[Spoilers ahoy! I discuss the ending in all its gory detail. Do not proceed past the jump if you don't wish to read those. You have been warned.]
Despite my general dislike of Mass Effect 3's ending (a sentiment seemingly shared by 90% of the internet), I will attempt to discuss it here with as fairly as I can. Really, it's not all bad. I liked some of the things it tried to do. And it certainly didn't make me flat-out angry like it did a lot of people.
I think there are two main categories of issues with the ending: those external to the game and those internal to the story. I have to really disagree with people who say that fans who disliked the ending are just being whiny or immature seeking a "happy" ending to everything or just being generally ticked that it is ending. I guess a fair number of people might feel those things, but for a lot of us fans, we quite simply feel that the ending was wrong on many levels.
The External Problems: We Were Promised Diversity
Oh, the dangers of hype! This is a strange issue circling many franchises. Few highly successful pieces of entertainment produce sequels that actually live up to the hype produced around them. It's gotten to the point that many of us have learned to avoid marketing altogether to save ourselves from setting expectations that cannot be met. I have a friend, for instance, who's managed to almost entirely avoid the marketing push for The Dark Knight Rises in order to not get too excited about it.
Here's the thing though: I wasn't underwhelmed by anything the game hyped up. The action and scope of the game still managed to satisfy me. It was great, really. It lived up to that massive marketing hype as far as action and adventure are concerned (they really shouldn't have put Kalros in a trailer though).
No, the thing that bothers us disappointed fans is what we were promised about the ending. We were promised our choices would matter. We were promised that the ending wouldn't be an A, B, or C choice (which is exactly what it is, ironically.) We were promised a huge amount of diversity.
What we got, of course, were basically three endings that felt like one ending.
No matter what you do, Shepard dies and the mass effect relays are destroyed (excepting that one ending where Shepard might still be alive).
Even the lead up to the ending doesn't change that much depending on your actions. Unlike the ending of Mass Effect 2 where all of your preparations for the suicide mission seemed to matter, none of your preparations in ME3 change the cutscenes, the casualties, or the possible endings (again, with that one tiny exception of an extra second on the end with Shepard "waking up.") This was disappointing to say the least.
Did you recruit the Krogan? Want to see a massive Krogan charge on the enemy? Too bad. Nothing. Did you bring the Quarians and Geth together? Sorry. No footage of them fighting alongside each other in this final battle.
All you get for your efforts is a different set of people standing around for you to talk to before the final battle. That's nice, sure. I enjoyed those little chats with the characters... but I kind of expected a little more showcasing of the galaxy in action. It's just one cutscene of the space battle which I am informed does not change depending on who you've recruited. On the ground it's basically just you and your two squadmates.
So the lead up to the ending was disappointing. As we got closer to the ending, player choice tapered off. There's not nearly as much diversity as promised. It makes you feel like your actions have had less of an effect - a message that is loudly re-enforced by the ending itself.
Here's the thing: if Mass Effect 3 were a standalone game it would be awesome. We wouldn't be expecting dozens of endings with broad choice and massive indication of cause-and-effect. The reason for the Reapers' existence would still be stupid, but I'm guessing, in general, we would probably be just fine with what's there. But it is Mass Effect 3. It's almost like BioWare, in an EA-mandated effort to hold the hands of new players, forgot they were making the end of a trilogy with regards to the ending.
One example of this from the middle of the game is the Rachni. I spared the Rachni queen in ME1. The great thing about some of the choices in Mass Effect is that you don't know how they will affect you down the road. I made the call I thought was right. So when the Rachni showed up as Reaper-control enemies in ME3 I naturally thought "well if I hadn't spared the queen I wouldn't have to deal with this." Turns out I'm wrong. If you kill the queen the Rachni still show up anyway. There's no legitimate story reason for this. They just didn't want to design and alternative enemy.
This is the kind of crap that makes us players mad. It's when we choose one thing and BioWare tells us, "no, sorry, you made an invalid choice. We want to use the Rachni as enemies so we're going to basically ignore what you did."
And that brings us to the ending. No matter what you've done in the entire series up until this point, you still have the same three choices. A, B, or C. And they all suck.
One could make the argument that Mass Effect has always presented you with the illusion of choice and not actual choice. The ME3 ending tears this veil away completely. Suddenly it seems like none of your choice mattered. And the choice you make between A, B, and C is anything but diverse from the player's perspective.
We were promised differently. We shouldn't have listened. Maybe the problem is not that BioWare doesn't listen to us; it's that we listen to BioWare. I won't be making that mistake in the future.
The Internal Problems: Betrayal, Not Subversion
I want to take a moment to talk about the things I like about the ending. I like how strange it is. I like that it reminds me of the harder-sci fi tendencies the series occasionally has.
My favourite moments of ME1 were talking to Sovereign and Vigil, the Prothean VI. In these conversations are great reveals about the history and overarching plot of the series. The idea of cyclical history, the Reapers, and the Protheans trying to preserve some knowledge across cycles are super engaging to me. They cause me to think about really cool, big ideas that are far beyond me and that's what good hard SF does.
The fact that the ending is more than the construction of a magic superweapon to fix the Reaper problem was fantastic. I do appreciate the effort there. I was afraid the ending would be fairly boring and predictable. Unfortunately, it breaks down in the actual execution.
Someone aptly described the ending like going from Star Wars to 2001: A Space Odyssey. I think that's quite apt. It's thematic whiplash. Ignoring that rough transition, the ending is still completely nonsensical.
