Open Your Eyes (Minds), People

Have you ever experienced a poignant moment in a videogame, book, film, or other storytelling medium, but—even after much rumination—failed to find explicit meaning for it?

I have. When playing last summer’s XBLA hit Bastion, for example, I convinced myself that much of the game’s important story moments were broad analogies for meaningful themes. But after discussing the game with colleagues, I noticed that building the bastion in Bastion wasn’t analogous for something the narrative designer wanted the player to “get.” Rather, it was a mechanic with meaning unique to the player. For me, it was the long road to rebuilding one’s life. For others, the unforeseen setbacks Bastion presents proved parallel to their own, resulting in a truly unique experience.

I have noticed recently that critics of the Mass Effect 3 ending made the same mistake: they looked for something explicit, didn’t find it, and missed out on what was really there. It’s a fundamental flaw in the way players are approaching (and thinking about) the game’s end.

We all know the debacle. Long-time fans blasted the game’s ending as “disrespectful” and a “disgrace.” I am insistant, however, that it is none of these things. It goes without saying that the series is a work of art—a tour de force within the medium, perhaps—but, contrary to what seems to be popular belief, I found the last 15 minutes to be just as artful, meaningful, and fitting as the other 80 hours I spent lost in Shepard’s shoes.

Before you yell at me, hear me out.

Players have many problems with the final minutes of Mass Effect 3, but the lack of impact previous choices have on the ending is perhaps the most apparent complaint. It seems fitting that a series rife with variety and choice would, well, carry that variety and choice to the end. Sure, you cured the Genophage, but why didn’t BioWare show Wrex or Grunt charge at a Reaper full bore? Why didn’t the Rachni Queen, if you saved her, swarm a Reaper or two with its smaller creepy-crawlies close behind? And why didn’t we see Tali and Legion, having just debated the incorporeal essence of being, follow up with the meaning of life on their way to London, the final battleground?

The answer is simple. It’s because Mass Effect is about Shepard—not Wrex, Grunt, Legion, or Tali. Moreover, it’s about you, the player, as an extension of Shepard. The player has always infused Shepard with a part of him or herself, and player values are injected into Shepard by way of player choice. This is true of the game’s final moments, too. The last choice you have to make is brilliant, because rather than provide one of x number of endings, it gives you three and tells you to choose, after all that has happened—after every laborious choice you have made—what is most important.

BioWare creative director Casey Hudson put it well:

“We designed Mass Effect 3 to be a series of endings to key plots and storylines, each culminating in scenes that show you the consequences of your actions.  You then carry the knowledge of these consequences with you as you complete the final moments of your journey.”

Most players witnessed the ending with certain expectations in mind. One of those expectations was that every choice the player had made would impact the final scene. This was obviously not the case, as the Rachni Queen and other characters impacted by Shepard’s actions were nowhere in sight. Looking past that expectation, players will find that the final decision forces them to choose the fate of the universe with many choices they made through the series in mind. This is the ending’s brilliance. No, the aftermath of every choice is not seen in the closing moments, but Mass Effect’s impact on you affects how the game’s last decision is made.

In a series that champions choice and player input, I can’t think of a more apt end.

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15 thoughts on “Open Your Eyes (Minds), People

  1. See, now, this is actually a well-reasoned argument that you clearly believe in, and have spent some time thinking about. I appreciate that. I disagree, but I’m glad to see someone from the pro-ending side take the time to explain why they like the ending, as opposed to just insulting the people who don’t.

    For me, the story was never about Shepard. Shepard was the player’s window into the game’s world, but never as engaging as the people he/she travelled with, and, barring one DLC for ME2, never alone, either. That was one of many weird parts to me. You spend three games with teammates at your back, but in the final moments they are literally and inexplicably ripped away from you – I can’t have been the only one who woke up from Harbinger’s blast and spent a good amount of time just looking around, trying to figure out if my squadmates had died, only to be completely baffled when they apparently turned up on the Normandy later on. If they survived the blast, why the heck didn’t they follow Shepard to the beam? If they were injured, how come there’s no sign of them, and when they walk out the Normandy later, they’re fine? At least if they were going to decide Shepard’s lone fate was more symbolic or something, they could have thought up an excuse for him/her to charge the beam without party members. It wouldn’t have been hard. They’re fighting a battle on all fronts, so two lines from Anderson mentioning that he needs your people – people with a lot of experience and skill – heading their own teams or something would have done the trick.

