Mass Effect has always been about choices and consequences, and pushed people to create their own 'Shepard', their own story. And people did just that, over the course of three games, raising their Shepard from the fresly-announced human Specter to the saviour of the Galaxy. Mass Effect 3, as the last game in the series, had to raise to high standards in order to fulfill a compelling finale to the saga. Sadly, if we are to fallow trending Youtube videos and Facebook posts there are a lot of complaints from fans about these endings.
Before we go further, unless it's not already clear, we will discuss Mass Effect 3 endings and as such, humongous spoilers. Read onwards at your own peril.
I will not go through a full list of endings and requirements, just the basics, Shepard fights his way on Earth to the Citadel, meets Anderson and the Illusive man, then arrives on the Crucible and chooses one of the three endings. One involves Shepard becoming one with the Reapers and then retreating the Reapers, one involves Shepard destroying all synthetic life, and the last involves mating synthetic with human life. Whatever he chooses the Mass Relays will be destroyed, and there will be two cutscenes, one with the Normandy on another planet, and another with an old man telling Shepard 'stories'.
Aside from that let's leave a few notes before we dig in:
- If the Effective Military Strenght is over 5000, and destroying the Reapers is chosen, Shepard can live, which is shown by a 5 second clip of his chest moving.
- Only in one of the endings, the ending where Shepard takes control of the Reapers, does the Citadel remain intact. In all others, it gets destroyed.
Now that we got the details out of the way, let's try and explain and understand all these endings, and finally, why are people dissapointed with them.
1) The Tone
Before anything else, the underlying issue with the ending was that it was put on the wrong tone and in the end, demanded too much of the player. We start the game with Earth being attacked by the evil nemesis Reapers and with Shepard leaving to find help. You spend most of the portion of the game, solving political issues, forging alliances and even deciding the fate of entire civilisations. You deal with choices about whether to allow the Krogan to live and wheter the Geth deserve a second chance. You are forced into a perspective where you have to think about the future of the galaxy after the Reapers versus your immediate need for allies. The player is also driven on a road where he sees that he needs to gain military strenght to allow him to fight the Reapers. As such, you start the final mission with a plan to fight your way through Earth to reach the Citadel, and there to activate the Crucible in order to destroy the Reapers, hoping to rely on your allies to push through and secure these goals.
Evreything you did, up to the final moment before you are lifted up to the Crucible, was 'earthly'. It was a palpable experience, grounded firmly in Shepard' 'work with what's in front of us' attitude. The game did not prepare the player to make those final choices, or give him enough information about what would happen. From the moment he first reached Earth till being lifted up to the Crucible, all he wanted and knew was that he had to get to the Citadel, activate the Crucible and then save the day by destroying the Reapers. As such, it was a leap from the earthly view that the game imposed on us, to the high-science-fiction of Synthesis for example.
The whole of the Mass Effect universe revolved around destroying the Reapers and surviving as a species. That has always been the goal. With the third instalment, the player gets focused on saving Earth. While the Galaxy as a whole also stands in the balance, the fight is particularily Earth-centered. So while we do have the option of destroying the Reapers, and all synthetic life in the universe, the entire Crucible sequence changes the focus from Earth to philosophical quandries, with the consequence to Earth being secondary.
While we can agree the game darked in atmosphere in it's late quarter, and that's ok, the problem was the the tone was wrong. The same endings, from the philosophical point of view, could have been done without resorting to little ghost kids that embody a mythical Catalyst, that mentions that whatever you want to do, you'll have to die.
To make a somewhat fitting comparation, it's like comparing Star Trek: Voyager with Star Trek: Deep Space 9. Voyager was a pretty gritty survival story that ended with the starship Voyager slamming through Borg defences and getting home. Deep Space 9 on the other hand, had a strong religious and mythical tone to it, and ended with Sisko joining the Prophets in the Celestial Temple.
What Mass Effect 3 did, in trying to provoke a grandeour to the finale, skipped the tone that was already established and forced the player into unfamiliar territory.
