on Mar 21, 2012
It should be obvious, but this post is going to be complete and total spoilers for Mass Effect 3. Also, most of what I say here is just a re-hash of points that have been made elsewhere. The problems with the ending are very obvious, and I don’t think it takes a keen analysis or a deep understanding of the Mass Effect lore to uncover these issues.
The truth is, my nitpicking skills are wasted on this, and I don’t have a lot to add to the conversation. I’m writing this mostly to get it off my chest.
And to deflect the likely objections: Yes, the rest of the game is often quite good, and there were many “fanservice” moments where players got things they had been hoping / waiting for since the original game. But right now we’re talking about the ending to Mass Effect 3, which I rank as the worst ending I’ve ever personally played. Worse than KOTOR 2. Worse than Neverwinter Nights 2. It fails thematically, it fails logically, it fails at basic coherence, and it fails to be consistent with what has come before.
I know it’s childish and melodramatic when fans say, “This new thing has RUINED this series FOREVER!” I don’t want to go that far, but I will say it’s done a lot of damage. I just finished a re-play of Mass Effect 1, and it’s shocking just how many things seem stupid, contrived, inconsistent, or pointless now that I know how they turn out.
And no, I’m not a believer in the “indoctrination theory“. I think that would be better than the ending we got, but I don’t think it it was ever intended by the writers. This theory involves an incredible level of subtle symbolism, which goes against just how ham-fisted the rest of the story is. To wit: If these writers thought Shepard was indoctrinated in the last stage of the game, we would know it.
In the first game, Cerberus was a bunch of idiot mooks that you mowed down for XP. In the second game they were expanded to be this vast organization with research stations, ships, advanced technology, and the ability to build a ship more advanced than the ship that the Humans and Turians could build together. Despite this, they are still amazingly incompetent, with 99% of their victims being human and 100% of their experiments turning on them and destroying their stuff.
In the third game, Cerberus is even more ludicrously powerful. They now have an army, fleets, and military bases that dwarf the size of the human colonies we’ve seen. They’re everywhere, they know everyone’s plans, and have all the best technology.
The Reapers are attacking. Supply lines are cut. The dead and wounded are piling up. Populations are dwindling. And yet Cerberus can conscript, arm, feed, train, equip, and field this endless army, which is powerful enough to fight a war on multiple fronts and even mount an open invasion of the Citadel itself. You spend more time fighting them than you spend fighting the supposed enemy of the series.
This is to say nothing of Leng, the absurd plot-armored emo supervillain, who seems to be made of contrivances and looks like he just escaped from a school for Final Fantasy villains. (When his shields get low, he crouches in the open to become invulnerable to all damage while mooks spawn and his shields recharge. He has no business being in in a cover-based shooter that’s trying this hard to be taken seriously.)
All of this is a drawn-out way of saying that by the end of the game I was just sick to death of Cerberus, and so it was agonizing to have yet another nonsense conversation with the Illusive man right on the threshold of the final encounter. I was so uninterested in him and his goals, and the guy seems to be a sort of plot-hole singularity where the gameworld bends around him until it stops making sense. I was hoping he wouldn’t show up in this game. Instead he was a major focus of it. Not since Fable 2 has there been an annoying second-fiddle antagonist that so gleefully overshadowed the main villain.
The explanation for the Reapers is that they destroy all life, every 50,000 years, in order to fix the problem of synthetics rising up and killing their organic masters. This is akin to, “You burned dinner, so I have incinerated the city to save you from the dangers of a kitchen fire.” It’s ludicrous nonsense. It’s not even a solution to the stated problem. It’s just a bigger and grander version of the original problem, running in parallel.
I know we were all worried that the Reapers were going to be some horrible cliche. “Two million years ago, our creators gave us a simple order about being the ‘most powerful’, and our robotic monomania has driven us to this cyclical killing spree to fulfill it.” Yes, that’s a little tired. I admit that wouldn’t have been terribly stimulating. But I’ll take “tired cliche” over “comical blatherskite” any day.
The most offensive thing about this is that you’ve likely got Geth fighting at your side, along with EDI. You have two different synthetics as allies. It’s a major theme of the Quarian storyline that the Geth repeatedly spared their creators, despite having both the means and the justification for eliminating them. The central motivation of the villain is directly undercut by the story itself, and Shepard can’t even bring this up in conversation. The writers couldn’t even be arsed to hand-wave it.
No matter what choice you make using the Ending-o-tron 3000tm, it shows the mass relays exploding. In Mass Effect 2 (in the DLC) it was a major plot point that an exploding relay would destroy the entire system. The game gives us no indication that this case is any different. So what happened? Did Shepard just wipe out every single inhabited star system? Did Shepard end up killing more people than the Reapers? We can’t know for sure, but that’s only because the game can’t be bothered to answer trivial questions like, “Did I just blow up the galaxy?”
For us and for you, Mass Effect 3 had to live up to a lot of expectations, not only for a great gaming experience, but for a resolution to the countless storylines and decisions you’ve made as a player since the journey began in 2007. So we designed Mass Effect 3 to be a series of endings to key plots and storylines, each culminating in scenes that show you the consequences of your actions. You then carry the knowledge of these consequences with you as you complete the final moments of your journey.
