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Mass Effect 3: The Controversial Ending, and What It Means for the Future of the Industry

Mass Effect 3: The Controversial Ending, and What It Means for the Future of the Industry

WARNING

In case you didn’t figure out, there are going to be MAJOR MASS EFFECT SPOILERS in this article covering the entire series. Hell, I’m going to outright tell you the ending, so if you have no interest in playing the series but are wondering what all the commotion is about, you won’t be in the dark. So if any part of the Mass Effect saga is still on your to-do list, stop reading now. You can use the time you save to play the games; they really are fantastic.

If you’ve been on the internet lately (hint: you’re on the internet right now) and have been to any gaming sites, you have probably noticed that fans of the Mass Effect series are… less than happy with how the trilogy ended. Of course, controversial finales and contentious fanbases are nothing new in the realm of artistic fiction. What makes this interesting, however, is that recent advances in technology will potentially allow BioWare to break new ground in terms of mollifying their fans. In this article, I’d like to analyze what exactly went wrong, how this commotion could have been avoided, how BioWare is responding, and what this could mean for the future of the industry.

Before I get to all that, I’d like to discuss something that didn’t go wrong. Some have suggested that the fans are upset not because of how it ended, but simply because it was ending. As a fan of the series myself, I’d like to say that nothing could be farther from the truth. The fact that Mass Effect places so much emphasis on narrative, combined with the fact I love the story so much meant that I wanted the franchise to have a proper ending, rather than try to stretch itself out over a never-ending string of progressively sloppier sequels. The same applies to any story told over time through numerous installments. When AMC announced that the next season of Breaking Bad (one of my favorite TV shows) will be the last, I was overjoyed, because having a definitive stopping point will allow the writers to work to a satisfying conclusion. Showrunner Vince Gilligan and the other writers were also pleased, for the exact same reason. Nothing is worse for a series than for it to be extended beyond its natural shelf life, to the point where it jumps the shark and ends up languishing in either absurdity or tedium, shaped by writers who have long since lost their way.

Time before shark jump – clockwise from top left: 4 seasons, 7 seasons, 4 seasons, 1 season

Admittedly, I won’t know my reaction to the Breaking Bad conclusion until it happens, but there are plenty of grand finales I have experienced. One of the most notable is Metal Gear Solid 4, which brought an end to a story that began twenty years prior. As a whole, it may not be my favorite game in the series, but I still consider MGS4’s final act to be the gold standard for how to complete a narrative of such considerable length. Emotions run high, but most importantly, the audience is provided with closure. There are a couple of plot threads that remain unresolved, but you really have to go out of your way to dig through the Metal Gear mythos and find them. In fact, MGS4 capped off the tale of Solid Snake so well, that I was disappointed when a new game was announced. (Thankfully, Reveangeance seems to be a side story, wildly different from its predecessors in both tone and gameplay, but I’m still wary about it.) In short, just because a storied franchise is ending, that doesn’t mean that the conclusion will automatically be disappointing. So what is the problem with Mass Effect’s finale?

Allow me to set the stage for you. Mass Effect is quite possibly the most epic narrative I have ever experienced, and I don’t use the word “epic” lightly. When I say “epic”, I’m not just using it as a synonym for “awesome” (though that adjective also applies to Mass Effect’s story), but rather as a word meaning “incredibly grand in scope and extremely rare in occurrence.” At the outset of ME3, you are tasked with leading the resistance against the Reapers – basically a race of space Cthulhus that are hell bent on destroying all sentient life in the galaxy. A galaxy full of many varied species and individuals that, over the course of three games and hundreds of hours of gameplay, you’ve met, engaged in discussion, befriended, cooperated with, and in some cases, loved. The stakes are so intensely high that it almost makes The Lord of the Rings seem like an episode of a Saturday morning cartoon.

Throughout much of the game, you’re concerned with building a massive weapon known as The Crucible, which theoretically can destroy the Reapers. Eventually, the plan comes together, and after three games of brilliant writing, complex moral choices, and genuine emotion, you activate it and…

…a ghost kid shows up and essentially lets you pick an ending from a menu.

“Hi, I seem to have wandered into this game from a studio that is considerably worse at writing.”

