Now that the Star Child has explained his nonsensical purpose of solving a problem by perpetrating the same problem on an even grander scale, he asks Shepard to pick a new solution from three available choices. I don’t know why. Even if we accept the idea that mass cyclic genocide is an appropriate solution to the allegedly inevitable conflict between synthetics and organics, Shepard has done nothing to suggest he’s worthy or knowledgeable enough to participate in this decision. To the Star Child, he’s just a wounded meatbag soldier that crawled in here.
Also: All of the three solutions result in Shepard’s death.
If the Star Child really believes that his solution is no longer working and that he needs a new one, and if he really believes that Shepard is the guy to make this decision, then why do the Reapers continue to press the attack? Why not stop the assault while Shepard mulls it over? Why doesn’t Shepard ask for more time, or if he can use one of his lifelines to call a friend? Arrogantly making unilateral life-and-death decisions on behalf of the galaxy is what the Reapers stand for, not Shepard.
The Star Child has no good reason to be killing organics. But if we pretend he does, then he has no reason to think that Shepard showing up should change that reasoning. But even if he did, there’s no reason to think that Shepard should be the one to decide on a new solution. But if he was, then shouldn’t he come up with a solution on his own, instead of picking from A, B, or C? But even if it makes sense for the Star Child to provide the choices, there’s no given reason to constrain the choices to these particular three thingsFor example, why can’t Shepard destroy ONLY the Reapers and not the Geth? If you’re giving Shepard all the power, then why can’t Shepard just TELL you to have all the Reapers fly into the sun without him needing to kill himself first?. But even if that made sense, there’s no reason Shepard needs to kill himself to make these choices happen. And even if that were true, there’s no reason for Shepard to believe that any of these things are true.
Sure, you can come up with your own justifications for a few of these. You can extrapolate if you want. Maybe if you glue on enough fan-fiction you can get through this scene. But this is the big reveal at the end. The writer tied the whole universe in knots to to make this moment happen, and the big reveal at the end is actually a fill-in-the-blanks homework project. The whole thing is just so nakedly arbitrary.
If you’re still playing and haven’t shut the game off in confusion or frustration, then the Star Child presents Shepard with three choices:
- Destroy all synthetic life. This includes the Reapers, the Geth, EDI, and Shepard himself, since he’s part machine. (And then I guess everyone needs to make a pinky promise to never build any more? How is this enforced?) If Shepard chooses this, he does so by walking up to a RED thingy and shooting it over and over until it explodes in his face, even though it’s not clear why he thinks that shooting this small device would kill all robots, and it’s really not clear why Shepard needed to stand beside it while it was blowing up.
- Control the Reapers. Shepard can dissolve himself into the machine. He’ll die, but his mind will live on, guiding the Reapers. (TIM was right all along! LOLOL!) Shepard has to grab onto a BLUE thingy that does the dissolving.
- Merge all organic and synthetic life. (Somehow. I guess robots will just randomly sprout some meat?) Shepard jumps into a GREEN beam that evidently disintegrates him.
Note that the Star Child still has all the power here. There’s no reason the Reapers couldn’t fly over here and blow up the Crucible. Star Child is letting Shepard win. And not because of anything Shepard has done. (Aside from show up.)
After Shepard makes this choice, the Citadel explodes in an energy cloud of the chosen color. This cloud touches the nearby mass relay, which also explodes, and sets off a chain reaction that eventually detonates all mass relays. These expanding energy waves magically accomplish whatever Shepard chose: Either all robots are obliterated from the galaxy, all robots are placed under the direct control of the now-disembodied intelligence of Commander Shepard, or all robots and organics are somehow blended or merged or whatever.
The Death of Agency
Outside of the Genophage and Rannoch missions, Shepard has no power to make decisions. The game is linear and Shepard is simply dragged from one mission to the next, and the only power he has is to shoot people and choose teammates.
Like I said way back in part 35: Shepard had nothing to do with the Crucible. He didn’t find the ruins, uncover the plans, decipher them, or decide to use them. He didn’t build the Crucible. He didn’t know what it was for or what it would do. The entire plot turns on this thing, and it’s completely out of his hands aside from pushing the “On” button. He didn’t uncover the big mystery that made this possible. He didn’t get the answers and then confront the villain empowered by that knowledge. He just showed up and it was given to him by the only character with agency: The villain. Here at the end, all of his choices are described and constrained by a malevolent enemy whom he has no reason to trust.
And since all of the choices kill him, he really should be skeptical that the Star Child is going to be true to his word after Shepard obligingly kills himself.
