In Defence of the Mass Effect 3 Ending

As the four-year anniversary of Mass Effect 3’s release fades from view it’s time to discuss something important: the ending. It is no secret that people disliked the ending of Mass Effect 3. The conclusion to Bioware’s epic space opera is widely accepted to be nothing more than a massive let down, a series of disjointed cut scenes that stumble to three far-too-similar endings, never really reflecting upon the decisions you’ve made and the story you’ve crafted for three whole games. In fact, the endings were so hated that Bioware released free DLC to extend and improve them. Even now, four years later, the ending of the trilogy clouds people’s memories. But I didn’t think they were that bad. I really, really liked the original ending to Mass Effect 3. And I’m going to explain why. Spoilers ahead!

The ending of Mass Effect 3 finds your Commander Shephard beaten, bloodied and bruised, stranded on the Citadel, unsure whether their crew and friends are alive, cradling the body of their fallen mentor, looking out over the last remnants of the galaxy being destroyed by a huge Reaper force and still entirely unsure what the device they have spent an entire game constructing and maneuvering into its current positon above Earth actually does. They have conquered foes great and small, undone genocide at a genetic level, brokered peace between mortal enemies, discovered the origins of millennia old threats to the galaxy, romanced their way through several species and then they are presented with two (or three!) choices. Choices which are presented by a Virtual Intelligence that looks like the child that has been haunting their nightmares since they escaped from Earth at the beginning of the game. The young boy forms part of a separate issue with Mass Effect 3 and his appearance here is a symptom of Bioware’s game-long, ham-fisted attempt at showing that Commander Shephard feels guilt towards leaving Earth to the Reapers. The VI taking the form of the young boy is not a problem with the ending per se, but it really doesn’t do it any favours. The choices presented by the VI, however, and the way those choices play out, are the real ‘issue’.

“It is no secret that people disliked the ending of Mass Effect 3

Bioware arguably popularised and codified the three-tier choice/conversation system. Your interactions with characters throughout every Mass Effect game exist as a maximum of three conversational or action choices, with a potential for further investigating without advancing the choice. And the choices always boil down to the blue choice – the option for the paragon commander who wants to walk the line and foster peace across the galaxy, the middle choice – a neutral option that serves to plainly forward the story, and the red choice – the option for the renegade commander who plays by his own rules and frequently breaks other people’s rules to get the job done. And this is not a bad thing! It serves Mass Effect incredibly well, distinguishing the moral choices of the game and allowing the games to tell a pretty well-focused, predetermined story while allowing a good level of player agency. The ending of Mass Effect 3 provides Shephard with the same three choices, because that is the established framework of choice within Mass Effect. But it alters your perception of them in an incredibly clever way.

Throughout Mass Effect 3 the player is told by their allies that they must destroy the Reapers, that the only way to win this war and save the galaxy is with the complete destruction of the invading force. Conversely, the secondary antagonist of the story spends the whole game talking about how humanity must learn to control the Reapers and harness their power, and every character you love and trust insists that this plan is ridiculous, dangerous and foolish. You are trained by the game to understand that of the 3 choices you are ever given the blue choice is ‘good’, and the red choice is ‘bad’. And then at the final moments of the game you are given the choice to either control the Reapers or destroy them, and the colours are swapped. The choice that you have been told is the correct choice, to destroy the Reapers, is red. The choice to control them is blue. Within the systems of Mass Effect this reversal is incredibly significant! It serves to throw your beliefs into disarray. Just a few minutes prior you saw your mentor and superior insisting you destroy the Reapers with his dying breath and now the game is showing you that destruction is potentially the bad choice. By subverting the player expectations Bioware made the ending to Mass Effect arguably as nuanced as it could be within the framework of the game, using its systems to shift the player’s perception of the choice they’ve been given.

