Or, In Defence of Mass Effect 3’s Ending.
FAIR WARNING! There will be SPOILERS regarding the ending of ME3, and some of the plot points from previous ME games. I’ll try not to be too specific, but if you’ve haven’t played ME3 to its end, or have been hiding under a rock for the last few weeks and don’t already know what all this ending fuss is about, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
I liked the ending of Mass Effect 3. I didn’t hate it. Didn’t dislike it. I didn’t even just accept it as good enough. I thought it provided a wonderful, fitting end to the 100+ hour story of my Commander Shepard and his fight against the Reapers, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Yes, it maybe could’ve handled some things a little better, but nothing’s perfect, and its a great example of providing closure to nothing short of an epic in storytelling.
Here’s the thing though. Even if I did hate it, and watching the credits roll brought as much frustration, ire and anger as relief, I would never rally against the creators to DEMAND that they change it to suit my own specific tastes. It would not only be an unfair criticism on the work of the writers (“They created a fantastic, engaging and emotional story that stretched over hundreds of hours, involved dozens of likeable, individual characters, in an environment so detailed it makes the mind boggle, and forced me to make some tough, lingering decisions that affected a world I actually care about, but they dropped the ball in the last five minutes? BURN THEM ALL!”), but it would paint a picture of me as a self-entitled jerk.
Unfortunately, it’s the path a large number of the games’ fans have taken, feeling very let down by the culmination of their journey with their Shepard. Now, I’m not saying it’s wrong to dislike the ending to the game, please feel free (I can’t remember ever being as let down by a game as in the final moments of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, or most of the Assassins Creed games), but it is wrong to think that disliking it somehow entitles you to demand its revision. Yes, the ending could have been improved, but what is is, and that’s how it should stay. What makes the whole thing even more bothersome is that most of the arguments used against the ending really fall flat under a little bit of scrutiny.
Red, Green or Blue?
One of the biggest complaints leveled at the game’s ending is that, regardless of which of the three final options you choose, destroy or control the Reapers, or join together all life into one new organic-synthetic whole, the final moments play out exactly the same, save for the colour of the explosions coming from the mass relays. No matter what you have achieved in the last 100 or so hours, in the end, Shepard dies (or not), the Reapers are defeated, and the mass relays are destroyed. A lot of players are complaining that this makes all of the series’ hundreds and hundreds of decisions arbitrary and pointless, and boils the thousands of individual adventures of Shepard down to one. This makes absolutely no sense. The story of Commander Shepard and the Reapers is. not. ours. It belongs to Bioware and their writers. We have been given the opportunity to affect the relationships of the characters around us and influence certain elements of the narrative, but we have never been given any real control over how the story plays out. Shepard will always become a Spectre, always defeat Sovereign, always work with Cerberus, always witness the Reaper arrival on Earth, always find plans for the Crucible, and always stop the war. In the thousands of tellings, the story of Shepard will remain the same. as Kate Cox mentions in her article on Kotaku, just like a folk tale, the details of every telling is different, but the story of Shepard, the galaxy’s greatest hero is the same. We’ve fooled ourselves into thinking that we have more control over this story than we actually do. Our journey’s with Shepard will always go along the same path, all we can do is change the scenery.
But does this mean those choices are un-important? Not one bit. They just all played out throughout the game, rather than in the final ten minutes. Three games worth of dealings with krogan and salarian came to a head on Tuchunka, and I felt the consequences, and it brought tears to my eyes. I made the wrong choice on Rannoch, which bothered me so much I had to restart the mission and put it right, something I never felt the need to do before. All of my choices, and yours, had weight and consequences, and just because the final cutscene doesn’t congratulate you or pay lip-service to the fact that you let Kaiden die rather than Ashley, it doesn’t make that choice and many others like it any less meaningful or important.
