Reviewers' Talk: Mass Effect 3, the ending, the narrative, the controversy

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There's been petabytes of back and forth and bickering and crying over the last three weeks by a certain vocal group of Mass Effect 3 players about the ending, the story, and their control over those things. While I tend to hope my reviews can stand on their own as representations of my opinions on a game, this time, things just feel... different.

With that in mind, and with Twitter at my aid, I arranged a sit-down with some of the most respected reviewers in the games press to talk aboutMass Effect 3 with no holds barred - about the ending, about the deaths, about the choices, about the fan reaction, and about our own emotional responses to the most talked about game of the year.

The full, unedited conversation (save for the moments where the waitress asked for our drink orders) between myself, Adam Sessler, host ofG4, Kevin VanOrd, Senior Edtior at Gamespot, and Francesca Reyes, Editor-in-Chief at the Official Xbox Magazine, is available for your aural pleasure below, along with transcribed excerpts from our hour long conversation.

Spoiler Warning

This conversation and article goes into some depth about major plot elements and possible outcomes in Mass Effect 3, and is intended for listeners and readers who have completed the game.

Our Guests

Adam

ADAM SESSLER

Host, X-Pla

Fran

FRANCESCA REYES

Editor-in-Chief, Official Xbox Magazine

Kevin

KEVIN VANORD

Senior Editor, Gamespot

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"I DIDN'T REALIZE THE ENDING WAS NOT TO BE LIKED." - ADAM SESSLER

(Direct Download)

ON INTENT, AND LIKING MASS EFFECT 3'S ENDING

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Adam: I think the one thing, and you said the same thing Kevin, I didn't realize the ending was not to be liked. I so got caught up in it, and enjoyed it, that it didn't even dawn on me. The only thing that I thought at the ending, and this is I think is more me than the game design, is I was so wrapped up in what was about to happen I didn't fully realize I had three choices in front of me, and I just walked into the light. And then I did that and realized "I think there was some opportunity, some other choices there, and went back.

Fran: I do hate myself, because at the end of it, I hate myself for wanting a happy ending, you know? It broke my heart, but.

Adam: I liked this world and these characters, and my Shepard so much that it was really hard to say goodbye.

Kevin: There's so much sacrifice in the game. It's hard to imagine anybody going into the final moments thinking that sacrifice wasn't a possibility, or even almost inevitable.

Adam: There were people who really wanted to see the Star Wars ending, that massive battle, to get that satisfaction, and I think that BioWare was damned any way they were going to do it. Ending something that people have invested 150 hours in, and more than just their attention, with that level of engagement and making choices, I think to go to a quieter, more philosophical take was going to alienate a lot of people. But I think it showed a bold move and a very committed move to their product.

Arthur: I wonder if it's spoiled somewhat by the idea that players, or a certain subset of players, will try to game system no matter what. I wonder if that effects people's enjoyment of this, because they were trying to figure out the whole time how to get the "best" ending. Because I hear a lot of talk about the "best" ending.

"I HATE MYSELF FOR WANTING A HAPPY ENDING, YOU KNOW?
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"IT BROKE MY HEART." - FRANCESCA REYES
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MORDIN, THANE, AND LOSS

Arthur: Mordin was the moment where you're like, "oh, they're not fucking around anymore. They're going to take things away from me, in a way that they're not telegraphing."

Adam: Your Mordin died. Mine did not.

Arthur: I had no idea!

Adam: I had that same thing, though. These people aren't real, but I felt so invested, that I almost felt as though I would be reported, if I let my Mordin die.

Arthur: Things that I assumed are just going to happen are not happening for everyone.

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Kevin: (with regards to Mordin:) I thought that was inevitable!

Arthur: You are the first person I talked to that Mordin didn't die for. The particularly surprising thing about this to me, is the fact that there are renegade options in the Mordin section of Tuchanka where stuff spirals totally out of control, to the point where you might be the one who kills Mordin. You can shoot Mordin in the back. Because you can try to stop him from curing the Genophage and he refuses to let you. A renegade prompt appears on the screen and you kill Mordin.

Adam: I was also wondering how diverse this is, and it's a testament to what I've really admired about the writing team on this game is the clarity of their writing and such and how it all seems to integrate, that I thought there was far less diversity than what I'm hearing in talking to you guys.

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Arthur: There was a moment earlier, in the Tuchanka arc on the planet with the Rachni and Grunt, where I thought, ok, this is where they're going to kill him. Because it makes you make the choice between going back to save Grunt and his squad or saving the Rachni queen, and I thought that I was making the hard decision. So when he comes out of the rubble at the end, alive, I thought "oh, ok. So this isn't going to bum me out all the time."

Fran: It toys with you that way.

Arthur: And then they kill Thane. Mordin is a fast death. Thane is a prolonged death.

Fran: You know that if you didn't save Thane then that salarian diplomat dies. It's very different.

Adam: It's kind of like the tree falling in the forest question. Because when you play it, there's so much that's been effected, but the game isn't going "hey, this is because of your decisions and such that you made earlier," and so I wonder how much this plays into that sense of dissatisfaction.

Kevin: They're being very selective about it, because they're going to youtube and looking at all the endings, so that they can complain about how similar they are, while simultaneously ignoring how very different all of, say, our experiences were from each other.

MASS EFFECT'S HUMANIST BENT AND MAN-MACHINE RELATIONSHIPS

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Kevin: A lot of people complain about the final ship landing, and how similar the very last moments are to each other. But when I got to the end what I see is EDI and Joker coming out of the Normandy. I really liked that moment, because I believed in this weird romance all through the game.

"I BELIEVED IN THIS WEIRD ROMANCE ALL THROUGH THE GAME." - KEVIN VANORD

Arthur: I picked [control of the reapers] because I finally told Liara "I love you." I had finally made that Shepard's relationship.

