With that being said, I can understand why fans are mad. In one article Bioware came out saying they wanted the ending to be ‘polarizing’. I didn’t find it polarizing. I found it filled with bad writing with plot holes that can invalidate both the previous two games as well as most of this game.
First off let’s look at the overarching story, Order vs Chaos. This is not a new story; it has been played out in many other novels, plays, games, etc.
The Catalyst, leading the Reapers makes everything black and white, unchanging order. The reapers come in when Chaos gets to a point and then reset things back to let it all start over again, keeping order while letting Chaos still be around, to a point.
Examples of this in other shows are Gurren Lagen. When the Spiral Power (chaos) got to a point, the ‘Anti-Spirals’ (order) come in and destroy that world. Or in White Wolf’s Werewolf the Apocalypse where there are the roles of Order and Chaos are filled by Weaver and Wyld respectively and the two are in balance, when one gets out of balance it spells disaster for creation. (GL is the better example though.)
Okay, now we’ve established the true conflict of the game. Now let’s look at the endings.
Ending 1 – Destroy the Reapers
This is the most flawed of the endings.
When writing a story, you want to foreshadow the ending, dropping clues and hints and letting the reader/player feel like they’re going somewhere. People don’t like getting an involved story loving the characters and then getting ‘ending shifted’ on them. (Players of FFIX will know exactly what I mean.)
This story from the first game was ‘Defeat/destroy the Reapers’. That’s been the theme of all three games. It should be an available option for an ending.
But no…the defeat/destroy the reapers ending turned into destroy all synthectics ending. Wait…what?
If the Catalyst controls the reapers and you send the signal to destroy them, they should go away, you win. The Geth were only on the Reaper side when under their direct control! EDI has never been a reaper! Shepard isn’t a Reaper either! The Mass Effect relays aren’t even sentient! (If they are then Bioware did a horrible job explaining that as I totally missed that dialogue.) If the Catalyst controls the Reapers and you use the power to destroy them, how are the others affected?
If Shepard/EDI/Geth are actually Reapers, or under Catalyst’s control already then why did Catalyst allow them to turn against it? And why would the Geth need to be ‘programmed to fight with the Reapers’? Catalyst could always just get them to do what it wanted already, unless it had a death wish. (Magic Knight Rayerth style.) But that never comes up either. Another missed opportunity at storytelling.
The arguement I think they’re going with is that the Catalyst will destroy all Reaper technology. EDI, Shepard, the Mass Effect Relays and the Geth all had Reaper technology in them (or to build them.) This seems a tad farfetched to me and feels like a ‘you win, but not really’ button the Catalyst uses to give one last shot at the organics that the Reapers were better in every way and their way is right because you had to use their own tech against them. It’s like a sore loser saying they’re taking their ball and going home and never coming back.
To me this ending is Bioware saying: You thought you were doing the right thing, but you fucked up. Ha ha!
What the fans wanted from this ending: The ending where the reapers (and only the reapers) were destroyed. The Citidel is still there and can be rebuilt, everything can be rebuilt, only the reapers are gone. It can still be the bittersweet ending Bioware wanted, because there was loss, there was tragedy. But it gives the ending that was hinted at from game one.
Graphically this is the ending where players wanted to see the outcome of the war. They wanted to see characters rebuilding. They didn’t want the 200 years later type ending. It really didn’t fit with where the story was going on this path.
Ending 2 – Control the reapers
This ending was a bit better. There was foreshadowing with Legion for this one. And that is why I liked the idea that if Shepard integrated himself into the Reaper code, then he would in essence become the new Catalyst. It would be the bittersweet ending where he gave up himself to save the galaxy. Just like Legion’s was a sad ending where he had to integrate himself into the Geth to give them ‘free will’.
Where this ending failed is the ‘by doing this you will destroy all the Mass Relays’. Wait…what?
How does controlling the reapers destroy the mass relays? This is not explained at all. A good storyteller will explain endings that tie up loose ends, that’s why it’s an ‘ending’.
The argument you can make on why the mass relays were destroyed is they are part of the Catalyst’s network, and by Shepard becoming the new Catalyst he’d have to rebuild them with the knowledge he’d gain from controlling the citadel/reapers. But then again I’d have liked to see a rebuilding showing the galaxy coming together and working together starting over again.
To me this is Bioware saying: EA doesn’t have the money to allow us to create graphically different endings, so we’re reusing another ending’s graphics and hope the players don’t complain and if they do we’ll call it the way our story was supposed to be because it is ‘our’ story.
What the players wanted from this ending: A better explanation of Shepard integrating himself with the Reapers and then him actually transforming to energy to become the new Catalyst. Then showing the reapers leaving and the war ending, very much like the Geth stood down in the Quarian/Geth war. Maybe even with Shepard’s voice going out through the Reapers to everyone calling it over so the Galaxy could stop attacking the Reapers as the reapers go away.
Ending 3 – Synergy
This is the ending I think they got ‘mostly’ right.
In this ending Shepard can use the Catalyst to rewrite DNA to merge the synthetic life with organic life creating a new life, the end of evolution.
If this is the end of evolution then why didn’t the reapers do this before? They didn’t think about it. They were so obsessed with creating order that it didn’t occur to them until an organic they considered an equal appeared before them. Which Shepard does.
