The Ending to Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect 3 is out and bringing an end to a much-loved series. However with its arrival, there has been a growing chorus of dislike for the ending. So much so that people have started protests to “retake” the ending, protesting seemingly non-aggressively by making all proceeds go to Child’s Play. I, however, liked the ending. I thought I might lay out some of my thoughts on the ending and this protest.

Mass Effect 3 is out and bringing an end to a much-loved series. However with its arrival, there has been a growing chorus of dislike for the ending. So much so that people have started protests to “retake” the ending, protesting seemingly non-aggressively by making all proceeds go to Child’s Play.

I, however, liked the ending. I thought I might lay out some of my thoughts on the ending and this protest. I’m not really trying to persuade anyone. There’s just some interesting talking points.

For the love of God, if you haven’t finished Mass Effect 3, DON’T READ THIS BLOG UNTIL YOU DO. It’s going to be totally spoiler-tastic. You should judge the ending on your own terms, then join the discussion.


I’ll preface this by saying that I’m not a diehard Mass Effect fan. I haven’t read the books, I only skim the codex entries, and I’ve only played each game once. To be more correct, I got a bit of the way through the first game, gave up out of boredom, then only retried it after the endless praise my friends had given it. As a quick review, I ended up liking ME1 and loved the other two. I played them fairly thoroughly, but I’m happy to not sink hundreds of hours into it.

The Mass Effect series is a curious one. It’s adult-ish sci-fi game, with intentions of being an action RPG. There is a lot of fuss made about choices having an impact on the game’s progression, and their being meaningful moral choices. On a gameplay level, it’s really a media-rich choose-your-own-adventure with mini-games in between. As the series went on, fewer of these mini-games survived. And to be fair, most of them (except for combat) were kinda lame. But the writing,voice acting and general spectacle were top-notch, leading to a most enjoyable experience. Choice was a big thing for this series, but you have to be careful about it. Some choices really only meant that certain scenes were suboptimal (like skimping on loyalty missions or upgrades in ME2 meant that characters you may have liked died). The game patched around most of these choices. For example, if you killed Jack in ME2, she is replaced with someone functionally equivalent for the biotic kids rescue mission in ME3. Not as cool, but not fundamentally game-changing.

The major choices my female Shepard  made through the series were:

  • No crew member died in ME2.
  • Sleeping with Kaidan in ME1, Jacob in ME2 and (semi-accidentally) Traynor in ME3.
  • Leaving Ashley to die in a nuclear blast.
  • Letting the Rachni queen live, and then recruiting her in ME3.
  • Actually curing the genophage in ME3 and defused the bomb on Tuchanka.
  • Destroying the heretic geth in ME2, but accepting them in ME3, and believing that Legion had a soul.
  • Resolved the Quarian/geth conflict without destroying either race, and actually, they became very friendly
  • Saved the council time and time again.
  • Prevented Samara from committing suicide.
  • Encouraged EDI and Joker to find love, but on their own terms.

And probably many more. I think I had the full complement of crew members in the final goodbyes. And the final big choice I made: I chose synthesis.

Now to me, the final choice presented by what I figured was the machine god was one of: control, destroy, or live another way. I think the conflict of chaos versus order, destruction versus control, was the major theme of the series. Some people might think it’s about peace, or war, or getting rid of xenophobia, but if you take a step back, it’s all about the interplay or use of excessive control or destruction: the genophage, the geth/Quarian conflict, the Rachni war, the Prothean uplift of the Asari, the death of the Batarian race… Playing into this is the responsibility of the creator – the whole geth plotline being a perfect example. Just as prominent is the Salarians (and Mordin in particular) being conflicted about the creation of the genophage. Also, obviously, the creation of the Reapers to moderate the growth of organic life by killing the tall poppies every so often. Heck, most of the characters had father issues (Miranda’s story being the most prominent example of control). Control, to prevent potential destruction, but at what cost?

Most of the major choices in the series seemed to be either control, destroy or put your faith in a third option. For example, you could destroy the Rachni queen (in two separate instances), or you could set her free and hope she helps out. You could pretend to cure the genophage to keep the Krogan and the Salarians happy, or you could cure it and hope that the Krogan had enough sense to not stir up bad blood. My choice in the final scene was obvious: control never solved anything thus far (locally or globally), and destruction is no solution to bring about peace. So I chose synthesis. I chose to accept a middle ground between control and destruction, between organic and inorganic, between progress and stagnation. It doesn’t seem like a good solution, but it’s one of those uncomfortable optimal solutions playing outside the normal boundaries of what you are used to. The humans prime you for 3 days to defend and then (somehow) destroy the Reapers. Cerberus have another, equally impossible solution to control the Reapers for themselves. Both options never peacefully resolve the fundamental conflicts of creator and created, controller and controlled, organic and inorganic.

