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Mass Effect 3’s Ending And Gaming’s New Uncanny Valley

by on April 17, 2014


Mass Effect 3 was released nearly two years ago and was one of the finest games ever crafted…….. right up until the last 5 minutes.  For many gamers, a thoroughly amazing trilogy was decimated in 5 minutes of star child babble. Even an updated ending in the form of free DLC was not enough to ease gamers’ reactions.  I’m not here to convince you that Mass Effect 3’s ending was horrible.  That is self evident.  Yet, many games and movies have had endings that have been as bad or even worse without generating the amount of vitriol that Mass Effect 3’s ending created.  I’d like to provide a deeper look at why exactly Mass Effect 3’s ending was so hated and what it means to gaming in general.

Why People Loved Mass Effect


Mass Effect didn’t become such a major franchise because of its gameplay.  The original Mass Effect was an awkward mix of RPG and shooter mechanics that proved unwieldy.  The RPG mechanics were too shallow to please RPG fans and got in the way of the, mediocre, shooter mechanics.  The series improved its gameplay by streamlining itself into a more traditional third person shooter.  While the gameplay was far smoother and combat was undeniably better, the series lost a bit of its personality in the transition.

Mass Effect’s strength was in its story and particularly in its emphasis on player agency.  Throughout the entire series, players were constantly reminded of their active participation in the story.  In the first game, players were allowed to make several key choices that were reflected in later games (although some choices were sadly swept under the rug).  The choices made in the second game promised to have severe ramifications on the third entry of the game as some characters would live or die depending on your actions.

Of all the narrative based games I’ve played, which is definitely not all of them, Mass Effect 1 and 2 most convinced me of my influence on the world.  In preparation for Mass Effect 3’s launch, I prepared about 4 different completed files to see how various actions would play out.  I had one file for each gender and alignment (Male renegade, female renegade, male paragon, female paragon) and made different choices along the way to see how the universe would be impacted.

The Failures of Mass Effect 3


Hey wait a minute… I chose Anderson…

While people tend to focus on the ending, the problems in Mass Effect 3 began earlier on.  It was disappointing to discover that many of the choices you made had limited impact on the story.  Whether you decided to appoint Udina or Anderson as the councilor for humanity, Udina will be the councilor by Mass Effect 3.  If Mordin is dead, another Salarian scienctist will take his place and serve the same function.  If Tali is dead, another Quarian will replace her.  If you didn’t save the Rachni, they’ll still be present.  No matter how faithful you were to Cerberus, the Illusive man will still hate you by Mass Effect 3.

There were of course some changes to the story both minor and major.  Saving the Geth and the Quarians is only possible under certain circumstances.  If Wrex is dead, it is possible to screw over the Krogan without popping Mordin.  If Garrus and Tali are dead, you’ll miss out on some great scenes with the two of them.  However, the influence your decisions have over your galaxy never seem to be as important as promised.

The New Uncanny Valley

The uncanny valley is a concept in gaming that points out that the more realistic games become, the more we notice small imperfections.  For instance, the faces in Mass Effect 3 are so convincing that it’s easy to notice that their mouths don’t look quite right in motion, something that never bothered me in a game like Final Fantasy 10.  The closer we get to photorealism, the more we notice non-photorealistic elements. We usually refer to the uncanny valley in terms of graphics, but the same concept applies to gameplay as well.

The Mass Effect series promises a compelling universe shaped by player choices.  It promises that our choices will shape the galaxy.  It allows us to be the hero of an epic in a way that was never possible in other mediums.  We could never decide whether Luke Skywalker joined the dark side, but we could shape the intricate universe of Mass Effect 3, or so we thought.

At the end of the day though, Mass Effect 3 is a game that is programmed by the folks over at Bioware, and there is only so much data.  The game has to culminate in a finite number of possible endings, and it is impossible to create one for every possibility.  So, you have the readiness system.  The readiness system is where the fourth wall crumbles and the hand of the creator reveals itself.  All of those painstakingly considered choices were boiled down to the most base video game concept ever… points.

