Finally, an opinion about the end of Mass Effect 3


Note: Hey goofus, if you haven't finished Mass Effect 3, don't read a post about how it ends.

I almost feel guilty adding to the din surrounding the ending of Mass Effect 3, but that's never stopped me from bloviating before, so here we are.

The debate over whether or not consumers should be able to demand a new, different ending for Mass Effect 3 comes down to one question: Do you think games are art? Or are they consumer products? (Wait, come back! It's a well-beaten horse, but stick with me.)

If you perceive games as art, then you have to live with whatever ending you get. By accepting that this is art, you're ceding control of the narrative to the creator. It is their story, and how it ends or how that's told may be a choice you disagree with, but it hasn't infringed on your rights as a consumer.

But if you think this is a consumer product, you actually have even less right to complain. If you view Mass Effect 3 as an engine for enjoyment that you played for 35 hours but hated the last five minutes of, then your product failed you for .2% of the time you used it. Which -- for any product ever -- would be a pretty astounding success rate.

You've no doubt already spotted the problematic truth of this dichotomy. In short: Neither of them fit.

It's easy, I think, to disqualify the pure consumer product descriptor. Games have creators who make countless artistic choices. And this isn't just like picking the color of the vacuum they'll sell, these are substantive artistic decisions that effect the emotional impact of the end product. Games are, without question, artistic in nature.

But if they are "works of art" they are utterly unlike any that have come before them. A huge Mass Effect fan will have spent well over 100 hours and hundreds of dollars for the privilege of this experience. How could that ever compare to the metrics of quality you might apply to the minutes or few hours you'd spend taking in a painting, song or even movie franchise?

The only decent comparison is with a TV series, and even that falls down when you consider that while TV viewers may make their voices heard when plotlines disappoint, gamers have quite literally worked in concert with developers to create their own story.

And that, in the end, is where the ending to Mass Effect 3 falls flat. This has always been a franchise about agency, forcing the player into real, consequential choices and then making them live with it. It's a game design that puts a lot of faith in the player. But in the game's closing minutes, that faith, that agency is revoked and replaced with one of three pat, unsatisfying endings that aren't even that different from one another (thanks YouTube!).

So it's difficult for me to get too upset with fans demanding change. Can we really be expected to invest so much time, so much money in an experience and then stay mum when it's not going the way we'd hope?

BioWare spent dozens of hours making players feel like they were not only at the center of the universe, but that the universe was bending to their choices. It's an astounding feat, for sure. But how could they ever hope to put that particular genie back in the bottle?