Fair warning: This is for people who have beaten Mass Effect 1,2 and 3. Heavy spoilers follow below.
I’m going to try not to swear in this. I’m going to try not to come off like the stereotypical angry internet nerd. I really am.
I may not be successful in that attempt, though, because the ending to Bioware’s Mass Effect 3 has turned me into some kind of confused feral animal.
From the beginning, Mass Effect was a franchise built upon choices and their consequences. In fact, the very first thing you do in the game is to choose your Shepard’s origins. And from there, the choices never stop coming at you. Do you let Wrex live? Who do you leave to die? Do you save the Council? Do you fall in love? Who do you fall in love with? Do you stay loyal? Do you bring everyone back from the suicide mission? In the third game, all of these choices come home to roost and the stage is set for the final battle where you expect to see just how bloody and costly your final victory is going to be.
Except that’s not what happens at all.
What happens is that for the second time in Mass Effect history you can talk the final boss of a game into shooting himself in the head. The game does this without even the slightest hint of irony, mind you.
Then you get to talk to
the Catalyst Reaper God a glowing child that gives you three arbitrary choices about how everything is going to be wrapped up. Choices that are in absolutely no way, shape or form affected in the slightest by the thousands of previous choices you’ve made up to this point.
The choices are, quite literally, color-coded for you and are, without exception or mitigation, completely terrible.
The Blue choice is to take control of the Reapers. The galaxy is “saved” and then immediately doomed as all the mass relays are blown up. You die and your crew crashes, never to be rescued. Apparently this is the choice the Illusive Man would’ve made, which is odd considering blue is the paragon color in the series.
The Red choice has you destroying all synthetic life – including EDI and the Geth, which, if you were any good at the game, have come quite a long way and are probably helping you out right now – but, hey, you get to kill the Reapers. The galaxy is once again “saved”, the relays blow up, your crew crashes without hope of rescue, but you might actually kinda-sorta-maybe survive this one if you got your multiplayer readiness score high enough. Anderson is who they show making this renegade choice, which is even more bizarre than Illusive Man being used to show the paragon one.
The third choice is the Green choice. Green being the other primary color in the RGB spectrum you see, and one between red and blue (except not at all). This choice involves “synthesis”. Some kind of fusion of organic and inorganic races that will change all life in the galaxy, technomagically. This ending also ends with you dying, the relays exploding and your crew crashing, never to be rescued. Everyone does glows strangely, though.
Just to give a quick summary, that’s three choices for how you want to end the game that have absolutely nothing to do with that huge armada of unified races you spent three games building, or the close personal bonds you’ve forged with your crew, or gives any kind of a damn that they all end with the galaxy in arguably a worse place than it was with the Reapers invading.
Which means, quite simply, that none of your choices mattered.
You could’ve killed your whole crew, turned the galaxy in on itself in a storm of fire and blood and you would’ve gotten the same three choices as some one that walked the precarious tight-rope of galactic peace and brotherhood.
I can understand the production and design pressures to make sure that the third chapter of the game felt as complete for new players as it did for people like me that meticulously played the previous two. However, the sudden, butcherous winnowing of five years of game choices down to three arbitrary endings is inexcusably lazy.
It also sets a dangerous precedent where player choices can be discarded as a cost of admission to the ending of a game. Have a franchise where player choice matters, but don’t want to be bothered to pick up after them? End cap your game like Mass Effect 3 did!
Oh, and the glowing child thing? That’s never explained or even questioned in the slightest. Which has given rise to a sadly hopefully fan theory that the whole thing with the Catalyst is just Shepard hallucinating. I think that gives the writers of the game too much credit and lets them off a hook that should be firmly set in their respective mouths.
Ultimately, I think there should not have been a choice – especially a RGB choice – at the end of Mass Effect 3.
Instead of a choice there should have been a consequence, an effect, from all of your previous choices in the games. That’s sort of how the first game did it, after all. Beating Sovereign was how things had to work out, the question just how you got there, and how many dead friends and foes were in your wake. The finality of the series should’ve been an endgame where all cards were placed on the table and your actions were judged as satisfactory, exemplary or neither.
The game didn’t need you making some ultimate choice to override all of your other choices. Those choices were enough, more than enough, to show the game how you wanted this story to end. And in a game, video or otherwise, it is the player that should get to decide how the endgame looks, no one else.
Maybe I’m just bitter about not getting the little blue babies Liara and my Shepard kept talking about.
I guess in that regard, you could say that is the final choice I’ll ever make in the Mass Effect games.
Pity it isn’t to play it again.