As the four-year anniversary of Mass Effect 3’s release fades from view it’s time to discuss something important: the ending. It is no secret that people disliked the ending of Mass Effect 3. The conclusion to Bioware’s epic space opera is widely accepted to be nothing more than a massive let down, a series of disjointed cut scenes that stumble to three far-too-similar endings, never really reflecting upon the decisions you’ve made and the story you’ve crafted for three whole games. In fact, the endings were so hated that Bioware released free DLC to extend and improve them. Even now, four years later, the ending of the trilogy clouds people’s memories. But I didn’t think they were that bad. I really, really liked the original ending to Mass Effect 3. And I’m going to explain why. Spoilers ahead!
The ending of Mass Effect 3 finds your Commander Shephard beaten, bloodied and bruised, stranded on the Citadel, unsure whether their crew and friends are alive, cradling the body of their fallen mentor, looking out over the last remnants of the galaxy being destroyed by a huge Reaper force and still entirely unsure what the device they have spent an entire game constructing and maneuvering into its current positon above Earth actually does. They have conquered foes great and small, undone genocide at a genetic level, brokered peace between mortal enemies, discovered the origins of millennia old threats to the galaxy, romanced their way through several species and then they are presented with two (or three!) choices. Choices which are presented by a Virtual Intelligence that looks like the child that has been haunting their nightmares since they escaped from Earth at the beginning of the game. The young boy forms part of a separate issue with Mass Effect 3 and his appearance here is a symptom of Bioware’s game-long, ham-fisted attempt at showing that Commander Shephard feels guilt towards leaving Earth to the Reapers. The VI taking the form of the young boy is not a problem with the ending per se, but it really doesn’t do it any favours. The choices presented by the VI, however, and the way those choices play out, are the real ‘issue’.
“It is no secret that people disliked the ending of Mass Effect 3“
Bioware arguably popularised and codified the three-tier choice/conversation system. Your interactions with characters throughout every Mass Effect game exist as a maximum of three conversational or action choices, with a potential for further investigating without advancing the choice. And the choices always boil down to the blue choice – the option for the paragon commander who wants to walk the line and foster peace across the galaxy, the middle choice – a neutral option that serves to plainly forward the story, and the red choice – the option for the renegade commander who plays by his own rules and frequently breaks other people’s rules to get the job done. And this is not a bad thing! It serves Mass Effect incredibly well, distinguishing the moral choices of the game and allowing the games to tell a pretty well-focused, predetermined story while allowing a good level of player agency. The ending of Mass Effect 3 provides Shephard with the same three choices, because that is the established framework of choice within Mass Effect. But it alters your perception of them in an incredibly clever way.
Throughout Mass Effect 3 the player is told by their allies that they must destroy the Reapers, that the only way to win this war and save the galaxy is with the complete destruction of the invading force. Conversely, the secondary antagonist of the story spends the whole game talking about how humanity must learn to control the Reapers and harness their power, and every character you love and trust insists that this plan is ridiculous, dangerous and foolish. You are trained by the game to understand that of the 3 choices you are ever given the blue choice is ‘good’, and the red choice is ‘bad’. And then at the final moments of the game you are given the choice to either control the Reapers or destroy them, and the colours are swapped. The choice that you have been told is the correct choice, to destroy the Reapers, is red. The choice to control them is blue. Within the systems of Mass Effect this reversal is incredibly significant! It serves to throw your beliefs into disarray. Just a few minutes prior you saw your mentor and superior insisting you destroy the Reapers with his dying breath and now the game is showing you that destruction is potentially the bad choice. By subverting the player expectations Bioware made the ending to Mass Effect arguably as nuanced as it could be within the framework of the game, using its systems to shift the player’s perception of the choice they’ve been given.
