Mass Effect 3's Ending Controversy Is Actually Good for the Industry

Arkadium game designer Matt Plotecher argues that it's a "watershed moment" for the medium

Take a casual stroll through the Internet looking for comments about BioWare's Mass Effect 3, and chances are you'll find a massive pile of them, almost all dealing with the game's endings. Many are sharply acerbic, a few are defensive, but in almost all cases, not much is said about the 30+ hours of gameplay mechanics. Instead, most posts about the game focus on its final endings and whether or not they are "worthy" of the Mass Effect series. This phenomenon illustrates an important shift in how video games are being viewed. The industry is moving away from talking about games as a valid form of expression, to actually demonstrating it.

First, in case you were cryogenically frozen during the past five years, the Mass Effect series is what you can call an "Action RPG" space opera. Players take the role of Commander Shepard in a large, arcing quest to save the galaxy from utter extinction. While this is not exactly a groundbreaking plot, the core parts of the series are rooted in the large amount of leeway that the player has in playing Shepard: romances can be entered into, allies can (and will) die based on your decisions, and in most interactions you have the option of allowing Shepard to be either a glimmering Paragon of pure virtue or a Machiavellian renegade of questionable moral values (or anything in between).

The day before the release of Mass Effect 3, BioWare leaked the endings to its fans and polled them to gauge their reaction. Ninety percent of users said "the endings suck." That's a pretty unambiguous statement. After about a month of similar comments from consumers, BioWare co-founder, Dr. Ray Muzyka, published a blog post explaining the studio's intention to make some changes to the offered endings.

"When we start having the same discussions that these other media forms are having about artistic integrity, author hubris and fan expectations, that's when we need to stop talking and start showing"

I'm not here to debate the actual qualities of the endings. I'm also not here to over analyze the question of "author creative control" vs. "responsibility to the audience." Rather, as I mentioned previously, I see a larger underlying issue that I think Mass Effect 3 has illustrated better than any other game to date.

Mass Effect 3 has run aground on an issue that has long plagued other media. Books, movies, and television shows have all gone through the exact same issue: what should one do when an ending fails to resonate with the audience? While many would grant the creators the right to finish the story as they see fit, many creators have also changed their mind about the original ending they made.

That is where I think the real story to this whole saga lies. The loudest complaint relating to the endings is: "My choices didn't matter."

This is a criticism that is unique to games, and to video games in particular. Players have spent over 100 hours during the past five years building up their story of Commander Shepard. The Commander might have been a male or female, straight or gay, and a paragon or a renegade. The Commander may have eradicated an entire species, reformed a criminal, or gotten completely hammered at any number of the fine bars across the galaxy. To then have all of those differences be washed away in an ending sequence where the main difference is the color palette has left the majority of fans feeling a bit cheated.

To be fair, the Mass Effect series has always been something of an exception to the standard approach to video games. Unlike popular series such as Halo or Gears of War, Mass Effect has always made the story, and your choices within it, one of the core elements to the experience. The benefit is that players have developed a much more emotional connection to the story world. The downside is that when a story element - such as the grand ending - falls flat, its reverberations can shake the very foundation of the fanbase.

Often the main lament I have heard about how society views video games is that mainstream audiences cannot, or will not, take them seriously as a form of artistic expression. The question I have heard asked which embodies this dilemma is, "Where is the video game version of Citizen Kane?" Where is an example of this medium that is going to alter the general public's perception? Never mind the fact that games like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus have, in my opinion, already set a standard for player engagement within a game. They were not as commercially successful, and as a result they have not been able to do much to erode the public stereotypes of video games just being mindless button-mashing and/or interactive demos for physics engines.

The current discussion about the Mass Effect 3 ending, however, and its lack of acknowledgement to the choices the player made throughout the trilogy, reflects a higher standard for video games from the players. Unlike most books, movies and other forms of media, video games are inherently built to allow for different choices that the player can take, and the Mass Effect series has run with this idea more than any other video game series to date. Its strong success with critics and fans (and profit margins) has shown that video games are already at the point where you can have thought-provoking fun, and robust games where the interactivity is part and parcel of the emotional investment. Once the majority of players start thinking about video games in this manner, the general public is likely not far behind.

