I feel somewhat self-conscious about being the “before I can tell you this story, I have to tell you that one” guy but, before I can tell you this story, I have to tell you that one.

In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, there’s a scene in which Alfred reminisces about reading a detective story (“The Purloined Letter”) to Master Bruce:

Master Bruce asked –no, DEMANDED…“the killer was CAUGHT. And PUNISHED.”

Alfred assured him that the villain had met justice.

Bruce slept like a boy.

Okay. We’re going to talk about Mass Effect 3 and we’re going to talk about endings. Like, major spoilers. Not only major spoilers but we’re going to have to set things up so that people who have never played any of the Mass Effect games know what happened in those and why the ending to Mass Effect 3 is causing a hue and cry. More than that, a hue and cry where the players are demanding a new ending entirely.

Let me repeat that because that’s the dynamic that drives this essay: There is a very, very large chunk of players of a particular video game who have started a movement to change the ending of the game.

Just let that sink in.

Anyway, this essay will contain spoilers. Worse than that, it will contain spoilers to the point where people who haven’t played the games will be able to keep up (thus spoiling to the point where one who may have been inclined to play the game eventually may feel like they no longer have to). We’re also going to get a little more serious than we usually do (and while I don’t necessarily feel that I need to apologize for that, I do want to warn the readers hoping for something fluffy). If you’re still here even after all that, I’ll see you after the jump.

The first Mass Effect game was groundbreaking. It’s a wholehearted recommendation on my part. After I beat it, I started it again without getting up to pee. I played through it again. Then I played through it again as a “renegade” rather than a “paragon”. Then, after that, I felt bad about playing as a renegade and played through again as a paragon (like the first two times) in order to feel like I left the universe in the state I wanted to leave it in. (This is germane to the story insofar as I am miles away from being a beautiful and unique snowflake in this.)

Now, the first Mass Effect did a handful of things. It allowed you “moral choices”, as in you were given several really different ways to solve problems… for example, you were told to foil the plans of the Big Bad. One of which involved stopping his right hand’s science experiments. When you get to the lab, and find out what the experiment is, you find that his right hand was bringing The Rachni back to life (The Rachni, you understand, were a galactic race of spiders that were wiped out a few centuries before in a war that did a lot (a lot a lot) of harm to everybody on all sides in the way that wars can and do.) At the end of the encounter, you have a conversation with The Rachni Queen and are given a choice… do you trust her when she says that she just wants to live somewhere abandoned in peace with her children and let her run to somewhere that no one knows where it is? Do you kill the only Rachni Queen left in existence and wipe out the race of the Rachni a second time?

This is a tough decision to make. Later on in the game, you’re stuck with a no-win situation that involves two of your crew having to stay behind to activate a spectacularly explosive device… and you get to pick which one you are able to save at the last minute. Mass Effect 2 was similar insofar as there were a large number of optional missions that, if you didn’t complete them, would result in the eventual death of one (or more) of your crewmates. On top of that, during the final mission itself, you had to pick people to do certain missions. You wanted the strongest biotics to throw up forcefields, the strongest engineers to be hacking computers, the stealthiest to escort hostages back to safety. If you slipped up when assigning roles, you were going to end up killing a squadmate.

I bring that up because: the first time I played the mission, I killed one of my squadmates by not understanding his strengths. I went back and played through again in order to save everybody on my team. (Again: this is germane to the point insofar as I am miles away from being a beautiful and unique snowflake in this.)

Another thing that Mass Effect 2 introduced was the concept of the Paragon/Renegade interrupt. Basically, if you had enough “karma points”, you didn’t have to follow the conversation tree as planned. You could press your karma button (the appropriate one, of course) and take things to an entirely different place. (We’ll come back to this.)

This brings us to the ending of Mass Effect 3. Seriously. MAJOR SPOILERS.

(Important note: One of the themes that ran through all three mass effects are the tensions between biological creatures and synthetic intelligences. They can’t co-exist, it seems.)

Now, at the almost very end of the game, there’s this great scene where you beat the bad guy and sit down next to Anderson (your mentor) while he’s bleeding out. You’re looking out the window at the war against the Reapers as it is being won. Lots of little lines about how you’re both proud to have accomplished everything you’ve accomplished (and Anderson has a great line to the effect of “it feels like it’s been years since I’ve just sat down…”) and you’re thinking about everything that’s happened to you and you look at your hand as you take it from one of your wounds and the blood is a deep red and, yeah, you’re preparing to watch yourself die in the cutscene and, hey. You’ve just saved the galaxy. Thanks, Shepard.