Adam: It's a deeply humanistic franchise, and what they did with the end really is the ultimate statement of what their underlying philosophy is.

Kevin: Part of the reason I (chose unification) was I was still mourning the loss of Tali. I chose the Geth. There's that moment where she takes off her mask and falls off the cliff. When I got to the end, I almost felt like if I don't choose synthesis, then I've lost Tali for nothing.

Adam: You lost Tali?!

Arthur: one of the things I like about the ending is that they just totally fuck that universe up by the end. It is completely different, no matter what choice you make. Two of the choices are pretty similar, barring a race that might be extinct, but the unification choice is a really bold choice.

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"I WAS STILL MOURNING THE LOSS OF TALI.
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I ALMOST FELT LIKE IF I DON'T CHOOSE SYNTHESIS, THEN I'VE LOST TALI FOR NOTHING." - KEVIN VANORD

THE CITADEL, THE "GOD CHILD," AND THE ENDING

Fran: Everyone had a problem with the space kid.

Adam: I actually wondered if it was a ghost in the machine.

Arthur: It seemed like a pretty consistent thematic thing, that you're haunted by this ghost representative of the people you can't save, and the things you can't change. And at the ending, it's in your face as this thing you can't change. From a literary perspective, i think that that's slick.

Adam: It's not as precise as people read it as. At this point, it could be hallucinatory. In a literary fashion, they have left it somewhat open. But don't take it as something you're fighting against, otherwise you're not going to be satisfied.

Arthur: The main complaint that I see is that your choices mean nothing.

Kevin: I gotta disagree with that one.

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Arthur: That's the big complaining elephant in the room, that there's this big group of people that are saying "all the decisions I made across three games mean nothing." And I kind of wonder-

Adam: Are you supposed to get a prize? I don't want to mock too much, and a lot of people have lauded me for not mocking, but as this thing has gone on, I've become increasingly frustrated that - the game doesn't owe you anything. That's actually something you're supposed to get out of it yourself.

I do wonder if culturally we're really at such a state of reward for doing anything that the pleasure of the art is not satisfactory. Or because gamerscore seems to count that much that somebody wanted something so unique that can identify them as to how they played the game and just that the general satisfaction of playing an exceptional game, an exceptional game series, isn't enough. And that's a little bit worrisome to me, I've gotta say.

"THEY UNWITTINGLY DUG THEIR OWN GRAVE." - ADAM SESSLER

Fran: I think people forget that someone wrote the choices they're making.

Arthur: Mass Effect has always been less about me determining the story, and more about me sort of nudging the story through degrees. Because there are very few moments where you're making vastly different choices, and it's more about choosing how to react to the situation at hand.

Adam: I do think this whole thing would not be happening at the end of many trilogies. And this is a testament to the effectiveness of what bioware accomplished with this game. They unwittingly dug their own grave.

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THE PROTEST

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Adam: When these controversies come up and we seem to be out of step with what seems to be every gamer out there ... how many people is this? I started to wonder if this thing became a little bit self-propelling. Obviously this group of die-hard players quickly expressed their sentiment, and then maybe some other people started to get in line. It seems that EA is at least flirting with the idea that they can rectify this, which concerns me greatly, but is there really that large an audience? There's obviously a loud audience, but how large is it?

Arthur: Do they dislike it because it didn't give them the Frodo laying in bed with all the hobbits jumping up and down on it ending? And I don't say that to be dismissive, but that's an ending to an epic trilogy in recent memory. This is the most successful trilogy narratively that I maybe have ever seen.

Fran: I think that people are having a hard time differentiating. And I don't know if there's a difference between entertainment and, I hate using this, but art, and entertainment as far as it's supposed to make you feel good with escapism and fantasy, and I think people have that idea or that definition for what Mass Effect should be. It's a summer blockbuster, you should at the end feel like you can pump your fist in the air, and go "yeah!"

Arthur: So many good summer blockbusters have ended with a death. The first thing that comes to mind is Gladiator, because it was super popular and everyone loved it. A movie like that, which does end with the main character's death, and doesn't end with an epilogue that says "this is what happened to everybody," but with the potential of what his actions made possible, and hopefully they don't fuck it up.

Fran: I think there's a difference between you playing the character, in some ways, because you feel more invested, and you've made all these choices over the years so I don't know ... I've had this conversation since the game was over, and it's impossible to really figure it out.

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Adam: I think this game did ask something of its participant unlike most games, and especially any other form of entertainment does, which are so much more passive, that ... I hate using this word, because it's become so commonplace, that there's this sense of entitlement about "what I've given in, and needs to somehow come back out."

Arthur: I don't want to write off people who clearly feel so -

Adam: Wounded.

Arthur: Engaged and wounded, yeah, by this perceived slight that they're actively trying to change the ending to something, which I don't think I've ever seen.

Adam: And I think this is where I went from something of a more moderate view to something a little less patient. Because it speaks to a larger cultural ... something, that is very disquieting to me. And it's not necessarily the entitlement, but groupthink and a mob mentality, where I don't even think that a lot of the people moving in this direction care anymore about getting this ending but getting satisfaction over the perceived slight.

Fran: I've thought about this way too much. There's a huge generational thing that's led up to this, I think. Not the least of which is the fact that you're looking at games as not just entertainment with Mass Effect. There's something more to it. It means so much more to people. This is the first game that's culminated in that.

Arthur: You do bring the aspect of player choice to it. And I don't want - I hate using the word "owed" because it indicates that sense of entitlement and I don't think it's fair for me to write that off by calling it entitlement, but my knee jerks to the word "entitlement."

Adam: I can't find a more delicate word, and that's why I lean to it. And I can't help but think of Misery.

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