In Which I Address the Mass Effect 3 Ending Controversy

WARNING: I feel it goes without saying that I’m going to be laying down some solid spoilers for the ME3 endgame here. So, if you haven’t played and have been fastidiously avoiding spoilers, turn your gaze away from this page right the fuck now.

Also, I’m going to ramble like mad and piss everyone off.

Oh, galleons. What with the statement from Bioware released today, I feel like I have to finally write this. Really, ever since finishing Mass Effect 3, I’ve been toying with doing this post. Because, after I emotionally calmed myself after the soul-shattering end to a four-year span of my life, I found I was a little disgruntled with one teensy aspect of the ending. One tiny plot hole that I was having a hard time justifying.

Honestly, when 99.9% of the game is golden, though, it’s hard to be too upset about the last three minutes or so.

And I couldn’t help but wonder if I had missed something. I mean, I was sobbing by that point and helplessly chanting, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” at the screen as I thought I was essentially destroying everyone I loved in order to save the galaxy as a whole (more on that in a minute)… so, let’s just say there was ample room for me to have missed a moment that explained away that silly plot hole.

It seems I didn’t, and when I turned to the internet looking for the answer, I found a whole slew of people whining about the ending.

So, here goes. Here’s what I have to say about it:

You are all a bunch of pussies.

I actually fucking applauded the fact that Bioware killed Shepard in nearly every ending. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I don’t think Shep should have ever survived. Let’s look at the facts here:

Shep survived not one, but two ridiculous-fuck-situations where she (yes, she) should have died: the Battle for the Citadel and the attack on the Collector base. In fact, Shep did die once. She’s mortal as fuck. And she gets her ass blasted by that Reaper laser right before the Hammer ground team hits the Beam to take them to the Citadel/Crucible. You spend the remainder of the game limping, in a haze of fucking pain. She is seriously injured walking into the final confrontation. God, when they tell her the Crucible isn’t firing and she’s hauling her broken, dying body up to respond… that’s fucking heart-wrenching, no? And it can only be so if we truly believe Shep is mortal and is dying there.

What I’m trying to get at here is that Shepard has been the paragon (pardon the phrase) of humanity throughout this series. She’s creative, she’s tough, she’s tenacious, but she’s human. Her humanity is highlighted even further in ME3 as we really see the psychological toll this war is taking on her and has been for the past few years of her life. She is forced to make tough decisions, I mean the fate of all life in the galaxy level of tough decisions, but she’s not a god. She’s a mortal woman (with a few fancy tech upgrades courtesy of Cerberus, sure). Her very humanity, her spirit, is a combination of both her strength and her frailty. To have her walk away completely unscathed from the final fucking war with a deadly, giant machine race would have been an insult to the character and to the players.

This is a war and you are a soldier. More so than the other two titles, ME3 really brings that home. All these friends you are making? You are dragging them into a fucking war zone with you. Not everyone gets to walk away from this alive. Statistically, that’s impossible. And you, Commander Fucking Shepard, despite being a hell of a soldier, are just as mortal as the rest of them. And really, you are being tossed into the worst places in the war. In that final battle, you are the front fucking line on Hammer team. That you make it to that Beam at all is a goddamn miracle.

Shepard basically had to die to make this whole journey even remotely believable. She was never a god. She was a mortal woman. A badass mortal woman, to be sure, but mortal nonetheless. Her incredibly emotional journey, the loss of so many friends and teammates… how else could this really end? It was always building to this, to that moment of ultimate sacrifice. She was always going to die to save the galaxy. This has always been her destiny. That is why she is the lynchpin of the trilogy, why we play her. Since she first encountered that beacon on Eden Prime, her course has been set. We knew this, deep down. Maybe we didn’t want to believe it, but we knew it. When she dies at the beginning of ME2, we scream, not because she died, but because she died without completing her task, without fulfilling that destiny we know she’s been walking toward.

