Sunday, April 15, 2012

Mass Effect 3's Ending Doesn't Suck

**Warning! Huge spoilers below!**Like seriously, "you are NOT the father" level of spoilers**Do not look directly at the spoilers unless wearing proper eye protection**

About a month ago I posted some thoughts about Mass Effect 3. I didn't say much of anything regarding the ending, partly because I didn't want to spoil anything. Little did I know that an internet storm was brewing, with nasty, big, pointy teeth. Apparently the ending was so bad, on so many levels, that it actually ruined everything that had happened up to that point, as well as earning a place alongside such fabled endings as "A WINNER IS YOU" and "CONGRATURATION THIS STORY IS HAPPY END THANK YOU."

The thing is, not only did I not have this reaction to the ending, I actually thought it was pretty good.

It might have helped that I didn't read any of the hype preceding ME3s release because, looking back, some of the statements made seem basically like lies, such as "It’s not even in any way like the traditional game endings, where you can say how many endings there are or whether you got ending A, B, or C.....The endings have a lot more sophistication and variety in them.”

No, actually that is completely what the endings are like. You either (A) destroy the Reapers, (B) control the Reapers or (C) merge with the Reapers. Aside from minor variations, any real differences between outcomes have to be inferred.

And I have no problem with this. Most of my questions were answered before the final showdown, and I respect that the events following your final decision are not explicitly spelled out for you. I like a little bit of mystery (and Shepard is dead after all, generally). I also don't mind that everyone's story ultimately comes down to a 3-way choice. Many of the choices throughout the series, when all possibilities are examined, don't have the great divergence in outcomes that is being implied. It's just the fans never collectively compared notes on any of the earlier choices and their consequences. Or maybe everyone assumed that every choice they made would be acknowledged and accounted for in the conclusion in some way that showed that it all really mattered. Well I'm sorry kids, it doesn't really matter; you were playing a videogame the whole time.

I've read a lot of rants against the ending, and people unhappy with it generally deny that what they wanted was a happy ending, and that their objections are only about logical inconsistencies and a lack of choice and explanation. I'm not sure I buy this. Mass Effect's ending is pretty dark. And it's not dark in an Empire Strikes Back "what will our heroes do now?" kind of way, like all too many videogame endings. It left me with a feeling of hollowness like many critics describe, but for me this hollowness was mixed with respect for BioWare being willing to let there series end on such a downer. It was made clear all along that if victory were to be achieved, it would come at tremendous cost. Most of the fan-made or proposed endings I've seen try to wrap things up far too cleanly and happily. We've become so enured to saving the galaxy that we don't expect there to be negative consequences, even though the idea of consequences has been stressed all throughout the series. We're narratively spoiled. For the record, I have seen no ending suggested thus far that I prefer to the one we got. The "indoctrination" theory is intriguing, but it merely defers the issue.

I've read complaints that the final choice invalidates your previous hard work because two of the choices are equivalent to the aims of Saren (merge with Reapers) and the Illusive Man (control Reapers). So you spent the entire first game trying to stop Saren from achieving his goal of merging organics and synthetics, yet in the end you decide this is actually the best solution. This is called DRAMATIC IRONY. This is actually my favorite aspect of the endings, and it fits perfectly with the theme of grey morality that permeates the series.

I've heard various complaints that certain things about the ending are illogical. I disagree, but I won't argue point-by-point. I'll agree that it isn't clear why Joker is using a Mass Relay when he ought to be trying to help out in the final battle, but this didn't occur to me at the time, so it didn't ruin anything for me.

The one point which I do agree on is that I was hoping to see my war assets actually take part in the battle. I think a few cutscenes could have been done away with if I could have seen the Blue Suns shooting at some husks, or a bunch of Geth ships take down a Reaper. That would have been a lot more meaningful to me. Aside from that, I was quite pleased with the ending. I found it satisfying, intriguing, heartbreaking, ambiguous, ethically challenging, memorable, and unique.

