Home > Video Games > Why the end of Mass Effect 3 isn’t very good.

Why the end of Mass Effect 3 isn’t very good.

This post will contain spoilers for ME3 as well as Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Some people did not like the ending to Mass Effect 3. This unfortunately, is completely understandable.

1: The ending does not reflect the gameplay style and tone.

Firstly, a look at Deus Ex, a (mostly) linear story about a man named Adam Jensen. Throughout the game, we played out Jensen’s story. We all may have played it a little differently, some of us got Sandoval’s location without informing Taggart, some of us let Sandoval shoot himself, but it is important to remember that regardless of how we handled a situation, we were always led to the next one. And the next situation begins the same way regardless of how the previous one was handled; no matter how you got to Taggart’s room you found out where Sandoval was and no matter how you dealt with Sandoval you found out about the GPL chips.

Deus Ex’s (mostly) strong story is let down in its final chapter, where you spend a long time in a small room talking to a hardly animated face about which button you want to press to end the game. Presumably, the player would have being weighing up the arguments presented by the game’s leading idealists and pressed the correct button for their playthrough. The let down is the fact that all endings don’t show the message you send, and leave only with Jensen’s ideas about what transpired. At the least, its a conclusion to the journey Jensen and the player had by summing up the feeling towards the experience.

Not pictured: the button that kills all the people you tried so hard to save. Alternatively, the button that guarantees the job got done right.

But the button isn’t interactive. Choosing any one ends the game with a slightly different receipt. Not hearing the message you chose slightly undermines the careful selection of the message to begin with. If I wasn’t going to hear it, why spend so long explaining it to me? Why not give me a briefer summary, but let me hear the message I sent?

This occurs from a problem Human Revolution cannot escape, that it defines itself as a prequel. The button pressing is meant to emulate the choice given at the end of the original Deus Ex, but all choices need to lead into the beginning of the original story. A non-linear ending to a game that at its core, was a linear backstory to a world we already knew. Were we disappointed with the ending? Yes.

In Mass Effect, the ending can be said to be the same. Pressing one of the 3 buttons all leads to the same outcome, under the pretense of giving you a choice for your endeavours. But what sets it as HR’s opposite is that although the ending is uniform and linear, the gameplay leading up to it was not. Mainly, this was because ME3 was advertised to bring all the choices and decisions from 3 games into account for the ending.

Did you save Kaidan or Ashley? Did you save Wrex? Do you agree with genophage or hate it? Did you bring peace between the Geth and the Quarians? Did you save the council, or replace it with a human one? How many people did you lose attacking the Reaper base through the Omega Relay? Did you punch out that reporter? More than once?

Mass Effect built a huge universe where no two players were likely to have the same experience. The ending forces all players who finish ME3 to have the same experience, which contradicts their advertising of the game as well as the experience leading up to the end. A linear ending to a branching story betrays the expectation of the players who reached the conclusion.


2. We explored the world, not just I.

There is an understanding about how the player explores the world in video games. In most games that could be defined as having a linear story, the player takes the role/s of a character/s as they experience a narrative in a setting that is familiar to the character. This is the ‘I’ of exploration, where the player is being treated to the world as a new experience despite the familiarity the character should already have. (This extends only to a certain point in the narrative of course, any game with a decent plot twist will eventually move the characters out of their comfort zone and stuff they already know about.) This can be seen in recent games such as the setting of Detroit in Deus Ex, where Jensen is familiar with the area and inhabitants from before the player is introduced to them, like his informant NAME, or his ex-partner Haas. Jensen is already familiar with these characters while the player is not, leading to their shared history being explained through conversations and interactions so the player can understand more about Jensen and the world he is already familiar with. Similarly in Bastion, the Kid is exploring his ruined city after the Calamity. While the ruined city is unfamiliar, the narration explains to the player exactly how familiar the Kid is with setting and why he’s not stopping in shock. In both these games, the player is exploring the world with the character as a vehicle that already knows the road – kind of like a sight-seeing tour.

Jensen remembers the name of his favourite 'working girl'.

The opposite end of this is the ‘We’ exploration, where both Player Character and player are unfamiliar with the world. What better example than Skyrim? The PC is a border-crossing prisoner, and after the game’s introduction both the player and the PC are taught about the world at the same rate. The PC knows no more than the player at any point in the game. This is a common effect in Western RPGs where the player plays a ‘blank-slate’ PC, the player is expected to BE the one in control, instead of being along for the ride like in Deus Ex or Bastion.

The difference here is the feeling of investment that comes from discovery. In video games, the player is constantly learning about the world the developers created, and nearly always in the way the developers intended. What happens is that the investment the player has in the story is directly related to how interested the PC is. In Deus Ex, Jensen’s familiarity with Detroit’s PD and Sarif Industries means that Jensen doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about them, which in turn causes the player to be less interested in these organizations. Contrasting with Skyrim, in which interest in any organization is fuelled entirely by the player, because neither the player or the PC walk in with any pre-conceptions or prior knowledge. The story of the Thieves Guild or the Dark Brotherhood is as interesting as the player finds it. Information about these groups can only be found if the player looks for it. Which group between these examples becomes more important to the player?

The story of the Thieves Guild is as interesting as the player finds it. It asks meaningful questions like "What were they thinking?" and "Who writes this crap?"

Mass Effect falls in the ‘We’ category fairly easily, the story is built around Shepard who finds most of the universe as unfamiliar territory. (Who wouldn’t? Space is big.) The  player is encouraged to explore the various settings /planets and learn about their inhabitants through gameplay and the Codex. The Paragon/Renegade system, the class-based levelling and the ability to choose only two squadmates from a decently sized roster encourage the player to play as if Shepard and they were the same person.  All three games play out as an extended discovery of the Mass Effect universe, it’s problems and how the player attempts to solve them all. What players have been campaigning about is how the ending fails to address their choices at the endgame. Why did I have to blow up the universe, and why was that my only option? It’s the biggest anti-climax to all the hard work Shepard did to unite the people of the galaxy and solve all their problems.

3. There is a critical mass of plot holes.

Rather than go over them myself, read this by a favourite author of mine, who sums them up quite nicely.

So what went wrong?

Well, it could be said like most trilogies that don’t begin as such eventually raise the stakes. Raise them too high. When you threaten everyone who exists in the story, there’s nowhere to go to be more threatening. We were told that this would be Shepard’s last story, and a franchise that made so much money wasn’t going to end here quietly. ME4 will be coming and it will somehow have to carry on after the end of ME3. And perhaps that is the reason. The writers were sick of their world. They wanted the same races, same technology, but a blank slate. A new set of conflicts that could be explored. When Shepard up and solved everyone’s problems, it’s a rather stable universe the game ended with. A massive time-skip might be enough to re-ignite the inner hatred everyone has against aliens.

But as for Retake Mass Effect? Bah. I have never heard so many people /demand/ that an author change their ending to suit the fans. Is this an issue that arose out of how games are published? We’re never so sure whether our games are products or services, it tends to depend on how the publisher wants us to spend our money. And with DRM heavily leaning on the ‘our games are services which you rent’, it’s possible that a customer might demand better of that service. And this is it. I hope Retake never dies down until Bioware admit something concrete about how they wrote their ending, but I don’t support a new ending. That’s the way it was intended folks, for whatever reason.

And hey, there’s DLC to possibly ruin it further, if you just wait a bit.

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