Closure vs Epilogue
Players have said that the identi-kit endings don’t provide any sort of closure to the story, and that too much is left unanswered. It astounds me that players who have had to deal with hours and hours of thinking about the implications and ramifications of hundreds of decisions suddenly start complaining the minute the game doesn’t give explicit explanations for what has happened. Why is the Normandy light years from Earth? How did my crew escape? How did Anderson get to the control room before me? Why does the Catalyst look like the Child? I don’t know, but I have theories. You have yours. Discussion about those things should be happening, rather than complaining that the writers didn’t give you a straight answer. Chances are, if they did give a straight answer, thousands of people would complain about that too.
Closure is a funny thing too. From day one, Mass Effect (or at least the trilogy of games) has been the story of Commander Shepard. From day one, Bioware have said that the end of the trilogy is the end of Commander Shepard’s story. And that is what you get at the end of ME3, an end of Commander Shepard’s tragic adventure against the Reapers. I don’t think there could be any more closure than what is already given. At great personal cost, Shepard brings an end to the war with the Reapers, and that is his story.
I’ve read on forums about people complaining that the game doesn’t any explanation for how the destruction of the mass relays affected the galaxy, or how the various alien species hoped to survive, stranded in the Sol system. The games have NEVER been concerned with answering these questions.Whatever small answers to the bigger questions of the galaxy you did hear, you heard because Shepard was incident to it. There are hundreds of stories to be told in the ME universe. For some, the end of the Reaper invasion was the end to their story to, such as Shepard’s. For others, like the rest of the Normandy crew, it will be their middle, and other stories will begin with it. Those stories and those unanswered questions are the responsibility of the wider ME universe to answer, future games, novels, comics, fan fiction or films.
As far as the games are concerned, they began and ended with Shepard, and that is all they promised to do. What a lot of people wanted was not closure, but a handy ‘what-now’ epilogue, just so they could say with certainty that Miranda won the Alliance’s Sexiest Swimwear Model 2189. What difference does that make to the story of Shepard vs the Reapers? Nothing. That story ends on top of the Citadel. All these extra questions are what keeps us thinking about it, talking about it, and living in that world. Surely making us want to spend more time in their world is the best thing a game developer can have us do? Oh, and if you do want an epilogue: here you go.
You don’t deserve a thing
Sounds a bit strong, right? Surely we deserve to be entertained, and developers have a responsibility to provide us the consumer with the content that we want? No. Not really.
Me, you, all of us are in a position of great privilege. We have so much content available to us at all times, that we can, if we want, be constantly entertained. However, I can see, especially with this huge debate over the ending of a video game, that we’re losing sight of the fact that this is a privilege, not a right. Developers and writers and artists and musicians, anyone who creates anything, creates it and hopes that it finds an audience. It is their property that they choose to share with the rest of the world, and it is our privilege to consume it. We are lucky that someone has created something for us to enjoy, whether it be a film, music, food, art or a game.
I still can’t find where along the line that we felt that we somehow deserve these products, as if it is the creators responsibility to provide for us. Newsflash. They have zero responsibility to provide for us. You could argue that they do, as we are the ones purchasing their products, but I don’t really want to talk about business practices. We have a right to like and dislike absolutely anything we want to. But what we do not have is the right to demand that products are created to meet our specific ‘like’ criteria. They do not have any sort of responsibility to do what we tell them. We are entitled to our opinion and the decision on where our money is spent, and nothing more.
Consider this. You go out to a restaurant for dinner. The food , the wine, the service, the atmosphere are all the best you’ve ever experienced. You have three delicious courses, but find that the last bite of your dessert is not quite right. Would you complain to the chef, in light of the otherwise perfect evening? Does one bite really ruin an otherwise impeccable meal?
I can see why Mass Effect has become the game to receive the brunt of this ire. We feel more connected to Shepard and the Normandy crew than any other video game characters. I love the games, the world, and the characters. We feel, because they are such personal journeys that we can help to shape, that we have some stake in what happens, and that we should have some say in how our characters are handled. But we don’t. They aren’t our characters, it isn’t our story. It belongs to Bioware, and it is their story to tell in whatever we they see fit. We should just be glad that they let us come along for the ride.