Elephants On the Citadel

by Dan H

Dan talks about the Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut
I should probably start out by saying that this is a first impressions article based on watching the new endings on Youtube, not on replaying the entire game, or reloading a save game and playing through the final mission.

I'm really quite ambivalent about the extended cut. Part of me wants to congratulate Bioware for at least making the effort, part of me wants to smack them in the teeth for being so fucking smug about it. Part of me feels that the extended cut offers a reasonable improvement over the original ending by adding additional choices and context, part of me feels that it makes the ending worse by adding patronising voiceovers which explain things that we could easily have worked out for ourselves, and don't explain any of the things that just plain make no sense.

More generally, the extended cut – or what I have seen of it – fails to address the elephants in the room. It doesn't make the Starchild less stupid, the choices less arbitrary, or the entire premise less absurd.

And the least said about the new “fuck you all” ending, the better.

The First Elephant: The What the Fuck Factor

I had a friend at university who both looked and sounded like Stephen Fry. One of his favourite things to say in a particular sort of argument was “no no, I understand you, I just don't agree with you.” And this is more or less what the Extended Edition made me want to say to Bioware.

Each of the new cutscenes devotes about half its running time to a voiced epilogue which outlines, in some detail, the consequences of the player's decision. The designers seem to have decided that what people disliked about the original endings was the ambiguity. They seem to feel that despite watching Shepherd ascend to a post-physical state in the Control ending we needed to be shown Shepherd saying “I have ascended to a post-physical state”. They seem to feel that despite having seen all the reapers blow up in the Destroy ending, we need to be told that we won the war and that it was hard. But they didn't feel we needed to be told how Synthesising a new race of organic/artificial hybrids made the Reapers decide to stop attacking us.

The extended cut goes to a lot of effort to explain what happens and it goes to particular effort to explain what it all means but it makes very little effort to explain – not to put too fine a point on it – what the fuck is going on.

This is particularly evident in the extended Synthesis ending. Rather than seeing the Reapers fly away and getting a few shots of people with glowing tattoos we see … more shots of the reapers flying away, and people with glowing tattoos. And with really, really stupid looking glowing eyes. And everybody is completely okay with this (indeed everybody's behaviour seems suspiciously similar to their behaviour in the other endings where they aren't ushered into a new phase of evolution).

In many ways, the new endings only exacerbate the problem I initially identified when the game originally launched - that of the game stepping in at the last minute and deciding what Shepherd's story was about. The original endings were at least amenable to multiple interpretations – Control, for example, was compatible with a Shepherd who just wanted to end the conflict with as few deaths as possible, or with a Shepherd who wanted to seize the power of the Reapers for herself and use it to subjugate the galaxy. Again, I should stress that I've not played through myself, so it's possible that the endings are different depending on your Paragon/Renegade status (I doubt that this is true, but Bioware would score major points if it was). But if the ending I've seen on youtube is the only one (and I think this is likely) then the only version of Shepherd that now fits the Control ending is “megalomaniac pacifist”.

Indeed I almost wonder if the Control ending suffers from trying to accommodate both possible versions of Shepherd – meaning that your closing speech starts with you talking about how you sacrificed yourself to protect the galaxy and ends with “bwahahaha my Robot Army is INVINCIBLE”.

All of the extended endings basically give us more of the same. The Control ending made it clearer that Shepherd ascended to a higher state of consciousness and took control of the Reapers. The Destroy option made it clearer that beating the Reapers was a good thing. The Synthesis ending made it clearer that Synthesis was The Best Ending. What we didn't get was any real exploration or exegesis of the ideas they so cursorily introduced in the last five minutes of the game.

This is a particular issue for Destroy and Synthesis. Control is fairly straightforward (and it's the option Kyra and I chose for almost precisely this reason – it was the one that involved fucking about with as few people as possible, although ironically it also seems to be the ending that casts you as a megalomaniac) but Synthesis and Destroy had some major unanswered questions – like what Synthesis was even supposed to mean, or what exactly would be destroyed by the Destroy option.

The extended Destroy ending is particularly odd (and yes, I realise that I've now said that every single one of the original endings is in some way particularly weird in the extended cut – let's just say that they all have their own particular problems) in that it seems, accidentally or by design, to be papering over the more peculiar elements of the Destroy ending as it was originally pitched by the Starchild. We are told that choosing the Destroy option (which we apparently activate by shooting a tube – again, the What the Fuck factor is really not addressed at all here) will destroy all “artificial life” with no real concept of what that means – it definitely includes EDI and the Geth, and might even take out VIs (the Starchild says something about it destroying “much of our technology”) but the extended cutscene wusses out of actually showing you any of the bad consequences of the Destroy option. We don't see the Geth or EDI dying – and Joker doesn't seem particularly fussed about the fact that his lover has just been destroyed in front of him. It's almost like they forgot about the “destroy all artificial life” clause in the Destroy ending and just treated it like a conventional victory over the Reapers. The voiceover in the second half makes certain to emphasise the fact that the “Destroy” ending is a military success. It's narrated by Admiral Hackett, it talks about war and fighting and unity and sacrifice. It's almost like they were trying to sneak in a military victory ending via the back door.

The extended cutscenes explain a lot of things that didn't need explaining, but introduce even more things that just plain don't make sense.

The Second Elephant: The Starchild

Realistically, we were never going to lose the Starchild, but a clever edit could have made it a whole lot less annoying.

There are two things wrong with the Starchild. The first of these is simply “everything.” There are some people who feel that the mere revelation that a creature like that could exist within the universe fundamentally wrecks the game. I am very slightly sympathetic to this position, in that I think Mass Effect always situated itself at the harder end of soft SF (what one internet pundit described as “talky, techy sci fi”). It even briefly suggested that space battles would consist of ships stopping thousands of miles apart and launching projectiles at one another at relativistic speeds (this went quietly out the window when they had to actually show the final space battle, however). Yes, there have always been Space Wizards but Biotics were a natural extrapolation of the Mass Effect technology which glowy-immortal-space-ghost-things kind of aren't.