But… no. You get up and you go up an elevator… where you talk to a new character (“The Star Child”) that is being introduced in the last chapter. The new character that is introduced in the last chapter points to a magic box and you pick one of the buttons. The Star Child explains to you that he is in charge of the Reapers because biological creatures always keep advancing until they create artificial intelligence, one of the two freaks out about it, and then they go to war. This has happened multiple times and, in each cycle, the Reapers come back, wipe out all of the species that have advanced past stone age technologies, then they go away until there’s tension between artificial and biological life again. This has happened multiple times before but now! Now you can change things! There’s three options before you: Control, Synthesis, and Destroy (jokingly refered to as “control/alt/delete”).

The control ending would have you take over all of the synthetic life in the galaxy… Essentially, you’d turn them from Artificial Intelligences into slaves. This kills you, for the record. The Destroy option would destroy everything involved with Reaper Tech… including the citadel. This does *NOT* kill you. The final option is “synthesis” which, apparently, melds/fuses biological and synthetic life together. It makes all life in the universe an amalgam. This also kills you.

And that’s it. That’s the choices before you. You are *NOT* given a Paragon/Renegade option. You are told that you are speaking to the main boss behind the Reapers and the main boss behind the Reapers tells you to pick an option: enslavement, physical violation, or murder. You then go on to pick one of these options (and see cut scenes accordingly).

Roll credits. Then there’s a scene where an old man and a young child are talking and the child asks if that story was true… the old man says it was but it happened long, long ago. The kid then asks for another story about The Shepard.

And then there’s a screen telling you to keep an eye out for Downloadable Content.


Now. There was a large group of people who were *INFURIATED* by this ending.

Before we move on, though, there is a caveat we ought to make: There are, in fact, fans who would complain about anything. Anything at all. If they showed Shepard going into a restaurant and ordering a burger, there’d be a bunch of people screaming about how *THEIR* Shepard is a vegetarian. If they showed Shepard ordering a shake, there would be people who complained that *THEIR* Shepard likes *STRAWBERRY* shakes and not *CHOCOLATE* shakes. There are people who complain about there not being the right shade of teal for their vision of their armor. People complain. Bioware responded to the huge group of people who complained by pointing out such things as how proud they are of their artistic vision, how they put out a great game, how there are 75 perfect or nigh-perfect reviews out there, so on and so forth.

I am pretty sure that this was a miscalculation on their part, however. Mostly because quite a few people are raising quite a few good points about the ending.

First and foremost: NEVER INTRODUCE A CHARACTER IN THE LAST CHAPTER OF A BOOK THAT SOLVES EVERYTHING. I mean, come on. Aristotle complained about this. People have been complaining about deus ex machina endings in a story for as long as we have had written language.

For another, many people asked “why should I just believe The Star Child?” Perhaps the writers were going for a Neo talking to The Architect vibe but, honestly, why in the heck would you take the word of the admitted big boss as good? Many folks wanted the Paragon Interrupt to say “I have the Geth working with Quarians, I have Krogan, Salarians, and Rachni fighting side-by-side-by-side, you say that the cycle always ends with Synthetic and Biological life not being able to work together… I have *PROOF* that it can and that it does! I choose a fourth option!” Many folks wanted the Renegade Interrupt to have Shepard touch her earpiece and put in a call to Admiral Hackett saying “Admiral Hackett? I am in the lair of the force behind the Reapers. Please direct all available weaponry on my location. It’s been an honor, sir.” These options were not there.

As such, people are stuck with three options that, quite honestly, are exceptionally distasteful and morally problematic to a degree that is quite unpleasant. As troublesome as the Rachni decision was in the first game, there seems to be solid ground for either decision. You could easily say that you didn’t feel like you could make the call to remake the Rachni extinct… or that you didn’t feel like you could make the call to risk the galaxy again on the word of a creature that almost destroyed the galaxy last time. Each one is tough… but you could argue it.

On top of that, the Mass Effect Gates that allow Faster-Than-Light travel are destroyed no matter which ending you choose… and, in Mass Effect 2, there was DLC that explained that when a Mass Effect Gate blows up, it blows up in such a way that destroys much of the system in which it resides (for example, you killed 300,000 Batarians when you blew up the Mass Effect gate in the DLC). There is a Mass Effect Gate in Sol’s system.

