A Critique of the Mass Effect 3 Ending
Posted by Blessing of Kings [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 29 June 2012, 2:30 am
(Yeah, this post is like one giant spoiler. Spoilers for Mass Effect, Macbeth, Knights of the Old Republic, Lord of the Rings and A Tale of Two Cities below the cut!)


The weakness of the Extended Cut is the same as the original ending of Mass Effect 3: the Choice at the top of the Citadel.

Spear-points

Let's start with a digression on endings. The author Jo Walton has a concept she calls the "spear-point":
There comes a point in writing, and it's a spear-point, it's very small and sharp but because it's backed by the length and weight of a whole spear and a whole strong person pushing it, it's a point that goes in a long way. Spearpoints need all that behind them, or they don't pack their punch in the same way.
Examples are difficult to give because spear-points by their nature require their context, and spoilers. They tend to be moments of poignancy and realization. When Duncan picks the branches when passing through trees, he's just getting a disguise, but we the audience suddenly understand how Birnam Wood shall come to Dunsinane.
To take an example from Bioware's own oeuvre, in Knights of the Old Republic, the reveal that the main character is Revan is a spear-point. The entire game has been building up to that point, and that moment of revelation has force behind it.

The best endings are the ones where the spear, which has the length and weight of the entire work, is driven home. There is an aura of inevitability, that this is the only ending that could be, that all the choices up until now have been leading to, even if the final goal was unclear. Think of the ending to Lord of the Rings, where Frodo claims the One Ring and Gollum saves Middle-Earth. A spear-point set up from the very beginning, all choices leading to that inevitable ending.

In my opinion, the best ending in all of English literature is the ending to Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities:
"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."
The entire novel is one giant spear leading to that line, and that line is both sacrifice and redemption for the protagonist, Sydney Carton.

The problem with Mass Effect is that the entire series has been building a spear. From ME1, to ME2, to ME3, with choice after choice the player has forged a spear. And then the ME3 ending throws the spear away!

The Choice at the top of the Citadel bears no relation to any choice previously made. For example, if you're Paragon, you've been fighting against Control for three games now. But suddenly, Control is a valid, and maybe even the best, choice.

The first major flaw of the ME3 ending is that it deliberately throws the spear away in a bid for a twist, robbing the ending of force and weight that it should have had.

Magic

The Crucible is magic.

There are no rules as to how it works, or what its limits are. As such, it is entirely arbitrary.

The choices presented are arbitrary. The costs of those choices are arbitrary.

Why Synthesis? That's the way the magic works.

Why does Shepard have to die and lose her humanity with Control? That's the way the magic works.

Why does Destroy kill EDI and the Geth? That's the way the magic works.

Because the choices are so arbitrary, you can easily substitute new choices without changing anything. Off the top of my head, here's three more choices which are just as valid or as possible as the three presented in game:
  1. Banishment - The Reapers are banished for a century giving the galaxy time to prepare for their return.
  2. Ascension - All intelligent organic and synthetic life in the galaxy ascends to the next plane of existence. The Reapers return in the next cycle, but are defeated thanks to the clues left behind.
  3. Dissolution - The Reapers are dissolved and a new generation of the species that had been harvested to create each Reaper is born from the remnants.
The author Brandon Sanderson has a rule which he calls Sanderson's First Law of Magics:
Sanderson's First Law of Magics: An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
How well do we understand the magic of the Crucible? We don't. The audience has pretty much zero understanding of the magic involved. If you can rewrite the DNA of every organic and synthetic living in the galaxy, what can't you do? Following Sanderson's Law, that means that Bioware's ability to use the Crucible to solve the major conflict is zero as well.

Thus the whole thing comes across as arbitrary.

Sanderson continues:
Yet, if the stories don't have rules and laws for their magic, don't they risk Deus Ex Machina (contrived endings) in their books? ... If we simply let ourselves develop new rules every time our characters are in danger, we will end up creating fiction that is not only unfulfilling and unexciting, but just plain bad.
And further:
There is a reason that Gandalf doesn't just fly Frodo to Mount Doom with magic, then let him drop the ring in. Narratively, that just doesn't work with the magic system. We don't know what it can do, and so if the reader uses it to solve a lot of problems, then the tension in the novel ends up feeling weak. The magic undermines the plot instead enhancing it.
The Mass Effect 3 ending pretty much validates Sanderson's First Law completely. Using arbitrary magic without limits leading to Deus Ex Machina, creating fiction which is unfulfilling, and undermining the plot instead of enhancing it? Check, check, and check.

The second major flaw of the ME3 ending is that it relies on magic, with arbitrary effects and arbitrary costs, to provide a solution to the major conflict. To quote Sanderson, that ends up "creating fiction that is not only unfulfilling and unexciting, but just plain bad."

Conclusion

Taken together, these two flaws are a fundamental flaw in the Mass Effect ending. The chain of choices leading to the ending was thrown away, replaced by arbitrary magic. This structure undermines the plot of ME3, and of the entire series. It creates an ending which is both unfulfilling and separate from the rest of the game.



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