Mass Effect 3’s ending part 2 – praise and criticism

In Part 1 of my discussion on Mass Effect 3’s ending, I discussed why I thought that the player outrage over the ending of Mass Effect 3 is mostly, but not completely, unjustified and misguided. There were some problems with the ending though, so I want to discuss what I thought the problems were and how big they were.

Warning, major spoilers of the last few minutes of Mass Effect 3 ahead.

I think that there were basically three problems with the ending:

  1. The choices at the end were not based on any previous choices.
  2. There was one too few endings.
  3. The cut scenes needed to be fleshed out more.

The first issue is one that is commonly cited against the game, but I feel that the proper solution is not what others have suggested: there shouldn’t have been a choice between the options at all. One way that BioWare could have handled these choices better is exactly how 2K handled the endings of BioShock 1 and 2 (especially 2). The two BioShocks had a variety of different endings as well, but the ending was preselected for you based on your decisions leading up to that point. If BioWare had simply removed the player’s ability to choose their ending, and instead preselected the ending based on your previous choices, then the ending would have been improved dramatically. Alternatively, BioWare could have hidden the choice in a conversation tree about the nature of the relationship between synthetics and organics (which they already had) such that you still made the decision at the end, but without dropping the player out of the flow of the ending while they made their choice. A player’s renegade and paragon would have also shaped the options available, as they do in other conversations.

I think that there should have been a fourth option as well: the reapers are deactivated/allowed to go live their lives as they see fit/etc while simultaneously allowing organics to go on living as they see fit, or something to that effect. Basically nothing changes except that the Reapers are called off (or maybe destroyed). To keep in line with the theme of “every option has consequences”, the story could have been weaved such that synthetics and organics eventually do destroy each other (perhaps thousands or millions of years in the future). I’m not sure if any other endings would have been necessary (I can’t think of any), but this fourth one would have definitely been a proper addition, especially if this option required the player to have saved both the Geth and the Quarians.

When playing the ending I got the distinct impression that it was rushed, which is not unusual for projects of this scope. A little more time to polish the cut scenes and flesh out some character appearances would have made for a more impactful ending. I must emphasize though that I didn’t think the cut scenes were bad really, just a little weak. People complained that the endings were all the same, but they really weren’t; it was just the visuals that were the same.

Recycled explosion cut scene

Recycled explosion cut scene (1)

In all of my criticisms, notice how I said nothing about the basic premise/structure of the ending being flawed or inconsistent. This was intentional because I think that BioWare got the premise of the ending right. It didn’t have major structural flaws, it just lacked polish. BioWare has announced that they are going to be releasing a sort of “extended cut” DLC that will flesh out the ending. One thing that BioWare should NOT do with their extended cut DLC is to retcon the ending and do something entirely new to appease the fanbase. Many players have clamored for this, but fortunately BioWare doesn’t seem to be pursuing this route. This is important because a) I think it would weaken the potential of the ending and b) it would set a bad precedent. If gamers always get what they want, then the medium will stop moving forward because the average gamer just wants to blow stuff up real good and have fun. They want more of the same.

I really do think that the ending was quite good, despite my criticisms. I was on the edge of my seat during the entire time on the citadel. It was very powerful and very moving at times. One surprising turn of events was during the final push to the citadel, Harbinger mortally wounds both Shepard and Andersen. This leaves both characters, and by extension the player, barely able to function. There are no more insanely powerful weapons, no more biotics, no more tech. It’s just you, and you can barely do anything. This may have frustrated some players, but I think this was absolutely genius. It almost forced the ending to focus on story over gameplay, and benefited greatly from it. It was much more focused and impactful than the endings to ME1 and ME2 which both focused on a huge boss battle.

This focus lead to a masterful final encounter with the Illusive Man. Instead of turning this encounter into some huge boss fight, it instead was a much more interesting, storied encounter. Ideas of control and free will were discussed. Much pent up anger was released, and the dramatic tension was palpable, leading to the Illusive Man committing suicide with the realization of what he had done (in my play through).

The Illusive Man, Indoctrinated

The Illusive Man, Indoctrinated (1)

Andersen and Shepard then open the Citadel so the Crucible can dock and be activated. They finally accomplished all that they set out to do. Shepard and Anderson, both on the verge of death, finally have a moment to relax. They have won. In what is one of single the best scenes I’ve ever seen in a game, Andersen and Shepard contemplate all that has happened, and all that they have accomplished. Few words are said because few are needed. Finally, Andersen dies. It’s not a tragic event, but rather one of sad beauty.

