12 Years Ago, Mass Effect 3’s Ending Was Ahead Of Its Time

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Today is March 6, 2024, and that means it is the 12th anniversary of the release of BioWare’s epic RPG, Mass Effect 3. The finale in the blockbuster trilogy is still, to this day, considered one of the most important in video games—not because it was beloved, but because it was incredibly divisive. Fans claimed the original didn’t make sense and suggested that BioWare just copy-pasted the same ending across different decisions.

I still believe to this day that the original ending was good and the one BioWare replaced it with made some important changes while also undermining the series’ best ideas. The new ending also emboldened bad actors, pushing the idea that if they’re hostile enough online to developers, they can get a game changed to their liking. It’s hard not to think about it when developers like Larian Studios make similar (albeit not as far-reaching) changes to modern games like Baldur’s Gate 3.

The legacy of Mass Effect 3’s ending lingers, twelve years later.

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Mass Effect 3’s ending was a good idea, bad execution

At the end of Mass Effect 3, protagonist Commander Shepard, having united the galactic forces to fight the invading synthetic/organic hybrid race called the Reapers, is faced with a decision. The Crucible, an ancient device built upon by every civilization that was once culled in the invaders’ cycle under the assumption that it may save the galaxy as we know it, lies dormant, waiting to be set off. When Shepard prepares to fire this weapon throughout the Milky Way, they’re greeted by an AI called the Catalyst, the creator of the Reapers.

Mass Effect 3 gives you three options for how to utilize the Crucible: You can use it to destroy all synthetic life in the Milky Way, including the Catalyst, Reapers, and some allies; if you want to avoid more casualties, you can control the Reapers by taking the Catalyst’s place, losing your corporeal form in exchange for synthetic godhood; or, you can do what the Catalyst considers the perfect solution and add your DNA to the Crucible, acting as an arbiter for galactic change that will make organics more synthetic and synthetics more organic. This will satisfy its directive to preserve organic life and usher in the next step in galactic evolution.

Shepard walks toward the Crucible.

What’s still fascinating to this day is just how far-reaching and morally dubious every decision is. You’re essentially choosing between genocide, dictatorship, or forced evolution of everyone in the known galaxy. Since Shepard is partly synthetic, each decision is presented as if it will require the Commander’s life. So, the player is asked what they’re willing to sacrifice and what the next step forward will be for the civilization left behind. There’s an argument to be made that no one person should have all this power, and with each choice being morally reprehensible in one way or another, Mass Effect 3’s ending can be a bitter pill to swallow. There isn’t (or wasn’t) an unambiguous happy ending in which the player got to win the war and lose nothing. All you had were the options in front of you and a hope in your heart that the world you left behind would pick up the pieces and not repeat the mistakes it had getting here.

And once you make the final decision, hope is all you have. The Crucible fires a beam (with its color coordinating to which choice you made) through the galaxy-wide Mass Relay transit system, and its effects are felt throughout the Milky Way. Shepard’s crew crash-lands on a planet untouched by the Reaper invasion, and then it cuts to black. Credits. Well, unless you choose to destroy synthetic life. Then, you get a brief scene of Shepard taking a gasp in the Crucible wreckage.

The ending of Mass Effect 3 was a strong summation of the series’ philosophy on choice. Most of the trilogy illustrated that this war was a series of sacrifices and compromises, and even if you were content with the choices made, none of them came without loss. I eradicated a sterility plague from the Krogan, but not without losing my dear friend Mordin. I united the Geth and Quarians after a generations-long war, but it came at the cost of Legion, who had been my Geth confidant for two games. Why would I ever think I could wipe away the Reapers, who have terrorized the Milky Way for millennia, without consequences?

Shepard lies underneath the rubble.

The Extended Cut changed Mass Effect 3’s ending for better and worse

Unfortunately, all those profound themes were also tangled up in the ending’s messy execution. There were plot holes, a lack of clarity on certain, important events, and a lack of satisfactory options to interrogate the Catalyst’s views that gave the ending a rushed feeling. Thus, we have the now infamous Mass Effect 3 ending controversy, in which fans campaigned to have the ending changed to better suit their imagined conclusion.

In the wake of the outrage, BioWare decided to alter the ending with a free Extended Cut update. This DLC added scenes and dialogue, altered existing segments for more clarity, and also added a slideshow epilogue with all three endings. I can deal with those first three. Those changes bolster what makes the original ending’s concept work while also addressing some legitimate criticism. That last one? That’s where BioWare lost me.

The slideshow completely nullifies the power of the original, fade-to-black finale, which was one of the boldest endings a game of this scale has ever had the guts to pull off. It dares the player to make their own ending in their head. You made your decision. What do you think happened next? But the Extended Cut takes all that meaningful ambiguity away in favor of patting the player on the head and saying, “See, everything’s okay.”

The Normandy crew stands in front of a memorial wall.

The Mass Effect 3 ending controversy is often framed as a defining event in fandom, paving the way for art to be designed by the committee of popular opinion. But talking about it solely as a moment in creator and community relations also ignores the specifics of how it changed the trilogy’s final thesis. I’ve often said Mass Effect 2’s Suicide Mission, in which you command a team of 12 party members while making decisions that determine who lives or dies, distorted people’s view of what the series was ever about. It was one of the only times the series has a definitive good or bad outcome, and the lack of that in Mass Effect 3 miffed fans. Not every video game is designed to be a system you can min/max your way through to get the best, happiest ending Now, Mass Effect 3’s ending lacks that same gut punch.

12 years later, BioWare’s decision to change Mass Effect 3’s ending has had a ripple effect on games as recently as last year’s Baldur’s Gate 3. Since its launch, developer Larian has patched the RPG to remove some of the tough decisions that could alter entire playthroughs in favor of fandom gimmes.

Shepard fires his gun.

It feels like some developers have only gotten more afraid of making players commit to hard choices, and it especially feels bad when it comes from fan outcry. If video games are going to tout that they’re about choice and consequence, they can’t just be the good kind. Not every decision we make has to have an equally weighted good option to aspire to when every option should have drawbacks, not a get-out-of-jail-free card. Mass Effect 3’s ending may not have an unambiguously happy ending, but the Extended Cut tries its absolute damnedest to make you feel like you did the right thing—so much so that the destroy ending’s epilogue doesn’t even make mention of the casualties you caused.

While the series is apparently getting back in the swing of things with a fifth game, Mass Effect will always carry the third game’s baggage. I can only hope that the next game takes as big of a swing as the series did in 2012, and this time, it doesn’t hold back.

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