When it comes to listening to The Star Child (who, funnily enough, has since acquired the nickname “Star-Jar”), the artists had hoped for a choice that was a rorschach test of sorts… instead, well, there’s a thread on the Bioware Boards that tells it better than I could:

Does anyone else have the same problem I’m having? Even beyond the other problems with the ending, I just do not want to do anything the Catalyst offers me. As a result, I never choose and just turn the game off.

I prefer to let the choice remain unmade, because no matter what I do I end up having to betray something about my Shepard or the people in the galaxy. I don’t want to do that, at all.

I allowed the Geth sentience, so I simply won’t destroy them, period.

I killed the Illusive Man because I did not believe in controlling the Reapers, and I still don’t. It’s an option that came out of left field anyway, and the only reason that console seems to be there is because there is a plot character that wants to do it. How convenient. Why should controlling them be an option at all? Why couldn’t TIM just have been delusional? It makes no sense.

I’m not gonna commit to synthesis either. In its essence synthesis attempts to speak to transhuman themes, but as it stands its just forced rape of the galaxy. Why would Shepard work to defeat the Reapers the entire series only to end up making the people she fought to protect part of the Reapers’ species, as that appears to be why the Reapers suddenly lose interest and leave Earth.

I never choose an ending because no matter what I choose it’s horrible. None of the endings have any redeeming factors. I always play up to the end of Rannoch because up until that point the game still makes sense. Sort of. Beyond that I prefer to just leave it up to the imagination.

Shepard gathered the fleets and kicked Reaper ass.

The end.

There are a *LOT* of people who agree with this poster.

Well, Bioware has done some minor backpedalling since they found out that, erm, maybe people aren’t just complaining about Shepard-is-really-a-vegetarian level complaints. On twitter, they’ve had to explain that, yes, the Mass Effect gates *DID* blow up but it wasn’t the kind of explosion that we saw in Mass Effect 2 that destroyed a system. It was just a non-system-level explosion. Oh, and all of the various races that have different digestive chirality are not, in fact, going to starve to death because they’re trapped on a planet that is incompatible. Oh, and there is still FTL travel, it’s just that everybody used the Mass Effect gates because they were cheap and easy. Oh, and the Citadel blowing up didn’t kill all of the billions on the Citadel. It’s like the Mass Effect gates. See it as the Citadel being repurposed… and, as such, Bioware has agreed that they will be releasing “Clarification DLC” for the ending. Basically, everything that they’ve had to explain via twitter (because, for some reason, they forgot to put it in the game) will *NOW* be part of the official ending.

There are a lot of people who remain infuriated by this. Clarified crap is still crap, they point out. They don’t agree that they’d just listen to Star-Jar. They don’t agree that they’d agree to destroy the various Mass Effect gates. They look at the ending and they say “I turn off the game before I go up on the elevator.”

The general consensus remains: “This Sucks. Change it.”

Now, if people are turning off the game instead of watching the ending, I have to say that there is a major problem here that “clarification” will not resolve.

The argument about “artistic integrity” is one that I find personally interesting because, and I’m going to talk about this again, my face didn’t import from Mass Effect 2 to Mass Effect 3. Right off the bat, I want to ask “why didn’t you have enough artistic integrity to ensure that I could play with my own face?” (There are also a handful of issues in the game where perceptive folks have found photoshopped stock photographs being used instead of original art… which also is interesting for similar reasons.)

Bioware, of course, has every right to say “This is the story we want to tell!”

It seems to me that the customers have every right to say “This is not the story we want to be told.”

Which brings us to the question of to what extent does the audience have the footing to demand of Bioware that the game’s ending be changed?


Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to


  1. Funny, I’m lecturing today on something similar, i.e., imaginative resistance. Basically, we have no problem make-believing that pigs can fly, or that biological creatures are at war with synthetic intelligences. Yet we resist make-believing other propositions. For example if a story enjoined us to make-believe that kidnapping people’s puppies and killing them to make a fur coat is the morally right thing to do, we would resist make-believing that. This most famously happens with moral propositions, although others too.

    • If you mention that people are resisting the ending to Mass Effect 3, you will have some students’ eyes widen with understanding as if this is the first time that they’ve ever understood anything that an adult has said to them… but you may also have one student say “ARE WE STILL TALKING ABOUT THE ENDING TO MASS EFFECT 3 COME ON!!!”

    • While this certainly is a case where people are resisting the a story, I don’t know that it’s of the same nature as imagining “that kidnapping people’s puppies and killing them to make a fur coat is the morally right thing to do.”

