For a week or two all I heard about Mass Effect 3 was that the ending sucked. It was as if they had hired an entirely new team of writers to finish the game, and everyone who experienced it was left feeling empty and disappointed. Due to the intensity of the news that was coming out regarding the ending, I finally broke down and spoiled a bit of it for myself. “That’s not so bad,” I thought, “but I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve actually experienced the whole thing.”
Well now I have, and I seriously have no idea why everyone is getting sand in their crotch over this.
***Warning: Major spoilers ahead.***
Was the ending a little short? Yeah, sure. You know what other games had short endings? Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. Seriously, go back and time those endings for me, would you? They can’t be more than five minutes, so it’s not like anyone has ever been set up to expect a huge, cinematic Mass Effect ending. The joy of the Mass Effect games is that the consequences of your actions occur while you’re actually playing the games, whether they be short-term rewards or the reappearance of a character you save a couple of games ago, which negates the need for an elaborate ending. It’s a mechanic I’ve always found incredibly powerful, and it allows me to have a deeper connection to what is happening, rather than just waiting until the end and saying “Ohhh, so that’s what happened to the first town.”
Also among the complaints that I’ve heard is that the ending of Mass Effect 3 is the same no matter what choices you make throughout the game, and to an extent this is true. The problem with this argument is that it assumes there ever were multiple outcomes for the Mass Effect series as whole. The truth is, either Commander Shepard finds a magic bullet for the Reapers, or everyone dies. Period. There was never a chance that uniting enough species could defeat the Reapers in an open conflict. We are talking about a race that has been amassing its heretofore undefeated forces for millions, potentially billions, of years, has highly advanced technology, and is absolutely ruthless. The only real options are victory or death; and due to the insurmountable odds, the only hope for victory is a MacGuffin (in this case the Catalyst). Now, it’s true that there are many possible paths to the MacGufalyst, but in the end the only thing that really matters was that you got there. It’s actually a very “ends justifies the means” kind of story.
Now as for the three options presented to you at the end of the game by the Cataguffin–Destroy, Control, or Synthesis–I really don’t know what has people so upset, as they seem like the pretty standard good guy/bad guy decisions the Mass Effect series has always presented. Is it the fact that the Citadel and Mass Relays are destroyed in the process? Is it the fact that Commander Shepard dies? I don’t know. I’ve heard arguments regarding how a Mass Effect relay or the Citadel being destroyed should destroy whole star systems (a la the Mass Effect 2 DLC Arrival); but it’s stated that this is a very specific and targeted type of energy dispersal, which can easily explain that away. Think of it as the difference between exhausting an aerosol can by spraying out its contents or just smashing it with a rock. One is controlled and safe while the other is explosive and dangerous. And honestly, if you’re already in for breaking the eternal Reaper cycle, you might as well go all in and do away with their relays and get all of the species to stand on their own two feet (or four, or myriad tentacles, or whatever). As for Shepard dying, I admit that it made me sad (especially after I promised Liara I’d come back this time), but heroes don’t always get to survive. Quite often, both in real life and in stories, they are called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice for their cause. I know everyone is attached to their Shepard and no one likes to see something they are attached to die, but sometimes that’s just way it goes.
Whew, it’s getting philosophical up in here.
Another point I’d like to make relating to the ending is the time scale that Mass Effect deals with. I understand that everyone would like to know what happens to their favorite species and people after the game ends, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter. I played the quintessential good guy, made peace everywhere I went and helped everyone I possibly could, but in a series where time is measured in 50,000 year cycles, those decisions don’t matter that much in the long run. Yes, in the short run, they do matter quite a bit (it’s part what drives me, personally, to be a good person), but for all we know it could make absolutely no difference if you manage to make peace between the Geth and Quarians, or cure the Genophage. A Krogan Stalin could arise in the next 50 years and destroy everything you’ve worked for, or a piece of ancient technology could activate on Rannoch and release an incredibly virulent biological agent.
I’m not trying to be depressing here; things could be happy forever in my version of the Mass Effect universe. But smart money is on the idea that very little about interspecies relations will change after the defeat of the Reapers. What one can hope for is that Shepard and his legacy become so great that they surpass the man himself and become an idea, and this is exactly what the ending does show. During the ending, at some undisclosed point in the future, players see a young boy asking an older man to tell him another story “about the Shepard.” Like Christ, Buddha, or Muhammed, Commander Shepard has managed to become a semi-religious figure, and some people are likely following his/her example in their own lives. I can’t speak for others, but I personally am very happy just to see that the memory of this character in whom I have invested so much time has survived through the ages, even if the individual results of his actions did not.
So, was the ending perfect? No. Few endings are, and to be frank I’m so enamored with what the series has done as a whole that I’m not too concerned about it. My Shepard helped end wars, brought people together, and broke a cycle of violence that had been ravaging the galaxy for untold eons. Above all, the ending shows that, for once, there is a future for organic (and possibly synthetic) life in the galaxy beyond a predetermined cycle, and that is enough for me. Shepard got the mission done, and considering the cosmic scope of what needed to be done, I am content with that.