I want to say something about fans. Actually I’m going to let someone else say something about fans because he said far more elegantly than I ever could.
This sentiment basically sums up the way fans have reacted to final installment of what is probably the greatest science-fiction story of our generation and definitely the most ambitious video game project ever undertaken. You have a massive company filled with some of the most creative and talented people in the industry pouring their lives into a project that took over half a decade to complete, and the fan reaction is to angrily throw it back into their faces and demand a mulligan, free of charge. This is insulting and it’s made me think twice about my decision to enter the industry, if the reward for my effort is to be told to do it again on my time and my dime.
By now you can probably guess I’m talking about the ridiculously over blown backlash against Mass Effect 3 that most of the Internet I frequent has jumped onto as their new bandwagon of choice. Frankly I’m kind of disgusted and ashamed by it, not because of their opinions, because having an opinion even if I disagree with is perfectly fine, but the petty, entitled way the fans have decided to go about it is just shameful. Now personally I didn’t have a problem with the way Mass Effect 3 ended, I think it’s a good ending, it might even be a brilliant ending, but even if I didn’t like it, that still wouldn’t invalidate all the fun I had with it up to that point. Tali would still be my favorite character, Garrus would still be hilariously awesome, and the sight of the massive Reaper getting curb stomped by the mother of all thresher maws would still have been awe-inspiring. We are looking at a masterpiece of the medium, a glimpse of the heights games can achieve, and I for one am going to take a stand in favor of it.
First of all Mass Effect 3 has a good ending. Most of the complaints I’ve seen don’t make any kind of sense to me, and it seems to be that people are confused and angry and aren’t really asking themselves the question I did once I finished the game: “What is BioWare doing here?” First of all it should come to no one’s surprise that Mass Effect 3 is the ending to Mass Effect. I can’t count the number of times BioWare promised/warned us about this. Maybe we just didn’t believe it. After all remember when Halo 3 was going to be the last Halo game? Or when Metal Gear Solid 4 was going to be last the Metal Gear game? We’ve been promised endings to popular IPs that never come for so long I don’t think it’s truly sunk in yet that Mass Effect is over. This is why I hear so many people saying that Mass Effect 3 has ruined the franchise, this complaint is total nonsense. Mass Effect 3 ended the franchise, which is exactly what BioWare promised they would do. If a man asks if it’s okay to punch you in the face and you say it’s okay, do you then get mad at him for punching you in the face?
Then there’s the complaint I hear that the ending didn’t bring closure to the series. This is also total nonsense and as Penny Arcade argued on last Monday, Mass Effect 3 is the ending to the Mass Effect story, that the ending isn’t when you beam up onto the Citadel or get asked to choose between a red explosion, a green explosion, or a blue explosion. The ending starts when the Reapers show up and blow up Vancouver. And honestly there’s so much closure throughout this game it’s insane how much effort they put into it, there are scenes that probably cost them thousands of dollars that you’ll never see because of a decision you made in another game. In my story I won Tali back her homeworld while Legion sacrificed himself to end the war between his kind and his creators. I helped Miranda put her past and her father behind her for good. I watched Jack turn from a violent criminal into a responsible teacher. I ended the Genophage and gave hope to the krogan, united under my buddy Wrex. Liara gave me a gift that I don’t understand but knew that it meant the end of our friendship. Ashley became the second human Spectre and saved the Council from a traitor. Everyone of these is an ending to a story that started a game or two ago so how can you say there is no closure to the series? Then there’s that final, controversial decision at the end, and each one will change the Mass Effect universe in a completely different way that it would functionally impossible to continue the story. I don’t know about you but that’s what I call closure.