    It’s things like that which make me think the ending just wasn’t well thought-out or executed at all. I mean, okay, if I’m carrying my experiences with me to the ending, then one of those experiences is potentially hooking EDI up with Joker, or uniting the Quarians and the Geth. Yet, Shepard simply stands there and listens while the Catalyst explains that synthetics cannot make peace with organics. That argument might have held water if it came at the end of the FIRST Mass Effect. Maybe even the second. But by the third, it’s so disputed by in-game events that it makes the Catalyst look like a moron. Even if you don’t help the Geth, you still clearly see that they were peaceful before the Quarians attacked. This isn’t helped by the questionable logic in ‘ascending’ races by cruelly murdering them, melting them down alive, taunting them, and absorbing their culture as some sort of bizarre preventative measure. In short, that Catalyst seems less like a childlike innocent and more like a manipulative liar; and not a very good one, either. From my perspective on the outside, I can assume that this is just the result of poor writing, and that the game’s authors mean for me to take what he says at face-value. But in universe, Shepard has no reason to trust a single word out of his mouth (especially after he claims to have created the Reapers as a ‘solution’) and every reason to doubt him.

    Everything I am carrying with me by the end of the game tells me that destroying the Mass Relays would be disastrous. Does Shepard – who has seen the results of destroying one first hand – even stop to ask the Catalyst whether bringing down the network would wipe out every solar system to house a relay? We can infer from the subsequent scenes that it probably doesn’t, but Shepard hasn’t seen that. All he/she knows is that destroying the relays could potentially end more life than the entire Reaper invasion would. Again, a rushed execution and poorly thought-out premise shines through in that a few lines of dialogue could solve this dilemma:

    “Destroy the relays? But won’t that destroy everything around them as well?”

    “No. The relays will collapse, not explode. Their energy will be spent in enacting your choice.”

    Meanwhile, I, the player, am sitting there wondering why the Catalyst looks like the boy who died at the beginning of the game. I can guess that it might be taking on that form because Shepard was thinking of it. Or maybe it’s been haunting her all along, and the boy was never real. Or maybe it chose that form to be manipulative, plucking it out of Shepard’s memories as something that would provoke less hostility. I’m wondering this, but apparently Shepard isn’t, because he/she never even raises an eyebrow at the apparent magical ghost AI that has come out of the woodwork. If this was a universe where such things were common, then fine. But it isn’t. We’ve never seen anything like this kid before, yet Shepard just seems to take everything with a sort of dream-like complacency, which is probably part of why the Indoctrination Theory is so compelling. It’s easier to swallow the idea that we’re stuck in Shepard’s head, based both on his/her behaviour and on the jarring breaks in narrative consistency that happen, than that is actually supposed to be happening.

    To me, it just seems like they got to a certain point and ran out of time. That’s why the weird Citadel ending level is a hodgepodge of recycled set pieces and teleporting Anderson. That’s why so much dialogue was cut. That’s why there’s no explanation for how the Normandy picked up your ground team, or why they were flying away from the battle. That’s why the end sequences were basically just different coloured explosions. That’s why, instead of having several possible outcomes based on your previous decisions, the ending basically says ‘screw it’, takes none of your choices into account (not even your Paragon or Renegade points, which I think everyone was fairly sure should have had at least SOME kind of impact) and tacks on a new choice that’s entirely unrelated to them. That, to me, isn’t deeper thought; it’s someone panicking, realizing that they have to offer multiple endings of SOME kind, and doing it in the quickest possible way they can. This also explains the absence of one of the more commonly requested alternate endings, and one which fits Shepard’s character quite nicely – refusing to give in to the Catalyst’s options, and choosing to fight instead. Why would that one be left out? In nearly all cases like this, Shepards of all stripes tend to choose to fight or argue rather than capitulate. Maybe it would be doomed, but it would still make sense as an option; going down fighting. Except that this choice would necessitate a more complex ending sequence than the same palette-swapped explosion and crash scene that every other one got away with.