I'm very glad BioWare are sticking to their guns and not planning to change the ending with DLC and merely plan to pad it out and explain things a bit more. I could see this potentially improving something that, in my humble opinion, was never broken to begin with.


  1. It's OK if Bioware intentionally chose the irony (spend whole ME1 and ME3 to stop something that you ultimately do in ME3 ending), or the dark consequence (most systems destroyed by Mass Relay explosions, Turian and Quarian would be starved to death without Mass Relay travel).

    But the lack of argue from Shepard in the final conversation with Starchild proved otherwise. It's seems more likely that Bioware writers (or Shepard? XD) simply forgotten these past events or lore in ME Universe. The endings seems rushed that they don't even bother explaining why Joker is running away before the explosions happen.

    It's OK if they knowingly produce all these errors/inconsitensies/plotholes/questions to create an open ending. It's just doesn't seem like the case.

    To me, Bioware rushed the ending due to running out of fund or behind schedule.

    And the broken promise too. This is more proof that they changed the ending at very late development stage. You mentioned one of those promises. But there are more, including that all our choices in ME1-3 will affect the ending. People's expectation didn't come out of nowhere.

  2. I think it's quite possible that the ending was rushed, and if I'd kept up with the myriad promises and hype that preceded release, I'd probably have been disappointed too. It's the same thing that always bites Peter Molyneux.

    However I don't think it's fair to criticize the game artistically merely for being rushed. Casablanca shot most of its scenes with half a script and dialogue being written last-minute and rushed to set, yet it is one of the most celebrated films of all time.

    Whether or not the ending was rushed, there are places where the minimalist result doesn't work so well (like Joker randomly fleeing) and places where it does, at least for me. If Shepard had lampshaded the irony by saying something like "You mean one of my choices is the same as Saren's plan?! You monsters really expect me to choose that, after all I did to stop him?!" that would have fallen into the realm of normal videogame writing. For me, BioWare is better than that, intentionally or not.

  3. (still me)

    Being rush is not the problem, if you can still complete the product. Being rush and as a result created so many errors/inconsitensies/plotholes/questions in the plot, that's the problem.

    About Synthesis, Shepard should have argued. This is not to over-emphasize the irony, but to make his/her character consistent.

    As Shepard was so against the idea, writers should show us why he/she was convinced to accept it. Because we all know, by Shepard's character, he/she would in fact not just argued, but refused to do it.

    There are many ways to create this irony. But if they couldn't create it without breaking a character, that becomes bad writing.

  4. I think I'm beginning to understand one of the reasons the ending didn't bother me specifically. By the third game, I had gotten into the mode of trying to win the war at any cost, to the point where I sacrificed the Quarian Flotilla because I figured the Geth would make stronger allies in the final battle. The entire game made it pretty clear that no victory was to be achieved without using the Crucible, and each of the choices had definite advantages and downsides. It took me longer to decide that than any other choice in the game, which is one reason why it all felt thought-out to me.

    If other players were roleplaying Shepard differently and wanted to at least argue more with the Starchild, I can see how this is a legitimate grievance. I personally saw no point in trying to argue since it was pretty clear there were no other options at that point.

  5. And there it is. You thought the Geth would make stronger allies. Then the allies didn't matter. So, the set of mechanics, and the entire core of the game, was pointless. Just seems weird.

    The core of the game should telegraph the story. Good games make the game fit the story. Hell, good stories don't say "and yet, all of that was pointless".

    Imagine LotR where Frodo dies in Minas Morgol, and then Gandalf walks up and says " Oh, yeah, I killed Sauron, it's over". The problem was solved, and yet, at the same time, it's all pointless. That seems to be the issue.

    Also the Mass Relays exploding killing everything.

  6. As far as the actual ending is concerned, saving the Geth instead of the Quarians does have an effect since you get a higher military strength by choosing the Geth, and military strength determines which of the 3 endings are available. And the mechanics fit the theme in the sense that you don't know exactly how much strength you'll need to reach the Citadel, so every time you make a sacrifice, you know it might not even matter. This is why dooming the Quarians hit me so hard: I knew that in the end it might not even make a difference.