Instead of crafting a conclusion using the established rules of the Mass Effect universe that have governed almost three complete games, BioWare chose to give us a literal deus ex machina (assuming theories about the kid being God are correct). Mass Effect is known for an incredible attention to detail regarding sociology, biology, technology, and the science therein, with the fictional Element Zero accounting for most of the departures from realistic physics, so introducing this sort of mysticism at the very end is jarring and disappointing.

The fact that this occurs within the last fifteen minutes of the game arguably makes it worse. ME3 isn’t like the Spider-Man 3 film, where the entire thing kind of sucked from the get-go; barring the ending, it’s one of the greatest gaming experiences I’ve ever had. I cried when Mordin sacrificed himself to cure the genophage, I cheered when the quarians and the geth peacefully ended their centuries-long war, and I was horrified and furious (in a good way) when Thessia fell. Very few games have elicited only one of those emotions in me, let alone all three. That the final quarter-hour added “crushing disappointment” to that list of emotions is unfortunate.

On the off chance that you don’t mind the deus ex machina, the brief cutscene that follows still leaves you with more questions than answers. How does galactic society react to the destruction of the mass effect relays? What happens to all of the alien species stranded on Earth (the dextro-amino acid-based turians on Earth would likely starve to death without proper nutrition)? What happens to the crew of the Normandy after they get stranded on that strange planet? How did the crash landing not shatter every bone in Joker’s body? Even the “perfect” endings fail to provide much closure.

Speaking of perfect endings, that brings up another aspect of the ending that has ruffled the fanbase’s proverbial feathers: the multiple endings. Each of the three choices presented to you at the end has several variations, for a total of about a dozen unique cutscenes. The permutation that you receive is based on your “Effective Military Strength” (more on that later). The most glaring flaw with the execution is that, even when the final 3-way decision is taken into account, each ending has only slight differences from the others, and these alterations feel superficial and inconsequential. Maybe Big Ben explodes, maybe it doesn’t. Perhaps Joker has glowing eyes, perhaps not. You also get to choose one of three different tints to apply to the footage. For a series that emphasized choices with far-reaching repercussions, we expected more than a glorified Mad Libs page.

The “Effective Military Strength” statistic itself has three major flaws as well. The first two involve the base value, your “War Assets.” Your War Assets are all of the resources and allies that you have gained over the course of the three games, represented as a number (and as a gauge that fills up like an experience meter). As you acquire assets, they are added to a running total, which can be viewed from a console aboard the Normandy. Much like traditional stat gains in an RPG, watching your list of allies and resources grow provides an incredible sense of accomplishment. The problem is that this lengthy checklist of fantastic characters and science gets homogenized into a single numerical value that determines whether or not a clock tower blows up. Keeping a running total is all well and good, as is having that total affect parts of the ending, but BioWare missed an opportunity to show us some of the other consequences of our actions. Perhaps the climactic battle sequence could have included a number of brief scenes in which various characters in our War Assets perform heroic actions, or some of the technology we’ve procured gives our troops an edge in combat. If a character/resource was not acquired, its scene could be replaced with a different scene in which the Reapers inflict heavy casualties on the good guys. Such a complex cutscene might seem like wishful thinking on my part, but if Majora’s Mask could do something similar on the N64, there’s no reason that Mass Effect 3 couldn’t do it with far superior hardware.

The other problem with the War Assets is that they remove the ambiguity from many of the moral choices throughout the series. Do you remember that major decision at the end of the first game? As Sovereign attacked the Citadel and the Council tried to escape amid heavy enemy fire, you could choose to either redirect some Alliance forces to rescue the Council, or concentrate all your fire on Sovereign. The former choice grants you some Paragon points, while the latter nets you some Renegade points, and the decision is essentially designed to reflect what kind of person you are (or what kind of character your Shepard is, as it may be). In other words, there is no “right” answer.

Actually, it turns out that there is a right answer after all. Some number crunching reveals that saving the Council is the better option. By 25 points. Someone that is extremely committed to role-playing may be able to ignore this, but as a gamer, I tend to be a bit of a pragmatist. If I discover them, I will often abuse beneficial loopholes, glitches, and AI flaws, even if it breaks the immersion.

