Mass Effect, Tolkien, and Your Bullshit Artistic Process

It may seem a bit odd that I’m posting this here rather than on my gaming-related blog, since it is about the Mass Effect game series and other related geekery. I debated where I should post it, but ultimately this is about writing as much or more than it’s about gaming, so here it is. Everything that follows is my opinion and, further, is infested with spoilers for both the Mass Effect series and, I suppose, The Lord of the Rings. Reader beware.

In late February, I said (on twitter) that I thought the Mass Effect universe was probably the most important science fiction of a generation.

Since then, the executive producer for Mass Effect 3 has been working tirelessly to get me to retract that statement.

If you follow gaming news at all, you’ll already know that there have been great clouds of dust kicked over this particular story — the gist of it is that Mass Effect was brought to a conclusion with the release of Mass Effect 3 (note: not brought to its conclusion, just brought to a conclusion — more on that later), and while 99% of the game was the same top-notch, engaging, tear-inducing stuff that we’ve come to expect, the last five minutes or so is a steaming, Hersey’s Kiss-sized dollop of dog shit that you are forced to ingest at the conclusion of the meal, like a mint, before they let you out the door.

It’s fair to say that it’s soured many players’ impression of the experience as a whole.

Now, I realize that many of the folks reading this may not have played through the Mass Effect series. First of all, that’s really too bad, because it is very, very good both in terms of play (which steadily improves from game to game) and story (barring one steaming exception) and (I think) completely worth the time.

But secondly, I’d like to keep you non-ME people involved in the conversation, so I’m going to draw a comparison that I think most anyone likely to visit here will understand, so that we can all proceed with reasonable understanding of the issues.

Let’s pretend for a moment that The Lord of the Rings was released not as a series of books, but a series of games. More importantly, the company behind the series decided to do something really hard but rewarding with the game — they were going to let you make decisions during play that substantively altered the elements of the story. That means that some of people playing through this Lord of the Rings story would end up with a personal game experience that was pretty much exactly like the one you and I all remember from reading the books, but that story is just sort of the default. Whole forums were filled up by fans of the series comparing notes on their versions of the game, with guides on how to get into a romantic relationship with Arwen (the obvious one), Eowyn (more difficult, as you have to go without any kind of romance option through the whole first game, but considered by many to be far more rewarding), or even Legolas (finally released as DLC for the third game).

And that’s certainly not all of possible permutations. Some players actually managed to save Boromir (though he leaves the party regardless, but gets you a whole extra army in the third game if he’s alive, and makes Denethor much less of a pain in the ass to deal with). Some folks don’t split up the party, and spend most of the game recruiting supporters through the South and North, from Aughaire down to Dol Imren. For some, Gimli dies at Helms Deep; for others only Merry escapes into Fangorn (which makes recruiting the Ents all but impossible). Hell, there are even a few weirdos who chose NOT to recruit Samwise back at the beginning of the story, and actually play through the whole first game without him (though the writers reintroduce him as a non-optional party member once you get ready to leave Lothlorien).

And what about the players who rolled the main character as a female? That changes a LOT of stuff, as you might well imagine. (Though, thankfully, all the dialogue options with Legolas are the same.)

Are you with me so far?

Okay, so you’re playing through this game — you’ve played through parts 1 and 2 several times, in fact, sometimes as a goody-two-shoes, and sometimes as a total bad-ass. You’ve got a version of the game where you’re with Arwen, one with Eowyn, one with Legolas, and one where you focus on Frodo and his subtle hand-holding bromance with Sam. You’re ready for Part Three, is what I’m saying, and out it comes.

And it’s awesome. You finally bring lasting alliance between Rohan and Gondor, you form a fragile-yet-believable peace between elves and dwarves, and even manage to recruit a significant strike-force of old Moria orcs who don’t so much like you as much as they just hate the johnny-come-lately Uruk-hai.

The final chapters open. You face down Saruman (who pretended to fund all your efforts through the second book, but then turned on you at the end of the Two Towers), which was really satisfying. You crawl up to the top of Mount Doom, collapse against a rock, and have a really touching heart to heart with Sam. It’s over. You know you have all your scores high enough to destroy the One Ring with no crisis of conscious and no lame “Gollum bit off my finger and then falls in the lava” ending, like the one you saw on the fanfic forums last year.

And then out comes this glowing figure from behind a rock, and it’s… Tom Bombadil.

And Tom explains your options.

Oh, and you're totally going to die too. And all the roads and horses throughout all of middle earth vanish. And by the way did you know that Sauron and the Nazgul all actually just work for Bombadil? True story.

Now, let’s just ignore the fact that the company behind this game has been quoted many times as saying that the game will end with no less than sixteen different endings, to honor all the various ways the story could go, and focus on these three options.

None of them have anything to do with destroying the ring, do they?

Has ‘destroying the ring’ (alternately, destroying Sauron) been pretty much THE THING you’ve been working toward the whole game? Yeah, it has. In fact, it mentions “Rings” right there in the title of the series, doesn’t it? Rather seems to make The Ring a bit of a banner item, doesn’t it?

But no, none of these options are about the Ring; they’re about one of the b-plots in the series, and one which you pretty much already laid to rest a few chapters ago.

So… okay, maybe this isn’t the END ending, you think, and you pick one of the options…

And that’s it. A bunch of cut-scenes play, Mount Doom explodes with fiery red light, you die, and the credits roll. The end.

Ohhh-kay. Maybe that was the bad ending. Let’s reload a save and pick option 2…

Same. Exact. Cut scenes. Except Mount Doom’s explosion is green. What?

Alright… umm… let’s check #3…

Nope. Mount Doom’s explosion is Blue. That’s it.

And, absolutely inexplicably, every single one of these cut scenes shows Gandalf, Aragorn, and SAMWISE escaping the explosion on one of the eagles and crash-landing somewhere in Lorien where they all pat themselves on the back and watch the sun set together.

What? But… Sam was with you. Aragorn and Gandalf… did they start running away halfway through the last fight at the Black Gate? Your boys abandoned you?

So, given this example, it’s possible — even for someone who didn’t play Mass Effect — to understand the fan’s reaction. The ending has no real connection to the rest of the story; barring the last scene and one conversation with an unnamed Nazgul in Book 3, it would lift right out with no one even noticing. It completely takes away your choices at the end of a game about making world-altering choices. It effectively destroys the Middle Earth that you were fighting for 100 hours of gameplay to preserve — no magic? Maybe a completely wiped out dwarven race? No one can travel anywhere without painstakingly rebuilding roads for a couple hundred years and replacing horses with something else? Also, no matter what, no matter how much ass you kick, you’re dead? Yeah. No thanks, man.

And that’s not even paying attention to stuff like how (and why) Sam and Gandalf and Strider ran away at the end. I mean… even if you’re going to do a shitty twist ending, don’t be so goddamn lazy about it. Don’t sit there and claim that criticism of the ending is an attack on your artistic product, because frankly that ending is full of holes and needs a rewrite and probably two more chapters to flesh out. (More on that in a bit.)

So… that’s where the Mass Effect franchise was after ME3 came out. A lot of confusion. A lot of rage. Some protests of a very interesting sort, where the gamers against the terrible ending decided to draw attention to the issue by raising something like seventy-thousand bucks for geek-related charities.

Now, let’s go a bit deeper.

Let’s continue with this Lord of the Rings video game analogy. Let’s say that after a bit of digging, people realized that Tolkien actually left the company to work on other projects before the game was complete. He wrote up a detailed outline, though; something that clearly spelled out exactly how the main arc of the story was supposed to play out, in broad strokes, basically laying out what we would expect the ending to be, pretty much.

But Tolkien left. So they get another guy in. Someone else who’s written stuff about some kind of powerful ring…

They get Steven R. Donaldson.

