(Mass Effect 3 spoilers in this article, inevitably)
If my mention of Mass Effect 3‘s ending in my ZP review felt a little brief, as if it were crowbarred in late in the writing stage, it’s because it bloody well was. One of my policies that I consider most important is to avoid reading other people’s reviews or getting a feel of popular opinion before I do my own review, ‘cos they might make me misremember my own opinion. Also it gives me a great excuse to spend most of my time lazing around not doing research or reading the gaming press. But even a man with his head trapped in an octopus would have found it impossible to avoid hearing the internet buzz around the Mass Effect 3 ending, which has been busily doing the adult equivalent of raping childhoods among its fanbase, and I felt I had to pay it some kind of service.
Mainly it’s the fanbase up in arms about this one. I have heard it said that the disappointment factor of the ending increases the more into the series you were, and it’s true that I’m not crazy about it. I like my sci fi a bit dirtier and full of characters with interesting flaws, and Shepard struck me as a boring emotionless ponce, even for a Bioware game. I’ve always thought it’d be interesting if there was a Mass Effect spin-off in which you play a scrappy, street-smart freelance mercenary type who’s looking after himself just to offer some juxtaposition to this bland, lofty galactic superhero out to save all organic life.
Anyway, the ending. And I guess the reasonable objection is that there’s very little that changes depending on how you’ve built your character or what major decisions and side quests you’ve made throughout the game and the series up to this point. Calm Shepard and Angry Shepard both end up making the same desperate suicidal charge to the Reaper transport beam – getting his nice hot pink armor blackened, upsettingly – meets the Reaper babysitter or whoever it was on the orbiting mothership and is given one last choice – again, unaffected by anything done previously – to pick the method by which the Reapers are pacified. But you basically get the same ending either way, and all that changes is the color of the magic space lasers that sort everything out. Pretty much everyone dies, the Mass Effect Relay is destroyed, preventing any future long-distance space travel and presumably stranding a massive variety of human and alien soldiers on post-apocalyptic Earth for what will probably be a very long, awkward series of Pictionary tournaments.
So was the objection that audiences wanted things to finish with multiple different outcomes? I can’t support them on that. I’m kind of cynical about the whole concept of multiple endings in storytelling. When you have a situation like in ME3 or Deus Ex: Human Revolution where the final ending depends on one last choice that one can easily reload and do again immediately afterwards it just makes the story feel like it doesn’t have an “official” ending at all. And the whole impact of an ending like ME3‘s where pretty much everyone dies depends on it being a very definite no-backsies turn of events.
Interactive storytelling is a tricky proposition but it is, at its heart, storytelling. Everything must eventually surrender to what kind of story the creator is trying to tell, and the ending is where that becomes apparent. I picture the Mass Effect story as a sort of eye-shape. You start off on the left at one single point and then it spreads out as it moves to the right as the various options and subplots are established, before they all come back together and meet at the far right in a single point again. Before we can say that Mass Effect has a shit ending we have to figure out what kind of story Mass Effect was trying to tell.
You could make a convincing argument that the ongoing theme of the Mass Effect series is the hopelessness of escaping from the terrifying cycle of existence. It’s constantly implied throughout the series that while the Reapers are, on the surface, a force of destruction devised to wipe out all organic life for no understandable reason, it may be the case that there’s some unavoidable, essential purpose to their actions. I believe it’s only in ME3 that they come right out and say that the Reapers exist to wipe out all advanced civilizations before they get too uppity and fuck everything up, leaving all the rock suckers and mouth breathers to fill the gap, and that this cycle has kept life in the universe in stable existence for longer than anyone can contemplate. The theme of inescapable cycles can be seen elsewhere in the series, such as the implication that ending the Krogan genophage will cause the Krogan wars to happen again.
Taking this as the series’ theme, the ending of ME3 makes sense. In fact, it would make even more sense if everyone had just gotten wiped the fuck out and the cycle is shown to start again. It would show that even Commander Shepard, a man with all the resources available to anyone in the universe, the greatest technology, the greatest minds and the greatest navies at his side, is powerless to overcome the inevitability of entropy. Alternatively Shepard could save everyone from the Reapers and the universe would immediately descend into the very apocalyptic infighting the Reapers were created to stop.
But I doubt the fanbase of Mass Effect were dismayed because they wanted an appropriate ending to the story. Rather, they wanted some kind of appropriate closure for the many-storied and I would argue unnecessarily lengthy process up to this point. Perhaps some epilogue where we get to see what all the characters we met along the way got up to after the events of the series, which I imagine would be easier if they hadn’t pretty much all been killed off. I’ve been given to understand that Bioware are talking about changing the ending under the massive pressure from the idiot fanbase, and I hope like hell they’re just talking about doing something like that, an epilogue appendix style thing just to square away the subplots.
Because it would set a horrible precedent if they’re serious about actually changing the ending in line with some kind of democratically agreed upon alternative, rather than merely expanding or adding to it. I’m not as incensed about this concept as Moviebob has been on Twitter lately, but I can definitely say it’s a bad idea. Because if it’s established that the creators of a story can be pressured by constant browbeating by the audience, then the sanctity of the creator’s original intention is made meaningless. The series will effectively have no ending, just a big gap with the words “Audience: Fill In Your Preferred Ending Here”. This may be a time of politically correct inclusion of all points of view, but sooner or later the cockheads of the world are just going to have to accept that there are people who know better than them. You know. People who don’t have cocks for heads.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.