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My Mass Effect 3 Alternative Ending
After some weeks of carefully examining the ending of Mass Effect 3, and arguing alternative perspectives with various players (most of the time respectfully, with some intellectual discussion about narrative and interpretation, but some people had no idea what I was doing and were just outright rude with me), I have come to the conclusion that the ending could be a lot better. It's not bad, just that it could be better.
The ending is good in it's own way; the philosophy behind it is sound, and the mass relay destruction (although controversial) is perhaps a necessity for breaking the cycle, in my opinion and according to lore, but would have to depend on circumstances, or consequences of a a player's choices. However, where it really goes wrong horribly and logically wrong is the Catalyst - an eleventh hour character is a terrible plot machine, and I have come to agree that it is a cheesy deus ex machina. However, it can still be used... in way.
When BioWare released Lair of the Shadow Broker, to activate the quest, it simply added a dialogue option to the wheel when talking to Liara on Ilium. In my opinion, they should do the same here, but better - at the point where the Catalyst says, "but we found a way to stop that from happening, a way to restore order for the next cycle..."
There needs to be an interrupt - not your usual one though, where it's a single Renegade or Paragon interrupt, but a Reputation-based interrupt. They have this new Reputation system in place, and here's how they can really make it count.
When the player makes this interrupt, if their reputation is high enough, Shepard's words are along the lines of "So have we!" He or she will argue with the Catalyst, use the stupid God-child's own circular logic against him, and the Quarian/Geth peace as an example, and show the Catalyst why it's wrong. The player now has a series of Paragon or Renegade dialogue options that require high scores in each to talk the Catalyst down, to make it see the error of its ways, like you did with Saren, and the Illusive Man, and various other characters and even squadmates... or, failing that, you continue to try to convince the Catalyst that it's wrong. If you have high enough Paragon/Renegade scores, you talk it down, and convince it that it's wrong, and it goes into self-destruct - now, you have to escape the citadel. If you can't do it with Renegade or Paragon, then you have to fight the Catalyst - somehow, i don't know how that would work, but I'm sure the awesome storytellers and game designers of BioWare would find some fancy way to fight it.
Either way, the citadel is going up in smoke, and you have to escape, wounded and slow, but never fear! Cuz Joker hasn't run off with your love interest to an alternative solar system somewhere and is there to pull you out at the last second.
Either way, the fleets and soldiers continue to fight, and depending on how successful you are fighting or convincing the catalyst, you lose more and more forces as time drags on. This is where EMF comes into play - as the dialogue or fight with the catalyst drags out, the EMF counts down, and your forces start to dwindle. If it is low, everyone dies. Too bad, so sad. But a cut scene has to show this - it has to show your failure, in its magnitude. It has to bring closure, even if the player fails.
If EMF is high, then there is still a fight to win, and win it you can. If the Catalyst is the controlling factor of the Reapers, with the Catalyst gone, then the Reapers are thrown into chaos... they are still powerful, but they are confused. They are easier to beat. The EMF counter slows down tremendously, and the fleets start to destroy Reapers. It's not over yet - your EMF is counting down, but if it's high enough, it can win this battle, and it's now time to take the fight to Harbinger.
Of course, if your Reputation score isn't high enough to interrupt, then you get stuck with the current endings - fair punishment for lack of work. If you can defeat the Catalyst, though, the Mass Relay network still needs to end somehow - perhaps due to the Citadel's destruction. I stand by the necessity of losing the mass relay network - a common theme throughout the story is how civilisations advance on their own vs how they advance if the are uplifted. Technically, galactic civilisation is uplifted by the Reaper-built mass relay network - without it, civilisation will now face a struggle, and through being force to overcome that struggle, the people of the galaxy will advance on their own, and become self-sufficient. Having their own technology, perhaps there will never again be a need for a mass relay network - who's to say they can't figure out how to make FTL technology far more effective?