(Those of you who know me and my history with the Thomas Covenant books can guess that this analogy is not going to be a positive one, because seriously: fuck Thomas Covenant.)

So they get this Donaldson guy in to helm the end of the series, and it turns out he’s the guy who comes up with the Tom Bombadil, fuck-the-continuity-of-the-series ending.

Why? Maybe he’s pissed about being the second choice. Maybe he’s not getting paid enough to give a fuck. Maybe he just really wants to do this kind of story, but can’t be arsed to write a series of his own for which it makes sense. Maybe the original ending outlined by Tolkien got leaked on a forum the year before the last game came out, so people decided it had to be changed, even if the alternative makes no sense. I don’t know.

What I do know is the there was a different ending written out for the Mass Effect series, the short version of which is that the Big Reveal in ME3 is that the Mass Effect itself — the magical black-box technology that allows interstellar travel and powers a ton of other things from weapons to expensive toothbrushes — is causing a constant increase in dark energy in the galaxy, and that’s causing all kinds of bad things (like the accelerated death of stars).

The Mass Effect — you know, the thing from which the name of the series is derived — is the secret behind the Big Reveal. Who would have thought?

So, in the end of the game-as-envisioned, you’re given a choice of saving the galaxy by sacrificing the human race (making humanity into a biomechanical, synthetic-life, communal-intelligence “Reaper” that can stop the Dark Energy decay), or telling the Reapers to screw themselves and trying to fix the problem on your own (with a handful of centuries left before the Dark Energy thing snowballs and grows out of control on its own).

Which, in a word, would have been better. Certainly FAR better than some kind of stupid Tom Bombadil/Star Child explanation where we are told that the (synthetic AI) Reapers destroy advanced organic civilizations every 50 thousand years to prevent organic civilizations from… being destroyed by synthetic AIs.

Now we don’t just have some gamer complaints about the terrible ending, we have a demonstrably better ending that was actually supposed to be the one implemented. Complicates things, doesn’t it?

But Why All the Hate?

The simple fact of the matter is that Mass Effect is a story, and it’s a very good story — in my opinion, it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever experienced. People can hem and haw about what constitutes a story — about whether a game can really be a story if people can play it — as though a story is only a story if it’s spoken or written or projected up on a movie screen. That’s like saying a person is only a person if they walk or ride a horse or drive a car… because we all know the vehicle in which the subject is conveyed changes that subject’s inherent nature.

Some people say it’s not a real story because the player’s choices can alter it. I think they’re full of crap, and I say the proof of its power as a story is right there in the story-pudding — it affects me as a story does — and that’s all the criteria met. Walks like duck, quacks like duck, therefore duck.

But the problem (if you’re BioWare) is that human beings understand stories; we know how they’re supposed to work, thanks to thousands of years of cultural training. Mass Effect (until that conclusion) is a nigh-perfect example of how a story is done correctly, thanks in part to the medium, which allows (if you’ll permit me the slaughter of a few sacred cows) a level of of immersion and connection beyond what a book or movie or any other storytelling medium up to this point in our cultural history can match, because of the fact that you can actively take part in that story from the inside. Heresy? Fine, brand me a heretic; that’s how I see it.

And since it’s such a good story, people know how the thing is supposed to proceed, and they know how it should end.

You start out in ME1 trying to stop a bad guy, Saren. He’s the guy who gets us moving (because he’s a bad guy, and that’s what they do — bad guys act, and heroes react to that and move the story along). As we try to stop him, we find out there’s something bigger going on than just a rogue cop on a rampage. The picture keeps getting bigger, the stakes keep getting higher, and we keep getting our motivation and our level of commitment tested. Are we willing to sacrifice our personal life? Yes? Okay, will we sacrifice one of our friends? Yes? Okay, how about the leaders of the current galactic government? Yes? Okay…

It goes on like that. You fucking invest, is what I’m saying, and that’s just in the first game.

In the second game, the fight continues, as we have merely blunted the point of the spear, not stopped the attack. Our choices in ME1 had consequences, and we start to see them play out, for better or worse. Meanwhile, we’re trying to stop Evil Plan #2, in a suicide mission that could literally cost us nearly every single friend we’ve made. In the end, we get the joy of victory mixed with the sadness of the loss of those who didn’t make it, and it’s all good, because it’s a strong, healthy, enjoyable emotional release.

And now it’s ME3, and the stakes are even higher. We’re not recruiting more individual allies — we’re recruiting whole peoples — whole civilizations. Planets are falling. Worlds are being erased.

In the words of Harbinger, this hurts you.

Why? Because you know these people who are dying. You’ve spent over a hundred hours traveling this setting, meeting people, helping them, learning about each of their little stories; building relationships with, literally, hundreds of individuals. Every one of these planets going up in flames has a face (even if it’s a face behind a breathmask), and no one falls in this final story that wasn’t important in some way to you or someone you know.

(By contrast, the enemy is faceless and (since the reapers harvest your former allies and force them into monstrous templates) largely indistinguishable from one another — as it should be in this kind of story. You do not care about a Husk, though you might mourn the person killed to create the thing.)

In short, you aren’t just playing this game to get the high score. You’re fighting for this galaxy of individuals you’ve grown very, very attached to; to protect it and, as much as you can, preserve it. You’ve spent several hours every day on this, for months. It matters.

"Hard to imagine galaxy. Too many People. Faceless. Statistics. Easy to depersonalize. Good when doing unpleasant work. For this fight, want personal connection. Can't anthropomorphize galaxy. But can think of favorite nephew. Fighting for him."

(Best of all, you get to shoot bad guys in the face while you’re doing it, which takes this heavy topic and makes it engaging at that level as well. It’s like soaking up all the gravitas of Schindler’s List while enjoying the BFG-toting action of Castle Wolfenstein at the same time.)

The end comes. We talk to all our friends. Everyone’s wearing their brave face, talking about what they’re going to do afterwards, which beach they’re going to retire on. You start to think that maybe the end is in sight and maybe, just maybe, you might even be able to see some of that ending.

The last big conflict starts. You fight some unkillable things and kill them. You face off against an old nemesis and finally end him.

And then…

And then you’re given three choices, none of which result in anything any different from the others, and none of which have consequences that have any connection to the goals we’ve been working on for the last hundred hours or so.

Those people you were just talking to? They’re gone. Or stranded on an alien world. Or dead. All those planets you helped? They’re gone too — cut off, or starving, or maybe just destroyed in manufactured super-novas. Nothing you did or accomplished in the last three games actually matters — it’s all been wiped out by one of three (red, green, or blue) RESET buttons you pushed, because pushing one of those buttons was the only ‘choice’ given to you at the end.

As a species, trained for thousands of years in the way stories work, we know this is a bad ending. Not “tragic”. Just bad. Poor.

This isn’t about a bunch of priviledged gamers complaining about a sad ending, because there are well-done sad endings that make contextual sense.

This is about a mechanical ending to the game that doesn’t end the story — that provides no emotional release — one so disassociated from the previous 99% of the story that the fans of the series collectively hope it will later be revealed to be a dream (or, in the context of the setting, a final Reaper Indoctrination attempt).

Dear writers: If you create something, and your readers hope that what you just gave them was, in reality, an “it was a dream all along” ending, because that would be better than what you wrote, you seriously. fucked. up.

Is the ending, as an ending (taken out of context with the game we’ve been playing), a bad one? No. It’s an interesting theme that was explored extensively in a B-plot within the series and which could certainly be the central thread of a series of its own.

But it’s not the ending of this story. Our goals — the one we’ve been fighting for — are never addressed. There is no closure, either happy or sad — we want our emotional release as it relates to the game we actually played. Maybe that means tragedy at our own stupid hands — maybe victory wrested from the biomechanical jaws of defeat (and at the cost of a greater looming danger ahead).

