If you’re a gamer, you’ve probably noticed the Internet is furious over the ending to BioWare’s Mass Effect trilogy, a story five years in the telling.
That writers of beloved fictions fail to live up to fan expectations is an inevitable facet of popular culture. However, that disappointment is amplified by the open mic that is the Web. The last couple of weeks have seen fans constructing all sorts of petitions and polls in an attempt to let BioWare know they are disenchanted with the series' ending. There’s even an interesting and inspired case of fan disappointment being transmuted into constructive activism.
Here’s the thing, though: The trilogy’s ending – at least the one that capped my experience (there are three slightly different resolutions, and all have earned the ire of some players) – is both wrenching and beautiful.
It’s so beautiful that I can’t imagine ruining it for those yet to experience it. (It’s worth noting that many of the people complaining about the series’ finale seem to have no qualms revealing spoilers amid their protests – those yet to finish the game should be wary when visiting online user forums and comments).
All I’ll say is that BioWare's resolution cleverly, courageously and categorically ended the tale that the games’ writers set out to tell.
Despite what you might read from irate fans, it is far from lazy or simple. It is complex and thought provoking. It’s been days since I finished the game, and I still find myself contemplating the conclusion, trying to discern what it means for the characters, species and worlds affected. That a story can reach a definite end and yet leave one fascinated by what might come after is, to me, is a sign that BioWare got it right.
My greatest complaint with syndicated television is that it rarely feels as though the writers know where things are headed. Plots meander, ideas weave into and out of the narrative at random, often seemingly the result of studios reacting to what they perceive the masses want. There’s no structure, no goal. And when these shows are inevitably yanked from the air after ten episodes or 10 seasons, audiences are usually left with little in the way of resolution.
This is a common problem in games, too. Series typically persist as long as publishers can make money off them, each new game offering half a plot and half an ending, always keeping the door open for the story to continue while never satisfying players in the way a complete, properly told story should.
Mass Effect doesn’t suffer this problem. It was a story conceived as a trilogy, with its ending defined even before the first game hit shelves. This is made clear as we play through the final game, where the meaning of several of the most important narrative props finally becomes clear, leaving us to marvel at the writers' cleverness while looking back and realizing how the first two games were filled with foreshadowing. It’s a tale that’s been masterfully constructed with a beginning, a middle and, yes, an ending.
It’s also a story in which players have been given a crucial role in the form of the ability to shape certain details. We’ve made key choices that have altered not just the sort of person our hero, Commander Shepard, is, but also which characters – sometimes even which species – get to live or die. These choices have dramatically altered certain facets of the narrative, closing some storylines and opening others. Your friends’ experience of the story will not be the same as yours.
I’m not aware of another franchise that has carried over a player’s decisions from one game to the next in such ambitious and dramatic fashion. The third game in the series acts as a reward for everyone who has been with the franchise from the start, showing us the consequences of all the decisions we'd made and the conclusions to a dozen different story threads that had been left hanging after the first two games.
However, this freedom seems to have gone to many players’ heads. Because they’ve enjoyed having control over the decisions Shepard makes, they think they also ought to control Shepard’s fate. They’ve confused having the ability to affect a story through a character in meaningful, often emotional ways, with having the ability to write their own story. That’s not what Mass Effect is.
The destiny of our hero is and always was the purview of the games’ writers. His (or her) path has always been set. It has many player-controlled forks, but these splintered trails always end up rejoining the main road – a road which, despite having several lanes (the ending will have a different tone based on your final choice), leads to a similar place.
The writers have maintained this control so that they can tell a story with specific ideas and themes. Mass Effect is a story that celebrates hope, progressiveness and libertarianism. It also acknowledges the relentless march of time, the inescapability of change and the unavoidable ending of things, be they people, species, planets, or stars.
I truly hope that BioWare remains uninfluenced by fans’ protests. It’s rare to see an artist’s vision persist through the development of a major game series. Altering that vision based on audience response – which may or may not represent the majority of players (few would argue that the dissatisfied are much more likely to give voice to their grievances than the contented are to yell out their satisfaction) – would be a disservice to a medium still struggling for mainstream acceptance as an art form.
Mass Effect may eventually continue in some way or shape. The series’ extraordinarily rich world begs to be explored even more deeply, and there are all sorts of ways in which BioWare might do this, ranging from a smaller-in-scope prequel (perhaps the finding of the Sol mass effect relay and the First Contact war that followed) to interactive tales that explore the enthralling consequences of the trilogy’s controversial conclusion. I’d eagerly anticipate these experiences.
However, taken as is, Mass Effect is a rare thing in the world of games: A complete story. I would be left wholly satisfied if Mass Effect 3 marked the end of BioWare’s exploration of the vast universe they’ve so painstakingly created. The writers have told an epic story about a turning point not just for humanity, but for galactic civilization that raises some fascinating speculative and philosophical questions.
In the end, I suspect that, deep down, many of those who complain are simply sad that it is over.