      A huge part of the problem is that, as Jaybird mentions, it comes out of nowhere in the final chapter, and is not only is unconnected with the rest of the story but arguably contradictory (what Jaybird said about enlisting the synthetic Geth as allies and then being told that genocidal conflict between organics and synthetics is inevitable is one example). Could you sell this ending, if you introduce the Star-Child earlier (ideally all the way back in the first game, but even in act 1 of Mass Effect 3), and otherwise build the story towards it? I suspect that you could.

      • Potential Major Spoiler for the upcoming DLC:

        One of the people associated with the company (a developer for the DA games, *NOT* the ME games) asked whether it would be okay if, instead of Star-Jar showing up, EDI hooked up to “the device” and listed off the things that it did and gave the same three choices (along with clarification, of course, as to what those choices would entail).

        EDI is someone that your character would trust. Pretty close to absolutely, actually. If she said “if you do this, you’ll die but it will save the universe”, that’s completely different from having The Big Bad behind everything you’ve been fighting for the last three games say “kill yourself and I’ll stop”.

        The same three choices: Completely different context.

          • One comment that made me laugh out loud (and then stop laughing because, seriously, it makes a strong point) was something to the effect of the following:

            “After the Star Child gives me the choice, I just empty my clip into his face until I get the “Critical Mission Failure” message.”

            When people prefer the critical mission failure message to your ending? You may have a disconnect between your artistic vision and your audience.

          • I’m a little disappointed that “I just empty my clip into his face” results in the “Critical Mission Failure” message. You should get an advanced cut-scene of something for that one.

            Aside from the fact that’s it’s the obvious pop culture “Katniss Everdeen” out, it is *clearly* the correct one in the context of the three choices, if you’ve correctly communicated the vibe of the three games.

          • Well, the guys who made the game seem to argue that “Synthesis” is the “good” ending. They seem flabbergasted that the audience responded the way that they did.

            Which goes back to Bioware’s response: they spent a lot of time handing out PR Speak that said “We would like to communicate that we hear that you are upset” which *INFURIATED* people. Had they said something to the effect of “we understand *WHY* you are upset”, I think they could have nipped a chunk of the problem in the proverbial bud.

          • I think a decent part of the reason the PR speak infuriated so many people is that it played to the fears of a lot of long-time Bioware fans – that Bioware’s creative process and culture is being destroyed by EA.

          • There’s also a very, very interesting thing that happened on the Bioware boards. There was a guy (agthunter) that worked PR in a large corporation.

            He started naming the things that Bioware/EA was likely to do, things to watch out for, signs of hope, signs of b.s., and named tactics.

            It *COMPLETELY* changed how everybody argued with/against EA. (I’ll see if I can find the threads later on tonight. They’re awesome.)

          • J,
            Yeah, I know someone in PR. Having him on most cases is enough to get folks to scamper.
            “…So, I could write about this, or you could just make sure this doesn’t become a collossal embarrasment”

          • Check this post out.

            It’s weird. There are angles from which the debate over the ending and the dynamic between the artists and the audience/patrons is much, much more interesting than the game itself. (Granted, perhaps even most of them.)

  2. Thank you for clarifying the feces storm surrounding ME3. I’m not interested in the series (bought ME back in Colorado, played it for an hour, was disappointed and sold to the Video Game Exchange for eight bucks).

    Bioware really screwed up and I’m not talking about lame jokes about Gayshep or Hamburger Hepler. Not certain why they feel a need to acknowledge the issue since this is the penultimate chapter of their game series. People are still going to buy Bioware games irregardless (HI MARIBOU) of the outcome. People tend to forget very quickly.

    After all Limbaugh’s advertisers have returned and no one’s raised a stink. No one has maintained pressure. They wanted cheap, instant satisfaction rather than making lasting, meaning change.

    • Not certain why they feel a need to acknowledge the issue since this is the penultimate chapter of their game series.

      Some people purchased the game under the impression that it was the ultimate chapter. I did, for example.

        • Well then! I now have the opportunity to give some new fun ones.

          Antepenultimate: the one before the one before the last one.
          Preantepenultimate: the one before the one before the one before the last one.

  3. That was extremely interesting. I’ve never really thought that people brought a serious moral outlook to computer and video games (my perception of attitudes was more of them being either uninterested with moral considerations or deliberately flouting them – “let’s see how many pedestrians I can run over in GTA” kind of thing). I find some of the strategy games (Warcraft, Starcraft, Age of Empires) fun, but there’s no room for moral choice in them.

