Way back in the day, when I was a naive youth making my first steps into the world of blogging, I wrote about the ending of a story being one of the most critical parts of a narrative and how much damage a bad ending can do. Who knew I would have been predicting the fate of one of my favorite game series: Mass Effect 3. So for those of you who haven’t heard, the ending of Mass Effect 3 was so terrible that players have taken to the internet in a rage of tears and money. I’m not sure how it works exactly, but yes, people have donated over 70,000 dollars for Child’s Play to show just how bad they think the ending is. It has gotten to the point that it has actually been covered by the BBC, Amazon.com is now offering full refunds for Mass Effect 3 to assuage disgruntled customers, and has been extensively covered by a series of excellent articles on Forbes. That’s right, Bioware made such a bad ending that Forbes, a magazine about business and marketing, has been covering this disaster and highlighting the bad business practices. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a video game ending ever having that kind of impact before.
Which, in itself, is rather a huge accomplishment. I love Mass Effect and the universe Bioware created, and Mass Effect 3 was supposed to be the epic conclusion to the trilogy, and many others shared my love for the series. We wouldn’t all be up in arms if we didn’t love it. Unfortunately Bioware fumbled the ball at the 1 yard line. The entire game was awesome, a tribute to how meaningful and emotional a video game can be, and then in the last 5 minutes completely falls apart. It so utterly, and completely fails on every level that I can’t even list them all. Since I’m a writer, however, I’ll simply keep my critique of the ending to how it failed on a literary level and leave the gameplay/art design failures to be described by more qualified individuals. As you know, this blog usually publishes every other Thursday, but it isn’t a Thursday is it? The ending was so terrible I needed more time than usual to organize my own thoughts, and figure out how to describe the ending in less than 50,000 words.
Warning: I am about to spoil not only Mass Effect 3, but every other Mass Effect game in the trilogy. I’m going to be spoiling these things worse than I was spoiled in 24 years of being an only child…and let me tell, that’s spoiled.
First of all, let me introduce you all to the Dramatic Arc:
This is how most stories in the western world progress, name me a story and I can show you how it follows this pattern. Now there are some that break from this structure and are still incredible, but that takes exceptional storytelling skill and character development. For the most part, you either keep to this structure or end up with a story too incomprehensible and stilted to be enjoyable, especially if your story is following the Hero’s Journey. Commander Shepard has always followed the Hero’s Journey, in all three games. The Hero’s Journey is what Joseph Cambell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces first identified as being the core narrative structure of any character driven story. If you have interest in writing or stories, I highly recommend reading it as well as The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. For the purposes of this blog post, however, I’ll just use this picture as an illustration of the idea:
All three Mass Effect games have followed this pattern:
1. Ordinary World -
Mass Effect 1: Aboard the Normandy, briefing with Anderson
Mass Effect 2: Aboard the Normandy
Mass Effect 3: Earth
2. Call to Adventure
Mass Effect 1: Eden Prime mission, finding the Prothean Beacon
Mass Effect 2: Shepard’s Death/Rebirth, Cerberus station attack
Mass Effect 3: Reaper Attack on Earth
3. Refusing the Call
Mass Effect 1: The ending of the first Citadel Council meeting
Mass Effect 2: Shepard’s reluctance to work with Cerberus
Mass Effect 3: Shepard’s reluctance to leave Earth behind
4. Meeting the Mentor
Mass Effect 1: Meeting Anderson, and his giving you the leads to find evidence against Saren
Mass Effect 2: Meeting the Illusive Man, given mission to Freedom’s Progress
Mass Effect 3: Meeting Hackett, ordering you to Mars and to find allies
5. Crossing the Threshold
Mass Effect 1: Shepard becoming a Spectre, given command of the Normandy
Mass Effect 2: Mission to Freedom’s Progress
Mass Effect 3: Mars Mission
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
Mass Effect 1: Missions to Noveria, Feros and find Liara T’Soni
Mass Effect 2: Dossier Missions
Mass Effect 3: Missions to Palaven, Tuchanka, Sur’Kesh
Mass Effect 1: Landing on Virmire
Mass Effect 2: Collector Ship
Mass Effect 3: Landing on Thessia
8. Ordeal, Death and Rebirth
Mass Effect 1: Attacking Saren’s Base, Sacrificing Kaidan/Ashley, Meeting Sovereign
Mass Effect 2: Attacking the Collectors, finding out Prothean’s fate
Mass Effect 3: Reaching Temple on Thessia, watching Thessia’s destruction
9. Seizing the Sword
Mass Effect 1: Illos mission, meeting the Prothean VI
Mass Effect 2: Reaper IFF mission
Mass Effect 3: Cerberus Base
10. The Road Back
Mass Effect 1: The race to the Conduit
Mass Effect 2: Through the Omega 4 Relay
Mass Effect 3: Return to Earth, Sword Fleet Engagement
Mass Effect 1: Returning to the Citadel, Final battle with Saren/Sovereign
Mass Effect 2: Suicide Mission, Human Reaper fight
Mass Effect 3: Battle of London – Charge for the Beam, final Illusive Man confrontation
12. Return with the Elixir
Mass Effect 1: Foreknowledge of the Reaper Invasion
Mass Effect 2: Experienced Team and resources to fight Reapers, Collector Base if kept
Mass Effect 3: ????