Mass Effect is a trilogy because it’s a three-act story. Functionally each game isn’t its own separate story, but an act in a much larger story. Each installment neatly fits into the three act structure. In the first game the threat of the Reapers is discovered and the dramatic question: Can Sheppard stop the Reapers, is posed. In the second game you go around collecting all the tools and forming the bonds that will be needed to answer the question, which is what is supposed to happen in the second act. And finally the third act is where all the events of the second act play out and the dramatic question (can Sheppard stop the Reapers) is answered. If Mass Effect was going to have a bad ending, it’s one where the answer to the question is: No. That’s an ending that would have sucked, that would have demolished everything the players worked for, where if no matter what you did the Reapers won and everyone died. The only way Mass Effect could have had a bad ending, is if it had a prototypical Bad ending. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t even have a prototypical good ending either, which is good because let’s face it, if players were presented with just a Good ending, or a Bad ending, everyone would have chosen the Good ending, and so the whole point of player choice would have been rendered meaningless. The choice between either an exotic Asian massage or being repeatedly punched in the gut is not a real choice.
Instead Mass Effect 3 gives players three different endings. Yes the videos that play out once the choice is made are 90% the same, but the implications of what would happen to the galaxy are all radically different. There is no right and wrong choice and the answer you have is the answer to a question that lies at the core of Mass Effects’ theme. This question has been asked in some variation across all three games: is subservience preferable to extinction? Is it better to be at the devils right hand, then in his way? In the first game the villain Seran argued yes, in the second game we saw the consequences of what that subservience would have been, and in the third game, where we leave the Earth and stand above it, looking down at it from the domain of a god, we are asked to answer that question. But not in terms of the organic life, because saying yes would have been in direct violation of Sheppard’s character, which would have also made for a bad ending. Instead the question is asked in the terms of the Reapers. The ending to Mass Effect 3 completely turns the core theme of the game on its head and asks you to answer it given the new context. Is it better to destroy the Reapers or make them your slaves. And you know what? If the Reapers were to answer that question it would be yes, and they would want you to say yes too.
The fact that Mass Effect 3’s ending gives the answer to the core theme of the game to the players is why I think it’s a good ending. But if this one particular fan theory is correct, then Mass Effect 3 has a brilliant ending. As I hinted at in the last paragraph at the end of the game players have the option to control, destroy of coexist with the Reapers. For the Reapers, given what we’ve been shown over the past two games as to how they think, they would say that subservience is preferable to extinction, and would do everything in their power to prevent Sheppard from killing them, even if it meant that serve as slaves. The whole MO to the Reapers isn’t to wipe out all organic life, but to prune it, to shape it into Reaper form or a form the Reapers can control. They see themselves as intergalactic gardeners. But Sheppard, and by proxy the players, sees them as threats to all life everywhere, one that has to be destroyed. If only there was some way the Reapers could change the way a person thinks and sees the world and get them to come about to their side of thinking.
Oh right, they can. This is why the indoctrination theory makes way too much sense to be ignored. After all there was something wrong about the ending, and I think it was intentional. I mean, why BioWare give us a Renegade interrupt to save Anderson’s life? Why is it when the game shows us the destruction option it’s color coded in red, the Renegade color, and when it shows us the option to control the Reapers, it’s color coded in blue, the Paragon color? But in the last game the option to destroy the Collector base was Paragon, while the option to save it was Renegade. Because the Reapers are trying to indoctrinate Sheppard, which at this point is their last line of defense, and instead of telling us through cut scenes, the sinister effects of indoctrination are being showed to us through game play. This means that BioWare is intentionally taking the conventions of the game’s mechanics and turning them on its head to demonstrate the fact that an outside force is trying to make you do something you would never willing do on your own.
BIOSHOCK DID THE SAME DAMN THING AND YOU ALL LOVE THAT SO MUCH!
Look people, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t declare that games should be considered art and then shoot down any ending that requires an in-depth analysis to understand. Because that’s really the only difference between BioShock and Mass Effect 3, BioShock came out and told people what it was doing, while Mass Effect wanted you to stop and actually think about it yourself. If games are going to be art than this is what that’s going to look like, because interactivity and the conventions of game play are what make this medium unique, they’re what make it so different from any other medium and they’re why games do in fact matter.
So BioWare, let me do something that I don’t think you’ve heard at all from anyone this week: let me say thank you. Thank you for all the time and effort you put into crafting this masterpiece, this exemplar that reached for the stars and showed us a glimpse of the future of games. You have legitimately added something to the substance of our culture and I’m grateful that I get to live in a world that this exists.