In defense of Mass Effect 3’s ending

By Joe Delaney

Does anyone remember Game of Thrones? At the time of this writing, it hasn’t even been off the air for two years, and yet what was once the most popular show of the last decade has basically faded into obscurity. How could a show, one that was loved by critics and general audiences alike, just stop being talked about as if it never happened?

Because its ending was terrible.

A disappointing conclusion can undo years of good will. You could have a story that is 99.999% incredible, but if you don’t stick that landing, the world will retroactively see all the good things that came before as missed potential. That old cliché that says, “it’s the journey, not the destination,” couldn’t be more off base when it comes to reactions to bad endings in beloved franchises. 

When people talk about Game of Thrones now, they don’t talk about how amazing the Red Wedding was, or that surprise White Walker attack. They make fun of Dany forgetting about the Iron Fleet and getting her dragon killed, or fucking Bran becoming king. And when people talk about Mass Effect nowadays, it’s mostly to complain about how it ended.

In the late 2000’s and early 2010’s, the Mass Effect series was arguably the most beloved franchise in gaming. The first game was considered revolutionary, setting up a brand new science-fiction universe that let the player’s choices dictate where the story went. 

RELATED: Why BioWare’s Jade Empire is ripe for a comeback

Mass Effect 2 was even better, with many considering it to be not just one of the best sequels in gaming, but just one of the greatest games of all time. Anticipation for the third game was through the roof, especially since ME2 ended on one of the most exciting cliffhangers in gaming history. People were expecting nothing less than perfection from Mass Effect 3, and since developer BioWare had not yet become a shell of their former selves that makes Destiny clones, we had no reason to doubt them.

Of course, we all know how it went down. Mass Effect 3 was met with critical acclaim, but the reaction from “the gamers” was much more negative. BioWare had finally jumped the shark and made their first bad game. All those years of hype, of players building their own adventure, and it all boiled down to three color-coded choices that all led to basically the same underwhelming ending. Just like with Game of Thrones, all the years of high quality storytelling was undone by one half-baked finale, and the Mass Effect name has been stained ever since. 

But what if I were to tell you that Mass Effect 3 isn’t as bad as you’ve been led to believe? Is it as great as Mass Effect 2? Well, no, but most games aren’t as good as Mass Effect 2. However, I’d say it’s at least on par with the first game, and in many ways much better. And for my most controversial, clickbaity proclamation of all: maybe, just maybe, the ending isn’t that bad either.

If you’re still reading this, I assume you are not currently typing me up a death threat, so that must mean you’re willing to hear me out. I’ll try to start off with some relatively inoffensive points regarding this game’s quality that I feel most people would agree with, even if most people seem to have forgotten them.

The Characters

Spoilers from here on out…

Going back to my Game of Thrones analogy, the main reason that people despised the last season so much wasn’t that it was anticlimactic, although that was certainly part of it. What people really hated though, was how utterly disrespectful the writers were toward nearly every single beloved character. Tyrion went from clever and cunning to a bumbling buffoon. Jaime’s years-long redemption arc was undone so he could get crushed under some rubble with his sister. Daenerys had the worst-written heel turn in the history of television, becoming a genocidal maniac in a matter of hours. 

This is where my comparisons of Game of Thrones and Mass Effect 3 end, because ME3 handles nearly every character with the utmost care and dignity. While you could argue that the overall conclusion was a letdown, it’s impossible to deny that the individual character arcs weren’t satisfying. Thane’s final prayer to Shepard, Tali’s return to her home world, Grunt’s last stand, Joker and EDI having a hot organic/synthetic romance. The game is just chock full of great character moments, but I want to focus on the one in particular that I feel is possibly the best redemption arc in any video game: Mordin Solus.

I know that most people seem to think that Garrus is the best character in the series, and I do love me some Garrus. However, I don’t think he’s all that complex. He’s a renegade cop, he doesn’t play by the rules, and he’s a bro for Shepard. That’s about it. While I do see his appeal, I really don’t see how he holds a candle to Mordin, who is the most well-written character in the series, and is the central figure during its most emotional moment.

RELATED: Why Mass Effect 2 was one of the best games of the 2010s

When players meet Mordin in ME2, he’s a comically arrogant, bordering on narcissistic, scientist Salarian who is responsible for helping preserve the Genophage, a manmade (or alien-made) virus that stops the Krogan species from overbreeding. The Genophage basically made it so only one out of every thousand Krogan babies conceived survive, and this has resulted in Krogan society falling into ruin. Mordin starts out ME2 feeling justified in helping maintain the Genophage, because it has kept the Krogan under control. But over the course of the two games, he starts to see the toll it has had on the Krogan, and the once confident doctor starts having his doubts.

This culminates in his role in Mass Effect 3, where he actively works to cure the Genophage. As someone who has played through the entire series as both a paragon and renegade, I can say that even playing as my baddest version of Shepard, I couldn’t rob Mordin of his big moment. 

