WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS.
I know, I know. The topic of Mass Effect 3 — the ending specifically — has been beaten into the ground, debated and discussed, hashed out and argued. But let’s talk about it just one more time.
A few weeks ago, I talked about how I felt about the Mass Effect 3 ending in the greater context of story telling in video games. And how it kind of sucks. A couple of weeks later, myself and the rest of the team put our thoughts to rest in an episode of Powercast.
But here we are, nearly eight weeks since Mass Effect 3 was released, and discussions are still simmering in pockets all around the internet. Debates about indoctrination theories, explanations of plot holes, and speculation of the future abound. And ever since Bioware responded to the ending-hate with assurances of expanded ending DLC, the fanbase’s fervor has been reignited.
This is absolutely unprecedented in videogames. Never has a story enthralled players to the point of deeply discussing an ending weeks and months after the game’s release. I’m actually quite impressed that our favorite entertainment medium has crafted a story which facilitates as much discussion as Lost or Inception. It’s a sign of the medium’s growth and maturation towards something much more rewarding and expressive.
Now, when I offered my two cents on the ending, I said that while I had some big problems with it, overall I was fine. My big issue
stemmed from the lack of control and variety in the endings or how they play out. This opened up the floodgates for why I feel storytelling in videogames needs to change to better converge narrative with gameplay.
To be clear, I still strongly stand by this. In fact, in the time since that post, I’ve found myself seeking out games with more creative or gameplay-driven storylines. In my opinion, Mass Effect still falters in its execution, relying too much on cinematic practices and not enough on gameplay. But in my criticism of Mass Effect’s illusory decision-making, I overlooked something incredibly interesting: Bioware was playing into the constraints of the medium.
By playing into the illusion of choice, Bioware in fact used gaming’s greatest flaw in the Mass Effect 3’s favor. Instead of a cliche “you saved the world” ending, we got three wildly different end-scenarios. I say scenarios because all players saw practically the same cinematic, just different colors or prerendered clips inter-spliced. But all three possible outcomes (and every permutation within them) create wildly different outcomes for the future of the galaxy, Commander Shepard, and your crew. And before you bring up the plot holes or the random Normandy fate, consider this: your relationships with these characters came to a close throughout the entirety of Mass effect 3. The entire game is the ending, not just the last 20 minutes.
“More often than not, videogame endings don’t make us feel anything at all.”
And don’t forget, if indoctrination theory is right, none of this really matters after all.
For me, the “destruction” ending is the most plausible for my story, but that’s because I like the indoctrination theory. For others, synthesis may be ideal, and others still, control. There’s a choice there, and when you look at the ending from the point of view that “these people saved billions of years of life,” the fate of Commander Shepard and a few dozen crewmates ultimately becomes null in vastness of the universe.
And yet, extraordinarily powerful.
The work of one man (or woman) results in a shift that leads to change on a massive, galactic scale. NONE of us will ever cause such change. In that way, Commander Shepard makes quite possibly the most important decision ever posited to a videogame character: the cosmic fate of all organic life. While many have taken away the idea that the ending seems to say “nothing matters in the end,” I believe the opposite. Everything matters. Every choice creates a slightly different path which could lead to radically different outcomes for the three possible scenarios. We, as Shepard, are literally changing the face of the cosmos.
Carl Sagan would be proud.
Don’t get me wrong here: I wasn’t happy at the end, far from it in fact. I was sad. Whether or not Shepard lives or dies, there is massive, soul-crushing loss on such a large and unfathomable scale. But I like that the end didn’t make me happy. That doesn’t happen often in videogames. More often than not, videogame endings don’t make us feel anything at all.
Mass Effect 3 made us feel. We saw many of our favorite characters die, and watched as worlds were lost, and hope eroded. In spite all the positive change you bring to the galaxy, the loss of beloved characters is immediate and harsh. It’s not easy knowing that we can’t get a happy ending, but knowing the power our decisions wield in the face of such unfathomable odds is inspiring. And if it’s indoctrination theory, the door opens for innumerable possible outcomes each player could find for themselves. I love that idea. So much so in fact, I almost wish the expanded DLC wasn’t coming. I’ve decided my own ending, I don’t need Bioware to tell me how it all ends.
Sure, there are issues with the ending outside of just the choices and outcomes. And I don’t dig the reliance on cinematic tropes. But plot holes and space-magic aside, the ending of Mass Effect works. It makes sense thematically within the series and tone of the final game. Did I want a happier ending? I’m not sure. A part of me wants to say yes, but I know I wouldn’t be satisfied with that either. It’s an ending to a great story and series, nothing was going to be ideal. But no matter how dark it was, or how upset it made people, the ending sparked debates which have lasted weeks, and created an opportunity for personal interpretation usually reserved for literature and film, proof the stories in our medium are growing up. That’s an exciting and inspiring thought.