Why I Love… The End of Mass Effect 3 (SPOILERS)

A scene I shall remember for a very long time... because after this point... ... ...

Right, important stuff first, I’m always as clear as possible about spoilers so here goes; This piece contains spoilers for not only the end of Mass Effect 3, but also, particularly, for the end of Mass Effect 2. Please don’t continue reading if you are looking forward to discovering either for the first time in the future!

OK. I just want to clearly state one thing before you assume this is going to be a deliberately provocative piece of journalism. I completely understand why some people feel disappointed by the end of Mass Effect 3, to the extent that there is a veritable firestorm of accusations, recriminations and spite raging through the online gaming community. I understand it, but I don’t agree. At all. And I’d like you to give me the opportunity to state my case and hopefully, hear your thoughts on the topic once you’ve listened to my point of view.

So thanks for hanging in there, and here we go!

Mass Effect 3 has been awaited by gamers with no less fervour than Return of the Jedi was by movie goers. Both have huge followings and both end an epic and hugely popular sci-fi trilogy. Fans of the Mass Effect universe have been set high expectations by the superbly delivered finale to Mass Effect 2, which certainly counts amongst my favourite conclusions to a game. The intricacy, the depth, the scale, the tension, the action, the characters, it really had it all. Fantastic.

Sim City 9000... REALLY upping the stakes...

However, perhaps I am imagining my slight sense of emptiness following the conclusion of the second installment, it’s so easy to say that in hindsight isn’t it? But for whatever reason, having enjoyed it hugely and been mightily impressed, I have been left (following multiple play-throughs) with the impression that I only really had a choice between 2 outcomes; Destroy the collectors technology, or give it over to The Illusive Man. Yes the nuanced way the fate of my companions was decided and the deployment of them in the various phases of the final mission were masterfully realised, but, to a greater extent, they are not me. They are individuals and all I can really control, in my mind at least, are the decisions of Shepard, of myself.

The end-game mechanic of Mass Effect 2, which reminded me an awful lot of, amongst many others, the one which delivered the conclusion to my favourite series of games of all time (UFO / X-Com), where you build up a team and their resources and then lead them to overcome a huge final foe at their central base, is actually a fairly common one, even if it was delivered exquisitely by BioWare. The end arrives and we emerge victorious, if we’ve been diligent and patient and careful we can have achieved the “perfect game” and thus the “perfect” end… hurahhh!

But wait? Aren’t we lacking something here? If you really stop and think about it? The sense I have at the end of Mass Effect 2 is a hugely satisfied one, but I must, begrudgingly perhaps, admit, if I am truly honest, that it is diminished, a little hollow maybe, because of what I can only put down to it’s lack of, well; relief… or fear… or guilt… or anger… or… well… lots of things…

One man (or woman, obviously) against the world? Erm.. no... against the Reapers!

In retrospect Mass Effect 2 was not able to put me emotionally in a vulnerable state. Excited? Yes. Pumped? Yes. Powerful? Yes. Capable? Yes. Important? Yes… Invincible? … Yes.

And therein lies the problem. A problem which I perhaps couldn’t see because I hadn’t been shown any real alternative. I hadn’t experienced anything better? Until I played Mass Effect 3′s ending. Until I survived it. Until I died … ?

How great a peril was there really when you can come through it completely, and I do mean completely, unscathed? Where you can save EVERYONE? Where you enter the final conflict so fully confident that you are so well prepared and equipped that nothing is going to be able to challenge you, and you are proved right?

The problem with putting ALL the power in the player’s hands is that, in the back of your mind, you know that if you do everything and please everyone you will walk out 100% victorious, unscathed and triumphant.

And so I romped through Mass Effect 3, having an absolutely fantastic time; recruiting people, upgrading stuff, resolving galactic scale problems and generally being awesome, and as I progressed I grew more and more confident I would be so well prepared that I would sail straight through whatever building sized foe the game was going to throw at me at the very end.

Yes I was a bit disappointed by what felt like a slightly limited number of companions, yes the “them or us” politics sometimes seemed a little cliche (even when I manged to talk both sides round), and whilst the fantastic “war asset” system added superb “scale” to the proceedings I did end up feeling a little like 500 Salarians would be pretty much the same as 500 Krogans and so it wasn’t maybe too important which one’s you chose if you couldn’t win them both round. If you are really going to boil things down to pure numbers you are going to lose some of the emotional connection to proceedings, fact.

