There has been so much conversation about the ending of Mass Effect 3 by both nerds angry about it and nerds angry about nerds angry about it. It got awfully hyperbolic on both sides, and I was honestly hesitant to even talk about it, since I don’t feel like I fall into either of those camps. Still, I figured that the conversation had sufficient time to cool a bit, and it’s a prime example of a surprise, our theme for the month. That said, I’m about to talk about a bunch of Mass Effect stuff without regard for spoilers, so if that bothers you, don’t read on just yet. You have been warned!
In Mass Effect, Shepard’s story follows a pretty singular arc, despite all the variation based on the player’s choices. You make your Shepard, choose his or her specific range of super powers, determine his or her origin story to figure out what sorts of hardships young Shepard had to overcome to grow up to be the galaxy’s savior. Shepard then spends much of the first game being the bold exemplar of human exceptionalism. Even in the very first mission, in which Shepard is tested to see if he is good enough to be part of the galactic special forces that no human has ever joined, his galactic special forces supervisor gets killed by the rogue galactic special forces villain, but Shepard survives him and his army of robots while saving the colony from total destruction. Quite the introduction.
That same sort of pattern continues throughout the game. The Normandy travels around the fringes of the galaxy, doing the work of a whole fleet by use of the greatest soldiers and a unique stealth system. Through the course of this journey, in addition to his or her legendary combat prowess, Shepard proves impervious to more subtle threats as well. The Reapers’ Indoctrination, a brainwashing process, never has any effect throughout the entire series nor does the Thorian’s similar powers. Depending on how you play, Shepard can also be a master diplomat in addition to being a super soldier, culminating in potentially convincing the main antagonist to shoot himself in the head. Even the dark moment of the first game ends with one of your non-red-shirt crew sacrificing himself or herself to complete the mission, but even the team does complete the mission, and the final choice of who lives and who dies lies with the player. Shepard’s same power over life and death is evident in his or her decision whether or not to destroy the last of an alien race, essentially whether or not to commit xenocide. Powerful whims.
Also, as long as you act nice, you can have your pick of an alien, a lady, or a fella to sex up before your final mission. Much has been said of the condescending ease of this process, so I don’t think it requires a lot more discussion. Suffice it to say, as long as it’s monogamous and relatively heterosexual, you can have whatever romantic conclusion your heart desires, demonstrating Shep’s apparent irresistibility.
This power fantasy only escalates in the sequel. As if to illustrate that fact, the game begins with aliens destroying the Normandy and killing Shepard, proving that not even that can keep a good N7 down. After a shadowy organization spends ridiculous resources to solely to bring the player’s character back from the dead as a cyborg Shep, it becomes clear that only Shepard sees what’s really going on in the galaxy, and it’s up to him or her to save the day again. Many of the same themes from the previous game continue through this one with some key changes. First of all, Shepard now doesn’t have to invest valuable skill points in his or her speech skills. Rather, Shepard’s persuasiveness is simply improved naturally, often whenever he or she does something particularly mean or nice, like shooting a face or hugging a dude. I don’t think I need to explain why this makes Shepard able to make more convincing arguments; it’s pretty self-explanatory.
Another thing new to the second game is the fact that the game always goes out of its way to mention how it paid attention to the choices the player made in the previous game, bringing it up in ways that sometimes even strain credulity. All sorts of folks are coming out of the woodwork at ever opportunity to stop Shepard in a bar or send him or her and email and talk about that one time they ran into each other on Noveria or Feros or wherever and thanks for the assist or fuck you, fascist or whatever. Either way, the game demonstrates that it not only remembers your choices but the impact that choices have on the galaxy, in both the state of the setting at large and in the personal scenery of every location.
Shepard is still immune to indoctrination and now, thanks to the resident mad scientist, to the Collectors’ paralyzing bug swarms too. In fact, the whole game consists of collecting similar experts and specialists, in much greater numbers than in the previous game, and using them to improve your already improved Normandy. This moves some of the focus away from the singularity of Shepard but in doing so only serves to further accentuate him, since all of these characters center around Shepard and their activities are at his or her direction.
Nevertheless, the scope of well-defined central characters expands over the course of the game. This involves, after bedding another crewmember from a now larger list of choices in a similarly simplistic series of interactions, leading the final so-called “suicide mission,” in which your entire team braves seemingly impossible odds to destroy the Collectors, working together to reach and breach their base, infiltrate and sabotage their operations, and find and destroy their super-monster. This is where things shift a bit compared to the previous events and serve as a bridge to the thematic tenor of the final game in the series. The final mission requires a great deal of preparation and involves a large number of pivotal decisions. The consequences for these choices are not immediately apparent, and there are no opportunities to easily and quickly savescum the events to cheat one’s way through it. The result is that the player is largely forced to deal with the results, anything from a totally successful mission with the death of a single colonist to the death of the entire Normandy crew, including Shepard. While the decision making process still lies totally with Shepard, there are finally meaningful consequences to accompany those decisions.