Back to the ending, and if you got this far, and you're taking the fight to Harby, then you can board the bastard and find a way to bring the it down. Harbinger represents the personification of the threat of the Reapers, so established in Mass Effect 2 - the fleets can engage the rest, and your EMF continues to count down, but Reapers are being devastated in their confusion (without the controlling mechanism of the Catalyst, they aren't even really sure why they're here anymore or what they were doing - only Harbinger retains a sense of purpose) Shepard is mad, now, and Harby just shot him/her with a massive laser, so Shep wants some payback, and so does the crew of the Normandy. Shepard gets some medical attention from Chakwas and some fresh armour, and Joker flies right at Harby, dodging various laser attacks and drone fighters, blowing a few outta the sky at the same time, and you board Harby with your team - now, it's you and your crew again, the REAL final confrontation, the one in which you might survive, or you might not, but at least it'll matter. This is the climax, where everything you've worked for comes together, and your choices will matter. If you got this far, that is. Here, you win, or you lose. Here, the conflict matters, win or lose. Here, winning or losing is the trigger for resolution, and your choices and actions and their consequences are the machine that drives that resolution. If you live or die, or your team lives or dies, whether victory is achieved or not, then it has to matter to someone, somewhere, especially the player.
Then, of course, BioWare must provide the closure that is needed in the game, even for those players whose Rep scores weren't high enough, who got stuck with the endings as the are - those endings need closure too. By this setting, this ending, BioWare can keep the endings as-is, and add to them with a little programming. That's it. IMO, I would pay for this as DLC. I'm sorry it was long, but over the last few weeks, I've put a lot of thought into this. A lot of people who have debated or spoken with me on the endings won't understand why I appear to be backflipping, but a lot of people on here don't understand the difference between defending the ending, and discussing it in perspective - I've merely attempted to do the latter, and I maintain that being a knob about things won't get the results that anyone is after. I've looked at the ending from as MANY perspectives as I can, and I honestly believe that BioWare has done what they thought was right, but I also honestly believe that they can do better.
And THIS is what I would pay for. That's not to say I wouldn't be interested in what BioWare can create, but I will not pay for indoctrination - there's no real fight in that, no real substance to the story. If Shepard could be indoctrinated, why put him/her through a process that allows Shep the opportunity to so easily escape the process? If I was a Reaper, and I could indoctrinate Shepard, I'd turn him/her against friends and allies, and take the fight to the resistance on Earth. I believe my ending has substance, and a real climax too, not some anti-climax with an eleventh hour meta-clown. The Catalyst should NOT be the final showdown. The Reapers, the real antagonist of the story, should be the climax, and Harbinger is the personification of that antagonist.
Also, what happened to this dark energy idea? It was obviously something they were toying with... but meh, just looking forward to having the story end with some proper closure.
I'm a paragon player, since 2007 when the game first came out. The majority of fans are actually not after a happy ending. Shepard's sacrifice is what gives the story so much more credence. Now, I'm not defending the ending myself, I have yet to "reach consensus" on the matter personally, but Shepard's sacrifice was always intended, long before you put the first game on and got your first glimpse of the Normandy SR1.
There are happy endings, and then there are happy endings. Shepard is meant to sacrifice him/herself in order for the galaxy to receive it's happy ending. Now, as for other elements of the ending... like I mentioned, I won't debate on those. But there are a few points I think are important to the end of a story like this one, and considering the thematic resonance of the story so far, why shouldn't Shepard make that sacrifice, if everyone else around him/her can? Mordin, Legion, not to mention the millions of men and women, soldiers and civilians, dying on the front lines. What about their happy ending?
This is a story about a lot of different things, one of them is sacrifice. As a paragon player, I would never accept that my Shepard was such a selfish person that his love interest would come before the galaxy at large. That is why my Shepard is willing to sacrifice - as for the renegade Shep... well, he's not stupid, and he's not evil, either - just doesn't let anything get in his way (one of my personal issues with the ending is to do with this). The galaxy needs to be saved, or there won't be any love interest anyway.
