Mass Effect 3 – Some Things Are Inevitable

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Mass Effect 3 didn’t end how I wanted it to end.

Mass Effect 3’s ending left me unfulfilled.

Mass Effect 3’s ending stripped all choice and defiant agency away from me.

I think the ending to Mass Effect 3 was perfect at doing what it needed to do.

I think Mass Effect 3 was the perfect, tonally consistent ending for a series I love.

Mass Effect 3’s ending left me feeling defeated and unrewarded for my actions.

I think that’s important.

 

So, I realise right about now a very large majority of you are already planning to click away from this feature, if you have not done so already. Since the release of Mass Effect 3, vehement insistance that it is to be heralded as the ruination of a beloved franchise has been by far the most widespread opinion on how the trilogy ended. Suggest the ending was good, tonally consistent or even beautiful, and expect to be met with scoffs or derision. it’s not always an easy position for me to argue, but I want you to understand why I think Mass Effect 3’s ending is one of the most important endings to a video game that currently exists.

Still with me? Right. Let’s begin.

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Mass Effect as a series has a few central themes that tie together the multiple narratives it weaves, and first among them I would like to discuss the idea of beating impossible odds. Shepard and their team upon the Normandy are constantly presented with situations where a series of correct choices will do the impossible and do what is right for everyone. Moral choices are presented, but there is always a moral or mechanical right choice to make that will ensure harmony is balanced

From small scale choices leading to the life or death of Wrex, to larger scale choices that can lead to the success or failure of what is largely considered a gigantic suicide mission, Shepard is always told by both the narrative and gameplay mechanics that there is a way to do the impossible.

The ending to Mass Effect 3 is Shepard being told that they cannot always do the impossible.

Sometimes, there is no way to save everyone without cost.

Sometimes, no matter the choices you make, there is only one way things are going to end.

Some battles are futile, and you sometimes really do only have your intentions to separate you from everyone else who could have reached the position you find yourself in.

This ending should not have been a surprise to anyone truly invested in the narrative of the Mass Effect universe. Mass Effect 3 spends its entire length building up these themes, giving you situations whose outcomes vary less and less, with the moral reasoning behind them becoming more and more of a consistent factor in how you look back on the impact of your adventures.

Mass Effect 3 spent almost thirty hours building up goodbyes and resolutions, ready for you to go and face the fact that some situations just end one way. You may be heralded by the universe as a god, but you are still only human. There are limits to what you can change, and sometimes there are no easy answers to be found.

Sometime in life you’re put in situations where there is only one way things can play out, and all you can do is make sure you take control of your reasoning for the choices you make.

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Thematically, Mass Effect is a series heavily reliant on narratives around cycles. Cycles of birth and creation. Cycles of death and destruction. Cycles of violence and revenge. Cycles of love and redemption. From its very beginnings we understand the Reapers destroyed all life in the past. They plan to destroy us in the present. They plan to destroy any existence that flourishes after us. The ending to Mass Effect 3 is in every regard an ending thematically focused on those themes of breaking or perpetuating cycles.

Mass Effect is a series about breaking an unbroken ouroboros. We know where the cycle started. We know if we don’t end it, the next cycle will have to endure all the same hardships we faced.

As a narrative about the unending spiral sentient life is trapped in, I find it somewhat poignant that, much like the earlier discussed inevitability of our actions and their consequences, the breaking of an unbreakable spiral largely lead to a single place.

The only way to end that cycle was to break it. To break the cycle requires a new start. A new start can only lead on from the destruction of the old. No matter how you destroy the cycle, you’ll leave its end and start your new beginning from the same place. Once again, what is different is your intentions from that point onward.

Yes the ending might be three different coloured roads that take you to the same destination, but you know why you picked the road that you picked. You understand the meaning behind the choice you made, and ultimately that resolution is what is important.

You are faced with a chance to end the cycle. If you do so you’re making a moral choice. You’re understanding why you made it. You understand where that leaves the galaxy going forward for you.

And if you chose not to break the cycle? Well, Mass Effect 3 makes it very clear you’re just leaving this choice for someone else to make.

As much as is may not be the multitude of branches you’re used to, this is the series most telling moral choice.

This is the moral choice you make when nobody else is around.

This is the moral choice you make when there is no reward to doing what is popular.

This is the moral choice you make to set the direction that sentient life moves forward.

Life is going to be in one defined place five minutes from now. Ten years? The reasoning behind your choice is going to have wildly diverged existence.

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“But Laura”, I hear you ask, “Where was my resolution for the stories of those I left behind?”

“I wanted to see the impact of my choices on those I left behind”

“I deserve to see the consequences of my final action and how it effects those I love”

No, you don’t.

I have a couple of different issues with this argument that Mass Effect 3’s ending was flawed due to what it chose not to show. First of these issues, the whole point of the ending is that Shepard makes a choice about the fate of existence, knowing full well they won’t get to experience that future themselves. They are not choosing their own fate, they are choosing the fates of a world they never have to personally face again.

It’s a galaxy of faces they have cared for, loved and saved countless times, but it’s a galaxy they never have to, or get to, see again.

Shepard doesn’t get to see if they made the right choice.

Their only option is to make a decision, confident it’s the best choice they had available, and walk into the night comfortable with the uncertain choice they were forced to make.

Your only option is to make a decision, confident it’s the best choice you had available, and walk into the night comfortable with the uncertain choice you were forced to make.

Showing you how things played out following your choice defeats that entire thematic element.

Shepard didn’t get to see the consequences of their actions. They had to find peace with that.

You are Shepard.

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Lastly, and this is squarely aimed at those who got annoyed they didn’t “get a proper epilogue” where they could see what happens to their crew, did you not play the entire Mass Effect trilogy?

Mass Effect spends three lengthy games letting you get to know every member of your crew. Mass Effect spends three games allowing you to grow close to these characters and understand their motives, their desires and their personalities.

If you finished Mass Effect 3 and didn’t know exactly what every surviving crew member planned to do going forward in their lives, you did not play Mass Effect properly.

Mass Effect 3 as a game is entirely a series of goodbyes to characters, determining if they survive and what they plan to do with that life should it continue. Mass Effect 3 was the fucking epilogue you demanded.

 

Mass Effect 3’s ending is a very bitter ending. It’s an ending about truly impossible choices, the importance of intent, the breaking of cycles and the end of an adventure. It’s the story of someone having to make a choice with no right answer. A choice they will never see play out. A choice they will have to come to personal terms on, and make without ever being able to justify that intent to those left behind. It’s a story of needing to be so confident in your convictions that you can make a decision for every sentient being, comfortable they will understand why you made the choices you made.

 

Mass Effect 3 didn’t end how I wanted it to end.

Mass Effect 3’s ending left me unfulfilled.

Mass Effect 3’s ending stripped all choice and defiant agency away from me.

Mass Effect 3’s ending was the perfect, tonally consistent ending for a series I love.

Mass Effect 3’s ending left me feeling defeated and unrewarded for my actions.

I think that’s important.

I honestly believe any other ending would have been a disservice.

I think this is how sprawling artistic epics are meant to end.

 

13 thoughts on “Mass Effect 3 – Some Things Are Inevitable

  1. AMEN!!

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one that thought the ending was well done. A traditional “happy” ending would have been kind of disappointing.

    Also, it helped emphasize the importance of Shepherd’s journey over her ending.

  2. Personally (to put it simply because the arguments go on for hours and take too long to write), my issue with the ending has nothing to do with the actual resolution or lack thereof. My issue is that a sudden narrative shift that attempts to strong-arm a poorly developed Deus-Ex Machina into a story is insulting.

    There are major flaws in the logic of the things Catalyst says, and those flaws betray a lack of properly developed ending to the story. The fact that catalyst doesn’t suggest a fifth option of simply sending the reapers away and just seeing how it plays out; which would be the most logical answer to all of this mess based on what Catalyst has said over 10 minutes of circular dialogue is even more evidence of this. There is a huge false-dilemma fallacy here being perpetuated by bad writing due to the need to have *some kind* of a final ending. This is really terrible writing at its core.

    What I walk away thinking is that either Catalyst is a liar (decidedly not a good way to end your entire story franchise), or both Catalyst and Shepard are morons (also not a good way to end your story franchise).

    Regarding Laura’s point about not getting to know what happens after..personally I love that. I usually prefer being left with questions over answers; just don’t patronize me with some poorly slapped together pseudo-philosophy that doesn’t even support the experiences we’ve had in the previous two games.