The ending we got? It didn’t make me angry or sad or happy. It left me unfulfilled, because it ended the game talking about something I didn’t actually care about, and left me waiting for that emotional release that ME1 or ME2 pulled off so well.

The idea that the player’s should just deal with the ending, because it’s Bioware’s ending and not theirs is one of the interesting points in this debate, simply because it rides this weird line where we don’t really have a cultural context for what the Mass Effect series is: Is it a game? Is it a story? If if it’s a game, then who cares about the story, and if it’s a story, then treat it like a book and stop pretending you get to influence it, stupid consumer.

The answer is more complicated: Is it a game or story? Yes. Moreover, it’s a game that’s welcomed player input into the narrative from the first moment, and as such, should be committed to honoring that input throughout. It’s a story, but it belongs to everyone telling it.

But It’s Art!
There’s a recurring tune being played by Bioware in response to this outcry, and it goes something like this: “We might respond to these complaints, and we might flesh out the ending we presented, but we’re not going to change anything, because this is art — this is the product of artists — and as such it is inviolate and immutable in the face of outside forces.”

Which is, speaking as a working artist, complete and utter horseshit.

If you make a movie, and you put in front of focus groups, and they categorically hate the ending, you change it. If you’re writing a book and your first readers tell you the ending is terrible, you fix it. (Ditto your second readers, your second-draft readers, your agent, your editor, your copy editor.)

Or maybe you don’t — maybe you say “this is art, and it is inviolate and immutable in the face of outside forces”, which is certainly your choice — but don’t expect anyone to help you bring that piece of crap to print.

Anyone can tell a story. You can sit in your special writing nook and turn out page after page of perfectly unaltered, immutable art and be quite happy — you’re welcome to, in fact.

But when you decide you want to make a living off it? Even if you want to just make a little spending money?

Then the rules change. Then it’s work. Then it’s a job. More importantly, then it’s part of a business model, and those golden days of your art being inviolate and immutable blah blah blah are well and truly behind you. Name me a story that saw print, or a movie that saw the Big Screen, and I’ll show you art that changed because of input from someone other than the the original creator — from someone looking at it from the point of view of the consumer.

Bioware is a company. Making their stories into games is their business model. Hiding behind some kind of “but it’s art, so we’re not changing it” defense is insulting, disingenuous, and flat-out stupid. Worse, it perpetuates the idea that the creator’s output is in some stupid way sancrosant and, as art, cannot be “wrong” or “bad”. If you as a creator imagine that to be the case — if you think that kind of argument is going to defend your right to never do a rewrite or a revision or line edits or to ever alter, in any way, your precious Artistic Process — discard that notion.

Or become accustomed to a long life as an “undiscovered talent”.

144 Replies to “Mass Effect, Tolkien, and Your Bullshit Artistic Process”

  1. I laughed out loud when you wrote “fuck Thomas Covenant.” As much as I love all of the Covenant books so far, I really do hate the character. Reading those books is weird like that. You turn the page just to hate on the guy some more.

    1. This is exactly my thoughts on the whole ending issue. Well written.

      Personally, I thought the leaked endings were far better, even the ones where Earth was screwed and several races nearly died.

  2. This is probably a dumb question (or two) but, as a nongamer, I sincerely don’t know the answer(s).

    Do games not have the equivalent of focus groups or first readers or some such? If not, that’s amazing to me. I can’t imagine proceeding without that. And if they DO, what happened to this one? Did they just pass it along regardless? Were they ignored? Something else entirely?

    1. Video games do have focus groups and usually they are quite productive, but sometimes people that aren’t fans of the game can be in those focus groups. This isn’t even the case for Mass Effect 3 however. The game was basically cobbled together at the last minute, with the ending being put together around 3 months before the game launched. So I doubt the ending got the focus group it so desperately needed.

    2. They’re more beta testers. Basically, they test functionality and flow of the game. They can’t test the storyline of the game for fear of leaking suprises… like the ending.

      These endings were planned by a select group of writers, one being a head writer, who plotlined the ending with limited editing input and then spent 4 months of production based on those scripts. Programmars act as human pencils for the writer to reflect the vision of the writer only providing input for funtionality as opposed to artistic direction.

    3. Video games to have those, but only for the gameplay, not for the story. For many games, the story is pretty inconsequential, tough that’s not to say there aren’t good stories told. For an example of a game that does story telling right, look up Silent Hill 2.

    4. That’s part of the ridiculousness of this situation. Somebody actually decided to greenlight the ending.

      Also, all the critics are given advance copies to review. And not a single one mentioned the ridiculous ending. Either they didn’t play until the end, or they consider the relationship between game reviewers and game developers far more valuable than the relationship between reviewers and readers.

      1. Sounds dumb in theory, but would you really have wanted to be the guy who delays the game and incurs massive monetary penalties for something that nobody at the executive level would understand enough for you not to get shitcanned at your job?

        1. addendum: reviewers generally don’t have the time to get to the ending to make it to print unless we’re talking hard copy publishing speed, and seeing as the ending is a hershey kiss sized dog poo at the end of the otherwise fun game, nobody would have reasonably expected things to go south at that point

  3. I haven’t played Mass Effect, but as a writer I’ve been very interested in the progression of the story from game to game. Your explanation of the ME3 ending is very helpful.

    If you’d like to play a game that ends the way Mass Effect was originally intended, I recommend the 1986 PC game “Starflight”.

    1. Just chiming in to say that “Starflight”‘s ending is brillian, and also the first thing I thought of when I read the original Mass Effect 3 ending, and also a great game and definitely an influence on Mass Effect 2. Especially the resource gathering.

      1. I felt the ’91 update of Starflight, released for Sega Genesis, was awesome. It included a color Star Map and an original short story by Robert Silverberg, which I loved. When I first heard of Mass Effect, I considered it the long awaited spiritual successor to Starflight, which was truly one of those games that was ahead of its time.

        While the intended ending to ME may not be original in light of Starflight, it would’ve been great for a larger audience to experience that kind of story.

  4. Basically, no: as a general rule, you don’t see that kind of thing with normal video games, though it is more common with MMOs, which tend to do “beta” releases to a somewhat limited audience of players who look at themselves as QA testers.

  5. I found your article and Lord of the Rings analogy very interesting, and I have a better understanding of the subject having not played ME3 yet.

  6. Probably the most amazing well thought piece I’ve read about this ME3 ending fiasco. Thank you.

  7. Great article. I’ve actually used a Star Wars comparison for older people who ask what the fuss is all about, and that works too.

    I don’t honestly know what Bioware was thinking when the ending passed the final testing stage, but clearly someone, somewhere, lost their goddamn mind.

  8. Hah! The Legolas romance DLC and allied Moria Orcs were great touches to an already fantastic analogy. Before I finished playing ME3, I was convinced that all the hooplah over the ending was just entitled fan exaggeration. I simply couldn’t believe that the stellar game that I was in the midst of could end on anything but a truly satisfying note. Then I finished the game and stared at the screen for a few seconds in disbelief. I was expecting a sense of triumph similar to how I felt after completing Mass Effect 1 & 2. Instead, I was left with a sick feeling in my stomach. Everything I had done, not just in this game, but throughout the entire series, was unraveled in those last few minutes. The real kicker was when I later viewed the “different” endings on Youtube, presented side-by-side. Red, Green, Blue… ugh.

