Apr 11, 2012

Thoughts on Mass Effect 3

Last night I finished Mass Effect 3. I took the red ending, and I'm fairly happy with my choice, but I thought I'd share my feelings. Yep, the rest of this post is packed with spoilers...

There has been more hate spreading across the internet about how Mass Effect 3 ends than I've seen even towards the Star Wars prequels. Bioware and EA can't get a word out on any topic without people hammering them for the way the ending was handled. The @MassEffect Twitter account is a bastion of patience, dealing with near-constant criticism.

I wasn't sure what to expect. I didn't know what could cause such outrage.

Well, I've seen the ending I chose, and gone to Youtube to watch the other two.

And you know what? It's fine.

I can see why some people might be annoyed. I had a few knee-jerk reactions myself, but for the most part they went away once I thought about it for a moment.

As regards everything in the game coming down to three choices, I've seen this before. Baldur's Gate had it, Deus Ex had it. In my experience whenever a video game tries to give ending options beyond "Good Ending" and "Evil Ending," they wind up disappointing someone. It's just the way of things. When you try to add shades of grey to your morality, you always risk that some people will find something objectionable about your options.

Still, I'd like to focus on something other than the narrative content of each ending here, and explain why, regardless of ending, I like some parts of it, and feel that others don't make any sense.

First up the bad stuff, which pretty much comes down to "Normandy running away." The end sequence shows the Normandy in a Mass Relay jump, with Joker trying to outrun the Crucible Effect. Then we see the ship, crash-landed, on a lush garden world and several crew members get out. The only way this is possible would be for the squad members with me on Earth to have had time to be picked up in a shuttle, flown to Normandy, then for Joker to head straight to the Charon Relay and jumped out of the system. There's no reason for this to happen, and it's unlikely there would have been time.

My solution? I ignore this. There's enough of a disconnect there for me to write off the whole thing as nonsensical. In my ending, no way did Joker run away.

Now the stuff I can explain:
  1. How the geth would be destroyed by the Crucible. If it was designed to target the Reapers, which are a specifically unique technology, the only way it could have an effect would be if the Crucible targets Reaper AI Code, which was also a part of the geth in my playthrough, and EDI. However, code can be removed. It's possible, even likely, that the geth actually survived, despite the Catalyst's predictions, albeit in their less-intelligent form. As for EDI, a lot depends on how much of her original VI code was used in her construction, and how much her own development through the story over-rides that code. If we treat AI as a real form of life, again it's possible that she can survive. That said, I believe EDI would willingly die if it meant destroying the Reapers.
  2. The "we protect organics from being killed by synthetics by creating synthetics to kill them" point, which has a lot of people upset. I guessed the true nature of the Reapers after talking to the one on Rannoch. This actually makes perfect sense to me. Think about it like pruning a rose bush. If the bush grows too large, its environment can't support it. To us, we're just trimming it back to keep it looking nice. To the bush, an alien form of life regularly comes and cuts away pieces of it for no reason you can understand, pushing you back to an earlier stage of your development. If the goal of the Catalyst is to preserve the presence of organic life, then culling the more advanced samples so they don't destroy themselves makes sense. 
  3. Killing the Reapers wipes out all remnants of the past cycles. I've seen this as an argument that, by destroying the Reapers, you destroy the potential knowledge they could contain of the species used in their construction. However none of the Reapers act like their intelligence or awareness is based on the members of a past cycle. Each Reaper is a machine whose will is controlled by their programming. Their consciousness is not formed by the species used to create them. Rather, their consciousness controls a vast library of data. Given my belief about the Crucible damaging Reaper AI Code above, and the fact that the Crucible Effect simply shut them down in my playthrough and doesn't destroy their bodies, it's possible that huge amounts of information remain intact within them.
  4. Destroying the Mass Relays. This is probably the biggest bugbear out there. We see in the Arrival DLC that the destruction of the Alpha Relay destroys an entire star system. So doesn't the destruction of all the relays destroy every system they're in? Well first off, we're clearly shown the Crucible Effect not harming any non-Reaper soldiers or ships, assuming you got your Effective Military Strength high enough. Secondly, while it's not outright stated, I would infer from what's shown that the end of Arrival shows a relay's energy being dispersed with nowhere to go. In Mass Effect 3, the Crucible focuses that energy to a specific purpose. There's no massive explosion because the energy is being funnelled along the relay network in a very specific and refined form. Physically possibe? I have no idea. We're talking about a game with giant Space Cthulhus and blue aliens who can mate with anything they want. I'll take a little bit on faith here. 
  5. No more FTL? Even if the destruction of the relays didn't kill everyone, there's still no way for anyone to get back to their home worlds now, right? Wrong. From Mass Effect 2 onward, we see non-relay FTL in use. Shepard, Miranda and Jacob use it to escape Project Lazarus. The Collectors use it to ambush the Normandy. And the Reapers use it to enter our galaxy from Dark Space. The only thing that's changed as regarsd space travel is that now it takes a little longer. It's stated that Mass Effect 3 takes place roughly three years after Mass Effect 1. That leaves a maximum of one year for the Reapers to travel from far beyind our galaxy to Batarian space, where they struck first. Maybe it even takes a few months to cross the galaxy now, but it's still possible.
  6. No closure. This is the other big thing I see repeated, that we don't find out what happens, what our choices meant. But I'm with those who see Mass Effect 3, as a whole, as the ending. By the time I made the assault on Cerberus HQ, I had seen the results of pretty much every choice I had made throughout the series. I had cured the genophage, returned the quarians to their homeworld, brought the rachni back from the brink of extinction and held them to their promise to help us fight. No, the game didn't tell me what happened after I activated the Crucible. I don't think it needed to. The Reapers were beaten. Sure, you could say you want to know what happens to Garrus, or what Shepard does with his life if he survives. But where do you stop with those answers? When you're talking about a galactic-scale story, how much explaination would be enough to tell it all, instead of leaving it to our own imaginations?
Many great stories end with hope and the possibilitiy of what might come next. Return of the Jedi, ET, Back to the Future III, Toy Story 3, Spartacus, Gladiator, these movies end without telling us what happens to the characters next, just showing us that they have the chance to live on.

