This is that post about Mass Effect 3. The one that talks about the ending. If you haven’t played and don’t want the ending spoiled, stop reading now.
I have two basic reactions to the ending of ME3. The first is the basic response I have to any fan who doesn’t like the way something ends, be it book, game, movie, or television show: it isn’t yours. The developer and designers made a decision. You might not like it, but it’s their decision to make. You have the right to not like it, but you do not have the right to demand that they change it. It is a work of art, visually and narratively, and it does not belong to you. You may love it, hate it, have loyalty to it, pay for it, but you do not get to dictate what it shall or shall not be.
My second response was that the ending was awful. At the end of all the fighting, of three games’-worth of narrative and character development, the fact that that was all they managed to come up with was profoundly disappointing. Tom Bissell remarked in Extra Lives that bad storytelling and bad gameplay create a disjuncture between the audience and the product:
Anyone who plays video games knows that well-designed gameplay is a craft as surely as storytelling is a craft. When gameplay fails, we know it because it does not, somehow, feel right. Failed storytelling is more abject. You feel lots of things – just not anything the storyteller wants you to feel.
That is my reaction to ME3‘s ending. It made me feel something all right, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t what they wanted me to feel. The gameplay was not the issue. The fact that Shepard had to die was not really the issue, either (although that made me sad, it did not make the ending bad). The issue, was that the ending was hackneyed – especially the “synthesis” ending.
There were three options: 1. destroy all synthetic life; 2. control the Reapers (somehow) and send them away; 3. “synthesize” synthetic and organic life. 1. Fine. This is the Renegade ending that destroys EDI, the Geth, and the Reapers. It also kills Shepard. I would never choose this ending myself, but it doesn’t seem terribly out of sorts with the narrative as a whole. 2. This one doesn’t make that much sense to me and felt very much like it needed more of an explanation of how it worked, since the whole game spent its time explaining how “controlling the Reapers” was both impossible and evil (since the Illusive Man wanted to do it). This also kills Shepard, but it sends away the Reapers and everybody else gets to live. 3. This ending was about as asinine as endings come. It made no logical, biological, or physical sense. *Poof* and all organic and synthetic life forms are splorched together (there is no other word for it) and all made out of the same weird mix so that people and leaves have circuits on their skin… No sense. At all. And yes, Shepard also dies because his/her DNA was somehow required for this “miracle.” (Some people get a tiny cut-scene that shows an armored torso sucking in a breath out of some wreckage that suggests Shepard does, in fact survive, but only if you chose to destroy the Reapers.) It felt rushed, thrown together at the last minute, and just WRONG, given the amount of care that has gone into every other aspect of the game’s narrative from ME1 onwards.
Many people objected to Shepard’s necessary death. I wasn’t happy about it, but that isn’t what made the ending wrong. The game foreshadows (with a large and spiky club) the fact that Shepard is going to die. There’s just no question that they’re trying to prepare the audience for the loss of their avatar. There’s also no question that an audience who has spent as many hours with their avatar as ME fans have spent with Shepard is not going to be happy about its death. They want an out. A way to save Shepard (even if only with one option) and have the happy ending they have been fighting for all through the trilogy.
I wanted that, too, but narratively, I understand why the team might want Shepard to die. They wanted us as players to recognize the need for sacrifice. The universality of loss and grief. The fact that people die, and they die when their lives are cut off by unnecessary violence. They want the player to see that sometimes there is no way out. And that when faced with that situation (even if it isn’t a matter of life or death), we have to just deal. I get it.
What I do not get is the fact that it wasn’t given justice. The way the endings were handled/scripted left the player feeling not saddened by the inevitable, not bittersweet at the victory with so high a cost, but annoyed and angry that they were cheated, not of their avatar’s life, per se, but of an ending that acknowledged that loss. There was no sense of grief, no sense of triumph, no inevitable doom or promise that galactic civilization would manage to soldier on despite the loss of the Relays. There was just a sense of “What the hell was that?” In essence, it was just bad storytelling.