I'm not about to say that the video game medium is ready to be embraced by the public as its own art form; that's something that really can't be fully determined until the history books are written. However, the recent ruckus over Mass Effect 3 very well may be a watershed moment in the growth of video games.

It's one thing to talk about video games being as valid forms of art and expression as other media. But when we start having the same discussions that these other media forms are having about artistic integrity, author hubris and fan expectations, that's when we need to stop talking and start showing.

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Latest comments (16)

Josh Ahearne Audio/Music, Story Writing 10 years ago
An interesting view on the matter. I've been all bent out of shape with fans demanding the ending be changed as I truly believe in telling a story and once it is done that's it. But the idea that the actual reaction shows people taking it more seriously is a hell of a thought to mull over.

Nicely put.
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Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd10 years ago
@ Joshua I certainly understand that, but it's not like this is unheard of. Even Charles Dickens changed the ending of Great Expectations to better adhere to reader desires.

And even if this was something that didn't happen in storytelling, Mass Effect's narrative and game design have been shaped by fans throughout its development. Characters were brought back and given expanded roles based on feedback and entire plot threads were added to meet expectations. This is as much of a community project as any game has ever been, and if you're going to establish the defining characteristic of the work as "letting people shape the world" then, well, you should let them shape the world.
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Josh Ahearne Audio/Music, Story Writing 10 years ago
Completely agree, I just have the writer in me calling telling me that it's a story and not to messed with. Fully understand the fans view on it and the fact that the different endings are just pallette swaps.
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Martin König Brand Coordinator, Konami Digital Entertainment GmbH10 years ago
The major draw of the Mass Effect franchise also has always been its biggest problem: freedom of players choice embedded into an ambitious narrative.

The freedom of choice to create your "own" story is deeply rooted in the RPG genre. Since its dawn genre entries like the Elder Scroll games restrict their narration by giving players only a story backdrop, which is basically the stage to act upon. The major reasoning behind this design decision is basically the (current) technical limitations, which do not allow for a completly alterable game world, that can react to the myriads of gamer's decisions.

This makes perfect sense, at least for the past and current tech generations. However, Bioware seems overly ambitious to put this limitations to a test.

In particular, the Mass Effect franchise always aimed for a balancing act, by allowing players to live their version of an enthralling narrative. And here is the major problem. Based on Bioware's promotion premisses to tell "your story" customer expectations were unrealistically high from the get-go. Bioware was simply hindered by technological limits to fullfil this premise with Mass Effect and by this created many unsatisfied customers.

So we are basically dealing here with an issue of miscommunication between developer and customer. While your choices have an influence on ME's story to a certain degree, they come nowhere near enough to completly alter the game's narration to your own specific taste.

Thus a more down-to-earth communication strategy is advisable, in particular when it comes to freedom of choice in games. That way the rush of disappointed customers should be turned into a breeze.
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Personally, I think this "artistic" argument is to much fluff, games are not movies or books, especially games like mass effect they are actively "played" by the user, the user is capable of playing a game there way, and making their own decisions, when 90% of the fanbase dislike the ending, the dev's falling back to their artistic license to have the ending end the way they like is an affront to the whole point of gaming, each gamer has their own game they deserve to have an ending that suits it, that in truth they want, that's the whole advantage of games, its an active medium not a passive one, in my opinion they're attempt to provide choices at the end was a complete disaster, the only decent ending in me3 was the ending to the geth/quarian conflict, as long as you made the right decisions accross all the 3 actions you got the ending you wanted, and it was brilliant, the true ending to the series was terrible in comparison, they turned introduced in the last 10 minutes a totally unncessary addition that of some god like alien, even given that the paragon option should have been to the destroy the reapers, the geth and edi should have been fine, as long as you saved the geth of course, the renegade should have been control the reaper's, and synthesis makes a good alt option, anyone who scored over 6000 war assets should have survived to pay them back for their hard work, that would be the simplest way to fix it in a way requiring no more work then what they produced, yes it would fail to use most of what you did accross all 3 players and be less then ideal but at least you could know there was a happy conclusion based on what most players wanted.

