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What Went Wrong
The ending to Mass Effect 3 has made a significant impact on the gaming community, that much is unequivocal. The reaction to it has raised thousands of dollars for charity, caused the price of the game to drop prematurely, and brought others to sell the game and swear off BioWare products altogether. This is bad for BioWare.
A Plot Like Swiss Cheese
I think it goes without saying that plot holes generally tend to make stories less enjoyable, especially when they are so massive in size and numerous in number. No joke, the last ten minutes of Mass Effect 3 had more plot holes than every single scene from Heavy Rain put together.
To name a few:
- There is only one bridge leading to the control panel. How then, did Anderson, the third and last person to enter get there first, despite the fact he followed Shepard from behind? How did the Illusive Man, who was the first to the Citadel out of the three, get there last? There is a single, straight-shot, linear path to the control panel. Where was the Illusive Man this whole time? Was he hiding in a corpse pile?
- Why is Joker running from the fight? Why would my best friend cut and run like a coward at the last minute?
- How did Joker manage to extract my entire squad, but not me? They were right behind me five minutes ago, weren't they? If they made their way to the Normandy, they would have noticed that I'm alive, or at least went to check. After all we've been through, it seems strange how quickly they got over my death.
- The Normandy is seen trying to escape an explosion, but we don't see the rest of the fleet. Since this explosion causes the Normandy to crash, wouldn't it have the same effect on the rest of the fleet? Is it safe to assume then, that the entire fleet we spent the whole game building was just decimated off-screen?
- Since the Mass Relays are destroyed in every ending, it's probably safe to assume that everyone is now stranded in the Sol System, a solar system with eight planets. Out of that eight, the only planet that has an actual atmosphere capable of supporting life was just decimated by aliens. The fact that some people have to ask BioWare whether or not everyone starves to death in the end speaks for itself.
- What happened to the Citadel? How was it moved? Did they even put up a fight? Weren't there defences? The last time a Reaper tried gaining control of the Citadel, an intense battle ensued.
- The Catalyst states that no matter what I do, I will die. He clearly explains that because I am partly synthetic, I will die if the destroy option is taken. Despite this, it is possible to survive if your war assets are high enough. Don't ask me how these things are related, but does this mean that this god child was lying, or is it ignorant?
- Why I am walking toward the exploding doohickey? Generally speaking, walking toward explosions is bad for your health.
- As a matter of fact, how does Shepard even know that shooting said doohickey will destroy the Reapers? The Catalyst never mentioned it, and shooting machines tend to break them, not turn them on.
- How did Anderson get to the Citadel unscathed?
- Are synthetics partly organic now?
- So what's the problem here? Synthetics or AI? By making all organics partly Synthetic, does that actaully do anything to stop organics from making more synthetics? Did we actually even accomplish anything?
- How does the beam of light sent out from the Citadel destroy everything in the Milky Way? Also, because we can clearly see them, doesn't that mean it's happening in the past? Like hundreds of light years in the past?
- How does Shepard's armour and weapons get disintegrated, but not the pistol?
- Where did my squad go? With low war assets (which somehow have an effect on whether or not Harbinger hits them, somehow) you can clearly see their mangled, bloody corpses on the ground below. Since they were so juxtaposition to Shepard, how did they end up on the Normandy? This would mean the love of my life and my best friend left me for dead, or Joker picked them up and they left me for dead. I guess, in the end, Joker did mutiny.
- If the combined power of the quarian fleet alone can destroy a Destroyer with just a few precision strikes, why can't we use the Sword team, which is comprised of the entire quarian fleet, and the fleets of a dozen other races. We just united the galaxy and assembled the largest fleet in the history of the galaxy. I would wager that if just half of them coordinated a strike against that Hades Cannon, it would be annihilated in one blast. Why then, are we going to scramble around looking for heavy weapons?
- If a Cain can destroy a Destroyer, what was all that back on Rannoch?
- In order to send down the beam to the Citadel, there must be a hole in the station. Upon closer inspection, one can see that even with the arms closed, the station still has a very large hole. Instead of bum-rushing a Reaper from the ground, would it not be easier to simply fly in whilst the beam is turned off? Again, closer inspection reveals that the beam turns on and off more than once during the course of the final battle for Earth. Talk about a very literal plot hole! Yes, I wrote that. Get over it.
