In defense of the 'Mass Effect 3' ending
I don’t think I will ever care about a videogame character as much as I cared about my Commander Shepard in Mass Effect 3. She had short neon-red hair that made her look like a renegade club kid from an ’80s German techno-pop music video, and as the graphics of this console generation evolved across three Mass Effects, she began to look less like Elisabeth Shue and more like Emilia Clarke. She was kind to her friends. She understood the necessity for authority figures but also despised them. She could be rude in casual interactions, but she almost always chose the diplomatic option when it came time for big decisions — which could mean that she was a badass with a heart of gold, or it could mean that she was being controlled by a milquetoast suburban kid who fundamentally believes everyone can all get along. In the time that I knew my Shepard, she slept with four subordinates: a soldier dude who admired her, a frisky Yeoman woman who looked uncannily like her, a dying reptile-alien assassin who promised to meet her in the afterlife, and then finally yet another frisky Yeoman girl who enjoyed chess and showering in underwear. One of those last two people was the love of my Shepard’s life. Or maybe they both were.
It’s hard not to get attached to the characters of Mass Effect. That’s not because the writing from game developer BioWare is necessarily better than the writing on other videogames, although it is. It’s because, to a great extent, Mass Effect is one of the first game series to be truly and utterly defined by writing. Metal Gear Solid brought the notion of cinematic storytelling into the videogame mainstream, but the Solid series was filled with florid twists, and characters defined by their costumes, and an undercurrent of woo-woo anti-war solipsism. It was forgivable, because Solid also introduced a catchy new game-play mechanic: What if instead of shooting people you were to just sneak around them?
Mass Effect didn’t break ground in quite the same way. The action was a mixture of duck-and-cover shooter and pick-a-spell fantasy combat. In between “action” missions, you could explore a few worlds, talking to random characters and buying random items and discovering random side quests — a refined version of the quiet towns that have been populating role-playing games since the NES days. What made Mass Effect different was the details. Dialogue wasn’t just expository. Characters could argue for multiple points of view — and none of those perspectives were necessarily right or wrong. You made decisions that rendered every play-through a little bit different. At the center of it all was your Shepard — male or female, diplomat or soldier, world weary or uncomplaining, straight or bisexual or gay or blue-fetish xenosexual — trying to save the galaxy.
So it makes sense that the ending of Mass Effect 3 has provoked a bigger fan reaction than any other videogame’s conclusion in the medium’s history. Because the Mass Effect franchise told one cohesive story across three games — roughly 120 to 150 hours of game play, probably longer than it would take to read the complete Lord of the Rings trilogy — the better comparison point is to one of the many long-running serialized narratives that have come to dominate the geeky end of the pop culture spectrum. Think of film trilogies or sci-fi TV shows or literary sagas; think The Matrix or Lost or Battlestar Galactica or The Dark Tower.
All of those franchises have suffered from their own particular version of Ending Outcry: The particular moment when ravenous fans stop being forgiving and start being outraged. When people complained about the end of Lost, it wasn’t simply because the show closed mawkishly. It was the sense that Lost had actively wasted their time — that they had spent six seasons obsessed with something that ultimately let them down, and somehow that final letdown was enough to cast their entire time with the series into question.
The outrage over Mass Effect has quickly reached a fever pitch. Someone is filing a false advertising complaint with the FTC, saying, “After reading through the list of promises about the ending of the game they made in their advertising campaign and PR interviews, it was clear that the product we got did not live up to any of those claims.” Ray Muzka, the co-founder of BioWare, wrote a post earlier today — a post which could either be read as an executive bowing to pressure or (more likely) acknowledging that there is money to be made from selling a “New Ending” DLC. Muzka writes: “Exec Producer Casey Hudson and the team are hard at work on a number of game content initiatives that will help answer the questions, providing more clarity for those seeking further closure to their journey.”
This is ridiculous. I’ve always been a bit skeptical about the rampant entitlement in modern fandom — the pervading sense that we somehow own these franchises — an entitlement which more and more seems to have a chilling effect on some of the most interesting works of sci-fi/fantasy art. (George R. R. Martin basically told The New Yorker that pressure from entitled fans occasionally limits his ability to write.)
No one owns Mass Effect except BioWare. And if you ask me, they should be saluted for pointedly making Mass Effect 3 into an ending. Not a “see you in the reboot!” ending, like Halo 3 or Gears of War 3. Giving stories an ending is an act of leaving money on the table — why else do you think Hollywood keeps on splitting up one book into two movies?
