Have you ever read a great book, or even a series, and loved the characters, but then found the ending, well, lacking? As writers, we have to work really hard to not leave our readers feeling that way. Sometimes it’s because the reader simply didn’t like how you chose to end the story and that’s their right, but if your tale makes sense, that’s no failing on your part, it’s simply a difference in the expectations and desires of the writer and reader. But there are times that a story just doesn’t work and it’s understandable that the reader feels disappointed – the ending felt rushed or was ‘all a dream’, or perhaps it left awkward plot holes wide open without reason or explanation.
Well, the Mass Effect franchise has been a great feat of interactive storytelling. The stories and characters are what I love most about these games, and the third game of the trilogy didn’t disappoint … that is, right up until the last 10 minutes. So while I generally talk about novel-writing, I think storytellers can all learn from each other, whatever their medium of choice, and that’s where the ending of ME3 falls short – it breaks the accepted rules and expectations of storytelling.
Warning, here be spoilers! This is intended to be a post for people who have played ME3 to the end, so please don’t read on if you haven’t! And apologies if this doesn’t mean much to any of my non-gaming readers!
The writers of ME3 did a brilliant job of tying up so many plotlines in this final game in a way that reflected your previous decisions and allowed you to make new ones to ultimately let you decide the course of the galaxy (ie, the fate of the Rachni, the Krogan Question and the Quarians vs the Geth). And it wasn’t just the big questions, the futures of races, that Bioware brought to the fold of ME3, there were also those great little touches like the conclusion of the Conrad Verner fan-boy story; these were small moments that were a nice nod to the long-time players and their choices across the trilogy.
So, yes, I loved the game – it was engaging, emotional and tough, both in terms of game-play (bloody banshees!) and the cut-scene decisions. The fall of Thessia left me feeling genuinely gutted that I/Shepard had failed. There were plenty of moments that brought a tear to my eye (Thane!). And by the end, I truly hated Kai Leng. Oh, and I won’t even go in to the date with Kaidan – I’ll just say that it left me very happy for my Shep!
The writers went to so much effort to draw us in, to get us feeling something, to make us care about the characters and the future of the galaxy and that takes some skill, nevermind that they also had to allow for so many permutations of player-choice. So I doff my hat to them – I’m not sure if I could do that (though I’d bloody well love to try, so Bioware if you want any writers, you know where I am! Hey, I can dream!).
And all that skilful wrapping up is exactly why the end didn’t make sense. There are continuity discrepancies. There are things that just don’t make sense. There are omissions that, if you’ve ever played a Bioware game, just aren’t Bioware. Hell, I just wrote “played a Bioware story” the first time I typed that – these are developers who care so much about creating not just games, but stories, that they employ dedicated writers and pride and market their games on that very quality.
So, continuity. First off, two of your squadmates are with you at the final battle and apparently everyone running at the beam to the Citadel is killed. Now, I can understand that the ‘everyone’s dead, Jim’ over the radio might be that the observer was mistaken and didn’t see Shepard staggering for the beam. Fine, I can accept that. But if Shep and Anderson made it through the beam and everyone else was dead, then how in the galaxy did my two crewmates make it back to the Normandy to appear in that final crash landing scene? In fact, it was rather conspicuous that the two members of crew that step out of the Normandy with Joker were the two I took with me on that last mission and no one else.
And why was the Normandy no longer in the assault upon the reapers and instead fleeing the scene? If they turned tail and ran, I want to know why. If my two squadmates survived and were picked up by Joker, I want to know why and how. It simply doesn’t make sense.
Neither does the fact that Anderson claimed to follow Shep into the beam, and yet he conveniently ends up being dumped in another part of the Citadel, and somehow manages to get ahead of Shep to the control panel (in a room with only one apparent entrance) without being seen. How does that work?
If you got a high enough EMS rating in the game, you also see what’s apparently Shep’s charred body breathing in the rubble of London. But if she (I play a femShep, of course!) was in an explosion on the Citadel, why is her body in a pile of concrete and very Earthly debris and not floating around in space, or at least lying in the mangled metal remains of the Citadel? Again, it doesn’t make sense. The writing after Shep is hit by Harbinger reads like a rushed first draft, you know, the bit before you edit your work and realise you missed out a key point or that it’s impossible for that character to be in this place.
So the continuity and the logic aren’t there, and neither is the classic closure that Bioware devotees know and love about their games. OK, so we know that the Warden of DA:O went on to do ‘other things’ that we’re not necessarily told about in great detail, but if we romanced Alistair, then we know he was never far from the Warden, and we have a nice summary to read about how the Kingdom of Ferelden does in the aftermath of our decisions. Most importantly, though, we get a little epilogue of what happens to the characters we’ve adventured with. The same in DA2. Mass Effect is arguably Bioware’s biggest story, its space opera of epic proportions and yet … we’re left with a weird lack of consistency and a short, vague scene about the aftermath of our actions (reapers destroyed/flew away) and the lives of those characters we’ve come to care about (Joker and some combination of the crew crash land on an unknown, leafy planet and step out to smile at the sun.
Yes, fine, I understand about open endings, but if this is meant to be the ending to end all endings, which is kind of what it’s been set up as, then we need a bit more closure than that. Whenever we enjoy a story and follow it through to the end, however bitter that ending may be, we need some sense of reward, and that just wasn’t there with ME3. Even if it was a funeral for Shepard (missing, presumed dead), just that epilogue scene showing goodbyes so we get some closure and can find out who survived the war and who didn’t.
It’s all rather strange. In fact, that whole end sequence is rather dream-like, with slow motion, Shep accepting weird dream-logic (where you believe what you’re told in a dream without questioning it, even though it makes no sense at all to the waking mind) and the return of scenery and characters from the past (the Child and TIM). So some fans have come up with The Indoctrination Theory. While I’d like it to be true (it would be very clever and fit with what has happened in the previous games, as well as this weird ending), I’m trying not to hold out hope – does it seem like the logical answer because we so badly don’t want that ending to be ‘it’?
I kind of always thought the trilogy would end with Shepard sacrificing herself for the galaxy, which is fine and can be part of great storytelling, but for it to be done in such an emotionless and poorly written way, well that just doesn’t give any sort of reward. And frankly, the 16 different endings are not different enough to reflect my decisions throughout the series, to justify my hours played over all three games or to do justice to the emotions the games stirred up until that point. The main differences are:
- Do the reapers leave or are they destroyed?
- Can I still go and see Big Ben on my next sightseeing tour of London?
- What colour is the wave that spreads across the galaxy and destroys the mass relays?
- Does joker have slightly glowy techno skin?
The only significant one is whether you see Shepard’s breath in the debris at that very last moment, other than that, the other differences feel like window dressing.
Never mind the player’s decisions, that isn’t an ending that does justice to the achievement of the writers who have come up with such great and difficult decisions for us to make. And this is why I’m keeping my fingers crossed, but trying not to get my hopes up, that the Bioware rethink of the ending will do something to improve what has been such a disappointment for so many people.