A FEW WORDS ON THE ENDING OF MASS EFFECT 3

August 6, 2012

HULK GOT A LITTLE SMASHY IN THIS ONE, BUT HULK SWEAR IT COMES  FROM A PLACE OF LOVE, UNDERSTANDING, BELIEF IN ART, AND UTTER LOVE FOR A VIDEO GAME.

http://badassdigest.com/2012/08/06/film-crit-hulk-smash-a-few-words-on-the-ending-of-mass-effect-3/

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15 Responses to “A FEW WORDS ON THE ENDING OF MASS EFFECT 3”

  1. Sozac said

    Great article Hulk. I didn’t have a problem with Mass Effect 3 or it’s ending, even though a lot of people were railing against it (this is actually the first article giving support to it), but I was wondering what you though of 2. I really thought the human reaper thing seemed really stupid, and never really understood what the point of it was.

  2. marbled said

    This one is quite interesting for me, because I fiercely believe in an author’s right to choose to end their work as they choose to, and agree that having fans demand changes to the work reeks of entitlement. However, I also feel it’s fair to critique a piece of work, and that if we want videogames to be taken seriously as an “artform” (and I’m choosing to ignore the “is it art?” debate), we need to hold them to the same level of scrutiny as other creative work.

    With this in mind, I found that the ending of ME3 failed for me on 2 levels:

    1. Thematically, it positions the entire trilogy as being about the inevitability of Synthetics vs Organics, which doesn’t match the events + history of the galaxy. There is only one example of AI’s rebelling against their creators – the Geth vs the Quarians, and in my game I negotiated peace between the two species and they were working together to rebuild their homeworld. The Crucible’s assumption had been rendered invalid by my actions, but there was no reflection of this in the ending. If they had positioned it more as a question of less developed species attacking their superiors, leading to a constant cycle of conflict, that might have made more sense – you’d feel a link to the Rachni + Krogan rebellions, and the First Contact War between Turians and humans, but to me that just felt hollow.

    The extended ending, if anything, makes this even worse, by revealing that the Crucible is itself an AI that choose to destroy (or at least “Harvest”, which seems much the same) its creators and then impose the cycle of harvesting on the galaxy. I’m honestly not sure if Bioware intended us to pick up on the hideous irony behind this, or haven’t realized it themselves. Throughout the games my Sheppard has been portrayed as a character who didn’t take bullshit from anyone, and managed to stop a war (between the Quarians and the Geth) by yelling at them, yet she (and therefore we) have to meekly accept the Crucible’s arguments without any debate.

    2. Regardless of your feelings on the thematic resonance of the ending, there’s no denying that it’s an incredibly scrappy and confusing ending. In my ending, after the Normandy crashes Garrus is one of the characters to step out, but he had been with me on Earth, leading me to wonder how he’d been transported to the Normandy. The only conclusion is that somehow they’d been picked up without me, which does rather put a strain on the friendships I’d built with these characters over the 3 games!

    Additionally, in the DLC to the second game, you’re told that a Mass Relay detonating will wipe out the solar system. When I was told that no matter what, they’d all be destroyed, the logical conclusion to draw is that you’d be destroying the vast majority of inhabited systems in the galaxy. With the relays the only real way to travel across the galaxy, any survivors would be left stranded with limited resources and their homes damaged by the reapers. In this context, any of the endings comes across as hideously nihilistic, which doesn’t fit the tone of the games thus far. Many have pointed out that the creators surely didn’t intend for it to be taken this way (and the modified endings certainly suggest that this is the case, with the relay network just being damaged, not destroyed), but can you really be blamed for taking what you’ve been previously told by the authors and applying it to the ending?

  3. Andrew said

    Hey Hulk, longtime reader, first-time commentator.

    I think many points you make in the article are absolutely correct, chief among them that the ending was thematically coherent with the rest of the story. However, I think you are overlooking an issue that I don’t see addressed here, which is that the original ending did not provide sufficient context to understand the behavior of Shepard’s crew.

