Poor Speculative Fiction: Some Lessons from the End of Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect 3 ending

Well, as I mentioned last week, I set aside some time to play Mass Effect 3.  I made it through all versions of the controversial ending.  At first, I was simply underwhelmed, but as I thought more about it, I gradually moved fully into the “What the freak they thinking?!” camp.  While I fear that I’ll never get those hours of my life back*, I know I learned some things about what not to do when ending a story, some of which provide counterpoints to what we’ve been discussion in this series on good  fiction (which the Mass Effect series was right up to the end).

I’m going to try to make this accessible to even non-Mass Effect players, but I think those who know something about the game will find it the most interesting.

Beware!  There be spoilers ahead!

For those just coming into this discussion, Mass Effect (ME) is/was a very popular gaming franchise published by Bioware.  It centers around Commander Shepard and his (or her) quest to save organic life in the galaxy from the threat of a seemingly omnipotent race of intelligent machines called “Reapers.”  The games quickly became famous for their depth of creativity, their immersive world, and their incredible ability to take player choice into account.  Almost everything you said or did could have consequences across the entire game series.  For instance, if you chose to romance Ashley Williams in ME 1, and then, when Williams wasn’t featured in ME 2, you romanced Tali, it had serious consequences for your relationship with both in ME 3.

ME 3 features the actual arrival of the Reapers, who launch a full-scale assault on earth and several other major civilizations.  Shepard must traverse the universe building a massive alliance against the Reapers to buy time to build a machine called the “Crucible” which is supposedly capable of defeating the Reapers.  For a full account of the plot, check out this link.

In the very end of the game, the player is given three choices by an omnipotent artificial intelligence:  He can destroy all synthetic life in the universe (including some valuable allies he had earlier saved and the game had emphasized were now alive and had souls), he can take control of the Reapers and bend them to his will, or he can forcibly meld all organic and synthetic life into something new.  In all cases, the ending is basically the same–the only difference is that Bioware changed the color of the light that erupts from the Crucible.  Shepard dies in two out of three endings (perhaps all three), and we see several members of his team emerging from their crashed ship on a new garden world, including characters that we know for a fact could not be on board the ship at the time of the incident.  Here is a side-by-side comparison of all the endings.

I don’t know if I can really do justice to the outrage the ending has caused in so little space.  You have to really experience ME to understand.  Here is a good, emotional summary of the controversy–note that the language isn’t the cleanest.Mass Effect 3 ending controversey

Now, what can we learn from it as writers?

  • Maintain your pacing:  The entire ME series had been about action and adventure, spiced with some deeper thoughts.  ME 3 delivered on that that up to the last ten minutes of the game.  There is no action in the end, just quiet, mindless pseudo-philosophy about three forced choices that result in no good ending.
  • Choice and free-will are essential:  People–myself included–reacted so viscerally to this set of endings because choice and variety had been a key part of Mass Effect from the beginning.  ME 2 was brilliant in the various shades of possibilities it’s ending provided.  At the last minute of ME 3, Bioware basically did a 180 and forced players to accept endings that were all essentially the same, no matter what their choices has been.  While we aren’t likely to be in a similar situation when writing a novel, we should remember that people will react that way vicariously for the characters they identify with.  If we have a story full of real people making difficult and meaningful choices and then, in the end, we present them with no real options, we risk provoking a similar reaction.
  • “My” Story v/s “Your” Story:  Part of the larger debate, obviously, is the idea that the ME trilogy is Bioware’s story, and therefore they made it end the way they wanted.  Why should people complain?  Do they even have the right to ask for more?  I’ve seen several references to J. K. Rowling that ask how people would dare question how she ended “her” books.**  I know very well how people feel about that–I think the same way about things that I write–but the harsh reality is that if we want people to read and buy our work, we must swallow our pride and admit that it is as much someone else’s as it is ours.  When people invest themselves in our stories, which is what we want, in a very real way they take ownership of them–at least that’s how it feels to them.  If we don’t give them what they want, why should they pay money for it?  Don’t like that?  Go write in a corner.
  • Avoid dramatic shifts in style, genre, and tone:   From the beginning of ME 1 until Shepard’s ascent onto the Citadel at the end of ME 3, the ME series presented itself as an epic action adventure.  In those last ten minutes, it suddenly transformed itself into a Gene Roddenberry-esque philosophical tragedy.  For players who have spent the last eight years building themselves up for an epic conclusion, the shift resulted in anger and disappointment.  I think the application to fiction is obvious.

As a ME fan, I’m still vaguely hoping that the powers behind the game are really wiser than they are letting on.  I’m still hoping that this wasn’t the real ending and that something better is coming.  I heard yesterday that they have agreed to do something.  At least, though, I did learn something from the current disaster.


*In their defense, most of the game was exciting and enjoyable–it was only the last ten minutes that made it all so questionable.  And of course, there is still the “indoctrinate the customers” theory that says all this is intentional and that Commander Shepard was simply hallucinating his way through the end of the game.  There are some intriguing clues imply that might be true (such as the fact that Shepard wakes up in a pile of stone debris, not the metal and steel one would expect from the Citadel), but I’m not sold yet. If this turns out to be some brilliant plan laid out beforehand, I’ll stand corrected.

**I should note that this is comparing apples and oranges, to a certain extent.  I agree that computer games are becoming “art” but they are participatory art.  The players make the game their own in a way that authors simply can’t emulate.  So, I would say that gamers have a much stronger claim to the narrative of a story than simple, straightforward readers.


About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on March 22, 2012, in Brian Melton, Mass Effect, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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