  3. Presenting the player with an unchallengeable idiot expositor spouting obviously contradictory nonsense is not a meditation on futility, it’s a failure to create a coherent story. No satisfactory reason is given for anything the Reapers do, and so no satisfactory reason is given for the events of the entire trilogy. I never needed Shepard to win, I never needed to see every outcome, I never needed anything but for -something- to make sense. I gave up on the plot making sense after ME2, and ME3 makes no corrections. I gave up on Shepard’s role or actions making sense when Miranda called him “a bloody icon”. I gave up on the Council making sense when they inexplicably ignored the very idea of Reapers, after accepting them in ME1. Piece by piece, I gave up on anything that ME1 set up making any sense at all, until the only thing left to be rendered nonsense was the Reapers. Not even the Reapers themselves – they already stopped making sense – but what they were trying to do. What they were even for. And the ending failed to provide any understandable reason for their existence and actions, too!

    Stories need to make sense, even ones that don’t seem to. They need to have some decipherable meaning, some understandable chain of events bound into a whole, or be pointless. -Real life- has that, and real life is random. Mass Effect does not. And not for some defensible artistic reason. It tries and fails to make sense, and says nothing in its failure. It is an incoherent story. It’s a waste of my time, without the courtesy to tell me that before two hundred hours of games go by.

    Futility and loss and an unclear future was never, ever the problem. I am -all about- futility and loss and uncertainty. I only ever needed something to justify the plethora, the parade, the buffet of nonsense I’d put up with for the last two games. The ending failed to provide that. It was not the moment that Mass Effect was ruined, it was Mass Effect’s last chance to save itself from a ruin two games in the making. And it failed spectacularly! It failed so badly that people who hadn’t even noticed how little sense anything in that universe was making knew it was a failure! The ending is the crowning moment of shit, but it’s a crown worn by a shit golem that got started two games ago.

  4. You make some excellent points here, but the thing is that I played Mass Effect for escapism, not to be reminded of the harsh realities of life. You are absolutely correct in saying that life will constantly throw no-win scenarios at you and that dealing with them will be unpleasant, but that is exactly why I played Mass Effect, because up until the 3rd game there always was a perfect solution if you did everything right, even though everyone was doomsaying. So I respectfully disagree.

  5. We’ve already discussed this on twitter but I have more characters to explain my view here.

    I can see what you’re getting at and even agree with some of you points.

    BUT

    The problem i had with the ending is not the tone or the theme or what have you it was that it was just badly done. Allow me to elaborate!

    I’ve already said on the Twitters how the kid is just plain wrong about synthetics and organics living together is impossible and how not having the dialogue choice of “but a synthetic fleet is right outside fighting on the side of organics against you” or “but I’ve just watched a synthetic give it’s life for the sake of organics” both of which would have at least given Harby pause for thought if not completely undermined the entire premise for the actions of the reapers.

    The second one is how shepherd suddenly forgets how to shoot. If you choose destruction then you storm forwards shooting a pistol at a massive “thing”. I’d been a fucking SNIPER for the entire game and suddenly i can’t hit this huge target without having to be stood next to it? I should have been able to destroy it by shooting over Harby’s head. Or if you’re a biotic it’s even more ridiculous.

    What makes it even worse is the “indoctrination theory” was so much better an ending than the one we got.

    The reason it ruins the other games for me is that now when i play them and come to important choices it’s taken all gravity away from them. I can’t help but think “well it doesn’t matter if Wrex lives or dies or if i save the Rachni queen or not because it’ll have zero effect on what happens at the end anyway” Whatever you do in the first 2 games has absolutely no effect on what happens at the end of 3 and after telling us for 8 years that “your choices matter” to have them say “well actually no they don’t” at the end was a massively jarring change of tone that just doesn’t fit with the rest of the game.

    Obviously all this is imo but any one who disagrees is wrong. That’s how the internet works right? 😛

    Love and hugz
    Mike xx

    1. Ok so I say at the start I didn’t have a problem with the tone then say I had a problem with the tone. Hopefully no one will notice that…oh damn! >.<

  6. I see your points, but I still just disagree. The thing I’d really push back on is that Mass Effects 3’s ending is bitter and about impossible choices. My problem with the ending is that it left me completely emotionally cold, compared to the rest of the game which I was really invested in. And when people complain about the ending, and say they wanted more closure, I don’t think that it’s because they necessarily needed a satisfying ending, just one that actually spoke to them, whatever reasons they break down are rationalization.