- Harbinger flew away after it seemed like everyone was dead. Since this is clearly not the case, this would mean that ol' Harby isn't quite as perceptive as he'd like us to think. After all, with a great amount of war assets (which somehow affect what's going on down on the ground, nowhere near the fleet) at least 4 people survive. Bum rushing the giant sentient god-like 2-kilometre-tall death machine doesn't sound like such a great idea now does it?
- In the Arrival DLC, it is established that destroying a Mass Relay creates a supernova explosion capable of destroying a solar system. Is this explosion different? All I recall the Catalyst saying is that the Relays would be destroyed. A little clarification as to whether not I just trillions upon trillions of people, indeed, all life in the entire Milky Way, would be nice.
- Why didn't we use the Conduit on Ilos to get onto the Citadel? Did everyone suddenly forget the MacGuffin from the first game? Because I don't remember even hearing about it after the first Mass Effect.
A Very Literal Deus Ex Machina
For those of you who don't speak dead languages fluently, the Latin phrase "deus ex machina" simply means "God of the machine". As a literary device, it is, according to Wikipedia, a "plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object."Catalyst, both literarily and literally. Honestly, I'm not sure if a deus ex machina can ever be used properly, and if it can, BioWare didn't even come close. Introducing any new character this late in the story is a terrible idea, but a character of such importance can't be introduced in the climax. You can't be familiar with a villain you just met. Once The Illusive Man and his super space ninja were both dead, I was hoping we could move on to the real big bad: Harbinger. Instead, he is never heard from again after his short cameo (something that made me understandably upset). The God Child has arguably become the new antagonist, or worse, the protagonist. In the scene preceding the final "decision", Shepard has very little involvement in moving the action forward. The Catalyst simply decides you let you decide the fate of the galaxy, regardless of any previous action. Shepard seems static and indulgent in his conversation with it. The new, contrived, and enigmatic character has superseded Shepard's place as the driving force in the narrative. The plot has shifted from being that of Shepard's story to the Catalyst's.
This character appeared from nowhere and solved a conflict three games and five years in the making with ease. What was the point of uniting the galaxy and gathering war assets if God Child can resolve the main conflict instantly? Just as quickly as it resolved a conflict however, it introduced a new one. As is the case with characters, introducing new conflicts is just as confusing and contrived.
Conflict of Interest
Just as the Catalyst superseded Shepard as the protagonist, the new conflict it introduces superseded the old conflict. Before we met the Catalyst, the primary conflict was The Reapers wanting to annihilate us, and us not wanting to be annihilated. Simple, but effective. But it isn't the premise of Mass Effect that made it great. It was the characters, sub-plots, and little details about the universe that made it worth saving. The supposed tension between organics and synthetics however, was much less significant. The revelation of the reason behind the Reaper's purpose was iffy, questionable, and out-of-place with the Mass Effect trilogy. It left me more than a little disgruntled. Your primary overarching goal suddenly shifted from "stop the Reapers" to "Save organics from synthetics". Normally, the Geth would be a prime example of this, but BioWare instead decided to portray them in a sympathetic light. The geth never truly rebelled thus, there was no real introduction to this conflict. With the From Ashes DLC however, the synthetics vs. Organics conflict is a minor underlying conflict. Is it at all unfair that you can only be introduced to the eventual primary conflict if you paid 10 dollars more for content already on your disc? Whatever happened to the good old days, when I could buy a full and complete product, without waiting several months for it be fixed?
Here is an example from Mass Effect 3. The genophage story arc was arguably the best parts of the game. The genophage was a hot topic from the first Mass Effect game, and many of the desicions you've made regarding it affects the course of events during the missions on Sur'Kesh and Tuchanka. In addition to that, there were largely varying outcomes. Even though we weren't directly confronting the Reaper threat, we were facing a different obstacle that was related to it. When that conflict was resolved (either with the krogan being cured or the krogan thinking they were cured) everything related back to our primary, overarching goal: Not being annihilated by the Reapers. This is something they failed to do in Dragon Age 2, which turned out to be a big part of why the storytelling was so weak compared to the original. Mass Effect 3 maintained an overarching conflict, but it abandoned when it mattered most. Take it away Yoda.
