Let’s get this out of the way before I get started: THIS POST WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS. If you have not completed Mass Effect 3 and you plan on playing it, I urge you not to read this. I would not want my thoughts on the game to influence your playthrough. Bioware has created a game series that is a very personal experience and you should have yours before you read this.
Seriously. Point of no return. Omega-4 Relay. Ilos. Stop reading.
Let’s get on with it.
Before you read what I have to say I suggest that you review some stuff other people have written that address this in some detail. Ross Lincoln at GameFront has perhaps the best thing written to date on why the ending is unsatisfying. Ben Kuchera has a great defense of the ending and why it’s OK not to hate it. The Penny-Arcade guys have some good opinions on it as well.
UPDATE: I’ve added some thoughts on the Extended Cut DLC here.
If you don’t want to read 4,000 words you can click here to tl;dr.
Things For Which I Am Not Here to Argue
There are some common statements being made about the end of Mass Effect 3 that I don’t agree with and won’t subscribe to. They are, in no particular order:
- The ending is just a deus ex machina that comes out of a MacGuffin. If you think this is a problem then you must not like much fiction. And a deus ex was basically needed to overcome the enemy they had created. I’m not interested in arguing against this on concept.
- My choices didn’t affect the ending. Bullshit. Gabe at PA said it best: Mass Effect 3 is the ending. The choices you made before alter a ton of things throughout the game (to varying degrees of significance).
- I didn’t get to see everything that happened to everyone I loved. See above. See the final meet-and-greet in London.
- Bioware owes it to us to create a better ending and release it as DLC. No; they don’t. Like it or not, this is the game they created. At the very least it has given you something to talk about. I personally think that the whole “we deserve a new ending” versus “gamer entitlement” argument is missing the point and a waste of time.
- Mass Effect 3 invalidates everything that I spent five years playing and experiencing. I felt this for about 30 minutes and now I’m over it. You should be, too. I experienced 125+ hours of entertainment out of the Mass Effect series, and just started replaying the first one for the third time. It’s still one of the most influential IPs of this console generation and a work of consistent quality.
- The ending is too sad. There are ways to pull off a sad or bittersweet ending well. I don’t think this is really a problem as I kind of expected Shepard to die. (I half-expected the mass relays to bite it as well.) Again, this isn’t really the point.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the ending and why I think it’s poorly conceived, written, and executed.
It should be noted that there are some significant differences in the script with the Child depending on the ending you receive. What’s here is the script that executes if you have all three endings available to you.
Whoa, Wait; How’d We Get Here?
Before we hit the ending, let’s review a conversation that’s dropped on Rannoch when you wax the reaper there:
SHEPARD: You know who I am?
REAPER: Harbinger speaks of you. You resist. But you will fail. The cycle must continue.
SHEPARD (paragon option): I killed Sovereign, and now you.
REAPER: We are many.
SHEPARD: We are more, and we will work together to defeat you. All of you.
REAPER: You cannot comprehend the magnitude of our presence.
SHEPARD: We might surprise you.
REAPER: You represent chaos. We represent order. Every organic civilization must be harvested in order to bring order to the chaos. It is inevitable. Without our intervention, organics are doomed. We are your salvation.
SHEPARD: I have a better idea: we destroy you and live our lives in peace.
REAPER: A philosophy reminiscent of the quarians. Observe the results. We are your only hope for the preservation of humanity.
SHEPARD: You—whatever species you came from, before the Reapers decided to preserve them? They’re dead. They died thousands of years ago.
SHEPARD: And now they can rest in peace.
Point to notice here: this is pretty decent foreshadowing of the conversation that happens at the end. It doesn’t just “come out of nowhere,” but based on my recollection it’s the first time that we hear this reasoning for why the Reapers reap—the “order vs. chaos” angle. I overlooked this conversation on my first run through the game (except for the Harbinger part, which stuck out).
At this point I think it’s reasonable for a player to assume that there will be a confrontation with Harbinger, who has had a grudge against Shepard since Mass Effect 2.