The Citadel... pretty impressive... but if I had sufficient LEGO...

Anyway, this is not about the “preparation” mechanic of Mass Effect 3, this is about the end. The grand finale. The climax. The ultimate end of my adventures in Mass Effect’s amazing universe. So jump into my consciousness to experience how it felt when I played through it;


As I neared what felt like the end of the game (you know all those; “Once you do this there’s no going back!” type messages) I was treated to that lovely walk around the temporary base of operations for an emotionally charged final chat with each of my companions and a few significant others, good stuff.

And then came time to set out for the last time, it was obvious and I was ready. Weapons upgraded, armour selected, companions skilled up, level 6 biotics & tech bubbling away itching for action, this was it, the Reapers were definitely cruising for a bruising… and then some…

After the traditional warm up rounds things started getting tasty and we fought our way forward, generally dealing ably with the increasingly powerful foes thrown my way. Brutes & Banshees? Bring it on. Roasted, toasted and dispatched in a well honed ballet of bullets, abilities and tactics. A close shave or two, yes, but straight forward shock and awe serving to win the day as expected.

And now we run down to the light beam transporter thingy for the final throw-down with the big bad… probably a hugely mutated Illusive Man or something, maybe inside a gigantic mech / robot thingy? Or riding a colossal flying Reaper beastie? Or perhaps a cool mountain sized uber-Reaper with wings and razor tail and 8 arms and plasma spouting breath combined with phaser beam eyes? Whatever, I’ve got my team, my equipment and my abilities… I reckon it’s time for a hard fought reckoning evil Reaper scum!!! (*smirk*)

But wait? Where are my two trusty sidekicks? Hang on, it suddenly feels like I might not actually make the beam if I’m not careful! Woa! I just need to head-shot this husk… hang on where’s my trusty sniper rifle? OK, it’s warp time bitches… but… why… aren’t… my… abilities… responding…  why can’t I sprint… why am I stumbling when I need to melee… urgh…

… …

Right… I’m coming back, it’s OK, just need to find where they’ve dropped / hidden my equipment, rescue my companions and we’ll be good to go… Anderson? OK… am I dreaming? Wow this place is not cool… can’t I even get a crow-bar or something… I’d feel a lot better if I… OK, OK, let’s meet up and we’ll go from there… two heads are better than one…

Wait… what? Another cutscene, but I still can’t use my abilities… a gun! I can hardly hold… nearly no bullets… is this reality? A test? I can’t even stand properly… Ahhhhh… Illusive Man, time for you to go nuclear and me to get my stuff back! Excellent! What? No! Don’t shoot him! Take that, that’ll catalise you to change into the huge beast I have to kill… come on… get up! Scream… mutate, transform… what? Nothing???

What’s that? “The Crucible”… interesting… a huge robot I need to fight? No? I have to choose? Oh! Of course, choose, be that conciously or sub-conciously, between killing the Reapers or controlling them I know, I know…

Sorry? If I kill them the Geth are gone? Ouch… no way… they rock… have you seen inside their consciousness? OK, so I can corrupt myself to control the Reapers instead… no… absolute power corrupts and all that… no way. Or I can what?

Synthesis? What’s that? Give everything a soul and thus end the Reaper threat or something? No?

End existence as we know it and amalgamate organic and synthetic beings into an a new form of life? … … … … … Wait… … my choice is genocide, despotism or transcendence?

Wow… there isn’t actually an obvious choice! Seriously?… Wow… … … … … wow… … OK… transcendence? What an amazing concept… “Synthesis”… the next step in the evolution of life itself… how amazing… I’m broken, but war rages on… I must choose… now… I choose… “Synthesis”?… no more soul vs machine… but instead a new machine + soul + organic supra-genetic-construct… I can’t quite believe I’m doing this but here goes…

Wait? I’m alive? How… what… but…


(*I sit in stunned silence as the credits role…*)

What? It’s so green… so peaceful… Is this what I have created? What an alien, other, futuristic vision… it seems so distant… but so incredible… so… so… beyond…





The first image may stick with me... but this one I just won't be able to shift...

