If any videogame developers still doubted the Anonymous adage “the internet is here,” the explosive protest against Mass Effect 3’s ending that brought the legendary BioWare studio to its knees has left them forever humbled. Since its release this past March, the final act of the acclaimed Mass Effect trilogy sparked ubiquitous fan derision from across the internet, spawning its own grassroots movement known as “Retake Mass Effect” to target BioWare and even independent platforms such as Amazon in their effort to seek out a better resolution to the game’s ending. The passion of this backlash, even when compared with recent controversies like Diablo III’s suspicious server issues that pose immediate legal and ethical questions, was overwhelming. It prompted a frank and emotional apology from BioWare’s cofounder Dr. Ray Muzyka himself. And while Diablo fans themselves have rushed to Blizzard’s defense, Mass Effect players continue to rage (three months later, people are still airing their grievances on our original story about the issue).
Two days ago, the olive branch that Muzyka and the rest of BioWare extended finally arrived in the form of free downloadable content (DLC) simply known as the “extended cut.” It offers elongated versions of the three original endings in which Shepard is forced to choose how to resolve the Reaper invasion the player has spent the last three games staving off, as well as an additional ending where Shepard can now refuse to make a choice at all (see links below).
BioWare was contacted for this story and stated that they are not holding any more interviews regarding the extended cut at the moment. But speaking to the Official Xbox Magazine (OXM), Mass Effect 3’s lead writer Mac Walters acknowledged, “There was some feedback that we can’t address. There are people who just outright rejected the whole concept of the endings, and wanted us to start from scratch and redo everything. And we can’t do that because that’s not our story, we wouldn’t know how to write that story.”
Walters went on to insist that the DLC wasn’t an effort to placate disgruntled fans, but rather “an opportunity to expand on things that we felt could add value to the experience, for those that appreciate it.” And to his credit, the new endings do indeed expand upon the alternative choices that Shepard can make. The dominant complaint about the ending was that after over 200 hours of gameplay where choice was allegedly prized above all else, the last few moments of the game suddenly offered nothing more substantive or consequential than the color of the death rays that start spewing out of the alien vessel Shepard is commanding. “Choice” itself, the fundamental promise of a game like Mass Effect, seemed to be negated entirely.
The new endings explain the deeper lore behind each of these different colors, for sure. Each offers a more expanded vision of the future complemented by a slideshow and monologue from one of the central characters. There are more tearful and tear-jerking moments, more wavering signs of civilization’s near end and battered survival. But choice here still seems incidental. If the color spectrum of the original endings seemed like mere dressing, the differences between these myriad outcomes still pales in comparison to the sheer multiplicity of choices that players enjoyed so much throughout the rest of the Mass Effect saga.
And that is the final silliness of the new Mass Effect ending. While the original was blunt and inelegant in its narrative austerity, it was also shocking because it did something new. Games like Mass Effect have offered these kinds of last-minute “decide the fate of the world” endings since modern RPGs arrived on personal computers. The original Fallout made you choose between humans and supermutants (that game’s alternative to the global threat of the reapers). The legendary Deus Ex of John Romero’s short-lived studio Ion Storm posed a similar quandary to the one Commander Shepard faces: destroy technology, master it for your own designs, or merge with it in some new unforeseen synthesis. Its prequel, last year’s acclaimed Human Revolution, offered a similar three-way path complete with the gruff monologues about humanity’s fate that now grace Mass Effect 3.
All these endings were incomplete and rash compared to the depth of the narrative before them. Mass Effect’s original ending was a bold and rude gesture of defiance against the compulsion towards arbitrary narrative tidiness. The jury is still out on how fans will stomach BioWare’s move for reconciliation, but if the divergent theories and Blade Runner-esque debates already consuming fans are a sign of anything, the argument over Mass Effect 3’s true ending will itself be endless.