Note: this article contains spoilers for the entirety of the Mass Effect trilogy
The platform was eerily quiet. The floating shadows of the Reapers darkened the stars that hung around the Citadel while Earth burned below. I contemplated my choices, again feeling the sinking dread in my stomach. None of the three options given to me would be enough. With the entire future of the galaxy riding on my decision, I couldn’t bring myself to pick any of the choices the Catalyst presented me. None were good enough for the sacrifices made by my friends. My team. Here, at the end of our journey, I was faced not with victory, but with discouragement.
If you have never played Mass Effect and don’t intend to, check out this video series on YouTube for a spoiler-filled romp. If you have never played and want to – what are you waiting for? This article will still be here when you’re done. Now, if you had asked me three months ago if you should begin playing the Mass Effect series, I would have said no. I was angry with BioWare, and I felt the ending to their vast trilogy had violated the very essence of their series. But I would no longer caution you about getting involved with this game. Please, jump on into the rabbit hole.
The Mass Effect series is not just about running and gunning. It’s a masterpiece of the space opera genre; infusing culture, politics, and philosophy with superlative character development and plot twists that involve your own personal decisions. Do you feel comfortable killing the last of a dying race because they were once a threat to the galaxy? If yes, then do it. If not, then give them a second chance … and it’s not the last you’ll see of them. Your best friend found the man who betrayed and murdered his old team. Do you let him take eye-for-an-eye, Old Testament style revenge, or do you step between them and hope your friend will see the wisdom in not letting tragedy change you for the worse? How do you handle conflicts with your friends? Be careful, because in this game, if you side with one, you might actually lose the other forever.
Beyond the moral quandaries that the game puts you in, the writing in the series is excellent. Each character has his or her own clear voice, and you can choose the extent to which you interact with them. As a result, every player has his or her own unique set of friends, colleagues, and lovers. For example, I found Miranda to be obnoxious and entitled, while a friend of mine insists she’s strong and capable, overcompensating for self-confidence issues. I thought Liara’s emotive personality was sweet and warm, while others found her to be cloying with boundary issues. You’re not forced to develop relationships with characters you dislike, and that element of choice makes the experience that much more immersive.
These are the choices the Mass Effect universe was built on. These are the emotions the series inspires. The number of scenes in the series – particularly in the second and third installments – that moved me to tears is astounding. When my Commander Shepard stood before the Catalyst – also called the “Starchild” by many fans – and had to choose between three difficult and disappointing options, it felt like a blow to the gut.
After three games and a multitude of varying in-game decisions, it all boils down to three options: destroy all synthetic life (including a few of your friends and teammates), control the Reapers and become the collective intelligence of the villains of the past three games, or merge organic and synthetic life to end the conflict between them. It turns out that in the new, extended edition there is a fourth option: defy the Catalyst and watch as the Reapers devastate the galaxy, killing all highly evolved life forms, both organic and synthetic. One of my friends discovered this option when he shot the Catalyst in frustration – something that in the original ending was maddeningly ineffective, but in this version causes the child to go ballistic, shouting “SO BE IT” in an ominous voice before evaporating and leaving you to the epilogue in which you learn that everyone you knew and came to love was killed. Yes, everyone.
When the original ending to Mass Effect 3 came out in March, it was not only depressing, it was arguably a disaster. The critical reviews were all glowing, but it was clear as soon as flesh-and-blood fans started to play that a tidal wave of unhappiness grew rather quickly. While some have openly supported the disappointed fans, many have not. There has been a lot of talk about “entitled” gamers and unrealistic expectations. I think that’s too narrow a perspective to take.
BioWare embraced player involvement in the series from day one. The games felt infinitely customizable, and your choices weren’t limited to what color armor you’d wear, but actually determined later plot twists. The way you played your character – paragon, renegade, or somewhere in between – determined how others reacted to you and how your teammates changed or did not change over the years. So when we were presented with an ending in which Shepard cannot ask questions or explore other options, “disappointing” suddenly became a very insufficient word to describe the experience.
But the dissatisfaction went beyond the lack of involvement with the ending. Another huge problem was the brevity and similarity of the endings. In all three closes, the mass relays explode (but in different colors, depending on your choice), your crew crash lands on a jungle planet, and the entire galactic fleet is stranded in Earth’s orbit. What happens to your love interest? He or she may step off your ship, the Normandy, in a very brief cutscene, but that’s all you get.
Does everyone die in the relay explosion? How does Joker react if you choose to destroy all synthetic life, including his girlfriend? How do people handle being synthesized into half-organic/half-synthetic beings if that’s the ending you chose? BioWare gave us no glance into the long-term effects of these possible endings. Considering that the series was built on a series of personal decisions whose outcomes were clear, impactful, and thought-provoking, this was a serious letdown.
There were also plot holes bigger than star systems in the game's final 30 minutes. Admiral Anderson says he followed you up the beam to the Citadel, but suddenly he’s right in front of you, in a room that he could only have arrived at if he had taken the same path you did. And yet you never saw him pass you. The mass relays all explode, something that in earlier games was shown to destroy entire star systems. Yet somehow not everyone is dead. Teammates who had come with you on your suicide run on Earth just moments before were suddenly alive and well and stepping off your ship when it crash-landed on another planet.
Which brings me to one of the plot holes that seemed to be most upsetting to the collaborators-cum-fans. The Normandy is seen inexplicably fleeing Earth, after all your teammates have told you they will follow you to the end, and after Joker has established many times that he’s stubborn as hell and wouldn’t just run away. This particular detail outraged fans. Quite frankly, the original ending felt like it was slapped together and thrown out to the fans, Band-Aids and all, in the hopes that we wouldn’t notice the sudden plummet in quality.