    Story-wise, dooming the Quarians absolutely has an effect because they end up virtually extinct and really pissed at you, which is made abundantly clear. The fact that this is not restated in the last 20 minutes seems irrelevant to me. Nearly every decision you make in the third game has massive effects (see what I did there) on the story. The fact that each of your decisions is not referenced in the last few cutscenes does not bother me since it all gets left behind when you shut off the game anyway.

    The Mass Relays thing didn't bother me because I didn't play the DLC where some scientist guy says they go supernova when destroyed. I assumed the energy waves were supposed to represent the effects of the Crucible, since they're the same color. According to Word of God, this is the correct interpretation. It makes some sense: if you fire a flintlock, this releases the energy in a different way than if it misfires and explodes, yet both expend all the energy and leave the gun unusable (until you reload/rebuild it). I will agree that the DLC is misleading.

  7. Ok, I see how that makes sense. I wanna punch DLC in the mouth anyway.

    I guess it makes some evil sense.

    I don't have the knowledge to know if I should hate. But do you want to think about the larger problem?

    I definitely understand the dislike, with a lack of game focus being important at the end of the game.

  8. I can sympathize with people's frustration over broken promises, I just don't get most of their objections with the ending itself. As far as I'm concerned, it's better than the vast majority of game endings, partly because it actually concludes things. Does anyone remember the ending to Halo 2? How about the ending to Arkham Asylum?

    Obviously most videogame endings being terrible doesn't excuse anything, but I don't see why this one is being made an example of when it is, in my opinion, at least well above par.

    Was it rushed? Probably. Almost every aspect of big games these days is rushed to some degree. Was it planned out early on? I'm quite positive that it was.

    And BioWare's not perfect, but they're sure a lot more attentive to their fans than most developers. I can't fathom how people are more upset about this than about Silent Hill 2 getting re-released without fog(!)

  9. I remember neither of those, because I didn't. Bad storytelling+Bad Ending is less painful than Good Storytelling+ Bad Ending, sadly. It's about letdowns.

    I am mostly trying to go into general cases here though. What did go wrong, and why.

  10. Yes, it's definitely about letdowns. The ending of Gears of War 3 is terrible and completely discards any notion of a moral or even character growth, but I get the impression that those games aren't the pinnacle of storytelling to begin with, so nobody cares.

    Here's what I think the main problem was (aside from overhyping): The entire Mass Effect series was built, to some degree, on creating an illusion of choice. At each decision point, you would generally choose one of two options, there would be some huge immediate consequence, and then the rest of the games would play out roughly the same, with enough little references to the choice that you felt like the game was paying attention. The biggest changes were when a character would die and any plot-necessary dialogue they had would need to be delivered in another way, but aside from minor alterations nothing really had the grand ramifications implied.

    I was fine with this, for the most part. I didn't mind buying into the illusion, and I didn't ruin the experience by trying to compare notes and figure out what all the possible branches were, since this could only make my story feel less personal. The problem is, everyone DID compare notes on the ending, and similarly to ever other choice in the game, there are only three options.

    Here's an example: In the first game, I saved Wrex's life. In the third game, I chose to cure the Krogan's Genophage, meaning that they could now reproduce, and might become a threat to the galaxy, but Wrex became their new leader and promised he would lead them to keep peace. Did my actions have an impact on the story? Absolutely: I saved a species, and gave the galaxy a chance of not being overrun by them again, which was made explicitly clear through dialogue. Was this result referenced in the last 20 minutes of the game? No, I got the same “ending” as millions of other people, but for me it feels different because I know the Quarians are dead, and the Krogan are alive and hopefully peaceful, and because of a dozen other details that were my doing.