You know what happens. Team Hammer charges the big blue beam in London. You see Harbinger (or what we’re assuming is Harbinger, based on the yellow “eyes” and a Codex entry) touch down in front of you and start laying waste to everything as you make the mad Hero Run. As you close in on the beam one Reaper laser strikes the ground in front of you and there’s a fade to black. At this point it’s not clear where Anderson or your squad are; I didn’t exactly turn around to look and everyone ahead of you is a generic soldier.
When you come to there is some dialogue between Coats (the sniper guy from the reveal trailer) and another Alliance soldier:
COATS: God… they’re all gone.
MARINE: Did we get anyone to the beam?
COATS: Negative. Our entire force was decimated.
[SHEPARD struggles to his feet and grabs his pistol.]
COATS: It’s too much. We need to regroup. Fall back to the buildings…
MARINE: Hammer’s wiped out. All forces… retreat.
MARINE: Pull back! Pull back!
It’s during this conversation that supposed-Harbinger just takes off and is all like “THANKS FOR THE BEAM PARTY BRO PEACE OUT” while you are standing up and making your way towards the beam that you aren’t supposed to reach. If your EMR (Effective Military Rating) is below a certain threshold, your squad members will appear dead at your feet as you make your way to the beam. Otherwise they are simply not there.
After dealing with Marauder Shields, you go into the beam and find yourself on the Citadel. You’re in a hallway that’s really dark, with bodies piled everywhere and a couple of Keepers you can’t interact with and who don’t seem to be concerned that you’re up there. There’s some exposition as you work your way down the tunnel and eventually towards a bridge that leads to a room where Anderson is at the control panel that apparently will permit you to open up the Citadel so the Crucible will activate.
At this point we have a couple of problems already:
- Anderson says he came up running behind you (and seems to be better off than you when you meet up with him) yet finds his way to the panel first.
- He’s not in the same linear hallway as you, but when you get to the control panel your path appears to be the only one that leads there. Where did he come from?
We can hand wave most of this away with “it’s a game, who cares” if you want. I don’t think this is materially important, but it’s weird and/or lazy.
Now TIM (The Illusive Man) appears. He comes into the room from over your shoulder, which we’ll be OK with as that’s a path into the room even though it would just go back to the closed hallway that you came from. He starts exercising control over you and Anderson. I understand how he might be controlling Shepard (given that he gave Shepard the implants as part of Lazarus), but how is he controlling Anderson?
From this point until the end of the conversation with Anderson, I don’t have any problems. I actually think this is one of the best scenes in the game, even discounting the fact that TIM has become Saren 2.0, right down to the resolution.
Enter the Elevator
Shepard finds that he’s bleeding pretty heavily as Anderson breathes his last and Mass Effect fans find that their rooms just became a bit dusty. Now we hear Hackett:
HACKETT: Shepard. Commander!
SHEPARD: I—what do you need me to do?
HACKETT: Nothing’s happening. The Crucible’s not firing. It’s got to be something on your end. Commander Shepard!
SHEPARD: I don’t see—I’m not sure how to…
It’s at this point that Shepard passes out in front of the console, presumably from loss of blood and just generally being beat into submission. Once that happens, the piece of floor that he rests on starts going up into the ceiling via a bright light. It’s pretty clear that Shepard should be done for at this point. He made one final push to finish things and couldn’t make it any further.
When you rejoin Shepard at the top of the elevator ride, he’s somehow getting back to his feet (how?). The Child apparition walks up to him.
CHILD: Wake up.
(Apparently, if you have a lower EMR the child asks “Why are you here?”)
Shepard is just like “Yeah, OK, guess I’m not hurt all that bad, guess I’ll stand back up now” even though just a couple of minutes ago it seemed like he was done for.
First: What is this thing? Why is it talking to me? Why does it look like a ghostly version of that kid from earth who has been in my dream sequences?
SHEPARD: What? Where am I?
CHILD: The Citadel. It’s my home.
SHEPARD: Who are you?
I think at this point it’s reasonable to assume that we’re going to get some kind of answer in response.
CHILD: I am the Catalyst.
SHEPARD: I thought the Citadel was the Catalyst.
