Some called me a sympathiser when I championed the rights of some video game fans to have disliked ending to a video game changed.
They said I didn't like the ending, and that's why I concocted a theory in March about video games as a malleable art that is justifiably tweaked by player and game creator.
They were wrong, because I had not yet experienced the ending of Mass Effect 3. I couldn't say then whether I liked the ending or not. I sympathised with the ending-complainers on principle, not facts.
I only finally played through the ending of Mass Effect 3 on a Sunday in May. I've now seen this ending. I'd be happy if it never changed.
(Spoilers follow, of course.)
I think my Commander Shepard saved the universe. She synthesised artificial and organic life. She enabled her formerly human pilot and the formerly robotic virtual intelligence aboard her ship to hold hands as two beings of equal bio-mechanical sentience. She gave them a future together. Shepard died. Her friends did not, at least not any whose lives I could save.
Over the last half decade, across three Xbox 360 adventures, my Shepard spared Wrex and saved the Geth. The plot of the game would not let her save Thane or Legion. In some cases she did choose one friend over the other, but she saved as many as she could.
We've published two takes on the ending from Kotaku staffers. One was a complaint that the series' system of clear choices was sabotaged by its creators when the time came for players to make the most important choices at the end of the long Mass Effect saga. The other was a positive appraisal of a series that had revealed itself in its narrowed ending to be a tale told in the mode of a myth whose details may change but whose conclusion and meaning remains the same.
I finished Mass Effect 3 thinking differently. Early in my play-through of Mass Effect 3 I came to think of the entire game as the ending. Mass Effect 2 was Shepard's triumph, her second gathering of friends to fight against the odds. Mass Effect 3 seemed, instead, to be all goodbyes, one long ending. Having played the first two Mass Effects preserving as many lives of key characters as I could, my Mass Effect 3 journey was a summer vacation after high school. It was a re-visit with friends who I could sense I'd never see again. I'd been told Shepard's adventure was a trilogy. I assumed I was playing an ending. I sussed out that it would be a melancholy one. Mass Effect 3's sad title screen with the earth under a rain of devastation was a sufficient hint. The last game I'd played that was so bleak at boot-up was another extended tragedy, Metal Gear Solid 4. Here, I expected a game of sorrow.
The best part of the end of the original Star Wars movie isn't the knowledge that the Death Star was destroyed but the smile, during a military awards ceremony, that the princess has for the farmboy. I always feel good when I see it, that knowing look between new friends (siblings, whatever). They are alive in an epic, but their joy is nearly domestic. It's quaint and cute and more satisfying, paradoxically, than any blow to an Empire. Who cares if the world has been saved? I care that these people became friends in the process.
The next Star Wars movie ends more darkly but with a hug of companionship that compensates for the bad guys essentially winning. The final Star Wars movie ends with the possible downfall of evil and a planetary party, but it's that one look between a father and son that thrills me the most.
Mass Effect 3 is full of those Star Wars-friendship moments. It's full of those moments that affirm the bonds this band of buddies has made. (Tali and Garrus? I never suspected!)
Mass Effect 3 is essentially a game that needs several hours of cosmic space battle in order to sprinkle in all the warmth between friends required in an epic with so large and well-realised a cast. Shepard fought Cerebus, battled banshees and blew up the citadel, but all of that was, I realised by the end of the game, padding in between her -- my -- farewells to Zaeed and Tali, to Legion and Thane, to Ashley, to Grunt, to Wrex and on and on. The goodbyes were sad, because I sensed that Shepard would be the one incapable of saying hello again. She would die. But these other characters would live on because of her and me.
My Commander Shepard actually died many times while I played Mass Effect 3. Her particle rifle reloaded too slowly to always dispatch Banshees in the first go-round. She sometimes walked into the buzzsaw of a Cerebus engineer's turret. Before she killed the assassin Kai Lang, he killed her a few times. I undid all but one of her deaths. I kept that final one at bay as long as I could.
We can play Super Mario Bros. to save the princess and win. But we will only ever play Tetris to lose. Our best effort will only delay the loss. Mass Effect 3 proved to be more Tetris than Mario, but with each extra effort, each new re-load, I had a shot to keep a cast of characters alive. When my pieces finally reached the top of the screen, I had bought enough time and made enough effort to guarantee that a starship full of friends had lived. Their survival had little to do with any weaving between Shepard's paragon and renegade sides. It had nothing to do with her gender or hairstyle or the guns she used in battle. It had to do with me stretching the story and keeping it going. I got a lot of them through it, and I got to say goodbye.
The creators of Mass Effect 3 now say that, due to fan reaction, they will elaborate on the ending of their game. They will add non-interactive scenes to provide more closure. I won't mind it, but I don't need it. The Mass Effects, for me, were always about keeping friends alive, of giving them a chance to smile at each other one more time before the credits rolled. That's what I accomplished, as well as could be done. Commander Shepard's mission is a success.
Top image: The Team lithograph, available at the official Mass Effect website.