I’ve spent the past four years avoiding spoilers about Mass Effect 3, but now I’ve finished my first playthrough, I can go read as much spoilericous content as I like, hurrah! (This is a subtle hint there will be many ME3 spoilers in this entry.)
I hate to be spoiled on a first runthrough of an RPG, but after that I’m fine with knowing ALL THE THINGS. so I don’t accidently kill anyone again, or I know what to do so I get to be crowned queen. Still feel quite yayful that I got everyone but Cortes through the first run (didn’t talk to him enough apparently), and was given Adequate Prep by the gaming community not to be too thrown by the ending (also the Extended Ending was automatically downloaded, which apparently helps). For, despite spoiler precautions, as a Bioware fangirl, it was pretty impossible to miss the general feeling about ME3 after it was released (Bioware people on a con panel, shortly after release, pre-Extended Ending: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8BSg9KIe0k), and that feeling was not great (more reading reveals bad feeling not all game ending related, also some dodgy multiplayer stuff they were trying to force you to play to get good score in main game, hmm – I wondered why the Galactic Readiness scores never changed). So I expected bad stuff, and had various theories on what was going to happen, based on what would piss me off the most (everyone on your team dies and no way to avoid it to save galaxy) or what I thought would piss off other gamers (no heroics for you! you *have* to let the Reaper Cycle continue for very good and convincing reasons – I actually quite liked this idea), but no, instead it was…an AI who, looked like a child, giving you four choices.
Choice 1 – the choice that looks the prettiest and the hardest to get access to: Synthesis. Shepard sacrifices herself to evolve organic and AI life so they become a little bit more like each other and the universe is at peace and everyone is happy and no-one has to die and there is unlimited knowledge and maybe immortality and nothing is ever bad again.
This choice made me…mildly irritated. I mean, yeah, everything is shiny happy funtimes, but it’s so *boring*. It’s bloody Roddenberry’s Enterprise but EVERYWHERE. In some ways it felt like it was reaching to be satisfying because there’d been so much death and destruction in the past three games, but because Shepard managed to get the galaxy to work together and was personally heroic, everyone is rewarded by a seemingly utopic era of loveliness. Except for the part where you take away galactic free will and force all organic and AI life to become something else. So BIT CREEPY TOO.
Choice 2 – the choice that Martin Sheen wants you to go for: Control. This seemed to me the clear Renegade choice, and the one I’d have had my Renegade Shep pick. Shep gets control of all the Reapers and they force everyone to do what you want (galactic peace or otherwise) because they are the biggest, baddest ships around, and no-one can stop them. Shep isn’t really Shep anymore, but the essence of her is disseminated around the Reaper ships, I think. Also, the second easiest choice to get access to.
Choice 3 – Do sod all and DIE. The Reaper cycle continues. I admit to Slight Disappointment that the kid didn’t come up with more convincing reasons as to why the cycle should continue. I like to think it was a hint at kid’s untrustworthiness because they said “organic life seeks perfection through technology” and that there’d always be war between AI and organics, which REALLY ISN’T SOLVED, as they seem to think, by the whole “wiping all advanced life out every 50 000 years” plan. HOWEVER, it does nudge against one of my theories about the Reapers, where the kid would have said something like “organics always create AI life which surpasses and destroys them (singularity, yay) and I know this cause of witnessing it a bunch of times so I set up this cool plan instead which destroys all advanced life just before it reaches this point. Now, I know it seems harsh, but this way, AIs don’t dominate the galaxy and extinct all organics, the younger races get a chance to flourish, and hey, I gave you 50 000 years more than you’d have had if I hadn’t wiped out everyone last cycle, how much more time do you really need?” Now, given I’m not a special snowflake, I assume better arguments for the cycle to continue occured to the writers than what we got, but they couldn’t use them, because we’re really not meant to buy into what the kid’s saying, which brings me to:
Choice 4 – The one the kid doesn’t want you to make: Destruction i.e. you destroy the Reapers. And kill Shepard. And all your AI buddies, including the geth who have only just concluded peace with the quarians. Also, the easiest choice to get access to. (Which, rather than indicating the other choices are the “right” or “better” choices, means that no matter how badly you prepped for the war, you always have a chance to actually win.)