Though ideally the ending should have not been a in place choice but the result of your gameplay, ie the ending plays out based on everything you've done accross all the games you played, you dont get some artificial choice at the end it simply plays out based on everything you've done, did you save the geth did you save the quarian's did you save them both? did you save the rachni, did you cure the krogans in good faith? etc all these should have played out it the ending instead of introducing some random god like character in the last 10 minutes to provide players an unnecessary choice all the decisions to date should have culminated to produce an ending tailored for you, over 60% paragaon you get paragon ending, under 40% renegade, 41-59% neutral, with the exact ending tailored to your game. utlizing many elements to product the final story and cut-scene.

The idea an ending is untouchable artistic license is treating gaming like film, ignoring the whole point, players dont have to play or engage with a film they just watch its a passive experience so its only right the writers set the ending but players should get to choose the ending they like in a game, they've spent their time on it playing their story their way, that gives them the right to demand the ending they want, and quite rightly to.

Worse is the bias the gaming media provided on the issue, they all without fail embraced that dev's should have "artistic" license to release whatever they want and demonised the majority of fans who complained, minimising they're legitimate attempt to galvanise the dev's into changing things, there was no balanced coverage of the issue, not seen a single reporter standing up for fans, only a whole bunch of contrary articles popped up in an attempt to negate the fan's press which leads me to the suspicion that many must be being bribed or coerced into the publisher's way of thinking as never before has every single reporter came out with the same kind of story on one issue with not a single one supporting fans, as a me3 fan who wanted a new ending personally I feel cheated by this, I'll certainly look at the gaming media in different light in future, not one stood up for the fans who wanted change, so why should gamers be interested in their opinions in future, for the most part the only people who truly care about critics opinions are other critics, gaming media will feel the bite of this in the future no doubt, they have shown the average player what many have been saying for years, the gaming media are not the gamers voice, they're the publisher's lackies, it should be so noted the majority of gamers do not post in forums, as understandably enough they find the idiots they find in them vexxing, so you dont get to hear their opinion the ones calling for a change were as a result only a small proportion of those who would like to see change, however the majority of gamers I've spoken to dislike the ending, statistically it was a failure, and frankly if Bioware decided to make a new mass effect like story tommorrow I'd probably play it but after this me3 ending I'd never truly get into it to the same degree, as I simply dont trust them anymore, and I'm not along in that assessment.

These kind of story and player driven stories are definitely the future of triple a single player games, but they need a new attitude and new idea's and rules to deal with them, as player's will be less forgiving of how dev's mistreat character's and stories they've grown to identify with, if the next person who come sup with a similar type of multi-game story similarly disappoints with the ending users may well give them a wide birth in the foreseeable future, which would be a shame as they definitely have great potential as the future of the medium.
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Craig Burkey Software Engineer 10 years ago
The problem with the "fans" that are throwing their toys out the pram is, they are taking the "end" to be the last 3 minutes of the game, where as it actually starts about an hour before(your even warned), lots of choices made with in the game are given their own separate moment.
I also suspect alot of complainers watched the ending 3 minutes on youtube out of context with the game narrative. I think Bioware would of saved themselves alot of bother if they had made youtube lock the videos and let the players reach the end naturally.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 10 years ago
Am I the only one to think the whole debate about the ending is little more than viral marketing?

You take something you know people will have an opinion about it, blow it out of proportion and have people ride the coattails.

Without the discussion about its ending, ME3 would have vanished from the center of attention two days after release. This way, it took center stage for two weeks. The topic did not come up gradually after a lot of people finished the game, the topic came on hard and fast after release; almost even before it seems. Comparing the ME3 ending to the quality of other video game endings makes it painfully obvious that this "controversy" feels strange and out of place.
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Michael Taylor Audio Designer 10 years ago
This echoes my sentiments exactly. I personally felt that the whole game was spent tieing up the threads from ME1 & 2, and by the time I reached the endgame I felt everything had been wrapped up, and now it was time to end it. The outcry of 'Our choices didn't matter' were utterly perplexing to me.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 10 years ago
Yeah... it will compel developers to give gamers a fake ending, so they can spend more cash on a downloadable new/official/better ending, and thats something to be pissed about.

If the Indoctrination theory is correct, then the ending to mass effect was an epic and fitting end, making it one of the finest pieces of Sci-Fi literature of all time.