    So basically it's a question of whether you consider the ending to be the entire game wrapping things up, or whether you consider it to be only the last few cutscenes and the defeat of the reapers. Like when Frodo and Gollum are fighting over the ring in Mount Doom, it doesn't really matter which of the other characters survived, that sequence would play out the same. But then there's a big long epilogue that explains what happened to everyone. So I guess Mass Effect's ending is like if Return of the King ended with the eagles carrying Frodo and Sam away, and then maybe a little speech or poem to wrap everything up. I can see how people would be unhappy with this ending for not giving proper closure. Personally I would have preferred it since the last third of the book is boring as sin.

  11. (me, the first commenter)

    >>>[If other players were roleplaying Shepard differently and wanted to at least argue more with the Starchild, I can see how this is a legitimate grievance. I personally saw no point in trying to argue since it was pretty clear there were no other options at that point.]

    It's true that I always enjoy role-playing Shepard, choosing the dialogues that I think I would say myself. That's one of the fun of playing ME :)

    But Shepard's lack of argue is not damaging my role-playing experience. It's damaging Shepard's character that Bioware built.

    Shepard said more than once, he/she would rather die fighting instead of following Saren or The Illusive Man (TIM)'s path. This mindset is not caused by my decision. It's scripted by Bioware, no matter what I chose. That's why Shepard was fighting against Saren & TIM for whole ME1 and ME3, no matter what I chose.

    So, to Shepard (not to me, although I personally agree), Synthesis and Control are not winning. They don't count into Shepard's "win at all cost" scenarios. By "winning", Shepard only means destroying the Reapers.

    Hence, when Shepard accepted Synthesis and Control without any argue, his/her character is not consistent. That's one bad writing of Bioware.

  12. (still me)

    >>>[Nearly every decision you make in the third game has massive effects (see what I did there) on the story. The fact that each of your decisions is not referenced in the last few cutscenes does not bother me since it all gets left behind when you shut off the game anyway.]

    In fact most players just expected something like ME2. After entering the Omega4 Relay, according to your decisions, different cutscenes will play, showing your squadmates live or die. And that even affect how many squadmates you can use in the Collector base, affecting more squadmates' live or die.

    Many players just expect that from ME3: If you saved Rachni, a cutscene will show them overrunning the Reapers. If you saved the Quarian, a cutscene will show them summoning attack drone to attack the husks. Something like that.

    And with the pre-release promises from Bioware, players expected even more.

    So when the actual diversity in ME3 final battle is even less than ME2, players feel disappointed. Very disappointed. And become more angry with Bioware's broken promise.

    Although your war asset would affect what options are offered by Starchild, or whether Shepard survived, that doesn't make sense. Why having Quarian/Geth/Krogan/Salarian/Rachni on my side would make Starchild offer more, and make Shepard survived? These diversities didn't make players feel their decisions paid off.

  13. (still me)

    Some other points I think why ME3 ending triggering such a vigorous backlash:

    1. The war wasn't won in the way the story was leading to, with Shepard's will bent.
    Many characters, including Shepard, said they want to destroy the Reapers, kick their butt, give them hell, or else die trying.
    The choices at the end makes Shepard seems like surrendered, gave up his/her will. They nullified many effort Shepard has done in previous plot (why fight Saren then? why fight TIM then? why bring peace to Quarian and Geth then? why encourage EDI and Joker to be together then?). Most of them are scripted plot, not player's decisions. Most of the ME journey becomes pointless.

    2. Huge plot holes (Mass Relay explosions, Joker mysteriously running away, Starchild's existence make Sovereign's actions in ME1 pointless, Starchild's explanation contradicts with what Sovereign and Harbinger said). ME has been famous for its story, an immersive Universe that's so "belivable". The illusion of choices makes you feel even more immersed in the story, just like living it by yourself. But now, the plot contradictions destroyed the "belivability" of the Universe, destroying players' dream along with it.

    3. Lack of closure. Another ME's success is that it has created so many characters that players really care about. You know their history, habit, hobby, interest. I for one would walk around the ship everytime after each mission, just to see what Liara/Wrex/Joker/EDI/Garrus/Tali would say. The only short scene that show 1 or 2 of them walking out of Normandy on an unknown planet, is disappointing.