Samara survived the battle against the collectors?  Kudos.  25 points.  You couldn’t save the Geth?  Tsk tsk minus 500 points.  Upgraded the Normandy in Mass Effect 2?  Good going! Ten points.  Saved the Krogan? 500 points.  Chose to let the Rachni live?  100 points.  Saved the ascension?  70 points for you buddy.  All of those choices which you thought would have meaningful ramifications on the story are reduced to a simplistic point system.  You won’t see Rachni on the Battlefield nor will the Ascension swoop down to save you.  It is all reduced to a point system little more complex than Pacman eating dots.

What do all of those points get you?  Well, they let you choose from one of three endings.  In the original ending, you literally had three palette swaps of a nearly identical ending.  The extended cut adds a more satisfying amount of detail, but the endings are still more or less the same.

Gaming’s Next Frontier

This is why I believe people truly hated Mass Effect 3’s ending.  Of course, the ending was bad in and of itself, but many games or movies have bad endings, and fans rarely demand a change (at least not with such a large and unified campaign).  But Mass Effect 3 was different.  By the time we reached the Citadel’s beam, we had 100% bought into the fantasy provided to us.  We truly believed this was our world and our story.  We were so sold on the universe and its authenticity that the eventual revelation that this was Bioware’s world and Bioware’s ending was all the more shocking.

Just as visual flaws stand out more in a game that is approaching photorealism, the lack of control gamers have over a narrative is more striking in a game that has done such a convincing job of bringing you into the story.  Bioware’s amazing work in the area of immersion made it all the more disappointing when they had to take back the reigns.  Obviously, Bioware could not have truly crafted an ending that would incorporate the dozens of choices we made, but they came so much closer to a real breathing single player world than any other developer had that we believed in the illusion and were more disappointed when it ended.

With the next gen dawning, all of the conversation has focused on resolution and framerate, and frankly, I couldn’t care less about either of those things.  What I want out of the next generation of gaming is for developers to work towards a game that can take the incredible work done by the Mass Effect team one step further.  Create a fully fleshed out and engaging narrative that players can truly shape.  This, far more than any visual enhancements, is what can take gaming to the next level, and hopefully developers are working on how to make the bold ambition of Mass Effect a reality.

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  • RustyLH
    April 27, 2014 at 4:09 PM

    You pretty much nailed it. It wasn’t just the ending, it was other elements in ME3. ME3’s strengths were the storyline and good missions. Also, some of the mechanics were great like being able to mod weapons, and the different squadmate outfits that changed the character’s abilities.

    I had one person argue that the choices at the end weren’t any different than ME2. In fact, he pointed out that ME2 had two choices at the end. Destroy the base or don’t. However, I saw that more like choosing Udina or Anderson at the end of #1. It was a decision to set up something in ME3, and I agree that it was lame how that turned out not to matter a whole lot in the story, just in some points. The ending was about defeating the baby human reaper, saving the crew, and keeping your squadmates alive. You choices…many choices mattered.

    One choice a friend pointed out as being arbitrary and stupid in his opinion was the squad leader choice Choose wrong and that person dies. No, that was a good element. It rewarded those who thought it through and were paying attention. Who were the two characters that had any experience leading teams of people according to the story? Miranda and Garrus. But then, some might say Zaeed Massani should also live, and I would have been OK with that, but I think it was right that he wouldn’t. Keep in mind his crew in the Blue Suns turned on him, and he had been a loner ever since. In his stories, it was usually just him, but if I recall, any story involving a group, it usually turned out bad for the group, and he was the lone survivor. Mordin? Wasn’t really a battlefield commander. In fact, I don’t think he ever mentioned being in charge of any OP outside of a lab. Samara? Loner. Kasumi? Loner. Thane? Loner. Grunt? No. Tali? Might be a case there. Jack? No. Legion? No. Anyway, the most obvious choice is Miranda because in her skills, it states that she is such an effective leader that other squadmates get a bonus by her presence. Garrus is also a great choice because his leading a crew of vigilantes disrupted Omaga’s dirty side like nobody had ever done.

    I also hear some people say that they are OK with Shepard not living, but i think you have to look deeper into that statement. Look at Mass Effect 2. You could go all the way from Shepard falling to his death, to Shepard doing the impossible by rescuing his entire crew and bringing his entire squad back alive. that’s total victory and I think many overlook just how much better it made them feel to be able to get it, typically in a 2nd or 3rd play through.