    The original ending shows Joker taking the Normandy somewhere in FTL flight, but why would Joker, who is Shepard’s close friend and was with him or her more than any other person in the series, leave the combat over Earth? He stuck around when Shepard was one of the last people out of the collector base, so what caused the change in behavior? Why were the squadmates that accompanied Shepard on the Eden world too, when that would mean that they would give up following Shepard to the Citadel?

    These problems were quickly and easily explained in the DLC, but most of my anger over the ending was less “The symbolism and imagery is poorly done and doesn’t fit in with the rest of the series” and more “Why did those people do that? It’s not like them at all.”

  4. posting here too!!

    Hey HULK,

    Thanks HULK for making my TDKR and LOST defenses seem less pathological than your attempt to call a video game CITIZEN KANE.

    Peace and all that. Rosebud.

  5. Sigga said

    I think there’s a Fight Club esque disconnect between the ending and what went before for most people.

    I saw it summed up somewhere quite pithily as: This is why we don’t stick predestination endingd onto free will storylines”

    Games are a very special type of artform because of the expectation of choice and the want to have your choices matter as you’re piloting your character through the game. It makes for almost impossible challenges when it comes to structuring the narrative.

    And with mass effect maybe it wasn’t intended to be a free will storyline (like Fight club probably wasn’t intended to have people go yes! And start up their own Fight clubs) but that’s what a lot of people experienced and got invested in over many many hours and then got angry when the ending hit

  6. drayfish said

    Hulk, while I always appreciate that you are willing to approach videogames as worthy of being critically assessed by the standards of art, I’m not sure that this piece in any way lives up to your usual standards.

    Indeed, this article risks being alarmingly confrontational and reductive. Perhaps this is just in part because of the whole ‘HULK SMASH’ demeanour, but it comes across as if you really are declaring any fans dissatisfied with the endings to be too obtuse to ‘get’ what the text was actually about, and therefore not worthy of engaging in any analytical debate. (And responding to someone’s criticism with ‘FUCK THIS GUY. FUCK HIM IN HIS BIG STUPID FACE’? Come on. You’re better than that.)

    For the most part I greatly appreciate the perspective you bring to the overarching poetic connotations of the cycles that recur throughout the game – cycles of violence, cycles of fear, cycles of war – referencing them as a thematic key that might unlock the entirety of the narrative, but I can’t see any way in which it’s fair to equate fans that don’t likewise appreciate the artistic statement you perceive in that ending, with whining entitlement.

    Personally, I have a rather different take on those cycles. To my mind, the message of the work was at its heart about the way in which a hero/the player confronts seemingly intractable cycles of behaviour, and fights, bends to their influence, or turns against them. It was a component of the narrative; it was embedded in the gameplay; it seeped into every theme that reverberated throughout the work. How can Shepard stand against the oncoming tide of annihilation? How can one person make a difference at the very core of such repetitions of unprincipled chaos? How can one person fight generations of intolerance, brutality and war?

    But the ending revealed Bioware’s ultimate message to be: You can’t. Aggression can only be defeated by robbing people of freedom. The cycle goes on.

    It doesn’t matter if you’ve cultivated cooperation and friendships between disparate races and philosophies; it doesn’t matter if you valued life (synthetic and organic); brought peace to the universe; bound civilisations together in a unified purpose; respected the autonomy of others.

    In the end, you meet a character (a literal deus ex machina) who describes the whole purpose of the narrative, everything that you’ve been fighting against, was to answer a cycle of racial conflict, to solve his hypothesis that synthetic and organic life can never grow up enough to get along. Believing this, he has spent aeons murdering countless people, and at this moment you get to stop that cycle by making a choice that will impact all of his potential victims for all time.

    So Bioware chose to emblematise the entirety of this journey (the one players so adamantly wanted to ‘reject’ as you somewhat dismissively noted) by forcing the player to either destroy one race of beings in order to save another (Destroy); to mind control sentient beings to your will (Control); or to eugenically molest everyone in the galaxy without their permission (Synthesise).

