Mass Effect 3 may be several years old, but its ending is infamous in the world of video games. It spawned a wealth of memes upon its release for just how bad it was, and deservedly so. Many factors come together to make Mass Effect 3‘s ending one of the worst received in memory. Yet, the reasons that make it objectively bad are eclipsed by its more obvious problem. Here, I want to explore these core issues.
War to prevent war
Let’s get the big problem out of the way first: the final reveal is unsatisfying and, quite frankly, dumb. The ME series revolves around the arrival of Reapers, giant alien ships/beings that swarm the galaxy and end all advanced civilization. They do this every few million years. Players, as Commander Shepard, are tasked with fighting them before they can do this to Earth. However, when they reach the end of the trilogy, they are told the reason behind this cyclical destruction is to prevent conflict. I’m sorry, what?
You see, once the technological level of a civilization progresses to the point where it can create artificial intelligence, large-scale conflict invariably breaks out between the AI and its creators. Or so the Reapers’ creators thought millions or billions of years ago. Thus, to prevent these wars, they designed living machines that would “harvest” these civilizations. In so doing, they destroy everything and turn people into mush, which goes into making new Reapers. As such, Reapers are vessels containing the essence of past civilizations.
This species-killing process is meant to prevent the unavoidable wars between organics and synthetics. But what happens when giant alien machines drop down from the sky and start “harvesting” everyone? Conflict on the largest scale imaginable. So that’s the main problem everyone has picked up on: it makes no sense. Also, if that’s the Reapers’ goal, they suck at it. That very conflict between AI and its creators has already happened 100 years ago. The Quarians created the Geth, the Geth rebelled, and the Quarians were chased off of their home world by their synthetic creations. The Reapers arrive a century too late to perform their one job.
Now, the root is this logical problem is fairly obvious. BioWare, the studio responsible for the Mass Effect series, decided it should explain why the Reapers come back time after time and cause the destruction that they do. Before ME3, Reapers were unknowable, their goals impossible to understand for the minds of lowly sapients. It should have remained that way, but instead they decided to explain the reason for their existence, which was their big mistake. The one they came up with was a secondary screw-up.
So that’s the obvious problem. Now for the less obvious: it flies in the face of what the game itself allows players to do. The avatar/holo-recording of the Reapers’ creators, the one players talk to at the end to receive this simplistic explanation, states that organics and synthetics can’t live alongside each other, that there will always be war between them.
Remember the Quarians and the Geth, from two paragraphs ago? During Mass Effect 3, players can actually reconcile the two species, letting the ever-wandering Quarians return to their world to live in harmony with the Geth. In so doing, players are literally proving these ancient beings wrong. And that’s putting aside EDI’s relationship with Joker and the rest of the crew, to say nothing of Legion’s help. Commander Shepard, the player character, can’t bring any of it up to say, “You’re just plain wrong, pal.” She must simply, silently accept that the holo-projection is right.
As such, the ending is thematically at odds with its mechanics. It comes into conflict with the game itself, with the series itself. That’s the technical flaw, but there is a graver, far more insidious problem with the premise. As stated, the game poses a thesis as reality: that synthetics and organics can’t live in peace. Even if you think, as I do, that it’s a load of bull, the ending says that’s the case, so players have to roll with it.
But the Reaper “solution” isn’t working anymore, as Commander Shepard proves by uniting the peoples of the galaxy into fighting this invasion effectively. The players must make a choice; decide on a new solution, as it were. The option BioWare puts forward as the most desirable is synthesis. What does that mean? It means no more distinction between synthetics and organics. It means that all organic species, be they sapients, animals, or plants, will be magically injected with synthetic DNA or some such, while synthetics get organic juice.
The result is that everyone belongs to the same group. No more distinction. Problem solved, right? According to BioWare, at any rate. But the implication is that differences always cause conflict, that we can’t live together with people and beings who are different. Need I point out that this “ideal” basically excuses racism, sexism, homophobia, and all of these fine, trending attitudes? Differences are bad; we have to assimilate, or we’ll never progress to the next level. That’s what the synthesis solution posits.
Did they even think about this?
And that’s why Mass Effect 3‘s ending is objectively bad. In fact, it’s awful. It promotes an exclusionary, hateful view of the world. Thankfully, this doesn’t reflect the values of the games themselves, but it does taint them. Coming up with the conclusion to a series is hard; in this case, BioWare just plain dropped the ball. In so doing, it hurt everything that came before this ill-conceived ending.
Header image of Normandy (get it?) by Laurent Gence on Unsplash