Straight off the bat, if you’re think I’m kidding about spoilers, I’m not. If you still don’t know how the game ends, and you want to stay that way, click away now – but do come back and throw in your two cents when you’re done, ‘cause I can guarantee you’re going to have an opinion.
See you then.
However, if you’re still reading... let’s get down to it. There’s just no way of splitting hairs on the topic of Mass Effect 3’s ending. It’s triggered a massive amount of gamer rage; the thread about it on BioWare’s forums is essentially 39 pages of invective calling for BioWare to release a whole new ending. I simply cannot recall any media, let alone a game, getting so much hate.
Well, maybe the ending of Revenge of the Sith, but that’s a slightly different kettle of fish.
There are three main points that have got people pissed off, and while I can agree with some or part of them, taken as a whole I’m not sure I’m on board, and I’m even more certain I’m not going to go near the ever growing petitions and other campaigns to get BioWare to accede to player demands. But the issues are definitely worth discussing.
There’s no doubting that BioWare has outdone itself – almost literally – in terms of generating player engagement with its characters. In fact, the recurring theme through all the outrage comes down to one thing: “I can’t believe MY SHEPARD made all these choices and then gets screwed”.
Unless you’re really pushing hard to do every mission in the game, Shepard dies. Character death is one of the toughest things to pull off in a game; Halo: Reach did it beautifully, and the CoD series is lousy with dead PoV characters, but in neither of those instances do the players get to control their characters to the level of Mass Effect’s Commander.
After three games, and hundreds of hours of investment – and the aim of the game is to get you that involved – it’s hard to watch Shepard die. Similarly, it’s tough to see the galaxy you’ve fought so hard to preserve fundamentally altered by your actions. The destruction of the Mass Effect relays turns the ME universe into something almost unrecognisable. In other words... all that sacrifice, all that effort... and this is the best players can do.
The thing is, in theory, this is actually a very brave narrative choice. I salute the guys at BioWare for taking the game in this direction, and I wouldn’t change the overall direction. The execution, though... I’ll get to that later.
In terms of wider sci-fi cannon – in films, television and most especially books – Mass Effect’s ending is a classic trope. If you want to be harsh, you could almost call it a complete rip-off off the conclusion to Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy, where to conquer an existential threat humanity ends up losing star travel entirely. And even if you do consider Shepard’s solution to the Reaper threat a victory, he’s also not the first character to not have the opportunity to enjoy the good times – it’s not strictly SF, but that’s the whole point of Frodo’s story in The Lord of the Rings. After all, Shepard was never doing this for himself, but for others.
Rocks fall, people die – especially in military SF. The downbeat ending is a powerful narrative tool, and a perfectly valid one, but it’s one that is very hard to handle. It’s even possible that, on the whole, a lot of gamers just aren’t ready to experience it personally, especially when combined with the personal investment that BioWare’s enabled in Mass Effect.