But, I digress. Suffice to say, despite the fact that Shepard should die to end the trilogy, I feel like people are unwilling to accept it and that’s where a lot of the ME3 backlash lies.

I blame J.K. Rowling for this.

Honestly, the ending of the seventh Harry Potter book, that fucking epilogue, was perhaps one of the most insulting pieces of fan service in recent times. I loathe that the fans are now dictating the story, that writers are cobbling together that “perfect Disney ending” just to appease the whining masses who refuse to experience the honest story, the more somber ending, the bleaker look at how life sometimes works (particularly in times of war). No, we want everyone happy and married and popping out babies and eating cookies.

Now, Harry Potter was geared toward a younger audience, so I suppose you can argue that it needed hope and a happy resolution (though I think that argument is bullshit and half, but that’s an argument for another day). Mass Effect has always been geared toward a mature audience, dammit. Adults don’t get Disney endings, they get the goddamn truth.

Apparently, as Jack Nicholson so famously said, you can’t handle the truth.Because what I’m getting from most comments regarding the ending is people saying it’s “not fair” that Shepard dies, it’s “not fair” that they don’t get a perfect, mindless, generic happy ending to the Reaper threat.

True, a lot of forum comment monkeys are sniveling children (or the emotional equivalent of such), so I shouldn’t be surprised.

Harsh? Maybe. I’m not feeling particularly generous at the moment. I’m feeling irritable.

But, while I feel that most of this backlash is centered around that whole “dead Shep” issue, there are some points being tossed about that I’ll discuss.

The mass relay explosions

In the Arrival DLC pack, we shot a goddamn asteroid into a mass relay and leveled a star system (including a batarian colony). That sucked (not really… batarians are cocks). So, a lot of people are really fucking pissed that the Crucible destroys all the mass relays in the goddamn galaxy, but doesn’t wipe out any star systems as a result.

Were the writers ignoring their own established canon here?

No.

We have to take into account the fact that the mass relays in these two instances were destroyed in very different manners. In Arrival, we hurled that asteroid at the whirling ball of eezo in that mass relay. When that eezo essentially detonated, it fucked that star system up. But the Crucible appears to be using up the eezo in the mass relays it hits to fuel its passage to each subsequent relay. By grossly depleting the eezo in such a manner, we have a much smaller resultant explosion when the relay blows up. Think atomic bomb to conventional bomb here. The star systems would survive that.

Why did we just bring the whole galaxy together if we’re going to rip them apart by destroying the mass relays?

*sigh* Yes, you just spent all those hours making the galaxy play nice so you can bring a massive army to fight the Reaper threat. And yes, destruction of the mass relays means there are now a bunch of essentially stranded alien races in various star systems across the galaxy.

But… how is this such a mind-shattering thing? I think it was perhaps one of the most poignant parts of the ending. In order to “fix” the galaxy and truly break the cycle, we had to wipe the Reapers and all their tech out. That included the mass relays, which were not invented by any galactic race. Essentially, we’d been cheating at space travel this whole time. We had the tech for FTL travel, but we couldn’t jump between star systems in the blink of an eye (it would take many-a year at FTL travel to take a jaunt to another star system). The mass relays let us do that, but at a terrible price- the goddamn Reapers.

It was a fairly subtle commentary on the downfalls of using technology without truly understanding it. The races never really fully understood how the mass relays worked- they were never able to build new ones, now were they? But they blithely used them anyway. That kind of technological advancement of the races was never earned. We cheated. And what this hard reset of the galaxy did was give the races a chance to earn it this go-round. To build and understand and invent and create on our own.

Sir Isaac Newton (the deadliest son-of-a-bitch in space) once said, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” But we didn’t just stand on their shoulders. We were strolling around on the ground, found a button, pressed it out of curiosity, and were teleported up there. We don’t know how the teleporter works. We don’t even know the giant’s name.

