I was up until 2:30 this morning finishing Mass Effect 3. I'm a huge fan of these games and this was the fastest I've ever finished any of them. Not because it was easier or shorter than the rest but because I deliberately rushed through it, which is counter to the way I usually play these games. I am a "stop and smell the roses" kind of player; I think people who blast through content in order to get to the ending more quickly are doing it wrong. Epic games like this are meant to be enjoyed and savored and made to last as long as possible, especially on a first playthrough, which you only ever get to do once. But in this case there was so much public controversy and discontent swirling around the internet from people who had blasted through it to see how it all ends that I felt like it was only a matter of time before I ran into a massive spoiler - and when it very nearly happened this week I decided to stop smelling the roses and race to the finish before my luck ran out. So now I know how the story ends.
Guess what? I didn't hate it, although I do have many questions and a few criticisms. On the whole I thought it was audacious, provocative, and only partly nonsensical. I haven't yet had time to dive into the wealth of comment that's out there and review the criticisms in detail, but I'm going to go out on a limb and suspect that a lot of the discontent comes from people who have been coddled for too long by easy "Hollywood" endings in which the hero saves the galaxy, gets the girl and everyone lives happily ever after - but with one tiny dangling thread that leaves the door open for another installment. That's been the standard endgame language of big, epic, high-production storytelling for decades, and it's created expectations that cause us to be upset and confused when they're not met. The story of the Mass Effect trilogy does not end in an easy, feel-good way which leaves a clear path for future games, nor do I suspect it was designed to make the player feel comfortable. But it's not unprecedented in storytelling, in fact I can think of at least one other very popular story, a pretty old one, in which the hero sacrifices himself to save all of mankind and in doing so becomes an immortal legend that people still talk about and follow thousands of years later.
So for those reasons I didn't hate it. But did I think it was a good ending? I don't know yet. It's still very fresh, I'm still processing, and I'd be lying if I could tell you what it all means. And I'm okay with that. Again, I don't think storytellers have an automatic obligation to answer every single question and tie off every single loose end when a story concludes. It's good to leave some stuff ambiguous and open to interpretation and debate. Now it's possible BioWare erred a little too much on that side of the line here, and I'm less surprised about some of the complaints in this area. There are certainly some ways in which the ending does not make sense, at least to me. (I had EDI as part of my London assault team so the fate of the Normandy makes even less sense than it does to most.) But I think the bigger problem is really how the final sequence was handled - it was way too talky, with so much complicated and lengthy exposition being thrown at the player in a very short space of time that it was impossible to take it all in, much less fully comprehend. Remember that scene at the end of the second Matrix movie with the Architect waffling on endlessly about stuff we barely understood? Yeah.
The other criticism flying around is that there's not enough variation in the endings, that the player is left feeling like after all they've done they don't really get to make a choice that makes much difference to the fate of the galaxy. Okay, I get that. For the record, I took the middle path, and just watched a video that shows how the other choices play out. I think BioWare simply over-promised here. The previous games had different endings but they're really just minor variations on a theme that allowed players to more or less continue from a common point in the galaxy next time out. But if you're going to fundamentally alter the galaxy I imagine it's difficult to realistically present the player with a lot of choice over the nature of that change and still keep the door open for future games. Like the previous two games, the endings of Mass Effect 3 are variations on a theme, not the wildly different scenarios some players may have been led to expect. I understand that. Although here again I think a lot of the upset is coming from people who have been conditioned by storytelling tropes to believe that the hero should always be in control and the master of their destiny - where in reality of course that is almost never the case. In the end Shepard does all he can, and makes the ultimate sacrifice, when finally faced with a situation too galactically massive for even him to fully affect.
I think BioWare made a really gutsy choice to end Mass Effect 3 the way they did and I applaud them for having the courage to do it. I do think it could have been executed a little better. But I think it has to say something that the ending has generated so much discussion, and that this is the first time ever I've written an entire article about a game's ending. It seems like BioWare is now scrambling to respond to public demand and is making noises about "fixing" the ending. I think that's a shame. When you're writing a story you should always go with what you think is right rather than try to guess what your audience wants, and I think the same is true retrospectively too. No matter all the whining and complaining I think BioWare should stick to their guns. I'm sure they had a plan for where this would all go next before the game released, so why they are second-guessing themselves now I have no idea. And I think they should be flattered that all the complaints are stemming from a place of love and affection for the characters and the universe they created. Going back to my original point, an audience conditioned by decades of endings of no real consequence and easy reset buttons because storytellers are afraid to upset the apple cart is always going to be perturbed by an ending like this one which dramatically alters the nature of the universe and characters they have come to love while leaving no easily predictable way forward. But I love that. Even if there was no way forward and this was the end of Mass Effect I'd be okay with that. Because as much as I love the games and want to keep playing them, that's what all good stories eventually do. They end.
Oh, and to those people contributing to the growing meme that the ending sucks because it's not sufficient reward for all the "work" they put in getting there? Shut the fuck up. Games aren't work, if they were you wouldn't play them. They're fun, and the game is hugely fun to play even if the ending does leave a bad taste in your mouth.