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Everything You Need to Know About the Mass Effect 3 Ending Controversy, As Spoiler-Free As Possible
by Becky Chambers | 12:33 pm, March 20th, 2012
By now, you’ve likely heard that the endings to Mass Effect 3 have made people a little bit…upset. Fan backlashes to endings are hardly a new phenomenon in the geek community, but this goes beyond angry letters and wistful fanart. A significant chunk of the fanbase is petitioning BioWare to change the ending entirely via DLC.
If that sounds ridiculous to you, you’re not alone. Many gaming sites have scoffed at Mass Effect fans, throwing around words like “childish” or “entitled.” However, this fight is far more complicated than a few fans whining over the lack of a sunshine-and-rainbows ending. The way this thing plays out could have major ramifications not only for the gaming industry, but for how we define the concept of creative ownership. If you care about gaming, storytelling, or digital media, this is a story you should know about.
EDITOR UPDATE: Bioware has, uh, actually responded, sort of. Read Becky’s response here.
Before I begin, I have to admit a bias: I am an enormous Mass Effect fan, and I was very disappointed in the ending. I wrote my review of the game after I completed my playthrough, so everything I said there holds true: Mass Effect 3 is one of the most spectacular games I have ever played. I cannot praise the game highly enough…except for the last five minutes. The last five minutes broke me. While a new ending would do a lot to fill the N7-shaped hole in my heart, it is not something that I have been actively campaigning for, nor is it something that I entirely expect to see happen (though my opinion on that is shifting). Still, if such a thing did come to fruition, I would be in favor of it.
That said, I’m going to do my best to stay objective. There are already plenty of articles arguing for or against a new ending, so I’m not going to go there. I’m just here to explain what’s going on and why it’s rather important. As some of you haven’t finished the game yet (not least of which, the managing editor of this very site, who would have to read this post at some point), and as some of you have no background with this series at all, I’m going to attempt to lay this whole thing out as spoiler-free and easily-accessible as possible. While I will be outlining the narrative issues that some fans have, I will be doing so in the most general terms by leaving characters, events and locations out of the discussion entirely. However, if you don’t want your opinion of the ending influenced in the slightest, you may want to put this article aside until you finish the game.
To start, let’s review just how big a deal this series is. The Mass Effect trilogy is a sprawling, intense space opera, adored by fans, lauded by critics, and honored by more awards than I can count. Within the world of science fiction, Mass Effect’s contributions cannot be ignored. A recent essay at i09 called the series “the most important science fiction universe of our generation.” An article at Scientific American hailed the setting of Mass Effect as “one of the most carefully and completely imagined sci-fi universes out there.” It is considered by many to be an example of one of gaming’s first true epics.
While the series’ gameplay mechanics themselves are top-notch, what keeps fans coming back is the staggeringly customizable story. The protagonist, Commander Shepard, can be male or female, and any race of your choosing (for convenience’s sake, I’m going to refer to Shepard as “her” for the remainder of the article). The player’s decisions affect not just the plot of the story, but Shepard’s personality and social ties as well. The player decides who Shepard is friends with, who she falls in love with, if she is compassionate or pragmatic, who she lets live and who she leaves to die. It is rumored that there are well over a thousand storytelling variables that could be imported into ME3. The end result for the player is a level of emotional investment that I have yet to experience in any other story, be it game, book or movie. This is a sentiment shared by many long-time fans. BioWare, the developer behind the series, is keenly aware of this fact. It is perhaps the game’s biggest selling point.
ME3 sold nearly a million copies within twenty-four hours of being released. With its final installment in place, the series now takes roughly one hundred hours to play through (depending on the speed of the player). That’s one hundred hours, stretched over five years, interspersed with books, comics, and additional downloadable missions that play out like bridging miniseries.