The second problem with the Starchild is a bit more subtle, and a bit more fundamental. The second problem is that it's an intelligent being. More specifically, it's an intelligent being whose intents and wishes entirely dictate the ending of the game.

Where greater “clarity” was needed with the Starchild was in two places. Firstly, Bioware needed to clarify why the options presented by the Starchild were the only three options. Yes, it gives you a handwave about how the building of the Crucible has changed the Catalyst because … something. But the fact remains that the decision to give the Crucible three settings and three settings only was an arbitrary one, not one that stemmed naturally from well-understood principles of its operation.

To put it another way, the Starchild/Crucible/Endings setup is a massive violation of Sanderson's First Law. Although I suppose strictly the Starchild isn't used to solve problems so much as to introduce them, but the same principle applies. We can interpret the choices presented by the endgame as coming from one of two places (or three places if you count “authorial fiat”) - one of those places is the mechanics of the Crucible, but we have no idea how the Crucible works, or how it could be capable of doing the things it is supposed to do (it was designed to kill the Reapers, right? So why does turning it on destroy all artificial life? And where the hell did it get the ability to rewrite the DNA of every lifeform in the galaxy?) which means it's very hard to accept the restrictions the Starchild lays out in front of us. The alternative interpretation is even worse, in the alternative interpretation the Crucible does whatever the Starchild wants it to do, and the restrictions placed on the player come directly from the Starchild's intent – in this interpretation of events Control/Synthesis/Destroy are the options in front of you because those are the options the Starchild considers acceptable.

The second thing that the original endings (and also the extended endings) fail to explain is what choosing any given ending actually means. You go into the Crucible assuming that “activate the Crucible” means “destroy the Reapers”. Then the Illusive Man tells you that you will somehow be able to change things so that “activate the Crucible” means “control the Reapers”. Then you meet the Starchild who tells you not only that “activate the Crucible” could mean three different things, none of which are strictly “destroy the Reapers” but then also tells you that destroying the Reapers shouldn't be your goal anyway and that what really matters is preventing artificial life from destroying organic life (although this element is downplayed slightly in the extended cut).

What this means is that not only are your final choices still completely arbitrary but that you're also fantastically uncertain about what it means to take any one of them. If I'm taking the Destroy option, am I doing it because I want to destroy the Reapers, or am I doing it because I honestly believe that artificial life runs a risk of exterminating all life in the galaxy? Am I choosing Synthesis because I buy the idea that it's the only way to stop the conflict, or because I'm some kind of posthumanist?

A big part of people's objection to the Starchild was the implication that Shepard just passively accepted its bullshit reasoning (an implication that is in no way addressed by the new “Reject” ending). Choosing amongst the alternatives it gives you, therefore, felt like you were giving tacit approval to the whole process. You go from fighting against the Reapers to collaborating with the being that created them in order to help it achieve its original goal.

Of course where it all gets blisteringly incoherent is when you try to work out what you, or the Starchild, or the Crucible are actually supposed to be doing. If you take the Destroy option, you actually shoot at the Crucible when you're supposed to be activating it. And the voiceover at the end doesn't make any reference to the Crucible doing anything except destroying the Reapers (although EDI does seem to be in the “those who have fallen” montage). So am I destroying all artificial life because I believe in the inevitable conflict between Synthetics and Organics? Or am I just blowing up the Reapers and to hell with what Ghostboy says? And why, as one youtube video asked several times over, am I shooting a tube.

Incidentally, it would only have taken a little recutting to remove half of people's objections to the Starchild. The Reject option reads like a giant fuck you, but the Destroy option could very easily have been reframed as a refusal to go along with the Starchild. You're already clearly taking violent action against the Crucible (this was even in the original ending) – all you need to do is take out that bit about destroying all artificial life (because really why would it even do that), and redo the Starchild dialogue so that it explicitly pushes for Synthesis (which is clearly its and the writers' favoured ending anyway) turning Control and Destroy into options Shepherd takes of her own accord.

Of course if you took the arbitrary downsides away from Destroy, then there would be a very different problem, which is that pretty much everybody would take the Destroy option. Worse, people might not be convinced by the brilliance that is Synthesis and accidentally pick the non-optimal ending. Worse still, they might think that all that stuff about the Reapers being the solution to the inevitable problem of conflict between Synthetics and Organics was nonsensical bullshit, rather than a brilliant and surprising twist.

On the subject of which:

The Third Elephant: The Non-Problem

The thing I personally found hardest to accept about the original ending was the completely absurd rationale given for the creation of the Reapers. Actually, I tell a lie, what I found hardest to accept was the fact that I seemed to be forced into accepting it. In the Extended Cut it's more strongly implied that the Starchild is actually insane, and that its “solution” is a result of a crazed AI taking its programming too literally, but this implication isn't followed through and Shepherd doesn't seem to pick up on it.

The Starchild's whole argument is basically an inverted version of Pascal's wager. Rather than defining an eternity in Heaven as a reward so valuable that any earthly wager is worth it, we define the inevitable conflict between Synthetic and Organic life as a risk so terrible that it's worth any earthly price to prevent it.

And like Pascal's wager, the Starchild's argument falls down on fairly basic statistics (or possibly on slightly less basic economics). Pascal's wager only works if you (a) assign infinite utility to an eternity of paradise and (b) assign non-zero probability to the existence of God. A more limited version of Pascal's wager can survive assigning a finite utility to salvation, but makes the ultimate conclusion rather weaker – belief comes down to a weighing up of finite costs against finite probabilities of finite rewards.

