It’s been just 2 weeks since Mass Effect 3 first hit stores shelves worldwide, but for BioWare it must feel like a lot longer. Within hours of the first gamers completing the trilogy, bad news began to trickle in across the internet – the ending was bad. For a series of such scope and magnificence as Mass Effect, the ending was always going to be the deal breaker as to whether the trilogy became the pinnacle of story-telling, or a whisker away from perfection.
Much had been said about the ending pre-launch too, with BioWare promising that everything would be answered in the finale and everything you had done throughout the trilogy would play out to fruition. And to a certain degree it does. Throughout the adventure a lot of the decisions you made impact that game and the world around you in a big way, and these ultimately funnel into the war assets tally, with the aim here being to create as strong a force as you can going into the final battle. But it’s what happens from here onwards that has polarised opinion; the ending has resulted in one of the strongest fan outpourings ever seen in any medium, resulting in a huge “Retake ME3” movement being set-up.
So the question is this: is there a genuine grievance to be had here or is this just fan entitlement gone mad?
WARNING: The following article concerns the end-game sequence for Mass Effect 3 and as such will contain spoilers. From this point on any in-game spoilers are allowed. You have been warned.
First let’s take a look at the end-game sequence for Mass Effect 3 and get you up to speed on where we’re at in the game. While there are a few minor plot issues present before this, the problematic sequence which is being questioned is your final act on Earth. The Reapers are winning the battle, and the only way to defeat them is to open the Citadel’s arms by travelling through the Conduit. The mission then is simple: reach the Conduit, open the Citadel and destroy the Reapers. Only that doesn’t happen. Harbinger returns and decimates your squad, knocking Shepard out in the process.
Here’s where the issues start. Firstly the gameplay changes abruptly from this point onwards – the camera is locked behind Shepard allowing him/her to almost float around, and you also gain a completely new gun which requires no ammo or reloading. The game then enters a very meta-physical state when arriving on the Citadel where Anderson manages to overtake you, but crucially not pass you, and the Illusive Man appears from nowhere and can somehow control you with his mind. Oh and you shoot Anderson but the wound appears on you.
But the real controversy comes in the actual final act, where Shepard is transported to a room somewhere on the outside of the Citadel, is given a very poor reason for the Reapers existence and then offered 3 choices – Destroy them, Control them or Synthesis (which is just merging organics with synthetics). For a game of such diverse and wonderful choice, every player experiences the same ending, and even within these three choices, the ending largely remains unchanged. There’s also the small matter of the Normandy suddenly being away from battle and with your entire team aboard her, who only moments earlier were leading a ground assault on Earth. Something doesn’t add up here and fans want to know why.
The end of Mass Effect 3 – 3 choices, 3 almost identical outcomes
It’s hard to articulate exactly why there is a problem to anyone who hasn’t played the series because it’s such an unusual circumstance for a game and a community to find itself in. BioWare have rarely made a misstep in terms of plotting the Mass Effect franchise, and to see such a sudden and brutal disregard for everything that went before is almost unfathomable. So what is happening here exactly? Is this just over-analysis from the fans or is there a greater plan at work?
It’s interesting to note that prior to the game’s release, Executive Producer Casey Hudson said;
“It’s not even in any way like the traditional game endings, where you can say how many endings there are or whether you got ending A, B, or C”
The controversy here is that this is precisely what the ending is; it’s a choice of A, B or C. So it is understandable that the community is a little bit confused as to changed. Clearly the plan was to have branching endings based on past decisions, yet what we are presented with here is a simple three way choice. Add in that the events surrounding this choice make little sense and even the most cynical observer should be able to see why almost 50,000 fans have rallied together against the ending.
The campaign to “Retake ME3” has grown almost exponentially over the past few weeks as more and more fans complete the game and are disappointed with the end result. The motto of the group is that they “are here to show a company that their devoted fanbase has been hurt, and alienated with some of their actions, and to ask for an explanation, and hopefully a solution”, a clear indication that rather than looking for a complete and total rewrite of the ending, the fans just want an explanation to what they have seen.
However, the campaign isn’t helped by the reporting of it by journalists who haven’t played the game. To them, the campaign is simply fan entitlement, and fans causing problems because they didn’t get a happy ending. Quite to the contrary, the campaign is looking for answers as to why the promised endings never came to fruition; I am yet to see the campaign actively ask for a rewrite to the current ending. This isn’t fan entitlement – this is a group of fans getting together and asking the developer to explain why the ending disregards the very foundations of the series.
There’s another issue to consider though – what if the ending was actually one of the smartest and most well thought out endings ever seen in a video game? What if the ending was actually a mind trick played on the player? Without delving too deeply into the series lore, the current trend within the Mass Effect community is that the ending could in fact have all been an indoctrination attempt by the Reapers, a final attempt to stop Shepard from destroying them.
In the Mass Effect universe, the Reapers are able to ‘indoctrinate’ their enemies, bending their will to match the will of the Reapers. When analysed deeply, the ending hints strongly at Shepard actually undergoing indoctrination, which is played out in his unconscious mind at the end of the game. The end sequence can then be considered to be a battle of the Reapers will and Shepard’s resolve – ultimately Shepard is given a choice; subjugate to the Reapers or fight back and retain control of his mind. This choice is presented in the end-game A, B, C choice, and given that this is a dream sequence, also explains all the meta-physical events that happen prior to this.
The ‘best’ ending gives us perhaps the biggest clue of all as to what BioWare’s master plan is for Mass Effect 3. Providing you chose to destroy the Reapers, an extra scene pre-credits plays. It is revealed that beneath the rubble in London, an N7 marine, presumably Shepard, is buried, and just before the cut, gasps for air. Note that he is back on Earth, just where he was when Harbinger attacked. Given how meta-physical the ending was, could it be that the player has just played through the indoctrination process and in the process saved Shepard? It looks likely.
The best ending sequence including the secret ending (24:40)
Which brings me to the final point. This theory is becoming so refined as to be bulletproof, and with each passing day it looks more and more likely that the ending wasn’t the true end of the series. It was a bluff. It was a meta-physical challenge for the players to unravel, and with it BioWare have potentially produced one of the finest endings to a game ever. So do we, the Mass Effect community want the ending rewritten? No. We don’t want it rewritten, we want the actual ending.
This is the problem with the end of Mass Effect 3. It’s not that the ending is inherently bad; rather it isn’t the actual ending. There is still a story to tell. The Reapers are still on Earth and the story of Shepard is far from over. The next question has to be though, why wasn’t this ending included to begin with? This is the question that BioWare need to answer and this is the question that need to be asked. The Retake ME3 movement is growing stronger by the day, but as it grows, the message seems to be being lost – the fans want answers, not a rewrite of the ending. It is not a fight for change; it is a fight for the answers to 120 hours of mesmerising gameplay that as it stands are being inexplicably withheld. And for me, that’s a fight worth supporting.
NB! Obviously if this does turn out to be the real ending and not a bluff from BioWare then questions do need to be asked about what happened in the creative process, but that is a discussion for another time.