2) The Limiting Choices and their Consequences
The ending of Mass Effect had to do with the cycle of Order and Chaos, how organics are fated to fight with the synthetics they make, creating Chaos, and how Reapers are needed to restore Order to the Galaxy every ten thousand years. While the subject of synthetics was approched in Mass Effect 3 via the Geth-Quarian story-arc and via EDI, so the player could get an understanding of the issues at hand, there was almost no talk about the Reapers themselves. They were kept as a 'big bad' that needed to be destroyed, without delving too deep into the fact that they are also synthetic AI's. A part which was almost unspoken, but which in the end, played out quite a lot. Again, failure to properly prepare the player for what he was going to need to do.
Another fact that has annoyed fans was that no matter what the player chose, the Mass Relay gates were going to get destroyed. While the involvement of the Mass Effect gates has been hinted upon during the game, the fact that there does not exist a way for the gates to be preserved remains a stain on the quality of the experience. For people that think beyond the credits, losing the Mass Relays would stop any Galactic progress and effectively isolate all the galaxies, possibly forever. Also, this means that all the Fleets and all the allies you gathered would be literally stuck on a destroyed Earth, light-years from their people. The consequences of the destruction of the Mass Relays are in all cases, something that should be attached to 'bad' endings. It's also odd that the Citadel remains intact only in the ending where Shepard takes control of the Reapers. Why did this ending deserve another fate for the Citadel, especially since all the Mass Relays get destroyed no matter what?
In the end, the three choices provided, with their respective consequences, are not much of a choice at all. Life, in whatever form you choose, will still be divided by the huge gaps of space, and they will continue to eventually go to war on ever-increasing scales. Let's not even go into the fact that as we seen in Arrival, Mass Effect Relays explode into a supernova when they get destroyed, and take out the entire solar system where they are.
There is no ending where you can preserve your way of life as you've seen and had your Shepard experience, and that leads me on to the last point in this wall of text.
3) Your Shepard and player satisfaction
We play role-playing-games because we want to forge a character in a new world. We like to explore that world through the eyes of our characters, to experience it and to involve our characters in it. If Mass Effect did one thing, it was to make a story for your Shepard. The civilizations he saved and the civilizations he destroyed, the friends he lost to his enemies the friends he had to murder... they all play a part in the story of our character. It's sad to see that those stories ended up mattering for little in the end.
My Female Shepard was named Neon and she spent the better part of her years rallying forces, making allies, making sure civilizations and galactic peace were applied and would last even after the Reaper threat was contained. My Shepard had to kill two of her best companions to preserve her views on the world, and to make sure that the Galaxy would be safe. My Shepard also tried her best, and gave chances when they were deserved. She truly loved Kaidan all the way from the first Mass Effect, taking no romances in the second, and rekindling in the third. Her best friend was Garrus, the only one she could confide in with the secret of what really happened on Tuchanka, and she was so happy for him when he eventually got together with Tali.
What did all of that count for at the end of the Mass Effect series?
Leaving aside any developments in the endings, i cannot for the life of me understand how could Bioware not honor what we've done. Three quick flashes with characters when you're doing the ending choice cutscene does not honor our deeds in the game. What happened to the Krogans? With the crewmembes? With Earth?
When i finished the game, i just felt 'blank'. Returning to the point of tone, all the endings in the game felt like they transpired at a level way above what did before, and as such, those actions were meaningless... just a transport for us to reach this goal and do this ending.
The only minor comfort, that also seems like a huge plot-hole, is the fact that the team-members that you pick for the final mission somehow get safe on the Normandy. A Normandy which gets pushed out of a Relay jump and crashlands on a planet and which the crew seem to create a new civilisation for themselves.
Shepard did not fight for that. Show us an Earth that is rebuilding, races working together, show us that we did not do all that for nothing. We fought to save our race, and also all of the Galaxy, from extinction. We did not fight for whatever the game thinks we fought for.
There is no real closure, the player does not feel that he changed the galaxy for the better, that his actions had the positive impact he hoped. He is left with quite a bleak future ahead for all the universe, and without knowing what really became of his friends. He also did not feel any of the consequences of previous games coming back to bite him in the final choice.
To sum this point up, the player was left hanging, unsatisfied, and with a feeling of blank-ness.
4) Closing words
So, was this a fitting end to the Mass Effect series? Yes. And no. But it's the ending we got. To be fair, it's not the worse ending a game has ever had, but for a series that we've poured over hundreds of hours in and got emotionally invested in, we shold have gotten more.
My Shepard deserves it.