Considering the measured, low key responses to it on the Internet and social media, you may not be aware that a small contingent of folks are upset with the ending of Mass Effect 3.
I’m sorry, I tried to keep a straight face and couldn’t- as you probably know by now, people lost their collective damned minds over it. From forum outrage and misguided fundraisers to BBB complaints and odd cupcake protests (?), the gaming community as a near whole is still consumed with the perceived shortcomings of this game’s finale. I disagree.
I would assume this goes without saying since this is a discussion about the end of a game, but “spoilers and stuff”. So…yeah.
I fall squarely into the camp of “Die Hard” Mass Effect fan. I bought the first game at launch and completed it somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 times. Ditto for the second installment, and my anticipation of the third was at a fever pitch I hadn’t experienced since my teen years, waiting for Mortal Kombat II to hit my local arcade. When Mass Effect 3 finally hit I spent every night after work playing through the final chapter of Bioware’s Magnum Opus, and loved nearly every minute of it. But my excited forum posts and Facebook updates about how everyone on the planet totally needed to play this game were replaced by shock and disbelief when the credits rolled. Did they really just kill Shepard off in a totally nonchalant fashion? Were my choices over the last six years really being ignored by presenting me with three equally distasteful final outcomes? Are they really not going to even tell me what happens to my crew? I was blown away, shocked, stunned, even mad. But as the weeks have passed and I’ve had time to reflect on the game, I’ve come to a realization: Everyone is complaining about “the end” of Mass Effect based on the last 15 minutes, when in fact “the end” of Mass Effect is the entirety of the third game.
ME1 and 2 set up a colorful cast of characters, each with their own struggles and personal demons. Miranda had her daddy issues, Wrex was outraged over the genophage and slow death of his people, Mordin was wracked with guilt over his role in said genophage, Jack was drifting with no purpose in life after being brutally abused by Cerberus as a child, etc, etc. The decisions I made in the first two games fostered a close relationship with each of them (playing Paragon, that is), and Mass Effect 3 brought closure to those stories. Miranda rescues her sister and finally confronts dad; Wrex becomes the leader that will restore the Krogans to glory; Mordin atones for his crimes and cures the genophage, Jack finds a place helping other biotic orphans avoid the fate she suffered. It’s all there, that nice ending with a bow on top and “closure” that everyone is looking for- you experienced it, you saw what happens, you wrapped up their stories. How did you miss that?
Imagine the Mass Effect trilogy as one long movie, and consider the traditional story structure. The beginning 1/3rd establishes the characters and their motivations, the middle 1/3rd introduces the central conflict and the final 1/3rd is the climax, bringing conclusion to the stories of the characters. Books don’t cram the outcome of every character onto the last page, nor do all movies end with a “where are they now” montage like Dolly Parton’s Nine to Five (Garrus left the Turian Army and became a country western singer, while Miranda was abducted by a tribe in Africa and never heard from again!). This lack of narrative “cram” in the final 15 minutes seems to be the main point of contention with fans (other than “choice”, which I’ll get to), and upon further reflection is really a criticism that makes no sense. The 40 hours of gameplay and story on this disc absolutely contains rich, happy, sad and poignant conclusions for each loyal crewmember on the Normandy.
So that being said, by the time the player has reached the final 15 minutes of the game they’ve wrapped up just about every character arc except one- Shepard’s. It’s at this point that the outrage over lack of choice comes into play, with three (or two, if you’re terrible at Mass Effect) choices presented as your only options, all three resulting in the death of Shepard and some very bizarre leaps in logic. Questions such as how your crew ended up back on the Normandy so quickly, how the ship magically ended up flying away from Earth when they had no idea the explosion was about to happen and why the Mass Relay explosions don’t wipe out all life on the planets you just spent three games saving are all questions Bioware needs to answer in their upcoming “Extended Edition” DLC. Some can be explained away, while others make no logical sense or contradict the series’ fiction.
But as far as those choices folks are complaining about, I have a hard time being upset. Tragic heroes have existed since people began writing stories, and I’ve had a sneaking suspicion for a long time that Shepard wasn’t going to make it through this series alive. In a way it’s a fitting end for a heroic character- that despite all the good they’ve done, everything from rebuilding families to saving entire species from extinction, it all comes down to one final sacrifice in the end. Sure it’s poorly explained exactly why Shepard has to die in order for the Citadel Deus Ex Machina to function, but the death itself makes sense given the overall tone of the trilogy. Besides, your choices over the first 3 games have never really been about Shepard in the first place, but rather your crew and the aliens you encounter.
Stop and consider the following: No matter what you do Shepard always gets the vision from the Beacon on Eden Prime, dies at the opening of 2, gets recruited by Cerberus, leaves and goes back to the Alliance, and eventually ends up on the Citadel talking to the AI at the end of 3. We’ve had hundreds of choices throughout these games that affected the lives of everyone surrounding Shepard from your teammates to entire civilizations, but when you stop and think about it, nothing we’ve ever done has changed the trajectory of Shepard’s journey. You can can change the trajectory of entire worlds and crew members through your choices, even deciding who lives and dies, but you never once have the ability to stop Shepard from hitting the story beats Bioware has written. EVER. To suddenly expect that ability in the final 15 minutes of a 150 hour saga is ridiculous. Heroes die in the end all the time, and it's often that final sacrifice that cements the character's heroism or closes out their story arc by having their past catch up with them despite their recent good deeds. And as for all the vagueness and incomprehensible explanations at the end of Mass Effect 3, the truth is it happens all the time in storytelling. Everywhere you look in film or literature, you can find amazing, award winnings stories whose endings still engender a rousing "Huh?", yet still became classics of storytelling. I'm not saying I like it, merely pointing out this isn't the first time a grand story has ended with a bit of a thud.
So is the conclusion of Shepard's story in Mass Effect 3 full of bizarre mubo-jumbo, logical fallacies, plot holes and strange dramatic choices? Yes. But does that mean the ending of the Mass Effect saga is terrible? Does it truly rob you of choice or fail to give you closure? NO. I think the entirety of Mass Effect 3 is a tremendous ending to the series that, despite claims to the contrary, provides closure to all these personal stories based on your choices. Tali, Garrus, Wrex, Mordin and the rest of the crew all have the opportunity to overcome their demons and struggles in the end (again, based on your choices), but it’s Shepard who gets the short end of the stick in those final, frequently discussed 15 minutes. Despite what the outraged detractors tell us, our choices are respected and have an enormous impact on the fate of all these characters except Shepard. Yes, there are glaring holes in the fiction surrounding that finale which need to be addressed in the upcoming DLC, but I applaud Bioware’s decision to avoid retconning their story to appease folks who wanted a different explanation for the Reapers or a happier ending for the main character.
To those of you who are angry there’s no way to save Commander Shepard, there’s nothing I can say to make you happy. But for those claiming that your choices are ignored and there’s no closure, I have to wonder what you were busy doing during the 40-50 hours that all those choices finally played out, wrapping up the saga of the Normandy’s crew.