On Endings

Today, the Extended Cut for Mass Effect 3 has dropped. I haven’t started it yet, but I’m sure I will as soon as I post this. Before I get to the revision of the ending, though, I wanted to voice my thoughts about my experience of the original ending.

I think I have, if obliquely, expressed my feelings regarding the reductiveness of the ending of ME3, and at this point I feel like things are still unfinished in that realm. While I don’t yet feel ready to write much about the ending of ME3, I do want to write about an ending.

The Mass Effect series is full of fantastic writing, and particularly of moments wherein Shepard is (and therefore we are) forced to face decisions that are realistic in their complexity, if not their content. Even the game’s paragon/renegade dichotomy speaks to this—for one thing, there’s nothing preventing a character from expressing both tendencies; for another, the tendencies align more with the “lawful/chaotic” spectrum1 than the more traditional “good/evil” one. In particular, the tactical decision at the end of ME1 always stands out to me: sacrifice the council to minimize fleet losses, or let the fleet be culled to an unspecified amount at the expense of galactic leadership. There is no “good” answer (let alone a “right” one); instead, you have assess the risk to the fleet, assess the comparative value of this particular group of (kind of douchey) leaders, and decide which devastating loss is less devastating. It’s that kind of tactical and moral sacrifice that is absent from the boxed ending of ME3.

There is an ending to ME3, I think, that is beautiful and poignant and expertly written and that captures the moral and tactical quagmire that is the ME universe: the sequence after the mission on Thessia.

Thessia itself, by and large, is a beautiful mission; throughout the mission, we are compelled again and again to confront the cost of Shepard’s adventures. For the most part, Shepard gallivants about the galaxy at her own pace, solving problems, making peace, with the horrors on Earth transpiring invisibly at a fixed rate. We know of the losses, but we don’t see them. On Thessia, we have to convince people to die for us, to hold the line in favor of a mission they don’t even begin to understand. It is as if Earth is burning, and we ask, “Will you sacrifice your friends’ lives so I can visit Westminster Abbey?” And we ask again and again, and again and again these baffled asari give their lives because we are all there is left to hope for.

And then—really, for the first time—we fail. Shepard gets shamefully beat down by robo-Rufio, who takes her data and her certainty, leaving her utterly clueless about what she ought to be doing next. She fires, hopeless, at the sky.

This is, in my mind, the true end of the Mass Effect trilogy.

The following moments pepper Shepard’s blank face like hail. The asari voice on the radio, calling for help and finding none, and then asking for that last, incomprehensible hope: “Did anyone see what happened to Shepard? Did she get through?” And the small, mortifying gratitude we feel that we cannot answer her.

The blinking light of the vidcomm, which Shepard has answered so many times without hesitation, and which now, for the first time, she fears. The way she leans against the doorframe. The way her forehead rests on her arm.

The unconsidered assumption of the asari councilor. Her uncomprehending look when we tell her there’s a problem.

We were…” The hesitation as the unfamiliar word rolls up Shepard’s throat from her gut, where it has festered, lingers a moment behind her eyes, and crawls retched from her mouth: “defeated.”

The moment of blind incomprehension on the councilor’s face. The falling shock of reality. Her fumbling attempt to excuse herself to oversee the end of her civilization. There is nothing left to say. Shepard apologizes to an empty room.

And finally, the turn: Shepard’s eternally recurrent decision to fight on, to look forward, to find the impossible way through.

I would have been happy, I think, if this was the end of gameplay. Our cycle fails, as did the cycles before us.

Perhaps, after the credits, Buzz Aldrin still gets an inexplicable cameo as a species we’ve never seen—maybe one that looks just a little like a sapient pyjack, or varren—finds a strange black box, and from it, we see Liara tell the story of Shepard. And perhaps we see just enough of this new cycle to believe that maybe this time, it is not too late.

Instead, Traynor pipes cheerfully up with her deus ex lesbos solution: “by the way, I happen to know exactly where he went. It’s a long shot except that it is OBVIOUSLY THE ANSWER.” And so the game begins its slow descent.

It has been said in these last weeks that the community’s frustration about the ending arises from dissatisfaction at the lack of a “happy” ending, but I think that’s a strawman. I certainly would’ve preferred the possibility if an outcome in which something—anything—survived2, but the ending I describe isn’t triumphant. It isn’t “victorious and uplifting.” But it is an ending earned, one which treats the characters, the world, the Reapers, and above all the players with respect.

As soon as I post this, I’m going to start playing the Extended Cut, and I may or may not be satisfied. If I’m not, I’ll just call Thessia the end, and be satisfied.3

  1. Assuming you think about the world in terms of D&D.  

  2. In the ME2 DLC “The Arrival,” it was revealed that destroying a Mass Relay would destroy the system containing it

  3. More specifically, I’ll make a Shepard that looks like Casey Hudson, such that the “true” ending to the ME series will be his apology to an empty room.