My take on the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy

My blog has sat idle for more than a year without any posts.  People who follow my twitter stream will find it no surprise that my first post is about Bioware’s game Mass Effect 3.  For non-gamers and those that have been living in caves, The Mass Effect series is an interactive space opera which is a hybrid of a science-fiction Role Playing Game and a First-Person Shooter.  The player takes the role of Commander Shepard – a special forces soldier who, while investigating a government agent who has gone rogue, discovers the imminent return of a threat to all life in the galaxy.  The first game was released in 2007 – luckily for me, I only started playing the series early in 2011 when I picked the first two games up in a Steam sale (note that Mass Effect 3 is only available via EA’s Origin because of the ongoing war between Valve and EA).

Mass Effect received critical acclaim (PC Metacritic scores: 89%, 94%, 89%) as well as being hugely popular with gamers. One of the Bioware devs tried to sell Mass Effect as the  “Starwars for the New Generation”. He’s the not the only person to draw that comparison.  This post from io9 is a great long read on the significance of the Mass Effect series to modern science fiction (check out some of the erudite comments to see how seriously people take the franchise). People loved Mass Effect.  Some people really loved Mass Effect.

So it’s probably not a huge surprise that when it came to wind up the series (5 years wait if you’d hopped on the ride at the beginning) there was more than a little anticipation about how Bioware would wrap it up.

It would be fair to say that not everyone was entirely satisfied with the ending.

Not too long after the game was released, a torrent of posts started appearing on the Bioware forums complaining about the ending, and a poll – that has (as of writing) over 65,000 “we want a happy ending” posts.  There were a couple of general themes, which you can see summarised here.  I can’t possibly offer better comment on the idea of a happy ending than Penny Arcade did:

In case you couldn’t work out from reading this far, there are going to be SPOILERS about the Mass Effect 3 endings (but not in exacting detail) but more thorough spoilers for the first two games.

No, really – here be SPOILERS!

First was the mechanics of the game ending.  There are three choices that Shepard can make on how to bring the reaper war to a close.  One of the major problems is that the cutscene you see is essentially the same other than some very trivial cosmetic details.  Two involve Shepard sacrificing him/her-self and one (depending on your galactic readiness rating – essentially how many of the side-quests you complete) hinting that Shepard may have survived, but this isn’t reflected in the cutscene at all.  Players by this stage have probably invested around 30hrs of playtime in Mass Effect 3 if they were trying to be complete;  add the first two games to this and 80-100 hours of playtime is not unrealistic.  And the reward you get is a generic cutscene which is the same no matter which galaxy-changing decision you made.

This mockup probably expresses the fans’ discontent better than anything.

The second concern surrounds the degree of choice given to players in wrapping up the story of their Shepard.  All of the myriad choices given to the player throughout the series are drawn back together at the end and ultimately make no major impact on the choices before the player.  Like it or lump it, there are three endings (or two if you’ve not worked at getting your readiness rating up high enough).  The fans felt cheated and to a certain extent I can see their point.

Thirdly, the final sequence is lacking in continuity with the game.

Final warning for big SPOILERS!;

Shepard and his squad are making a mad dash for a teleporter to the Citadel to activate the Crucible – the device that will end the reaper war.   The area they are running through gets glassed by a giant reaper laser; as the screen fades to black, you hear alliance comm chatter speaking about how “no-one made it”.  Shepard then wakes up – badly burnt and bleeding and staggers up to the teleporter.  After an unknown time he wakes on the citadel and the end sequence continues.

The (not unreasonable) assumption would be that the rest of the squad got fried by the reaper – they were running down the gauntlet with you, after all.   As the final part of the cutscene though, you see several of your squad members hopping out of the Normandy on a garden planet.  The problems here are:  there is a reasonable chance that one of the people hopping out of the Normandy will have been in your squad at the endgame and that secondly, how (and when) did the Normandy have time to pick them up in between the squad getting gunned down and the activation of the crucible?

Fan Response on the Internet

As mentioned above, there’s been a lot of noise about the ending on the Bioware Fora.  It’s important to note when thinking about these protests that the Bioware forums are often not the home of rational or sane discussion on the internet.