It’s simultaneously the most heartbreaking and life-affirming scene in the series. Mordin takes the elevator to the top of the tower that is dispensing the cure into the atmosphere of Tuchunka, the Krogan homeworld, because it’s been sabotaged by the leaders of Mordin’s own people. The place is about to blow, and Mordin knows that, but he also knows that no one else can fix it, because someone else might get it wrong. 

While he overrides the sabotage, he starts to sing the Salarian version of “Modern Major General” from Pirates of Penzance, and smiles once he knows the cure has been successfully deployed. He continues to sing as the room explodes with him in it, with his last words being: “I am the very model.” 

You have a character who believably went from staunchly defending his choice to participate in eugenics on the Krogan, to sacrificing himself to give that very species a chance to thrive again. You personally might not like this game’s ending, but you can’t deny how moving the ending was for Mordin and the Krogan. 

The Choices

Here’s where things start to get contentious. One of the major complaints you often see about ME3 is how few choices there are in the game, which is a fair criticism. You have a series that has been defined by player choice, where the decisions you make in one game transfer to the sequels. So when you give the player fewer choices to make in the final game, you’re bound to make some people angry. 

While I acknowledge the player certainly has fewer choices to make in ME3, I do feel the game makes up for it by giving the player more substantial choices. You’re not just picking between which character lives or dies here, like you did in the first game with Ashley and Kaiden (by the way, the correct choice is NOT the space racist). In ME3, if you don’t make the right choices leading up to it, you have to decide which entire race of people get destroyed, the Quarians, or the Geth. 

That’s not all though. I already mentioned that you could stop Mordin from curing the Genophage, and while I could never make that choice, the game actually gives you a pretty strong incentive to make such an immoral choice. The whole point of the game is to gather as much support as you can to defeat the Reapers, and if you choose to sabotage the cure, you’re rewarded by gaining the support of the Salarian fleet, a powerful asset in the war. Again, I’m not a monstrous piece of shit, so I’d never do this, but I can get why a monstrous piece of shit would do this. 

The one criticism of this game that I just CANNOT abide by though is when people say, “My choices from previous games didn’t even matter!” Seriously, did we play the same game? There are so many different ways the game can play out depending on the choices you made in the first two games. I already mentioned the conflict between the Quarian and the Geth, which resulted in the complete annihilation of the Quarian people during my first playthrough, which then caused my beloved crewmate Tali to kill herself. But by making the right choices in ME2 and ME3, you can force a peaceful resolution between the two warring factions. 

An even more impressive example of this, once again, involves Mordin and the Krogan. If you kill Mordin before he can fix the cure, you can’t fool Wrex, the leader of the Krogan, because he’s too smart for that shit. He knows something is up, and that you messed up the cure. However, there’s a chance that in your game, Wrex died all the way back in the first game, and the leader of the Krogan is now his dipshit brother. This idiot is very easy to trick into believing in the fake cure. The choices you made in the very first game have an impact on this moment, and that is an absolute triumph in interactive storytelling.

But of all the choices, or lack thereof, in the game, none are more polarizing than that final choice: Red, blue, or green? I’ve avoided talking about it for too long. It’s time to talk about the ending (and why it’s better than people give it credit for).

The Ending

Am I about to argue that the ending wasn’t kind of a letdown? No, not really. Especially coming off of ME2, which has arguably the best ending of any game ever. But being disappointing isn’t the same thing as being bad, and I think there are a lot of things the ending does really well.

First let’s talk about why people hate the ending so much. Basically, players felt like their choices all throughout the series didn’t matter, and we were stuck given a boring choice between destroying the Reapers (red), controlling them (blue), or fusing everybody into sexy organic/synthetic hybrids (green). We weren’t even given a final boss fight, unless you count the courageous Marauder Shields, who died trying to stop you from seeing the game’s ending (bet you forgot about that meme).

I’ve already addressed why I feel like the player’s choices DID matter, they just had more impact on the rest of the game and not so much on this final moment. Regarding the lack of a boss fight, I have to just ask if anyone really enjoyed the boss fights up to this point in the series? The final boss fights in the previous games were both pretty lackluster. It’s the stories that we remember, so I don’t really think people would like ME3’s ending more if they threw in some mediocre fight against the Star Child.

That brings us to the choices themselves, and this is where it’s all going to come down to personal preference. I’ve played through the game 3 times, and got all 3 endings, and I feel like each time I played the game, I liked the ending a tad bit more with each new ending I got. First I got the blue ending, which I felt was honestly pretty lame, especially since I beat it before the game was patched to have a more satisfying conclusion. The next time, I got the red ending, which I felt was definitely a step up, but that may have been because by this time, more scenes were patched in. Honestly, these two are pretty close together in quality, so if you’ve only experienced these endings, I can totally get why you don’t like the ending. 