So why do the mass relays need to go boom? It takes a lot of energy to rewrite the DNA of a galaxy. This would be the only way to get that done. Using the same theory that was used to disperse the Genophage cure on Tuchanka. Just this time the Mass Relays would disperse the ‘cure’ into the galaxy like the shroud dispersed it on Tuchanka.
For this ending everything makes sense. Things were foreshadowed. This was a good ending.
To me Bioware is saying: This is the intended ending from the start. Shepard sacrifices himself for the good of the Galaxy. All other endings are variations of this one.
What the fans wanted to see: Shepard become integrated into a synthetic/organic hybrid. Maybe merging with Catalyst. More than just Joker’s Arm looking techy.
Talking about all endings in general
I think what most fans are displeased with is that all the endings were too similar. I’ve played games with multiple endings before and the dialogue and graphics for each ending were different. That’s the expectation players have. Mass Effect 1 had slightly different stuff happen in the ending but they felt different based on your choices. Mass Effect 2 was the best about your choices matter. Because if you didn’t do the right thing, or you made a wrong choice, you lost squad members. That was awesome! That was what Mass Effect 3 needed to live up to or surpass, and it didn’t.
If you take a look at Mass Effect 3 as a whole being the ‘ending’ then that makes you feel a little better as you get the genophage ending, you get the quarian/geth war ending, you get Maranda’s ending, etc. But for the end of the endings, you still need something to tie it all together. In most things people remember the beginning and ending. The rest of the thing can have its highs and lows, but it’s the beginning and ending that matter most. In music, when there is a long string of notes in a run, as long as you hit the beginning and ending notes the chord is sound and people don’t notice the ones in the middle. Sure they hear them, but they are variations of the chord. Storytelling is the same way; you have to have a strong introduction and ending.
I’ve talked about the endings in a bit of detail, and I can see why many people think Bioware dropped the ball on this one. This ending was similar to ME1 where there were just minor differences unlike ME2 where it felt like there were major consequences based on your decisions. Sure, in ME3 you decide the fate of the galaxy at the end…but unless the player sees the consequences for it, it didn’t happen in their mind. In both the previous games at the end of the game you saw the direct consequences of your actions. At the end of ME3 no matter what you picked you saw a crashed Normandy and then the talk in the future.
Truthfully I loved the talk in the future ending, but even that felt bland by it being the ‘same’ in each ending sequence. So it made the players really feel that no matter what they picked, the true ending is this old guy telling his grandson the story of Shepard.
I feel like to save money Bioware put elements of all the endings graphically into one ending so they could use those same graphics for all of the endings. I find that lazy. They really needed different graphical endings for each one to make them distinct.
At the end of Tuchanka, there are different graphics if the female is alive or not. At the end of the Quarian/Geth war there are different graphical endings based on you siding with Legion or Tali. So why couldn’t they continue the trend they used earlier in the game all the way through?
Going on the above here is what I would have done with the endings, keeping with the theme of the game, the foreshadowing Bioware provided and giving the players a feel of the direct consequences of their actions.
Graphical Ending 1 – Destroy Reapers
Show the end of the war.
Show the characters rebuilding their worlds.
Show Shepard with his romance if he had one, and was still alive.
Show the old man telling the story of Shepard uniting the Galaxy as a hero.
Graphical Ending 2 – Control Reapers
Show Shepard turning into Catalyst. (I think him into the energy pool works best for this one instead of the Synergy ending)
Show Catalyst vanish and an energy looking Shepard appear.
Show the Reapers retreating into space.
Final words from Shepard to the Galaxy.
Show the old man telling the story of Shepard letting the kid know Shepard is watching over them.
Graphical Ending 3 – Synergy
Show Shepard use a device (the one used in the actual control ending works)
Show Shepard merge with Catalyst
Show the energy blasts with Mass Effect relays being destroyed all over the galaxy.
Show crashed Normandy.
Show survivors of Normandy.
Show new species after the synergy.
Show characters rebuilding their worlds.
Show Shepard with his romance if he had one, and if he was still alive.
Show the old man telling the story of Shepard as the one ushering in this new age.
I like the old man retelling the tale, but make the lines different where it feels like the story of Shepard being told is different so it feels your last decision carried on down through the history of the galaxy. Also, I want to see the people rebuilding. This is a story about hope and survival. If you don’t show the results of that struggle then you didn’t finish the story.
The design team said they painted themselves into a corner with the suicide mission in ME2 because it made things harder to write for the third game. Then in the third game it feels like the one thing they wanted to make sure happen was the removal of the Mass Relays to ensure there couldn’t be any more Mass Effect games. Hard to explore the galaxy when your way of doing that is now gone.
Here is a quote from Casey Hudson the executive producer of Mass Effect 3:
“We always intended that the scale of the conflict and the underlying theme of sacrifice would lead to a bittersweet ending—to do otherwise would betray the agonizing decisions Shepard had to make along the way. Still, we wanted to give players the chance to experience an inspiring and uplifting ending; in a story where you face a hopeless struggle for basic survival, we see the final moments and imagery as offering victory and hope in the context of sacrifice and reflection.”
I think his statement hits the nail on the head. And shows that Bioware got away from what made them great. They give you ONE ending. He even says it himself there. He doesn’t say endings plural, he says ‘ending’. Bioware is known for your decisions making a difference, and you can’t make a difference if you’re railroaded into only one ending.