Don't get me wrong, I was powerfully underwhelmed by the final minutes of Mass Effect 3, but the final sequence should not be changed. It's not because anyone has made a compelling argument in its or BioWare's defence, mind you. Contrary to what the Penny Arcade team have argued, the entirety of Mass Effect 3 is not the ending. Ask someone how the original Star Wars trilogy ends and they will not say that Return of the Jedi is the conclusion. It is the final chapter, yes, but it is characterised by some fairly definitive events that occur in the final act of the film:
- The Rebel Alliance destroys the Death Star
- Luke Skywalker defeats Darth Vader and the Emperor
- The Rebel Alliance defeats the Galactic Empire
Star Wars: The true ending
SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT - YOU'VE BEEN WARNED!!!
If someone asked you how did the trilogy end, you wouldn't say "Boba Fett gets eaten by the Sarlacc." You'd more than likely refer to one of the outcomes above to characterise the conclusion to the original series of films. Not that Boba Fett's demise isn't memorable, but it in no way represents the end. To even further discredit this argument, the scale of Mass Effect 3 is far greater than that of the original Star Wars trilogy or any film saga, for that matter. There are equal amounts of momentous and innocuous events that comprise the third instalment, however, you're only going to refer to the following events when discussing the game's ending(s):
Shepard successfully connects the Crucible to the Catalyst and kills the Illusive Man. He then ascends to the peak of the Citadel (Catalyst) and speaks to the Reapers (which present themselves as the child that has dogged his nightmares intermittently throughout the game) and...
- The Reapers are destroyed along with the Mass Relays and the crew of the Normandy somehow end up escaping to a tropical planet
- The Reapers withdraw from Earth, the Mass Relays are destroyed and the crew of the Normandy somehow end up escaping to a tropical planet
- Synthetic and organic lifeforms achieve synthesis, the Reapers withdraw from Earth, the Mass Relays are destroyed and the genetically-altered crew of the Normandy somehow end up escaping to a tropical planet
- Everything gets fucking toasted and the Normandy somehow ends up on a tropical planet
So we escaped the attack on Earth. Should we leave it here?
People haven't raised over thirty-three thousand dollars and trolled hundreds of editorials and forum posts because they put down the controller a third of the way through. No, they're angry because their choices throughout up to three separate instalments has little to no impact on the ending of Mass Effect 3. To counter Ben Kuchera of the Penny Arcade Report, your choices throughout the series -- and even in the third instalment specifically -- characterise your experience but they mean nothing in terms of the ending. Whether you survived the suicide mission with a skeleton crew or every available member in Mass Effect 2 has no bearing on the ending of Mass Effect 3. Completing every single quest in the final instalment with a full Paragon bar has the potential to present an ending that is only slightly different and equally as vague as the one where a player hasn't been half as merciful or invested the extra effort required to be as ready for the final conflict as quantifiably possible.
When I review Mass Effect 3 in the coming days, I'll share my story, where my choices made for many heartfelt moments with characters that I've come to love over the course of five years. It's a great game, with a story that is well worth experiencing if you've had any time with the series. Its ending, however, is terrible and there's no escaping it.
My main problem with it is that it is not consistent with the concept of choice in the Mass Effect series to date. Your decisions -- whether made in solitude or with crew in tow -- have obvious implications with little room for ambiguity. For example: you can choose to cure the Krogan Genophage and see a dying race reinvigorated. The outcomes of this merciful action are clear: the Krogans and Turians will assist you while the Salarians refuse to render assistance in your war against the Reapers. Alternatively, you can deceive the Krogan and enlist the help of all three races; but not without the guilt that comes with relegating friends and a species to eventual extinction. It is made clear to the player what these choices will mean for your quest. There's no grey area there, no hope that the aggressive, though loyal Krogans will survive without Shepard's and Mordin's sacrifice.
Even those interactions where the result isn't immediately obvious, have noticeable impact further down the line. Take sleeping with Jack in the earlier stages of Mass Effect 2 and the weight this choice had on Patrick Klepek's (of Giant Bomb) experience as an example. The player made a choice, and they eventually and very obviously paid for it.
The choice to control, destroy or synthesize has no obvious implications other than the fate of the Reapers. Even the worst possible ending cuts away from the Normandy's airlock before the player can determine whether the crew was DOA. In terms of BioWare's construction of choice in Mass Effect 3 and in the Mass Effect series at large, the conclusion of the final instalment is a failure.
The most articulate argument for the preservation of Mass Effect 3's current ending comes from Gamespot AU's Laura Parker, but I only agree with it in principle. In reality, I don't want to play through the game again so soon, not even the final missions. I want to believe that my conclusion, while vague and underwhelming, is definitive and can't be undone by the central character regaining consciousness thanks to the moaning of a million trolls.
Mass Effect 3's ending is terrible, but no one -- not disenchanted fans, nor BioWare -- has the right to change it. It's out in the wild and should be left to roam, confuse and annoy.