    That said, I am actually glad that there are people who like the endings. It’s a pretty miserable state of affairs when you don’t, so that you found satisfaction with your ME3 playthrough is a good thing. I think it would be nice if more people could understand that those of us asking for new endings aren’t trying to take anything away from those who enjoyed the ones they got. I can’t see how more choices would be anything other than fun and interesting for people who already like the available ones, and even if they took the suggestions to completely overhaul the ending from a certain point onwards, the DLC would be optional. People who like the ending and people who don’t need not be antagonistic to one another – we can just make our arguments and agree to disagree.

    • THANK YOU. Not only did you explain the plot holes that had escaped me thus far, but you reasoned your point very well. Perhaps I didn’t notice the plot holes because I’m not quite as invested in the lore as others—those who scour BioWare forums, read the books, make FanFic, et al—but that’s probably why it resonated with me so well.

      I’m not going to reply to all of these holes you point out, or try to refute them, because they seem like perfectly reasonable expectations. Sure, I don’t agree with all of them, but the concept of emotional approximation shows here. It was unique to each of us because we had different expectations and viewpoints of the series as a whole—not to mention the differences we have as people in “reality.”

      So thank you. I will happily agree to disagree, only now, after your well-reasoned comment, a lot less reluctantly.

  2. Now now, you’re just being controversial for the sake of being controversial.

    The ending was poor, no way around this.

  3. Great, another “you don’t get it”.

    I see what you are saying. I saw it when I played. The ending is still terrible. The problem is, past experiences are in mind. Past experiences where Shepard questioned Sovereign, the Counsel, Saren, and practically any race or power that stood in his/her way. Shepard questioned and pushed back against political power-players, mercs, world leaders, and even million (maybe billion) year old wannabe gods. Then Shepard meets the Catalyst and stops arguing? It doesn’t make sense and clearly forced. Past experience tells me there should be an option not to trust the Starkid (Catalyst) and/or outright reject its argument. Everything after that encounter is just extra crap added on to the pile of BS.

    I’m not against current endings as a whole, I’m against them being the only endings; which I’m forced to play through for no sensible reason.

    The most probable story- Bioware (a division of EA) ran out of resources; time and money. ME3 was one of their biggest challenges. They had to make sacrifices, cutting characters and portions of the story out. They either did the ending last, and did not have the resources to give players expected options, or they planned to have a forced ending, to stay within their resource budget. There are plenty of signs this occurred:

    -Weeks informal interview, which he partially confirmed via twitter.
    -The amount of meaningful dialog cut out of the game.
    -The way choices from past games didn’t mean much. If an important character died, they were replace, and the story stay much the same with a few changes to dialog. Paragon and renegade choices received similar results in many cases.
    -Day 1 DLC. They didn’t have the resources to get Javik in before release day.

    Bioware tries to cover this lacking ending, with artistic integrity, make people feel something, but it’s really just a we-ran-out-of-resources on a really tough project.

  4. “I found the last 15 minutes to be just as artful, meaningful, and fitting as the other 80 hours I spent lost in Shepard’s shoes”

    You’re on a wind-up mate, the ending of Mass Effect 3 was nonsensical drivel. Even most of those criticising the whiners accept that much.

  5. well 1st of all, my biggest issue with the ending is that it goes against everything bioware said it would be, you have a quote on your article, well i think these quotes are even more important, because it shows that bioware made people think the ending would be in one way, and what they did was the complete opposite.

    Here are the quotes:

    http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/355/index/10056886/1#10056886

    And my second biggest problem with the ending is that it just doesnt make sense, im sorry but it doesnt, unless the indoctrination theory is correct (a theory that basically means that nothing you saw was real) the ending is just filled to the top with canon errors, plot holes and pure non-sensical scenarios.

    The worst part is that we cant even confirm if the indoctrination theory is correct because bioware decided (again, going against what they said in the past) to leave the best possible ending in a “cliffhanger” with shepard aparently alive but we never get to see what shepard does after waking up.

