Friday, May 25, 2012

Some Words of Mouth on Mass Effect 3's Ending

It seems that it's impossible to discuss Mass Effect 3 without raising the issue of its ending. After the game was released, fan outcry over how the series ended was enormous, with letter writing campaigns, demands of apologies, and, perhaps most bizarre, people reporting EA to the Better Business Bureau for apparently selling them an unsatisfactory product. As of the time I write this article, the game's User Rating average on is 2.5/5 stars, with there being almost as many 1/5 star reviews as every other rating combined, and a great many of these reviews state that it was a 5/5 star game until the last 20 minutes, which ruined everything related to the series forever.

If you've read my reviews, you'll know I find number based ratings largely meaningless, but that still leaves me pretty dumbfounded to read. As I said in my own review, I find this backlash overblown, but I didn't want to discuss major spoilers in an article meant for people who hadn't played the game yet. So now, with that said, I want to discuss it in depth, both pros and cons. If you care about spoilers, don't read past this point.

The biggest complaint people have is that your choices in the story up to this point don't matter, and this is true. The ending you see is determined by one final choice at the last moment, of which there are three possible options (two if your Galactic Readiness rating is too low). Commander Shepard can choose to disseminate her consciousness throughout the Reaper collective and take direct control of them, destroy a control unit to cause a chain reaction that destroys the Reapers, or merge with the Citadel and release a burst of green energy that causes all living things to become half-organic, half-synthetic or something like that.

No matter what choices you've made up to this point, you're getting one of these three endings. This does disappoint me, but it in absolutely no way surprises me. Was anyone angry that Mass Effect 2 forced you to assault the Collector base in the end, rather than side with them? That would have been a pretty cool option to give people, but Bioware doesn't write these games as open ended as, say, Fallout New Vegas or Alpha Protocol. You don't choose which factions to side with. Choices you make affect substories as you're playing them, but very few have any kind of impact on the greater plot, aside from "This guy will fight for you now." Renegade or Paragon choices change some dialogue, but you can arbitrarily switch from one to the other without it really mattering, and 90% of Shepard's dialogue follows a neutral stance anyway. This is no Alpha Protocol, where the player essentially takes control of the story's tone. The Mass Effect series offers players a well written, well constructed illusion of freedom, and there are enough little changes to make multiple playthroughs less repetitive, but at no time did I ever truly feel that I was guiding the game's story.

I don't think that's automatically a good thing or a bad thing. It's a stylistic choice, and it's a consequence of planning a trilogy of stories with the same heroes. Yes, I would like to see the option of joining the Collectors in Mass Effect 2 or siding with the Illusive Man in 3, but that's not the kind of games these are. The ending reflects that design philosophy, in perhaps too blunt a way. Expressing disappointment is understandable, but expressing absolute fury says, to me, that you weren't paying close enough attention. It's one thing to be mad, it's another to make a crusade of it. I personally didn't think ME2 had a stellar ending either, though it certainly had a far, far better final mission.

I've seen complaints that EA lied to gamers, promising more endings than the game actually had, and that this is one of the justifications for threatening to sue them or take up complaints with the Better Business Bureau. I really don't feel that I should have to remind people that publishers almost always oversell a product when they have a hot brand, and nothing can ever live up to the heights of their promises. I personally don't put much stock in what EA has to say here. There's too much hype in the video game industry as it as; the sooner you learn to ignore it, or at least tread cautiously, the better off you'll be.

That said; There are much bigger issues to take with how EA published this game than "The number of endings isn't as high as they said." I don't approve of players having to play an online multiplayer mode in order to unlock an ending to a single player game, especially when said game is published by a company that is very willing to shut down multiplayer servers before their time (Edit: As of a recent update, you can now unlock the Synthesis ending without playing multiplayer). I don't approve of the most interesting character in the game being locked as Downloadable Content. I really dislike needing to sign into an EA account in addition to signing into the Playstation Network/Xbox Live. I've got a lot of beef with some of the decisions EA has made over the years (shuttering Pandemic Studios as they were releasing The Saboteur being my biggest grievance), but the fact that they overhyped a game is not one of them. I'm not saying you should defend them; I'm saying you should ignore them. Buying into corporate self-promotion isn't good for anyone.

The complaint about the ending that I most fully agree with is the fact that, even though the three endings offer philosophically distinct outcomes, they're almost visually identical. Shepard does her thing, and then a wave of energy erupts from the Citadel, saving some soldiers on Earth from a pair of Reapers before being shunted through the Mass Relays across the universe, destroying each one. The Normandy is caught in a shockwave and crash lands on an unknown planet, but the crew survives. The major difference is that if you control the Reapers, the shockwave is blue. Destory them, it's red. Synthesize yourself, it's green. That is remarkably lazy, and while I appreciate the content of the ending, Bioware chose to show it in a very unimaginative way. I think this deserves to be called out, but I think it's irrational for people to say it ruins the 30 hours of gameplay and story leading up to it if they enjoyed that prior content.

Those are the two big, technical flaws with this game's ending, and I agree that they're disappointing. I didn't let that ruin the great time I had with these games. If a bad ending ruined a series for me, I wouldn't be a Seinfeld fan today. You can and should express disappointment when storytelling doesn't live up to your expectations, but you should be able to temper those expectations and should be able to move on rather than starting a campaign to get your money back from EA.