Dazed and Confused
As I've said before, a good story should make you feel feelings. Whether those feelings are happy, or sad, or somewhere in-between, the narrative did it's job; It immersed you well enough to actaully care about non-existent and entirely fictitious people. There are however, some things you shouldn't ever feel at the end of a narrative. Confusion, disappointment, and apathy are the worst ones, and that's exactly what players got with the ending to Mass Effect 3.
There is a very distinct drop-off point from where the game stops being exiting and starts being palpably terrible. As soon as Shep is lifted to the top of the Citadel, things get really weird, really fast. I had a million different questions, but no options to actaully ask any. I was left with many unanswered questions, but no way to actually sate my curiosity.
Destroying all synthetic life in the galaxy is kind of a big deal. Despite the aforementioned bigness, The Catalyst doesn't take a lot of time explaining the possible consequences of our actions. He also states that I will die, because I am partly synthetic. Problem is, "partly synthetic" is a pretty loose term. What is defined as completely organic? Quarians and volus have implants to interface with their suits. Are they going to die as well? That's fairly important, considering I committed genocide on the geth all because my girlfriend is a quarian.
The Control option was also difficult to consider, because it was fervently opposed from the start by the protagonist, and the only real support from it came from a crazy man who was being brainwashed by alien robots. I was constantly told that controlling the reapers was stupid, don't do a 180 and say "Oh, turns out he was right!" At the least, the player character should be able to support or refute this notion based on the player's moral compass.
Whilst many of our past choices were made "in the dark", we still had some idea of what the results could be. When I had to choose between killing and rewriting the geth heretics, I didn't know exactly what would happen, but I knew if I killed them, the threat would be gone, but so would a possible ally. On the converse, sparing them would make them more powerful (a danger in and of itself), but I could gamble and hope they'd be useful assets in the future.
With the synthesis option, I don't even fully understand what it means. For me, Synthesis wasn't thoroughly explained enough for it to even be a viable option. It doesn't make sense practically. Is everyone half robot now? Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal employs a very similar science fiction MacGuffin. The difference here is that the tone of Ratchet and Clank franchise is not nearly as serious as Mass Effect; The former is much more light-hearted. I'm willing to accept that, in the Ratchet and Clank universe, there exists a machine capable of taking squishy organic life forms and turning them into robots. The Mass Effect universe is much more grounded in reality however, so I really can't fathom a device that can somehow install circuit boards beneath the flesh of every organic. In fact, I'm actaully fairly certain that defies at least one or two of the natural laws of the universe. How do green circuit boards magically appear beneath Joker's skin? Also, since humans are mostly comprised of water, wouldn't they all short circut instantly? Did I just electrocute every human in the universe to death!? Talk about a shocking ending!
Oh God, I can't believe I actaully just wrote that.
The Human Element
In terms of storytelling, BioWare has done a superb job in the past. What really makes BioWare's narratives so amazing however, isn't the plethora of plot twists or myriad of metaphoric literary devices: it's the human element that made it really stand out. BioWare has made some of the most interesting characters and companions in the game industry, and it's the strongest facet of their games. We can actaully have heated debates about who's the best follower, or who we hate and who we love. They all felt alive, and thus, the world felt alive.
That's where the ending went wrong; they stopped caring about the characters. Dragon Age and Mass Effect aren't just games with a "save the world" story, they're complex, character-driven dramas. Without them, the stories of these games would fall flat. In the end however, the most important character is a very literal dues ex machina, our protagonist is a silent sheep, and our supporting characters are no where to be seen. The plot was no longer focused mainly on the characters, but instead dissolved into a "us vs. them" scenario.
