People have asked me: Why is the Mass Effect series – and particularly the ending of the third game – still such a sore topic with people? The game came out over two years ago, but you can rekindle the discussion anytime you want by just making an opinionated tweet or article. (I’d be surprised if it didn’t happen here, but keep in mind I’m trying to explain why people are still talking about this. I am not here to nitpick the hell out of the ending again. Please no.) Time has not healed these wounds and people are still debating it. Some people thought it was broken. Some people thought it was spectacular. And all this time later they still want to talk about it. It’s still a sore spot. A toothache. A splinter in the foot of gaming culture.
So why? Why is this still important to people and why do we keep coming back to it? Why is this argument so frustrating? Let’s dismiss a couple of explanations that get thrown around a lot:
It’s not because the ending was singularly terrible.
We’ve had bad endings before, and they never generated the kind of fervor we see here. BioShock, Knights of the Old Republic II, and Half-Life 2 are all titles were people manage to love the game in spite of a disappointing ending. In the case of KOTOR II, you have an ending that’s not even finished or coherent. Yet it still makes “best of” lists, and the people who love the game often readily acknowledge the problems with the ending.
It’s not because “nothing could have satisfied fans”.
We’ve seen plenty of overhyped properties fail in the face of public expectations. But hype doesn’t guarantee backlash. Based on the ecstatic squeals of joy I was hearing, I went into Octodad: Dadliest Catch expecting the funniest game since Portal 2. When I actually got my hands on it, I thought the game was kind of dull and annoying – far more fun to watch than to play. But I didn’t turn around and denounce the series as a personal betrayal and spend the next two months insisting that everyone else understand the depths of my disappointment.
Yes, raised expectations can lead to disappointment. But it doesn’t explain what happened here.
I think the real reason we can’t stop gnawing on this bone is because we’ve got a bunch of different groups of people talking past each other. Check it out:
1. The gameplay was modernized
Classic BioWare games owed a lot to the company’s RPG roots. Neverwinter Nights and KOTOR were real-time games with turn-based sensibilities. In KOTOR the action played out in real-time, but under the hood you were still queuing up “turns” in the classic tabletop sense. This kind of gameplay is very niche.
In contrast, Mass Effect 2 is very much a modern shooter with a light glaze of RPG mechanics. This isn’t just “more popular”, this is the industry standard, and as budgets ballooned games have needed to go for that bigger market just to stay alive. I don’t know if turn-based fans are willing to play action shooters, but I think the market shows pretty conclusively that the Gears of War and Uncharted crowd isn’t going to put up with stiff, janky shooting mechanics that are dominated by character stats instead of player skill.
Mass Effect represents an awkward bridge between the “old BioWare” RPG and “new BioWare” action game. It wasn’t number-crunchy enough to feel like an old-school RPG, but it wasn’t tightly skill-based enough to feel like a proper shooter. So it was a middling RPG and an atrocious action game.
BioWare won a lot of new fans when they revamped Mass Effect 2 to have more mainstream sensibilities. A lot of those new action fans either ignored the first game or, if they did give it a try, they were immediately repulsed by the terrible shooting mechanics.
So now we have this annoying side argument: When we talk about which games are “worse” or “better”, we’ve actually changed audiences going from the first game to the second. A huge portion of the fanbase never bothered finishing the first game. This creates a problem because…
2. The story changed genres
The first Mass Effect was a slow-paced, high-concept sci-fi opera. It was about world building. The game started at a human colony, and then used that as a launching point to bring the player into a strange new universe full of exotic aliens and fantastic technology. The humans seemed kind of small and unimportant in comparison. It has a very episodic structure, where each planet had a mystery for the heroes to unravel.
By the third game, all of that had changed. It was no longer a story about a scary new universe. It was now a story of the MOST IMPORTANT [WO]MAN IN THE GALAXY. Shepard wasn’t an insect, swept up in a storm of galactic politics. He was at the center of everything and the main villains (the Reapers) were personally interested in him. (Or her.) The secondary villains were entirely human, and they had all the best technology. Earth wasn’t a small village, it was the home to the most important person, site of the most important battle, and the linchpin of the entire galaxy. The plans for the Crucible – the most important artifact in the galaxy – were even found on Mars. A human ship led by a human hero fighting human terrorists at the behest of a human-controlled council to save the human home world from space robots that were suddenly obsessed with humans. Talk about anthropocentrism!
The game still had an episodic structure, but now the episodes revolve around the main character and their relationships. This is a classic hero’s journey story.
These two kinds of fiction are really different in terms of audience. Think Star Trek and Babylon 5 versus Star Wars and The Fifth Element. (Some people like to use “Science Fiction” versus “Science Fantasy”, but that always ends up in pointless debates about how scientifically plausible the technology is, which isn’t really the point.)
The important thing here is that we have a ton of stories where a singular hero saves to kingdom / world / galaxy, and very few games focused on high-concept world building. Most games are in a hurry to explain the universe so they can get on with their story, but we don’t have very many that use a story as an excuse to do a bunch of “strange new worlds” type exploration and world building. When Mass Effect moved its focus from the setting to the protagonist, it ditched a small but neglected niche in favor of telling yet another “hero saves the galaxy” story. The people who got ditched are still waiting for a replacement. It’s hard to move on because there’s nowhere else to go. Nobody else is doing this kind of thing in the AAA league. (And barely any indies. I can’t even think of any off the top of my head, although I’m sure you’ll remind me in the comments.)
3. Key information was DLC
When the original ending came out, it left people deeply confused. Okay, so maybe it’s supposed to be one of those mystery endings where you need to think about it? (Lots of people compared it to 2001: A Space Odyssey.) But at the end of the game you blow up all of the mass relays. (I REALLY hope you weren’t expecting spoiler tags in an article about the most-discussed ending in gaming.) If you played “The Arrival” DLC for Mass Effect 2, you might expect that each exploding relay is also destroying its host star system, thus wiping out the galaxy you just spent three games trying to set right. But if you didn’t get that DLC, then you won’t have any such impressions. We’re presented with an ambiguous event and our interpretation depends heavily on events that most players probably didn’t see. (With the added confusion that playing the DLC puts you more at odds with what the writers were trying to say. The more informed you are, the more nihilistic the ending looks.)
4. “Artistic integrity!”
Some people really thought that after three games and hundreds of hours of gameplay, they were entitled to a happy (or at least non-nihilistic) ending. Others didn’t need a happy ending, they just wanted the main character (and maybe their love interest) to survive. Other people didn’t care about Shepard, they just wanted to know how things turned out for the rest of the galaxy after making all those supposedly important choices. Everybody wanted something different and almost nobody got what they wanted, so we have this huge angry crowd all asking for different things.
You defend Mass Effect 1 because it’s the first and only game in years to offer a very specialized flavor of sci-fi, and someone else denounces it because they found the gameplay insufferable. You complain about the shift in tone, but most people didn’t notice the shift because they skipped the first game, or they didn’t really notice or care about the distinction. You try to untangle the ending, but that depends on DLC that other people may not have played or conversations with characters that didn’t exist in their game.
So that’s why this argument has such legs. It’s not just one argument, it’s a dozen different arguments, with multiple sides, all circling around and feeding into each other. It’s a giant fractal ouroboros debate where every side-topic is a tributary to another argument.
There’s no solving this. The Mass Effect 3 discussion is going to be with us for a long time. In fact, it probably won’t go away until someone steps in and tries to tell the kind of story Mass Effect 1 was aiming for. I wonder what Drew Karpyshyn is doing these days?