Years ago, Bioware’s Mass Effect series set out to be the Star Wars or Star Trek of video games by creating a galaxy teeming with different species, rich with history, conflict, and politics. For the most part, they succeeded, but as the dust settles around Mass Effect 3 (ME3), there’s a rising voice of indignation against the way Bioware chose to end its series.
There’s even a group called Retake Mass Effect which is donating large amounts of money to charity while imploring Bioware to come up with a better ending in a future patch. Conversely, many assert that Bioware has the artistic right to do what they want with the story, and don’t owe anybody a ‘happy ending’.
Here’s a breakdown of the conclusion, detailing what worked and what didn’t. Bioware has, in many ways, broken from its usual tradition of quality and produced a shoddy ending, not just an ‘unhappy’ one that is creatively sound.
Warning: Spoilers follow.
• The Illusive Man
The Illusive Man was built up as a really intriguing character in Mass Effect 2 (ME2) . What are his plans? Why are his eyes so strange? All these questions fizzle out by the end of ME3, as does the character himself. In the middle of the game you find out he’s indoctrinated, and that’s it. No plot twists, and no revelations as to how this incredibly driven man fell so far.
The showdown at the end plays out a lot like the encounter with Saren did in Mass Effect 1 (ME1). One nice touch was the poetic similarity between the Illusive Man and Saren – both ‘good’ guys willing to use questionable methods but who end up losing their way. However there’s no narrative depth to the showdown; nothing that tells us anything more about this once-promising character. There isn’t even a cool parting quote from Shepard.
• The Reaper Motivation
Rewind to the ending of ME1. Finding out about Sovereign was epic because it, while unexpected, also tied in with previous, seemingly— unrelated knowledge: the extinction of the Protheans, and the mysterious presence of the Citadel and Mass Relays.
It threw up some implications were clearly grasped: that machines had been guiding and harvesting organic life for millennia. It tied into themes that were explored earlier (the synthetic – organic relationship). It produced one huge unanswered question: Why are the reapers doing this?
ME 3 had to finally answer the ‘why’. It tried, but many are still dissatisfied with the answer: that the Reapers do so to prevent organics and synthetics from destroying each other. This reason seems bizarre, because the story of Mass Effect doesn’t really stress this theme.
Quite the contrary, in fact; The Geth, it is revealed, are not interested at all in killing off their creators. Plus, the idea of the reapers waging huge intergalactic wars every few millennia and killing or harvesting billions in order to preserve life just sounds silly. The writers probably meant for it to sound like cold, utilitarian machine logic, but what they came up with just ends up sounding ludicrous.
• The Ghost-Boy
After setting up the reapers as the mysterious, insidious antagonists over the first two games, they’re sidelined at the end- there’s not even a line of dialogue with Harbinger, let alone a final showdown. Instead, you get to meet the ghost boy. It’s not the introduction of another greater power behind the reapers that is the problem here, it’s the fact that he’s produced literally in the final minutes of the game, with barely any precedence and no explanation.
Introducing huge gaps in the story right at the end and neglecting to explain them is just bad storytelling. How did he come to be? No answers are given. The meeting with ghost boy is so far out of synch with the Mass Effect universe built up over three games that it’s ridiculous.
Mass Effect has always been a very ‘material’ universe: Machines, guns, wars. At the end it suddenly turns mystical, almost spiritual -probably in an attempt to provide an unexpected twist- but it just doesn’t fit.
• The ‘Three’ Endings
The ending would still have been salvageable if not for what happens after you decide to destroy/control/merge with the Reapers. The choices themselves aren’t problematic; they fit quite well in the context of the game. The destruction of the Mass Relays, again, was a nice touch; symbolizing the end of countless cycles of evolution and destruction based around Reaper technology.
The species are now left to carve their own path in the universe. The problem lies in how none of the consequences of these choices are explored by the ending. Presumably, the entire face of the galaxy is changed once you make your decision, yet the ending doesn’t reveal (or even hint at) what it might be, either out of laziness, or in anticipation of selling a future game or DLC which will answer these questions. Neither motivation is particularly commendable.
Vague, lazy endings are pretty common in games and movies these days. What probably made it unbearable for the fans of Mass Effect was the sheer contrast between the usually excellent writing and plot produced by the Bioware team and the conclusion that was finally produced.
There’s nothing wrong with producing an ending that invites speculation and discussion. But the blatant lack of closure can’t be called anything but a flaw; anyone who has any appreciation for narrative can tell you that.