    Now, finally, you say that the choices for endings had to be finite. True, but the ending could still be diverse and have mane different elements to the ending based on your choices, just as in ME2. Here’s n example. To achieve total victory, it could have been required for Shepard to sacrifice himself. However, that did not have to be the end of Shepard. ME2 anyone? OK, if you keep Miranda happy and in love with you…aka never romancing her but gaining her loyalty, or romancing her, gaining loyalty but never breaking her heart…then she would bring him back again. Too much to write here, but that could be a very epic ending, and here is more to it.

    Imagine that Shepard had to grab onto two things like in the control ending but his arms are more outstretched like he is on a cross. EDI informs him that it is going to kill him, but do so well before his body is consumed. Put Miranda on the bridge of the Normandy. I didn’t like that he wasn’t part of the crew like Tali. Anyway, in that conversation, EDI tells Shepard it will kill him. Miranda states that she has all the data in a decorative flash drive she has been wearing around her neck like a love locket. EDI states that it is no good because he wont be able to let go and it will consume him.

    Now here is where Garrus comes in, and that sniper scene on the Citadel? That should have been in the main game. Or they could make the good choice canon. Anyway, by letting him win, he retains his confidence, he never misses. Shepard could tell him that one day he is going to have to make the shot of a lifetime, and she knows he will do it because he never misses. Cue Garrus on the bridge. He tells Joker to maneuver the ship so and open the airlock for him. He tells EDI what he is going to do and tells her to tell him when. She does, and Garrus takes the shot…a very long distance shot, and severs Shepard’s arm, thus breaking the circuit and preserving the majority of his body intact. if that is too morbid, make him shoot the thing Shepard is holding onto. He breaks the circuit. If you don’t let Garrus win, his confidence is shaken a bit. He’s not quite as confident and misses the first shot.

    That’s just an example of how choices could have mattered and if everything is perfect, you could still have total victory.

    Now imagine how sweet ME4 is. Go 1 or 2 hundred years into the future. Grunt is very high up in the Krogan government, maybe a General or something and he could do a small cameo role. Same for Liara. Shepard’s child, could be the main protagonist. Have a canon ending, or a couple of them where the protagonist could be the child of one of the LI that could actually have a child. Don’t give me any BS about Miranda being sterile either. If they can bring a man back from the dead, she can have a child. That could have even been worked in a as a gift from Mordin.

    Anyway, one of the coolest things about this way of ending it, is that you could have Shepard memorials and statues everywhere, and if he lived, he could have been the next Councilor, voted unanimously to help erase the dishonor that Udina put on the position. Anyway, that could have been back story. And, get this..while including some choices from the previous ME, it didn’t have to be a lot and they didn’t have to have big and long term consequences. Think choosing a class in Dragon Age Origins. Shepard lives? OK, the back story is that he became the Councilor. If he didn’t live, maybe Joker becomes that as he would also carry a lot of prestige having been by Shepard’s side the whole time. His sense of humor would help him win friends. Or, in truth, they could randomly choose any of the surviving humans to have taken that spot. Ashley/Kaiden, Jacob, Miranda, with Joker being the fallback if all of them are dead. Keep in mind this didn’t have to have a huge impact on the game, just some little things to connect you to the previous one. Maybe a simple conversation with somebody, or you see a list of the Councilors, and that person’s name is there, starting with the person you chose, having Udina first if you chose him or Anderson and then Udina, followed by Shepard or the person off of your list of surviving humans.

    In short, your choices in ME1 through 3 could have mattered without making it severely impact ME4-(?) or even figure into the decision tree at all.


  • Justin
    April 27, 2014 at 7:13 PM

    I originally thought the ending of ME2 would have had large scale ramifications, but turns out saving the reaper base doesn’t do much. Cerberus hates you either way, and it just makes the control ending a little easier.

    I get your examples of how the choices could be used to impact the ending, but I don’t think the technology is there yet. The amount of data involved in making even the smallest decisions, like letting Garrus win the contest, impact the ending would be enormous. Even with the example you just gave, that would involve at least four different endings. One for Miranda being alive, one for Miranda being dead or non-loyal, one for Miranda living and a confident Garrus, and one for Miranda living with a non-confident Garrus. There may be more possibilities.

    While Bioware could have certainly done a lot more with the endings, I don’t think it would be possible yet to create the kind of truly variant endings you described. And that’s the problem really. Bioware wanted to make a truly interactive universe, but in the end they didn’t have the technology or manpower to truly do so. Because they came so much closer than other developers, their failure is all the more noticeable.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!