CHILD: No. The Citadel is part of me.
SHEPARD: I need to stop the Reapers. De you know him I can do that?
CHILD: The Reapers are mine. I control them. They are my solution.
SHEPARD: Solution? To what?
This tells us nothing. We don’t know much more than we did before the question was asked, and in fact, we have raised several more questions instead of offering resolution:
- What is this thing that’s talking to me? A VI? An AI? A ridiculously advanced biological life form? We don’t know.
- How does this thing know to appear to us in this form? Either there is no answer to this or it’s just a lazy development or story move.
- Why is there a solution to a problem that I didn’t know existed? (Though note that we are back to the conversation with Reaper McRannoch.)
Mo’ Synthetics, Mo’ Problems
Now we get to the meat of the “big conflict” that is supposed to be driving the Reapers into destroying all advanced organic life in the galaxy:
CHILD: The created will always rebel against their creators. But we found a way to stop that from happening. A way to restore order for the next cycle.
SHEPARD: By wiping out organic life?
CHILD: No. We harvest advanced civilizations, leaving the younger ones alone. Just as we let your people alive the last time we were here.
SHEPARD: But you killed the rest…
CHILD: We helped them ascend so they could make way for new life, storing the old life in Reaper form.
- Super-advanced race of synthetics believe that every 50,000 years it is inevitable that synthetic life will either have been created or be close to being created.
- Said Reapers believe that it is inevitable that synthetics will eventually genocide all organic life because it’s inferior or we make them mad or switch their coffee with decaf or something.
- The solution to this is for the Reapers to show up every that often, kill and process all advanced organics (turning them into more Reapers), and hypothetically dismantle synthetics as well.
- 50,000 year restart button pushed, Reapers retreat outside the galaxy, taking their newly created buddies with them in order to return for the next cycle.
So a race of synthetics comes back every 50,000 years to kill a lot of organics so the organics won’t make synthetics that kill all the organics.
There’s a tiny bit of “yeah, OK, that kind of makes sense” in there, even though it’s a remarkably closed-minded and megalomaniacal viewpoint. At this point I want my Captain Sheridan Option to say “get the hell out of our galaxy” because:
- Who has two thumbs and negotiated peace with the geth and the quarians? THIS GUY
- Who started the problems with the geth? The biological quarians. The geth were happy to live and let live.
- Where (other than on Rannoch) has this conflict been present in Mass Effect? I can think of only two places: the homicidal AI in the Citadel in the first game and Project Overlord.
- Shepard has historically asked questions about things and tried to understand them. (Or if you play Renegade just been like “NUH UH” a lot of the time.)
So at this point we assume that there’s more for us to understand or a way for us to say “hey, um… hate to break it to you, but that’s not quite right this time around and here’s why.”
SHEPARD: I think we’d rather keep our own form.
CHILD: No, you can’t… without us to stop it, synthetics would destroy all organics. We’ve created this cycle so that never happens. That’s the solution.
Well, OK; so why don’t you just hang out a sign that says “DON’T MAKE SYNTHETICS, K” or show up, blow the Reaper horns and just tell us what’s going on? That would be a lot easier than what you’re doing now.
Again, this is closed-minded and assumes that the Reapers have/are the solution and can’t possibly be wrong. Good thing I’m about to have a chance to tell you that you’re wrong (just like I told the Reaper).
SHEPARD (paragon): But you’re taking away our future. Without a future, we have no hope. Without hope… we might as well be machines, programmed to do what we’re told.
CHILD: You have hope. More than you think. The fact that you are standing here, the first organic ever, proves it. But it also proves my solution won’t work anymore.
From where I’m standing, your plan has a pretty good chance at succeeding; our ground forces were devastated and the Crucible makes a pretty big target. Why don’t you just blow it up? This is the first cycle ever that has managed to get this far and it’s safe to assume that many succeeding cycles won’t do so.
In fact, if you take too long to make a decision in the end, this is exactly what happens. Who knows why they are giving you the time to have your chat?
I suppose I’ll go ahead and tell you how you are wrong, then.