    1. Doyce – Great analogy.

      Tommy – this is another great article I read recently that explores the writing from a technical viewpoint and delves into why a lot of fans experienced that very same “sick feeling in [their] stomach[s]”:

      The mainstream press is really baffling me on this one. The venom spewed at the fans that are dissatisfied with the ending buy some game blogs and writers is, to me, utterly incomprehensible. Worse, most of the attacks from mainstream writers appear to misunderstand the entire situation. There seems to be a complete lack of investigation into what really comprise the fan complaints. I find it astounding.

      This is not a run-of-the-mill, gamer entitlement complex issue. There are very well-spoken, thoughtful individuals who have taken the time to examine this and conclude that something, indeed, really is rotten in the state of Mass Effect.

      Does Bioware owe anyone anything? No, they are free to stand pat on their game as released. That is absolutely a legitimate response. But whatever they do, it will be a business decision, not an artistic decision – which as Doyce points out are not in any way divorced from each other for commercial entertainment products.

      What is quite troubling, howeverm is for so much of the gaming press to simply dismiss the unsatisfied gamers out of hand. For example, the amazingly insulting Vox Games roundtable discussion (which, even more bizarrely, I don’t think the people involved realize how amazingly insulting, patronizing and belittling that piece is – talk about out of touch). They didn’t include anyone with an opposing viewpoint, exacerbating their incorrect assumptions about why a large group of fans is so dissatisified with the ME3 ending. Thus, the conclusions they reach are as ungrounded in the actual debate they are discussing as the final ending of ME3 is from the 3 game narrative that preceded it (as Doyce so beautifully demonstrates with his LotR reimagining).

      Inconceivable! ;)

  9. Bravo sir, another amazing piece that demolishes the “this is art and untouchable” misnomer

  10. You know, you probably just wrote what’s going on in the fan’s minds in a simple and understandable way.
    Thanks. Really.

  11. Excellent article, very good read and touches on most of the reasons why ME fans (myself included) found themselves dissatisfied with the ending of the third installment.

    One point where the LOTR analogy falls down though, is with Tom Bombadil.

    By the end of the third LOTR book, you actually knew who Tom Bombadil was. You’d met him before. In ME3 you’ve never even heard of the starkid before.

    It would be more like you get to Mount Doom and then Bender from Futurama pops out and presents you the three choices.

    1. Yeah, that’s the main problem I had with that analogy, because what I needed was a bit-part character who’s introduced in the third book for two seconds, and I don’t think there’s anyone like that in LotR.

      Maybe I could have used Haldir, but in the end I opted for a character that a lot LotR fans kind of love to hate.

      1. Either way, it’s a very small nit to pick in an otherwise superbly well written piece.

        Thank you for articulating what so many are feeling but are unable to express as well as you’ve done here.


      2. “Yeah, that’s the main problem I had with that analogy, because what I needed was a bit-part character who’s introduced in the third book for two seconds, and I don’t think there’s anyone like that in LotR.”

        Correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t the Mouth of Sauron work?

        I mean, the only reason I remember this character is *because* of this one joke in said linked comic.

        Bonus points: *SPOILERS*

        Doesn’t the child starchild replicates die as well?

        1. Nearly flawless victory: the Mouth of Sauron is perfect for everything except “was originally introduced into the story as a good guy.”

          But otherwise? Spot. On.

  12. Fun and amusing read with very good points and awesome explanation to those not engaged in gaming, or not this particular type of game.

    I’d, however, love if you would punch some more holes into that indoctrination theory even though “Dear writers: If you create something, and your readers hope that what you just gave them was, in reality, an “it was a dream all along” ending, because that would be better than what you wrote, you seriously. fucked. up.” is really… ’nuff said.

    1. Honestly, there are elements of the Indoctrination Theory that I think would make for a interesting “ahh, you foiled our last trick” way to get to a DLC ending.

      Do I think the folks pushing the Indoctrination Theory are correct? No, I do not. I kinda wish they were, though.

  13. I’m very torn about this thing, and it’s hard to put my finger on where I disagree. I mean, you’re right that no one gets to be successful in a creative profession without making a few compromises. But at the same time, I’m sure we can all think of creators whom we admire for resisting the demands of executive meddling and remaining faithful to their vision, however esoteric. Or, on the flip side, those we condemn for bowing to commercial pressures and crapifying their products as a result. (“Mesa Jar-Jar Binks! Mesa here to ruin yousa childhood!”)

    Frankly, I do believe that art is inviolate – that is to say, I don’t believe an artist has some sort of moral obligation to address the grievances of audience members who don’t happen to like what they came up with. If I’m a fan of a thing, it’s because I found the product and liked it; and if I choose to support it, as an advocate or a consumer or both, they still don’t owe me nothin’. Maybe they “should” pay attention to me for the sake of their business model, but that’s different from saying they “should” listen to me as though my fandom makes me a shareholder in the creative process. I think this principle stands regardless of whether the product is “good” or “bad,” “right” or “wrong” (which is a whole ‘nother debate we could have).

    So if Bioware does finally decide to change the ending, my feelings will depend on their reasons for doing so. If they do it because they’ve been legitimately convinced by the fans that they screwed up the story and justice must be served, then that would be great, and a shining example of audience engagement done right. If they do it because they were expected to realize the original vision of Drew Karpyshyn and feel that they have failed to honor that bargain, that is good and fair. But if they buy into the idea that a subset of fans have a moral right to veto creative decisions if they scream loud enough, such that the creator is actually compelled to spend time and money on do-overs? That’s a brand-new social norm that makes me terribly uncomfortable.

    1. Kaelri, if we were talking about a book a film or a painting etc. I would agree with 100% however I think we need to acknowledge a fundamental difference in the medium of video games. A player is not merely and passive audience member, they are an active participant.

      The best analogy I can think of is a producer luring an A List actor to play the leading role in a drama with the promise of allowing him, within reason, to Ad Lib… only when he gets to the last page of the script and says; ‘Hold up, my character totally wouldn’t react that way.’ You turn round and say; ‘It’s my play! Just read your goddamn lines!’

      In that circumstance, who’s right and who has the integrity of the story on their side? Should narrative integrity come before creative vision? Vise Versa? I’m not sure there is a right answer.

      1. I’m not sure there is either, but MAN is it interesting to talk about.

        It’s also very tricky to talk about, simply because this isn’t the sort of thing that, culturally, has ever really come up before.

        It’s feels strange to say, but I don’t believe there is a precedent for the kind of audience/creator relationship that’s becoming more and more common in modern gaming. From a creative standpoint, there is new ground being broken here, and it’s worthy of examination and some thought.

        1. That is certainly true. The one comparison that comes to my mind is the paper-and-pencil roleplaying game. If you look at BioWare as the dungeon master, and the players as, well, players, I think you can see an (imperfect) template for the future of the gaming industry.

          Still, I’m not sure that the interactive nature of the video game medium constitutes a fundamental difference, for two reasons. The first is that few film, television and literature fans would claim to be any less individually invested in their works than game fans. They’ll speak of their favorite settings and protagonists in terms of a personal relationship, and the way we experience those stories – even though the literal content may be identical for each person and each telling – is no less unique.

          And second, even though a game player has more control over how the story unfolds, we’re still fundamentally going through a scenario that was designed, in every detail, by someone else. It’s BioWare drew the models, who recorded the dialog, and who wrote out the entire branching tree of possible storylines and the algorithms that make each one happen. So while no one can deny that games are a qualitatively different medium, I’m not sure it crosses the line that lets us say that a special social contract exists between developer and gamer (as opposed to author and reader, or showrunner and viewer).

          That’s where Jay’s analogy comes in: his actor and producer have a certain arrangement, and when one party breaches that arrangement, it’s fair to demand penance. But I don’t think that’s the scenario that describes the gaming community – not least because it’s unclear how the entire spectrum of the game’s audience really feels, much less who has the right to represent that community and make demands on its behalf. (What about those who liked the ending, for instance – is it fair for them to have their satisfying experience taken away?)

          Anyway. It’s murky, is the point. But your piece here is a great starting point, Doyce, and it’s a delight to see it spark such awesome discussion.

          1. I’m not sure anyone is saying Bioware is morally obligated to change the story. We are expressing our disappointment with the product and letting bioware know. What most people are saying is that the ending was crap and if Bioware DOESN’T do something to change our minds, it will negatively affect them when their next game comes around.

            They are absolutely entitled to say this is my art go fuck yourself, which I will remember. The next time they want me to buy a game, I’ll be happy to respond in kind; this is my money go fuck your shitty stories. I don’t want that to happen. I wan’t them to fix it. I wan’t them to continue to create great stories that I can be a part of, and I want to pay them so they can afford to spend their time making stories for me.

    2. It’s interesting, Kaelri, that you use the example of Star Wars I to cite creators bowing to commercial pressure. I would hold that up as an example of the opposite: Having become filthy rich and no longer having to answer to a big studio, George Lucas was free to make a film – nay, a trilogy – that was completely true to his own artistic vision. And what we got was more or less rubbish. Even back as far as Return of the Jedi: once Gary Kurtz left the project, Lucas was unfettered from editorial constraint, allowing him to give us … ewoks. And now he has to go back and fiddle with the original trilogy, too …

      Ok, fanboy rant aside, I think the problem is that people are drawing a line at the publication of an artistic work and saying, after this point, feedback is not welcome. That’s never made sense to me. As Doyce was saying, before a book is published, it receives feedback from beta readers, publishers, editors, agents, etc. … who is to say that the work is ‘done’ after these and only these people have made their contributions to it? I simply consider the ME3 ending to be a few editing passes shy of what it needs to be complete; the feedback in this case being provided by the audience instead of an agent of publisher.

      Obviously, in most cases, people do not go back and revise their works of art to suit fan criticism, but there are a couple of extenuating circumstances here. In most mediums, it is not feasible to recall or modify a published work of art; copies are already in the hands of the audience, and a re-release just muddies your continuity. However, since all ME3 copies are registered through Origin, Bioware has the power to inform everyone who plays the game that new content is available, thus not splitting their own canon. I also think it’s unusual to have an established series with established expectations produce such strong and specifically actionable feedback. It’ll a lot easier for Bioware to modify the very end of ME3, which is really only offensive in the last 10 minutes, than it would be for George Lucas, for example, to come up to a solution that would solve all the problems people had with The Phantom Menace. I’m not saying that it’s reasonable – or desirable – for all published art to become subject to revision like this, but I think in this specific case, under these specific circumstances, it is both feasible and justifiable for Bioware to do something to make this right.

  14. When you think of what the last mission COULD have been, rather than what it was, it’s really the last hour that was mediocre. The writer from Bioware pointed out he wanted to see asari gunships and krogan battalions and stuff. What did we really see of that army? Well, we saw a reaper own the shit out of a platoon of asari and krogan. And Wrex kinda stood there blubbering about greatness to a couple krogan warriors during that one scene where nothing happens. Other than that eh. Could have been bigger than just “here trudge through this city by yourself and then launch some missiles, then do this rail sequence where the joystick is pretty much the only thing you use.”

    1. Dave, I completely agree. Aside from the fact that the ending they went with feels like a mismatch and tacked on, it still *could* have been acceptable and bearable if it had simply been done BETTER. It’s so… ‘sketched in’, I guess is the phrase I want. So much is hand-waved. So much is simply passed over. So many details we never get to see, or even read about in a codex entry. The cinematics in the last hour are sparse, and largely identical, regardless of whatever resources you assemble. It’s just…

      As I said, it’s so bloody lazy.

      1. After Bioware’s incredible final mission for Mass Effect 2, I just assumed the finale of Mass Effect 3 would include something similar, but on a greater scale. So instead of picking crew members to lead strike teams or provide tactical assistance, you’d select various fleet and ground troop assignments. I imagined seeing Turian ships opening a path for Krogan trooper dropships, Geth dreadnoughts covering Quarian gunships, Terminus System pirate gangs going head-to-head with waves of husks, etc.

      2. 100% AK. The ending would have been fine with me, if it would have shown more – attention to detail.

        I had this bad feeling when the final approach on earth started and the the whole fleet arrives. Cool scene. But: only 4 or so of my alien allies are shown in this long cutscene, focussing on Shepards head instead. I was like “umph, where are the Salarians? Krogans? Elcor? Rachni? Mercenaries?”

        I invested 100h of gameplay, assembling these forces – “the galaxy” vs. Reaper, playing 100% of all available missions with 100% paragon. I DESERVED to see them.

        Things got better in the “talking to ALL of your friends for the last time” sequence IMHO. This had an intensity and dark mood rarely achieved by video games.

        But then – the illusive man sequence was so so, I would have appreciated a path oh salvation here. But the final decision? Heavens, in my first play through I didn’t even exactly catch up what the different choices where, and which tunnel would lead to what effect.

        I generally like my “synergic” ending, but I miss the uplifting note. For example, Shepard becoming part of the new, universal DNA. Oh, and “my” Thali never seeing her lover and homeworld again – she would have been better off with the cliffs.

        1. I just finished the game last night, preordered the game but had school, family and work.
          I read about the ending before I started even, and was hoping it was not true.

          Now thinking back to the first mission.
          I wonder if some of us should of saw this coming (the ones who picked Anderson as councilor in ME1). It was never really explained why Anderson was on Earth in the first mission, and Udina took over as Councilor.
          This was just lazy in that they wanted to consolidate the story and not have to deal with the players choice.
          I feel like the ending was exactly the same way in terms of consolidating the ending to not have to deal with player choice.

  15. Thank you for a great read and for the best rebuttal to the bullshit “artistic integrity” argument I’ve seen to date.

  16. So, I gotta admit I agree completely with both this article and your “fuck Thomas Covenant” statement. Good series to read, totally asshat of a main character.

    What bugs me most about this is two things. One is the media attention on it and them saying that it is the “vocal minority” complaining about the ending. Is it the minority of the people that bought the game? Yes. BUT is it the minority of the people that take their opinions, their views, to the internet and tell others? No, not even close. It is the minority of players complaining, but it is the MASS MAJORITY of vocal players.

    The other thing is that twit Colin Moriarty over at IGN saying this would set a bad precedent if Bioware changed the ending. Did that moron forget that Bethesda has already done this before with Broken Steel for Fallout 3 after fans complained about the ending? And that HE was in favor of the change?

    1. Saying “vocal minority” or “the most passionate fans” is just PR bullshit intended to trivialize the outcry and minimize the perceived magnitude of their fuck up. It sounds a lot better than “universally reviled” i.e. the truth.

      The only bad precedent that was set here is a paid professional lead writer for a major entertainment property lacking the mental aptitude to give his script a basic level of coherence and getting away with it. Game writing is heading in a bad direction if people don’t understand that this is unacceptable.

      1. PS: IGN is so impartial about Mass Effect and their EA corporate overlords that one of their editors is an NPC in the game. Yeaaaaa!

      2. If 2.14 million people bought the game and ten thousand people complained about the ending, I wouldn’t exactly call that universally reviled. That’s a half of a percent of the people who played the game being angry with it.

        Even if we give it the benefit of the doubt and say fifty thousand people were angry, then it is only two and a half percent of people being angry. That is almost the definition of vocal minority.

        Even though fifty thousand sounds like a lot, a developer should not change their vision based entirely upon two percent. We complain about the 99% all the time, and here it is again.

        1. That’s actually completely wrong. The number of people complaining is well in the hundred thousands, if you consider the Facebook group has over 40k members in less than a month (I’m not one by the way but I’m still unhappy). There are several thousand more negative comments on bio ware forums, blogs, news sites. Google “Mass Effect 3 ending” and see how many hits you get. Then see how many are positive.

          Outside of a few gaming media sites that live on ads from the game publishers, you will struggle to find one.

          In any case, the way these statistics work, is that if 40k people complain loudly, it means 400k people felt the same but didn’t bother. Most may have thought it was pointless, others have bigger priorities, others still moved on to the next game and dreaded in their copy.

          The notion that the vocal 1% are the only ones who feel this way is a lie perpetuated by media manipulators. If your extreme views number in the thousands, your less extreme but still negative views number in the millions.

          There’s a simple piece of proof for this case though. Mass Effect 3 has had its price slashed in several countries (incl. the US) by many large retailers.
          For this to happen to the most anticipated game of the year, one month after release is something that cannot be overstated.

  17. “What? But… Sam was with you. Aragorn and Gandalf… did they start running away halfway through the last fight at the Black Gate? Your boys abandoned you?”

    This probably bothered me more than anything else about the end of Mass Effect 3. After everything you faced in the series, your crew was like family. For everyone to abandon you at the very end rang so incredibly false. Especially given the events of Mass Effect 2, there’s just no way that your crew would accept speculation of your death without trying their damnedest to find you first.

  18. Hideo Kojima said that videogames aren’t art and he has a very compelling reasoning for this statement. It would make sense that all claiming that the Mass Effect 3 end is art read up on what the creator of the MGS-Series said and why.
    PS: Very good text, I particularly like the LOTR analogy – very well done!

  19. There’s a persistent myth in almost every article about ME 3 that somehow reading is “passive.” It isn’t and I have hard science on my side.

    “Different brain regions track different aspects of a story, such as a character’s physical location or current goals. Some of these regions mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities. These results support the view that readers understand a story by simulating the events in the story world and updating their simulation when features of that world change. ”

    To bad the article itself is behind a paywall, but this is just one article, one tiny bit of research in a mountain of science about reading. Reading is more interactive at a more fundamental level than about anything else. RPGs do give the player more superficial story interaction, but don’t mistake that for the deeply interactive experience reading gives to the reader.

    I say this as a hardcore gamer from the early days. I started playing PC games in the DOS age. I still play video games. I enjoy them, and the best I consider to be high art. But I still read for pleasure. I read more than I play, truth to be told.

    So please stop with the “reading is passive” meme. It is demonstrably false.

    1. As my studies are in cognitive science, I totally agree with what you’re saying re: reading is not passive. However, when people say that reading is more passive than playing games, they’re not talking about neural activity. The difference between passivity and activity is in regards to what is require from the audience to further the story. When reading a book, one will turn pages (real or digital) and nothing else is required for the story to proceed. When playing games, active and intentional participation is required from the audience to move the story forward. Video games even allow the audience to change parts of the story.

      In short, a good game has the audience member as the story’s lead actor.

  20. I have read your article and fully support your feelings on the matter. If this was not the end of saga and Bioware were gearing up for a ME4 finale, They would not risk losing a huge portion of there fan base with this rushed / poor plot hole ME3 ending. Claiming it is art is laughable.

    I Loved ME3 (up until the last few minutes, way to drop the ball)
    I also felt cheated that the Ashes to Ashes DLC had more one one one moments with “Javick” then u have for example “James”, or even “Liara” (The love of my life in my game) Stop telling the hundreds of thousands of fans we are all wrong and take the hint. This felt rushed, we would have waited Bioware….we would have waited…

  21. Testify Brother! I didn’t play ME, but my kinder, their friends and the nerdier of my adult friends did. They all have the same complaint. We’re all gamers raised on paper D&D’s role-playing, spell-weaving, storytelling magic. After all, Star Trek’s Guinan (10 Forward’s barkeep) said it best, “crayons take you places starships will never go”, why? Because *we* invent the story/place and invest ourselves in it. Without that investment, why bother?

    1. By “believe”, I mean I don’t believe that the Indoctrination Theory was intended by Bioware. I think it’s an accident of the plot that happens to make a tremendous amount sense when dedicated fans go looking for supporting material in the game.

      I’d like it to be true, by which I mean “I’d like it if Bioware intended it”, but I don’t think they did.

      1. I’m not sure they did either…Hard to believe all the evidence supporting it wasn’t part of the plan though. I just can’t believe BioWare has said some of things they have…insulting. I really need BioWare to respond soon. This game is emotional and personal to thousands of people on so many levels…the uproar is staggering. I’m glad to be a part of it.

      2. I don’t believe the IT either. In my opinion:
        – the dreamy effects before being teleported up to the citadel are from the shellshock of the near miss from the reaper beam.
        – the purple squiggles on the screen while in the citadel are because TIM has indoctrinated Anderson and is trying hard to indoctrinate Shep. If you watched the video logs in the cerberus base you saw how TIM was having a surgical procedure that would affect his brain. When next you see him, he has the metal implants in his head. He was fascinated with indoctrination and I believe he uses the implants to indoctrinate others during the ending sequence.

        Thanks for a great article. I have read a few where I agree with some of the points but yours is the first where I agree with ALL of them.

        The ending where Shep’s teammates get out of the Normandy was a pathetic attempt to make us feel good that our team survived. But because we’re not 5 years old, we’re left questioning what the hell just happened.

        Epic conclusion to an epic series? Unfortunately no. And that’s a pity.

        Now I’m going back to the multiplayer. It’s more satisfying.

  22. Thank you so much for this article. It encapsulates everything that was wrong, and my feelings (or lack, thereof) upon reaching the ending.

    I hope they do rewrite the ending. Its such an insult to the fanbase, and the writers who have worked so hard over the years.

    They should have been finishing the game, and rewriting this ending. Not producing day 1 DLC. Bioware need to suck up their pride and fix the broken ending.

    fuck Thomas Covenant.

  23. I raise a glass to you, Doyce. Of all the articles I’ve read on this topic, yours most eloquently covers the issue.

    Art is experience by other means; it is a way of saying something beyond simple language. Even the work of a story-teller is more than mere words. Art, by its very definition, must be experienced to *be* art in the first place: the experience the audience completes the art: creator + audience experience = art.

    There are *many* failings in the storytelling in ME3: many violations of logic, violations of basic story-telling craft (somewhere Chekov is weeping); and violations of the player’s intelligence. And, I dare say that few would complain of a series of vaguely distopian endings, as long as there was real effect of the choices the player makes.

    ME and games of this nature are the children of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books from decades gone by. Choose X go to page 34, Y go to page 94. In these, endings (even story-lines) would branch and diverge, and similar endings were rare, often they would be wildly different. It was perhaps too much to assume wildly different endings, but variations-on-a-theme would be appropriate, given what you did/didn’t do. And, honestly, since at some point the endings-and-aftermath would be largely cinematic in nature, their cost would be minimal at best. Variations on that theme were apparent at every point we went the extra-mile, every thing we did, every side-quest we completed, every damned entry in the war-readiness calculation. Yet, zero pay-off for the setup. Only a simple, lazy number that determined the most minor of cosmetic changes in a single cinematic.

    The recipient of the D- grade in a first-year writing class would out-strip the sod responsible for the overall story and plot in ME3.

  24. Excellent commentary! I agree 100% – though really the reused assets at the end could have been forgiven in my eyes if it didn’t also go hand-in-hand with everything else.

    My biggest problem with the whole “organics vs synthetics” thing (or in a broader sense, creator vs. created) is this: not only have you already solved those problems by bringing so many races together, Shepard /doesn’t/ even get the option to argue with this kid about the blatant disregard for the fact that there is a multicultural army knocking on his door. Really? Created races always wipe out their creators? Then why are the Geth helping the Quarians, why are the Krogan fighting for the Turians? Its almost as if the writer for the final moments didn’t even play the game.

    1. I agree completely with your point that “Shepard doesn’t even get to argue with this kid…” That is one of the many problems with the ending, but one that if included could have staved off a lot of the current backlash. The reason being because meekly accepting the ghost child’s three options contradicted the preceding game in two inter-related ways.

      First, from a narrative standpoint, for what I am sure is a large number of players, unquestioned acceptance and resignation to fate is completely out of character for Shepard (regardless of whether you played Paragon or Renegade). Taking, say, Star Trek as an anlogy, you have your Picard (Paragon Shepard) and your Kirk (Renegade Shepard) – In both Original Trek and Next Gen, Enterprise and Crew would run into similarly dire situations, but a common theme across both shows was the questioning of the obvious choices to come up with either an unconventional solution or solution challenging the foundation of the questions presented.

      Actually, Star Trek is a good analogy because you can toss in Sisko and Janeway, too (Sorry I didn’t watch much Enterprise). Four characters that had a unique command style but none of which would simply crumble in the face of seemingly insurrmountable odds, not without a punch, or a deconstruction of the illogic of the choices presented, or an appeal to a better way or higher reasoning, or a bargain and deal to get a different solution on the table. This was Shepard, not one of the sheep, being told to select his fold for the night. And, yet, he just selected and went on.

      Second, from a game mechanics standpoint, this removed agency from the player contradicting the entire premise the game was based on for the preceding 60 to 100 hours that came before. This is a stunningly strange choice in any video game, but even more so in Mass Effect.

      Perhaps the writers of the ending were trying to make a point about fate or predestination or what-have-you. If so, it was not clear at all and it was handled badly (hamfistedly? is that even a word?). Worse, however, is that it flatly belied the 5 year marketing of the game being all about “Your choices.” No dialog options to explore the concepts presented and their reprecutions for choosing an action with universe changing consequences?

      This wasn’t even Mass Effect. It was the absence of the most important defining characteristic of the series, the one mechanic that all dialogue-based game mechanics are now compared to in reviews. I cannot comprehend how this decision was not questioned – or, at the very least, how they could possibly have been caught off-guard by the backlash.

      Generally, I am not a fan on Fancition but this example: demonstrates VERY effectively how if they had included the missing “defy” option at the end, they could have changed very little of the odd change of conflict direction (from dark energy to singularity theory) and avoided much of the fan negative reaction. Sure you can argue it is less cerebral than the theme the writer’s have tried to insert at the end of ME3, but this fanfic ending was more Mass Effect than what exists in the game. If you sell 60-100 hours of Star Wars and then end it with 10-20 minutes of 2001, you end up with the mess you have here – no closure, no catharsis.

      As Doyce says: “Is the ending, as an ending (taken out of context with the game we’ve been playing), a bad one? No. It’s an interesting theme that was explored extensively in a B-plot within the series and which could certainly be the central thread of a series of its own.

      But it’s not the ending of this story. Our goals — the one we’ve been fighting for — are never addressed. There is no closure, either happy or sad — we want our emotional release as it relates to the game we actually played.”

      1. ^^ This.

        The unquestioned acceptance that players were herded into breaks the mechanic of the game and is totally uncharacteristic of Shepard. I had no emotional reaction–save confusion and disappointment–to the entire situation with the Star Child.

  25. Fantastic read. I’ve yet to see someone defend the endings in such a concise manner, especially BioWare. If this ending is REALLY what they believe belongs at the end of the story and it wasn’t just a last minute, desperate attempt to meet a deadline, then it’s a little strange not having seen one person from BioWare defend it.

  26. The argument that user determination exempts games from being art is retarded. Artists created every scenario and outcome that the player can possibly experience.


    This argument is like if Tolstoy wrote two possible endings to War & Peace, and the reader decided which final chapter to read, it instantly stops being art even though he created and wrote both story branches for the audience to experience.

    What has to be wrong in a human being’s brain to make this argument? It’s staggering that any individual of sound mental health could possibly think this way.

    1. You misunderstand: I’m not saying it stops being art if it’s participatory — I’m saying all the participants have a right to affect the ending — that’s really what “participants” means.

      1. I’m responding to the comment about Hideo Kojima. That was also Roger Ebert’s argument against video games. It’s so bad dude!

  27. This…

    i’ve seen so much bad journalism i was losing hope!

    AWESOME article!

    Best Regards,

  28. Thank you for writing this, you captured my thoughts perfectly and more eloquently than I could have. I played the hell out of ME 1 and 2 and have multiple characters I played through in preparation for ME 3. I played my Paragon FemShep through and have felt no desire to go back and play any of my other characters through. Why bother. I hope they do something about this crap ending because I loved 99% of my Mass Effect experience. I’d love a reason to fire it up again to finish the story of my bastard Renegade Shep, I have reporters to punch…

  29. I agree that the current ending sucks, and think that BioWare should definitely add in this original ending via DLC and use the Indoctrination whatchamacallit as the excuse.

    But there’s something else they need to do as well. They need to recognize that they’re establishing a major precedent.

    Here’s the thing, Doyce: You can smugly claim that focus groups are a good thing (although the cast and crew of Blade Runner and Will Smith’s I Am Legend might like to have a word with you) and talk about “practicality,” but here’s another real-world practicality: If big-name publishers/developers start looking like they’re willing to let fans veto creative decisions just by screaming loud enough, no decent writers will ever want to work in video games again. For better or worse, appearance matters in this scenario, and things have already gone too far for the mass reaction to be just ignored and uncommented on.

    You know how BioWare should solve this?

    They should make a big show of pinning the blame on EA or whatever (EA probably did have a lot to do with it anyway, knowing them) and claiming that they wanted to do the correct ending all along. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, this needs to be spun, if there’s any hope for the medium.

  30. The interesting part of all this comes from a comment that one of the people on the writing team wrote on a forum. He basically said that the two top writers decided the ending without allowing input from any of the rest of the writers and that no matter how many times the other writers protested they were ignored.

    Excuse the language, but these two fucking power-tripping assholes were either so arrogant in their brilliance that they didn’t want input or criticism from their colleagues or they did it on purpose for some unthinkable reason.

        1. In a way it still bothers me that (assuming the post is legit), he claims Casey made the “star child” ending because he’s “smart and really analytical”. Nothing is smart and analytical about that portion of the ending. Nothing. It’s circular logic and lazy writing, with multiple deus ex machina plot devices that don’t even do their job effectively. A high school english teacher would flunk him for writing that.

          When you compare that to the absolutely astounding handling of Tuchanka (when you consider all the possible different paths the story can take), it’s a night and day difference that goes beyond just individual writing issues to a complete plot outline/storyboarding failure.

  31. *claps* Man it was so refreshing to know the real ending, I cannot thank you enough, “got shared”.

  32. LOVE your LOTR analogy, and completely agree with everything you say here.

    Everyone who talks about artistic integrity misses a key point – Bioware is a COMPANY. Anyone who has worked in a company before knows that there are MANY stakeholders for any projects – customers are just one of them. So, if someone from management wants to “meddle”, do you think the game producers would plead artistic integrity and tell them to eff off? No way (unless they have other options elsewhere)!! They would try to convince the management guy, or will just concede. I have seen it time and again in every company I have worked at so don’t tell me game companies are any different.

    As I see it, the artistic argument goes out the door for a product sold by a COMPANY that is MASS PRODUCED (ie my copy is essentially the same as yours). AND unlike a movie or book, your genre has a history of changing things up after the release of a product. It is FAR more difficult to change a book or movie or TV show after it has been release (and yet it has been done – Sherlock Holmes, great expectations, even the ME book) – everyone will need to buy a new copy.
    For games, you can issue a patch or DLC and even have a revenue stream from it. Why wouldn’t you do that to keep your most loyal players?

  33. This VOCAL MINORITY represents only 4% of the dissatisfied customers. This figure they use for the vocal minority of say 50,000 from the poll is very bad. Do the math. I think that’s 1.25 million out of all the copies sold.

    Also as far as the “major precedent” goes — it’s been done many times before. Classical composers have revised compositions after they’ve been poorly received, and that didn’t take away from the art. Now that’s fine art. Games are commercial art. It’s different. It’s a mass marketed product. Bethesda added “Broken Steel” to Fallout 3 and that DLC sold, and I felt it improved the game a lot. It didn’t break the game. Adding a proper ending to Mass Effect 3 won’t break the game. IMO the writers who tacked the crappy ending we have shouldn’t be working because they cost the company $millions.

    The ending just ruined the entire series for me. Parts 1, 2, and 90% of 3 ruined in 5 minutes. I’ve seen the videos of all the endings. I’ve played all the endings. They’re all the same. Space child comes and tells you “yo dawg I know organics are going to be destroyed by synthetics so I created a race of synthetics to destroy you every 50,000 years so you won’t be destroyed by synthetics.”

    In Mass Effect 1, you fight against Saren Arterius who at one point says “Think of this Shepard. Part machine. Part organic. The strengths of both. The weakness of neither.” So you fight against him and defeat him to stop the reaper invasion only to get offered that in the so-called “best ending” — the Green ending of ME3.

    Mass Effect 2 has you meeting The Illusive Man and you get introduced to his diabolical nature, and you stop another reaper invasion.

    Then in ME3 you see your home, and the homes of your friends being destroyed. You gather your army, and gather some of the most unlikely allies together. It really is fight together or die. You’re ready to kick the reapers in the daddybags. Then you get to the final battle and it’s choose red, but you really don’t want to do that because you kill one of your allies, and the cycle will start again eventually anyway, and it throws the galaxy into a dark age because it destroys all technology you depend upon; Blue, control, but you really don’t know for how long the control will last, and it still leaves every single one of your allies stranded on earth; or Green, synergy, where you do what Saren was wanting.

    Then why even fight Saren in the first place? It is at this point where I, as the player, just was at first thinking what? then I tried shooting the space kid, then I decided to go to the Red destroy ending because everyone was ****** anyway.

    Now Bioware talks about DLC. They’re saying they’re listening about the ending. They’re playing trench warfare “artistic integrity” about the endings and that they’re not changing them. Then a tweet gets out how they’re going to add to it. Then it gets denied. Then they say they’re going to have mid-game DLC — like I’m going to buy any of this.

    All the endings are the same. Until the ending is fixed or expanded to actually mean something and do something, if you want to play the game, just do the main missions, and forget about doing any of the side missions. You’ll get the same endings anyway. Well you might miss out on becoming a green husk, or Joker becoming happy with his blow up doll.

  34. I disliked the ending quite a bit but loved the game and the series so much that I was mostly willing to overlook it. Though I wasn’t part of the “Hold the Line” superfan charity raising movement like most consumers, I consider myself the silent majority. However, reading this blog makes me realize just how terrible the ending truly was. Very well-written, thank you!

  35. This hits on so many points about what I thought was wrong thematically about the ending and that it wasn’t an actual ending at all. Not to mention the giant plotholes it opens and basically makes the first game completely, well, pointless.

    Although if you ONLY play ME3, and had no inkling of the full events of the previous games and never once opened the Codex to read up on it, you might go along with it.

  36. I find it truly amazing that you even liked Mass Effect 2 with all of its various plot holes and idiotic concepts, starting with Shepard dying (just so the game could reset your skills), you working for the most incompetent terrorist organization in the galaxy (which was supposed to be pro-human but wound up killing loads of them instead), flying a ship with the alien equivalent of a Nazi swastika on the hull, defeating reapers whose backstory from the first game was ignored/rewritten, all set (like the first game) among a bunch of side-quests that were retreads of old episodes of “Star Trek,” Babylon-5,” etc.

    Sure, Mordin was awesome, there were some interesting moments with Legion, and so forth, but the main story arc was a deeply flawed one from the moment the Normandy got blown up. And by the way, what genius at Bioware thought that “the best pilot in the Galaxy” would fly his ship in front of a vessel with a one-shot-kill weapon TWICE, when flying away from its side or its rear would have been perfectly safe?

  37. Personally, I like Donaldson, but I’ll leave that aside. This analogy fails because I can’t recall where Donaldson has ever volunteered to finish up someone’s work. Sanderson filling in for Jordan would be a better analogy… except that Sanderson turned out to be a better writer than Jordan.

    But that brings me to another what-if scenario. Imagine how ME3 would have turned out if they’d replaced Drew Karpyshyn with a space-opera giant like Iain Banks. Or Ray Bradbury.

  38. As for “the (synthetic AI) Reapers destroy advanced organic civilizations every 50 thousand years to prevent organic civilizations from… being destroyed by synthetic AIs.”

    A lot of this comes from Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series. Reapers == Inhibitors. For Reynolds, the Inhibitors were trying to mitigate the effects of the Andromeda Galaxy’s predicted crash into our galaxy.

    One thing Reynolds would never think of, because it’s stupid, is to have Inhibitors step in to save sentient races from some other version of Inhibitors.

  39. Fucking A, man. This article describes the situation perfectly. Thinking about this whole affair makes me sick.

  40. If Star Wars had a Mass Effect 3 ending

    Luke after convincing Darth Vadar to sacrifice his life to kill the emperor breaking the hold the emperor, he collapsed and become unconscious due to injuries sustained from being fried by the emperor and then wakes up on the surface of the death star (with no explanation why he isn’t suffocating to death) where jar jar bink (by the way luke has never ever met jar jar binks before) who turns out to be the real master controlling Darth vadar and the emperor and was responsible for all the mass genocide by the empire throughout the series. The motivation of Jar Jar Binks was that it was inevitable that the force powers will destroy the galaxy and therefore the emperor wipes out organic with force powers to prevent them from developing force powers to wipe out the galaxy

    Emperor give Luke 3 choices Luke will control all the force power in the galaxy Merge the force with organic beings so that everyone will become one with the force (so everyone becomes wan kenobi ghost) Destroy force power which results in the death of all force sensitive being (so Princess Leia must die as well).

    No matter which choice he choose, Luke Skywalker has to die, all the hyperdrive stop working which strands the rebel alliance fleet over Endor. Each choice results in the death star exploding in a red/green/blue colour

    Oh yeah it turns out later on we see the millenium falcon crash land on some planet we never seen before and then lando, han solo, chewbacca exits the millenium falcon implying that tando picked up han and chewbaccer from endor and then ran away from the battle against the death star.

    Am I missing anything?

  41. Great breakdown as to why the ending is such a mess. I think the whole debacle represents a extremely important juncture in the evolution of the interactive medium, and its long term impact is going to be profound (though we won’t see it come to fruition until the next development cycle).

    Disappointing seemingly large tracts of the ‘professional’ gaming press are unwilling (or mentally incapable) of wrapping their heads around the whole affair, and are vigorously defending the games ending(s) on grounds of ‘originality’. Whilst broadly dismissing the views of the fan base as little more than the whining of spoilt brats: –

    is a prime example of such Fox news style ‘games journalism’ in effect.

    However I suspect that a large number of developers across the board are likely more circumspect in their appraisal of events and will be taking footnotes over the whole affair.

    1. Ah yes, the Fox News analogy. I haven’t seen *that* on the Internet before. Have you perfected your sneer yet, kadayi?


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