“The choice that you have been told is the correct choice, to destroy the Reapers, is red”

Now, before you start saying that it could be so much more nuanced, that they could have given you so many more options, they couldn’t. The final choice of Mass Effect 3 has been telegraphed since Mass Effect 1. Every conversation with a Reaper throughout the trilogy leads to a discussion on the cyclical nature of the relationship between humans and machines, about how biological life constantly produces artificial intelligence that it goes on to battle with. The relationship between the Quarians and their mortal enemies and creations, the Geth, reflects the themes of construction and destruction. Upon failing to control the Geth, the Quarians sought to destroy them, losing the war and their home world, and peace was only found between the two races through great effort and sacrifice on the part of Shephard and his crew. But even if we are to ignore these thematic constants from game to game, the final choice of Mass Effect 3 is outright stated in a particular side quest in Mass Effect 1. An early quest on the Citadel finds Shephard following a series of strange signals, ultimately finding a rogue Artificial Intelligence. Within the Mass Effect universe, AI development is outlawed, and any AIs which are found must be destroyed. But before Shephard destroys the AI, he speaks to it. And it plainly states the relationship between humans and machines in this way: “Humans desire only to destroy or control machines”. From the moment it began Mass Effect has always been about controlling or destroying machines, even if it wasn’t obvious.

After picking control or destroy, the player is treated to a short cut scene showing the immediate result of their decision, a coloured energy wave propagating across the galaxy and putting a halt to the raging battle, intercut with images of their friends and significant others. This is accompanied by a bittersweet piano medley and followed by a brief clip of the Normandy failing to outrun the energy wave and crashing onto a planet, where the crew emerge to a new dawn and a more hopeful backing track. It’s very minimal but (and this is where my argument becomes somewhat subjective) I believe it fits the overall tone of the ending. As mentioned previously, by this point Shephard has been through Hell. They are only standing through sheer force of will alone, through their indomitable ability to get the job done. Shephard has literally died for the cause, been resurrected and gone on again to keep fighting for what must be done, never once considering themselves or their wellbeing. Mass Effect is the story of this hero or heroine who sacrifices all again and again to save the whole galaxy and upon making the ultimate sacrifice the player is shown an image of hope for the future, and left to ruminate on their own feelings about Shephard. The ending doesn’t need a montage showing where every character is now because these characters only exist through the eyes of Shephard and those eyes are closed.

“From the moment it began Mass Effect has always been about controlling or destroying machines, even if it wasn’t obvious”

The third choice given is synthesis and it has to be mentioned, even if only as a courtesy. The synthesis ending is only unlockable if the player has acquired the best possible outcome in pretty much every choice throughout the game, and it causes biological and mechanical intelligence to form together across the galaxy. It’s incredibly silly. And the resulting cut scene of your crew wandering towards you with strange wires pulsing under their skin is even a little comedic. It actually damages the overall quality of the ending.

Mass Effect 3 is not a perfect game. It has a significantly reduced sense of exploration and scale than its predecessors, and it uses cheap plot devices to force its story beats. It has characters take sudden, jarring turns in their attitude and motivation and it generates some pretty weak new characters, from Jersey Shore wannabes to the plot-invincible cyber assassin Kai Leng. But its ending? The subversive, inevitable, minimalist, brutally stark end to the story of Commander Shephard is possibly one of the best things about Mass Effect 3. Because Commander Shephard couldn’t have a happy ending. If Mass Effect 3 had closed with Shephard and Liara cradling little blue babies as the sun rose over a rebuilt Earth and Garrus sat by the pool sipping a gin and tonic, it would have felt spineless. It would have nullified the sheer magnitude of sacrifices Shephard had made for their galaxy, and it would have skewed the understanding that we, as the player, were experiencing Shephard’s story by continuing it on without us. Mass Effect 3 is a deeply flawed experience, but the harsh reality of its ending is beautiful.

Post-script: Just because I loved the ending it doesn’t mean I think Kai Leng is anything other than a shoddy excuse for plot motivation, artificially generated from nowhere to make up for a story that otherwise lacked a tangible, personal threat. You know I took that Renegade Interrupt. Also, Mass Effect 1 is the best Mass Effect.

Mark Northfield

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11 Comments on this post.
  • Kalisti
    5 May 2016 at 09:17
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    This is an interesting analysis. I agree leaving Shepard there, at the end of things, was a good thing. Whether she lived or died, there was no reason to travel on with her after the resolution of the Reaper problem. And the music was great.

    But I think the ending was simply unconvincing. I agree with you about the green choice: it was silly. The no-choice choice was just a fit of pique on the part of the developers, and bore no relationship to anything that came before it. The Control choice was ridiculous; beat the Reapers by becoming a Reaper. There’s absolutely no reason to believe the Catalyst would allow itself to be supplanted. And if it did, the chances of staying balanced and sane under those circumstances would have been poor. Then, too, there’s the old adage: absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    The truth is the Catalyst was a completely unreliable narrator. If it was sentient, it was insane. It’s arguments were often illogical and a lot it said was inconsistent with the Mass Effect universe as Shepard experienced it. So none of the choices it offered were guaranteed to turn out the way it described.