Without coming right out and saying, “THIS IS WHAT WE’RE DOING HERE,” Bioware conveyed that sense of us toppling from grace because we hadn’t earned our place there. Cheat your way to the top, and it eventually comes back to the bite you in the ass. But that doesn’t mean you can’t then try to get back up there… the right way.

And, in the same vein…

But all those turians and quarians will never survive on some of those levo-amino planets! And what about the colonists on more hostile worlds who needed shipments of materials in order to survive?

Yeah… no, they’re probably gonna die. Sorry.

Again, it’s that “needs of the many vs. the needs of the few” dilemma Shep’s been battling with the whole goddamn game. A choice had to be made, and it couldn’t be easy. We couldn’t have a crappy choice where everyone’s fucked and a great choice where everyone’s happy and call that a tough decision. It was a choice between “some will die to save the many” and “everyone fucking dies.” I don’t even feel Bioware has to justify this complaint, because it’s in the same vein as the “oh noes, Shep died” ones.

The ending was too rushed. We got no closure on what happened to the quarians (did they finally get to live outside their suits?) or the krogan (with the genophage cured, did they rebuild their culture?) or…

Blah, blah, blah. This was Shepard’s story. That is all. This wasn’t the entire history and future of the galaxy we were playing. This was one character’s journey through a pivotal moment in galactic history.

I think what some fans wanted was a Dragon Age-esque ending, where there were some text snippets telling you a bit about what happened after you valiantly slaughtered the archdemon. You know, the What-Are-They-Up-To-Now? bits.

Just because this trilogy is over doesn’t mean we’ll never see another game set in this universe. We don’t have to know everything that happened ever in the future. The ending of the game was a galaxy that has been torn apart by war and now has to rebuild. There’s that sliver of hope, though, that they can. Thanks to Shep. It was an emotionally perfect way to end it.

As for the ending being too rushed… maybe it was for some, maybe it wasn’t for others. I felt it was fine. I kind of liked that we never really knew exactly what the Crucible did until the very end, and it wasn’t what we expected. Again, it’s that whole “we’re using tech we don’t understand” dilemma.

And really, the Metal Gear Solid series has the market cornered on 2-hour cutscenes… let’s just leave it that way, yeah?

How did the Crucible accomplish the fusion ending? Space magic?

Okay, one of the possible endings for the game allows you to fuse organic and inorganic life in order to stop the cycle of Reaper violence. But, how can that happen? How can the god child (the Reaper AI or whatever that created the Reapers in the first place as a “tidy” solution to the problem of organics and synthetics killing each other chaotically, that’s been around for aeons and appears to you as the little boy that dies at the very beginning of the game simply because it’s emotionally resonant) fuse the two?

Yep, it’s space magic. Or, rather, Mass Effect‘s version of space magic, which is eezo.

I like that fans get all confused and huffy over this, but have absolutely no qualms with the fact that people perform these crazy ass “space magic” biotic tricks throughout the games. Is it because they were explained?

Guess what- their explanations translate tidily over to the fusion ending. Exposure to eezo was what caused the biotic powers to manifest in the races, because eezo changes a person on a genetic level. The biotic implants just helped folks utilize the powers they now had- they didn’t give them to people. Eezo did that. Like the coolest radiation mutation ever.

Because eezo has the power to rewrite organic genetic code, it could theoretically be used in a targeted fashion to rewrite genetic code to accept inorganic code as well. If fucking Miranda could fuse organics and cybernetics to bring Shep back from the dead, is it really so hard to believe this incredibly advanced AI god child, hanging out in the Citadel and watching/coordinating the cycle time and time again, the thing that create the fucking Reapers in the first place, couldn’t manage to make that eezo wave it sends out fuse man and machine?

It’s a slight stretch of the imagination, but really not much further than we’ve already stretched it. The whole situation calls to mind Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

People are up in arms that Bioware didn’t explain anything in the ending, but they did… they just did so over the course of the last three fucking games, not all at once in the ending. They were anticipating that their fans were intelligent enough to pick up on this.