  6. The answer is simple, that’s for sure – but believing it was anything but unintentional is a joke.

    They ran out of time. The evidence is in plain sight – the near identical endings, the plot holes, the bugs, the removal of one of the squad members (the prothean), the lack of additional dialog for squad members, the shallow multiplayer, the release date delay.. and then all quotes from producers at Bioware claiming things that clearly did not come to fruition.

    Based on that evidence I can’t take anything seriously regarding the ending.

  7. Look mate, you aren’t picking up the main problem with the ending… it’s
    not about not being able to see all the choices. (even if that’s what the devs promised again and again !)

    you know what the real problem is ? See, the wonderful people at Bioware created this amazing fiction. It was totally believable, emotionally engaging, interesting universe, which worked and functioned by a certain number of laws, and agreements. This universe totally sucked in players. Soon it became more than just a game. ME2 was amazing, and improved just about everything about the first game. ME3 came along. Sure it had big problems in many areas. But you know what ? it didn’t matter. It was still amazing. It was completely awesome. You put it well when you said the series was a work of art. Heck yes ! it was an AMAZING piece of art. A true milestone. That is why it is not only so good, but so important. Then came the ending

    At first people thought they hated the ending because it was too sad, or because of lack of choice (which are all valid) but here is what the ending does

    – It does not neglect the fiction of ME, no, It actively DESTROYS it. They should have cut it out before the star child. That’s all. It breaks all the fundamental rules that this entire fiction was working by. It was once believable. Now its NOT ! Mass effect, mass accelerators, eezo… bla bla why should i care now ? A God child just showed up saying that he is the catalyst and the citadel is a part of him (Whaaaa ?) with his super machine that can alter the entire universe, by jumping into a beam of light, shooting a capsule thingy or taking control ???? All the basic rules and implicit agreements that the fiction was governed by are THROWN OUT THE WINDOW. ie it doesn’t make sense. Why should we even CARE about the ending, if it doesn’t make sense on the basic level, or if it simply does not fit into the ME universe ?? The reapers – the perfect villain in the ME series. unfathomable, uncomprehendable, so powerful, yet so believable !
    They caused a lot of speculation among us players, and it was awesome. The way Bioware executed the idea of the reapers made them scary, and awe inspiring. Then in the ending, they are the solution to the God Child (who in himself makes no sense, is stupid and irritating). WTH ??? you just took that amazing idea, the reapers and threw it down the drain. They aren’t scary anymore. They aren’t even believable anymore ! The God child made them. And they become part of that stupid part that doesn’t make any sense. Even those three choices make no sense for the most part ! Every logical limit in the ME universe is broken, and is there an explanation, in the codex ? no. Instead people who support the ending say ‘ no it could have been this, or maybe it was a controlled explosion this time’ no no no no. it’s no use

    – BASIC STORYTELLING anyone ? Are people stupid ? Can they not see that in the last 10 minutes, most of the crucial rules, themes, and objectives were changed or abandoned ? That’s just bad storytelling period. This itself should make those stupid journalists at IGN realize that they can’t just say the ending was ‘fitting’ (Fitting ? really ???? ). It’s like an artist has been working this massive masterpiece, and we’ve all been watching from the start. Most of us have watched every detail being painted , which was important, because it made us love the work of art even more. Everything was done so well. Sure there were quite a few issues, some big ones, that seemed deal breaking at the time. But carrying on and looking back, you can’t really see them in the big picture. The artist is out to create this massive masterpiece, and it is slowly coming to an end You know what the ending is like ? it’s like the artist suddenly took a large brush and covered the entire work with wierd strokes and touches. ‘No no, it was my artistic vision. It’s what you call abstract art’ really ??? you just destroy years of work in 10 minutes, and change everything ??? It doesn’t help that what we are left with isn’t nicely done either.

    – MASSIVE PLOT HOLES
    – about shepard ? yeah right ! this isn’t shepard anymore ! he/she just stood there and listened to the God child ! This isn’t about shepard, this isn’t about the reapers anymore, or the characters, or the universe, or the conflict in it. You know what it is suddenly about ?

    – thats right, now the ME universe is all about the tension between synthetics and organics. REALLY ?????!!!! WTH is wrong with the people who thought this up ??? That overused cliche idea, had NOTHING to do with Mass Effect . In fact Commander Shepard proved it wrong !!! and in the last 10 minutes, this is introduced as the new objective ????

