RIFE WITH SPOILERS!
Do NOT Read unless you’ve solved the game… or you know what? Read it. Honestly, I can’t ruin it anymore than Bioware already did.
“EXPERIENCE THE BEGINNING, MIDDLE, AND END OF AN EMOTIONAL STORY UNLIKE ANY OTHER,
WHERE THE DECISIONS YOU MAKE COMPLETELY SHAPE YOUR EXPERIENCE AND OUTCOME.” – BioWare
“Umm….. no. That’s not what you did.” – Me
If you’re not a gamer, it is possible you haven’t heard of the controversy surrounding the ending of Mass Effect 3. For the uninitiated, Mass Effect is a series of computer role-playing games set in an original universe (full of sci-fi tropes) that lends itself to rich storytelling and gameplay. Throughout the course of the game the player is confronted with making decisions along every step of the way and has to deal with moral and ethical dilemmas and the life and death decisions of command. It’s kind of like the best episode of Star Trek, only you are Captain Kirk and you get to make all the tough calls. The choices have very real consequences and shape the nature of the game to the point that different players seldom have identical experiences. The player’s decisions shape the game and if you import those choices from the first game into the second and on into the third, it is possible that decisions you made in the first installment will have repercussions in the third. On top of all this, the game featured an incredible soundtrack and A-list voice acting. What more could a player ask for?
Apparently, an ending that wasn’t shoddily slapped together and was actually done in good faith…
By the time I got to the ending of Mass Effect 3, I had already begun to hear rumblings that the ending was lackluster. But playing it, I was puzzled by a lot of things. For one, the playstyle seemed completely different than the rest of the game and a lot didn’t make sense. I was being funnelled towards a finale not of my own making. It was like Commander Sheppard was on autopilot. Then as I spoke to the catalyst, he made declarations that were obviously wrong and didn’t mesh with the game I had just played. He gave me 3 decisions, none of which I wanted to make. (For the record, I picked “The door on the right” out of the gate and even got the secret breathing ending…) The ending I watched was so disjointed and made such little sense in the overall scheme of the game, that I was sure I had done something wrong. Like a good gamer, I reloaded my last save and played through the other 2 decisions. And guess what, they were all pretty much the same. Severely disappointed, I closed the game and hit the internet to see if I had missed something. I started reading articles about the ending. Strangely, a lot of the articles blamed the fans for what was, even on the best of terms, an uninspired conclusion to an award winning trilogy. Worst still, the creators were hiding behind ‘artistic integrity’. It’s one thing to create events in a story that people don’t like, but is still in the spirit of the story (George R.R. Martin, I’m looking at you.), and a whole other thing to slap something together and hope people will swallow it. Which is what happened here. Don’t believe me? Watch this and tell me this is an ending that reflects the differences of hundreds of varying decisions and roughly a hundred hours of engaging storytelling.
For those who couldn’t be troubled to watch, the colors of the explosions are different, and that’s pretty much it.
But I’m not trying to argue about the ending here, good or bad. For a decent argument that reflects my point of view, see this: Mass-effect-3-ending-hatred-5-reasons-the-fans-are-right.
No, we’re here to talk about what Bioware can do to move on after this ending. I’m pretty sure I called it a franchise killer in the title didn’t I? If Bioware wanted Mass Effect 3 to be the final installment ever and never wanted to have anything to do with it again. The ending makes sense. Although, it is still merely adequate, it does offer a conclusion and resolution. However, Bioware has future plans for the Mass Effect franchise. There’s forthcoming downloadable content, they apparently want to use to make money, there’s hints of a new installment, there’s an anime in production, talks of a feature film, novels, comic books, games on other platforms like tablets, and more! Surely, they don’t intend to set all these things in the past of the Mass Effect universe? It would be like ABC trying to air new episodes of LOST, set in the past, now. How many people would watch knowing the entire cast was already dead and existing in some non-denominational purgatory? I wouldn’t. (Granted some people might. Just like some people say they love the ME3 ending, and some people maintain that “The Phantom Menace” is the best Star Wars film. Still doesn’t make them right. If a million people believe a fallacy, it doesn’t make the fallacy true.)
The ending of Mass Effect 3, makes it extremely difficult to move on with the franchise. One of the hardest things to get past is NOT the (apparent?) death of Commander Sheppard, after all the Mass Effect story and universe is bigger than one man or woman. No, in the ending of ME3, BioWare chose to destroy the mass effect relays effectively isolating everyone in the galaxy in 1 fell swoop. Sure, there are other means of faster-than-light travel in the ME universe, but none fast enough to allow people to traverse the galaxy in a reasonable amount of time (ie. a time period you can tell a non-boring story in). It’s kind of like if J.J. Abrams had gotten rid of warp drive in his reboot Star Trek film. Not much point to Star Trek without warp drive, since the ships can’t leave the solar system. Or what if J.K. Rowling had made Harry use the super-powerful Elder Wand to turn all the magic users into muggles? Sure that’s an ending, but then it wouldn’t make much sense for her to announce another Harry Potter book (maybe one where he’s an accountant with only a 3rd grader’s understanding of math, because Hogwarts only taught magic…hmmm.) Anyway, pretty hard to go forward from there.
I was talking to my brother about the ending, talking around it because he hadn’t gotten there yet, and I mentioned that the gameplay was all wonky. He asked me to describe “wonky” and I said, “It’s like everything is like one of those dream sequences.” Whoa. Hold up. What did I just say? I hopped onto the internet and searched for ‘Is the ending to mass effect 3 a dream’. And ran into something that gave me hope (yes I know, ‘Hope is the first step on the road to disappointment’. Thank you warhammer 40K, now be quiet, this is about Mass Effect.). I discovered the Indoctrination Theory (if you love Mass Effect, and you don’t know what I’m talking about, you owe it to yourself to check it out.) In short, the Indoctrination Theory posits that Commander Sheppard, like Saren, Matriarch Benizia, The Illusive Man, and many other characters, has fallen victim to Reaper indoctrination. He’s been brainwashed. What he thinks he’s doing isn’t really what he’s doing, and though he believes he’s doing the right thing, he’s really working for the bad guys.
That actually gives Bioware an out and an ability to recover the franchise. Because honestly, I’m a hard-core gamer and a superfan of Mass Effect (yes, I have the hoodie), and as it stands right now, EA and BioWare aren’t getting another penny from me for DLC or sequels or anything else. I tend to vote with my wallet and right now other game companies are getting my votes.
As a writer, I like putting myself through an exercise when I run into a story, or story elements, I don’t like. It is a bit of armchair quarterbacking but it gets the old gears going. It goes something like this, “What if I landed a job to write the next installment?” So in this case, I can’t change the ending. What happened happened. But now I have to write the next DLC pack or Mass Effect 4. How to recover?
This is what I came up with, and it is very simple.
Sheppard has been indoctrinated. Sheppard is the new villain. I would start the next installment (DLC or sequel), immediately after the invasion to take back Earth. And depending on whether you choose to play as a man or woman, the player would play as James Vega or Ashley Williams. They are more than competent and could prove to be Sheppard’s equal, especially if Sheppard isn’t firing on all cylinders. Events in the game establish James as an N7 special forces candidate and Ashley is a S.P.E.C.T.R.E. For the first part of the DLC, you would play alongside Sheppard in events that overlap the buildup to the climax in ME3. Then when you get up to the beam, that’s when things change. Horror dawns on you and your companions as you realize that the grand hero of the first 3 games has fallen to Reaper indoctrination and is now your immediate adversary. Depending on your decisions, you must face Sheppard into confronting his situation and depending on your Paragon/Renegade score, you might even be able to turn Sheppard away from the Reapers and back to the side of the good guys! Then depending on the choices you make, you go on to defeat the Reapers, or not? It does come perilously close to the “It was all a dream” trope ending (since what we’ve seen of the current ending would have occurred all inside Sheppard’s indoctrinated head), but frankly, that’s preferable to the ending we have now, and it re-establishes the Mass Effect relays and leaves the Mass Effect universe intact for future installments and more money for EA and BioWare. How epic would it be to see a TV trailer this summer that said something along the lines of, “For half a decade Commander Sheppard has fought against the Reapers. Now, he’s one of them. Mass Effect DLC Available now!” I wouldn’t be able to run to my computer fast enough.
Which frankly, makes much more sense than what is going on now.
If you want to believe BioWare’s story that it’s all about artistic integrity, even in the face of shoddy storytelling and even when it makes no financial sense, we won’t see any of that. Hopefully, the stockholders let them know that they screwed up, even if they want to ignore the fans. Evidence has surfaced that the ending was initially set to be different and that the controversial day one downloadable expansion was originally part of the game but was changed to DLC in a quick cash-grab move by EA. EA has been voted the worst company in America for 2012. ME3 is down to 2.5 stars on Amazon and most of the gamers I know aren’t playing anymore. The reaction to the ending has become its own internet meme. The console gamers among them have already returned their copies to Gamestop, and a lot of the PC crowd have uninstalled it…. not a good sign if you’re counting on future DLC for cash. I still jump in here and there to catch a little multiplayer action, but, there’s not much point to it. And in my experience, when it only took a few seconds to fill out a multiplayer game before, now I can wait several minutes and usually bounce out and play something else. Honestly, I would have preferred BioWare to just put a RickRoll at the end. Then I could have at least laughed. And if we want to believe the rumors about BioWare cribbing other parts of the game to cobble together a barely passable ending, then wouldn’t it have made more sense to let folks know that Part 2 was coming down the road? Then, what many view as a anti-climatic poor ending, would instead be viewed as an incredible cliffhanger.
BioWare promises a new DLC this summer that explains a little more, but they’ve vowed they aren’t changing the actual events in the ending. So pretty much, if they stick to their guns it won’t fix anything, and it’s dealt BioWare, a long running game company with an excellent record, a bad black eye, they might not recover from. Because they can bet for my money, the next time I think to buy a BioWare game, the specter of Mass Effect 3 will be lingering there, reminding me why I might not want to give them my money.
Anyway, I’ll leave the Mass Effect fans with this video, it is amazing and has brought me more closure than the ending did. Watch it fast, before the suits at EA decide to kill it.
I’ve got to go now, I’ve got something in my eye.