The controversy over the ending of Mass Effect 3 is one of the more fascinating, intellectual, literate, helplessly entitled, and gloriously nerdy scandals in recent pop culture history. The concluding chapter of an epic space-opera trilogy, ME3 angered a broad swath of its fans with an ending that — without spoiling anything — could be variously described as “downbeat,” “ambiguous,” and “sort of like 2001, kind of, except with more colors.”
Some of the critiques of the ME3 ending are spot on. But in truth, this is just the latest iteration of the fan response to basically every long-running narrative in the last 10 years: Lost, Battlestar Galactica, The Sopranos, The Hunger Games, The Matrix. Heck, the only two serialized narratives that didn’t spur a fan outcry were Y: The Last Man and Harry Potter, and that’s just because Y: The Last Man ended perfectly and Harry Potter ended with a completely sensible plot about horcruxes and hallows and magic swords and the revelation that the real magic is love, or something.
The developer of Mass Effect 3 has heard the outcry. Today, BioWare announced that this summer will see the release of free downloadable content currently referred to as the “Extended Cut,” which will feature “additional cinematic sequences and epilogue scenes” along with “deeper insights into how [each gamer’s] personal journey concludes.” Notably, they don’t say they’re going to change the ending (minor spoiler here), which indicates that players will still be able to choose between three roughly identical — but so philosophically divergent! — methods for ending the war with the Reapers. In all likelihood, the “additional cinematic sequences and epilogue scenes” will basically be the Mass Effect version of the six appendices J.R.R. Tolkien added to the end of Lord of the Rings, making sure fans know exactly what happened to every major and minor character in the Mass Effect mythos. (Perhaps we’ll finally learn what Joker ate for breakfast the day after the war ended!)
Pardon my sarcasm. The Mass Effect trilogy is a deeply personal journey for the people who play through it, and I can understand the frustration among my fellow gamers who felt like the ending was unsatisfactory. But darn it, some endings aren’t satisfying. Sometimes that’s on purpose — maybe the creators are going for something weird, or wild, or just generally out there. (I can’t imagine what modern Internet fandom would make of the conclusion of 2001: “WTF, so he just turns into a star-baby? LAME. I bet Kubrick didn’t even know where the monoliths came from. Whatevs, the movie totally went downhill after they killed off HAL.”)
Sometimes it’s because the nature of long-form narrative makes it almost impossible to bring every multifaceted element of a story line to a satisfying conclusion. (Lost decided it was the story of Jack’s redemption, which is fine, except that many of the show’s best episodes had nothing to do with Jack.) And sometimes it’s because the creators despise their characters, or they want to mercilessly torture their audience. (The ending of Sopranos is a glorious middle finger pointed in our direction. So, for that matter, is Mockingjay, one of the angriest YA novels ever written.)
The controversy over the Mass Effect 3 ending brings up a host of questions — not least, the shifting balance of power between artist and audience in an interactive medium. But even if the specific way that BioWare chose to end ME3 wasn’t narratively perfect, they deserve credit for…well, going for it. No matter how much we like to say that videogames are evolving, the entire medium is built on perpetual franchises and stories that never have to end. (Even God of War 3 felt the need to ameliorate its nihilistic ending with a ham-handed sequel-teasing epilogue.)
The ending of Mass Effect 3 was a thrilling gamble. The fan outcry over that ending feels like an unforgivably stifling counterweight — an indication to developers that it might be better to play it safe. Ever since The Phantom Menace, there’s been a rising sense of entitlement in some corners of geek fandom: the sense that we know better than the filmmakers and showrunners and novelists who are responsible for creating some of our favorite movies and TV shows and gory fantasy sagas.
My brother once explained to me how to give someone a great gift. Don’t give them something they want; give them something that they don’t know they want. Well, we opened our present, and it wasn’t what we wanted, and we threw a fit, and now BioWare is finally going to break down and give us the Red Megaman.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich
Read More from EW: