This article will be filled with ***SPOILERS*** for the end of Mass Effect 3. If you haven’t played the game to the end just yet, or if you just don’t care about video games, don’t read this. Or wait until this is relevant to you and then come back and read it.
Ready? [takes a very deep breath] Let’s begin…
The endings of Mass Effect 3, all of them, are awful. The reason for this comes down to one thing: in the closing moments of Mass Effect 3, everything you’ve done, all the work you’ve put in to gathering a massive army of forces to defeat the Reaper threat over the course of three games, is wiped away with one choice and means nothing.
This isn’t a complaint from an angry fan that wanted to see character X get married to character Y, or an angry fan that would rather have seen character X survive the journey unscathed. This is a complaint shared by many that stems from Bioware, the company behind the Mass Effect series, completely ignoring and eventually throwing away the unifying thematic elements behind the entire Mass Effect series: choice and trust.
All good stories are about something, and Mass Effect was about choosing your own destiny and trusting that those choices, and the people behind those choices, will get the job done in the galaxy’s darkest hour. For two games, plus most of Mass Effect 3 up to the final moments, we are led to believe that our choices are going to matter.
At the end of the game, Shepard, the series’ main character, must choose between three options:
1) Destroy all synthetic life in the galaxy, including your allies, The Geth, one of your squad mates, EDI, and yourself, because Shepard is partly synthetic; thus negating all of the hard work you’ve put in to creating a vast army to fight back. Also, all of the mass relays are destroyed.
2) Control the Reapers and tell them to go away, which is what The Illusive Man, one of the main villains of the series, was trying to do (but not really), and Shepard will die in the process; thus negating all of the hard work you’ve put in to creating a vast army to fight back. Also, all of the mass relays are destroyed.
3) Synthesis, which allows you to do exactly what the Reapers always wanted: turn all organics in to human-synthetic hybrids, but in a more peaceful way, I guess; thus negating all of the hard work you’ve put in to creating a vast army to fight back. Also, all of the mass relays are destroyed and Shepard dies.
The problem with these choices is, all three have the same outcome, to varying degrees. There are differences, to be sure. But the differences aren’t great enough to disprove the claim that Bioware simply cut and pasted the same ending three times and changed the color of the energy blast emitted by The Crucible, the all-powerful MaGuffin super weapon that can end the war in an instant, depending on which ending you choose. Ultimately, what you’re choosing in the end is not to destroy the Reapers, control the Reapers, or synthesize all life, you’re deciding if the final explosion is red, blue, or green.
No matter which ending you choose, the Normandy crash lands on a planet. No matter which ending you choose, Shepard dies. No matter which ending you choose, the mass relays are destroyed. No matter which ending you choose, the Reapers are defeated in essentially the same way. No matter which ending you choose, your armies have no say in the final outcome. No matter which ending you choose, all of the choices you’ve made leading up to the final moments mean nothing and have no effect on the final outcome.
I should note that in one of the secret endings (highlight the forthcoming white text to see the SPOILER) Shepard lives, somehow.
Even having said all of this, I feel I should mention that I still loved the game. Mass Effect 3, I feel, is one of the greatest and most ambitious video games ever made. I loved every single second of it. (Other than the end, obviously). I, and so many others, just wish Bioware had stayed true to the themes they implanted in the series from the beginning; namely, the themes of choice and trust.
Shepard should have been given an actual choice at the end, instead of three paths that all lead to the same, microscopically different outcome. After beating ME3, I took to the internet to finally read the complaints about the ending I had been hearing so much about. In my research, I came across an alternate ending written and posted on DeviantArt by a user named Arkis.
It. Is. Mother. F*cking. Fantastic. Read it for yourself. (Warning: It’s a little long, like this article that you’re currently reading).
In this alternate ending, written by a fan the morning after being disappointed by Mass Effect’s final outcome, Shepard is given the same three choices mentioned above…but he also gets a fourth choice – the choice to not choose.
