(Note this post is rife with Mass Effect, Hunger Games, and Bastion spoilers)
The characters and story. I could end this blog post right here, but I'm guessing that isn't enough. I avoided every possible spoiler on my journey through Mass Effect 3, just as I did in Mass Effect 2, and probably more through luck, Mass Effect 1. I was not, however, immune to the heated seemingly one-sided debate that has pervaded the internet thoroughly. I kept waiting for a moment to hit me at the end of ME3 where I would hate it. I didn't hit that point. These are my reasons why.
I'm going to back up. I entered Mass Effect 1 wide-eyed and wonderstruck. Here was a universe, a galaxy, realized in a way I hadn't seen in video game form. Star Trek and Star Wars had a universe, a Song of Ice and Fire had a universe, Ender's game had a universe. But a video game? Many have tried, and some have done well, like (opinions, people) Halo, but nothing like this. It wasn't until I was halfway or more through Mass Effect 1 that that reason for loving the game waned, not because it wasn't still as good, but because something else took it's place: Commander Shepard and the Normandy crew. I have beaten ME1 numerous times, but that first Shepard will always be my Shepard. He made difficult decisions. Lieutenant Kaiden Alenko died because of it. He saw the galaxy teeter to destruction and stopped it, a classic hero's tale.
He moved on in Mass Effect 2, resurrecting from death. He made new friends, new enemies, some died (mainly his enemies), but he emerged. Another hero's tale. He saved humanity from a gruesome death. He saved much of his crew. He met a best friend and lover. He made it through, scarred, but through. He held it together, still the hero. He saw death again, and defeated it, not completely unscathed, but it was defeated before it could wreak havoc. It was a darker, yet still classic hero's tale. He won.
My Shepard, through Mass Effect 3, has watched the galaxy teeter closer to the edge of death, and his ability to save everyone wanes. He is a man who has been in control, but now he faces an enemy so powerful, that he has no control, no ability to save those around him. When he reaches that final room, he is presented with a choice. The options are not of his making, because the powers at play are so beyond him, they may as well be gods. So he made his choice, doing whatever he could to stop the death, not only for those he loved, but for the future, and he died with that choice. There is no happy ending, no win condition. Not this time. My Shepard has fought and fought and killed, and enslaved, and murdered to try and make the galaxy a place of peace. Shepard is willing to die to accomplish that goal, and he proved it.
Mass Effect as a series has moved me in ways that very few other art forms have. I have been destroyed emotionally by very few books, very few movies, very few TV shows (dammit Chuck), and even fewer video games. Letting Commander Shepard die wasn't something I couldn't do without tears and sorrow. I'm a grown man dammit, and I'm so extraordinarily happy that Mass Effect 3 has left me in a somber, melancholy, emotionally fragile state. Why? Because that's what art is meant to do. It affects you. Maybe you don't play games for anything but the fun and the gameplay (and if the number of death threats to that Bioware writer are any indication, there are a significant number of you) and that's fine. Perfectly fine. Just don't complain that not all games fit that mold. Some books are pulp. Some movies are Die Hard. To think that fans of that genre would trash a movie that isn't Die Hard for not being Die Hard-like enough is mind-boggling, yet that's what's happened here.
When the Hunger Games' third book (Mockingjay) ended, I felt empty inside. You know why? Because the author tried to knot up everything in a pretty bow. The author tried to tell me that after everything that girl went through, she was okay in the end. The murder, the lies, she lives happily ever after? Bull shit. She's an emotionally wrecked husk of a human being, and she got over it? Like hell she did. Yet this is exactly what people want from Mass Effect 3. You say that's not your Shepard? You're wrong. Your Shepard may be a bad-ass, but Bioware set up the story of a hero, how that hero accomplishes his goal is up to you, but his goal is not. He may have been a harder man than Katniss Everdeen, but he's a hero, and even a hero accustomed to ordering death has a breaking point, or he is no longer a hero, but a murderer. Perhaps Bioware/EA didn't communicate clearly enough what kind of video game this is. Fine, I'll buy that, they want sales like Call of Duty (pulp if there ever was any). That still doesn't give you the right to demand a different type of game, period. Mass Effect 3 ended the way it did because it's a story and for it to end any other way wouldn't be a credit to everything Bioware has built in this series.
Now that Bioware has come out and said they're providing more closure I'm terrified. I'm scared of what this means. Will Bioware destroy the piece of art they created for some fans (who will still complain about this) who don't understand what they made, or don't care? This is so unbelievably dangerous. Bastion ended in a melancholy, perfect way for what it was. It, like Mass Effect, was wrapped in fun gameplay. It, like Mass Effect ended in a gut-wrenching way. Do you forget everything you've done, the friends you've made in order to save the world? Or do you let it die and keep your friendships intact? I don't understand why the Mass Effect response wasn't formulated against Bastion, it's a similar situation. Is it because it was indie, or because the time investment was smaller? In any case, what this is telling publishers is "We only want pulp out of our big-budget games, leave the emotion to the indies", which is not only steps back for Video Games, but it could very well destroy it as a storytelling medium if unchecked.
Hate me if you like, I'm only telling it how I see it.
Quick edit: I'm not saying the game or ending is perfect. It has some plot holes and oddities, however, the ending is still right in my opinion. The people mad about the plot-holes have a right to be, it's very strange, but that's not what Bioware is addressing, they're "adding closure", which I think is ridiculous.
For a more in-depth point-counterpoint of Mass Effect 3's ending, Ben Kuchera's post on the matter over at the Penny Arcade report is great: http://penny-arcade.com/report/editorial-article/why-the-ending-of-mass-effect-3-was-satifying-and-worthy-of-the-series-mass