    The player is tasked with confronting an endless cycle of racism and social division – and then is compelled to endorse three of its most ghastly tenets. No other options. Commit a war crime: genocide a race of valid life; wipe away autonomy; or agree with the crazy racist that we will never be able to appreciate and value one another until we all look the same.

    It is an alarmingly nihilistic, cynical world view, and I don’t think it inappropriate or misguided for fans to react against being compelled to compromise their ethics in such a way to ‘win’ a war. Bioware has every right to use their art to express whatever vision of the world they wish, but I believe that art has a social and cultural responsibility, and compelling players to perform an atrocity then showing only positive consequences for such an act steps over a line.

    That doesn’t mean I want the ending changed; if that’s the message Bioware wanted to send they have every right to do so. But calling an audience philistines for rejecting such a premise, condemning them as somehow misreading an artwork because they do not want to be forced into a narrative that actively celebrate total moral compromise, speaks more to the thematic allowances that you are willing to offer a text that excited your intellectual curiosity, than it ever could about the fans who were heartbroken at seeing a universe that they had believed celebrated diversity and inclusivity suddenly abandon those notions in its final minutes.

    Perhaps this is unfair of me to say, but to me this seems every bit the kind of accusatory displeasure you are criticising others for displaying. The only difference here is that your malice is pointed away from the text, rather than toward it; but ultimately it has just as stunting an effect on any legitimate discussion of the piece as a work of art.

    Your subjective analysis is just that: subjective. Just as mine is too. We’re each taking individual engagements with a text, one no more privileged than the other, to speak to our own experience. To deride and dismiss others for not aligning with a particular vision of the work, to equate refusing to participate the thematic cruelties that can be perceived beneath the surface of this narrative with somehow trying to stagnate artistic expression is to cripple that very artistic debate when it is most sorely required.

  7. I remember awhile back in your Joseph Campbell article, you used Bioware games as an example of art that over-literalized the “Hero’s Journey” mold and maybe didn’t grasp the storytelling nuances you can still have within that structure. (I’m badly paraphrasing.) So as someone who didn’t continue with Bioware games after having some major story problems with Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect 1, I was wondering, how did your opinion of this series evolve from your former viewpoint to seeing it as perhaps the first truly artistically coherent statement in video games? Are Mass Effect 2 and 3 substantially that much better than the first entry, or did becoming more invested in the franchise change your perception of the work in its entirety? Obviously this article is mainly focused on the ending debate, but I’d be really curious to hear about your experience playing through the rest of the games.

    • FILMCRITHULK said

      HULK’S GOING TO TALK ABOUT THIS SOON HOPEFULLY! (IN INTERVIEW FORM?) BUT REALLY IT WAS ONE OF THOSE CASES OF A GAME SERIES GETTING SO MUCH BETTER WITH EVERY ENTRY THAT IT CHANGED THE WAY HULK EVEN SEES THE FIRST ONE.

  8. (Note: I first posted this on the actual article, but there were so many comments there I was worried I wouldn’t get heard.)

    Hulk, I really love all your work, and this is the first time I’ve really disagreed with you about something.

    Let me say first that you are probably the best movie critic I’ve ever read, and that all your stuff is great. Even in this article, I see that all of your arguments are well thought out and are totally true. (Even though I thought calling Jeremy fucking stupid or whatever was uncalled for, as I actually know the guy.)

    However, the reason I think I disagree with you is the very fact that you ARE a movie critic. You’re analyzing the story and the themes in the way you analyze a movie, and you define video games with art on the same scale that you do with movies. This is where I think the problem is.

    Comparing movies that are art and video games that are art is like comparing apples and oranges. They are simply too different to be put against each other, in my opinion. If the Mass Effect series were movies instead of games, I would agree with you 100%, and I might have even enjoyed the ending. In fact, I’ve watched a few movies that had Mass Effect-ish endings, and really liked them. The problem is, Mass Effect isn’t a trilogy of movies, it’s a trilogy of games.

