What Andromeda Should Learn From 'Mass Effect 3’s' Ending

A finale was far too late in the game to start asking questions about the meaning of choice, but it can be different for Andromeda.

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Mar 17 2017, 5:00pm

Mass Effect 3's ending is bold, subversive, interesting—and often called the worst video game ending ever. Lots of endings prompt complaints, but few prompt lawsuits .

Shortly after Mass Effect 3 came out, a petition to change the ending gained massive support. The outrage was as big a source of argument and discussion as the ending itself. And then, because video games, there was the harassment.

All this is to say, Mass Effect: Andromeda lives in a shadow. From its announcement, much of the discussion was preoccupied with "the ending problem." Bioware's Aaryn Flynn even reassured fans that Mass Effect 3's ending wouldn't affect Andromeda .

Mass Effect 3's reception illustrates the series' identity problem: Does Mass Effect want to be a video game power fantasy, or the deconstruction of power fantasy? The Mass Effect series, up to a point, seems to want to be the former, but Mass Effect 3 seems to want to be the latter. This existential confusion contributed to the most common complaint: that the ending blindsided players.

If you haven't played Mass Effect 3 yet and want to have your own outraged reaction, you should stop reading right now. From here on out, there be spoilers.

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What the Ending was About

Mass Effect is about choices. Bioware's pitch for Mass Effect was that players would have more agency over a game story than ever before.

At the end of Mass Effect 3, Shepard confronts the synthetic intelligence controlling her enemies, the Reapers. The intelligence tells Shepard that Reapers were their solution to a problem: organic life creates synthetic life, synthetic life destroys organic life. The Reapers prevent this cycle by "harvesting" all sufficiently advanced organic life before they can doom themselves.

The solution won't work anymore, and the intelligence offers Shepard one final choice: She can destroy all synthetic life, control the Reapers, or synthesize all life in the galaxy into a new lifeform, both organic and synthetic.

Mass Effect 3's ending attempts to radically reframe the entire series. It's a "final test." The game asks the player what their journey meant—to Shepard, and to the player themselves. All of a sudden, it's not just the fate of the Milky Way that's at stake. There's something more intimate at stake too: the meaning of all that time the player spent with the Mass Effect franchise.
Bioware leaves the ultimate "message" of the series incomplete purposefully. The choices are meant to act as a jumping off point from which the player can finish the story themselves. This ending attempts to elevate player agency by giving the player the responsibility to determine what their story meant.

Why It Didn't Work

Mass Effect may be an experiment in player agency, but it's also a power fantasy. The player is supposed to feel exceptional. Whatever you choose to do, you always achieve more-or-less exactly what you want. You will romance your love interest, gain the loyalty of your crew, and succeed in your goals, no matter how terrific the odds. Even when things go wrong (and you usually know immediately, so a reload point probably isn't far away), it's usually portrayed as a painful-but-meaningful sacrifice for Shepard and the Normandy crew.

Mass Effect 3's ending is a significant departure from power fantasy. There is no right answer, and no conventional reward. It's telling that the petition to change Mass Effect 3's ending asked for "a heroic ending which provides a better sense of accomplishment."

What Bioware Should Learn

When a deconstructive work fails to resonate the way it's intended to, the fault must be primarily attributed to the creator. Otherwise, any work could be defended by suggesting that the audience just didn't "get it," and deconstruction would be virtually immune to criticism. Deconstructive works need to make sure that the audience understands what the work is trying to do. This is where a lot of deconstruction fails: When dudes who saw Fight Club walked out thinking " I wanna punch someone," it's because Fight Club failed to make them understand what it was trying to do. This is where Mass Effect fails as well.

Mass Effect 3 wants to demonstrate that those consequences are as impactful internally as they are externally. Mass Effect argues that possessing the agency to choose why, not just how, is an evolution of meaningful choice worth exploring in gaming. The whole Mass Effect series wants to give its player the opportunity to author their own story, with their own choices. Mass Effect 3's ending asks, "what did your story mean?"