Sadly, it seems they were mistaken. It’s a damn shame- they didn’t hold our hands through the end of the series because they weren’t going to patronize us, and that’s blowing up in their faces.

What does that say about us, gaming community?

Why are the endings the same for both Paragon and Renegade players? That’s stupid.

I actually think this is one of their more brilliant moves.

My very favorite author, Kevin Brockmeier, has a short story entitled, The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device: A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Story. As the title states, it’s a choose-your-own-adventure style tale, set in a regular day in the life of an average person. Your choices are basic, normal, mundane things. Do you put your book back on the bookshelf or leave it on the arm of the couch? Do you throw away your fountain drink cup or buy a refill? Perfectly boring, normal decisions. Each little thing moves you in a slightly different direction through your day, but there’s only one ending: no matter what you do during the rest of the day, you die of a heart attack.

It’s a clever way to explore the idea of fate, that the universe has some predestined plan for you. No matter what, the character’s fate is sealed.

In a way, Bioware did something similar with the Mass Effect trilogy.

In the first game, whether you Paragon or Renegaded it up only really impacted two things: whether you could convince Saren to shoot himself in the initial fight or had to fight him twice… and whether you killed the Council or not. And really, even if you Paragon the whole goddamn game, you can Renegade kill those Council bitches (I always do). It was less about “your decisions change the ending” and more “your decisions color the game and how people interact with you”.

Game 2. You can gain squad loyalty through either Paragon or Renegade choices and the rest of the squad’s fate lands in who you choose to lead the fire team/be the tech expert and whether you upgraded your ship or not. Again, whether you Paragon or Renegade the rest of the game, you can still choose either option when you are figuring out what to do with the Collector base. It makes no significant impact on the ending at all.

So… why would we expect a sudden shift in the formula now? Because this is the last game? Your Paragon and Renegade decisions decide who you bring to the final battle (fleet-wise)… your war assets. Which impact which decisions you have in the Crucible and whether or not the galaxy survives. But whether you Paragon or Renegade your play-through, you still get the same options at the end. This is the same thing that happened in both previous titles. And what should happen. It’s not Paragon=good, Renegade=evil. They are simply two different paths toward achieving the same ends. One way you’re diplomatic, one way you’re a bit more… aggressive. You charm or you intimidate. You sweet talk or you punch them. Either way, you get a similar outcome.

Like the character in Brokmeier’s short story, Shepard has a fate. She cannot escape that final decision. She’s going to get there no matter what else she does. She can shelve the book or leave it on the couch. She can let that terrorist go or shoot him in the face. In the end, though, all steps will lead toward that one end.

That end where you have to choose.

***

Now, as I mentioned at the start of this post, there is an actual plot hole I can’t seem to resolve (and maybe I’ve just missed something- I plan on replaying the game in the future and seeing if I can’t figure it out).

Situation:

I am part of the Hammer team, the ground team pushing its way through London toward the Beam that will lead to the Citadel so we can open its arms and connect it to the Crucible. As always, I have Garrus with me (as my buddy Tony said, “You only ever have to ask someone who their other squadmate is. Singular. Because you always take Garrus with you. ALWAYS.”), as well as Liara. We’re making our way toward the Beam. Between us and it is a fucking Reaper.

It shoots us. There’s this huge explosion. Shep shakily gets to her feet, severely wounded, and eventually staggers into the Beam. Either Garrus and Liara are dead at this point (GARRUS…. NOOOOOO!) or grievously wounded. There’s still a Reaper hanging out by them. The Normandy is out in space land as part of the Sword team.

Okay. Cut to my decision. My Shep decided to do what she came here to do- she destroyed the Reapers. As such, she really chose to destroy all inorganic life in the galaxy. Goodbye Reapers. Goodbye geth. Goodbye EDI.

