Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Critique of the Mass Effect 3 Ending

(Yeah, this post is like one giant spoiler. Spoilers for Mass Effect, Macbeth, Knights of the Old Republic, Lord of the Rings and A Tale of Two Cities below the cut!)

The weakness of the Extended Cut is the same as the original ending of Mass Effect 3: the Choice at the top of the Citadel.


Let's start with a digression on endings. The author Jo Walton has a concept she calls the "spear-point":
There comes a point in writing, and it's a spear-point, it's very small and sharp but because it's backed by the length and weight of a whole spear and a whole strong person pushing it, it's a point that goes in a long way. Spearpoints need all that behind them, or they don't pack their punch in the same way.
Examples are difficult to give because spear-points by their nature require their context, and spoilers. They tend to be moments of poignancy and realization. When Duncan picks the branches when passing through trees, he's just getting a disguise, but we the audience suddenly understand how Birnam Wood shall come to Dunsinane.
To take an example from Bioware's own oeuvre, in Knights of the Old Republic, the reveal that the main character is Revan is a spear-point. The entire game has been building up to that point, and that moment of revelation has force behind it.

The best endings are the ones where the spear, which has the length and weight of the entire work, is driven home. There is an aura of inevitability, that this is the only ending that could be, that all the choices up until now have been leading to, even if the final goal was unclear. Think of the ending to Lord of the Rings, where Frodo claims the One Ring and Gollum saves Middle-Earth. A spear-point set up from the very beginning, all choices leading to that inevitable ending.

In my opinion, the best ending in all of English literature is the ending to Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities:
"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."
The entire novel is one giant spear leading to that line, and that line is both sacrifice and redemption for the protagonist, Sydney Carton.

The problem with Mass Effect is that the entire series has been building a spear. From ME1, to ME2, to ME3, with choice after choice the player has forged a spear. And then the ME3 ending throws the spear away!

The Choice at the top of the Citadel bears no relation to any choice previously made. For example, if you're Paragon, you've been fighting against Control for three games now. But suddenly, Control is a valid, and maybe even the best, choice.

The first major flaw of the ME3 ending is that it deliberately throws the spear away in a bid for a twist, robbing the ending of force and weight that it should have had.


The Crucible is magic.

There are no rules as to how it works, or what its limits are. As such, it is entirely arbitrary.

The choices presented are arbitrary. The costs of those choices are arbitrary.

Why Synthesis? That's the way the magic works.

Why does Shepard have to die and lose her humanity with Control? That's the way the magic works.

Why does Destroy kill EDI and the Geth? That's the way the magic works.

Because the choices are so arbitrary, you can easily substitute new choices without changing anything. Off the top of my head, here's three more choices which are just as valid or as possible as the three presented in game:
  1. Banishment - The Reapers are banished for a century giving the galaxy time to prepare for their return.
  2. Ascension - All intelligent organic and synthetic life in the galaxy ascends to the next plane of existence. The Reapers return in the next cycle, but are defeated thanks to the clues left behind.
  3. Dissolution - The Reapers are dissolved and a new generation of the species that had been harvested to create each Reaper is born from the remnants.
The author Brandon Sanderson has a rule which he calls Sanderson's First Law of Magics:
Sanderson's First Law of Magics: An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
How well do we understand the magic of the Crucible? We don't. The audience has pretty much zero understanding of the magic involved. If you can rewrite the DNA of every organic and synthetic living in the galaxy, what can't you do? Following Sanderson's Law, that means that Bioware's ability to use the Crucible to solve the major conflict is zero as well.

Thus the whole thing comes across as arbitrary.

Sanderson continues:
Yet, if the stories don't have rules and laws for their magic, don't they risk Deus Ex Machina (contrived endings) in their books? ... If we simply let ourselves develop new rules every time our characters are in danger, we will end up creating fiction that is not only unfulfilling and unexciting, but just plain bad.
And further:
There is a reason that Gandalf doesn't just fly Frodo to Mount Doom with magic, then let him drop the ring in. Narratively, that just doesn't work with the magic system. We don't know what it can do, and so if the reader uses it to solve a lot of problems, then the tension in the novel ends up feeling weak. The magic undermines the plot instead enhancing it.
The Mass Effect 3 ending pretty much validates Sanderson's First Law completely. Using arbitrary magic without limits leading to Deus Ex Machina, creating fiction which is unfulfilling, and undermining the plot instead of enhancing it? Check, check, and check.

The second major flaw of the ME3 ending is that it relies on magic, with arbitrary effects and arbitrary costs, to provide a solution to the major conflict. To quote Sanderson, that ends up "creating fiction that is not only unfulfilling and unexciting, but just plain bad."


Taken together, these two flaws are a fundamental flaw in the Mass Effect ending. The chain of choices leading to the ending was thrown away, replaced by arbitrary magic. This structure undermines the plot of ME3, and of the entire series. It creates an ending which is both unfulfilling and separate from the rest of the game.