The problem is that the Mass Effect series, up to this point, played it straight with conventional, forking path decision-making. In Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, Paragon/Renegade morality system gives narrative and gameplay based rewards based on consistent decisions, regardless of what those decisions are. In Mass Effect 2 you could win each member of your team's loyalty using either Paragon or Renegade options, and each teammate's character arc would bend significantly to accommodate you. That system obviously won the series a lot of adherents and was part of its charm, but it makes Mass Effect 3's attempt to deconstruct those choices a much riskier proposition.

Mass Effect 3 throws out the conventional Paragon vs. Renegade binary. You still accrue Paragon and Renegade points, but Shepard's ability to make certain decisions is no longer tied to her Paragon or Renegade score. Instead, Mass Effect 3 implements a "reputation" system. Shepard can choose any Paragon or Renegade choice, regardless of how Paragon or Renegade they are, as long as they have the space street-cred to back it up.

The reputation system serves as a way to poke holes in the series binary, but it's too little, too late. First, many players (myself included!) didn't understand how the reputation system broke with tradition. They were still getting Paragon and Renegade points, and the decisions were still color-coded Paragon blue and Renegade red.

Second, the game doesn't go quite far enough in making its player reckon with consequences. Yes, you make difficult decisions. Sometimes the consequences of those decisions are nearly unbearable (don't you hurt my sweet Mordin). But from a mechanical perspective, the player is still rewarded for making any decision. No matter how you choose to advance through Mass Effect 3, you're given what you need to play the way you choose. It has the unfortunate effect of making the player feel like their decisions were correct, no matter what.

After encouraging them to play the game however they wanted, and reassuring them that the consequences would never adversely affect their progress. Mass Effect 3 forces players to confront why they played the way they did.The ending was supposed to be an opportunity to put the finishing touches on a character the player had created themselves, through their roleplaying and in-character grappling with tough decisions. That may not have happened for a lot of players, however, because the game's systems always reassured them about those decisions.

In order for its ending to work, Mass Effect 3 needed to force players to think about their character, from beginning to end. It has to ask why the player makes the choices they do, what that means about them, and whether they're prepared to take responsibility for the answers. If a game can pose questions like these, the player has to figure out why their character made the decision they did. They'll have to figure out who their character is, and how she thinks. To do that, they'll have to create that character.

Mass Effect 3's final narrative trick requires the game and its players to collaborate on constructing these meanings. But it falls apart because the series has largely encouraged players to view decisions on a spectrum of "good" to "great", and so most of us spent Mass Effect 3 trying to figure out which choice is "best" instead of pondering which choice is most in-character.

You can see evidence of how badly Mass Effect 3 set-up its ending if you look at one of the more popular ways fans tried to negate it. The "Indoctrination Theory" that gained traction after the ending is a creative attempt to avoid doing the hard, roleplaying reckoning that Mass Effect 3's ending asked of them. By giving the ending a relatively unambiguous "right" answer, the ending becomes a puzzle instead of a confrontation. Instead of learning about who their character was, the theory grants players the resolution that the game denied them: they "beat" the game. The Indoctrination Theory is the kind of ending that first the rules that the Mass Effect series taught its players.

The Mass Effect series is existentially conflicted. It straddles two goals: deliver a classic "choose your own adventure" video game, and deconstruct that video game.

If Bioware still wants Mass Effect to explore what choices mean, it's not enough to include a subversive ending. Andromeda needs to prepare the player to choose what they want their story to mean. It needs to abandon power fantasy and let the players make decisions for which there are no right answers and no rewards. They need to find a way for consequences to be substantial enough that they can't be mitigated by a high stat. They have to challenge the player to doubt, argue, struggle.

But if Bioware doesn't want to explore deconstructing video game storytelling with Mass Effect, then they have to ensure that Andromeda has the more traditional, triumphant story that outraged fans clamored for after 3. Whatever their decision, Bioware—and Mass Effect—have to choose.

Harry Mackin is a freelance video game critic from Minneapolis. He's on Twitter @Shiitakeharry.