…and then all decisions are instantly negated or rendered moot. Did you enjoy working hard to bring peace between the Salarians and the Krogan? Nice going. Too bad they’ll never see each other again now that the relay network is destroyed. Did you side with the Geth or the Quarians? Doesn’t matter, because the migrant fleet is never moving again. Those colonies you fought to save in Mass Effect 2? Those idiots are probably going to starve.
We always intended that the scale of the conflict and the underlying theme of sacrifice would lead to a bittersweet ending—to do otherwise would betray the agonizing decisions Shepard had to make along the way.
I don’t know that bittersweet is the only way to go, but I’ll admit it’s what I was hoping for. But what we have here is not a “bittersweet” ending. This is a nihilistic tragedy where everyone dies for no reason.
For something to be “bitterweet”, it must have some sweetness in it. There is nothing sweet here. Nobody hugs. There is no hope, no future, no joy, no understanding. The isolated people of the galaxy starve or explode. Whatever happens to them, they don’t even get to find out what it was all for or how it turned out. Shepard takes all the secrets to the grave, and the galaxy would have been better off if Shepard had just jumped off that cliff the moment they touched down on Eden Prime in Mass Effect 1.
The star child tells us that the Crucible has been in development for many cycles. Each race adds pieces onto it, finally perfecting the design this time around.
How? How are the races collaborating? The whole point of the series is that the Reapers surprise attack, kill everyone, and then leave no traces of their work. Does every single race just happen to never find any hint of the Reapers until after the Reapers attack? And then once the attack is begun they find ruins, or old computers, or whatever, and try to build their own crucible, even though nobody knows how to use it or what it’s for? And then they bury their modified plans in such a way that the next cycle will only find them once it’s too late?
Imagine that the first race, facing the Reaper threat and having no idea how to defeat them, sit down and design a trigger guard. And that’s it. Then they bury the plans for the trigger guard and they die. 50,000 years later, the next race is getting pulverized. Before they die, they find the plans for the trigger guard. They have no idea what it’s for or what it does, but they design a handle to go with it, add it to the plans, and re-bury them.
And so it goes. 50,000 years. A safety mechanism. A rifled barrel. A magazine. A rear sight. The trigger. A front sight. A muzzle. An ejection port. Nobody knows what any of this does.
Then Shepard & Co comes along. They follow the plans, which builds a Glock 17 pistol. Admiral Hacket points to the chamber. Something goes in there, but we don’t know what it is or what it does.
Then you meet the Star Child, who just happens to be a 9mm bullet, which miraculously is a perfect fit for this pistol, even though the people who built it have no idea what a bullet is or what it does.
Then the Star Child explains that the next step is to put the bullet in the chamber, aim the weapon at your foot, and pull the trigger. That’s how you “win”.
Actually, I think my explanation makes the setup sound cooler than it really is. A situation where you’re tricked into building the weapon of your own downfall would have been a great twist. This isn’t that. This is just writers who didn’t remember what they wrote yesterday and can’t plan for tomorrow.
Case in point: The crucible is the ultimate weapon, derived from Prothean ruins, yet it was never mentioned or hinted at in any of the previous games. None of the beacons talked about it. Vigil didn’t bring it up, and I’m willing to bet the Prothean squadmate (a DLC character) doesn’t mention it either. This is because it wasn’t planned at the outset. It’s a late-story asspull done by writers who never had a plan.
Did the Protheans build a crucible of their own? Did they try to use it? If so, what happened? I suspect I have just given this more thought than the writers did.
Shepard has just used the Ending-o-tron 3000tm, and now suddenly Joker is flying somewhere? Where is he going? The Normandy was a key part of the fleet to take back Earth, and suddenly he’s flying away. I suppose he’s running away from the exploding mass relays, but the game makes it look like he’s traveling to some other system, which would indicate he flew towards the mass relay.
We don’t know where he’s going, or why, or who is with him. He’s just inexplicably flying somewhere. Then the explosion catches him, and he crashes on a planet someplace. Where? We’re led to believe it’s uninhabited. The ship is smashed. The relays are gone.
So crew of the Normandy abandon the fight, flee like cowards, then crash for unexplained reasons and starve to death? Is that the end here? Because that’s the only conclusion we can draw based on what we’re shown, and anything beyond that is fanfiction.
Did you like the “Take Back Earth” marketing campaign? You want to get in there and reclaim your homeworld from the Reapers? Ha ha! You don’t take back anything, Commander Jerkface. Earth is wasted, and possibly incinerated by the exploding mass relay. Which is your fault!
You spent the entire game building a massive fleet, and now that fleet is stuck in orbit around Earth. So even if there are survivors on Earth, they’re probably going to die soon. All of those Turians, Quarians, Asari, and Krogan are going to get hungry, and then your hard-fought alliance will dissolve as the starving armada invades the remnants of Earth civilization and kill each other for the last few scraps of food.
Want to know how things turned out for them after the war? Dead or alive, they’re stuck on some random jungle world with Joker and nothing you did for them matters.
Wrex isn’t going to lead his people, Tali isn’t going to build a home on Rannoch, Ashley isn’t going to hook up with her family, Miranda isn’t going to see her sister again, and Garrus is done being Space Batman. If EDI managed to hook up with Joker, she can look forward to watching him slowly die of fever, malnutrition, and broken bones. This is assuming you didn’t kill her with the Ending-o-tron 3000tm.
Perhaps you’re one of those people who think of malaria and parasites as “bittersweet”.
The ending has RUINED this series FOREVER!
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.