While BioWare and Electronic Arts have moved on to Mass Effect: Andromeda, the highly anticipated sequel to the critically acclaimed space opera series, fans have still not forgotten the last game’s extremely controversial climax. After all, Mass Effect 3’s infamous ending still stands as one of the most poorly-received story decisions in recent game history. After three long installments of branching choices, Commander Shepard’s final decision resulted in nothing more than a color change in the 2012 game’s final scene.
The popular fan-made Indoctrination Theory attempted to rationalize the lack of choice as, well, a lack of choice, claiming that Shepard had really been in a hands-off dream-like state for most of the ending. On the other hand, the seeming pointlessness of the endings could be interpreted as a statement about the inevitability of heroism. Maybe Shepard’s choices were never meant to matter. It’s a dark worldview, but one which can be supported by a deeper look at the Mass Effect trilogy.
None of this is to say that it was the intent of Casey Hudson, Mac Walters et. al. to create a story about Shepard’s inability to change anything. (Although the last song on the soundtrack in the “Citadel” DLC, often the last piece of Mass Effect material fans play, is called “Farewell and Into the Inevitable.”) The commander clearly changed many things, from the fate of entire species to the attitudes of people around him.
But the ending took the branching decision system for which BioWare is famous and removed its fundamental freedoms in exchange for making a point, not about a too-neat, poorly constructed ending for a 90-hour story, but about war and life.
The endings entail a choice between vastly different scenarios – Synthesis, Destroy, and Control, which determine whether synthetic creatures like the Reapers are destroyed, submitted to Shepard’s now god-like will, or whether both organic and synthetic beings become a combination of living thing and machine. A fourth option, Refusal, was added in the Extended Cut.
What disappointed many players, however, is the fact that the endings are virtually identical to one another except for different shades of colored light. In the three original scenarios, Shepard appears to die (although a single breath is heard if the player’s asset score is high enough), and the rest of the crew crash lands safely in a jungle.
To be fair, though, Mass Effect 3 told the player what might be coming. The game mentions inevitability of the hero in the very beginning, on Earth, when Shepard’s heart-to-heart with mentor Admiral Anderson becomes philosophical. “It’s hard fighting a war, but it’s worse knowing no matter how hard you try, you can’t save them all,” Shepard says.
“It’s a fight we can’t win. Not alone.” Anderson replies.
The break between those two phrases is very important. It explains the plot, since the story of Mass Effect 3 is all about Shepard gathering allies. The hesitation, though, reveals Anderson’s understanding that Earth is lost, and is going to be lost, without help.
Commander Shepard is generally positive – whether Paragon or Renegade, he always moves forward. We see him at a low point, even shedding tears, in Mass Effect 3. In one of the first main missions of the game, he’s asked whether he thinks he can win the war.
The answer? “I don’t know, but I’m sure as hell going to give it my best shot.”
“I don’t know” is often the answer.
It is in-character for either a Paragon or Renegade Shepard to die for a cause that will save lives, even if that cause is futile or unpopular. Shepard is willing to fight, no matter in what infamy or obscurity. The flip side of heroism is that willingness to be forgotten.
“Being right about the Reapers has never felt much like a victory, has it?��� Garrus says. The end of Mass Effect 3 doesn’t seem like a victory either, but maybe dialogue like this means that the writers always knew it wouldn’t be.
Along with the emotional aspect of Mass Effect’s story, there is also the science fictional one. Several story points reinforce the idea that the Reapers are right, and that cyborgs are superior to biological creatures.
The Synthesis ending is particularly interesting in the context of choice, because so much of the game has been about the relationship between organic and synthetic beings. The Geth, the main antagonists of the first game, became aggressive when their creators attempted to destroy them. Shepard is revived at the beginning of Mass Effect 2 with both organic and synthetic parts. The artificial intelligence program EDI contemplates her own sentience and her own nature while simultaneously falling in love and continuing to act as the avatar and operator of Shepard’s ship. The antagonistic Illusive Man also had a brush with the Reapers that makes him who he is in Mass Effect 2, an indoctrinated shell.
The player never had a choice about whether or not to become a synthetic hybrid in Mass Effect 2, although the illusion of choice was presented by using Shepard’s surgery as the character creation screen.
The scientist Mordin talks about technology as a side effect of desperation, and the Synthesis ending shows that on a macro level. Even a Shepard who despised mechanical creatures like the Geth can choose to become one in order to save the galaxy.
Some things never change, and those things have to do with the game’s big themes of self-sacrifice and the relationship between humanity and technology. No matter which ending is chosen, all sentient species have been changed irrevocably along with their galaxy. (Mass Effect: Andromeda seems to have found a way to circumvent this ending by seemingly ignoring it with a completely different galactic settting.)
The Reapers are always saying this – Harbinger’s much-memed “assuming direct control” quote is about exactly what it sounds like. Control, actions leading to direct proportionate reactions, is integral to games. The first thing gamers learn is that pressing a button causes an action, probably the same action every time. Harbinger, with his ability to take over the bodies of his minions, is almost like a player analog himself. He can re-spawn in a new body every time he is killed.
When Shepard encounters Harbinger in the DLC “Arrival,” the Reaper says “You are dust, struggling against a cosmic victory.”
“This seems a victory to you,” it says.
Shepard replies, “Maybe you’re right. Maybe we can’t win this. But we’ll fight you regardless, just like we did Sovereign, just like I’m doing now.”
Quotes from lofty antagonists, yes, but the nature of those antagonists shows that choice is an important part of the game. Shepard has to fight past the Reapers telling him that his choices aren’t important. He has to fight past a creature which can, like the player, never really die until the explosive ending. To be a hero, Shepard says, is to choose and live with the consequences.
The insistence on now, on the fact that Shepard is willing to fight and debate at the same time, is key to his character, as mentioned above. He is a person of immediate action, and the ending forces him to be physically slowed and trapped in a realm where action won’t help. (He can shoot the ghost avatar at the end of the Extended Cut of Mass Effect 3, but it’s a death sentence for the entire galaxy. That ending is called Refusal – the letting go of choice.)
Similarly, no Shepard gets out of Mass Effect 3 unscathed. The nail-biting finale of Mass Effect 2 was actually respite from the inevitable deaths of characters in previous games, such as when Shepard has to choose whether to let Ashley or Kaiden die. There is no protagonist who has to die as part of the game mechanics or the narrative of Mass Effect 2’s endgame. Everyone could survive through the player’s skill and strategy. Not so with the original Mass Effect, and in the third installment, the death count gets even higher.
Many characters criticize Shepard, but as with Sovereign, He is not deterred. Mass Effect has, at times, an uplifting story. “We will find a way. That’s what humans do,” Shepard says, and says variations on the same theme time and time again. The thread of futility that runs through it doesn’t change that. Sovereign insists that the Reapers cannot be comprehended, but the ending of Mass Effect 3 is undoubtedly comprehendible – it is three, over-simplistic choices. In color-coding history, BioWare inadvertently let players understand too much – so much that they saw through the story and down to the nuts and bolts beneath.
Mass Effect 3 didn’t seem a victory to a lot of fans, but when viewed as an intentional statement about Shepard’s futility, it becomes a darkly themed capstone to a heart-wrenching story.
This article originally appeared on June 15, 2015. It has been lightly updated.
Megan Crouse is a staff writer.