  • RustyLH
    April 27, 2014 at 8:52 PM

    I don’t think it is impossible, the tech is there. It is a matter of time and money. IMHO, the BioWare team had a money man breathing down their neck. Plus, I think the problem was that Casey was in charge. In short, I think they ran into time constraints and Casey was told, get an ending down, yesterday. So as I hear it, he and another guy locked themselves into a room, and wrote the ending themselves. Is that true? Who knows…I read it on the internet so it must be true, right? LOL

    Anyway, it would not have taken that many endings. It would have required different cut scenes for each event though but what is unusual about that? The idea here is this; if you do anything to piss Miranda off, you see a cut scene of her throwing away the “locket.” That’s the end of it. Shepard will die, an stay dead, if you select the choice that will makes him sacrifice himself to save the galaxy. If Garrus connects, you see Shepard fall, and the energy stop flowing through him. He’s dead but not a pile of ashes. If Garrus misses, you see Shepard get consumed while Garrus has to try to reload his sniper rifle. I think the idea there would be for there to be a sniper rifle in a gun rack there that is one of the one shot variety, or maybe he doesn’t have one but he calls for one to be brought to him. This will make the scene work. Hit and you are the hero that helps save Shepard. Miss and you see Shepard consumed before you can get the second shot off. If Miranda is not loyal, she is not on the bridge and none of that happens. It really just a matter of having two cut scenes and a series of “yes or no”options to trigger one or the other. Miranda on the Bridge? Then Garrus sets in motion the sniper shot. Tells Joker what he needs, and tells EDI what he needs, after calling for a sniper rifle to be brought to the Bridge. Heck make it easy, a soldier is nearby who has one, maybe on of the other squadmates that used them, like Ashley. Anyway, then the yes or no for the sniper competition. Garrus wins? Yes, He makes the shot. No? He misses and Shepard is consumed.

    After everything is done, a scene is seen on the Citadel where Miranda is looking over Shepard’s body. Also, the Council can be there. Not unlike so many other scenes where there are many options for who is there and who is not. Anyway, they council and other leaders state that Shepard earned another chance, the Galaxy owes him so they promise Miranda that they will give her the resources she needs. She is asked if she can do it. She says yes.

    Final cut scene. Who ever is Shepard’s love interest is seen in a kitchen with a small child. Small child is facing the doorway, while mom is facing the sink. She looks over and the little child is putting her finger to her lips smiling and making the “Shhh” sound. Mom looks over and says, “What are you two co-conspirators up to?” A second later, you see the arms of somebody wearing the N7 hoody wrap his arms around her, and she says something sweet. Scene ends. Of course everyone knows it’s Shepard. If it is BroShep, any woman that is his LI can be the mom. If it is a FemShep, only Liara could be the mom. A second scene is there for non-parent Shepards. Basically the same thing except you see Garrus sitting there, and he just raises his finger to his mouth and smiles. In short, Shepard is walking in and telling the person there to be quiet, not give it away while he sneaks up behind his LI. If Garrus is the LI of the Femshep, then make it some other squadmate. This could have been done not much different than the final scene where Shepard’s LI walks out of the Normandy with Joker, and one other squadmate. It was basically random with conditions as to who walked out. Not even a lot of work to get that done as they are just recycling the scene for each option, only adding in that which was different.

    This isn’t a lot different than ME2’s ending. It was a huge series of different conditions being met for each outcome/cut scene.

    Here’s an example. Squad leader.

    Miranda..loyal? yes = lives, no = dies.
    Garrus..loyal? yes = lives, no = dies.
    Any other squadmate = dies.

    Also, remember that the person who helps Shepard as he is almost about to fall is always one of the squadmates that was on the final mission with him.

