Gaming culture is widely regarded as being in a toxic state. It’s difficult to dispute this. Even comments sections become a nightmare to navigate for most marginalised fans, or just for anyone who doesn’t want to listen to screams filled with hatred. The nosedive in discourse can be tracked to certain events. If we look at Gamergate for instance, or that weird sauce thing with Rick and Morty fans, they show clearly when fandom took on a whole new – and worse – meaning. Endings to certain series have also inadvertently been used as springboards from the very worst sections of fan communities to start catapulting their contempt.
Lost was the start of it. Fans trashed on the ending constantly, despite the fact that it was explained clearly many times. Not only that, but the show never promised to answer all of the questions. In fact, the creators insisted time and again that their purpose was never to bring all the answers but fans reacted with entitlement. They wanted to know, they felt they should know and because they weren’t given what they wanted, there was a furious backlash. This reaction was only lessened by the fact the finale was in 2010, when Twitter and other social media platforms had not yet hit their stride. Unfortunately, Mass Effect 3 was not spared the same fate.
Released a couple of years after the Lost finale (and a couple of years before Gamergate), Mass Effect 3 launched at a time when social media was gaining in momentum for fandom. Like Lost, Mass Effect 3 was met with an onslaught of criticism for its ending, only it was even more toxic. It’s something that to this day fans still argue incessantly over. Much of the sentiment involves a sense of betrayal from BioWare, that fans didn’t get the ending they “deserve.” This entitlement is bullshit. BioWare owes us nothing. They are also completely wrong. The ending was perfect.
For three games, Mass Effect explores the terrifying concept of reapers, which are a race designed to wipe out all advanced organic life every single cycle. Nothing is spared. In Mass Effect 3, they finally arrive and Shepard and the player must witness the quick destruction of the Milky Way. At the climax of the game, Shepard has three main (active) choices: control, destroy or synthesis. These all have different repercussions. If Shepard hasn’t built up alliances across the galaxy enough, then everyone will die. If Shepard chooses destroy, then all AI will die but there is a chance Shepard might live and everything could be rebuilt. If synthesis is chosen, Shepard will die and everyone in the galaxy will be saved – but by changing them all completely without their consent. If control is chosen, Shepard will die but the reapers will remain and could be put to use to help the galaxy (or simply leave). Every choice is complicated and painful – and that is why it was the perfect ending.
The entire series of Mass Effect was based upon the player having to decide how best to proceed, whether through taking more peaceful routes or routes filled with conflict. There were rarely perfect answers in any of the quandaries which were thrown at the player. Show mercy and let someone live, and they can become a bigger problem down the line. Kill first to try to protect people, and it can cause a ripple that causes stability and conflict later on. Mass Effect was messy, and it was always supposed to be. It was a galaxy filled with different people and perspectives. The beauty was in its complexity. It was right that there was no perfect or happy ending.
Shepard spent years warning the galaxy about just what a staggering threat the reapers posed. This was not a war they were facing. This was an annihilation they needed to find a way to stop. Countless cycles before them had been destroyed, with few traces left to hint that anyone had ever existed at all. There were always going to be enormous losses. Anything else would have undermined the severity of the reaper threat. The reapers were such an overwhelming force of terror because they were true to their word. They really could wipe out everything, and easily.
This is why the crucible made sense. If no other cycle had survived through conventional weapons then why should this one be able to? It would be the height of arrogance and an insult to the cycles before, particularly given how long our cycle chose to ignore the reaper threat. But the choices themselves given from the crucible were also perfect in their packages.
One of the core struggles at the heart of the franchise was the relationship that organic life had with AI manifestations. There was debate about the nature of the geth and whether they could be trusted, whether EDI could be considered a person, whether it is possible to control reapers without becoming corrupted by their power and whether unity can really be sustained. Each option confronted those questions yet again. There are also no clear answers. How would people react to being forced to become a merger of organic and non-organics? The AI die in destroy, but there is also assurances that whatever is destroyed can be brought back (and that has to be far easier than what the Lazarus project went through with Shepard), so is it worth the risk? What about control? It changes nothing but makes the reapers neutral? How can that be used safely or will it become a bigger problem? Each player gets to set their own course, just as BioWare always intended.
To have Shepard ride off into the sunset with his or her love interest would be to reduce a great narrative to an overly simplistic fairytale. The beauty of fairytales is that one can be comforted knowing that the good guys win the day against the villains. Mass Effect was never supposed to be that story. It was more complex, more unsure and more desperate as we saw the Commander struggle to cling on to any hope that the galaxy might be spared at all. Mass Effect is a desperate and dark tale but that is where its power lies. What do you do when your days are numbered? Do you fight anyway? How do you carve your path? Do you abandon your convictions for any chance at victory, or do you win on your own terms and entrust the rest to fate?
The best stories rarely are the ones which give us answers – even in science-fiction. Stories are about wonder and curiosity. They are about imagination. Yes, logic and clear paths can be utilised within them, but ultimately, it must be up to the audience to interpret. BioWare handed us all of the tools we needed to make our own story, and to imagine a galaxy far beyond the reapers. One of the most important skills any writer will learn is when to leave the page blank. Choosing not to write, to not articulate everything, is one of the most powerful techniques in storytelling that an audience will ever come across. It leaves us to our own imaginations after we have been so thoroughly steeped into the creators’ stories. It hands over a certain power to us. Now we are the ones who are supposed to ask the questions.
Mass Effect 3 gave us a range of possibilities for the short term, and left the rest with us. That was how the mechanics of the games had really always worked, after all. There could not have been a more fitting, nor a more beautiful conclusion to such a stunning and powerful series. Mass Effect remains my favourite ever series, and BioWare could not have parted with that original story on better terms. It’s about time the fans started to forget their own expectations, and started to truly cherish the work of the series they got.