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The Mass Effect 3 Endings: In The Eye Of The Beholder? Or, Do They Just Suck Vorcha Balls?

By Rob Payne | Think Pieces | March 23, 2012 |

By Rob Payne | Think Pieces | March 23, 2012 |

So, despite some of you not waiting until now, though I promised we’d get to it, let’s talk about what happens at the end of Mass Effect 3.

There have been a great many rumblings of overwhelming dissatisfaction with the final moments of this epic chapter in what turns out to be a mythic story. Hundreds of thousands of Mass Effect fans have joined forces in varying degrees to express their frustrations, and thankfully much of the consternation has been expressed with feedback that could actually help construct a “better” conclusion to the game and to Commander Shepard’s journey. In an unprecedented, if not unexpected, turn of events, Bioware, the developer behind each ME installment, has issued several public statements to the tune of “we hear you, please keep talking, we’re going to do our best to stop the bleeding and make the pain go away.” So far, though, the medi-gel hasn’t yet been applied.

Fans have complained so loudly and collectively that Bioware has announced that changes to the game’s ending(s) will definitely be coming, and they’ll say more next month about just what that means for fans and for the game. Most likely this will be in the form of downloadable content for Mass Effect 3; whether these “additional content initiatives” will be free of charge or paid is still unknown. Though, if Bioware knows what’s good for them, whatever happens to Commander Shepard and/or her friends and lovers won’t be anywhere near the cost of the launch-ready Prothean Artifact DLC.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around what happens on the Citadel, and after, so I think untangling the narrative threads of the various ME3 endings that have been tightly wrapped around Shepard’s neck might be a good exercise for us all. Naturally, that means SPOILERS, SPOILERS, and SPOILERS ahoy. If you want a spoiler-free exploration of this topic, I highly recommend Becky Chambers’ article on The Mary Sue - her review of the game is also pretty excellent. In fact, if you aren’t reading that site daily, anyway, you really ought to start. Not now, but right after this.

Okay, enough dilly-dallying. Let’s do this.

Earth. London. Months after the initial Reaper invasion. Commander Shepard has lead possibly her last mission into seeming futility. Nearly everybody she brought to the final battle is seemingly dead, dying, or incapacitated after Harbinger, Shepard’s Reaper nemesis from Mass Effect 2, has laid waste to the area surrounding a beam of light the machines use to transport humans to the Citadel, which now orbits our planet. Shepard, perhaps mortally wounded from the Reaper’s energy blast enters the light dazed, confused, and alone. It makes sense that there would be no time to check on the wounded or to see if her party might still be intact, or even if her love interest is still alive. It was a mad dash toward the light to begin with, and this is likely her very last chance to save the galaxy and everyone she cares about who might still draw breath. But while it makes contextual sense for Shepard’s last moments on Earth to be mysterious for her and the player, it doesn’t sit well with what happens next. Or, rather, what doesn’t happen.

Aboard the Citadel, Shepard discovers that her longtime commanding officer, Admiral Anderson, has made the trek, too. He’s in a different location, so as Shepard explores a heretofore unseen and unknown portion of the space station, you have what amounts to your final conversation with your oldest ally via radio communiqué. After Shepard and Anderson find each other, it isn’t long before the Illusive Man, the human enigma with one-too-many mechanical upgrades, ruins the reunion and uses his newfound abilities to force the Commander to shoot, and ostensibly murder, the Admiral. But if Shepard’s body is under control, Shepard’s mind is free (or seems to be), so she manages to talk the Illusive Man out of his insane plan of controlling the Reapers and into killing himself, instead. With the Illusive Man dead, Shepard is able to open the Citadel in time for the organic forces to put the Crucible - the supposed secret weapon to destroy the Reapers - in place and save the galaxy. Shepard and Anderson commiserate on their seeming success, and then quietly, bravely, Anderson dies.

If the game ended here, I don’t think nearly as many people would be remotely as upset as they currently are. There could have been some amazingly crafted cut scenes showing how the Citadel/Crucible worked together to disrupt Reaper chemistry or technology, essentially wiping them out, and having the fall-out of that action be the loss of A.I. tech, or the Mass Relays that connect star systems, or just the Citadel itself with Shepard onboard (or some combination) that was then epilogue’d with glimpses into the recovery after the war, showing who survived and who didn’t, and how Shepard’s decisions along the three games ultimately affected the future of the Milky Way.

But, of course, nothing Shepard does ever comes easy. There’s a hitch in the plan. Anderson dies and the Crucible and the Citadel are joined, but nothing happens. The pieces can’t make the final connection needed for the chain reaction to start. Shepard still needs the Catalyst, and this is where things get sticky.