So, that was how the end of Mass Effect 3 felt to me. I’d summarise my feelings roughly as; surprise, relief, fear, guilt, anger, and shock. Yes I was actually shocked. Not “bad” shocked or “won the lottery” shocked. More… amazed. Left really considering what I had done, mulling the ramifications… second guessing myself. Imagining what the glimpsed future might be like… wondering what happened immediately beyond my decision… my friends? Earth? The Alliance? The people on the Citadel? The Normandy? The Reapers?

These thoughts were compounded by the shock of fear, fear and helplessness which were hitherto not players in the franchise. The kind of helplessness which can only be achieved by stripping back the protagonist to his / her very core. Ripping the weapons, abilities, strength, equipment, mobility and power from you, leaving you, well, just like you’d probably actually be if the “real” you were there… unsettling indeed. You’ve been cheated, cheated of all your preparation, all your hard work, all your experience… excellent… to be suddenly presented with so stark a reality, to be cut so far down to size, to be left with only your will, your soul… but this is cheated by “life”, by the Reapers, by “Fate”, not by the developers. Your skills and sweat have earned you a shot at the Reapers, all else has fallen away, but you drag yourself on, your previous endeavours have served only to deliver you to the final act, your previous total supremacy barely enough to get you through the door, broken but breathing… this is just you, alone, vulnerable. To draw a parallel this is almost an exact adaptation of the finale of my favourite work of fiction; The Lord of The Rings. The support you have gathered from numerous peoples holds off the great enemy elsewhere whilst you; rendered small, fragile and alone by circumstance must make the final, universe changing, decision. Epic.

I don’t think I can recall ever having spent so long thinking about the end of a game. Ever felt so unnerved by one. Ever found any game so thought provoking. There is no “right answer”, no clear “win” but also all three options feel totally feasible, each have their own great benefits…

This sort of emotional roller-coaster of an experience really takes some doing to achieve. It remind me a bit of how I felt in the closing seconds of “Seven”, the Brad Pitt / Morgan Freeman film; Shocked, appalled, amazed, intrigued, impressed and shaken.

For me this is a state only very powerful experience can elicit from me.

The ending not only worked but put the game into the realm of top quality sci-fi, “Synthesis” is now a strong concept etched in my mind and one I’ll likely be considering, recalling and pondering for quite some time to come…

We’re unlikely to ever get any better a “traditional” ending than we did with Mass Effect 2, so why can’t we all appreciate the ending of Mass Effect 3 for it’s glorious difference and vision…

As awesome as this fan art is, would it really be a truly "better" ending to the game?

I say jolly well played BioWare… for me an absolute triumph of an ending, not just giving us a refreshed version of what came before… and shame on us frankly, all of us, if we force BioWare to scale the epic, conceptual nature of this original ending back down to a cliche “big boss fight”… shame on us indeed… whatever happened to the “idea”? “Imagination”? Or “courage” in story-telling? I’ll tell you what happened, we killed it… or at least we will if we continue down this path…

I support originality, creativity, variety and bravery in video games. But is this a “Synthesis” too far for what right now seems like all other gamers?

- Richard “Rax” Burley

Mon, March 26 2012 » Why I Love...

19 Responses

  1. Mightyles March 26 2012 @ 8:15 am

    I too fall into this camp. I was genuinely troubled by the decision I was asked to make at the end.

    I think a lot of the complaints about the ending are rooted in the lack of any significant closure – you don’t see what happens to your squad or the universe as a whole. Id be happy for bioware to release additional details, maybe even an epilogue, but I sincerely hope they don’t change a thing about the ending.

  2. obsidianrazor March 26 2012 @ 8:43 am

    Damm! I wanna finish the game so I can comment on this…

    I say it because if what close friends have told me, the problem most people have is not with the ending being sad or having to make a sacrifice or whatnot… but rather the complete lack on an epiloge to the series.

    As mentioned, will comment when I finish the game, still a while :P

  3. braindead_hero March 26 2012 @ 11:37 am

    I recently witnessed the ending and I quite liked it.

