Ah yes, Mass Effect 3…
A larger version of this render is over here on my dA page.
So, I’ve now completed the Mass Effect trilogy – this means I can share my thoughts on the ending. The TL;DR version is that I was somewhat underwhelmed by it. (Needless to say, this post will involve spoilers.)
In fact, I’m actually half-seriously thinking about writing my own ending as replacement head-cannon.
Below the cut, I’m going to pick apart several of the narrative flaws, as they seemed to me. Before I start, I’d like to note that overall I’ve greatly enjoyed the Mass Effect series, and the ending issues to 3 don’t detract from the previous games. In fact, even within 3, the first 98% of the game is awesome-on-a-disk; but for the ending, it could easily have been the best game of 2012.
With that aside, let’s get going…
Briefly, the ending has several narrative issues. First off, there is next to no foreshadowing for the Catalyst. Arguably there are two or three things in the series that could be interpreted as referencing vaguely toward the Catalyst, but none of them are well-developed lead-ins. This is a problem as the Catalyst’s comments essentially move the goalposts on many aspects of the ME universe.
Secondly, I felt that the ending spent too much time trying to be a call-back to the original Mass Effect. Was it really that critical to have a repeat of the Saren-shoots-himself scene? Also, the other problem was that by repriezing said section, it also called into question many of the events of ME1. If the Catalyst has been puppeting the Reapers all along, then why exactly did sticking Vigil’s code into the Citadel accomplish anything? This paradox could be explained, of course, but it wasn’t – in fact, it doesn’t even come up during the dialogue with the Catalyst.
A third issue was the stilted and uninformative exchange with the Catalyst. You don’t even get any paragon or renegade options during the final scene – it was almost as if the writers were trying to narrow down every available plot-path to one unified ending.
Also, the scene doesn’t give us any real explanation as to what the Catalyst is. Where did it come from? Who made it? Why does it incarnate itself as a small child? Why has it latched onto this particular weird and nonsensical ‘solution’? Another problem, I felt, was the abrupt dethroning of the Reapers from dark and powerful alien menace to the mechanical puppets of an apparently-weakly-godlike AI. It actually made me feel a bit sorry for the Reapers – no wonder Harbinger seems so maladjusted! If he’s getting orders from that thing, the poor dear must be going spare inside his tin skull!
Then there’s the absolute nonsensicality of much of what you see – how exactly did the Citadel get to Earth? Where exactly are you inside it? How did Shepard survive a direct hit from Harbinger’s main gun? Why did s/he choose to take the Catalyst purely at face-value?
That leads us onto the next big issue; as has been pointed out in many places, the ME3 ending basically makes all your choices throughout the rest of the series irrelevant. To a large extent, all you can pick at the end is which colour the glowy-energy-blast is. (My advice: pick your favourite colour out of red, green or blue, because if you have to sit through an identikit cinematic, then it might as well use a non-objectionable Photoshop filter!)
In fact, to show how similar they are, here’s a YouTube video:
Basically the only real difference in any of them is that in the ‘destroy’ ending, you see a lot of Reapers flop bonelessly over. (Also, I have another issue with that – if something two kilometres high topples over, surely the impact should generate a decent-sized earthquake? Yet you don’t even see them squash any buildings, let alone shake the ground!)
Furthermore, all the endings are to some extent ‘bad’. There really aren’t any that supply any good options, although some are arguably less-worse than others. (If your war assets are too low, it’s apparently possible to get a kill-’em-all ending, where the Crucible’s energy-blast thingy wipes out all life. Ouch.) There are logical and moral objections to all three of ‘control’, ‘destroy’ and ‘synthesis’. In-game, I went with ‘control’ – as far as I could tell, it was the least-worst option.
Then we come to the issue of closure; any narrative’s ending needs to supply the audience with some sort of emotional closure. This doesn’t have to mean that everything’s happiness and bunnies forever, obviously – downer-endings can supply closure-of-sorts too. For it to work, you just have to feel that the story has, well, ended.
None of ME3’s endings really do this.
In all cases, it ends with a weird clip of the Normandy suddenly being spat out of a mass-effect corridor. This immediately proposes the question of what exactly it was doing there – the last sighting of it I recall seeing in-game was the SR2 joining the space battle over Earth, and I don’t recall hearing anything about it being ordered away. And I just can’t buy the idea of Joker or EDI suddenly deciding to run from the fight – talk about out-of-character!
Then, in any case, you see the Normandy apparently getting tipped out into interstellar space – then only seconds later, it’s somehow magically crashlanded onto an apparently-inhabitable planet. The door opens, out pops Joker (looking remarkably unhurt, given his bone issues and the whole crash-landing thing), followed by some of your squad. This is weird, as they were all previously in London. It’s just possible that the Normandy might have turned tail and run to the Charon Relay, I suppose, but stopping off to pick up passengers en route? That really doesn’t make any sense at all.
The whole crash-in-the-middle-of-nowhere thing raises even further problems. Presumably, the surviving crew are going to face major food issues. Depending on the levo/dextro chirality thing, at least some of them *will* end up starving. Oh, and given that the environment looks tropical, they’ll probably also have the tropical diseases problem too. But worst of all, none of this is even confirmed! We’re left hanging! We don’t know what happens to them!
We get no closure.
Also, the exploding relays thing poses a lot of problems, too. In the very long run, I’m prepared to believe that the ME galaxy might actually be better-off without the Catalyst’s relay network. After all, it arguably would be healthier for them to R&D their own independent network, rather than use one that leaves them wide open to being viciously Reaped every 50 kilo-years. However, in the short/medium run, the economic, political and social fall-out will be enormous. And of course there’s the whole can of worms implied by the ending to the Arrival DLC, which would seem to suggest that popping a relay releases as much energy as a supernova … in which case, regardless of which ending you pick, the Catalyst has just manipulated you into sterilising most of the galaxy!
It’s possible this isn’t how Bioware intended it to be read; however, none of this is clarified in-game. As I said before, we get no closure. It’s not an ending.
If there is one good thing that’s come from all this, it has been the explosion of fan creativity as people struggle to make sense of what they’ve just seen. From the many parody-pieces on dA to the indoctrination theory, there are lots of clever, entertaining and well-argued ideas out there. (Personal view; I like the indoctrination theory, but I don’t believe it’s true in-game.)
I’m just hoping for all our sakes that when the promised ending DLC appears, we will finally get some closure.