It’s a credit to Bioware’s writing staff and game designers that many of these points along the Hero’s Journey are interchangeable, for instance it’s possible to do the Virmire mission in Mass Effect before you find Liara T’Soni, and this is possible because each mission is in and of itself a hero’s journey. However, for the most part, the Mass Effect series has stayed on the path of the Hero’s Journey, and as you’ve probably guessed, it’s not until the final stage that Mass Effect 3 unraveled.
Personally I’ve grown tired of people saying “You just hate it because it wasn’t a happy ending!” No, we hate it because it was an ending that failed on so many fundamental levels as to boggle the mind. We hate it because it made no sense in any context, and resulted in completely undermining the series we’d grown to love. There are so many things wrong here that I’m just going to pick the top three issues:
1. Introduction of New Elements and Characters
Imagine Frodo, dangling the One Ring, over the fiery chasm of Mt. Doom. He turns, and says, “The Ring is Mine!” and slips the One Ring onto his finger.
Suddenly he’s whisked into a universe contained inside the One Ring, an entire world trapped in the essence of the ring. He meets the Keeper of the Ring, an ethereal spirit who has dwelled within the ring since its creation and now Frodo must make the ultimate sacrifice. He has to become the ring, in order to destroy it.
How many people in the theater, watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy, would have stood up and said: “What the fuck is this shit?”
All of them, that’s how many, and do you know why? Because it introduces a new element that, by its very existence, shatters everything we, the audience, have come to understand about the world of Middle-Earth. If the Ring possesses a consciousness, why didn’t it destroy Sauron? Why is the Keeper of the Ring only now showing up when Frodo has put the Ring on before? Why does Frodo have to die to destroy it?
See throughout all three movies of Lord of the Rings we came to understand the universe, and how it worked; the rules and limits the characters were forced to work under. The Ring was a corrupting influence but could make the wearer invisible, it could only be destroyed in the fires of Mt. Doom, and Sauron created it. Suddenly introducing a new element, right at the end of the story, puts everything the audience knows into doubt including everything they enjoyed about the movie before the horrible ending came. That is exactly what happened with Mass Effect 3.
This is the Catalyst. Now throughout Mass Effect 3 there are plenty of mentions about the Catalyst, it’s the whole focus of the game, but never, never, was it foreshadowed as being some all-powerful Super AI. And even if Bioware had spent the entire game foreshadowing that fact, it still wouldn’t make up for the fact that the appearance of this character completely screws the rest of the preceding Mass Effect games by opening up plot holes so huge that they could be classified as quantum singularities. For instance, the Catalyst claims that the Reapers are his solution. So then why, in Mass Effect 1, did the Catalyst not simply call the Reapers himself? Why did Sovereign need to do it himself? In fact why was Sovereign even still in the Milky Way when the Catalyst could simply have monitored organic life himself and summoned the Reapers. Why did the Catalyst allow the Protheans to reprogram the Keepers?