    I know a lot of people were complaining about the lack of choice and I did look up the other ending than the one I got and there is not a huge difference between the outcomes admittedly. However, I felt that all three endings do deal with the immediate story and close out the trilogy nicely and give closure. The main problem with the ‘no choice’ argument is that I feel that it does work within the storyline and perhaps Bioware were simply trying to convey the idea that no matter what choices you make the larger universe is still pretty much fucked and the reapers are such a huge threat there is very little that can stand up to that.

    Throughout the whole game there is loads of wrapping up I don’t understand why people are shouting about the last 30 minutes in a 30 hour game which spends most of the entire game wrapping up plotlines established in previous games and does all that so well.

  4. Rax March 26 2012 @ 4:50 pm

    ; Agreed on basically everything you say. If you choose Synthesis then there can be no epilogue, you have just “rebooted” the universe. Having said that I do understand that mnany people would like an epilogue, but even on that specific point I think an “open” ending is appealing. If you choose to take control of the Reapers how mcuh would you sebsequntly know as you are subsumed by their demands on you mind? If you chose to destroy the Geth & Reapers and still survived you may wonder what happened, but I’ve always liked the “New Tomorrow” ending, of any game, a great example of which are the STALKER games which I love. I guess I feel like my role in the Universe is now done, I have delivered it from the ultimate threat, the future is for others to live… and if I survived? Well who knows what mught happen in the future??

  5. Rax March 26 2012 @ 4:59 pm

    I can understand their sentiment, but I still like the “Your part is done, the rest is for others to discover…” ending. I guess I just felt drained by carrying the universe’s fate for so long. I saved it, again, and now I just want to rest in peace and see what everyone else can do with what I have left for them… I suspect we all know where the DLC will be focused, but how about some “And then X did Y following Captain Shepard’s noble sacrifice” themed DLC where you play the role of one of your final crew mates or something?

  6. Justpixels March 26 2012 @ 7:10 pm

    Thank you for the honest review! I love the games throughout 1 to 3.
    Since I started playing PC games Ive seen less and less games with an genuine storryline, but this…this goes to a different category.

    Throughout the third game, I got the depressing feeling, the deep dark feeling that no matter what you did, it was pointless…and I think this is one of the feelings Bioware wanted to pick up.

    The sacrifices, the agony, pain, dark future, frustration, …theres no words for it.

    The ending gave me chill bumps! It was AWESOME!
    But felt sad for days after :(

    Go Bioware, you just did history! You rock

  7. Ben March 26 2012 @ 8:10 pm

    I am not against a provocative (or sad) ending. I would have no problem whatsoever with the ending of ME3 if it made sense. Garrus and Ashley were with Shepard on earth running for the beam in my game. Harbinger fries the crap out of us. Voice on radio says no one made it, no one is moving around. Shepard gets up, beams up, talks to ghost child thing (Deus Ex Machina, another gripe I have, but I digress) and I make my choice. Suddenly, Normandy is running for its life (why would it leave the battle and RUN??) away from color of your choice and crashes. Who should emerge? Joker, GARRUS, and ASHLEY! Both of whom look no worse for the wear. Neither certainly look like they just got blasted by Harbinger.

    Anyway, that is my main gripe. If it was provocative and sad and it MADE SENSE, I would have no complaint. Deus Ex Machina (lazy writing) + plotholes does not = provocative IMHO.

  8. Mightyles March 26 2012 @ 8:43 pm

    RE: the Joker plot hole – when you get blasted Hackett reported that the mission was a failure and orders a full scale retreat, doesn’t he? Joker could’ve gone to the blast site, picked everyone up and zoomed off. I know thy don’t overtly say that, but it is the most immediately obvious and plausible explanation.

  9. Ziggy March 26 2012 @ 11:47 pm

    Well written article,
    Allow me to attempt to provide insight as to why some felt let down:

  10. HueyForman March 27 2012 @ 12:24 pm


  11. Rax March 27 2012 @ 12:26 pm

    Excellent feedback all round, I’m delighted to see such well informed gamers and I take all the points on-board.
    Whilst it may sound a little weak, again, I quite liked the confusion at the end, this is all taking place either during, or very immediately after, the apocalytic events triggered by the player… are we really to expect it to play out like a teen novel diorama?
    Having said that I do appreciate the large range of opinions and don’t seek to denigrate any of them in any way.
    Fundamentally, it’s great that there is such passion and thought going into a game’s experience, and that it be discussed in much the same way as a great novel or film…

  12. Garry C March 27 2012 @ 1:55 pm

    One thing I find strange is peoples definition of an ending. So many gamers get hung up on the last cut scene, but there’s more to an ending than the last thing we see. Take books, plays, and movies, people rarely complain about the last page, or last few seconds on stage/screen. Mass Effect 3′s final act begins when you storm the Illusive Man’s base, and that’s where the ending begins, not once you’ve made your final choice.

