This was supposed to be a review of Mass Effect 3 but it got away from me and I started ranting about storytelling. I pretty much cut out al the review-y bits, though I do talk about the ending of Mass Effect 3 in detail so, you know, spoilers.
I’m also spoiling other stuff: The Sopranos, Lost, Hamlet. This is rant about story consistency.
Then I explain how ME3 should have ended.
Short review: If you liked the previous games, pick this one up. Play it, get enraged at the ending, and then come back here. I have candy for you.
Spoilers from here on.
The ending of Mass Effect 3 has been called “controversial” in a lot of places because, frankly, nearly everyone hates it. These people are gamers who have invested possibly hundreds of hours into the storyline of the universe and the trilogy – a fact that speaks to the overall awesomeness and engagement of the world and the story (thus far).
The background and events approach Tolkien-level obsession to depth and detail. The developers crafted a grand space opera:
In the future, humanity discovers it is not alone. The galaxy is riddled with alien species, and, for the most part, the various species co-operate with each other, despite histories of war and tension.
All of these alien races are inheritors of grand, almost magical technology that was left behind by a long-dead spacefaring empire. This empire, the Protheans, were wiped out some 50,000 years ago by the Reapers, who are basically the Borg as imagined by H.P. Lovecraft.
The overall arc of the trilogy is this: the Reapers have returned. They are destroying everything. They are taking all living creatures and turning them into borg zombies. They are “glassing” planets. We don’t know why: it’s one of the great mysteries.
There are several factions with different ideas as to what we should do but basically there’s the Alliance (which wants to fight the Reapers) and then there’s Cerberus, which is a kind of shadowy, human-centered (and racist) cabal who think that the Reapers should be controlled. Cerberus is led by the Illusive Man (read: Martin Sheen).
The primary theme of Mass Effect’s storyline is that of tolerance. All the species learn to tolerate each other, to make peace, to work together to raise the floor of all societies.
The primary theme of Mass Effect’s gameplay is that of player choice. Decisions you make in the first or second game radically alter the story in later games. Characters may be killed. Your choices – even from the first game – have an effect on everything.
One of the reasons I played ME2 so many times was because I wanted to see what different choices led to. The ending of that game was heavily dependant upon the choices I made as a player.
Not so much with Mass Effect 3.
Without going too much into the minor changes that can happen, there are really only three endings, all of which are a choice that happens in the last 10 minutes:
1) You decide to control the Reapers, or
2) You decide to destroy the Reapers (and all synthetic life, including your AI friends), or
3) You decide to create some sort of synthesis beteween organic life and synthetic life.
Regardless of which choice you make, the following things happen:
1) Your character, Shepard, dies, and
2) The Mass Effect relays are all destroyed, ending any kind of galactic travel, and
3) Trillions of people die (because of said relay destruction)
To make matters worse, the ending is sewn up in the most awful way possible: we are introduced to a new character, some sort of god-like alien, who controls the Reapers. This alien takes the form of a little human boy to communicate with you (we aren’t even given the stupid cliche from Contact where the alien says “I chose a familiar form to speak to you with”).
This alien tells you why he sics the Reapers (a synthetic lifeform) on the galaxy every 50,000 years or so and it makes absolutely no fucking sense whatsoever. Here’s his reasoning:
After a certain point, every galactic society creates artificial intelligence that rebels against its creators and causes wars. That, in its mind, is a bad thing. What’s its solution? To send a fleet of artificially intelligent, synthetic constructs to annihilate everyone. So that they don’t get destroyed by synthetic lifeforms.
Yo dawg! I put some world-eating synthetic lifeforms in your galaxy so you can be destroyed by world-eating synthetic lifeforms while you get destroyed by world-eating synthetic lifeforms!
Now, I’ve got no problems with uncompromisingly bleak endings. Especially if they are consistent with the story as it has been told.
For example, the ending to The Sopranos has Tony Soprano, the main character, presumably getting shot in the back of the head while eating dinner at a restaurant with his family. We see him smiling and laughing with his family while Journey plays on the jukebox. In the background, there’s a man wearing a Members Only jacket – a subtle nod to a previous episode about mob killings.
Suddenly, the screen goes black and the audio cuts out, mid-song. We get the blackness for a long, long time until finally the credits roll.
That ending? Perfect. It’s exactly how Tony lived. It’s completely consistent with all the storytelling that they had done. It was uncompromising and brutal but that’s what The Sopranos was about.
Some will argue: “Well, who killed Tony? That’s unresolved.” Those people miss the point entirely: Tony killed Tony. That was the major theme throughout the entire show: that Tony’s lifestyle was self-destructive.
Compare that to the ending of Lost, which was just a muddled mess of conflicting, under-edited ideas. Further, new concepts were introduced at the end, concepts that are brand new, things that we, as an audience, should probably have been aware of before (I wrote a thing about this previously).
The only person who has been able to introduce characters in the final act and have it work was Shakespeare when he wrote Hamlet, and that was essential because we need someone to explain what happened because everybody dies. Pro tip: If your name is not, in fact, “William Shakespeare”, you should probably try to avoid this storytelling trick.
So, adding a new alien species at the end of the Mass Effect trilogy is cheap and amateurish. There are better ways. There are always better ways than hail-mary deus ex machina plots. It felt tacked on because they ran out of ideas.
Here are other things that don’t make sense:
First, the “synthesis” ending is just fucking stupid. Seriously? A pulse of energy can suddenly add circuitry to all living creatures? Are you shitting me?
Second, how the fuck did all those characters who I just saw on the planet Earth not five minutes ago get aboard a starship that crashes on an alien planet? I know that they wanted me to see that those characters survived but let’s not break the story with Fridge Logic. Show them celebrating on Earth.
Third, now that the Mass Relays are destroyed, well. Whupz? All those aliens are now stranded in the Earth solar system. They probably didn’t bring enough food to eat (you know, alien biologies and all), nor did they probably bring the stuff to settle planets with, so, uh, good luck?
That’s to say nothing about the trillions of people stuck in other star systems that depend on shipments of things from other star systems to survive. Scarcity of resource creates war, so I guess the entire “trying to save the galaxy from war” bit gets thrown out, too.
So, here’s my “rewrite” of the ending:
Make it all about the Illusive Man. He was set up as the bad guy from very early on. An ambiguous bad guy, a complex bad guy. A bad guy who had a motivation: he wanted the human race to be the top dog. He nominally wanted to protect humanity, which is why he sought to control the Reapers.
Make the Reapers just what they were: Borg-like things who just rove the universe. Every 50,000 years they make their way back to the Milky Way. That’s fine. They don’t need deep motivations.
But then let’s say that the endgame has it that the Illusive Man has succeeded: he figured out how to control the Reapers (presumably during the time between ME2 and ME3). Rather than ordering the Reapers to fly themselves into a star, though, the Illusive Man decides to use them as a weapon to eliminate all other advanced species from the galaxy.
He has to elminate the current human alliance, of course, because they won’t understand and they traffick with aliens too much. Thus, the Illusive Man is a threat to everyone.
The final showdown is then about him, and how corrupt he’s gotten, and how wrong he is. The overall theme of the story remains about tolerance and growth, about co-operation and sacrifice. It remains consistent.
So that’s how I’m going to say it went down in my mind.