But on my most recent run of the game, I finally experienced the green ending, the synthesis ending, and I have to say that in my opinion, this was always meant to be the “true” ending for Mass Effect. Not only is it the hardest one to obtain since it requires a certain number of war assets to access it, but I also feel it definitely captures the themes of the series better than the other two. Mass Effect was always about the struggles of humanity trying to find its place in the galaxy, and the conflict between organics and synthetics, and the green ending really provides a satisfying resolution for them. 

I know some people don’t like this ending for moral reasons, and I get that too. They argue that Shepard just sort of rewrote everyone’s DNA without their permission, and that ain’t too cool. However, this is a sci-fi story, and exploring complicated moral quandaries is what the genre was built on. You might not agree with the decision, but that’s what makes it interesting. And of course you can always choose either of the other colors if that rubs you the wrong way.

One thing I feel like I should also address is the Indoctrination Theory, which basically posits that the whole final choice is actually the Reapers messing with Shepard’s head, and that by picking any ending but the red one, that you are giving into the Reaper’s indoctrination. I won’t lie, I did buy into this theory for a while there when I thought the red and blue endings were kind of weak. But after discovering an ending that I actually liked, I decided that taking the ending literally was much more interesting, at least from my perspective. 

So if you want to keep believing the Indoctrination Theory, be my guest! As long as your conspiracy theories remain solely focused on video games and you don’t start becoming a flat earther or a QAnon nutjob, we can still be friends.

If you haven’t revisited the series in a while, I think you owe it to yourself to give ME3 another shot. With the remastered trilogy coming out soon, now would be the perfect time to experience it all again. Just follow this advice, and I think you’ll have a great time:

  1. Try to get the green ending, if either the red or blue ending left you underwhelmed.
  2. Play as FemShep, not because I’m a soyboy beta simp, but because the voice actor is just better, and apparently less than 20% of players played as FemShep, so that needs to change.
  3. And even if you’re playing a perfect paragon run, always, ALWAYS make sure you stab Kai Leng and tell him “That’s for Thane, you son of a bitch.” Because fuck Kai Leng.

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Readers Comments (4)

  1. Let me get this straight. You favorite character arc follows the highly intelligent architect of genocide, who had access to information and knowingly committed this atrocity. But yet you condemn a “space racist” to die – someone who has had almost no exposure to aliens, save that they attacked humans and killed her family.

    Good to know that ignorance is more evil than, you know, evil.

    • That being said, I agree with almost everything here. I always tell people that the game is worth the ending, even if you hate the ending. Also I’m an IT true believer, so Destroy is the correct ending 😉

  2. Thank you very much for this article. You make some really great points and I really appreciate your point of view. It is balanced and thoughtful.
    Landing the plane that is the Mass Effect series was always going to be difficult. And in no way was the ending every going to make everyone happy. Almost nothing ever is able to make everyone happy. That said, as a player, I truly did feel there there were no good options. And you know thats life. There are truly times in life where as a person, of all the options you have at your disposal, none of them are “good” (read likable). Thats the feeling I got here for ME3. You either destroy (red) and have destroyed interstellar travel and have doomed tens of millions, if not billions to starvation and death out in the great black void. You choose the control ending, and your character *dies/becomes an AI/human construct for the good of the galaxy. Or you choose synthesis which overwrites everyone to be a synthesis of AI/Organic mix. Or you refuse to choose and everyone dies. Of all these endings, the enemy of the series, the big baddies, the reapers are not defeated. There is no scenario in which you win, only ones where they don’t lose. This I think is the most frustrating part as a player. You spend three games trying to defeat them. You defeat sovereign in ME1, you stop the collectors inME2, and in ME3 its not enough to bring about the end of the cycle after cycle of genocide and destruction. Maybe you can argue that you do that if you choose the Refuse ending because then the next cycle comes and the next cycles inhabitants find a way to defeat the reapers….but even then, 100+billion sentient beings die.

    I think Bioware just didn’t know how to land the plane well and at that point, it doesn’t matter if the whole plane ride was amazing, if you crash the plane in the last 2 minutes of the flight, you still have a colossal burning wreck on the tarmac of the airport.

    Anyway, I am playing through the game again now and am just about to beat ME1 again. We will see if my opinion of the ending changes or not, but what i will say is that the Mass Effect series is an incredible series and I will enjoy it while I can, at least until the last 2 minutes of the flight.

  3. Alan Chambers July 2, 2021 @ 5:16 pm

    You can make apologies for the pathetic ending all you want, it’s not going to change how bad it was. Ask yourself this. Why did most all the best people leave Bioware after that? Why did most say they were disappointed with the ending. Why did all the staff and only Casey and Mac do the ending alone? Why are all of Bioware’s games failing horribly now? EA and Casey Hudson pushed them over the edge and now they can’t get up. They are a doomed studio. The public hates Bioware as much as EA now. Oh, well. R.I.P.

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