    The whole organics vs synthetics argument was entirely unconvincing. During the series it was mostly advanced by patently untrustworthy narrators, and it was proved false by the ease with which a well-developed Shepard could broker peace between the geth and the quarians. Who then turned around and instantly became extremely effective allies in the resettlement of their home planet, and in fighting the Reapers.

    The main story never held together, really. Kai Leng is just one example of the inconsistencies and forced plot devices that would take too long to list here. So it’s no surprise the ending was generally poorly executed, except for stopping Shepard’s narrative as soon as she/he executed his/her final decision.

    All that being said, the main stories in most games don’t hold together very well, and a lot of endings are less than excellent. I don’t know why that is, exactly. A lot of time the underlying ideas are very good.

    But Mass Effect as a series is stellar. I have played it through many times, and I’m still not tired of it. The ending is a tiny part of an epic journey, and, for me, it doesn’t detract from the hundreds of hours of entertainment and thought provoking ideas the series contains. I always recommend it highly, and I look forward eagerly to Andromeda.

    • Mark Northfield
      11 May 2016 at 10:58
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      Hey! Thanks for replying!

      Interestingly enough, I actually picked control on my first play through. I saw the destroy option as far too dangerous, and figured that my Shephard had the strength of will and character to be given such power. He had proven incorruptible and indomitable up to that point, I saw no reason why he couldn’t control the Reapers and fly them deep into a sun, no collateral damage necessary. The open and minimal nature of the ending allows these answers to be generated by the player, if the player is willing. It’s a blessing and a curse, for sure.

      I think there is a lot to be said in an analysis of the reliability of the characters who deliver the majority of the exposition throughout the series. With the nature of Shephard as an agent who works under the command of larger forces, be they the council or the Human military, it could easily be argued that he is never being given the full picture. Factor in further that a lot of the direct “story-dump” Shephard receives is from ancient AIs and VIs, who have no reason to be fully truthful or may even have the future space version of ‘bit rot’, and you could build a convincing argument that Shephard’s actions are chronically misinformed throughout the games. It pays off however, as no matter the perceivable unreliability of the Catalyst, the options they provide still come true.

      I would be careful of claiming it is easy for Shephard to broker peace on Rannoch. To get the ‘best’ outcome from that conversation requires a pretty strenuous set of criteria to be fulfilled, going back into Mass Effect 2 as well. From a gameplay perspective it may have been trivial, as it merely requires you to do everything you can and save everybody you can before going to Rannoch in ME3, but from within the realities of the game (which lets be honest, is the whole point of any of this) Shephard has to achieve a huge amount. They must have an incredibly high rep score, meaning they’ve honed their actions to paragon or renegade almost exclusively so far, they must have kept Tali and Legion alive through the suicide mission, ventured into a Geth Server with Legion and disabled the fighter squadrons, destroyed the heretic Geth in ME2 and stopped Tali from being exiled in ME2. That’s not even a comprehensive list of the events the game looks to to calculate if you can broker peace. So it is perhaps inaccurate to claim that it was easy to stop the synthetic/organic fighting.

      I’m loving the stuff getting explored here. Keep up the awesome discussions!

      ~Mark Northfield

  • Chris Ballard
    6 May 2016 at 01:15
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    I can agree that the juxtaposition of ‘blue=bad/red=good’ in the final choice was a clever curveball. However, that was hardly the chief complaint about the ending. Neither was the complaint that the ending was not upbeat enough. My complaint about the ending was twofold: 1) there was no appreciable difference between either choice, and 2) none of the choices the player made throughout the trilogy made the slightest impact on the ending.

    Whether you cured the Genophage or not, brokered peace between the geth and the quarians (disproving the hologram’s assertion that such a peace is impossible) or not, saved or destroyed the rachni, whether you were paragon, renegade, or somewhere in between, not one pixel changed.

    The relays are destroyed, the Normandy crashed, the crew is marooned…somewhere (having somehow reboarded the ship while the battle was still raging), and the allied fleets are stranded in the Sol system (which would mean the quarians and turians would starve before reaching a viable food source).