Did I need to get all of these Resident Evil 4 minibosses stuck in AI loops? Not really. But it did let me knife them all to death.

However, War Assets are only part of the equation. To determine Effective Military Strength, the War Assets are multiplied by your Galactic Readiness, represented as a percentage between 50% (the default value) and 100%. And the primary method of increasing your Galactic Readiness is by playing the multiplayer mode.

I’m going to give Mass Effect 3 the benefit of the doubt and imagine that this was not a bit of executive meddling on the part of EA, but rather a conscious effort from BioWare to try something new. I can respect that, but the last third of a trilogy with extremely strong emphasis on narrative is not the place to do that. I’ll admit, it was interesting when Demon’s Souls experimented with combining multiplayer and traditional narrative, but the multiplayer was in the game’s design from the beginning, rather than tacked on later. (Also, Demon’s Souls is a PS3 exclusive, meaning the multiplayer is free. If you want to play all 3 Mass Effect games on console, you have to go with the 360 versions, and therefore must pay extra to play multiplayer.) I’d much rather the Mass Effect team had shown some patience, and instead applied this multiplayer experimentation to whatever new intellectual property they’ll be working on now that Mass Effect is complete.

Of course, you may remember that when BioWare announced ME3’s multiplayer mode/metagame, they assured us that it would still be possible to achieve the best ending through exclusively single-player means. Technically, this remains true, but to do so, you will have had to have played through both previous games (including the DLC), making all of the “correct” decisions along the way. And frankly, some of the “correct” decisions may not line up with what you think your character would or should do.

So how could BioWare have avoided this controversy? From my point of view, the answer is extremely simple: ax the multiplayer suite. Just like any major part of a video game, designing, programming, and playtesting a multiplayer mode takes considerable time and resources – which in this case, could have been better applied to other areas of the game. Neither of the other Mass Effect games had multiplayer, so it’s not like nixing the multiplayer would have been a step backwards. Not only would increased time and resources have allowed them to writing a conclusion more fitting of the BioWare pedigree, it would have also allowed them to fix some of the other problems the games had, such as:

  • Lack of exploration: I know I’m in the minority on this subject, but I actually liked the Mako from Mass Effect 1. It gave the gameplay a little more variety, and it also made you feel like you were exploring these distant planets, not just running through their corridors shooting at things. Mass Effect 2 reined in the exploration by a significant degree (though admittedly, aesthetics and attention to detail in the planets improved as a result), but it still gave us four different hub worlds to wander around in. ME3, on the other hand, only gave us one hub world. Anything that didn’t take place on the Citadel is either a linear action mission or a sidequest taking place on a recycled multiplayer map. Focus is nice and all for storytelling, but exploring this fantastic universe is another one of the draws of the series.
  • Repetitive action sequences: When you take the exploration and vehicle sections out of the game, the only action sequences left involve cover-based third-person shooting. I’m not saying that that can’t support an entire game – Uncharted manages to get away with it – but it only works if you get creative with your battlefields. The enemy variety and combat mechanics were both fantastic, and the game would occasionally spice things up with an interesting gimmick (the fight on the geth dreadnought where you have to avoid shockwaves from the ship’s massive cannon comes to mind), but most of the time, the only difference between one firefight and the next was “the furniture gets moved around a little.” I don’t think this would bother me so much if there weren’t a handful of segments that showed the potential for spectacular gameplay segments if the dev team had a little bit more time to plan things out. Remember that torn-up docking tube that let you walk all the way around the interior (with magnetic boots) because there was no gravity? That was incredible, but how awesome would it be if they put a shootout in something like that (perhaps a centrifuge to preserve mobility)? That could be an extremely memorable set piece, especially since it works well with the “enemies can shoot over cover if they have a height advantage” mechanic. Or what about the Tron level? BioWare could have had some “anti-virus software” attack you, adding more variety to what could otherwise be summed up as a guided tour of a cutscene.
  • Not enough new squadmates: Mass Effect 3 gave us one new squadmate – two if you bought the DLC. Mass Effect 2 gave us eleven (though two were mutually exclusive). I’m not saying that we needed eleven more, but a couple of new squadmates beyond Freddie Prinze Jr. on steroids and a character you have to pay extra to unlock would have been nice.
  • Buggy as hell: During my playthrough, I encountered a number of distracting glitches. Importing custom faces from ME1/ME2 characters is (at time of writing) impossible, character models jerk around during conversations, lines of dialog fade out or are completely silenced, solar systems flash even if there are no quests there, and characters may even disappear completely during in-engine cutscenes. These glitches aren’t even entertaining like the ones in Skyrim. (Well, one of them was pretty interesting: when Tali got in an argument with a turian ambassador on the Citadel, the “Support Tali” reticle implied that she was engaging in the debate from a distant skybridge.)