Shepard is waiting for the inevitable, ready to invite death with open arms. Death has other plans though when Hackett calls in saying that nothing is happening. It isn’t a moment of panic though, nor of frustration or anger. Instead, Shepard trudges herself up, like a good solder, stumbles back towards the console. It’s almost as if she just instinctively reacts to what is required of her, ignoring the fact that she is dying. Try as she might though, she just can’t make it and collapses on the platform in front of the console. It’s a moment of profound, aching sadness. I felt that what came after these scenes just didn’t matter from an emotional standpoint because the emotionally satisfying conclusion had already been reached.

I played as Femshep (if that wasn’t obvious), and I wonder how these scenes would have played out as Maleshep. I always felt there was a certain vulnerability and complexity to Jane Hall’s portrayal of Femshep that Mark Meer’s portrayal of Maleshep lacked. This vulnerability was crucial in creating the impact of the ending, so I don’t think that the Maleshep ending would have been as good as a result (of course I could be wrong since I didn’t play it).  Since 87% of players play as Maleshep (2), I wonder if this factored in to people’s negative opinion of the ending.

It’s also worth noting that the music during the ending is absolutely phenomenal! It’s no surprise, then, to learn that Clint Mansell, Darren Aronofsky’s go-to composer for his films, lent his talents to this project. It perfectly fits the balance of emotional and intellectual weight of the ending, perhaps even defining it. It’s a testament to Mansell and team’s work that I still have one of the ending piano pieces, “An End, Once and For All” shown below (3), stuck in my head a week after I finished playing the game. I even found a piano arrangement of the piece that I am now learning.

In part 1, I mentioned a quote from another gamer. I want to requote just the first part, because this person got the first part absolutely right: “Mass Effect 3 emotionally wrecked me.” (4) It absolutely did, which is high praise indeed. The night after I finished playing I couldn’t sleep because I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I still find myself thinking about it a week later. When something grabs hold of me like this, I know that I have just experience something truly incredible. All of the analysis and discussion about what worked well and what didn’t really doesn’t matter. This is what matters: I experience something that I cannot forget, and that is the sign of something wonderful.

(1) Stretch. “Mass Effect 3′s Ending & Shepard Indoctrination Theory.” Bag of Games. 2nd April, 2012. Available: http://www.bagofgames.com/2012/04/mass-effect-3s-ending-shepard-indoctrination-theory/
(2) Hillier, Brenna. “Loving FemShep: BioWare’s first lady finally steps forward.” VG24/7. 19th Fuly, 2011. Available: http://www.vg247.com/2011/07/19/loving-femshep-biowares-first-lady-finally-steps-forward/
(3) “Mass Effect 3 Soundtrack – An End Once and For All.” YouTube. 4th March, 2012. Available: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5JvbD2Zc9I
(4) Kuchera, Ben. “Why the ending of Mass Effect 3 was satisfying, and worthy of the series.” Penny Arcade Report. 13th March, 2012. Available: http://www.penny-arcade.com/report/editorial-article/why-the-ending-of-mass-effect-3-was-satifying-and-worthy-of-the-series-mass

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Mass Effect 3’s ending part 1 – Retake Mass Effect is wrong

I just finished playing Mass Effect 3 on Saturday. While I didn’t love the ending, I certainly didn’t hate it like most people did.I do have may thoughts on the ending though, enough that I am splitting this post into two parts. Part 1 will deal with the criticisms of the ending, namely the Retake Mass Effect effort. Part 2 will deal with what I thought was good and bad about the ending, and some a few tweaks that could be made to the ending to make it incredible. Now that I have played the game, I can confidently say that I think the Retake Mass Effect point of view on the game is, for the most part, wrong.

Warning, major spoilers of the last few minutes of Mass Effect 3 ahead.

The Retake Mass Effect petition states (1):

A Petition for Alternate Endings to the Mass Effect Trilogy

We, the undersigned, respectfully request the consideration of the following petition.

