Edit: 28 / 6 / 2012: Part 2 is now live
If there’s anything the internet as a whole has been stretched to breaking point with, it’s discussion and controversy over the ending of Mass Effect 3. The final moments of Bioware’s sci-fi RPG trilogy snapped the fanbase apart, confused gamers, spawned an alternate character interpretation and has been both picked apart and defended by the gaming media. In my view, it’s been a disaster on so many levels, some of them more analysed than others.
Watching opinions bounce back and forth I’ve noticed a trend among those who defend the ending for what it is – the majority of them view the ending as a singular event, rather than drawing back to see it as the climax of a trilogy that started in 2007, a moment that Bioware hyped up with a great many promises. The ending isn’t a complete failure; it simply doesn’t fit the context at all. In another situation, as the end of another game, it might have worked. But as it is, the ending to Mass Effect 3 is literally broken – it isn’t fit for its purpose as the end of the trilogy.
To use an analogy, it’s like eating a wonderful three-course meal in a fancy restaurant, and on your way out the doorman punches you in the stomach so hard that it causes you to vomit up the entire night’s food. You didn’t want or expect it, you’ve lost the nutritional value of the food so you might as well not have bothered, it’s soured your experience of the night and you sure as hell won’t be in a hurry to eat there again. Oh, and a few people speculate on the position of the doorman’s knuckles in a bid to prove that he actually punched you to knock cancerous cells out of your system. Or something.
This first post is meant to highlight some of the many, many problems with the structure and execution of the ending. WARNING: All parts contain spoilers for the Mass Effect trilogy. This makes the posts more aerodynamic.
Plotholes and Lack of Information
‘Plotholes’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. ‘Plot Craters’ dot so much of the ending it becomes obliterated into Swiss cheese. Questions with no solid answer cloud the conclusion to the point where it becomes almost impossible to make neither head nor tail of it. Some minor mistakes can be overlooked. Questions like “Why didn’t the Reapers blow up the Crucible?” and “Where did The Illusive Man’s gun come from?” cause a little frustration but don’t bring the story crashing down. The ending is so marred by these problems though that it ceases to make any sense.
Why does shooting a power tube turn the ‘Destroy’ option on? Was this thing designed with these specific choices in mind? How did my other crew members get on the Normandy? What happened to everyone who wasn’t shown in the final cutscene? Why would Joker abandon me when Admiral Hackett knows I’m alive? Why did all the explosions damage the Normandy? How can one ship fly faster than a wave that spreads across Earth in seconds? What exactly is The Catalyst? Where is this planet? If everyone’s stranded because the Mass Relays went down, are the Krogan going to eat everyone? How can we be sure the Mass Relays collapsed under controlled demolition rather than exploded like the one in the Arrival DLC, killing untold millions with each supernova?
In fantastical fiction, details matter. This is especially true of science-fiction where it’s reality give or take a few parameters. The codex entries give descriptions of biotic powers and a brief history of interplanetary relations that happened because of the First Contact War. To leave the ending wallowing in ambiguity is to leave many, many questions unanswered and essential closure far from our grasp.
This lack of information extends to the moment of choice, where being informed is needed the most. What exactly happens in each ending? When so many details are left to the imagination, it becomes severely difficult to make such an important decision. In Control, will I control the Reapers forever? Once I die, do I lose control? Shepard is the only person who was told the Catalyst’s reason for creating the Reapers. Nobody else knows that war against synthetics is what heralds the Reapers. So if I was to pick the Synthesis option, surely there’s a chance that a future generation of the merged organic-synthetic beings will create purely synthetic life and start the cycle again?
Destroy is the worst for this. I’m told that the blast will destroy all synthetic life – including me because of my synthetic implants. I can understand the destruction of pure synthetics, but further than that questions arise. If it kills the organic-made-synthetic Reapers and my character, dependent on synthetic tech, will it kill biotic soldiers with implants or wipe out non-Asari biotic abilities? Quarians can only survive because of their artificial tech-suits, so will they be destroyed too? What about every single person fitted with a pacemaker?
The three-corridor ending doesn’t allow the player to investigate, only leaves them confused and unable to come to any sort of decision based on ideology, because they aren’t given the entire picture. If no party members with biotic powers walk out of the Normandy in Destroy, I could conclude that Kaidan, Wrex, and Liara, who I’ve been with since the first game, were all killed by their implants. If I don’t see Tali, the possibility that it destroyed all the Quarians is very real indeed, even after I saved them in the Quarian-Geth war. If I get a version of the ending where the Normandy doesn’t even open, congratulations, looks like you just evaporated every single life out there.
The biggest insult comes in the epilogue with the child and stargazer. It sweeps questions and clarity under the carpet and leaves a simple text message: “And they all lived happily ever after. We don’t know how exactly, feel free to fanwank something. Did you like our Adam and Eve analogy in Synthesis? Oh, and be sure to buy our DLC – some of which is on the disc you already paid for.”
The Catalyst’s Bogus Logic
The greatest problem with The Catalyst (who’s earned the fan nicknames ‘Star Child’, ‘God Child’ and ‘That Little Shit Who Came Out of Nowhere’) is his reasoning. The concept of the Reapers, a race of beings that harvest life to save it from its own destruction and give rise to new civilisations, is an intriguing one, but the logic behind their creation is circular and bizarre.
Your choices of an ending are presented under the condition that organic life has held its own against the reapers, and a new solution must be found. It is not founded on circumstances where the organics have killed the synthetics, or organics and synthetics live in harmony, eliminating the need for the cycle: both of which are possible outcomes the player could have achieved merely hours before meeting this child. Shepard defies the logic of the child, as does he himself. He states that he created the Reapers, and that the created rebel against their creators…so how exactly is he here to give us a choice? Is he a VI? A ghost? Or is he the sole exception to the rule, the one special snowflake out of at least seven hundred and forty cycles? (One Reaper from Mass Effect 2 has been dead for thirty-seven million years, divided by fifty thousand years per cycle)
Lack of Variety in Endings
The fact that the endings only tangibly differ in the colour of your fuck-everything Space Magic Explosion is just the tip of the iceberg. All speculation of how events play out is left up to a player who isn’t fed enough information to make an educated choice, with any gaping flaws sucked away by a Buzz Aldrin cameo and a plea for more money.
The real problem is that all the endings share bittersweet qualities. Reapers leave, London marginally preserved, Mass Relays destroyed, Normandy crashes on a green planet, Shepard dies (and takes one breath for reasons that are not the slightest bit explained or expanded upon in one ending). No matter how hard you’ve worked, or what your philosophy is, all the endings have too much in common, even synthesis which is supposed to be the ‘best’ ending (unlocked via having a high Effective Military Strength). There is no ending where the Reapers win (as promised prior to release) nor is there a happy ending.
It’s safe to say that many players went in with a sneaking suspicion they may have to sacrifice their Shepard in the ending. However, the ending suffers by having drama for drama’s sake. The Mass Relays are destroyed, snuffing out millions of lives, or at least plunging the galaxy into a dark age where some races face starvation. The fleets that fought alongside you are stranded, decades from home with even Faster-Than-Light travel possible. Individuality has been lost in Synthesis and Destroy. Anderson, who fought alongside you since day one, one of the few who stood by you against the Council, has died moments before Shepard. It’s simply far too great a price to pay. Shepard himself says it to The Illusive Man in a few dialogue options, that “Too much has been sacrificed already” or “You’ve sacrificed too much”. When viewed at the end of a franchise, Shepard’s sacrifice is very much in vain.
Throughout the series, characters can be killed off – Kaidan, Ashley or even Wrex on Virmire, the Citadel Council, anybody who died in the Suicide Mission, Anderson, Thane, Legion, Tali, Mordin, Kasumi, even the Rachni, Krogan, Geth and Quarian races can have been brought to extinction through your mistakes and conscious choices. Having every Shepard die carries the stench of a teenager’s attempt at being ‘deep’, ‘thoughtful’ and ‘edgy’. A bittersweet ending has its place, but not of this scale at the end of a trilogy that players have invested hundreds of hours into, attention glued to televisions across five years. Why not have a happy ending not limited to the smaller storylines for players that made careful choices across all three games and completed every single sidequest, mining planets and exploring moons in that oversized skateboard known as the Mako? Bioware’s decision to make Mass Effect 3 “The perfect spot for new players to jump in” by forcing a bespoke ending is an insult to long-term fans.
Dumbing Down The Choices
Choices in the Mass Effect series rarely, if ever, mattered, railroading you through their Mighty Retcon Machine. Wrex died? Here’s Grunt for a Krogan friend. Sold Legion? Here’s a Geth VI for the Rannoch mission. Replaced the council? Don’t worry, they won’t show up in the future anyway. Thane survived the Suicide Mission? Say hello to Kai Leng. Burned the Rachni Queen to death, delivering the final blow to the hivemind race? The Reapers build a new one. In previous games, Bioware at least kept the illusion of choice with epilogues showing the council or the coffins of those who were sacrificed at the end of the second game. This time, the almost-identical endings leave what happens afterwards to the information-starved minds of gamers and the illusion is done away with completely. We can see right through Bioware’s (space) magic tricks. We were consoled with the promise that our choices would matter at the end of Mass Effect 3. And to Bioware’s credit, they did, though not in any meaningful way. If you played through all three games making terrible choices that would have guaranteed the galaxy’s extinction, right until the final rush to Harbinger, no problem. Just go online and play multiplayer or waste time on the iOS game until you have enough points for a marginally different ending. Then again, everything that happens afterwards is all in your head either way.
The glaring problem is that the number of choices with significant effects on the ending can be counted on one hand. One finger, in fact. It isn’t even a choice in the third game. If you rushed the main storyline and have extremely low EMS, destroying or saving the Collector Base at the end of Mass Effect 2 determines the ending, for no reason that is ever explained. Everything else is reduced to arbitrary numbers in your EMS score. What we thought and our actual actions had no bearing, just a cumulative effect that could be boosted by playing online. Solving someone’s debt problem or mining rare minerals helped the war effort as much as recruiting battle-hardened soldiers. The real source of disgust, however, is the implementation, picking which version of your chosen ending takes place. How exactly does an explosion designed to control Reapers or destroy synthetics vaporise human soldiers on Earth if you didn’t prepare enough? How is it that lengthening Anderson’s life for a couple minutes before dying anyway is worth a thousand points? Why do Big Ben’s walls get stronger if your army in space is larger? How did that news reporter alter the intensity of your Red Space Magic Explosion to stop it from turning Earth into a cinder block? No choice has any individual worth, there is no causal relationship between action and consequence.
The Operation Overlord DLC for the previous game featured a harrowing choice between ethics and a great weapon in a war that can drive organics to extinction. Do you accept the necessary evil, or do you save a man from a living hell, pipes forced down his throat, eyes forever open, trapped in his mind? It’s one of the few choices that made me stop and think (well, when I watched the playthrough of it, at least). I thought it would play a key role in the finale. What’s really at stake? A few hundred points or a thank you from an autistic mathematical savant. Woot.
The Lack of Climatic Accomplishment
Over the course of the game’s development, the form of the penultimate battle against The Illusive Man was altered. Originally, he was to turn into a creature similar to the merged Saren from the original game. This was scrapped in favour of a dialogue-based ‘puzzle battle’ to show that his greatest weapon was his intelligence. This would have made for an interesting concept, if not for its flawed execution.
The ending of Mass Effect 3 lacks any final test of skill, no challenge to stand in your way to prove your worth to receive an ending, no examination of the ability you’ve picked up over the course of the game. The reason the Marauder Shields and the Three Husketeers meme took hold was because there was nothing else remotely resembling a final boss on Earth.
The final battle with Saren draws parallels with Mass Effect 3’s final dialogue challenge in the presence of intimidate / persuade options and one of the possible outcomes but the similarities end there. Having Saren shoot himself only acted as a fast-track to the second phase of the fight that acted to test your combat skill. The confrontation with The Illusive Man is not a nerve-wracking battle of wits against the genius that hounded you through two games, pulling strings and shrouding himself in enigmas, just a couple checks on previous dialogues, clearly signposted options and a one-button Quick-Time-Event. It’s a shame because the dialogue in the scene is pretty well-written, even though the best bit was cut. Your reward for getting it perfect is a couple minutes of extra cutscene with Anderson, and regardless of your success or failure, he dies. There is little to work for, nothing to push you to your limits as a player or thinker. You haven’t earned your ending. It is anticlimactic, unsatisfying, and above all, dull.
The God From A Machine
At the rotting core of the ending is the plot device it employs: a deus ex machina. No, this has nothing to do with the game from the previous generation or its sequels, Invisible War and the more recent Human Revolution (hang on…control / merge / destroy endings…this suddenly sounds very familiar…). Originating in Greek Theatre, it’s a phrase to sum up an event in which a previously unknown character or item solves a seemingly inescapable situation, usually leaving an audience feeling cheated, disappointed, confused, and angry. In its original sense, it referred to an actor or statue depicting a God being lowered to the stage (usually by a crane or winch, the machine in question) to solve the hero’s problem. There are variations on this, such as a previously introduced character defusing the situation (a sniper seen in the start of a film, completely unexpected, shoots the main villain as he claims victory at the very end), but the Catalyst is the former, what is known in fiction circles (okay, tvtropes) as a Total Deus Ex Machina. The device is to be handled with care, but there is nothing intrinsically bad about it, it’s just very easily to end up as being a writer cop-out. The problem with this particular usage is that it does not follow the franchise’s internal logic – it doesn’t work in Mass Effect 3.
Internal logic in a setting determines what is and what isn’t believable given its circumstances. Suspension of disbelief does not mean that you will take everything for granted, but it refers to your part in the reader-writer contract: the writer provides a setting, and you imagine this setting as its own reality with its own internal logical rules. Let’s look at a couple examples. Firstly, the Elder Scrolls series.
What you see in the Elder Scrolls games is the predominately medieval high fantasy land of Tamriel with different biomes and organic life (compare and contrast the flora and fauna of post-retcon Cyrodiil with the volcanic island of Vvardenfell). Versions of Vikings, Mongols, Romans, Feudal Japan, Celts, Native Americans and Arabian cat people live alongside one another, split into standard fare fantasy races. Orcs are not monsters (from Morrowind and onwards), but a proud warrior race. People fight with swords, magic that originated from outer space is commonplace, and there is a plane of existence shattered into sixteen fragments where demons come from called Oblivion. When you have all this in mind, it isn’t difficult to stretch your belief to other things in the lore like an extinct race of highly advanced steampunk dwarves, dragons that aren’t simply fire-breathing lizards, and some of the more advanced cosmology and metaphysics (don’t you dare make me say that four letter word). Because xenophobic elves obsessed with ancestral honour, cannibalistic midget elves and nature-worshipping lizard people are throwing magic fireballs and shooting bows at each other while monks send people flying by shouting at them, I’m not made uncomfortable by the fact that dragons have no concept of mortality or that hell is outer space, and stars are really bits of heaven I see through holes in the sky. What would not fit Tamriel would be guns comparable to those in real life, armour being made on mechanised production lines (outside of a Dwemer ruin), or highly intricate plumbing systems. So, pretty much half of all mods for Oblivion then.
Secondly, take a look at pretty much any platformer aimed at children such as Ratchet & Clank, Spyro the Dragon or Sly Raccoon. From the outset, bright, cartoony colours and talking animals, aliens or similar creatures tell me what I can expect. In these settings, of course some vehicles that clutter the environment might actually be a little shorter than some characters. Of course some enemies will use lasers and others swords. Of course there can be a cutscene where gravity doesn’t apply until a character looks down and realises they are in mid-air (bonus points if they look at the camera and shrug before falling). But I guarantee you, we won’t be seeing photorealistic humans without exaggerated proportions (Captain Quark in Ratchet has a chin larger than his face and tiny legs), or characters that stumble and shift their weight after landing a jump during gameplay.
Sci-fi adheres to a version of our reality (the sci) that has a few alterations (the fi). When something is criticised as ‘unrealistic’, what we mean is ‘it isn’t grounded in the setting’s own reality’. In the case of Mass Effect, we’re asked to imagine a future where our technology has kept evolving, but at some point we also discovered a new, naturally occurring element. This is called ‘Element Zero’, slang ‘Eezo’ or ‘Ez’ in the periodic table. Again, the little details matter – we know that in this thought experiment it’s been known to us for some time, because we can work it into our periodic table going by its properties, ergo we have some applications. Element Zero has the ability to alter the effects of physics by tampering with the mass of what it surrounds, and we’ve found structures in our own solar system beyond Mars that make use of this. As a result, we’ve discovered a method of travel that makes going faster than light child’s play that comes as standard on most ships. Let’s recap on a couple of things about this difference between our reality and the one in the game:
- It is alluded to in one of the very first things you are told when you start the very first game after character creation.
- The franchise is named after what we call Element Zero’s effect on things – the ‘Mass Effect’.
This intro establishes three things – your choices have an effect on, at least, dialogue (Hackett and Anderson going over your history), it’s set in space, and it grounds the fictional elements in a hard science setting. Element Zero’s properties are what frame this world that we have to separate from our own and that of Bioware’s prior sci-fi series, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (this is not particularly helped by your first ally in both games having the same voice actor). Star Wars has the Force (hell, even “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” gives a lot of scope), so guys in hooded robes fighting with lightsabers and talking about spirituality, honour and omnipresent energy fit perfectly with in-universe logic and culture. Mass Effect has Element Zero, so the old guys are replaced with miners, astrophysicists, engineers and neuroscientists talking about Eezo harvesting, brain implants, physics and other Mass Effect-y science jargon. Interplanetary and intersystem travel is believable because of the modified reality it’s grounded in. Because we’re spacefaring, it isn’t surprising to see laser guns, blue alien girls and giant brutes with four testicles. Pretty soon, we stop drawing similarities with other sci-fi settings and immerse ourselves in this perfectly reasonable one for the next hundred hours or so, letting our imagination stretch. It’s a surprise, but not unimaginable, when we learn of a race of eternal Matrix-style-sort-of-living battleships intent on harvesting life every fifty thousand years, breaking minds and enslaving others.
And then we get to the ending, where a glowing boy-shaped figure walks in from stage right, claims he’s the Catalyst which you were told was the Citadel, spews circular logic, and presents us with three barely logical choices before leaving us to our own devices as he just stands there. Bioware expects the player to abandon their experience with the hypothetical science that grounds Mass Effect in its own reality and place our trust in this…thing. What is he anyway? The only VI that can move position? A ghost? Element Zero? Appearing in a form Shepard comprehends? A child just for the sake of being a child? How did he know this cycle of organic-synthetic war would keep happening? Did he survive for two cycles, a full hundred thousand years? Is he a literal God in a series where religion is only a facet of racial culture and a character traits (Thane and Ashley, namely) that may not have ever been spoken of to the player? A Reaper fart? How will all these choices work? Control seems logical because you’re pulling the ‘kill everything’ control switch to ‘manual’. But how does shooting this tube destroy specifically synthetics? How does the explosion reach that far around a planet? How does jumping into a beam of light transmit my DNA across the galaxy? Is Element Zero involved somehow? Has this part of the citadel been here forever, undiscovered for dozens of millions of years? Why does none of this make any sense within the parameters of this fictional universe I’ve been involved in for over a hundred hours, talking with NPCs and reading codex entries?
A deus ex machina is not a plot device that can only function in a high-fantasy universe. For example, The War Of The Worlds is an example that works. It’s set in our own reality, and can be summarised as ‘and then the flu killed them all’. It was unexpected, didn’t feature heavily prior to the ending, and solved a seemingly impossible situation – but it succeeds as an ending to its own story because it follows a simple, believable chain of causal events: humans carry flu, Martians inject blood into their veins, cannot survive against flu, die. The logic of the device is perfectly understandable in the story’s reality, and it helps to explore the themes and allegory maintained beforehand. Do you recall the adaptation where the Artilleryman uncovers a giant cannon beneath Horsell-Common and the narrator uses it to destroy the Martians? No, you don’t, because it never happened. It would have been, quite frankly, shit. It’s still a deus ex machina, but it’s infinitely less satisfying than the flu ending because it’s not consistent with the mood, themes or narrative of the story as a whole.
Details are omitted, and what the ending is left with is a possibly literal God From The Machine. If the Catalyst was a static VI, he would make more sense. If the explosions were stated to come from Dark Energy, a plotline abandoned after Mass Effect 2, it would be harder to raise an eyebrow. Everything prior to this has made perfect sense through in-universe logic, be it ships travelling past Pluto in the blink of an eye, bullet-deflecting shields, or psychic powers. The only foreshadowing or explanation The Catalyst is given is a mention of watching over the cycle, the final words of a dying Reaper. That isn’t a justification; it’s merely a statement of the useless little we know.
The Extended Cut DLC due this Summer is promised to give “additional clarity and closure” to the epilogue. The real question we need to ask, rather than “will it be any good?” is if this is what anybody wants. The short answer: yes and simultaneously no.
“Clarity and closure” are remedies to some of the problems in this post. Through some clever retconning (like how they had no problem retconning my choices) and an ‘investigate’ option or two, nonsensical elements can be reshaped to fit the Mass Effect universe. A few extra scenes in the epilogue can make some of the major choices hold more significance and the consequences of the final choice can be made clearer rather than be left up to speculation devoid of information. I need to know if Cortez ever again gets a chance to dance in that nightclub on the citadel, his pecs smashing through walls to the sound of pounding techno. Even if it’s through a slew of cheesy text epilogues, at least we can know what happened to the squadmates that didn’t climb off the Normandy (€5 says Wrex went on to father twenty kids and Garrus starred in a reboot of Dirty Harry, preferably with an Elcor-heavy cast).
However, these flaws in method and execution aren’t the worst things about the Mass Effect 3 ending. The DLC addresses these because they’re the most glaringly evident and players made a lot more noise about them. We’re partly to blame for the DLC not fixing the real issue – and no, the problem isn’t that Shepard dies. It’s the terrible mishandling of the themes. It’s not something we instantly picked up on, because we were more frustrated over our decisions having no impact and a lack of clarity and closure. There was nowhere near as much discussion, on articles or forums, of the themes. This isn’t something that can be fixed by new conversation wheels or cutscenes. Check back soon for part 2, in which I discuss how the ending makes a complete 180 turn on its treatment the franchise’s key themes.
Edit: 28 / 6 / 2012: Part 2 is now live