You see, the existence of this Catalyst renders not only the entire ending of the game as pointless and confusing, but retroactively does the same thing to everything that’s come before. And I remind you, that this is in the final few moments of the game, on the Dramatic Arc I showed you, this is the Resolution. Bioware was supposed to be tying up loose ends here, resolving plot points and character arcs, not creating all new ones in the final few seconds. I’ve never seen a good story that managed to incorporate a last minute change like this and still be good. Even stories with twist endings, like The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense all foreshadow the twist in subtle ways so that when the twist comes we can look back and say “Oh yeah, now it all makes sense” rather than “that was such bullshit”. Just ask M Night Shyamalan what happens when you use twist endings without any previous foreshadowing.
I think the absolute worst part of the Catalyst is that it completely destroys the menace of the Reapers.
“You exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it.”
That is such a perfect line. It delivers so much menace in just 14 words…a single sentence. It sets the stakes for the protagonist, grants the villain a perfectly ominous entrance, and delivers real emotional weight to the situation. That is the kind of beautifully simplistic, yet artfully delivered line I hope I can come up with in one of my own stories someday. But enough fawning over that, the point is, the Reapers were damn good villains. In Mass Effect 1, Sovereign says “Each of us is a nation.” They are so far above us that it was frightening, the fact we didn’t know why the Reapers were exterminating advanced organic life every 50,000 years is what made it so scary. That was what made them a good villain. They were unknowable. And nobody was asking to know them. That was a question we absolutely didn’t need to know the answer to.
But then the AI God comes along and basically reveals they are the Terminators to his Skynet.
2. Abandoning of Established Themes and Characters
Not only does this entire scene completely discredit Shepard as a character, but it also represents a jarring shift in theme. The Mass Effect series explores several key themes: The attempts to stop the Reapers, a seemingly unstoppable force brought into play the idea of Self Determination vs Fate. Encounters with artificial life forms like Sentient AI’s and the synthetic Geth bring the question what constitutes life? Is life merely the end result of evolutionary forces, or is it a state of mind and being? Can Synthetic and Organic life coexist peacefully?
But the biggest one of all, is the idea that it is our differences that make us strong. This is what all three games explored, in one way or another. Mass Effect 1 was about getting the galaxy at large to recognize Humanity’s worth, to put aside their distrust of a new species, and in the end work together to stop Sovereign. ME2 had the player running around recruiting people of various races, beliefs and backgrounds, and to get those people to work together as a team. Finally this theme reached a galactic scale in ME3, as the player was tasked with creating a multiracial coalition to fight the Reapers and to put aside old grievances and suspicions, and work together for a common good. And in these horrible, final moments of Mass Effect 3, this key theme is brutally murdered, tossed into a woodchipper, and then fed to the hogs. I’m going to spare you the obtuse, over-wrought dialogue that the AI God spews, and just give you a brief rundown of what he says:
Yes, as stupid as it sounds, this is what the supposedly hyper-intelligent AI tells Shepard. According to the literal Deus Ex Machina we meet, he created the Reapers, a species of Synthetic life forms, to destroy all organic life every 50,000 years to prevent organics from creating synthetic life that will eventually kill organics. What kind of circular fucking logic is that? Is this AI stuck in some kind of feedback loop? It’s so impenetrably convoluted that it defies all attempts to try and rationalize it, so you know what? I’m not even going to try, I’m just going to let it sit there like the failure of basic human reasoning that it is, and let it think about what its done. [It has been pointed out that isn't what the Catalyst actually says, and I've addressed this issue in this post.]
And the stupidity just keeps snowballing as he presents us with three options:
1) Control the Reapers – The theme of Self Determination goes right out the window as we forcibly take control of a sentient species. Sure, they’re trying to kill us but it would have been nice to at least debate the merits here.
2)Merge Organic and Synthetic life - Remember the whole Strength through Diversity theme? This completely obliterates that by stating the only way to achieve lasting piece is to make everyone the same. Really? That’s what you think will achieve peace? I seem to remember another guy who had similar ideas. This is not only the most offensive option, but the one that makes the least sense. How exactly does this fusion take place? Why does Shepard need to die to activate it? Why is this horrible idea, akin to genocide, presented as the best possible option (it requires a 100% playthrough to get)?
