The ending of Mass Effect 3, and of the entire Mass Effect series, broke the internet. I can’t call the ending ‘polarizing,’ because a polarized debate has two poles. Major gaming sites posted articles lambasting the ending, and protest groups formed to “Retake Mass Effect!” Elaborate strong misreadings of the ending were introduced to explain why Bioware was in fact engaged in an immense Inception game with players.
I finished the series for the first time a couple weeks ago, and I want to thank the folks at Bioware—if they’d set out to make a test case for endings and why they succeed or fail, I don’t think they could have done any better.
The Retake crowd, in addition to raising a number of continuity errors, claims that the ending reduces the setting’s complicated moral choices to a simple selection of A, B, or C, and that A, B, and C are mostly differentiated by the color of the explosion. Nothing is resolved, no questions are answered, and we’re left feeling hollow and betrayed.
On the other side stands Film Crit Hulk, a critic with deep appreciation for story, structure, formal experimentation, and fun. I’ve never yet been misled by a Film Crit Hulk article or recommendation. His long read on Mass Effect 3 identifies the Mass Effect series, up to and including ME3’s ending, as gaming’s Citizen Kane. That article nudged the ME series into my ‘to play’ column. I’m not generally a Wes Anderson fan but I loved Moonrise Kingdom, which I saw on his recommendation; I don’t generally sink 100+ hours into a franchise that looks an awful lot like a cover-based shooter, but the Hulk piqued my interest, and the further urging of forceful and brilliant friends sealed the deal.
In the article I linked above, the Hulk explains his love of the ending: how it resolves the series thematically and makes a powerful statement about the cyclical nature of history. To Hulk, even the similarity of the three ending cinematics is part of the text: we’re meant not to know what happens next, to stand on that alien planet with Joker and EDI and wonder what kind of strange new world our deeds have wrought. The point of inflection looks similar, but the futures look wildly different—and we’re left to wonder at that difference.
So, who’s right? The Retake crowd, or the Hulk?
Both, I think, though in different ways. (Yay, Synthesis Ending!)
(And here I put a cut, because I’m about to spoil ME3’s ending in detail, and offer minor spoilers for the ending of Hyperion and Season 4 of Babylon 5 to boot. See you on the other side!)