  14. For me, Shepard had a believable character arc. He starts out idealistic and naive, but as the situation grows more dire, his morality becomes grayer and he is willing to do things like work for Cerberus and eventually gamble with the lives of entire civilizations, simply because it is the only way. I'm not sure how much of this character growth was my own roleplaying and how much was BioWare's intention, I suspect a little of both.

    Saren and TIM's goals were synthesis/control, but they were indoctrinated. Had Shepard not stopped Saren, the best that could have happened is the Turians being “preserved” by the collectors. Saren and TIM were doomed to failure, and stopping them was necessary, but their goals (which they would not have achieved) had the potential to save the galaxy.

    Shepard's ultimate goal is saving the galaxy (as is implied by his unsubtle name). In the first game, destroying Sovereign isn't about “destroying the Reapers,” it's about giving organic life a chance at survival. The problem with the “destroy the Reapers” ending is that they might be correct that synthetic life will eventually become more advanced than organics and wipe them out. Or maybe new synthetics will reach the same conclusions and become a new type of Reapers.

    In many ways, synthesis and control are better ways of ensuring the survival of organic life. The downside of synthesis is, again, an unknown future, but one where organic life is on an equal footing with hostile synthetics. Control is perhaps the best ending for the galaxy, but by far the worst for Shepard since he then has to live forever doing nothing but watching as a silent guardian, rather than being allowed to die peacefully.

    I can see the argument that Shepard could have argued more strenuously, but by that point I/he was exhausted, and in a “salvation at any cost” mindset, which for me was an appropriate endpoint to his character arc.

    The fact that your ending choice potentially nullifies some previous accomplishments makes it more difficult and nuanced. Do I wipe out synthetic life when I finally got Geth and Quarians to peacefully coexist? Do I really want to screw over Joker, my most faithful companion?

  15. >>>[If you saved Rachni, a cutscene will show them overrunning the Reapers. If you saved the Quarian, a cutscene will show them summoning attack drone to attack the husks. Something like that.]

    I definitely was hoping to see something along these lines. This was the only real disappointment I had with the ending, but it was a significant one. Hopefully this gets added with the DLC.

    >>>[Although your war asset would affect what options are offered by Starchild, or whether Shepard survived, that doesn't make sense. Why having Quarian/Geth/Krogan/Salarian/Rachni on my side would make Starchild offer more, and make Shepard survived? These diversities didn't make players feel their decisions paid off.]

    My interpretation of why you get more options is that the Crucible gets damaged by Reaper forces as it is being escorted in. If you have terrible war assets, the Crucible is so damaged that in trying to destroy the Reapers, it wipes out ALL life (the 4th bad ending). If you have enough to get it there mostly unscathed, it can do the complex spacemagicey job of merging all organics and synthetics.

    I agree this is somewhat gamey, but it at least makes some logical sense.

    >>>[Starchild's existence make Sovereign's actions in ME1 pointless, Starchild's explanation contradicts with what Sovereign and Harbinger said).]

    Could you elaborate on this? I assume that when the Protheans sabotaged the citadel so the Reaper signal couldn't activate it, this also kept the Starchild from opening it. Though Starchild's nature is never fully explained.

    >>>[Lack of closure.]

    Maybe it's just personal taste, but I don't really get this argument (though it's brought forward a lot so obviously it bothered a lot of people). There were no loose story-threads that I was wanting to see get tied up, and you get a chance to say goodbye to everyone before the final push. In fact that whole sequence plays sort of like an epilogue.

    I guess part of the thing is most of the characters I cared about had been killed off at one point or another, and I'm pretty sure those who remained would have been pretty unhappy with being stranded on some random planet, as well as not having the faintest idea what happened. Hearing Wrex say “Where the hell are we?” wouldn't have added anything.

    Having them go home and retire happily would have been tonally jarring, in my opinion, and would have required the Mass Relays not being destroyed. This detail was thematically necessary because the Relays are a symbol of control by the Reapers. With them destroyed, the galaxy's technology can develop in unforeseen ways, rather than according to the Reapers' plan.