And, I thought for my Paragon Shep, the right choice. Even though at first glance it’s the “renegade” option. It’s even painted red! Look at the redness of it! Bad! Destruction! Death! Rar!
But Shep’s been trying to take down the Reapers for three games now. And Synthesis just seemed a bit cheap, and immoral, while Control was easy not to pick because it’s clearly for baddies. (And, heh, wasn’t Saren all about synthesis with the Reapers in the first game? And the Illusive Man was all about control of them in the second?)
And I double-plus thought it was the right choice after I found out it’s the only way to live at the end.
And triple-plus after I went in search of spoilers for all the content I didn’t or couldn’t access, and found what is an incredibly convincing and marvellous fan theory: Indoctrination. If your not familiar with it, then there’s a superb YouTube video here that explains it:
That works for me. It works really, really well. There were moments in the game when I felt there was a *something*. I remember thinking it odd about the kid at the start, and no-one else seeming to see him, and then the dreams and Shep’s generally demeanour throughout made me wonder if she was just going to plain lose it at some point and you’d have to do something to keep her together, and then there was Anderson’s voice on comms when you got to the Citadel at the end and my first thought was “she’s gotta be imagining that,” and the Illusive Man’s gunshot wound moving from Anderson to Shepard after he ‘died’. There’s a lot of stuff I missed that’s in the video that adds evidence and context to support the idea. (The Bioware team haven’t confirmed or denied the idea for the excellent reason of not wanting to invalidate what any one player took away from the ending.)
And the main arguments I’ve found against it are along the lines of “you’re reading to much into it” and “it’s just bad writing.” Which, okay, Bioware aren’t perfect, there’s going to be bad writing, there’re going to be time contraints on the content they can impliment, there are going to be mistakes, but this is the ending to one of the biggest stories in the gaming world. And given a choice between “bad writing” and “tried to be rather clever and accidently pissed off a lot of gamers”, I’d pick the second. To me, it looks like they wanted to give you enough hints to eventually (possibly after a few playthroughs – this is going to annoy me now, would this idea have occurred to me after I’d played through a few more times? Maybe spotted more evidence?) guess that the ending is a struggle between Shep’s will and Reaper indoctrination, and the only right choice, the only way to win, is to pick destroy. But they wanted to make it ambiguous enough that its subtlety reflects indoctrination or, maybe, if you bought into what it looked like at first glance and were cool with that, then there wasn’t enough evidence of it being something else to invalidate the choice you made if you prefer the control or synthesis endings.
Which sounds like the sort of thing Bioware would try to do. Especially for this game, which picks up on so, so many choices the player’s made.
This doesn’t make the ending perfect – the very fact that it got such an incredibly negative response shows that (should they have made it more obvious, so it was picked up on more quickly, if that’s what they were trying to do? Would that have diminished it?) – but it does feel pretty satisfying to me (I say, now, four years after the game was released so I can skip the angry bit and get straight to the results of the mulling it over), and it gets rid of the uncomfortable feeling I had of missing something. There are still frustratingly unanswered questions, like if it is Shep fighting indoctrination and she’s lying there in the rubble at the end, what really happens with the Reapers? (She makes it to the Citadel, while hallucinating, opens the wings, then…somehow makes it back to the rubble on Earth?) (Does that matter? Your choice means you’re still alive, and while there’s life, there’s hope – finding the hope in darkness is one of the trilogy’s big themes. But, yeah, it *does* matter to me – all that time spent fighting these things, I don’t want a thematically sound ending; I want a thematicallly sound ending with explosions that I know are in-game real.)
And the fact that the final conversation you have is with a KID (if there is a child in your sci-fi tale and they are not Jake Sisko, you are on EXTREMELY SHAKY ground) and one you’ve never met before. Even if it is a Reaper manifestation using your guilt and voice, that’s still annoying.
But they couldn’t have ended with a straightforward hit the switch, kill the bad guys, happy ending, could they? How tediously pat that would have been. A popcorn victory. The Mass Effect world is a complex, nuanced place, and I think they tried for something to match that in the trilogy’s final moments and didn’t quite make it. Yayful as ambiguity can be, however, I would love it if we got to find out one day, one way or the other, what they were really going for with the ending.