You see the eezo wave shoot out from the Crucible… and then you see the Normandy in what appears to be FTL drive (since it’s outpacing the explosion to start), with Joker wildly hitting controls as the wave hits and the ship obviously is being fucked with. You don’t know exactly what’s happening there, but it looks fucking bad. And shit, I just chose to destroy EDI, who we learned early in the game is an essential part of the ship now and couldn’t be removed from the Normandy.

It’s at this point, tears streaming down my face, that the “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” chant happened, because I’m fairly sure I just destroyed everyone I care about (between Garrus and Liara down on Earth and my crew up in space) in order to save the galaxy. And fucking emotionally eviscerating as that was, god, it was a hell of an ending. I was in awe even as I cried.

Then, you see the Normandy crashed on some garden world in another star system. And out climbs Joker… and Ashley… and Garrus.

Wait… Garrus? What the fuck?

Somehow, in the time it takes Shep to limp through the Citadel, confront the Illusive Man, talk to God Child, and make her choice… the Normandy manages to swoop down into Reaper central, pick up your wounded squadmates, and… do an FTL jump? To, what, avoid a Reaper? Because I’m never going to believe the Normandy would just leave the battle… Joker is a lot of things, but a coward isn’t one of them.

Oh, we also managed to completely patch up your on-the-brink-of-death love interest for you. Even while crashing. Way to go, Chakwas.

Honestly, that whole bit was confusing as hell. Those three minutes or so? I could have done with a bit more explanation, yeah. It didn’t make much sense to me. It felt like the Normandy was forced into an FTL jump with no explanation just so we could let the team survive… but in another system.

Yeah, I don’t get it. Joker’s a hell of a pilot, but there’s no way that Reaper by the Beam (not to mention all the other Reapers around Earth) wouldn’t have torn him apart if he’d attempted a rescue operation.

Weirdly enough, I’d probably be okay with the unnecessary crash landing ending if the Earth ground team just didn’t feature at all. They died. So it goes. Everyone else survived, I guess. At least there wouldn’t be such a strange plot hole.

That being said… I really don’t need Bioware to change it. So there was a hiccup there at the end. The rest of the game MORE THAN FUCKING MADE UP FOR IT, and I certainly didn’t walk away feeling cheated. At all.

***

Just because the game didn’t end the way you wanted it to doesn’t make it a bad ending. In fact, that kind of makes it a good ending, doesn’t it? The end was odd only in that, in the four years since I started playing this game, I never expected it to come down to that final decision in the Crucible. But that doesn’t mean it was a bad ending. I commend Bioware for being able to give me something I wasn’t expecting, for striving for a resolution that wasn’t the obvious.

The ending was visceral. It was hard. I didn’t walk away happy, but I definitely walked away satisfied. I was horrified at what I had to do, but by god, I wouldn’t want it any other way. That decision had to be brutal, and they did a great job of making it so. This war was never going to end with a shotgun shell in a Reaper’s face, after all. It had to have a big decision, that giant red button Shep would have to press… with all the requisite strings attached.

Bioware actually did a damn solid job of bringing a lot of the unique elements (Particularly eezo… get it? Elements? I’m funny, dammit) of the series into play in that final bit. It was the culmination of battles and knowledge acquisition, the sum total of everything the player should have learned about the Mass Effect universe and how its rules worked.

I’m sorry that the gaming community has failed the writers, not the other way around. If there were a few flaws in the ending, that is vastly outweighed by the sheer ignorance of those whining about the ending. Bioware gave us the chance to prove we are smart, clever folks. That we don’t need the writers to tell us, step-by-step, what is happening every moment of the game. That we could extrapolate from known information, could use our extensive knowledge of the Mass Effect universe, to easily understand how this could all work out.

I honestly hope the Bioware team doesn’t cave to fan pressure. There’s a line between listening to and learning from the critique of fans and bowing to their demands. Drastically changing the ending would set a dangerous precedent in the gaming world.

Anyway, I’ve prattled on long enough.

Rant over.

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