The Choice of a New Generation
SHEPARD: So now what?
CHILD: We find a new solution.
SHEPARD: Yeah, but how?
CHILD: The Crucible changed me. Created new… possibilities. But I can’t make them happen. I know you’ve thought about destroying us. You can wipe out all synthetic life it you want. Including the geth. Even you are partly synthetic…
SHEPARD: But the Reapers will be destroyed?
CHILD: Yes, but the peace won’t last. Soon, your children will create synthetics, and then the chaos will come back.
Again, closed-mindedness. And I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but at this point in the story the only chaos is that which is being created BY THE REAPERS. But OK; we have option one.
End result: Reapers die, geth die, EDI dies. Shepard probably dies.
CHILD: Or do you think you can control us?
SHEPARD: Huh. So… the Illusive Man was right after all.
CHILD: Yes, but he could never have taken control… because we already controlled him.
SHEPARD: But I can…
CHILD: You will die. You will control us, but you will lose everything you have.
SHEPARD: But the Reapers will obey me?
Option two is before us. Important to note is the use of the word “try” and the fact that it’s pretty presumptive to think that Shepard would be able to control the Reapers when the argument against TIM all along has been that control of the Reapers is a Bad Idea.
BTW, lots of people have assumed that this means Shepard becomes a Reaper, but I’m not sure where that idea comes from. It’s not stated here. I don’t remember that being in the ending.
End result: Reapers live and theoretically go away, Shepard disintegrates, everyone else lives.
CHILD: There is another solution.
SHEPARD: And that is?
CHILD: Add your energy to the Crucible’s. Everything you are will be absorbed, and then sent out… the chain reaction will combine all synthetic and organic life into a now framework. A new… DNA.
SHEPARD: I… don’t know.
CHILD: Why not? Synthetics are already part of you. Can you imagine your life without them?
SHEPARD: And there will be peace?
CHILD: The cycle will end. Synthesis is the final evolution of life, but we need each other to make it happen.
The third choice, the one that takes a higher EMR to unlock and would hypothetically then be the “best” ending, is this one.
End result: synthetic life and organic life are fused into a new Voltron form of life.
That’s great, but I remember hearing something like this before…
SAREN: I believe in Sovereign completely. I understand that the Reapers need organics. Join us and Sovereign will find a place for you, too. […] The relationship is symbiotic. Organic and machine intertwined, a union of flesh and steel. The strengths of both, the weaknesses of neither. I am a vision of the future, Shepard. The evolution of all organic life. This is our destiny. Join Sovereign and experience a true rebirth!
WHOA WAIT WHAT
I should probably not do this! (Or at least as a player who went through the first game, this sounds like yet another Bad Idea!)
CHILD: You have a difficult decision. Releasing the energy of the Crucible will end the cycle, but it will also destroy the mass relays. The paths are open. But you have to choose.
And that’s it. The ramps come up and you have a choice to make to trigger the ending of the game. I should note that I don’t have a problem with the destruction of the mass relays, as it always seemed that they would be considered one and the same with the fate of the Reapers.
Let’s pause here for a moment, though. These choices are being handed to you by the very enemy that you are seeking to destroy. The Child says that he is in control of the Reapers. By this train of thought you should consider the child to be the most unreliable source of information possible. There is no narrative reason why you should trust a word the Child says. But that doesn’t appear to matter in this instance, as Shepard is just like “YEAH THAT’S COOL THANKS FOR THE INFO KID” as you trudge towards the ending of your choice.
At this point we have succeeded in creating yet more questions rather than arriving at any conclusions. A good ending should answer more questions than it creates, especially when said ending has been publicly heralded as The End of The Story. We’re not even done with the questions yet.
(For the record, I personally think that the Indoctrination Theory is on to something based on the script and some critical thinking.)
All Good Things
So we have come to The Endings, about which much has been written. I will not go through them in much detail as I think that what happens *before* the closing movies play is much more important than the movies themselves in terms of narrative impact.
By now you all know how the ending movies play out. There are some subtle differences between the two, but here’s a basic summary:
- Citadel sends out an energy pulse (red, blue, or green, based on the ending you chose).
