Have you ever experienced a poignant moment in a videogame, book, film, or other storytelling medium, but—even after much rumination—failed to find explicit meaning for it?
I have. When playing last summer’s XBLA hit Bastion, for example, I convinced myself that much of the game’s important story moments were broad analogies for meaningful themes. But after discussing the game with colleagues, I noticed that building the bastion in Bastion wasn’t analogous for something the narrative designer wanted the player to “get.” Rather, it was a mechanic with meaning unique to the player. For me, it was the long road to rebuilding one’s life. For others, the unforeseen setbacks Bastion presents proved parallel to their own, resulting in a truly unique experience.
I have noticed recently that critics of the Mass Effect 3 ending made the same mistake: they looked for something explicit, didn’t find it, and missed out on what was really there. It’s a fundamental flaw in the way players are approaching (and thinking about) the game’s end.
We all know the debacle. Long-time fans blasted the game’s ending as “disrespectful” and a “disgrace.” I am insistant, however, that it is none of these things. It goes without saying that the series is a work of art—a tour de force within the medium, perhaps—but, contrary to what seems to be popular belief, I found the last 15 minutes to be just as artful, meaningful, and fitting as the other 80 hours I spent lost in Shepard’s shoes.
Before you yell at me, hear me out.
Players have many problems with the final minutes of Mass Effect 3, but the lack of impact previous choices have on the ending is perhaps the most apparent complaint. It seems fitting that a series rife with variety and choice would, well, carry that variety and choice to the end. Sure, you cured the Genophage, but why didn’t BioWare show Wrex or Grunt charge at a Reaper full bore? Why didn’t the Rachni Queen, if you saved her, swarm a Reaper or two with its smaller creepy-crawlies close behind? And why didn’t we see Tali and Legion, having just debated the incorporeal essence of being, follow up with the meaning of life on their way to London, the final battleground?
The answer is simple. It’s because Mass Effect is about Shepard—not Wrex, Grunt, Legion, or Tali. Moreover, it’s about you, the player, as an extension of Shepard. The player has always infused Shepard with a part of him or herself, and player values are injected into Shepard by way of player choice. This is true of the game’s final moments, too. The last choice you have to make is brilliant, because rather than provide one of x number of endings, it gives you three and tells you to choose, after all that has happened—after every laborious choice you have made—what is most important.
BioWare creative director Casey Hudson put it well:
“We designed Mass Effect 3 to be a series of endings to key plots and storylines, each culminating in scenes that show you the consequences of your actions. You then carry the knowledge of these consequences with you as you complete the final moments of your journey.”
Most players witnessed the ending with certain expectations in mind. One of those expectations was that every choice the player had made would impact the final scene. This was obviously not the case, as the Rachni Queen and other characters impacted by Shepard’s actions were nowhere in sight. Looking past that expectation, players will find that the final decision forces them to choose the fate of the universe with many choices they made through the series in mind. This is the ending’s brilliance. No, the aftermath of every choice is not seen in the closing moments, but Mass Effect’s impact on you affects how the game’s last decision is made.
In a series that champions choice and player input, I can’t think of a more apt end.