Random internet asshole Draugen comes late to the party, forces his rambling thoughts on Mass Effect on you, vents all his anger at the ending of 3, and finds inner peace and hope in the last paragraph.
Preface: This article contains massive, MASSIVE spoilers for Mass Effect 3. Do not read beyond this point if you don't want the entirety of the story spoiled.
In December of 2007, I bought an Xbox 360 for the first time. I wasn't planning on doing it. After all, I'd been a PC gamer for several years, and the new consoles coming out offered me nothing that my gaming rig couldn't do better. And still, right before Christmas, I hurried down to the electronics store, and bought it, armed with a single point of justification: Mass Effect, Bioware's latest RPG was at the time an Xbox exclusive. From what I'd heard, it was a game right up my alley. An epic quest, a host of interesting, crazy characters and a genuine impact from the players own choices. I got home, booted up the game, and so began a four and a half year long love affair that was to culminate in one of the most soul crushing entertainment-related disappointments I've experienced: the ending to Mass Effect 3.
Let me get this on the table first of all: I love Mass Effect 3. Whoever said that video games are incapable of eliciting genuine emotion from the player is either talking out of his ass, or is unable to empathize with fictional characters. On three separate occasions during the course of playing Mass Effect 3, I was genuinely choked up with tears in my eyes. On a further two, the impact of the choice I'd just made rocked me so hard I had to get up and go for a long walk to process the implications of those choices, which are monumental. And I'm not some overly emotional sap either. I'm a big, hairy, sweaty man who keeps his feelings locked away at the bottom of a deep pool replenished by alcohol to keep them at bay. But oh my God; Wrex, the 800 pound alien lizard I've spent the last three games with just told me he considers me his brother. I love you too, Wrex!
I think that's where Mass Effect's appeal comes from. The characters and the interaction between them. Take Jack for instance. When she is introduced, she (yes, she) appears like nothing but a tired archetype. An angry, powerful, borderline psychotic killer, with a tragic past which we've seen a million and one times in our games before. And while it's possible to get under the skin of the character in Mass Effect 2, you always kind of feel like she is a bit of a lost cause, that she'll never evolve into anything more than a biotic bad-ass, who doesn't care about anything.
That's why the direction BioWare chose to take the character in for Mass Effect 3 was such a pleasant surprise. When you meet her again in the trilogy closer, she has evolved in a very interesting direction. During the Grissom Academy mission early on in the game, you find her having taken a position as a teacher for a group of biotic kids. It's an unexpected, but not uncharacteristic evolution. She retains her core personality, she doesn't hesitate to use her considerable powers to mercilessly kill her enemies, but she no longer does it for the thrill or for the hell of it. She does it to protect her students. It's not breaking new ground; it's not exceptionally good story-telling, but it's really enjoyable and satisfying. That’s how I've always considered the Mass Effect games; like immensely entertaining pulp novels. For me, Mass Effect is, all hyperbole aside, the Star Wars of my generation.
Which is a bit ironic, given that I'm actually old enough to be of the actual Star Wars generation.
For nearly 30 hours, Mass Effect 3 was a thrill ride, the likes of which the gaming medium rarely delivers. The galaxy may feel a bit small at times, and the suspension of disbelief is stretched a bit thin, seeing as in a universe of billions upon billions it's never far between the familiar faces showing up seemingly by accident. But it works anyway. During the thirty hours it took me to reach London and the finale, my Shepard, "Vanilla John" as I like to call him, has been through some incredible things. Not only has he helped cure the thousand year old sterility plague which has kept the Krogan race subjugated for all that time, he has ended the threat of the geth, a race of sentient machines who decided to side with his enemy once to many and given the exiled quarians their planet back. He has also rekindled with whirlwind romance with Tali, the Russian-sounding quarian mechanic, fist bumped his way through his continuing bromance with Garrus, the rogue police-officer turned space-batman turned military strategist, and shared his hopes and fears for the future they're fighting for with gal-pal Liara, in addition to dozens of little events and scenes that make Mass Effect 3 one of the most memorable game experiences ever.
And then you get to the end. Those of you who saw my very spoilery comic strip on the subject will know more or less exactly how I feel about it.
It's really bad. Badly written, badly staged and such a sharp tonal shift I had to be examined for whiplash afterwards. It's horrendously bad. And I know bad fiction. I write bad fiction all the time, so I feel I can speak with authority on the subject. Basically, after fighting your way through London to get to a poorly defended space elevator, and being decimated by a Reaper laser, which also probably killed your teammates, you stumble up through the elevator to reach the big space maguffin (the crucible) which is apparently the only way of defeating the Reapers, the giant sentient space ships who are laying waste to all advanced organic species, you are suddenly taken on another, smaller magic space elevator, and set face to face with a little ghostly looking child in the familiar form of a human kid Shepard has been struggling with feelings of guilt for not being able to save in the beginning of the game.
The ghost child then tells you that he is the one controlling the Reapers. I had a bad feeling right there. If there is one sci-fi cliché I well and truly hate, it is when the main villain is introduced out of no-where literally in the last 10 minutes, just so he can cackle "it was me all along. MOHHAHAHA!" The ghost kid doesn't actually cackle, but he may as well have. Then the narrative starts sliding. The ghost offers you three choices on how to solve this conflict, to control the Reapers and die (don't ask), to destroy the Reapers and maybe die (again, don't ask), or to synthesize all sentient life in the galaxy into a single, organic/synthetic life form, to avoid an hypothesized conflict which is apparently the ghost's motivation ( what did I just tell you?)
I have to kill you to save you. Imagine that, another sci-fi trope I hate down to my very soul.
Oh, and by the way; picking any of these choices will demolish the mass relays, the ancient, mysterious superhighways which uphold the galactic infrastructure, rendering long distance space flight impossible. Why? Because space magic. A little aside: Is it just me who's concerned with the moral of the synthesis ending? Because it makes it seem like only way to avoid conflict is to stamp out any sign of individualism or diversity. That's communist and racist in one package!
Anyway, after being given these three choices, it is now the perfect time for Shepard to call on the strength of the considerable galactic fleet he has amassed to combat the Reapers to bomb the living shit out of the space station which the two of them are standing on, going down in a fiery blaze of glory, holding his middle finger high at the little shit how has the gall to give Shepard three stupid choices, which are all the same in the end anyway.
But no. Shepard can't do that. For three games and nearly a hundred hours, Shepard has defied the odds, and played by his own damn rules. But now, as he finally stands face to face with his enemy, he figures he'd rather not question the choices laid before him, and take whatever comes. And take it he does, no matter how much you as the player scream at him to sack up, and at the very least try to dig some clarity out of the little nonsense-spouting space spirit. You have to pick one of the three endings, which more or less boil down to which colour you want to destroy the universe with, blue, green or red. And if that wasn't silly enough, you get a little bonus scene where you see your crew racing across the galaxy in your space ship, going... somewhere. It's never made clear where they are going, but they get hit by the coloured shockwave you just triggered up in the crucible, and crash.
On a livable planet somewhere.
With no scorch trail behind the ship.
The door to the ship opens and out steps your pilot, who by the way suffers from brittle bone disease, and should have crumbled completely by the force of his ship falling out of the sky. Not content with that, however, you also find out that at least one of your teammates, who moments ago was being burned to death by a giant laser at the space elevator, was also somehow on the ship. And then they walk off. And that's how the game ends.
Actually, there is another scene after the credits, but it's just too much for me to go on about. I was devastated. There was no way the amazing adventure that was the Mass Effect trilogy could end this way. I thought I must have picked the wrong ending, so I spent the next hour playing through the other two, only to realize they were almost exactly the same. So where does the ending of Mass Effect leave us?
First of all, the mass relays are gone, so everyone is pretty much trapped where they were the moment the crucible fired its magic shockwave. Which is bad news for earth, given that pretty much every military space ship in the galaxy is orbiting it. Especially since it's been burned to cinder over the last few months. So as any student of history will tell you, this will lead to a war for the few resources that are left. All the aliens who are stranded, with no chance of ever seeing their homes again will turn on each other, and nearly finish the job the Reapers started.
Meanwhile, your crew, who lack the genetic diversity to create a new civilization, will have to languish on this unknown world they find themselves on for the rest of their lives with only each other for company, and an unknown access to sustenance. Cheerful stuff.
Mass Effect 3 is one of my favourite games of recent years. It is an absolutely fantastic game. But it leaves you utterly confused and depressed in the end. The ending veers hard away from any internal logic which has been established, it's difficult to believe the last 20 minutes are from the same game you've spent 30 hours with. The ending as it is, as I see it, is utterly broken, and I don't see any way it could be salvaged.
Still BioWare, bless their hearts, are going to try, submitting to the massive fan outrage the ending triggered, and announcing new, free DLC which is meant to offer more clarity and closure to the ending as it stands. I say this without snark or sarcasm: I think that is a good olive branch to those of us who loved so dearly and then hated so deeply. Despite my utter disdain for the ending, I never wanted them to change it after the fact, something a lot of fans did, and are still pissed off that they now definitely won't do. As an aspiring (read: failed) story-teller myself, I don't believe in narrative mulligans. You live with your decisions, no matter how much your audience hates you for it.
And that I can respect BioWare for. They are still my favourite video game developer, and I'll probably continue to buy their games. I just wish they hadn't fouled up the ending to the greatest space saga in a long time.