With now over a week having passed since I first completed Mass Effect 3, I’ve had some time to process both the content and my reaction to it. Since there’s one particular element that likes to stand out, I’ll go about tackling that first, if more for my own peace of mind than anything. As the previous post, this one contains massive spoilers, and adds several more paragraphs; you have been warned.
My opinion of the ending hasn’t really changed all that much in the past week – I still think it’s pretty terrible, though I respect that there are people who disagree (just as I personally thought Dragon Age II was brilliant in spite of its many detractors and flaws); what has changed is that I’m in a better position to observe just where, how and why the ending ceased to work for me.
It’s important to note that up until Anderson dying, I was still totally on board which what was going on. I had my first feeling something was amiss with the red beam, I suppose, seeing how at any other point in the game those very same events would’ve resulted in nothing but a failure state. I’ll admit that for awhile I wasn’t sure whether what I was seeing was the intended path or just an extended showcase of how I’d failed at the very last minute due to some consequence I’d failed to foresee. Hadn’t I been fast enough on the sprint button? Had I brought the wrong people? Had I amassed too small a force? Had I missed something critical and now doomed my squadmates and the entire galaxy to death by Reaper?
But that wasn’t the point of failure, and in spite of the appearance of both Anderson and the Illusive man (and his sudden body-controlling powers that clearly weren’t just tied into your implants) seeming quite the contrievance, I was perfectly willing to accept these events on the terms that the Illusive man was effectively a stand-in for Saren, and that the dialogue I was having was a reprise of the battle of wills and the conflict between hope and despair that had marked the original conversation back in Mass Effect 1.
By the time I was having the final conversation with Anderson it was pretty clear that if I ever had had the chance to save him, it had come and gone, and I was fine with that. One final loss, one last mistake made during the grand journey of Kate Shepard. I saw before me a bittersweet victory of hope bought with the death of
CaptainAdmiral Anderson, and it seemed like a poignant end to an epic.
Unfortunately… that’s not where it ended at all, and in hindsight it’s perhaps fitting that the peace was broken by Admiral Hackett essentially telling me that my ending had failed utterly.
I started smelling some kind of attempted metaphor from the moment the holographic platform of light started raising the unconcious Kate Shepard upwards. By the time the star child had delivered the metaphor and my options in full, I was simply staring at the screen with my thoughts bouncing somewhere between “Are You Kidding Me?” and “The hell, BioWare?”. By the time the bizzare space magic lightshow started I was already so ejected from the events taking place that the Normandy’s frantic escape seemed less like an odd plot contrivance and more like an odd non sequitor theatre, like I was watching a blooper reel rather than actual story.
When I started seeing squadmates exit the wrecked Normandy it actually seemed curiously fitting because they seemed every bit as mystified about the chain of events as I felt.
In essence, the problem is that I simply don’t buy it – neither their provided metaphor nor their means of delivering it. Nor do I buy the options I’m presented with – it’s not that I find it difficult to pick an option because it’s a hard choice but rather that I find it difficult to pick one because they all seem so constructed and lacking in any suitable frame of reference to the events otherwise happening.
So these are our choices – we can elect to destroy the Reapers and their technology (ie: Citadel, Mass Relays) and free the galaxy from the order they impose… but this will randomly also knock out some technology (Synthetic life forms like EDI and the Geth, and part synthetic life forms like Shepard) but not other technology for the sake of… preventing it from being the obvious good ending, I guess? We can also merge ourselves with the order and… somehow, through the power of green space effects… make all life, both synthetic and organic, into part synthetic and part organic (aside: what about new life that evolves after this event? is that somehow affected by residue green space effects too or is it basically screwed from the get go?) because this somehow makes everything better. Oh and the Mass Relays break down anyway. Or we can impose our own order over that of the reapers in the ending that curiously make the most sense with what’s been established so far, effectively swapping the tyranny of the Reapers with the one of whatever order Shepard would chose to impose upon galactic life. Again no Mass Relays, but the ShepardGod would be in a position to rebuild them to impose a new relay-based order if the ShepardGod so chose.
Don’t get me wrong, I realize what the attempted metaphor is trying to say, and I don’t think it is inherently broken at its core; the Deus Ex series of games tend towards a very similar metaphor that tends to go the same way: either we impose order and control on technology/information, merge freely with it in the hopes that the resulting transhumans will be enlightened enough to make it a better future, or we tear it all down because we’ll all feel safer when all we have to concern ourselves with is our immediate surrounding and future and won’t have to contemplate great questions such as why people on the internet are so mean.
And here’s the thing – I quite like the Deus Ex series of games, and as much as I can decry the middle child of Invisible War as being every bit as crap as everyone says, the endings were never what was wrong with it. Heck, I was perfectly happy with merging all humans together with the JC Denton/Helios AI construct in a perfect, consensus-based democracy built on free and absolute exchange of information. Heck, as silly as I thought the buttonmatic end-o-tron machine at the end of Deus Ex: Human Revolution was, and how cheap it seemed that the resulting ending was the exact same reel with different voiceovers, I never minded the actual intent of the ending there either. I happily had Adam Jensen wander over to the end-o-tron and press the button to let the well-intending but sometimes misguided David Sarif give me the better future that he envisioned.
