WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR MASS EFFECT 3
There has been a trend among games media to misunderstand the fans complaints about the ending to Mass Effect 3. They’ve created a false narrative where they say the fans want a “happy ending”. This is not the case, and grossly misrepresents the major issues with the end of Mass Effect 3.
Most fans would be happy with a simple ending where it recaps what happens to each of the crew, like Bioware did in Dragon Age Origins or Jade Empire. The fans just do not want the weakest type of ending in the world. One that Greeks used because they were just starting to invent plays 5000 years ago. The Deus Ex Machina. (“god out of the machine”) is a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. The Deus Ex Machina is the single worst plot device you can inflict on fans. It’s basically an admission by the writer that “shit, I don’t know how to end this in a way that makes sense, so I’m just going to pull some shit out of my ass”.
The amazing thing about Mass Effect is how you shape the story of Commander Shepard. Mass Effect can be a vastly different experience depending on what choices you make throughout the games.
If I wanted to end ME2 with everyone surviving and living to go on happy adventures down the road, I got to do that.
If I wanted it to be a tragic story where most of Shepard’s friends from ME1 and ME2 don’t make it through the suicide mission, I could do that too.
Hell, If I wanted to be a royally incompetent Shepard and literally suicide so hard at the end of ME2 that I manage to prematurely end the trilogy in the sequel, I could even do that.
But in Mass Effect 3, the end doesn’t even finish with particular relevance to what you did except for the basic idea of the Crucible.
Shepard’s crew, the people who have followed Shepard to hell and back in ME2, abandon Shepard at the last moment without explanation (I thought they were killed by Harbinger’s beam and spent time looking for their bodies). The elevator thing brings you up to the Citadel orbiting around Earth and then a holo-kid AI comes out of nowhere and basically tells you, “Hi, I’m the one behind everything that has happened, now go ahead, pick any ending you want and we’ll show you a palette swapped FMV.”
Shepard, whose single most defining characteristic through the series has been his refusal to give in to anything except his own honour and/or good sense, mutely agrees to the AI and the Reapers ideas without challenging or questioning them. And in the end, the choices you’ve made throughout the past three games are completely irrelevant. Nothing about the ending is a consequence of your past choices and actions, and you can get any ending you want regardless. To add an extra layer of insult on top of that, the 3 endings are all basically the same, only the energy signature of the crucible has a different colour.
I’m personally not so much puzzled that it’s not a perfect ending, I can deal with a bad ending. Hell I’ve sat through the ending of Metal Gear Solid 2 five times now, and I still love that game. What truly baffles me about ME3 is how lazy an ending it is. You’re left with a “choose you own ending” mechanic that directly contradicts the narrative and gameplay mechanics Bioware established for three whole games. As a game designer, after carefully crafting and establishing the mechanics of a game, I would have fought a decision like that ending until my dying breath. Considering how much attention to detail Bioware likes to put into their games, I can’t comprehend how this could have happened.
I’m fine with an ending that isn’t happy. Most people complaining are not looking for a happy ending. It’s a desire for a thematically appropriate ending that is in keeping with the rest of the series.
The thing that frustrates me the most is that the resources are already in game for the best ending that any gaming series ever had. A true Clint Eastwood style genuinely bittersweet ending.
All they needed to do was after the conversation with the Illusive Man, you see the scene with Shepard and his mentor Admiral Anderson, both gravely wounded. You get either no conversation with Anderson, the in-game conversation with Anderson, or the extended conversation if you’ve essentially maxed out your Reputation. Then you show Anderson dead, and Shepard slowly dying alone but smiling in victory, the Crucible docking with the Citadel, and then detonating to destroy the Reapers. If your Effective Military Strength (EMS) is below 3000, the Reapers die, the relays are destroyed, and Earth is destroyed. If your EMS is above 3000 but below 4000, the Reapers die, earth is destroyed, and the relays are intact. If you’re above 5000, the Reapers die, but Earth and the relays are intact.
It basically comes down to how well the fleet was able to build the device and protect it, a direct result of your own actions as Shepard. In all endings, Shepard dies. There’s basically everything you need to make that ending with existing resources, and it would have given Shepard a great ending.
But it didn’t happen. Bioware somehow managed to create an amazing saga that spans three games, with a level of narrative depth unheard of in gaming, only to completely drop the ball in the last 30 minutes. How did this happen?