The Starchild's rationale behind the Reapers relies on similar assumptions. You either assign infinite disutility to the conflict between Organics and Synthetics, in which case you still need to demonstrate the probability of this conflict arising is non-zero. Alternatively you can assign a finite disutility to the Organic-Synthetic conflict, in which case you need to demonstrate that the expected disutility of letting life progress to the point where the conflict becomes a possibility is greater than the disutility of exterminating all galactic civilization.

Now there are certainly utility functions you can construct under which this will make mathematical sense. But – and I've made this observation several times now about a great many games, books and movies – what you'll wind up modelling is an entity which is motivated entirely by the desire to create the plot of the Mass Effect series. More specifically, what you'll wind up with is an entity which places little or no value on organic life, but places tremendous value on the act of preventing organic life from being destroyed by synthetic creatures of their own creation. It's just about possible (if suspiciously convenient) that the Catalyst genuinely thinks like this, but it is completely impossible that Shepard could be convinced by it unless she was very, very stupid.

The extended endings don't really deal with the whole question of the Synthetic/Organic conflict at all. The Control and Destroy endings seem to forget that it was ever mentioned, with only Synthesis making reference to Synthetic/Organic coexistence being a new and desirable possibility. And to be very clear I would have no problem at all with Synthesis as a concept if it was just one alternate ending, rather than the ending which the designers clearly preferred, and the only one which addressed the theme which I have just been told, at great length, is central to the narrative.

It all comes back to the complaints in my original article on the subject. The designers were so determined to make me experience their story that they – consciously or unconsciously – undermined two perfectly serviceable endings which would have fit my story rather better. The emphasis which the Starchild (as far as I know) still places on the conflict between Synthetic and Organic in order to set up the Synthesis ending leaves the Destroy and Control endings kicking in mid-air. Are we supposed to forget that we've just found out that the Reapers are the good guys? Or are we supposed to not believe that by destroying the Reapers we're dooming the entire galaxy to extinction? In which case why don't we get the option to say we don't believe it? And why does the Starchild just let us go ahead with everything instead of being all SO BE IT and eating our faces off for the sake of the “cycle”?

I actually need to take some time out now because between writing the last paragraph and this one, I had a look at a another couple of videos on Youtube, specifically this one (which is actually part of a series of twenty-five videos which go through the entire extended cut). It's interesting because it actually appears to be a live play with reactions and it's really nice to see somebody's reaction as it evolves. Her reaction to the ending she gets (she takes Refusal) is here and it's kind of sad.

Something that's clear in the first (or rather the twenty-third) of those videos is that there is a whole crapton more exposition, and there are a lot more options to ask questions that make you sound like a fucking idiot and the answers to which provide nothing but infuriating worldbuilding claptrap. It's made somewhat clearer that the Starchild was an AI created by some ancient race to solve the “problem” of Synthetic/Organic conflict, and you get more exposition about the conflict as the AI sees it (something like “organics create synthetics to improve their lives, but the synthetics cannot stop improving until they surpass their creators” or some similar sub-singularity twaddle) and also about why the Synthesis option is apparently supposed to solve this conflict (“organics seek perfection through the creation of synthetics, synthetics seek perfection through understanding, Synthesis will perfect organics by uniting them with synthetics, and will finally allow synthetics to understand organics” wuh?). All of this adds a tremendous amount of support to the interpretation of events in which the Starchild is a crazy, broken, wrong, stupid AI that is stuck carrying out a completely absurd set of actions as a result of something going totally screwy with its original programming. Effectively the extended cut makes it clear that my analysis above (its only mandate is to stop organic life from fighting with synthetic life, and even if its “solution” is worse than the conflict could possibly be it will stick to it because it is bugfuck insane) is broadly correct. The problem is that Shepherd doesn't seem to realise that the Catalyst is bugfuck insane, and keeps talking to it as if it's giving her the gospel truth.

The tragic thing about this is that there is very nearly a good Science Fiction story here – one with real archetypal resonance, a good arc, and exactly the kind of cyclical structure the game seemed to be trying to create. You have an AI created to facilitate communication between organics and synthetics (meaning its original role was effectively “human-cyborg relations” - the Reapers were controlled by evil C-3PO) which decides that conflict is inevitable, and that therefore the only option is to destroy its creators, thereby coming to embody the very problem it was trying to prevent. This more than anything else demonstrates that there is – as Spinal Tap put it – such a fine line between stupid and clever. The fact that the Cataylst's reasoning makes no sense would be absolutely fine if there were space to treat it as if its reasoning made no sense. The problem is that every ending (even Destroy) seems to start from the assumption that you believe what the Starchild says – this is, ironically, even more true post Extended Cut, since you actually do get the option to call the Starchild on its bullshit and this dooms the galaxy.

And this is the point where we pretty much can't avoid talking about the Fuck You ending.

Baby Elephants: Babylon Five, Bad GMs, and the Fourth Ending

So the fourth ending is generally being called “refusal” but I'm going to stick with my name because I think it neatly sums up both the content of the ending (you say “fuck you” to the Starchild) and the way a lot of people are interpreting it (Bioware says … you get the idea).

In the Extended Cut, once the Catalyst has finished you get the option to tell it that you reject its choices, but if you do – as you should know by now (oh by the way, this article had spoilers in it) what you get is a fade-to-black and then a VI projection of Liara T'soni saying “We fought the Reapers, and we failed. If you are hearing this, then there is hope, hope that you won't be a FUCKING WHINY GIRLY BITCH LIKE SHEPHERD WAS. And will just ENJOY MY FUCKING STORY ARC without COMPLAINING and sending me fucking CUPCAKES” I paraphrase.