Example: Bioware and EA have recently come under fire for the inclusion of same-sex romances in their games (Dragon Age, Mass Effect and Star Wars: Old Republic). (Aside: it has also rightfully been praised – by such luminaries as Stephen Fry and Yoda – who obviously bears no grudges about the Star Wars comparisons).  Although it has now been picked up by the “mainstream” (ie: non-gamer) religious fruitcakes, these protests began in a very vocal way on the Bioware fora.  In essence, the message was “I don’t want to see gay men in my game. If you do, I’ll never buy another Bioware game and I’ll throw my computer out the window and burn the hard-drive because I hate gayness”.  My theory is that a large number of these posts were coming from 13-year-old morons whose only direct sexual experience was internet porn and their dominant hand, spurred on by a good dose of John Gabriel’s theory.

Similar “I will never buy any of your games ever again” protests followed the announcement that ME3 would be available only on Origin and not on Steam.  I’m sure there is significant overlap between the three groups of protesters;  the complete lack of perspective is certainly a common thread and is not exclusive to Mass Effect (parody of this video).  One fan even lodged a complaint with the US Better Business Bureau.  A staffer at the Bureau has posted an opinion piece on a blog suggesting that Bioware may have a case to answer based on the use of the phrase “the decisions you make completely shape your experience and outcome” used in Bioware’s marketing.  I get the impression from reading the article that the blogger hasn’t played the game, however.

It’s not fair to only put the protests down to the unhinged, though.  A lot of analysis and though has gone into the endgame.   There is a huge thread on the forums outlining a theory that the entire endgame is in Shepard’s mind and that he was indoctrinated at the end, in addition to calling for Bioware to revise the ending. Gamefront has an excellent analysis of the concerns of the fans here.  Professional nerd Paul Verhoeven (and I should say that Paul’s opinion on games I normally have a lot of respect for) has been a noisy advocate of the campaign for a new ending.  Another fan has redone the excellent Fall of Earth trailer.

One of the larger and more organised protests is Retake Mass Effect (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr).  As well as generating a huge amount of publicity for the cause, RME3 also launched a campaign to raise money for Penny Arcade’s games-for-sick-kids charity, Child’s Play – more than $60,000, in fact.  You can see the problems this caused Child’s Play in the Penny Arcade response here.  RME3’s next move was to commission some 400 cupcakes (iced in the three colours of the endings, but all the same flavour – see what they did there?) to Bioware HQ.  These were promptly passed on from Bioware to a local youth shelter.

My Opinion

Even prior to my seeing the endings, I was opposed to changing them;  I think Bioware have made an outstanding story and I’m happy for them to close it out how they see fit.  Seeing the didn’t significantly change my opinion. Was I entirely satisfied?  No.  Am I going to lose it and demand a new one?  No.   I certainly think the endings are anti-climactic and would like to have seen Bioware put more effort into a suitable denouement – if you’ve spent 100 hours of your life on a game, you’d like to have something more to show for it than three separate outcomes shoe-horned into a single cutscene.  At the end of the day, though – although it’s terrible cliched, Mass Effect is about the journey – not the destination.

Countering the Protests

Artistic Integrity

Mass Effect is the baby of the Bioware team.  They wanted to tell an epic science fiction story, so they created a new universe and populated it with an excellent story, believable characters. The lead writer left during Mass Effect 2, but I’m fairly certain the rest of the writing team had the plot well and truly in place by then. These sort of projects really aren’t made up on the fly.

To insist that they change it because you don’t like it is a slap in the face to the hard work of the writing team. Lots of comparisons  have been drawn to the endings of all sorts of books, movies and games; I’ll not talk about the ending to Fallout 3, which was changed in response to a protest – because I haven’t actually played the game.