But the biggest problem with all the outcry is that (spoilers ahead) the ending of Mass Effect 3 is fascinating, frustrating, moving, and weird — exactly the kind of ending that the videogame medium will need more of if it intends to mature.
At the end of Mass Effect 3, you’re given three choices: Destroy all synthetic life in the cosmos, including yourself and the villains; take control of villains; or convert the entire galaxy into half-synthetic and half-organic. No matter what you do, you die. I chose the third option, because it seemed appropriately magnificent — that’s the 2001 option, really. My Shepard died doing a Ripley swan dive into a beam of energy, with memories of her friends flashing before her eyes.
The ending is not elegant. It’s similar, in outline, to the ending of Battlestar Galactica: It reduces a fascinating galaxy of moral viewpoints into a single idea (the fraught relationship between organics and synthetics, which is really the fraught relationship between father and son, or a god and his creation). It’s also similar to the conclusion of Lost: It introduces a semi-mystical, utterly inexplicable situation, and turns what had been an ensemble adventure into the story of a single protagonist. It requires you, in the final moments of the series, to meet a brand new character, a godlike deity. Because all three options provide the same result — the war ends, Shepard dies (or maybe doesn’t) — the most common complaint is that all the work you put in over three games on customizing your character doesn’t pay off.
Now, when you put aside the silly argument that the ending isn’t happy — an argument which we should just ignore, since most of the best endings are sad and most of the worst endings are “Yub Yub!” — you’re left with the far more intriguing argument that there should be more to choose from. Why couldn’t my Shepard argue with the deity? Why couldn’t my Shepard have gone into her final moments with her closest allies by her side? Why couldn’t there have been some option, any option, that let my Shepard live out her days with her frisky Yeoman assistant-turned-wife?
By forcing you to choose between three stark options that all provide the same result, some have argued that the ending reflects poorly on a series that had typically let you decide your own fate. But the decisions in Mass Effect were always less sweeping than they appeared to be. You could never decide to blow up a planet, or shoot one of your crew members in cold blood just because you didn’t like their tone. Heck, in Mass Effect 3, I got locked into that relationship with the Yeoman just because I decided to sleep with her before the bird alien I secretly loved got up the courage to ask me on a date. I couldn’t go tell the bird alien I loved him. It wasn’t in my Shepard’s programming.
Mass Effect was always a more limited experience than players were willing to admit. For all the talk about moral ambiguity, this was a franchise where the main villains were black insect-robot-skyscrapers with a roar that sounded like the Inception foghorn and a mission to eliminate all advanced life in the Milky Way Galaxy. This was also a franchise where — no matter what your Shepard did — she (or he) was destined to become the greatest hero in the galaxy. The joy of Mass Effect was that it let you slightly individualize a journey that always had one fundamental endpoint. That’s why people love the franchise in a way they’ll never love Elder Scrolls or Fallout — franchises that are more open, but less vividly personal.
Mass Effect 3 is not a perfect game. The minor story arcs are hit-or-miss. By forcing you to resolve the disputes that have defined the Mass Effect galaxy, the game forces you to make that galaxy much lamer. (You basically resolve Israel/Palestine twice in Mass Effect 3, making your Shepard a better diplomat than pretty much every president of the last 60 years.) The new “Galaxy Exploration” mini-game is a face-slap embarrassment: Your little ship zooms around the cosmos firing off space-sonar while dodging little Reaper-ships, in what feels like a bad parody of an early-’90s “Learn About the Galaxy” education game. Most glaringly of all, the most interesting new character is only available through a shameless cash-grab DLC. (By comparison, imagine if you had to pay 10 dollars extra to play as Princess in Super Mario Bros. 2.)
But the game also gave me hours of enjoyment. At its best, it managed to tell a highly personal story of cosmic proportions. At its worst, it was a thrilling, galaxy-hopping action storyline with ambitions that the storytelling and the limitations of game play couldn’t quite achieve. If you have gripes with the ending, gripe away — god knows I can never criticize Return of the Jedi too much. (I have a weird love for stories that end with the main character dying, probably because I was raised Catholic.)
But accusing BioWare of letting you down — you personally, you the most important person in the universe — is ridiculous. Mass Effect was their story. This is how they chose to end it. Saying that you were let down is justified. Arguing that you deserve more is just entitlement. If you made it tothe end of Mass Effect 3, then BioWare supplied you with over a hundred hours of videogame amusement, and you experienced a franchise which — in small ways and large — pushed the whole notion of videogame storytelling forward. If you feel like all that time spent with the game was wasted because you didn’t like the last few minutes… Well, no offense, but your perspective on art and the human experience kind of stinks.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich