Mar 132012

Before I started playing Mass Effect 3, I wanted to find out if there was anything special I needed to do to achieve an “optimal” ending, as there was in Mass Effect 2. As I started searching, I became aware of a growing controversy surrounding the endings. I decided to break with tradition and allow myself to be spoiled this time. I’m glad I did. Spoilers follow. You have been warned.

This post is regularly updated as new information develops. Last update was 2012/04/02 at 11:36 Eastern

If you’re interested in how I feel about this, read this post.


Important preface: the universal sentiment is that Mass Effect 3 is a great game until the last 10 minutes. Of a ~40 hour experience, we’re talking about quite literally about half a percent of the game. BioWare is to be commended for making an absolutely fantastic game across the board, including their introduction of multiplayer. Many people were skeptical about Mass Effect 3 including multiplayer, but it’s been very well received. It’s this universal positive feeling that makes the endings stand out so starkly: they are an egregious blemish on an otherwise pristine work of interactive fiction.

The primary issue is not that the endings are “downer,” but rather than the promise of the entire trilogy is not delivered: your choices do not appear to matter. Yes, certain things you do can influence certain components of the lead-up to the outcomes, but the actual endings negate most of that. The promised “secret ending” for completing “New Game+” mode isn’t an ending at all, it’s an unrelated bookend. In the endings presented, there is no satisfying resolution to what happens with either the characters we’ve come to know and love, or the lasting ramifications of the decisions you’ve made across three games.

It’s not so much that there is a fixed set of alternative endings, but all of your choices really determine how things end up in the universe. So, how you approach the end-game, for every player, you’re going to have a different set of results in terms of who is alive and who is dead, and which civilisations survived and which ones were wiped out.There is a huge set of consequences that start stacking up as you approach the end-game. And even in terms of the ending itself, it continues to break down to some very large decisions. So it’s not like a classic game ending where everything is linear and you make a choice between a few things – it really does layer in many, many different choices, up to the final moments, where it’s going to be different for everyone who plays it.

The above quote is from Mass Effect 3’s director, Casey Hudson, and the entire second half is false.

I’ve been captivated by the responses to the controversy as its developed. This page is just a way of capturing various facets of it that I think anyone involved with/curious about the situation might take interest in.

Updated 2012/04/02 11:36: If you want a “crash course” in the problems with the ending, watch this.

The Something Awful forums have been my main touchpoint for this, since it’s a large forum full of reasonably savvy folks that can aggregate data from a lot of places with great speed.

I’ve also been watching things unfold on BioWare’s Mass Effect 3 spoiler forum. There is a poll over there where a mere 2% of voters are content with the endings as they stand.

Updated 2012/03/17 00:53: BioWare has finally responded. Executive Producer/Director Casey Hudson posted a mostly-empty statement to the forums, but it was followed up by a much more encouraging clarification from Jessica Merizan. Unfortunately, this was posted as-is at Something Awful, so I don’t have a direct link to where this is posted on the BSN.

Guys, this is an ongoing dialogue. Casey’s post is not the final definitive answer to your concerns. This is a collaboration.

In order to be successful in this, I need you to help me gathering feedback and tell us what you want to see. I understand that people are still feeling emotionally raw or untrusting, and I’m not saying it’s not valid to feel that way. However, if you want to see your feedback implemented, this needs to become constructive and rational.

Complaining more isn’t going to get you what you want. Tell us what you need. Make polls, collect your thoughts. Chris and I are gathering this information and the developers are listening.

I think I need to clarify myself. For the past few weeks, I’ve been collecting feedback. I have excel sheets, word documents, quotes, graphs, you name it.

In order for a collaboration between the devs and the fans to work, I need you guys to CONTINUE being constructive, and organizing your thoughts. I know where to look, but I need you to help me by contributing to the dialogue.

Saying “this blows” helps no one. Saying, “I enjoyed X but I found Z _____ because of A,B,C” is what I’m looking for. Channel your frustration into something positive (such as the RetakeME3 movement – constructive, organized thoughts).

Updated 2012/03/16 14:03: There’s a great analysis of the flaws in the ending from a narrative/film perspective. I reproduce it below in order to ensure it’s preserved:

A. First, a few pet peeves. Tropes are very popular for making generalizations about parts of stories we dislike, but they have a tendency to be overused and misused.

The Crucible isn't a MacGuffin. The best and most common example of an actual MacGuffin is the briefcase in Pulp Fiction; we don't know what is in the briefcase and we don't know how or why it functions, but it's important because it motivates the characters and drives the plot. Basically, a MacGuffin is important only because it's important. The Crucible in Mass Effect 3 is an actual plot device (a MacGuffin is a very specific subset of this); we are told what it is and what it's function is right from the beginning and it's use in the climax is in line with this.

The Crucible isn't an example of deus ex machina. Again, we know all along that the Crucible's function is to stop the Reapers, it's introduced at the beginning of the story, it's importance is reinforced throughout, and it's function during the climax is in line with what is expected. An example of Mass Effect ending with deus ex machina would be: the Reapers win the battle of Earth and are seemingly unstoppable, suddenly, and with no previous justification, an even more advanced race emerges from deep space and destroys the Reapers, saving Earth. The difference is obvious; one is a clearly defined plot device, the other is a magical fix with no precedent in the story.

Being the only time I'm going to talk about tropes, and for humorous purposes only, here are some I find more accurate for the ending: the lack of resolution after all the setting-shifting events, especially the lack of clarity in regards to the future of the setting and it's characters (including the protagonist and in some cases the antagonist force) may be considered no ending, the Reaper-God-Child and unexpected side effects of the Crucible may be considered diabolus ex machina, and the sudden shift of themes from hope and fighting the impossible fight to that of true art is angsty can be seen as an example of a sudden downer ending. I'm certain there are more we can shoehorn as applicable, but this is as far as I'm willing to go into tropes.

I want to iterate that I dislike how much we over analyze tropes and assign them as labels to similar and overgeneralized devices and themes. Stories are usually divergent enough from other stories that generalizing aspects of them with tropes rarely do them justice and are ambigous enough that what tropes a story actually uses are debatable. I only addressed the aforementioned devices of deus ex machina and MacGuffin because they are venerable and distinct enough that their usage in reference to Mass Effect 3 is clearly wrong. TL;DR: tropes are convenient but our time is better spent looking at the specifics of a given story.

B. The resolution of Mass Effect 3 falls short for many reasons. More than I'd care to get into, truth be told,  so I'll try to punch on at least some of the major failings through the eyes of a screenwriter.

1. The ending feels jarring and out of place and there is little closure, this is a sympton of the ending failing to live up to what we come expect from the story. As I've previously said, Mass Effect is a conventional story with conventional expectations. A conventional story, almost all stories, follow a pretty standard plotline: Introduction – Ascending Action – Climax – Descending Action – Resolution. In film we break it up into 3 acts, roughly: the first act is the introduction, the second act is the rising action and longest act of the story, and the third act is the climax and resolution.

Mass Effect 3 and the previous games follow this plotline both as individual stories and in the grand scheme of things as a trilogy (a trilogy is basically the three act structure writ large), that is until the final moments of 3. For reference, The battle for Earth is the climax of the series and the run across no man's land to the Citadel beam is the climax of the specific game; with this in mind, the Citadel sequence is the final part of the descending action and the resolution for both the game and series, the part where the antagonist is finally defeated, the themes and dramatic questions are answered, and the loose ends are tied. Or rather, it should be. After the defeat of the Illusive Man (the antagonist role is somewhat muddled and blurry towards the end of the story, more on that briefly), the protagonist has reached his goal, the defeat of the Reapers is at hand; conventionally, this is where the protagonist would succeed, the Crucible fire, and the Reapers destroyed. Instead, the story grows convoluted (once again, this is supposed to be the resolution) at the height of the scene by jarring us out of it with the bizarre, dreamlike sequence of Sheperd's ascent on the magic platform and the introduction of an ancient and seemingly god-like form who expounds the final choice between three options, all presented symbolically in appearance and action: one which mirrors a co-antagonist's desire which has been reinforced throughout as wrong and contradictory of the protagonist's; one which is downright bizarre and is almost completely outside the scope of the game's main themes save for being somewhat in line with the primary antagonistic forces' goal; and one which accurately mirrors the protagonist's goal from since the beginning. The results of these choices vary and are wide-reaching, creating a massive upheaval of the story world, while being unclear.  All of the characters and the entire setting are left to an uncertain and sometimes confusing fate.

Just looking at what I've typed, it's apparent this is not a resolution. New information is introduced throughout the entire sequence rather than tying loose ends. New information shouldn't be introduced in a resolution unless it directly resolves something or is quickly resolved itself; definitively, it's the opposite of what a resolution is. In layman's terms, this is what makes us feel like there are more questions than answers.

The fate of the characters and the final destination they reach in the story are crucial to the resolution, especially on the scale of a trilogy. During the ascending action, right before the climax of the no man's land run, we are given a send off from all of the characters; this is both out of order for a conventional plotline (more fitting the descending action rather than ascending) and dimished by the implications of the ending. Ultimately, it is through the characters that we most directly identify with the story and find the meaning, the lack of resolution in this regard is especially unsatisfying.

The resolution is where the audience is supposed to find the tale's “ever after”, be it happy or sad. Mass Effect 3 completely lacks any sense of “ever after”.

2. Video games, like film, are a visual medium; the ending tells us what happens rather than shows us what happens. This is easy to overlook but very important. Visual mediums for story are all about what we see. Another cardinal sin of storytelling commited during the ending is the description of, and differences between, the options in the final choice are almost all conveyed through exposition. The cinematics themselves, what we actually see, are extremely similar and all the implications of the choice we make are conveyed through what the exposition had told us. This is very poor storytelling and worse still to be considered the resolution.

3. Ambiguity, lack of clarity, plot holes. Relating to the previous points, the ending is excessively ambiguous and unclear. With only unclear exposition before the choice and without sufficient data presented afterwards, many situations are unaccounted for and either lack clarity at best or appear as plot holes at worst. The crash landing of the Normandy is a clear example of this ambiguity, both in it's plausibility and implications for the fate of the crew.

4. Nothing is gained by breaking convention and attempting to make the ending enigmatic or profound. Assuming this was the writers' goal, this is another failing. Some believe, myself included, that the writers' tried to use the jarring impact of an unconventional, imperfect ending to hammer home a message or theme (presumably: pre-destination, the uncontrollable nature of fate, and the individual's limited ability to impact the world). This, however, comes at the cost of the story and the audience's pleasure, a cost that is far too high for the nature of storytelling.

5. The resurgence and emphasis on The Illusive Man during the resolution as well as the lack of interaction with the Reapers and, more specifically, Harbinger,  detracts from the Reapers as the antagonist. A lot of people expected a “boss fight” of sorts or a closing discussion with Harbinger at the end. This is a perfectly understandable and legitimate expectation. During the climax, we are almost defeated by Harbinger, the avatar for the Reapers as antagonist, however, during the resolution, it is the indoctrinated Illusive Man that takes takes center stage. Though he unwittingly is an assisting force for the Reapers, he is not directly representative of them, merely their influence. TIM's role is more fitting that of an obstacle to be overcome during the rising action.

The prominance of The Illusive Man as the final foe to be overcome detracts from the overall threat and importance of the true antagonist, the Reapers.

6. Shepherd is not a tragic hero. A common debate I see is between people who think there should be a happy ending and people who think such an ending would be out of place or impossible, sometimes refering to Shepherd as “tragic”. The simple fact is, Shepherd has no tragic flaw nor does he make a tragic mistake; had such a tragic characteristic existed, it could be a foregone conclusion he would die. Overcoming the Reapers may be an impossible task, but the impossible is
routinely overcome in the Mass Effect trilogy and other epics. As is, there is nothing in the story that would railroad Shepherd towards an inevitable demise, the difficulty of his task makes his death likely, but there's nothing that should remove the possibility of a happy ending. This may be why many people want a “happy” or “brighter” ending, there's no setup nor payoff to Shepherd's death and without those it may feel cheap; storytelling is all about setup and payoff.

For an example of a good tragic hero, look no farther than Mordin Solus. His tragic mistake was the creation of the genophage. When a desperate need for krogan intervention arose and the genophage was the reason they refused, Mordin fulfilled his tragic role by sacrificing and redeeming himself. There's a big setup for the genophage throughout the series and Mordin's involvement is setup in the second game as a huge internal conflict for him. In three, this all pays off beautifully with either his redemption or brutal murder at Shepherd's hands before he can succeed. This is proper execution for a tragic character. From what I've seen, this is one of the most beloved and well-received storylines in the game; compare that to the ending's reception.

These points were written as a stream of conscious, I'm sure there are plenty of things I've missed or didn't feel like going in depth about, but I think those are some of the most important ones.

C. As I was writing this I read the Final Hours thread containing comments from Mac Walters and Casey Hudson as well as Walters' scribbled notes for the ending. Honestly I was taken aback.

Judging the content Hudson cut based on his feel for “the moment”, I'd say his feel for emotional beats and his judgement of what was expendable for story economy was atrocious. The first Mass Effect was inundated at times with exposition and had very poor economy, this ending, on the other hand, is something of an opposite with not nearly enough information.

Walters' notes scrawled across loose leaf disappointed me. The ideas are clearly not fleshed out at all, strictly drawing board material, the execution we see in game is indicative of that. ” Lots of speculation from everyone” is somewhat repulsive, as if providing an unclear, poorly planned ending that leaves your audience unsatisfied and grasping at straws for answers is somehow good storytelling. It gives me the inclination that the ending really was just for publicity.

I hope it continues to backfire.

Anyway, I'm off. Any interest or questions or if you want to pick my brain about storytelling, we'll call this a work in progress.

Updated 2012/04/02 11:36: Another great write-up on the problems with the ending.

Forbes magazine has posted three articles about the reaction to the game’s endings.

Updated 2012/03/13 23:16: Many game “journalism” websites have been mocking fans by misconstruing the outcry as something it’s not. However, this Game Front article actually sides with the fans.

Updated 2012/03/13 11:59: A number of fans have started a charity drive to raise awareness about the endings. The charity proceeds are going to go to the Child’s Play gaming charity, which is recognized throughout the gaming community as being one of the best. In just 24 hours, they’ve raised over $30,000.

Updated 2012/03/15 23:28: The charity cracked $50,000 today.

Updated 2012/03/17 00:53: A good review focusing on the problems. Choice bit:

In a game, in a series, where choice and consequence has been paramount, Mass Effect 3‘s ending is a huge kick in the teeth. Deus Ex: Human Revolution‘s was bad, but Eidos hadn’t spent two previous, enormous games making you care. At least those endings were markedly different, too. Mass Effect 3‘s triple threat of button choices results in virtually identical final cutscenes, with a little colour palette change. All of the choices, all of the sacrifices, all of the relationships, the friendships, the alliances, all are forgotten in the space of ten minutes of Matrix Revolutions-esque waffle that not only makes absolutely no sense in the context of the series, but actively tries to retcon certain aspects of the previous narrative. Everyone’s fate is left uncertain, the lack of closure (when there’d been two perfectly good moments at which to end the story only five minutes prior) is borderline criminal.

Is it wrong to feel this way? Of course not. BioWare asked that we invest in their series, and we did, gladly. But, unfairly, this is an ending that makes you ask the question ‘Was it worth it?’ For the first time, I have no desire to replay a Mass Effect game, because I know that this is it. This is all I’ll get: three colours of the same, inevitable ending. No explanation. No closure. No satisfaction. If I want the combat, I’ll play the multiplayer. It means that every single choice I made, from the start of the original game, to the end of this one, none of them matter. My Shepard, as different as he may be from yours, doesn’t matter. Paragon or Renegade, it’s all for nothing. That’s not a comment on futility, lord only knows what this ending might have been if BioWare had been brave enough to explore that, but rather drawing the curtain on the Beautiful Lie that Mass Effect has become in the space of five minutes.

It’s not about entitlement, although you’d think £120 (not including the series’ DLC) might earn us a better ending. It’s bad storytelling, and that’s the kicker. The fact that BioWare have proven time and time again that they’re not a lazy studio, that they care about the little things, that previous games (including from this very same series!) have explored final scenes that reward multiple playthroughs of differing styles and choices, just makes it all the more frustrating. Of all of the memorable moments in Mass Effect 3, and there are many, that this is the most prevalent is a real shame.

Many, many people have suggested that the game should be considered over when “Shepard and Anderson sit down.” A number of fans have cut together alternate ending videos and uploaded them to YouTube.

Additionally, a few fan reviews of the ending:

Here’s a pretty solid fan-created ending script. And here’s a funny one.

Update 2012/03/14 23:28: All of the following has been Jossed by information revealed as part of the behind-the-scenes “Final Hours” iOS app created by Geoff Keighley, which documents BioWare’s process in finalizing Mass Effect 3. The thread on BSN in which this was revealed got so heated that forum moderators locked the entire forum for approximately 30 minutes to ensure that the moderator warning about direct attacks on BioWare developers was read by those participating in the thread. Unfortunately, the images in question were taken down due to “copyright violations” (this seems a rather strong situation in which one could argue Fair Use), but are still available in the Something Awful thread.

There is, however, a potential avenue for brilliance on the part of BioWare, as pointed out by this post on their forums. I pared down that post to the most interesting bit and edited it for grammar and formatting:

The endgame scenario is indoctrination from the Reapers (Harbinger) trying to force you into choosing to let the Reapers live. Shepard is not awake during the final scenes!

  • Choosing to control the Reapers allows them to live. Reapers win. They will still exist.
  • Choosing to combine organic and synthetic life: Reapers win. They will still exist.
  • Choosing to destroy all synthetic life: Reapers lose. Shepard lives. Reapers die.

Choosing to destroy all synthetic life option is more Renegade in appearence. Controlling the Reapers is more Paragon in appearence. The Illusive Man’s choice should not be Paragon colors, just as Anderson’s choice should not be Renegade.

Shepard awakens at the end of destroying Reapers. But Shepard is not waking from the aftermath. He is waking from either after he is hit by Harbinger’s laser attack on Earth or after the scene with Anderson and the Illusive Man.

Stating that all sythetic life will be destroyed will give you pause; destroying the Geth can force you to a different conclusion. This choice exists for the illusion of choice; the other choices are meant to sound better.

Shepard does not wake up in the other two “endings” because you are fully indoctrinated by the choices you made to allow the Reapers to win. “Assuming Control!”

Never trust any child construct, be it a ghost or artificial intelligence, or heck even human. They are just creepy.

Shepard awakens at the end because he has broken hold of the Reaper’s control.

Shepard has spent alot of time around Reapers. Soveriegn, various Reaper artifacts, the Human Reaper, two Reaper destroyers, the Artifact from “The Arrival.” It’s foolish to assume there is not some level of indoctrination.

Bioware doesn’t only get more money from DLC for the final battle, but big props for indoctrinating a lot of its own players! I do not know of another gaming company that has tried to fool all of its consumers, but they look to be the first and reap all of the attention.

Here’s essentially the same thing, but from Something Awful:

There’s actually enough strange details to make a case that ending may be a fake and there might be something more. You get a super duper ultimate ending which is strangely enough not the special green ending you get for having a high EMS score.

  • If you take the red ending with EMS of over 5000 (or 4000 if you talk down the Illusive Man) you get a scene at the end of Shepard waking up in the rubble on Earth. Which doesn’t make sense since Shep was just on the Citadel.
  • Anderson makes it up to the Citadel before Shepard does despite not being in that battle at all.
  • Shepard’s pistol at the end has infinite bullets for some reason.
  • Somehow your ground crew makes it back to the Normandy from the ground in front of the Citadel beam.
  • The Normandy is suddenly in mid relay jump in the ending part.
  • Vega complains about hearing a strange noise on the Normandy the whole game.
  • Indoctrination is described as a loud collection of whispers which is what Shepard continuously hears in his dreams.
  • At a few points in the game you can hear the low horn sound Reapers make when they are focusing indoctrination like they did with Saren despite no character like that being there in the scenes. This is heard both in the dreams and outside
  • The voices of your companions inside the dreams are the only things you can make out over the whispers and they all speak about fighting the reapers and call out to Shepard. If it was their dying that haunted Shepard why wouldn’t he remember their dying lines?
  • At the final choice Shepard is standing at the connector between the Citadel and the Crucible which is clearly exposed to open space with out a helmet on at all. You can shoot your pistol towards space and not hear or see any impact of glass.
  • The blue ending scene shows the Illusive Man who was just established as being kind of a bad dude for wanting to control the Reapers and Anderson is shown as the model for the red ending. Now none of the endings are labeled Paragon or Renegade just referred to by their colors in the game directory which is inconsistent with how the ending movies were in previous games. Why make the paragon/renegade distinction if it’s not actually like that? Now the blue ending is one where you control the Reapers yet Shepard says clearly that the Reapers are just planting that idea into the Illusive Man’s head.
  • Shepard dies in every ending except the one that wipes out the Reapers. Now the Catalyst is basically a Reaper VI trying to influence Shepard on the right action to take. It strikes me as odd that Shepard would listen to a Reaper VI when it’s telling him to die.

If the above turns out to be true, that is absolutely amazing, and validates all of the little pieces that don’t add up with things as they stand. However, it points to a serious failure to communicate on BioWare’s part. I don’t think they expected the massive backlash, and if this is their intent, then I think they failed to set it up sufficiently for players to “get” that.

I agree with Forbes: if they plan to change things with DLC, that DLC should probably be free in order to earn back the goodwill they have burned. If it is not, I suspect they will see this DLC be their most profitable ever, and then subsequently never see profits as high as those derived from Mass Effect 3 and this one pack of DLC. Many, many people are forswearing BioWare games if things are left as they are now.

Updated 2012/03/14 10:07: The best ending from Something Awful:

I’m just going to make up my own ending

Right before you walk up to the beam a million fucking Hanar appear out of no where and go around killing the shit outta the reapers without a problem.

Shepard is like “what the fuck hanars” and it turns out the Hanar could have done it the whole time but no one ever asked them and they didn’t want to say anything because it would be impolite

  One Response to “Mass Effect 3 Ending Drama”

  1. “At the final choice Shepard is standing at the connector between the Citadel and the Crucible which is clearly exposed to open space with out a helmet on at all. You can shoot your pistol towards space and not hear or see any impact of glass.”

    Mass effect fields. We saw them contain atmosphere during the destruction of the Normandy SR-1. In fact if you walk aft from the bridge of the SR-2 towards the CIC, you can see a mass effect field between the two compartments.

    The rest of it though.. Interesting. I can certainly see how the road to hell is paved with good intentions.


 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>