Note: This is a two-part post I’m doing in honor of N7 day. First part is going up today, and the second part I’ll post tomorrow, on the 7th itself.
We’re a few years away now from the release of Mass Effect 3 – a title and a series that has come to be remembered as much for its ending as anything else. An ending that remains, to this day, controversial (to say the least). It’s a hard thing to manage for a series as successful as this one proved: one of the most popular and noteworthy of last-gen gaming, and a hallmark for developer BioWare, widely seen as one of the best purveyors of RPGs in the industry.
Though the sense of disappointment lingers, I still find that I enjoyed the ending of the game, and of the series overall. And in honor of N7 day, when we celebrate all that Mass Effect has been – and anticipate what’s still to come – I thought it was worth delving into the primary reasons why it worked for me. Even though I recognize it didn’t for most others.
For Part One, I wanted to address some of the more common criticisms I’ve encountered about the ending, and discuss why, while I recognize these were issues for others, they weren’t for me.
All the game (and series) choices were meaningless
This is one of the most common – and certainly understandable. Mass Effect is arguably one of the most ambitious choice-based narratives to date – spanning across the breadth of three games, with story decisions and character choices transferring from one game to the next on grand and small scale alike.
I found this is one that bothered me less in retrospect. Why? Because I’ve yet to encounter a choice-based narrative game that really made those choice into meaningful differences in its ending. Even (and especially) from BioWare.
Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn don’t make quite as much of a comparison, since neither is framed all that much around story decisions (which are more of an almost gimmicky element, rather than a staple of the series). Still, none of the three Dragon Age titles that have been made have really accomplished substantial difference in their endings – especially in a way that brought together all the significant story choices from through the game – the fundamental ending is pretty much always the same. I would argue that the two most successful in this regard have been Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins – in part because they’re the only ones where different choices impact whether or not your player character lives or dies. And even then, it’s not necessarily all that predicated on story decisions made throughout the game.
And even in titles from other developers. Life is Strange (spoilers) was a wonderful, emotional realism-based game where you could use the time mechanic to rewind major decisions and power through some tough choices. But in the end, it all came down a major story decision that was in no way affected by choices made throughout the game.
It demonstrates, I believe, many of the inherent difficulties of the science. A choice-based narrative still often utilizes traditional storytelling elements – like a central antagonist – in the which case, it’s most likely that the climax and ending will always result in the defeat of that antagonist. It’s usually only the circumstances around it that (can) change.
Put another way, it’s an imperfect science because we’re in uncharted territory here. Choice-based narratives on the scale of ambition and sophistication being approached by gaming has no match in any other storytelling form – so it’s not unreasonable that there would be some lesser attempts or mistakes made along the path to figuring it out.
And for me personally, stumbles that may have been made at the end weren’t enough to damage all the goodness that came before.
It all comes down to choosing between three colors
While it’s true that the primary choice made at the ending essentially means picking red (destroy) blue (control) or green (synthesis) the important thing to bear in mind here is that it’s about the inference of consequences as much as anything else.
Each of these three decisions means leaving the galaxy in a pretty dramatically different state. And even though the player won’t get to see it, that’s actually kind of the point. Because it’s something that’s frequently experienced throughout the series.
Take the resolution of the Genophage cure, for example. There are quite a few different permutations on this one as to how things may well end up. Eve and Wrex are alive, but the cure is faked; the cure is real, but only Wreav is around to lead the Krogan; or Wrex is the last leader alive with a real cure for his people, etc.
At no point is the player ever going to be able to see the actual consequences of these decisions. But in that no way undermines the weight of actually making it. Sure, if you leave the situation with Eve dead, and Wreav running the show with a real cure, that means you’re guaranteeing years of hostility between the Krogan and the rest of the Council Races. Never mind that we’ll never see it – it’s one that I’ve never been able to make.
It’s all about implication of consequences. And accepting where each of those might end up can still be a pretty powerful tool in the moment of actually making the decision.
Star Child is just a deus ex machina
A deus ex machina is a plot device that comes out of nowhere, usually introduced last minute to save or explain everything without anything really building up to it from the story. It’s viewed as a kind of story cheat, because it doesn’t mean substantially crafting a climax and resolution upon established rules and elements from the narrative
While it’s true to say that Star Child doesn’t appear until the end, I find this one doesn’t concern me as much. For one reason being that the Star Child’s image is taken from a dead (possibly hallucinatory) child that’s been haunting Shepard throughout the game – and there’s plenty that’s open for interpretation there. Another reason being that he’s implied to be the intelligence behind the Catalyst – which is a major plot element from early on in the game.
As for his at-the-end explanations? I find this to be less of a problem due to the fact that so little of any of the three games is actually spent actively dealing with the Reapers.
Think about the series in comparison to something like a Final Fantasy XIII or an Uncharted. Both of which are linear titles, with little in the way of peripheral content or side tasks to be completed. This means a more focused approach to the primary narrative that informs the majority of the game all the way through.
But Mass Effect strives for a more open affair – in terms of both gameplay and story. One of the results being that the plotlines involving the Reapers in each respective game are put into the background for large portions while you become involved in other things. In 1 you explore planets and perform upteenth side missions beyond the time actually spent pursuing Saren; in 2 there’s far more time devoted to recruitment and loyalty missions; in 3 you’re just as devoted to the Genophage and Geth vs. Quarian plots as you are to actually fighting the Reapers.
The Reapers are the framing device – they’re the primary narrative; but in terms of actual time spent dealing with them, they sometimes almost serve as an excuse to explore the galaxy and become involved in inter-species affairs, rather than working as a strict focal point for the series.
Which is why it doesn’t bother me if Star Child and all of his explanations regarding the Reapers doesn’t come until the very end. So little information was given about the Reapers prior to that – and so little time was spent even ruminating over it – that I don’t find it a problem if it all appears right at the climax.
Star-Child/The Reapers have magic powers
This is to say, the idea that the technology used at the end – which can potentially synthesize all organic and synthetic life in the entire galaxy with one charge of energy – is too much like magic to be acceptable.
This is probably one in which I can understand most of the concern. Though I’ll admit that I can probably sympathize more with the complaint regarding how exactly to handle the Reapers. What the three choices are is, to my mind, the weakest part of the ending, since it feels a bit like the writers themselves were having difficulty pinpointing what would be make plausible and interesting decisions here and at that end.
That being said, there’s a large part of me that is still willing to accept it. Not to pull out the classic Isaac Asmiov quote, but it’s very well demonstrated that the Reapers are technologically advanced to a degree that far surpasses organic life in this timeframe – possibly beyond the point of comprehension. Even Mass Relays (something the Protheans were only able to replicate in their very last days) have been beyond anyone’s technological understanding.
So if the game wants to say that the Reapers and Star Child do have that advanced of technology, I think they’ve earned some wiggle room there.
Tomorrow, in part two of my post, I’ll get into what I liked best about the ending, and the primary reasons why it worked for me.