Warning: spoilers for Mass Effect 3 abound.
“There are many different endings. We wouldn’t do it any other way. How could you go through all three campaigns playing as your Shepard and then be forced into a bespoke ending that everyone gets? ”
-Michael Gamble, Producer, Mass Effect 3
“…it’s not like a classic game ending where everything is linear and you make a choice between a few things….”
-Casey Hudson, Executive Producer, Mass Effect 3
On Amazon.com right now, Mass Effect 3 – the final installment in BioWare’s trilogy of transhumanist space opera role-playing games – has an average review score of two stars, based on roughly 700 reviews. How is that possible, you might ask, when its predecessors in the series are – at bare minimum – lauded as well-constructed games that are beloved by a relatively large audience? How is it possible that BioWare, a developer so consistent that they’ve managed to earn a level of brand loyalty that is almost unheard of outside of a rare example like Nintendo?
It could be that the ending, which is not just the ending to one video game, but to a multi-game storyline that can easily eclipse 100 hours of play time (and that’s without considering the possibility of multiple playthroughs). This ending, right here (obviously, spoiler alerts on, folks):
Fans’ reactions are about what you’d expect: hyperactive howling that the for-profit company that makes their video game has betrayed them, loyalists clamoring to defend the endgame in the hope that defending it enough will fill up the void, and a small, strident corps of meta-apologists who have mobilized in an attempt over-analyze and theorize a sow’s ear into the silkiest of purses.
This is how fandom goes. I’ve like comic books and Star Wars since I could comprehend them both, so I know this rodeo, but Mass Effect is perhaps unique in this medium in that its particular brand of magic is how actively the games engage their players’ moralities. This is BioWare’s bailiwick (“Zaalbar, kill Mission”), but it’s a technique that became its most refined in the Mass Effect universe. There’s a price to pay for that level of intimacy with the player, though.
When I ragequit Final Fantasy XIII (‘just as the game was starting to get good’ after 30 hours of playtime spent walking in a straight line and listening to a dozen singularly unlikeable characters utter petulant, jargon-filled dialogue that was too-rarely interrupted by an interesting combat engine), I didn’t complain to the FTC that Square-Enix had lied to me. When Assassin’s Creed III was announced a few weeks back and confirmed to be set during the American Revolution, there was a susurrus of discontent over the absence of the familiar towering architecture of Italy and the Middle East; however, devoted fans didn’t raise $75,000 for charity in protest of the change.
In creating an unprecedented level of investment in its story, the Mass Effect team also created an unprecedented sense of ownership in that story among its fanbase. The negative reaction that so many players have had toward the game’s ending are as much about a perceived disconnect between the “bespoke ending” that caps the final confrontation in Mass Effect 3 and the narrative that each player has constructed, as played out in friendships, romances, the lines they chose to speak and the countless small choices they made that rippled through three separate games over five years.
The controversy also came at a ‘perfect storm’ moment informed by the ongoing Occupy protests and the new creative patronage economy that is being birthed by services like Kickstarter or IndieGoGo. We are now more empowered to demand redress for our slights than ever, for good or ill, and by virtue of Mass Effect 3‘s platinum-selling success, this is the first place we can observe that phenomenon writ large in fandom.
Game industry analyst Michael Pachter weighed in on the topic, predicting, “There will be no impact on Electronic Arts as a company unless they cave to the vocal minority and create an alternate ending. Then, consumers will learn that they are wimps, and will complain about ‘Madden NFL’ because their quarterback doesn’t throw the ball far enough.”
It doesn’t appear that BioWare has taken Pachter’s advice, though. Co-founder Ray Muzyka announced earlier today that the team is “hard at work on a number of game content initiatives that will help answer the questions, providing more clarity to those seeking further closure to their journey.” While that sounds like a victory, it also sounds like a very carefully public relations-authored turn of phrase (possibly filtered through Legal for good measure). It’s easy to assume that this means “they are going to re-do the ending,” it could just as easily be something completely different and, in fact, I think it will be. Indeed, the official Mass Effect Twitter account confirmed today that “we will release additional content to address questions, not necessarily alter anything.”
It’s not a victory for either side, but it promises to throttle the developing PR crisis or at least pank down some of the ugly hyperbole and personal attacks that angry fans have been lobbing at BioWare’s staff.