However, the failed to get the indoctrination Theory clear to gamers, it left alot to speculation, it was hard to grasp if you didnt see all the red flags throughout the game, most notably the boy being an illusion, since no one noticed him, and the boy going through a door that was locked in the beginning of the game and shortly after getting blown up by a reaper. Also at the end of the first conversation with the boy you can hear reaper growls. I felt the ending should have explained things better and been drastically differant... unless they already have a plan for that.... through a DLC much like the Dragon Age: Awakening DLC. The ending to Mass Effect 3 could have been a prologue to some downloadable episode.

However brands and properties must be treated with care and statistically, ME3 ending was a failure. However if the indoctrination theory is correct then it is a Sci-Fi masterpiece, BUT they failed to make that clear to gamers. Much like dragon Age 2. It promised but did not deliver. I myself loved the first dragon age. A few hours into the second one and i found it to be a huge dissapointment, to the point were I didnt bother purchasing it.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Rick Lopez on 19th April 2012 1:01pm

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Jonathan O'Connor10 years ago
@Rick The thing that irks me is, was the original plan to release a 'proper' ending a few weeks later as paid DLC? Obviously the backlash has put paid to any such plans meaning we will never get to see the said proper ending.

If anyone is in doubt that the ending was indoctrination/dream, turn around and look at what is behind you after the harbringer blast/blackout bit. There are trees and shrubs from your earlier dream sequences that weren't there as you were running toward the beam....
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 10 years ago
@ Jonathan

How has the backlash stopped the proper ending DLC being released? Surely that's what people have been clamouring for? An actual decent ending.
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Jonathan O'Connor10 years ago
Seeing as how people backlashed when they didn't get the ending they wanted, do you honestly think "Hey was ruse all along! Pay another 6 quid to get the real ending!" will be a popular move?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jonathan O'Connor on 19th April 2012 2:07pm

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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 10 years ago

Some people didn't get the ending they wanted. Though I've not seen anything like that myself, I suppose you could argue that the people who wanted their decisions to matter more could be placed in that group.

Most criticism I've seen, though, comes from people who wanted an ending that makes sense. This explains their issues pretty well:

(Especially Page 3 of that article, with the "Yo Dawg" meme.)

And I think it's very debatable that BioWare set-out to create the Indoctrination Theory. It's just as plausible that it was badly written, and people are seeing what they want to see.

In any event, maybe BioWare could release the "proper" ending for free? CDPR have just released a massive free update for the PC version of Witcher 2. It would certainly be a PR coup.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 19th April 2012 2:25pm

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Paolo Giunti Localisation Project Manager, GlobaLoc GmbH10 years ago
Am I the only one to think the whole debate about the ending is little more than viral marketing?
I'm pretty sure it's not.
I learned of the outcry from DeviantArt, where people just submitted their impressions of the ending under the form of demotivational posters, comics or prose.

See below a couple examples:

Some of these were published on DA 3-4 days after the European release of the game (which is just the time necessary for those people to devour the game in one go, and then express their feelings about it).
Also, i would add that those two comics i linked as example reflect even my own personal impression.

So no. For once, i don't believe it's viral marketing!

@Jonathan & Morville
Didn't Bioware announce that the "proper ending" is going to be released this summer for free?
If that was a ruse to try and get people to pay more for the real ending, then, what the outcry accomplished is to lower that price to zero.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paolo Giunti on 19th April 2012 4:57pm

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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 10 years ago
Check these link: (this is three parts)

The indoctrination Theory is pretty much the only thing that justifies the ending as it is. Its probably the best explanation for the ending, and justifies leaving it as is and simply working on explaining it better and giving more closure as to whats up with the galaxy and characters and evenhave a possible end were we see shepard live. Im hoping this is Biowares plan and that the indoctrination Theory is correct.

If the indoctrination theory is true, then bioware crafted a true masterpiece, however they failed at storytelling, leaving too much to speculation and kept everything pretty much bland an vague. Basically the ending was there but they failed to get it properly across to gamers.

The only thing that needs explanation is how was the crucible activated and how the citidel exploded.

Also Im adding a link here so you people can check out Marauder Shields... Apparantly he is becoming pretty famouse.... The final boss of Mass Effect 3 who died trying to prevent you from seeing a bad ending, he died a hero....

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Rick Lopez on 19th April 2012 8:37pm

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Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd10 years ago
@ Rick Bioware has pretty much 100% confirmed the indoctrination theory fake in the interviews and presentations they've given about the new fleshed out ending... sorry to disappoint.
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