A lack of BioWare’s usual high standards was bad enough, but the flaw that may have most upset the fans was the overwhelming feeling that the endings were not worthy of the series and the options that you are presented with are in conflict with the heart and soul of the Mass Effect story. Players worked hard, often over the course of years, to learn about the universe and think hard about the difficult choices. You could commit genocide on more than one occasion, or bring together lifelong enemies.
No matter how you chose to play, the story of Shepard was epic, and the endings should have been equally so. For some, this meant they wanted an option where Shepard could live happily ever after with his or her love interest. For some, a tragic sacrifice would have been fine, so long as it was a meaningful one. But when all the players were pigeonholed into three unhappy options that seemed to only differ in the color of explosion they produced, it left practically no one satisfied.
There was a feeling of betrayal among the fans. The developers of Mass Effect 3 had hyped the release, saying it would be a powerful conclusion to the trilogy. There were promises all around, many of which ran exactly counter to the experience the fans actually received. For example, Mike Gamble, one of the producers, said: “BioWare will not do a Lost and leave fans with more questions than answers after finishing the game.” Another quote by director Casey Hudson, often juxtaposed with an accompanying screenshot of your three ending options, said “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.” Understandably, fans were frustrated when they were offered a series of new questions, and options A (red explosions), B (green explosions), or C (blue explosions.)
When it became clear (very quickly) that a significant portion of the fan base was not just upset, but actually outraged and in some cases depressed with the ending, BioWare at first responded with what felt like a very cold, disinterest statement that the company “stood by” their product. This only fed the fire, and after a long back-and-forth, BioWare finally announced an Extended Cut DLC (Downloadable Content) to be released over the summer. It was not intended to change the endings, merely provide some closure. The gaming community waited anxiously.
When the DLC was released last week, I had moved past my own frustration with BioWare and was truly hopeful that they would produce something incredible. Perhaps I set my standards too high, because, quite frankly, I was disappointed again.
I didn’t go into Mass Effect 3 in March hoping for a happy ending. I expected my Shepard to die, but I also expected that BioWare would do that ending justice. When they didn’t, I suddenly became more protective of my game. If I couldn’t trust BioWare to send my Shepard off with a fitting tribute, then I wanted a happy ending, damnit! Let her retire to a tropical island with Garrus and their little krogan adoptees. Or better yet, let her and her whole team ride off into the metaphorical sunset on the Normandy to continue to right wrongs across the galaxy.
If you can’t give her a suitable death, then let me imagine a suitable future for her.
In the final epilogue of the extended cut, I cried watching my team’s bowed heads as Garrus put Shepard’s name on the memorial wall, but my sadness was mixed with anger. I was mad at BioWare for making me suffer not once, but twice. It no longer felt like my game – my story. It had been ripped out of my hands and sacrificed at the altar of artistic integrity.
...Perhaps that’s a little dramatic. No doubt, I will be called one of those “entitled” gamers who dares demand that BioWare change their sacred ending. But this was honestly a very difficult critique to write. I wanted so badly for this new ending to blow my mind. I felt so let down by the first attempt that I’m not even sure what would have made the second one good enough.
As I’ve had some time to process the new ending, I’ve realized that Bioware did give us many of the puzzle pieces we asked for, if not all of them. They cleaned up a lot of their own mess – filling plot holes and showing you a slideshow of the galaxy after your decision. They gave you the option to ask the Catalyst questions about the three choices at the end and even to reject the choices entirely (though the result of that is that everyone dies). The Starchild seems less like he’s supposed to be a mythical “god child” and now seems like an artificial intelligence that went rogue millions of years ago and whose data files might have gotten a little corrupted with age, if you know what I mean. Now that you can question him and push back a little, not only does he seem like he fits in the story a little better, but it allows for Shepard to not just roll over and take it.
One thing that has always been true of Mass Effect’s hero, whether you play renegade or paragon, is that he (or she) asks questions. Shepard is an active participant. This is now something that carries through all the way to the ending, where it did not before. The extended cut also explained why Joker and your formerly Earth-bound teammates were fleeing in a very emotional scene where Shepard calls the Normandy back to evacuate an injured teammate. But overall, it was still a bit of a let-down.
The endings were unsettling. That’s the only word that I can think of that captures the strange ambiguity I feel. Perhaps that’s the brilliance of BioWare, and once I’m done grieving the series and have forgiven them for the mess of a first ending, I will see it. Or perhaps it will remain as unsettling and unsatisfying is all it will ever be. What I can say with confidence is that I will be playing the Mass Effect games again and again. No matter how I feel about the ending, the more that time passes, the more I feel the experience was worth it.
The only thing worse than the endings is the thought of never seeing Mordin happily singing in his science lab, or never hearing Tali warn Garrus that she’s not afraid to use her shotgun on him if he annoys her. I will always want to see the look of smug delight on Garrus’s face when he’s pleased with his own wit, or with a headshot he just made. I will always want to shepherd (pun intended) my team through the Collector base and listen to Joker brag about his flying skills as he dances the Normandy through space, saving all of our asses again and again. And that is why I will always play Mass Effect.
I haven’t found an ending yet that suits my play through of the series. If Shepard represented one thing, it was the power to defy the odds and change your fate, which is why the fatalism of BioWare’s version of the refusal choice doesn’t sit well with me. I just don’t buy that the galaxy’s demise is inevitable if you don’t go along with the Catalyst’s demands. So perhaps the ending I will ultimately settle on is refusal, with a convenient side of denial. I can imagine that Shepard spat in the Starchild’s face and called in the Normandy to pick her up from the Citadel so she could continue to lead the resistance against the Reapers. And perhaps that’s what BioWare intended all along: to give us enough freedom to truly choose our own ending, even if it’s in the safety of our own imagination.
At least, that’s what I want to believe.