Personally, I’ve always hated the ending to Lord of the Rings.  I know what Tolkein was trying to do by suggesting that life must go on, but “Well, I’m home” always seemed such a terrible, boring, lame way of doing it.   What I didn’t do was swear never to read the book again, rip out all the pages of my copy of the book or write angry letters to Christopher Tolkein complaining about the hours of my life his father had stolen.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is also a good parallel.  The ending involves Adam Jensen standing in a room and pressing one of four buttons – kill himself and everyone on Panacea and let humanity decide, Broadcast Darrow’s warning about the dangers of augmentation; frame Humanity First for all the problems and promote David Sarif’s agenda; or support the efforts of the Illuminati in taking over the world.  Gee, when you put it like that, it’s even more of a downer than ME3.  There were 4 (similar but) different cutscenes with different voice-overs from Jensen.  Arguably just as lame, but didn’t generate the intense response that Mass Effect has.

Returning to another literary parallel, Peter Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy was an epic space-opera on the scale of Mass Effect.  In fact all of the third book (The Naked God) involves the crew chasing after the uber-McGuffin (or a very well telegraphed deus ex machina – the Sleeping God referred to in the title) so they could end the war with the Possessed.  It does this by granting Joshua Calvert (the protagonist) God-like power with which he ends the war.  All sorted. Too easy.

A number of game developers have also thrown their support behind the Bioware writing team; quite correctly saying that being forced to alter the story to placate angry fans would be like ripping the heart out of the story. Here also is an impressive rant by one of the editors of Kotaku along the same line.

Sorry, but it is not your story after all.

The argument against the artistic integrity line on the forum seems generally to be “but it’s an interactive story, so we should be allowed to have input into the ending” .  As well as showing an impressive degree of conceit, the argument is actually incorrect.   Although the Mass Effect story offers some choices, it really does boil down to the standard RPG with a plot on rails.

Take the first Mass Effect, for example.   The arc of the story is:   Investigate Eden Prime, Warn the Council, Track Saren, Stop Saren, Blow up Sovereign.   The player is given some flexibility in the order the plot missions are done, choices about how to approach things and the option of whether and how to approach the side missions.  This level of choice is unprecedented in RPGs prior to Mass Effect, so I’m not detracting from its achievements, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what your Shepard did along the way, the game ends with Sovereign in pieces.

The choices you do get in the early games are also carefully pruned back by Bioware for the conclusion:

Did you save or kill the rachni queen?  Doesn’t matter. You get to speak to either the Rachni queen or her reaper clone and one of these two fill the same plot point.

Did you reactivate Legion, sell him to the Illusive Man or leave him in the AI Core of the Normandy?  Doesn’t matter.  You’ll either meet Legion, or a “Geth VI” who advances the plot in the same way that Legion would have if he was there.

Did you make Anderson or Udina the council representitive? Anderson? Well. fancy that, Anderson has retired and Udina has taken over as the Ambassador regardless of your choice.

Were you a paragon or a renegade?  Doesn’t matter – if you were a diplomat or an arsehole, funnily enough, Sovereign is still blown to pieces all over the Citadel.

Saying that you have freedom to direct the plot of the Mass Effect series is a fiction. You have choices that can help select the path you take, but not the destination.  The arc of the story is Bioware’s, not yours – and they should be able to tell it how they like.

If you want to have complete control over the story, then my suggestion would be to go and play a MMORPG – there you can do whatever you like.  If you not planning on carrying out your boycott of Bioware, then they are even making an effort with The Old Republic to include plot set-pieces to add story to the usually process driven genre of the MMO.

Plot Holes

(Here be more big SPOILERS)

I won’t dwell for long on the plot holes, because this is more of an essay than a blog post already.

The Normandy vs the Explosion

I think it’s reasonable to assume that the Normandy may have returned to space after dropping the squad off – there realistically was plenty of time.   Once the wards on the Citadel were opened, the most important strategic priority is to defend the Crucible as it is moved into place on the Citadel and it would seem logical than the Normandy could have returned to space to assist the Shield fleet in moving the Crucible into position rather than sitting around on the planet covering the ground forces.

What’s [Ashley/Kaidan/Garrus/Tali/EDI/Liara] doing in the ending cutscene?

