citadel.
In Mass Effect 2, the Illusive Man dedicates all his worth into finding a way to control the Reapers. He believes he can do it through studying their methods, using these against them.
In Mass Effect 3, there are frequent discussions and conflicts with EDI, Tali and Legion about the nature of synthetic life - whether it is real, to be respected or simply just an imitation of 'real' life.
Suddenly all the other decisions fade away. Mass Effect has been asking three questions all along, and it was up to you to decide which path you'd follow when it really was time to say where you stood. A thousand conversations with characters over the series boil down to these three, final choices and now that Humanity, the Galaxy or even the nature of life itself is on the line the question remains...
Which one will you pick?
One thing that struck me about each of the choices is that all three are very tempting. I had to think very hard before selecting. During the course of my story, Tali committed suicide after I was unable to stop the Quarians attacking the Geth, leading the the destruction of their race. This was a major hit for me as Tali was one of my favorite characters whom I'd bonded with since Mass Effect 1. After her death, I couldn't help thinking, as I listlessly strolled the corridors of the Normandy, that maybe the whole thing was just pointless. Maybe in my curing the genophage, the Krogan would rebel as soon as the Reapers were destroyed and catch the rest of the Galaxy with its collective pants down. Now that Tali and the Quarians were dead, was it worth using the Geth to fight the Reapers or was it pointless? Maybe it was better to just be wiped out afterall! It was hard to fault the Catalyst Boy's logic when he mentioned the 'created destroying the creators' and I thought back to Rannoch. Questions like these are what made each option a mental juggling game.
It's also interesting to see that the traditional 'paragon' and 'renegade' colors are reversed at the closing stages of the game, with the visions of Anderson pulling the trigger on renegade and the Illusive Man going for something evil, under a paragon banner. I think it's a great way to show that whichever choice you make, the only way to make it is to rely on your gut and do what you think is right after being presented with all the evidence throughout the games.
What kind of an ending would it be if you simply pressed a button, the Reapers went bye-bye and you went back to London for afternoon scones with Liara? Adding these three, inevitable choices at the end of the game, each player has to stand up, be accounted for and say:
"I saw all of the evidence regarding the Reapers, synthetic life, indoctrination and the nature of the galaxy throughout the Mass Effect trilogy and I've decided that..."
There's no wrong answer. That's what's so beautiful about it. Each gamer walks away from a hugely difficult choice and has their own reasons for why they did what they did. And that is Mass Effect.
THE MISSING LINK
Be that as it may, I have to address one major issue. Why is the ending of the game so brief and dreamlike? How does the crew get back on the ship and away from the Citadel so quickly?
I must admit that I don't have an answer for this. Bioware have come out and said that they are "creating additional cinematics and epilogue scenes to the existing ending sequences" which I think is certainly the right move. I don't want Bioware to lead gamers by the hand, sit them down and say "now children, this is what the ending means", because that would ruin the ambiguity of it all. But I do believe that an extra chapter or an epilogue is called for. When you develop relationships with the characters as strongly as you do in the Mass Effect series, it seems very brusque to not be told what happens to them, regardless of how similar each ending is. I can only imagine they made it brief so as not to take away from the artistic nature of it, although that seems like a poor defense.
But then again, maybe they made it 'dreamlike' for a reason.
I'll conclude this post with somewhat of a curveball, and that is the growing theory that the last few minutes of the game is essentially a vision where Shepard fights the Reapers' indoctrination. I won't go through it all, but by all means please have a look at this video here.
I think that although this theory might clutch at a number of proverbial straws, there probably is some ground to it. Shepard does suffer from a number of visions throughout the game, that probably don't just equate to stress and too much Space Juice ("emergency induction port!"). He's also had a lot of contact with Reapers, indoctrinated individuals and all sorts of nasty stuff that one man shouldn't handle alone. Most powerfully though is the validity of the choices presented at the end - assuming that Shepard can't control the Reapers and selecting 'control' would actually control him. The destroy option seems rather dark as well, killing all the Reapers means killing all the Geth and EDI? Not in my damn Galaxy. The green option would therefore be the way that the Reapers can make husks of everyone and everything. Maybe in selecting that, my indoctrinated mind thought I was saving the galaxy, but instead I was dooming it? Just before he dies, the Illusive Man says something along the lines of "I wish you could see it. It's so beautiful". Is he simply seeing the beautiful Garden of Eden-like world that concludes each of the choices?
Make up your own mind. But I think that the ambiguity of these last few closing minutes really creates an ending with more possibilities than could ever be calculated by the thousands of choices made in the games themselves.