Mass Effect – 10 years on

Mass Effect

Mass Effect 1 is one of the games I love dearly. I played it six times on my XBox 360. It has been over a decade since the original trilogy ended, and I finished replaying the remaster last week. Time to look at that controversial ending again.

Ending controversy?

For any youngster who may not remember, there was quite a stir about Mass Effect 3’s ending back in the day. There were other controversies, but this is the one that resonated with me. After finishing the third game, I felt very disappointed, and didn’t touch the games for a decade.

I did pick up Mass Effect Andromeda, but the less said about that, the better.

So, a decade in, I decided to pick up the gauntlet once more. Doing a fresh playthrough of the entire trilogy was an interesting experience.

Note that the post below will contain a lot of spoilers.

Gameplay growth

Games change over time, and there was five years between the first and third Mass Effect. As I played through the games, I saw the combat and gameplay evolving, something I had not noticed as clearly the first time around.

The first game is a mediocre shooter with a pretty bad cover system, the second game is a workable shooter, and the third nails it. You can actually run from cover to cover, pop up and shoot things properly, and it just feels better.

The first game featured boring mini games and horrible planet-exploration missions — the M35 Mako handles like a toy car in a bouncy castle. The second game has better mini games and slightly less annoying planet-scanning, and the third game does away with the mini games and has good planet scanning.

On the story side, the first game has a solid story, with proper side quests and good gameplay. The second game refines the side quests, and improves on the characterization. The third game really doubles down on the interactions between the characters and the world building.

All in all, each game is in many ways better than the previous one, on the character and gameplay fronts. Story-wise though….

Mass Effect 1 story

The first game starts with the protagonist Shepard aiming to be the first human Spectre (a special agent for the galactic council). The bad guy, Saren, already a Spectre, makes his first appearance, betrays Shepard, destroys a human colony, and destroys Shepard’s Spectre ambitions.

The arc is clear. Saren stands between Shepard and their goals each step of the way. He is also working for the mysterious Reapers, a scary and mysterious threat. As the story unfolds, the stakes go up, from a career opportunity, to the lives of a human colony, to the fate of galactic civilization. The hero struggles to become a Spectre, then to be believed about the Reapers, and they finally persevere in a climactic fight against the Reaper Sovereign and its pawn Saren.

In short, a well-grounded character arc, with a good villain, and enough mystery and reveals to keep you wanting more, leading to a terrific climactic battle.

Mass Effect 2 story

The second game is basically a heist story. As the game unfolds, Shepard has to gather a team of specialists to counter a threat to humanity. They have to operate outside the law for… reasons. Finally, the threat becomes clear, and the heist takes place.

The story is good — who doesn’t love a good heist story. However, there isn’t much of a character arc. Shepard starts out as a decorated hero… and ends that way. The villain is also far less thought out than the first part. The antagonist is a reaper — again — controlling a race of evil villains called the Collectors. They are ultimately… working for the reaper. Yeah, the only real reveal is the Collector’s origins, but that really doesn’t add anything to the story. And the reaper doesn’t have a real personality, and its goal do not become overly clear. They oppose you, but ultimately, the climax of the story falls a bit flat.

So, the character arc is missing, and the villain is a bit underwhelming. Overall, though, the whole heist thing works well, and it was a good middle game.

Mass Effect 3 story

Mass Effect three starts with the Reapers invading Earth. Shepard leaves and fights to unite the forces of the galactic community behind them. This means resolving several of the ‘loose ends’ from the earlier games. Shepard can cure the Krogan of the infertility that has crippled their race, and reconcile the Geth AI and their creators, the Quarians. Or, you can choose to do neither of those things.

A MacGuffin to defeat the reapers appears, in the form of the so-called Crucible. A device that the heroes need to build to destroy the reapers.

Every step of the way, Shepard is opposed by the Illusive Man and his Cerberus organization. The same organization that Shepard worked for in Mass Effect 2.

