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Space Magic

May 20, 2012


Over the last few months, a lot of digital ink has been shed over the interpretation of BioWare’s conclusion to the space-faring epic, Mass Effect. The general consensus is that the ending is a huge curveball shooting away in a ninety-degree tangent away from the meaning of the story and investment of player choices. A popular theory abounds that Shepard was suffering from indoctrination in a less-than-impressive dream ending. Whatever the interpretation, it is almost universally agreed that the ending buckled under the weight of its popularity.

For the record, I’m not going to comment on the indoctrination theory at all. I’m working on the assumption that BioWare simply ballsed up their ending (or as Patrick Weekes claims, how two men ballsed up the ending, more on that soon).

It is tempting to compare the trilogy to other infamous flops, such as The Matrix Revolutions, but the only real problem with the plot of Mass Effect 3 was the ending. Other character plots, side-quests and teary goodbyes are infinitely more meaningful than the ending’s close (stand up, Thane and Mordin, take a bow). These are features that redeem the series’ storytelling ability, and I feel sorry for people who lost many characters in Mass Effect 2 and get more of a hollow experience as a result.

A post on the official forums by a screenwriter details the key points of the ending’s failure, and to try to build on this would be fairly redundant. Eternalsteelfan wisely points out the features that blur the ending’s meaning. The worst offender is a lack of information:

New information is introduced throughout the entire sequence rather than tying loose ends. New information shouldn’t be introduced in a resolution unless it directly resolves something or is quickly resolved itself; definitively, it’s the opposite of what a resolution is. In layman’s terms, this is what makes us feel like there are more questions than answers.

It is almost as if the game decided to be an intellectual experience half an hour before the credits roll in. There is so much ambiguity in the ending, it is ridiculous. What happens to the fleet? Why has the Normandy decided to break rank and fly off? Why is it a good idea to try and explain the Crucible’s effect in five minutes worth of colour-coded cinematics?

Required features

Curiously, Mass Effect has much in common with Gears of War, owing mainly to the character development. Why the former is heralded as a superior piece of fiction over the latter is strange to me. I find it odd that the ending departed entirely from its main selling point: your teammates and your choices.

So did BioWare plan any of this? Let’s look to Patrick Weekes. Alongside other writers, he has distanced himself from the ending, instead claiming that Casey Hudson, executive producer, forged on ahead with little consultation from anyone else. Perhaps this is true, and perhaps it is an attempt to protect his name, but it doesn’t exactly sound like a company in harmony with its decision here.

The emergence of the indoctrination theory sounds like my literature lecturers trying to sell me a theory of psychoanalysis for every single book I’ve ever read. It may be intelligent, but it wasn’t the author’s design. If it was intentional, we’d have had more closure after ‘waking up’. What we have pre-ending DLC is a garbled mess of existential messages. The martyrdom scenes didn’t even feel polished. Hell, Mass Effect 2‘s Shepard death scene was far better than any of the ones you pick in number 3.

I don’t know how much is going to be resolved with the DLC, and I cannot comment on whether it will wrap things up nicely or just confuse and/or anger people even more. All I am aware of is the lack of comprehensible storytelling invested in what is perhaps the most important part of the game: the ending game’s ending.

The full text of Patrick’s post on Penny Arcade is below:

“I have nothing to do with the ending beyond a) having argued successfully a long time ago that we needed a chance to say goodbye to our squad, b) having argued successfully that Cortez shouldn’t automatically die in that shuttle crash, and c) having written Tali’s goodbye bit, as well as a couple of the holo-goodbyes for people I wrote (Mordin, Kasumi, Jack, etc).

No other writer did, either, except for our lead. This was entirely the work of our lead and Casey himself, sitting in a room and going through draft after draft.

And honestly, it kind of shows.

Every other mission in the game had to be held up to the rest of the writing team, and the writing team then picked it apart and made suggestions and pointed out the parts that made no sense. This mission? Casey and our lead deciding that they didn’t need to be peer-reviewed.

And again, it shows.