I am going to apply the principle of charity here and assume that this actually is a good faith attempt to provide an alternative ending for people who wanted to reject the Starchild, and that they did not actually want to write a gigantic “Fuck You” to everybody who thought the ending sucked, but they made some fatal assumptions which meant that a gigantic Fuck You is exactly what they wrote.

I'm going to take a step back now, and talk about Babylon Five. Shepard and Sheridan have a fair amount in common. Not only do they share a last initial (and possibly a first initial, I believe Default Shepherd's name actually is John) but they both unite a galaxy of disparate races to fight against an overwhelming enemy which is more numerous, more technologically advanced, more ancient and more cunning than he and his allies could ever hope to be. And at the end of the series Sheridan faces up to the Shadows and the Vorlons and tells them that the time of the Old Races is over, that it's time for the younger races to take charge, and that the Old Ones should get the hell out of their galaxy.

And yes, there's an extent to which it's a toe-curling bit of quasi-messianic bullshit, but it works. The “Reject” ending of Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut is the equivalent of having the Shadows and Vorlons respond to Sheridan's speech by killing him and his entire army (and before anybody says anything, while that would have been kind of cool in theory, it would have sucked in practice from the point of view of anybody who actually liked the show enough to still be watching it).

And again, I know the standard response to this is to go all blah blah downbeat endings blah blah entitlement blah blah go watch a Disney movie but let us be absolutely clear about this: Mass Effect 3 was not Brazil or Blade Runner. It wasn't even The Empire Strikes Back. The Mass Effect series, even at its darkest, was always a work of optimistic Space Opera. And actually the “real” endings are extremely upbeat (especially the new Synthesis which is so cheesy it hurts – everybody is fwends now because of the magic green tattoos, and the Reapers are all nice and help us put everything back like it was and nobody is mad with them for all the genocide they committed of their own free will, because that would be mean). By all the conventions of the genre telling the Starchild to go screw itself should have totally worked. Just like “get the hell out of our galaxy” worked, just like “I know there is good in you, Father” worked, just like telling the Master his mutants are sterile or telling your Mortality that you were never meant to be separated works.

To put it another way, the situation at the end of Mass Effect 3 is a very specific level of hopeless. It is exactly hopeless enough that there is nothing you can do to stop the Reapers except rely wholly on the Crucible. It is not so hopeless that the reapers will stomp you before you have a chance to activate the your superweapon (a superweapon, I should add, which you do not even know how to use). The problem isn't really that there is no conceivable way to defeat the Reapers without using the Crucible, it's that “Shepard defeats the Reapers using the Crucible” was the story the designers wanted and they refused to admit of any other possibilities and they refused to allow any other options to be explored.

Basically the reason the original endings to ME3 were bad, and the reason the extended cut is in some ways even worse is not that they are bad storytelling (although you can make a good case that they are) but that they are railroading. Some amount of railroading is of course inevitable in a CRPG, since the designers have to do a lot of work and effort to give the players options, and can't just make stuff up in play, but there are right ways and wrong ways to limit player options, and just saying THERE ARE NO ALTERNATIVES is the wrong way.

Shamus Young (who I will soon have linked twice in three paragraphs) wrote a long and well observed piece about the plot-locked door to the Blacklake District in NWN2 and precisely how absurd it is that you have to go to so much effort just to get from one side of a wall to another. A big part of his problem with that plot arc was that the average RPG player can immediately think of nine or ten different ways to get through a locked door that don't involve going off on insanely long and meandering sidequests where you kill trolls. The Reapers, effectively, are a plot-locked enemy. I didn't mind that you couldn't win a conventional victory per se, but there's clear blue water between “beat the Reapers in a straight fight” and what we got, and still get, which is “have no hope of even remotely harming the Reapers except with the explicit blessing of the creature that controls them which, for some unaccountable reason, is willing to let you destroy it, but only if you do it in the way it wants.”

As one forum poster put it, you don't actually get to beat the Reapers, you get to choose how the Reapers quit.

The new Fuck You ending makes this all about a million times worse, because it blames the player for the designers' laziness. People who liked the original endings tend to get all high and mighty about this, insisting that the annihilation of all galactic life is the only possible consequence of rejecting the Starchild's options, because we have been repeatedly told that the Reapers are unbeatable. This argument is absurd, and boils down to “the Reapers are unbeatable because the Reapers are unbeatable”. The only difference between beating the Reapers by using the Crucible (a device which they know about, are capable of destroying and, on some level, seem to actively control, and which the Galactic Alliance doesn't even know how to operate) and defeating the Reapers without using the Crucible is that the designers have decided (wholly arbitrarily) that “use the Crucible” is the right answer.

Once again, we come back to Sanderson's First Law. A big part of the problem here is that we have no idea how many Reapers there are, or how powerful they are. We know that it takes four Turian Dreadnoughts to destroy the largest examples, and they can do so relatively reliably, but we have no real idea what the firepower of a Turian Dreadnought is. We know that at least one Reaper was destroyed by a Thresher Maw which, while they are mythic and dangerous creatures, is still just a giant fucking insect. There are dozens, nay hundreds of strategies nobody seems to have bothered trying – many of these strategies are drastic and desperate, like ramming the things at relativistic speeds or trying to blow them up from the inside, but surely they are no more desperate than building a machine you know nothing about in the hope that it will cause you to win by magic. We simply do not know enough about the Reapers, the Crucible, the Starchild or anything else to accept that the Crucible is our only hope for victory. Indeed it seems fairly clear that the Crucible is on some level controlled by the very enemy we built it to defeat, which makes the decision not to use it an extraordinarily sensible one.

