Mass Effect 3's Ending Revisited: It's About the Journey and the Destination

05/24/2021 - 11:30 | By: Anson Chan
Developer
Bioware
Publisher
Electronic Arts
Release Date
March 6, 2012
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Storytelling in games can be a curious thing. Sometimes it's cheesy, sometimes it's clearly there just to be there, and sometimes it's so ridiculously off the wall that you can't decide on whether you should laugh at the absurdity of it or join in and embrace the ridiculousness. Once in a while, there may be games that are so compelling that the characters and setting stick with you for years. The original Mass Effect trilogy is a perfect example of a game series that nailed the art of storytelling via a mix of clever gameplay features and an incredible amount of effort from the developers and voice actors. Almost a decade after the last official chapter of Shepard's story, you can find plenty of Mass Effect fans who can tell you of their favorite characters in great detail. Others may go on and on about their decisions throughout the trilogy and how their Shepard's experience could be radically different from someone else's. 

It would be near impossible to mention the story of Mass Effect without also touching on the original trilogy's notorious ending however. Given the impressive number of fan theories that were spawned in an attempt to make Mass Effect 3's ending more palatable, it isn't much of an exaggeration to say that this was easily the most disliked aspect of the franchise. One can certainly see why people felt let down at how Shepard's story concluded. The franchise was built upon the idea that your Shepard's actions can have lasting consequences throughout the games, and plenty of people had been waiting for years to see how their story would end. Having to choose between three admittedly mediocre endings, complete with a mild deus ex machina element, would've understandably been a rather surreal moment. 

In spite of this, the release of the Mass Effect Legendary Edition proves that people still love the games. Like all remasters, the main selling point is that every game asset has 16 times the detail, and there's water reflections and lens flares everywhere. It can be argued that the Legendary Edition serves an additional critical role though. By bundling all the games together with all the DLC, BioWare may have inadvertently made the ending of the Shepard trilogy feel a little more reasonable or acceptable. It's hard to consider it a good way to end the trilogy regardless, but added context is always a good thing.

The fact that people don't have to wait years between games is in itself a major benefit for the ending. It's infinitely easier to remember plot points when you don't have to dig out and replay old copies of games or dive down some rabbit hole to understand something that would've otherwise been presented in a natural manner. There's also the benefit of retrospection. The tropes that BioWare leaned on likely didn't stand out so much at the time when the games were still fresh. Today, ancient alien superweapons and unstoppable alien killing machines aren't exactly new themes, and they evidently don't leave much to the imagination when it comes to alternate methods of conflict resolution.

 
 

Plus the narrative tangent that Mass Effect 2 went on is more apparent in the Legendary Edition. There's little doubt that Mass Effect 2 knocked it out of the park when it came to character development and world building. However, the entire game was spent chasing the Collectors rather than dealing with the Reaper threat directly (at least until the Arrival DLC). You could more or less stitch the beginning of Mass Effect 3 onto the end of the first Mass Effect and the Reaper plotline would be essentially unchanged, especially when you consider how the Collectors never show up afterwards. Thus Mass Effect 3 was left in the unenviable position of having to focus on the entirety of the Reaper war itself, rallying the galaxy, wrapping up every single side plot, building the Crucible, and addressing a massively powerful Cerberus all in one game. On the other hand, it's impossible to say how much an actual effect this had on 3's story, or the ending for that matter, when it was being written.

mass effect reaper
Maybe if the Council actually listened to Shepard when there's a GIANT UNIDENTIFIED SPACESHIP blowing everything up in the first game, we wouldn't be in this mess.

In any case, it really can't be overstated how much of an impact that Mass Effect Legendary Edition has by giving you the ability to seamlessly complete one title after another. Shepard's tale finally feels like the epic space opera that it should be rather than a bunch of snapshots of isolated conflicts, held together by fantastic characters that can truly stay with you from the instant that you meet them to the last moments of the extended cut slideshow. Mass Effect 3's ending on its own may still be suboptimal, yet it doesn't matter as much now that the Legendary Edition makes it clear that the entirety of Mass Effect 3 was meant to be the ending. As disappointing as the Star Child may be, it is but a footnote compared to seeing how three games' worth of decision making can resolve the Geth-Quarian conflict or the Genophage crisis. Frankly, Mass Effect 3 deserves a lot of credit for providing satisfying conclusions for so many of the ancillary plotlines, especially those that revolve around minor side characters like Conrad Verner or Khalisah al-Jilani. 

We can't forget about how much character development benefits from the consolidation of the series too. It is rather fascinating to be able to witness the character development of original squadmates like Tali and Garrus without a multi-year delay. Even some of the more boring squadmates (Kaidan/Ashley) can be seen in a different light now that you can more easily track how they grow throughout the series. Shepard's interactions with potential love interests can be rather amusing as well, though it's obviously a very gamified experience. By the time you finish Mass Effect 3: Citadel, it is easy to see why even if Mass Effect 3's ending was perfect in every way, the things that people will almost certainly remember are the characters that you meet and not how each individual game ends. Doubly so now that each game's individual ending feels more like an extended mission that branches into the next game.

Of course, it would be natural to point out that putting all of the Mass Effect games side by side also amplifies each individual game's flaws, including the Star Child ending. This is certainly true to an extent, yet it goes to show that the true strength of the series' storytelling lies in everything but the ending. Love it, hate it, tolerate it, or ignore it, the three-pronged conclusion to Shepard's saga isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Mass Effect isn't the first game series to end on a sour note, and it won't be the last. In retrospect, it ultimately doesn't matter because it's one of the few RPGs where the "role-playing" aspect was front and center. Between the squadmate-driven plotlines and the excellent world building, there is little doubt that this is a case where the journey mattered more to the fans than the destination.  


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Hi everybody! I've been playing all kinds of games for decades now, from FPSes to city builders to the occasional platformer, and if nothing else, it's taught me that games are the ultimate form of art.