For no reason at all the Catalyst reveals itself to Shepard as the creator of the Reapers and architect of the 50,000 year cycle. Why does it do this? Why not let Shepard die and just continue the cycle? Apparently, it's because he made it to the Citadel. That changes things.
Huh? Why does Shepard making it to the Citadel change your vast plan? That makes no sense. Why present Shepard with these choices? Why?
We could forgive some of this. We could forgive the thematic whiplash. Heck, we could even forgive the plothole-ridden cutscenes that follow if this part had just made some bloody sense.
I won't bother pointing out all of the continuity errors or that kind of minutia. Others have done that at length already. They're there and they're pretty glaring. Enough said.
But there's a fine line between subverting our expectations and betraying them. This was betrayal.
I can't believe I'm writing this, but this all-powerful AI's stupid, stupid, stupid motivation for creating the Reapers is best described with usage of the "yo, dawg" meme:
Yeah, that's about right. This is a lame and nonsensical reason for the existence of the Reapers (which would have been better left a mystery). This logic assumes the premise that synthetics and organics cannot peacefully coexist has some merit. Its a compelling premise, perhaps. The problem is that Mass Effect 2 & 3 have completely dispelled this idea.
In the first game, the Geth and the Reapers are presented as straight-up bad guys. We're told that artificial intelligence is a bad idea because it'll always lead to the production of Terminators. Virtual intelligences are the substitute - effective AI minus the dynamic learning capability. Okay, cool. That's putting a new spin on that old sci fi convention of the "evil computer." Gotcha. I like what you did there, BioWare.
In 2, however, we're working with Cerberus who doesn't care about the rules. They've installed EDI, a full AI, on the Normany SR-2 which causes quite a stir at first. Through the course of the game, however, you begin to feel more comfortable with the concept. Then you get Legion, the Geth companion. So maybe AI aren't all bad after all?
This theme is furthered in 3 with possible conclusions to the Geth/Quarian storyline. My Shepard chose to make them play nice together. Mass Effect 3 reveals that the Geth did not in fact rebel against the Quarians as had been previously though. Moreover, EDI makes further strides toward understanding organic life. You can choose as I did to encourage her and Joker to pursue a strange and very humorous relationship.
The Catalyst's argument that the created will always rebel again their creators seems particularly hollow in light of these events. Isn't the whole idea of Mass Effect 3 to unite the diverse forms of life found in the galaxy for a common cause? Not since the first game has organic life vs. synthetic life been a valid dichotomy.
So let's give BioWare the benefit of the doubt. Let's assume that they intended for the Catalyst to be incapable of accepting any other reality. AI being less capable or incapable of dynamic throught is a long standing sci fi convention. Let's assume that the Catalyst isn't just a really stupid all-powerful AI. It's just one that's old and set in its ways. Okay.
Shepard - my Shepard the character I've been crafting over the span of three games - would never put up with this argument. I mean, I just reunited the Geth and Quarians a few hours earlier. If player choice mattered, shouldn't I be able to cite that as an example of how the Catalyst is wrong? Why is Shepard incapable of arguing with this thing? He's weary, sure. He's half-dead. But why does he just keel over and accept that he has to take one of these three bogus choices?
Making one of these choices is inevitable. It is final. It will alter the galaxy forever. Shepard cannot refuse. He cannot sit back and simply refuse all of the options offered him.
The way I played, Shepard has always challenged the odds - always refused to take a bad outcome for an answer. Sure, there were always hard choices that couldn't be "win-win" like having to choose between Ashley or Kaidan
Maybe the idea was that some things are inevitable. You have to bend over and take this choice because there are forces larger than you at work in the universe that you can't escape. Fine. That's perfectly acceptable theme. It doesn't belong in Mass Effect though. Why? 'cause even though some situations have been lose-lose, that is always due to circumstance as in the Ashley/Kaidan choice and not your interaction with another character.
And that leads me to the simplest fix for the ending...
On Changing the Ending
A vastly improved ending, could be as simple as A, B, C, or D. Give us a fourth choice. Y'know, the choice we've always had before. The "screw you" choice.
Give us the choice to do nothing. To defy the Catalyst and its horribly flawed logic. Shepard and the Catalyst would then watch the battle play out. Maybe the Reapers always win. Maybe you have to have everything maxed out to survive. Maybe it's a total coin toss. I don't care. That's not the real issue.
The real issue is that we have no choice currently but to follow the inane logic of the "Star Child." Adding this one simple option would go a long way to helping alleviate a lot of frustration, at least I think it would have had it been in the original release.
It's not difficult to see there's been a split in the gaming community over this ending. While the majority of fans are dissatisfied with the ending, it seems that a minority of critics shared that negative reaction. A lot of them seemed to think it was fine and that fan outrage has been ridiculous.
I do think people are getting really bent out of shape for something that ultimately doesn't matter. I would have liked the ending to have been better, but ultimately it's a video game. It doesn't really matter. I will agree with the critics on that.
I will also agree that changing the ending at this point isn't a good idea. The damage is done. BioWare needs to move on. If they're smart, they'll give away a decent piece of DLC (unrelated to the ending) to win back some favor from fans.
Would I play a new ending if BioWare released it for free? You bet I would! But I would always remember the original. We all would. The new ending, we all know, wouldn't be the "real" ending. The real ending, unfortunately, was a betrayal of expectations, established continuity, and common sense. No patch will change that.
BioWare, I hope you guys do better next time.