    I will say, while the Extended Cut was hardly perfect, I believe if it had been the original ending there would not have been the backlash we saw. The slideshow was unnecessary, but it did answer a lot of the “what the hell just happened?” questions I had.

    • Mark Northfield
      11 May 2016 at 11:33
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      Hey! Thanks for replying!

      I don’t believe that Mass Effect as a series is actually about huge, nuanced choices that impact the overarching story. The tale of Shephard fighting the Reapers, dying and working for Cerberus, ending up on trial at the beginning of ME3, going through the planets and the set pieces, all plays out the same no matter which of the options you picked at each of the games sequential binary choices. The game always had to end with you destroying the Reapers. That’s been the goal since the beginning, and it would have been a pretty crappy ending if you discovered that actually getting dominated by the Reapers isn’t all bad, and willingly surrendered the galactic population. (A pretty ridiculous other option, but I think it’s still a valid example). Combine that with the extreme nature of the Reapers, and the Crucible reveals itself as the answer to the pretty big corner Bioware wrote themselves into.

      With the release of the Genesis interactive comics, Bioware distilled their games down into the 6 most important binary choices that should fill in the story going into ME2, or ME3. If even the developer is admitting that they feel the story can be easily represented by 6 check boxes per game, I think it’s safe to say that they are telling a pretty linear story. And that isn’t a knock against the story, I think its wonderful. There are very few video games that have made me care about characters the way Mass Effect has. But I don’t see Mass Effect as a bastion of player agency within story telling. I see it as a vehicle for a pretty singular but thoroughly enjoyable tale.

      If you examine a breakdown of the possible non-extended cut endings, there’s a surprising amount of variance. I know I know, its not a huge amount, but I believe that if you consider the game systems and the Mass Effect approach to choice, then its way more options than you usually get.

      None-the-less, I will concede that that game does obfuscate the results of its choice system behind the EMS rating, and distils the reality of “I cured the Genophage” into “+200 EMS” (for example). By then using the EMS score to differentiate the numerous potential (but necessarily similar, as discussed) endings, it disassociates the action from the result, and you are correct in saying it leaves the larger choices seeming meaningless. Its one of the many examples of poor execution that ME3 is riddled with.

      As always, I love the discussion, keep it up!

      ~Mark Northfield

  • Ashley
    1 June 2016 at 00:15
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    I did like that the color-coding was basically flipped in the ending. But honestly? I didn’t (and still don’t) feel like I *needed* the reveal about the Reapers. It felt too much like a last-minute, M. Night Shyamalan-esque”gotcha” moment, a twist that was there just for the sake of, well, having a twist. This is probably one of the few cases were I feel that the story would have been better served if it were simple and straightforward, rather than needlessly complex.

    Granted, that might be an issue more related to switching writers and all, but purely for the sake of example, I feel that Dragon Age, for all its dangling plot threads, feels like it knows where it’s going in the endgame. ME3 just never felt quite as structurally sound to me, though ME 1 and 2 didn’t seem to suffer from this problem.

  • FrenchPotatoes
    26 June 2016 at 10:41
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    I was really happy to see a person defending the Ending –and that even if myself I didn’t really like it.

    You give us your vision of the endings and a very interesting analysis.
    But here I’m kind of disappointed…
    You made way too much extrapolations and take them as true because you just seems to want the Reaper to be destroyed and force the explanation to make that the only “good” choice.
    Also you don’t give at all your opinion on what really bother the majority and especially the Reapers ‘goal (or maybe you just included it in the Catalyst nonsense…).

    “You are trained by the game to understand that of the 3 choices you are ever given the blue choice is ‘good’, and the red choice is ‘bad’. And then at the final moments of the game you are given the choice to either control the Reapers or destroy them, and the colours are swapped. The choice that you have been told is the correct choice, to destroy the Reapers, is red. The choice to control them is blue.”

    Do you make reference the Red/Blue to the Renegade/Paragon? However Renegade doesn’t mean automatically “bad”.
    You just assuming Destruction is the “good” ending by giving more or less justifications and almost not talk about the two others. (Ironically the last article I read who defend the ending was saying that a “green” one was the right one.)
    Isn’t the good choice the one which actually depended of your own morality?

    ““Humans desire only to destroy or control machines”. From the moment it began Mass Effect has always been about controlling or destroying machines, even if it wasn’t obvious.”
    “I agree with you about the green choice: it was silly. The no-choice choice was just a fit of pique on the part of the developers, and bore no relationship to anything that came before it.”