The way Mass Effect 3 ended left me with enough to imagine for myself what happens next. In destroying the Reapers, the Citadel, and the Mass Relays, I gave organic life something it had never had before. Freedom. The Catalyst ensured that organic life evolved and developed along predictable routes, to better prune away what wasn't needed anymore. Without that control, life is free. Galactic civilisation finally has the thing that made Mass Effect great to begin with. Choice.

I think being told in detail what happens next, in epilogue text boxes, would take away some of what makes the ending special to me. I'm not sure I'll download the Extended Cut DLC. Not for a while, at least. I think the rest of the story as it happens in my head will fit me and my Shepard better than anything Bioware can add. And that's the best thing about endings, ones that show something new beginning. That each of us can choose our own story from then on.


  1. Having previously thought this through myself, I agree with you on every point you make.

    I thought that the 'survivors' in Normandy in each of the endings symbolise extremely well the different choices open to Sheherd, as offered by the crucible.

    It is also clear that the reapers never destroyed ALL organic life but only advanced civilisations -and this was impled from the very first part of the trilogy.

  2. It's interesting for me, with no emotional investment in the games, to watch all of this. The hyperbole on both sides is amazing - see this http://www.popbioethics.com/2012/02/why-mass-effect-is-the-most-important-science-fiction-universe-of-our-generation/ as a example of where the fans go down the rabbit hole.

    I only played the first game, but even from the first press releases about their 'groundbreaking new IP about the conflict between synthetics and organics' I had reservations about their ability to actually go anywhere with the theme beyond sneering villains like Sovereign.

    My main criticism of the ending in concept is that it answers a question that isn't asked, which is that synthetic life will inevitably wipe out all organic life in the galaxy unless advanced civilizations are destroyed/harvested in time. Yes, there's the odd rogue AI knocking around, but the Geth just want to have fun, and there's zero suggestion that synthetic life would be any more threatening to life in general than, say, the Rachni, Krogan or Thresher Maws.

    Now if Cerberus had ultimately been the plaything of an AI entity let loose by a paranoid Alliance desperate to get a military edge on the more advanced Council races, beginning to make its power-play for galactic supremacy by manipulating humans into conflict with other races to ensure its own survival at all costs, or there was another clear synthetic/grey goo/Revelation Space's greenfly menace as the antagonist force in Mass Effect 2 that was eating all life, or any evidence of the threat the Reapers guarded against at all, it could have worked quite well, but as it stands the ultimate reveal of their purpose does come across as dumb.

    With no foreshadowing, it's hard to give the Catalyst's point of view any credibility. I mean, based on the evidence in the games, why would synthetic life wipe out all organic life? Why not just live in the 99% of the galaxy that isn't suitable for organic life and leave the squishies to their mudballs, culling them every so often if you felt like being an oppressive monster?

    I feel that they were intending on having the entire game be the ending they promised fans - the problem is, they should have been brave enough to not have a final choice. You activate the Crucible, and that's it. Things are out of your hands now, you've done all you can soldier. A flashback of all your critical choices in the past (you know, the core of the game) as credits roll, so you can see what a paragon/renegade you've been, and the reveal that you, Shepard, are the Catalyst, the sentient frame of reference the Crucible needs to act properly, but what it does isn't shown, and you don't choose it. You've already chosen your path from your first steps on Eden Prime.

    Something like that, while it would've annoyed many fans almost as much, would have at least framed what they were trying to do in a better way, particularly in the lack of an ending choice, pushing the emphasis back onto the character development of the past three games and encouraging reflection on what happened, and the imagination of players in terms of continuing their own personal story about the fallout.

    That got long!

    1. I would have loved Mass Effect to end with "Fire the Crucible, Reapers die, cue Ewok celebration."

      The previous games were never about an ultimate final choice that changed the galaxy. What made Mass Effect stand out for me was that, among the glut of mortality systems in games with Good Endings and Bad Endings, Bioware made a game where you were always the hero. No matter what choices you made, in the end you stopped Sovereign from summoning the Reapers out of Dark Space. It was a bold move and I loved it.

      I agree that the 3-Ending Choice at the end was unnecessary. I don't think anyone needed to ask whether Cerberus were right or not in trying to control the Reapers. I liked the idea that the Reapers were created out of fear that synthetic life would one day wipe out organic life. But I also like when the hero can prove the Chessmaster wrong. I wanted to see the Reapers burn, so I chose the ending that best matched that and interpreted what I knew about the Crucible in the only way that made sense as a narrative. That way leaves the likelihood of the geth surviving (since if even one geth platform survives, their entire species does) and the possibility that EDI does as well.

      To be honest, I'd pegged the idea of blowing up the relays from day one. I'm not a fan of saving the day by removing what makes the setting special. I'd also like to see an epic game like this end without the assumption that the hero dies (though my Shepard survived).

      There were plenty of things I didn't like about the ending, or that I would have done differently were it my own story. But I've seen far more disappointing endings, and there's enough left open that I can interpret events my own way.