The only reason I went through that whole reductive synopsis was to highlight the ways in which the Mass Effect series, like most video games, is an exercise in wish fulfillment. Always the player is made to feel powerful, exceptional, an actor of apparently limitless agency. This is the standard expectation for video games, and in many ways, Mass Effect 3 subverts this expectation.
The earliest scenes of Mass Effect 3 show the Reapers arriving suddenly at Earth, decimating Alliance forces and driving Shepard to flee the planet helplessly. From there, Shepard runs across the galaxy trying to put not a personal team together to save the day but a massive armada of ships packed with an army of ground forces. Shepard is not going to be the center of attention this time around; the heroes of this story are the ones building the allied forces’ secret weapon and the troops who are fighting countless battles against Reaper forces. The Galaxy at War cooperative mode further emphasizes this new focus, particularly with its profound effects on the strength of forces in the single player game.
Similarly, Shepard still seeks to draw many of his old teammates back to the Normandy to help him complete the mission. When he or she finds them, however, it’s clear that most of these characters have become central characters in their own rights. They’re leading teams, completing missions on their own, and they no longer need Shepard in order to interact with the world and create stories of their own. Almost all of them turn down the offer to rejoin the Normandy crew and instead become, at best, prominent figures in the vast resistance fleet. Even the Illusive Man has moved on and manufactured a new super soldier who manages to best Shepard in numerous instances, in one killing a former teammate and in another abetting the fall of an entire planet to the Reapers, among others.
This points to another new theme of the game compared to the rest of the series, which is that of losing ground, losing battles, losing friends. Numerous former teammates fall to the dangers of a galaxy under Reaper threat, often irrespective of player choice. They take center stage as the heroes who die nobly for the sake of all galactic life, and Shepard is left to mourn in the wake of their final acts. Similarly, whole planets fall and installations fall, Shepard barely managing to escape with Reapers hot on his heels. This game spends much of its time preparing the player for loss, for failure, and for inevitability.
From this perspective, the desperate, bitter, limited ending is an extension of the narrative course of Mass Effect 3. From the last minute collapse of your Light Brigade charge, to the shambling infiltration of the Reaper base, to the Illusive Man’s use of Indoctrination on Shepard and Anderson, all of these surprising events of the ending are foreshadowed by the dark thematic trend of the whole game. What many fans found most egregious, though was the final moments of the game, the final discussion with, apparently, the secret weapon itself and Shepard’s tripartite choice.
Where is the impact of all my choices made through this and the other games if everyone gets the same three choices? Where is the exposition about the source of the Reapers and the full intent of their creators? Can’t I save some semblance of the status quo? Can’t I save Shepard? In these ways, the endings of the game are fundamentally unsatisfying. Shepard is, in the final, most crucial moment, largely powerless. The player’s prior choices don’t count for anything in face of a process which has spanned the rise and fall of countless interstellar civilizations. Shepard is, in the end, small. Sure, Shep gets to make the final, galaxy altering decision, but without any consideration of the player’s previous choices, Shepard changes from a personal embodiment of player choice to a faceless legend, something out of a Joseph Campbell essay.
In no way do I feel like this is the only way to read the change in narrative shift in Mass Effect, and while I feel like Bioware’s decision was powerful, I don’t think it is beyond criticism by any means. I just felt like it was an interesting way to challenge player preconceptions. That was, of course, a very dangerous move. What I have to assume to be a very vocal minority attacked Bioware in very personal, petulant, and perplexing ways. Perhaps no method was more bizarre than the complaint to the FTC and the BBB. The message this sends is that game developers are like chefs and wait staff in a restaurant, subject to the whims of their customers, their games steaks to be sent back to the kitchen if they’re not cooked to the customers’ liking. Artistic freedom has no place in such a conception. Certainly game players are free to criticize game developers, but I thought most people who consume games wanted to keep governmental interference out of the business of making games. Or is that only when we’re not upset about how the story went?
That Bioware will be changing the ending in some way this Summer is troubling. It means Bioware is either caving to fan reaction or completing a more manipulative initial plan to tease fans with an intentionally dissatisfying “ending” to be supplemented with paid content. Both possibilities are disturbing for different reasons.