This is why the ending feels so patronizing: The writer is pretending to let Shepard have ALL THE POWER, but in reality Shepard has all the agency of a coin being flipped by someone trying to make a decision. The audience doesn’t feel powerful, they don’t feel informed, and nothing in the conversation feels like they have actually defeated the Star Child in any meaningful way.
In a tabletop setting, there’s a stigma to people who run games where victory is only possible via a superweapon that the players must collect. The GM can’t bear the thought of his awesome villain being defeated by those lame dirty players, so instead the story is about their awesome MacGuffin vs. their awesome villain. One of their creations defeats the other, and the players get to participate by fetching the weapon and escorting it to victory, which has the added benefit of putting the players in just the right location to act as an audience.
It’s an idea so selfish and shallow that I made it part of the story in my webcomic Chainmail Bikini, which was a tale of reluctant players being dragged through a cringe-worthy D&D campaign. And yet, despite the fact that I deliberately engineered that campaign to be horrible for the purposes of comedy, I actually think it’s less self-indulgent on the part of the game master than the story of Mass Effect 3. If the Chainmail Bikini players had ever bothered to gather up the super-weapons, at least they would have personally used them and understood how they worked.
Shepard wins the game by activating a machine he didn’t discover or build, with no understanding of how it works or what it will do. He doesn’t even know a proper history of the device. And once he turns it on, the bad guy lets him win. Shepard is then offered a choice, but the bad guy controls the parameters of the choice. This is a literal Deus Ex Machina. A god shows up and solves your problem for you. The fact that the god in question is also the source of the problem makes this a story in which Shepard is nothing more than a spectator. The best Shepard can do is plead for information, which is all hackneyed nonsense.
Shepard never had control of this situation, never understood what was going on, and was only being allowed to make any decisions at all because of the unexplained magnanimity of the villain, who he must implicitly trust for any of this to work.
Even if the writer had untangled all the continuity errors, lore failures, character misfires, and dialog shenanigans, this would still be an unsatisfying way to conclude this particular story. The player was given an unearned victory, a dumb explanation for the Reapers, an illogical choice, an unsatisfying and meaningless death for their avatar, and a confusing after-death cutsceneWhat happened? Why is Joker flying away from the battle? What was the impact of blowing up the Mass Effect network? How did the fleet around earth get home? Etc..
Having said that…
The End is Not the Problem
I love Mr. Btongue, the YouTube personality behind Tasteful, Understated Nerdrage, which is probably the best summary of the problems with the original ending. I love his work and I’m always hoping to see him start producing again. Even though he hasn’t made a video in a powerful long time, I wish he had a Patreon so I could throw some support his way for the awesome work he’s done in the past. I think his video on BioWare is some of the smartest stuff that’s been said about any of the companies that EA has gobbled up, and I’d be lying if I said his thoughts haven’t influenced my own ruminations on the business of making videogames over the years.
But I didn’t write this ponderous, self-important, overly verbose and barely proofread series on Mass Effect just to repeat what others have said. And if there’s one thing I’d disagree with in his videos it’s the idea that Mass Effect was great right up until the end.
The ending isn’t where the Mass Effect 3 writer faltered. The ending is where all of their ongoing, widespread, long-running failures finally came to a head. Failure to establish a theme. Failure to build up a proper villain. Failure to give the various factions ideas. Failure to characterize. Failure to construct a natural sequence of cause and effect. Failure to establish and adhere to the rules of the world.
The writer constantly wrote IOUs to the audience: This will all be explained later. It’ll make sense in retrospect. This is building up to a larger payoff. This is a setup for a later reveal. The writer never explicitly promised those things, mind you. We just sort of assumed those promises were being made. When the writer kills and resurrects the main character, re-writes major details of the world, radically changes the focus of the story, and imposes decisions of the player character that seem unreasonable or poorly justified, it’s natural to assume that it’s all in pursuit of some larger goal. Surely all these compromises now are in service of some satisfying payoff later, right? The writer wouldn’t bring us all this way for nothing, would they?
Once Shepard steps into that beam, all those implied or inferred IOUs came due, and the writer had nothing for us. It’s natural then to say the ending failed us. But I think the story was doomed long before we meet the Star Child. When Mass Effect 2 wasted the second act on a side-plot, it kicked all the duties of a second act into the third. When The Arrival introduced huge ideas that couldn’t feed directly into the main plot because they were DLC, the writer tied their own hands with regards to what they could and couldn’t do in the third game. They couldn’t contradict The Arrival, but neither could they build on it. When the writer made Cerberus such a central element of Mass Effect 3, they created a foe that would devour screen time and clutter up an already-busy story. When the writer built the emotional core of the story around a child we neither knew or cared about, they tied their final confrontation to a character that was fundamentally uninteresting and thematically wrong. When they dropped a contrived and unexplained deus ex machina into the story to solve the Reaper problem, they made it so that Shepard would never be anything more than a witness to the ending, not an active participant in it.