“Disrupts sociotechnological balance. All scientific advancement due to intelligence overcoming... compensating for limitations. Can't carry a load, so invent wheel. Can't catch food, so invent spear. Limitations. No limitations, no advancement. No advancement, culture stagnates. Works other way, too. Advancement before culture is ready – disasterous. Saw it with krogan, uplifted by salarians. Disasterous. Our fault.”
Regardless of who built the relays, Protheans or Reapers, the races of the current cycle didn't, they just found them there lying around, like a child who finds a pill bottle and mistakes it for candy. Put everything in context: the Reaper trap, what it was intended for, and now that the relays are gone, does the galaxy have a fighting chance to survive? And if it does... will they build themselves anew, learn how to compensate for the limitations imposed by the lack of relay network, and get themselves home?
Climax vs Anticlimax
The core problem with the ending is the interest factor - it's a failed anticlimax. Now, don't get me wrong, you can actually successfully end a story on an anticlimax - take The Sixth Sense, or Vanilla Sky for example. Both films end, believe it or not, on what is actually an anticlimax. The trick, though, is to give it a pseudo-climax. The ending has to have a little thrill, or a lotta revelation, for an anticlimax to work just right. The problem with ME3 - there was no thrill, there was no revelation. Hell, I'm pretty sure they already used that script in the Matrix, but what do I know? I'm just a literature critic. Right?
Well, actually, I am, but I'm not going to pretend that my expert opinion outweighs anyone else's. The fact is, everyone else agrees, but in their own way. The reason why this is the core problem is that because the ending has no thrill, no revelation, people are left with more questions than answers. Leaving the ending open to interpretation can work well, occasionally, but polarising player opinion over a video game compared to polarising critical opinion over a movie such as 2001: A Space Odyssey is a whole new kettle of fish. The reason why "artistic license" has failed this game is not because the developers chose to use it, or even because the players feel like in some way, they have a right to tell this story themselves. No, the reason why it fails is because the game's anticlimactic ending delivers no thrill, and no real revelation, leaving the ending open for both way too much interpretation and speculation.
Think about it. What was the last REALLY good movie you saw? Or game you played, book you read, etc? For me, personally, I'm thinking of ME2 at the moment. The game ended with such a moment of accomplishment that questioning elements of the ending didn't even occur to me. There were, of course, a few things that stood out after a second play through, and a few more after a third, that I felt needed more closure, but all in all, because it FELT so great - I didn't feel the need to ask myself, "What the hell was that."
Same with the anticlimactic endings of The Sixth Sense, or Vanilla Sky, but both these films demonstrate how and why this game is going to fail in any fashion to drive a player to want to play it again. The first time you watch either of these movies, you get your wow moment... the second time, you can understand why. The third... well, for me, the third time I sat through The Sixth Sense, I was wondering, "why are we watching this again?" And as for Vanilla Sky... there was no third time. Great films, don't get me wrong. Just not worth watching again.
I've heard told, and argued myself, that ME3 is, in fact, a series of endings, from start to finish. Each major accomplishment is a completion, a closure of one element of the story, wrapping it up into a neat little package ready to deliver to the finale. And that the finale itself is just a bookend, a hollow footnote that declare's Shepard's purpose in the game to be irrelevant. I argued above, I don't mind Shepard being sacrificed for the good of the galaxy, and I even think it's important, but the fashion it has been done in feels to me like some gangster has decided that he's become a liability, ie, "We don't need him anymore, get rid of him before he talks." It's really not how Shepard should die. This is a man/woman who really deserves a blaze of glory.
Shepard deserves a climax (and not the "I hooked up with Miranda" variety, although I'm sure my various Shepard's have had a few of those, too). Shepard deserves an edge-of-your-seat, no-holds-barred thrill ride straight into the belly of the beast, Harbinger himself, for the showdown between all that is right, and all that is wrong with the galaxy. A David vs Goliath, except Goliath has a massive laser and undead minions to hurl at David, and David leaves his armour on this time.