    Games are more interactive than movies, and thus player input is very important. In Mass Effect, player input is so important that it effects the entire story. For this reason, when players reach the end of the series it is not just the developers that craft the story, it is the players themselves. It is for this reason why players thought they were being given the short end of the stick when they didn’t get a very clear resolution that was the same for everyone.

    As I said before, I really love your work, and I admit that I definitely don’t have as much experience as you do when it comes to story telling conventions. It just seems to me that you are using a movie rating scale to review video games, something that I don’t think should be done. I think video games should have their own definition as art, and not have to conform to that of movies.

    That’s just my opinion, no need to go spreading it around…

    • FILMCRITHULK said

      HULK WRITING A FOLLOW-UP PIECE ADDRESSING IT AND SOME OF THE THINGS BROUGHT UP. BUT YES HULK WAS WRONG IN SAYING “FUCK THAT GUY” ABOUT JEREMY WHEN HULK WAS CRITICIZING THE THINKING NOT THE PERSON. IT WAS WHOLLY REACTIONARY AND PETTY, BUT HULK HONESTLY BELIEVES THE ATTITUDE THAT WAS BEING PUT ON DISPLAY (WHICH GRANTED MAY HAVE BEEN SLIGHTLY EXAGGERATED FOR VIDEO PURPOSES) IS A DANGEROUS ONE TO HAVE AS A CONSUMER OF STORYTELLING.

      AND TO YOUR LARGER POINT ABOUT GAMES VS. CINEMA, HULK LIKED THE WAY THAT IT USED THE ALTERNATIVE GAME ENDINGS AS A WAY TO MAKE A SPECIFIC ADDED COMMENTARY THAT WOULDN’T BE POSSIBLE IN MOVIES. DOES ALL THAT MAKE SENSE?

      ANYMORE, MORE SOON THOUGH AND HULK SINCERELY THANK FOR WRITING.

  9. hochom said

    The way the gaming media covered this situation was fairly extraordinary, and in my opinion generated a lot of the fan rage. I started seeing articles about how much everyone disliked the ending days before I ever finished the game, and the tone of most of the coverage was that anyone who wasn’t happy with the ending was some sort of whining baby. Until the media covered it, I wasn’t even aware that I was supposed to be wanting a new ending. But as long as they were suggesting it, and if the ending’s as bad as they say it is, yeah, sounds like a great idea! And so everybody approaches the ending knowing ahead of time that they’ll have to pick a side.

    When I started reading forum posts on the subject, nobody really seemed to think a new ending would fix the game for them. If anything, the mood was really pessimistic towards the new ending right from the day it was announced. Most of the discussion of the existing ending was either a long list of logical nitpicks or someone asking why everyone hated the ending so much. Some people wanted a rah-rah Shepard punches the reapers to death ending, but they were a small minority. Nearly everyone (myself included) wanted something similar to the current ending but with the starchild removed.

    Compare the reaction to other games, for instance Deus Ex HR, which had an ending that was even more universally disliked than ME3’s (also had some boss battles that nobody liked). This game is remembered pretty fondly by the same sort of people who are still angry about ME3. Probably some people complained about it on forums, but who knows? Nobody, because Forbes didn’t write an article about it.

    So it remains to be seen whether or not there’s a new breed of gamer who’ll insist on a new ending for every game he doesn’t like. Probably not though.

  10. Rubi-kun said

    I read your follow-up piece, and I think I might have an idea of why certain fandoms’ reactions can be so horribly extreme at times. I think it has to do with people’s feelings about childhood.

    If someone writes a bad review of The Master, at worst it might be taken as a challenge to someone’s taste at the moment or the hype of the past six months or so. You haven’t been waiting for this movie for 10, 15, 20 years. When people have been waiting a lifetime for a move, a bad review becomes an affront to their childhood.

    Think of how Armond White’s infamy rose. He’s been panning popular movies for years now, but what rose him up from a joke on Rotten Tomatoes to the center of national controversy was his review of Toy Story 3. A sequel to the childhood favorites of a certain generation of kids that was speaking to them directly about their childhood at a time they were entering the adult world. No wonder this was the movie that got people so defensive.