Whereas:
* Mass Effect is an interactive video game providing a detailed framework within which the player may create a unique story
* A major concept of the Mass Effect games is that your choices significantly affect the outcome of the story
* Another major concept of the Mass Effect games is success in the face of seemingly impossible odds

We believe:
* That it is the right of the writers and developers of the Mass Effect series to end that series however they see fit

However, we also believe that the currently available endings to the series:
* Do not provide the wide range of possible outcomes that we have come to expect from a Mass Effect game
* Do not provide a sense of succeeding against impossible odds
* Do not provide a sense of closure with regard to the universe and characters we have become attached to
* Do not provide an explanation of events up to the ending which maintains consistency with the overall story

We therefore respectfully request additional endings be added to the game which provide:
* A more complete explanation of the story events
* An explaination of the outcome of the decisions made, especially with regard to the planets, races, and companions detailed throughout the series
* A heroic ending which provides a better sense of accomplishment

To this end, we donate to the “Retake Mass Effect 3” Child’s Play Charity drive in lieu of our signature to this petition, in order to establish our sincerity, our love for these games, and for the Mass Effect universe.

We thank you for your consideration.

For the most part I just don’t agree. BioWare is all about story. They set out to tell a story with the Mass Effect games, just like they did with the Dragon Age games. I think that the point of view above places gameplay over story. They want the story to be the expected outcome of how they played the game; in other words predictable! It’s sad, but everyone wanted a formulaic ending. I’m going to do my due diligence though and go through these arguments one by one instead of just hand-waving them away as being asinine.

“Do not provide the wide range of possible outcomes that we have come to expect from a Mass Effect game.” This is the only point that I do agree with. While the choices weren’t bad, and they can be an interesting reflection on the part of the person playing, I do think there should have been one (and probably only one) more option which I will discuss below.

“Do not provide a sense of succeeding against impossible odds.” Seriously? No matter which option you choose, the Reaper threat is over. There are no more cycles. How is this not a sense of success? Do players need to see parades with everyone singing yub nub to get a sense of success? Can these players not handle open ended endings? Sadly the answers to those last two questions are “yes” and “no,” and these answers have been born out by decades of film history. This is why mainstream summer blockbusters sell so well, even though they are incredibly formulaic, predictable, and boring, while the really interesting, thought-provoking, and truly great movies are lucky to be made at all and make orders of magnitude less money than their summer blockbuster brethren. People just don’t want to be intellectually challenged, they wanted to be intellectually satiated.

“Do not provide a sense of closure with regard to the universe and characters we have become attached to.” This can be nice sure (this is something Dragon Age: Origins did very well), but to say that the ending sucked because it wasn’t there? That’s ludicrous. That type of ending didn’t fit with what BioWare wanted to do, and did do, which was to provide a thought-provoking, cerebral, and open-ended ending.

“An [sic] explaination of the outcome of the decisions made, especially with regard to the planets, races, and companions detailed throughout the series.” I’m sympathetic to this argument, but I still think Bioware did the right thing. An explanation wasn’t necessary…the outcome of all of the races, etc, was obvious. Explicitly showing what happened to, say, the Krogans based on whether or not you saved Wrex and Eve and whether or not you told them about the STG sabotage was unnecessary because the game made it painfully obvious what was going to happen given those decisions. An explanation like this would have just served as a pat on the back to players and wouldn’t have contributed anything new to the story. It would, however, have diluted the story that BioWare did want to tell because the core ending would have had to share screen time with this fluff.

“Do not provide an explanation of events up to the ending which maintains consistency with the overall story.” I simply don’t see any inconsistency. There are two major consistencies I see discussed: 1) the kid came out of nowhere and 2) everyone should have been destroyed by the relays exploding. Both of these claims are flat out wrong. On 1), the existence of something controlling the reapers was explicitly mentioned earlier in the From Ashes DLC (which should have been shipped with the game) which takes place fairly early in the game. In addition, this theme of new layers being slowly revealed has a very strong precedence. First, we thought the Protheans were the only previous race, then we learned that the Reaper’s also existed with the Protheans, then we learned that races existed before the Protheans, then we learned the Protheans weren’t a single-race species but rather a multi-race empire, and so on. Whoever claims that the kid came out of nowhere simply wasn’t paying attention to the game. On 2), well everyone wasn’t killed because the relays didn’t explode. Everyone compares the events of the ME2 DLC Arrival, where a relay did explode because an asteroid was crashed into it with the end of ME3 and claim OMGZ PLOT HOLE !!!!11!1!@#! Once again, these people simply weren’t paying attention. The relays broadcast a signal across the galaxy that did whatever choice was chosen, and overloaded in the process. It’s like detonating a nuclear weapon version breaking one by over volting the circuitry. The nuclear weapon is destroyed in both cases, but only the first one destroys an entire city. The other consistency issues brought up are so tiny and assinine, I can’t believe people got hung up on them to begin with. I am someone with a lot of physics and some biology background, yet I still enjoy sci-fi movies. If I got upset at the MAJOR misunderstandings of science in virtually EVERY sci-fi movie EVER MADE, then I wouldn’t be able to watch movies, period. Entertainment isn’t going to be perfect down to the last detail, it’s just simply not possible.

