On paper, I’m an ideal candidate to be annoyed about Mass Effect 3‘s ending. After all, my complaint about Dragon Age II was that the game gives the player a ton of choices and then goes out of its way to make them all seem meaningless, which is not far off from the most coherent complaint about ME3. I also don’t like deus ex machina endings, and I was already kind of annoyed at the game because I kind of saw one coming.
And yet, it didn’t really bother me.
I won’t say I was totally satisfied with how the game wrapped up. For instance, the Normandy‘s crash made no sense — shouldn’t they have still been orbiting Earth? Plus, I actually paused the game before jumping into the beam so I could go online, because the explanation for the synthesis option was woefully inadequate. And since they spent the entire game hammering on the fact that the fate of Earth hangs in the balance, I would have liked some kind of denouement showing us the fate of Earth.
But for all that, the ending felt right.
Part of that might have been my expectations. The Crucible was such a convenient plot device that I couldn’t envision an ending involving it that didn’t feel cheap. But the final mission actually did a great job of making the odds feel insurmountable, and built up a clear sense of loss that went beyond token character death: I was pretty sure I’d gotten the whole rest of my team killed in that crazy mad dash toward the conduit.
Besides, even though the Catalyst took the deus ex machina thing even more literally than I’d imagined, it seems like the best option they could have taken. After spending three games telling us that the Reapers had spent the last several million years wiping out civilizations more advanced than ours, any secret weapon we could come up with would seem like a stretch. Having Shepard just push a button and destroy them all would have just been silly.
I have a suspicion that the game’s writers came to a similar realization, which is why they didn’t bother to set up the Crucible in the previous two games. (They actually did set up the Reapers’ connection with the Citadel in the original game, so I thought the actual concept of a super-intelligence residing there made a kind of sense.) The ending did a good job of realizing the themes the game had been hammering us with, and resolving the supposedly unresolvable conflict between organic and synthetic life, but after a game that focuses almost exclusively on military logistics and diplomacy, the existential issues kind of come out of nowhere.
Obviously, all this takes as a given that the game has just one ending. It actually has at least three, which branch off from a single choice that you make right in the final scene. This isn’t too different from the way the original Mass Effect ended, but ME2 offered a whole range of possible endings — though even there, most of the variety depended on how well you played the game.
If I had unlimited resources, I can think of all kinds of cool ways the story could have branched out. It would be cool if you could have Shepard die at the end of ME2 and still continue to ME3 — say, by making Ashley or Kaiden the player character. If you let the Illusive Man keep the Collector base, that could unlock a parallel story path where you’re still working with Cerberus until the Illusive Man turns on you. I thought for a minute that sacrificing the Council might allow me to get the salarians’ help even though I cured the genophage, before the Cerberus coup made the whole thing moot.
But it seems like what I really want are more choices that affect the beginning of the game, which is the part that really underwhelmed me. I don’t really think it’s plausible that the Illusive Man could come up with a means of controlling the Reapers, for example, and I think suggesting that there are any number of ways you can beat them just makes them seem less formidable. It makes logical sense that all your choices should lead you to the pretty much the same place in the end.
Going back to Dragon Age II, my problem wasn’t really that you couldn’t do more to change the ending, so much as the fact that the game seemed intent on systematically rendering all your choices irrelevant, and finishes with a one-sentence epilogue. ME3 does a bit of that, but it also lets you see the choices you made in the two previous games play out throughout its entire run. In some ways, ME3 doesn’t need an epilogue, because the whole game is one. We get to see the fate of the krogan, the quarians and the geth, and all your companions from the previous games, in a way that’s more affecting than any endgame montage would have been. By the time I got to the end, I really felt like I’d gotten closure on everyone I cared about — though, admittedly, I wasn’t sure how many of them were still alive.
I certainly think the game could have been a bit more specific about what the hell happened, spent some more time with the catalyst and foreshadowed it better. But I also think these are pretty minor details. Overall, I think the game ended pretty much exactly the way it had to.