    For me, and I suspect for a lot of other people who don’t like it, the ending to Mass Effect was frustrating because it ended in a way that many video games end. It’s a litany of things in sci-fi stories and games that I’ve seen before and am sick of. And it’s not just the story, it’s also the gameplay that lets the ending down.

    The last combat in the game is just a fight against the same enemies. There’s a long sequence of your character walking down a hallway slowly. At the end you’re confronted with what amounts to 3 buttons to choose your ending.

    You’re not going to pick the red ending if you care about Legion, and particularly not if you helped the geth and Quarians find peace. If you didn’t do that then the red choice is easy to pick.

    The blue ending is only bad because you just spent the whole previous scene arguing with the Illusive Man. Picking it is fine, it just feels incongruous with the previous sequence.

    The Green ending I have two problems with. One is kinda personal and silly, but the cartoon Beast Machines ended exactly that way, except it built to it much better. It was just distracting to me that Mass Effect was doing a worse job of exploring an idea than a kids cartoon from 12 years prior. More importantly I felt like it was the exact opposite of bitter unhappy ending. To me it was too neat and clean. It undermined the to hard work of the Quarians and Geth living together. It whitewashed over the racism and prejudice that were such a huge part of the series.

    Those are just nitpicks though. What matters is that by the end I was emotionally disengaged from the game and my choice between blue and green amounted to a coin flip. I don’t think I “deserved” closure with the game’s companions, but they are what i cared about, and I think that final sequence is weaker for their absence.

    Any frustrations I felt were at Bioware and EA for not crafting something on par with the ending sequence of Mass Effect 2. You’re right when say: “If you finished Mass Effect 3 and didn’t know exactly what every surviving crew member planned to do going forward in their lives, you did not play Mass Effect properly.” What I did and learned throughout the series are what matter, so don’t present me with an abstract choice at the end.

    One of, if not the best parts of Mass Effect 3 is Mordin’s death. That’s a sequence that you only get if you’ve made the choices that allow that moment to happen. The ending is much sloppier, where your choices are boiled down into a number that determines if you get access to all the choices or not, and it isn’t framed in a way where that makes narrative sense. It’s just a dumb video game ending.

    It’s not that Mass Effect 3’s ending isn’t for anyone, but it is for far fewer people than the rest of the series. It lacks the nuance and characters that make Mass Effect stand out from other video games and sci-fi stories.

    It’s particularly frustrating for players because the game so heavily pointed, through it’s structure, at a bigger version of Mass Effect 2’s ending. The kind of multi-step action puzzle sequence that really doesn’t exist in any other game. It’s not just about the ending we got, it was about the promise of something that only Mass Effect 3 was positioned to give us. Something no game has delivered in the years since. (Which I think is a big part of why this is still such a heady topic.) The ending we got is a much more straightforward piece of design and so regardless of how it works narratively, it’s disappointing on that level.

    The other idea that I’d push back on is when you say “You are Shepherd.” One of my big frustrations with the Mass Effect series is that it both wants you to identify with Shepherd, and cast her as our one true space savior, Space Jesus. I’m a dude playing a video game. For me, experiencing a story through a character’s eyes is very different than identifying with them. And particularly Mass Effect 3 does a lot of work to establish Shepherd as a distinct character. That character matters because you get to know the characters of the series mostly based on how they bounce off of her. Who Shepherd is doesn’t matter at the beginning of Mass Effect 1, but by 3 it does matter. You help shape your own idea of who she is, but that doesn’t make her you. But at the end of the game Shepherd doesn’t anymore, what matters is how you feel about how fiction should end.

    Many hard NES games leave you feeling defeated and unrewarded, there’s some value in that honestly, but I don’t think that’s how games should end. I love Mass Effect for the stories about its characters, and for the way it occasionally used its dialogue system inventively to craft and frame puzzles. The end of Mass Effect 3 didn’t give me any of that.

    I’m glad Mass Effect 3’s ending spoke to you in some way. It didn’t for me at all. It didn’t ruin the franchise, or spoil the time I spent with those games. It did greatly decrease my interest in replaying them though. I think they could have made a better ending, because of things like Mordin’s death and Mass Effect 2’s suicide mission.

    I enjoyed reading this article, but I still strongly disagree with you.

  7. Great read, Laura – I think this echoes my thoughts on the end of ME3 (although far better articulated than I could manage).