Party Time (this is what fans wanted)

Party Time (this is what fans wanted) (2)

There is a common trend among all of these complaints: people wanted a predictable, thoughtless ending that was focused on them. They wanted the ending to Return of the Jedi, not the ending to 2001. They wanted a party with everyone getting drunk, as shown in the fan art above, without any real depth or intellectuality at all.

To quote another player mentioned in Ben Kuchera’s excellent writeup on the issue: (3)

Mass Effect 3 emotionally wrecked me. It’s Bioware’s game so it’s their choice. And obviously the game was effective to get that response, but I still feel like shit,” one fan told me. “I don’t play games to feel like this after [they’re over]. How do I trust Bioware to not wreck me again if I decide to join them on their next epic?”

This player is pissed off that the game made him/her feel something other than satiated happiness? That’s…just…fucked…up. It is through emotional and intellectual discovery that we advance as a species. This type of discovery doesn’t occur when you have the attitude expressed by this player, and it really makes me despair for humanity to see opinions like this proffered. These types of fans hated the image from the synthesis ending of ME3 below, despite the fact that this is a very powerful scene, just dripping with meaning. The sad thing is that it went over most people’s heads.

Synthesis of love (what people hated)

Synthesis of love (this is what fans hated) (4)

I wrote the following paragraph when discussing the ending of another recent BioWare RPG in which people hated the ending: (5)

I suspect that the majority of these players weren’t making choices because it’s what their interpretation of Hawke would actually do, but because it would result in the outcome they wanted in the story, thus making these choices a game itself. These type of players wanted to “win” at the game of “choice,” instead of taking part in a narrative. Given this mindset, it is no wonder that they were upset because they felt that the game cheated them out of winning.

I get the distinct impression that the same phenomenon is manifesting itself with Mass Effect 3 too.

People often complain about the banality of AAA games these days (I’m one of them), but the Retake Mass Effect effort tells us exactly why most AAA games are so mundane: the average gamer hates intellectually challenging games! So much so that they create petitions to try to force game companies to make the few attempts made at interesting games be rewritten. The ending of Mass Effect 3 wasn’t perfect, as I am going to outline in part 2, but the response by the average gamer to the ending fills me with far far more rage than the actual ending itself. And that’s just sad.

(1) “Retake Mass Effect.” ChipIn. 12th March, 2012. Available: http://retakemasseffect.chipin.com/retake-mass-effect-childs-play
(3) Plunkett, Luke. “Mass Effect 3 Gets A Happy Ending After All.” Kotaku. 21 March, 2012. Available: http://www.kotaku.com.au/2012/03/mass-effect-3-gets-a-happy-ending-after-all/
(3) Kuchera, Ben. “Why the ending of Mass Effect 3 was satisfying, and worthy of the series.” Penny Arcade Report. 13th March, 2012. Available: http://www.penny-arcade.com/report/editorial-article/why-the-ending-of-mass-effect-3-was-satifying-and-worthy-of-the-series-mass
(4) Freeman, Zadishe. “Outrage over the ending of Mass Effect 3: Not just a game.” Freeman’s Mind. 25th March, 2012. Available: http://zadishefreeman.com/the-outrage-over-mass-effect-3-not-just-a-game/
(5) Salo. “The Illusion of Choice in Dragon Age 2.” Chrono-Synclastic Infundibulum. 26 October, 2011. Available: https://chronosynclasticinfundibulum.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/the-illusion-of-choice-in-dragon-age-2/

Part 2 is live!