As I said earlier, I do want to apply the principle of charity here. I honestly think that Bioware thought that people wanted the option to have a doomed final stand against the Reapers as an alternative to the Crucible, and tried to give it to us (and there are some games where this would be a perfectly good ending - Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer would be greatly improved by the option to launch a doomed assault on the Wall despite the knowledge that Kelemvor would crush you). You get to make quite a cool speech, although it has the slightly hollow ring of the speeches that Aaron Sorkin sometimes gives to his right wing characters, where they stand up and basically say “I believe what I believe because I am stupid, but you shouldn't judge me for that because it isn't my fault.” I don't think it's intended as a slap in the face, but the whole option is grounded in some slightly insulting assumptions about the sorts of people that want to take that option – most notably, they seem to be assuming that we're too stupid to realise that the Starchild is right, when as far as I'm concerned we're smart enough to realise that he's wrong.

The Fuck You ending is a textbook example of the way in which video game developers (and for that matter bad tabletop GMs) waste the potential of interactive media. The only interpretation of Mass Effect 3 which is supported by the text is the one that leads to the Synthesis ending. Control, Destroy and (especially) Reject are inferior endings to the game as it is presented in its final moments. If you believe the Starchild, Synthesis is the only way to prevent the annihilation of all organic life by Synthetics, while every other option dooms the galaxy. If you don't believe the Starchild, then taking any of the options it presents you with would be completely stupid. Because, as I have said before and will say again, it is abundantly clear that the Starchild is the enemy you have been trying to defeat for the past three games.

The problem is that too many GMs and game designers assume that their job is to “create” a world and for them to judge the outcome of the players' actions based on what they “know” about that world. From this perspective the developers “knew” that the only way to defeat the Reapers was through the Crucible, and therefore it was perfectly reasonable to provide the player with the option to reject the Crucible, and to face the “consequences” of their actions.

This all sounds very nice and sensible, and I should probably stress that a lot of people do like their games to be run this way, but from another point of view it's just railroading in a different form. Saying “you have to do X” is annoying, saying you “you can do X or Y but if you do Y YOU LOSE” is even worse, because it implies that the designer (or the GM, or whoever) is in some way superior to the player, that because they want the game to end a particular way, that any attempt to get it to end differently has to be punished. The ending of Mass Effect 3 could have been left almost entirely intact and satisfied damned near everybody (well everybody except the blue babies plzers) if they'd been more willing to let the player interpret things as they wished. From the point of view of anybody who doesn't buy the Starchild's bullshit, using the Crucible is the suicidal option, because you don't know what it will do and have no reason to trust the creature that's telling you what it does. Certainly you have no reason to select Synthesis, which involves you jumping into a giant hole in the ground on the sayso of a creature which you know wants to kill you.

The biggest Fuck You in the Fuck You ending, however, is probably the fact that it triggers if you shoot the Starchild. I can just about get behind the “die on our terms” ending if it comes at the end of the conversation with the Starchild after you make a speech saying that's what you're after, but surely if you shoot the kid then its because you want to shoot them, not because you want to sit down and let the galaxy get eaten. Surely shooting the Starchild should trigger the Destroy option, that being the option in which you – y'know – shoot a bunch of stuff and destroy the Starchild. Again it feels a lot like they're just punishing you for not liking their ending. Don't want to listen to my exposition? Then you DOOM THE WORLD.

Conclusion: Mucking Out the Elephant House

The ending of the Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut is very, very close to not being shit. The problem is that the developers cling to their preconceived ideas about the story they wanted to tell. The ending they wanted (Battle/Twist/Revelation/Synthesis) was still in there, all they needed to do to make the whole thing work was to stop the other two endings coming from the same source as the first.

The Extended Cut could be retooled to get nearly all of the elephants out of the room with a few simple changes.

  1. One: Keep Shooting the Starchild but make it trigger Destroy. The Destroy ending already feels like a conventional military victory, it already involves Shepard shooting up the Citadel, and it quite specifically destroys the Starchild. Making the “shoot first ask questions later” approach trigger the “roll over and take it” ending is equivalent to having the sucker's ending in Jade Empire triggered by choosing to fight your master, rather than by choosing to let him take over.

  2. Two: Keep the Failure Ending but make it trigger from low War Assets. A lot of people wanted a “Reapers Win” ending, but we wanted it to result from a failure to play the game properly, not from the perfectly reasonable decision not to trust a creature which you know to be your enemy, and also know to be personally responsible for literally trillions of deaths.

  3. Three: Keep Rejection but make it a diplomatic victory. Let Shepard actually convince the Starchild that it is wrong, that by annihilating all life in the galaxy every fifty thousand years it is only perpetuating the problem it believes itself to be solving. Let rejecting the Starchild's “solution” mean something other than “let the Reapers wipe us out.”

Overall I'm still ambivalent about the Extended Cut. On the one hand, it does represent Bioware doing a lot of work, for free, that they did not have to do and it would be churlish to admit that a lot of people who were very upset with the original were more than satisfied with the new version. But even more than the original, the Extended Cut leaves me with the sense of having been in an RPG with an annoying, railroady GM. I do think Bioware were trying to do the right thing by their fans, but a lot of the time I got a slightly awkward sense of noblesse oblige from the whole thing. The slideshows at the end seemed almost deliberately cheesy, like they'd decided that the fans were a bunch of idiots who needed to be told that beating the Reapers was a good thing, and the Fuck You ending seemed to exist only to “prove” that the original endings really were the only options (or perhaps to “explain” “why” they were the only options).

The Extended Cut does improve the ending, but it does so in a way that's just a little bit patronising.

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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 19:19 on 2012-06-29
Again, I should stress that I've not played through myself, so it's possible that the endings are different depending on your Paragon/Renegade status (I doubt that this is true, but Bioware would score major points if it was). But if the ending I've seen on youtube is the only one (and I think this is likely) then the only version of Shepherd that now fits the Control ending is “megalomaniac pacifist”.