    I never felt the rage at the ending – even the “original” one – that many seemed to feel. By the end of the game, I felt exhausted, a bit numb – but not angry. The choice that I made at the end was entirely consistent with how I’d played “my” Shepard throughout the series, which was good enough for me – I was pretty satisfied with how it ended. That said, I’m not particularly good at the “role playing” bit of RPGs – I tend not to act out a character (other than that of universe-saving space marine), by which I mean the moral choices that I tend to make in these things are along the same lines as those I’d make in real life. Possibly my feelings would have been different if I was invested in creating a particular character out of Shepard but I don’t know.

    To be honest the worst thing for me was knowing that that was it as far as that story arc went – I don’t think I’ve ever got so into a game universe as with the Mass Effect trilogy, to the extent that it’s possibly my favourite Sci-Fi universe across any media, and I was just gutted for it to end, however it ended…

  8. This is an interesting point of view, and I hadn’t looked at it this way before. It’s been a long time since ME3 made its waves, and now that I’ve cooled off, it’s a good time to take a step back and assess the ending again. I can honestly say that I agree with what you’re saying here.

    I think the issue surrounding ME3’s ending comes from people being more concerned about their demands as gamers than their demands as Mass Effect fans. Video games always offer us the ability to do things perfectly and see rewards, because that sense of gratification is what makes video games so satisfying. Mass Effect has always been a story of impossible odds, and a story that’s meant to test your morals and entrust you to make the right choices without being thanked.

    I think that any ending other than the one we got could have easily betrayed the themes that make Mass Effect special.

  9. I have not played the extended ending, only the original.

    The main part of the ending, i.e. choosing the coloured path was fine by me. So was the destruction of pretty much everything. You can’t possibly bring down something that huge and not be affected by it.

    I chose a full Renegade run of all three games. I destroyed the enemy, and I believe I also destroyed all AI life forms. By any account, that makes my Sheppard a war-criminal. She did not deserve to walk out of that without a scratch. (Although going by the one-second teaser at the end, she survived…)

    What pissed me off was the non-sensical part with the Normandy afterwards. Where was it going? Why was it running away? Where was it running away to? Why weren’t they still in the fight? Why are my crew aboard when they were on earth with me a few minutes ago? What is going on?

    To quote Jim Sterling, that boiled my piss.

  10. I do like your interpretation of the ME3 ending and I’m not trying to invalidate the emotions you take from it, however, I think you’re giving BioWare way too much credit if you think they intended what you interpret from the ending. Even if they had, they did a poor job of it if they got as much of a backlash as they did and had to make additional content to “elaborate” on the ending.

    Might I also add if ME3’s ending is supposed to be a grand finale, why is there going to be another game baring the title of the series?

  11. Right on!

    I was actually confused when everyone came out bitching about the ending. Maybe it’s because I was genuinely in the role as my Shepard when I played it instead of some person playing as a person trying to make strategic choices. So when I got there…after the battle in London and like four Banshees Blitzing me while I’m trying to launch rockets at the reaper, and one last final charge at the citadel beam-me-up-scotty…and then with Anderson and the Illusive “FUCKING CERBERUS” Man… And the whole adventure too…I’d tried to get the Geth and the Quarians to co-operate but they wouldn’t…the Quarians said no to a peaceful solution and now they’re all but gone… And who knows if my decision to cure the Genophage would really be the right choice come a century from now, a millennium…

    I was so drained when I got up there and I’m like… “th-there’s more? What’s this? Oy vey…” and I’m looking at my three options. Control…merge…EXTERMINATE. Well…I’ve grown up on Star Trek and merge just seemed the most peaceful and just, it’s what Picard would have done, it’s what Kirk would have done. ANd so I’m walking slowly towards it but I stop.

    “What am I doing? WHAT AM I DOING!? I just spend the last 5 years of my life and something like 60 hours trying to stop the reapers and destroy them so they’d never hurt anyone again. I’ve lost Tali, I’ve lost Miranda, unfortunately Jacob is still alive for some god damned reason…I didn’t go through all of this to make nice!” and i turned my ass around and I stomped on up to the Destroy the Synthetics button. I said a brief sorry to EDI, but it was what had to be done. I don’t trust the reaper baby enough to choose the merge option, and this is what the mission always was; so I did it.

    I saved the fucking Galaxy. And i probably did it better than all the people who bitched and complained about the ending.

    So thank you for writing this, I’m glad there’s other people with some fucking sense about this great ending to this great trilogy that has actually become almost even with Star Trek in my mind of great pieces of Science Fiction.

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