  1. I agree 100% that the large majority of ME3 was written by people who had no idea how the series was supposed to end. And by "supposed to" I mean "foreshadowing" and "consistent themes."

    Where was the Crucible in the first two games? If the theme was organic vs synthetic, why did we spend 3 games talking about the Krogan? If the Krogan were supposed to be a metaphor, it came across as extremely weak. The whole thing felt like the TV Lost, insofar as the writers had no idea what they were doing until simply ending everything as a vapid Christian allegory.

    On a side note, Gandalf didn't have to use magic to fly Frodo to Mount Doom, they just had to use the Eagles. You know, the ones Tolkien pulled out of his ass to save the main characters.

  2. I forgot to mention one of the most annoying plot holes IMO: Harbinger. Why the hell did they just abandon Harbinger as a character, and yet repeatedly reference him/it? The downed Reaper on the Quarian homeworld even specifically tells Shepard that "Harbinger told me of you."


  3. You should add the "common sense is thrown out the window" aspect of the ending to.

    Off the top of my head:

    1.What is Ghost Child? Oh sure, it CLAIMS to be "the Catalyst", and that's nice and everything, but what is it?

    2.Is Ghost Child at the end even the Ghost Child I saw throughout the game? Reapers might be able to read minds/know about the Ghost Child if is it Something Else and make a little image of it to trick me.

    The leads to the question when Ghost Child says "You can Control us" as to why I believe Ghost Child creature, whatever it is and whatever it wants.

    Basically Ghost Child is the second most important creature in the whole game and we never find out what it really is at any point. Or what it's goals were. Besides some "don't let synthetics kill organic life by killing all organic life". OH LOOK SHADES OF HALO!

    Not that I would believe Ghost Child when it tells me that because I don't even know what Ghost Child is and but it has also claimed I have a loaded gun pointed at it's head.

    In short, makes no sense. The only logical choice is to ignore Ghost Child and proceed as planned. Because Ghost Child got credibility problems.

  4. While I can see where your points are coming from, and they are well supported, I don't altogether agree with the whole "Crucible is magic we cant explain." Yes, Bioware never explained how it worked, but I don’t think Bioware ever needed to.

    If Bioware had explained how the crucible worked, then it defeats the purpose of having the choice at the end AT ALL. If the ME Galaxy at large reverse-engineered the Crucible to the point of understanding its energies, they could indeed do what you said: use it without limits or rules (ie who knows what it could really be capable of?). BECAUSE we don’t know how it works, we HAVE to use the rules passed on down the line to us from the Protheans, and the species before them, and so on.

    As for your questions of “Why choose this choice over another if its all magic to begin with?” is, I think, the wrong question to be asking. I believe the correct question to ask is “What do these endings mean for Shepard as a character, or hell, as the whole Galaxy as a character?” If you look at it that way, the endings make MUCH more sense because: Control means Shepard is just as much at fault as the Illusive Man in being so arrogant in the “ONE correct choice (Control)”; Destroy is what the galaxy was setting out to do in the first place, but because we DONT know the rules of the Crucible, it may or may not create additional devastation across Earth and the rest of the Galaxy; Synthesis is the unexpected twist, as you mentioned, because it is not a choice the Galaxy at large had ever considered (even the Star-Child said it was a brand new choice) and ties into the culture of the Geth wanting to achieve enlightenment.

    In summary, the ME franchise has not been so much about CHOICE as it is about CONSEQUENCES. Yes we do make certain choices over others, but the pay off is seeing what happens after we have made said choices. The original ME3 ending had very poor consequences for the choices made during the last 3 games. The Extended Cut expands on just HOW those choices affected the rest of the Galaxy. A good example is the Krogan: if you cure the Genophage AND save Wrex, the Krogan live on as a species and contribute. If you sabotage the Genophage, not only do you kill Mordin yourself (stab-and-twist) but you later have to kill Wrex, which leads to the ultimate downfall of the entire Krogan race due to infighting. The original ending of ME3 didnt even mention what happened to the Krogan, whether Wrex was alive and the Genophage was cured. We just didnt know what the hell had happened. Now with the EC live, we players now see the real CONSEQUENCES of our choices.

  5. I rationalize the ending given the quality (for the most part) of the previous work. I think with how big the project got and likely pressure to get it ready for shipping, the ending got shortchanged.

    95% of the game is awesome...ok 93% the 2% with the dream state just plain silly.

    I could buy into the ending where Shephard dies to save the universe. The theme was omnipresent throughout ME3: Mordin, the Earth child, the Geth/Quarian, the Rachni Queen. Someone had to pay the price for a choice.

    But at then end all of that didn't matter. I totally agree about the Crucible.

    Here are the plans for the uberweapon that will save the Galaxy says the old AI.

    What does it do? Despite being advanced beings we forgot to include the manual. Sorries.

  6. Great post. I saw Sanderson at LibertyCon last year and attended his writing workshops. He knows what he is talking about and I think you used that particular principle of his to pull back the curtain on the angst.