    Actually in ME2 all the three options about IA are show during Tali’s trial and with the appearance of Legion. Even Shepard can already began to defend them and see Legion as a “living being”. EDI is also a very important character in ME2&3 without everybody wanted her to be control or destroyed and she can be in relationship with Joker.
    So it shows another option: live together even if we’re different. This is prove by the peace between geths and quarians which is probably less fragile than the peace between Krogan with Wrev as a leader.

    “The ending doesn’t need a montage showing where every character is now because these characters only exist through the eyes of Shephard and those eyes are closed.”
    However Shepard is still alive in one of the Ending. In one of the Destruction ending, your “good” ending. So ironically he can have “little blue babies as the sun rose over a rebuilt Earth and Garrus sat by the pool sipping a gin and tonic”. Well, as long as you don’t choose Liara and Garrus for the last mission since they are with Joker in the Normandy.
    At least we could have a Shepard’s flash-back “farewell” which included more than Liara smiling at you. But no…

    At the end it’s kind of hard for me to understand how you can like the endings by rejecting two of them -Synthetis Ending and Control Ending- and thinking the Catalyst is almost out of place in ME universe.

    For me, this synthetic/organic battle is the weakness of ME ending.
    I expected something way bigger that another “Robot/Human” story with a bittersweet ending with Shepard ’sacrifice.
    Reaper are both synthetic and organic and that Sovereign say we couldn’t understand their goal. So without understand them, like Virgil said, I thought we were trying to unify everybody and work together whatever their specie in order to survive. Specie who make war between them whatever they are. Because machine or not, we still had galactic extermination: like the Rachni genocide follow by Krogan genophage.

    Even if I don’t share your point of view, thanks for sharing it. It’s really nice to talk again of ME Ending, especially since you seems nice~

  • Lexie Star
    18 July 2016 at 16:14
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    Seems to be a sequel

  • tommy
    10 August 2016 at 17:17
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    I loved the ME3 ending.

    Me alive. Reapers dead.

    I made a promise in ME1. I promised Sovereign that I was going to defeat his vile genocidal race of space nazis.

    Seeing the Reapers explode one by one at the end and then seeing Shepard breathe at the end I smiled and nodded, it is at that point my promise to Sovereign was fulfilled.

    • Happy Ending~
      25 August 2016 at 12:32
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      But in one of ME3 ending Reapers and others races live together in joy and harmony.
      Because having a same ADN = peace
      (What the fuck Bioware ?)

      Shepard alive. Reapers dead.
      They were so many way to do that.
      And the way they did wasn’t the best…
      Especially when back in ME1 Soveireign was saying we couldn’t understand Reapers while in ME3 their goal was revealed and it was very simple to understand.

      But I guess this is a troll comment since the article say “because Commander Shephard couldn’t have a happy ending.”
      And you’re right Shepard is alive and have a happy ending in one of the ending.

  • maw
    25 August 2016 at 21:51
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    In your long winded wall of text, you only made one point on why you liked the ending: and that is we don’t need resolution because Shepard is dead. That goes against every writing tenet that they teach to 1st year students. You can’t write a story, let alone a trilogy without a resolution. There’s plenty of movies where the protagonist dies and guess what? They all have a resolution. It’s basic storytelling and it doesn’t only apply to entertainment media. Imagine telling a story to a friend and then walk out the room abruptly without finishing it.

  • David
    3 October 2016 at 18:37
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    Maw, I will say that this particular narrative structure has grounding. Perhaps my favorite of all of the Classics, A Tale of Two Cities does something remarkably similar: it gives us closure on only one of the main characters throughout the story. The rest, we hope, remain alive due to this person’s sacrifice, but we are in no way sure, and Dickens does not give us any further information. This lack of closure makes us ask one question: Was it worth it? Was all the trouble and hardship, was curing (or not curing) the genophage worth it to stop galactic ruin? When I finish a game, sometimes I want to close it and move on. Other times, I want to seriously consider what my choices in the game revealed about myself. Bioware, in ME3 and DA2 constructed a couple of games that instigate a player to seriously consider their own positions and philosophies. That’s why I love the ME3 ending: it doesn’t let me close the game complacently and move on to something else. It gets inside my head, making me ask hard questions of myself, and, in the process, it drives me to become, at best a better person, and at worst, a more self-aware person.

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