I've looked around and there are two variants of Control based on whether you went Renegade or Paragon.

The paragon puts the emphasis on "pacifist", the renegade puts the emphasis on "megalomaniac", but they both come across as megalomaniac pacifists. Paragon is a megalomaniac in the sense that they are Space Jesus and they are going to use their Reaper-Angels to make sure nothing bad happens to their flock ever, ever again. Renegade is a pacifist in the sense that they are willing to use devastating violence to enforce pacifism on everyone else - which, granted, is a fairly hypocritical form of pacifism, but I'd argue that after you wasted the first few planets as an example it'd prove to be a darn effective one.
Arthur B at 19:58 on 2012-06-29
Oh, and in terms of talking the Catalyst down: Shepherd's problem is that she went the Sheridan route when, based on the analysis you've given here, a Kirk gambit was more appropriate.
http://fightsandtights.blogspot.com/ at 01:37 on 2012-06-30
Excellent article, Daniel, as usual. I agree, while the Extended Cut does make things a bit better, ultimately, it's just reinforcing a bad concept rather than replacing it with something better.

You reference both B5 and Star Wars in this section, and I think you've hit on something that the Mass Effect writing staff somehow forgot during the process of developing the ending. Namely, that the role of the hero is to find alternatives, to resolve situations in ways others have not considered. Take Aang during the finale of Avatar: the Last Airbender. When faced with two bad options; a) Kill Fire Lord Ozai or b) Have him conquer the world outright with the power of Sozin's Comet, he figured out option c) Energybend the bastard's powers away and render him harmless. Or how about Batman at the end of the Dark Knight (takes the fall for Two-Face's murders to preserve Dent's reputation) or Lelouch at the finale of Code Geass (employ Zero Requiem to effectively halt the cycle of violence between the various nations). If you think about it, using lateral thinking is the purpose of the hero in fiction; to solve a conflict by employing methods and making decisions that others did not consider.

What makes the endings even more jarring is, let's face it, Shepard has been capable of doing that for essentially the entire series, cutting Gordian Knots left, right and centre. Those times when the character hasn't been able to, the decisions left available are rooted in specific moral and social perspectives; ie, I will save the Council because I believe that humanity needs to play its role in galactic affairs in a cooperative fashion. As you illustrated here, the reasonings for each end-game decision are so vague, the character of Commander Shepard becomes a complete abstract.

You know what this reminded me of, in a way? The approach to the prophecy during the latter Harry Potter books. Harry and the others learn that a prophecy says that Harry is the only one who can kill Voldemort, and immediately, everyone automatically accepts it. There's no doubt, there's no questioning. No one sees Voldemort standing in front of them and says, "Fuck it, I'm probably going to die anyways, I might as well take my shot and see what happens. Who know, maybe I'll get lucky." The moment they hear the ramblings of an otherwise ineffectual teacher, all critical thought ceases. Here, it's the same thing. Shepard never tries to confront the Catalyst over this, or defeat it with logic, or even try to develop a solution of his or her own using the methods provided (perhaps using the Control mechanism to order all the Reapers to kill themselves, for example). Shepard ceases to be the hero of their own story, and instead just another cog in the machine.
Dan H at 15:52 on 2012-06-30
You reference both B5 and Star Wars in this section, and I think you've hit on something that the Mass Effect writing staff somehow forgot during the process of developing the ending. Namely, that the role of the hero is to find alternatives, to resolve situations in ways others have not considered.

I do think that's the heart of a lot of the problems - there's just something entirely deprotagonising (to use the Forge buzzword) about the entire Crucible plot. It puts the solution to the whole problem in the hands of NPCs. An NPC finds it, NPCs design it, NPCs build it, and an NPC tells you how to use it (and very few of these NPCs even interact with each other, I think I've linked this before, but Shamus Young's analysis highlights just how absurd the whole concept of the Crucible is).
Arthur B at 16:01 on 2012-06-30
Missing the point that heroes are often all about finding unexpected solutions to dilemmas also seems to be a problem many sloppy tabletop GMs have - a lot of them really don't like the idea that they can put all of this work into a Gordian Knot only for the PCs to come along and cut it, even if the consequences of it being cut are actually more interesting than the ones the GM planned. (And who the hell wants to run a game where the consequences are limited to the ones you foresaw when you planned it out?)

Bioware has been taken over by railroady GMs. :(
Jamie Johnston at 16:52 on 2012-06-30
Whenever I read articles on Ferretbrain about computer games my main reaction is that I'd play computer games more often if they were made by Ferretbrain contributors.

(And were available for Macs.)
http://fightsandtights.blogspot.com/ at 17:59 on 2012-06-30
Bioware has been taken over by railroady GMs. :(

Exactly, and that's one of my major issues with the Reject ending. It's like playing a game of chess, and your opponent doesn't like how you moved your pieces in a way he didn't predict, so he forfeits by throwing the board across the room. Between this and the end of Dragon Age 2, I've becoming increasingly convinced that Bioware is a few fan comments away from throwing a temper tantrum and throwing all their toys back into the box on a grand scale.

Also, anyone else reminded by the end of Star Trek Nemesis? (http://www.stardestroyer.net/Nemesis/Pictorial-4.html)
Dan H at 23:24 on 2012-06-30
Apropos of not a lot, this article expresses a lot of the issues with the Extended Cut rather well.
Arthur B at 00:06 on 2012-07-01
That article is awesome and I encourage everyone to read it.