But, and here’s the key things, those are Deus Ex games – transhumanism and human-technology interaction is the very core essence of them from start to end. All three of those games are basically one long metaphor culminating in the ending of your choice, broken up by moments of dialogue, shooting and puzzle solving. They will continously throw different perspectives and observations of their metaphor at you during the entire game until you finally decide where you stand at the very end.
Mass Effect was never that for me in any way, shape or form. The metaphor doesn’t come across to me as some kind of deep extension of the struggles or ideological challenges I’ve faced up to that point, it just falls flat as some attempt at trying to insert a conundrum that is only tangentally related to the events at hand. Heck, as far as my games went, the question of whether Synthetics and Organics could live side by side without one side automatically annihilating the other was already answered back in Mass Effect 2 with the answer quite clearly being “Yes, they can.” and then being relegated to only a byproduct of the larger concern of whether diverse people and species can work together and the value of diversity and self-determination over homogenization and one-size-fits-all.
And even then, more than metaphors, it was about characters. About individuals who went through all hell together and had eachothers backs when no one else would. Up until Anderson dying, that was what the game was about to me – regardless of whether his death was his final sacrifice to aid my Shepard or my Shepard’s final failure to protect someone that mattered to her.
It’s not about how the ending was bleak – some of my favorite memories from Mass Effect 3 involve characters I cared about (Mordin, Anderson, Legion… heck even Thane) dying because of how much those endings touched me, and even though I do know there’s a way to keep Mordin alive, I doubt I’d ever chose it because I’d much rather see him go out resolving his past and happily imagining what kind of interesting tests he could run on seashells than know he’ll slowly fade away a broken man plagued with guilt. They’re far from my only favorite moments, but they’re definitely among them.
It’s not about having to make difficult choices either: one of my outstanding and strongest memories of Mass Effect 1 will forever be when the game forced me to choose between Kaidan Alenko and Ashley Williams, much due to the context within which I had to make that choice. I’d left Kaidan with the bomb, and he was the higher ranking officer, so he was the logical choice to save, but… he was also someone that Kate Shepard had expressed quite a bit of interest in and was really looking forward to spending some time on shore leave with. On the other hand, Kate had also had formed a fairly solid friendship with Ash, which left me in the moral quandry of whether it was fair or ethical to save Kaidan as there were clearly ulterior motives involved.
Looking back, I think it took me something like a quarter hour before I finally chose to go back for Kaidan and leaving Ash to die, and though I nowadays know to expect the choice, decide on it beforehand and take it without hesitation, I always felt the Virmire survivor was a that much more valuable character to me because I had to pay the life of one character to preserve another.
In the end, my largest issue is that the ending simply does not follow. It made the rest of the game seem incredible futile to me – not because the ending tore down the metaphorical house I spent the rest of the game building, but because the ending told me that the bricks I’d used to build said metaphorical house were actually live velociraptors.
I reject their presented metaphor and by result also reject their ending; all the strange plot contrivances from the oddly circular reasoning behind the Reapers to Joker’s frantic escape from the glorious magical space light to the incredible things said magical space light was capable of accomplishing are related to but ultimately secondary to that fact. Good or ill, I had expected – and wanted – an ending that was about character, not about some greater metaphor that I ultimately answered a whole game ago which only remained open in any form because some large space jerks decided that wide scale murder was a better answer and wouldn’t consider alternatives until I’d first given them a solid kick in the tentacles. I’d wanted a resolution that was about Shepard, about his or her friends and allies, foes and enemies; something that gave closure to the story I followed, rather than something that arbitrarily answered what colour of space explosions it takes for Joker and EDI to be able to have adorable robot babies.
Wasn’t there something in Mass Effect about the importance of self-determination? Why, in the very end, are we relying on solutions given to us when much of the point with the struggle was how we had a right to take each step for ourselves?
Make no mistake, though – I understand that there are some people who felt the metaphor provided made perfect sense for their experience, and if people loved the ending then that’s great. Like I stated at the beginning, I personally thought Dragon Age II was brilliant in spite of its flaws and the many voices decrying it as terrible, and I respect that some people similarly don’t find the Mass Effect 3 ending nearly as terrible as I do, and that’s great.
Nor do I think that BioWare are absolutely required to change things (but nor are they required not to; the outcome woudln’t be without precedent); sure, their pre-release claims about the nature of the ending don’t quite seem to line up to what we got in all that many ways, but seeing how BioWare PR has typically been about as factual about the nature of their final product as any hype ever produced by Peter Molyneux, I’m not entirely sure why anyone’s surprised there.
That said, if a whole lot of people are disappointed, and they don’t feel their concerns are addressed, then they’re also fully within their rights not to pursue future offerings from the brand, developer and/or publisher either until they feel it be worth it. It’s no different from not getting hardware of a brand you’ve had bad experiences with (or heard bad things of), avoiding a store where you’ve recieved bad service or avoiding a restaurant where you didn’t think the meals were very good.
Would I like an ending more in tune with what I’d expected? Yes, definitely. Am I going to expect them to add one? No, not really. But I do recognize that this ending, and however BioWare chooses to handle the fallout, will shape a whole lot of opinions of both them and their future offerings – mine included. Rather than trying to make demands or predictions, I think I’ll simply leave it at I’ll be quite curious to see what actually comes out of the fallout.