Tuesday, March 20, 2012

On "Mass Effect 3", Endings and Disappointment


Last week, I shared some of my initial thoughts on "Mass Effect 3", obviously leaving out any reaction to the ending, which I hadn't reached yet but the Internet had already gone batshit over.

Even after hearing lots of "Oh my God that was the worst ending in the history of endings", I plowed forward, wanting to experience it for myself. Heading into the final chapter of the game, I expected three things from the ending:

1. Shepard would die. Bioware has been pretty clear that this is the end of the "Mass Effect" saga, and the only way that ends without any serious calls for more sequels is if the main character dies.

2. The war with the Reapers ends definitively. I didn't have any expectation whether the outcome would be positive or negative, but I did expect that there would be an ending to this whole "cycle" thing the game has been talking about for awhile.

3. The ending would take into account the various choices I'd made throughout the game -- well, more accurately, games plural -- and show the impact of those decisions on the fate of the galaxy.

On my first two expectations, the ending delivered. But honestly, those were easy to meet. It was the third expectation that had really been established throughout the 200+ hours I'd put into this series, and it's the one that wasn't met at all, which left me... well, not angry, or bitter, or threatening lawsuits. Instead, I just felt let down, knowing that I really could have played the game any way, and I still would have been confronted with the exact same outcome.

Note: from this point on, there are spoilers regarding the ending of "Mass Effect 3". If you don't want to be spoiled, or you've already played the game and don't want to experience a flare-up of PTSD, then stop reading here. Otherwise, continue after the jump.


I'm not going to rehash the entire ending -- well, allegedly 16 endings -- here, but I will hone in on the moment where it all started falling apart for me. After the attack on Cerberus headquarters and the battle on Earth, you end up on the Citadel for what is really an extended end-game cutscene with conversation choices. There's no big final battle with The Illusive Man, but instead a boring conversation with him, one that for me ended with The Illusive Man killing himself. I actually liked that; it was a natural progression for my character to convince him of his wrongdoing and stop him with words rather than by killing him (in case you can't tell, I've played this series SUPER Paragon-y). But it felt weird to have that as the final conflict of the series.

(Admittedly, the first time I played it, I was a little relieved after the final stages of the battle in London had repeatedly kicked my ass... fucking Banshees...)

Then there's the cutscene with Anderson -- assuming you didn't let the Illusive Man kill him -- then Anderson dies and then the WTFing begins.

I first had the sense that this was going off the rails when "The Catalyst" showed up, and it was a hologram of the boy who'd died at the beginning of the game. The whole thing had a bit of an "Architect from 'Matrix Reloaded'" feel to it, and the rest of the ending certainly didn't help that perception. After explaining "the cycle" in a way that couldn't have felt more like "The Matrix", the catalyst presented Shepard with three choices (well, in my playthrough it was three choices. Apparently depending on your EMS, you may only get two. I'll get to that).

Choice A: Destroy the Reapers, dying in the process.
Choice B: Self-indoctrination, taking control of the Reapers, dying in the process.
Choice C: Create a merger of synthetic and organic life, the next step in evolution, dying in the process.

I've got no problem with the fact that every choice results in Shepard's apparent death. It's called sacrifice. It's a part of war. What I had a problem with is that the choices aren't really choices at all, and don't reflect the nuance of all the choices the game has had you make up to that point.

Let's address "Choice A" first, since that's the one I went with. Yes, you get to destroy the Reapers and save humanity, which is pretty much what you've been working toward for three games. But you don't just destroy the Reapers, you destroy ALL synthetic life -- including the Geth and EDI. Now, playing things as a paragon of Paragon, I'd gone out of my way to save the Geth, including Legion, in ME2 and ME3, and regularly reassured EDI in ME3 that her existence wasn't just a result of programming. Now I had to not only sacrifice myself, but them as well, to save organic life.

So that choice sucked.

But then there was "Choice B", self-indoctrination. Well, considering how much I'd worked against that through three games -- including getting the Illusive Man to shoot himself because he'd become indoctrinated just minutes earlier -- that never crossed my mind as an option. It seemed to betray everything Shepard was, and had the game forced me into that choice, I would have turned it off and never played again.

So that choice sucked.

And lastly, there was "Choice C", the synergy choice. This is apparently the one that not everyone gets, though for it to not show up, you have to have a really low EMS -- basically playing through the main story doing no sidequests and no multiplayer*. Synergy between synthetics and organics felt like a weak sauce compromise, and after three games of fighting them, I wasn't particularly interested in compromising with the Reapers.