The presence of the squadmates on the Normandy is harder to explain.   The impression is certainly that all of the team assaulting the teleporter were killed.  However, Shepard and Anderson survived, so it isn’t completely unrealistic that someone else may have survived as well.  There was a time lag between the teleporter run and the events on the citadel, but it is not made clear how long…  How long was Shepard unconscious in the Citadel for? How long did it take the Crucible to be moved into position?  These are possible times that the surviving crew could have been picked up.  I’m not blindly defending Bioware here – I think this could have been done much better and hopefully it will be addressed in the coming DLC.

The other plot concern is that the Reaper motivation and the synthetic/organic conflict cycle seemed to come “out of the blue” at the end of the game.  I don’t think that’s really the case either.  There has been posted on Reddit a planet-scanning screenshot from one of the first two games that supposedly highlights the conflict.  A bit of set-piece text from a single planet in the optional galaxy exploration minigame is hardly sufficient telegraphing the ending, no matter how kind you want to be to Bioware.

My playthrough of ME3 did include a conversation about the synthetic / organic conflict.  I can’t remember when or who (I would assume around the time of the Rannoch missions and probably with EDI; if anyone can help out please leave a comment) but Shepard said that as synthetics are created with a defined purpose this would always conflict with the free will and lack of specific purpose that characterise organics.  My ears pricked up around this point and I started to get an inkling of what the ending may involve.  Sorry I can’t remember more details, but I’ll be on the lookout on the next playthrough.

Closing Thoughts

The Mass Effect series are great games, and I expect I will list the series as my favourite of all time for quite a while to come.  The endings weren’t great, but Bioware have announced a DLC to expand the ending and tie up some of the loose ends.  I applaud Ray Muzyka for the measure tone of the press release and the fact that Bioware are going to improve the ending without significantly changing the ending.  I think this is a great outcome.  More details, more exposition, hopefully filling from some of the holes but keeping the vision of the team.  Hopefully this will placate some of the aggrieved on the internet;  I certainly don’t think it’s going to make everyone happy – but that was never going to happen.

But if you really want to pick the Mass Effect plot to pieces, I recommend the TV Tropes analysis (or destruction) of the plots of the three games.

T.

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~ by Trent on April 11, 2012.

4 Responses to “My take on the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy”

  1. An interesting read. Speaking as someone who hasn’t played any of the ME games, the fuss *does* strike me as more like a bunch of petulant teens whining that the ending didn’t fulfil their imaginings.
    Agree w.r.t. the Night’s Dawn comparison. Some of Peter Hamilton’s other work suffers from the same problem with weak endings, but it’s still always an enjoyable read (and I’m certainly not claiming I could do any better!).

    I do have one quibble, though. You said “If you want to have complete control over the story, then my suggestion would be to go and play a MMORPG – there you can do whatever you like.”
    Have you actually played any MMORPGs? I’ve only delved into Warcrack myself, but even there, “whatever you like” boils down to “you can do the quests & things in whatever order you want, but you only get to choose amongst the options the developer makes available, and the over-arching plot is immutable”. Still, they do give you a *lot* of options… I’ve been playing the game for 3-4 years, and there are plenty of things I’ve never done – even ignoring the new low-level stuff added in the latest expansion.

    Heh… was hunting for a Dark Legacy comic about that, but found this one instead:
    http://www.darklegacycomics.com/200.html

    • No, I’ve not played Warcrack, so a fair point. I was meaning that there is going to be an inevitable compromise between the amount of player direction and the plot set pieces. Mass Effect 3 early on felt like a movie with game cut scenes rather than the other way around. The more player choices, either the less set-pieces or an exponential increase in the amount of work they have to do making a million cutscenes.

  2. Very eloquent as always Trent, I finished it last week and share your sentiment that it was not so much the events of the ending but the lack of exposition. It certainly didn’t reflect the tone of the rest of the series.

    The other dissapointment was how little of reflected the choices and efforts made during the series. What is the point in importing over 1000 variables between games when it all essentially comes down to the final decision?

    L

    • Agree, Leon. I understand why they contracted all the side-quest decisions – they’d still be writing it now, otherwise. But to do that and have such a limited ending is a bit of a slap to the fans. Looking forward to the DLC.

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