    – choice – we were promised 16 endings, ambiguous ones at that, where we couldn’t be able to differentiate into ABC. We got exactly that. I’m sorry, but isn’t that just plain false advertising.

    there was another article that i can’t find. But nvm.

    You know what, im not going to bother saying everything else.

    But just this – for journalists who say the ME3 ending was fitting, or good, I’m sorry, but that’s not a matter of taste, it’s just horrible journalism. When an ending does all that i mentioned above and more in the video, it cannot be fitting, it cannot even be passable.

    you know what ? i doubt the ending was Bioware’s artistic vision. how can the same experts who did the 2.9 games in the ME series, think that the ending was anything but a load of crap that jeopardizes the entire fiction ? Most of the devs probably do want to change it… there were obviously some issues…

    Playing ME2 again (like 7th or 8th time). I’m just gonna pretend the ME3 ending never happened, because then, i can never look at the ME universe in the same way. When the ending comes in, everything is stupid, doesn’t make sense. What’s the point of playing when i know a God child is controlling everything. What’s the point of all the codex entries about technology and what not, when all the rules are going to be broken without explanation ? What’s the point in taking interest in the various conflicts and objectives in the games, when i know the real problem is actually supposed to be tension between synthetics and organics ? ( again, REALLY ????)

    It’s not about fan backlash anymore, Bioware. It’s about preventing your 8 year old baby from being ruined. They can change it, the ending. I hope they do. Not anymore for the fan’s sake, but for the sake of the amazing work of art it once was.

    • the video is not about ABC endings… It covers some of the main problems with the ending. It is also very well done

  8. The problem people have is Casey Hudson promised 16 different endings where the choices you made throughout the series mattered and were pivitol in your fight against the reapers. Mac Walters also promised no magic in space as itd be an insult to the series. We got 3 red endings, 2 green, endings, and 1 blue ending…all 90% the same. As fro space magic thats the only way you could explain casper coming out in the last 10 minutes of the game. This is why along with all the plotholes casper brings about not because its”sad”

    • I definitely feel you concerning the empty promises. Casey Hudson and a lot of the development team dropped the ball with promoting the game. They said a lot of the wrong things, but I only tackled one issue the players voiced quite often. To address all of the problems facing BioWare concerning the Mass Effect 3 ending would be a herculean task.

      • yes you are right it would be a tall task to ask of anyone..could be used as a form of punishment to address all the problems with the mass effect 3 ending.

      • Well, that’s sly……

        You claimed in the article “the last 15 minutes is just as artful, meaningful, and fitting as the other 80 hours”, essentially claimed all the ending-protesters are wrong.

        But when people provided counter-arugements why the ending is bad, you said you are just tackling one point………

        • Yes, that is my opinion of the end, but that’s not what I’m arguing here. It’s just necessary to communicate that opinion to show where I stand.

          When people provided counter-arguments, they discredited my entire *focused* thesis because of that one statement.

  9. Good article. There are a variety of viewpoints as to why the ending is “bad,” one of them being the apparent lack of influence the preceding choices have, another being that it’s “sad,” another being that it’s too ambiguous and open to interpretation. I’m personally fine with all of those; I generally love ambiguous and dismal endings in movies, television, books, etc.

    My viewpoint, shared by some portion of the so-called “anti-enders,” is that the ending was sloppy, based on the story that came before it. Without spoiling anything, the actions the characters take and predicaments they are in are inconsistent with what we’ve experienced from them in the past. For example, all of the choices Shepard is presented with will result in something that, based on his/her prior experience, would be far worse than the calamity he/she is trying to prevent. That this thing does not happen is a nice (though mysterious) surprise, but from Shepard’s unknowing perspective, it’s a question that any sane human being should have asked before accepting any of the available choices. The behavior of the Normandy’s pilot is also contrary to their character throughout the story, and the Normandy’s roster in the concluding scenes can, for some players, be physically impossible without wild speculation.

    I’m of a group that I believe supports the developer’s artistic vision and integrity, and actually likes the ending in its concept, but finds fault in the execution. Sloppy writing is actually expected in the arena of video games, but the Mass Effect series was a glowing exception until the end of the last game.

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