The Subtle Brilliance of Mass Effect 3’s Terrible Ending

I haven’t played Mass Effect Andromeda, but I did finish Mass Effect 3 about four years ago. So here’s a post about that game. I think after the sour taste of Andromeda, everyone’s kind of nostalgic about ME3. And for good reason! It’s a good game! “Shame about that ending though,” all the angry nerds say. Obviously, I disagree.

So, first, I have to acknowledge that it’s not a brilliant ending, and I can definitely see why it arouses such intense emotion. Here’s the thing though. Everyone is wrong and I’m right and here’s why. Basically, as far as I can tell, the internet’s had three major beefs with the ending: it had some serious plot holes, it didn’t explain what actually happened and it robbed the players of control. I think this sums up the main criticisms fairly well, so for the rest of this post I’m going to systematically go through why they are wrong.

From now on, I’m going to assume you not only have played the game, but have intimate knowledge of the complicated lore. So, you know, spoilers I guess.

First of all, I’m going to point out that plotting is Mass Effect at its least defensible. Not going to lie, the ending had some serious plot holes. Let’s move on.

This is not the impression I get from the internet. From what I can understand, the weak plot is actually most people’s smallest problem with the ending. And I can see why. As a work of fiction Mass Effect, brilliant though it may be, is clearly within the mainstream storytelling tradition. As such, it contains two core mainstream values: clarity and agency. What do I mean by these? So clarity just means we are always fully aware of what’s happening at all times. In Mass Effect, we are always told what our choices are, whether those choices are good or evil and we later find out what consequences our choices have. I mean, they even clearly mark the good choice with nice blue text and the evil choice with evil red text. And if it’s not immediately clear what the consequences for our options are, up until the ending, everything we have played has assured us that it will be at some point.As for agency, this is expressed in two ways. We have clear control over Shepard whose actions in turn have consequences throughout the universe. This makes for some powerful gameplay moments when you realize, for example, that choices you made in the first game have had an impact in the third game. The main reason the series ending get’s so much hate is because it betrays –or subverts – both these principles.

The fans expected something like the ending to Mass Effect two. In many ways, the final sequence of Mass Effect 2, the suicide mission, is the culmination of mainstream storytelling in videogames. The player makes clearly defined choices and these clearly defined choices have clearly defined outcomes. Clarity and agency in perfect tandem. There’s even a flow chart of all the possible outcomes. Google it. I want to be clear that this isn’t a knock on the game. There’s nothing wrong with being mainstream. In fact, the game is very satisfying, especially if you manage to get everyone through alive. Which, I mean, not to brag, but I totally did. You get the sense that your choices matter, and in this galaxy, you, a single person can still make a difference. It’s a powerful feeling and it explains why the Mass Effect 2 was so popular.

The ending to Mass Effect 3 is the exact opposite of that. Here we are, at the Citadel, all hope gone, the world seemingly about to end. And… that’s it. Suddenly our choices don’t seem to matter. Depending on how many galactic forces we have assembled, the outcome may change slightly, but not in any radical way. We are given a choice, but it’s a strange one. Control the reapers. Destroy all technology. Synthesis. We are used to a clear binary good/bad, but here the game resolutely refuses to give us any hints about which choice is right. In fact, none of the choices seem very satisfying. And it gets worse because the game, again, refuses to tell us what has happened. A cascading energy source travels throughout the galaxy. The Mass Relays are destroyed. But what does it mean? The game doesn’t tell us. Where does the Normany land? The game doesn’t tell us. What the hell is going on? The game, maddeningly, doesn’t tell us.

Adding more salt to an already frustrating insult-wound is the fact that, no matter what choice you make, the cinematics are practically identical. There’s no clarity, because, what the hell just happened? And there’s no agency because all the endings are pretty much the same, Shepard has some agency, but the player’s agency seems invalidated. What all of this adds up to is an ending that is precisely what no one would expect. A total rug-pul. Everything about the series has been telling us this is a mainstream product. It’s a game with a multi-million dollar budget with amazing graphics published by EA. So it’s no wonder that fans are upset with the ending for jettisoning these principles.

But they’re wrong. Whether it was intentional or not (and it almost certainly wasn’t), the ending of Mass Effect ends up being savagely brilliant. No matter how hard we try, the game says, some things in life can’t be changed. Some choices don’t matter, sometimes good and bad aren’t easily distinguishable and sometimes we don’t know what the consequence of our choices are. It’s a hard lesson, made harsher because we don’t see it coming. In fact, it’s almost kind of nihilist. But this is what life is like sometimes. It’s a wonderfully daring stunt to pull off, especially in such a high-profile game as Mass Effect and it’s more than a little disappointing that the response was so overwhelmingly negative that we probably won’t see anything else like it in an EA game again.

Oh well. For what it’s worth, Mass Effect, I didn’t hate you.

3 thoughts on “The Subtle Brilliance of Mass Effect 3’s Terrible Ending”

  1. I didn’t hate the ending but I gather that I got their revised ending after the public outcry so while I was perfectly ambivalent, I’m aware it was probably worse for those first players.

    I disagree with this being savagely brilliant, if that were the effect they were going for they could have pulled it off so much better, in a much more raw and devastating way then the same sequence three times but tinged a different colour.

    But I don’t lay much blame at the game-makers feet, they had an impossible amount of expectation to live up to, creating a galaxy levelling threat that surpassed the first two, with new gaming engines and still allowing the player to clean it up. They did their best, and I disagree with their choices, and THAT is life.

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