At the time, the original ending of Mass Effect 3 spawned almost universal outrage. After playing a series for what’s usually over 100 hours, people were very upset at how the trilogy wound down.
This story has been retimed to coincide with the release of the Mass Effect trilogy remaster, which is out this week.
And they have every right to be. But not for the reasons I saw so many putting forward. It has nothing to do with the story, or the writing, or the fate of Shepard, or indeed the fate of the Mass Effect universe itself. Those are creative decisions, and as the creators of the content, BioWare can do whatever the hell they like.
If Shepard had sprouted wings and gone off to fight Sephiroth, whatever, that’s what they had in mind. Stories are subjective things. We can not enjoy them, hate them, even, but I don’t think a story – however poorly implemented – can ever be a universal failing.
No, I think the biggest problem lies in something more direct, and thus culpable, than any of those offenders. It’s in how the game’s conclusion played out.
The Mass Effect series features walking, and running, and shooting, and mining, and flying, and what passes for science magic. But the core of the game, they thing that kept gamers on the hook and so invested in a story to the point they’re this angry about a video game ending (remember, most endings suck!), is the game’s dialogue mechanic.
Building on over a decade’s work, across various BioWare franchises, Mass Effect 3 again let you alter the course of the game’s story by selecting dialogue options that correspond to a desired moral compass. Want to be the galaxy’s nicest guy? There are spaces on the dialogue wheel set aside just for you and your holier-than-thou answers. Vice versa for being the galaxy’s biggest badass.
It’s a system that worked as advertised across the first game, the second game and nearly all of the third. That’s, for most people, over one hundred hours of gameplay.
And then, at the very end of the trilogy, at the moment your decisions matter most, the system gets thrown out the window.
At the point where you face off against the Illusive Man inside the Citadel, he eventually gets hold of a weapon, and aims it at your series-long friend and ally, Anderson. As he does so, a prompt appeared on-screen for a Renegade intervention. On my first playthrough, I let this pass, as I let almost every other Renegade possibility (reporter punching aside) go, since I was playing as a Paragon (and had by now maxed out my Paragon rating).
Anderson gets shot. That’s … unfortunate, I thought. No sooner has his body hit the ground, though, than the Illusive Man points the gun at me. Again, a Renegade prompt, again, I leave it, because that’s not how I play. He shoots me. Game over.
I was speechless. I was being forced to take a Renegade option, even though this was the polar opposite of the Shepard I had built over the trilogy. Why was there no Paragon option? Why had the binary system built to power the games suddenly not working? Why tell me there’s a choice when it’s not a choice at all?
Maybe I missed something, maybe I didn’t get the right amount of EMS or TMS or however the hell that stupid “go play multiplayer or buy an iOS” system worked (and to which there is still no definitive explanation/guide), but to encounter it felt like the worst kind of sucker punch. “Oh, that way you’ve been told to act and intervene over the last three games, yeah, it’s different for the next five minutes”.
Swallowing the need to be a little meaner, I reloaded, shot him as quick as I could, and sat back as the endgame began to play out. When the time came to make THE ULTIMATE DECISION, I was again floored. This time, because the decision had suddenly become unclear.
I had no idea which was the “good” ending I was after. All three choices I’d been presented with seemed ambiguous. Which was surely another creative decision on BioWare’s part, but a poor one, because this one interfered with the trilogy’s most basic assumption: that you can build the story the way you want to.
That’s why every single choice you made previously with regards to Paragon or Renegade pathways was so obvious; because it needed to be. People were invested in building their character the way they wanted to.
The way the game’s endings were presented didn’t just undermine this, it threw it out the window. What had been the point of making all your decisions across three titles based on good or “evil” (well, “rude”) if the final payoff did not represent these?
It feels like walking 161 km to get lemonade only to get there and be told you can choose between a pair of shoes, some brass knuckles or a cheeseburger.
You can say part of this is down to, yes, creative decisions, but that only works to a point. In the case of Mass Effect 3’s conclusion there’s no separation between creative decisions and mechanical ones. They’re one and the same. So when one directly impacts the other, it can’t magically be spared criticism.
I feel for the developers on one level, because what’s happening here is the result of a conflict that’s been brewing since the series began. Since we first took control of Shepard, there’s been a delicate line walked between who was actually driving the story, the developers or the players. Previously, that line was held because players were given clear and direct consequences for their decisions.
At the end, the very end, that line couldn’t be walked any further. Someone had to win, someone had to actually finish that story, and of course BioWare were always going to play the more important role in that. We, the players, were never writing the story, we were just the ones with our shoulder to the wheel.
But I think they played too important a part. With all three endings being incredibly similar, down to many shared assets, it gave players the impression their choices no longer mattered, that they were being Sheparded (sorry) through a cutscene rather than actively determining its outcome.
Would three clearly different endings have improved things? A decision is meaningless without consequence, after all, so giving the player genuinely differing outcomes from their decisions would surely have been a more satisfying end, if only in terms of design and following through on one of the key tenets of the series’ gameplay. But ah, that would also involve making changes to the plot and story, and asking for changes to a story is a line a consumer should never cross.
BioWare’s failure here, then, isn’t in terms of its story-writing, or its pacing, or that Shepard dies (indeed, my Shepard clearly did not die). It lies in changing the way the game’s most important decisions – the very things that gamers were so invested in – are made at the eleventh hour, with no indication or feedback to let players know this is going on.
Mass Effect 3’s ending would, famously, be altered with the release of the Extended Cut DLC on June 26, 2012, with PS3 players getting the content a couple of weeks later. The Mass Effect: Legendary Edition only includes the Extended Cut’s ending, effectively retconning the original ending out of existence.