    Enough has been said Star Wars fans and their cries of George Lucas “raping their childhood.”

    Of course, Toy Story and Star Wars were mainstream hits from the start. Odds are that most of the kids who grew up loving those movies had parents who liked them too. Not so much with comic books. Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises aren’t only seen by their fans as reminders of their innocent childhood obsessions, but as validations of them and fuck yous to the adults who didn’t get it. So their not only defensive of their childhood, they’re being defensive of something they were already defensive of in childhood.

    At least comics in the ’80s and ’90s were starting to get some respect among hipper art and intellectual circles; if young comic fans didn’t have parents who respected their passion, there was at least some hope they’d have a cool older brother or cousin who did. Little such luck with video games. Before the Playstation era and even then not in full until the past decade, there basically were no adult gamers beyond the most nerdy of the nerds. For young gamers trying to defend themselves, it was basically them against the world. No wonder that mindset devolved into horrible black-and-white discourse among the less mature of those kids grown up.

  11. drayfish said

    I must say, I’m glad for the more inclusive response you offered in your follow up piece, Film Crit Hulk.

    Much as you yourself state, this would have been the far more productive way in which to first engage with this debate. It was a shame to see you sliding into the same bipolarity of argument that seems to have infected a majority of the voices in the media when it comes to this particular text – and this is certainly a far better place from which to engage in a genuine discussion of the game’s merits or failings.

    Personally, my interpretation of the narrative’s conclusion is still fundamentally divergent from yours, but at least now it does not sound like you are declaring those who disagree with you (such as myself) uncultured, entitled crybabies for thinking so. I appreciate it, but more so, I am heartened to hear you inviting discussion now (despite still suggesting that those who don’t embrace the specific ‘thematic’ poetry of rebirth you personally infer to be somehow deficient in their reading.)

    I’m sure many other respondents have said as much already, but I would encourage you not to automatically (misleadingly) align those-who-dislike-the-ending with those-who-just-don’t-want-Shepard-to-die. The majority of fans I have seen expressing dissatisfaction with the themes of the game are not hung up on having to bid farewell to Shepard – they’re not gnashing their teeth demanding a ‘happy-joy-blue-babies’ finale – they are reacting negatively to that conclusion for precisely the reason you responded so favorably. It is a symbol of life itself; and while you, happily, see poetry, they see perversion.

    See, I agree wholly with your assessment that Shepard’s action at the end of her life should be emblematic of the way in which she lived, that her decision here should embody what human beings hold most sacred – but for me, none of that seems to be encapsulated in those final three choices. In my reading, I resent Bioware for compelling Shepard to finally symbolise one of the three principle that have governed the Reapers, proving that they, the racist space bugs, were right all along: that mass slaughter, eugenics, or mind control are the only final choices in war to ‘preserve’ the best of humanity. Even choosing Synthesis – which superficially appears to evolve existence to a new state of enlightenment, only does so through a grotesque imposition upon all life, obliterating racial diversity and thereby stifling inclusivity. It celebrates intolerance of distinction rather than the strength of unity.

    But again, that’s just me (and some of the people I have engaged with in their readings). It’s by no means the definitive statement on the endings. I am truly glad that you were able to find grace and poetry in your reading; it is however just one reading amongst a biodiversity of interpretation.

    If you are interested in seeking out further discussion of the endings to see more reason discussions of why some fans have reacted less favourably, I would encourage you to explore:

    http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/355/index/11435886/

    or:

    http://awtr.wikidot.com/

    Each of which is filled with intelligent, thoughtful, inclusive discussion by individuals who both passionately love the franchise, and are mindful of the thematic and artistic possibilities (and potential expressive issues) of videogames. I have been a part of each for months now, and I believe that the analysis – both for and against the endings – disproves your assertion that an intolerance is stifling artistic debate. The internet is not always the best breeding ground for considered, elegant analysis, but there are havens for such critique if you hunt do not allow yourself to be derailed by the loudest voices.

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