    Also people complaining about the lack of choice – there wasn’t that much choice at the end of ME1 (kill/save the council, which human joins the council) and even less as ME2 (Destroy/Share the collector tech). This ending is entirely in keeping with the other entries in the series.

  13. Eric March 27 2012 @ 8:09 pm

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the endings for ME3. I haven’t been a fan of the endings, so it’s actually nice to hear a positive take on them. And in many respects I agree with what you’re saying. Good or bad, this ending really made you FEEL for the sitauation Shepard is facing. And the fact that there was no ‘perfect’ outcome really does add to the sense of realism. These are things that Bioware should be proud of, and something that most of us aren’t giving them credit for.

    That said, the plot holes in the current endings are still bothersome (such as how your team gets back on the Normandy so fast, or why exploding mass relays don’t destroy solar systems like they did in the Arrival). This is more a problem with how the endings were executed, not the concept itself. If Bioware were to release some content that ‘plugged the holes’, I’d actually be quite happy with the end product.

    In my case, I chose the Destroy option. I hated the idea of killing the Geth, but I quickly decided that Controling the Reapers was far to risky, and I didn’t have the moral authority to choose synthesis for the entire galaxy. For myself sure, but not for everyone else. But that right there makes for some great debate – why do some players choose one outcome over another? And that kind of debate really is the essence of good sci-fi.

  14. 3nity March 28 2012 @ 10:55 am

    Love your thoughts.

    “I don’t think I can recall ever having spent so long thinking about the end of a game” –> the same for me. I finished the game last week and I’m still thinking about it.

    I choose synthesis cause it felt “right”. Did I read right that you were alive when you choose that?
    I didn’t know you come alive from this one? Maybe you need enough Effective Military Strength?
    The last but on picture is from that? Cause I can’t remember the scene

    Sorry for such the question.

  15. Cory March 28 2012 @ 12:11 pm

    The whole “Catalyst” child creature thing was pretty silly. The Reapers of 1 and 2 made much more sense — they are a hyper-advanced race of machines who reproduce by harvesting advanced organic life. There didn’t need to be a “we’re slaughtering you by the trillions for your own good!” angle. It’s so random and sloppy that I wasn’t shocked so much as bored and disconnected from the end of a series I love.

  16. Rax March 29 2012 @ 11:24 am

    , couldn’t agree me, it all just smacks of gamers sulking because they didn’t get the simple, and easily digestible, ending they wanted. Sometimes a complex, confusing and tough ending is the best kind!! A pity most people seem to think that “challenging the player” is now not acceptible… I worry about what this will do to the ending of other such games…

  17. Rax March 29 2012 @ 11:30 am

    , I must conceded that there could have been some clarification on a few points, but would that not limit the freedom the player has to imagine what happened beyond “the decision”? I worry a little that we are going to end up getting “spoon fed” endings… I want more challenging endings that make you sit back and boggle and suffer… seriously! Not every time, but some games need to man up and deliver this so we don’t alweays have to suffer the “and they all lived happily ever after” ending for EVERY game…

  18. Rax March 29 2012 @ 11:37 am

    Thanks! Glad I have a few fellow thinkers out there! :-) I love being challenged by a game, and be left with something to seriously ponder… “Synthesis”, whilst not a new concept is a brilliantly fresh take on the usual “control or destory” type endings.
    I chose “Synthesis” because it felt new, different and bold, I wanted a “Brave New World (Universe)”, not a repetition of the same mistakes… I really felt like the cycle needed to be broken, something radical needed to be done. Someone needed to man (or woman) up and make the tough call… ;-)

  19. Rax March 29 2012 @ 1:57 pm

    ; Agreed, although I did quite like how the child dream sequences connected you back to the very start of the game… the way the experience haunted you…

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