The Catalyst has been Mass Effect 3’s biggest question mark. Leading up to the final assault on Earth, nobody is even sure what it is, much less what it does (besides knowing the definition of the word itself, I guess). According to what happens next, I’m pretty certain that the Catalyst isn’t a MacGuffin, but Commander Shepard herself. It could be the hyper-advanced V.I. similar to, but greater than, the one encountered at the end of the first Mass Effect, which has takes on the ghostly apparition of a little boy Shepard was unable to save at the very beginning of the game. But it makes more thematic sense for the Catalyst to be the Commander, especially since this digitized specter refers to itself as representing the Citadel’s brain-like construct - and that it is the real entity that has been controlling the Reapers’ cycle of organic destruction/salvation every 50,000 years for who-knows-how-long.

The “boy” explains that in order to save organic life, advanced civilization must be destroyed and cultivated in the form of the biomechanical Reapers, lest it destroy itself with unending war against synthetic life. Meanwhile less advanced cultures get to continue on (none the wiser) until they also get too big for their britches and create A.I. that rebels against them - like the Geth did with the Quorians when they felt their existence threatened. The plan, then, the Cycle of destruction, is merely an attempt to solve the problem of chaos. At least, that’s what the “boy” tells Shepard. There is certainly a logical fallacy at play here, but it is entirely possible that was done by design.

Of course, the game doesn’t explain what ancient galactic civilization the “boy” or the Citadel might represent, or who created “him” or the Reapers. And that’s one huge, glaring flaw that Bioware ought to have seen before sending the game out to the masses. Much like the Prothean V.I. on Ilos, the “boy” should have answered more questions than “he” raised. The fact that didn’t happen is bad, but not inexcusable - not every question needs an answer, but this particular plot point is too muddled for that to hold true here. The lack of resolution that follows this conversation only compounds the issue, making the “boy” almost as annoying (or more than, depending on your patience) as the Architect from Matrix Reloaded, and that’s the last thing you want in players’ minds.

In my original review, I commented briefly on the game’s finale, stating that I felt only one of the three available options justified the ambiguity Bioware tried to finesse. I’ll go ahead and say right now that I was referring to the “green” ending, the middle option that only becomes available to Shepard if the player has done enough throughout the course of the game to prepare your army, your crew, and yourself. In this ending, the completion of the Crucible can only happen if an organic life form joins with the Citadel, ostensibly downloading its essence into its hardware processes. The resulting increase in energy explodes out of the Citadel, destroying it and the Mass Relays but also synthesizing the DNA and coding of all organic and synthetic life forms into a single, unified species. Commander Shepard sacrifices herself to make this happen, saving not just Earth and her allies, but even the Reapers, from total annihilation. This is basically the Singularity that people like Ray Kurzweil are always predicting, and it worked for me because my Shepard always searched for that elusive “third way” politicians talk about incessantly but never find, and this, quite literally, presented that.

A sequence of shots following this shows the Normandy racing to beat the obliteration of the Mass Relays, but failing to do so, subsequently crash landing on an apparently uncharted world. The ship’s pilot, Joker steps out and surveys the land, only now he is glowing green with a Matrix-like code all over his skin, which is far better antecedent than a confusing old guy in a white room. He’s followed by EDI, the ship’s A.I. that was previously downloaded into a cybernetic body, and she is also exhibiting a Matrix-y condition. Immediately, it becomes obvious that they’re meant to represent a sort of Adam and Eve for this new species on this new planet, assuming Shepard didn’t squash their burgeoning relationship earlier in the game. Though it’s likely they weren’t the only survivors, since Liara, my Shepard’s love interest, soon emerged from the wreckage. While I’m invested enough to be jealous that she might have a child with anybody but my Shepard, I was happy to see that she survived, even fundamentally changed, to carry on in some fashion. The credits roll, and then there’s a subdued, quiet epilogue on that same planet - who knows how many years later - with a grandfather telling his grandchild about their mythical hero, The Shepard, and explaining the greater nature of the stars and the galaxies they see in the night sky.

So, there it was: my Shepard saved the galaxy by birthing a new species rather than take another, even synthetic, life. My Shepard, for all intents and purposes, was God. I certainly would have liked to see what became of everyone who may or may not have been on the Normandy after making that final decision, but I could live with knowing that my Shepard seeded the galaxy for future generations of peace. A little mystery here actually did go a long way, making that ending fairly resonant. Then I played out the other two endings.

Practically everything I just described above happens in almost exactly the same way with all three options. The other two that the “boy” presents Shepard amount to A) the “red” ending that destroys the Reapers, but also the Citadel and the Relays, forever altering the Milky Way and also killing every other A.I. (including EDI, and the Geth if they joined you), or B) the “blue” ending that controls the Reapers (by somehow?) and allows the Milky Way to stay basically the same but its inhabitants will now also have Reaper technology. “Red” would have been my ending of choice had I not had “green” available, because, simply, Shepard’s mission from Day One was to end the Reaper threat by any means necessary. If taking galactic civilization backward tens of thousands of years accomplished that, then so be it. At least life still has a chance. “Blue” was my last option, because while it sounds like the best of both worlds, I simply didn’t trust that “boy” or that anybody, even living-for-now legend Shepard, could control the Reapers indefinitely. Better to kill them all than risk the Cycle continuing later - a very similar logic I used to justify my last decision in the Geth v. Quorian ordeal.

