Warning: Massive Mass Effect 3 spoilers follow. Do not read until you’ve completed the game.
Up until finishing Mass Effect 3 a few days ago, I mostly stayed away from discussion over its much-maligned ending. I had read enough headlines to be aware of the controversy, but I wanted to head into the game’s final moments spoiler-free so I could make up my own mind about the ending without any outside influence. That accomplished, I then dove head-first into the never-ending pool of online critiques and deconstructions of the game’s last scenes. Some of what I read was well reasoned and quite valid. Some was utter nonsense. So I figured it might be worth dissecting the myriad of complaints folks had over Mass Effect 3’s ending to determine whose got a legitimate beef and whose just whining.
1. Shepard didn’t get the happy ending he deserved. We’ll start with this one, the most bogus of arguments. In fact, it’s so bogus that I doubt more than a small handful of players actually believe it. It seems to me that this is something the “backlash to the backlash” people use to throw in the faces of those who took legitimate issue with Mass Effect 3’s final scenes. “Aw, you just hated it because it didn’t end with Shepard and Liara on a beach somewhere, drinking mojitos!” Look, I personally had some problems with the game’s ending, but the fact that Shepard didn’t get to ride the Normandy off into the sunset, a victory smile creeping across his face, was not one of them. The truth is I didn’t at all mind sacrificing my Shepard for the galaxy’s greater good. Hell, I half expected it. Being pissed that your Shepard apparently died at the end is a terrible reason to disapprove of Mass Effect 3’s ending.
2. You don’t get proper closure in regard to your squadmates. This one’s also mostly bullshit. The game is littered with scenes where Shepard makes peace with his squadmates as they prepare for a final battle they know they won’t likely return from. There’s an entire section near the end of Mass Effect 3 that was clearly built to give Shepard one last touching conversation with every major living character from the series. Closure comes in spades! Still, I say this argument is only “mostly” bullshit because the game does get quite vague at the very end when dealing with who lives, who dies and (for some players) exactly what the fuck happens when someone is “synthesized.” I don’t mind that my Shepard bit the dust. I do kind of mind not knowing whether Garrus followed suit or not. Bottom line: The relationship between Shepard and his buds got plenty of closure. What happened to them immediately following Shepard’s sacrifice? Less so.
3. Shepard is forced to act in ways at the game’s finish that betray his character. Now we’re getting somewhere. For three games, my Shepard basically spit in the face of anyone who dared give him an ultimatum. He constantly questioned authority, and when no acceptable solution was apparent for a given problem, he was determined to find another way. Then at the end of Mass Effect 3, this mysterious ghost kid shows up and gives Shepard three incredibly shitty choices for “saving” the universe. And Shepard. Doesn’t. Even. Blink. He basically just does as he’s told, leaving the player with no option but to pick one of the three unsatisfactory (not to mention incredibly vague) outcomes. It’s bizarrely out of character. After all, there was no way my Shepard was going to allow for the destruction of all synthetics. Not after spending an entire game defending the rights of the Geth and teaching EDI what it means to be human. And it was just as unlikely that he’d ever follow in the Illusive Man’s footsteps by deciding to control the Reapers, thus picking up the mantle from his sworn enemy and leaving the galaxy open to another Reaper assault somewhere down the line. With those two options ruled out, I had no choice but to choose the “synthesis” ending. This, despite the fact that it apparently leaves the Reapers functioning and makes untold changes to the genetic structure of every living being in the galaxy. Yeah, my Shepard wouldn’t really have wanted to go that route either, but what are you going to do? This was the corner BioWare backed me into. For 90 hours of gameplay through three games, my Shepard always made decisions that felt the most right. Then at the very end, he was forced to make one that felt the least wrong. This is the best reason to hate Mass Effect 3’s ending.
4. The different endings promised by BioWare weren’t really different at all. As has been pointed out ad nauseum, no matter which of the three options your Shepard goes with at the end, the final scenes play out largely the same, only with a different color scheme (blue explosion, red explosion or green explosion). In each case, Joker outruns the explosion in the Normandy, crash lands on some lush planet and a few of your squadmates emerge to a changed world. This one didn’t really bother me too much, as I assumed that BioWare would be pushing its Mass Effect players toward a somewhat unified ending that would allow for the universe to seamlessly continue on in future games for everybody. But seeing as how the personal customization of your Shepard’s story was a huge part of the series as a whole, I can understand some players taking issue with it. And BioWare employees didn’t do themselves any favors by, prior to the game’s release, saying things like this: “There are many different endings. We wouldn’t do it any other way. How could you go through all three campaigns playing as your Shepard and then be forced into a bespoke ending that everyone gets?”
5. The decisions you made in the earlier games had very little bearing on Mass Effect 3’s ending. From a technological standpoint, I think gamers may have been expecting too much here. Did you really think every little decision you made over the course of the three games was going to create a variable that directly affected what type of ending you got? That seems technically unfeasible. Instead, everyone’s decisions from the first two games, as well this one, were turned into a mathematical equation (presented in-game as “war assets”) that determined how robust your ending was. (For example, whether Earth was destroyed and if the synthesis option would even be available to you.) Was it clunky? You bet. But, again, I really didn’t expect the ending would change all that much depending on how nicely I sweet-talked the Rachni Queen way back in Mass Effect 1. Plus, don’t forget that many of those earlier decisions actually did factor into how the overall story of Mass Effect 3 was presented. Your choices indeed carried weight, maybe just not as much as BioWare promised they would. Not a deal-breaker for me.
6. The ending royally screwed up the Mass Effect universe. This is the one where we get into serious fanwank. Some of it goes like this: Because DLC from one of the earlier games said that, when a mass relay explodes, it destroys the system it’s in, that means millions of innocents perished at the end of the game! And since the relays are no more, everyone still alive is now going to be trapped in whatever system they’re currently located in! They’ll have no place to go! Resources and food are going to be a problem! The Quarians will never see their recently-won-back homeworld again! It’s going to be pandemonium!!! Look, when you really examine how the plotting is being picked apart here, some of it holds up under scrutiny and some doesn’t. And, yeah, it leads one to believe that BioWare may have gotten a little sloppy when trying to figure out the ending to this thing. But, honestly, the focus needed to be on Shepard’s story, not tidying up every little piece of Mass Effect lore. If this is the kind of thing you’re really worried about, I’m sure it can all be easily cleared up or retconned in future DLC, games, books, comics … whatever. Maybe even in that expanded ending that BioWare says is coming.
That expanded ending is a bad idea, by the way. No matter what your feelings are about Mass Effect 3’s final moments, it’s BioWare’s right (as it is every artist’s) to end their story as they see fit. What’s in stores now is what they chose. Trying to expand or alter it after the fact to appease angry gamers sets a bad precedent, even if a portion of those gamers disliked Mass Effect 3’s ending for legitimate reasons. And let’s not forget, there’s the distinct possibility BioWare screws things up even worse.