- Energy pulse sweeps over Earth.
- Based on the ending you chose, the reapers either basically do nothing, fly off into the sunset, or fall over dead.
- If you chose the Destroy ending and have a low EMR, Earth and everyone on it gets cooked. Too bad for you.
- The Citadel sends a beam to the Sol relay, which then sends it on to the other relays and then is destroyed. It’s shown that the mass relay network is gone for good.
- The Citadel is destroyed. In the Control ending, it survives and closes up (it’s not clear where it goes or if it leaves).
- The Normandy is seen fleeing an energy wave at high sp—
Why is the Normandy flying away? Joker just had an amazing scene where he said he was in it to the end. He saluted, which made me misty-eyed. And now he’s turning tail and running? Is he at FTL or traveling through the relay network? How did he get away so fast? It’s not like the conversation with the Child was being broadcast to the fleet.
(Anything that deals with the Normandy is the most inexplicable part of the whole ending. It’s like there’s a whole bunch of context that is missing for some reason.
Anyway, back to The Ending:
- The wave catches up to the fleeing Normandy. (You get to the funniest scene of the whole thing here, where Joker looks over his shoulder to see if the wave is catching up to him. Over his shoulder. At what should be a closed door to the flight deck.)
- Normandy crashes.
- There’s a scene where the Normandy appears to have landed (and not softly) on a jungle planet. The door opens. Out walks Joker, your love interest (or EDI if you chose synthesis), and one other crew member seemingly chosen at random. Jump cut to black over blatant Battlestar: Galactica homage music cue. If you chose Synthesis, everyone has glowy green eyes and circuits an their skin.
Hm. But my love interest was in my suicide squad in the run to the beam. The one that no one survived.
And the whole crew except for Joker was on Earth right before I made the charge. How’d they get back on the Normandy? With enough time to start running away from the energy pulse?
We’re going to ignore the Stargazer scene as in my opinion it doesn’t really mean much other than a nice little sentiment. Likewise, we will ignore the message at the end telling you that DLC is on the way.
(You’re 4,000 words into this post. Time to summarize as I’ve gone on long enough.)
Stuff that doesn’t make sense about the ending to Mass Effect 3:
- Harbinger gives up too easily. And while it looks like everyone in Hammer is dead, you magically end up not being the only one who survives.
- Shepard magically gets better enough to have a conversation with the Child after the space elevator.
- The Child ends up explaining nothing and resolving little.
- The Reapers’ motivations seem fundamentally flawed, self-defeating, and delusional (who put them in charge?).
- The Child gives up on their “solution” even though victory seems to be at hand.
- The three choices that are presented to Shepard don’t have much of an upside. The one that is presented as the best one, when considered with the history of the series, appears to be the worst one.
- Shepard takes a very unreliable source of information at its word without even questioning what’s going on.
- Joker swings by, picks up everyone on Earth, and then hauls ass out of Sol in the middle of the battle and for no apparent reason.
- By the time the ending has played out, way more questions have been asked than threads resolved. For the final game in a 100+ hour plus experience.
With a sufficiently high EMR, and only if choosing the Destroy option, there is a small cutscene that plays right after the Normandy is marooned. A camera pans to someone laying in rubble with an N7 dog tag set, and that person takes in a breath before a jump cut to black.
Which would seem to invalidate most of the ending after the Hero Run. Who knows why this is in here: it’s either an impressive troll on the part of Bioware (in that it means nothing) or an indicator that perhaps not all is as it seems. I don’t really know what to do with it as it seems to defy most explanation if there are really no plans to return to the Mass Effect universe after the events of this game.
Now that I’ve expended way too much brain power on dissecting a work of interactive fiction, tell me what you think. Leave a comment, send out a tweet about it, share it to Facebook, blog about it yourself.
For five years, I enjoyed the ride. I’m already replaying Mass Effect. It is a unique series in the history of the medium, and some unfortunate choices in the ending shouldn’t change that. I have lots of awesome memories, as I am sure you do. And I’m already waiting to see what’s next.