    This gives me a much better sense of why some people argue that games can be a form of art.

    • That’s the wacky thing about Bioware games. Until recently, they made games that it was *POSSIBLE* to bring a serious moral outlook to. Sure, there was some deconstruction of genres… but after deconstructing, they took the pieces and rebuilt.

      I wholeheartedly recommend Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Dragon Age: Origins, and Mass Effect (and Mass Effect 2, for that matter). The stories are so very rich and you fight to get to the next part of the story and, when you put the controller down, you’ll say “wow… that was a great story”.

      That’s what makes Mass Effect 3 such a disappointment. You put the controller down and say “WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT”

      As such, I see this as a failure on Bioware’s part. The movement to get them to change the ending isn’t just one where people say that they want a birthday cake and a unicorn that poops rainbows (though, granted, there are people who argue for this) but one that makes them put the controller down and say “wow… that was a great story.”

    • Have you tried GalCiv? That one tries to add a little morality into the turn based strategy game.

      • Or Star Control 2? Another old but goodie.
        (i liked galciv)

        • Unfortunately my current computer is a Mac laptop (the computer games I used to play were all actually my brother’s, and on the family computer) so I don’t expect to be buying any games.

          The “unfortunately” just refers to wrt games – it’s a great computer in other respects.

          • WINE some more 😉 I’ve played plenty of dosbox games on a linux pc.

          • Valve, I know, releases games for Mac. Portal doesn’t have a moral choice system, but it has many other things to recommend it.

        • Yes, Star Control 2 was another good one. It did give you some choices.

  4. For anyone who wants a detailed breakdown of the ending and why it’s bad I recommend this video which engages in a Plinkett-like 40 minute discussion of the ending’s problems.

    In the end I reluctantly chose the synthesis end because it seemed least bad, but none of the endings appealed at all. I won’t commit Geth genocide and the other two are just weird, and not at all keeping with the genre Mass Effect sits in (aside from some handwaving with biotics, they’ve steered away from magic, and that’s what control and synthesis look like to me.).

    Any of them would be good options for people who partially completed the game, but for a perfect completion? I like the refuse to choose option better (I like to think of it as the Sheridan ending – “Get the hell out of our galaxy!”), someone playing the game to get best-case outcomes has proved peace between organics and machines is possible.

    As for the Star Child, I’m on board for a dialogue to end the game, but it should have been with Harbinger, not some random dream / alien thing from out of left field.

    On twitter, they’ve had to explain that, yes, the Mass Effect gates *DID* blow up but it wasn’t the kind of explosion that we saw in Mass Effect 2 that destroyed a system. It was just a non-system-level explosion. Oh, and all of the various races that have different digestive chirality are not, in fact, going to starve to death because they’re trapped on a planet that is incompatible. Oh, and there is still FTL travel, it’s just that everybody used the Mass Effect gates because they were cheap and easy. Oh, and the Citadel blowing up didn’t kill all of the billions on the Citadel. It’s like the Mass Effect gates.

    I must say I didn’t really have most of these qualms. The Quarians brought their liveships with them (or some of them at least) so that’s a food source for Turians and Quarians. And the relay explosions didn’t look like they were the nova-level explosions that would shatter worlds (I wouldn’t expect an explosion of that power to result in the relays having identifiable pieces afterward – an explosion big enough to destroy a planet from Pluto would vaporize the relay), and we knew there was other FTL, just much slower and less efficient (there’s only 1 mass relay per cluster after all).

    My issue is that with the relays gone, galactic civilisation was over. Sure each race would pull through, but the Mass Effect universe we had come to know and love was gone beyond hope of recovery. Shepard didn’t save the galaxy, she just forced a draw. And that, along with the contrived trilemma, was what disappointed me about the ending.

    • Doing more research, I’ve found that there are three characters in the game that are associated with each ending. The Illusive Man wants to do the “Control” ending. Saren (the bad guy from the first game) is associated with the Synthesis ending. Anderson is associated with the Destroy ending.

      While it’s all well and good to pick any of these endings, the fact that people are complaining that none of these endings are their own makes more and more sense.

      I find Bioware’s response to the outcry to be flabbergasting. All they have to do, really, is say “we understand why folks are upset, here’s why we did what we did” instead of hunkering down after having said “we understand that folks are upset and we stand by our artistic vision, but we do want to clarify cutscenes in such a way that explains things that heretofore have only been explained on twitter.”

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