3)Destroy the Reapers, but in doing so extinguish all Synthetic Life (including the Geth, your allies) – Of all the crappy options, this is the one that makes the most sense, in the same kind of way poking out one eye with a stick instead of both makes sense. So, we destroy the Reapers, and all Synthetic Life…but at least that makes some kind of sense, because killing the Reapers has always been the goal, and Shepard has been willing to sacrifice a lot to see it come to fruition. That’s his character.
A character that is viciously torn apart in the final moments of the game. Even though the players control Shepard, there are certain inalienable qualities to his character that are present whether the player chooses Paragon or Renegade options. Shepard has continually being going against all odds, succeeding where everyone expected failure. If someone told Shepard there were no options, he/she made their own god damn options. Throughout ME 1, everyone in a position of power insists that the Reapers are a myth, and that Shepard should ignore it. In ME2, he’s told his mission to stop the collectors is a suicide mission, and that no one will return. ME3 sees Shepard confronted with the very real possibility that nothing he does will be able to stop the Reapers as he watches them lay waste to Thessia. Yet in all these instances, he finds a way to persevere, to find new options, or to die in the attempt. He never, never accepts the inevitable nor does he simply accept what people tell him as the truth, especially when the galaxy is at stake.
Yet now Shepard goes completely against his character and accepts everything the AI is telling him, despite the mind boggling circular logic he employs. Shepard doesn’t look for another option, or even ask a single solitary question. I mean, not only is this against his character, it’s against human nature. If some mystical god thing landed in your backyard, said you have three options to make the world a better place, but you have to die to make it happen our first instinct would be to say: “Wait…what was that last part?” I mean sure, many of us would be willing to make the sacrifice if necessary, but I think we’d all want to know why we had to die before we did it. Apparently not Shepard, he just can’t wait to throw himself into an abyss:
3. Lack of Resolution
No, you’re not missing anything, that’s the entire ending of the game. No, no, not just the game. The series. The entire Mass Effect series ends with a 5 minute video. Now, I should point out that yes, this video does resolve the plot. Don’t look at me like that. I said it resolves the plot, I didn’t say it does it well. But the plot of the whole game was to stop the Reapers, which the video does in fact, show happening. Unfortunately, no one really gave a damn about the plot, it was all pretty standard to a space opera. What made Mass Effect special was the characters we met along the way.
As a wise friend recently told me: “No one gives a damn about events, it’s how they affect the characters that they care about.” And that is the biggest, most crippling issue the ending has. It goes from being about how the Reaper war has affected the people we care about, to a stupid event-driven cinematic. Sure, it sort of shows your crew crashing on an alien world (which just opens up even bigger plot holes), but there’s no sense of resolution from that 15 second clip they give you.
Many people who say they liked the ending Mass Effect 3 will often bring up the fact that the conversations with your crew before the final battle was our resolution. No, no it isn’t, and allow me to explain why.
Remember the Dramatic Arc?
Now let me walk you through that Arc in Mass Effect 3.
Yeah, once you get to London being incinerated you can pretty much just guess the rest. Now let’s go back to that Dramatic Arc, the above scene essentially operates as the Call to Arms or Inciting Incident, a devastating event that forces the main character to be separated from the life he knows and starts him out on his journey. Earth can’t stand alone against the might of the Reapers, and so Shepard leaves a burning Earth behind in order to gather allies and hope that a counter attack with the combined might of all the races can destroy the reapers, which moves us into Act 2: Frustration and Opposition in which the Rising Action portion of the arc begins. In order to secure these alliances, Shepard is forced to mediate disputes between various alien species, help other races secure their own borders, and search for a way to complete the Crucible, a weapon of Mass Destruction that Earth hopes can end the war. It’s this second act that is really the meat of the game, and it’s terrific, absolutely awesome. It stumbles here and there, but overall, I thought this was a brilliant piece of storytelling. It’s partly because this section is so damned good that makes the horrible ending even harder to bear, I think people would be less upset if the entire game had been terrible, because at least then you know the whole game is trash and throw it away. When it all happens in the last five minutes, it’s like being sucker punched in the gut. You want to replay the game because it was so amazing, but the foreknowledge of the terrible ending is always hanging over you like a guillotine.