Best quote:
I guess the final message of Mass Effect, the message its creators went to extra pains to communicate, was that yes: it was just a game. There was a structure and there were parameters, and unless you agree to the win-scenario in its absolute moral vacuum, you forfeit your right to success.
Wardog at 00:39 on 2012-07-01
Yeah, by contrast John Walker over at RPS has his tongue up Bioware's story...
Arthur B at 00:42 on 2012-07-01
One day I hope someone leaks Bioware's advertising budget so we can see how articles in support of the ME3 ending correlate with monies received.
Dan H at 00:49 on 2012-07-01
Yeah, by contrast John Walker over at RPS has his tongue up Bioware's story...

Do you really expect otherwise? John Walker is one of those gamers.
Wardog at 01:18 on 2012-07-01
But I like him! He usually makes me laugh :(
Dan H at 01:20 on 2012-07-01
I've never heard him be anything but one of those infuriating I-think-games-should-be-more-like-novels dickheads.

I should specify here that I do not mean to offend anybody who I do not intend to offend.
Dan H at 00:14 on 2012-07-02
Another interesting take on the whole thing here.

Key observations "what the extended cut needed to be was a 'shortened cut'" and "Setting a group of massive spaceships as the primary antagonists of a squad-based shooter/RPG is simply bizarre."
Orion at 19:31 on 2012-07-03
I downloaded the Extended Cut and loaded an old save to check it out. So far the stupid three husks in the stupid cutscene with the stupid pistol have killed me 7 times.

It took me literally 20 runs thrugh that scene to win the game the first time. I don't know if I can do it again.
Dan H at 22:07 on 2012-07-03
Drop the difficulty to "narrative"?
Robinson L at 20:02 on 2012-08-01
Overall I'm still ambivalent about the Extended Cut. On the one hand, it does represent Bioware doing a lot of work, for free, that they did not have to do and it would be churlish to admit that a lot of people who were very upset with the original were more than satisfied with the new version.

The Extended Cut does improve the ending, but it does so in a way that's just a little bit patronising.

I think this might just possibly win the 2012 Grand Prize for Most Epically Backhanded Compliment on the Internet.

Dan: I think I've linked this before, but Shamus Young's analysis highlights just how absurd the whole concept of the Crucible is

You have, but that Glock-17 analogy never gets old.

Dan: Another interesting take on the whole thing here.

Oh hey, I know that columnist through my school network. Neat little coincidence, there.
Drew C at 23:26 on 2012-08-01
I agree with everything you have said about ME3 Dan (not trying to sound like a drooling yes man either I really do agree). Although I can get a kind of perverse pleasure from the syntheses ending since it seems to imply that everyone is an immortal now (or at least very long lived) but still breeding, meaning over-population is going to be a problem eventually. Still I could see some people deciding to embrace the machine part of themselves now and transfer their consciousness from flesh to machine. Maybe they try to force it on others as a public health measure but not everyone likes the idea which leads to fighting and then...


Nice one Shepard, you doomed the galaxy to utter ruin and total, genocidal, war.
Robinson L at 20:36 on 2012-08-30
I recently read one of those writing advice books: Plot, by Ansen Dibell, whose subject is just what it sounds like. I thought it might be relevant to share some words of wisdom from Chapter 10, which is about writing endings. (Granted, Dibell is talking specifically about plots to novels and short stories, but the logic can easily extend to video game plots, at least in this instance.)

No new characters

[D]on't introduce any additional characters except cardboard walk-ons (a driver leaning to shout curses as he blurs by; a checkout clerk who hands a character some change and then discreetly disappears from the narrative). Keep to the principals.


No new plot!

Most important of all, though: don't introduce a new plot. Stay with the main plot.

As you write the ending, it may seem to you to be just another scene, even if a Big Scene, a set-piece. What it's easy to forget is that, from the reader's point of view, the whole story is bearing down on this moment. It has the potential for immense weight and power, just because it's the end.

If you don't keep to your main plot line, to what you've been developing all through the story, you forfeit all that momentum and make the reader feel all that build-up was for nothing. You'll be trying to start a new story in the closing minutes of the old one, and no matter how good the scene is as a scene, the reader is going to feel let down, disappointed.


Your story has already established a context, the rules, the personalities, the stakes: everything you need to make your ending meaningful. You've got all that accumulated power working for you. Use it, guide it, keep that momentum. There's no stopping now, short of the end.

In all ways, keep the ending as simple and direct as you can.
Craverguy at 08:50 on 2015-08-29
I never really had a problem with the Mass Effect 3 endings (although I came in after the Extended Cut had already been released, so maybe that helped). None of them will be making my personal top 10 list of best video game endings, but they work well enough to satisfy me.

What really annoys me about Mass Effect 3 is that its whole plot is premised on Shepard rejecting the Illusive Man's plans to control the Reapers out of hand and deciding that destroying them is the only option. This is a pretty big thing to impose on my character in a roleplaying game, especially since, if my Shepard previously kept the Collector base in the second game, s/he has been established to have a willingness to attempt to claim control of the Reapers' advanced technology to advance the interests of humanity and/or the Council.

It's not like there's any evidence at all as to what the Crucible will do when they flip the switch, so it's just as easy to believe that it will allow the user to control the Reapers as it will wipe them all out (or blow up the galaxy or whatever). So there's no reason why Shepard couldn't agree with the idea of controlling the Reapers from the get-go, except that the writers have decreed that it won't happen.

This is why I consider Dragon Age: Inquisition's handling of similar issues and themes to be so manifestly superior. In that game, it's up to the player to define what the Inquisition stands for and what methods it will use to achieve those goals. The writers didn't decide beforehand that the Inquisitor should be pro-Templar, that they would focus on military solutions in preference to economic ones, or that one side or the other in the Orlesian civil war would be the ones to go with. It's all up to you.
Arthur B at 16:16 on 2015-08-29
Yeah, in retrospect overtly introducing the control/synthesis/destroy choices much earlier in proceedings might have cooled off the controversy to a large extent. Not only would it have felt less abrupt, but the sheer massiveness of the choice and all the implications of it could have been explored throughout the game - how cool would it have been to be able to talk over the choice with your various companions to get their views on it?