This internal debate, between all three paths, is why I called the concluding choice of the Mass Effect trilogy “tantalizing.” Thinking about all the implications, and considering how all my past decisions would affect the galaxy’s future afterward, makes the question an irresistible one to see answered in all three aspects. I firmly believe the “green” ending is the only solution to the problem of chaos, at least in terms of the game world, but the other possible outcomes could have been even more interesting from a story perspective, if my prior actions had anything to say about it. But, other than theoretically, they do not.

We don’t get to see what happens when the Relays are destroyed or if Shepard really could control the Reapers forever. We don’t get to see who, besides whoever was in your party back on Earth, survives and who doesn’t. I’m pretty sure Tali, Garrus, and Wrex didn’t make it out in my game, but I don’t really know for sure. There was a gnarly explosion, but I never saw any bodies. For whatever reason, the Normandy is still trying to outrun the Relays’ destruction and still crash lands, and there’s still an epilogue about The Shepard myth and the stars, only everybody is still organic, or probably dead in EDI’s case. But there is absolutely no closure, not even a little, in the micro or the macro sense. And that really is a gorram travesty considering how much time and effort (by the players and the developers) went into making these relationships and characters meaningful. We made some damn big decisions, we ought to see how they turn out.

There’s an intriguing idea out there called “The Indoctrination Theory,” which tries to explicate the inexplicable ending of Mass Effect 3 with the premise that Commander Shepard, after being knocked out by Harbinger’s blast in London, had become indoctrinated by the Reapers. Which is to say, Shepard was under the enemies’ influence throughout everything I’ve described here. Why else would she say that the Illusive Man was “right” about controlling the Reapers? Why else would that choice, previously espoused by a mad man and now recommended by a synthetic creature seem like a good idea? Why else would Shepard’s main mission from Mass Effect to Mass Effect 2 to Mass Effect 3 - the one that has the noble Admiral Anderson as its spokesperson - suddenly be the renegade option? The “blue” and “red” colors may indeed be a major hint that something funny happened to Commander Shepard on her way to the Citadel. In which case, did Bioware have this planned the whole time? Do they already have DLC ready to go that will somehow clarify this point and give players, and Shepard, a fourth way to beat the Reapers and save the galaxy?

If so, that is one ballsy move for any storyteller, much less a company that lives and dies by the loyalty of its fans, which makes the controversy a pretty meta moment considering loyalty was the name of the game in ME2. I’m not sure I agree with it, on the face or as a good marketing strategy, though “Indoctrination Theory” does seem to have merits and does explain some inconsistencies. But that begs raises the question of why is there a third option to begin with? Is it just so multiplayer-averse completists like myself could have a reason to spend 40 hours on the game doing every possible mission and getting some kind of pay-off? That isn’t how Bioware usually rewards the hardcore gamer…

Thus. the “green” ending, I believe, is the real ending Bioware intended for Mass Effect 3, and the other two are actually failures to, in video game parlance, beat it. And that would be the developer’s biggest mistake of all. It’s fine for the gamemakers’ to have their own preferred ending, but if they’re going to give players multiple possible outcomes, they have also got to give them something different and unique for making the decisions they did. If we’re helping tell this story, and arguably we are, then we have to matter as much as whatever pre-determined narrative the writers originally set out to tell. Make the endings obviously terrible and tragic if you must, at least then there might be closure. But don’t make them the same. That only causes players to feel like hundreds of hours of choices were all for naught, despite what we’d been trained to expect from the earlier titles. How did that loss of perspective get past anyone in quality control?

I stand by my review, and I stand by the fact that one of Mass Effect 3’s endings really does work for the game, and as a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. I am not ashamed to admit that I really loved Mass Effect 3, or that I’ve started a second playthrough with another save file. The opening hours are already slightly altered based on what that Shepard did different from my other Shepard, and the possibilities (even if moot for now) are still tantalizing. The series is still amazing and it would still absolutely be worth playing even if we were stuck with the two failed climaxes. The journey really does matter, especially if its something that is arguably more enjoyable than many, many other forms of mass market entertainment. I don’t know, maybe I just like liking things.

That said, I’m eagerly awaiting to see what Bioware does next with this controversy. As satisfied as I am, I still want more. And I think even the most annoyed and derisive fans ultimately feel the same. Why else would they be so upset? That amount of passion and commitment, in and of itself, is an achievement that the developer hasn’t gotten the credit for which it’s earned. Seriously, good on ya, Bioware. You should be proud that you have the power to move legions.

Now show us why you still deserve it.

Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter @RobOfWar, and his ware can be purchased here (if you’re into that sort of thing). He thinks it is somewhat hilarious that this article has approximately 700 more words than the actual review.

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