Brutal Gamer’s Robbie Campbell discusses Mass Effect’s controversial ending. WARNING: CONTAINS END-GAME SPOILERS!
Beware there are MASSIVE SPOILERS in this article, you have been warned.
The ending of Mass Effect 3 sparked something that has rarely been seen before in the realm of games. Sure people will moan about unbalanced weapons in shooters, nerfed abilities in MMOs and overpriced DLC, but I’ve rarely heard people say an ending is so bad they want it changed. I recently got to the end of the game myself and I wondered why people were so mad. Sure it wasn’t great, there are many loose threads, but I would hardly class it as bad. It wasn’t even remotely like being forcibly pleasured by a large cow, such as the internet had lead me to believe.
It’s high time we took a look at the ending and why exactly it was so contentious. Many an ending leaves loose ends, sometimes creating a cliff-hanger for a new entry in the series, but many times just to keep the reader/watcher/listener/player guessing after the credits roll. Mass Effect 3 ends in such a way that the galaxy isn’t doomed any more, but it is not the same. There are multiple endings – based on your Galactic Readiness – but all them end in effectively the same way. Shepard finds his way onto the Citadel after fighting through London. He meets the Illusive Man and Anderson.
That’s the first problem right there. Anderson wasn’t part of the group, or at least it is implied, that storm the beam that transports people up to the Citadel. If he did manage to get up, even though Shepard is clearly seen to be the only one to make it to the beam, he doesn’t end up in the same place as Shepard. Anderson either somehow got in before Shepard wakes up or found another route that was mysteriously plucked out of thin air.
There is a final showdown with the aforementioned people. The Illusive Man is clearly indoctrinated, with Reaper markings on his face, and he won’t succumb to logic. Eventually he is killed, via various methods, but Anderson is also killed. It is interesting that Anderson is Red and the Illusive Man is Blue in that scene (regarding their various lighting situations, keep that in mind). Once Shepard makes his way to the Crucible controls he is transported to another part of the Citadel as it opens its previously shut arms. Here Shepard meets the little boy from his stupid nightmare sequences.
While it is hard to say if it truly is a master stroke of foreshadowing or just an attempt to personalise a struggle that is macro rather than micro in nature, the little boy appears to be the mystical ‘Catalyst’ that the Commander has been searching for. The little boy turns up in silly dream sequences where Shepard tries to find him in a misty forest. The forest is full of shadows of people that have died on the player’s journey to the final battle. It is possible that these dreams are a sign that Commander is indoctrinated. The Rachni Queen at one point talks about how being indoctrinated often made her see shadows of her people and hear voices, exactly what Shepard sees in his nightmares. That’s another thing to stick in the memory bank for now.
The little boy turns out to be the catalyst, but he is clearly a VI as he is a hologram similar to the Prothean VI found on Thessia. The VI talks about how the whole Reaper system works, finally some closure, telling the Commander that the Reapers are actually old races that got processed. They are merely a representation of a previous cycle’s dominant species. The Reapers are the Chaos to the Organics’ Order. It turns out that all organic species are destined to create synthetic life – such as the Geth – and that eventually the synthetics will try to overthrow the organics. The Reapers are triggered each time this stage of development is reached to stop the synthetics taking over the galaxy.
Shepard is then given a few choices. Depending on how well the player did in either multiplayer or in singleplayer their Galactic Readiness will dictate which choices are available. The basic one is to destroy, the next is to control and the final is to synthesise. Destruction kills the Reapers off but also destroys the Mass Relay network. This isn’t a great ending to begin with, but if you have a very high GR this ending is considered cannon. The second option is allows Shepard to take charge of the Reapers but it effectively kills him by transferring him into a program. It also hurts the Mass Relay system but not terminally. The final option allows the player to synthesise organic and synthetic life throughout the galaxy. This results in the Reaper’s demise but all life becomes part organic, part synthetic. It also damages the Mass Relay network, but again not terminally.
If you did manage to max out the GR bar the Destroy option has a little scene after the ending where Shepard is seen grasping for breath in a pile of rubble, indicating that he has survived. It is a strange scene but most consider this to be the cannon ending due to it being the product of the highest GR. It indicates that the series could continue and that the Commander could make a return as a cameo, as Bioware has said repeatedly that the Shepard trilogy is done. While it is nice to have a definite ending could Shepard be back on Earth. Did he even leave? Was it all a dream that was induced by getting hit by a laser? It’s hard to say until the ending DLC comes out in the summer.
