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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