However, what Mass Effect 3 does wrong is not the important part. We’ve already posted a review that analyzes the game’s flaws, as well as its many strengths. The important part is how BioWare is responding to the fan reaction. According to an open letter that BioWare co-founder Dr. Ray Muzyka posted on the company’s blog, the Mass Effect team is working on “a number of game content initiatives that will help answer the questions, providing more clarity for those seeking further closure to their journey.”

As far as I can tell, nothing like this has ever happened before. Sure, the creative teams behind video games (and other forms of entertainment) often change their product pre-release due to reaction from focus groups (which is why the ending of the Will Smith version of I Am Legend doesn’t make sense anymore), but never before has a creative team offered to “fix” their product after the fact, simply because the fans demand it.

I don’t even think this sort of thing is possible with any other medium (and even within the realm of video games, it wasn’t a viable solution until this generation). BioWare won’t be revealing any other details of their plan until later this month, so this is largely speculation, but their most likely course of action will be to release some DLC that adds more content to the game’s ending. No other medium has an analogue for downloadable content. You can’t download data to your TV until the Lost finale somehow makes sense. Likewise, you can’t pay a projectionist a little extra to have them show a little bit more of a movie. The best you can hope for is that what you’re looking for will be on the deleted scenes of the DVD.

Of course, at the center of this controversy lies one extremely important question: should they do it? Should BioWare retroactively change their story to appease their fans. My answer to that question is an emphatic “no.”

It is up to the author to tell the story, not the audience. I understand that Mass Effect is a bit of a special case; the game emphasizes player choice and the numerous decisions truly give you the feeling that your Shepard is yours and yours alone. However, the writers are ultimately still the ones providing you with the pieces to construct your narrative. And let’s face it: the general public isn’t that good at storytelling. (There’s a reason that the word “fanfiction” often carries a negative connotation.) If the audience got to change narrative as they saw fit, we would probably see great stories like Casablanca and No Country for Old Men get new and considerably less meaningful conclusions.

"Ilsa, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful marriage. With no sacrifice or honor whatsoever. Happily ever after."

This doesn’t mean that I don’t think developers should listen to feedback. Doing so can greatly improve any future projects that they work on (see Assassin’s Creed II). However, using constructive criticism to improve your future work is completely different than bastardizing your creations at the request of others.

So I think BioWare should take a page from Captain Kirrahe’s book and “hold the line.” I would much rather have them stick to their guns (even if it means I disagree with their ending) than have them buckle under pressure and conclude their saga in a way they didn’t intend, just to pacify the masses. If they do release DLC, and if it serves as an epilogue, that could possibly work. But if the DLC explicitly rewrites the finale of the series, that could be the start of a very dangerous trend in both video games and storytelling.

I know this article seems like it is full of complaining, and I understand that my opposition to retroactively changing the story puts BioWare in a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” situation. The truth is that I wouldn’t be so concerned about this if I weren’t so passionate about the series, and I wouldn’t be passionate about it if the rest of it wasn’t so damn good. Even with the disappointing ending, this is still one of the first series I would recommend to anyone looking for new games because the journey itself is so magnificent. There is even the possibility that popular opinion of the conclusion will change over time; 2001: A Space Odyssey did pretty much the same thing, and today it’s regarded as a classic.