“The choice that you have been told is the correct choice, to destroy the Reapers, is red”
Now, before you start saying that it could be so much more nuanced, that they could have given you so many more options, they couldn’t. The final choice of Mass Effect 3 has been telegraphed since Mass Effect 1. Every conversation with a Reaper throughout the trilogy leads to a discussion on the cyclical nature of the relationship between humans and machines, about how biological life constantly produces artificial intelligence that it goes on to battle with. The relationship between the Quarians and their mortal enemies and creations, the Geth, reflects the themes of construction and destruction. Upon failing to control the Geth, the Quarians sought to destroy them, losing the war and their home world, and peace was only found between the two races through great effort and sacrifice on the part of Shephard and his crew. But even if we are to ignore these thematic constants from game to game, the final choice of Mass Effect 3 is outright stated in a particular side quest in Mass Effect 1. An early quest on the Citadel finds Shephard following a series of strange signals, ultimately finding a rogue Artificial Intelligence. Within the Mass Effect universe, AI development is outlawed, and any AIs which are found must be destroyed. But before Shephard destroys the AI, he speaks to it. And it plainly states the relationship between humans and machines in this way: “Humans desire only to destroy or control machines”. From the moment it began Mass Effect has always been about controlling or destroying machines, even if it wasn’t obvious.
After picking control or destroy, the player is treated to a short cut scene showing the immediate result of their decision, a coloured energy wave propagating across the galaxy and putting a halt to the raging battle, intercut with images of their friends and significant others. This is accompanied by a bittersweet piano medley and followed by a brief clip of the Normandy failing to outrun the energy wave and crashing onto a planet, where the crew emerge to a new dawn and a more hopeful backing track. It’s very minimal but (and this is where my argument becomes somewhat subjective) I believe it fits the overall tone of the ending. As mentioned previously, by this point Shephard has been through Hell. They are only standing through sheer force of will alone, through their indomitable ability to get the job done. Shephard has literally died for the cause, been resurrected and gone on again to keep fighting for what must be done, never once considering themselves or their wellbeing. Mass Effect is the story of this hero or heroine who sacrifices all again and again to save the whole galaxy and upon making the ultimate sacrifice the player is shown an image of hope for the future, and left to ruminate on their own feelings about Shephard. The ending doesn’t need a montage showing where every character is now because these characters only exist through the eyes of Shephard and those eyes are closed.
“From the moment it began Mass Effect has always been about controlling or destroying machines, even if it wasn’t obvious”
The third choice given is synthesis and it has to be mentioned, even if only as a courtesy. The synthesis ending is only unlockable if the player has acquired the best possible outcome in pretty much every choice throughout the game, and it causes biological and mechanical intelligence to form together across the galaxy. It’s incredibly silly. And the resulting cut scene of your crew wandering towards you with strange wires pulsing under their skin is even a little comedic. It actually damages the overall quality of the ending.
Mass Effect 3 is not a perfect game. It has a significantly reduced sense of exploration and scale than its predecessors, and it uses cheap plot devices to force its story beats. It has characters take sudden, jarring turns in their attitude and motivation and it generates some pretty weak new characters, from Jersey Shore wannabes to the plot-invincible cyber assassin Kai Leng. But its ending? The subversive, inevitable, minimalist, brutally stark end to the story of Commander Shephard is possibly one of the best things about Mass Effect 3. Because Commander Shephard couldn’t have a happy ending. If Mass Effect 3 had closed with Shephard and Liara cradling little blue babies as the sun rose over a rebuilt Earth and Garrus sat by the pool sipping a gin and tonic, it would have felt spineless. It would have nullified the sheer magnitude of sacrifices Shephard had made for their galaxy, and it would have skewed the understanding that we, as the player, were experiencing Shephard’s story by continuing it on without us. Mass Effect 3 is a deeply flawed experience, but the harsh reality of its ending is beautiful.
Post-script: Just because I loved the ending it doesn’t mean I think Kai Leng is anything other than a shoddy excuse for plot motivation, artificially generated from nowhere to make up for a story that otherwise lacked a tangible, personal threat. You know I took that Renegade Interrupt. Also, Mass Effect 1 is the best Mass Effect.