By the time Shepard reaches the Citadel, the writer has painted themselves into a corner so small, no amount of writing skill or sci-fi savvy could have saved it. Sure, you could come up with a better reason for the Reapers or a less arbitrary final choice, but the story was already hopelessly broken beyond repair. The ending was doomed to come up short, because the rest of the story had destroyed the framework that would have made a satisfying conclusion possible.
Nothing Could Have Been Good Enough
A common retort during the “Mass Effect 3 Ending Controversy / Temper-Tantrum of Doom” was that “after so much hype, nothing could have pleased fans”. As if to say: “The ending is fine, you just expected too much.” It’s an attempt to blame the audience for the failures of the writer.
If this series has done anything, I hope it’s destroyed this notion. Even if you loved Mass Effect 3, I hope you can at least see the game through the eyes of the fans who didn’t, and understand that for people who signed up for details-first, character-driven sci-fi drama, this ending was a failure on all counts.
Lord of the Rings concluded to everyone’s satisfaction. Return of the Jedi came amid a vortex of hype, and fans managed to love it anyway. Harry Potter captured the imagination of a culture for a decade, and there wasn’t a widespread backlash when the last book hit the stands. Properly concluding a series is not an impossible task. Other writers have done it. Fictional works have come and gone without enraging or alienating their fans.
You Just Wanted a Happy Ending
This argument is tricky, because it’s technically true in some cases and it’s more a matter of degrees than anything else. But this goes back to my points about what people want from their fiction.
Generally speaking, an audience is probably looking for three key things at the end of a story:
Affirmation – Love conquers all, hope endures, freedom is worth fighting for, the truth will set you free, justice can’t be denied, etc. You save the little kid, the evil overlord is defeated, somebody gets married, everyone celebrates the hero, cupcakes and ice cream. Ex: Frodo drops the ring into Mt. Doom and Saruon is defeated forever.
Explanation – All questions answered. Making sure it all makes sense also falls under this category. Ex: How did Gandalf come back from the dead? What made the Witch King undefeatable? What happens to the Three Rings if the One is destroyed?
Closure – How did things turn out? Did the characters have a happy ending? Ex: Sam married Rose. Frodo and Bilbo went to the Havens. Aragorn was crowned king.
Yes, there’s quite a bit of overlap here. But you get the idea. Good guys win, questions answered, and character stories are fulfilled. Lord of the Rings does all three. Of course, you don’t have to do all three. In fact, in a gritty sci fi universe like Mass Effect, a mega-happy ending can feel forced or out of place. It’s perfectly valid to write a story where the good guys lose. (Empire Strikes Back, Se7en, Usual Suspects.) You can leave questions hanging. (What was in the unopened package in Cast Away? What was in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction / Ronin?) You can drop characters without resolving their stories. (What happened to Sean Bean in Silent Hill?)
Mass Effect 3 didn’t deliver on Explanation, because the end was goofy vague science magic nonsense.
Mass Effect 3 missed on Closure, because the story ended with the Mass Effect relays being destroyed, the combined might of the galactic fleets in orbit around the now-ruined earth, and Shepard’s companions flying off, crashing somewhere, then taking off again. What happened? Was the earth saved? Did Shepard’s friends make it? Was the Citadel usable after this? What happened to the folks on the Normandy? Did they make it home okay? What happened to the Geth? Is the Star Child still around? Did anyone ever figure out what Shepard did, and do they understand it was Shepard’s decision? What happened to the galactic government without the relay network and Citadel to support it? Etc, etc, etc.
Some people just want happy endings, but other people are willing to go with a sad ending as long as it has something profound or clever to say. But if you are going to refuse the audience Explanation and Closure, then you’d better have some Affirmation for them. But Shepard is dead, the Earth is ruined, and the Star Child – king of the Reapers – seemed content with how things turned out. The bad guys weren’t defeated through cunning or strength. At best they let you win and at worst they won and got your hero to kill himself.
Which is to say, if the big reveal at the end had made some kind of sense, the sadness of the ending would have been less of a problem. If all that bullshit with Cerberus had led to some payoff or reveal, or if the Star Child had delivered a properly telegraphed mind-screw of a twist, or if the story had said something profound about the nature of life in the galaxy, then people would have been more accepting of having Shepard die.