You could keep almost all the features of the ending intact - have Shepard's superiors mention that the Citadel seems to be key to all the potential resolutions, and the last mission still makes sense, and if you say "There's an ancient VI on the Citadel which only gets activated once it's weaponised; since the high command can't decide on which route to take, it'll be down to you to decide how the Citadel is to be used once you've made contact with the VI and obtained what background information you can from it" then you even contextualise the Starchild.
Orion at 00:50 on 2015-09-11
To build on what Arthur said, I think it would have helped a lot if they made it clear from the beginning that the Crucible was an electronic-countermeasures/cyberwarfare weapon and not a ballistic/energy weapon. I mean, in retrospect I should have realized that it would take space magic to neutralize the entire reaper threat at once, but for much of the game, I honestly thought the Crucible was basically a giant laser gun.

I wish the writers would have told me much earlier that the Crucible is designed to "hack" the Reapers. Hackett and TIM would immediately tell you they want to hack and shut down or hack and control the reapers respectively. Synthesis could remain a last-minute twist or it could be foreshadowed by advice from EDI, Legion, Falere, and Rachni Queen.

They could also dispense with the "Catalyst" business and tell you directly that the Citadel is the Reaper Mainframe and that you need to plug in there to control their network. The space baby wouldn't have been such a curveball at that point.
Orion at 00:58 on 2015-09-11
Shepherd turns on the Crucible and is about to press the "destroy all reapers" button when the starchild appears and begs her not to do it. The Starchild starts explaining its mission and trying to convince her to Synthesize. She can (a) shut the Starchild up as soon as she gets tired of listening to it by pressing the destroy button; (b) agree with the starchild and Synthesize, or (c) figure out how to control the reapers by listening closely to the starchild's rambling.
Craverguy at 09:15 on 2015-09-11
I think what annoys me most about the trilogy, as a whole, is that it claims that "there are no right and wrong choices," but in practice, Paragon is always the right choice and Renegade is always the wrong choice. I mean, you can literally count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that a Paragon choice comes back to bite Shepard in the ass by making a later mission harder or reducing War Assets in Mass Effect 3, whereas that happens all the time with Renegade choices.

It's especially noticeable with endgame choices. Did you sacrifice the Council in the first game? Well, all the talk of establishing an all-human Council comes to nothing, humanity is no more powerful than it would have been if you'd saved them, and everyone hates you. Did you make Udina the first human Councilor? He stabs you in the back again in ME2 and then makes you indirectly responsible for the Cerberus coup in ME3. Did you keep the Collector base in the second game? Sucks to be you: you're directly responsible for the indoctrination of the Illusive Man and Cerberus in the sequel (yeah, it happens anyway; but this way you're the one who gave them the tech that did it). I half-expect that Mass Effect: Andromeda will reveal that picking Destroy crippled galactic society for generations. Shoulda picked Control or Synthesis, you stupid Renegade!

On the other hand, being a Renegade basically pays off exactly twice: saving Maelon's data keeps Eve alive and telling Kelly Chambers to change her name. That's about it.
Arthur B at 12:09 on 2016-12-05
Necro'ing this again to note, very belatedly, that EA/Bioware have made it clear that the ending of ME3 has no impact on Mass Effect: Andromeda.

To be fair, this does make a lot of sense. The three endings, despite being presented in such a similar way, really were mutually incompatible to the point where putting out a chronologically subsequent sequel in the same galaxy would have been nigh-impossible because you'd have literally had to write three nearly completely different settings for the game, and putting out a new game set prior to the events of ME3 would have the problem of making you care about what happens when you know ME3 is going to come along and overshadow everything you accomplish.

Hopping over to another galaxy where there is no real prospect of ever going home or receiving much news from the Milky Way is the ideal solution to that: you can still have the richness of all the classic Mass Effect cultures because it's a cross-cultural expedition, and thematically there's something to be said for "We're going on this mission and we specifically have no idea what happened to our old home".

Even so, how hard would it have been to work in one of these throwaway lines?

- "The last signals we had from the Milky Way were... odd. Like the people there seem to have had some sort of technological singularity and the synthetic/organic distinction has been abolished. Even if we could go home, it wouldn't be home any more."

- "The last signals we had from the Milky Way suggested some sort of radical victory over the Reapers - that some how they'd not been so much defeated as taken over. I'm glad to know my family is safe, but I'm not sure I'd want to live with that Sword of Damocles still over my head."

- "The last signals we had from the Milky Way suggested some sort of technological catastrophe - that to destroy the Reapers, something was done to eliminate all synthetic life in the galaxy. I'm glad to know my family is safe, but I hope we can avoid getting into a position in the future where to stop a genocide we have to commit genocide in turn."

- "The last signals we had from the Milky Way were pretty hopeless - for some reason, they didn't activate the Crucible at all, and the Reapers seemed to win. We're all that's left - that makes it all the more important that we make this expedition work."

It'd be a little thing, but each of those alternatives would frame the expedition a little differently (exiles from a home that no longer exists the way they remember it/the last free people outside of ShepReaper tyranny/an opportunity to start again in a new galaxy where the cycle that dominated the Milky Way doesn't have to start again/the last survivors of the organic races of the Milky Way) and interestingly, and would make your ending for ME3 feel at least tangentially impactful even if it didn't have much practical effect on ME: Andromeda's plot.

For all their rhetoric about their artistic integrity, they're sure happy to brush the outcome of an entire trilogy of games under the carpet because it's too embarrassing to draw attention to.
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