Fallout: New Vegas (Yes, I like drawing comparisons, get over it.) did this as well. Whereas Fallout 3 involved a long-established conflict betwixt the Enclave and the Brotherhood of Steel, most of the tension was between individual characters. (You, Lyons, Liam Neeson, and others against Eden, Autumn et al.) In that game, your character had a designated and somewhat significant role in that world as a Vault Dweller and the son of the man who started Project Purity. In New Vegas, the player character is simply a random nobody who delivers packages. Not only does this forget to explain the player's ignorance, it also means that despite being the driving force behind the action, the protagonist seemingly has no place in the plot (excluding DLC). The conflict instead focuses on the three-way political tension between the rival factions (NCR, Legion, and Mr. House.) Because of this, the story was less compelling and emotionally involving. I felt like I was no longer a part of the plot, because it failed to relate to me with a sort of human element. See, my tangent wasn't entirely pointless!
The Jesus of Science Fiction?
In most variations of the ending, Shep dies in an attempt to save humanity. I could go into how a story can still effective without killing off half it's cast, but if you're still actually reading, I'll spare you the segue. The main beef I take with this is how meaningless Shepard's sacrifice is. In the worst case scenario, organic life is vaporised along with all synthetic life. I wouldn't mind an ending in which the Reapers win (which is something BioWare actually promised), so long as humanity went out swinging (or blasting, whatever). Let it be known that we didn't go quietly, and that we fought to the end and never gave up hope despite the odds.
In the "Destroy/Vaporise" ending, it's more of an epic failure on an a galactic scale. Of course, survival isn't even possible in the Synthesis and Control endings. According to the Catalyst, survival ins't possible at all, but it turns out he is either wrong or lying (yet another anomaly left unsolved). Whatever the reason, if you pick Destroy, you can persevere, but your survival is contingent upon the combined strength of the fleets you've assembled. I don't even know how those things are practically related, but forget it. This means be that in the case of Destroy, Shepard's death isn't a noble and necessary sacrifice, but rather a failure.
More of the Same
With the Extended Cut comes hope. Everyone wants the ending to be fixed, but can the damage ever be undone? The short answer is: no. The original unaltered product will always be incomplete. What about the poor fellows without an Internet connection? I guess the're stuck with an unfinished product, bought at full price. Rather than admitting fault (wasn't there a quest in Dragon Age 2 about that?), BioWare thanked us for the feedback and said they were proud of their poorly written ending. This makes them come off as extremely arrogant, and their only hopes of saving face just went down the toilet, along with the loyalty of their fans and any hope of customer reconciliation. It's widely known that treating your customer like crap is bad for business.
Again, I'd like to segue back to Fallout 3. The ending for that game was perfect. It was literally brought full-circle. Fans only complained because they couldn't free roam after one lousy mission. Broken Steel is a great add-on, and I love that the developer listened to their fans, but there is no longer a definitive end to the Lone Wanderer's story. It just ends wherever we stop playing. Not that I ever intend to stop playing Fallout 3. Ever.
Bethesda listened when that very small group of fans demanded a changed ending, so why can't BioWare listen to this uproar?
If you liked my "intelli-rant" than you'll love this!
- Mass Effect 3: Bookends of Destruction Part 5-This is the latest of a series of videos that analyze all the logical, literary, and scientific errors throughout Mass Effect 3. I highly recomend watching them all, but be warned. They are very long. Part 5 alone is about an hour-and-a-half in length. To watch them all would take at least 3-4 hours. Luckily, the videos are entertaining, and the narrator's voice is actually pleasant. Props to InsanezillaXXXL for showing me the video.
- Mass Effect 3 Ending: Tasteful, Understated Nerdrage-This blog, like the above-mentioned point, is fairly long video, albeit an intelligent and entertaining one. I would recommend watching MrBTongue's old videos and subscribing to his future ones.
The Ending of My Rant about the Ending
So there you have it. This isn't everything that made the ending so terrible, but I hope you get the general gist of it. It is believed by some that ending, contrary to the rest of the game, was written by Casey alone, with absolutely no outside input or peer review. If this rumour is true, then I have a few words of advice: When you are writing the most important part of your game, get an outside opinion.
This is usually the part where some wise commenter says "Could you make a better ending?" My answer to that is "No. A monkey could write a better ending to Mass Effect 3. I've already found better endings made by the fans. From scripts to static slideshows, the enraged fan base has already done a better job than BioWare. Of course, actions speak louder than words, and pictures are worth a thousand actions. Or words. Whatever.