So that choice sucked.

As much as the individual choices suck on their own, that's not even my real problem with them. It's that no matter which choice you make, the choices you've made leading up to them have little impact on what plays out, and what plays out for each of the three choices is largely identical. The primary difference between the three choices is the color of the explosion that happens after you make your choice. Your EMS affects the fate of Earth, whether you get the "Shepard lives" teaser scene and whether you see the post-credits coda, which is lame anyway.

In the original "Mass Effect", your character was faced with key decisions right down to the final moment, decisions that shaped the story both of that game and the two subsequent games. In "Mass Effect 2", the decisions you made throughout the game -- who to recruit, who to support, whose loyalty missions to complete -- impacted who survived the suicide mission. Those decisions all weighed heavily not only on their own games, but on "Mass Effect 3", right up until the end. The final "choice" in "Mass Effect 3" doesn't outright ignore your choices, but it does reduce them down to a number: your "Effective Military Readiness". Every decision, good or bad, gets turned into a score, that score gets added up into your War Assets, those get multiplied by your participation in extra-game activities and that score has an impact (though, as previously stated, a mild one) on your chosen endgame cutscene.

That process cheapens the experiences from the all three games. All through the games, I felt like I was making choices that had emotional impact and would eventually shape the destinies of the characters. Instead, I was really just collecting "points"; the endgame scoring treats the decision to save an entire race no differently than the acquisition of some artifact found during random planet scanning. They're both just "war assets", with one possibly resulting in a higher number than another. So it's no surprise that most of the endings share more similarities than differences, as seen in this video:



Perhaps the most apt frame of reference for my disappointment is "Lord of the Rings", particularly the ending of the third movie, "The Return of the King." When it was released, people criticized -- mildly -- the seemingly endless codas*, but the reality is they were necessary to wrap up not a 3-hour movie, but a 12-hour saga. Multiply that tenfold and you've got the time the average "Mass Effect" player would need to complete the three games on a single playthrough, and yet we were treated to a coda that lasted approximately two minutes and showed the fates of less than a handful of characters.

Even setting aside the plothole of just where the hell the Normandy was going (don't forget, when Shepard makes her choice, there's still a massive battle going on both on the surface of and right above Earth) and how any of the characters who were just on Earth got back onto the ship before it fled, what the hell happened to them? So they crash land on some planet and... years later... something? Are the people seen in the coda descendants of the Normandy crew? And if so, then what of the aliens on the crew (Garrus, Liara, Tali, Javik)?

Hell, am I just supposed to accept that Liara, my in-game love interest AND the Shadow Broker, just accepted that I was dead and lived out her 1,000+ year existence stranded on some random planet, chatting up the endless generations of kids that came from the implied Ashley-James relationship? That's all kinds of bullshit. Even with the Mass Relays destroyed, Liara would've found me or my body or SOMETHING... just give me some kind of fucking closure on ANY of these characters. All that emotional attachment we'd spent three games building was just left hanging, with a giant void in its place.

I don't even want to get into the "Indoctrination Theory" that's floating around, because that requires not only reinterpretation of the ending, but the entire game and the entire series. It also feels like a lot of effort being put into disproving these endings because we didn't like them, and a lot of the comments from the creators don't seem to match up with that at all.

It definitely feels like there's going to be some DLC coming that answers a lot of these questions, and that's going to suck in it's own way, mostly because I'm going to buy it no matter what and I'm still going to be disappointed. Right now, though, my disappointment is this: I'd hoped to put down the controller after finishing ME3 saying "Wow, I can't believe I'm never going to spend any time with those characters ever again". Instead I'm saying "wow, I can't believe I have no fucking clue what happened to any of those characters." It's "Lost" all over again. Fucking codas.




*There are actually two other ways to raise your effective military readiness outside of multiplayer. One is the ME3 Datapad app, which I highly recommend. It's a slow build, but you can get to 100% with it. The other is the "Mass Effect: Infiltrator" iOS game, which is awful. The controls are wonky and the game barely has a story. It feels like a level to a larger game, not a game itself. Avoid it, unless you're really hard up for EMS boosting.

*Amazingly, the movie actually cuts down on the relative anti-climax following the destruction of the ring in comparison with the book, which goes on signficiantly longer. Fans ALSO complained about that, since the primary cut there was the complete elimination of the scouring of the Shire. STILL better than ME3.

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