For the entire series, Shepard must make choices. Some of these choices involved wiping out entire colonies or planets. Some involved choosing which one of your squad mates must die for the greater good. The choices were difficult. In Mass Effect 3, the choices are, on the surface, even more important. You are told that the only way to eliminate the Reaper threat is by uniting the entire force of the galaxy behind you, leading a charge that will destroy the Reapers and bring peace. In order to get everyone on your side you have to put in one hell of a lot of effort and time as player. You need to gain the trust of these dispirit races, some of which despise each other, so that together you can become the most formidable army the galaxy, maybe even the universe, has ever seen. Sadly, none of the endings show any of that work paying off and how any of the choices we’ve made actually make a difference. Ultimately, Shepard is given three choices, and all three choices are in no way influenced by any choice that has come before it. In the end, Shepard, no matter how much he or she doesn’t want to admit it, must play God; Shepard must decide the fate of every living and synthetic creature in the galaxy, which is exactly what the Reapers were doing in the first place and what Shepard was rebelling against.
Arkis’ fourth choice, the ability to not choose, thus allowing all of the choices you’ve made up to this point to take come to fruition, would have been one of the most astounding video game moments ever, had it appeared in the game and not on the internet posted by a disappointed fan. Of course, the fourth choice should have only come up if you had collected all of the War Assets and you had at least (I’m just spit-balling/pulling numbers out of my ass) 90% Galactic Readiness, but it should have been an option.
The Reapers played God by choosing to kill off all life in the galaxy every 50,000 years because they didn’t want to see other civilizations go through the same pain that they themselves went through when they created synthetic life and the synthetic life turned on them. They took it upon themselves to make that choice for us, leaving every sentient race they’ve ever destroyed out of the discussion.
At the end of Mass Effect 3, after Shepard has worked so hard to build an army, all the options you are presented with turn Shepard in to the God the Reapers saw themselves as. Shepard can’t gamble and take a chance with the forces that he’s accumulated. He can’t look forced pre-determination in the eye and say, “To hell with you. We’re ending this fight on our own terms.”
What we got instead was a three game series that could have been boiled down to one game, with the climatic ending coming when a guy pushes a button or flips a switch that instantly kills all the bad guys — The End. But with the “Don’t Make a Choice” option presented by Arkis, Shepard would have turned the tables on the Reapers. If the Reapers want to remove our ability to choose our own path, give them a taste of their own medicine by removing our own ability to choose and trusting that we’ve made all the right decisions up to this point; trust that we’ve gathered enough forces to takeout the Reapers without the use of a super weapon that really isn’t much of a weapon as much as it’s a “Bitter-Sweet Victory Gun.”
Think about this: would you rather have wanted the original Star Wars trilogy to end with all of the characters standing on the sidelines, watching a super weapon do all the work for them, or would you rather have seen Han shutting down the shield generators while Lando maneuvers the Millennium Falcon through the belly of the Death Star and Luke battles Vader and the Emperor?
I’m going to assume most people would choose the second option because there’s more inherent drama and excitement involving the characters we’ve grown to love. All of Mass Effect 3’s endings are the first option, the usage of the super weapon. Shepard makes a choice and everyone stands by watching the repercussion of that choice, which is everybody looking on, saying, “WTF, Shep? You didn’t even give us a chance! We’ve only been fighting for, like, two hours! Why did we join forces and attack the Reapers head-on if you were going to make one choice and save the day? Couldn’t you have done that on your own? Or at least with a much smaller fighting force that wouldn’t result in as many casualties?”
The inclusion of Arkis’ fourth option would have opened the door for a fantastic “perfect” ending, which Arkis describes beautifully:
The battle that follows is the epic conclusion, as Shepard watches, broken and bleeding, as everything he has put into this unified force throws itself at the Reapers. This is where all those decisions come to fruition. We want to see those War Assets fighting. The Destiny Ascension obliterating a Reaper with it’s main gun before being swarmed over by Destroyers, the Geth armada pulling along side to save her. The Salarian STG calling in a biotic artillery strike on cluster of Reaper troops. Wrex and Garrus, on the front sharing a stern moment in cover, before nodding to each other, brothers in arms, before charging over the barricade. Back to back, they face down hordes of husks, Wrex shouting defiantly, “You think you can take our future!? You think YOU CAN TAKE MY CHILDREN?!”
