THIS POST CONTAINS GREAT BIG SPOILERS FOR MASS EFFECT 3. IF YOU DON’T WANT THE GAME SPOILED FOR YOU, DON’T READ THE NEXT BIT. MOVE ALONG.
So everyone in the world is angry about Mass Effect 3.
There are a number of reasons for this anger. “Gamers,” whatever they are, are an ornery bunch of miscreants, and they often want things that they can’t have. Surprisingly, one of those things is a decent ending to a 100+ hour long video game trilogy. You probably know this if you are reading this post, but let me hook you up with some knowledge in case you stumbled in here and didn’t care enough to click away when the bold print assaulted you during entry: the endings for Mass Effect 3 have been universally hated.
The problems really start when Shepard is confronted by an ancient AI that explains that the cycle of Reapers destroying advanced civilizations every 50,000 years or so is the product of an ur-conflict between organic life and synthetic life. Synthetic life will always eliminate organic life in the end, the AI explains, and so the only way to ensure the survival of organic life in perpetuity is to make sure that civilizations that are capable of creating full-fledged AI life are eliminated before they can tank the universe (basically). If you want it explained to you better, look here.
So then the AI, in the form of a little kid, points out three different doors that correspond to three different endings. The three endings (and there are really only three; an extra ten seconds here and there does not 17 endings make) are roughly based on the three possible ideologies that Shepard can prescribe to during the course of the game.
Door #1: Shepard can kill all synthetic life in the universe. This means all of the robot people that Shepard has grown to love would die immediately, but so would the Reapers, the giant robots who are dedicated to destroying all organic life in the galaxy.
Door #2: Shepard obliterates his body for the chance to control the Reapers. This means that Shepard will die as we know him, but essentially lives on as some Reaper god doing whatever the hell he wants.
Door#3: Shepard is obliterated and every being in the galaxy is altered on the level of their DNA, destroying the dividing line between synthetic and organic life and eliminating the problem of synthetic life killing off organic life.
And then the game cuts out of cinematic mode and lets you made a decision. It is difficult, and I admit that I stood for more than a few minutes looking back and forth between my three options and weighing the cost-benefits. I made my choice of #2 and watched Shepard heroically hold on to some electric space conduits that promptly burned him into nonexistence. The Reapers left the galaxy. None of Shepard’s friends died. I was happy.
Then I looked at the internet. I had been careful to avoid reviews, trailers, demos, and any promotional material for the game before I played through it completely. I made sure that I was getting an authentic experience, whatever that means, and it was only when I looked at my favorite gaming news websites that I learned just how much people hated the ending. Luke Plunkett’s article on Kotaku sums up most of the rage about the game; most of it boils down to “it didn’t end how I wanted it to.”
That is a reasonable complaint, and to be fair, I might have liked it because the game ended exactly how I wanted it to. From the very beginning of Mass Effect 3 it was apparent to me that a theme of the game was sacrifice. Difficult choices had to be made, and they had implications that stretched far beyond Shepard as a being. For example, there are two distinct instances where Shepard has to decide if he will allow a species to be eliminated simply because they exist in potential opposition to Shepard’s allies. I made the choice to cure the genophage and to save the geth. My Shepard was one who was concerned with saving lives, and he always knew that self-sacrifice was an option. He disintegrated because it was the only way he could be sure of getting rid of the Reapers.
If you notice, the above point I made was about my Shepard. This is a point that Plunkett makes clear in his post: Mass Effect is about making Shepard your own character. The endings took that away from the player. There is no easy choice. There is no way to blow up the aliens and watch Shepard live out his life on some backwater alien planet.
I thought it was brilliant. Video games are educational, even when we don’t want them to be, and the frustrations that players felt over the end of ME3 are teachable. The superheroic ending in which Shepard saves the galaxy and retires is regressive; that ending would mean that the Mass Effect series is no better than the generic fantasy and science fiction novels crapped out by nameless hacks over the past hundred years. Shepard’s death takes the game from genre fair into something truly unique and artful–it shapes Shepard’s story into something like a legend.
There is also something to be said about how Mass Effect 3 is a video game in a classic sense. Like pinball or an old arcade cabinet, you don’t really play to win. Instead, you play against the clock, knowing that you’re going to lose, that your skill won’t be enough. You know you’re going to lose all those extra lives.