If you’d asked me the themes of Mass Effect 3, I’d break them down as:

Galactic Alliances


Organics versus Synthetics

In my personal opinion, the first two got a perfunctory nod. We did get a goodbye to our friends, but it was in a scene that was divorced from the gameplay — a deliberate “nothing happens here” area with one turret thrown in for no reason I really understand, except possibly to obfuscate the “nothing happens here”-ness. The best missions in our game are the ones in which the gameplay and the narrative reinforce each other. The end of the Genophage campaign exemplifies that for me — every line of dialog is showing you both sides of the krogan, be they horrible brutes or proud warriors; the art shows both their bombed-out wasteland and the beautiful world they once had and could have again; the combat shows the terror of the Reapers as well as a blatant reminder of the rachni, which threatened the galaxy and had to be stopped by the krogan last time. Every line of code in that mission is on target with the overall message.

The endgame doesn’t have that. I wanted to see banshees attacking you, and then have asari gunships zoom in and blow them away. I wanted to see a wave of rachni ravagers come around a corner only to be met by a wall of krogan roaring a battle cry. Here’s the horror the Reapers inflicted upon each race, and here’s the army that you, Commander Shepard, made out of every race in the galaxy to fight them.

I personally thought that the Illusive Man conversation was about twice as long as it needed to be — something that I’ve been told in my peer reviews of my missions and made edits on, but again, this is a conversation no writer but the lead ever saw until it was already recorded. I did love Anderson’s goodbye.

For me, Anderson’s goodbye is where it ended. The stuff with the Catalyst just… You have to understand. Casey is really smart and really analytical. And the problem is that when he’s not checked, he will assume that other people are like him, and will really appreciate an almost completely unemotional intellectual ending. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it.

And then, just to be a dick… what was SUPPOSED to happen was that, say you picked “Destroy the Reapers”. When you did that, the system was SUPPOSED to look at your score, and then you’d show a cutscene of Earth that was either:

a) Very high score: Earth obviously damaged, but woo victory

b) Medium score: Earth takes a bunch of damage from the Crucible activation. Like dropping a bomb on an already war-ravaged city. Uh, well, maybe not LIKE that as much as, uh, THAT.

c) Low score: Earth is a cinderblock, all life on it completely wiped out

I have NO IDEA why these different cutscenes aren’t in there. As far as I know, they were never cut. Maybe they were cut for budget reasons at the last minute. I don’t know. But holy crap, yeah, I can see how incredibly disappointing it’d be to hear of all the different ending possibilities and have it break down to “which color is stuff glowing?” Or maybe they ARE in, but they’re too subtle to really see obvious differences, and again, that’s… yeah.

Okay, that’s a lot to have written for something that’s gonna go away in an hour.

I still teared up at the ending myself, but really, I was tearing up for the quick flashbacks to old friends and the death of Anderson. I wasn’t tearing up over making a choice that, as it turned out, didn’t have enough cutscene differentiation on it.

And to be clear, I don’t even really wish Shepard had gotten a ride-off-into-sunset ending. I was honestly okay with Shepard sacrificing himself. I just expected it to be for something with more obvious differentiation, and a stronger tie to the core themes — all three of them.”

Original Source: Bioware Social Network: Musings of a Screenwriter: The Ending Thread, Mass Effect 3 Writer Distance Himself From Game Ending, Blames Casey Hudson

Image Link: Mass Effect 3 website, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Vidya!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 20, 2012 2:59 pm

    I prefer the indoctrination theory myself, it makes sense. First thing I did after finishing the game was watch this –
    I knew from day one with Mass Effect 3 that they were going to have a problem dealing with the reapers in a satisfactory way because realistically Shepard and co have no chance. You need a big MacGuffin which really breaks the threat of the Reapers. I enjoyed it but yes we need more closure.

  2. May 20, 2012 3:49 pm

    Yeah, I really want to think that the indoctrination theory is what was intended, but the dissident BioWare writers make me think twice. If it’s correct or not, the ending could have done with some TLC.

    I agree with you about the reapers. I’m all for a meaningful ending where the reapers aren’t actually defeated, but it would take some masterful writing to get rid of the reapers in the ME universe.

  3. Seehra permalink
    May 20, 2012 4:45 pm

    I guess one of my peevs was how I had put all this effort into all 3 games only for none of it to end in the matter (since finishing ME3, I’ve not gone back to replay any of the games). I suppose they’re doing it so that players jumping in at ME3 can still have an ending but to me, jumping into a game like that at the third game is like reading Return of the King as a stand alone novel. I was hoping to tell the ‘Kid’ that yes, synthetics and organics could live in harmony because I spent 3 games (and SO many hours) patching up the Geth and Quarians. Pet peev, I guess, and I understand there was no way to satisfy every player but at least make the ending logical.


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