This all leads to a confrontation on Earth, where Shepard battles through the forces of the reapers in order to reach the Citadel, the reaper-designed space station that is an integral part needed to complete the Crucible. Shepard makes it to the Citadel, confront the Illusive Man, and then…

A holographic image of a child appears. It explains its actually the Reaper AIs, and why the reapers harvest advanced sentient life. History has shown organic life will inevitably develop synthetics that will destroy them, as happened countless times before the reaper cycles started. The reapers were created to solve this, and do so by harvesting (preserving) sentient life before they can destroy themselves. However, Shepard creating the crucible and confronting the AI means the reaper solution no longer works. So, Shepard gets to choose a new solution.

This is the much-reviled three button choice. Shepard can choose to control the reapers using the Crucible, making them tools for organics. The second choice is to destroy all synthetic life, ridding the galaxy of the reapers, but also the Geth and your companion EDI. And finally, Shepard can choose to create “synthesis”, merging the DNA of all life and all synthetic life to become different better than both.

The ending is more extensive than in the original, added to by two different extra content packs (DLC). However. I still think it fails. I’ll break that down. Let’s look at the third game from various angles. First up, the plot holes and the horror child.

Mass Effect 3 – child surprise

After you defeat the Illusive Man, you end up talking to the reaper hive mind AI. They reveal themselves in the form of a child. That’s… unhelpful. First of all, the game doubles down on fridging a random child for emotional impact. Shepard has lost many companions along the way, and her mentor Anderson lies dead at her feet, but the reaper AI is revealed as a random child? Why?

The second problem is that up to that point, the reapers have always revealed themselves as condescending dark-voiced entities who do not deign to speak to organics. But now, the full reaper hive mind will talk to Shepard like an equal? Not even an equal, a child? It would be an interesting trick to lull Shepard into letting their guard down, were it not for the reaper handing over the keys to their existence to Shepard. It basically says ‘remember we Reapers were dark and complicated villains. Well, that was a scam.’

Then come some additional plot holes. Why is the reaper harvesting the only ‘solution’ to the problem? If this were a glitching AI, I could imagine it, but the AI is presented as clearly rational. It’s a perfectly able to interpret and mimic emotions, explaining their reasoning and being… too human about it. That’s not a glitching AI that does not understand its error.

Which brings up the next plot hole. Why does Shepard’s appearance make the solution untenable? The Crucible was designed by previous aliens, and actively destroyed by the reapers, the AI says. So what makes Shepard different? Why don’t they just kill Shepard and continue their precious cycles?

Then there’s the argument the reaper gives for killing organic life: we are like a force of nature. A fire, that harvests advanced civilizations to preserve them. Actively and consciously killing people is not non-violent. That’s horseshit. But, it also doesn’t fly for a different reason: for every person the reapers harvest, they kill an unknown number of others. If they truly wanted people to ascend, why not ask them and only kill those in opposition? Loads of people would love to be immortals uploaded to a virtual existence. And if they are all ‘preserved’, why not show that in the ending. Show don’t tell and all.

All in all, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Neither do the choices offered. Why is there no option to control the reapers, then have them collectively kills themselves? That would save the Geth and EDI and still kill the reapers. And why does Shepard need to die for the synthesis ending?

Plot holes galore. But there’s more.

Mass Effect 3 – character arc

The third game starts to build up a new arc. After two games, Shepard is feeling the weight of years screaming about the Reaper threat only to be ignored, until finally the Reapers come knocking and attack Earth.

The game pushes the weight of the galaxy on Shepard’s shoulders. Everything is coming to a head, and Shepard is where the buck stops. There is a painful defeat after the second act, and then the climax rolls around. Shepard feels they can’t cut it. It’s just too much, and they just want it to be over so they can rest.

The climax should have external events push Shepard into a confrontation with an external threat that they can only overcome by changing and banishing their flaw. The flaw is self-doubt, and so the climax should push Shepard to stop doubting their… okay, let’s stop there, because it doesn’t happen.

The Mass Effect 3 climax just drops the arc and presents the player with three buttons to end the story with three colors of deus ex machina. Whether or not Shepard doubts themselves doesn’t matter. They could dance a jig, change from greatest hero to foulest villain, and the buttons would still be there. The arc just fizzles out and falls flat, and I don’t get why the writers did that.