Finally however, we move to Act 3: The Nightmare and the beginning of this act promises to be the most epic thing we, the gamer, have ever experienced as the fleet we gathered in Act 2 jumps into the Sol system ready to fight the Reapers to the last man. This is the Galaxy”s last gamble, everything has been thrown into this one final battle. The Crucible has been completed, requiring only a connection to the Citadel (a massive Reaper-built space station) in order to deploy and hopefully end the Reaper threat forever. The fate of humanity, and the rest of the galaxy, rest on this one last battle.
Shepard’s fleet punches a hole in the Reaper defenses, allowing him to land:
And this is where we run into our first snag in the ending. After a brief firefight in which Shepard disables some huge AA guns, he finds himself at a base where we are preparing for the last push to victory.The Citadel features five huge arms that normally stay open, but are currently closed to defend the station during the battle. In order to deploy the Crucible, Shepard has to fight his way through devastated London to a huge energy beam connecting the Citadel to the Reaper Base on the ground, once on board the Citadel he has to open the arms so the Crucible weapon ship can dock and deploy. This is all well and good, but before launching the mission, Shepard, or rather the player, has the option of talking to the squadmates we’ve grown to love over the last three games.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this in theory and indeed some of the dialogue in this section is some of the most powerful in the game. Unfortunately it seems Bioware made the mistake of shoe horning in resolution right in the middle of the rising action. See, on that chart up there, we haven’t quite reached the peak of the action yet and begun our trip to climax and resolution. Now I think, and I’m just guessing here, that these scenes were merely meant to convey that everyone knows they might die, and this could be the end of the road. People are exchanging final goodbyes, which is fine as long as you have resolution afterward.
This is the point where most people say “Hey, that’s your resolution right there!”
Oh really? Then what the hell was this:
And I suppose this was just a relaxing stroll through some daisies.
The whole point of the rising action is to slowly build up the tension until the reader/player/watcher is on the edge of his seat. Resolution is where writers gently begin letting the reader/player/watcher relax, and allow them to absorb the journey they just completed, relieving the tension created earlier and most importantly allow the characters to return to a more normal state. By trying to shoehorn the Resolution into the Rising Action, any calming effect the resolution might have had on us was completely lost when we dove back into the rising action with the Battle for London and the charge for the Citadel Beam, and the characters are all prepared to die and still in crisis mode. We were never given a chance to see how they have changed over the course of the game. That’s the big reason why so many people were left feeling unfulfilled at the ending, there was no opportunity for resolution with the characters we’ve grown to love. The plot line itself was resolved, albeit in a horrible illogical way, but it was at least resolved. With the characters, however, we’re left adrift in a sea of confusion and grief without any kind of resolution to throw us a lifeline.
How I Would Have Handled the Ending
There’s been a lot of sarcastic stuff floating around on internet, strangely enough from Game Review sites who you’d think would be most upset by this, that all the fans are looking for is a Animal House style ending sequence. While that would have been better than what we got, which was essentially a picture of Bioware’s middle finger next to a note to buy DLC, that’s not what resolution is. At least not in the way I’m meaning it.
I went into this game fully expecting an unhappy ending, because I just didn’t think there would be anyway to defeat the Reapers. I think fighting a futile hopeless battle would have been incredibly poignant, with Joker slamming the Normandy into Harbinger in the final moments, or a last stand by Garrus as he takes down fifty husks before finally being overrun, and finally Shepard fighting defiantly to the bitter end against a horde of Cannibals. The possibilities were endless. Even a sad ending, would allow resolution, because in those final few moments before the end we could see the characters we knew and loved defiant to the last, we would understand their fate and respect their sacrifice.
Resolution doesn’t mean let the audience walk away happy; many of the most critically acclaimed stories in the world have sad endings. The Epic of Gilgamesh ends with his best friend Enkidu dying, one of the oldest stories in the world. Resolution means allowing the audience to absorb the story they’ve just read/watched/played, and allow them to decompress before gently letting go. What Mass Effect 3 did was raise the tension and stakes to their highest point…and then suddenly deflate the whole thing.
We are the diver suffering from the bends after you reeled us up to the surface too damn quickly, Bioware.
My Thoughts on the Indoctrination Theory:
There’s been a popular theory that states that everything that happens after Shepard is hit by the beam is actually Shepard being indoctrinated, a form of mind control. You view the video here. Now there is a lot of evidence to support this theory, so much in fact, that I think that was the direction Bioware might have been going for. And you know what?
That would have been an amazing accomplishment. If they had pulled that off I would be down on my knees praising Bioware as the new Writing Gods, and I would be sacrificing my own manuscripts on a pagan altar built in their honor.
This would have been the gaming equivalent of the Unreliable Narrator, a literary technique where the narrator of the story lies to the reader. This would have taken that concept to the next level, because it would actually succeed in making the player betray himself. They would have indoctrinated us, the players! It would be an astounding achievement, one that would show the world the incredible possibilities of writing stories for an interactive media and would be studied for years. So it’s a shame that I think it came down to the cold, calculating methodology of corporate executives that killed this idea.
See there’s too much framework already in place to believe all the evidence put forward by the indoctrination theory is all coincidence. However, the fact of the matter is that what we got is being presented as the ending. If, by picking the destroy option, we had been greeted by Shepard waking up in the debris still on London and allowed to continue playing, I would be applauding Bioware so hard my hands would have been reduced to bone and fleshy pulp. And with all the bad publicity Bioware is getting, I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t just come out and tell us that this was the ace up their sleeve.
So here’s what I think happened. I think the writing team at Bioware originally had the indoctrination theory in mind, and the game designers were diligently creating all the subtle clues, preparing to pull of the most brilliant narrative effect in recent memory. Then they hit the wall…the wall of a looming deadline and rapidly shrinking money pile. Mass Effect 3 had already been delayed by three months, and properly incorporating the Indoctrination Theory into the game would have resulted in another delay. So someone without a shred of artistic integrity saw the ending sequence of the indoctrination and said “why not just make this the ending?” so they whipped up a half-baked closing cinematic, slapped it on the end and called it a day.
Further evidence that this decision was not made by the writers, is that none of them have come forth to defend the ending. Not a single solitary member of the Mass Effect 3 team has stepped forward to try and at least explain what the ending was about, plug the insanely huge plot holes left, or even apologize for so royally screwing up.
Of course that’s all speculation, but it seems the most likely scenario.
So Should They Change the Ending?
A lot of detractors of the Retake Mass Effect movement say that fans shouldn’t have any say in how the ending of story is told, and that those that complain about the ending are entitled brats. The phrase they like to pull out is artistic integrity. Even the co-founder of Bioware, Ray Muzyka, used this term artistic integrity to defend the ending in his statement. But allow me to counter:
No one with any artistic integrity would have let that absolute debacle of an ending be released. No one. The ending was so inexcusable on so many levels, that I can’t help but laugh at people’s attempts to defend it by calling it art. As if Art were not subject to ridicule and criticism.
Not only do I think they should change the ending, but if my above hypothesis on the Indoctrination Theory is right, they probably want to anyway.
However, Bioware is completely in their rights to keep the ending the way it is, just don’t expect me to like it.
Note: I’m overwhelmed by the huge amount of positive feedback this is getting. When I wrote this my blog usually averaged 100 views per day, and now I’ve accumulated 19,000 views in two days. I really appreciate everyone writing in and expressing their feelings on this subject. For those of you who have written in with questions or requests for me to elaborate further on certain points, I will do my best to answer these questions and may even write a follow up article to this one, illustrating other problems. I’ll try to respond to everyone as quickly as possible, so if you’re waiting on a response I’m not ignoring you, I’ve just received a lot of messages! Thanks again!
Note 2: I’ve been getting a lot of questions as to whether or not Bioware has responded to this article, or acknowledged that they’ve read it. I did tweet this article to Mass Effect’s twitter when I first wrote it, as well as Mike Gamble, but I never imagined this article would gain so much traction and I never attempted to reach Bioware by any other means. So while the answer is no, Bioware hasn’t responded, I haven’t really tried that hard to get their attention. I’ll be sending this article to them tomorrow, but everyone feel free to send Bioware the link, they’re bound to see one of them eventually. Maybe they’ll even be impressed enough to hire me. In the meantime, thanks again for everyone’s support, and I’ll keep you all updated.