I finished Mass Effect 3 last night, staying up until 3am to get from the final missions to the big controversial ending. As the last minutes of the game ticked away I kept waiting for the game to fuck up, to blow it, to justify the online teeth-gnashing that met its release. That moment never came.
Instead I encountered an ending that was sublimely great, an ending that was bravely heady and an ending that was emotionally complex and satisfying. I had my problems with Mass Effect 3 - the combat is tedious to me, and I hate the way games make you take on ‘My cat is stuck in a tree!’ missions even as the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance - but the ending more than made up for it.
There will be spoilers following.
I ended up with the ‘green’ ending, choosing to merge organic and synthetic life, creating the final step of evolution. That’s an incredible ending, one that actually manages to one up 2001 in terms of big, trippy ideas. All these hours spent playing the game, all the decisions that my Shepard made, all led up to this moment, where I literally changed the course of all life in the galaxy forever. That’s huge!
What happens next? In my universe the Krogan are free of the genophage and the Quarians have been wiped out by the Geth. Some of the main civilized worlds like Thessia, Palavan and Earth lay in ruins. And into this chaos is introduced a fundamental, unknowable change to the very nature of life itself. It’s going to be an interesting time in the galaxy.
But I don’t want to see it! My Shepard got the galaxy to that point, and now it’s on its own. I don’t need all the answers sewn up. Would I like to know what happened to my final squad (I went down with my BFFs Garrus and Liara)? Yeah, but while I assume they bravely gave their lives in that final crazed run to the Conduit I’d rather just leave it open ended. As I leave the story of the galaxy. This isn’t Shepard’s story anymore, and just like in life I can never truly know the far-flung implications of the choices I made.
There are many who complain about the lack of options at the end of Mass Effect 3; I feel like these people misunderstand not only the nature of storytelling but the nature of life itself. The endings of Mass Effect 3 are, essentially, infinite. You see the decision your Shepard made - domination, destruction or co-existence - and a quick glimpse of how that immediately plays out. But what happens next is for you to chew on, to mull over. What does it mean that you chose to control the Reapers, and how will that impact the galaxy? What does your decision to destroy all synthetics tell future generations about your Shepard? And what does your decision to co-exist say about you, as a player? These are exciting, fun questions. Just as the ending of 2001 doesn’t bring the Starchild all the way to Earth, the ending of Mass Effect 3 doesn’t follow the impact of the final choice all the way through history. The game designers at BioWare assumed that you’re smart enough to understand that they’re leaving the next steps unfollowed on purpose.
And life, frankly, doesn’t leave us many choices. I feel like dominate, destroy and co-exist represents a fine distillation of the possible endings to the Reaper crisis; anything else is just dressing on one of those three finales. There was never going to be another ending, no matter what.
Like in life the choices I made in the three Mass Effect games impacted what happened to and around my Shepard. In my Mass Effect universe Wrex and Kaiden died very early on, and Miranda and Legion never made it past the suicide mission. In my universe Shepard and Ashley were true loves kept apart by circumstance, while Shepard and Liara were possibly soul mates in a bigger, more profound way. In my Mass Effect the Quarians were wiped out when they couldn’t change their mindset and Tali finally made it home - where she killed herself. Every single one of these things happened because of a decision I made along the way.
But some things in life are bigger than us. Last week my uncle passed away. I had made a lot of decisions in my own life, choices that led me to Los Angeles and a great job. But no matter what choices I made, I was always going to head back to New York City for his funeral. I may have chosen my own flight out, I may have had different conversations with different relatives depending on my mood of the moment, but no matter what choices I made I would always end up there (unless I opted not to go, which in video game terms more or less means not playing).
I don’t know if that’s destiny - would my uncle always have died that week? - or just the nature of life - his death was brought about by his own poor choices over the years - but that’s how it works. We make decisions that impact us and those around us and, when we’re lucky, the world... but in the end there are certain events that are out of our hands. It’s all about how we deal with those events. Mass Effect 3 brings the player to one of those unavoidable events, an event that has been millenia in the making, and asks the player how they want to deal with it.
To my mind the other endings - the red destruction ending and the blue domination ending - shouldn’t even have been in the game. They’re the wrong endings. All of the Mass Effect trilogy has been about setting aside ancient grudges and prejudices and understanding that we’re in it together. Mass Effect 3 spends a lot of time making sure we understand this applies to AI as well, by making EDI a member of the crew and having the truth about the Quarian/Geth conflict revealed. In the end the Illusive Man wasn’t wrong - the world is far more grey than black and white - it’s just his decision about how to deal with that grey was wrong. That grey isn’t a confusion and chaos, it’s the incredible availability of options.
Again and again Garrus talks about the cruel calculus of war, and that’s what has to come into play at the ending - the understanding that the cycle must be broken and that drastic action has to be taken to break it. The red and blue endings delay the inevitable - only the green ending brings closure to this period of galactic history. The smartest ending comes when the player looks beyond the immediate troubles and imagines a better world for all.
At the end of Mass Effect 3 I felt enormously satisfied. I had led this character from humble beginnings to a moment that would forever change the history of the galaxy, and not in some minor fashion but in a way that is revolutionary. And I had felt every moment of that journey, and experienced that change from simple soldier to evolutionary jumpstarter in an organic, true way. I think the ending of Red Dead Redemption remains my favorite video game finale but the ending of Mass Effect 3 is the most successful, paying off complex philosophical ideas that have been carried through for hundreds of hours.
In the end Mass Effect 3, like any other narrative video game, is a story being told to us. We have some control over the peripheral business but the meat of the story belongs to BioWare. This is the tale they’ve been telling. This is the culmination of what they’ve been doing since the beginning of Mass Effect. And I love it. This is true scifi, a story that examines the nature of conflict and humanity through the prism of imaginative, speculative fiction. I’ve never played a game where the decisions I made felt so powerful in the abstract; I wasn’t worrying about whether or not one choice would give me a better power up, I was worrying about the moral and ethical implications of the choices. And after all of that the final choice was so obvious, so true to what had come before, that I was kind of irritated at how slowly old Shep moved.
I wonder if some of the people who played the games didn't understand what they were playing. This wasn't Star Wars. Mass Effect isn't space opera. It's not quite hard SF, but it's about as close as an action-oriented video game will ever come.
At their best video game narratives can move us in the same way that cinematic or literary narratives move us. Mass Effect 3 is video games at their best.