The ending triggers a series of cut-scenes where the Crucible is shown firing, taking out Reapers and Mass Relays as well as Shepard dying/getting uploaded. One of the scenes is in London. If you have a low GR, Big Ben is destroyed but higher GR ratings will keep the landmark standing. Then it cuts to the Normandy in a Mass Relay beam trying to outrun the blast from the Mass Relay exploding.
This is the most annoying part of the ending to me. Why is the Normandy there? It’s hard to say where the Mass Relay is but generally they are at the edge of solar systems. Due to the fact the fleet travels in a bit before hitting Earth prior to landing on London, it must be out past Mars. How could it have gotten so far away from Earth so quickly? What was it running away from? Why is a ship that is Shepard’s running away before they know what has happened to him/her. Some may argue that they are just trying to escape the Crucible’s blast but I doubt it could cover so much ground so fast that it managed to get through the Mass Relay in time. It seems stranger still that the crew would just abandon Shepard.
Once the blast catches up with the Normandy it crashes onto a jungle planet. The scene shows the ship buried slightly in the ground and animal sounds can be heard. This isn’t out of the ordinary because if you have Javik as part of your crew or you listen to the Catalyst, it is clear that only space-faring beings are culled by the Reapers. This allows the young civilisations to develop so that the galaxy can continue living on. It’s not fully explained why life is left to live in any form if it will always is destined to create synthetic life. It would have been nice to have an explanation of this as it would solve a lot of problems regarding the necessity of the Reapers.
After that the door of the Normandy opens and, once again depending on your GR rating, various members will be there. Even if you have left characters on the ground in London before heading out on the final mission (and this is a possibility since every available member is in London and you can only pick the customary three for your squad). The fact that if I left Garrus on the ground in London he magically makes it to the Normandy and it magically manages to out run the blast as well as leaving behind the Commander is unbelievable.
That for me is the worst part of the ending because it isn’t explained well, it’s full of holes and it does seem like it was rushed. I’ve never been a fan of having multiplayer in the game full stop and perhaps some of the man power in that area could have been used to draft a better ending. At the very least a more logical one would have been nice.
While fans may have stepped over the line in regards to the ending being changed at their will it does seem that Bioware had built up the game and the choices made so much it became a victim of its own success. It aimed for the stars but fell flat on its face somewhere near Westminster. The Normandy cut scene is just superfluous and a way of saying ‘here are some characters you liked, I bet you missed them’. Bioware tried so hard to make choices in the game carry weight, and for the most part the insignificant ones do, but the big ones don’t affect the ending. The very thing that should make the game so unique doesn’t work because they wanted a very specific set of events to happen at the end.
One theory I like is that the Commander is indoctrinated. He certainly was in close quarters with more than his fair share of Reapers over the course of the three games. Perhaps he was indoctrinated and choosing the ‘control’ option is just the Reaper’s way of showing that they run the show. Perhaps the Catalyst was just a Reaper construct to persuade Shepard that he was a near-God. It has been said many times over the trilogy that the Reapers cannot be controlled so it seems strange that at the end that is an option. It would also explain why Shepard can be seen alive on the ground in London in the ‘right’ ending, perhaps it was just a dream pumped into his head by a Reaper? It would make a lot of the actions of the Commander over the three games look a lot less right if he was. It would also explain the colour of lighting used on Anderson and the Illusive Man on the Citadel, blue for control (or really indoctrination) and red for destruction). It would also explain why Anderson made it to the Citadel without a good explanation. It would not, however, explain that stupid Normandy scene. That remains a mystery.
It is difficult to play a game that has been in development as long as the Mass Effect Trilogy and tell the creators that they have finished it in a way that is wrong. The ending is short and sweet but where do people get off trying to say that it must be changed? I think it is good in totality, because it is a very bleak outcome no matter what happens, but is let down in the details. The little denouement with the man and the boy talking about ‘The Shepard’ on a night indicates the universe lives on. Shepard appears to have become a god-like figure, something that indoctrination is said to bring, but it doesn’t make sense that the player sees the scene after Shepard is supposedly killed on the Citadel. It’s certainly got people talking on the internet and any press is good press as they say. I think the ending DLC will tie up some loose ends but it won’t change the nature of the end. Bioware would be insane to change what is a serviceable ending to suit the whims of internet gamers.