Mass Effect 3 – villain

So, bad reaper hologram, plot holes, botched character arc. What about the villain? You’d think the reapers are the villains. But they’re really not. You fight their forces, but they make barely any direct appearance. They are not the one opposing Shepard every step of the way, only in the general sense. Like bad weather hindering the hero.

The person you can point to as the actual villain is the Illusive Man. He’s your employer of the second game, and in this third game we see him fall from grace. He becomes more and more indoctrinated and in his delusion blocks Shepard’s path every step of the way. He does unspeakable things and wants to follow an ultimately destructive path for the galaxy. He’s even there at the climactic end battle.

Except… confronting him is just another chalk on the board. His defeat does not end the story. If you removed him from the climactic part of the game, the ending would not change. The ending would be exactly the same with the same three stupid buttons.

It would have been an easy change, and far better ending, to scrap the AI child and instead convey the reaper solution through the Illusive Man. You could ultimately confront him, like you confront Saren in the first game, and then end things and destroy the reapers once and for all (without the three f-ing buttons).

But no, that was not meant to be.

Mass Effect 3 – promises

That leads to the story structure itself. A story starts with a series of promises made to the reader. Some are clear, but some are subtle. The trick of writing is to prime a reader with a thousand conscious and subconscious triggers for an emotional response at the climax.

The Chekhov’s Gun advice says that everything used in a story should have relevance later on. Mass Effect dribbles these ‘guns’ throughout its three games. It lets the player make thousand of story choices, essentially making a clear promise that those specific things will matter. It also pushes the player to choose between being a ‘paragon’ character, the shining beacon of good, or a ‘renegade’, the self-serving anti-hero.

However, all these choices have no meaningful impact on the climax. Whatever you choose, you end up with a choice of three buttons at the end, and each leads to a deus ex machina with a problematic solution to your problems. You could remove many of the choices of the game — including saving or killing several entire species of aliens, ending wars, and saving certain characters from death — and the ending would be exactly the same. Okay, not quite, because if you ‘fail’ or skip enough choices, the end battle goes badly, but that’s only an indirect consequence.

It gets worse. Not only is the three-button-ending the same, the magic buttons ultimately negate your earlier choices. You fought to save the Geth, a synthetic race of AIs, so they could reconcile with their organic creators? Well, button 1 destroys them anyway, along with one of your squad mates and love interest of your pilot that you helped bring together.

Button 2, then? Well, that’s the kind of hubris you just killed the Illusive Man for, as you use the deus ex machina to control all reapers. You become what the entire game has told us it evil with it’s almost-villain, the Illusive Man.

And finally, button 3 merges all synthetic and organic life. Basically, you genetically alter all life. Negating the game explaining how evil it was to genetically alter the Krogan race in order to control them and save the galaxy. Nobody gets a choice, but instead you violate their bodily integrity. For a game that seems to value individuality, that’s a real bad look.

In short, all endings of Mass Effect retro-actively makes the chekhov’s guns on the wall useless to the story. The ending actively dismantles the rest of the story. Wow.

Yeah, but I liked it

Okay, so this is my take on it. You don’t have to agree with me. If you liked the Mass Effect ending, and did find it fulfilling, more power to you. I didn’t, although I admit the way the DLC packs changed the ending has definitely improved it. And if that’s enough for you, that’s great, and I am happy for you.

Regardless, I hate the ending. It’s full of glaring inconsistencies, fails to complete the character arc, fails to work in the villain properly, and manages not only to fail at resolving promises but actively undermines earlier ones. I love the Mass Effect games, but I find the ending of Mass Effect 3 an abysmal failure that caps five years of gaming experience with a sour aftertaste.

And maybe it’s not just that the ending is terrible, but mostly that the ending could have easily been made so much better. The unrealized artistic potential, and the climactic emotional punch could have been so good, only instead, it wasn’t. That hurts more than if it was just bad.

And so, after finishing the Legendary Edition, I’m going to once again toss the game into a corner and resent that it got so close to being the greatest game trilogy ever made, but managed to mess it up so close to the finish line.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands