In our podcast about our favorite video games I mentioned that Mass Effect was mine (although I did cheat and act as though all three were a single entity) and while that is not such an oddity in itself I do sometimes feel alone on my island of “I like Mass Effect’s Ending”. While that could be explained away with a hand-wave of nostalgia I would prefer to explain it away by over analysis instead.
While not as bad as it was back in 2012 the google test still brings back a pretty grim prognosis
If I was to hazard a guess as to why the Mass Effect endings did not bother me I would say quite a bit of it came from my play style. As a gamer who is always just a tad behind the times I ended up playing through all three in a single sitting, as opposed to one at a time with re-plays between releases. This meant that for me the story was much more linear. I was offered choices, but had only taken a single route through the game and as such only took one ending as well. I didn’t notice the similarities between the three endings because I only saw one.
Most of the negative feelings I do have about ME3’s ending have to do with the set-pieces of the final scene more than the actual ending itself. The addition of an AI boy who is on the giant space gun the protagonists made felt like it was predominately for exposition purposes: a final info-dump that really lessened the impact of the scenes immediately before. The final scene with Anderson in the core was one of my favorites in any media form ever and having such a quiet and impactful scene followed up with a rather abrupt last minute dialogue tree with a character who is essentially a stranger was a bit of whiplash.
Even with my own gripes about the details present I still love the ending of ME3. In my first playthrough and in all my subsequent playthroughs since then I have never felt discontentment with the sacrifice of Shepard as an unavoidable fate (spoilers? you read the title.) For me the loss of Shepard was heart-wrenching and painful, but never disappointing.
Mass Effect’s plot right from day one was always that there was an impossible threat on the horizon, and I thought that ME3 portrayed that feeling well. The game’s epic trilogy of fast paced space shooting galleries finishing with a slow and injured limp to a finish line I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to cross created a whole slew of complicated emotions, but complicated in a way that was indicative of powerful story telling and narrative. Part of what made the narrative so powerful to me was Mass Effect putting its money where its mouth was. Through your whole adventure Shepard had been trying desperately to warn everyone that there was a thread coming, and when that threat came it was exactly as big and exactly as devastating as promised. The reapers claimed whole planets during the narrative of ME3, the threat presented was that no one was safe and Mass effect payed off that threat with its ending.
Mass Effect is not only an RPG, Mass Effect is an Opera. Space Opera sure, but it more than lives up to its genre in that regards. Bioware sets up a hopeless situation, a no win where after three games of effort, warnings, hard choices and fighting Shepard doesn’t even get to live to see the payoff of all their hard work. For me that was powerful and appropriate as an ending to such a huge story. I may be looking at the decision through some rose colored glasses with this one, but in a game made of choices, isn’t a powerful ending one where your choice doesn’t matter?