The argument isn’t so much, “I want a happy ending” but “If you can’t give me anything else, at least you could give me a happy ending”. It’s much harder for the audience to zero in on complicated stuff like thematic failures or Schrödinger-style branching continuity holes, but everyone can latch onto the fact that it doesn’t feel like they won. Their avatar is dead, Earth is ruined, the mass relay system is ruinedWhich is either a paradigm shift or mass extinction, depending on how inter-dependant you assume the galaxy is. If the populous homeworlds can’t get food from the garden worlds, is that a temporary food shortage, or mass galactic starvation?, and as far as we can tell the rest of the galaxy never even got the few meager answers that Shepard did.
The irony is that the original Mass Effect – the nerdy, talky, details-first game that began with the premise of space Cthulhu coming to devour all civilization – was a pretty good setup for a sad ending. Cthulhu stories don’t tend to end in sunshine and rainbows. They’re dark and grim and usually the protagonist simply forestalls evil at great cost to themselves.
But the later games embraced an action-movie vibe of visceral audience empowerment and cheap gratification. If you’re not going to offer anything more nourishing than sensory stimulation, then you’d better not mess with audience expectations. The later games promised us cheap thrills and then tried to be dark and profound and mysterious at the last minute, and the result comes off as insufferably pretentious.
I’d be very surprised if anyone at BioWare had the patience to sit through my long-winded complaining. While I have nothing personally against anyone involved in making these games, I don’t blame them if they don’t care to read this thing. I imagine it would be excruciating to spend years of your life building something only to have nearly every aspect of it criticized in exhaustive detail. If someone were to do the same to one of my large projects, I’d probably skip it just to avoid feeling depressed and angry.
But I feel like this series is incomplete without some sort of constructive advice. So I’ll offer some for whoever managed to make it this far.
We can’t see inside of BioWare or EA, and we don’t know what sort of decisions shaped the development of this franchise. But we can see the high writer turnover as people left the company or jumped to other projects within BioWare. Every single installment of Mass Effect had a different arrangement of lead writers. That might be acceptable if this was a series of games like Uncharted or Fallout, where each installment is supposedly a stand-alone story. But the Mass Effect Trilogy supposedly exists to tell a single overarching story, and that story is completely incoherent because the parts don’t fit together.
So if there’s one thing I wish I could impress on the suits at EA / BioWare it’s this:
Writers are not interchangeable.
Everyone realizes that voice actors aren’t interchangeable. In the same way, writers also have distinctive voices and treating them like generic script-writing machines can only lead to disaster. Pick a lead writer and stick with them. Even if your writers are are all literal geniuses, don’t shuffle them around in the middle of telling what is supposedly a single story. Pratchett and Tolkien were both masterful and inventive storytellers, but that doesn’t mean either one would have been a good fit for taking over a Vernor Vinge novel in progress.
I realize this advice is probably lost on EA, who have built an entire company culture around the wrongheaded idea that you can turn all videogames into assembly line products. The thinking seems to be that if it works for Madden, why can’t it work for all games?
So that’s everything I have to say about Mass EffectI hope.. I’m glad the first game exists, I wish the latter ones had turned out differently, and I hope someone takes another stab at making some details-rich space opera Real Soon Now. I’m not going to comment on Mass Effect: Andromeda yetProbably in a future column.. My hope is that this retrospective acts as a sort of denouement of the entire ending controversy and enables us to put the whole thing behind us. The complaints have been made, the mistakes have been cataloged, and the advice has been offered. There’s nothing to do now but try to remember the good, forget the bad, and hope for something better next year.
Thanks for reading.
– Shamus Young
 For example, why can’t Shepard destroy ONLY the Reapers and not the Geth? If you’re giving Shepard all the power, then why can’t Shepard just TELL you to have all the Reapers fly into the sun without him needing to kill himself first?
 What happened? Why is Joker flying away from the battle? What was the impact of blowing up the Mass Effect network? How did the fleet around earth get home? Etc.
 Which is either a paradigm shift or mass extinction, depending on how inter-dependant you assume the galaxy is. If the populous homeworlds can’t get food from the garden worlds, is that a temporary food shortage, or mass galactic starvation?
 I hope.
 Probably in a future column.
Here is a 13 part series where I talk about programming games, programming languages, and programming problems.
Bad and Wrong Music Lessons
A music lesson for people who know nothing about music, from someone who barely knows anything about music.
Final Fantasy X
A game about the ghost of an underwater football player who travels through time to save the world from a tick that controls kaiju satan. Really.
Linux vs. Windows
Finally, the age-old debate has been settled.
The game was a dud, and I'm convinced a big part of that is due to the way the game leaned into its story. Its terrible, cringe-inducing story.