We want to see the Quarian flotilla scrambling, all guns blazing, trying desperately to form a battleline, as one of the admirals quietly turns to their crew, signalling his ship all ahead full. “For the homeworld. Keela…” their words cut off as the live-ship rams a Reaper, exploding spectacularly and damaging two others. We want to see the Normandy frantically weaving through the wreckage, Joker and EDI yelling warnings to one another as the fleets explode around them. We want Tali leading a charge of Geth Primes against a Cannibal gun line. Rachni drones swarming over a Reaper Destroyer by the thousands, pulling it apart from the inside. We want to see Grunt wrestle a brute to the ground and unload his shotgun into his head.
It can be argued that this is the story Bioware wanted to tell to us, so they crafted three endings that are all essentially the same thing because it’s the ending that Bioware wanted. In doing so, Bioware, in the closing moments of the series, ripped away our ability to create our own story, which, above all else, is what the series has been about for a lot of players, and replaced our ability to craft our own story with one all-encompassing, deeply flawed and at times illogical, ending. We are given choices that we were told would actually make a difference, for better or worse. In the end, Bioware wiped out all of those choices and left us with three options that had nothing to do with the other theme of the series: trust. Do you trust that the armies you’ve gathered are strong enough to save the galaxy? Do you think the individuals that make up this army trust you as the leader of this vast army? Do you think they can do it? Can they defeat the Reapers without the use of a McGuffin, The Crucible, a fabled super weapon that we see so often in fiction? A machine that no one understands, no one knows how to use, no one has heard of until the third game in the series, and no one knows what it will do once turned on, other than “defeat the Reapers,” which is about as vague and generic as a McGuffin super weapon can get.
As Arkis says in the closing paragraphs of his alternate ending, “Happy or sad, we just want to see those decisions play out.”
The end of the Mass Effect series came down to a matter of plot versus character, both of which are moved along by the themes of choice and trust. Bioware wanted to see an end to the plot; players wanted to see an end to their character’s stories. Players wanted to see all of the things Arkis described a couple of paragraphs above, even if everyone on your side ended up dying. Players not only wanted a resolution to the over-arching plot, but also the resolution to the individual character arcs. We want to not only know how the allied forces fared, we want to see them die or see them emerge victorious. We’ve struggled side-by-side with them for hundreds of hours-worth of gameplay, at least let us know whether they lived or died. Hell, just let us know what they did in during the battle!
With Mass Effect, Bioware created a near-masterpiece of a video game series. Sadly, they botched the ending by booting the game’s main mechanic, the dialogue trees and abilities to choose, to the curb in the final seconds in favor of a prepackaged nothing-you’ve-done-matters ending, as if Bioware woke up one morning and yelled, “The game comes out tomorrow?! Quickly! Someone write an ending!”
Everything in the series leading up to the ending is as perfect of a set up as one can create. Yet, when it came time to pay it all off, Bioware couldn’t deliver because they forgot what it was all about. Mass Effect wasn’t about the Reapers or Shepard or the armies or your biotic powers or the duck-and-cover gameplay – Mass Effect is about whatever the hell we want it to be, as long as it exists within the logic Bioware has established in this universe. What we were presented with was Bioware’s misunderstanding of their story and a misunderstanding of their own storytelling mechanics. At the finish line, Bioware forgot what made the games so good, and in turn, we, the players, rebelled against the people that removed our ability to choose.
Oh, and one last thing: anybody petitioning to have Bioware change the ending is wrong. You can’t ask the artist to change the message of the art because you disagree with it. All you can do is disagree with it and leave it at that.