I realize that expecting reasoned discourse from the internet is a tall order, but the reaction to the Mass Effect 3 ending is beyond absurd. It transcends rationality and tips over into the positively juvenile. This is meant to be a counter to many fan complaints. I don’t have a response for all of them, but I definitely have some ammunition of my own.
Let’s do this.
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MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT- YE BE WARNED!
Mass Effect could be said to be the original BioWare studio’s magnum opus. A grand space opera that is as massive in scale as any modern-day epic. In terms of the scope of the original works, it dwarfs Star Wars and Lord of the Rings combined. A monumental undertaking that should definitely be commended in part if not in whole.
"I didn't get any closure!"
There are -- as pointed out in this article at Gamefront -- dozens of concepts, questions, philosophies and the like that are raised, examined and then considered. A broad variety of topics ranging from free will to racism and gender equality has a role in the tale of Commander Shepard. Many have claimed that the ending of Mass Effect 3 doesn’t address these and gives fans the short shrift, but I think that’s bogus.
ME3 answers a lot of questions. It gives closure to damn-near every single event that has taken place over the past few games, and every major theme gets some screen-time. In the last 10 minutes alone we have heroic sacrifice, unity of peoples, hope for a new tomorrow, and the consideration of the imperfection of humankind. And all of this is before the “multi-colored explosions” bit that so many hate on. It is at once a tribute to Shepard, a new beginning for the inhabitants of the Mass Effect universe, and the only true way to break the cycle and start over from scratch.
In both Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 there are references to the fact that the Reapers are guiding the evolution of organic life by putting the Citadel and mass relay network in place. It ensures that organic life will develop along pre-determined lines and discourages them from finding their own solutions to their own challenges. Legion comments on this in 2; by reflecting on the Reapers’ offer to provide the ‘heretics’ with a Dyson sphere, they neglect the importance of the journey, of discovering for themselves. When the Mass Relays are destroyed; it is a partial ‘reset to zero’ for galactic civilization. They still possess substantive tech, but with the war destroying local infrastructure and the collapse of the relay network isolating each species, they can steadily explore their own futures and mature with their technology instead of being rocketed ahead by the very bunch of sapient starships that came to kill them. I can’t think of any more substantive closure than that. Shepard, in every ending but one, dies so that everyone who survives the war can see a new tomorrow.
"The ending is far too bleak!"
Throughout the series the Reapers are built up as an obscenely powerful force that can and do easily wipe out all intelligent life. At the end of Mass Effect 2, when the camera panned out to show thousands of Reapers ready to come and retaliate against Commander Shepard, I thought that Mass Effect 3 was going to be awful. I couldn’t see how, given the degree to which this great force had been established that anything other than the game could be believable, maintain appropriate pacing, and avoid a deus ex machina in the ending.
I was wrong. My fears were addressed, and in the best way I could have hoped. Instead of giving you “mindless crap”, everything is tied into building up the Galaxy for the final confrontation. All of your choices help civilians directly and unite the galaxy against the Reaper threat. Even so, you are treated to poignant morsels from your crew, both past and present, as well as countless people you have met along the way. Every choice you’ve ever made is shown to have significance, has some impact. I interpreted that, especially after finishing the game, as a metaphor for Shepard’s life flashing before their eyes. Nearly every question is answered, we see almost everyone’s homeworld, and we move towards clearing up any “unfinished business” as it were. BioWare shows you what all of your actions meant, all of the people you’ve helped or hurt. The whole thing is the “closure” fans have been asking for as we are shown the consequences of our actions. This is all in the face of that overwhelming power, the Reapers.
As all of these choices are made manifest, the inevitable truth is made abundantly clear: success against the Reapers will not be without cost. The sheer chaos, the undisputable power of the enemy Shepard faces demands the utmost respect, and ultimately the highest price -- Shepard’s life. The poetic nature of that sacrifice shouldn’t be subsumed in all of this. Shepard has the most direct connection to the Reapers. As the game progresses we can see that Shepard's psyche is steadily being dominated by them. Shepard was given life after natural death to keep fighting, and when that fight is over, gives that life to stop them.
It’s elegant and poignant to see that struggle end with the existential cessation of Shepard's only foe.
"All you get to pick are different-colored explosions!"
I contest the claim that there is no player choice and that the ending doesn’t reflect decisions from any games; especially when those complaints come from “fans.” I am operating under the assumption that these people liked the endings of the previous games, given that they are, you know, fans.
In Mass Effect, regardless of any choices made before, you can choose to save the council, kill the council or pragmatically withhold Alliance forces to take down Sovereign. Nothing else you’ve done in the entire rest of the game matters, and regardless of what you choose Sovereign dies. It’s the same cut scene too, with the Normandy delivering the final blow.
In Mass Effect 2, you have only two options. Destroy the Collector Base or preserve it, but either way it is the EXACT same cutscene that plays at the end. Weird.
In Mass Effect 3, your choices affect whether or not everyone on Earth dies, how the Reapers are handled, and whether or not Shepard dies. There are parallels drawn to the indoctrination of Saren with the Illusive Man and you can see the steady corruption of good intentions and sympathetic ideals. It’s a cautionary tale against blindly charging forward with an idea without careful consideration of all options on the table, and all sides of the debate; a fun little comparison I like to make to the lion’s share of ME3 ending detractors.
"The scene with the Stargazer invalidates the whole series!"
Mass Effect constantly references our earliest space exploration efforts (Commander Shepard being an allusion to Alan Shepard). The 'bedtime story' is meant to give the child, and the audience, hope for the future of space exploration. It's fitting then that, after having established the notion of a new age for the Milky Way's residents, that we are treated to scene about the hope that Shepard inspired. I took it as a not-so-subtle nod to the generations of kids that were influenced by the early space programs, and a desire to that optimism imparted on a new crop of starry-eyed youngsters.
Then I went back and checked something. It turns out that the Stargazer is actually Buzz Aldrin, the second person to ever walk on the moon. That scene took on a new significance for me, as it paralleled a lull in our own exploration after the conclusion of the Space Race. Now entering an era of privately funded ventures, we are on the cusp of another period of advances in extraterrestrial excursions. Aldrin, a consistent proponent of space travel is beckoning the child, and by extension us to look to the stars and hope, for the first time in decades.
The real tragedy...
The final moments of Mass Effect 3 are definitely outshined by the sheer brilliance of the showdown with the Reaper on Rannoch, the death of Mordin, and the entire run up to the final confrontation with the Illusive Man, but it is still a very solid piece of work. Especially when taken together with the rest of the game. It's a perfectly competent conclusion to an outstanding space opera, totally undeserving of the vitriolic hatred it's been getting.
Casey Hudson has gone on record stating that he wanted a "story that people can talk about", and regardless of how you feel about the game, it's definitely accomplished that. Between the hallucination/indoctrination theory or our own community discussion, there's been a lot of chatter.
Still, I think people should really be getting pissed about the fact that they changed Mordin's voice actor. It's bullshit.