The standard edition of ME3 costs sixty dollars. One can assume that most people who purchased the game have long since purchased the other two games at a similar price, as well as at least some of the aforementioned books, comics, and DLC. BioWare itself is one of the big moneymakers in the gaming industry, responsible for some of the best-selling and most critically acclaimed RPGs ever made.
The Fan Reaction
Endings are always difficult to pull off, especially for ongoing series. But within just days of ME3’s release on March 6, it was clear that something had gone very wrong. Before the weekend even hit, a fan movement called RetakeMassEffect popped up, complete with a Facebook group, a Twitter account, and forum signature banners designating “fleets” organized by geographic location. A simple user poll on the BioWare Social Network entitled “What would you like to do about the endings?” (spoilers) had over 100,000 views (by now, that number has nearly quadrupled). It wasn’t long before some major gaming sites began to take notice, and in general, their comments were none too kind. In an effort to shed a more positive light on the campaign, some fans organized a fundraiser for Child’s Play (a game industry affiliated charity which donates toys and games to hospitals). The fundraiser site states:
We would like to dispel the perception that we are angry or entitled. We simply wish to express our hope that there could be a different direction for a series we have all grown to love.
They have currently raised over $70,000.
Over at Metacritic, ME3’s average user rating score is currently 3.7 out of 10. On Amazon, the game has a damning two stars. Though it may seem paradoxical, many of these poorly scored reviews mention that the users loved the game. The ending, they claim, is just that hard to swallow. To paraphrase one comment I read, “If the game had been bad, we wouldn’t care this much.”
If there was any doubt that this sort of response is bad for business, some players are now reporting that Amazon has granted them a full refund for ME3 — even for opened copies of the game.
The Perceived Problems with the Ending
So just what are fans in such an uproar about? As you might expect from the ending of any popular series, there some who dislike the treatment of their favorite character, or disagree with how a pivotal moment played out. But that’s not what’s driving the call for a new ending. It’s fairly obvious to anyone who sticks her head into the BSN forums for a while that fans are rallying behind more nuanced problems with the narrative.
After reading through copious amounts of forum posts and discussing the matter with fellow fans ad infinitum, it’s pretty clear that all of the hullaballoo boils down to a few core grievances. Now, of course, the points I’m about to outline don’t cover every complaint, and these aren’t views that every Mass Effect fan shares. They aren’t views that every fan calling for a new ending shares. They’re not necessarily views that I share. But I do think these three things are the general foundation upon which the new ending movement has been built. If you want a spoiler-heavy look at specific story elements, I recommend Ross Lincoln’s analysis over at GameFront. For the rest of you, here’s the gist.
Lack of Choice
The hallmark of the Mass Effect series is its intricate web of ethically complex decisions, all of which impact how the story plays out. Take, for example, the much-loved ending to Mass Effect 2. Commander Shepard goes into her last mission with no fewer than ten squadmates, all of whom are fully developed characters. They can all die. Permanently. So can Commander Shepard. Their fates depend not only upon which quests you do with them throughout the game, but what tasks you assign them to in the final fight. And depending on your other choices, these people include countless combinations of potential friends, adversaries, and lovers.
This is the level of customization that players had come to expect from the series. In May of last year, Mass Effect executive producer Casey Hudson promised more of the same:
If you just rip straight down the critical path and try and finish the game as soon as you can, and do very little optional or side stuff, then you can finish the game. You can have some kind of ending and victory, but it’ll be a lot more brutal and minimal relative to if you do a lot of stuff. If you really build a lot of stuff and bring people to your side and rally the entire galaxy around you, and you come into the end game with that, then you’ll get an amazing, very definitive ending.
In the climactic moments of ME3, the player is handed a crucial decision, as expected. The number of choices available is ultimately decided by the player’s Effective Military Readiness score — basically a measure of quest results and time spent playing multiplayer matches. However, regardless of how high your score is, every choice results in a virtually indistinguishable ending (I can attest to this, as I had every race in the galaxy at my back and left no side quest undone). None of the choices that a player makes in any of the games truly affects the outcome. Though one could argue that the writers were making a point about fatalism, it seems like a strange way to end a series that has always placed high value on player choice, and it certainly runs counter to what Hudson and other developers had talked up. Many fans were upset by what they saw as a jarring change to the series’ established structure — a change that only took place in the last moments of the final game.