The relationship between BioWare and the fans right now is, honestly, a bit like a relationship from Mass Effect lore – specifically the salarians and the krogan or the quarians and the geth. This means nothing to you if you haven’t played through the games, and I apologize. I basically mean ‘adversarial’, though there’s a bit more nuance to it than that.
And this is actually a segue into my own thoughts about the game’s ending, albeit a clumsy one.
One of the themes that has been prevalent throughout the series has been control vs. free will. There’s this cycle where a civilization attempts to uplift another (or, in the case of the rachni, encounters something it doesn’t understand) and then backpedals into control and oppression when the latter becomes sufficiently advanced to be a threat. The salarians did it to the krogan. The entire galaxy did it to the rachni. The quarians did it to the geth. The protheans did it to basically everyone in the galaxy during their ascendancy and the Reapers, the gigantic machine-foes of the series, keep on doing it over and over again (and quite literally play on the control theme with their explicit ability to control minds and warp their captives into monsters.
Beyond even those external, violent conflicts, the theme of control vs. freedom informs everything – the Alliance’s political goals with the Citadel Council, Project: Lazarus, even the Normandy itself is a symbol of freedom (and that symbolism is made explicit in the third game). The sheer number of squad members that explicitly have serious issues with their parents and/or upbringings (Tali, Ashley, Liara, Jack, Miranda, Grunt, Wrex) is telling in this regard as well.
The theme is, in fact, built into the very mechanics of the games themselves – the player is free to affect numerous outcomes big and small by selecting different dialogue and triggering interrupt actions during conversations.
The other theme of the franchise has been that consequences come with freedom to choose. Throughout the series, Shepard is haunted by the squad member he chooses to sacrifice on Virmire. Compared to the ‘suicide mission’ at the end of Mass Effect 2, where it’s possible to achieve victory without losing a single life, the Virmire mission in Mass Effect explicitly forces the player to let a character die and makes you choose which one it will be (it actually does this twice during this mission – with Wrex at the outset and then with the explicit choice between Kaidan and Ashley later).
The major plot beats in Mass Effect 3 all play on these themes of control, free will and sacrifice and the toll it takes. However, it seems to abandon many of those themes in its final minutes, trading them instead for an insistence that the real conflict all along has been synthetic life versus organic life. There are possibly even playthroughs where this is a valid interpretation due to the player’s attitudes and choices involving characters like Legion and EDI and the geth. But any close examination of the franchise reveals that its themes go much deeper than a simple man/machine dichotomy.
Based on a flawed premise that the game, which will normally let me do all manner of things, will suddenly not let me refute or refuse, the player is given one final choice between either two or three options that are all equally unpalatable: commit genocide, do the same thing you just called the villain crazy for suggesting or a third option which is apparently ‘everybody becomes a cyborg’. You’ve already had a stupid boss fight and then survived a meat grinder of a combat mission to get to this point. The final conflict here is internal, and that’s a decision that I respect immensely.
The good thing about this ending is how completely immersive it is. I spend twenty minutes thinking about which option to choose. In a game about choice and consequence, the choices and consequences that my character had already experienced were at the top of my mind as I deliberated. In that regard, the ending is actually a huge success. Unfortunately, I feel so sideswiped by the events that frame my final action in the game that I also feel like I’m unable to make the choice; my hesitation comes in part from my rejection of its premises. I’m simultaneously being given agency to affect an entire galaxy and being placed on a rail toward something I don’t want to do. The sensation is vertigo-inducing.
More surreality during the final sequence comes from The Child explicitly explaining to Shepard what the consequences of his actions would be. This is perhaps the only time where the player does not potentially walk into a choice blind to its outcomes. For once the game is telling, not showing, the player and it not only feels out of place – it also plays havoc with the player’s decision. Or at least it did with mine.
This alien feeling is what gamers are reacting to when they reject the ending – it is so tonally different from the core game in so many different aesthetic and thematic ways that it does not feel ‘real’, and then followed as it is by an overly simplistic final movie and a bit of a platitude about how the stars are full of imagination or something and hey that’s Buzz Aldrin (following on the heels of his appearance in Transformers: Dark of the Moon).
There’s an argument that, if you’re a proponent of games as art, you should just take the experience you’re given without complaint. And it’s also true that over-entitled gamers are not necessarily ever worth pandering to. But conversely, if you’re an artist, why put your name on something so thoroughly mediocre? Why defend bad art?