So for me, the final choice perfectly reflected what the entire series had been on about. I hadn’t really twigged on the theme until mid-way through ME3, but that’s not a bad thing. Up until then you had had a local, biassed view of the galaxy. “Of course” the geth were a Frankensteinian monstrosity, accidentally destroying their innocent creators. “Of course” the Krogan were dumb, violent brutes that needed to be suppressed for everyone’s safety. “Of course” the Reapers had only galaxy dominance on their mind (and somehow were cunning enough to devise the Mass Relays).

Another part of my acceptance of this ending was that I recognized the structure of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero Cycle”. To me it seems an almost note-perfect rendition. I won’t go through them all, but the strong ones for me were: Shepard’s psychic ability to read Prothean beacons being what made her special, her death and resurrection, her descent into the underworld (Cerberus) and renewal, her mortal wounding, and the fact that she had to sacrifice herself in the end. While it seems slightly silly to be wedded to one particular theory on heroic narrative, it’s a well-regarded structure for a reason.

Narratively and thematically I think it all fit. But that’s not just what’s been complained about. Gameplay-wise, people have complained that it’s another example of Deus Ex Human Revolution’s “push the button for the cutscene you want”. I didn’t feel like that at all. Firstly, if you have a complaint about that, you have no place playing a game like Mass Effect given it’s basically “press a button to choose the next bit of narrative”. Secondly, I felt as though the choice was “make the choice you’ve done for the last three games, or do something different”. It’s the test of your resolve to your philosophy. A blind Paragon will choose control. A blind Renegade will choose destruction. My Shepard had found a middle ground, which pleased me as a Zen Buddhist.

Another complaint is that fans were “promised” that all their choices would factor into the final resolution. I find this expectation unrealistic and totally unactionable. In a game about the ever-increasing hierarchies of alien races, in a universe too massive to be affected by local changes, they expect one person to do one thing and the fate of an entire galaxy hinges on that. One of the dominant themes in sci-fi is the utter irrelevance of the individual. It’s hard to think one person has a major impact on the scale of the universe. Not only that, but having all your choices click together like some bizarre Rube Goldberg contraption that defeats the Reapers and delivers ice-cream to all the orphans. My choices were to not kill the geth, to rebuild and give new faith in the Krogan, and so on. The game of ME3 was the end. Just because they didn’t directly change the very final scene doesn’t mean they weren’t resolved or weren’t important.

I just can’t conceive of a non-naff ending to ME3 that would satisfy the fans. They talk of Mass Effect being “written by the fans” and I think people are taking it far too literally. They listen to feedback and ideas. But the creators are Bioware (and, I guess, the particular choices you made along the way that Bioware allowed you to make). To say this is an affront to fans who have invested so much time and effort into the series is comedic. That they didn’t match the vague and lofty expectations of millions of fans should be a given. Many fans didn’t want an ending – they want more Mass Effect. But if the biggest moral battle in your life is that something that you liked came to an end that you weren’t 100% cool with, then you have a very nice life. It’s very comfortable and enjoyable razzing with Garrus, singing with Mordin, or staring dreamily at Tali, but if you aren’t challenged by a work, then what are you getting out of it?

To be fair, the ending wasn’t perfect. As I got closer to the ending, many of the classic Bioware problems arose: missing animations, audio that would blank out, or AI getting glitched on obstacles. The final battles dragged on for me. I think I had several “well this is goodbye” interchanges with each character (although I loved most of the final goodbyes). Why the Citadel was parked near Earth and why they had a teleportation ray just shooting down at all times wasn’t well-explained (although I loved the “walk-through-hell” of all the ground-up bodies, and Shepard pushing on despite being seriously wounded). The ending cinematic of Joker trying to escape the synthetic pulse was bizarre. The requirement to destroy the Mass Relays was weird and arbitrary. Perhaps it was because I finished the game very late at night, but the options presented to me by the machine god/child were confusing. I got locked out of a Paragon response with the Illusive Man, despite having a vast reserve of Paragon points. The father/child discussion at the end didn’t add much and confused things. And the final goddamn words in the game being “downloadable content” was exceptionally disappointing (especially because you could drop them out and still be able to sell DLC). Bioware/EA’s DLC strategy is often distasteful, even if the content is okay.

I don’t for a moment think the ending was perfect. I do however think it was reasonable, appropriate, and considering some of the other games I’ve played through to completion, pretty awesome in terms of a triple-A game finale. Accordingly, I feel like the “retake Mass Effect’s ending” protest is disrespectful, inappropriate and practically impossible to resolve anything. It’s like they want Mass Effect to end up like Star Wars. I loved the Mass Effect series, but I think it’s time to journey elsewhere. Ending it here and now, warts and all, is fine by me.

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