Lack of Closure
The supporting cast of the Mass Effect series is an example of some truly outstanding character development (and voice acting as well). Your squadmates add their own insights and comments as you travel around the galaxy, and the personal details revealed within private conversations make these characters instantly memorable (in ME3, you can even discover them having conversations with each other aboard your ship). In the ME2 DLC Lair of the Shadow Broker, you can read through your squadmates’ computer usage history, which ranges from pithy (Grunt doing web searches on dinosaurs) to poignant (Tali struggling to write a letter to the family of someone who died under her command). These are characters that have been expertly designed to make you grow attached to them.
On top of all this, the worlds and cultures of the Mass Effect universe are richly defined. When you pause the game, you can access the Codex, which gives you encyclopedia-style entries on the species, planets and technologies you share the galaxy with. It is a canonical level of detail that Tolkien would approve of.
Since I promised no spoilers, let’s stick with the example of Tolkien and use the film adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a passable analogy. Everybody jokes about how long it takes The Return of the King to end, but be honest: after twelve hours of movie spread out over three years, wasn’t that twenty minutes of catharsis exactly what you needed? Okay, now imagine that The Lord of the Rings takes a hundred hours to watch, and that The Return of the King ended with that shot of Frodo and Sam lying on the side of Mount Doom after the ring had been destroyed.
That’s how a lot of Mass Effect fans are feeling right now.
After spending years with a series that has gone out of its way to give you details about characters and events, many players feel that the lack of closure at the end of ME3 is not only akin to a broken promise, but does not reflect the level of detail presented throughout the entire series (including the majority of ME3 itself). Moreover, as BioWare had previously made it clear that ME3 was the final chapter of Commander Shepard’s odyssey, some feel that ending the stories of so many complex characters in such an abrupt manner marked yet another break in narrative.
Bound as I am to avoiding spoilers, I can’t say much on this point. Suffice it to say, the final moments of the game left players with some very big questions, and not just those related to a lack of closure. We’re talking basic questions of how characters got from one place to another within a very short amount of time, as well as either a total reversal or a complete oversight of the rules concerning some all-important technology (while this may sound like a nitpicky detail, it’s something that was used as a significant plot point in Arrival, the final DLC for ME2 — a plot point that is mentioned early on in ME3 as well). For some, the end choices themselves pose an additional problem, as they see Shepard’s acceptance of any of the options to be wildly out of character. This is of course a matter of personal opinion, but in general, the lack of logic in an otherwise straight-forward and reasonably plausible story is a major point of contention.
The fanbase is currently locked in debate over “the Indoctrination Theory,” an interpretation of the ending that neatly explains these issues. To put it simply, the Indoctrination Theory suggests that the ending cannot be taken at face value, and that in order to understand the real ending, the player has to read between the lines. Though my evidence is somewhat anecdotal, I would say that even though fans are split on this issue, most players on both sides still want the ending changed, regardless of whether the Theory is what the writers intended. The argument goes like this:
If the Indoctrination Theory is canon, this explains the plotholes, but makes little sense when compared to the storytelling style of the rest of the series. The player has never before had to do any guesswork when it comes to major plot points, which suggests that DLC revealing the real ending was planned from the get-go. If this is the case, fans feel that BioWare should be upfront about it, or at the very least, confirm that the Theory is correct.
If the Indoctrination Theory is baseless, then the plotholes remain. If this is the case, fans expect BioWare to fix it.
And therein lies the crux of the matter: Do any of these complaints justify altering the ending? Are fans out of line for petitioning BioWare to change the story? As a creative entity, what is BioWare obligated to do, if anything?
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