    I’m of the opinion that they could have done so much better giving just two options. A destruction option that would have killed the Reapers but also killed the Geth, EDI, and knocked back civilization a good bit as a lot of tech was damaged. Then do something similar to the control ending. But it is different. Not control but understanding (I’ll explain in a minute). They could even have the Catalyst there. But he is trying to convince Shepard on a the synthesis ending. In fact he doesn’t even offer any other choices. EDI does. EDI in fact is the one that explains to Shepard that the Crucible, like everything else is in fact Reaper tech. The story would go that at some point, the Catalyst decided that it wanted more control over organics, but indoctrination ruins organics. He wants a way to control organics without messing them up. And when he gets that, the cycle will stop. But, he doesn’t want just any old group of organics, he only wants one that can show themselves worthy of becoming his tools, so to speak. Through Shepard, this cycle is the first to get this far. The Catalyst only gives him the one choice. Grab the two handles (the ones that allow Garrus to shoot his arm.) and allow himself to be consumed, saving the his people. The Catalyst wouldn’t even have to tell him he would be consumed. He could lie to him, and in fact is not telling the truth or the whole truth. EDI fills in the blanks for him. EDI and she tells him that not only will he die, but that he would allow the Catalyst control of people without ruining them. Sounds OK to an extent. She tells him that basically they would go on with life unaware, and one day they would just realize that they don’t remember the last 5 hours…5 hours that the catalyst was using them. Or they would do things and not understand why they did them. It was the Catalyst. Why was Shepard never indoctrinated? Because he was the one the Catalyst singled out for this purpose. Why does he make it to the beam but nobody else (Anderson would not in this scenario?) because the Catalyst used the reapers to make sure only he made it.

    Anyway, EDI tells him that there are a couple of other options. He can rig the thing to destroy the Reapers. Here’s the thing. All reapers have been called by the Catalyst to Earth. They are waiting in front of the Citadel. Waiting to be transformed. Now, this is where all the decisions can come into play. If you made too many mistakes, things can be put in your way such that all you can do is agree to the Synthesis. This would be worst ending. Or, well you could totally fail and the cycle continues. If you get some more checks in the box, the destruction ending happens, but not like in the other ending. This one simply fries the brains of the Reapers and eliminates the Catalyst. Shepard lives but you could add in some other consequences too, like damage to the relays or something. And EDI dies. In other words, it’s not bad but not perfect either. The best ending would be that you give the reapers understanding. They see that peace has been made between the Geth and the Quarians, but even more importantly, they actually become alive like the Geth did. They finally understand emotions, and good and bad morality…in an instant they learn why what they have been doing is wrong. This could also destroy the Catalyst, which then frees the Reapers, much like what had to happen to the Geth. In fact, choosing that route could be what allows for this to happen. Don’t save them and you, nor EDI realize this could be the best option. Anyway, once they reapers are free, and Shepard “Goes to them” like Legion did, you see them stop…you see Harbinger pausing…and then you see him issue a command. You could maybe even see a cut scene at the very ending where Harbinger is talking to the council, and offers help rebuilding destroyed cities and planets. He promises a new purpose for the Reapers…using all of the stored knowledge of the past civilizations toward making the galaxy and it’s inhabitants happier.

    He even expresses his fondness for this cycle because of the gift that he and the other Reapers have been given. He expresses sadness over what was done in the past cycles, but admits that he did not understand what he was doing. He can only promise that their purpose moving forward is to try to make up for what they did. He now sees their purpose as working with Organics to help them in every way that he can.

    WOW, sorry about getting off on tangents, but it just angers me that me, somebody who never worked in the gaming industry can write a better story than they did. But the thing is, what I am basically getting at is that you have 4 main endings.

    *Cycle continues…you simply fail to get done what needs to be done.
    *Synthesis…everybody lives but now the Catalyst has total control. Most of the time you will never even know, but when he needs you, you can’t resist. In fact, often you will be doing what he wants without even understanding that is the case. For instance, the entire state of Michigan is turned into a spaceport. Why? the reaper wants it, so through controlling the organics, they simply do it. No questions asked.
    *Destruction…no slavery to the Catalyst, and Shepard lives, but there are consequences. I would add in that in some manner the mass relays get affected and while they can be fixed, billions will surely dies as they are cutoff from resources they need.
    *Understanding…best ending, but Shepard DOES die in the process. Only question is, can he be brought back.

    I really don’t see this as being that hard. I just think they ran into a brick wall. Needed to get the actors in the studio, etc… What they should have done was put the game out and explain that there were problems, and that as a result, the ending would be done later, and that it would be a free DLC. So in short, the game ends when you make it to the beam. DLC starts with a cut scene of you entering the beam, and flying up to the Citadel.

    By doing that, they could also have simply spent the time working out the dialogue needed, and add in any they thought they might possibly need, and then have the actors do it. Then they add that on later.


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