The complaints that I fully disagree with involve the actual story content told in the ending, rather than its technical problems. This is not a happy ending; In two of the variations, Shepard loses her physical body and leaves this world. In the third, she may or may not survive, but she's probably not going to make it very far. In each ending, the Mass Relays are destroyed, cutting the galactic community off from one another. Without these machines, ships can no longer transport across great distances instantly, and massive new technology will need to be built to reunify this community. In this way, Shepard sacrifices the idea of family, one that she personally united, in order to save its individual members. Building a family is a major part of these games, and seeing that sacrificed was painful.

I've seen several complaints from players who wanted a happy ending. They didn't want to play through three games just to "die" in the end. An ending where Shepard gets a parade, becomes a millionaire, marries Liara and lives in a mansion would certainly be happy, but it would also be tonally disconnected from everything that came before it. Certainly not everyone who dislikes the ending wanted this, and I don't want to speak for every one of them, but it's not hard to find people who did. A celebratory ending would have been a betrayal of the game's tone and premise; this is a story about sacrificing everything you have in order to end genocide. I'm not sure there's a way to tell that story and have an "everyone lived happily ever after" ending.

I actually find Mass Effect 3's endings very thematically appropriate, and completely loyal to the game's narrative. The avatar of the Citadel who asks you to make your final choice comes out of left field and is poorly conceived, but the actual actions Shepard can choose to take are appropriate to the story Bioware has tried to tell. It gets a decent amount of foreshadowing on top of that. Mordin sacrificing his life in order to cure the Genophage, a disease that served as a slow death sentence for the Krogan people, directly mirrors Shepard sacrificing her own life to prevent the genocide being enacted by the Reapers. Legion disseminating his consciousness into the mechanical Geth race in order to create a lasting peace between them and the organic Quarians is an even more blatant mirror of the actions Shepard takes in two of the endings. The ending might not gel perfectly with the previous games, but it fits Mass Effect 3 itself very well, and I'm fine with the individual installments in a trilogy having distinct themes and goals from one another.

Right before the final choice, the nightmarish crawl towards the control center of the Citadel, littered with corpses of people captured by the Reapers for assimilation, is striking. The image is revolting, and it stuck with me in a way that gory scenes in games rarely do. Often, I complain about developers overusing gore for shock (or sometimes for no reason at all), but here, it's extremely effective. It's a very uncomfortable scene, made even more upsetting by the insectoid Keepers casually picking through remains while ignoring you. Shepard can barely walk by the time she reaches the control center, which directly calls to mind Snake's desperate crawl through Outer Haven at the end of Metal Gear Solid 4. However, the resolution of Shepard's story feels a lot gutsier than Snake's. It's not one that's going to make you feel good about yourself in the end, and that's ok.

Ultimately, whether I like the ending or not (I do, on a story level, and I do not, on a design level), the journey is worth more than the destination. I very much enjoyed the time I spent exploring the world of Mass Effect, whether that exploration had any ultimate consequence or not. Frankly, the universe doesn't care whether you chose to sleep with Garrus or Liara, and I think that's fine. There's no coda explaining the fates of your individual crewmembers at the end, as we saw in Fallout New Vegas and other games, but while I'd like to see where my buddies end up, I'm ok with that. This story is Shepard's story, and her role is over.

Bioware has announced that they're going to be releasing an expanded ending as a free, downloadable update. I'm conflicted on this. If a new, happier ending is added, I'll be angry (but not litigious) at Bioware for caving to the demands of fans instead of maintaining artistic integrity (and in a way, they already caved to overzealous fans by giving the third game in the series cheesecakier female character designs than ever before). "Artistic integrity" doesn't imply that what they originally produced is perfect, but I'm not a fan of changing the tone of a story to appease fans, even if the original tone is terrible. Stick to your guns, and if you produce something bad, take the hit and move on to better things next time.

If they simply change the visuals of the endings to make them all distinct, while leaving the story as it is, I'm fine with that. If they add a coda telling us that Garrus opened a bar on the beach on the jungle planet the Normandy crashed on, I'd accept it, but it's still not really necessary. Shepard's book closes as Mass Effect 3 comes to an end, and I think that's fine. I fully believe that there will be an inevitable Mass Effect 4: The Search for Shep, but I would rather Bioware go in a different direction if they want to continue exploring this universe. Or, they could do what I really want them to do, and just develop an official Star Trek game using Mass Effect's gameplay.

Update: 6/27/12
Bioware has released the Extended Cut as a free download, expanding the three existing endings and adding a fourth. I still don't think it was necessary, but I like the new ending even if it's a bigger downer than any of the others (and fans taking it as a direct insult are hilarious), and I like the expanded content of the existing endings. They've been visually revamped to not all look exactly the same, which is the most important part. The actual story content is, for the most part, unchanged, but additional dialogue has been added to clarify what happened. The Control ending is a lot creepier now, in spite of plot-wise being effectively the same thing as before. I'm glad they didn't go the cheap route and just throw in an "everyone lived happily ever after and everything is perfect and nothing weird happens to anyone" ending. I am very amused that there actually IS a slide in the coda showing a certain character enjoying drinks on the beach. It's not Garrus, unfortunately.

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