Granted, there is one final piece to the puzzle, and that’s what is being called the “Indoctrination Theory.” (We may end up running an article on this.) BioWare has been infuriatingly tight-lipped about this, but if the Indoctrination Theory is accurate (and that’s a big “if”), it would actually make the Mass Effect 3 ending one of the most mind-blowing meta conclusions in video game history. If that truly is the case, it’s just a shame that BioWare decided to go all David Lynch by being intentionally vague and ambiguous about the whole thing. Future DLC may give credence to this theory and provide more closure, but that would essentially mean that the game essentially shipped without an ending, which could also turn into an unfortunate trend in the industry. So how will this all pan out? No one knows for sure except the people that made the game. BioWare, the ball is in your court.

7 Comments

  1. I like your way of writing and your reasoning, but I disagree with your content.This has actually it has happened before. Charles Dickens changed the ending of many of his novels because of the reader feedback, [Oliver Twist originally had a sad ending] and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle brought Sherlock Holmes back to life under public pressure. This article pints to three precedents in games: http://pc.gamespy.com/pc/mass-effect-3/1220833p1.html

    And I believe this is the beautiful thing about games. The dictatorship of the author over the work is over and now audience can be a part of the creative force. The ultimate choice of course belongs to the author, but the fact that readers can change author’s mind is a good thing.

    The whole point of video games is to blur the line between the author and the reader. To use Roland Barth’s terminology, video games are the ultimate readerly texts.

    • You bring up some good points. I was unaware of the Oliver Twist and Sherlock Holmes examples, and even though I know of two of the three video games that had their endings changed, I had forgotten about them. However, the alterations that some people are speculating about are far different than what’s happened in the industry before. Portal’s ending wasn’t really changed so much as it was extended by 15 seconds, and that was just to lead into the sequel; it had nothing whatsoever to do with fan reaction. Fallout 3’s ending only received a minor alteration, and that likely wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t planning on releasing DLC for the game anyway. Granted, that ME3’s altered ending will be a drastic change is still just speculation at this point. We really don’t know what BioWare is going to do.

      I’m not saying that every artist should be given completely free reign. A little bit of outside control is a big thing. Otherwise you get things like Daikatana or the Star Wars prequels. Granted, you also might get something good, like Inception (after the success of The Dark Knight, Warner Bros. gave Christopher Nolan complete free reign over his next movie; it also helps that his primary producer is his wife). Still, I feel it is up to the author to write the story, not the fanbase post-release.

      If the upcoming “content initiative” just expands the conclusion, like Portal, or does a better job of explaining what the hell is going on, like the Donnie Darko director’s cut, I’m fine with that, though I’ll still be a bit disappointed that the content wasn’t included in the game in the first place. If they’re pulling a Ridley Scott and changing things that the publisher altered (which could very well be the case), I’ll be okay with that too. But if they are overwriting their previous material and compromising their artistic integrity just because people are arguing about it on the internet, that is a move I do not support.

    • Wow! Talk about a posting kniknocg my socks off!

    • Gee willikers, that’s such a great post!

  2. Wow, great article Eesgooshee. You pretty much nailed it on the head about the changing of the ending. I agree that listening to fans has the potential to be helpful, but it seems like they only listen to the whiny ones rather than the helpful ones. I’ve seen things nerfed/cut too many times, that I take up the position now of let the creator create and the gamer game. I absolutely think they should leave it be. It may be too late for them now though. They may have opened Pandora’s Box.

    I also must comment on the DLC aspect. I hate how they assume that every body can get DLC. Not everybody has the money/capabilities to get XBL, and so are left out. This is really going to screw people over who want to see the new ending (if there is one). I also understand though that this will be the only way to get it out there. They’d probably go bankrupt if they had to give out all new discs.

    • From the rumors I’ve heard (which, may I remind you, are only rumors), any DLC released about the subject would be free – though that still leaves anyone without a reliable internet connection out of the loop. I doubt EA would charge for it; they would suffer financial losses, but it would be an abysmally terrible PR move.

  3. WORD! Thank you, I completely agree with your 4 non-ending-related points. The lack of exploration in particular was disappointing to me, along with the dumbing down of the conversational interactions with incidental characters. I too dig the Miko.

    I thought their insistence on shoving “defend area for x minutes” sequences into every level was pretty bizarre. Surely no one actually enjoys those bits, they are rubbish.

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